Chapter 1: The Kale Contract

March 21, 1988

Dr. Sall stood at the window of the presidential palace staring out into the dark of the night. He stood ramrod straight with his arms hanging down at his sides. The tension he felt was evident in his shoulders. There was a noise off in the distance. He turned his head slightly, vainly trying to locate where in the darkened surroundings the noise had originated.

Staring out of the window like that, was a good way for a President of Kale to get killed. He wasn't all that concerned about his life ending that day, though. The real threat to his life was two hundred miles away, fighting his army. Kofi Okeke, also known as the Lion of Kootu, wanted to be president. His troop of bandits were going to help make that happen. His ambitions were financial, not political. The Presidency was a good place to get rich, quickly.

Everyone knew that Okeke would be a disaster for the country. The man was born of pure greed, and backed by brute force. Anything he saw, he wanted; and anything he wanted, he took. Cars, money, or women, it didn't matter to him if others owned it. He'd left behind a trail of destroyed lives. Now he wanted the presidency, and all of that foreign money.

Okeke was a beast and his men weren't any better. In some ways they were worse. For them, a night of rest and relaxation involved taking over a village, stealing everything, and raping the women. Villages visited like that never complained, since there was never anyone left, to complain. Okeke's men knew how to kill, much to the chagrin of the army who was the primarily recipient of that knowledge.

As far as Presidents of Kale went, Dr. Sall had a pretty good reputation in the international community. The majority of aid to the country, actually got spent where it was intended. They had a new school for training nurses and a lot of students were attending it. It was too new to have graduated anyone, yet, but there were real hopes for better medical care in the future. All they would need were medicines. Of course, that would require additional foreign aid.

He had not thought that becoming President of Kale would turn him into a beggar, but there were a lot of times when he felt that like one. How many cocktail parties had he attended where the primary topic of discussion wasn't about matters of international importance, but begging for money to improve one thing or another in his country? He didn't know, but it was a lot.

Kale was a poor country. The average life expectancy was around forty-five years of age. The death rate among children under five was one of the worst in the world. Disease and malnutrition were the biggest killers of young and old alike.

The literacy rate was around fifteen percent, so the potential of the upcoming generation was far short of what it could have been. Even with the best leadership, Kale would not see much of an improvement any time in the near future.

Dr. Sall was a tall thin black man. There were some who might consider him skeleton thin, thinking that he was a victim of an early life of starvation. His facial features, skin tight like a drum, gave him the appearance that he had fasted for the past two weeks. It was just his natural build. His short black hair was slowly turning gray, more from the pressures of his job than his age. He did not look healthy.

He turned and looked at his guests. There was a sadness around the eyes. He sighed and walked away from the window, taking slow measured steps. There was a quiet dignity in the way he moved.

"I do not know what to do," he said in a rich, soft, gentle voice.

Pen Hopo said, "You can do what your predecessors have done. You can take the money and run."

"That is why Kale remains a poor nation," Dr. Sall said tiredly. "This nation has had leader after leader occupy this grand building, stealing everything within reach until they angered the people so much that it was unsafe for them to stay. Then they abscond with every dollar they had stolen to live a luxurious life of retirement in Sviss."

Pen Hopo didn't comment. The history of this region of the world was tragic. Corruption, poverty, disease, and war were ongoing problems that didn't seem to have an end in sight. Nobody really seemed interested in doing anything about it. There were no great mineral resources to attract investors, there wasn't an educated work force that could be exploited, and there weren't even scenic areas that could attract tourists if their safety could be assured.

He asked, "Did you know that there are currently four former presidents of Kale living in Sviss today?"

She answered, "Yes. I knew that."

"I understand why so many countries hesitate to send financial aide to us. They must be tired of funding the retirements of Kale Presidents."

"I wouldn't doubt it," Pen Hopo said.

The room they were in was opulent, but in a worn out, old and tacky way. Imported marble from Itan or Romal covered the floor. Rich dark woods, imported from Joma, framed sections of the walls. The sections of walls were painted with murals portraying nationalistic scenes of historic importance. Five crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling, four smaller one at the corners of the room and a large one in the center of the room. The few pieces of furniture scattered around the room were antiques, brought in from Espa.

Marring the rich appearance of the room were the bullet holes in the walls that had never been patched, the cracks in the marble floor, and the pieces of chandeliers that were missing. An old worn Inra carpet covered part of the floor, but it had a blood stain that had never been completely removed. One of the murals had a large white patch, which covered a part of it. Another mural was flaking, with half of the image gone.

The molding along the ceiling was ornately painted and covered with gold gilding. In contrast, the covers on the light switches and electrical outlets were cheap plastic. The door knobs looked like they had been hammered together in someone's garage. There were finely made curtains hanging on three windows and flimsy cheap curtains that might have been made from recycled bedsheets covering two others.

He moved over to his desk and took a seat. The desk was large, intended to impress others rather than to function as a place of work. A man couldn't reach across the desk to grab some important paper. The desk was made of rare woods with intricate inlays. The chair, on the other hand, was a cheap thing that had probably been purchased from a low end office supply store.

He studied the young woman with a wrinkled brow. He wasn't sure what to make of her. She seemed so young to have such a sense of presence. Maybe it was the armor she wore, the helmet, or the weapons she carried with such ease. He studied the quill pen and pot etched in the upper right hand side of her tan armor wondering what such an odd symbol represented.

He didn't know the names of the other two Warriors who were there to protect her. She had introduced them as her Sword and Shield. It was kind of fitting, since the Sword had a black sword etched into the upper right hand side of her tan armor. The Shield had a black shield similarly etched on his armor. It was obvious that they were to have nothing to do with the negotiations.

"Tell me what I should do."

"That's not my job," Pen Hopo said.

"Aren't you a salesman ... saleswoman?"

"No. I'm a Pen. I write contracts," Pen Hopo said.

He asked, "Would you like to see something interesting?"

"I suppose," she answered warily, not particularly liking the sudden change in topic.

"Open that closet door over there," he said gesturing to a door along the rear of the room.

Suddenly, the tension in the room rose tenfold.

Her two companions moved closer to her, protecting her from any threat that might appear. The man with the black shield etched in his armor was holding his rifle pointed at the door. Pen Hopo was standing with her back to the man, her rifle in hand. The woman with the sword etched in her armor had moved to stand between Pen Hopo and the entrance to the room. She had her rifle in hand. Dr. Sall never saw the rifle move, but the barrel was now pointed directly at him.

He'd seen bodyguards move to protect him in the past. He'd watched bodyguards move to protect leaders of more importance than himself, also. In his entire life, he had never seen anything like this. It was almost like watching a highly choreographed ballet. Every move looked practiced. There was lethality about it, though, that sent shivers down his spine. Then he realized they weren't protecting her, they were all protecting each other.

"I promise you, that there's nothing in the closet that could possibly hurt you. I just thought you'd like to see what's inside it," he said holding up his hands and trying to defuse the tension.

The trio exchanged a rapid fire sequence of words that he couldn't understand. The woman with the sword etched in her armor moved towards the door taking slow careful steps. She approached the door taking an indirect path to it so that she ended up beside the door with the knob near her. The rifle switched hands so that it was still pointed at the door.

What happened next, he would never be able to relate in its entirety. He saw the woman reach for the door, it swung open, and, almost simultaneously, there was a blinding flash. By the time his eyes recovered the ability to see, the three were at the closet door. Two were looking inside with the third alertly watching the rest of the room.

"Gold?" Pen Hopo said in surprise. "You've got a closet full of gold in your office?"

Dr. Sall said, "It's a long story."

"Against my better judgment, I'd like to hear it," Pen Hopo said.

Dr. Sall sat back in his chair. Moving deliberately, he folded his hands across his stomach and settled in like a story teller preparing to entertain a room full of kids.

He said, "When I first became President, I moved into this grand old building which we call the Presidential Palace. Back when Franka claimed this country as a colony, this building was the Governor's Mansion. So you would think that some trace of that Franka style would remain.

"I had never been in this building before. Upon accepting the Presidency, this building was to become my new residence. I walked through it room by room to see what was here. I expected to step into a bedroom and find an antique Frankan four poster bed with matching bedroom furnishings. I believed that a Presidential Palace should be maintained and the treasures inside cherished.

"I was horrified by what I found. Sure, the Presidential Rooms were nicely furnished, but the rest of the rooms were filled with junk. I think each time a President fled the country, he took a room of furniture with him. Or maybe, he gave some things to friends and relatives while he was in office.

"That was my first discovery. My second discovery was a little more surprising. One of my predecessors, I really don't know which one it was, had put gold fixtures everywhere. There would be a bedroom with patio furniture and a mattress on the floor with gold fixtures everywhere in the room.

"It was insane.

"There were gold door knobs, gold covers on the electric outlets and switches. There were gold faucets, toilet paper hangers, and toilet seats. Poking around some of the walls in the bedrooms, I found little hidden compartments ... I guess you could call them caches ... containing jewels along with gold coins and bars. I assumed they were leftovers from Presidents who didn't manage to flee the country before being deposed.

"It was an embarrassment of riches. I mean that, literally! It was an embarrassment!

"It is a national shame that the average person in this country earns fifty dollars a year. We spend a hundred times more than that to have a cocktail party welcoming a new ambassador to the country. The gold fixtures in a small bedroom, are worth more than an entire village may earn in a decade.

"Well, I immediately handed over the gold from the caches to our treasurer to add to our nearly empty gold reserves thinking that we now had some money fix one of our problems. A couple million dollars isn't much in the hands of a government, but it can go far if spent wisely. I had visions of drilling a few wells and putting in windmills so that crops could be irrigated. Such a simple thing can go far to end hunger in a little village.

"Those were the kind of dreams I had when I came to office. Purchase small durable items that would last decades while fulfilling real needs. A windmill can last for fifty years with very little maintenance and the skill required to maintain one is trivial. Yet it can pump good clean water from the ground and deliver it to the fields to nourish the crops. A hundred shovels, hoes, and rakes are worth far more than a tractor and cost as little as the spare tire. Tractors break down and then rust where they stand. But a good shovel will last long enough to dig the hole in which to bury the tractor.

"A few weeks later, I visited the gold vault and discovered that gold had never arrived there."

He sighed.

"I should have known better. Any money, or anything of value, ends up in the hands of the corrupt and the greedy. One Friday, a trusted colleague is talking about how horrible it is that there's so much corruption here, and the next Monday you learn that he bought a villa in Romal and immigrated there."

Pointing to the closet, Pen Hopo said, "So where did all of this gold come from?"

Dr. Sall said, "As I said, I handed over the gold from the caches, but there was still gold everywhere in the Presidential Palace. So I visited a cousin of mine who owns a hardware shop and bought replacement things. I figured no one would notice if the gold just slowly disappeared.

"The first thing I did was to replace the toilet seats. There is just something morally wrong about solid gold toilet seats. I put them in that closet thinking that someday I would convert them to cash, and fix something in the country. Surely a gold toilet seat was worth enough to pour a concrete floor and put a corrugated roof over it to serve as a school.

"Over the three years that I've been president, I've been replacing gold items with cheap replacements. It's become a game to me. I sneak into some forgotten room in the palace, and change something out, making sure that no one sees me do it. I carry it over to that closet, and stash it away. I'm sure there are rumors about me, but I've not heard them.

"So, I figure I have almost enough gold in there to pay you what you'll be requesting for your services."

"Are you saying that you want to pay us with gold toilet seats?"

"Yes."

"I thought you had received some money from Amra to help quash the rebels," Pen Hopo said.

One of the few advantages of Okeke's reputation as a brutal sadist was that most countries didn't like the idea of having to deal with the man once he took over as president. Amra was so much against the idea, that it put together an aid package specifically to prevent Okeke from succeeding. He feared that it was too late. Even if he bought the gunships and weapons the Department of Foreign affairs suggested, they probably wouldn't arrive in time to be used. Okeke would end up being the beneficiary of the purchase. Odds were good that he'd use the weapons to invade Massar for what little wealth it contained.

"We did. It is sitting in a bank account in Amra waiting for me to write a check."

"So pay us with a check," Pen Hopo said.

It was only when he went to look at each of his visitors to see their reaction to her words, that Dr. Sall realized that they were back to their original places. He hadn't even noticed when they had moved. Pen Hopo had her rifle slung over her shoulder, but her hand remained on the butt of her pistol. Her Sword and Shield were amazing in how they were able to be there and yet not be noticed.

"Did you know that I earned my doctorate in economics at the Royal College, in Engle?"

"Yes, I did."

"It's a very prestigious school. Their curriculum is one of the finest in the world."

"I know. I am planning to go to law school there."

"I wish you well. A degree from there could get you..." he said as gestured to the room around him "a presidency."

Pen Hopo said, "I have no ambitions to be a president. I will be a barrister on behalf of Jade Force."

"I had no ambitions to be President, either."

Dr. Sall had not campaigned for President. It had been thrust upon him in a weird confluence of events. His brother-in-law, a man he didn't even like, had led a coup to remove the last President. The coup succeeded, but his brother-in-law didn't survive. That had been a surprise to everyone involved, particularly his sister who saw her lifelong dream of owning a villa in Romal evaporate.

After a day of infighting and bloodshed amongst the coup's inner circle, he had been handed the Presidency. This surprised him, more than anyone else; particularly since he'd had nothing to do with the coup, other than being being the brother-in-law to the leader of the revolutionaries. He assumed that it was because the inner circle figured that he'd be a good figurehead while they went on to steal everything they could. His assumption had more or less been proven correct. In just a year, the inner circle had grabbed all the money they could, and had fled the country. His sister had gone with them. It was 'Kale politics, ' as usual.

The quiet unassuming scholar remained behind as the President. Surprisingly, he was well beloved by the majority of Kale. Despite the graft and corruption surrounding him, he had actually done things for the people. Labor at fifty dollars a year was cheap, so he used that labor, rather than purchase labor saving construction equipment. Small developmental grants were acquired, and simple tools were purchased. With these tools, roads were improved while putting people to work. For a hundred thousand dollars from Chen, a thousand people were put to work for two years, repairing dirt roads, adding drainage ditches, and generally improving the process of getting from one place to another. Families were fed, and the people were happy.

He continued to pursue little grants here and there, 'begging for money' as he viewed it. The national economy improved just a little, and that helped launch the next project. Those little things added to more improvements in the standard of living than the previous three Presidents had accomplished over their cumulative time spent in office.

Dr. Sall said, "You would think with a degree in economics, that I would understand the world of finance, national economies, and all of that kind of rot. It wasn't until I became President that I discovered something that absolutely amazed me. Would you like to know what it is?"

"Sure."

"As President of Kale, I can buy as much gold as I want, and no one will say a word. All I have to do is pick up a phone and say, 'I want two pounds of gold. Take the money from that account set up by the Amrans to pay for tractors.' The next day, there will be two pounds of gold on my desk. It would probably be in the shape of a tractor.

"However, if I put two pounds of gold on my desk and say, 'Use this gold to purchase new tractors, ' then all that happens is the gold disappears and there are no new tractors.

"So, I can get gold easily, but I can't use it for anything. Isn't that amazing?"

"It's not what I would expect," Pen Hopo said. "Why don't you smuggle it out and convert it to cash that way?"

"You mean, give it to the crooks who would normally just steal it from me?"

"I can see where that might be a problem."

Dr. Sall said, "Amra gave me a substantial amount of money to end the threat from the rebels. I know they are hoping that I'll use that money to buy Amran weapons to supply my army. I was considering doing that when a retired Colonel in the Amra Army suggested that I use it to pay Jade Force to take care of the rebels. He said that you would be a cheaper and quicker alternative."

"Then hire us," Pen Hopo said.

"It's not that easy. You see, if I write a check on that account in the Amra bank, to a firm in Rus, they can come over here, and replace our out of date water treatment plant with no chance of that money disappearing. They'll bring the materials and equipment with them. They'll pay locals to work for them. I can ride herd on inspectors who want to hold out for bribes, and maybe even throw a few of them in jail. I can end up with water treatment plant that will serve the entire city.

"I would also have enough money to refurbish our power station. There's a firm in Chezc who could start on it next week. In a year's time, we'd have enough electricity to light up the whole city.

"The problem is that if I use that money to fix the water treatment plant and the power station, then I will end up dead in this chair within a month. I will be killed by the rebels that money is supposed to stop. Even worse, the water treatment plant and power station will never get built or fixed. Okeke will kill the contract and take the money back. If I use that money to hire you, then the water treatment plant and the power station will never get built or fixed."

Pen Hopo said, "If you use the gold to pay us, the rebels are stopped, you live, and improvements to the country get made."

"Exactly."

Pen Hopo walked over to the closet, and looked inside. She picked up a couple of items, inspected each, and then put them back. She took out a cover for an electric outlet, examined it carefully. She tossed it up in the air, and cut it in half with her sword. She picked up the pieces and examined it where she had made the cut.

"What did you do that for?" he asked.

He was shocked that she would damage something like that so casually even if it was just the cover for an electric outlet. That was coupled with the surprise that she'd been able to cut through it so cleanly and easily. The reminder that she was heavily armed, was now backed with clear evidence that she also knew how to use the weapons she carried!

"It's soft metal, and the right color, but I wanted to make sure that it wasn't gold plated lead," she answered.

"Is it?"

He hadn't given any thought to the fact that his predecessor might have been cheated. Who checks a gold toilet seat to make sure that it is real gold all of the way through? A little scratch on the back was sufficient to check if it was plated or not.

"Not that I can tell."

"You'll take it?"

"There are a number of different purities of gold, here. I can't assess the value of what you have, but I seriously doubt that it comes to ten million dollars. You'd need to have over a thousand pounds of pure gold to come up to that value," she said.

If the gold was 12K, then half of the weight was trash metal. It would need to be refined to bring it up to a purity that was easily salable in certain markets. It looked like a lot of gold, but looks could be deceiving.

"Oh," he said, deflating. Trying to rally his spirits a little, he added, "It weighs more than you think it does. Those toilet seats were several pounds each. I had a hard time carrying them up here."

She said, "I'll have a someone come in and assess the value of it. That will take some time. Once that is done, we'll work out how you'll pay us."

"You've had a chance to look at the mission and come up with time and cost data?"

"Yes. The length of the contract will be thirty days beginning when you sign it and we receive the first half of the payment. At the end of thirty days, Okeke and his army will no longer be capable of threatening your presidency."

"My army has been fighting him for almost two years. Do you really believe that your Jade Force can take care of Okeke in thirty days?"

"Yes."

He frowned. There were crooks everywhere it seemed. He had hoped these people would be different, but they were making promises that were too good to be true.

"How much is it going to cost me?"

"Sixty-five million," she answered.

He decided that even though they were crooks, at least they weren't too greedy. They could have asked for more ... a lot more. Instead of going for all of the Amra money, they were just going to take what was budgeted to buy seven Amra built helicopter gunships.

He was nobody's fool. The first thing he had learned was that if looked too good to be true, it was too good to be true. It was time to put her in her place and send her on her way. He'd have to figure out something else to do about Okeke.

"Didn't you say that a Jade Warrior is a hundred thousand dollars a day?"

"That's correct."

"You're going to need a thousand men to take Okeke out in thirty days. You're talking billions of dollars."

"It won't take a thousand men to take him out. After our investigations as to what would be required, we came up with rather modest staffing requirements. You'll be hiring ten warriors for thirty days, thirty warriors for ten days, and five warriors for five days."

"You're telling me that you expect that just forty-five of your warriors can take out Okeke and five thousand of his followers, in thirty days?"

"Yes."

"I hope you don't mind that I don't believe you. Okeke is the most ruthless cold blooded killer to ever emerge on the entire continent of Ringland."

"He is ruthless. He is a cold-blooded killer. He is a brute. He is a sadist. However, he isn't very good at war," Pen Hopo said. "We are experts at war."

"He's nearly destroyed the army."

"Your army isn't any good at war, either. In fact, it's really pretty bad."

"Excuse me?"

"Sword walked through one of your bases four hours ago. No one stopped her for questioning or anything. She could have wiped out your whole general staff."

Dr. Sall looked over at the woman whose name he only knew as Sword. She had skin as dark as his. She had features similar to his. Although he couldn't tell because of her armor, she appeared to be a very attractive young woman. Put her in a skimpy outfit and she could probably get invited onto base as entertainment.

"Was she dressed like that?"

"Of course not."

"She could easily pass for a Kaleen whore."

"So what? She shouldn't have been let on base. She shouldn't have been able to walk around and peer into various buildings. She shouldn't have been able to put a wire tap on their telephones. She did."

"She put a wire tap on their telephones?"

"Yes. You wouldn't like to know some of the things we've heard one of your generals say."

"He's probably making arrangements to flee the country as soon as Okeke gets close to the capital."

"You do know your fellow countrymen."

"To my great shame."

"Let's face it, your army is a bad joke."

"Sixty five million dollars."

"That would be the contract amount to you. There are also the spoils of war. We would claim any goods of his that we find. We estimate that to be around fifty million. I would add one rider to the contract, though."

"What rider?"

"That you spend the money left over from that which you received from Amra, on improving the infrastructure of Kale."

"What would be the point of that? You couldn't enforce it if I did like my predecessors by taking the money and running."

"We would find you, and the termination clauses of the contract would be invoked," Pen Hopo said.

"Termination?"

"As in yours," Pen Hopo said bluntly. "We don't like to be made to look foolish."

"What if you fail to stop Okeke?"

"We'll be dead, so it doesn't matter," she answered.

"You'd kill yourselves?" he asked incredulously.

She answered, "No. Okeke would have to kill each and every Jade Warrior, for us to fail."

"You mean, the forty-five I'm hiring."

"No. Every single one of us. If the forty-five fail or determine they will not met the deadline, then every Jade Warrior will come to complete the contract. To us, contracts are a matter of life and death."

There was a fire in her eyes and iron in her voice when she spoke. Intellectually, he knew that he shouldn't believe her, but deep in his gut he knew they would really fight to the very last man in order to complete the contract.

He'd seen it, once before.

Back when he had been a student at the Royal College, one of his classmates had invited him to an amateur boxing competition saying that his little brother was fighting in it. Curious, he had gone along to watch. His classmate's younger brother had stood there before the fight making that kind of pledge about winning the fight. It was that same look in the eyes and tone of voice that she had just used.

He had laughed the pledge off as the bravado of youth until the fight started. It was immediately obvious that the young man was clearly out matched in terms of skill. It should have been a disaster, but it had been one of the most magnificent demonstrations of human spirit that he had ever watched. No matter how many times the young man was knocked down, he came right back swinging harder than before. The crowd was soon on its feet, cheering him on. In the end, he won by a split decision.

After the match, the young man's face was purple, one eye was swollen shut, his nose was bleeding, and his lip had been cut. Based on his appearance, a person would have expected that he had lost. When questioned about outcome of the fight, the young man had simply stated that before the fight he had said that he was going to win it, and he had won it. There had been that same fire in his eyes, and iron in his voice, as if challenging anyone to contradict him.

When asked what he was going to do from then on, the kid had answered, "I'm going to take up stamp collecting."

Dr. Sall wondered if this would turn out the same. After winning, would these Jade Warriors decide that maybe stamp collecting would be a better way to spend the rest of their lives? On second thought, maybe that wasn't such a bad outcome.

He couldn't resist saying, "That's insane."

"No. That's war. You commit fully to it, or you'd better never enter into it."

Dr. Sall thought about her answer. There was truth in it, a lot of truth in it. You had to commit fully to a war to win it. Maybe that was the problem with the army, they weren't committed to the war. Some countries had elections where people voted a new President into office. Kale had coups, civil wars, and revolutions where the old President was shot or fled and a new President stepped into office.

The officers had survived how many changes in President? He couldn't even guess. He knew that a lot of them viewed this war as a great chance to skim off more money from the budgets they handled. Kickbacks, bribes, extortion, and simple theft were common practice. To them, if Okeke was a bit too much to handle once he got in office, well ... there were a lot of places to retire for a man with wealth.

To Okeke, fighting was a way of life. For him, war was the sole reason for his existence, and he was committed to living it. Of everyone involved in this mess, Okeke was the most committed to war. There was no corruption in his ranks. He killed it without mercy. No one stole from him, and lived.

"I will sign your contract," he said with a sigh.

"I have to modify it to take into account the changes we discussed. You will need to read the contract over very carefully. There will be provisions which you will not like. Once you sign it, and pay us, we will begin our work."

"What kinds of things won't I like?"

"The contract will state that we have the authority to kill anyone who stands in our way of fulfilling the contract."

"Why would you need a provision like that?"

"Anyone who stands in our way of fulfilling the contract is aiding and abetting the enemy. Hence, they become an enemy. Sometimes, people forget that."

"I guess it makes sense," Dr. Sall said thoughtfully.

"Just remember that once you sign the contract, you are just as committed to this war as we will be."

Edited By TeNderLoin

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