There comes a stage at which a man would rather die cleanly by a bullet than by the unknown terror of the phantom in the forest.
― Tahir Shah, House of the Tiger King: The Quest for a Lost City
The Jungle West of the Andes – 5km from the Ecuador Border
The dark night of the jungle seemed to envelop him like he was drowning in the stygian darkness of an underground lake. Occasionally through tiny gaps in the canopy, like crevasses in an ice field, he saw the purple sky and very bright stars. All around them the jungle hissed and seethed with the myriad of creatures and insects. Edge had already been stung twice and the Avon Skin So Soft was fighting a losing battle with the bugs that seemed to take personal delight in zooming in on him.
He turned his head to the left and could just make out Harris through the NVGs. Harris was a good soldier, steady and calm, but tonight he would see how Harris operated in a firefight. Up ahead about fifteen metres away were the eight men of the Alpha team, the tooth aspect of this small force. Harris and Edge were the back stop to guard their rear and flanks.
They were closing in on a collection of huts and other buildings, on the fringe of a few hectares of coca bushes that were under camouflage nets. The narcotic producers had learned from experience, that the government would spray large areas of coca production with defoliant from the air, Colombia being one of the few countries that authorised the use of industrial grade defoliant spraying. Rivera had passed them intelligence, that the drug barons were producing a large amount of cocaine in this area, and a Colombian air force reconnaissance flight had spotted the nets and the camouflaged buildings.
It was decided that the Alpha team would go in with thermite bombs, to destroy the growing shrubs and the production buildings. It was unlikely that the operation would go ahead without reaction from the cartels. There was always the additional danger that they were operating in FARC territory, close to one of their main supply routes. For his part, Edge knew that tonight they would be in combat. In the confusing jungle fighting, casualties were practically guaranteed. The Alpha officer and SNCO had role radios, as did Edge and Harris. Edge was armed with his trusty H&K plus numerous grenades, conventional fragmentation, smoke and flash-bangs. Harris had the SAWS, with rounds held in a one-hundred round canvass magazine, to prevent the ammunition belts being tangled in foliage.
The Alpha officer came on the radio, “We are moving forward. Stand by.”
“Roger. We will follow.”
Edge inched forwards and could hear Harris moving to his right. Something large moved close to him and Edge froze, the sweat soaking his undershirt. He crouched down, swept the area with his NVGs and was staring into the face of an anteater. It was difficult to tell who was most startled. The anteater moved away, snaffling, searching out insects on the jungle floor, away from this strange, two-legged beast that stank.
They were heading downhill now, to a large opening in the jungle where the coca could be cultivated. It was close enough to a water source and near a road to transport. Sixty-eight per-cent of the drugs bound for America was grown in clearings such as the one they were heading towards. And the FARC aided in the distribution for their cut. The drugs would move north out of the country, by aircraft, fast boat or even submersibles to Florida. The other route was through Central America to Mexico and then across the border. The border was like a permeable membrane and the feeble presidency of Barack Obama had weakened the border defences with Mexico. It was to get far worse under Biden, but this was in the future.
Edge came to the margin of the camouflage netting and went down on one knee. The Alpha troops were splitting into two teams. One team of four would go into the coca field and plant the thermite bombs. The second four-man multiple would assault the buildings and destroy all the cocaine production equipment inside, including the extremely volatile chemicals. Edge watched the troopers waiting for the first bombs to go off before effecting an entry to the buildings.
Under the nets there was a small glow and then suddenly, the first thermite bomb went off. The dry coca shrubs went up like burning torches, the sap boiling in the vegetation and exploding the woody trunks, turning the mature shrubs into shrapnel. It was followed by several more as the netting canopy went up, showering the retreating troopers with burning cord and fake foliage.
“We are going in!” the Colombian commander said over the net and Edge waited for the inevitable counter attack. The first rounds came from the buildings, the slower rattle of AK47s. Inside the buildings, sleeping men suddenly reacting to the Colombian commandos who were killing the FARC where they lay.
A FARC guerrilla burst out of the building, firing wildly at where the threat was perceived to be. Edge fired a three round burst to keep the H&K on target and not having to re-adjust the firing position. The FARC spun around and Edge saw a long, plaited ponytail whip round as the guerrilla fell. He had just shot a woman, albeit a woman armed with an AK47. Move on. Don’t dwell on it. It could have been you, said a voice in his head.
On his left, Harris was sending down short, steady bursts, when the building in front of Edge seemed to spontaneously combust, sending a dirty, acrid cloud of chemicals and cocaine into the black sky.
“OK, we’re withdrawing,” the Colombian lieutenant said on the net.
“Roger, covering,” Edge said but didn’t recall speaking.
The Alpha troops peeled out of the now furiously burning building. They would move a short distance then foot down to fire behind them.
“You’re passing us. We’re covering.”
Harris waited until the four troopers were clear of the camouflage nets and passed his position, before resuming firing. Edge could hear the rounds spattering through the undergrowth and he found it terrifying. It was an illogical fear, because he would never hear the one that would get him. He continued to fire short bursts at the muzzle flashes, until two tracer rounds told him it was time to change magazine.
“I’m moving back,” said Harris on the radio.
“OK, I’ll cover you.”
The firing from the burning buildings was building in intensity. Edge crawled towards the cover of a tree bole and made three grenades ready. A knot of panicking FARC burst out of the buildings, firing wildly. Edge threw a flash-bang and it went off with a boom that lit up the trees. The guerrillas were deafened, blinded and unable to react in any meaningful way. They were easy meat for the two fragmentation he bracketed them with. They scattered like rags in a gale, and he knew he should fall back, but something haunted him.
Do not do this, Edge. This is madness!
He went forward.
She was still alive, she was young, was once vibrant but now, close to death. All of the three rounds of his burst had hit her. One smashing her arm, the other two low in the chest. She was crying in her agony, frothy blood bubbling from her mouth and nose. She saw him crouched over her and tried to crawl away, babbling with terror.
One of the men caught in the grenade blasts raised his rifle and Edge fired at him. He was still. He knelt down next to the woman.
“I’m so sorry.”
This was utter stupidity and rank hypocrisy, another indication that he was losing it. His guilt was crushing.
“You have killed me anyway, Gringo. Make it quick.”
The light from the burning buildings backlit this awful tableau. He pulled her up and put her head on his thigh. He covered her eyes with his hand and pulled the Glock from its holster. He put the muzzle on her temporal bone, just above her ear.
“Dear, merciful God, speed her way,” he said in English. She was a Marxist so any notion of God was an anathema to her.
He closed his eyes, pulled the trigger and he was spattered with her blood and brains. They felt hot and Edge sighed and felt sick. He was running out of compartments in his mind, to store appalling memories. Edge stood up and followed the retiring commandos, sweeping the area as he withdrew. After five minutes, Harris’ voice came over the role radio.
“I have you in sight. What kept you?”
There followed the long truck to the helicopter pick-up point. The Alpha troopers leading the way. Edge was troubled and once out of the engagement area, Harris asked him what was the matter.
“Nothing really. It’s just that…”
“It gets quite intense fighting in the jungle.”
“I had to go back and kill someone; someone we’d already hit.”
“Why?” Harris asked, genuinely surprised.
“It didn’t seem right, leaving a person in so much pain.”
“I hope you fixed them up nicely. Did you give them a spot of counselling and told them the error of their ways? Jeez, Edge. They are the FARC. They are responsible for tens of thousands of deaths over the years. They have devastated this shitty country. They practically run the cocaine industry. Don’t feel any pity for these sons of bitches, because sure as hell, they wouldn’t care about you. How did you alleviate their pain and suffering?”
“With a 9mm round in her head.”
“It’s the best way,” Harris observed coldly.
They followed a road north to where it crossed a small river. There was a clearing just north of the bridge and they went into all-round defence. The sky was turning grey in the early dawn light. The Colombian 2IC got on the radio and requested a helicopter pick-up. Twenty minutes later they heard the familiar beat of a Huey’s rotor blades, as it skimmed across the jungle canopy. Edge activated a smoke flare and tossed it downwind in the clearing.
The Huey flared above the canopy and landed. The Alpha troops got on board quickly, Edge and Harris last. Edge took his usual position behind the co-pilot, facing aft. The pilot grinned at him. He was the air test pilot from a few days previously.
“Hey, Edge. You want to fly the lady home?”
“No, you’re OK, Skipper. I’m scared of those big, pointy things. I think you call them The Andes.”
He laughed and applied full throttle for lift then increased the collective. The Huey pitched forward and made a climbing turn, to head back to the mountains, towards St Juan de Pasto and the main operating base.
It was dawn by the time the Huey landed back at Pasto and the ten of them went into the command tent for a de-brief. Edge was suddenly very tired and as the Colombian commander spoke, he felt his eyes closing. He and Harris were asked for their take on things and both were in agreement that it had been a classic operation. The Americans made a great play on the numbers of FARC that had been killed, but Edge was always cautious of these things. The years had taught him that a body count counted for nothing. What mattered was finding and eliminating the leadership, to make it too difficult for the enemy to exercise command and control.
After the briefing, Edge went to clean his rifle and sort his kit out. As Harris went to leave, the Major called him back.
“How was Edge?”
“Err OK, Major. We can’t teach him anything. He’s a good soldier… It’s just…”
“Just what, Harris?”
“He thinks too much. There was a wounded female FARC guerrilla and Edge went back to “alleviate her suffering.’”
“He shot her in the head,” Harris shrugged, “It wouldn’t bother me, but it bothered him for some reason. She was already dying. What was the point?”
Major Martinez was thoughtful, “The Brits have relatively few Special Forces, which means they are in combat for much longer periods that we are. Edge has seen combat for about ten years and he was shot and quite severely wounded in Kosovo. I don’t know what’s going on in his head, but he can’t be blamed for thinking and putting some female FARC out of her misery. As long as he does his job, I’m happy. Agreed?”
“Have a good rest, Harris.”
Back in the accommodation tent, Edge cleaned his weapons and lay out his fatigues for when he woke up. Most of the Green Berets were up and about, and Edge replenished his ammunition and went for a lie down to try and get some sleep. Perversely, his mind kept replaying the events of the assault on the buildings. He could see the face clearly of the woman he shot. Was she a mother, a lover, somebody’s wife? You have killed me anyway, Gringo.
Eventually he fell into a deep, troubled sleep and never heard the phone going off in the operations tent. Ten minutes later he felt a hand shake him gently.
“Edge, Edge, I’m sorry but you have to wake up.”
He opened his eyes and stared up at Lieutenant Collins.
“What is it, Lieutenant.”
“We’ve been summoned to Bogotá. They’re holding an enquiry about the operation near the coast. There’s a USAF C130 coming in at 11:00. They want the Major, me, the senior Colombian guys and a special guest appearance by you. Get your kit ready and meet me in the command tent.”
Edge decided to wear his MTP camouflage uniform. He had the Glock in its back holster and the weapons valise for his H&K. In his day sack was a change of underwear and his washing and shaving kit. He made his way to the command tent. The Major looked at him and shrugged.
“I’m really sorry to drag you out of bed, Edge, but the British oil firm has insisted on an enquiry regarding the eight contractors we killed on that operation. The British embassy will be represented, as well as the Colombian authorities and my superiors in the capital.”
“Do I have a speaking part, sir?”
“Yes, you led the fire team that opened fire on them. They are not apportioning blame, they just want to find out what happened.”
“Hmm,” said Edge, who doubted this very much.
“We have been allocated accommodation with the American contingent command in the capital. You’re welcome to join us.”
“If it’s all the same to you, sir, I would like to stay at the hotel, where I have an open-ended room reservation. It’s where the majority of my kit is.”
“OK, but I would like us to have a meeting tomorrow morning, before the inquiry starts.”
“To get our stories straight?”
“Very much. It is supposed to be informal, but these things never are.”
Edge went and grabbed some of the dreadful MREs, consoling himself with the knowledge, tonight he would have a good meal in the hotel. The C130 landed at 10:00 and after the aircrew had turned it around, Martinez, Collins, Lieutenant Paz of the 12th Bolivian Ranger Regiment and Edge filed on board. It was a short flight to Bogotá and Edge called a cab. Before he left, he said to Martinez: “I’ll see you tomorrow at the Codensa Calle, sir. And then it’ll be time to slap my todger between a hotdog bun and shout: Dinner time Fido!”
“What the hell did he say?” Collins asked.
“I have absolutely no idea. They speak a kind of English, but what they actually say is anybody’s guess.”
Edge asked the cab driver to take him to a hire car outlet. He was tired of having to rely on taxis and Rivera when she wanted something. It was a large outlet, so he had the pick of plenty of cars. He was drawn to a charcoal black Ford GT, a classic American muscle car. It was expensive to hire, run and a stupid choice of car to sit at an airport when he flew south again. It was the 5.4 litre engine that swayed him. He had to have it and would argue with the bean counters when he got back to Hereford.
It took about thirty minutes to complete the paperwork and he drove out of the forecourt, the Ford’s engine burbling. Edge couldn’t wait to get to an open road to see what it could do. At the hotel he asked someone from the lobby staff to park it up and went to the reception desk for the key to his room.
“Any messages for me?”
“Nothing, Mr Edge. Were you expecting something?”
“No. I won’t have lunch, but I will be taking dinner in the grill.”
“As you wish, sir.”
Edge went up to his room and had a long and much welcomed shower. As he lay on the bed drying, he phoned Moira.
“Where are you, Mark?”
“On a tropical island, being cooled by a dusky maiden with a fan, while another one peels grapes for me.”
“And in the real world?”
“Bogotá. In the hotel, bored, lonely and missing you.”
“I would have thought you would have phoned, last night.”
That would have been a bit difficult, as I was busy blowing the brains out of a woman FARC, guerrilla. “Oh really, why?”
He could hear her sigh, “You forgot, didn’t you?”
Edge ran through the usual suspects, for which forgetting was a hanging offence, Birthdays, no. Wedding anniversary, No. He was pretty sure that was October.
“What did I forget, Moira?”
“Sarah’s first day at pre-school. I’m disappointed with you, Mark.”
“Look, I really am sorry. How’s baby Francis?”
But he wasn’t going to get off that easily.
“I told you before you left that she had a place. She made you a card: To my daddy who’s not here. A daddy who’s never bloody here!”
There was nothing he could say, so he kept quiet. The hurricane swept around him.
“Look, I know you’re pissed off with me and I’m sorry I forgot Sarah going to school. I’ve had other things on my mind. I’ll give you a call tomorrow, no the next day would be better. Hopefully you won’t be as cross with me. Despite what you think, I do…”
She was gone and he was left with satellite static.
“Oh bollocks!” Edge said out loud.
He thought about the lonely meal he would have in the hotel that night and was tempted to call Rivera, but she had her own problems and frankly, he couldn’t be bothered with her that evening. He closed his eyes and slept.
© Blown Periphery 2021