Thriller Thursdays: AFRICAN ICE
December 15, 2011 1 Comment
‘Blood diamond’ was a term long before Leonardo DiCaprio’s 2006 political thriller popularized it. Blood diamonds, or conflict diamonds, exist in large quantities in African war zones and are sold to finance guerrilla groups and warlords. This practice has inflicted horrors upon African peoples since the 1990s and continues to be a source of violence today.
Jeff Buick’s African Ice reveals the dangers of conflict diamonds in this fast-paced action adventure that moves through the steaming jungles of the Congo, the dirty streets of Cairo and the well-heeled hallways of De Beers. A beautiful geologist and a Navy SEAL are brought together to find a stash of diamonds buried somewhere in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but instead they’ll discover deception, murder, and injustice every stop along the way.
Enjoy this preview of African Ice, and remember, sometimes diamonds can be deadly.
Springtime in New York City.
The promise of summer just around the corner. Winter laid to rest for another year. For Samantha Carlson, spring meant New York at its ﬁnest. Trees sprouting green, their new leaves softening the harsh lines of the apartment and ofﬁce buildings that surrounded Central Park. And the early-morning smells. Pretzels, freshly brewed coffee, and dough rising in the bakeries. And with the longer days came mild temperatures. When the mercury rose to a sensible level, Samantha dug her jogging shoes out and brought them back into active duty. Today was day one of the new year.
She entered Central Park from East Sixtieth Street and began to run—slowly at ﬁrst, her long blond hair swaying in the breeze—then faster as she settled into a rhythm. She had the park mostly to herself, with only a few other intrepid souls braving the early-morning chill. She checked her watch as she ran—six minutes after ﬁve. Her breath misted as she exhaled, then disappeared behind her. She kept an even pace for the better part of twenty minutes.
She rounded the pond and cut north until she hit the Transverse. Then east toward the park boundary. She picked up the pace as Fifth Avenue came into view, and then slowed to a marginal jog as she hit the sidewalk. By the time Samantha reached her apartment building on East Sixty-third, she was breathing normally. The doorman eased the door open as she approached. She slid effortlessly through, and made for the elevators.
“Morning, Miss Carlson,” the building employee said as she passed.
She turned, still moving. “Ernie, I keep telling you, it’s Samantha.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He smiled. They had had this same conversation at least two hundred times. There was no way he would ever call her by her ﬁrst name. They both knew it. She disappeared into the elevator, and he looked back to the empty street.
The elevator slid open on the eighteenth ﬂoor, and Sam exited into the deserted hallway. Her apartment was the third on the left. She unlocked the door and let herself in. She added a bit more hot water to her shower than usual, to take off the chill from her jog. Twenty minutes later, she emerged from the bathroom, housecoat on, hair wrapped in a white towel. She stared at the telephone for a moment, then checked her watch.
Six twenty-four, and her voice-mail light was ﬂashing. Someone had called while she was in the shower. Early for a call, she thought. She punched in her code and hit the speakerphone button. A baritone voice enveloped the room.
“This is Patrick Kerrigan calling for Samantha Carlson. Please call me at my ofﬁce when you get this message. The number is—”
She grabbed a notepad from the end table and jotted down the number. It was local, somewhere in Manhattan. She considered calling it immediately, to see if he was actually up and at work yet, then changed her mind. The coffee was brewed, and Samantha settled into her favorite couch with the daily Times. She skimmed the headlines, then ﬂipped to the business section. The Dow-Jones was up, the Nasdaq was up, but the American dollar was down against the euro. She shrugged, and wondered why she bothered; economics bafﬂed her.
She ﬁnished her coffee and stretched. Across the room, a bank of glass overlooked Central Park. She lifted herself off the couch, moved to the windows, slid open the door, and walked out onto the balcony. The view was awesome. She found herself thinking about where she was in her life. For some reason, staring out over the park was a catalyst that triggered memories, and the balcony had become her place for quiet reﬂection. At thirty-two years old, she held a doctorate in geology—a piece of paper she had used to carve out a remarkable career. Her exploits in some of the most dangerous countries on the planet had earned her the reputation as the female Indiana Jones of the Geological Society. She was no stranger to the ice ﬂoes of the Canadian arctic or the steaming rain forests that bordered the Amazon River. Her trips to Africa were too many and too varied to remember. The newspapers and television stations were quick to run a story if it involved Samantha Carlson hunting down a new geological ﬁnd. She was attractive, athletic, intelligent and accomplished. She was newsworthy.
Her love-hate relationship with the media had started three years ago, when she had discovered a new anticline loaded with oil in northern Texas. The skeptics insisted that the area had been exploited and a large ﬁnd was impossible. She had responded by throwing the algorithm for her computer program on the table, and letting it go public. The program, she contended, was the crux of her discovery. It allowed the previously unnoticed bulge to be seen through geophysics. She recommended they punch an eight-thousand-foot hole in the ground, and they did.
The anomaly gave way to three million barrels of light Texas crude. Two million dollars to drill the well and almost two hundred million in return. The bonus they had lavished on her had paid for half the penthouse in which she now stood. She winced as she thought about where the other half had come from.
Her parents’ estate. It was almost two years to the day since their plane had crashed into the sea just after liftoff from Casablanca. They had been en route to London, to meet her and spend a week traveling through Europe. The news had devastated her. Her mother and father had been young, in their early ﬁfties, and in excellent health. She had never entertained the thought that they wouldn’t be there, and the void their deaths left was still unﬁlled. Her mind relived the memorial service, and once the all-too-familiar tape played through, she let it go.
She’d tried to stop the images for the ﬁrst year, but her subconscious was too strong. The sight of the two cofﬁns, side by side, being lowered into the ground was indelibly etched into her mind. She watched as the two handfuls of dirt left her hand and splayed across the tops of the cofﬁns as they sat beneath ground level. Empty caskets, lined with a few trinkets and pictures of her with her parents, their bodies never found. She closed her eyes and the picture stopped.
Samantha opened her eyes, feeling the wet tears, and blinked away the moisture. The park was blurry for a few moments, then it came back into focus. She turned away and reentered the apartment.
The coffee was still reasonably fresh, and she poured one more cup. She sat on the edge of the couch and looked at the number she had taken from her voice mail. She picked up the phone and dialed.
“Good morning, Gem-Star,” a pleasant voice answered.
“Good morning. Could you put me through to Patrick Kerrigan, please?”
“Certainly. Whom should I say is calling?”
The line switched over to Muzak for a few moments, then Kerrigan’s unmistakable baritone voice came on. “Ms. Carlson, thank you for returning my call.”
“No problem, Mr. Kerrigan. Except that I have no idea who you are, or what you may want with me.”
“That’s understandable, Ms. Carlson. Have you heard of Gem-Star?”
“No, can’t say I have.”
“We’re a mining company, specializing in gemstones. Diamonds, rubies, sapphires, that kind of thing. And we need a geologist. Would you be interested in meeting with us?”
Sam Carlson took a moment before answering. She was currently without a contract, but ﬁnancially, she didn’t need to work another day in her life. Then again, not working was boring. “It depends on what you’re offering, Mr. Kerrigan,” she replied.
“Our ofﬁces are in Manhattan. And I’d rather not discuss it over the phone, if you’d like to drop by. Shall we say, one-thirty this afternoon?”
At precisely one-twenty, Samantha Carlson stepped off the elevator onto the sixty-third ﬂoor of Gem-Star’s building, and into a world of opulence. Cultured Italian marble tiles graced the ﬂoors, and original oils hung throughout the foyer of the multinational company. Comfortable leather chairs and couches paired with teak tables furnished the room. The tones were muted teal, and a small waterfall tucked into a feature wall gurgled as the water softly fell onto the rocks.
Sam Carlson took it all in, and stopped at the rocks in the waterfall. She moved closer and almost gasped. Embedded in the stone were small greenish rocks—uncut diamonds. She bent over, admiring the naturalness of the display. A voice drifted over to her from behind, and she turned to face the speaker.
It was a man in his early ﬁfties, and of obvious wealth. His hair was well groomed and dark, with a slight graying about the temples. She wondered if the gray was natural or dyed for the effect. His suit was Armani, his tie silk. But it was the charismatic air about the man that told the uneducated of his position in society.
“You must be Samantha Carlson,” he was saying. “Only a geologist would see more than some drab rocks and a waterfall.”
“You mean the diamonds?” she asked, and he nodded. She extended her hand and he shook it. His grip was ﬁrm, but she caught the slight twitch in his eye as he felt the strength in her grip. That happened a lot. Between the gym and working in the ﬁeld, she had extreme upper-body strength for her size and gender.
“I’m Patrick Kerrigan.” He smiled and motioned past the reception desk toward the hallway. She followed him as he started into the labyrinth of ofﬁces.
“Do you always meet your appointments in the lobby?” she asked, curious.
“Almost never,” he responded, and waved her into a corner ofﬁce, shutting the door behind them.“But your reputation precedes you. Plus”—he smiled—“I just happened to be walking by the reception area when you arrived. Please, sit down.” He pointed to a cluster of wing-back chairs by the windows. As she moved toward them, she noticed the top of a head barely protruding above the back of the nearest chair. She came alongside the chair, and a man rose to greet her.
“Samantha Carlson, this is Travis McNeil. Travis, Samantha.” Carlson made the introductions, and the two strangers shook hands. “He’s involved in our latest venture—the one for which we’d like to have you as geologist. I’m getting ahead of myself, Ms. Carlson. Please make yourself comfortable, and I’ll start from the beginning.”
An employee carrying a tray with light snacks and drinks entered from another door. Samantha took the opportunity to study Kerrigan’s ofﬁce, as he looked over the tray. It was a man’s ofﬁce—heavy in texture and style. The ﬂoors were hardwood, with Persian rugs thrown about almost randomly. Numerous statues and large carvings dominated the furnishings. It was an eclectic mixture, and very worldly. She was impressed.
“You like my collection?” Kerrigan caught her surveying the room. She nodded. “I brought back one souvenir from each country I traveled to. Currently, there are one hundred thirty-three different ﬁgures in this room, some of them priceless, some of them quite worthless.”
“It’s quite the collection, Mr. Kerrigan. I especially like the trinket you retrieved from Kenya.” She stole a quick glance at the ivory statue tucked back in a far corner. “I’m sure that came out before the ban went on.”
Patrick Kerrigan pursed his lips and eyed his visitor as if seeing her for the ﬁrst time. She interested him.
He knew her background from the ﬁle his company had compiled. Born thirty-two years ago in Boston, she had followed her father’s footsteps into geology. She had completed her undergraduate degree in Boston, but shifted to New York to attend Columbia University for her master’s and Ph.D. Samantha Carlson had excelled in a ﬁeld dominated by men. Times had changed over the past twenty years, and her gender had made great strides into the ﬁeld, but the top geologists worldwide were all men, with one exception: her.
She showed no fear, and took on the toughest assignments under the most dangerous conditions. And she consistently came out on top. She successfully negotiated a multimillion-dollar drilling contract with the Russian government after she discovered huge oil reserves in the desolation of Siberia. The Amazon basin had yielded a substantial ﬁnd of tourmaline, and she had hammered out a working arrangement between her employer and the Brazilian government. Her latest venture was in the Canadian arctic, where she was unable to save the drilling rig, but kept seventy-eight men from certain death by ordering their evacuation.
She was attractive, Kerrigan decided, but not from a strictly feminine view. Her features were more chiseled than soft, her body tensile and wiry, not spongy. He was surprised she wore her hair so long, but it suited her. But of all her features, it was her eyes that awed him. It wasn’t just their color, a shade of teal that danced between green and blue. They had an intensity that told of a quick and alert mind behind them, a mind with a thirst for knowledge. Her eyes probed the person she looked at, gnawing into his soul and taking more from him than the words he spoke. To call Samantha Carlson interesting was an understatement.
He smiled. “Patrick,” he said. “Please call me Patrick.”
“Samantha. Or Sam. Your preference,” she responded.
Kerrigan rose from his chair and moved to the windows that looked out over Manhattan. “We’re looking for diamonds. We have a few preliminary scouting reports that indicated there could be good potential for high-quality gemstones in the region. We sent in a team about four months ago, but that didn’t yield anything. I think we need a fresh perspective.”
“What country are we dealing with?” Samantha asked.
“Democratic Republic of Congo,” Kerrigan replied.
Sam Carlson simply stared at the man. “DROC. Nice place.” Her tone was sarcastic.
“You know it?”
“I wrote my master’s thesis on alluvial diamonds in Sierra Leone, and my doctorate on industrial diamonds in the Congo. I know both countries well.” She stood up and walked to the window, peering down on Manhattan as she continued.
“The Democratic Republic of Congo is a wealth of industrial-grade diamonds. The rocks that end up in engagement rings don’t come from the Congolese mines. They come from Sierra Leone, South Africa, Brazil, Canada, and a dozen other countries. But not the Congo. Kananga is a major center near the mines, but the town of Mbuji-Mayi, about ninety miles east, is the hot spot. For industrial diamonds, not commercial grade. And diamond miners have overrun Mbuji-Mayi since the 1950s. So if you want my opinion, you don’t need a geologist, Mr. Kerrigan, you need a thousand Africans with shovels.”
Kerrigan held up his hand to stop her. “I know you have a great deal of knowledge about the Congo,” he said. “But our target is not the alluvial diamonds that scavengers have dug for over the past ﬁfty years. And we’re deﬁnitely not looking for industrial-grade diamonds. We’re looking at a diamondiferous formation to the north, in the Ruwenzori Mountains.” Sam started to speak, and Kerrigan stopped her once again. “I know it’s been tried before, and the core samples came up empty, but I think we have further proof that such a vein may exist.”
“What kind of proof?” Samantha asked, interested but skeptical.
Kerrigan strode across the room and slid a painting to the side, revealing a wall safe. He entered a combination, opened the safe, and pulled out a small bag and an envelope. “These were taken from the vein, at a depth of sixty-two feet.” He handed four dull greenish rocks to her.
Sam motioned to the magniﬁer on Kerrigan’s desk, and he nodded. She placed the stones under the scope one at a time, carefully studying them. She lifted her head. “They have all the characteristics of Sierra Leone diamonds. But you say they were found in northeast Congo.” He nodded again. “I need a speciﬁc test to be sure they aren’t simply Sierra Leone diamonds.”
“You’re referring to the laser ablation method the Canadian RCMP have been working on?” he asked, and she nodded.
“Laser ablation inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry,” she said.
“Done,” Kerrigan responded, holding the legal-sized envelope up in his left hand. “We sent the samples to the RCMP about a month ago, and got the results back last week. Have a look.”
Carlson took the envelope and let its contents drop onto the coffee table. She quickly sorted through the analysis, concentrating on the trace elements found in the diamonds. “Ninety-nine point nine ﬁve pure carbon, as expected. Point zero ﬁve trace elements. Trace elements not found in the mangrove swamps of Sierra Leone.” She paused for a moment. “You’re positive these are from the Congo?”
“Absolutely. Our team reported back a position close to Butembo, but they weren’t precise with their coordinates. We have an idea within about seventy square miles where they were, but it’s impossible to pinpoint any closer.”
“You’re familiar with the terrain around Butembo?” Sam asked, and Kerrigan nodded. “Sticky, sweaty jungle, teeming with every kind of poisonous creature God ever created. Rugged cliffs, hundred-foot waterfalls, dense underbrush, and local tribesmen who would just as soon kill you as say hello.”
“It has its moments.”
“Not to mention the current political situation. It’s a mess over there right now.”
“Agreed. And that’s why we’re paying so handsomely. We’re offering one million dollars up front, and an additional ﬁve million if you can locate the vein and get that information back to us.”
“You mean if I live long enough,” she said quietly. Kerrigan didn’t respond to her statement. “It’s been four years since I was in the Congo, and I have no desire to go back. It’s corrupt, and it’s dangerous.” She took a sip from her tea, then set it on the end table. It was cold. “How does he ﬁgure into all this?” she asked, gesturing at the man who had sat quietly through the meeting.
“Travis will keep you alive while you explore. He’s assembled an elite team of men who are well skilled in protecting people from—other people. The snakes you have to watch out for yourself.”
“When do you propose to send the expedition?” she asked.
“Almost immediately. Travis has been acquiring the necessary supplies, and the team is just about ready. Any instruments you require will, of course, be supplied.”
“And how long do you think it’ll take to unearth the vein?”
“That depends on you, Ms. Carlson.”
“Okay,” she said, looking him straight in the eye.“Why me? Why offer me the job?”
“Like I said, Ms. Carlson, your reputation precedes you. You are one of the most knowledgeable geologists in the world on the Democratic Republic of Congo. You’re resourceful, and you’ve demonstrated many times a commodity very valuable to this expedition.”
“And that is?”
“Your ability to stay alive.”
Samantha Carlson rose from her chair and extended her hand to Kerrigan. She offered the same to Travis McNeil. “You don’t talk much, do you?” she asked as they locked grips.
“Not today,” he responded.
She unclasped his hand and walked to the door. She opened it, then turned back to face Kerrigan. “I’ll let you know one way or the other by tomorrow.” He nodded. “One more question,” she continued. “What happened to the last team you sent in?”
“They disappeared,” Kerrigan answered.
“Before they could pinpoint the location of the vein?” she asked, and he nodded. “That’s most unfortunate. For them and for you.” She closed the door behind her as she left.