28

Northern Uganda
November 21—1833 Hours GMT+3

Mehrak Omidi slowed when the young man in front of him broke into an elaborate karate pantomime, kicking at bushes and the humid air, spinning unsteadily, and making noises like a strangled bird. He nearly fell over a rotting log and shouted angrily at it before grabbing one of a number of beers stuffed into the pockets of his fatigues.

Omidi had landed in Uganda nine hours ago and immediately driven to the remote rendezvous point dictated by Caleb Bahame. He’d expected to be picked up by the man himself and taken to camp, but instead spent three hours riding blindfolded in the back of a rickety military vehicle. And now this.

They’d been walking through the wet, insect-infested jungle for long enough that he began to question whether the men around him had any idea where they were going. Most were drunk, and no fewer than three fights had broken out — one of which he’d been forced to break up when knives materialized.

“How much longer?”

The man in front squinted back at him and said something in his native language before forging on.

Omidi followed, keeping up easily despite the unfamiliar humidity and terrain. He hated sub-Saharan Africa and everything in it — the air, the disease, the worthless inhabitants. It would have given him great satisfaction to have sent one of his men in his place, but it was impossible. No one else could be trusted with a task so vast and historically important.

When he actually allowed himself to consider what, with God’s blessing, he would accomplish, it made the breath catch in his chest. Centuries of dominance by America and the West would come to an end. Their arrogant citizens would finally understand that everything they thought they had was an illusion. They would watch in horror as the power and money they had so greedily amassed failed to protect them. And when it was finally over, they would shrink away like beaten dogs.

The sun touched the horizon, stoking his anger and frustration. Soon, they would have to stop. While his guides were well equipped with alcohol and pornography, none seemed to have thought to bring a flashlight or night-vision equipment.

He quickened his pace and reached for the man in front of him again but then heard a distant voice reverberating through the jungle. The men around him heard it, too, whooping in excitement and pumping their rusting assault rifles in the air.

Bahame.

As they closed on the amplified voice, the scent of human habitation assaulted him — open latrines, garbage, and the distinctive rot of death. They passed crated weapons and food, as well as a few light military vehicles that may or may not have been in operating condition. All were piled with tree limbs and vines so as to be invisible from the air.

They broke out into a clearing and Omidi spotted a man pacing across a makeshift stage speaking into a megaphone. He was dressed in worn fatigues accented by a large amulet made of what appeared to be human teeth and bones.

No fewer than a hundred people were packed into the clearing, transfixed by the graying figure looking down on them. Most were teens or younger, clad in tattered civilian clothing and holding weapons as sophisticated as AK-47s and as primitive as feather-adorned spears. At least a quarter were girls, some unashamedly shirtless, displaying budding breasts wet with perspiration. A disgusting display by a disgusting race.

The man on the log-and-stone podium spotted him and pointed, speaking unintelligibly as his audience parted.

Close up, Caleb Bahame was almost regal, with strong features and skin unblemished by his years of living in camps like these. His movements were strangely exaggerated, choreographed to give his every word its own sense of gravity. Seeing Bahame standing there, feeling the oppressiveness of his presence, explained a great deal about how the African had gained so much power so quickly.

Bahame had started bringing his clapped-together religion to the tiny villages of northern Uganda almost a quarter century ago. Not long after, he armed a group of disciples large enough to begin converting the region’s farmers, whether they were persuaded by his dogma or not. He burned and raped and kidnapped, learning to manipulate the pliable minds of children and turning them into a fighting force unbounded by any moral or religious sensibility that didn’t flow directly from him.

As time went on, the religion he’d created became more political and more about him. He had portrayed himself as everything from Muhammad to Jesus to the reincarnation of Karl Marx — fanning the flames of tribal animosity and promising a utopian society of milk and honey without work or effort. Now, thousands of followers later, Bahame no longer knew where he stopped and God started.

Omidi climbed onto the podium and Bahame threw down the megaphone to greet him. When their hands clasped, a loud cheer rose up.

“Mehrak, my good friend,” Bahame said in English better than his own. “God told me you would be delivered safely to me.”

“May his name be praised.”

Bahame smiled and turned, using a claw hammer to break open a crate of whiskey. The exaltation of his congregation grew in volume as he tossed the bottles out to them, reserving one for himself.

“My magic has given us many victories and has made them love me,” he said, breaking the neck off the bottle. His eyes were clear, but it was impossible to know what they saw. Unquestionably, a man to be very carefully handled.

“You’re a great leader.”

“Yes, but Uganda is a large country, full of evil. It will require more than magic to take it. Even my magic.”

Omidi nodded gravely. “All great generals — all great men — face the same problem. You cannot do everything yourself. And to rely on others is…unpredictable.”

“What you say is true, Mehrak.”

“I’d like to see your magic. To see if you can teach us to wield it without your power.”

He seemed pleased by that and took a long pull on the bottle before holding it out to Omidi.

“My God doesn’t permit it,” the Iranian said.

“He gives you his permission.”

Omidi smiled politely, making sure his eyes portrayed only serenity. Was Bahame saying that he had spoken to God on his behalf?? Or that he was God?

A murmur went through Bahame’s people, and Omidi used it as an excuse to turn and see what had distracted them from fighting over the liquor.

A group similar to the one that had brought him there burst into the clearing dragging a badly injured African man along with them. Behind, a Caucasian in his late sixties appeared, terrified and exhausted.

Bahame jumped to the ground and Omidi followed at a distance that would allow him to be an observer of what was going to happen without risking becoming a participant.

“Where is the woman?” Bahame demanded.

One of the men pushed their injured comrade to the ground at his feet. “Dembe let her escape.”

The prone man’s right pant leg had been cut away and there was a bloody bandage wound around his thigh. He tried to crawl away but was stopped by the impenetrable ring of armed children that had formed around them.

Bahame pointed to the white man. “Who is he?”

“A doctor we found to keep this pig alive so he could face you.”

The cult leader’s eyes widened to the point of bulging, and his stare fixed on the man begging pathetically at his feet.

He dropped the bottle in his hand and picked up a rock the size of an apple, falling to his knees and bringing it down with horrifying force between the man’s shoulder blades. An anguished scream erupted from him, though it was quickly drowned out by the laughter of the crowd.

“No, stop!” the doctor shouted. He made a lunge to protect his patient but was slammed to the ground before he could reach him.

Bahame continued to work with the rock, studiously avoiding the man’s head and neck — attacking his arms, his torso, his legs. Sweat dripped from him and his breathing turned ragged as the dull thud of rock on flesh was joined by the sound of snapping bones and blood gurgling in his victim’s throat.

The skill of it was admirable — turning a man’s body into a broken bag of parts while keeping him not only alive, but conscious.

Eventually, Bahame began to tire, and he stood, still refusing to deliver the man into death. He picked up the whiskey he’d dropped, now spattered with blood, and drank from it before holding it out.

Omidi hesitated for a moment, looking down at the man twitching in the damp soil. Finally, he approached and accepted it, using the bottle to salute his host before bringing it to his lips.

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