Rendezvous with an Assassin by Patricia Welliver by Patricia Welliver - Read Online

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Rendezvous with an Assassin - Patricia Welliver

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Lowell

Chapter One

With deadly speed and accuracy, the hollow point bullet slammed into Milton Tambala, quickly penetrating clothing and skin before shattering human bone. The brutal impact of the bullet jerked the President's body savagely to one side, causing the unsuspecting victim to stumble through a series of uncontrolled movements. A combination of fear and bewilderment flashed fleetingly across the gaunt face of the wounded man. In a rare gesture borne out of need and desperation, he held out his arms in a silent appeal for help, before weakening limbs slowly collapsed the spindly figure into an untidy bundle of blooded cloth and man.

For the horrified observers, it was as if time itself stood still with each character in the

chilling drama momentarily frozen in place, but in an instant the illusion was gone to be replaced by a deluge of unleashed chaos. Piercing screams abruptly shattered the peacefulness of the golden afternoon as terrified villagers, witnesses to the dreadful scene, began surging through the makeshift barrier in a panic driven flight to safety. That no one was hurt in the stampede was nothing less than a miracle, although several children came perilously close to being trampled beneath the rush of feet before being rescued in the nick of time from the tidal wave of terror.

With a swiftness that might easily deceive the unwary eye, steely gray automatics suddenly materialized from concealed holsters as two of the khaki clad guards closest to the President dropped quickly to their knees. The remaining group, intent on finding a safe place to hunker down, scrambled for cover alongside the wall of the terminal building. With weapons clutched in sweaty palms, they anxiously scanned the surrounding area for a chance visual of the unknown sniper. No one in the group made a move to help the wounded President.

Holy shit! Colonel John Abbott, Commander of the Presidential Guard, stared in total disbelief at the scrawny figure of Zingala's formidable dictator lying alone and unaided on the oil splattered asphalt.

Within seconds of the assassin's bullet slamming into its target, and with reflexes still as sharply tuned as any of the men under the old renegade's command, John Abbott had dropped instinctively to the ground, cursing loudly as his kneecaps came into abrupt contact with the hard surface. Clutching his tiny radio transmitter in one hand, he reached with the other beneath his jacket for the shoulder holster and his favored Colt .45 automatic, and all the while his pale blue eyes searched for the source of the sniper's bullet.

The fact that only one shot had been fired gave support to Abbott's theory that they were dealing with a lone sharpshooter, otherwise he suspected the whole of his team would have been mowed down in a barrage of gunfire. Without a doubt, unless the sniper was having a really bad day, the expelled bullet had Milton Tambala's name stamped all over it.

He focused his eyes on the distant line of shrubbery, much of which completely obscured the high wire fence that formed the boundary of the airport. It was plainly obvious that anyone looking for concealment would have an ample choice of good spots in which to effectively camouflage their presence. Abbott snorted in disgust. Fat chance, he grumbled, of spotting anyone in all that tangled mass of trees and bushes. The assassin had chosen his location well.

Despite the unlikelihood of catching sight of the assassin, Abbott continued to scan the line of densely packed vegetation running parallel with the airport's southern boundary fence. Suddenly he paused in his search. Was that a tiny flash of light he had seen among the trees? Could it be the sniper's telescopic lens reflected in the descending sun? He quickly shook aside the idea. Fully trained in the art of hit and run stratagem, he knew instinctively that the sniper had already left the scene, making good his escape under cover of the ensuing commotion, and observing the unwritten rule of aim, fire and get the hell out.

How easily the old adage sprang to mind, and the soldier-turned-mercenary found himself once again engulfed with memories of days long past. Bone breaking days, stretching into endless weeks and sometimes months, spent in desolate military-style training camps that for obvious reasons of secrecy were usually entrenched deep in some god forsaken jungle in the middle of nowhere. They were generally small clandestine encampments that could be set up and quickly dismantled at any given moment. All of them without exception were totally devoid of basic creature comforts, and where oftentimes the battle against malaria and dengue fever that could enfeeble the most stalwart of men, was as bitterly fought as the life and death combat drills themselves.

Abbott exhaled deeply. So many memories, and all of them still as vividly clear as though they belonged to yesterday instead of yesteryear. A look of sadness flickered briefly across the Colonel's weather beaten face as he recalled again those lost vibrant days of youth.

Annoyed with having allowed his thoughts to wander he stabbed urgently at the transmitting button on his radio.

Bashir, are you there?

The radio crackled in response, but there was no immediate acknowledgment from the young recruit.

Abbott glowered hatefully at the radio in his hand. Bashir! His voice grated over the name. Answer me, you spineless son of a bitch!

A strict disciplinarian, Colonel John Abbott was not one who easily tolerated the short comings of his subordinates. As Commander of the two hundred or more thugs and misfits that formed the notorious Presidential Guard of the tiny African Republic of Zingala, Abbott's solution to neutralizing any deviating pattern of loyalty within the ranks was to mete out the harshest of punishments to anyone who dared overstep the line. These punishments, which shifted to varying degrees with Abbott's revolving mood of the day, were often far more brutal than the actual offense generally called for. Then again, in order to keep a firm handle on his men, Abbott probably had little choice other than to administer the most effective deterrents against the dregs of humanity he had chosen to command.

The ruthless conduct of the Presidential Guard towards the innocent citizens of Zingala was also considered by their Commander as an excellent diversionary balm for any possible unrest among the men. Since no complaint was ever voiced by the number one man himself, it can only be assumed that these brutal extracurricular activities bore the unspoken blessing of President Tambala himself.

At the same time, Abbott was acutely aware that the group's fickle allegiance to the President was good only until the money well ran dry. Until then, he felt he could handle anything that reared its ugly head.

God dammit! Where the hell are you, Bashir?

Abbott's dark eyes glinted with anger; an ominous sign to everyone who knew him that the Colonel's unpredictable temper was very close to boiling over. He fought off an overpowering urge to hurl the radio to the ground, conceding somewhat resentfully that the action would serve no useful purpose.

Bashir! He bellowed again. Answer the damn radio.

A little more than half a mile away, but still within the tropical confines of Zingala's airport, Corporal Walid Bashir stirred listlessly from his forbidden catnap beneath the natural arches of a flowering frangipani tree. Much to Bashir's displeasure and disgust, he had been delegated the unpopular duty of overseeing security in the area immediately adjacent to the entrance of the airport. Confident that none of the men under his command would notice his unauthorized absence, the Corporal had managed to slip away unobserved from the group, and seek out the shade of a tree under which to while away the tedious assignment.

The muted squawking of his radio transmitter finally pierced the veil of tranquil sleep, and with a great deal of reluctance the young exile from Algeria struggled grudgingly to his feet. Believing the call to be from one of the men he had left on duty at the airport entrance, and therefore not of an urgent nature, he took his time to brush off a few slivers of freshly mowed grass that clung to his khaki uniform. Then with practiced adeptness, he set his green and gold beret at a jaunty angle atop his mop of wiry hair. Satisfied at last that nothing further could be done to improve his overall appearance, he bent down to retrieve the transmitter he had set aside at the base of the tree trunk.

This is Bashir, he finally acknowledged with an easy casualness, what's the problem?

Where the hell have you been, you worthless faggot?

The sheer force of the words got Bashir's immediate attention.

The shit's just hit the fan here. Abbott's voice continued to blast forth. Tambala's been shot.

The President's been shot! Oh my god. An unseen hand tweaked the young Corporal's internal organs, inducing his stomach to perform a couple of sickening somersaults. He listened with growing dread to the rush of words accompanied by a slight tremor which threatened to betray the Colonel's temporary loss of composure.

I want you and your men to get over here immediately, ordered Abbott, trying without success to control the annoying quiver in his voice which he hoped the Algerian had not detected. And leave a couple of men at the entrance, he added as an afterthought, not trusting the subordinate to initiate this action on his own.

The Corporal tried desperately to remain calm. He glanced anxiously along the tree lined avenue, but the troubled soldier saw only dark sinister shapes, and not the gentle shadows in the dappled sunlight. A numbing shock wave swept over his entire body as the alarming outcome of the shooting began to take hold.

It would take several more attempts by a highly agitated Abbott before he could get any response out of the guard, whose mind was already awash with horrifying visions of revenge by an enraged civilian mob. With Tambala dead, there was no telling what unspeakable acts of retribution the people of Zingala might carry out against the unit.

Bashir, Abbott bellowed hoarsely into the receiver, pull yourself together man. I want you and your men to get over here immediately. Do you understand? Get your men over here, right now.

Yes, Sir. The response came back automatically. The Corporal took a couple of deep breaths. Sir, he finally asked, do you know who shot him?

How the hell do I know who shot him? Abbott spat back angrily. Just do as I say, Corporal, and move the men in now. I want this whole goddamn area cordoned off. Is that understood?

Yes, Sir, the soldier answered quickly, but he still needed to find out about Tambala. Umm, Sir, can you tell me if the President is still alive?

That is still to be confirmed, Abbott replied, although the man charged with the protection of the nation's leader seriously doubted Milton Tambala would survive the assassin's bullet if the sniper was any good at his job. The important thing now was to prevent his men from losing control of the situation, and fleeing the country in disorganized chaos. Even with Tambala dead, the Presidential Guard still had the upper hand as long as they remained strong as a unit. The combined strength of his men, and their manipulative power over the people, would serve them well in their attempt to escape from Zingala. For escape they would have to, if the ugly tide of revenge should turn against them.

With an impatient gesture he jammed the radio into the side pocket of his jacket, thus aborting any further asinine questions from Bashir. Useless bastards every last one of them he growled sullenly, as he shifted his weight to ease the cramping in his legs. The movement caused the holster strap to tighten across his damp shirt, and for the umpteenth time that day he cursed the unusually humid weather.

With one last glance over towards the distant line of trees, and with a snappy agility arising out of self-preservation, Abbott sprinted across the paved area towards the body of the President. Far more concerned about being shot at by one of his own trigger happy men than by a bullet from the sniper's rifle, he let out a sigh of relief upon reaching his destination with all of his body parts still intact. When no further shot zinged through the humid air to shatter Abbott's earlier theory that the sniper had indeed left the scene, he was content with the knowledge that no one else in the group was likely to have his innards blasted into kingdom come.

The arrival of Abbott brought the two guards nearest to Tambala to their feet, although both men continued to maintain a nervous surveillance of the surrounding area. The dozen or more men protected by the wall of the terminal building continued to hunker down. No one yet had made a move to help the injured President.

The Colonel gazed down with little compassion at the inanimate form of Milton Tambala, demigod and dictator of all of Zingala. Nevertheless, he was startled at the excessive amount of blood that had gushed forth from the pulpy mass of shattered flesh.

The President's safari style jacket, including the exaggerated shoulder pads, was saturated in blood, and bore evidence of a bullet hole close to the heart. Fastidious in both dress and appearance, Tambala preferred to wear light colored suits, believing they made him look a lot larger than his actual five foot four build. The beige fabric of the present jacket, now soaked in blood, could no longer disguise the undersized frame of the man.

As Abbott gingerly lowered his bruised knees to the pavement, he detected no obvious signs of life, but then unexpectedly his probing fingers encountered a faint pulse within the transparent folds of Tambala's neck.

Bloody hell! The old bastard's still alive!

Realizing there was no time to waste, he quickly shrugged free of his jacket, and used it to cushion Tambala's head. Abbott immediately regretted this rare gesture of uncharacteristic kindness at the sight of blood oozing on to the latest addition to his wardrobe. Not satisfied with having ruined his own jacket, he now ordered one of the startled guards to take off his uniform shirt. While the stunned man looked on, Abbott proceeded to fold the shirt into a rough bundle before placing it over the chest wound. He then secured the makeshift padding with the President's own belt. In next to no time, the khaki shirt was soaked with blood.

Christ, he's going to friggin' bleed to death, Abbott grunted in exasperation as he struggled awkwardly to his feet. He looked bitterly at the two guards. Well, what the hell are you waiting for? Let's get him out of here, he ordered them brusquely.

The guards' obvious fear of the sniper was not lost on their Commander, whose accurate assumption of his withdrawal had apparently not yet filtered down through the ranks. Although no further shot had been fired, the two were convinced that the sniper was still lurking somewhere in the distant tree line, and they had no desire to offer themselves up as target practice.

Come on, you lousy cowards, move it! Both of you, grab a hold of him, Abbott yelled out instructions to them. The two guards hesitated. Did you hear me? I gave you an order.

More than anything else, it was probably the thought of some cruel punishment personally concocted by Abbott that spurred the luckless pair into immediate action. At a speed that was almost comical to watch, they grabbed Tambala by the arms and legs and quickly scooped him up from the ground. They made swift progress along the narrow pathway, and hurriedly breezed past the barricaded enclosure that had been hastily vacated by fleeing civilians. At one point, in their desire to reach the line of limousines as quickly as possible, the two came perilously close to dropping the swaying body of the President.

Abbott delayed only long enough to berate the rest of the team for their cowardly behavior, and to offer up a warning of an appropriate punishment. He then gave instructions to a couple of them to search along the perimeter fence for any clue that might lead to the assassin's identity, although he seriously doubted they would find anything worthwhile. The assassin was obviously an expert in his chosen field, and Abbott knew only too well that such professionals rarely left behind any incriminating evidence. Besides, he thought glumly, what good would it do to learn the identity of the sniper.

The two hundred plus unit of the Presidential Guard consisted entirely of oddball mercenary types, recruited from a wide range of foreign domiciles. This had been done as a precautionary tactic on the part of the President, who believed that the mishmash of different nationalities would prevent the formation of any possible subversive faction. To a degree, this also was the case with the drivers assigned to the twenty vehicles of the Presidential fleet. Although their driving and mechanical ability obviously overrode all else, the fact that all three tribes still harbored an age old hostility towards one another was also taken into account. This was the invariant wedge that kept them apart; a wedge that prevented them from forming an alliance to overthrow the President. This constant feuding between the different tribes was all well and good for Milton Tambala, who had every intention of remaining at the helm of this wretched and divided country.

Willie Ubago had been assigned that afternoon to the seven vehicle convoy. His job, together with the other drivers, was to transport the President from the airport to Tambala's luxurious residence located some ten miles south of Zingala's capital town of Toola. After delivering the President safely home, the accompanying entourage of guards would then be driven to their own quarters located within a stone's throw of the Presidential estate.

With only a scant breeze to stir the oppressive heat which seemed to be affecting everyone that day, Willie had elected not to join the other drivers for a quick smoke behind one of the large Mercedes-Benz troop transport trucks. Instead, he had opted for a quiet siesta in the air conditioned comfort of his assigned vehicle.

Willie did not hear the assassin's rifle shot. Nor was he unduly concerned at the sight of the fleeing villagers, for flight from the Presidential Guard had become the norm of everyday survival in Zingala. In fact, the elderly chauffeur was not aware of anything even remotely threatening until the sudden appearance of John Abbott, whose good intentions of helping with the swift transfer of the wounded President into one of the limousines was abruptly stymied by his failure to find a driver in the first two vehicles.

As Willie looked on his horror, President Tambala's limp and bloodied body was bundled unceremoniously onto the rear seat of the limousine. Both guards appeared extremely anxious; one looking decidedly vulnerable without the benefit of his shirt.

Careful, you damn fool! Abbott stepped back quickly to avoid being hit by the car door.

Without waiting for further instructions, the two guards quickly scrambled into the front of the limousine. Unfortunately, in their haste to seek the safety of the vehicle, both men failed to see Abbott's glowering face through the tinted window. Under any other circumstance, Abbott would probably have lunged for the door, and wrenched the two morons out of their cozy bullet proof cocoon, but as long as there was still life in the President he knew he could not afford to waste precious minutes on the two men. Their discipline would have to wait for another day, but he delay would give him more time to think up a very special kind of punishment.

Get the President to St. Mary's Hospital as fast as you can, he yelled to the uniformed chauffeur, whose white gloved hands were gripped around the steering wheel like two steel clamps.

Willie nodded vigorously several times.

Use the siren, Abbott instructed the wild eyed driver, and don't wreck the damn vehicle or I'll skin your bloody black ass!

The old chauffeur needed no further urging. He pushed down hard on the accelerator, and with a powerful roar the Mercedes surged forward, leaving in its wake a spraying of sand and stone, and the smell of diesel fumes.

For several minutes more, Abbott stood and watched the rising plume of dust marking the vehicle's progress along the airport's perimeter road, and then he slowly retraced his steps along the concrete pathway.

A trail of blood drops led him back to his jacket where it lay soiled and crumpled next to a larger pool of blood. Yet it was not the sight of his ruined jacket that greatly concerned the Colonel, but the discovery that the area was now completely deserted. If it had not been for the visual evidence of blood on the airport ramp, one might conclude that the shooting had never occurred. The mass exodus of the terrified civilians was to be expected, but the fact that every last one of his men had also abandoned the scene was another matter entirely.

His hand reached again for the Colt, but the familiar feel of the .45 served only to heighten the pretense of courage he was trying desperately to hold on to. It had been almost thirty minutes since the shot had been fired by the assassin, and certainly more than enough time for Bashir and his men to get here. So where was Bashir?

Abbott turned his attention to the distant roadway, intently eyeballing the line of frangipani trees beneath whose fragrant boughs Bashir had slept so contentedly just a short while ago. There was no sign at all of the Presidential Guard, although he did glimpse what he assumed was the last of the civilians scurrying towards the hand operated roadblock A disdainful smirk now spread across the Colonel's rough features. In spite of the day's ominous turn, he could still manage to derive a certain amount of morbid enjoyment in watching the frantic retreat of the panicked villagers. As he continued to watch, he spotted a small group of Zingala's regular army converging on the area, and his smirk turned quickly to a frown. The unusual presence of the local soldiers gave rise to more concern, and deep in his belly he felt a gnawing spasm of fear that would later play havoc with the ulcer he had been forced to tolerate most of his adult life.

The word coup had a bitter ring to it, and Abbott was quick to thrust it aside, refusing to believe there was anyone in Milton Tambala's puppet government with enough balls to plan such a daring operation. Yet hadn't he just witnessed an attempt on the life of the President?

His mind ranged over possible candidates with the expertise and capability of planning an assassination. One name jumped out immediately. General Matthew Muwamba. But one man could not go it alone. He would need help, which led Abbott to wonder if some of the Presidential Guards had been privy to the assassination. This might possibly explain their sudden disappearance from the scene of the shooting. On the other hand, a mercenary force such as the one commanded by Abbott was usually very protective of its paymaster. Unless a more prolific creature had been found, why would anyone from his unit want to kill off the golden goose? What was more likely, he surmised, was the cowardly retreat of men eager to save their own miserable hides.

Still deep in thought, he made his way over to a section of fence that had been erected as a means of securing the area around Zingala's main airport. He leaned his six foot four frame against the barrier of barbed