Far below the aircraft, tracer fire flickered across the brown earth. Tiny bursts of diamond-like fragments cascaded between the outskirts of Kandahar and the surrounding dull beige land of the southern province of Afghanistan. Pretty; deadly. Even with her knowledge of lighting, angles and shutter speeds, Ellie didn’t quite understand how the human eye could catch the glittering path of a stream of bullets.
The snoring passenger beside her woke with a grunt. ‘Still taking pot shots at each other?’ he asked.
‘Yep.’ Ellie pulled her earpiece free, replacing the sexy croon of Missy Higgins with the sounds of a crowded aircraft cabin. She pressed into her backrest to give the American journalist a better view. ‘We’ve been holding overhead for an hour. Don’t know how you sleep so soundly, Don.’
‘Thirty years of practice. You’ll be the same one day. Idiots won’t be happy until they’ve turned the damn place to dust.’
Ellie tugged at her light cotton shirt, tucking it back into her rumpled cargo pants, then dragged her blond hair into a loose tail. A hot shower would be a fine thing after twenty hours of non-stop travel.
Sunlight reflected off the polished wing and arced across the walls as the aircraft began another turn. Lengthening shadows below proved the day was dying. The vivid green of the fertile river that snaked through Kandahar was the only relief in the brown monochrome below. She glanced at her chunky dive watch. Six o’clock. They probably had another half an hour before they’d be diverting. Now or never time.
If they did divert, it would be a major inconvenience. It had taken a large part of her spare cash and some serious calling in of favours to secure a seat on this flight. There was no guarantee she’d be on the next one. Flying into war zones wasn’t like normal commercial travel. In fact, working in war zones wasn’t like anything else on earth. Nothing could prepare you for the surge of adrenalin, the rigid set of shoulder muscles or the constant stress of uncertainty.
Some days she woke feeling physically ill. Some days just crawling out of her sleeping bag and brushing her teeth demanded all her concentration. Some days the grief, the horror, the fear, tore her apart.
Then, a photograph would frame a moment and she would remember why she dragged herself there, why she lugged around 30 kilos of camera gear, why she left behind changes of clothes, spare shoes and make-up to create room for lenses and replacement batteries.
One image, one emotion, one moment caught on camera, could say so much. If she had an instant in her life when she realised she wanted to be a photographer, it would be the day she saw the photograph of the naked girl running away from her napalmed village in Vietnam. Sitting in a modern history class, the world had receded as she saw the image and understood the suffering.
Now here she was headed back into a war zone herself, teamed with her sister who believed words ruled the world, both trying to make a difference.
A puff of smoke below grabbed her attention and she pressed closer to the window. Looked like the traffic was all one-way now. The security forces had moved out of the airfield and she could see whirls of dust as vehicles sped away down the road. Maybe she’d get there after all.
‘Reckon we’ll make it,’ Don said. On cue the aircraft’s engine note changed, the nose pitched down and they began a frightening spiralling descent into the airport. Don chuckled, looking around the cabin. ‘Easy to see the poor fools who haven’t done this before.’
Ellie smiled, remembering her own first time three years ago. Nina had talked her through that one. ‘Hope they have their sick bags ready.’ The new hands were flattened into their seats, eyes wide with terror. If only they knew the reason behind this evasive tactic. The old hands stared out the windows, watching for missiles and danger.
‘Is Nina collecting you, or do you need a ride?’ Don asked.
‘Nina should be there.’ Ellie shrugged. ‘But if it gets much later, the curfew’s going to trap us all at the airport until morning.’
‘Nope, not this little black duck. I have an escort. Let me know if you change your mind.’
‘Thanks.’ Not for the first time, Ellie wondered what it must be like to be employed by a big American broadcaster. Life seemed a hell of a lot easier for them than the rest of the press corp.
Don offered her a miniature bottle of gin. ‘Want one?’
‘No, thanks. I’ll stick with this.’ A millimetre of water sloshed in her bottle.
Don shook his head. ‘Hard to believe you’re Nina’s sister. You two are so different.’ He ran his eyes down Ellie’s non-descript serviceable clothes. ‘Your Nina sure knows how to party in style. No offence.’
‘None taken,’ Ellie replied. ‘Only room for one show pony in the family.’
Don chuckled. ‘Nina may be a showy little lady, but she can write. You two make a good team. Shame you won’t come and work for us. We’d love to have a couple of Aussies on the books.’
‘We Aussies like our freedom too much to have someone else call the shots. No offence.’ She grinned at him.
Don laughed. ‘None taken. You two walk a different road. It works for you.’ He downed the gin in one long swallow. ‘That’s better.’ He leant back and closed his eyes again, leaving Ellie with her thoughts.
She wrapped the cord of her earphones around the iPod then stuffed it in her oversized leather camera bag. It doubled as a handbag and she felt the corner of the book she’d brought along. Always one book per trip and this time it was Jane Eyre. She was a sucker for a happy ending.
As the aircraft thumped onto the runway the cabin stirred around her. People were on their feet before the aircraft pulled up on the bay.
‘Give my love to Nina.’ Don gave her a broad wink as he lifted his duffel bag over his shoulder. ‘And you two take care. This war’s nowhere near over yet.’
He moved up the aisle to meet the rest of his team. His commanding presence was hard to ignore despite his age. Ellie could almost see why Nina had had a fling with him. Almost. Relationships didn’t last long in a hell hole.
Ten minutes later the dry heat on the tarmac made her bones feel brittle, the smell of baked earth biting the back of her throat. The chaos of the airfield was a sharp reminder of the devastation years of war had brought to Afghanistan. In the distance she could see row upon row of military attack helicopters. She knew from previous visits the fighter aircraft were parked further along in similar numbers. The heart of the allies’ presence was here. She’d only been gone three weeks, but it felt much longer. The luxury of running water and fresh food were hard to leave behind, but it would be good to see Nina again.
She recognised many of the other disembarking passengers. War correspondents were addicts, hooked on adrenalin and conflict, always searching for the next trouble spot, the next high. With the handover of security in Afghanistan imminent, the potential for a flash point was huge.
But she and Nina were chasing something different, something just as dangerous as war, with even wider implications. Kandahar Province was reputed to be an eight-lane conduit for the drug trade channelling heroin out of Afghanistan. Did Nina really have evidence of a new well-connected cartel laundering money and dealing drugs on an international scale? Several had already been documented, but Nina was claiming this was unique, stretching from the countryside of Afghanistan across Asia and on to Australia. Either way the next couple of weeks would be interesting. Interesting, and undoubtedly dangerous. But then war zones usually were.
Ellie shuffled up in the queue for foreign passport holders and cleared Immigration quickly, giving in to a cynical smile as she pushed through the last door. The wad of greenbacks worked every time.
There was no sign of Nina or the usual driver waiting for her on the kerbside with his cheerful grin and filthy turban. Shifting the weight of her pack to the other shoulder, she frowned, scanning the front of the terminal with its disorganised stream of traffic. Don and his team had already breezed through Immigration and were long gone in a cavalcade of black jeeps.
‘Damn it,’ she muttered. It was getting too dark to try to find a ride. She bit the inside of her lip, weighing up her options. The phone service might be working, but even if she could raise Nina at the hotel, it would take time for her to rustle up the pre-requisite approval for another driver, or even find one willing to venture out with curfew getting closer.
‘Miss Wilding?’ The Australian voice brought a relieved smile to her face.
‘Yes, that’s me.’ She thrust out her hand to the tall man in front of her, his army fatigues still crisp despite the heat.
‘Jarrod Peterson, ma’am. I’m here to collect you.’ His grip was rough and firm. Maybe Special Forces, she judged from his bearing and build, although Nina had mentioned the Combat Engineers.
‘Jarrod.’ She was surprised but relieved. ‘Glad you’re here. I was wondering how I was going to get to Nina this late in the day.’
He cleared his throat, looking uncomfortable. ‘Yeah, right. I’ll take you to her.’
Something in the way he avoided her eyes sounded a tiny alarm. ‘Is there something wrong? I’m not being detained or anything, am I?’
‘No, ma’am. Nothing like that.’ With an abrupt turn he cut off further conversation and Ellie scrambled to follow. He took her backpack and swung it into the armoured vehicle. Two other soldiers in the rear seat nodded to her, their guns at the ready.
She’d barely buckled her seatbelt before Jarrod swerved out into the road. Chaos ruled and with the curfew hour approaching the number of vehicles peaked as people scurried home. Not that there was really that much traffic in a war-torn city. If the petrol rationing didn’t ground you, then the rebel groups would.
They turned left and Ellie’s head snapped round. ‘Where are we going? This isn’t the way to the hotel.’ She fumbled for the door handle, only then realising there wasn’t one.
‘It’s okay. We’re going to the hospital. Your sister’s been injured.’
‘Nina? No! Is she badly hurt?’ The questions tumbled out as she clutched at his sleeve. ‘What happened?’
‘I haven’t seen her, ma’am. I was just ordered to pick you up and drop you off.’
His evasion sent a wave of terror through Ellie. It had to be serious to send a military escort.
She sat rigid in her seat, looking sideways at his hard-edged profile. How did soldiers cope with so much death and mutilation? It was a question she’d never fathomed as her lens captured images of brutal tragedies.
From behind the camera she distanced herself through filters, angles and lighting. Her job was to report and record, to convey the emotions, not to become involved or caught up in the tragedy. Or so she tried to justify it. In the quiet hours when the reality leered at her from the computer screen, she knew her tears blurred the edges. It was a journalist’s cross. She was one of many who would give away the clothes on their back to help their local staff. But at least she believed she was making a difference, otherwise how could she bear it?
These guys, sent by governments with agendas so convoluted no one understood them, knew their job was contributing to the misery even while they were trying to avert it. The soldier’s face gave nothing away. He avoided further conversation with hunched shoulders, his hand never far from the horn to ward off erratic drivers.
Tree-lined streets gave way to nondescript buildings with shutters lowered. Blast walls and cement barricades became more prevalent as the bitumen became patchy. Ahead an overladen bus, tilted at a crazy angle on damaged suspension, swerved around a giant crater. The ugly scar was probably the result of an improvised explosive device. Innocent people would have died. Journalists would have swarmed to the aftermath. Now it had a terrible relevance. Ellie fought to breathe normally. Please let Nina be okay.
Several blocks ahead a column of smoke and flame flashed into the sky. The air vibrated before the sound of the explosion reached them. Car horns blared as people began to run towards the black pall and orange glow.
‘Shit.’ Jarrod swore. ‘Trouble.’ He turned hard right into a wide street. ‘It’s not far to go, ma’am.’
A phalanx of heavily armoured black four-wheel drives rocketed down the street towards them, scattering people and vehicles.
‘Security forces?’ Ellie asked.
‘Black death, more like it,’ Jarrod growled, pulling aside to let them through. ‘Blackwater contractors or BBS. Hard to tell the difference. They’re as bad as any damn insurgent or Taliban follower.’
Ellie knew many in the Australian Defence Force considered the private security contractors like Beyond Borders Strikeforce had far more power than they should. Vigilante armies answerable to no one except maybe some hush-hush branch of the US military. Blackwater had the highest profile, BBS wasn’t far behind.
Lining the road, old buildings, once majestic, struggled to maintain their dignity against the pitting and scarring of mortar attacks. The few new buildings with glittering windows, flashing signs and sparse forecourts stood out like hookers on a street corner. Men with their heads covered by their distinctive lungees hurried up the street, their kamazees flapping around their knees. Few women were on the streets. One ghostly grey figure in a burka slipped down a side alley. Ellie had her own scarf draped around her shoulders ready to cover her hair in public. Her blond hair made her an easy target. Better to blend in than cause affront.
The hospital loomed ahead. She’d been here before with Nina to interview a man injured in a fight over poppy fields. Few things grew easily in Afghanistan. Poppies were the addictive exception and Ellie knew such a lucrative problem was unlikely to go away any time soon.
Jarrod swung into a car park. ‘Follow me, ma’am.’
Ellie’s legs wobbled and she clutched the side of the car. She forced herself to stand up. She had to.
Jarrod led the way inside. Ellie’s stomach heaved at the pungent smell of disinfectant trying vainly to mask the reek of death and decay. The reception area was crowded, the corridor no better. A few people glanced their way, curiosity obvious. Most were too busy.
Jarrod pushed open a door into a small room next to a nurse’s station. A ginger-haired man got to his feet, his fatigues rumpled.
‘This is Captain Miller.’
Ellie shook hands, mute and numb. With a salute the younger man left them alone and she turned to the new soldier, forcing her voice to work.
‘Captain Miller, where’s Nina?’
‘Ms Wilding, please call me Dave. Major Lawson sends his respects. I’m the company’s liaison officer. I’m sorry to meet you under these circumstances.’
She waved his politeness away, terror shortening her breath. ‘Where is she?’
‘The doctors are still operating. Once she’s stable we’ll need to try and organise a casevac out to a hospital in Germany. Ellie, I’m not going to lie to you. Your sister has been critically injured. She was hit by sniper fire out on patrol with us.’ He shook his head. ‘Two bullets hit her, but one snuck under her helmet and it’s lodged in her brain. The other one tore through her armpit and she lost a lot of blood before we could stabilise her.’
Ellie felt the tears streaming down her face. No, no, no. It couldn’t be Nina. She was invincible! The captain reached out to steady her and she realised she was swaying on her feet, the pale green walls starting to spin. Words were impossible as the sobs caught in her throat.
‘Sit down, Ellie.’ He steered her to a rickety chair, and she heard him curse under his breath.
His voice was disembodied. It came from down a very long and shadowy tunnel. Nina was gravely ill. He was so sorry. She’d been such a vibrant addition to them, imbedded for two weeks with their company. Guys, a long way from home, without loved ones, craved female company. She’d been a breath of fresh air, but she needed specialist medical treatment now and that was not going to be found in Kandahar.
Ellie sensed an undercurrent in his voice. Had Nina got too close to one of them? Probably, because this was war and the rules were different. You didn’t know if you’d be around tomorrow so why not enjoy today? He stopped talking, his gaze resting on her face, his hand on her shoulder. She shut her eyes against reality.
Nina. Her older sister, her protector. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Nina, who’d shepherded and guarded Ellie, who’d been the strength in their family when the foundations had crumbled. This should never have happened. Ellie should have been here, not chasing her own dream. It was her fault Nina was alone! Her fault her sister lay in this crowded hospital, her life in the balance. Accepting the blame didn’t stop the tears, but it forced her to act. This time it was up to Ellie to get Nina out, to stand up and take charge.
‘Can I see her?’ Ellie asked, taking tiny breaths to enable her to speak.
‘Come, we’ll see what the doctors say.’
The walk through the maze of corridors, dodging stretchers, wheelchairs and people squatting on the floor, was surreal. The sounds, the odours, were background annoyances she barely registered as she followed the broad shoulders ahead of her.
Dave stopped outside a pair of swing doors and looked through. His hand burned through the thin fabric of her shirt as he anchored her beside him. ‘We can’t go in. They’re still operating.’
Ellie curled her fists tight against the urge to shove this man aside, burst through the doors and wrap her sister safely in her arms. Through the window she saw a stranger, bandages half covering her head. Nina’s trademark straight blond hair was gone. Her skin was pallid, as though the life had already drained away. Tubes from her mouth and her arm connected her to machines that were long past their warranty date. Ellie swayed towards the door as Dave’s fingers tightened on her arm.
‘No, Ellie, let them work.’
‘Nina… Nina…’ Ellie whispered, splaying her hand against the glass, the scene blurring as tears dripped from her chin. ‘Hang in there, Nina. I’ll get you home.’ Her voice broke on the last word. Home was so far away, the other side of the world in a place untouched by war. Home, where Ellie knew firsthand that time could heal.