Crime & thrillers

Change of Course

John Simpson

Change of Course

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Chapter 1

We had got there as soon as we could. The doctor, who arrived after us, touched and probed with expert fingers before confirming what we all feared. We stood around for what had felt like hours at the time, milling aimlessly, saying nothing, not knowing what to do. We were in shock.
For thirty years this scene had played out thousands of times in my mind’s eye. Parts of it were still clear but most had faded like degraded celluloid. Names and faces had blurred, conversations were muted, and time had compressed the incident to a thirty-second sight bite. I was happy with the deterioration: it was an example of time as a healer. Guilt and shame still threatened to overwhelm me sometimes when the memory made one of its unwelcome, but now infrequent, recurrences, but I no longer knew why.
All things considered; I was pleased that the memory had faded; until …

***

‘Oi, wake up, mate.’ The taxi driver’s sharp nudge added urgency. ‘Sorry about the beauty sleep, but which one’s yours?’ He seemed anxious to be rid of me and get his money. I could not blame him – the sound of the windscreen wipers had lulled me to sleep before we had even left Heathrow – I had not been good company.
‘Just past that bus shelter on the left. Pull in behind that white Merc.’
Someone was sitting in the shelter, out of the rain. My first thought was that it was a child; very small. This impression was exacerbated by the green cagoule that was far too large. The person appeared to be writing.
We stopped in front of my 1930s semi-detached. I paid the driver, pulled up the hood of my jacket and retrieved my bags from the boot. The house seemed to have made a special effort to look its worst. The front lawn was overgrown and scattered with litter, the gutters were overflowing, and a mossy hue streaked the walls and path. It was a picture of damp and neglect.
I dragged my bags round to the back door where I spent ages looking for the keys, scrabbling around in my pockets. Eventually, I found them.
‘Mr Young, David Young?’ The call startled me, and I dropped the keys. I had not noticed the green cagoule following me up the path.
‘Sorry! Here, let me get them.’ It was not a child. The voice was a woman’s. She picked up the keys, found the right one first time and unlocked the door.
‘Bloody hood! It’s like wearing blinkers – I didn’t see you there. So, what is it you’re after?’ I asked abruptly. ‘Survey? Plastic brushes? Cosmetics?’
‘Nothing like that. Are you David Young?’
I nodded. Her voice was pleasantly low-pitched with a hint of an accent; the north-east, I judged. If this had been an unsolicited phone call, I would have ended it there but, instead, I opened the door and ushered her into the kitchen ahead of me. ‘I’m sorry about the mess but …’
‘You’ve been away, I know. I’ve called round every day for the last ten days. I was about to leave you this …’ She brandished a business card with some handwriting on the back. ‘Don’t you talk to your neighbours? Tell them when you’re away?’
I felt a sudden panic. Why would anyone want to see me so badly that they kept trying my door for ten days?
‘Not if I can help it. They only ever whinge about the garden and … are you the police or something? Has something happened … someone died?’
‘No, I’m not the police, and no one’s …’ she hesitated. ‘I guess someone did die, sort of.’ She saw the concern on my face and carried on. ‘I’d better explain. My name’s Sophie Addison. You used to know my father.’
I shook my head; I could not remember any Addisons.
‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘My father was James Lodge.’
‘Jim Lodge?’ That name had not escaped my lips in nearly thirty years. It was a shock. I shuddered; I felt the blood drain from my face. I turned away from her; I had to. Unwanted memories were stirring, and my mind was flooded with a medley of conversations, shared beers, work and … No, this was rubbish. ‘That’s not possible. It’s thirty years ago. And Jim had no kids; he couldn’t have.’
‘He died before I was born.’
This was ridiculous. Yes, Lodge had married on his final leave from Angola, but … I turned back to face her. She had taken off the cagoule. Waves of rust-coloured hair framed her face. It was so like a face I used to know well. I stared like an idiot – dumb struck.
‘Are you all right?’ She sounded genuinely concerned.
I think I nodded. I was speechless.
She reached for the handbag she had put on the kitchen table. ‘I’ve got some papers here. I can prove who I am.’
I waved them away; there was no need. I was still staring at her, believing the unbelievable.
‘Did he look like me?’ She sounded incredulous.
‘Well, you look like him, more like.’ I laughed nervously and she joined in, her face folding into a dazzling smile, Lodge’s smile. It lifted my mood in an instant. I had not realised how tense we had both become, but the laughter relaxed us.
‘I think you’ve answered one question, anyway,’ she said, grabbing a handful of her hair. ‘I didn’t know where this came from.’
I felt my face reddening but fought off the urge to look away. Instead, I moved closer and scrutinised every detail of her face, comparing colours, shapes, and proportions with the mental portrait I had of Jim Lodge. She too blushed, embarrassed by the intensity of the examination, but she held her ground, knowing instinctively that this was an important part of the process, whatever that was.
‘It’s not just the hair … You’re incredibly like him.’
Her eye colour was Lodge’s, the same shade of green. Her features were his too but softer, more feminine, and her hair had the same fiery brilliance as Lodge’s. But it was her determination; that she had persisted until I’d turned up, which convinced me she was Lodge’s daughter.
‘Tell me about him. He’s only a name to me; I want to know what he was like.’
I wanted to tell her something, but my mind was awash with disjointed snippets: not a single coherent fact. It could only give her a jumble of half-remembered half-truths, and I wanted to do better than that. I also needed to think about why I had chosen to forget that time. Did I have something to hide? I felt physically and psychologically drained. I needed time to rest and time to read and remember.
‘Okay,’ I said finally, ‘but can you come back tomorrow? I’ve been on the go for hours; I need get myself together. Thirty years … it’s a long time.’
She looked disappointed. ‘I was hoping …’
I stifled a yawn.
She nodded reluctantly.
‘At about three o’clock?’ I suggested. I had to go into the office in the morning to report back and sort a few things out. We agreed on that and I offered to phone for a taxi. She shook her head and extracted a Mercedes-Benz key from her handbag.

***

The weather worsened to a storm as the evening progressed into night. Doors and windows rattled; the house seemed to shake. Broken branches, rubbish bins and other loose items clattered disturbingly. I had gone to bed early but could not sleep. I needed peace and a clear conscience, but I had neither. My mind was active but not analytical; memories hashed and rehashed, fact and fabrication merged and blurred. What had really happened? Had anything? Why was I so worried and why was I hesitating to root out the facts? I knew I had taken notes, but I had no idea why I had chosen to set it down: maybe there would be nothing useful. Images of Jim Lodge flickered around in my mind in a fruitless, frustrating loop. I could not trust my memory and I needed to do something about it if I was going to get any sleep. I got up. It was two in the morning. I started my research.
An old travel trunk in the attic was my repository for stuff I could neither throw away nor bring myself to look at again. The last time I had raised the lid was to put away the paperwork from my divorce and, before that, my father’s death certificate. It was a catalogue of failure and melancholy.
I knew exactly where to find what I needed. The shoebox labelled ‘Angola 1985-6’ sent a shudder through me every time I saw it. I had not opened it since the day I put it away in the trunk thirty years ago, and I doubted if Rachel, my ex-wife, had ever pried; she was not the kind.
I steeled myself and took the lid off the shoebox. Its contents were unremarkable; some photographs and press clippings; a wad of Kwanzas, the local currency; another wad of permits for travel and work; and there were two notebooks; one for each of the two six-month contracts I completed in Angola. I have never kept a formal diary, but I have always made arbitrary notes about my work contracts just in case I ever have to refer back to something. I guessed I would have written plenty about Jim Lodge as his death had been a rite of passage for me; the first dead body I had ever seen. I wondered to what extent my recollection of events had been, or would be, coloured by that.
The first notebook was a disappointment. A quick skim told me little about Lodge. He was mentioned as a geologist, but he barely registered as a personality. I put it back in the shoebox and hoped for more from the second book, my second contract, during which Lodge had died. I took it, along with the press clippings and some photographs, down to the living room where I settled into my favourite armchair to read. My notes were a hangover from university, economical on sentences but rich on trigger words, a style that had always worked for me, making revision easy: Nocredo – Hercules – rains. Morgan – Thys Gerber – chopper – garimpeiros – Txicaca. It would have meant nothing to anyone else but me …

***

I looked out from the window of the Hercules. It had begun its steep descent into Nocredo where the airstrip appeared as a bloody gash in the Angolan bush. The lushness and the lack of dust told me the rainy season had started while I had been
away on leave.
The Hercules taxied to a corrugated steel shed that served as the airport building and workers swarmed around its tail, waiting for the door to drop. I saw two old men struggling towards us with some rickety steps, manhandling them to the front door so that I, the only passenger, could disembark, along
with the crew.
I got up from my seat in the cargo hold and stretched; I was stiff. I adjusted my sweaty clothes and lugged my bags to the now open door where I stopped to look around for any faces I might recognise, to give me a lift to the mine. There was only one and he was a surprise.
A stocky, pugnacious-looking man detached himself from a small group and swaggered over, dragging another man in his wake. He grinned and offered his hand.
‘Welcome back, lad. Good leave?’ His accent betrayed his roots in the Rhondda valley.
‘Great! Thanks Geoff. I wasn’t expecting you. I can’t believe you’re my taxi.’
Geoff Morgan was the Mumbulo Mine Manager. ‘Don’t start,’ he laughed, ‘I had to come anyway … with the chopper. I’ve got Jan’s replacement with me. I’m showing him some of the illegal mining in the area.’ A sly smile creased his face as he nodded towards his companion. I sensed I was convenient to his plan; that I was going to have to work for my lift back to the mine. ‘Did you meet Thys before you went on leave?’ he continued.
I shook my head. ‘I knew you had someone lined up, but …’
‘Thys has joined us from the South African Police. He’s going to give us a policing approach to diamond security.’
The other man, tall and khaki-clad, with a terracotta tan, stepped forward and we shook hands; his grip was firm, but it tightened to a crush just before he released my hand. Was that a show of strength or a warning, I wondered.
Morgan glanced at his watch and gestured towards the helipad. The Alouette helicopter, a Perspex bubble on a flimsy steel skeleton, did not inspire confidence, nor did the pilot who leaned languidly against the fuel bowser smoking and chatting while refuelling took place.
As we approached, the pilot stubbed out his cigarette. He gave my smart new suitcase a contemptuous look before he snatched it from me and chucked it carelessly into the back of the cockpit. He then eyed the grubby, canvas bag that was slung over my shoulder. I hefted it to him and watched as he eased it carefully into a space behind the seats. That was a duty almost done. All that was left was for me to do was to sign in the bag at the mine office. I had picked it up at the company’s office near Hatton Garden in London before getting a taxi to Heathrow. It was an inconvenience but one that no one would refuse to do. The bag contained not only all the business mail for the Mumbulo Mine but also all the personal mail. Without that bag, and similar ones, passing in and out with employees taking leave, the mine would not function. There was no telephone connection between the mine and its Head Office and, for personnel away from home for up to six months at a time, the weekly mail bag was the only link to home.
‘É tudo?’ he asked.
‘That’s all.’ I nodded.
Morgan checked his watch again. ‘Combustível? Have we enough fuel for the journey yet?’
‘Sim chefe.’ The pilot shrugged then set about getting his passengers strapped in and fitted with headsets.
We ascended vertically before heading towards the river, a fast-flowing torrent that etched a profound story into the landscape. It told, in a ratio of green to brown, where it ran and how it had been tamed. Huge blocky brown areas testified to man’s interference as a diamond miner – ugly eyesores.
The racket from the rotors was deafening and I hated having to bellow to be understood. Even using the intercom, I had to shout and repeat myself several times, but Morgan felt no such reticence – he enjoyed shouting. He explained that he wanted my help to familiarize Thys with the activities of illegal miners: their numbers, their operations and their methods.
We flew high to maximise our range of vision and we had only been airborne for a few minutes when I saw a reddish-brown discolouration in the river water.
‘Over there! Look!’ I pointed towards it. ‘We haven’t any plants near there – it’s got to be illegal washing, garimpeiros!’
Morgan, sitting next to the pilot, jabbed his finger towards the dirty water and nodded vigorously. The helicopter swooped like a peregrine and its prey panicked.
‘Shit. There’s hundreds of the bastards!’ Thys shouted incredulously. Men, women and children scattered like shrapnel into the scrubby woodland, disappearing in seconds. All that remained were piles of muck, shovels, buckets and boxes.
Thys’s request to land produced a withering stare from Morgan.
‘They’ll have AK–47s stashed close by. If we go down …’ Morgan caught the pilot’s eye and pointed up. I picked up flashes in my peripheral sight as the helicopter ascended rapidly: sun in the rotors, or was it a tracer? Either way, no one spoke for several minutes.
Eventually, Thys asked about the illegal miners. ‘The garimpeiros? How many are there in the area?’ he said.
‘A couple of hundred,’ Morgan replied.
I suppressed a laugh as my estimate was much higher. There might be two hundred men, but there were women and children too. I described to Thys how they dug gravel and dirt out of the riverbank and carried it to a washing area, usually upstream, in buckets and sacks. ‘They shovel the muck into screens with wire mesh bottoms and immerse them in water to wash away the silt and sand. Any worthwhile diamonds are in the stones left behind; they sort through them and sometimes they get lucky.’
‘All the illegals I’ve come across before have been after gold,’ said Thys. ‘That kit we saw … It looked the same as for gold to me. Are you sure they’re after diamonds?’
‘There is no gold around here. That’s right isn’t it, Geoff?’ I said.
‘Yeah, the geology’s wrong,’ Morgan confirmed.
‘Anyway,’ I continued, ‘for gold, they’d use pans and sluice boxes. What we saw were screens; they’re a different shape. Sluice boxes are troughs, much longer than screens, and they have carpet or sacking in them, as a lining. The gold gets caught in the lining. Sluice boxes are not the best way to recover diamonds, but they’ve been used for thousands of years for gold. They reckon Jason’s Golden Fleece was probably a box lining.’
‘Who’s Jason?’ asked Thys.
After a few more minutes Morgan bellowed into the intercom, ‘I want to call in here.’
We were close to one of the Mumbulo Mine’s open pits where we could see yellow machines, like a colony of termites, working at various tasks. Shallow-gradient roads skirted the pit, easing their way down to where the excavators and loaders worked, filling the trucks that supplied the pre-treatment plant.
A brown stain in the river, like an arrowhead, pointed accusingly at the Cambunda pre-treatment plant; I could see it was running. The plants were my responsibility.
‘I want to show Thys the new river diversion,’ said Morgan. ‘It’s just about finished, and we should be ready to start mining it in the next day or two. While we’re there, David, you could make yourself useful by checking on the plant,’ he added, wryly.
In the distance, we could see that the river split into two channels. One carried the flow and the other was almost dry. Morgan, a mining engineer himself, boasted about the mining department’s achievement; completing the excavation of the new river course before the end of the dry season, and then breaking it through into the natural river. ‘We’ve just about finished pumping out the old course,’ he said. ‘There should be a nice production bonus next month if Jim’s instincts are right. I say instincts,’ he mused, ‘because all the other bloody geologists, with the same information, find next to nada. I reckon that bugger can smell diamonds.’
Morgan instructed the pilot. He landed us at the helipad two hundred yards from the plant. We all clambered out and shuffled around, stretching and kneading muscles to loosen up after being in the cramped cockpit. A mechanic was working at the plant workshop close by, servicing a haul truck. He wasn’t using his Land Rover, so Morgan commandeered it to take Thys to the river diversion. I set off on foot to check on the Cambunda pre-treatment plant. The air smelled clean, refreshed by the rains; it had been heavy with dust when I went away.
A loader was shovelling ore from the stockpile and tipping it into the feed hopper where a jet of high-pressure water from the monitor gun drove it down into the plant. A little Angolan man, partially obscured by water spray, was operating the gun, carefully directing it for best effect. When he turned off the water, I recognised him as Armando, the shift foreman. I smiled and waved at him. Armando and I had established an instant rapport when we’d first met, six months earlier. He was eager to learn everything he could from me about the plants and he had made it his duty to help me with my Portuguese and teach me a few words of Chokwe, the local tribal language.
Armando gestured for a colleague to take over at the monitor, then he ran over to greet me, grinning hugely. We shook hands.
‘Como está, Engineer David? Is your family well?’ I nodded and confirmed that my parents were in good health then I asked after his family. He seemed to inflate with pride as he told me that his wife, Esther, was pregnant with their first child. He had known about it for some time but had said nothing before because she had previously miscarried several times.

Format: 13.5 x 21.5 cm
Number of Pages: 286
ISBN: 978-3-99107-483-0
Release Date: 01.07.2021
GBP 15,90
GBP 9,99