Read Chapter 1 from ‘Diamonds are but Stones’

Diamond3This is the first chapter Diamonds are but Stones by Peter Vollmer, published by Acorn Books and available on Amazon.

EARLY AUTUMN – 1989

The sound woke me. A light breeze had blown in through the partially open French windows that led to the bungalow’s balcony and rattled the vertical blinds. I slowly opened my eyes, grimaced, and immediately closed them again. My head throbbed like a bass drum and a vile post-party taste permeated my mouth. Oh, I knew the symptoms well; I had been there before, the aftermath of the celebrations of the night before.

There was movement in the bed next to me. Memories flooded back. Her name? God, for a moment my mind was blank, my inability to recall the previous night initiating the first stirrings of anxiety. Gradually I remembered – it was Francine.

The revelation did not imbue me with any feeling of relief.

Francine was an airhostess with Southern Airways, a medium-sized local airline that provided feeder flights to the international airports in the country. Their offices were in the same complex that housed our own business offices.

Holy shit! Now I’d really complicated matters. I had taken a relationship that until now was no more than a casual friendship, the highlight of which was a casual drink in the airport pub, to a new level of personal obligations, those I usually found difficult to uphold. And I dare not simply bale out of this ill-timed involvement if I did not wish all my other friends in our close-knit flying fraternity to think me a shit; some of the womenfolk would probably ostracize me anyway. Sexual hit-and-runs should be confined to those unforeseen flirtatious moments, usually between passing acquaintances with a need for sexual gratification – certainly not amongst friends.

And I did consider Francine to be one of my friends. For months, I had tried to avoid any involvement with her other than a casual, after-work amity. Certainly, when in her company I was appreciative of her beauty, but I never experienced that all-consuming desire that other women occasionally awakened in me. Francine sparked no such heartfelt desire, although she clearly felt differently. It was obvious that she had feelings for me. This was evident whenever we met; she never attempted to conceal it, but always favoured me with a special smile and a warm welcome.

We were perched on the top of a hill, part of the foothills of the Magaliesberg mountain range. The thatched roof bungalow with its surrounding porch was one of a cluster of five spread at random on a fifteen-acre piece of land close to the village of Broederstroom. Dirt tracks consisting of two ruts joined each house, they linking up to a single gravel road that finally met up with the main arterial asphalt highway a mile away. The road provided easy access to Lanseria Airport, twelve miles distant. Virgin African bush separated the bungalows, providing a feeling of privacy and tranquillity. Notwithstanding its close proximity to a major metropolis, it was home to a variety of indigenous fauna, kudu, duiker, warthog, and several species of wildcat. It was only the occasional Saturday night celebration, when the music filtered through the trees that served as a reminder that I had neighbours.

Already the dull grey light of dawn pervaded the bedroom; the hills were still shrouded in an early morning mist.

Francine turned to face me, placing her arm possessively over my chest, mumbling incoherently in her sleep, seemingly comfortable and without regrets.

For a few minutes, I just lay there my closed eyes, my face turned towards the ceiling as my thoughts dwelt on yesterday’s events. Things did not look good at all.

I turned to look at the woman again and winced. Christ, now I had her to add to my many problems! But then, I thought, that’s unfair. After all, it takes two to tango and no doubt, I had played my part: I could not recall anything, but I must have sent some strong signals. She would not think this a one-night stand, but rather a triumph in her persistent efforts to create a libidinal relationship in the hope that it would lead to something more permanent.

To aggravate the situation, our right hand lady at the office and Francine were bosom buddies. Our offices were an open door, and she was a regular visitor, there virtually every day to pay a short visit.

What had I been thinking last night?

“Morning,” she murmured with a slight smile, opening her eyes to slits, her tousled blonde hair cascading down one side of her face. Propped up on one elbow she innocently flaunted her breasts as she looked up at me. “Hi,” I grunted. “Look Francine, I’ve got a helluva day in front of me, I’ve got to be up.”

Careful now, I thought. Don’t create the impression that you regret what occurred and now wish to take flight.

For a few seconds she was quiet, still half-asleep, and then mumbled softly. “Are you sure? You don’t want to….?”

“No, no! I’ve got to move,” I protested, hoping I sounded convincing. A bit of nookie after last night would only aggravate the situation.

With that, I swung my legs out of the bed embarrassedly aware of my nakedness and walked to the adjoining bathroom. I turned the shower full on, juggling the temperature until the water was so hot it was barely bearable. I gritted my teeth and stepped under the shower-rose hoping the hot water would drive the cobwebs and unpleasant thoughts from my mind.

I had just stepped out of the shower when the phone rang.

“I hope you’ve remembered that we’re meeting with the bank at nine?” my partner snapped, dispensing with any greeting. Clearly, the man was annoyed about something.

I grunted a reply.

“I thought I’d phone early after seeing you leave the bar with that flying bimbo last night. My God, you should have seen yourself. It was damn obvious what you had in mind. Everybody watched you take advantage of her. Christ, Peter! I hope you didn’t drink anymore; I need you to be really lucid this morning. We need the bank! Are you ready to answer all their damn questions? I assume you’ve had enough sleep?” he asked sarcastically and then paused. ”Peter, this is serious stuff – please don’t fart-ass around!”

“For Christ’s sake, Gavin! Stop tryin’ to mother-hen me – I’m fine. I will be on time. And listen, don’t get derogative, okay?” I said irritably. There were times when I had trouble keeping my hands off him. ”I’ll see you at the bank fifteen minutes before the appointment!”

I spat an expletive and slammed the phone down.

Francine had risen from the bed. She was as beautiful naked as she had been the previous night dressed in her smart airhostess’ uniform. She passed me on the way to the bathroom and gave me a peck on the cheek. The relationship had clearly changed!

I rapidly dressed in a suit, not my normal daily attire but I thought a visit to the bank necessitated a good impression. I made coffee while I waited for Francine to dress. An early start was necessary, the traffic heavy in the early morning and I would have to drop her off at the airport. We both settled for no more than a slice of toast and coffee for breakfast. I chased two Advils with my coffee, hoping they would clear my throbbing head.

“Will I see you this evening?” she asked seated next to me in the SUV, her tight uniform skirt revealing a considerable amount of thigh. She lowered the sun-visor and started to touch up her makeup, staring at her face in the small mirror.

“I don’t know – that will depend very much on my bank manager,” I said suppressing an involuntary shudder. What she didn’t know was that a great deal more than seeing her or not would hinge on the bank manager!

Gavin and I owned a small aircraft taxi company called Executive Connections. The business operated out of Lanseria Airport, which is situated in the northern outskirts of Johannesburg. Our small fleet was comprised of a twin-engine Beechcraft Baron, a turbo-prop Cessna Caravan and a Piper Seneca. There were only two other employees – Shirley Owen and Mike Holloway. Shirley was a good-looking twenty-eight year-old single mother who at times took her job too seriously, assuming the role of matriarch while officially acting as receptionist, secretary, and accountant. She kept all of us, that is, Gavin, Mike and I in line – at times nearly driving us to distraction. Although not a partner, Mike Holloway was the business’ other essential element, he our mechanic and stand-in pilot when things really got busy.

Not that the company had been very busy during the last few months. The downturn in the economy had been exacerbated by the current winter, and to top it all, the tourist industry was at an all-time low.

Our business was on the skids; without a capital injection, liquidation was a distinct possibility. A ‘yes’ to our loan application with the bank was paramount; at this point: the rest just seemed incidental

“Should I first take you home?” I asked.

“No. I’ve a change of clothing at the airport – just take me to the office,” she smiled, and placed a hand on my thigh, slipping easily into her new role. This merely confirmed my fears.

I dropped her off in front of the Southern Airways administration office with a promise that I would phone her later.

I entered the bank to find Gavin already seated in the Manager’s reception area reading the morning paper, a tray with coffee and two cups on the coffee table in front of him. Three armchairs and a settee surrounded the small table weighed down with a stack of financial magazines. It appeared this was the only casual reading material banks provided for their waiting clients.

My partner was also dressed in a suit, but clearly not comfortable in it.

“Are you ready?” Gavin asked.

“You know..,” I closed my eyes for a second, shaking my head in frustration. “You’re a pain. Of course I’m bloody ready!”

I looked across at my friend and partner. We were both in our mid-thirties, I was thirty-five, – Gavin was a year older. We had both served in the South African Air Force, each having done a nine-year stint: that’s where our friendship had been forged.

Gavin emerged with the rank of major, but then he had been a fighter jockey, one of the glory boys, always promoted more rapidly. He even had a kill to his name, an Angolan Mig21F, which he had shot down just outside Luena, a Cuban air base in Moxico province in eastern Angola. I never made it beyond the rank of captain.

However, I would fervently dispute the fact that he was the better pilot!

Gavin was tall with a mop of blonde hair, which he usually kept cut short. It was only when he let it grow long that it became an unruly mop of curls. He had a ruddy complexion and easily prone to sunburn. He was meticulous by nature – everything had to be tidy and exact. He continuously worried about the business. His people skills were not good and he certainly was not the negotiating type, a man of too few words. Invariably he left the talking to me.

My approach to daily life was different; I inclined towards impetuousness, often having to back track. Still, I resolutely believed there always was a solution to any problem, it being merely a matter of applying your mind.

Gavin appeared the figure of an astute executive, his near six foot well-proportioned frame clothed in a dark blue business suit and stylish silk tie particularly striking. All he needed to do was relax.

I was two inches taller, my dark brown hair parted on the left. My face always displayed a hint of a five o clock shadow even after shaving in the morning. My complexion bordered on swarthy and my eyes were grey with a touch of green. In the sun, I quickly tanned to a golden brown. My physique was inclined to the lean – all sinews and hard muscle like a long-distance runner. My downfall was my mood swings: I was easily elated or depressed, my disposition said to be mirrored in my facial expressions. Many had branded me a true bachelor, never married or engaged but playing the field at every opportunity, careful to avoid getting emotionally involved with those in my inner circle.

Although I had flown a variety of aircraft, most of my military career I had spent with 42 Squadron based in Potchefstroom or Namibia/Angola and flying Aermacchi AM-3CM, an Italian designed high-wing single engine reconnaissance aircraft, known in South Africa as the “Bosbok”. The Air Force used the aircraft for ferrying top brass around in the combat zone, for casevac operations in the bush, and for the insertion and extraction of small elite commando units behind enemy lines.

The fighter pilots thought they were the real heroes, but our missions required guts and skill: the soldiers and bush reconnaissance troops, referred to as recces, held us in the highest esteem. Our squadron’s pilots had saved many lives, picking up the seriously wounded in the most difficult of places, in small clearings in the bush never intended for the use of winged aircraft, braving ground fire and surface-to-air missiles. In the bush war, returning to base with bullet holes in the wings and fuselage was more the norm than the exception. The magic product was Kevlar, the miracle fibre found in bulletproof vests capable of absorbing small-arms ground-fire, protecting the pilot and his passengers.

The receptionist approached.

“Mr Rose-Innes will see you now,” she said primly, leading the way down a short passageway to the left of her desk.

We entered the spacious office, and Rose-Innes came around from his large desk to shake our hands. He gestured to the chairs facing his desk. He was a short rotund man in a grey suit with thinning blonde hair, which barely covered his scalp. A pair of square-rimmed spectacles was perched on his nose.

“Tea or coffee?” he offered. We both declined.

“Gentlemen,” he began, “I’ve carefully studied the business plan and projections which you presented me with. I must admit that I find them impressive, but I must ask – are they achievable?” He paused expectantly.

“I drew them up and given time, as indicated in the projection therein, I believe those results to be possible.” I responded, hoping I sounded confident.

There was a moment’s silence.

“Well, I think not. I think you are too optimistic. The economy is in recession and even we in the Bank don’t know when it will recover. Economists predict it could take a year.” I was sure I could discern a tone of finality in Rose-Innes’ voice.

With a sinking heart, I realized where this was going.

“But we have offered you first class collateral to secure the loan. The property in question is fifteen acres in extent with several houses erected on it. The current mortgage has virtually been repaid – only a few thousand still outstanding,” I countered.

The manager clasped his hands together, steepling his fingertips in front of him.

“It’s not about security alone… but rather about affordability. That’s the catch phrase. Banks make loans with the intention of never having to enforce their guarantees. I’m not convinced we would not have to do so in your case. We are not sure your company will be able to repay its loan. It is a large sum of money you are looking for, and your business is too highly geared – your debt ratio is too high. Already you are hard-pressed to meet the monthly repayments on your aircraft.”

He paused dramatically.

“In fact, I believe you have already over-extended yourselves.”

It was a death knell – the bank was not going to help. This was no longer a crisis; we now faced a disaster. Without cash, the business would not survive another month. The next payments for the aircraft were due within a few days: once these payments were more than a month behind, the finance houses would initiate steps to repossess the aircraft. Then there was the outstanding fuel bill: this too was no small amount.

“Isn’t there anything you can suggest?” Gavin asked weakly.

I looked at him; he was pale, it was evident that the bank’s response had alarmed him too.

“I would suggest you reduce your fleet and so reduce your debt,” Rose-Innes replied.

I realized that to pursue this was a hopeless cause; the bank was not going to help.

I rose from my chair and thanked the manager for his time, feeling numb and in a near state of shock.

What were we to do now?

We crossed the banking hall and walked out onto the sidewalk.

“Come on, let’s find a coffee bar – we need to talk,” Gavin said, clearly agitated. We found a nearby coffee shop and took a table, ordering bottomless cups from the waiter.

Gavin looked across at me, his face pale; given his complexion, this made him near white.

“Of course, you know what you have to do now,” he said, his chin thrust forward aggressively; there was no mistaking that ‘you had better listen to me’ attitude.

“What do you mean – ‘I have to do’?” I responded with barely concealed irritation, clenching my jaw.

The man’s attitude irked me at times.

“You remember the offer you were made a while back when Trichardt mentioned those flights into Angola? Well, is there an alternative anymore? I don’t think so,” Gavin replied.

I was no longer able to conceal my annoyance. What arrogance! The current situation merely acted as a catalyst for my growing anger.

“Don’t be fuckin’ crazy! I’m not undertaking any clandestine flights, dogging Cuban Migs and SAM’s, no matter what’s offered. If you survive being shot down, nobody knows you… they just fuckin’ summarily shoot you – no prisoners. Besides that, nobody knows precisely what the South African government’s stance is on this – they could suddenly decide to arrest everybody. Christ man! Why me?”

Gavin ignored my outburst.

“Well.., you’ve done it before. Don’t forget, that’s how you got your share together to start our business in the first place! Trichardt has always been impressed with you. You’ve pulled off a couple of hairy missions for him and probably saved him a shitload of money – in fact, I know you have!” Gavin retorted vehemently.

“Dammit man! I’m glad to be still alive – a good reason not to do it again.”

“Fifty thousand Rand a flight? A couple of those and we would be out of the woods.” Gavin prevailed.

“Who says all flights pay fifty thousand Rand? Where did you hear that?” I replied angrily. There were moments when my partner could really piss me off and make me forget he was my friend as well. “Why me particularly?” I added

“Well, as I said, you’ve done it before. You’ve flown into hundreds of bush-strips. I always had ten thousand foot runways. You’ve a lot more experience – and you can get by in Portuguese.” Gavin retorted. Clearly, he was not about to let me off easily. I realized that he’d already given this a lot of thought.

I did not want to admit it but I knew he had a point; this was one way of getting the money together, and in a short time.

The support of the American CIA and South Africa for Savimbi’s UNITA movement was just one large grey area – nothing could be assumed; it all hinged on international politics at the time, which could be good today and bad tomorrow.

However, if the private sector, who was invariably paid well from Savimbi’s war coffers, proposed to fly in cargo, which included weapons for his movement, the South African government turned a blind eye as did the CIA – most of the cargo was government-sanctioned anyway. Nobody ever endeavoured to verify the cargo against the manifests. Mostly these were just bogus documents, the cargoes contained thereon innocuous; the South African government was not seen to be directly involved.

The world carefully watched South Africa: the country had no friends and was ostracized by most others in the world. Besides, I knew that Trichardt was well connected, and this opened a few government doors. No doubt, the man was a member of the Nationalist party and clearly also a member of the ruling Afrikaans establishment. Currently the government was kissing the CIA’s ass, probably one of the very few friends it had, even if the association was covert. It was no more than an association of convenience: helping UNITA suited South Africa as did it the CIA.

UNITA, covertly supported by the west, and SWAPO supported by the communist bloc, were enemies. SWAPO, the South West African rebel movement, waged a civil war against South Africa in neighbouring South West Africa/Namibia, demanding independence and a democratically elected government. That meant a government elected by all races, something apartheid South Africa opposed on principle!

“Christ! I don’t know. Just thinking about it scares the shit out of me – I’ve already done this once too often. If you’re shot down anywhere up there, you’ve got no friends, – you’re truly on your own,” I muttered.

“Com’on Peter, just speak to Trichardt… it can’t do any harm.”

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