Poisoned Kisses

By: Stephanie Draven

Africa was a furnace, even at this higher altitude. A little bit of hell on earth. A cluster of gun-wielding boys dressed in camouflage marked the entrance to the stronghold on the road up ahead. They were playing some kind of game with rum and matches and Marco growled. “How many times do I have to tell him that they’re just little kids?”

“They’re little killers,” Benji muttered under his breath. “And the general doesn’t listen to anyone anymore. I tell you, the devil is in him. He’s become the devil!”

When Benji was just a teenager, Marco had rescued him from a diamond mine in Sierra Leone. Since then, the kid had helped Marco steal more guns than either of them could count, but Marco had never asked him to fight. Even so, Marco felt defensive. “The general means well. These orphaned boys have nowhere else to go. At least if they serve in his army, they get fed.” It was a sad and all-too-familiar story in this part of the world. But giving children guns and calling them soldiers was evil, and Marco knew it.

Benji knew it, too. Parking the vehicle, he muttered, “Think what you want, Chief, but he’s the devil.”

The encampment was a primitive mountain fortress surrounding grass-roofed huts. Even so, with the weapons Marco supplied them, these rebels held their own against the Hutu militiamen—and sometimes even the government. Wearing green camo and military boots polished to a mirror shine, the general approached Marco sporting a brass-tipped baton. A pack of dogs barked at his heels and all his boy soldiers saluted as he passed. His ebony face warmed with a smile of greeting. “Ahh, the Great Northern Warlord has arrived!”

Marco’s old friend seemed leaner, gaunter, with a hint more mania in his eyes, but the two men embraced like comrades. They’d been together in Rwanda and seen the horrors of genocide. Now it was an obsession for both of them.

“What did you bring for me this time?” the general asked.

“Ammunition.” Marco motioned toward the crates of bullets being unloaded. “We’ll parachute the weapons in, but…your soldiers are too damned young.”

The general waved away Marco’s concern with his baton. “I know it displeases you, my friend, but what can be done? We’ll talk business later. First we drink!”

In the general’s hut, they sat on patio chairs. Marco almost took a cigarette until he remembered his close encounter with an angel of death. She’d challenged him to quit and he’d said he would. For some reason—maybe because of what he was sure his blood had done to her—it was an unspoken promise he felt compelled to keep. “I’ll take a beer instead.”

“I stole this from Hutu militiamen,” the general bragged, handing Marco a bottle. “It is good, no?”

Marco took several gulps before asking, “What happened to the militiamen?”

“You don’t want to know what happened to them.” There was an awkward silence. Then the general leaned forward. “Benji, your boss is from this place of mists and rainbows…this Niagara Falls, where everything is soft and covered with dew. He sometimes forgets what life is like in Congo. He forgets what it is to fight for survival in Africa, what it is to make war. But we know, don’t we?” Benji looked as if he might crawl out of his skin. “He is scared of me.” The general chuckled, poking Benji with the end of his baton. “Boo!”

Marco flexed his bandaged hand. “Leave him alone.”

The general smiled enigmatically and blew a ring of smoke. “Have you never told your boy here how we met?”

Marco wasn’t much for show-and-tell when it came to his employees, but the general was intent on telling tales. He pulled an old photograph from his pocket, where it must have been positioned for just this occasion. “Ahh, Benji! You see that soldier in the picture, so proud under his blue beret? That was your boss, upright as a Mountie. In those days, Marco even kept a letter from his betrothed for luck.”

Benji stared, amazed, though whether it was at the idea Marco had once been a UN peacekeeper or that he’d once been engaged, Marco couldn’t tell. “And do you see that skinny black man standing next to him in the picture?” the general asked. “That is me. I was a teacher then, and twenty little Tutsi children came to my school to learn. The Hutus swore they would kill us all. But Marco promised he would keep my students safe.”

Marco stood abruptly, nearly tipping his chair in the process. Several beer bottles clinked together and fell at his feet. “That’s enough reminiscing. I need to find a bed.”

Marco hadn’t had to feign exhaustion; he hadn’t slept since the night the woman attacked him in Naples. And now he couldn’t stop thinking of her. That night, he’d just learned about his father’s prognosis; the knife-wielding vixen had taken advantage of a weak moment, his yearning for an easy connection. He remembered the feel of her under his hands, the way she gave back as good as she got. She’d been perfect, crafted for sex. It made him break into a sweat just to remember.