Story: The Courier
By David Hariman
It was uncomfortably hot in Sierra Leone this time of year; the cooling, sometimes torrential, rains wouldn’t come for four months.
The taxi jolted, hitting yet another pothole. The lone passenger in the front seat, unfazed by the bumpy ride, gazed passively out the window as the mountain side got steeper. He wiped his brow and forearms with a damp, gray-white handkerchief.
In under an hour the taxi had taken Dan Fisher across a mountain top to the crowded downtown commercial district of Freetown. People were steaming up and down the narrow streets. Car horns were blaring. Fisher thought little of all this confusion of life and survival in one of Africa’s poorest countries. To see wretches on street corners and sidewalks hawking their meager goods of fruit, shoes or pencils pulled no tears from his eyes. He didn’t give a damn.
“If they’d only learn about birth control, then there wouldn’t be so many of these poor black buggers,” he said to the driver while straightening his sunglasses in the glare. The young African from Cote d’Ivoire did not understand English.
Fisher had been at a resort hotel close by the country’s Atlantic tourist beaches. There he’d met the Lebanese, a man hated by knowing blacks and whites alike in Sierra Leone. The Lebanese was considered a formidable and ruthless diamond smuggler. He’d
left Beirut five years before when Christian and Moslem forces began blowing up that city. But he didn’t leave empty-handed, making off with two satchels of uncut diamonds. His entire wealth and status were in those hand-tooled pouches.
The taxi swerved into the Paramount Hotel parking lot. Fisher paid his fare and got out. He booked a room, where he showered and changed clothes. Twenty minutes after drying off, Fisher made his way to the hotel bar. It wasn’t much to look at, a few stools, some low-level tables and chairs. But there promised to be a cooler full of cold beer. From the ceiling, large propeller-like fans beat in vain to push out warm, stale air.
“Give me a beer. A cold one. An’ be quick about it,” Fisher barked to the African barman.
“Wha’ beer, sir?”
“Cold. Hurry up, man.”
“Star? Heineken?” the barman responded sheepishly to Fisher’s deep voice and burly bulk. Fisher had tattoos on each forearm, one a U.S. Marine “eagle, globe and anchor,” the other a panther.
“Gimme one of those there Stars,” he said in a lower voice when the barman stepped backward.
The beer sated Fisher’s thirst. Pulling out a pack of cigarettes, his mind switched back to the Republic of South Vietnam, the Mekong Delta area.
Sweeney was a non-descript Marine lifer who had led a disastrous squad mission into the heart of the Delta, swamp water up to your ass and plenty of snakes, flies and mosquitoes by the millions. The squad jumped off airborne helicopters into that swamp in the early morning hours of one day in January 1967. Lance Corporal Daniel Patrick Fisher of Huntington, West Virginia was the squad’s machine gunner.
The routine search-and-destroy sweep got off on the right foot. But several hours later the squad, returning to the company’s perimeter, ran into stiff Vietcong resistance. Sergeant Francis Sweeney, a bumbler who had trouble tying his boot laces, stepped on a booby-trapped mortar round. His body never was recovered. The instant Sweeney wrote his own death ticket, a cadre of Vietcong only yards away trapped Fisher and the rest of the squad in a murderous crossfire.
The entire squad was killed, except for Fisher. He was shot in the leg but managed to tie it off and stop the bleeding. Then he passed out, left behind for dead. He was found the next morning lying in a foot of water, his head propped up by the pack on his back. The machine gun, ammo belt still in place, was beside him, buried in muck. By that afternoon Fisher was aboard a floating hospital ship in the South China Sea.
Fisher survived his first taste of combat. He knew he could survive more. The newly promoted corporal was reassigned to another unit that headed to KheSanh in the north. Fisher earned his sergeant stripes there.
Vietnam trailed Fisher after he left the Marines, following him in a very psychological way; he liked the action, the risks. He thrived in far out places where shooting was sure to occur. He didn’t like living in the States; it had no sense of immediacy. And his succession of jobs was humdrum, mostly boring. He had been a short-haul trucker, factory worker, bartender, hod carrier and a one-time college student and football player. He quit college, well, because it just wasn’t exotic enough for him. “College guys” were only boys looking to rise to the top in the business world; the women only seemed destined to suffer the plight of shopping-centered suburban housewives looking for sex in soap-opera afternoons. Their husbands were the “boys” Fisher disdained.
So, enough of college and low-paying mindless jobs.
Fisher headed to Africa where he landed an officer appointment in the Rhodesian Light Infantry. For him, it was military regimen at its best. He was an officer in a brigade of expatriates: British, Irish, French, West Germans and South Africans – misfits, with a few ragtag Vietnam veterans thrown in. All of them were hired killers who loved their highly paid profession. Fisher didn’t care a twit about the Rhodesian political situation. Sure, he’d killed a few black “terrs” who wanted to overthrow the white government. But Fisher was going to protect the government that paid his bills and offered him a lifestyle richer than he’d had in the Marine Corps.
Just when Fisher found himself in what he thought an enviable position, reliving the Vietnam War, the political situation in Rhodesia caught up with him. Mother Britain decided to step in by ordering elections. It destroyed Fisher’s stable military career. When independence came, Fisher packed up and left. He headed for the Middle East, not because of any offer, but going to South Africa and joining its army would be a second mistake. He didn’t want to fight another losing battle that saw blacks take over like they did in the new country of Zimbabwe.
In Algiers, at a tin-pot dive called Le Disco, Fisher ran into the Lebanese for the first time. He tried to pick up the diamond smuggler’s tawny-skinned lady friend who was wearing a see-through blouse. Immediately, knives flashed. Fisher kicked over two bodyguards before aiming his next blow at the Lebanese. The shapely woman, untrue to form, stepped into the middle. She knew who buttered her bread. She said it was all a misunderstanding. “Let my husband buy you a drink,” she said in a very stern but sexy voice. The bodyguards got off the floor and sat down. It was over that quickly. But Fisher’s fighting prowess had impressed the Lebanese.
After several shots of Chivas Regal, Fisher had a new employer. The Lebanese – awed by Fisher’s dispatch of his bodyguards hired him on the spot as chief bodyguard and soon-to-be diamond courier. The bargain was struck with a mere handshake. The Lebanese made one stipulation: stay away from Azadeh, his Persian girlfriend. For the salary, Fisher would keep his hands off anyone’s so-called girlfriend.
Two months passed before the Lebanese sent Fisher to West Africa with stolen diamonds to be sold to Indian and Lebanese merchants. In that time, Fisher sat in air-conditioned hotel suites listening to the Lebanese place telephone calls to traders in Middle Eastern and European capitals. He also heard the Lebanese and his girlfriend romp in bed for several hours each night. The man was an animal, Fisher thought. Of course, a smuggler’s bodyguard had nothing much else to do at night.
In Paris late one evening, after the Lebanese had dined at a fashionable Left-Bank restaurant, Fisher foiled an assassination attempt. The Lebanese and Azadeh walked out the front door, Fisher only steps behind. An Arab, standing on the opposite street corner, drew from inside his coat a nine-millimeter Schmeisser machine pistol. Fisher saw the Arab take aim. In an instant he pushed the Lebanese and girlfriend to the gutter, pulled out his .45 automatic and fired three shots, killing the Arab. The Arab never got off a round. Fisher ran over to the body, pumped two slugs into the face and forehead – to ensure there’d be no police identification – and grabbed the Schmeisser. Running back, he forcibly threw his two charges into a waiting Peugeot that sped off toward le Pont Neuf. The Paris daily newspaper Le Figaro the next morning briefly reported the murder of an unidentified Cypriot. Fisher knew he’d killed an executioner hired by a smuggling competitor.
The Lebanese and his girlfriend suffered some humiliating cuts and bruises when Fisher shoved them to the street, but he earned the Lebanese’s trust and devotion. Fisher was assigned to carry the next diamond shipment to West Africa and personally make the swap for U.S. $500,000 cash.
DeBeers, the large South African conglomerate, recently had discovered a large diamond cut deep in the mountains of northern Sierra Leone near the Guinea border. Freetown’s many Lebanese and few Indian traders managed to get on the ground floor of the diamond trade in the country. They acted as middlemen, but they also were known to make side deals with smugglers carrying uncut and cut diamonds. For their trouble, the smugglers were paid in pounds Sterling, but usually the barter was in U.S. dollars. The so-called Lebanese was the “chairman of the board” in the diamond smuggling racket.
Fisher wrapped up the deal in Bo, a city smaller than Freetown and south of it near the Atlantic coast. He helicoptered from Bo to the Cape Sierra Hotel where he handed over the $500,000 to the Lebanese, who wired most of the money to his Swiss bank account. Fisher headed back to the Paramount to pick up his “date” for the night. They were to go back to the Cape Sierra and meet the Lebanese for dinner. But by eight o’clock Fisher was in no shape to go any place. He was roaring drunk. When his date showed up, she turned heels. The tall Eurasian wanted nothing to do with a riotous, drunk former Marine.
Fisher was shouting at the top of his lungs. “VC here. Check hootch. Waste it, an’ everyone in it.”
Three more barmen attempted to subdue him; he’d already dispatched two others by throwing them through a window. When Fisher pulled his .45, a woman stepped behind him and hit him over the head with an empty whiskey bottle. The blustery bulk collapsed.
While Fisher was drinking, he never noticed two Africans wearing tailored safari suits walk into the Paramount Hotel lobby. They waited in a far corner until Fisher had dropped to the floor with a thud. The pair nonchalantly walked over and scooped him up. People in the lobby and behind the front desk thought nothing of the two carrying Fisher from the hotel, or even when a black Mercedes screeched to a halt at the hotel’s front entrance. Fisher’s listless body was tossed into the back seat.
Fisher awoke. He was disorientated and felt like someone had shoved cotton balls into his mouth. He rubbed the back of his head to find a bandage. He moaned, “Where the fuck am I?”
“Sir, can you hear me?” a man in the shadows asked.
“Yeah, where am I?” Fisher was gaining alertness and reached for his .45. It wasn’t in the holster attached to his belt at the small of his back. “Okay, so you pussies got my pistol … God, it’s dark and hot as hell in here. Turn on the fuckin’ lights, will ya? I gotta see you assholes.”
A fluorescent light flickered. The bright glare revealed three men hovering over Fisher as he lay on a cot in a corrugated-tin shack, somewhere he believed, still in Freetown. He wasn’t sure though.
“What do you guys want?” He swung around and sat on the edge of a cot. “Hey, how long I been here an’ out of it?”
“What do you call me that for? I ain’t no fuckin’ ‘sir’,” Fisher snarled.
“Sir, you are temporarily incommunicado. You’re all right. We bandaged your head wound received when a bar maid hit you with a bottle of ten-year-old Scotch.”
“Oh, that’s what did me in, was it?”
“Yes sir,” one of the three said.
“For Chris’ sakes, don’t call me ‘sir’, you shitass bugger.”
“Now sir, we don’t mean to hurt you, so you can call us anything you want,” the largest of the three Africans said. “We want you to direct us to your employer, known as the Lebanese.”
“So, that’s it. You want me to set up the fat guy so you can knock him off just like you tried in Paris awhile back. Right?”
“I told you not to call me that, you black bastard.”
“Sir, we want to discuss a business proposition with the Lebanese. We are employed by other businessmen who have investments in the diamond trade.”
“Don’t shit me now. You jus’ wanna knock ‘im off. But no deal. I ain’t gonna go no place with you buggers.”
The fluorescent light suddenly switched off. “Turn that fuckin’ light back on,” Fisher yelled.
Immediately, two of the Africans grabbed Fisher from behind, locking his arms in a wrestler’s hold. The overhead lights flashed on. A Schmeisser machine pistol was pointed inches away from Fisher’s groin.
“Okay, okay. You made your point. Get that Mattel toy away from my balls.” Fisher tried to clear his head and think for a minute. “Okay, so what do I get for takin’ y’all to the Lebanese?”
“Sir, you get half of what you exchanged for the diamonds you smuggled into this country,” the big husky one said. “Is that enough inducement for you, sir?”
“I guess, yeah, for that kinda money you can call me ‘sir’.” Fisher slowly spit out the words. The Lebanese had only paid him $20,000, but if he could get his hands on $250,000, then what? Get lost somewhere in Europe? Maybe Thailand? With any woman he wanted? But if the Lebanese were killed, these thugs would kill him, too. He had to think quickly. He had to protect the Lebanese and only hope for a bonus for saving the fat man’s skin again. Yeah, right. There was only a slim chance of that happening. A guy like me, he thought, could get killed protecting some fat-ass, little-shit smuggler.
The two holding Fisher released him. He started rubbing his arms up and down to revive the circulation. He walked on his own through the hut’s door into bright sunlight, squinting. He began to perspire. “How long I been out of it?” he asked one of the two smaller Africans.
“About twelve hours, sir.”
“Okay, big guy, and you two little dwarves, let’s go talk to the Lebanese.”
The Mercedes twisted and turned along the route to the beach area near Freetown. Fisher realized he had been held near the presidential living quarters. As the car swung into the Cape Sierra Hotel parking lot the large man, seated in front, turned around and faced Fisher. “Sir, here’s what we want you to do. Go talk to the Lebanese. Tell him nothing about what’s happened to you. Do you understand?”
“Yeah, sure. No problem. My lips are sealed,” Fisher said with a smirk. He was still rubbing the back of his head. He pulled off the bandage and tossed it out the window..
“Please tell the Lebanese,” the heavyset one continued, “that you met some business men at the Paramount wishing to discuss a proposition with him. These men are from South Africa, and he should certainly agree to the meeting because in other deals with them they have always doubled his money.”
“What’s the Lebanese supposed to be selling? I already handed over that last shipment of diamonds. Oh yeah, shit, you already know that.”
“Yes, but I also know, and you know, the Lebanese always carries on his person a small packet of diamonds, cut and polished, just for this type of spur-of-the-moment deal. Am I right?”
“Yeah, you’re dead on, brother. Guess you guys did your homework.”
“Tell the Lebanese the South Africans will meet him in the hotel lobby tonight at eight. Of course, you’ll be with him. Here’s your pistol back, unloaded. But you have other cartridges.”
“What about my money you promised, the 250-grand?”
“Ah, that. Once the deal is consummated with the South Africans, we’ll meet you tomorrow evening at six o’clock at the Paramount. Then we’ll give you the money. Agreed?”
“Sure,” Fisher said. “Can I go now?”
As Fisher stepped from the back seat, the large man waved and said, “See you tomorrow … sir.”
They’ll be back tonight loaded for bear, Fisher thought. He checked into the hotel and picked up a suitcase he kept in storage. It contained a small-arms arsenal and a change of clothes. After showering, he went to the window and peeked through the curtain. The Mercedes with two men in it was parked in a far corner of the parking lot.
Fisher went up to the Lebanese’s suite, past two bodyguards waiting outside and into the front room where the latest addition to the fat man’s repertoire of women was polishing her nails.
“Where’s the boss?”
“He’s in a bath,” she replied in a soft whisper. Fisher went directly to the bathroom and barged in without knocking. The Lebanese was up to his neck in bubble bath.
“Hey, boss, we got big trouble waitin’ for us.”
“Don’t you ever knock? Can’t you see I’m taking a bath? It can wait.”
“Ah, I don’t think so, boss.” Fisher briefed the Lebanese on his abduction from the bar at the Paramount. He didn’t say he’d been drunk. Then he told him about the trumped-up meeting with some South Africans.
“Boss, they’re gunning for ya, an’ if you walk out the front door of this hotel, you’re a goner. Two of ‘em are in a black Merc’ down in the lot. Another one is around somewhere, and there ain’t any South Africans. You’re being set up but good.”
“Well, I pay you to protect me. Shoot those killers down there.”
“Boss, we can’t do that here. You want police all over this place and a couple dead bodies around to trip over when we try to make a getaway?”
“Okay, okay. What then?”
By half past seven the Lebanese and Fisher had devised a plan. Fisher figured the only way to get out of the trap was to have his flanks covered. That was the job of the other two of the Lebanese’s bodyguards armed with rifles and pistols. They were waiting outside to catch any gunmen trying to shoot from long or close range. Meanwhile, Fisher suited the Lebanese in a bullet-proof vest. Fisher wore one himself. He carried two pistols, the .45 in the small of his back and a .38 snub-nose special in an ankle holster. At eight they planned to go to the hotel lobby, hoping people would be milling around or in the bar.
Fisher dismissed the Lebanese’s latest girlfriend. The Lebanese didn’t argue. It was just about time to go to the lobby. They heard gunshots off in the distance. Their flank protection was under attack.
“Stay here,” Fisher ordered the Lebanese. “I’m gonna get to the lobby. Lock the door. Here’s a pistol.” He handed him another.
“Where shall I go?”
“Get your ass in the can and shut the door, god-damn it. An’ have the god-damn gun ready.” The Lebanese grabbed his satchel full of diamonds and wads of cash and headed to the bathroom.
The hinges on the suite’s double front doors were shot off. Fisher immediately dropped to the floor and rolled behind a heavy sofa chair. He pulled out his .45 to fire but saw teargas canisters fly through the doorway. He ran to the bathroom to get the Lebanese. The fat man was cowering behind the shower curtain in the bath tub.
“Leave those fuckin’ diamonds. We gotta get outta here now. Grab a towel an’ cover your mouth and nose,” Fisher shouted at the moaning Lebanese. “Come on, man, let’s go. Off the veranda to the beach.”
The Lebanese wouldn’t budge. He told Fisher to take the diamonds and run. That would make Fisher the target. Without the diamonds, the Lebanese was taking his only chance to get out alive.
Fisher went for the satchel covering the tub’s drain. There was more tear gas. He started to run but turned and fired two quick shots into the fat man’s forehead. Brain and skull fragments splattered. The body bounced against the tile wall before it fell over the side of the tub to the floor. The mouth opened in mock surprise, exposing gold-capped teeth.
“What the fuck I do that for?” Fisher groaned as teargas smoke got heavier and denser. It was getting hard to breathe. His eyes were tearing. He was salivating uncontrollably. Crawling to the glass-enclosed veranda he grabbed a sawed-off shotgun he’d hidden that afternoon under one of the sofa’s cushions. Fisher fired a blast, shattering the veranda’s glass doors. Behind him in the heavy smoke, just feet away, men charged through the suite’s doorway. Fisher bounded over the sofa and rolled through splintered and fragmented glass on the veranda. The beach was a fifty-yard dash away,
In the warm night air his lungs ached as he ran and coughed up teargas. A speedboat was anchored in shallow water. In full stride now, Fisher turned to see that no one was chasing him. Of course he was right – killing the Lebanese had bought some time, but not that much.
He tossed in the satchel of diamonds and cash. As he pulled in the concrete-block anchor, shots rang over his head. “OH, SHIT.” The boat started at the first turn of the key, and Fisher headed for open sea. Bullets plinked and skimmed the foamy seawater. A few hit the boat’s gunnels. The engine revved full bore, and in seconds the boat was out of range. Fisher slowed the boat and pulled off his bullet-proof vest, tossing it into the surf. Then he patted his upper torso. “I’m still here, motherfuckers. Still here, assholes,” he shouted. He stopped the engine before checking the satchel. Yes, the diamonds were there, nicely wrapped in small velvet-cloth packets, as well as short stacks of U.S. bills and British pounds secured with thick rubber bands. He threw in his .45 pistol and re-latched the satchel.
A quarter-moon shined above the boat. Slight waves slapped against its sides. Fisher realized he’d been perspiring, a lot, not because of the physical exertion from running to the boat, evading the teargas, but because someone was aiming to kill him. It was fear. He stood in the back of the boat beside the satchel. This time he had no backup force to call. The Lebanese was dead, and the fat man’s other bodyguards as well; there was no getaway car. It was as if he were alone in the Vietnamese jungle on a reconnaissance mission.
Fisher stepped forward and restarted the boat’s engine. He checked his pockets as the engine idled in neutral. He had about a thousand dollars in cash, a passport and two clips of .45 ammo. Leaning against the dashboard, he removed his right shoe. Hidden under the insole inside a plastic packet were two one-way tickets to London, both open-dated. He had purchased them before coming to Freetown. He slipped the packet back into the shoe and lightly tapped it on the floorboard, re-lodging it.
He turned the boat toward Lungi Peninsula where, once on the beach, it was only a few miles to the international airport serving Sierra Leone. Fisher checked his watch. It was about ten o’clock. There was a twelve-thirty flight in the morning leaving for London, and with the right amount of American dollars customs and immigration officials could be bribed, allowing hassle-free passage to a first-class seat. That much he learned from the Lebanese. He laughed.
Fisher turned on the boat’s searchlight nearing the peninsula, at a point closest to the airport. Giving the engine a bit more throttle, he steered toward the white sandy beach and then cut the engine. The boat glided effortlessly until its bow hit sand bottom. He grabbed the satchel and jumped out.
On the beach Fisher removed the heavy outboard engine. He hid it behind a nearby stand of palm trees. He pulled and pushed the boat into some bushes and covered it with large fallen palm tree branches. Looking across the estuary her saw the lights of the port at Freetown. Fisher started walking north along the beach until he came upon the road to the airport. It wasn’t too long until he saw car headlights in the distance. He waited in the bushes to make sure it was a taxi. He jumped out and flagged it down.
“Take me to the airport quick,” Fisher ordered as he handed the driver a fifty-dollar bill. The man never saw so much money in hand before.
“Yah, yah. Airport fast.”
Fisher slid into the front seat, holding the satchel on his lap. There were two stunned passengers in the back seat, but they said nothing and Fisher ignored them.
As the taxi screeched to a halt at the airport’s front entrance, Fisher was out the door and running toward the gate for flight departures. His ticket was in order; it cost him a hundred dollars for a boarding pass. Then there was customs and immigration, another hundred dollars each. His passport was stamped, and he walked into the air-conditioned comfort of the departure lounge.
Fisher looked around cautiously. He saw about thirty people waiting to board the plane. Some looked at him, perplexed. Everyone looked like normal tourists or businessmen. A couple of kids were chasing each other around the lounge. Then Fisher glanced at his shirt and trousers; they were soaked with perspiration, and he smelled of teargas.
Emerging from the washroom Fisher found he smelled better, but not much. He walked to the farthest corner and sat down, exhausted. Ten minutes passed, then the flight was called: “British Caledonian flight zero-three-five-eight to London with stops at Banjul and Las Palmas, now boarding.” Fisher felt relieved. He wasn’t even thinking about what had happened in the last five hours or so. He was free. It would be easy now. He knew a man in London the Lebanese had dealt with during the last several months. For a twenty percent fee the dealer would change the satchel of diamonds he was holding into cash.
Getting up from his seat to join the line of people boarding the plane Fisher suddenly visualized the bouncing body of the Lebanese hitting the tile wall, slumping to the bathroom floor in a pool of blood. He had no remorse for killing the Lebanese. That fat bastard was a son-of-bitch; now I’ll be the fat bastard, he thought. Fisher laughed aloud. He noticed people watching him but paid little attention.
Climbing the wide gangplank to the plane’s open cabin doorway, Fisher felt like whistling. Behind him was a well-dressed woman smelling of the finest French perfume. Two steps ahead, an apparent businessman. With just a short distance to go, the woman bent forward and grabbed the satchel of diamonds loosely held in Fisher’s hand. He turned around, eyed the woman who was wearing sunglasses: “What the fuck … .” A muffled crack in the distance. Fisher’s hand released the satchel’s handle. His body twisted to the right. A long-range rifle shot had entered between Fisher’s shoulder blades and exited through his throat. The bullet creased the plane’s skin. With both hands Fisher grabbed his neck, or what was left of it. Blood gushed out, soaking the trouser legs of the man in front. The body twisted violently to the left, then started to fall backward. The perfumed woman stepped aside, watching it plummet down the gangplank’s steps until it hit concrete below. Other women in line screamed. Men stood back in horror.
The sniper was never found, nor any expended cartridge. Police determined the marksman must have been at least five-hundred yards away in the bush and had used an infra-red sighting scope. An hour after Fisher’s body was removed, the plane took off. The fashionably dressed woman who wore sunglasses never was questioned; no one noticed she’d grabbed the satchel. Once in London she and the diamonds would disappear.
It was a month before Fisher’s body was identified. His blood-soaked passport was forged, and the American embassy in Freetown, to avoid any embarrassment, took its time searching through military and fingerprint files. In a few more weeks, Sierra Leone officials forgot the incident long after the body had been shipped without notice to New York. The American State Department had made arrangements for its burial in a Brooklyn potter’s field.