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Descent to the Ninth Circle

Descent to the Ninth Circle

By JPYoung

Descent to the Ninth Circle

by

J.P. Young

I

'Hell is empty and all the devils are here.'- William Shakespeare, The Tempest

Phil Danté was in limbo.

It was a very comfortable one for the time being, but he had began to notice that now in the early 1980s as he approached his 35th year, his periods in limbo seemed to have grown longer and longer. He feared that one day he would suddenly find himself a Limboan permanent resident before he realised it had happened and he could never escape.

He had been a professional soldier for all of his adult life, and a high school cadet before that. After serving on active service overseas in the army of his nation of birth, he drifted from war to war as a professional soldier of fortune filling in the gaps between his wars with work in private and commercial investigation or security. 'Limbo' was the name that he called the space between these periods of employment. He had sometimes strayed into the dubious, but not yet into the shady, and he vowed that he would never enter the criminal sphere unlike some others of his comrades-in-arms. That was the thing about transgressions that led to Hell. You didn't have to sin yourself; all you had to do was to only be around those who did and you'd equally suffer the consequences.

Though his most recent war hadn't officially ended, the employment contracts between his current nation of residence and him and his comrades-in-arms had finished. Their financial rewards for their engagement had not been paltry, nor had they been unusually excessive. However to the newest of the mercenaries their pay had seemed incredibly lucrative due to their being unable to spend their rewards when being actively employed in the hazardous operational areas their employers had sent them to. They spent a good portion of their wages and allowances during their periods of rest and relaxation, nicknamed rape and retribution where their lust for women was granted.

Their 'R&R' comprised a mixture of gluttonies. One of their number had stated that the French went for women, the British for alcohol, and the Germans for food. Phil enjoyed all three as well as the fourth gluttony of trading stories with his comrades.

Demobilising together, Phil had engaged in all the gluttonies with his comrades-in-arms in the nation's capital prior to the majority of them taking off to the four corners of the globe for R&R's in different nations, new non-military working engagements, or to the homes of those who still had one. Phil had decided to remain 'in country' and enjoy himself in a small seaside town that was a tourist resort. He reflected that prior to the mid 1960s a 'soldier of fortune' in the cinema was a barfly in an exotic corner of the world until a glamorous woman recruited him for a mission that would make him wealthy and the husband of his employer. It was similar to the pre-1960s meaning of 'zombie' that meant a Haitian under the influence of voodoo rather than a flesh eating ghoul.

He sat on the balcony of his hotel room observing the sparkling blue sea, the small white fishing boats moored in the harbour, the red tiled roofs of the other buildings, the oversized striped umbrellas shading café and bar patrons and the noise of the happy pedestrian traffic. All the buildings had heavy grilled shutters that would close during storms or for hot afternoon siestas with sultry lovers beneath their ceiling fans.

Phil poured himself a refill from one of the large cold bottles of lager that he kept in the small refrigerator in his room. He had spent longer in the coastal town than he had originally intended, but he loved the place and its friendly people that he would chat with on his walks about town or to and from his daily swims. He was reminded of his schoolteacher maiden aunt's stories that he never tired of hearing. She told him of her days of staying on en pension in a no doubt equally quaint resort on the pre-war French Cote d'azur, aprés la fin de saison. Her seaside town was filled with colourful residents including émigrés and expatriates, adventurers and adventuresses, gamblers and fraudsters mingling together with the brilliant food and colours of the buildings, and the changing moods of the sea and the sky. Each one of the people she met had a story that she'd collect and turn into a magazine story or recount to those who were interested, as he was. He'd always loved his Aunt's tales of Tangier, memories of Morocco and Monaco, stories of Spain, idylls in Italy and other accounts of life around the Mediterranean before, during, where she worked with the Maquis, and after World War II. Phil felt his Aunt's stories as well as his father's war experiences had sent him on his chequered career path. Phil never desired his own money eating family and remaining forever in debt in a dead end job. He dreaded existence in a gloomy Kingdom of the Dull where he'd be publicly insulted and vilified by his nagging wife and monstrous children. Worst of all was having to live with people who were content with their lot and who would not talk about anything else beyond being miserable and the exploits of their favourite sports teams.

In his sunny seaside resort, Phil had limited himself to only one woman. Francesca was a local belle de jour that he found himself falling in love with. She was not only brilliant in bed, but she appeared to be genuinely understanding. She could intelligently converse on a wide variety of topics and the pair had a similar sick and fatalistic sense of humour.

The brunette Francesca was tall, taut, tanned and slim, but was neither emaciated nor a narcotics user. She originally had a hardness in her brown eyes that seemed to soften when she was with him and her eyes would sparkle when she laughed, something the pair did more and more together. Exceptionally well dressed and groomed in a natural simple but chic elegance, she was the only woman Phil had known who could leave with him at a moment's notice without fussing over her appearance. She was well travelled and a true femme du monde.

She confided to him funny stories about her life ranging from her days as a nun baiting convent girl to the series of accidental adventures and adventurous accidents that led her to her current occupation and to the coastal town that made the pair laugh together. Phil found himself cutting his expenses on the wine and song to be able to pay her for an entire afternoon siesta in his room beneath the ceiling fan.

To his eternal surprise, after dinner that evening she granted him a complete night of bliss gratis in her own very tidy flat. He admired her personal library and he found her irresistible when she acted shy when putting her spectacles on. He was touched when she softly read Shelley's Love's Philosophy to him.

He not only had the thrill of waking up with her but she made him his favourite breakfast of roast tomatoes, scrambled eggs with Parmesan, toast, freshly squeezed orange juice and strong black coffee. Above all, he treasured their intimate conversations about their lives. Her continuing company had cut into his savings that led him to consider whether he could find some part time work locally to restore his exchequer. Phil actually contemplated obtaining citizenship in the country and starting a career in their public service.

Viewing the sunset with a carafe of red wine on Phil's balcony and her nearly endless smoking with the grace of a cigarette holder, she had said that they were truly one in the same, a mercenary and a prostitute. Phil replied au contraire; he was paid to do nasty things to other people, whilst she was paid to do nasty things to herself. She began to hysterically cry and stormed out of his room, and it appeared, out of his life forever.

On the morrow he contemplating trying to find her and beg her forgiveness. He had no idea why he felt that way about her, feelings that he had never had for any other of the interchangeable women he went through around the world between his work or on other R&Rs. He had vowed to do something, after he finished his beer.

The telephone in his room rang. He urgently hoped that it was Francesca. Phil would probably embarrass himself, but he just had to speak to her again. This time he vowed he would tell her that he would listen. He debated whether he would tell her that he needed her, but thought that was the one thing that he would have to tell her in person. He eagerly picked up the phone.

It was a professional sounding male voice with the refined accent of the country he was now in.

'Are you interested in a contract that we have for a period of no more than three months for a man with your expertise?'

After replying in the affirmative, he was told to be in his hotel's adjoining café tomorrow at ten o'clock.

II

Phil dressed for his meeting by wearing a loose short sleeved black shirt with his dress grey trousers. In his experience 99% of all mercenary operations were fakes, frauds, flops or failures with the majority being the first two categories. Therefore, he expected a very loud and dodgy dissipated character with a predilection for alcoholic drinks.

At the stroke of 10 a physically fit gentleman in his mid 30s wearing a grey business suit entered the café, sat down at Phil's table and introduced himself by his surname only. Like Phil, he preferred a plain colour tie so Phil couldn't identify any regimental or school association of the wearer. He didn't display any credentials, but he was too well spoken and lacked the world weary face to be a policeman or a career criminal. By his erect posture and bland expression Phil guessed he was a former or reserve military staff officer and a secret servant of the nation's national intelligence service.

They took tea together with mostly vague generalities as a substitute for actual conversation. Once Phil agreed to hear more about the assignment, 'Mr. Grey' informed Phil he would drive him to someone who would brief him. Grey's sedan had all the earmarking of a government vehicle. Grey, no doubt an alias based on the colour of his suit, actually recorded information in a logbook beneath his seat before they began their drive.

'May I ask you a personal question?'

'If you must.'

'Is it "Don-tay" or "Dan-tee?"'

'The former; in school they called me "Dandy". That's why I've the diacritic.'

Phil was pleased to converse with someone who actually knew what a diacritic was. They drove through the attractive countryside discussing current events and the weather forecast; he sensed Grey was a future high flyer in the spook world. Their destination was a clearing off the road; another sedan with tinted windows was the only non natural feature. Before Phil left Grey's vehicle one of the tinted windows rolled down and a very familiar face shouted,

'We're too cheap for a fancy restaurant, get in the back of the car!'

Phil had known Major Williams for what seemed like a lifetime. They shook hands and Phil entered the backseat as Grey remained in his sedan. In the front passenger seat was the Major's trusted assistant and eternal companion Captain Coleman that he shook hands with.

'The Bill and Cole Show' had often acted as Phil's commander and second in charge or as 'the old boy network' throughout his career. Major Williams was heavy set with black hair and blazing brown eyes. He and his tall, thin blue eyed sandy haired adjutant Captain Coleman were the perfect team. The latter made the former's plans, schemes and dreams plausible, then effective. One would play the hardnosed type who intimidated or shamed everyone to give their all whilst the other was an approachable mediator who kept the men's spirits up.

They explained that some party with a lot of money, a lot of detailed knowledge and the ability to make things happen but who would remain at arm's length wanted the Bill and Cole Show to train and lead a company sized force of natives from another nation to launch a coup 'd'état in their home country. Phil and four others Bill said Phil either knew or knew of would be the training officers and platoon leaders on the actual operation. As Grey had said, the operation would not exceed three months, if it did, lucrative bonuses would be paid.

Phil replied that he only worked for sovereign governments.

Cole gave a warm chuckle and said the faction they were representing had once been the legally recognised regime of that nation, but had been overthrown in a coup when the leader and his trusted associates were attending an international conference. In the meantime the new regime was a totalitarian one that was making the opposition flourish.

'As you Australians say, it's Rafferty's Rules', Bill added, meaning that there were no rules at all.

The majority of Third World or Turd World nations as Phil's circle called them had once been under a colonial power. Once independence was granted a number of different traditional factions based on religious or tribal groups became armed, agitated and impatient. When faction 'B' was in power after deposing faction 'A', factions 'C' and 'D' were waiting in the wings to seize power whilst factions 'A' and 'E' were in exile or prison. Later, when 'C' took over from 'B' everyone moved up or down a step in the circle...

Bill continued, 'I think you know that sovereign governments only pay so much...'

Phil had never been greedy before, probably as he never was a gambler like most of his comrades-in-arms. But then he had never been 35 years old before and didn't want to end up sleeping wherever he could cadging drinks and favours.

He now noticed that the one thing Bill and Cole had in common was that they looked old. The pair met as Commandos in World War II, then appeared in nearly every known and several unknown wars since then.

Captain Coleman confided, 'We want this to be our final mission; we want something big to go out on.'

Phil thought they'd write a book of their censored memoirs and hit the celebrity trail if this one came off.

'Danny Boy, you're not getting any younger either. How old are you now?'

Phil's laughter surprised them.

'Funny, that's the exact phrase my mother would say to me when I did something stupid.'

All of them laughed together. Phil reflected that until the 'youth revolution', 35 was the age younger men wishing to be taken seriously and get ahead tried to look and act and it was the same age older men tried to look and act for the same reason. It seemed the age of destiny.

'All three of us are in the same boat. Time's running out. Cole and I are remaining here so strictly between us I can assure you that the government is backing us. It's obvious that a certain well known superpower is clandestinely backing this. They throw money around like drunken sailors so I've asked for the moon and they're granting it to us.'

'How much did you say we're being paid?'

Phil couldn't conceal his amazement at the amount of money that would be paid into his European bank account. For the first time in his life his head was proverbially spinning.

'When do we start?'

* * *

Phil entered the small concourse of the coastal town's railway station dressed in his charcoal grey travelling suit wearing a necktie the colour of dried blood and carrying a single suitcase. He was travelling to the capital city where he would be taken to his pre-booked hotel then later to a base camp to prepare for the operation.

At the centre of the concourse between the entrances and the train platforms was a large clock with Roman numerals. Beneath it was Francesca also dressed in a professional looking grey business suit set off by a colourful scarf. She was carrying a bouquet of flowers and a single suitcase; she stopped in her tracks as soon as she saw him. Their eyes caught each others, hers grew larger the nearer he came to her.

'Are those the flowers I should've given you?'

'No Phil. I'm visiting my mother who\s in the hospital, nothing serious.'

'I'm glad of that because I want to meet her some day. We'll have a lot to talk about.'

Phil couldn't go on with any more chatter, he placed his suitcase on the ground as did she. She moved the bouquet to her side so he could embrace her. She returned his embrace that he took as an acceptance of his genuine whispered apology for hurting her feelings.

'I need you, Francesca.'

'Why?'

'Because I believe that without you I'm nothing.'

'A pair of nothings make a something.'

He removed the miniature parachute wings he wore on his lapel and pinned them to her lapel. She broke off one of the flowers in her bouquet and placed it in the button hole on his lapel where his wings had been.

They would be riding the same train to the capital city together!

III

Project INFERNO was off to a rapid and enthusiastic start.

The superpower supporting the coup may or may not have been mildly interested in the repression of those in their target nation. However, the superpower had a major interest in that regime's flirting with economic aid from the rival superpower. In return the rival wanted naval and air bases for their own armed forces in the target nation, upsetting the balance of power in the region. Backing a coup by a genuine political faction of that nation supported by "free lance" mercenaries ensured a relatively frugal and deniable way to "keep the peace" in that part of the world. Presumably the regime they restored to power would forever display their gratitude.

In the target nation itself there was not only considerable opposition to the present regime, but there was a large and active exile resistance in the nation they were now in who were incorporated into INFERNO. The strike force was divided into five platoons of expatriates, designated 'commandos'. One was designated to take the seat of Government, one to take the nation's radio and television station, one to surround the army barracks, one to secure their landing zone and a reserve commando that would go wherever Bill decided they were needed, initially with Phil's group whose target was the army barracks. Phil and his four comrades-in-arms literally picked their assignments out of a hat.

There were enough former soldiers and policemen of the nation with them who would act as the sergeant major, staff sergeant and platoon sergeants of the strike force; each of the commandos had at least one corporal with military or police experience as well. The highest ranking expatriate with military experience was a captain in the target nation's army and was now a major who would act as an adviser to the force and as a negotiator with Phil's commando who would surround the army barracks. Each of the other platoons had a similar influential expatriate such as a well known former broadcaster, the associate of the leader in exile who would deal with the seat of government, and a former air traffic controller for the airport. Grey acted as the liaison with their host country and was the de facto quartermaster.

In the biggest part of the operation the strike force would be flown in by unmarked military transport aircraft. It was inferred that the aircraft were coming from a well known nation allied to the superpower. In addition to the aircrew and ground staff who would service the aircraft at the clandestine airstrip, they would also supply a team of pathfinders who would be with the local Resistance who would prepare the clandestine landing zone. All were considered 'mercenaries' though they no doubt were part of their own nation's air force. As a bonus their nation had accomplished several successful commando operations and one of their experienced men who participated in some of them also trained the strike force.

The strike force were kitted out in the uniforms of a former colonial power in the region and were armed with captured weapons from those that Phil had fought against. The men responded well to training and had the motivation of a new regime to fight for. They soon moved to night training only. When the need became apparent during their continuous drills and exercises, Phil was able to supplement his commando with more automatic weapons. Due to noises from the government-in-exile, all the émigré non commissioned officers were now commissioned Majors, Captains or Lieutenants, there would be no non-commissioned officers. Phil and his fellow platoon sized commando leaders were now Majors, and Bill and Cole were Colonel and Lieutenant Colonel respectively with the former native Captain now a Brigadier. Something else to go out on.

Other than those marking and securing their airstrip, the local resistance would remain quiet so as to keep the majority of the army and police in their barracks and stations. Phil believed that though they were strongly against their current regime, they would only declare themselves openly to the obvious victor.

Their large base camp was covered with camouflage netting that included special material Cole claimed would preclude observation from high flying aircraft and spy satellites. A variety of structures resembling those used on film studio backlots resembled their target buildings. The camp had a separate weapons range as the structures would not stand up to live rounds being used on them. The financial outlay on the camp proved to Phil that INFERNO wasn't a whim or a fly by night operation.

IV

Problems flared up.

In the first, Bill and Cole faced Grey and the visiting contact with the superpower to demand higher wages. Though Phil was satisfied with his wage and was not a greedy man he felt he had to hang together with his cohorts in what he viewed as not only greed, but also extortion. As Bill and Cole figured, the superpower's representative agreed to an increase in their fee demonstrating that the representative had the power to act on his own initiative.

The second event involved the amazing 'Mr. D'.

'Mr. D' was to be the new government's Minister of Defence though the closest experience he had with anything military was watching war movies on video every night in the base camp. 'Dee' was small in height, large in girth and possessed a minimum amount of tact combined with a maximum amount of ego. When viewing him with the President-in-Exile, Major Mitchell called him the Minister for Sucking Up and Toady Extraordinary. Phil sensed that he didn't have the nerve or ambition to lead a government himself but would be the first to help himself to the nation's wealth.

When Dee explained his one man general staff strategy and tactics to Phil, he recalled Dee's ideas as the plots of various war movies as Phil was a keen cinema fan. During one council-of-war meeting Dee proposed that instead of landing at a rural airstrip and driving to the capital city they should parachute directly onto their objectives in the city.

Everyone went into a state of shock except Cole who stated that they hadn't the time or equipment to train everyone to be a parachutist. Phil took the initiative and said it was a great idea; he'd personally act as Dee's jumpmaster for several practice night jumps so he would impress his men by being the first out of the plane when they parachuted into the capital. He explained to Dee that all he had to do was navigate his chute from the flashes of the anti-aircraft guns and their phosphorous tracer rounds coming up at him, and being the first on the ground he could inspire his men by taking out the guns singlehandedly.

Dee's obvious panicked expression grew by the moment...

Phil's oldest and closest friend Major Whitworth chimed in by saying that Dee would set the example to the operation as 'the Fighting Generalissimo' who would posthumously be recognised as the hero of the new government. 'Whit' suggested Dee get a death mask made so the statue in his honour would have an accurate facial image as he may have his head shot off by the heavy anti-aircraft guns that made holes the size of melons.

Dee loudly and impressively threw up his dinner.

Everyone knew they had a well disciplined force as no one publicly laughed, though they would do so for the rest of their lives when telling the story. Dee refrained from providing any more strategic advice and tactical hints.

Though the commandos trained at night the various government ministers who were also confined to the base camp frequently inspected their men. Phil and his fellow commando leaders would cease training and order the men into a parade formation where they would present arms and listen to the speeches of the visitors. Everyone was pleased with this as the men would not only know their political leaders and vice versa, but their continuing familiarity with each other would lead to loyalty. However, Dee was the only one who fancied himself a master military tactician aggravated with a loud whining voice and an insulting manner. In Phil's mind Dee marked his territory like a urinating dog. It took all of Phil's patience to control himself and his men whilst still displaying respect. It was identical to dealing with the newly commissioned incompetent subalterns in the first regular army he served in.

In contrast, when Dee spoke to Major Flanagan and his commando, Flanagan told him to shut up. He then loudly compared Dee's simian appearance and mental capacity to an ugly orangutan. Dee called him a stupid racist idiot and told him he would be placed in prison after the operation. Flanagan knocked him out with one blow in front of his commando on parade.

As they say in Iran, the fit hit the shan...

Flanagan was immediately relieved and replaced by Major Fleischer who had formerly led the reserve commando; Cole had to wear another hat as the new reserve commando leader. At dawn a parade was witnessed by all not on sentry duty where Flanagan had has rank stripped of him by Colonel Williams who informed all and sundry that had the now Private Flanagan committed that act in the operational area he would have been shot. In the meantime he would be imprisoned on the base.

Phil had never worked with Flanagan; to his knowledge he had never served with any native troops, only fellow European commandos. Phil had regarded him as a loudmouth and was glad they were in a controlled environment, as Flanagan's well known attraction to the gluttonies of alcohol and storytelling would have been a serious security risk had he gone off base.

As it was Phil's turn to be the sleep deprived Duty Officer, he, his Orderly Sergeant and two guards had to escort Private Flanagan to the locked room in the guardhouse that would act as his cell. Prior to his incarceration Phil witnessed Bill's epic shitting out of Flanagan for possibly destroying INFERNO and disrespecting the government he served. Phil would not have wished to be in Flanagan's shoes for all the tea in China.

Though he was prepared for the possibility of Flanagan attempting to strike Bill, with the result that Bill would take him apart like a Swiss watch, he never expected what happened next.

The loud burly always threatening Flanagan got down on his knees and hysterically began to cry...begging one more chance as he'd never make that mistake again. The Colonel owed it to him as a lifelong soldier, he just got angry, didn't he?

Phil's knowledge of Bill didn't surprise him at all.

Colonel Williams drew his Browning Hi-Power from its holster on his belt in the blink of an eye and stuffed the barrel in Flanagan's open mouth and cocked the pistol.

The silence was deafening; even Flanagan's sobbing had ceased. Only the sound of Bill's loud breathing was heard, his glaring brown eyes looked like lasers that could cut through steel. The ubiquitous eternally placid Grey's eyes were as big as the proverbial town hall clock.

Lieutenant Colonel Coleman saved the lives of Flanagan and INFERNO that day.

'Crawl to your cell, Flanagan. Soldiers march, civilians walk, you crawl.'

Flanagan's crawl was viewed by all. Bill and Cole had regained their men's respect, Flanagan was technically alive for the time being as was INFERNO.

V

INFERNO's D-Day was rapidly approaching like an unstoppable express train. There was to be a combined meeting and parade that night. Bill and Cole gave a hand signal for their European officers, Fleisch, Mitch, Whit and Danny Boy to assemble.

'Gentlemen, you are about to hear a litany of heresies. If you want to join Flanagan I won't blame you, as nothing you are about to hear can be changed. The good news is that we ensured that everyone will be getting a substantial bonus.'

'Being with and listening to Flanagan is a fate worse than death', quipped Whit.

'Wait until you hear this', Cole responded, 'you may change your tune.'

The speech by the President-in-Exile flanked by the representative from the superpower and Grey was indeed a last minute litany of military heresies.

There was a new person next to the President, a representative of their target nation's former colonial ruler that set a feeling of dread into Phil. A treacherous joker and unnecessary wild card had been added to the pack.

INFERNO would now be a daytime operation.

The transport aircraft that would follow the flight path of the soon to be grounded civilian airliner that travelled from the nation they were in to the target nation would depart after disembarking the invasion/liberation force. The President-in-Exile said there would be no escape for anyone, only death or glory. The landing zone security commando would now be split to visit and secure police stations in the capital.

As no good deed ever goes unpunished, Phil's patient courtesy to Dee was mistaken as extreme loyalty. In a cabinet reshuffle Dee was now the Minister of the Interior and he ordered not only Phil, but his entire well trained commando would trade missions with Whit and his men. Phil's commando would now accompany Dee and the broadcaster to seize the broadcasting station with Whit's commando attacking and containing the army barracks. There had been no time for cross training, neither commando had trained for the other's mission.

Several commandos wheeled in a large drum full of water. It contained a multitude of soaked berets of an unusual colour that were issued/awarded to each soldier, politician and frontline public servant as the symbol of the newly christened 'Army of Freedom'. Everyone placed them on their heads and shaped them so when they dried they would present an impressive appearance when they liberated their nation. No doubt the unusual coloured berets would be the symbol of the ruling party for eternity.

The Archbishop-in-Exile acting as the small army's chaplain-general requested rather than begged God's favour on INFERNO.

The meeting was concluded with everyone wearing their sopping wet berets singing the nation's national anthem; the lyrics of all three verses were projected on a screen.

VI

INFERNO was go.

Everyone was kitted out in camouflage and flash beret whether commando, politician, public servant or journalist that dramatically increased the size of the Army of Freedom, though only the former carried rifles and heavier weapons.

The long flight was enlivened by Dee, wearing shoulder straps with Major General insignia assuming the position of Minister of Comedy Relief. He repeatedly filled up a bucket with his vomit as the invasion/liberation force chanted encouragement in unison. He gained enough strength to walk up and down the aisles carrying his bucket past the army's jump seats giving some sort of pep talk speech that couldn't be heard. Phil felt sorry for him recalling that the American comedian's joke about the child so ugly and repulsive that his parents had to tie a bone around his neck so the dog would play with him was describing Dee to the Tee.

One of the public servants may have tripped Dee as he fell on the floor and arose with the contents of the vomit bucket covering the front of his uniform in the manner of a new pattern of camouflage. It was said that Australians had as many words for 'vomit' as Eskimos had for 'snow', but Dee would be in a category by himself.

For some reason he paused in front of Whit to speak to him at length. Whit managed to reach a coin in his pocket and put it in Dee's bucket. Dee looked down into his Bozo Bucket then continued orating up and down the aisle of the plane until he got down on all fours and filled his bucket again. Those saying prayers or reflecting on a myriad of matters had their reveries broken by some bloody good laughs.

* * *

Phil's aircraft was the first to land on the clandestine airstrip and his men disembarked and deployed around the airstrip as they had practiced. The airstrip party from the nation who provided their aircraft were complete professionals comprising pathfinders, airborne engineers, communication and air control. The 'Resistance' had performed their duties but were under guard by the pathfinders for the twin purposes of keeping them on the airstrip for security purposes, or if things failed the Resistance could claim that they were captured and forced into things against their will. The leader of the Resistance was the most enthusiastic one of the lot as he successfully begged the airstrip party to keep his wife bound and gagged for his own satisfied amusement.

As Phil's aircraft took off, the next one landed and disembarked until the airport party had departed in the final aircraft. General Disaster had his uniform and underwear cleaned by one of the women at the airstrip, but Dee had to place the sopping wet clothes back on as there was no time to dry them.

With his commando, specialists and Dee concealed in back of covered civilian trucks they travelled to their objective. Phil reflected that maybe postponing the operation to the early morning was a good idea after all as there were a large number of similar trucks, lorries and buses coming into the capital whilst there wouldn't be the same amount of traffic in the night. If there were any roadblocks the procession would halt far in advance to give warning.

When driving near the broadcasting station Phil noticed there was a larger amount of policemen then were expected. Despite their camouflage and weapons Phil's commando were able to deploy unobserved by the police guarding the broadcasting building. He remembered the gentle way his drill instructor used to wake the recruits during his initial training. Phil had two of his commandos climb to an adjacent roof and on signal threw two full metal garbage cans down that made the sound of loud bombs. As the startled police turned to duck, then investigate, Phil's commando captured them from their rear, disarmed them and marched them into the building.

An interested crowd of civilians had gathered in the square facing the building as the commando deployed to their stations that Phil quickly drilled them to deploy and defend in the mockups in their base camp before departure; Phil told them they could sleep on the plane. The broadcasting specialists accompanied the exiled now returned well known broadcaster into the studio. As they had been trained to do, they interrupted the morning's radio news and television cartoons with the news that the nation was now free as the former regime had returned. Loudspeakers attacked to the outside informed the curious mingling in the square what had occurred. Dee desperately wanted to give his speech recorded on a thick wad of soaked papers running ink that had been in his uniform. Phil told Dee he was ordered by the President that no government minister could address the nation until after the President gave his address.

A loud explosion shook the building. The outside windows shattered as what sounded like a cinema's worth of popcorn being popped was heard. The curious civilian onlookers had scampered and had been replaced by the nation's current army. One of those unused World War II era tanks given as foreign aid to nations to impress their populace loudly creaked into the square. Phil noticed it had the rubber treads of a parade tank and was probably only run once a year where the other tanks would be cannibalised to make some working ones. As they were only expected to be at the army's barracks, all the anti-tank weapons had been turned over to Whit's commando. Phil had the suspicion that Whit's commando had not successfully completed their mission...

The tank's first round had blown the aerial off the roof ending not only their broadcast but precluding the usual 'technical difficulties' announcement with a cartoon being shown.

An obvious general stood on the back of the tank with a white flag.

'Do you surrender?', Phil shouted.

The general was speaking into a hand held microphone that led inside the tank that was equipped with loud speakers. The general had a sense of humour.

'After you, please. You were here first.'

He gave a pronouncement in both English and the language in the nation that their 'attack on the people's republic' had been thwarted, and they had three minutes to surrender.

Phil discussed with his sergeant now Captain and the broadcaster what they thought. Both feared they would be executed and the best thing would be to go down fighting, perhaps if they demonstrated resolve they could negotiate a surrender with terms.

With the speed of light Dee threw down his beret, removed and threw his wet general's uniform to the floor and dashed out the building through the square in his white singlet, red polka dot underpants and combat boots like a satire of a superhero without a cape loudly whining in his own language. Phil well imagined what he was saying, kidnapped, forced to be a hostage, etc. One of Phil's commandos threw a well earned knife into his back. Phil mused how lovely it was as a change of pace that a soldier stabbed a politician in the back...

Dee began acting like a robot doing a new dance, waving his arms about. Whether it was the comical actions of his arms and the expression on his face or the fact that everyone desired a traitor to get his just reward, the current government's troops laughed loudly. The government general walked up to Dee who was now on his knees and thrusting his arms.

'Mammy', laughed the broadcaster.

The general made a gesture and an ambulance came out, the paramedics conversed with the general that drove off with Dee.

The general, who undoubtedly knew Dee and approved of his fate gave the thumbs up sign; both sides applauded and whistled.

The general saluted, Phil returned his salute. The general walked to safety, the gunfire resumed and the tank fired a round into the outside bollard and metal railing fence of the broadcasting station. Phil's well trained commandos refrained from returning fire until Phil's command.

'Surrender! Or Die!'

The loudspeaker of the tank kept repeating its message in English and the language of the nation as it continued to the building firing another round into the bollards and rail outer perimeter. Phil's commandos not guarding their prisoners remained prone and temporarily safe behind the columns on the upper steps of the broadcasting building.

Phil threw a smoke grenade at the tank and shouted,

'POISON GAS! POISON GAS!'

His Captain shouted the same in the nation's language. The tank came to a halt and 'buttoned up' but still kept up its 'Surrender! Or Die!' message. It was easy to spot the officers in the government forces as they remained where they were and stood up to shout at their men to come back.

Covered by the smoke, Phil advanced to the impact area of the tank's high explosive rounds and grabbed one of the broken off concrete encased steel bollards. Using all his strength he ran with it to the side of the tank and placed it in between the wheels inside the tread.

The tank attempted to move forward but found itself unable to move forward or backward. The tank crew had left their loudspeaker on and were heard panicked and arguing with each other in their own language with the English words 'you bloody idiot' repeatedly thrown in. Both sides had a great laugh.

The Captain and a few commandos joined Phil, with the Captain climbing on the barrel of the tank's gun and concealed by the smoke, two of the commandos handed up one of the circular metal poles that acted as a railing. They stuffed it down the tank's barrel. Everyone had avoided the tank's machine gun but now the turret was wildly swinging in a circle with the frightened Captain hanging on to it as the smoke dissipated.

Both sides were loudly laughing and a camera crew who had ventured into the square was filming the event.

Police sirens were heard as a convoy of police vehicles entered the square. The general came out, waving to the broadcasting building, Phil stood up and gave a thumbs up sign.

The general conversed with the occupants of the police vehicle.

Colonel Williams left the police vehicle and walked over to Phil's building. On the way he pointed at the shouting though its loudspeaker unsuccessfully moving backwards and forward Dalek tank and made an amusing shrugging gesture that made both sides laugh.

'Danny Boy, we're in a fraud. Someone or some party treacherously betrayed the operation and you're the only group save the airstrip that haven't been placed in custody. They've guaranteed us no more than a media walk of shame and no more than six months in prison. Between us, I never enter an operation without an escape clause or a guarantee. In this case if we're killed or imprisoned any longer a lot of evidence proving the backing of several nations will hit the media. The great news is that no one on either side has been killed. We're going to have bend over and take it.'

'May I lead my men in the surrender parade?'

Phil assembled his commando, ordered them to sling arms where he marched them to the general. He returned Phil's salute and took his weapon.

Phil hoped he wouldn't break down.

'Commando! Down...weapons!'

VII

Bill had called the shots correctly with the exception that no one served more than three months in a not too uncomfortable prison. In the Third World they could torture or kill you at the drop of a hat, but they could also grant amnesty and pardons with the snap of a finger.

The former President-in-Exile was now the Minister of the Interior and the nation was run by a coalition to ensure its neutrality. Neither superpower would have military bases in that nation, though both would have diplomatic representation with military attachés. Dee's obesity had saved his life and there was no lasting damage. He was granted a government sinecure where he had no power to annoy anyone, save those who read or heard his interviews.

The mercenaries were released to the nation they started in. As Phil predicted, Bill and Cole hit the celebrity trail and had accepted lucrative offers for the book and film rights of the sanitised exaggerated story of INFERNO.

Bill and Cole's substantial evidence had been smuggled out by Flanagan and others. Phil never did know whether his striking Dee and cringing to Bill had been an act, but he had earned his money, as had all of them.

Francesca, who had corresponded by mail with Phil on what seemed like a daily basis, and her mother were at the airport to greet them. She gave Phil the most welcome embrace of his life.

All of the commando leaders returned to their home nations. Francesca was granted a spouse visa and her mother an aged parent visa to live with Phil in the house he bought with his earnings. Mama would act as the granny nanny for their coming child.

As Francesca's former career involved a lot of kiss and tell with her nation's police and secret services, the government provided a reference that she had been a policewoman all along and had no criminal record. Both Phil and Fran were employed in security and intelligence work in their own nation's public service. Phil's parents and maiden aunt were glad he was home for good and settled into marriage.

EPILOGUE

Colonel Williams and his former air hostess wife visited and stayed with Phil and Francesca in their home country.

Bill reflected that everyone got or nearly got what they wanted; the superpowers had a balance of power, the regime in the target nation had liberalised and the exiled government was a part of the ruling coalition. The nation who hosted the preparation and training for INFERNO no longer had a large and potentially problematic exile community in their nation and had been well rewarded with welcome foreign exchange for their clandestine cooperation.

No one knew which nation or individual had betrayed INFERNO, Phil laughed about whether or not it was Dee. The point was a satisfactory conclusion was agreed upon by all.

Mrs. Williams asked Phil how he was enjoying married life in a steady occupation and a nice home. He replied that he was the happiest that he had ever been; though he no longer had interesting friends he had a permanent soul mate. Francesca said she had given up smoking and Phil was taking dancing lessons with her.

Francesca Danté recounted that Dante Alighieri's circles of Hell in his Inferno had been limbo, lust, gluttony, greed, anger, heresy, violence, fraud and treachery; all had happened in Phil Danté's INFERNO.

Mrs. Williams laughed and said as her husband was now retired it and no one had been seriously hurt the entire affair had certainly been a Divine Comedy.

FIN

Author Notes: I am the author of three Extra Dimensional/Ultraterrestial military science fiction novels MERCENARY EXOTIQUE, OPERATION CHUPACABRA and WORK IN OTHER WORLDS FROM YOUR OWN HOME! as well as two travel books THE MAN FROM WAUKEGAN and TWO AUSTRALIANS IN SCOTLAND. I live happily ever after with my wife in coastal Kiama, NSW Australia.

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JPYoung
JPYoung
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