Ashes….Part I

“It’s 117 and it isn’t even 0800. I hate this place.” The sun seems to be mocking me, as I stride across the endless sands of another desert. I am conducting a search, but the heat has me ready to call it a day. In the military, lieutenants are mocked constantly for their lack of experience in reading maps. “I know where I am going,” they shout in their own defense. “And here I am out in the middle of this freaking wasteland looking for an entire squad of lost soldiers.”

I wipe at the sweat which dots my face, and, in the distance, I notice a plume of smoke. The body armor has begun to weigh on my shoulders, and I clutch my rifle tight to my body. Lowering my body to make myself a smaller target, I creep over the sand dune. Scattered below me are tents of nomads, their bodies lie between the burnt husks of their possessions. I make my way through the carnage. Stepping over the bodies, I see a child sitting on a pile of ashes. “What in the world?” I kneel and check the area; the baby doesn’t notice me. Satisfied that the area is clear of threats, I walk over to the child.

“Hello, darling. What are you doing?”

Tears mark her face. Ash smears are on her forehead and her brown eyes look at me. We stare at each other for a moment and she goes back to playing in the slag. I sit beside her and she leans against me. She grips my hand and runs it in the soot. Satisfied there is enough ash on my fingers, she takes my hand and smears ash on my face.

“Daddy?”

“No, baby. I’m not your daddy. What happened here?”

“Bad men.”

“Okay. We’ve got to get out of here. I’ll take you with me and my outfit can find someone to help you.”

I stand and extend my hand to her. She takes my hand and stands to her feet. She is a cute child. Her hair is curly and black, her dark eyes seem to smolder, and she is quick to laugh. Her small hand taps mine and I look at her.

“Oku.”

“You can call me Ghost. Come on darling, we gotta get back.”

Slowly, we trudge through the sand until we reach the landing zone where I was dropped off. The radio I had hidden in the nearby shrubbery is still there.

“Hideaway, this is Ghost, over.”

“Go for Hideaway, Ghost.”

“Roger, Ghost requesting pick-up, plus one pax.”

“Roger, Hideaway copies all.”

With the call completed, me and Oku walk behind a dune and stretch out in the shade. Oku snuggles close. An hour passes and, in the distance, I hear the churn of rotors. The radio squelches and then a voice comes over the air.

“Ghost, this is Lighthouse 16, do you copy?”

“Go for Ghost, Lighthouse 16.”

“Is the LZ marked?”

I toss a red smoke grenade over the top of the dune.

“Roger, LZ marked.”

The roar of rotors draws closer, and I take Oku by the hand. “Sweetie hold my hand. Don’t let go.”

Lighthouse 16 comes back over the radio, “Roger, Ghost. I see red smoke.”

“Roger.”

The Huey touches down 100 yards from the dune. Me and Oku run toward the chopper. Inside the whirly bird, the door gunner looks at me.

“Where did you find her?”

“Sitting on a pile of ashes in what was left of a band of nomads.”

“Jesus. I hate this place.”

“Me too, brother. Me too.”

We ride in silence, the chopper running the nap of the earth until we reach our base camp. The helicopter touches down and we disembark.

“Oku come with me. I have to go give my report.”

I walk to the tent which houses our headquarters element and operation center. As I walk in, the CO glares at me from the desk.

“Did you find any sign of the lost troops?”

“No sir. I made it about half a mile in and came upon a shot up camp of nomads. This little girl, her name is Oku, was the only survivor.”

“So, you said forget the troops, this little girl is more valuable than the lives of our men?”

My eyes narrow at the accusations which are hurled in my direction. “Don’t hit him, don’t do it. He isn’t worth the jail time.”

“No sir. Our men are highly trained killers, they can hold their own against anyone. This girl is 3, maybe 4 years old, and I wasn’t going to leave her out there by herself.”

“I see.”

Without another word, the CO pulls his sidearm and shoots Oku in the chest. I grab the gun and yank it to the right; with my free hand I pull my blade.

“You piece of filth! My son is leading those soldiers and you bring this garbage back in his place!”

 He swings the weapon toward me, and I slam my blade into his right eye. I pull it out and slam the blade into his armpit puncturing his heart.

“MEDIC!”

Oku lies in the dirt whimpering. I run to her and cradle her in my arms. The medic sprints across the camp to where I hold Oku.

“Put her down, Ghost. Here, press this bandage against her wound.”

“Look at me Oku. It’s gonna be okay.”

“Bad man.”

“Yeah, baby. He can’t hurt you anymore. Just relax, and let Doc take care of you.”

Doc gives her a shot of adrenaline and patches up her wound. Behind me, I hear the officers talking to the police.

“Ghost, you are under arrest for the murder of a superior officer. Interlace you fingers behind your head.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“Do it. You will be given an opportunity to tell your side of the story.”

I comply with the order and interlace my fingers. Handcuffs are slipped on my wrists and I am led to the SUV.

“Get in.”

While I struggle to get into the back, Doc runs up to me.

“Hey, Ghost. I just want you to know, the little ‘un is gonna make it. You did a good thing.”

“Thanks, brother.”

I am driven to the main base and escorted into the police station. A wooden bench is bolted to the crumbling wall, and I am led to it.

“Sit down.”

The officers walk over to the desk, and one picks up a phone. Talking in hushed tones, a few words are spoken and then the officer hangs up the phone. He gestures for me to come over, so I push myself to my feet and walk toward him.

“The judge will see you now.”

The officer grabs me by the cuffs and guides me toward the courtroom. Walking down the narrow hall, I notice it is dimly lit and lightly traveled. At the end of the hallway, a lone door is pushed open and I am placed in an aluminum chair.

“Wait here.”

Time drags by, but finally, the judge walks in. He sits and two other men walk into the room. One is the CEO of the military contractors I work for, the other is unknown to me. Bill Wilson is the proprietor of Wilson Solutions. He pulls a chair over to where I sit.

“How are you doing, sport?”

“Better than my CO, sir. So, pretty good.”

He nods his head and chuckles. Then he leaned back in his chair. He scratches his five o’clock shadow and leans toward me.

“You’ve put me in a predicament, Ghost. First, you rescued a kid, when you were supposed to be searching for members of your team. Second, you killed your CO. What am I going to do with you? Or her?”

“Well sir, killing me won’t bring the CO back. Killing the kid would be pointless. I guess you could cut me, and the kid lose, and I will find my own way back home. No harm, no foul.”

“Yeah, but what about the missing troops?”

“I’m not your only tracker, sir.”

“You know that band of nomads you found? Those lost troops killed them, and your CO ordered the hit. He sent you to “find” them, but you weren’t supposed to make it out of the desert. I’m not upset you killed the idiot. I want you to finish the job.”

“Can I get these cuffs off?”

Wilson nods his head, and the officer removes my cuffs. I flex my hands and lean back, taking in what I had just been told. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“So, let me make sure I understand this. You want me to hunt down and kill this five-man team of trained killers. For what purpose would I do this? I can see what you get out of it, but what’s in it for me?”

“You get to live.”

“I’d rather die.”

“Fine, Ghost. What do you want?”

“500 thousand, and clean passports for me and Oku. This is my last job. I will kill them and then I’m done. I also need my gear and their location.”

Wilson nods his head and stands to his feet. He extends his hand, and I shake it. “Deal. Judge, it looks like you aren’t needed.  Ghost, you can pick your gear up at the airfield. Joshua here will make sure you are briefed.”

“Yes, sir.”

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