Mark Abernethy: Double back

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Mark Abernethy Double back
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    Double back
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Double back

Mark Abernethy


West Papua, August 1999

Forty-seven minutes after flying out of Tembagapura, Alan McQueen looked across at the second military helicopter as they descended through the pre-dawn to the vast Lok Kok copper mine. A blond mercenary to his left unbuckled his seatbelt, stood up and aimed a ceiling-mounted machine-gun out the helo’s open door at the lunar despoliation that stretched five kilometres to the rainforest.

Pik Berger’s voice crackled in Mac’s headset. ‘As we planned it, boys,’ came his clipped South African accent. ‘Red team in the front door – blue team takes the back. I want to be home for breakfast.’

The other five soldiers chuckled and gave the thumbs-up.

‘And you, Mr Jeffries,’ said the muscular Saffa with a wink. ‘You’re with me.’

His gut churning, Mac nodded, checked his Steyr for load and safety. His infiltration of the Lok Kok mine was supposed to be a covert assignment on behalf of Australia’s SIS, a bit of friendly espionage on a Korean mine that was operating too successfully for the Australian government’s liking. The Korean company had been having problems with OPM, the West Papua movement demanding independence from Jakarta. Mac had been ‘consulting’ to the Koreans under his Don Jeffries cover. However, the mention of Jeffries’ military background had piqued the interest of the Korean management and now he was reluctantly accompanying the mine owners’ mercenaries in dealing with a hostage drama.

The OPM terrorists had hit during a maintenance furlough for the mine, so only thirty of the usual three thousand employees were involved. During maintenance downtimes, mine security was relaxed, though missing the start-up date on a big mine could cost the company a couple of million dollars a day in lost revenue. So the Koreans were desperate to end the siege, start the maintenance works and get the mine producing again.

Dropping fast to the red clay of the mine’s car park, the helos’ motors beat like drums in the acoustic bowl. Thirty years ago it had been the peak of a mountain – now the area was a huge open-cut crater.

As the soldiers poured out of the lead helicopter and ran for the cover of a fleet of mine trucks, Mac saw the second Black Hawk thromp over the nearby admin buildings and tilt in a big bank-and-dive manoeuvre.

The lead helo took to the air again in a cloud of red dust, the door-gunner poised in his safety harness like a jumpsuited angel of death. Berger spat his commands over the radio and three soldiers surged forth from their hides behind the trucks, covering one another across the open ground towards the admin block. Readying himself for the ‘go’ command, instead Mac felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to see Berger motioning for him to follow. The pop and spit of automatic rifle fire issued from the admin block as they moved behind the line of giant yellow CAT 797 trucks, Mac sandwiched between Berger and a soldier called LeClerc.

Reaching the last of the trucks, they edged around the six-metre tyre and watched a row of white demountable living quarters adjacent to the line of trucks. Stopping inches in front of Mac, Berger flicked his eyes upwards in a silent command. Stowing the Steyr across his shoulder blades Mac grabbed the railing of the truck’s built-in ladder and climbed the three-storey vehicle onto the spill apron of the dump tray, then stealthed across it until he was looking down into the windows of the men’s quarters. The sound of helos thwacked and throbbed in the dawn stillness as Mac took a pair of fold-up Leicas from his breast pocket and focused them on the windows below. The demountables were empty – except the one in the middle. Berger’s instincts were correct: the OPM thugs and the hostages were in the living quarters, not the admin block.

‘Red Dog, Red Dog,’ keyed Mac into the mouthpiece.

‘Go ahead, Red Boy,’ came the reply.

‘Got four tangos in demountable number twelve, repeat number twelve.’

‘Roger that. Tools?’

‘Looks like M16s, a fifty-cal and three tool boxes – RPGs, my guess,’ said Mac, trickles of sweat already rolling down his back as the tropics prepared to switch on the sun.

‘Hostages?’ asked Berger.

Squinting through the mini Leicas, Mac did a quick count. ‘No more than thirty, Red Dog. They’re in the common room – they’re cuffed and taped.’

A pause opened up as Mac kept vigil with the optics. A long, good-looking Papuan face was looking out at the helos. He wore a white T-shirt printed with the OPM Morning Star flag. To most observers, he was a left-wing troublemaker and terrorist; to Mac he was Kaui – a University of Queensland graduate and one of the best covert operators the Australian government had in this part of the world.

‘Fuck,’ mumbled Mac under his breath, realising Kaui intended to play out his role, not turn and run like he’d been asked to do.

‘What’s that?’ crackled Berger over the earpiece.

‘Nothing,’ said Mac. ‘Spider bite.’

The radio traffic intensified as Berger corralled his boys, Mac becoming agitated as he realised Berger wasn’t going to follow the usual drill. In these situations the terrorists were generally allowed to articulate their political views before releasing the hostages and escaping into the jungle. That was how it worked in West Papua – the terrorists shut down the mines for a few days, gasbagged about capitalism and imperial hegemony, and then everyone went back to work. But clearly Berger hadn’t read the script.

‘Red Boy, Red Boy,’ came Mac’s call sign from Berger.

‘Copy, Red Dog.’

‘How many can you cover from up there?’

This definitely wasn’t sounding like a negotiation. ‘Negative, Red Dog – no sight lines.’

‘What about covering fire?’

‘Negative, Red Dog. My sight lines are to the hostages. Repeat, hostages at the front of the common room.’

Calling Mac down from the truck, Berger’s voice took on a new tone as he ordered the other soldiers into a gunfight with the OPM terrorists in the admin block. Mac climbed down the outside of the truck, past the eight thousand-litre diesel tank. As he landed in the dirt beside Berger, a soldier came forward with what looked like an aluminium backpack.

‘What do they want?’ asked Mac, wanting desperately to steer the situation into a negotiation.

‘Didn’t ask,’ mumbled Berger, eyeballing LeClerc.

‘Ready, boss,’ came the other Saffa’s voice, and Mac turned to take it in. LeClerc had put the backpack over his shoulders and was wriggling his fingers into asbestos gloves before wrapping his hands around a handle not unlike that of a herbicide spray gun. Mac had been trained on something similar during his days in the Royal Marines Commandos in England. It wasn’t a negotiating tool, unless they planned to set alight the OPM guys before listening to the Marxist rhetoric.

Turning back to Berger, Mac tried to stay calm as the sun came over the jungle canopy. ‘Bit early for the barbecue, eh mate? We usually leave that for after the chit-chat.’

Berger’s pale eyes chiselled into him for a fraction too long and then the mercenary commander clicked his fingers and LeClerc moved past Mac, his chromed head now covered in an olive-drab protective helmet and mask.

‘What about the hostages?’ tried Mac.

‘You Aussies are so soft,’ laughed Berger. ‘My job’s to restart the mine – nothing else, right?’

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