This story is by Fred Cucchi and was part of our 2018 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
His taxi driver left him there. Alone. In a sun-scorched clearing just across the border in South Sudan. Havelands was a Vatican diplomat on a mission of peace. He slicked back sweat-laden hair as he looked around the abandoned mining shanty-town of corrugated metal and wattle huts. The entrance to the main mining shaft was covered by rocks and debris but there was room enough to enter.
As he approached the stench became overpowering. He clutched the camera and torch the old bishop had given him. The trick is to hold your breath. He had learnt that in Calcutta, attending the sick.
He breathed in deeply and stepped inside and stumbled over bones and bodies. The stench of death was everywhere. In the fetid darkness, he made out piles of limbless bodies. Some, the lucky ones: scrawny, bony corpses, had probably died of malnutrition or illness. Most had severed limbs, smashed skulls, flesh slashed open, wounds festering green pus. Others, their eyes gouged out, had worms crawling out of empty sockets. All had congealed scars on backs and legs, signs of whippings and torture.
Gasping for breath, he scrambled out, his hand covering his mouth, and fell to his knees, trembling in horror at the monstrous depths of man’s inhumanity to man. The place had obviously been run as one big slave camp until recently.
That was when he heard the screeching of tyres and men jumping out shouting orders. He spun around. His heart missed a beat. Three white Toyota jeeps had parked behind him. Black soldiers sauntered towards him carrying machine guns and bullet belts and fanned out around him.
From behind them, a white man – tall, muscular, with merciless grey eyes, close-cropped fair hair, approached, gun in hand. The urge to run was strong. Nine guns were now trained on him. No – not an alternative. He had one card to play. A wild hunch. He steadied his breathing and hoped the old bishop’s suspicions were correct.
“I was sent to verify your work,” he bluffed.
A pistol forced his jaw up. “You brought the money?” His heart jumped in relief. The bishop had been right: that question confirmed who they were if not who they worked for.
Havelands gestured stiffly towards the mine-shaft. “You did this?”
The grey eyes iced Havelands over despite the burning sun. There was a heavy silence, then he spat on the ground and lowered his gun. “Nah, it was a big, green monster from outer space, with tendrils and razor-sharp teeth.” They all fell about laughing. Havelands kept his composure.
“What about the rest?”
“I was told not to use bullets,” he growled. “ It took us a whole day with machetes, knifes, rocks to chop them up and bury them.” The accent was Slav.
The Slav gestured at the camera. “You want pictures?” He held the Slav’s homicidal glare, then nodded.
He was escorted into the thick forest. A few minutes and they were in a clearing. There were mounds of boulders scattered around. The stench was a dead giveaway. After his men had removed the rocks, he took pictures, making a supreme effort not to avert his gaze. Snakes slithered over skulls and limbs, insects and big red termites were at work in eye sockets and nostrils, clacking predatory birds hovered overhead. The bodies had been hacked to pieces. His stomach heaved. Thank God he’d had no lunch.
“There are a hundred dead men here. Ten more graves like this. You want to see them all?”
He shook his head. “ ‘Men’ you say? What happened to the women?”
“The women? We were allowed to keep them. They didn’t last long,” he gestured towards his cohorts, “not with these black monsters.” His men laughed. He went deadly serious. “We wanted to let them go, your boss ordered us to take no prisoners.”
“The nuns, though. They got away.”
He spat again. “I know, I know. Those Asian whores of Christ. Two of our men took them. They were raped and beaten up. But they were tough bitches. Our men drowsed off, they ran into the forest. Where they probably died.”
“They got away,” Havelands growled. “That was careless of you.”
The blue eyes flashed daggers. The pistol pressed against his temple made Havelands flinch. “Look, the mines were being worked full blast. The gold and cobalt was fairly jumping to the surface. Your people were funnelling away tens of millions a week. The missions were getting only a few thousand.”
“How d’you know?”
“Those workers were slaves. I was in charge of security. I saw it all. So you go tell your boss I want my money – all of it. Next week. Or else.”
“Or else, what?”
The Slav’s menacing glare was answer enough. The gun, now pressing harder against his head, dispelled any lingering doubt. “Or else I will come over there and cut nose, ears and limp dick off of that fat-assed cardinal and stuff it all in his slobbering mouth.”
Havelands returned across the border, paler than the Rowenzori snow tops, the palid complexion making his sunburnt nose seem even redder. He was tight-lipped as he collapsed into a wicker chair on the veranda overlooking Lake Victoria, struck dumb at the enormity of the disaster he had witnessed.
He gratefully accepted the frail old bishop’s offer of refreshment. Flies had settled on the beads of sweat on his forehead but even their tickling movements failed to distract him, so deeply immersed was he in his black thoughts.
Bishop Farundi joined his crooked fingers. Africa had been his life’s mission. “The project had involved purchasing abandoned mining concessions from the government.” His thin voice trembled as he spoke. “ It was a project to give work to the poor and funds to our missions in Africa. They were old mines but the feasibility study said new equipment would make them profitable again, despite the depth of the ore seams.”
“The trip had been beautiful,” Havelands mused, hollow-eyed. “I flew over thick forests, spectacular mountains, the sun made the colours brighter, the sky bluer, then I saw the abandoned huts and the mayhem. It was like being in a land of Gods and Monsters. The project has made rich some crooks back home. When they heard of the inspections they feigned a rebel attack. Destroyed all the evidence.”
“What you did took courage, Havelands. Not bad for a Vatican diplomat.”
“Those men are worse than animals.”
“You know what? Those mercenaries I can understand, if not forgive. They have learnt to survive in that jungle. That man who ordered this massacre prays to our God but kills for Mammon.”
“ He is a devil incarnate.”
“No, much worse. This soulless monster lives and works in the Vatican. He is one of ours. ”
“Men like him,” murmured the bishop, “start wars, embrace evil dictators but then give to charity and pray to God for forgiveness.” He wrapped his gnarled fingers around the diplomat’s smooth hands. “Promise me you will slay that monster. In the name of God.”
“It has just become my mission in life.”
The hill in the shadow of the Vatican was known as The Garden of Evil. At night, it’s bushes and thickets became a stomping ground for furtive encounters between gay priests. The nun waited in the shadows, the hood of her gown over her head. Her heart raced, as she saw the rotund figue of the cardinal ambling towards her. The moonlight traced out a smiling chubby face, but granite eyes radiated a monstrous glare. Her instinct was to run – her ordeal in Africa had broken the Asian nun both in spirit and body, but she put on a brave face. “Your eminence, I am happy you agreed to meet.”
“It is God’s will, my child,” he whispered, keeping the knife behind his back. Only he could make sure she would never talk about what she had seen in the Sudan.
A dagger glinted as it scythed down. The Nun gaped in surprise and then slowly a smile froze on her worn face.
“God’s will indeed, you devil,” Havelands murmured as he thrust his knife deep between the cardinal’s shoulder blades. “A promise is a promise.”
“The monster has gone to meet his master,” the nun said, in tears of happiness. “May God have mercy on us.”
Havelands stared at the blood dripping from his trembling hands onto his clothes. “What have we done, my God? We too are monsters, now.”
The nun placed a firm hand on his narrow shoulders. “We are just the hand of God, Havelands. Avenging Angels.”
She picked up the cardinal’s dragger and felt the sharpness of the blade with a new-found sense of purpose. “Kick-ass Angels.”
She stopped to listen to the grunts of priests having sex in the thicket. “These monsters need to know their time is up.”
Havelands stepped back in horror. He was sure her eyes had gleamed a fiery red.