Chasing Black Gold    

ROBERT STONE was a serial entrepreneur – an enterprising individual, mostly on the wrong side of the law, who spent twenty-five years operating all over the world, before being arrested in Switzerland as a result of an international manhunt led by an Organised Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force. Over the course of his career, Stone earned and lost several lifetimes’ worth of fortunes, went to prison on three continents, used dozens of aliases, saw men die, and masterminded one of the biggest marijuana smuggling operations in criminal history. Fuel smuggling in Africa, trading fuel with generals, rebels and businessman, was both his career high and, ultimately, what brought him down.

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                      Monrovia Liberia June 1992

               Excerpt from ‘Chasing Black Gold’ by Robert Stone

I sat there in my room, listening to a rain shower pounding down on the roof, wondering whether I’d made the best choice getting involved in such a chaotic and war-torn country. It seemed like anything could happen, any time. Just then, the front desk rang to tell me a driver had come for me. The guy took me to the ECOMOG headquarters to meet the general, but when he came to greet me, instead of inviting me into his office or some meeting room, he led me outside and into his personal jeep. I wasn’t happy about this – at all. Where was he planning to take me?
 He drove in silence, leaving the compound and making for the fringes of the town. Pretty soon we were heading out into the country. The rain, which had cleared by this time, had made the road muddy. There were occasional hollows full of water. The atmosphere was heavy, the sky mostly grey. I was feeling real edgy. After that sequence of arrests in Warri, I had an aversion to magical mystery tours, especially when they took me away from the comparative safety of the city.
 We drove with our windows down, enjoying the brief coolness. We were out into the jungle proper by the time the general slowed down and pulled over. The clouds were already breaking up, and the vegetation that hemmed us in on both sides was steaming as the midday sun started to beat down. I was pretty nervous by now. What the hell was this all about? Soon as he switched off the engine you could hear that weird mixture of dense silence fragmented by the chatter of unseen animals and birds. It has a way of making you jumpy.
 The general lit a cigarette, then turned to me and said, ‘This third tanker of yours …’
 ‘The one that’s tied up in the docks?’ I said.
 ‘Correct. That one. Is it possible – I mean, is there any reason why you cannot send it to Freetown and unload it there?’
 ‘Any reason why I should?’ I answered.
 ‘Just let us say that it might be a way forward.’
 ‘What exactly is the problem?’ I asked.
 He conceded that he feared his troops were about to lose control of Monrovia. If they did, they would have to retreat across the border into Sierra Leone. On the plus side, they could attack the capital more safely from there. On the other hand, they’d have no fuel. My first thought was, Jesus Christ, you’re the fucking peacekeepers – but I didn’t say that. Instead I reassured him. ‘Yeah, we could do that,’ I said. ‘My crew don’t really mind where they go – so long as they get paid at the end of the month.’
 That’s when he finally came to the real point, the point where I understood why he’d driven us all the way out into the jungle. He wanted total privacy, and he wanted a chunk of the money I would realise from the deal: $50 per tonne of fuel delivered, for himself. He wanted it as a separate payment, a private deal to be kept a secret from his friend the admiral. Even as I deliberated, he was handing me the details of one of his numbered accounts in Switzerland.  Accounts, plural. The guy had several, and he wasn’t ashamed to let me know it. I think he was proud of the fact, like it gave him added status.
 Personally, I had no problem with any of this. Corrupt or not, these were the good guys. That’s what it said on the news, at least. They needed fuel, and I was able to provide it – and cream off a fat profit for myself. Did that make me one of the peacekeepers? Not exactly, but otherwise what was the problem? We shook hands on the deal. He leaned forward and reached for the ignition key. Not for the first time, I looked around at the jungle that enclosed us. There was plenty of cover and very little sign of civilisation. I didn’t like it.
 It turned out I was dead right to be edgy. Through the open side window, a sudden rustling sound caught my ear. Looking up, I saw the foliage part, and out stepped a tall, slim, black kid, 13 or 14 years of age, carrying an assault rifle. He was, maybe, 10 yards ahead of us. He was barefoot, but he was wearing a long red dress and had a string of beads around his neck, a long belt of ammo over his shoulder. As he turned, jerking the rifle in our direction, two things happened. First, the general reached to his side for the revolver he was carrying. Second, a bunch more kids, all of them armed, all wearing female clothing, some in high-heeled shoes, spilled out onto the road from both sides and surrounded the vehicle.
 I glanced in the wing mirror and saw several more behind us. There must have been twenty of them, maybe thirty. I was about to wind up my window – until a fucking great machete landed – thunk! – beside my right elbow, embedding itself in the door frame. I could see black, dried blood caked along the blade. The kid holding it just stared at me, unblinking. He had a grubby bandage wrapped around his head, a glittery bangle of some kind on his slender wrist. I doubted he was 13 years old.
 I glanced at the general. ‘Let me pay them,’ I said, offering up a silent prayer of thanks that I’d done what I always did in that part of the world, and come out with a wad of cash. It’s the only way to travel. I could see the general taking a lungful of air, his brow furrowed and his eyes narrowing. ‘This is nonsense,’ he said. ‘These people – ’
 He got no further. A big, lanky, raw-boned kid wearing a sort of lace chemise leaned inside the cab, his face inches from the general’s. I glanced into his yellowed eyes. His pupils were dilated, so much so that it was like I was looking into two black holes. Whatever he’d taken, he’d taken plenty of it. He seemed to be staring unsteadily at a spot somewhere between the two of us, but his gun – that was steady, and pointed right at me. ‘Money,’ he said. ‘We must have money.’

 The general’s face was contorted with shock and rage. ‘What is the meaning of this? Do you know who you’re talking to?’ He put a hand on the gun and shoved it to one side. The kid pulled the trigger and a burst of automatic rifle fire blew out the back window of the jeep. My ears were ringing, and the smell of cordite burned my nostrils.
 ‘You are using this road illegally. There is a fine to pay.’ He held his hand out and repeated. ‘The fine. Everybody must pay.’
 The general still didn’t get it. I had my wallet in my hand, but out of sight of the kid. I could see the general holding his own gun, which he carried on his hip. I was praying for him not to draw it from the holster. We’d both be dead before he had it halfway out. ‘You do not set fines on this road,’ he said. ‘You are delinquents, and the law will bring you to justice.’ He reached forward and fired up the engine. ‘Whoever you are, you get out of our way this minute or I will run you down like dogs.’
 I leaned towards him, and restrained his arm. For a moment I thought he was going to strike me. I gripped my lips tight like a ventriloquist and managed to get out, ‘Look, let’s pay them and get the hell outta here.’
 ‘I cannot countenance this,’ he began. ‘It is extortion.’
 ‘I can cope with that,’ I said. ‘I ain’t proud.’ I turned back to the boy who was leaning on my window, his arm stretched out and his hand groping along the dashboard. I could see what he wanted. ‘Here,’ I said, picking up my sunglasses. ‘Raybans. Take ’em. Gotta look after your eyes, man. Very precious.’
 He slipped them on, then crouched down to check in the wing mirror and smiled at his reflection. ‘So who’s the leader?’ I asked. ‘Who’s your main man?’
 He turned away, pointing his gun at a slightly built kid in a red mini-skirt and white blouse. Both were too big for him, and he was dwarfed by his rifle. ‘Lemme talk to him,’ I said. As I waited for the boy to amble over, I turned to the general who was eyeballing the kid at his window. ‘These are killers we’re dealing with,’ I murmured through clenched teeth. ‘Cold-blooded little fuckers. You know what they do.’
 ‘That’s because nobody stands up to them,’ he replied. ‘That is how they get away with it.’
 I felt the barrel of a rifle tap my arm. The slightly built kid was there, with his hand out. I showed him my wallet, pulled out a bunch of $100 bills, turned the wallet inside out and showed him the inside. There was nothing left: just a photo of Linda. He took the money, made an attempt at counting it and said, ‘This is good. You can go now.’
 We drove away, fast. There were a couple of sharp cracks as one or two of the boys discharged their weapons into the sky. ‘Just kids having fun,’ I said, but even as I spoke the words I could feel my jaw quivering. I looked across at the general. He, too, was shaking, but that was with rage. ‘C’mon, what did you think?’ I asked. ‘We were going to make them see reason? These kids are casual killers. They’re high as kites.’

 ‘That was the action of a weak man,’ he replied. ‘It will only make them more daring. They need to see that they cannot get away with this highway robbery, this banditry.’ For a moment I considered asking him to pay his half of the money that had saved his life, but I let it go.
 As we drove back to his town I convinced myself that the deal was off, the whole damned shebang. I’d blown it. The general clearly felt contempt for my actions. He maintained a moody silence, his eyes fixed on the road ahead. He was motionless at the wheel, except when he leant on the horn as an odd truck got in our way, or swerved around a puddle.
 Maybe this is all for the best, I told myself. I was sure that the quicker I got the hell out of Liberia, the better I’d feel. However, it seemed I’d forgotten rule number one in West Africa. Always expect the unexpected. By the time we got back to headquarters, the general had calmed down. He told me to go ahead with everything as discussed. The deal was still on. Then he dismissed me, saying he had things to do. Yeah, I thought, like rounding up a few teenage soldier boys and dumping them in a mass grave. That might help keep the peace.

Author Bio:
Author Robert Stone first came to Aberdeen Scotland in 1973 as a pioneer saturation diver in the early dangerous days of the North Sea. Retiring from diving in the mid 80’s he became a serial entrepreneur –mostly on the wrong side of the law. He spent the next decade operating businesses all over the world from his Aberdeenshire home.
Stone earned and lost several fortunes, went to prison on three continents, used dozens of aliases, and masterminded one of the biggest marijuana smuggling operations in criminal history. Fuel smuggling in Africa, was only one of his many exploits.
His Scottish wife and young children knew nothing of the dark side of his life until the day they were all arrested in Switzerland as a result of an international manhunt led by an Organised Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force.

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