St Juan de Pasto Main Operating Base, Bogotá and the lake Laguna De Tota, north-east of Bogotá
Clarita Rivera was late arriving at the main operating base. She had a briefing for the Head of Station to finish and she only just made the afternoon’s military shuttle flight. The Piper PA 34 muffed the first attempt at landing due to wind shear and had to go around again. Rivera was a knot of apprehension.
Why? What do you care?
I don’t know. It’s stupid!
No, I damned well don’t!
Which brings us back to the first question.
As it taxied on to the pan and the pilot killed the engines, she was out with a hasty thank you. She went to the command tent and the only person in there was Lieutenant Collins.
“Where is everybody?” she asked him.
“A day stand down. Most people have gone shopping in Pasto, even the Major.”
“I knew you hadn’t come in here to hit on me. He’s in the sickbay. So’s the Doc.”
The Doc was in his consultation room, writing up a journal and he had a book on tropical medicine for reference. He looked up and took off his glasses.
He knew why she was here, “He’s in the ward on hourly obs.”
“How is he?”
“Getting there. We had to sedate him so he can sleep. He has multiple abrasions and contusions on his lower legs and some of them are infected. He’s got a large contusion on his hip, but that’s an older injury. Some bullet ants took an instant dislike to him and he is suffering the after effects of some kind of poisoning. Clarita, I want you to be strong because he’s a bit of a mess.”
“Can I go through?”
“Come on and remember, be strong.”
Edge was the only patient in the ward in a high dependency booth. It was very warm inside and the Doc pointed out the two drips, “One is for blood plasma, the other powerful broad-spectrum antibiotics. We rehydrated him as soon as we got him in here and gave him a Micky Finn, so that his body can heal itself.”
The Doc lifted the sheet and showed her his body. He was naked under the cover and instead of being drawn to look at the obvious area, she stared at his legs and the bites on his torso. He looked almost emaciated, like he had been hollowed out.
“Oh dear, God! What the hell has he been through?”
“He did his job, Clarita. The warrior, risking his life for his comrades.”
“But at what cost?”
The Doc found a folding stool and put it next to the bed, “Talk to him, Clarita. About anything, he may still be able to hear.”
“Can I touch him?”
“Sure, hold his hand. I’ll leave you alone for a few minutes.”
She sat down and gently held his hand in both of hers, “Oh, Mark. What the hell have you been up to?”
He made a noise like a groan, but she could have sworn there was a smile, just a faint movement of his lips. She started to cry, she couldn’t help herself, remembering the cocky, drunken Edge balancing cans of beer on his head. The kind Edge who was so easy to talk to, the intelligent, tough Edge with the frisson of self-doubt. She put her head down on the bed and wept. After five minutes she thought she felt a slight squeeze from his hand and looked up. He was staring at her.
Win why? What the hell did that mean?
“Just get better please, Mark.”
He closed his eyes and went back under. She watched him for a few more minutes and stood up, “I’ll come back when you’re awake. Bye for now.”
She went back in to talk to the Doc, “He briefly woke up and smiled at me.”
“That’s good. He’ll be in for a couple more days, then I’m going to make sure he gets a few days R&R, but not on his own. He’ll mope.”
“Here on the base?” she asked, “Not exactly restful, is it?”
“No. I have a thought. You know that place we use for R&R, the one with the lodges on the lake?”
She shook her head.
The lake north east of Bogotá called Laguna De Tota. We hire a couple of log cabins and the boys do some swimming and canoeing. It’s off season so we could rent one for Edge, so he can get in condition again with some walking and swimming.”
“It sounds nice, but a bit lonely, Doc.”
“I agree, Clarita. Which is why I’m asking you to take a few days off and stay with him. He’ll need someone to dress his wounds and help with his morale.”
“Jeez, Doc. I’m kinda busy at the moment. The new officer is coming in a week and since Ryan died…” She started to cry again, “Oh for fucksake!”
“You need some R&R as well, Clarita. The CIA won’t grind to a halt if you have a few days off. Look after Edge and it will help you move on from Ryan. I’ll give you some medical supplies and you can clean and dress wounds, plus make sure he finishes the course of antibiotics. Just a couple of days. What do you say? He needs you more than he knows.”
Rivera bit her lip and thought things through, “This is nuts, Doc but OK, I’ll go with him. He may not be too glad to see me, under those circumstances.”
“Be patient with him. He may be suffering from post-traumatic stress. Thank you, Clarita and he will find it in his heart to thank you as well.”
“I won’t hold my breath. He is a very complex character.”
“That’s what makes him so fascinating, and Clarita…”
She looked at the Doc’s face closely.
“Jeez, there’s no way, Jose.”
The hotel seemed very quiet and even the dining room that morning was nearly empty. Edge had ordered egg and cooked ham, but he had only managed to eat half of it. As he packed in his room, he was feeling depressed. Everything was so much of an effort but it was his sense of betrayal that dejected him the most. He didn’t really want to go up to the lake, despite the Doc’s glowing endorsement and he certainly didn’t want to go with Clarita Rivera.
He had phoned Moira to tell her that he was OK, but she was confused because she had heard nothing. In fact, she was quite surprised that Edge had phoned her.
“Just to let you know, I’m OK.”
“That’s nice, Mark, but why wouldn’t you be, OK?”
“I was in a helicopter crash, in the jungle. I had to walk out to get help and I was a bit sick, but I’m better.”
“I didn’t know anything. Why didn’t somebody tell me?”
“Because they probably didn’t let the people at the Lines know. It was only a few days I was missing.”
“Missing? For God’s sake, Mark!”
“Calm down, love…”
“Don’t you bloody “love” me. I could have been a widow and not known a bloody thing about it!”
He managed to placate his wife, but after the call he could tell she was pissed off with him. Then his stomach and bowels seemed to lurch and he only just made it to the en-suite. Edge was wracked with pain, as his body expelled what had been troubling him. Dreading having to look, he stared down into the pan and gagged. There were bloody, loose stools and what looked like segments of abdominal worms.
“Oh, for fucks sake!” Edge exclaimed, feeling sick. Now he knew why the fish had poisoned him. He had another shower and realised that he was feeling much better. The heaviness in his guts had gone and he tentatively broke wind, without a follow-through.
He still had the towel round him as he packed a few odds and ends and some clothes into a small grip. There was a gentle knock at the door and he flicked the Glock out of its holster.
“Who is it?”
“Me,” said Rivera.
She knocked again, “Please, Mark.”
He sighed and opened the door, “What do you want?”
“Can I come in?”
He noticed she had a small bag and a medical satchel.
“Clarita, I don’t really want to go to this lake, certainly not with you.”
“Why are you being so horrible to me? What have I done this time?”
“He nearly shouted “MEDWIN” in her face, but then decided it served him better for her to think he didn’t know. Edge sat on the bed. He felt guilty and realised he was being boorish. She was a good friend to him and he felt like a bastard for hurting her feelings.
“I’m sorry, Clarita. I shouldn’t take it out on you.”
“Shall I go back to work?” she asked him.
“No. Come and sit next to me.”
“On your bed?”
“It’ll be OK as long as we both keep one foot on the floor.”
She had no idea what he was talking about, but she sat down nevertheless. He put his arm round her.
“I apologise. The bloody jungle haunts me, but that’s no excuse for me to be nasty to you.”
“Do you want me to come with you?”
“Yes, I think it will do both of us the world of good. We both need a break for a couple of days.”
“We will have to hire a car; I can’t take the department run-around out of Bogotá,” she told him.
“No need. I’ve hired one. Can you wait for me in the reception while I finish getting changed?”
“I can, but I’ll get to see a lot of you when I fix your injuries.”
“A chap needs to keep some secrets,” Just like you do.
She left his room, slightly perplexed and wondered why their relationship had such a dissociative identity disorder. She waited in reception as he had requested and watched people come and go.
She felt cramps in her lower abdomen and went into the woman’s room. Here it was, bang on time. She had rather hoped it would be late. Since Ryan had died, she stopped taking the contraceptive pill and you could set your clock on it. She never understood the coyness of American girls. In Puerto Rico, girls menstruated. It was no secret and even the boys knew without giggling and awkwardness. They didn’t have “girl flu.” Aunty Flo wasn’t visiting. It was part and parcel of being a woman, sometimes inconvenient, but there it was. It was a price that women paid to bring the next generation into the world. She attended to herself and went back out into the reception and sat down. She heard the stair door open and stood up with a slightly nervous smile. Once again, he had dressed simply in chinos and a thick, long-sleeved shirt. He grinned and gave his key in at reception, then showed her to the hotel’s parking lot.
“Where’s your hire car?” she asked.
“Over there. I call her Black Beauty.”
“A Ford GT. Are you driving your penis, Edge?”
“No, I just fancied getting inside an American lovely and taking her to heaven and back.”
“Oh, Jeez, Mark. That’s terrible even for you.”
They dumped their kit in the boot, or trunk as she called it and Edge keyed the lake into the satnav. On the outskirts of the city, she asked Edge to stop at a large supermarket, for provisions, she said. He stayed in the car, desperately wanting a cigarette, but decided not to as it pissed her off. After what seemed to be ages, she appeared wheeling a trolley with several brown bags in it. Edge heard the satisfying chink of bottles as she loaded them in the boot.
“Well, that’s breakfast sorted,” he told her.
They took the Route 55 north west out of Bogota and the countryside was hilly rather than mountainous. They climbed away from the arable land to foothills covered with pines and spruce trees. The road became more challenging, with numerous hairpins and drops down the sides where the road clung to a hill. He was driving too fast, enjoying the open road, when on a sharp right-handed bend, he lost the back end the Ford spun until it was on the other carriageway, facing the way they had come. There was no central barrier and only barriers on the sharp bends. A lorry hooted angrily and overtook them, nearly clipping the front wing.
“Get going Edge. Don’t try and turn in the road, just go down to the next sideroad and pull off!”
He did at a clip and the rear of the Ford fishtailed and then headed down the hill until he pulled off on a side road.
“Stop here on the right.” She said slightly angrily. Edge did as he was told, his hands shaking as he let go of the wheel.
She looked at him sternly, her eyes narrowed. He nearly said something stupid like “You’re beautiful when you’re angry,” but he didn’t, fortunately for him.
“Right, Mark Edge, you asshole. You might think you’re indestructible, but I’m not! Get out. I’m going to drive and get us there in one piece!”
He was going to protest, but realised that she was right. He had committed the cardinal sin, the one they always hammered into them during decompression. You may have survived, but you’re not invincible. Gentlemen, you are not Captain fucking Scarlet! Edge got out of the driver’s door and walked round the front of the Ford and got in the passenger’s side while she went round the back. She cranked the driver’s seat forward and got a feel for where all the instruments were. Edge decided that now was not the time for smart-arsed comments.
“I’m sorry Clarita for frightening you… And myself.”
She said nothing and turned in the road, then pulled back onto the highway, heading back in their original direction. After about an hour they spotted the sign for Laguna De Tota and she pulled off the highway. Through the trees they could see a large expanse of water and they took a left-hand-turn to follow the road round the north of the lake. The satnav took them down a narrow track with a brick house on the right-hand side, seemingly built into the hillside. She stopped the car and Edge got out and knocked on the house’s front door. A small man answered with a pained expression.
“Buenas tardes senor. Mi nombre es Mark Edge y creo que tenemos un albergue reservado a mi nombre.”
He bustled off without a word and came back in a few minutes with his wife, who seemed more pleasant and could speak a little English.
“Hola Mark Edge. The lodge is the last one nearest to the lake. Here is key. There is wood to burn.”
“Gracias señora.” Edge said and went back to the car.
“It’s the last one, nearest the lake,” he said to Rivera and they drove slowly down the track. She pulled in next to the last lodge and Edge got out and opened the door. It was cool in the lodge and he prepared the large open fire and lit it. She carried in the first of their kit and provisions and looked around in the kitchen area for the boiler. She guessed it was oil fired and then saw the switch and ignitor, which she switched on. The water heater went on with a wumph and Rivera carried the last of their provisions into the lodge and put the car keys on a hook on the wall. They looked around and found four bedrooms off the main area and a bathroom and shower. Two of the bedrooms were quite large and had a double and single beds in them. The bedding was folded on the beds.
“Which room do you want?” she asked him.
“One that overlooks the lake.”
“Both the large rooms overlook the lake. I’ll have the one on the right, in that case. The water won’t be hot enough for a shower yet.”
While she put the perishables in the fridge, Edge fussed with the fire and soon there was a good blaze that took the chill off the inside of the lodge. She handed him a small bottle of beer.
“Don’t balance it on your head!”
He smiled ruefully, “I had rather hoped you’d forgotten about that.”
After an hour relaxing, she suggested that he had a shower, “Then I can tend to those injuries.”
He screwed up his face.
“The Doc was adamant,” she insisted.
Feeling like a little boy, Edge went and had a shower. The water wasn’t yet up to optimum temperature, but it was good compared to the tepid water in the showers of the operating base. He went into one of the rooms where she had put his kit and started to get changed.
“Hold on, buster. Lie on the bed while I do my Florence Nightingale bit.”
He reluctantly lay down with a strategically placed towel covering his nether regions, “Be gentle with me, it’s my first time.”
“Asshole!” she told him, “I don’t know why you bother with the towel; a small handkerchief would do the job. I can assure you; you don’t have anything I haven’t seen before.”
“But these are the finest English meat and two veg. Specially selected from hundreds of hopefuls.”
“Really,” she said and got to work with antiseptic lotion and wound dressings. Edge stared up at the ceiling, an irritating smile on his face, “Your legs are looking better except for the large one on your shin. The red surround doesn’t look as angry so the antibiotics must be doing their job.”
She looked at the ant stings and one was still quite red, “Nasty little fuckers.”
“They weren’t that little, they were huge. Do you know on the night I poisoned myself, I woke up and a large jaguar was staring at me?”
“You saw things in your delirium. Jaguars are mean hombres.”
“I didn’t imagine it,” he protested.
“Sure. Roll over while I do the stings on your back,” When she had finished, she slapped his arse, “That’s you, stud.”
He sat up and looked at her with an endearing smile, “Thank you, Clarita. Despite nearly killing us, I am very grateful to you. Now it’s your turn.”
She looked down shyly. There was nothing she found as appealing, “I’d better cook us a meal. We can explore tomorrow.”
Edge sat on the sofa and stared at the burning wood and the embers going up the stone chimney. He closed his eyes and gave silent thanks for his deliverance and his lovely companion, who deep down couldn’t be trusted. That made him feel wretched, but he resolved to make the most of their time together.
She cooked a simple meal of chicken strips, fried in herbs and mild spices and served on a bed of pinto beans, cooked in a tomato and garlic sauce. He did his best but hadn’t got his full appetite back, presumably because the starvation and poisoning had shrunk his stomach. After dinner, they each read a book, Edge continuing with The Things They Carried while she read the final part of the Great Gatsby.
“I’ve never read that book,” he told her, “Is it really a classic?”
“It is a beautiful piece of writing and so sad. A book of its time yet timeless. And yes, it is a great American novel.”
“I must try it. I love reading,” he told her “Especially on Ops when we’re waiting for action, time passes so slowly. In fact, I’ll read any crap. I read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin in Kabul.”
“It’s just called The Mandolin in the US. Nicolas Cage was soooo romantic in the movie.”
Edge pulled a face and she huffed and went back to the book. Sometime later she finished the book and she closed it, a tear running down her face.
“Don’t you dare…” But he was asleep, his book on the floor. She shook him gently.
“Go to bed. You’re still exhausted.”
Edge smiled at her and stood up stiffly, “Good night, Clarita.”
“Good night, Mark.”
She watched him go and made a hot chocolate drink for herself. She finished it, looking at the dying embers of the fire, then put the mug in the sink and cleaned her teeth. Clarita went into her room got undressed and pulled a nightdress on. She looked out of the window at the lake, which was beautiful in the moonlight. She soon fell asleep. In the small hours, something woke her and she sat up in bed. A noise came from Edge’s room and she went outside his door to listen. He was talking, sounding distressed, so she went in.
He was lying on the bed, no covers on and moving restlessly. She tiptoed in to listen.
“This site is under our protection. I think you should go. I will take all necessary measures to protect these people.”
He groaned and writhed unconsciously, and she covered him with a blanket.
“Tell your pals to point their weapons away from me, otherwise your fucking head goes the same way as your fucking dog’s. And I will slot you the instant I hear a safety catch going off!”
Clarita lay the blanket over him and got into bed beside him to listen to his awful past.
“You killed my dog and you will pay for it! I will remember your name, Edge.”
This was awful to hear and she felt his terror and anguish.
“This country is fucked up. Why don’t you leave? She left this morning and hasn’t returned, mister. Sorry, I don’t know where she is. Oh God, dear Christ, please don’t leave her lying on the road like that. Jozica, you can’t be dead. Please wake up… This is a fucking nightmare and I’m going to wake up!”
Clarita put her arms round him and hugged him. He was sobbing in his sleep and he nestled in close to her, still asleep. She waited until he was back in deep sleep and returned to her room. She lay on her bed and stared up in the darkness.
You poor, tortured soul, Mark Edge.
She closed her eyes to the tears and realised with a strange feeling that she had fallen in love with this anomalous, enigmatic, fucked-up, violent, brave, kind English soldier. He was a contradiction that she didn’t understand.
“God help me,” she whispered out loud.
© Blown Periphery 2022