Chapter 01

Afghanistan

In March 2002 Australian troops of the Special Air Service Regiment are part of a multi-national force involved in Operation Anaconda. The operation is to eliminate a large group of al-Qaeda and Taliban forces, most of whom are in the Shahi-Kot mountains of Paktia Province, some raids are conducted against forces in the surrounding area too. The insurgents’ bases and hideouts are well hidden in mountain caves at altitudes near 3,000 metres, or more. They’ve been using hit and run guerilla tactics to attack government and international forces in the area. Similar raids on the insurgents are made all over the country by the international forces, as needed in response to attacks by the Taliban.

A column of civilians with serious injuries caused by Taliban and al-Qaeda insurgents is moving across the country for treatment by top specialists in military hospitals in Kabul. They’re under the protection of a group of US and Australian soldiers while they travel. The column includes some civilians being moved to safety because they’re wanted by the Taliban. Only the column leader, an Australian Army captain, knows who is who in the column; and he’s not telling anyone. The column’s actual line of travel is known to only three people; the commander, his senior non-commissioned officer (NCO), and the Commander of the Alliance Forces in Afghanistan. The commander of the military sub-base it started from in southern Afghanistan was given the same route as the one set out in the column’s general orders. But the column commander is using the flexibility in the last line of his orders, which reads: ‘The commander may alter the proposed route of travel as seems prudent for the security of the convoy.’ The actual travel route is about eighty kilometres further west on a totally different set of roads, with lots of rough country in between the two routes. This route is such it’s all but impossible for anyone set up on the other route to be able to deploy to this line of march in time to attack the column.

The column is just over an hour into the five hour journey when the officer who’s second in command of the column, a US Army lieutenant, realises the column isn’t on the route he was given by his colonel. Since the captain is at the head of the column and he’s near the back of it he activates his radio, and says, “Captain Peters, Lieutenant Jackson, we’re on the wrong road.”

Peters replies, “We’re where I want us to be. Now shut up and stay off the radio, like you were ordered to at base. Maintain radio silence.”

Jackson responds, “Sir, I have the whole route marked on my map, and we’re well off the planned route.”

Peters says, “Which word in the command ‘stay off the radio’ don’t you understand? Keep silent.”

“But, sir, we’re on the wrong road.” Getting no more response from the captain the lieutenant radios his colonel back at the base, and spends a few minutes giving him a situation report. He’s just signing off when the field vehicle Peters is in pulls up beside his and signals for him to stop.

Peters jumps out of the vehicle and drags Jackson out of his, saying, “Don’t you understand simple English? Are you a Taliban spy or are you really that f•©king stupid?”

The Sergeant in charge of the truck of US troops behind Jackson’s vehicle steps out of the truck’s cab, saying, “The last option, Sir. He’s a base pen pusher we got stuck with when our usual officer came down with appendicitis, eight hours ago.”

Peters looks at the US NCO, “Right. Lieutenant Jackson, you’re relieved of your command and under house arrest until such time as you face a formal hearing for the charge of wilfully disobeying your commanding officer in a combat zone. Master Sergeant Mathis, you’re in charge of the US contingent now, and will take command when we make it to the US control zone near Kabul. Place Lieutenant Jackson in the back of the truck, under guard.”

Jackson says, “You can’t do this, Colonel Smith is my commanding officer and I’ve obeyed all his orders. I refuse to accept this unlawful usurpation of my authority.”

Peters had been walking away when Jackson spoke. He turns back, “When you were assigned to this column you were transferred to my command until we reach the Kabul control zone. Your idiocy has just placed the lives of every person in this column at risk, through you disobeying orders and telling the enemy where we are by using the radio. Now obey my orders and get into the truck.”

Jackson responds, “I’m not in your chain of command and refuse to surrender my authority,” while he reaches for his side arm. He has it out of its holster before Peters even starts to move. But it’s Peters’ pistol that’s up and firing first, and he blows away Jackson’s left knee. The pain causes Jackson to drop his pistol and fall to the ground.

Peters says, “Patch him up and throw him in the back of the truck. Take over command of the platoon, Sergeant Mathis.”

The sergeant salutes while he snaps out a crisp, “Yes, Sir,” while waving for the platoon medic to put the lieutenant in the truck and treat him. All three vehicles are soon on their way again, and are fast to catch up with the column, which hadn’t slowed down. Reaching the front of the column Peters increases the column speed by fifteen kilometres an hour. He dare not go any faster for fear of hurting the injured too much. But he must get away from here fast, now the Taliban have had a chance to find them by using radio detection equipment.

About an hour later the column is travelling along a road on a plateau, the road is near the top of a canyon with the Helmand River in the bottom of it. The plateau is very rough and slow going anywhere, except on the few roads across it. Another road comes across the plateau to the road they’re on at an angle, and there are several trucks racing along it at high speed. Captain Peters swears. The roads join together further along, and it looks like he’ll make that point first. The other trucks don’t have injured people to worry about and are moving much faster, so they’ll overtake the column unless they’re slowed down. Studying the area with his binoculars he can see a point where it’s extra rough past where the roads join. If he can block the road the people in the trucks will have to stop and clear the blockage before they can move after them, as the gullies near the road look to be impassable to trucks.

Peters has his driver pull out of line, and drops back beside the field vehicle with Sergeant Banners in it, Banners is his platoon sergeant. He shouts over the engine noise while telling Banners his plan to slow the enemy down. Peters drops back to his ‘Q’ truck, this is a truck specially rigged to deal with awkward situations with the insurgents. The truck has about one hundred kilograms of explosives on it, with Claymore mines set up along the tailgate and left hand side, there are also three large drums of fuel in it with explosives under them. The contents are well secured and all set to be detonated by radio control from the unit in Peters’ vehicle. This super-sized car bomb is designed to make a section of road totally impassable for an hour or more. The truck and Banner’s vehicle also pull out of line and let the column pass them.

When Sergeant Mathis’ vehicle pulls up beside Peters’ vehicle he explains the plan to Mathis, too. Mathis can see the merit of it, but also knows it’s very risky for the person playing Horatio on the bridge in the middle of the plateau. But the plan is the best they have in this situation since the main security for the column had been secrecy, until Jackson blew that away with his stupidity.

About twenty minutes later the column is coming up on the ambush point Peters has selected, and the last three vehicles are now the field vehicles with Banners and Peters, and the ‘Q’ truck. The pursuing trucks are going faster and are already overtaking the column. They have to be slowed down, and Peters aims to do that. These last three vehicles slow to a stop at the best point to block the road. The ‘Q’ truck pulls across the road at an angle, with its tailgate aimed across the plateau and the left side aimed down the road they just came up. Banner’s field vehicle backs up to beside the front of the truck, so the heavy machine-gun mounted on its back has a clear field of fire down the road and along the side of the truck. Its left wheels are right on the edge of the road and the drop into the canyon is less than a metre away. A good nudge will see it over the side. Banners, his driver, and the driver of the truck are fast to leave their vehicles and climb into Peters’ vehicle. Peters is the best judge of when to leave, so he hands Banners the radio control and climbs up to man the heavy machine-gun. He also puts on an extra set of body armour. Banners and the others drive off, chasing after the column and leaving Captain Peters by himself.

Another soldier won’t improve the defences, but will increase the losses if things go wrong. The plan is to shoot up the incoming trucks with the heavy machine-gun, and to work at delaying them as much as possible. When that becomes too dangerous Peters will drop into the driver’s seat and drive off, the engine has been left running to make this easy for him to do. When the insurgents are crawling all over the truck to shift it, which they’ll have to do because its tyres have been shot out and are now flat, Banners will set off the explosives by radio control. Banners needs to do this since he’ll be able to see the truck while Peters is busy driving fast to get away from it. The exploding truck will kill many insurgents, hopefully it’ll damage some of their trucks as well, and will leave a burning wreck that’ll take them an hour or more to put out and shift out of the way. It may even damage the road surface and make the road impassable for some time to come.

Contact

Fifteen minutes later the insurgents are close enough to make it worthwhile opening fire on them. Peters takes aim and shoots up the cabin of the lead truck. The driver and the other person in the cab are killed. Their twitching bodies cause the vehicle to make a sharp turn left and go into a roll, throwing its occupants all over the place; many make awkward landings and don’t get up again. The second truck slams into it because it’s unable to stop in time. They form a blockage on the road and five more trucks pull up behind them. Insurgents deploy from all the trucks and start moving out towards Peters, spreading out in good combat order; much better than he’s seen the insurgents use before, and almost as good as regular troops. The machine-gun is in constant use as he rakes their advancing forces, killing men with short and accurate bursts while they move up both sides of the road.

He often switches back to where others are working to move the wrecks off the road. Fifteen minutes later the two wrecked trucks are on the side of the road, and the rest of the force is moving forward. They have a steel plate up in front of the windscreen of the front truck and troops are firing at Peters from the back of the lead truck while it drives towards him at a slow walking pace. He’s very busy alternating his fire between the force on the road and the two forces beside the road. They all advance, losing men with each accurate burst from his machine-gun.

The trucks are almost to his blockade. Peters has decided to finish this current belt of ammunition in one long burst and take off, when a small group of five insurgents charges out of the gully beside the road on his left, the group is almost at the back of the truck. While he swings the machine-gun towards them he wonders how they got that close without him seeing them. He doesn’t make it, the lead insurgent opens up with the M16 assault rifle in his hands. The full-automatic burst hits Peters in the left chest and moves up to hit his arm, face, and head on the left side. The impact knocks him staggering backwards from the machine-gun. He falls over the side of the field vehicle instead of into the front seat. If he’d landed in the seat he might have had enough time to drive away, as he planned. With the machine-gun going silent all the other attackers surge forward to the blockade, the trucks accelerate and the ground troops run. Peters falls onto his back beside the field vehicle, he gains his feet just in time to catch another full-automatic burst in the chest. The second burst knocks him backwards a couple of paces, and over the edge of the canyon.

Banners has been watching the combat through binoculars while the column has continued to make north at high speed. Seeing the captain take two bursts and get knocked over the lip of the canyon he knows the captain has had it. He pushes the button on the detonator. He smiles when the truck explodes in a huge sheet of flame a second or two after the Claymore mines going off. Because the road has curved slightly with the canyon he can see the steel balls of the anti-personnel mines tear up the ground, and many of the insurgents, beside the road just before the main explosion flips the lead truck up and over its tail to land on the truck behind it, squashing the troops in both vehicles. The third truck is too close to stop and it drives into the pile at its current speed. The truck pushes the combined wreck into the ball of flame created by the exploding ‘Q’ truck. The explosion was so violent the field vehicle Peters had been on is blown over the side into the canyon. The ball of flame expands when the fuel in the other trucks catches fire, more explosions while the ammunition in them goes off in the fires. Banners smiles. He figures somewhere between fifty and seventy insurgents are now dead, and it’ll be a couple of hours before the insurgents left alive will get the fire out and the wreckage cleared. They won’t catch them again. He’s sad about losing the captain, one of the best officers he ever served with, and he’ll be missed by all who knew him. It’s all the fault of that stupid lieutenant.

Kabul

Four and a half hours after leaving the southern base the column reaches Kabul and takes all the injured to the hospital for treatment. Sergeants Banners and Mathis go to the command headquarters to lodge their reports.

Three days later a patrol is in the canyon looking for Captain Peters’ body. They find the wrecked field vehicle, but can’t find his body. They do find a set of body armour that’s been perforated with two long bursts of fire from a M16, the tie down straps on the left side were shot apart, too. They figure the body armour must have come off his body and the body got washed away by the river. They also figure it’s not likely he survived the eighty metre fall, especially after being hit with two long bursts of fire and losing the body armour. He’s officially listed as MIA (missing in action) and probably KIA (killed in action), but they can’t make an official listing of KIA without his body or dog-tags being recovered. His next of kin are notified of the events.

Due to the testimonies of both sergeants and some political pressure by Lieutenant Jackson’s father, a US Senator, Jackson leaves the service without either an honourable discharge or a dishonourable discharge. The members of both platoons, and many other combat troops, are disgusted with the fact he doesn’t have to face a court martial. They accept the compromise reached by the general only because Jackson’s father bought the dropping of the charges by changing his position on the military appropriations bill he was holding up in committee. One useless fool in exchange for much needed equipment and funding, not the best way to run an Army, but accepted as part of the politics in today’s government.

Back in Australia Captain Peters’ two daughters are very saddened by the report of his loss in combat.

Australia

Mid November 2007 in a New South Wales rural town of just over 5,000 people the locals are concerned because an eleven year old girl has gone missing while on her way home from a local primary school. She had one kilometre to walk, and vanished without a trace in the short distance. No one saw her from when she left the school grounds after her sports group was dismissed for the day. Most of the students went back inside to shower while Mandy decided to hurry home and have a long bath instead, this is what she usually did each week.

Mandy is a striking young girl with long blond hair and brilliant blue eyes. A bright, cheerful, fun loving, and helpful girl. Eleven years of age, a bit tall for her age, and a bit more mature than her classmates, the effects of puberty are just starting to show their effects on her body.

People are very concerned, because two girls had been kidnapped and suffered vicious sexual abuse in a city that’s only forty minutes drive away. That happened just last month, now Mandy is missing and she’s not the type to run away or just wander off without leaving a note. Parents are now rearranging their work and other activities to be at the school to pick up their children, afraid the trouble has moved here from the city. A very safe town suddenly feels very unsafe. Every afternoon the police patrol near the schools with a much higher than usual regularity, all other duties are being given a lower priority while they watch over the schools and the children as best as they can with the limited resources they have available to them.

The Friday afternoon following the disappearance Senior Constable Walters is patrolling by Mandy’s school when he spots a man sitting on the grass opposite the school, he’s leaning back against a curved ramp the kids play on with their skateboards. The man is wearing old and dirty clothes in a brown and tan army camouflage pattern. After pulling over to park he exits his car and looks up, to see the man is nowhere in sight. Looking up and down both the streets that create this intersection he can’t see the man. He wonders how he could have vanished so fast. The nearest place to go is a nearby hotel, so he walks in and checks the people in the pub. He’s not there, and the publican is sure no one has entered for over half an hour. Returning to his car Senior Constable Walters gets in and continues his patrol. During the weekend he sees someone who looks like the same man in the distance, but he always vanishes before his car gets much closer.

The following Monday Walters is patrolling in an unmarked vehicle with Constable Harris, who is newly posted in and is being shown around by Walters. When they near the school Walters sees the mystery man again, and parks at the far end of the school to observe him. He explains to Harris what he’s doing, and why. It’s obvious the man being observed is paying very close attention to the school, the children, and those around the school; this is very suspicious behaviour in the current situation. Walters is thinking about moving in to question the man, when Harris says, “You know, I’ve been sitting here trying to work out what’s wrong with his clothes, and I just worked it out.” Walters turns to him, “Those clothes aren’t surplus. They’re the new desert camo pattern. The Army hasn’t finished issuing them to all the active Army units because they can’t get enough of them, a glitch in the supply system. That lot looks to be well worn, so they must have been part of the first issue, and that was back in 2002 to the troops heading to Afghanistan. All issues since have been to troops heading to the Middle East. I wonder what he’s doing here in them?” So is Walters.

Walters says, “Let’s go and ask him.” Just as he starts the car the radio comes alive, and they also hear the sound of a speeding car with an approaching siren. A stolen car is being chased along the road running beside the school and is fast approaching from the other end. Two young girls are crossing the road and they stop in the middle of the road while they stare up the road to their left. Walters and Harris can’t see up the road because of buildings in the way, they need to go to the corner and turn left. When they pull out away from the gutter the man they’re watching bursts up and out of his seat like a cheetah taking off after its prey. They can’t believe the speed with which he crosses the road, he’s like a tan blur.

Walters swears while he watches the man grab both girls and run to the far side of the road. The man is just off the road when a speeding car goes through the space the girls had been in. Walters drives to the intersection and pulls up at the gutter. When he and Harris get out of the car they hear the man saying, “It’s all right, girls. Everything’s OK. You’ve just had a bit of a fright. The police or your teachers will see you get home safe.” Walters arrives just as one of the teachers does, she’d seen the whole thing. The man says, “They’re OK, just a little frightened. They just need a cuddle and some comfort.”

Walters and Harris check the girls, and promise to drive them home. Luckily for them all, Walters knows both girls well and they’re quick to agree to his taking them home, which is just up the street. When he stands to thank the man Walters can’t see him anywhere; he’s vanished again. However, he’s not so sure this guy is a problem. Although he tried, he didn’t get a good look at him; his hat was pulled down, his collar was up, he had a scarf around his lower face, and was wearing thin leather gloves. He sure looks suspicious and acts like he wants to hide his face. But his actions speak loudly of him not being of concern to the police in the current situation.

Sports Day

The next Wednesday sports day, a full week since Mandy went missing, another girl, Janice, is headed home after sport while everyone else is headed for the showers. When she walks along the street away from the school she notices a man in odd tan clothing is walking along on the other side of the road, but back a bit from her. She’s a bit worried about the man because he seems to be following her. A car pulls up beside her, and the driver leans over to open the door while he says, “Excuse me, can you tell me how to get to Main Street?” Janice leans towards the car as she starts to point at the next street on the right while she tells him the couple of turns he needs to make. In a flash, the driver grabs her arm and drags her into the car. Before she can start to scream he places a gag in her mouth while she struggles, but is unable to break free. She freezes when he holds a knife up before her, and says, “Hold still or I’ll stab you.” She cries when he starts to tie her wrists together.

The car engine stops, and the man turns towards his right. He grunts in pain. She looks across the car, to see the man who she thought was following her has a thin cord around the driver’s throat and is pulling hard on it while he reaches in and takes the knife away from the driver. Reaching across the driver he’s careful when he cuts the thin rope holding Janice’s hands together. With her hands free she’s fast to remove the gag. He says, “Miss, grab your bag and go back to the school, now.” She nods her acceptance of the order while she gets out of the car. When she starts to walk away she hears the man say, “Now tell me exactly where Mandy is.” She’s a dozen metres away when she hears a sort of scream and gurgle from the car. Looking back, she can see the car sitting there with the driver slumped over the wheel while the man who rescued her is running up the street, and he’s running very fast.

Janice races to the school, and tells a teacher what happened. The teacher calls the police and goes to the front of the school, she can see the car Janice described still sitting where Janice said it stopped.

The police are fast to arrive and check the car out. The driver is unconscious and is bleeding from a knife wound in his groin. They call for an ambulance, and one officer escorts him to hospital while the other examines the car. Later they find out his testicles have been cut in half and the only fingerprints on the knife are those of the driver. The car also provides a lot of evidence relating to the two girls from the nearby city. So he’s eventually convicted of their murders.

Meanwhile, Constable Harris receives a phone call on his personal mobile phone. He and Walters are headed towards the school from the other primary school in the town. Answering the phone, Harris is told, “Corporal Harris, get your arse to sixty-two Hill Street, now. Bring your partner and an ambulance.”

Relaying the message to Walters, he adds, “Obviously someone who knew me in the Army wants us there quick.” Walters heads for the address while he has Harris put in the radio call for an ambulance. They both wonder what’s up.

As they turn into and drive up Hill Street they notice the man in the tan camouflage clothes running up the street, he’s near the far end of the street while they’re still starting up it. The man reaches the last house. It’s an old double brick building on a very large block of land, the nearest neighbour is about one hundred and twenty metres away. They watch while he charges at the door of the house and kicks it open. Pulling up outside a few seconds later they see this is number sixty-two. Running into the house they can hear another door being kicked down. Racing through to the back of the house they find the man in a heavily padded room. In the centre is a wooden frame and the man is releasing Mandy, the missing girl. She’s a mess, blood all over her, and blood on the floor. They stare in horror at the bloody scene before them.

The man is working like a whirlwind; he has a military medical kit beside him while he ties tourniquets above some of the bleeding wounds. He says, “Contact the hospital and have them send two units of AB negative whole blood. That’s Mandy’s group, and they’ll need it before they can stabilise her for transport. I’ve had med-tech training and know that’s what they’ll need. They have five units on hand.” Walters uses his radio to send the message, and has a bit of trouble convincing them to do what he says. A police car near the hospital is diverted to make the pick-up and bring it to the house because the ambulance is almost at the house.

Turning back to the injured girl Walters sees Harris is following directions while both the men go about applying pressure bandages to stop the bleeding. He wonders how things will go with the girl, since AB negative blood is the rarest of blood groups; the blood bank is always short of blood in that group. This looks like they’ll need a lot. He gets back on the radio, and tells them the girl will need surgery and they’ll need all the AB negative blood they can get a hold of. They start the wheels moving to get blood from the surrounding communities.

The ambulance paramedics arrive. The tan man gives them a quick update of her condition and what’s been done. The paramedics work fast to attach a variety of sensors to get readings. They show great concern about her pulse and blood pressure. A fast approaching siren is followed by the screech of brakes. A police officer races into the room with a cooler holding the blood. Having been warned, the paramedics are set up for the transfusion. In moments the blood is being poured into the girl. Her blood pressure starts to rise, but her pulse weakens.

The tan man is still beside Mandy. He looks up into a corner of the room, saying in a begging tone, “Please, Michael, not this?” Everyone gives him an odd look because that corner is empty. He says, “OK, then, if the choice is hers, I’ll make her fight.” They give him another odd look. Sliding an arm under Mandy he half lifts her, and speaks to her. “Mandy, I know you can hear me. You have to live, you have to fight for your life. Now is not your time. Live. Fight for it.”

Her pulse weakens further, and one of the paramedics says, “I think we’re too late. It looks like we’re losing her.”

Wrapping his arms around her, the man screams, “No. Fight Munchie, fight. You can’t go and leave Smurfie all alone. Fight. Sing the demons and pain away, sing it away. Come on, Munchie, sing with me.” They all look on with odd expressions while the tears roll down his face and he starts to sing in a deep baritone voice,

“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword.
His truth is marching on.”

When he starts to sing the chorus Mandy’s eyes flutter and her mouth opens, in a very weak voice she joins in singing the chorus. Her pulse strengthens, her blood pressure rises. Her voice is much stronger for the second verse while her system fights back and improves. When the two of them reach the second chorus it seems, to Walters, a full choir of girls has joined in the singing. The paramedics continue to treat her many cuts while they join in singing the third verse. They finish just as the paramedics are ready to put her on the stretcher. The man is very gentle when he lifts her. She opens her eyes and looks at him. She smiles, as he says, “Munchie, fight to live. You must live for Smurfie. Promise me you’ll fight.” Her eyes go very wide while she gives a slow nod yes.

Walters helps them move the girl to the ambulance. When he returns to the room the tan man is missing. The only evidence he’d been there is the opened packets for the field dressings he applied. Shaking his head, Walters tells Harris to stay and brief the detectives on what happened. Leaving the house, he heads for the hospital.

Hospital

Walters reaches the hospital a few minutes later, to find the doctor examining Mandy. She’s in a very bad way, and he’s not happy about what he’s finding. Turning to the nursing sister in charge of the Emergency Room, he says, “Call in the theatre team, we’ll have to operate immediately. We’ll need about twelve to eighteen units of blood, depending upon what we find and how it goes once we get inside. Do you know her blood group?”

The sister nods, saying, “Yes, AB negative.”

The doctor swears, saying, “Damn, we won’t have enough blood. Get all you can from the closest towns and put out a radio call for live donors. We’ll need them, if we’re going to stand a chance of saving her life.” He goes on with getting her ready for the required surgery.

The nursing staff are getting her ready for surgery when her sister and aunt arrive. The staff give them a few minutes alone. During this time Walters sees the two girls have a short disagreement before they grasp hands and the sister leaves the room. Mandy is arguing about the anaesthetic they wish to give her, until an orderly walks in, all gowned and ready for the operating theatre. He walks over and takes her hand in his, wrapping it in an odd way. Sliding his left palm over her hand he curls his fingertips within her fingers, and then curls his hand around hers. She stops talking, turns, and smiles at him, a few words are exchanged, and she’s calm when she lets them put her to sleep. When they wheel her out into the corridor she’s almost asleep as the orderly says, “Don’t worry. I’ll hold your hand until they take you to your room and I hand over your care to your sister and aunt.”

Walters smiles, as the voice sounds familiar. Looking at the orderly he can see, below the theatre gown, he’s wearing tan trousers and boots. He was right, his missing stranger has turned up here.

Walking over to Mandy’s sister, Eve, Walters says, “Excuse me, but what was the disagreement with Mandy about.” He knows Eve well because they both study with the same martial arts master. He wishes he was as good as she is.

Turning to look at him, Eve smiles, and says, “Nothing, really, Mandy thinks Dad saved her. But he died in Afghanistan five years ago, he was an Army Captain. She must have been imagining it.”

Nodding, he says, “Possibly. Who’s Munchie and Smurfie?”

Both Eve and her Aunt Kate go very stiff and stare at him. Eve asks, “Where did you hear those names, and why do you ask?”

“The man who led us to the house Mandy was in had on Army tan camos. When it looked like they were going to lose her he started crying, and yelled out no. He then called her Munchie and told her she had to fight for her life and to live for Smurfie. He began singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic, and she finally showed some life when she joined in the singing. It even seemed like a heavenly choir joined in the singing, at one stage.”

Gulping very hard, Eve says, “Munchie was Dad’s nickname for Mandy because she was a very small Munchkin, thus a Munchie. And Smurfie is what he called me because I was too big to be a regular Smurf and not yet a Smurfette. Battle Hymn of the Republic is what he used to sing to us when we were scared, so it’s become a sort of rallying song for us. But he’s dead, he was shot in the face, blown off a cliff, and over into a huge chasm five years ago. His will’s been processed and the Army’s even paid out his superannuation.”

Walters is very wide eyed at this, he says, “Maybe it’s his ghost come to keep an eye on you.” Half joking, he adds, “Or he may have returned as a zombie to look after you. Anyway, I’ll keep in touch. I’ve got to go off duty now. See you around.” Back at the station he’s signing off when he tells Harris about his day after they split up. When Harris asks who the girl is. He replies, “Mandy Peters. It appears her dad was an Army Captain who was killed in Afghanistan five years ago, shot in the face and fell into a chasm. The doctors are concerned about her blood group. It’s rare, AB negative, and they don’t have enough to get through the surgery they need to do to keep her alive. They’re putting out a public request for live donors.”

Wide-eyed, Harris listens to him. After they finish signing off Harris grabs a phone and calls the nearby Army training base. On being put through to the Regimental Sergeant Major, he says, “Good afternoon, Sir. Corporal Steven Harris, I’m not sure if you remember me, but I thought you should know, we have a little girl undergoing emergency surgery after being tortured and abused. She’s eleven years of age and the doctor isn’t sure how it’s going to go, since he’s short of whole blood and she needs a lot. She’s AB negative, Sir, and her father was an Army Captain killed in Afghanistan. Her name is Mandy Peters, Sir.” He stops and listens for a minute or so, and says, “Yes, Sir, I think her nickname is Munchie.” Another pause, “I didn’t know you served with him, Sir. You’re welcome, I’m sure they can do with all the blood they can get.”

Community Support

As the word about Mandy’s condition spreads throughout the town the families of her classmates and Eve’s classmates turn up at the hospital to offer their support. About the only people of the town who don’t hurry to the hospital are her mother and her mother’s current lover; they were phoned, but are completing their shopping trip in the city about forty minutes drive away before they’ll come to the hospital. Since they can’t help at the moment they see no need to hurry over.

The hospital staff contact the surrounding communities’ hospitals and find another five units of whole blood, they’re on their way to the hospital. They also ring up the two known AB negative donors in the town, and they’re coming in to give more blood. A public appeal is also going out over the radio for anyone in the region who’s AB negative to go to the nearest hospital and donate blood. They now have ten units of blood they know will be on hand within thirty minutes, but still need several more units and have no idea where they’ll get the blood.

Across the town and surrounding area people are listening to the radio and local television news flashes of the events of the afternoon, and the request for AB negative blood donors to come forward.

In one house near the middle of the town a man comes home from work to his girlfriend and her two daughters, asking, “Nancy, have you started dinner yet?” She shakes her head no, and he says, “Good, get your coats on, because we’re going out for a while. I’ll need you to hold my hand at the hospital while they stick me with a needle. And you know how bad my phobia of needles is.” She nods yes while she gets her coat and puts it on.

While putting on her own coat, the eldest girl, Betty, asks, “If you hate needles so much, why are you going to the hospital to get one?”

He looks at her while they walk out the door, replying, “Mandy Peters is having an emergency operation and they don’t have enough whole blood to see her safely through the operation. I’m the same blood group, and I couldn’t live with myself if she didn’t make it because I let my fear of needles stop me from giving blood for her.”

Betty’s response is a simple, “Oh.”

Sometime later, when they’re leaving the hospital after he gave a unit of blood, Betty says, “Mummy, I’ve changed my mind. You have my full support if you still want to marry John. To go through all that for someone he doesn’t know must mean he’s really a nice man. Much nicer than I’d previously realised.” Both adults are surprised, and her mother grabs her up for a hug. When her sister nods her agreement they decide to eat out in celebration of their engagement, now that it’s officially approved by the girls.

In a local motel a man listens to the radio, and tells his wife, “Get a coat on and drive me to the hospital, please, Love. I need to go and give some blood.” Smiling at him, his wife stands up and gets her coat on before guiding her blind husband out the door. They’re on their first holiday since the industrial accident that blinded him fifteen months earlier. Neither is concerned about an interruption to help someone who needs it.

The hospital gets a phone call, the Army training base had a base parade and six trainees have given blood at the base hospital, it’s on the way over by Army ambulance. The trip will take about fifty minutes. In the nearby towns several more people come forward to donate AB negative blood. Once it all reaches the hospital they’ll have enough blood, but will they have enough to see them through until then?

The Theatre

In the operating theatre the doctor sees them attaching another unit of whole blood, and asks, “How much whole blood do we have on hand now?”

The theatre sister replies, “This is the last unit, and the supplies from the other hospitals are still about fifteen to twenty minutes away.”

The doctor swears, saying, “At the current rate of usage we’ll need it in five or ten minutes.”

One of the orderlies, one no one recognises, sticks out his right arm and says, “I promised her I’d hold her hand throughout the operation. I’m the same blood group, can you take the blood from me here?” The sister nods her head, and one of the nurses ducks out to get the gear. As they’re taking the blood, he says, “Take two units now, and a third if you need more before the rest arrives.” The doctor and nurses look up.

The nurse taking the blood replies, “Taking more than one unit can leave you too weak.”

“You’ll take whatever you need to save her life, even if it’s every drop of blood I have.” The doctor stops and looks up at the steel in the voice when the man speaks. The senior theatre nurse also looks up, and is about to argue. Then she looks into his eyes, very deep mid-blue eyes, an unusual colour, one she’s seen only twice before; once, years ago in a military hospital in Afghanistan, and again, a short while ago, while talking to Mandy when she helped prepare her for the operation. The orderly looks directly at the nurse and says to her, “You’ll do what’s needed, won’t you, Lieutenant?”

She gulps, and nods, saying, “Nurse Miller, take two units now, and be prepared to take more as required.” The doctor and nurse look surprised at her response, but go on about their important lifesaving tasks. Three units should keep them going until after the other blood starts to arrive. Turning to the orderly, the theatre sister asks, “That good enough for you, Captain?” The orderly nods his head, and sits on the stool Nurse Miller places beside the operating table for him to sit on while she takes the blood, because she knows he’s not leaving the girl.

About twenty minutes later the nurse is attaching the second unit of blood from the orderly to Mandy when another nurse rushes in with two coolers, the first units of blood from the other hospitals have arrived, and another nurse is carrying in three units just donated by locals as well.

Over two hours later the doctor has finished all the repair work and is taking care sewing up the last of the wounds. They have three units of whole blood left, and the bag in use is the twenty-fifth unit of blood. There were some bad complications, and the doctor had seriously under estimated the amount of blood they’d need. The doctor looks at the records, and says, “It’s a good thing the community response was so strong, because we needed a lot more than I expected. Those internal injuries were worse than they appeared, at first.” He looks up at the orderly who’s still holding Mandy’s hand. He’s half leaning on the trolley when they wheel Mandy out of the theatre. He can hardly stand, but he’s keeping his promise and not letting go of her hand. Shaking her head at his stubbornness, one of the nurses moves up beside him and helps hold him up while they all move off to the recovery ward.

In the nearby recovery ward they transfer Mandy to a bed. Eve and her Aunt Kate take over the bedside vigil. The orderly is taking care walking out the door when Mandy’s mother and her lover walk in. The nurse showing them into the room flinches at the hateful glare the slowly exiting orderly gives the arriving women. She gulps while she darts to the orderly when he staggers against the wall. Taking his weight, she helps him to a chair. He must be at the end of a double shift to be so exhausted. That happens sometimes, especially during an emergency with a lot of tension, like now.

The senior theatre sister strides up and stands in front of the orderly, saying, “OK, mister, let’s get a good look at who you are.” Before he can move she has the face mask undone and dropped to his chest. Both women gasp at the sight before them. The man looks like an extra in a horror film; the left side of the face is badly damaged from a blow, and the whole lower part of the face has severe burn damage.

The man looks up, saying, “I know you’ve seen worse, Lieutenant!”

She nods yes, and replies, “Yes, but not on a living person.”

In a cross between a laugh and a snort, he says, “You still haven’t! Don’t you know, I’m dead! They killed me, five years ago.” Both nurses are shocked by his statement.

The theatre nurse simply says, “You need a good night’s sleep, let’s find you a spare bed.” They lead him to another ward and strip him before putting him to bed with some iron tablets to take with a large glass of orange juice to wash them down with. He’s soon fast asleep.

Late Night News

One item of the late night news has the announcer reading, “Tonight, eleven year old Mandy Peters is recovering in hospital from emergency surgery after being abducted and tortured by an unknown assailant. The operations took nearly three hours and required a lot of blood. The hospital and medical staff wish to thank all those volunteers who responded to the earlier call for blood donors, because they did need all the blood donated.”

“Mandy was found when a patrolling police car saw a man break down the front door of a house in Hill Street. They followed him in, to find him giving Mandy emergency medical treatment, and called an ambulance. The man disappeared while they looked after the girl.”

“In a separate, and possibly related incident, a man was found in a car near the school Mandy was abducted from. He was unconscious and pinned to the seat by a knife through his testicles. Doctors removed the remains. He is currently helping police with their abduction enquiries.”

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Story tagged with:
Fiction / Mystery / Crime / War /