Esther Carney is a doctor who has spent more than ten years working in Australian Hospital Emergency Departments where anybody and everybody, from all walks of life, can come through her doors.
Her work has included medivac helicopter retrievals.
She lives on a farm and has studied martial arts.
Disappointed by the lack of tough female leads in contemporary action/adventure fiction, Esther decided to write her own.
January 1997, Kurmia, South America.
Angie Morgan stood on the rocky outcrop, long black hair plastered to her shoulders, peering through the sea of rain. Her features were tense with anxiety. In East Kurmia, it was tricky enough to land an airplane on the best of runways during a hurricane. But their base was hidden amongst the craggy mountains. To find and land on its small airstrip would be no mean feat.
The young mercenary Claude appeared at her side. ‘Quit worrying,’ he shouted in her ear. ‘The Colonel knows this place like the back of his hand. He could come in blind.’
The rain lashed down on them, driven by the wind they knew as the Zonda. Though far from cold, it had force behind it and Angie’s slender frame was braced to resist the buffeting.
‘He might have to,’ she commented grimly, ‘the way the navigation equipment’s been playing up lately.’ She took the binoculars from his hand and lifted them to her eyes, but they were totally useless in this weather. ‘He radioed ten minutes ago. He should’ve been here by now.’ She passed the binoculars back, sheltering in the lee of Claude’s body. ‘I’m going to try and raise him.’
‘I wouldn’t,’ Claude warned the bright twelve-year-old girl standing next to him. ‘The Colonel doesn’t take kindly to disobedience.’ An understatement. The last man who had broken radio silence without an explanation that Colonel Morgan considered adequate had been flogged. Even his own daughter wouldn’t get away unscathed for that offence.
‘Look,’ he reasoned, ‘your father’s a good pilot, the best there is. He’ll be all right.’
His words did nothing to reassure her. Angie fully appreciated how the natural geography of the area, with its craggy mountain peaks, was an asset as far as secrecy was concerned. It hid their large base from their enemies, but also created a death trap for any pilot who wasn’t expert, or who happened to be unlucky enough to be caught in poor weather.
It was true that, apart from Claude himself, Colonel Chad Morgan was the best pilot amongst the mercenaries in the base and it was also true that he demanded total obedience. Angie was saved from having to make a decision, for at that moment her ears detected the muffled throb of engines above the sound of the driving rain.
It took just a couple of minutes in the humvee and they were in the command building. Apart from the hangars, this was the largest structure on their base. As with all their buildings it was solid but basic, constructed of wood, topped with a tin roof covered in camouflage netting. They stood in a large room with a big wooden table in the center.
Colonel Morgan flung his wet leather jacket over the back of a chair and sat. The storm had abated and he could speak without raising his voice. ‘Nothing doing in Africa, boys,’ he told the men who stood around expectantly. He indicated for the two men who had come back with him to sit. ‘It wasn’t a total waste of time, though. I picked up some new weapons plus our two new recruits. This is Rob Cahn,’ he said, waving his hand at the fair-haired, wiry South African. ‘And Piet Jones.’ He nodded at the smaller man he had brought in.
While Morgan introduced his men to the two new people, Cahn eyed Angie and her mother with a slight smile and thought to himself that perhaps life on this mountain base might not be so dull after all.
Morgan caught the look. ‘I’d like you gentlemen to meet my daughter, Angie, and my wife, Suzanne.’
He looked slowly from Jones to Cahn. ‘Should any man interfere with them in any way, he loses his life.’ He grinned. ‘And not too fast.’
Cahn winced inwardly. Morgan’s tone had been light-hearted but the words were clear enough.
After the announcements people stood around chatting for a while, but eventually, when the others had dispersed, the two recruits were alone. Jones and Cahn stood outside the command building breathing in a combination of cigarette smoke and the damp air.
‘I don’t like it,’ Jones muttered. He’d done his homework before signing up and knew about the Colonel’s reputation, but after the meeting he’d learnt a few more things from the regulars. Now he wasn’t so sure. ‘The guy’s a madman.’
Cahn knew he was referring to Morgan. ‘Yeah, but he pays good.’
‘Still don’t like it. He refused to sign the personal protection clause.’
‘Well, if I get shot through the spine I don’t want anyone carrying me out,’ Cahn said. ‘I’m in it for a good time, not a long time.’
‘I’ll stay for a year or two,’ Jones said. ‘I need the cash.’
Angie wandered past and waved.
‘Hey, kid,’ Cahn called to her.
‘My name’s Angie,’ she said walking over to them.
‘What’re you doing on this base? This ain’t no place for a kid.’
‘I work here.’
Cahn snorted. ‘Yeah, sure. What d’ya do?’
Pushing back her long dark hair she said, ‘I’m one of the Colonel’s snipers amongst other things.’
‘You? You couldn’t even lift a rifle. And even if you fired it a little thing like you would shatter your shoulder.’
‘Well, I can’t shoot the M107 from my shoulder easily, but we normally fix and mount it in position when I’m using it. Mostly for taking out vehicles or other material. It’s very accurate. When we do fire from the shoulder we use an AK. It’s not that heavy and it’s fine for closer work but no good for my stuff. I can fire it easily though. I have it properly seated against my shoulder, and it’s got less of a kick than a twelve-gauge. More of a push. I’ve never broken my shoulder firing one or even got bruised. Even our M40A1 isn’t that heavy. Just under fifteen pounds. We’ve got a couple of military-version Russian SVDs which are light and accurate too.’
‘Yeah, I don’t mind the Dragonov,’ Cahn said. ‘They’ve got a good range on ’em.’
‘Accurate out to a thousand yards or more,’ Angie noted. ‘And useful when we need a semi-auto. But multiple shots help the enemy find you. For my sniper work I like the Remington 700 bolt action rifle in .308 NATO the best. The ammo is universal. The recoil is manageable and it’s easy for me to carry. I’ve even got the dies and press for it, and reload the cartridges myself. The recoil’s a bit more than the AK but not much.’
‘So can you hit a barn door at ten yards then?’ Cahn asked.
‘I’ve been brought up with guns.’ She eyed him steadily. ‘You?’
‘I know my shit. You’ll all be glad I’m here.’ His eyes fell on her hip holster. ‘What’s your sidearm?’
She took it out and held it for him to see without letting him touch it. ‘A Lady Colt. Present from my dad.’
‘A .45,’ Cahn noted. ‘And you fire that without breaking your hand?’
‘I fired my first .45 Colt when I was eight,’ Jones cut in. ‘Didn’t break my wrist, but the noise when it went off made me gun-shy of it afterwards.’
‘You didn’t like the noise, and now your deal is explosives,’ Cahn said laughing. ‘Kind of funny really.’
‘I like the noise of a .45,’ Angie said. ‘That’s why I wanted one. I thought about trying a .44 Magnum once for the noise, but I watched a guy here fire one and found the revolver about fifteen feet behind him. Left a bruise on his forehead. I like my .45, and I can even fire it one-handed,’ she added. ‘Left and right. Can’t show you here though. It’s not allowed.’
‘Why would you want to?’ Jones asked.
She grinned. ‘Saw it on a movie. It looked really cool.’
‘You realize movies aren’t real, don’t you?’ Cahn asked with a grin.
‘Seems that way. I can’t hit much with one hand, but I like trying.’ As she put her gun away she added a little more quietly, ‘And yes, I get a sore wrist. So, what do you think of our place?’
She’d addressed Cahn, but Jones answered. ‘Never thought I’d sign on with a warlord.’
Her eyes narrowed. ‘The Colonel’s a merc!’
‘I ain’t never seen a merc destroy a village with all the civvies still in it.’
‘Well, unfortunately the rebels put their bases in amongst the civilians deliberately. My dad tries to stop it and sometimes killing is the only way. We do humanitarian things too, you know. We once built an airstrip for a village so the Red Cross could get supplies in.’
‘You sure have a taste for big things, girlie,’ Cahn said. ‘Big guns, big words. What else do you like big?’ He dropped his cigarette butt on the ground. ‘Wanta know something, kid? There ain’t nothin’ humanitarian ’bout it. It’s called strategy. Getting the locals onside.’
‘What would you know?’ she asked before walking away.
When Angie was out of earshot Jones said, ‘He’s even teaching his daughter the trade. Has to be a nut, eh?’
‘Sure he is, but a smart one.’
‘Crazy! His little girl? The man’s a total wack.’
‘What’s your problem anyway? You knew his rep before you signed up.’
Jones shrugged. ‘One outfit I worked for used child soldiers. In Africa. Those local kids were value. You fill ’em up with cocaine, give ’em names like Killer, and Dark Shadow, and they feel important and do anything. We used to put ’em in the front line all the time. But what sort of man keeps his own wife and child on a military base?’ he asked, drawing back on his cigarette.
‘All I care about is he pays good. Much more than any other place I’ve ever worked.’
‘Money’s not much use if you’re dead,’ Jones commented. ‘I really don’t like the PP clause not being in the contract. You could sprain an ankle, and your own men will turn round and butcher you.’
‘Doubt it. Did you hear the story ’bout their guy with the bullet through the spine? They carried him for miles to get him out. Lot of good it did the poor bastard too. Anyway, I never work for anyone I haven’t researched thoroughly, and from what I’ve heard, the Colonel’s a top strategist. Hardly ever loses a man. Be safer than the last crowd we worked for, and far more lucrative. Probably more interesting too.’
‘Yeah, if you like killing people.’
Cahn smiled. He’d heard Morgan’s military encounters were particularly savage and bloody, but for him that was all part of the appeal. ‘I’ll do anything as long as it pays good.’
‘Oh, cool!’ Angie exclaimed as she opened the box on her bed. Enthusiastically she pulled out the books and compact disks which Morgan had brought back for her.
‘This’s the music all the kids are listening to these days,’ Morgan said, picking up one of the CDs. ‘So they tell me anyway.’
She’s an attractive little kid, he thought to himself. Her hair was long, straight and shiny, matching her long eyelashes. It was dark, the color of his own, and hung loosely about her shoulders. She never bothered to tie it back unless she was accompanying him on a mission. She had a cute, slightly mischievous smile and a small pert nose that fitted in perfectly with the rest of her face. Although slight of build, she was solidly muscled due to the rigorous physical training which he’d made a part of her daily routine from a very early age. He smiled at her childish delight in the presents.
It was difficult to reconcile this present image with the memory of her in the last unarmed combat training session two months back, when he had proudly watched her take on Croft, a man twice her size and with twice her experience. That was one thing about Angie, she wasn’t afraid to tackle anyone or anything, a quality he admired but also tried to temper with some common sense. Well, Croft always was a little on the slow side, and Angie, on the other hand, had reflexes like lightning. He’d taught her from an early age how to take advantage of an enemy’s weaknesses and turn them against him, and she’d learned well. She’d stayed out of the way until her opponent tired. Croft had lunged at her several times and she’d tripped him with her feet or darted out of the way, and once she’d even flicked him in the face with a sapling then kicked him in the belly causing him to fall. If she had a few more inches on her, he doubted Croft would have finally caught her with his arm and wrestled her to the ground as he had. Truly, she was his daughter, and a reasonable substitute for the son he had wanted but so far failed to conceive.
‘You got me the gun encyclopedia!’ she said happily as she pulled out the three volumes from the bottom of the box, and began flicking through one of them. ‘It even tells you how you can use parts of some types of gun on other ones.’ She checked the bottom of the box to ensure she hadn’t missed anything. ‘What’s our next target?’ she inquired, looking up from her presents.
‘Military,’ he replied.
‘I’m taking up a plane,’ she said firmly, looking him directly in the eyes.
‘Not this time, baby. They’ve got anti-aircraft rocket launchers. It’s too risky for you.’
‘Crap.’ She stood up and faced him. ‘You know I’m one of your best pilots.’
Morgan regarded his pretty twelve-year-old daughter thoughtfully. He was used to his word being taken as final. None of his men ever dared to give him any backtalk, yet somehow Angie always seemed to get away with it. He stared at her silently for a moment. She actually was a good pilot. Claude had taught her well and Morgan was also aware that she had a natural aptitude for flying. When she’d first started out she had to stretch to see over the nose, and had to slide forward in the seat to reach full rudders. Since they’d created a demountable seat extension for her, so she could reach the rudder pedals and hand controls more easily, it was impossible to keep her on the ground. If she’d been a boy he would have encouraged him to fight by his side, to follow in his footsteps. Even to lose a son in battle would not be unbearable. Everyone died eventually, and what better way to go than as a warrior?
However, Angie as a mercenary? He didn’t really like the idea, but Angie was keen to do as he did, and there was something flattering about this. He thought about his wife Suzanne. Suzanne was gentle and beautiful. Tall and lithe with shoulder-length blonde locks of silky soft hair. He’d always found her very attractive. Even with age, her beauty had only been enhanced. Before she dropped out of the sky and landed in his lap he had known nothing but war. No woman before Suzanne had ever given herself to him willingly, and prior to Angie’s birth, he had never held a baby in his arms, although he had sent many an infant to an untimely death.
He was inclined to tell Angie no, but they needed a sniper for this next job and Angie actually was the best they had. Her skills with guns really were remarkable, unrivalled in their base, earning her much admiration from the men, and a degree of jealousy too.
Morgan sighed. ‘Well, kid, you’re twelve now. I guess you’re old enough to know what you want, but if you get yourself killed, I’ll damn well murder you.’ He started to leave, then turned back in the doorway. ‘And you can explain it to your mother because I’m not going to do it.’
She smiled. ‘You’re scared of her, aren’t you?’
‘A touch,’ he reluctantly agreed. ‘You know,’ he said after a moment. ‘She’s still keen on you going back to school.’
Angie frowned. She’d spent a whole year at the Swiss boarding school at the age of seven, returning home only for holidays. It had been the longest year of her life.
‘I’m never going back there. I hated every minute of it.’ The last statement was not quite true. She had enjoyed the company of the other children and had learned to skate and ski. But the class lessons had been dull for someone of her intellect and for much of the time she had been bored stiff.
‘Well, you can explain that to your mother too.’
‘She knows I’m not going back to school. We’ve got a deal. As long as I do my homework, I stay here.’
When he was gone, she sat on her bed with her back to the wall, still smiling at the thought of the great Colonel Chad Morgan being scared of her mother. She picked up his photograph and looked at it. He was younger then, but although now forty-three years old, he still had muscles of iron and a will to match. He remained as handsome now as he ever had been. Even the scar down the left side of his face didn’t detract from his looks. If anything it made him more handsome, more rugged and tough looking. Although everyone told her she had her mother’s eyes, she had her father’s dark hair, and she also shared his passion for action and adventure.
She considered going to tell her mother the news about her mission, then decided it could wait until tomorrow to save her mother at least one sleepless night. Thinking about her mother reminded her that she hadn’t started her homework and, not wishing to displease her more than was absolutely necessary, she sat down with her textbooks and stayed up most of the night studying. For Angie, with a memory that was nearly photographic, studying wasn’t all that hard.
‘Sorry, Mom,’ Angie said firmly after telling her mother the news the next morning. ‘I’m not asking for your permission. Think of it this way. The more experience I get now, the less likely I am to get myself killed later on.’
Suzanne placed Angie’s homework on the table and stood facing her daughter, twisting her fingers together nervously. ‘Angie, I …’ She looked into the distance, as if trying very carefully to find the right words. ‘Don’t you feel anything when you drop those bombs from your airplane? Don’t you ever think about the people below? Your victims?’
‘That’s war, Mom. There’s no room for sentiment.’ She was quoting Morgan as she spoke. ‘It’s our livelihood. Anyway, they’re not victims, they’re the enemy.’ It was not that Angie thought war was a good thing. Some did, she knew. Some of the younger men seemed to really enjoy fighting. The main reason she wanted to be fully involved was because it was what her father, the man she admired most in the whole world, did. Besides that, she wanted to earn her father’s respect.
The day Spike died had really brought home to her what war was all about. Spike had been the camp comedian. His real name was Guy Ellis. Angie never knew how he’d even come to earn the nickname. But that’s what everyone always called him. Spike had been someone who always had a funny story about everything. No matter how miserable you felt, he’d always be able to make you laugh. Everyone on the base liked him.
She recalled the day he died. Six men had returned from a mission. Spike had taken a bullet in the belly and, although conscious, had been unable to move or feel his legs. They’d carried him back over several miles of rough terrain. On returning to base they’d put him in the sick room on a bed. Morgan, who hadn’t gone on the mission, remarked to her that he would have given him a bullet and finished the poor bastard off. At the time she’d been horrified, but in the end her father had proved to be right as usual. Their doctor filled Spike with morphine, giving him injections every hour. The bullet had severed his spinal cord as well as other internal damage. Besides the morphine, the doctor could do nothing and informed them all that even moving him to a hospital would not save him. Despite his horrific injuries, Spike had still joked around with the many concerned friends who kept vigil by his bedside. It was a tribute to his strength of character that even as he lay dying he could still jest.
But eventually Spike asked for a cigarette, asked for whisky, then for courtesy. Angie was glad he had not requested this last favor from her. He’d asked his best friend Billy Bergmann to do the honors. She was glad it was Billy. Well, if Spike had asked her, she would have done it. She would have had to. Amongst their group it was not done to refuse that sort of request. But it would have been hard. Very hard.
That evening, many of the men sat quietly around the campfire, drinking and sharing stories about their memories of Spike.
No, war wasn’t good, she’d decided that night. It didn’t do anything for the world. It gave nothing to anyone. It just took. But, it was there. She couldn’t make it go away, just by wishing. And since it was there, and people were fighting, she would fight too. She couldn’t stand being left out. And she wouldn’t be thought a coward. Not by herself, nor by anyone on the base. If it meant dying, then so be it. Everyone died sooner or later. Besides, she admitted, there were times when it was exciting. Exhilarating even. She knew, with continued training, she could be as good as any man on the base. Morgan would be so proud.
The day after Spike died, they tracked his killer to a small village in the foothills. Morgan’s forces razed the village to the ground. And, although Morgan had not allowed her to get within a hundred yards of the village, she’d helped as eagerly as every other member of the assault team. By the end of the day the enemy had been completely wiped out and the village burnt to the ground. There were no survivors. Angie felt sorry for all the innocent people who’d died, but at least Spike had been avenged. She missed Spike with his funny stories and lighthearted easygoing manner. He’d been a good friend, and the retaliation hadn’t brought him back.
‘I want you to stop and think, Angie.’ Her mother sat on the bench and motioned Angie to join her. ‘Each person in the world has his own life. His dreams, ambitions and loves. He has people who will miss him when he’s gone. He had parents who changed his diapers when he was little, worked hard to see he got everything he needed. They worried about him, protected him from all the stupid little dangers children get themselves into.’
‘No one lives forever,’ Angie commented flatly.
Suzanne frowned. ‘The books I get Dad to bring home to you … haven’t they taught you anything?’
Angie shrugged, not understanding. ‘I like those books, especially the one about Robert,’ she said referring to one of her favorite fiction heroes. ‘He’s just like Dad.’
Her mother didn’t know what to say. Would now be the time to tell her daughter the truth? It was tempting. Tell Angie everything and flee this hellhole. Start a new life. Yet if she did explain the situation, would Angie have the reasoning to know what to do? She was bright but so very young, and so much under Morgan’s sway. Besides, if she waited a few more years, then Angie would acquire more skills. The capabilities she would need to set them both free. And if her daughter were older then perhaps it would be easier to explain the situation to her. But if she waited, maybe Angie would be drawn even further into this abhorrent lifestyle. Become even harder and less receptive to her own way of thinking.
The changes were already happening and it broke her heart to see them. Angie used to be such a sweet innocent child. Now she was becoming tough and cruel. Like Morgan. She killed, seemingly without thinking. If she had any sympathy at all for the enemy, she kept it well hidden. She shared the same bravado as all the men on the base.
Suzanne couldn’t even remember the last time she’d seen Angie cry, even when she’d been hurt. Although not yet as barbaric as Chad Morgan, it was only a matter of time. And the moment Angie learned the truth, Suzanne knew they’d both be plunged into immediate and mortal danger. Nobody crossed Morgan and got away with it. Maybe it was this last aspect which held the most weight in her decision making. If she just had herself to consider she wouldn’t hesitate. Wouldn’t hesitate? Hesitate to do what? Who was she kidding? It would be easier for her to kill herself than to kill Morgan. If she somehow did escape and left him alive he would hunt her down.
Unlike Angie, Suzanne had never held a gun in her life. Morgan had tried to show her once, and it would have been in her interests to try, but the object totally repulsed her and she couldn’t bring herself to even touch the weapon. She hated herself for being so weak. A stronger woman would have done Morgan in and escaped by now. And what was she doing to help their situation? Waiting for her little girl to grow up and take care of it for her. This was crazy. They should leave now.
But to put Angie in so much more danger when she was still so young?
Suzanne’s brow furrowed and she opened her mouth to speak, then stopped. She sighed, then hugged Angie. Perhaps a miracle would happen. Morgan would be killed in battle. United Nations soldiers would rescue them. She just needed to be patient.
‘Look after yourself, honey.’
‘Of course I’ll be careful, Mom,’ Angie said with a smile. She pulled away. ‘Hey, can you come and throw some cans for me. I’ve got a new trick.’
‘What’s that?’ her mother asked, recalling the session last week. Angie had shot tin cans backwards, using both left and right hands, whilst looking at a mirror.
‘Well,’ she replied, her eyes shining with enthusiasm, ‘you know that tyre I swing from? I can shoot the cans while I swing. Left and right handed.’
Suzanne shook her head sadly. ‘I have to mark your homework. You go and show your Dad. But first, let’s see you finish your exercises. You’ve still got a hundred push-ups and ten chin-ups to do today.’ Morgan wanted Angie to be physically fit, and this was one point on which Suzanne never disagreed. Angie had to be strong, both mentally and physically. It was her and Angie’s only chance.
‘I hadn’t forgotten,’ Angie replied with a smile and walked away.
Her mother picked up her daughter’s homework folder and sat down. As she marked she thought back to the days when she used to lecture in physics at Harvard. Many of the first-year students had poorer understanding of the work than Angie did. It just demonstrated that concentrated one-to-one learning was so much more effective than the classroom or the lecture theatre. No, she knew it was more than that. Angie grasped scientific concepts so easily. Her mind just seemed to devour knowledge like a hungry animal. Well, she herself had always liked and excelled at science. That’s why she’d ended up teaching it. But Angie’s abilities were phenomenal. If she hadn’t been born in Kurmia, she could have achieved so much. A brilliant child. And Suzanne was certain that wasn’t merely the subjective opinion of a proud mother. Yet, despite her academic brilliance, Angie was still very much a child. Still simplistic and naive in many ways. And still so very much under the influence of the Colonel.
Suzanne recalled a lecture series she had attended during her university training as part of her curriculum. God, how far away those days seemed now. There had been a very good speaker named Dr Jack Sutherland, from Berkeley, California. ‘The Superchild Lectures: Myth, Method, or Road to Madness’ had been the title of his presentation. And the quote came back to her like it was yesterday. She clearly remembered writing it in her notebook and wondering about the implications.
‘It has been proven that when ethical and emotional constraints are removed, the development of the child can reach unheard-of heights, with, of course, a consequent danger of falling from those same heights.’
Well, if anyone ever was a ‘superchild’, Angie was. She’d have to take Angie to meet Dr Sutherland. He would be fascinated, truly fascinated, and Suzanne knew enough from her studies of childhood development to understand that Angie was going to need extensive deprogramming to get back to some semblance of normality. Perhaps Sutherland would help with that, or if not, at least he would be able to recommend someone who could.
Whoa, slow down, she thought. I’m getting ahead of myself. First things first. Above everything else they had to get out of here. There would be plenty of time later to sort out all the other problems.
‘Hey,’ Angie said to Morgan. ‘I’ve got a new gun trick. Want to see it?’
‘Sure.’ He followed her to the riverbank.
‘Howzat?’ Angie asked Morgan after demonstrating her shooting from the swinging tyre.
‘Yeah, good. I’ve got another one for you.’ He took out his revolver and handed it to her butt first, then spun it around suddenly into a firing grip.
‘Hey, that’s good.’
He grinned. ‘It’s called the border roll or road agent’s spin. They used it in the Wild West. Like it?’
Morgan showed Angie how to offer the gun in a display of surrender, whilst keeping her finger in the trigger guard.
She tried several times but kept dropping the weapon.
‘Here, look,’ Morgan said, showing her again. ‘Like this.’
Eventually, after several more tries, Angie managed to perform the maneuver without dropping her gun.
‘That’s it. You just need to practise. And speed it up a bit.’ He grinned. ‘Hope you never need to use it.’
The monsoons finally ended and the dry season began. Now the beautiful lush green surroundings gradually gave way to a more arid landscape. Angie learned well the trade of the mercenary. Her wits became sharper, her body became stronger. To please her mother she continued to study her schoolbooks although her interests lay with outdoor activities.
It was the dry season, but freak storms were one of the vagaries of their tropical climate, and recently there had been several.
One day, a party of mercenaries returned to the base. Among them Angie and Morgan, exhausted after several weeks spent laying mines and ambushing army supply vehicles. On arrival they were greeted with the news there had been an outbreak of fever. Already some of the men had died.
‘Suzanne?’ Morgan asked, his face a mask of anxiety.
‘Yes, she’s got it too,’ the man replied.
‘Where is she?’ he demanded.
‘You can’t see her, the Doc’s put everyone who’s sick in isolation in case it’s contagious.’
Morgan grabbed the man by the collar, practically lifting him off the ground. ‘Where is she?’
‘In hangar three,’ the man gasped. ‘We’ve turned it into a hospital.’
Angie followed Morgan as he ran towards the hangar.
Inside, the room was full of people, some lying on stretchers, some on mats on the floor. When Angie picked out her mother’s face amongst all the others, she was horrified to see how thin and wasted she was. Her eyes were sunken pebbles and her cheeks were hollow and pale yellow.
‘What is this illness?’ Angie asked the doctor, while Morgan knelt by her mother’s side.
‘My microscope was broken. I’ve only just proven it’s malaria but it ain’t responding to quinine. The men just keep dropping no matter what I do. Quinine doesn’t help. Nothing helps.’ His voice was tired. He seemed ten years older than when she had last seen him. ‘At least we don’t need to worry about isolation anymore, now we know what it is.’
‘Has anyone recovered?’ Angie asked the doctor, a cold dread clutching at her heart.
‘Some do. The strong ones.’
‘But it’s only malaria,’ Angie said, not understanding. There’d been a malaria outbreak once before when they’d run out of the preventative medicines. No one had died. ‘You made everyone better last time.’
‘Last time it was Vivax. This time it’s Falciparin, which is a much nastier strain.’
‘But why can’t you cure it?’ she persisted.
‘For the same fucking reason everyone’s got it. It’s resistant to cholorquine.’
Morgan stood up, his eyes ablaze with anger. ‘Why wasn’t she taken to a hospital?’
‘I-It was against orders,’ the doctor stammered. All medivacs had to be approved by Morgan, but because of recent enemy activity near their base he’d requested radio silence.
‘Put her in my plane.’
‘You’ll kill her. She’s too sick now to be moved.’
‘What then? There must be something!’
The doctor nodded. ‘Take a blood sample to the city hospital in West Kurmia and they may be able to analyse it and suggest a treatment.’
‘I’ll do it. Give me the blood samples. And send a party to find the stagnant water. How the fuck was that missed? Unless I’m here to do everything, this place falls apart. Do I have to do everything myself round here?’
Morgan took the tubes and slides which the doctor handed him from the refrigerator, then turned and left.
‘It wasn’t stagnant water from around here,’ the doctor said quietly to Angie. ‘The mosquitoes can travel for many miles by blowing on the wind.’
Angie nodded then sat down by her mother’s side. Although she had already been awake for forty-eight hours during that last mission, sleep was out of the question. The day dragged into night. Suzanne alternated between sweating and shivering, sometimes moaning incoherently or talking deliriously. At other times she was quite lucid. Around midnight she began to call for Angie.
‘I’m right here, Mom,’ Angie said, mopping the woman’s brow with a damp cloth. ‘I’m right here.’
‘Angie, Angie, I must tell you now, I must …’
‘Shhh,’ Angie whispered. ‘Don’t talk. If you rest you’ll get better.’
‘Angie, I want you to listen to me.’ Her eyes were open wide and she was suddenly perfectly lucid. ‘You already know how I first got here. When my plane crashed into the mountains.’ She spoke slowly and with great difficulty.
‘Thirteen years ago my friends and I were on holiday. We’d saved for years for this trip. I don’t know how the pilot got lost. Somehow he did. From the window I saw flashes. I realized they were shooting at us.’ She groaned, as if reliving the experience. ‘We crash-landed. All I had was a broken arm and a twisted ankle. Most of the others were still alive.’
She paused. ‘The Colonel …’ she continued, pronouncing the word Colonel in a tone which surprised Angie, ‘… the Colonel and his men shot all of them. Every single person except me. All my friends. Everyone. He saved me because I was very beautiful when I was younger. Just like you are now. And I wasn’t badly injured from the crash. I had to stay alive because I was already carrying you in my belly. I had to forget about everything in my past to survive. You see, Angie, I already have a husband back home.’
‘I don’t understand,’ said Angie, trying hard to grasp the truth.
‘I was already pregnant with you before the crash.’
‘The Colonel’s not my father?’ Angie asked, not yet believing.
‘No, thank God. I doubt he’s even fertile because I’ve never been pregnant again since then.’
Angie was amazed by the malice in her mother’s voice. ‘Doesn’t he know?’ she asked.
‘No!’ She grabbed Angie’s wrist in a grip which was surprisingly strong considering her condition. ‘And you mustn’t tell him! Ever! You have to escape. Angie, you must escape. If you don’t get away, he’ll destroy you. You must get away, you must. Promise me, Angie. Promise me you’ll leave here and find your father. Please.’
‘Yes, Mom, of course.’ At that point in time Angie would have promised her the world.
Her mother was beginning to toss and turn. Angie mopped her brow and spoke soothingly. ‘It’s all right, it’s all right, Mom.’
In the early hours of the morning, Angie’s mother died. Angie wandered out of the makeshift hospital in a daze and ended up in her hut in her parents’ room. Lying down, she buried her face in her mother’s pillow. The pillow still had her mother’s familiar soapy clean smell. Her eyes fell on the hairbrush. Everyday she sat on this bed while her mother brushed her long dark hair until it shone. It seemed unbelievable that she would never brush it again. No more hugs and kisses. No more anything. Angie didn’t cry, but she felt a great sadness, more terrible than anything she had ever experienced in her life before. Outside, the gusting wind was turning into a gale, but she was oblivious to it. She wondered how long she was going to feel this way. Forever? She had seen people being tortured before and now she understood why they begged for death.
She threw the pillow at the wall. I can’t stand this! With grim determination she pulled the pistol from her side holster. Although she knew it was loaded, she double-checked it all the same, out of habit. Afterwards she hammered the clip back into place with the palm of her hand.
Normally she would never treat a gun this way, as she kept her weapons in perfect condition. But she would only need the gun this one last time.
Maybe it would hurt, but it would only be for a second. She put the barrel to her head. What would a second be compared to a lifetime of being without her mother? Without any parents?
‘So, Senorita Angie …’
She swung around to see Lopez standing in the doorway.
‘I come to see if you’re, er …’ he smiled slightly at his own inability to find the correct word, ‘… okay and I find you here about to take the coward’s way out, eh?’
For a moment she was uncomprehending. ‘You callin’ me a coward, Lopez?’ Normally she was well spoken, but in times of stress she often slipped into the vernacular of the men she had grown up with.
He lifted up a hand and shook his head. ‘No, no. Sorry for disturbing you. I go now. Adios.’
He left, his head down, shutting the door quietly behind him as he departed.
‘Bastard,’ she muttered, dropping the gun onto the bed. She thought of the many arguments she had had with her mother, of all the raids her mother had begged her not to go on. She cursed and swung her fist into the wall, leaving a hole in the wood and her knuckles aching.
Angie watched as somehow Morgan successfully landed in the teeth of the windstorm.
Sometimes the world is rocked on its axis. Usually a war, an assassination, or a famine. This time it was a tiny insect bite, a vicious disease, and a deathbed confession. Angie stared into the clouds of dust raised by the storm, her own world still shaking. She was anxiously waiting for the small plane to arrive, but now she didn’t know why. Her certainty was gone and her world was reduced to questions. Who was her mother? Who was the man on the plane? And last but not least, who was she?
‘She’s dead,’ Angie said simply, as Morgan jumped from the cockpit onto the runway.
He dropped the parcel he was carrying, stood absolutely still for a moment, then with a cry more animal than human, he began to run.
Angie followed and caught up with him in the hangar where several men were holding him to prevent him from throttling the doctor.
‘Hey, it wasn’t the Doc’s fault,’ one of them said.
‘Yeah, he did his best,’ another concurred.
‘Colonel,’ Lopez whispered, ‘we need him at the moment.’
Morgan relaxed and his men released him. For several minutes he knelt by Suzanne’s body, his hand on hers, without saying anything. Eventually, he stood up and turned to Angie.
‘You all right?’
He put his arm over her shoulder and walked her outside. ‘It hurts like hell, doesn’t it?’
‘I’ve never known anything worse,’ she replied honestly. ‘I can’t take it for much longer.’
He stopped walking and turned her so she was facing him, holding both her arms. ‘You won’t do anything stupid, will you?’
‘Like short-cutting to hell?’ He watched her face for a reply. ‘Don’t,’ he said, after a few seconds silence. ‘Life’s short anyway. Other people live through this. I don’t see why we can’t.’
‘Yes, we’re not cowards,’ she said, remembering the expression Lopez had used.
Angie was lying sleepless in bed that night when Morgan burst into the room and turned the overhead light on. Squinting through half closed eyes she saw him standing before her, his face ashen, his expression a strange mixture of rage and sorrow. He spoke, at first slowly, as if drugged.
‘I’ve just been talking to White.’
She remembered White had been the man in the bed next to her mother’s.
‘He told me some things,’ he continued, his voice faltering. It was uncharacteristic of Morgan to ever let his feelings show. As with any highly trained mercenary, he had learned long ago to cover his emotions. ‘What did Suzanne say before she died?’
‘I don’t know,’ she replied hesitantly. ‘She was delirious, talking nonsense … I can’t really remember.’
Morgan grabbed her shirt, half lifting her out of bed. ‘Try.’ He waited a moment, then released her. He stood up straight. ‘Did she say she never loved me? Did she say you weren’t my child?’
Angie thought for a moment. ‘Yes,’ she replied eventually. ‘I think she did. But she wasn’t …’
‘Where’re we going?’ she asked, reaching for her shoes, being already fully dressed except for those.
‘To see Doc for a blood test,’ he replied, avoiding her gaze.
Ten minutes later the doctor was withdrawing a needle from the vein in Angie’s arm. They sat in his makeshift laboratory, a small room lined by shelves of medications and other assorted items.
‘I remember my group,’ she said. ‘I’m A Rh negative.’
All the mercenaries had their blood group checked when they first started work and their doctor held the result on record. However, Suzanne had never been grouped as she never saw combat, and the page with Angie’s group had water damage and was unreadable. It didn’t surprise her that the doctor had lost her group. In fact it was pretty typical of his incompetence. If they’d had a better doctor her mother would still be alive today, she was certain of it.
White was sitting in a chair nearby. He was pale and appeared only partially recovered from his illness. Morgan walked up to the man. ‘Have you told anyone else what you heard?’
‘No, of course not, Colonel.’
Morgan nodded and turned his attention back to the doctor. ‘Do mine again, just to make sure.’
‘This mightn’t prove anything,’ the doctor told Morgan as he took the blood as requested. ‘It either tells you she definitely isn’t your daughter, or it tells you that you can’t tell.’
‘I don’t get it,’ Morgan said, pressing on the site where the doctor had just withdrawn a sample of his blood.
‘Well, suppose she really is your daughter,’ he said, putting the blood sample into a little tube. ‘This test won’t tell us for sure either way. Her group might be right by chance. They’re all common groups. But if she isn’t related it might tell us she definitely isn’t, or it might not prove anything depending what groups you both are.’
‘Still don’t get it,’ he said releasing the pressure over his arm. ‘Just get on with it.’
‘Lucky I kept some of Suzanne’s samples,’ the doctor said as he removed two tubes from his centrifuge. He squirted a few drops of Angie’s and then Suzanne’s serum, onto circles on a white card, just as he had done with Morgan’s sample a moment earlier. ‘There’s a thing called a DNA test but it’s not available here.’ He stirred inside the circles with a toothpick, then held them under a lamp. ‘But we’ll only need to use it if her blood matches yours and Suzanne’s. If there’s no match then we’ll know.’
‘You were right, Colonel,’ he pronounced eventually. ‘Angie and Suzanne are both group A but you’re group B. Angie should be AB. Her real father must be A or O. You’re definitely not the father of this child.’
‘Hell,’ Morgan muttered.
‘It doesn’t make any difference to us, does it?’ Angie asked.
Morgan ignored Angie as he stood staring at the doctor, a bewildered expression on his face. Then he turned his gaze to Angie. She’d never seen him look at her that way before. She stood paralysed watching helplessly as he took his gun from his holster, cocked it and aimed it directly at her head.
‘Dad, no! What’re you doing?’
How many other people had she seen him kill over the years? Men, women and children. People who’d looked into those same cold eyes, knowing those eyes would be the last thing they’d ever see. Yet she never would have thought it possible that one day she would die at her father’s hands. He loved her. So often he’d told her how she was the most important thing in his life. How she had given his life meaning.
She recalled one mission when she was eleven years old when someone had shot at her. The bullet hadn’t even come close, but Morgan had gone berserk. She’d never seen him so emotional. Of course, he’d tracked the gunman down and disposed of the man – slowly and painfully. Afterwards, he hadn’t let her off base for months. During that time she’d worked hard to prove to him she was not only capable but an asset to have with him on missions. He already appreciated her speed and marksmanship with guns. Everyone there knew she was the best shot on the base. And fast. But there was much more to war than just being able to shoot straight, and she understood this. It was only her persistent wheedling, and her continued intensive training that had finally persuaded him to allow her to join him again on some of their sorties. She’d discovered from a very young age that Morgan could never refuse requests from her for very long. So it was that once again she’d had her way and he’d come to appreciate having her with him.
Once, a couple of months earlier, she’d accompanied him to a meeting with a rebel leader to discuss an alliance. It had been a trap. A plot to assassinate Morgan. While everyone had been partaking of the hospitality of the rebel leader, Angie spotted a sniper in a tree and dispatched him before he could kill her father. The other mercenaries had reacted immediately after, and they’d all escaped with no casualties. Morgan had been so pleased and proud of the way she’d saved them all.
But now, everything had changed. What could she say or do? Looking into his hard face was like staring at the face of a stranger. Looking at the gun was worse. Several seconds went by. Time seemed to stand still. She felt tears of anguish well up in her eyes.
Abruptly his expression changed, and his gaze shifted fractionally. There was the loud report as the gun fired, and she saw White fall to the ground. Dead.
The doctor watched Morgan’s face nervously, clearly worried he would be next.
‘Tell no one about this blood test,’ Morgan warned him. ‘No one. Tell the men White offed himself.’ Then Morgan turned and strode out of the room.
Angie walked out into the moonlight and away from the huts. She could understand Morgan’s anger. He’d lost his temper and killed White, but she knew he would never have killed her. Besides, he had regained his self-control in the last seconds, right? He realized that no matter what, she was still his daughter. No blood test could change that. He was her father, had always been her father. He loved her. It would probably take time for him to get over the shock of her mother’s revelation, she mused, but eventually it would happen, and then things would be the same between them as they’d always been.
She felt ashamed that he’d seen her tears. A good soldier would not cry. But then, it hadn’t been from fear. Perhaps her Dad would know that.
Days dragged into weeks. The pain of Angie’s mother’s death gradually diminished but was replaced by a new, less tangible sorrow. Morgan never refused to let her accompany him on any of the raids, no matter how dangerous, and actually encouraged her to participate more. At first she was pleased, taking it as a sign of appreciation of her skills. But gradually a suspicion arose in her mind that perhaps there was a different motivation. Other aspects of her life had also undergone changes. Morgan hardly spoke to her, and when he did, it was only regarding their work. She was fairly certain no one apart from Morgan and the doctor knew he was not her real father and that her mother had tricked him. But the men sensed a change in Morgan’s attitude towards her. They no longer treated her with the same respect as they had accorded her in the past. When she walked through the base she could feel their hungry eyes following her every move.
Something inside her also began to change, as repeatedly she was forced to kill at close range and see the results of the destruction she caused. Re-reading the books her mother had chosen for her, the familiar passages she had known so well began to take on new meaning, as if she had never really seen them before.
Angie lay on her stomach, her rifle butt against her shoulder. The air was filled with the sounds of gunfire and the cries of panic-stricken villagers. Unlike the men around her she fired above the heads of the villagers below. A small boy ran, terror stricken, from a burning hut chased by his mother, desperate to take him back to the relative safety of their partially destroyed home. Someone shot the mother. Angie turned her head to see Jones aiming his weapon at the little boy. Without thinking, she swung the barrel towards Jones and pulled the trigger. The blast shattered his skull and sent his lifeless body flying over the edge of the small precipice and into the village below.
Morgan said nothing to her as they made their way back to the base. Angie was filled with apprehension. If anyone saw her kill Jones she was in serious trouble and, although she would use the excuse that it had happened accidentally, the penalty would still be heavy.
At home that evening, Angie had just finished taking a bath, and was sitting on her doorstep drying her hair when Lopez approached. He stood in front of her taking in the contours of her nubile body revealed by the damp T-shirt she wore.
‘What do you want?’ she asked in a voice which betrayed none of the panic she was feeling.
‘The Colonel wants a word with you.’ He motioned with his head in the direction of a group of men in the distance cooking their evening meal over a fire.
So they had seen her kill Jones. She wished that she had made a run for it earlier. Now it was too late. She would have to face the consequences of her actions. Angie stood up and reluctantly followed Lopez. Above her, a group of birds wheeled and turned in formation, reveling in the last rays of the sun, their shrill cries echoing from the mountain peaks. In Kurmia, evening always came quickly when the sun dropped behind the mountains. They only had another five minutes of daylight left to them. Looking up, she thought how good it would be to be there with them, high above everything. Safe from everything. Completely free. Some people, she knew, believed in reincarnation. That after they died they would come back as some other living thing. A forest bird would be a really good thing to come back as she decided. After all she really loved flying.
When Angie reached the group of men she could see how angry Morgan was from his expression. The others weren’t looking too pleased either.
‘Angie,’ Morgan said facing her, ‘seems to me, and some of the men here, your aim was a little off today. You’re one of the best shots in the base. Would you like to explain?’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ she replied evenly, meeting his cold gaze. Her legs felt weak as she fought back a wave of nausea.
He slapped her twice across the face, the second time hard, with the back of his hand, sending her to the ground. ‘Do you think you carry your rifle for decoration or something? When we shoot, we shoot to kill, not to frighten the damn villagers. Didn’t even drop one of them, did you?’
She stood up feeling relieved. At least they hadn’t found out about Jones. ‘No, I didn’t drop one of them.’
‘Care to explain why?’
Angie knew this calm manner was not a good sign. He was mad. He just didn’t show it. ‘I don’t know. It was all too easy, I guess. They hardly had any weapons, mainly women and kids.’
‘You’re soft,’ he snarled. ‘Lopez, Alderson, bring the prisoner here.’
Prisoner, was it? That sounded about right, now.
He glared at her. ‘You’ve disgraced me, I should have you flogged. If you’d done what you’d been trained for we mightn’t have lost Jones, one of the best explosives men I’ve ever had.’
‘I’m just as good with explosives,’ she muttered defensively.
But she had it wrong. They dragged the young American soldier against a pole and tied him to it so he was standing, his arms bound behind his back. The poor bastard had been the sole survivor of Morgan’s raid the previous week. The raid against the UN peacekeeping force on the outskirts of the city. Angie guessed what Morgan’s next order would be before he spoke.
‘Angie,’ Morgan ordered, with a twisted smile, ‘I have no more use for this prisoner. Kill him.’
He was not the first prisoner Morgan had forced her to execute, but he was the first one since she had fully appreciated the significance of what she was doing. It never had been easy for her. Not at close range. Now she wasn’t sure she could do it at all. She removed her .45 Colt from her holster, looked at the boy crying and pleading for his life, looked at the men standing around her, finally resting her eyes upon Morgan. She pushed down the safety catch to the fire position.
How she had ever equated Morgan with the heroes of her books, she no longer understood. The men in her books were decent human beings, whereas Morgan was a brutal, cold-blooded killer with no conscience or compassion. Since her mother’s death, her love for Morgan had gradually diminished, but it was only now that she felt hatred. The same hatred her mother must have carried with her all those long years and sublimated so they would survive. Yes, she could kill him now. Her gun was already in her hand whereas Morgan’s gun remained holstered. Perhaps he was ready but he would never be in time. She knew she had the speed and accuracy it would take. Of course there would be no escape for her afterwards; her mother’s years of sacrifice would have been in vain, and the others would kill the uniformed boy anyway. Her eyes met those of the boy’s. Tears were running down his cheeks. She could refuse to do it but someone else would, and she would then probably be given the same treatment.
‘What’s your name?’ she asked quietly.
‘Parker, Steven.’ He looked at her with desperation in his eyes.
‘Where are you from, Steven?’
‘Finish him,’ Morgan said, looking bored.
She shrugged her shoulders and turned away from the young soldier allowing him a moment to believe he was waking from his nightmare. They would not really kill him. They were trying to frighten him. He never saw Angie turn, in less than a blink of an eye. There was a shot which Steven never heard, as he slumped forwards dead in front of her.
‘Anyone else?’ she asked quietly, gazing around the circle of men as she holstered her pistol.
Morgan shook his head, but seemed satisfied.
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