Thursday, March 31, 2016

An Excerpt from Choice of Enemies by M. A. Richards

Omnimystery News: An Excerpt courtesy of M. A. Richards

We are delighted to welcome back author M. A. Richards to Omnimystery News.

Earlier today we had a discussion with M. A. about his new espionage thriller Choice of Enemies (Sunbury Press; January 2016 hardcover, trade paperback and ebook formats) and as a way of introducing you to it, he has generously provided us with an excerpt, the first chapter.

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IN THE COOL OF THE AFRICAN dawn, six armored Suburbans bulled through the sodden Delta jungle toward Bonny Island. In their wake, whirlwinds of red dirt billowed upward toward the crown canopy. Inside the vehicles, frigid air filtered the jungle stench of rot and decay. Felix Sanhedrin, a twenty-five-year veteran of covert operations in Africa and the Middle East, sat on the rear bench of the convoy's second Suburban like Allan Quatermain returned to the Dark Continent. White linen slacks, a blue Oxford shirt, a silk ascot, and a freshly pressed, khaki bush jacket adorned his thin frame. A device more computer than chronometer rested on his left wrist. His felt slouch hat boasted a faux leopard-skin band, and his canvas jungle boots gleamed. A Glock 19 nested in a leather holster on his right hip.
  Sanhedrin's new boots rested atop two green, canvas duffel bags stuffed with Benjamin Franklins, and he carried with him, like a talisman, the blessings of the Mandarins who guided the operations of the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Virginia. Despite their stated policy to never negotiate with the enemies of the United States, Sanhedrin had convinced the éminences grises to ransom his assistant, Nathan Monsarrat, from the rebel group called Fighters Against Terror in Africa, or FATA.
  He issued orders like a young boy presenting Santa Claus with his Christmas list. "First rule: I'm in charge, and my word is law. Second rule: we take only Monsarrat with us. Final rule: my money's bought your silence. Neither you nor your shooters nor your medics will speak of this mission to anyone. Never repeat, never. Capish, my new friend?"
  Next to Sanhedrin, Mark Palmer wore funereal black, a shooter's vest, tee shirt, tactical pants, jungle boots, baseball cap, Nomex gloves, and sunglasses. Years beneath the African sun had braised his face and arms. He was clean shaven, and his hair was cut in a brown bristle. Military tattoos covered both his forearms, and blue veins latticed his knotted muscles. He carried an M4 rifle, a brace of Heckler and Koch P30 pistols in nylon holsters strapped to his thighs, a combat knife, commo gear, and four P30 magazines looped onto his belt. The shooter's vest held extra M4 mags.
  He spoke with a soft, Southern drawl. "Five by five, Mr. Scarnagh. No worries. We were never here."
  Sanhedrin had declared himself to Palmer by his work name, Fineghan Scarnagh. He operated under the letters F and S, keeping with the monograms on his shirt cuffs. Felix and Fineghan. Sanhedrin and Scarnagh. "You should call me Fineghan. After all, we're in the same line of work."
  "What line of work would that be, if you don't mind my asking?"
  "I'm an independent oil consultant. I work with firms in Africa. Occasionally in Russia. Often in the Middle East."
  "Funny we haven't met before, me being the chief of security for the biggest oil services company in Africa," Palmer offered.
  Sanhedrin prided himself on his light touch. "I'm a traveling oil gun for hire."
  Palmer smiled politely. "Have you worked with my company previously, Fineghan?"
  Sanhedrin admitted that he had not experienced the pleasure. "What about you, Mark? How'd you get into the oil business?"
  Palmer gestured toward the two men in the front of the Suburban. "We're specialists — Frank, Joe, and me. We have skill sets that oil companies find attractive."
  "Former army?" Sanhedrin asked, although he had memorized the personal history of every man and woman in the convoy.
  Shafts of golden sunlight as thin as reeds cast shadowed patterns on the hardscrabble road. Joe Marinelli drove the Suburban, while Frank Rollins navigated in the shotgun seat. They might have been clones of Palmer. They wore the same clothes and carried the same equipment, save each sported a mustache, closely trimmed beard, and hair plaited into a single braid, blonde for Rollins and brown for Marinelli.
  "Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Eritrea, South Sudan," Palmer replied. "You name it, if it's in the shit, we fought there."
  "Rangers for Joe and me," Rollins answered.
  "Scrolls, not tabs," Marinelli added. "Mark was a Special Forces light bird. Compared to him, Frank and me are cub scouts."
  Compliments bored Palmer. "Monsarrat also claimed to be an independent oil consultant. Like you, he worked in Africa, Russia, and the Middle East."
  "You know him?" Sanhedrin inquired.
  "We met a few times in Abuja and Lagos. Port Harcourt, more often."
  "It's a small world, isn't it?"
  Palmer recited his sums for Sanhedrin. "In my small world, people who claim to be independent oil consultants are usually CIA spooks. Not that I have anything against spooks, other than they can't be trusted."
  "I'm sorry for your hard times," Sanhedrin commiserated, "although I'm not your usual independent oil consultant."
  "Roger that," Palmer agreed, "you carrying a Glock on your hip."
  "It's just window dressing," Sanhedrin answered modestly. "Did you have a problem cashing my check?"
  "Your payment sailed through the bank."
"Is it my couture that bothers you?"
Palmer had attempted to trace the background of Fineghan
  Scarnagh. His head hurt from banging it against the maze of brick walls he had encountered. "Truthfully, I smell Agency all over you."
  Sanhedrin brushed his fingertips across the holster. "My cologne upsets you?"
  In the front of the Suburban, Rollins and Marinelli eyed the dirt road for threats while listening hard to the conversation. Each bore scars from prior Langley operations.
  "In my experience," Palmer continued, "when the Agency runs an operation, things usually turn south real fast, and the shit splatters everyone involved, save the boys and girls from Langley. So I'm only asking for confirmation."
  "Confirmation of what, exactly?"
  Palmer exuded patience. "Confirmation this is Langley's operation."
  "Me? An Agency spy? Perish the thought!" Sanhedrin protested.
  Palmer's distrust of the man next to him increased each time he uttered a sentence. "If you say so, Fineghan. What about Monsarrat?"
  "I have no clue," Sanhedrin deadpanned. "We've never met."
  In Palmer's weltanschauung, the most dangerous spooks supplied the glibbest answers. "Yet, you're here to ransom him from the rebels."
  "Like I said, Mark, I'm a traveling oil gun for hire. I take the shit jobs nobody else wants or can pull off."
  "You're also a specialist?"
"In my own area of operations."
  Sanhedrin rubbed a smudge of dirt from the toe of his right boot against the driver's seat. "Tell me about Monsarrat."
  "He's a big, smart, tough guy."
"It sounds like you were friends."
"I wouldn't say friends," Palmer corrected. "More like professional associates. I was sorry to hear the rebels took him from the oil rig, but until you called my bosses, I had no brief to go after him."
  Sanhedrin appreciated men with military backgrounds. They accepted their roles without the sturm und drang civilians brought to operations. He prodded the conversation in a new direction. "How many shooters are you holding in reserve?"
  "A half dozen with the Blackhawks, a few miles from our destination. If the balloon goes up, they'll ride to our rescue like Valkyries with rotors."
  "Let's hope none of us is headed for Valhalla," Sanhedrin sniffed.
  Beyond the road, tawny animals skittered in the bush, while colorful birds perched in the canopy's high tree branches. Inside the armored vehicles, shooters checked their weapons and pulled on balaclavas. Doctors and nurses inspected their sedatives and intravenous drips. Drivers steered an erratic conga line through ruts steep enough to snap the chassis of a Suburban. Navigators alternated between 7x50 power binoculars and their naked eyes to sweep the jungle for ambushes.
  Across the dirt roads of the Delta, FATA rebels stretched wires at axle height and buried IEDs inside the garbage that rose from the flat, wet land like mountains of refuse. They named the highest mounds after the ruling politicians and generals. Mount Abacha. Babangida Hill. Gowon Peak. Occasionally, rebels poured jerry cans of gasoline onto the mounds and set them afire. The stench of burning garbage carried inland as far as Port Harcourt, and flaming refuse drifted on evening breezes toward the Cameroon border.
  In their manifesto, FATA professed to represent the political aspirations of all the weak peoples of the Delta oppressed by the powerful desert tribes, the multinational oil firms, and the National Oil Company. In pidgin communiqués, they claimed to fight against the corruption of the government and to struggle for an equitable redistribution of the vast wealth brought into the country by the industrialized world's unslakeable thirst for its sweet crude. To achieve their goals, they kidnapped foreign oil workers to exchange for ransom.
  They operated from a ramshackle compound on the banks of the Bonny River. A hundred yards from their base, Rollins keyed his mic and peered through the darkened Plexiglas windows. "Tangoes with Kalashnikovs at twelve, three, and nine o'clock."
  The radio sputtered. "Four tangoes with AKs on our six."
  Sagging barbed wire strung between splintered wooden stakes demarked the boundaries of the compound. A tripod-mounted M2 machine gun squatted atop a platform of logs in the middle of the dirt road. Teenage sentries stood behind the crude barricade, weapons cradled in their arms like 7.62 mm wands of death. They watched the passage of the six Suburbans with the baleful eyes of youth.
  "Those punks could wreak some kind of havoc with that Ma Deuce, if they maintain it," Marinelli offered. "A .50 caliber demands respect."
  "Half starved, three quarters drugged, and strapped to a Chinese AK-47," Rollins agreed. "These kids are already dead. It's only a question of how many people they'll kill before they keel over."
  For Sanhedrin, racking jitters announced the proximity of danger. "Are you a deep thinker, Frank?"
  "Understand your enemy, sir," Rollins advised. "His strengths, his weaknesses, and, most of all, his motivations."
  "What I don't understand," Sanhedrin admitted, "is why Abuja tolerates the rebels."
  "It's a question of balance," Palmer explained. "FATA earns serious money from kidnapping foreigners. It makes even more cash selling stolen crude on the black market. When the politicians are satisfied with their kickbacks, they leave the rebels alone. When they're unhappy, they send in the generals. Their army, though, is more corrupt than competent, and the rebels invest their money in small arms, rigid-hull inflatable boats, and shoulder-fired missiles to discourage helicopters from entering their Delta airspace. They're also highly motivated, even if they have no formal training. The two sides fight, no one wins, and the status quo ante returns."
  Oil dominated life in the Delta. It stained the sky with a sulfuric miasma and soaked the ground with a gelatinous sludge. When the Suburbans entered the compound, their tires sank into the muck. Palmer, Rollins, and Marinelli donned their balaclavas as the drivers pulled the armored vehicles into a tight circle, like a wagon train in a John Ford movie. A dozen shooters exited the Suburbans and established a box perimeter. Doctors and nurses in crisp uniforms followed.
  Sanhedrin waved his slouch hat as he entered the security of the box. "Nathan, today is your liberation day! Fineghan Scarnagh is here to rescue you!"
  Across a muddy clearing, Nathan Monsarrat squatted on his hands and knees. Kidnapped four and a half months earlier from an oil rig forty miles offshore in the Gulf of Guinea, the deep-cover operative was now skeletal with dysentery, enervated by malaria, and beset by a gallimaufry of lesser jungle diseases. He weighed sixty pounds less than the day, fifteen years earlier, he exchanged his undergraduate innocence for the arrogance of the Central Intelligence Agency.
  Relief topped the chart of his emotions at the arrival of the convoy, followed by anger. Even by the cautious standards of the Agency, his rescue had taken far too long. Disgust concluded the trifecta. In typical Sanhedrin fashion, the immediate action of his boss had been to identify his work name like a débutante presented at a cotillion ball. Still, he offered silent thanks for his arrival. He would have embraced equally a den of Cub Scouts or a klatch of shuffleboard players, if they possessed the firepower to free him from the rebels.
  Above Monsarrat stood Blessed, the FATA leader, an Ijaw with biceps the size of footballs and the color of ripe eggplants. Raised tribal markings scarred his face, chest, and thighs. Knotted strips of red and white cloth around his forearms paid homage to Egbesu, who protected warriors from bullets and knives. His right hand rested on his captive's head, as if Monsarrat were a faithful pet, and he pressed a rope leash against his throat like a hangman's noose.
  Prior to his capture, Monsarrat had radiated a middle-America respectability. An inch over six feet, he possessed a thick mop of unruly, brown hair and weighed five pounds below two hundred. His unblemished skin shone with health, and his crisp, brown eyes flashed with energy. The muscles of his chest and arms were firm. His six pack rippled. He carried himself as if he were still a three-letter athlete at the university in his native Iowa, football in the fall, basketball in the winter, and baseball in the spring, in the days when jocks proudly wore their padded jackets with the Churchillian "V" sewn over the heart.
  Sanhedrin grimaced as his boots squelched through the muck of the clearing. "You've had your fun, Blessed. Get him off his knees."
  The Ijaw flicked the fingers of his left hand, and two dozen rebels spread across the clearing, their Chinese weapons pointed at the box perimeter. He inhaled deeply the brimstone of fancy white man's cologne and spat to remove the bitter taste. "I wan' my muny. Yuh gib my muny, I gib yuh obobo canda."
  A rapacious ego, a sharp intelligence, and a dearth of emotions had carried Sanhedrin to the top of the Central Intelligence Agency. Still, he lusted to join the elite ranks of the Mandarins and planned to launch his gambit by rescuing Monsarrat. His strategy would fail, however, if the deep-cover operative died in the Delta. "I won't tell you again, Blessed. Get him off his knees."
  The second-in-command of the rebels, a tall, lean Ibani named Innocence, took the rope leash from Blessed. The scars on his forehead marked him as a member of his clan's ruling family. His bald skull gleamed with sweat, and a sadistic fire burned in his black eyes. Jagged nails capped his long fingers. He jerked the leash hard, pressed his foot against Monsarrat's neck, and grunted a single word like a challenge. "Nuh."
  Monsarrat flopped like a gaffed fish. Blood dripped from his throat, where the harsh rope scraped his flesh raw. He tore at the leash, but the Ibani gripped it too tightly.
  Blessed grabbed Monsarrat's matted hair and lifted his face from the sand. "Yuh gib my muny, I gib yuh obobo canda," he repeated.
  "His name is Nathan," Sanhedrin replied. "Not white boy."
  Innocence slapped the back of his right hand into his left palm. The sound cracked in the quiet morning. "Nuh, nuh Nathan. Obobo canda."
  The Ijaw spat again. "I wan' my muny."
  Sanhedrin spoke as if offering a cup of tea. "You've made your point, Blessed. You know I won't buy him if he's dead."
  "Yuh gib my muny."
  Sanhedrin raised his hand. Rollins and Marinelli removed the duffel bags from the Suburban. They crossed the clearing and dropped them before the Ijaw.
  Blessed unzipped the canvas bags and withdrew thick stacks of crisp Benjamin Franklins. He waved the bills toward Innocence, a broad smile spread across his huge face. "My muny!"
  Innocence dropped the rope. "Dis time, we gib yuh obobo canda. Nex' time, obobo canda de'd man."
  Monsarrat pushed himself upright and stood unsteadily, as if acquiring his land legs. He brushed his hands, removed the rope from his throat, and dabbed the blood with his fingers. He gazed at the two rebels with a clinical dispassion. He wanted to strangle them and watch saliva bubble on their lips as the breath escaped their lungs. He wanted to enjoy his reflection in their black eyes as death took them.
  When he spoke, his voice rasped. "I'm going to kill both of you, very slowly, with my fingers around your throats."
  "Not another word, Nathan," warned Sanhedrin.
  Monsarrat assayed his clean clothes and scrubbed skin, as if he were a ghost and the rescue an elaborate hoax. "Rosalinda's at the hut, Felix. We have to take her with us."
  Sanhedrin turned to the two shooters. "Get him to the vehicles."
  Rollins and Marinelli carried the protesting Monsarrat across the clearing. Sanhedrin led them into the box and gestured for the medical team. "Take good care of him, Doc. I need him in the office stat."
  "Forget the damn doctor, Felix," Monsarrat insisted. "You have to find Rosalinda. I won't leave her here."
  "I don't know who you mean, old buddy, but we only have room for one passenger on this trip."
  "Don't be obtuse," he snarled. "Rosalinda Santiago is the nurse from the oil rig. She saved my life."
  "We'll come back for her," Sanhedrin promised. His words rang as falsely as a wooden nickel. "I only paid for one hostage today, and our friends don't seem the types to offer a two-for-one special."
  Despite his weakness, Monsarrat twisted free from the two shooters. "You ordered me to visit the rig, Felix. I wouldn't have been stuck in the middle of the Gulf of Guinea if it hadn't been for you, and I would have died in this shithole if it hadn't been for Rosalinda, so I'm not leaving her."
  On the abbreviated ladder of Sanhedrin's virtues, patience occupied a low rung. "A lot of people dedicated a lot of time and a lot of money to arrange this little escape. No arguments, Nathan. You're coming with us."
  Two nurses gripped Monsarrat's wrists, and a doctor slid a needle into his arm. "It's Lorazepam, son. You'll sleep just fine."
  Monsarrat sagged as the intramuscular injection entered his bloodstream. The nurses led him to one of the two Suburbans outfitted for the medical team and hoisted him onto the rear bench.
  Sanhedrin's bony fingers tapped his watch. "How long before he needs another shot of that junk, Mark?"
  "A few hours, but he's very weak, so the one injection may be good for your entire flight home."
  Sanhedrin considered his cover story. "I heard he's a stubborn son of a bitch. Four and a half months with these FATA assholes was probably just time out for him."
  Palmer had observed the familiarity of the interactions between Monsarrat and the man he knew as Fineghan Scarnagh with a sense of satisfaction. They definitely shared history, and he was sure the Agency played a large role in their lives. "Hard to see how being a guest of the rebels could be pleasurable for anyone."
  Sanhedrin noted he had maintained silence during the trade. "No words of greeting for your professional associate?"
  "Just following your orders. Your money for our eternal silence."
  "The longer I work with you, Mark, the more I like you."
  Eighteen weeks earlier, on Easter Sunday morning, FATA rebels in three fast, rigid-hull, inflatable boats had sped from the mouth of the Bonny River into the Gulf of Guinea. Beneath a cloudless sky, the dual diesel engines of each thirty-six foot RHIB, muffled and capable of fifty knots, quickly covered the forty miles to the oil rig. The rebels fired the M60 machine guns across the placid waters for entertainment, until they exhausted the ammunition.
  While the galut of European rig managers, drillers, derrick hands, and roughnecks, plus a baker's dozen Asian galley hands, and a nurse attended the Sunday church service in the rig's chapel, the rebels swarmed the ladders. On the upper platform, they dispatched the security guards. Innocence and half the force raided the stores for food and supplies. Blessed and the remainder of the rebels burst into the chapel. The giant Ijaw compared each European to a five-by-seven-inch photograph. When none of the white faces matched the picture in his hand, he posted two rebels as guards and stormed from the chapel to search the rig.
  An unobservant man, Monsarrat had avoided the service in favor of an extra cup of coffee in the mess. When the rebels assaulted the platform, laughing, yelling, and firing AK-47 rounds, he checked his Tag Heuer watch and cursed his laxity. Three hours remained until his helicopter rendezvous, but he could not summon the pilot. His cell phone sat atop the bunk in his cabin, three hundred feet across the exposed platform. Also in the cabin, inside the ditty bag he had carried from Abuja for the weekend visit, was his Glock 30 pistol.
  In lieu of portholes, the mess offered pastel murals of pink clouds in blue skies above a cerulean ocean laced with white breakers. With only a single hatch for access and egress, the rectangular room provided fewer escape options than a prison cell on Alcatraz Island. Monsarrat closed his eyes. In his mind, he scanned the rig. The open platform offered no place to hide, so reaching his room undetected was out of the question. Outside the mess, the gangway ran in two directions. Leeward led to the platform. Windward ended sixty feet further at an emergency ladder that descended to the structure's small boat berth, a grid of steel planks extending twenty feet into the Gulf of Guinea.
  He opened his eyes. In the Hobson's choice between the trigger-happy attackers on the platform or the requiem sharks in the warm waters of the Gulf, he preferred the pelagic killers. If the heavens smiled upon him, he could steal one of the boats that had ferried the attackers to the rig. He crossed the mess and pushed open the hatch, willing silence upon the heavy door. He stepped into the gangway, and the wooden stock of an AK-47 crashed into his forehead.
  The rebels stripped Monsarrat of his possessions and dragged him, bleeding and unconscious, to the platform. Blessed ripped off his shirt and wiped the blood from his swollen face. He held the picture next to him and chortled. The rebels carried him to the chapel, laid him on a pew, and bound his hands to his ankles with thick strands of rope.
  With Monsarrat secured, they lashed the Europeans together with a long rope. A separate rope bound the Asians. They led their captives from the chapel to the boats. In their wake, they half carried, half dragged the semi-conscious Monsarrat. At the berth, they tossed the Europeans over the gunnels into the hull of the first boat. They dumped the Asians into the second RHIB. Innocence supervised the loading of the pilfered goods into the third RIHB. He slapped Monsarrat conscious, pressed the muzzle of AK-47 against his forehead, and barked orders in pidgin. Rebels threw Monsarrat over the gunnel of the third boat, among boxes of food, cases of water and beer, and packages of toilet paper and towels.
  Blessed arrived moments later, pulling a Filipina by her black hair with his right hand. He tossed her into the boat and dropped the photograph onto Monsarrat's chest. "Oyinbo, yuh dun lib' now wit' de nurse wuman."
  In the compound, Blessed forced Monsarrat onto his hands and knees and exchanged his bonds for a leash. Each morning, as the tankers berthed in the Bonny River estuary filled their holds with light, sweet crude, the rebels led him around the compound like an unloved pet. The harsh rope burned his neck and throat, while his hands and knees bled into the muck. At noon, he ate the day's single meal, pounded yam and cassava, from the ground like a Delta dog. At night, he slept inside a rancid thatch hut.
  To keep track of the days, he devised a simple calendar, each morning inserting a bent stalk of straw into a corner of the thatch hut. To keep his mind sharp, he recalled statistics of favorite baseball teams. He pictured the crystalline waters of Hawaiian beaches and New Hampshire mountains spackled with fragrant wildflowers. Telepathically, he urged his boss, Felix Sanhedrin, to launch a rescue mission. Unwilling to depend upon Sanhedrin, he prayed for divine intervention, to rise like Samson in the Temple of Dagon, to rip asunder his rope bonds and smite Blessed with the jawbone of Innocence.
  Only Monsarrat's desires challenged the leadership of Blessed. The Ijaw demanded absolute compliance from the rebels. His initiation into FATA of the teenaged boys and girls stolen from Delta villages began at dawn and ended at dusk in a savage ceremony of rape. Monsarrat, forced to attend the obscene rites, understood why the rebels embraced cruelty like a religion. Inflicting pain onto their victims was retribution. It was a salve for their own sufferings.
  When the European oil companies ransomed their skilled workers, Blessed shook with laughter, but when the governments of the impoverished Asian countries abandoned their citizens, he ranted threats of vengeance. Shortly after the final European departed the compound, he dragged his trophy prisoner to the clearing. The rebel leader placed his thumbs on Monsarrat's cheekbones and his index fingers on his suborbital ridge, then pressed until his eyes bulged. "Obobo canda. Yuh wutch now. Obobo canda dun be gud boy now."
  He passed the leash to a young rebel. She appeared no older than twelve. Her flat, brown eyes were deep holes. They radiated the vacuity of a corpse.
  The dozen remaining captives kneeled in the clearing. Filthy rags gagged their mouths, and the ubiquitous thick ropes bound their wrists and ankles. The thirteenth Asian, the Filipina nurse, sat apart. Blessed strode across the clearing and ripped her stained uniform from her brown body as if peeling skin from a banana. He raped her quickly before his fighters and the condemned Asians, as if the violent act were a chore to finish before lunch. When finished, he spit on his hands and washed himself as the rebels fired their weapons into the air. Naked, the nurse shivered, her arms wrapped modestly around her small body.
  Monsarrat pulled the rope from the hands of the young rebel. He crossed the clearing, removed his tattered shirt, and wrapped it around the Filipina, holding her tightly until Innocence pressed the muzzle of an AK-47 against his temple. "Dis time, oyinbo, yuh live. Nex' time, I kill yuh de'd."
  He yanked the rope tight against Monsarrat's throat and dragged him to the young rebel fighter. He slapped her face with the back of his hand. "Yuh wutch gud now, gurl. Nex' time, yuh nuh watch, I kill yuh."
  Blessed approached the line of captives. The machete in his mammoth hands appeared as inconsequential as a plastic condiment sword, but when he brought the sharp edge of the jungle knife down upon the limbs of the first Asian, arms tumbled and legs sputtered like brown and red Catherine wheels against the iron sun. Monsarrat screamed for Blessed to stop, but the young girl jerked the leash hard against his throat.
  Explosions of AK-47 rounds signaled the approval of the rebels. Blessed passed the bloody machete to his deputy. Innocence moved with a feline grace toward the second Asian and quartered him with an exact series of blows. The rebels again fired their weapons. Blessed passed the jungle knife from one young fighter to the next, applauding as they hacked the remaining Asians to offal.
  When the feral dogs descended upon the piles of flesh and bones, Innocence hauled Monsarrat to join them. He forced him to squat on his haunches. "Oyinbo, yuh dun eat now wit' de dogs."
  Monsarrat pulled at the rope leash until he could gasp a few words. "Go fuck yourself, asshole."
  The rebel deputy gouged a bloody furrow across Monsarrat's left cheek with his long, jagged nails. He ordered the rebels to beat him for his indolence, and they complied with youthful abandon. Monsarrat absorbed the bashing of AK-47 butts against his head and the kicks delivered to his stomach and groin, until he was certain the next strike would stop his heart or explode his head.
  Blessed intervened before the final blow. The FATA leader slung him over his broad shoulder, whispering soothing salves. "Obobo canda. How yuh manage? Obobo canda, suffah man. Obobo canda, sojah man."
  At the hut, he removed the Filipina's rope leash from the stake and dragged her inside. "Nurse wuman yuh dun care fuh muy oyinbo now."
  The first shivering wave of malaria struck Monsarrat not long after the feral dogs dragged off the remains of the Asians. His eyeballs swam in pools of blood, and his internal organs swelled. Anemia weakened him, and jaundice yellowed him. He shook, as if possessed by the trickster Eshu.
  Rosalinda Santiago saved him.
  The Filipina had signed a contract to serve on the rig in the Gulf of Guinea for two years, after graduating at the top of her class from a prestigious Manila nursing school. The company paid more in one month than she could earn in twelve working for a Manila hospital, and as the eldest child of her family, she bore the responsibility of caring for her aged parents and younger siblings. In her mid-twenties, she stood five feet tall and wore a silver Saint Agatha medal around her neck. Her black hair was thick. Her brown eyes were shaped like almonds. Her nose was flat, and her lips curled upwards, as if she were considering a particularly nasty joke. She spoke with a strong Batangas accent.
  Blessed brought small bottles of tonic water to break Monsarrat's fevers, their yellow labels the color of his skin. He crooned and pried open his jaws.
  Rosalinda stopped him. In her sing-song accent, she addressed the FATA leader like a recalcitrant child. "He needs real medicine, not bubbly water, you fool. Do you want him to die?"
  He threw her against the thatch wall. "Nurse wuman, yuh nuh tawk, yuh dun care fuh muy oyinbo."
  Undaunted, she demanded, "Give me paper and a pencil."
  When the writing instruments arrived, she listed a dozen items in her bold penmanship. "I don't care if you can't read. Take this list to a pharmacy in Port Harcourt. Bring me the medicines immediately, or this man will die before the sun sets tomorrow."
  In the night, old women from Delta villages entered the hut to bath the foul secretions from Monsarrat's body with viscous water. Like withered crows, they muttered imprecations in a cackling patois of sorcery.
  Rosalinda chased them away and yelled for Blessed. "Keep those witches away from him, and bring me the medicines!"
  In reply, he knocked her to the ground and stormed from the hut. He returned before dawn the next morning with a brightly colored plastic bag from a Port Harcourt pharmacy. "Yuh dun kill suffa man, nurse wuman, I dun kill yuh."
  The bond between the two captives grew stronger as Rosalinda nursed him through the bout of malaria and healed him after his beatings at the hands of Blessed and Innocence. For his part, Monsarrat protected the Filipina with a ferocity rivaling a father's defense of his daughter. Nights, when she sobbed as if the deluge of her tears could create a flood to carry her home, he comforted her with false promises. Until the morning of his rescue, when Blessed dragged him to the clearing while Innocence bound her wrists and ankles to a pipe outside the thatch hut with lengths of rope.
  Palmer watched the door of the Suburban close behind the unresisting Monsarrat. He signaled for his shooters to return to their vehicles, and, in reverse order from their arrival, the drivers broke the circle and drove toward the compound's exit.
  Settled again inside the second Suburban, Sanhedrin patted Palmer on the knee with an avuncular familiarity. "I hope we have the opportunity to cooperate again."
  Ignored by the rebels, the convoy passed the crude, log barricade and turned away from the river. Deep in the Delta jungle, smoke from cooking fires rose in curlicues. Palmer glanced at his watch. "Twenty minutes until the airfield."
  "You and your boys did outstanding work this morning."
"I'm happy Monsarrat is a free man again."
Like most very successful, highly egocentric men, Sanhedrin viewed the world through the filter of his own disdain. "Of course, you'll be even happier when the second half of my payment arrives in your bank account tomorrow morning."
  During his military career, Palmer had served under commanding officers as calloused as old warts, but had never met a man like the one seated next to him. "Monsarrat called you Felix. More than once."
  "What's that, Mark?"
  "When Monsarrat said that he wouldn't leave without the nurse, he called you Felix. Not Fineghan."
  "Perhaps you misheard?"
"Not much chance of that."
"Maybe Monsarrat misspoke. He is, after all, delirious."
Palmer snapped his words like a whip. "Of course, Fineghan.
  He's delirious."
"Of course," Sanhedrin agreed.
Three miles to the west, in a circular clearing beneath the canopy, six shooters protected two Blackhawks marked by large, red crosses against white backgrounds and the livery of the oil services company. The rotors beat angry clouds of jungle dirt. The medical team ferried Monsarrat from the Suburban to the helicopters, and the crew hoisted him into the hold of the lead dustoff. Sanhedrin, Palmer, a doctor, and two nurses joined him, while the six shooters mounted the second Blackhawk.
  Sanhedrin sat in a webbed seat. He secured the four-point safety harness and inserted an orange and green foam plug into each ear. "You oil wallahs live well on the plantation, Mark. You have the best toys money can buy."
  The lead pilot waited for the Suburbans to depart the clearing, then lifted the Blackhawk, nose downward, from the ground. The vibration of the airframe shook Monsarrat awake. His eyes focused upon a nurse with a smile as starched as her uniform. He flashed the victory sign. When he tried to speak, his voice croaked. "Am I going home?"
  She bent to hear him better as she cleaned his wounded hands and dabbed salve onto the rope burns. "All the way to Virginia, dearest."
  "Rosalinda, too?"
  Her voice sounded faint and willowy to Monsarrat, as if carried beyond the penumbra of his hearing by a slow breeze. He reached for her words, but they slipped through his fingers, and he slept again.
  At the private airfield, Palmer delivered his promise of an uncomplicated departure. The Blackhawks touched down at the far end of the runway, near a Gulfstream 650 marked by livery identical to the helicopters. "Your people in Virginia will remove Monsarrat from the plane and fuss with the feds. My people will refuel and return home."
  They shook hands. "Should I be surprised if we run into each other again?"
  "Like you said, Mark, it's a small world," Sanhedrin answered.
  Returned to the United States and the embrace of twenty-first century medical care, Monsarrat's body slowly recovered from the Delta ordeal, although he could not vouch for his mind. Toward the end of his recuperation in Virginia's horse country, the Agency sent Felix Sanhedrin to him.
  He wore a gold cotton turtleneck and a silk Nehru jacket the color of a tropical sunset. His summer wool slacks were sharply creased. Birkenstock sandals adorned his feet. A bejeweled medallion on a sterling silver chain rested above his breastbone. "The Mandarins salute you and greet you," he began. He might have been addressing Rome's senators from the steps of the Forum. "They appreciate your sacrifices and offer you whatever assignment you choose, within reason, of course. Specifically, after your recuperation, you can remain at Langley with full honors and ride a desk, or you can continue your oil analyst cover and return to the field. Africa, the Persian Gulf, Russia, South America, it's your choice."
  Monsarrat admired Sanhedrin's equanimity as much as his courage in couture, but he countered with a third option. "Thank the Mandarins for me, Felix, but tell them I choose retirement. I want a full pension and a generous medical disability."
  "You sure, old buddy? You could ride this incident all the way into the senior ranks of the Agency."
  "I want a new career, too. Something stimulating but not at all dangerous."
  "Anything specific, Nathan?"
  Monsarrat felt the pressure swell behind his eyes, as it often did when speaking with his boss. "I'll get back to you."
  Before departing, Sanhedrin tapped Monsarrat's cheek. "It's healing nicely, Nathan. Very distinguished, like you fought a duel to protect the honor of a young maiden."
  More pleasant were the Saturday visits of Abigail Houghton, office colleague and secretary to Felix Sanhedrin. Monsarrat had long considered Abby a fellow conspirator against the machinations of their mutual boss, but during his recovery in the Virginia countryside, their relationship evolved from colleagues to friends and, with the blessings of the medical staff, to lovers. He chose Abby as his Beatrice, and he confessed his guilt at abandoning Rosalinda in the Delta to her.
  Two years younger and six inches shorter than Monsarrat, her sharp cheekbones and the slight tilt of her eyes proclaimed her Tartar heritage. Her cornflower eyes radiated energy. Deep dimples accented her peaches-and-cream complexion, and her brilliant smile exploded white between her lush, red lips. She wore her blonde hair in a plait that fell between her shoulder blades. Tennis sculpted her body with hard muscles. She had been married for ten months to a Kiowa pilot, whose bird had gone down in a sandstorm fifteen miles from Ali Al Saleem Air Base, the tent stippled, arid rock north of Kuwait City that had served as the gateway to the wars in Iraq. She no longer wore her wedding band.
  "Felix thinks you should stay with the Agency," she stated.
  "Felix needs someone to empty his inbox, even from halfway around the world," he replied. "He's too busy climbing the ladder of success to take care of business."
  "He says you have a bright future with the Agency."
"Working with Felix, my future has a very short shelf life." "You could work for someone else, in another office."
His head ached. "I want out, Abby. I want my life back."
"I'm going to miss you, Nathan."
Monsarrat had always relied on his paranoia to illuminate the
  right path. In the Virginia countryside, he discovered inspiration. "Quit the Agency and come with me, Abby. We could move somewhere warm. No more winters. No more traffic jams. We'll play tennis year-round."
  She stroked his face. Her cool fingers lingered on his furrowed cheek. "I believe you're feverish, baby. You can't leave the Agency. Langley is in your blood."
  He closed his eyes and felt his head sink into the soft pillow. "If I stay with the Agency, my blood's going to end up all over the walls of some foreign shithole."
  "Sleep, baby. You're just tired."
  The following week, the Mandarins once more dispatched Sanhedrin to the Virginia horse country. He wore a white Oxford shirt open at the neck, a double-breasted, navy-blue blazer, grey slacks, and cordovan penny loafers without socks. He oozed modesty. "For your retirement package, Nathan, I've arranged a position in the oil industry. Ridiculous salary, generous expense account, first-class travel, exotic hookers."
  Monsarrat didn't trust his former employers. Most of all, he suspected Sanhedrin guilty of deceit, the greatest of the Agency's multitude of venial and mortal sins. He didn't want to be coerced into performing his patriotic duty a few years down the road. "I want something collegiate, Felix. A university professor. Maybe economics. Or political science. Nothing esoteric."
  "No can do, old buddy. You don't possess the academic skill set to fulfill the role."
  Most of Monsarrat's strength had returned. He felt ready to spar with his soon-to-be former boss. "You're the magician. You can do it."
  Sanhedrin patted his hand. "I'll look into it, Nathan."
  Monsarrat grabbed his bony wrist. "I want you to tell me what happened to Rosalinda."
  Sanhedrin shirked physical contact. He tried to free his hand, but Monsarrat held him tightly. "Who's Rosalinda, old buddy?"
  Monsarrat squeezed harder. "You promised me in the Delta that you'd get her away from Blessed and his psychopaths."
  Sanhedrin tapped Monsarrat's hand. "I have no recollection of that conversation, old buddy. Perhaps you imagined it? After all, you were feverish."
  Monsarrat pulled him closer. "I would have been dead if she hadn't taken care of me. You have to ransom her. I'll pay."
  "Tell me again, Nathan. Who is she?"
  Monsarrat released him. Sanhedrin upset was less likely to be helpful than Sanhedrin happy. "Her name is Rosalinda Santiago. She was the nurse on the oil rig. She kept me alive in the Delta. I can't abandon her, Felix. I owe her."
  "I understand, old buddy. It's a point of honor." He rubbed his hand. "I'll see what I can find out."
  "You have to move fast. She won't last much longer, not as a prisoner of FATA."
  "I'll see what I can do, old buddy."
  The following day Sanhedrin wore a grey suit with pinstripes. The gold chain of a watch fob stretched across his vest. "I asked a contact in Malacañan Palace to look into your nurse. I'm afraid he gave me some unpleasant news."
  Monsarrat felt his chest constrict. "Tell it, Felix."
  "Manila has written off all the Filipinos on the oil rig, including your friend, Rosalinda."
  "Easier for Manila to claim she's dead than to push for her release," Monsarrat grumbled. "Is there proof?"
  Sanhedrin was a master in question avoidance. "I asked my contact at our embassy in Abuja to investigate. He'll get back to me soon."
  "Pressure him. You know what our pen pushers are like when they go overseas."
  "You need to be patient, old buddy."
  "Don't lecture me on patience, Felix. I spent eighteen weeks with those sadistic FATA sons of bitches. One hundred and twenty-six days on my hands and knees in the Delta, while you attended diplomatic receptions in Georgetown."
  "Negotiating with illiterate freedom fighters offers unique challenges," Sanhedrin stated. He passed Monsarrat a blue plastic folder. "Now for some happier developments, old buddy. Felix has come through for you yet again. Sign on the dotted line. I have to admit, I'll miss working with you."
  Monsarrat suspected he would hear from him as soon as he needed a favor. "Seriously, Felix? You can't do better than Greylock College? It's a second-tier liberal arts college in the middle of the Berkshires."
  Sanhedrin shrugged. "The oil job is still open, old buddy."
  Monsarrat scribbled his signature across dotted lines and joined the administrative ranks of Greylock College as Dean of Undergraduate Studies, a still-young man who suffered from headaches, depression, malaria, and guilt.
  Weeks later, on the morning of the Columbus Day holiday, he left a sleeping Abby to meet Sanhedrin in a Dupont Circle café. Autumn had arrived in the District of Columbia. He wore a sweatshirt from the college. Sanhedrin sported a tweed jacket with elbow patches and a tartan deerstalker. They sat at a table by a window in the rear of the café that afforded both a clear view of the entrance.
  Sanhedrin appeared rueful, but his manner was ruthless. "My contact in Abuja went the extra mile and kidnapped one of the FATA rebels. As soon as the black hood dropped over his head, the little punk pissed his pants. Then he started talking."
  Monsarrat sipped his coffee. "Don't sugar coat it, Felix."
  "Blessed killed Rosalinda fifteen minutes after the convoy departed the compound. I'm sorry about the sad news, old buddy, but at least you have closure."
  The report confirmed Monsarrat's worst fears. "You're confident the intel's accurate? Your contact isn't trying to get you off his back?"
  Sanhedrin tasked. "You haven't been gone that long, Nathan. Even the probationers at the Farm know better than to feed me bullshit."
  He pressed his fingers against his forehead, as if his head ached, to prevent Sanhedrin from noticing the liquid welling in the eyes. He remembered the Filipina's courage and her despair, her loyalty and her loneliness. He remembered her rape and how she kept him alive in the Delta. "I should've taken her with me."
  Sanhedrin spoke as if admonishing a slow staffer. "You were my mandate. No one else. You know it's how we work."
  His fist banged against the table. "It's not how I work. She saved my life, and I deserted her. I'm no better than you."
  Sanhedrin stood and picked up the tartan deerstalker. "I respect your pain, old buddy, but don't bite the hand that pulled you out of the Delta. Make your peace. Move on."
  Only the passage of time, aided by Abby's ministrations, lessened the weight of his guilt. As he trained himself to relax, he came to appreciate the tolerance of the college and learned to accept his neighbors, colleagues, and students. Like a burn victim accepting a graft of skin, he gradually adapted to the persona of Dean Monsarrat. Yet, he could shed his remorse no easier than a lapsed Catholic could relinquish his catechism.

— ♦ —

M. A. Richards
Photo provided courtesy of
M. A. Richards

Born in Lowell, Massachusetts, M. A. Richards received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Theater Studies from Connecticut College and his Master of Arts degree in English from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

During a career as a Cultural Attaché in the Department of State that spanned more than two decades, he served in Baghdad, Jerusalem, Lagos, Moscow, Seoul, Tel Aviv, and Washington, D.C. He also served at U.S. Pacific Command in Honolulu as the Special Advisor to the Commander. He speaks Arabic, Hebrew, Korean, and Russian.

M. A. divides his time between Palm Beach and Tel Aviv, where he indulges his passions for motorcycles, photography, and archaeology.

For more information about the author, please visit his website at and his author page on Goodreads, or find him on Facebook and Twitter.

— ♦ —

Choice of Enemies by M. A. Richards

Choice of Enemies by M. A. Richards

A Nathan Monsarrat Thriller

Publisher: Sunbury Press Print/Kindle Format(s) Print/Nook Format(s)

Light sweet crude is the mother's milk of the Niger Delta. As the price for each barrel of oil rises on the international markets and the stakes for securing the black gold increase, a consortium of American oil companies and the Central Intelligence Agency plot to secure the flow of the crude. In Africa, though, plans unravel as quickly as cheap socks, and promises between partners have the lifespan of a mayfly.

Nathan, now a Dean at a small college in Massachusetts, is visited by his former mentor at the Agency, who offers him a blunt choice: either travel to the Dark Continent to lay the groundwork for the coup d'état, or condemn the woman who saved his life to a brutal execution. Out of options, he returns to Africa, where he discovers that the Agency plans to reward his services with an oil-soaked grave.

Assisted by a coterie of new and old allies, including a beautiful vor with a thirst for power and a yeshiva bocher with a fondness for Armani suits, as well as his own sharp intelligence, considerable wit, and substantial charm, Nathan parries the Agency, circumvents the consortium, and exacts his own vengeance. In doing so, he learns that his choice of friends is as important as his choice of enemies.

Choice of Enemies by M. A. Richards. Click here to take a Look Inside the book.


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