Midnight in Stanleyville
The humid air was always the first thing that hit you when you stepped off the plane. Drenched in tropical moisture, laced with the reek of oil and explosive, and positively alive with malarial mosquitoes. It stung your nostrils and battered your eyes as soon as you set foot on the soil of the Congo, and it still follows me here despite the best efforts of the grinding fans. It is a quiet, stagnant kind of night, perfect for the type of experience the smattering of patrons of this bar, me included, are looking for. I'm sitting at my usual table off to the side, gin bottle in hand, alone. Just the way I prefer it. Comradeship is a wonderful thing, perhaps, but after a while in my line of work you start to lose the taste for deep relationships with others. They're usually gone before you can make anything good of it, at least in my experience. So I take a swig and take in the sights of the bar and its people instead as the fiery stuff settles in my gut.
It's a pretty hole-in-the-wall type of place, the sort of establishment that you have to know the right people to even find. It doesn't even have a name, as far as I know. The tile floor is cracked in places, the concrete grey walls are unpainted, the plaster roof is probably disintegrating above my head. My seat is cheap unfurnished metal, same as the sticky table upon which my drink sits. A roach scuttles by my boot, and I casually shift the heel and crush the insect underneath. I console myself a bit with the knowledge that every building in this part of Stanleyville is like this. At least this no-name bar offers the attraction of mediocre alcohol sold at competitive rates and the ancient juke box by the bar that's playing Vera Lynn. In many ways, it's the perfect sort of establishment for the sort of clientele that patronize it.
My gaze drifts silently to those clientele, making sure to not to linger for too long. We're a mottled and speckled band of humanity, much like the spotted and stained walls around. By their nature, mercenaries have always been a diverse group, converged together by their shared need for gold and their shared ability to kill to earn it. It's no different here than it must've been in medieval Italy centuries ago, and our band is only more colorful for the nature of the global war we are fighting. Over there, a French legionnaire plays cards with a German with an eyepatch and two lightning bolts tattooed into his neck. Just next to them, some Rhodesians and South Africans are making a ruckus in their drunken argument over which of their respective countries has finer gals waiting for them at home. In the corner, there's a yelp as an American ex-GI loses a finger in a knife game, prompting an uproar of laughter from his ex-SAS compatriots. Indeed, we're drawn from all over the Free World, for reasons that- beyond the money- aren't clear to anyone, even ourselves. Revenge? Adventure? Freedom from the past, from a world that rejected them? All that and more can be found here in the Congo in spades, that's for sure.
But it isn't only us soldiers of fortune that are populating this bar tonight. Indeed, you can pretty safely bet that every sort of scum are among the customers tonight- spies from both sides of the Wall, gun-runners, pimps and prostitutes, "political undesirables" a many. Black and white, male and even some females, they all come tonight to drink away whatever brought them to this particular ring of Hell. Up by the bar, the beloved black bartender and proprietor Joseph sets aside his mixing bottles to break up the row between the South Africans and Rhodesians, which has threatened to rope an Australian contingent into the fray; an event with probable disastrous consequences for the rest of us. A young dark man sitting by his lonesome by the door catches my eye. His AK slung casually on his seat and red markings on his uniform clear for all to see, he seems uncomfortable in this crowd. My intuition says that he's an antigovernmental rebel- a man I'd been hired to kill- but I don't think to move for the Tommy gun propped on my table. He's here for the same reason as the rest of us, and though we'll probably be trying to kill and maim each other in the fetid jungle first thing tomorrow dawn, there's no sport in denying him the same comfort. I and my colleagues fight on behalf of a government that hadn't existed a year ago, he and his for ideas in a book they'd probably never read. What good is it to murder him here in cold-blood for such trivial things, in a place where we've come to escape such matters? Something at the bar catches my eye, and when I momentarily peek back the man is gone.
I turn my eye back to the bar where a small crowd has formed gradually. They're tightly clustered around someone, so tightly that I can't get a good look at or hear the person in question from here. Something about their manner says that whatever is happening is worthwhile, so I quietly gather my things and shift over to a table that's closer to the scene. Now I can see that they're gathered around a slim figure- a woman. A blonde, dressed in casual civilian wear, the glimpses of her face I get of her face seem vaguely Eastern European. She speaks in a low, raspy voice that's hard to hear, but I doubt I can find an accent in her voice even if she had a loudspeaker. She's relaxed in this crowd on her stool of a chair, but something in her composure speaks to a military bearing. I can't tell if it's the perpetually straight shoulders, or the dead eyes like the ones I see cast by my comrades. She's telling stories to the men around her, and I realize what's causing the gut sensation within me. The audience laugh and cheer her on, but she doesn't return their liveliness, not in an authentic way at least. She simply continues on, putting on a show to keep the party going, all the while silently canvassing her audience with those dull, yet lethally sharp eyes. Taking them in. No, observing them, getting to know them without knowing them. The hairs on the back of my neck stand on end when her eyes sweep my direction and we, for the briefest of moments, make eye contact. There's something powerful about them, something that tells me to pay no heed to her and return to my drink. So I do, taking another swig from the bottle. The crowd goes on with its raucous merriment.
There's suddenly a loud BANG as the door to the bar slams wide open. I turn with everyone in the bar and see three men barge into the space at the same time. They're dressed in civilian clothing, but they stand out distinctly because of the Thompson SMGs they brandish in their hands. Everyone gets the thinly veiled threat from the way the newcomers- Americans, I would guess from the way they carry themselves- point their weapons, and nobody moves for their own. One of them barks an order, and his Dallas accent seems to confirm my theory. Another man takes several brisk steps forward and brings his Tommy gun to his shoulder, aimed straight at the crowd at the bar. The way he moves is clipped and exact, much like the woman at the bar from whom the crowd is now desperately trying to scatter from. His eyes are much the same too- utterly focused on the task at hand, business-like and impersonal. The woman doesn't flinch, doesn't flee. Maybe she knows it's too late- fate has caught up with her. In less than a blink of an eye she brings a pistol to bear from somewhere in her coat. The sights line up, their eyes meet. Two sides of the Iron Curtain, staring each other down behind their iron sights.
The popping sound of gunfire, the scent of cordite wafting into the air, then it's all over.
It's finished as suddenly as it began. Nobody in the bar has moved a muscle, blinked an eye or taken a breath. Drinks lay spilled where they fell, patrons at the bar still crouching down on the floor. As the scent of spent gunpowder reaches my nostrils and the sound of casings hitting the ground reach my ears, the scene lays before me like a vignette painting. The Eastern European is dead on her bar stool, two bullets clean through her forehead and her pistol still smoking. The American staggers back as crimson red stains his khaki-uniformed chest. His companions grab him by the arms and drag him toward the door as he spits blood in a glob onto the floor. The door slams open again, and the three men disappear into the night in much the same way they had appeared. The screech of tires pulling away in haste is the only sound for a moment before silence reasserts its rule over us.
Slowly, people start to stand up again. The chatter begins again, and the bar starts putting itself back in order. Joseph conscripts some of the less intoxicated patrons to help him move the body to the alleyway behind the building, cursing all the way. Someone has the bright idea to cover the shallow puddles of blood with their coat, and soon the jukebox is playing its songs once again, the patrons are returning to their alcohol and cliques. I take things in slowly. It may seem odd indeed to an outsider how things can go on the way they do now, after such an event. How can we just go back to what we were doing before blood was spilt here, after death stained our night? To be honest, I'm not quite sure either. The stains of death are not so different from the stains of alcohol in this place, not so different from the stains that drove us here. Even those that just minutes ago were carousing with the woman can move on seemingly without blinking, because they know that she was like everyone else here, whatever her spells. The cold of death lingers over us all, waiting for that final meeting. We bring our own sorrows, grudges, and histories, hoping to drown them here in hedonistic pleasure. And most of all, we are all what some may call "scum", but we are necessary scum. We are the men and women who fight the Cold War in the dark, away from the eyes of peoples and governments who would rather forget that types like us- mercenaries, spies, smugglers, and rogues- exist. But in the end, we are needed to do the things no one else is willing to do. Perhaps that's why we're drawn to this specific establishment tonight. An unappealing, sinful blight upon what should be a modern city- but providing a service no one else will, that of cheap drinks at cheap prices for whoever will pay. It would be poetic if it wasn't so bloody- well, bloody. But at the end of the day, we are bound by that blood, the blood that's congealing on the filthy floor, spilling in jungle hellscapes and frozen wastelands and god knows how many other places around the world. For we all put the same words on our final travel documents when we left home, never to return:
Destination: Hell; Reason for travel: Personal.