by Dean Hinmon
Romantic suspense and espionage at it's best. A journalist encounters terrorist activity during Emporer Haille Selassie's last days in office, and also may have just found the love of his life.
ISBN 1-59431-097-1 Action Adventure / Suspense / Fiction based on Fact / Romance
Cover art by Maggie Dix.
Also available in HTML and RTF formats.
Mitch opened his eyes as the nose of the 727 dropped. The flight stewardess brushed past, and through the fog of waking up, he watched her take a microphone from a small compartment in the wall which separated first class from second class. She smiled as she began to speak. "Please fasten your seat belts in preparation for landing." Instinctively, Mitch reached for his cigarettes and felt absentmindedly through one pocket and then another for a match, wondering why he had not really seen her in the long flight from Athens. Attractive with pretty cocoa skin. The thought passed quickly of other skin shades in other places, Indonesia, Chile, Vietnam, South Africa, Egypt. He found the matches.
"We must ask you to refrain from smoking for the remaining few minutes of this flight," she continued. Her accent prettied up the routine message. "We'll be landing shortly. Please remain seated until the plane has stopped taxiing. Thank you for flying with the Ethiopian Airlines."
When she had finished, there was the sound of conversation and rustling in the seats as people searched out the ends of the seat belts and snapped them into place. Mitch struck a match and lit his cigarette. He leaned back in the seat and inhaled deeply ignoring the stiff stare of the man in the seat next to him. He was entering one more country, and although he had not given it much thought, a country that he had not expected to be seeing. The war in Ethiopia had been competing with Egypt and Israel for the hottest action in the world for the past few months, but the Marxist military government of Ethiopia had closed the borders to news correspondents. Suddenly Ethiopia's regime had invited reporters from West and East bloc news organizations to come for a ten day visit. The response of the news media was enthusiastic. Over ninety reporters were coming in, many on this flight.
He felt the tremble in his hand as he put the cigarette in his mouth and tried not to think about the booze stored in the plane's galley only a short walk back. It was too late, she wouldn't give him a drink once they were getting ready to land and he had promised himself--no drinking on the plane. He had planned it carefully. Belt a few down before boarding in Athens. Arrange for a seat away from the usual crowd. Go aboard and sleep. Arrive sober. He had slept, he hadn't drunk, he was sober, and that was encouraging but, Christ, for a drink now he would have traded anything--maybe even his job. He had traded as much before. Five years ago Donna said he had to choose--the family or booze. He didn't choose. He didn't believe she would do it. He arrived home after doing a story on the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and a divorce petition awaited.
He drank more after that and occasionally wasn't able to get himself to the right place at the right time. Stories didn't always get in to the network. They were tolerant at first. He was the most experienced of the network's reporters, never let up on a story when sober and he could write. They carried him. He continued to blow an occasional assignment and limped along on reprimands. But two months ago, when Sadat had suddenly ordered his delegates home from the peace talks in Israel, Mitch was on a three day drunk a block away from Sadat's residence in Cairo. Back in New York they told him to start collecting unemployment, they could hire three young bloods for his salary. But an executive who had worked with Mitch ten years earlier interceded, and when the Ethiopian assignment came in, he got it with the promise that if there was as much as a hiccup when he phoned in he was through.
The wing tipped as the plane turned in preparation for the approach. The conversation level rose and necks craned for a first look at this last bit of antiquity. Unlike most other countries of the world Ethiopia was never colonized. Mitch left the viewing to the others and rested against the back of the seat watching the smoke rise from his cigarette.
"Sir." The Ethiopian flight attendant was standing beside him. She wasn't smiling. "There's to be no smoking now. We're about to land."
He looked up at her, took another long drag and then crushed the cigarette in the tray in the arm of the seat.
She didn't move away.
"Your seat belt."
Mitch picked up the ends and slipped them together.
She made an attempt to smile but it came off as stiff and unreal. "You must be new at flying."
He grinned at her and she walked forward looking into the laps of the other passengers. He had more air hours than the pilot.
Before long the plane bumped to the runway, and when it stopped moving, the aisle filled with people, clothes looking slept in, crowding forward upon each other, eager to get out.
Mitch sat ignoring the fidgeting of the man trapped in the seat next to the window. When the end of the line passed, Mitch got up and pulled his worn brown leather flight bag from under the seat. The fidgeting man jumped up and bumped his bag against Mitch's legs. Mitch let him pass to get rid of the nuisance.
Once outside the plane, he squinted into a bright sun. The pleasant warmth on his face denied that it was early February and only seven-thirty in the morning. Yet there was a coolness in the air, a crispness described by the contrast of the pink morning sky and dark blue ring of mountains in which Addis Ababa nestled at 8,000 feet.
Mitch put down his bag and stretched both arms into the air above him and yawned. He breathed in deeply and tried to erase the image of a Black Label on the rocks. It didn't work. He lowered his arms feeling more than his forty two years, wondering if at that age kicking a habit was more bruising to him than keeping it. Hours of sitting in planes, waiting for meetings to begin or end, meeting deadlines and dying people, irregular meals with regular booze and cigarettes. It had all taken its toll. His frame didn't look much different than it had in his college football days, but looks were deceiving. An occasional run up a couple flights of stairs told him that the once hard muscles now had the softness of martini-logged olives. He still had the same thick dark brown hair and his face was lean. But the lines were there when he shaved and his eyes reflected a worn look. The idealistic optimism he had as a youth was now traded for the knowledge that, off the playing field, flags are seldom dropped for fouls.
He picked up his bag, took two steps and saw the Antonov Russian transport planes sitting on the ramp. They had been bringing in supplies, guns and troops. He stopped and made a count of the transports. He was still counting when he saw a guard approach and was lucky to get a total before the guard motioned him toward the terminal building with a hand-carried Russian machine gun. Mitch turned toward the door to see two more khaki clothed Ethiopians standing guard with guns. He started walking, listening to the footsteps of the military boots behind him.
The room inside had the accommodations befitting a warehouse and no sign of booze or even food. There were lines and the tenseness in the air was strong enough to smell. The passengers, minutes before jovial and free, were now trying to comply with the elaborate procedure of getting into the country. Their faces looked long and drawn reflecting the dead seriousness of the matter.
A uniformed guard directed Mitch to a counter where a young smiling Ethiopian in a business suit was inspecting passports and visas. Mitch waited, looking about the room. Guards everywhere, standing motionless behind heavy Russian carbines, only their eyes moving, watching with deep concentration. And being in an authoritarian country with a new governing body still wobbly on its legs, Mitch knew the men behind the guns were keenly motivated. Day after day their survival was suspended by a thin thread--the art of detecting the slightest gesture of hostility and crushing it before it started. For that reason, the air in the room was thick and heavy like a hot day in the stillness before tornado.
The veteran reporters, wading through the security checks, were just as aware of the weighted atmosphere as the others, but this heavily guarded airport was still less threatening than driving down mined roads or sharing muddy foxholes. They stood in the lines, some in groups of two or three, and when they kidded around and made jokes, as old friends, they knew exactly when they had reached the limit of tolerated behavior. This was one of the skills of reporters -- getting into the country -- but once inside they pushed back hard against the countries that put rigid controls on both their work and their play. Mitch knew enough of the reporters on this assignment to be certain that the governing powers of Ethiopia, who liked to keep security neat and tidy, were about to get an education.
Mitch recognized Bill Morrel's short broad beam from the back where he stood at the end of another line. His interminable stogie hung from his mouth and wafted its strong scent across the room. He was with CBS-TV. Paul Orenson of the New York Times was leaving the luggage area, his broad face and flattened Knute Rockne nose a head above the others. Mitch knew maybe a dozen more that he could see from where he was standing, some from the US, others from Canada, France, England, Germany, mostly men.
A space in front of Mitch opened up and he stepped up to the passport counter. The inspector's smile was gone and he looked very unfriendly--the price you pay for being at the end of the line. The man studied Mitch's picture and then looked up at his face. Mitch smiled back at the thin nose and lips and deep caramel skin so characteristic of those living on the horn of Africa. The man looked back at the passport and turned the pages. He looked at a list before him. He paged through the passport again, even though most of what he was looking at was irrelevant. Mitch had seen this behavior as a pattern many times and waited patiently. The man was showing his authority.
Finally, the Ethiopian picked up the stamp, pressed it very precisely to the ink pad and then brought it down hard on one of the pages. Mitch pocketed the passport and moved on to the tail of the next line.
Baggage check. Here the dirty linen isn't hung on the line, but displayed on the counter. A man and a woman opened suitcases and rifled through clothes and all of the other paraphernalia the passenger happened to be caring, which for reporters was considerable. The two people were thorough in their search, examining every compartment, hands sliding between the folds of every garment.
The man ahead of Mitch waited with the same uneasiness as when Mitch had hemmed him in the plane's seat while other passengers disembarked. He pulled out a handkerchief and cleaned his gold rimmed glasses. He wiped his face with the handkerchief and shifted from one foot to another, looking first down one side of the line and then the other.
There were only three people ahead of Mitch when two of the gun toting guards walked briskly to the head of the line. The man at the counter talked with one of them in Amharic. They were looking at something taken from the bag in front of them.
The conversational hum of the room trailed off to silence and all heads turned toward the scene--a woman at the head of the line, curly auburn hair and young, maybe college age. "I said it's just a cigarette lighter," she shouted. Her voice had the indignant ring of an adolescent defying her parents. The counter man lifted the object to examine its under side--a shiny metal sphere the size of a tennis ball.
"Here, let me show you," the woman shouted. Her hand moved for the sphere, but one of the guards grabbed her arm before she could reach it. She tried to pull away, but her arm remained tight in his grasp. She looked up at him, her face beet red, eyes flashing in anger, sparks about to fly from the curls.
The counter man immediately squashed all of the contents down into the bag and zipped it up. The guard started across the room with the woman in tow. She dug in her feet but he easily moved her across the room and through a door. The second guard followed with her bag in one hand and the potential bomb in the palm of his other hand, held well out in front of him.
Mitch watched the three of them disappear wondering how she had gotten this far with an object so obviously suspect. It was dumb of her to travel with it--especially in Ethiopia--even if it was a cigarette lighter, which it probably was. They would give her a rough time, but in the end she was going to have an interesting tale to tell when she got back to the campus.
The line moved ahead and Mitch's attention turned to the man ahead whose complexion had changed from cold white to sweaty red. The woman at the counter opened his suitcase and the man stared ahead through glasses about to fog over. He leaned forward on the counter to brace himself. The Ethiopian man behind the counter studied him and then said something in Amharic to his female partner, just as she was about to close the suitcase. She looked up at the passenger's face of worry. A drop of sweat fell from his chin. She went back to the suitcase, this time dumping the contents on the counter and going through each piece of apparel and every article, one by one. The counter woman finished the search a second time and looked toward her Ethiopian partner and shook her head. She looked up at the nearest guard and the guard swayed slightly forward, set to move. The man in the glasses was breathing as hard as a marathon runner.
The woman looked back at her partner and apparently not getting a signal otherwise, shoved the contents back in the suitcase and forced it shut. She sat it upright in front of him and motioned him on. The man grabbed the handle and walked quickly away.
Both the man and the woman behind the counter and the nearest guards watched him go toward the next line which appeared to lead to the body search. Mitch had seen these lines in a few other underdeveloped countries--always the same--the line split into two separate curtained areas, one for the men and another for the women.
They opened Mitch's bag. Even though his camera was small enough to slip into an inside coat pocket they opened it up. They had the habit of opening everything and looking inside even though the space was not large enough to hold more than a couple aspirin. They closed the camera, closed the bag and sent him on.
His body sagged under the torment of thirst. And the next part of the process would take the longest. He got into the line behind Nervous, who once again wiped his glasses. Mitch tried not to look at him. He was either a case of chronic anxiety or the world's worst master spy.
Up ahead Morrel and Orenson were near the end of the process. Apparently unable to contain themselves any longer, they began talking it up. A comedy team, those two. Morrel, short, round and bubbly and red faced. Orenson moved tall and slow letting dry wit flow from a straight face with its incongruous flat nose. Strange friends these correspondents and Morrel and Orenson were typical. Any of them could be from different news services, different countries, different cultures, and political opposites, but in the dead waiting time they behaved like the class of nineteen-seventy at its reunion--stories, laughter, cigarettes and booze, the universal language. But when the waiting stops all the "heart winning" companions do a Jekyll-Hyde change into tough competing reporters--vicious wolves fighting for a share of a kill that's never enough to go around.
As the curtain for the body search was held back for Morrel, he took a step forward and then hesitated. Looking over his shoulder at Orenson, he said, "Don't you peek over the top, you goddamned giraffe."
Orenson looked past Morrel, a dead pan of innocence. Morrel had not been inside the curtained area for more than a minute when Mitch heard Morrel's voice. "Oh shit!"
After that Mitch couldn't make out most of the talk on the other side of the curtain. At one time he heard Morrel say, "Well, I didn't put it there." Orenson was innocently reading a paperback.
Orenson was motioned in, and in their turn, four or five others, and then Nervous. The talk was soft behind the curtain, no sign that the man's fears had been realized yet.
Mitch was called in. Two men were in business suits, one smiling and the other sober. The third was a uniformed guard wearing a forty-five. The smiling one spoke with a thick accent. "Put valise on the floor and raise arms please."
Mitch complied and the sober one stepped in close. He smelled bad, like feet too many days in sweaty socks. But Mitch noted this with a veteran reporter's objective nose. No revulsion or any other reaction. The man slowly felt down Mitch's sides, hands moving efficiently through pockets, carefully around his waist, then his hips, and each leg, and then squatted for a particularly close examination of the top of each shoe. Mitch could see the shine of grime worn into the back of the old suit. A man just starting up the slippery ladder of Ethiopia's social economic classes. He stood up, his face still absent of emotion.
"Lower your arms halfway please," said the other one, his smile still frozen on.
Then sober examined each arm, pits and all. Not taking any chances.
"Thank you," said Smilie. "You're one of the reporters." He didn't say it like a question. He knew. "An escort will take you to the bus."
He held back the curtain, the smile still breaking his face. The "escort" was a very large forty-five caliber toting uniformed Ethiopian. They went through a door to the outside. Stepping from the shadows into the sun was like walking into a wall.
They approached a yellow bus, trimmed with green and red, matching the Ethiopian flag above the airport. Two men and one woman, all Ethiopian, waited outside the bus. The men wore suits a cut above those he had seen inside the airport building. The woman wore a very mod red dress that stopped a little above the knees. Even through the pain of looking toward the sun, Mitch could see that she had a very pretty face and her figure was like those the GI's had pinned up in their bunkers in Vietnam.
The man in the middle of the small group stepped forward, carrying an aura of cologne. The graying of his temples glistened white in the sun and the lines around his eyes helped in making his smile real. "Mr. Hanley?"
Mitch was not surprised that he knew his name. He suspected that they knew a lot more than that. And for the next ten days they would probably know where he was, what he was doing, and even some of what he was thinking. The Ethiopian officials would do whatever they had to do to control the stories the reporters sent out of the country.
The Ethiopian man put out his hand. "I am Ato Berhane, your personal host for your stay in Ethiopia."
The hand felt small and weak.
With his smile widening, he added, "Welcome to Ethiopia and thirteen months of sunshine."
They could do with fewer months of sun, thought Mitch. It was not hot but the cement ramp, the side of the airport building, the sandy landscape, everything reflected back the sun with the intensity of a welders arc.
Berhane let go of Mitch's hand and motioned toward the other man. "Ato Desta."
The other man stepped forward, with a mouth full of teeth making him appear to be a man who wanted to please. "Greetings to Ethiopia, Mr. Hanley." He shook hands with more enthusiasm and with a stronger grip.
Berhane motioned toward the woman. "Wyzerite Yeshi."
She held out her hand and Mitch took it wondering at his impatience to get away from them and out of the sun. She had it all, fantastic looks and an air of sophistication, but through the thirst and pain he could feel only the slightest vestige of interest.
The three of them ushered him to the door of the bus. "We are ready now to leave for the Ghion Hotel," said Berhane. "There we will serve breakfast and explain our program."
Desta followed him aboard, but Berhane and Yeshi walked toward a long Mercedes sitting nearby. The bus was almost full, but relatively quiet. A guard with a holstered forty-five stood in the front and another in the back.
Mitch started toward the empty seats he spotted near the back. He returned a greeting from Phil Andrews of the London Guardian. Morrel and Orenson were huddled around Betty Page of Associated Press--a beautiful woman, her hair tied back in a youthful ponytail, but underneath the youthful appearance was a reporter's savvy, honed from almost twenty years of getting news in back alleys and front lines.
Betty and Orenson waved. Morrel told Mitch that he looked like he needed a drink. Mitch knew that it didn't take the perceptions of reporters to have figured that one out.
He smiled a hello to Pierre Nicot of the Paris Le Nonde with whom he had spent a lot of jungle hours in Vietnam. His thin face and very black hair made him look young, but up close Mitch could see the lines chiseled around his eyes--one for each battle he covered from World War II to the present. In Vietnam he had developed a reputation as the grunt's diarist and had been with many friends when they died in foxholes and jungle swamps.
The bus started up. Mitch winced as Desta and all of his white teeth sat down beside him. He knew that Desta was young and eager and talkative.
The travelogue began the moment they left the curb. "This is Bole Road which dead-ends at the airport so that one cannot see the real people of this country--the rural workers, the proletarians, that bring their goods into the city. But that will . . . ."
Mitch tuned him out.