Elizabeth Lowell

Innocent as Sin

For Margaret and Roy

Yeah, sure, you betcha!



Late March

Wearing dirty camouflage gear, boots, and insect repellent, Rand McCree crouched behind the tattered grass blind. His camera’s extreme-long-distance lens filled the hole cut in the loosely woven grass. Even though the sun was barely above the eastern horizon, Rand was sweating. He didn’t notice it. In the Democratic Republic of Camgeria, whether it was tropical coastland or scrubby interior, men sweated. It was how they knew they were alive.

Through the camera lens Rand watched the rebels-or freedom fighters, depending on your politics-wait next to heavy trucks parked just off the south end of the miserable, barely scraped dirt strip that passed for a runway in this part of Africa.

Next to him, his twin jerked, kicking the AK-47 lying between the two men.

“Settle down,” Rand said softly. “The plane will be along eventually.”

“Something bit me,” Reed muttered.

“Are your shots current?”


“Then what are you bitching about?”

“I feel like a bush blood bank.”

Rand smiled. “You are.”

“How did I let you talk me into this?”

“Me? You were the one going on about a lifetime opportunity to get a picture of the most dangerous, mysterious arms trader since-”

“Yeah, yeah,” Reed interrupted. “Don’t remind me.”

“Not more than twice a day.”

“More than that. At least twice since-”


Reed shut up and heard the whining growl of turboprops. He raised his powerful binoculars and began searching the dusty sky in the direction of the sound.

“Got him,” he said to his twin. “Coming in at three o’clock, flying low. And I mean low.” He whistled softly through his teeth. “That’s a ballsy pilot. Or a drunk. His gear is raking leaves.”

“Just one of the problems of flying without filing a flight plan.” Rand concentrated on getting the unmarked, unlighted Ilyushin Il-4 in focus as it approached the dirt strip. “Keep an eye on the countryside. We don’t want to explain what we’re doing here.”

“Nobody would ask,” Reed said. “They’d just shoot us.”

“Like I said-”

“He’s going straight in,” Reed interrupted, excitement in his voice. “You got him?”

“Yeah. Watch that you don’t flash sunlight off your binocular lenses.”

“Kiss mine. We’re going to nail the Siberian’s baby-killing ass.”

Rand grinned. The thing about having an identical twin was that he was…identical. You talked to each other because you could. But it wasn’t necessary. He’d do what you’d do in his place.

No thought required.

The plane leaped into focus. No insignia. No numbers. No identifying marks at all.

Surprise, surprise.

Silently Rand went to work.



Early morning

The man known only as the Siberian sat behind the copilot and watched the scrubland flash by at eye level on both sides of the plane. At the last possible instant, the Ukrainian pilot lifted the Ilyushin’s nose and slammed the metal bird onto the rough dirt runway with the sound of someone whacking a tin coffin with a baseball bat.

The turboprops reversed hard and spooled up, screaming like the undead. The plane bucked and humped on the rough dirt surface. Red dust swirled up from the wheels and the prop wash, sticking to the smears of hydraulic fluid that covered both wings of the aircraft. The first direct rays of the sun turned the smears into blood.

Cargo trucks waited. So did heavily armed men. They hadn’t flinched when the plane passed barely five feet above their heads.

Sweating, cursing in two languages, the pilot and copilot wrestled with the controls. Between them, they kept the plane rubber side down in the middle of the narrow strip. Sweat darkened the men’s blue coveralls. The aircraft was overloaded and undermaintained, a flying death sentence waiting to be executed.

Any sweat on the Siberian came from the heat slamming into the cockpit from the outside. Compared to what waited behind them on the runway, the shuddering, straining landing of the plane was caviar and toast points.

Halfway down the dirt runway, brakes and reversed props finally won out over momentum. A hundred yards short of the runway’s end, the plane sat down heavily on its gear and settled into a more predictable shake, rattle, shimmy, and roll. The pilot cranked the nose wheel and reversed course, beginning the long taxi back to where the men waited.

“Nyet,” the Siberian said.

The pilot didn’t argue. He might be the number one flyboy, but he knew who owned the plane.

“Keep your engines running but hold this position,” the Siberian continued in Russian. He unsnapped the harness that was barely big enough to contain his massive chest. “Make the bastards come to us.”

He stood up and leaned forward, watching the trucks and men nearly half a mile away.

“You think it’s a trap?” the copilot asked him nervously.

“Life is a trap.”

With that he crouched down and looked through the windscreen with binoculars, studying the trucks. After some indecision, their drivers had started up and were heading for the aircraft, trailing streamers of dust. Most of the vehicles were grinding along the edge of the runway, but one of the drivers used the runway itself.

It could be an innocent mistake.

It could be intentional. Lethal.

The Siberian yanked a hand radio from the hip pocket of his white jungle suit. He keyed the microphone and snarled in English, “Tell that idiot to clear the runway, or we’ll take off right now.”

“Oh, yaasss, b’wana,” a voice replied over the radio in singsong English.

“No insolence, Da’ana, or I’ll cut your heart out and feed it to those pagans.”

The radio popped softly as the man at the other end of the transmission keyed his microphone, acknowledging the command from his boss.

“Stay in the cockpit,” the Siberian ordered the pilot in Russian. “Keep the brake set and power on the props.”

“What if one of the rebels backs into them?” the pilot asked.

“Haven’t you heard? Stupidity is a capital crime.”

He turned and growled orders into the cargo area, using serviceable Bulgarian. The Bulgarian loadmaster began undogging the wide double doors just in back of the cockpit.

The Siberian grabbed an Israeli-made submachine gun from beneath the jump seat and headed back into the cargo area. He stood in the open doorway while the first truck arrived and backed into position, its tailgate lined up level with the floor of the plane’s cargo area.

Two lean, bare-chested black Africans in tattered camouflage shorts sat in the back of the truck. Beneath their thin butts were burlap bags crammed full of cargo. One of the guards held a Kalashnikov casually in one hand. The other had a Russian-made sniper’s rifle slung over his shoulder.

The Siberian switched frequencies, lifted the hand radio to his mouth, and spoke to the rebel commander in French. “I take off in twenty minutes. If you want your merchandise, work fast.”

A second truck pulled up beside the first. A gang of sweating black laborers jumped down and mounted the first vehicle. Quickly they boosted heavy burlap bags into the cargo bay and started to scramble aboard the aircraft.

The Siberian made sure they all got a good look at his Uzi. The laborers held out empty hands to show they were unarmed, then began moving the bags forward, stacking them against the bulkhead. When the first truck was empty, the Siberian kicked the bags loaded aboard the plane, found them full and heavy, and stepped aside. The laborers removed five of the twenty heavy wooden crates stowed in the rear of the cargo area and loaded them in the truck.

Within three minutes, the first truck had been unloaded, reloaded, and was pulling out.

The Siberian watched while the first truck drove away and a second backed into position. The two armed guards in cammie shorts stayed in position beside the new load while the laborers repeated their tasks.

Smoking a cigarette, watching the surrounding land, the Siberian prowled back and forth in the cargo bay. The sun was well up over the horizon. The heat of equatorial Africa rose from the ground like an invisible shroud. White Eastern Europeans and black Africans alike sweated and exchanged cargoes without a hitch. No one was new to this game.

As the fourth truck unloaded, the Bulgarian stopped a laborer and used a sheath knife to rip a hole in the heavy burlap bag the man carried. He pried a black stone out of the slit and held it up for the Siberian to inspect.

“What you think? Is it coltan?” the Siberian asked in Bulgarian, one of his six languages.

The loadmaster shrugged. “You tell me.”

“It’s coltan.” He stubbed out his cigarette on the cargo floor and went to the doorway. “They know better than to shit on the Siberian.”

Or on his Russian backers.

Not to mention Joao Fouquette, who controlled much of South America’s arms trade.

Like the legal world, the illegal world had its shifting alliances, double crosses, armed truces, and brutal wars.

A dusty Toyota pickup with a heavy machine gun mounted in its bed pulled up beside the cargo trucks. A handsome black man in a crisp tan officer’s uniform swung out of the cab and approached the loading bay.