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Lords of Corruption Excerpt from Lords of Corruption

by Kyle Mills


After four hours of rutted dirt, military roadblocks, and fetid mud bogs, the landscape around Dan Ordman had completely transformed. The jagged, grass-covered hills that made up his world had been replaced by dense jungle rolling into a reddening horizon. Although he'd lived in Africa for almost a year, this was the first time he'd seen the rain forest, smelled the damp rot, listened to the birds and monkeys just out of sight. There was something about it that made him nervous. Probably just the fact that, until now, he'd never been more than twenty miles from the comfortable expatriate community that he'd wrapped himself in. Or maybe it was something more primordial.
"It's going to get dark on us."

Gideon maneuvered the Land Cruiser around a tree that had sprung up in the middle of the road and glanced at Dan. Or more precisely, he aimed his mirrored sunglasses briefly in Dan's direction. Gideon didn't interact with people in the accepted sense of the word. It was always strangely one-sided -- what he wanted you to know, what he was willing to do for you, what he had time for. What he cared about.

The first time they'd met, Dan had decided the African looked more like a sculpture by an amateur artist than the product of God or evolution -- a little too tall, muscles a little too well-defined, and a slack face with blank eyes. Not the friendly, capable right-hand man Dan had envisioned from his parents' sprawling oceanfront estate. But he'd come here to learn, and his first lesson had been that reality rarely lived up to fantasy. Life was about figuring out how to bridge that gap.

"It's not far," Gideon repeated for probably the tenth time. "And it's cooler at night." There was a stirring behind them, and Dan twisted around to look at the four kids crammed into the vehicle's backseat. The youngest was probably twelve, and his haphazardly nourished frame was dwarfed by the Russian machine gun clutched between his knees. They were all dressed about the same: dirty jeans topped by ragged T-shirts silk-screened with the otherworldly images favored by the local teens. Cartoon characters frolicked, distant sports teams competed, British bands crooned. One had the slogan "I wish these were brains" configured in a way that suggested the shirt had been designed for a well-endowed woman.

Dan settled back in his seat, feeling a dull rush of adrenaline when the sun hit the horizon. Evil spirits came out at night. At least that was what he'd been told, and he had no reason to dispute the idea. Africa changed after sunset. Its normal chaos and dysfunction turned dangerous, malevolent. Wasn't Africa where humans had first developed their fear of the dark?

Gideon jerked the wheel to the right and slammed on the brakes, skidding to a stop in a maneuver typical in this part of the world. Behind the wheel of a car, Africans acted as though everything was a desperate emergency. Out from behind the wheel, they acted as though nothing was.

"What? Don't tell me this is it?" Dan said.

Gideon nodded and stepped from the car, followed by the well-armed children in the back. Their silence had been replaced by excited chattering in the native language that was as incomprehensible to Dan now as it had been the day he'd arrived. Instead of fanning out to look for rebels, as was apparently their function, they milled around the vehicle fiddling with their weapons.

Dan jammed his fist against the stubborn door and jumped out, anxious to do what he had to do and get back behind the concrete walls and iron gates of the compound. Everyone would be hanging around the pool by now, watching the sunset and settling into happy hour.

"You've got to be kidding, Gideon. There's nothing here. Do you have any idea what it would take to clear all this out for farmland?" Dan raised a sweat-drenched arm, pointing to the front of the vehicle where bugs were swaying like smoke in the headlight beams. "And what about those?"

He'd read somewhere that malaria may have killed half the people who had ever lived. Another thing he had no reason to dispute.

"This isn't America,"Gideon said. "This is our land. Our home. It is the way it is."

Africans were resigned to the fact that everything on their continent was trying to kill them, but Dan saw no reason to tempt fate. "Look, I didn't mean any offense, okay? But we're already working fourteen hours a day, and we're barely keeping our heads above water as it is."

Gideon started walking, and Dan hurried to keep up. The African seemed to be searching for a break in the jungle, though it was a miracle he could see anything through the shades he never took off.

"What about rebels?" Dan continued. "This area is right on the edge of what the government controls, isn't it? We could get -- "

"President Mtiti controls all of his country," Gideon said, a hint of anger audible in his voice. Behind them, Force Peewee went momentarily silent at the name of their fearless leader.

"Of course the president is a great man," Dan said, impressing even himself with the false reverence in his tone. Despite what most of the rest of the world thought, Umboto Mtiti was a worldclass scumbag.

The bugs, attracted by light and body heat, began to swarm, and Dan started back toward the Land Cruiser, swatting uselessly at them. "Fine, I've seen it. I'll call tomorrow and see what the hell we're supposed to do with it. But I think we both know this is bullshit."

Gideon didn't respond. He'd never been particularly warm or chatty, but tonight he was verging on creepy. Dan had tried hard to like him, constantly scolding himself for racism whenever Gideon's attitude or personality pissed him off, but tonight he didn't care. Racism or not, he was ready to get the hell back to what passed for civilization.

He pulled open the passenger door and then paused when no one made a move to follow. "Ready?"

Gideon walked around the back and opened the hatch. The kids watched with poorly concealed excitement. Their T-shirts and eyes glowed in what was left of the sun, as did the machete now hanging loosely from Gideon's hand.

Despite his background -- a childhood in a neighborhood gated against nothing, prep school, an Ivy League degree -- Dan understood immediately what was happening.

There was a gleeful chorus when he ran, quickly drowned out by the wet slapping of leaves against his skin and his own breathing as he entered the jungle.

He'd never been an athlete, but a year working outside in Africa, combined with a volume of adrenaline he'd never known he had, kept him moving forward, ignoring unseen branches as they cut his skin, stumbling over unseen obstacles, and constantly adjusting his trajectory away from the bursts of gunfire that rang out every few seconds.

He had no concept of how long it took, but he finally couldn't get enough air, and the obstructions he had managed to clear before became insurmountable. Soon even fear took too much energy, and his mind fixated on the mundane things that he would never do. He'd never get married, never have children. Never own a home or get the "real job" his father had insisted on.

The side of the tree next to him exploded as a bullet struck, sending wooden shrapnel into his cheek and eye. He slapped a hand to his face, unable to tell the difference between blood and sweat, and felt the fear flare again. He stumbled forward, fatigue and lack of depth perception causing him to hit the ground every few steps. The laughter of children got louder as he vomited, but it didn't seem to be getting closer. Maybe they'd become disoriented by the dense foliage and semidarkness, too.

He could make it. He just had to keep going. The farther he went, the more he would become a needle in thousands of square miles of haystack.

He slowed his pace, moving more carefully than he had before. The pain in his eye continued to intensify, but he ignored it, controlling his breathing and avoiding falling again. He couldn't afford the noise, and a twisted ankle would almost certainly be fatal.

The jungle's edge was completely invisible until he burst across it and found himself standing in the road again. The Land Cruiser's lights were off, but its outline and the outline of Gideon holding his machete were visible in the waning light. The voices of the kids behind him grew louder, and a moment later they appeared, still laughing and chattering, pumping their fists in the air at their success. They'd flushed him into the open like some stupid animal.

There was no way to escape. He could barely put one foot in front of the other, and Gideon had just been standing there, waiting for him. The kids fanned out, creating a corridor that Gideon began walking slowly through.

Dan had never imagined his own death, or even thought about it, really. At twenty-six, it seemed so remote. So theoretical. But now he was overcome by a deep sadness. Tears welled up in his uninjured eye while the other continued to leak blood through the tightly closed lid. What was he doing so far from his own life, from the family he'd never see again? What had he hoped to accomplish? Anything? Or had it all been a game to him?

Gideon was in front of him now, his face erased by the darkness. It didn't matter, though. There wouldn't be anything there to talk to, to plead with. Still, he felt he should say something.

"I thought I could help."

Gideon just raised the machete.

The above is an excerpt from the book Lords of Corruption by Kyle Mills. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.

Copyright © 2009 Kyle Mills, author of Lords of Corruption