The Jungle West of the Andes
The helicopters had dropped them off the previous night, some six clicks west of their current position. Edge was about ten metres away from Wilson and they were watching the airstrip, while the rest of their multiple lay-up and rested until night fall. He was wearing a head veil of netting material and his rifle was draped with hessian (sorry burlap). It was hot in the long grass, a welcome change from the drizzle of the night before. He’d already had a visit from some species of bird that had landed on his head, obligingly crapped and then flown off. Edge was putting off the inevitable of having to piss in a sealable polythene bag.
There were five aircraft at the airstrip and two had flown in that day, a decrepit Curtiss Commando and an Antonov that was so careworn, most of its paintwork had gone, showing the bare duralumin underneath. Some distance away over the far side and under the trees, he had spotted some plant, bulldozers and compactors, as well as a few prefab buildings. A few men had unloaded some boxes from The Commando and a couple of mechanics had tinkered with a Cessna, but that had been about it.
Edge had already scrutinised the fauna and flora of the large, jungle clearing and waited for the consignment of drugs to arrive by road that evening, at least that was what the intelligence had indicated. Rivera was supposed to be in the know as far as the intelligence went and he had no idea where it had come from. But for all the intelligence in the world, something just didn’t feel right, and he had no idea what was causing him disquiet.
Instead, he tried to forget about his instinct. His was not to reason why… Edge thought about another of his flights of fancy, that perhaps one day he would sit down to plan and write a novel. He had read a lot over the years, mostly pulp rubbish, but there had been the odd, wonderful novel like a jewel in an office shredding room.
He had started with the usual Enid Blyton classics of a child, but he thought that Julian and Dick could be insufferable prigs. The Adventure series was better and he often wished a Bill Smuggs would come into his life, turf out his father and sister, marry his mother and adopt the young Mark. But the only Island of Adventure he had been to was Barry Island, and that didn’t really count, did it?
And then he stumbled across Alistair MacLean, whose heroes and protagonists he could identify with. Tough and ruthless and they always seemed to end up with a wilting flower of a heroine, usually called Mary. And by God, could Alistair MacLean’s heroes put away the sauce. A bottle of the finest Chivas Regal and they could shoot the centre out of an Ace of Spades, with barely a tremor. Edge had once been to the range so hung-over that the smell of the firearm residue had made him retch. He had needed a shit that came out like a flock of seagulls and the flannelette for cleaning the rifles came in handy little single pieces, to prevent thick soldiers from ripping off too much and getting the pull-through stuck in the barrel. He shuddered at the memory of trying to wipe his arse with tiny pieces of flannelette. How lucky the boys were with the GPMGs and proper four-by-two.
But the hard-drinking aspect of the MacLean heroes bothered him. He knew that he was drinking too much to self-medicate, to enable him to go to sleep at nights. Moira constantly nagged him, but it was never a problem on operations, just when he got home, in his sleep they would be waiting for him. The man in Amarah whose head he had blown off, the woman in the Basra house on the stairs. Sure, she had shot him, but she had been protecting her children. But they had all been in that house, where the next morning the RAF crewman was going to have his head sawn off, while they filmed it.
Later, he found Len Deighton and came across an old copy of Bomber in the medical centre’s library of old books. He was disappointed at first that it was a novel, but he was sucked into the world of The Creaking Door, Flash Gordon, Binty Jones and the Skipper, Lambert and the Lancasters of RAF Warley Fen. He had nightmares about Kosher Cohen’s death and the horrible futility of it all, sapped his soul. And then there was the Harry Palmer books, Palmer the habitual survivor, a lot like him, the very antithesis of James Bond. Harry Palmer who never looked for trouble, but it always found him. It had been Spy Story that he read first and the cover showed two nuclear submarines, surfaced in the Arctic ice. Then he thought about his dear friend, Horace Cutler QC, who was always delighted to hear from him, hungry for his tales of daring-do. Edge smiled as he thought of old Horace, pompous, bumbling, but a mind like a rapier, with which he eviscerated lazy prosecution cases, truly the squaddie’s friend.
But what should he write? He had good verbal communication skills, but his spelling and punctuation could sometimes be magpie or outer. What could he write about? This life? Done to death by the likes of Andy McGrab and Sir Peter Billionaire and more importantly, they could write. He could only write about the things he knew well, and who would want to read his drivel? Just another foot soldier in Blair the War Criminal’s conflicts of choice.
But he had seen the worst of humanity and the blindness of the ruling class to the Religion of the Prophet. It was their inherent cruelty, especially to animals, children and women that made him despair of humanity. Once in Iraq his multiple had been first responders to an IED in Amarah. The JAM had sited the IED against a wall of a school, specifically to catch a British foot patrol, but for whatever reason the explosives had gone off prematurely. The insurgents had managed to kill mothers taking their children to school and hordes of children. The area was strewn with body parts and tiny limbs. He would never forget the sight of a woman, her clothes burned off by the explosion, looking for her children amongst the scattered offal. She had screamed at them, in their Arab clothing, probably thinking they were insurgents. There was nothing they could do or say and it was pointless saying the violence was a result of their being in the country. It would be Shia against Sunni Muslims or Ibadi if the “Crusaders” weren’t there.
That was one thing the war criminals Bush and Blair had done. By getting rid of Hussain, they had destabilised an entire region and Hussain may have been an evil bastard, but women could take their kids to school without getting blown up, when he ruled Iraq as a natural counterbalance to the evils of Iran. There was only one person he had ever met, who truly understood the evil of Islam. A young woman whose bravery humbled him. She was a Muslim. She was also a kid, or looked like one, but she had gone undercover into the lair of the Jaysh al-Mahdi to find an RAF helicopter crewman whose aircraft was shot down and he was the only survivor. She was young, vivacious and beautiful and she had made love to Henry Morrison, while all the time it was Guy Jarvis she truly loved. Edge smiled at the implausibility of love, passion and the sexual act. Five minutes of friction and imagination for one of the most wonderful experiences God had given humankind.
Edge, just a gentle observation. Perhaps you think too much.
But what could he write? Nobody wanted tales of Deering Don’t from his grubby little sorties into a world of evil. Spy thrillers? The only spooks he had met were in Iraq before that horrible job in Amarah, that arsehole Medwin and of course the lovely Clarita Rivera, but she didn’t really count.
OK, obviously not spy thrillers, but what about bodice rippers? They were so bad that Moira had once thrown a Jilly Cooper novel across the room.
“Jodhpurs emphasising his manhood, my arse. They go up the crack of your bum, give you a camel toe and stink of horses.”
“I quite like seeing a lusty lady in Jodhpurs,” Edge had told her.
She had raised her eyes, “Only because you can see her arse and whether she’s wearing anything underneath.”
“Really? Can you? I hadn’t noticed. Your Daddy bought you a pony, didn’t he, Moira?”
“Yes, you bloody perv, and I was about ten!”
So obviously bodice rippers were out of the question. He lacked the fundamental knowledge of what women liked to read and probably women, but then he thought of a lake in the mountains. An olive body next to him on the raft, lovely, coltish legs and her hair black as the night sky in rivulets on her shoulders. A memory of water running down her body, dripping off a dark nipple.
The forest is Jade,
The lake gleams like cut diamonds,
Your hair smooth like Jet.
And you are a silly, old fool, Mark Edge, who should know better. She could be your younger sister. But she isn’t, is she? And why did she kiss me? For fuck’s sake, get a grip on yourself.
It was beginning to get dark and the nocturnal animals had begun their initial forays as their world approached. The other creatures of the night were also getting ready. Wilson slowly and carefully crawled through the long grass up to Edge. His eyes were white in the dark camouflage of his face. Unlike the Brits who seemed to make do with a few wipes of cam cream just to break up the outline of the face, neck and hands, the Yanks tended to do the whole Black and White Minstrel thing.
“I’m going to brief the others,” he whispered to Edge, “We move when the trucks arrive, hit them first and then the aircraft and diggers. Search the accommodation for intel then burn the lot down. Any thoughts?”
“Keep the SAWS well out on the right flank and give the gunner some protection if it gets close in and personal.”
“Good point. Hold the fort.”
“Does anything strike you as odd about this set-up.”
“Odd? In what way, Edge?”
“Where is everybody?”
“Dunno. Perhaps they’ll come with the trucks.”
“I guess you’re right.”
Thirty minutes later Edge heard the other troops move into position. He was on the left flank with another trooper to his right, Wilson was with the right flank, commanding the action from the centre. As if on cue like actors in some drama, they heard the grumble of trucks approaching from the south.
There were three trucks with dimmed headlights and they nosed onto the cleared airstrip, around two hundred metres from the troops. Wilson opened fire as the signal to rake the vehicles, half moving forward while the others laid down covering fire. Edge was putting short bursts into the cab and tyres of the lorries and then his half-team crouched down in their forward positions to support the rest. The SAWS continued to lay down good support fire as Edge moved out of cover and sprinted forward. And then came the Oh Fuck! Moment.
Edge was heading towards the nearest truck and was about twenty metres away, when the canvas tilts lifted and heavy AK fire came towards them like a blizzard. He felt a burning in his right foot as his boot heel was shot away, but he reached the relative cover near the engine of the lorry. He saw two Troopers go down and pulled open the cab door and killed the truck driver, before climbing up on the cab. He would only have one chance.
He pulled an illumination grenade from a pouch, hoping that it was a fragmentation grenade. It wasn’t, but it would have to do. He would never have made an error like that a few years ago. Edge pulled the pin and rammed it under the canvas tilt into the back of the vehicle. There was a brilliant fire as the grenade went off and FARC were diving out of the vehicle, panicking and blinded. The troopers cut them down and quickly placed thermite charges under the cabs of the other two lorries.
It was like a video game, only ten times more exhausting and terrifying. The trucks were burning behind them as they sprinted to the runway. The Commando had run up its engines and was beginning to taxy.
Edge fired up at the cockpit until a tracer round told him it was time for a magazine change. Old mag out and in the pouch, new one in. Working parts forward with a tap on the bolt.
“Concentrate on the cockpit!” he yelled. Perspex starred and shattered and the front of the aircraft looked like a colander. Clearly it was going nowhere now.
They moved onto the other aircraft, the Antonov and the other three smaller aircraft. As he approached them, Edge couldn’t help noticing that the panels were off the nacelles of two of them. It was the same routine; thermite charges up inside the nacelles and they burned with an acrid stench. He wondered where everybody was and surmised that they had fled into the jungle when the shooting started.
Wilson led a team into the portacabins and they came out with a couple of laptops and some charts and papers and then the cabins were burned. In the pre-planning they decided that the helicopter could pick them up at the airfield and Wilson got on the radio to request a dust-off.
Edge jogged back to their start point although it was difficult to walk in the ruined boots, let alone run. One of the casualties was up sitting and watching them come in. The other man lay still in the long grass that was now flecked with his blood.
“Can you help me?” he asked the sitting casualty, “Where are you hit?”
“Leg, but I can help.”
The second lying casualty was in a bad way. He was barely conscious and by the light of a right-angle torch he could see the lips were blue with cyanosis. Edge pulled off the casualty’s body armour and opened the shirt. He had a gunshot wound to the right side of the chest, which bubbled with a dark red in the torchlight. A classic haemothorax but was the treatment the same as for pneumothorax? He looked at the casualty’s neck, which was displaced.
“Davis, can you hear me? It’s Edge. I’m going to have to insert a chest drain into your side. It will hurt, so hang on to Perez. I’ll be as quick as I can. Big balls time.”
My God, doc. It was bloody fortuitous that we went through this, the other day.
He went into his medical bergen and pulled out two Asherman chest seals, one large and the other small. They were discs of sticky plastic with a tube in the centre to form a non-return valve. They would allow the trapped air to escape from the chest cavity, but none to enter as the casualty breathed out and his lungs contracted. He gently rolled Davis onto his thighs and applied the large seal to the back and the large exit wound, then lay the casualty back down to apply the smaller seal to the entrance wound. Now he would have to relieve the pressure in the pleural cavity.
He retrieved a 14-gauge needle from the bergen and selected the proper site; affected side at the second intercostal space and along the mid-clavicular line. He drew an imaginary line from the nipple up to the clavicle. Then cleaned the site with alcohol solution. Praying silently, Edge prepared needle and inserted the needle into the second intercostal space at a 90-degree angle to the chest, just over the third rib.
Davis groaned with pain as the needle went into his side. Edge listened for a rush of exiting air from the needle, removed the needle and left the catheter in place, properly disposing of the needle by bending it and putting it in the plastic sharps container. Finally, he inserted the drainage tube and secured the catheter in place with tape.
“Good effort, Edge,” Wilson said from behind his shoulder and he jumped.
“Your turn, Perez. Pants down, please.”
Perez was relatively lucky as a round had removed a chunk of tissue from his thigh, but hadn’t damaged the femur. Edge applied an Israeli emergency bandage with coagulant lining, then rocked back on his heels, utterly drained. They could hear the helicopter approaching and Wilson threw a green flare and the Huey came in, flared and landed. They bundled Davis onto a poncho and dragged him up onto the helicopter, then Edge and Perez, with the rest of the section getting on last. The helicopter went up quickly, arrowing above the jungle and then the Andes were ahead of them.
Edge was hunkered down watching over Davis and didn’t see the lights of Pasto’s runway. The pilot radioed ahead to tell them they had casualties on board and there was a wheeled gurney and the Doc was waiting for them on the pan. They took the two casualties through to the medical centre and Edge did a handover. The Doc took over and checked on Edge’s work.
“Edge, go and get yourself a coffee. You’ve deserved it.”
Edge cleaned his rifle, then went and got himself a snack and a hot drink. Wilson was in with the Major, Rivera, Collins and Turner, giving them a debrief. Rivera was very interested in how good their intelligence had been prior to the mission.
“I thought it ran on rails,” Wilson told them, “But I don’t think Edge was as sure.”
“Really? Elaborate please Wilson.”
“He said that it didn’t feel right. He thought there would be more people manning the airstrip. Well, there were certainly plenty in the trucks when they arrived, but Edge is no fool, Major.”
“But you destroyed three trucks, two of which were carrying drugs, five aircraft and the airfield infrastructure. I’d call that a good night’s work.”
For his part, Edge sat alone in the mess tent and drank his coffee slowly. He had noticed that if he drank strong, hot coffee too quickly, he got a pain in his stomach. The hypochondriac in him wondered if he was getting a stomach ulcer. The Doc came in and gave him a warm smile.
“Two casualties expertly and competently stabilised on the battlefield. All Nguyen and I had to do was sedate them. Davis will have to go home on an aeromedical evacuation flight. I see no point in Perez sitting in a ward in the States, ogling the nurses. He can recover here on light duties and still get his Purple Heart. I bet you’re glad we covered chest drains last week.”
They were both quiet listening to the gentle hum of the generator. The Doc seemed to be mulling something over in his mind.
“Edge, please don’t take this the wrong way and get pissed with me, but I think you’re done with all this killing and the constant life of danger, living on the edge, if you’ll pardon the expression.”
“How do you know this?” he asked dangerously.
“Because Clarita told me.”
“Oh, fucking did she!”
“Because you told her when you went for that meal in Pasto. She said you recited the Wilfred Owen poem and it disturbed her…”
“Listen, Doc, you can have all the ideas…”
“Let me finish, Edge, then you can have a good swear at me. She also told me that you were having nightmares. She had to get in the bed with you to calm you down.”
“And did she also tell you that down at the lake…” Edge stopped because that would have been gratuitously nasty.
“Yes, she did. She told me everything and that you were an absolute gentleman, which shows just how thoroughly decent you are. Like a couple of children of the forest. It must have been lovely.”
“It was. She was,” Edge said quietly.
“Have you ever thought of studying medicine? You have a natural flair for it.”
Edge looked at him and laughed, “Me? I wouldn’t get past the doors at a medical university in England.”
“What about the States? I would sponsor you.”
“Would you really, Doc?”
“Yes. Please at least think about it. You are an extremely intelligent guy, with shitloads of empathy and pragmatism,” he had even begun to swear like an Englishman.
“OK, I will, Doc.”
“Good, lad. It won’t be easy, but I reckon you can cut it,” He stood up and stretched, “Get some sleep, that knits up the raveled sleeve of care.”
“Ahh, Macbeth. I’ve got a friend who is a real aficionado of the Bard.”
Edge went outside to finish his coffee and have a cigarette. He saw Rivera’s shadow leave the command tent and she sniffed the air. She made a beeline for him.
“Hello, Mark,” she said shyly.
“Hello, Clarita. Please don’t nag me.”
“I won’t seeing how you’ve been in the jungle. I gather you felt something wasn’t right.”
“It was too easy. It felt like a set-piece.”
“You had two casualties.”
“I guess so.”
“I’m going back to Bogata tomorrow,” she told him.
“I’ll miss you.”
“Will you?” she asked taking his coffee and putting it down then taking his hand.
“Yes, I will. I wish we were back at the lake.”
She smiled in the darkness, “So do I. But I guess that was our one, brief moment in time.”
“But I’ll always remember it.”
She squeezed his hand, “Goodbye, Mark.”
He watched her walk away and ground out his cigarette. There was something horribly final about the whole thing. Edge sighed sadly and went to bed.
She decided that she hated the fussiness and pretension of his restaurant of choice, but they were locked in a rather strange relationship. Clarita was in no doubt that he wanted to take their relationship into territory that she had no wish to go. The Britishness oozed out of every pore of him, that condescension, the absolute knowledge that he would use her. In fact, he was the epitome of why Americans had a disdain for the Brits and he reinforced every prejudice she had. But then she thought of Edge. Why was he so different? Because he was rough, sometimes brutal, yet sensitive and giving. She looked across at his table.
Perhaps it’s because I want Edge to fuck me all night, so I can barely walk.
He looked up at her and smiled as she approached, a well-practiced smile that was both charming and disarming, but she couldn’t help noticing that his eyes remained cautious and watchful.
“Good evening, Clarita. It’s always a pleasure to see you.”
“Good evening, Charles.
The waiter pulled the chair out for her and she sat and unfolded the napkin. He always had fine, linen napkins.
“What will you have this evening, my dear?”
“The tomatoes with herbs and a penne pasta. Perhaps some olives as well, please, Charles.”
“I will have the Porter House steak. I have ordered us a bottle of Marqués de Riscal Reserva Rioja.”
The head waiter came to take their order, followed by the wine waiter with the bottle of red wine. Medwin tasted it and nodded approvingly.
“It has a wonderful full body, which should go well with your pasta, Clarita.”
He was silent until the waiters had gone, then asked: “How is St Juan de Pasto?”
“They are well, but took two casualties last night. Edge felt that something wasn’t right to do with a lack of people on the airstrip. He thought the aircraft were flying basket cases.”
Medwin swirled the wine in his glass, sipped it and looked at Rivera.
“Edge is just a damned soldier, just an other rank. He doesn’t even hold the Queen’s commission. He is just a ballistic missile that needs a guidance system. A grownup is needed to tell him what to do.”
“There were no “grownups” with him when he walked out of the jungle, to save those men in the crashed helicopter.”
He shrugged dismissively, “He was saving his own skin.”
“Have you ever served in your country’s Army?”
“I did a short Service commission in the Brigade of Guards after coming down from university. Four years.”
“Oh,” she said, but her contempt was lost on him. Rivera didn’t know why, but she felt the need to defend Edge, a man who was more than capable of looking after himself. But why? As though you need to ask.
Their meals arrived and he smiled at her, then attacked his Porterhouse steak which was an enormous cut of meat. As it was rare, the blood on his plate was mixed with myoglobin, and Rivera found this to be quite revolting. She was at the squeamish part of her monthly cycle and she had surprised herself at her queasiness. At other times around ovulation, she would enjoy rare steak and relish the vitamins it provided. Perhaps it was Charles Medwin who was making her feel queasy.
He dabbed his mouth with his linen napkin, leaving a feint, red smear, “Absolutely exquisite,” he told her, “Now, despite what that doom-monger Edge was saying, the operation on the airfield was an absolute success?”
“Yes, I suppose so, Charles.”
“And five aircraft and a consignment of narcotics were destroyed?”
“So, the Special Relationship is still very much alive.”
She said nothing and sipped her wine, which she had to agree, was very good.
“And carrying on from this undoubted success, I have some more information for you, regarding our mutual friend across the border.”
Rivera looked at him, her eyes narrow.
“Señor Castrador. My contacts in Ecuador have provided me with some very useful snippets of information. Her Majesty’s government lack the necessary power and bayonet strength to act upon this information. Our main effort is in the area formally known as Persia, but the United States already has the bayonet strength in place. With some additional firepower, the situation can be resolved to our mutual advantage.”
“OK, Charles, quit the dancing around, what do you actually have?”
“Our mutual friend has been rather stung by the antics of your Special Forces and the threat they are to his business interests. He has decided to hold a council of war at his rather nice hacienda with representatives of the heads of the narcotics cartels, to provide a way forward and circumvent your government’s efforts.”
“I don’t have that information yet. Give me a week and I will provide times and locations.”
Clarita thought long and hard. She knew this could be the making of her as a serious CIA officer and she was flattered, “Very well, Charles. Contact me the usual way.”
By the time she left the restaurant and got into a cab, despite his offer to drive her home, Clarita knew that this could change her life. She thought of another Englishman and how proud he would be of her. She had fallen for the oldest trick in the book.
© Blown Periphery 2022