It was Eritrea.  A country that was even more impoverished than the neighboring Ethiopia, but not as well advertised as being so bereft of money, or any of the niceties related to the possession or spending of money.  Asmara is the capital of Eritrea, not that more than a handful of Americans might know that fact.  Asmara also has the only international airport within the country’s confines.  

I flew into Asmara aboard Garuda Airlines, the main airline of Kenya, and expected to die before my arrival, as the pilots somehow confused flying for their own entertainment more important than getting passengers safely to a destination.  The pilots ‘buzzed’ the tower at the Asmara airport by flying the 737 at high speed past that tower but only about ten feet from it.  Most of the passengers aboard the full aircraft were entertained, but I wasn’t.  I was, however, completely helpless about reporting or commenting on the ridiculously stupid and dangerous act.  The elevation of Eritrea’s capital, at around 7600 feet, was a good five hundred feet higher than that of Santa Fe, New Mexico, the USA’s highest capital city.  The thin air at such an altitude also made the flying stunt even more hazardous.  

I rented a cab out in front of the airport after getting through a very cursory customs and security check.  The driver was kind and hauled my heavy pack and threw it into the cab’s trunk. The pack didn't hold much clothing, socks, toiletries or any of that.  I was to go to a point and wait thirty miles out of the capital, camped in a tent by the side of some river I’d never heard of, carrying in any food, water or other things I might need.  The taxi was one of those anonymous vehicles built without any adornment or comforts.  There was no interior so I kept my shirt and trousers close, as the windows and door levers and metal operating pieces were bare and sharp-edged.  

 I’d been given two grid coordinates, one indicating where a supposedly busy but unimproved road intersected with a path, and the other, nine miles deeper into the wooded bracken, where I was to set up my ‘camp,’ and where I was to wait for at least 24 hours, and not more than 72, for someone to show up and accept from me the package I’d been entrusted with.  

There had been similar missions in my past.  I always felt, as I did riding in the cab, which seemed to have no shock absorbers or springs, that such missions, exchanging information or giving it, could be so much easier and less noticeably conducted at cheap hotels or even the airport itself.  But I wasn’t in charge of such things, and, in fact, had no ability to complain later about no matter how successful or unsuccessful the mission went.  

 I was able to figure out where I was supposed to set up camp by pinpointing the coordinates on my Michelin map.  That was it.  However inaccurate my calculations might be was what I had to live with. Either the person or persons, picking up the package I carried, would find me or I’d wait three days and nights and return to the airport for transportation out of the dirt-poor country.  

My broken-English-speaking cab driver let me out after consulting the map and indicating he knew where the road crossed the path, and then not saying another word from then on, as if he often took idiotic Americans out into the brush to camp and never saw them again.  I tipped him a hundred dollars in local Nakfa currency which did get his full attention. He looked at the crisp new hundred and then handed me his card.  

 “Call me…need ride,” he said, in his very broken English.

How was I going to call him, I wondered, as I was miles from any telephone or developed area where such a device might be found and there was certainly no cell service, not that I had a cell phone on me.

“Come to get me in three days,” I said, holding out three fingers extended so he might be able to understand.  I wasn’t certain how long I’d be in my crummy bush camp but three days seemed like a good guess.  

“Three hunert,” the cab driver answered as if he understood me completely.

 “Three hundred,” I replied, wondering if it was anywhere near likely he’d show up and I’d be there for him to pick up if he did. I had plenty of the 100 Nakfa notes, however, as U.S. bills were mostly considered to be counterfeit throughout the country.

I watched the cab depart and then went to work hiking in the nine miles and setting up my camp down from the path next to a heavily running stream.  I unpacked the heavy pack that contained my tent, with a mosquito net built-in.  I didn’t have much of a supply of water but the stream was close by and I had Halazone tablets to purify the water.  I also had plenty of matches and other stuff to start a fire.  I reflected, while I worked, on how stupid some of my missions really were.  Why was I out in the country on a part of the planet I had absolutely no knowledge of? What was in the package I was carrying, relatively too thin to be anything but a few papers, and why was it required that I exchange it so far from any real civilization?  

I packed no weaponry, as Eretria wasn’t a war-torn country and whatever I was carrying (apparently) wasn’t something other potential forces might find worth going after in a terminal way.  Or, at least, so I hoped.  Getting guns into countries that didn’t allow outsiders to possess them, like the country I was in, was problematic.  I could have had the Agency send me armament through exempt diplomatic packages but then, the Agency was the organization indicating I didn’t need defensive armament.  I rigged the tent, dug a latrine-style trench to use for bathroom purposes, and then built a fire.  It was evening by the time I was done.  In February, the month I was in, the temperature was seventy-two during the day and fifty-nine at night.  I could deal very well with those relatively mild exposures.  

I’d already done my homework on the weather and times.  Eretria was much like Hawaii in February.  Sunrise at about seven and sunset also at about seven.  No problems there.

I  sat by the small fire lit more for comfort and warmth, my ‘chair’ a clustered bunch of pine branches packed together with the single spool of string I’d thought to purchase in the airport while I was waiting for the cab.  

The fire went out on its own, as I sat there, listening to the stream nearby gurgle away.  The bush area where I was wasn’t an unpleasant or dangerous place I realized, although mosquitos were beginning to make their presence felt.  I climbed into the small ten, zipped up the mosquito-proof nets, uncoiled the thin mattress and fell asleep.  

Dawn came with a gentle wind. I felt the moving air swish through the mosquito nets and I breathed deeply.  I looked to my right, where my clock was set up, and the single small battery-powered lamp I possessed waiting to be turned on.  There was no necessity to turn the lamp on, however, as the dawn was building and soft light ‘glowed’ into the tent’s interior.  

Leaning toward the little area where the clock and lamp sat.  I stopped, midway through my torso’s movement.  I was frozen in place.  A snake lay coiled and asleep, or so I perceived, right next to where I lay.  It didn’t move at all.  Its large head was centered inside the coil. I knew what it was almost immediately.  It was a King Cobra, the most dangerous poisonous viper on the planet.  Its bite, injecting up to two full ounces of nerve poison, was almost instantly deadly to all other animals it might encounter. It had to be a King because of its size.

The snake was coiled, but its core diameter at mid-body had to be at least four inches. The snake was a huge specimen.   I moved, ever so slowly, to get some distance from the deadly viper.  It moved its head slightly in reaction to my moving, seemingly gazing at me in stony silence.  I stared back.  The snake didn’t move further or change its position in any way that I could perceive or observe. 

I climbed backward out of the tent, then turned to make my way up the slight hill toward the path.  I squatted down by a tree trunk to think.  How was I to remain in the area when such a potentially deadly predator ruled that area and appeared totally unafraid of me?  Taking some time, I finally decided to work my way back toward the tent.  When I finally felt I had enough courage, I breathed deeply and looked through the opening and closing edge of the tent’s waving door material.  The snake was gone.  I carefully searched the whole structure.  The bottom of the tent was sewn in, so nothing, not even a mosquito could get out that way.  I went back to the door and stepped out.  There was nothing.  The King Cobra was gone.  My relief was palpable.  

I spent the day gathering more twigs and wood for a fire but making sure not to overdo it.  When I left the area anything I gathered would have to be gotten rid of.  I frequently hiked the short distance back up to the path, in search of whatever conveyance my contact might be arriving in, but there was nothing.  The day ended as the one before, except, as I was a sweaty mess, I took off my clothes and went swimming in the clear cool water of the passing stream.  I dried before my second small fire and say on my makeshift chair until the sun was all but gone.  

When I retired to the inside of the tent I made sure to zip everything tight and pull the lamp close to my side before laying on the thin ‘mattress’ and falling asleep.  

I slept through the night and was awakened by the weak light of dawn.  I lay on my back, wondering if, somehow, the snake from the night before was some sort of hallucination.  I very slowly turned my head, moving no other part of my body.  I shivered.  The snake was there again, just like before, and its coil had expanded to the point where my light was pushed against the tent wall.  The creature’s head moved, almost in response to my own movement.  I followed the pattern of exiting the tent I’d successfully used the day before.  Once outside, I again went up the hill to be a safe distance away. I was afraid to go down to the stream, as the snake probably considered that part of his predatory territory.  I didn’t know much about snake behavior but I knew plenty about predator behavior. 

When I went back to the tent the snake was gone, just like the previous morning.  How it had gotten into the tent with the think all zipped up I didn’t know and couldn’t figure out.  Its exit was simpler to figure out.  When I left it left using the open-door flap.

I spent the morning up near the path, always looking out for the snake while I waited for my contact to arrive.  Finally, just after noon, a vehicle became visible, moving in my direction.  The vehicle came into full view and I stood up.  It was a new Rover, one of the neat, short, and cool-looking ones. 

The Rover stopped, and it didn't take any time at all to realize I was more than likely wrong about the occupants having anything to do with being my contacts.

The three men who got out of the Land Rover Defender were attired in costume.  The costumes they were wearing were for sale in some of the major cities all across Africa, where any hunting (by weaponry or camera) was done by private safari. Tan Khaki trousers and shirts,  vests of heavier material with lots of zippers and pockets, and then the same ‘signature’ bush hats wherein the maker of the hats promised sincerely that the hats had been eaten by elephants and then passed through their systems without being digested.  The hats made me grin.  There were not enough elephants in all of Africa dumb enough to consistently eat cotton hats, but the inexperienced ‘hunters couldn’t know that.  The seven-dollar hats cost $250 almost universally, no matter where you got them.  The blue Rover was impressive, and the money the men spent on costuming confirmed their high status.  Status at something, and the something wasn’t looking good.

“Your tent?” the big smiling man at the front of the three asked, needlessly.

There was likely nobody within twenty miles of our location, unless the messenger picking up the package turned him anytime soon, which he wouldn’t even if he was close because the blue Defender stuck out like a sore thumb where it was parked.  

I said nothing, nor did I move.  I watched the three.  I was in a very bad General Sun Tzu position.  One of Sun’s early dictums, written thousands of years before my time, was ‘never fight at or on the battlefield of your enemy’s choice.”  I was waiting in a place I had not chosen and that potential ‘battlefield’ most certainly belonged to the three hunters, or whatever they really were.  I analyzed them as closely as I could, while we stood in uncomfortable silence. There were no scuffs on their costumes, no sweat marks on their laughable boonie hats, and no mud on their expensive boots.  

The man in front, and obviously in charge, pointed at the tent with the most casual and slight gesture of his rifle.   

“Get inside, and we’ll have a private chat,” the man said, his big phony smile appearing across his well-tanned face. 

The other two men laughed, almost silently, but their seeming humor in his comment, so easily and detectably expressed, told me all I needed to know.  There was no reason to talk inside the tent, except the enclosure would lessen the hearing of my potential screams.  They would want the package, I knew, which was buried down by the side of the stream, but not in a place I wouldn’t surrender under extreme and terminal torture.  They obviously knew the package hadn’t been picked up, which meant their surveillance of me had been much more effective than mine.

 “Saw your fire last night,” the big man said, pointing out a mistake I’d made, as I backed through the open entrance.

I flicked my head to one side quickly, catching sight of the coiled cobra, a snake that would very quickly be shot full of holes if the men saw him.  I hunched down, grabbed my light bush blanket, and tossed it over the snake’s flat body.  

 “Don’t touch anything else,” the man ordered, stepping fully inside, the smile gone from his face, and the barrel of the rifle now pointing at my center of mass.  

I froze in place, looking for any advantage I might possibly have in the situation, but quickly concluding that there was none.

The two men followed their leader inside and stood, one on either side of him across the small space of tent from me.

“We want what you got, then we leave nice and quietly,” the man to the leader’s right side stated.

 “Shut up,” the bigger man commanded, his eyes never leaving my own. “I’ll ask the questions here,” even though his man hadn’t asked one. 

I moved very gently, to the side of the tent’s nylon wall, as well as just a tiny bit closer to the man who’d spoken out of turn.

“Get back,” the big man yelled glancing at both of his men, as he turned and backed toward the other wall, now across from me. 

I raised my hands, fighting for time.  I knew they wouldn’t likely shoot me out of turn.  I was going to become collateral damage, however, when they got hold of the package.  I knew I was the prey and they were the predators.  The leader was trained, his men not so much.  He knew that if I got close enough, and I was a real player like him, it would take little effort for me to get his man’s rifle.  Even that would have taken an instant in time, however, and I now knew I wouldn’t be given that instant because the big man would shoot me if he judged me to be a serious threat, package or no package.

As the three jumbled together, all coming into contact with the opposing tent wall, they lost a little balance because the nylon offered near-zero resistance.  The man on the leader’s right moved a little away from the tent surface.  I watched in strange shock as the man’s right foot wedged against the Cobra’s coiled form.  He then pushed away toward me but not enough for me to grab his weapon.  

I watched the Cobra shed the thin blanket and rise behind the man.  Nobody else noticed.  Without a hiss, but rising almost four feet into the air, the cobra’s hood expanded out from the sides of its head, and the snake struck the man full in his back.  The man screamed.

 “I’ve been hit!” he shouted, going to his knees and trying to claw at his back.  

The leader turned his head to see where a bullet might have come from but then froze into complete paralysis, as he stared straight into the ferociously uncaring eyes of the King Cobra.  The snake struck straight into his chest.

I moved, while the third man to the leader's left turned to see what was going on. I grabbed the nearest right-side man’s rifle by the barrel, jerked it out of his fast-dying hands, turned, raced the few feet to where the left-side man still stood in shock, and struck him across the side of his head.  I put as much into the well-leveraged hit as I could, and felt bone and cartilage give way.  The man collapsed, while the leader still teetered on his feet.  The snake settled back down as I tried to take in the scene.  The leader turned around fully to stare near-blindly into my eyes.  

“What happened?” he slurred out.  

I realized the snake’s venom, however much of it the Cobra had decided to dispense, had gone in deep into a spot very near to the man’s heart.  The two distinct holes, each about the size of a .38 Caliber revolver round didn’t bleed, but the effects of the damage were very evident.

There was no answer necessary to the man’s question, as I had to jump back to avoid his falling body.  In seconds, I’d gone from being very likely tortured to death with the three professional players (totally out of their element) to a position where the three lay dead or dying at my feet.  I knew Sun Tzu’s military manual by heart and nowhere in it had there been anything about snakes, much less a monster King Cobra that hadn’t even bothered to hang around and do me in, as well.  Thinking of the Cobra, I brought the rifle up to check and see if there was a round in the chamber.  The barrel was engraved with the words “Mannlicher Schoenauer .243.”  I’d never handled such a wonderful hunting rifle before, mostly only military stuff as I wasn’t into hunting animals unless they were human.  I pulled up and back on the bolt and a cartridge spun out.  I grabbed it in mid-air and then fed it back into the chamber.  I checked the safety.  The small lever on the left side of the rifle was pulled back.  The man had not released the safety.  That gave me another clue. Although the men were obviously players, they hadn’t had a full background on me or my time in the service, or they’d never have expected me to go along on mere threats while the safeties on any of their guns were engaged.

I searched the tent for the snake, as I’d lost track of it with all the murderous commotion.  No cobra.  Once more the overly-large slithering beast had disappeared, which didn’t seem to make any sense but was, once again, unavoidably good news.  I checked the bodies lying before me.  The man who’d been bitten first was dead, as was the leader.  I couldn’t get a pulse from any of them.  I took my time searching for them. The men had no passports, wallets, or anything else that might identify them in their pockets, as expected.  Only the leader had a Rover key fob in his front vest pocket.  I examined the fob for a bit.  Maybe I’d have more luck searching their vehicle.  The bodies had to go, partially because I wasn’t going to dig big holes for them but also because I simply didn’t want to have them around.  The mission was still the mission and the incident had done nothing to negate that, unless my expected contact had seen the Defender, and knew I didn’t have a vehicle.  No matter what, I had to wait out my time, which meant the bodies had to go and Defender with them.

I set the rifle aside.  So far, the King Cobra hadn’t proven to be a threat to me, and I didn’t expect it to return and become aggressive, so I put the beautifully made Mannlicher aside.  The other men’s guns were more pedestrian and cheaper.  One was a Remington 30-06 and the other a Mossberg in the same caliber.  Hauling the bodies to the Rover was hard work.  I used my blanket to place them on, and then dragged them one by one to where the Defender sat.  There was nothing in the vehicle, which I searched once I got the first man close to it.  I hadn’t expected to find anything.  The men were pros.  There wasn’t even a registration certificate or any of that, which meant it was probably stolen.  If it was then that would have been another mistake the team made, as it was hard to miss spotting such a distinctive car.  That they carried no backup hand guns was surprising, almost as if they expected no real trouble on their mission or were being terribly careful to maintain their ‘big white hunter’ cover.   

I pulled the second man to the Defender, then went down for the third. I was getting winded.  In the heat, hauling hundreds of pounds of dead meat was exhausting.  

I was shocked to find the third man gone when I got back.  There was no trail of blood, so he’d thought to use some piece of my clothing or his vest to bandage himself, but he hadn’t taken any of the rifles, and he hadn’t lain in wait to shoot me upon my return.  I grabbed the Mannlicher and ran out of the tent to look around but could find nothing.  I stopped to think for a few seconds.  I’d hit the man hard and viciously in the head with a rifle butt.  He was alive but not thinking clearly, probably running more from the unbelievable horror of the snake’s appearance and deadly performance than me. However, security came first.  I hauled the remaining rifles up to the Defender, pulled the back open, and worked to get both bodies inside the rear boot, then locked the thing up.

The berserk wounded man had to be found and dealt with.  If my contact showed and I wasn’t there he’d wait, I knew, so there was no necessity of writing a note or leaving any clue as to my whereabouts.  The thick bush-filled forest that ran along the side of the deep stream was the only place that man could have gotten away to, the rest of the area being covered in low-growing grass or ground cover of some sort.  I was completely unaware and unknowing of the fauna and flora existing in Eritrea.

I thought about the wounded man.  I could drive the Defender around all over the place but never penetrate the forest deep enough to find him.  The badly wounded man would have the stream of fresh water to drink from, and an ambient temperature to exist in without additional clothing or cover to support his survival, if not his comfort.  

I hoofed it from the Rover back to my encampment near the water in order to make sure that I’d left nothing to chance there, in case the man backtracked upon recovering some of his sanity, which I calculated he’d lost a good bit of from being struck so hard by the butt of the Mannlicher.

There was no good trail, I realized immediately in scouting the area.  I had to go with my instincts until I found something physical to support my search.  The stream, I realized, was the key.  I went down the embankment on my side and began to look for anything I could find.  A good mile downstream I finally found something.  The forward parts of two footprints.  The man had stepped partially into the sandy mud bottom of the passing water to get a drink, wash his wounds, or whatever.  He had to be nearby.  I knew, what with the strength, I’d put into swinging the hard, heavy butt of the rifle, that he wouldn’t be going far without help.  And he had no help left.  A team like he’d been a part of didn’t travel with backup, as in almost all cases, the predetermination and planning of the mission almost invariably invested in the quality, training, and experience of the team sent in.  The team should not have, and likely hadn’t received, any backup or ‘Plan B’ options.  Only operations as well-funded and large as the CIA could afford to have a total backup, intelligence, ingress and egress plans, and the trained personnel to back them up.  The three assassins had not been CIA.  

I found the man only moments later, propped up against the trunk of a tree overhanging the water.   The undamaged part of his head was pressed into the trunk of the tree, but his eyes were open and staring out at me.  I crept up, still not certain what I might face in the way of armed or unarmed aggression.  I’d already underestimated his capability once.  

“You going to shoot me, with my own gun, no less?” he asked, his voice little more than a whisper.  “My head hurts so much where you hit me.”

I’d been in Vietnam.  I’d killed untold numbers of people, both enemy and supposedly friendly.  I’d been a team leader of ‘wet workers’ with the CIA for many years, in addition.  I was no stranger to the violent application of force in almost any circumstance.  

“I’m not going to kill you,” I replied, laying the rifle across my lap as I sat down before him, far enough away so as not to be reached or surprised without being able to take fatal action if it was called for.  

The real problem was what I might do with him.  There was no place in the mission for such a situation.  I wanted to walk away and leave him behind, which I might have done if the package had been picked up and the mission was over, but my contact had not yet arrived and so the mission wasn’t over. 

“This was my first time,” the man said.  

“I understand,” I replied, not knowing what else to say.  There would be no making the man feel better to know that new men and women in combat almost all died, and really quickly. 

“Where did you get a partner like that snake from hell?” he asked, surprising me.  “Nobody has a snake like that for a partner, not that I’ve ever heard of.”  The man moaned and pressed the good side of his harder into the tree trunk.  

“My name’s Sam, and I’m not going to make it, am I?” he asked.

There was no advanced medical help available for hundreds of miles, I knew, and the man’s injuries were nearly mortal in appearance.  

“It’s not looking good,” I agreed, sorry to say the words.  

“What’s your name, and will you remember me?  He asked as his eyes grew larger and he stared into my own.  Those staring lonely eyes slowly began to fade in brightness before I could reply.  In seconds he was dead, his gaze fixed forever. 

“Arch Patton,” I whispered, “and yes, I’ll remember you, Sam.” I knew I’d remember that he’d kept the safety of the Mannlicher on.  He hadn’t wanted to kill me, and that alone deserved some place in my memory. 

I didn’t move to close his eyes or make any kind of Hollywood finality moves.  I rose to my feet, holding the rifle, and then began to head for the camp.  I’d have to get the blanket, come back, and then drag his lifeless body up through the trees and brush to a position close enough to the veld where the Defender could be driven in to allow me to get him inside.  I had a plan.  I’d drive the Defender into the forest as far as I could in low four-wheel drive.  I’d put Sam behind the wheel as if he’d been killed in the crash.  The other two men I’d distribute on both sides of the vehicle.  Both had been killed by a King Cobra, which wouldn’t make much sense at all but the cause of their death couldn’t be attributed to having been the work of human means.  Upon eventual discovery, the whole thing would likely be attributed to crazy visiting hunters having no idea what the outback of Eritrea was really like.  Or so I hoped.  I did not need to be barred from Eritrea for life, put on some list for arrest all over Europe by Interpol, or worse.  I had no idea of the extradition rules and agreements that existed between the country I was in and my own really were.  

All three bodies were jammed into the small metal cavern formed by the rear bodywork of the Defender.  A Nissan pickup truck arrived, almost out of nowhere at all, as I was slamming the back gate.  It stopped fifty meters away back from the Rover.  I picked up the Mannlicher, turned to face the truck, and held the rifle at the ready, hoping my contact was inside the vehicle, and the strange, frightening, and eerie mission might finally be about to be over.  

A man steeped out through the driver’s door that he’d flung open

‘It’s me,” he said, ignoring any introductory protocol of identification and verification usually used by agents coming together in the field who didn’t know one another.  

There was little question about who the man was, just by his showing up and saying what he’d said.  That he wore the same fake ‘safari’ costume as the dead assassins know in the trunk of the Defender even made sense.  He wasn’t out of place, I was, not that it made any difference out on the veld where we were. 

I dipped the tip of the rifle’s barrel toward the ground between us.  

“Come take a look,” I said, motioning behind me toward the Rover with my head, my eyes still not leaving the man whom I presumed was my contact.  

“Jason Reed,” the man said, walking toward me, “late of NSA, or communications director at the embassy in Asmara.”

“No wonder,” I breathed under my breath.  

The man was an analyst making believe he was a field agent with a diplomatic agency that was about as foreign to actually ‘boots on the ground’ field work as the man in the moon.  

Reed peered through the back window of the Rover and instantly recoiled backward a few steps. 

“Dead?” he asked, his face ashen in color.

“Yes,” I replied, “two by strikes from a giant King Cobra.”

I sighed deeply then.  I wouldn’t have allowed him to look inside the Rover if I’d heard his credentials in time.  Telling him about the violence of the earlier contact with the men would have sufficed, and would have prevented the look of barely harnessed terror still evident in the agent’s facial expression.  

“Come on, let’s get your package and you out of here,” I said, holding the rifle in my left hand while grabbing Jason by his canvas coat and pulling him away from the vehicle, and then heading for my disheveled tent resting lopsided by the passing water. 

“A giant King Cobra,” Jason commented, the animal’s existence pulling his mind away from the three dead bodies he’d sort of seen.  “Killed two full-grown men, just like that?” he went on, the tone of his voice one of amazement.  “There aren’t any cobra snakes in this country.  Not a one.  It’s way too dry.”

I rummaged in the collapsed tent, making sure there was no snake anywhere inside the thing that I could detect.  I found my child-like foxhole-digging shovel and immediately headed for the river’s edge.  Jason followed me, as I approached the only big rock visible at the water’s edge.  It took only a few minutes to dig down and retrieve the clear plastic bag the package was inside of.

Jason tore the plastic open, throwing the torn material toward the river.

I immediately retrieved the damaged bag.  There could be no external evidence that anyone was ever here.  When I tore the tent down I knew I’d have to spend very valuable time making sure the area was as pristine as I could make it.  I felt that I was at ground zero, waiting for the arrival of an already launched nuclear device.

Jason began walking up the bank toward his truck, opening the package as he went.

“President Twerki is going to be voted in, based on this stuff,” he murmured, “which means we’ll have total control of this whole country.”

Following Jason, up the hill, I shook my head in disdain.  What Jason was telling me was no doubt classified at the highest levels, and ergo the very strange method of its arrival into NSA hands.  I knew Eritrea had a president, but I didn’t know his name, although I felt I probably now did.  I’d arrived in the country in a literal ‘heated rush,’ with no time to do a proper research background on the culture or any demonstrable features of a society I’d never visited before.

Jason stopped and turned as he got to the side of the Nissan truck’s open door.

“This will be a great cover,” he said, waving the open package toward the Rover.  “Two guys were killed by a King Cobra and the other died when the Rover drove into the trees because the survivor was trying to get them to medical care.

The native authorities, such as they are here, will hunt that King Cobra down and use it as evidence to support the story.  You’re an amazing field agent to come up with something like that, but then that’s what they said about you.  Never a dull moment.”

 “Am I riding out with you?” I asked, wondering if the man really knew anything at all about me or was simply making stuff up as he went, as a reaction to being so terrified earlier.

“Nah, this is too critical and there’s no way, if I get pulled over between here and the embassy, that I’ll be able to pass muster with you aboard,” Jason replied.  “You look like a lost and dumb American who tried to go native and it didn’t work out.  Nice cover.  Brush out my tire tracks as best you can in this soft stuff before I hit the road.”

 He started the truck’s engine and slowly began backing up the way he’d come, without attempting to turn around.  He stared over his right shoulder to stay on course, and never looked back.  

I decided to start the cleanup at the river’s edge, contemplating, while I worked to disguise the storage hole I’d made earlier, the thought of having to make the hike again, a distance of almost ten miles, with a fifty-pound pack on my back,

I sat back to consider the covering job when I was done, my little shovel in one hand and cradling the Mannlicher in the crook of my other arm.  I looked downriver and saw a ribbon curling through the water, easily beating the current as it moved in my direction.  I didn't move.  I gripped the rifle closer but made no move to raise it to a more defensive position.  The King Cobra was coming back.

The large sinuous creature moved directly in toward the bank, slipping right up and over from where I sat, before slowly and finally forming itself into the coil I was familiar with.  The King’s head was pointed directly at me, its pure black eyes, without pupils, staring.  It did not blink, as it, like all snakes, had no eyelids, only a protective clear scale-type material protecting its eyes.  I realized that the snake was no threat, and likely had never been a threat.  It had probably associated with other humans, given its immediate and continued acceptance of my presence and its obvious comfort with being close by to anywhere I was.  It was also likely that some human had transported the cobra to where it has currently taken up part of the riverbank as its territory.  

I slowly got up and retreated back to the tent area.  It took almost a full hour to cleanse the site as best I could, fold the tent, and make frequent trips back down to the stream to toss in items that wouldn’t float, like the shovel, left-over food cans, and even my extra pair of leather boots.  My New Balance tennis shoes would have to do, as I had to make time, back down the path toward the road crossing it nine miles away, once the remainder of my plan was implemented.  

When the snake reappeared, it didn’t take me long to think about the simple fact that I couldn’t leave the Rover with the men’s bodies posed inside the crashed vehicle to resemble snake-bit hunters having an auto accident on the way to being driven to an aide station.   The cobra had saved my life. It had also ‘taken me in,’ in its way, or at least the way I saw it.  I couldn’t leave the area and allow the snake to take the heat and eventually die when the upset locals finally came upon the scene. 

When I was done cleaning the area I dragged the thirty-pound, or so, pack up the hill, set it down nearby, and leaned the Mannlicher against the side of the vehicle.  I pulled out my Marine K-Bar knife from its scabbard, found a suitably-sized rock, and went to work implementing my new plan.  It took a few minutes to punch the tip of the K-Bar through the gas tank, located forward of the rear bumper by some substantial margin, which surprised me.  I left the knife inserted into the tank, crawled out from under the Rover, and went to my pack.  In seconds, I had it open and was holding my canteen-holder cup bare in my hand.  I opened the driver’s door of the Defender, turned on the ignition, and then depressed the driver’s door window button until the glass-bottomed out in the slot.  I slammed the door, took the canteen holder cup, and crawled back under the vehicle.  I pulled out my knife from the whole I’d pounded through the tough sheet-pressed steel of the tank and filled the container, before shoving the K-Bar back into the hole and working myself up from under the chassis.  I poured the liquid into the interior of the Defender, making ten more trips to do the same.  Only in movies did a person open the gas tank cover, stuff a cloth down the tank filling pipe, and light it with the result of an ensuing fire and then a huge explosion.  In real life that didn’t work at all.  The cloth would simply go out eventually.  

The Rover had to burn and burn violently for the causes of death of the men inside not to be truly known.  There would be no decent cover story, not as effective as the first one would have been, but then, if my plan worked, and I was fast enough on my feet and lucky enough to find transport when I got to the road, then it wouldn’t matter, at least not to me and not to the cobra.  

I opened the driver’s door again after I was done transferring as much gas as I thought it would take to do the job. I opened the other windows in order to allow plenty of air to be available to increase the heat intensity of the vehicle’s burning interior, and eventually the exterior, as well.  

I reached into my pack again, this time pulling out a dirty T-shirt. I touched the cotton material onto the seat of the Rover after balling it up as best I could.  I needed only a little bit of the accelerant with the material, so as to avoid burning myself when the fire lit off.  I pulled the pack back to the edge of the path and laid the rifle across it before stepping over to the driver’s door, ducking down to avoid the initial ignition, and then lighting the edge of the T-shirt with a match pulled from my waterproof pocket box and scraped across the lid.

I lit the balled shirt and tossed it through the window, started to duck back down but was literally blown to my knees by the huge ‘whoomph’ of the atomized gas going up all at once.  I crawled to an erect position, checking to make sure my hair hadn’t been signed off.  It hadn’t been.  I strapped the pack to my back, grabbed the rifle, and turned toward the river, my back beginning to grow hot from the building fire behind me.

The King Cobra was back in the water I saw, heading downstream, the explosion’s concussion wave probably disturbing it.  

“Goodbye, my friend,” I said out loud, knowing that the King couldn’t hear and understand it likely could never understand if it did hear. I began loping forward along the path toward the road, leaning into the load, the rifle strapped to my right shoulder.  I looked ahead and realized I hadn’t made any effort to brush out my contact’s tire tracks but merely shrugged as I ran.  The tire tracks were his problem, potentially, not mine.  The spire of black smoke from the fire was my problem, as I gained speed, hoping to outrun it.  Either the cab would be back, as it was my third day on the mission, or I’d have to bribe some passing local or bus driver.  I thought of the snake as I ran, wondering about life and the passing through it with the accumulation of such strange companionship if that was what it could be called. 

              

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