There had been some dark days since Doctor Abby Griffin had arrived in the East African Republic, but this had rapidly become the worst so far. Her fourth gunshot victim of the day was lying on her operating table with a bullet wound to the abdomen and even though she’d stemmed the bleeding from that with gauze the monitor showed he was tachycardic and had lapsed into hypovolemic shock. He must be bleeding internally. She was worried she was going to lose him like she had number one and number three.
“I’ll have to do a laparotomy to find the source of the bleeding,” she said to her assistant, Doctor Eric Jackson. She made the incision in the young man’s abdomen and it was immediately obvious the bullet had caused a lot of damage. Blood filled the cavity and Jackson suctioned it while Abby tried to find the source, or sources more like. There was so much blood it was difficult to see, and she grabbed gauze from her table to stuff into the area, but it was soon stained red.
“We need more blood and gauze,” she said to Jackson, taking over the suctioning while he went to fetch the supplies. Back in Chicago she’d had equipment that would cauterise the blood vessels and stop the bleeding but there was nothing like that here, and the supply system was a nightmare. It was back to basics in every way.
She glanced at the monitor. Systolic pressure was dropping. If she couldn’t stop the bleeding and get more blood into him she was going to lose him. Where the hell was Jackson?
“Jackson!” she yelled, turning around to look for her assistant.
“I’m here,” he said, appearing at her side, his large brown eyes sad and helpless. He was holding a single bag of blood.
“Where’s the rest of the blood, and the gauze?” said Abby.
“There isn’t any more.”
“What? What do you mean there isn’t any more? Find some!”
“I’ve looked. There isn’t any.” Jackson pulled on his lower lip as he looked at her.
“There must be! You can’t have looked properly!”
“I did, Abby,” he said in his soft voice which never seemed to change no matter how much stress he was under, unlike Abby who let it all out. “We used a lot today; I guess we didn’t realise how much.”
“What about the backup refrigerator? Did you look there?”
“Of course I did.”
Part of her knew he was right and that he’d looked because he would turn over any stone to help, but another part of her couldn’t give up without checking herself. “Let me see. Keep suctioning and try not to use the gauze unless you have to; that’s all we have.”
“You won’t find any blood, Abby,” said Jackson as Abby marched to the large refrigerator at the back of the room and looked in there just in case. It was clearly empty. She went through to the second room where a backup refrigerator was located. There was nothing in there either. She rummaged through the meagre supplies in the vain hope something was lying beneath something else, but even if it was, it wouldn’t be enough.
“Fuck!” she cried, and a patient lying on a gurney turned soulful brown eyes on her. “Sorry,” she said more softly. “Samahani”.
She pulled open cupboards and drawers frantically searching for something that could stem the bleeding enough for her to be able to operate and found only a bag of cotton wool. That would have to do.
She hurried back to the main operating theatre, if you could call the makeshift room with its mud walls and straw floor a theatre. Jackson was packing the last of the gauze into the man’s abdomen, but as Abby approached, the monitor let out its familiar whine and the waves flattened into a line.
Jackson immediately moved to the man’s chest to start compressions.
“Stop,” Abby said, putting her hand on Jackson’s arm. “There’s no point. He’s lost too much blood and there’s nothing to replace it. We can’t save him.”
“I’m sorry, Abby,” said Jackson.
Abby gave a deep sigh. It wasn’t as though she wasn’t used to this by now, but each death pained her, and the lack of supplies and equipment frustrated her. For want of a few bags of blood, or clean gauze, or sterile equipment, dozens of people were dying.
“It’s not your fault. It’s been weeks since we had a shipment of supplies. We can’t go on like this.”
“What else can you do, Abby if they won’t respond to your messages?”
“I’m going to see Ambassador Kane later and I’m not leaving there until he agrees to do something. I don’t care what it takes.”
“He’s been useless so far.”
“I know, but that stops tonight.” She unhooked the monitor and moved it away from the bed. “In the meantime, we need to organise a blood drive.”
“I’ll do it,” said Jackson.
“Thank you, and see what you can rustle up in terms of cloth or anything that can be used as padding.”
Jackson left, and Abby stood looking at the young man who’d died on her table. “I’m sorry,” she said, stroking his arm. “I’m sorry I couldn’t save you.” She pulled the swabs from his body, put them in the bin. She sewed up the incision she’d made in his abdomen and used a small amount of precious water to clean the blood and dirt off his body before wrapping him in an old cloth, which she really couldn’t spare, but still. She didn’t know who this young man was, or whether anyone would claim him, but the least she could do was give him some dignity while he was in her care. What happened when he left the field hospital she had no control over. He’d probably end up in a mass grave like the countless others she’d lost to this rebellion.
She’d known when she’d joined Global Doctors that it would be harder than anything she’d experienced as a doctor in Chicago, but nothing had prepared her for the conditions here in the East African Republic. They were on the frontline in every way, treating the wounded in the rebellion, burying the dead, constantly losing what few supplies got through to thieves and mercenaries, comforting the grieving, arguing with the officials from both the local government, the UN, and the US government who were trying to contain the chaos in this former colony.
She pulled off her blue operating gown and hat with a sigh, put them in a laundry basket. There was supposed to be a local woman to wash and sterilise the clothes but she only appeared if she wasn’t consumed with her family issues, and most of the time Abby took them back to her camp and attempted to boil them over the campfire. She’d do that tonight, once she’d been to see that asshole Marcus Kane, so-called United States Ambassador, although what he was here in east Africa for she couldn’t say. He was worse than useless and only seemed to care about the American businessmen who were bleeding this country dry.
In the third room of the field hospital, the one that served as a ward, Malia, a young nurse from Nigeria, was checking on the few patients they had, including the second gunshot victim of the day whom Abby had managed to save.
“How’s he doing?” she said as Malia detailed his stats on a form.
“Stable, and looking good,” she said, turning a wide toothy smile on Abby.
“Good. I’m heading into Edenville tonight, so I’ll be out of range for two or three hours, but Jackson is on call.”
“We’ll be fine. Are you doing anything nice in town? Meeting someone?” she said looking at Abby slyly.
“I am meeting someone, but I doubt it will be nice. I’ll see you tomorrow all being well.”
Abby stepped outside and the heat hit her. They were at the end of the rainy season and the humidity was hell. She pulled on the front of her blue vest, wafted it as though that would help at all. The only thing that swept over her was warm air. Sweat beaded on her brow and started to slide down her face. She wiped it away, but it was soon replaced by more beads that coalesced and formed a rivulet of salty water. She’d have to change before she went to see Kane. He always looked immaculate, somehow immune to the stifling heat.
She walked along the dusty path towards the row of tents that formed the rest of the aid compound. Outside the gates a shanty town had grown up on the edge of the disputed territory. To the north lay the Tonshasa National Park with its lions and elephants and understaffed Ranger Service. Forty miles to the south was Edenville, the administrative centre of the East African Republic. Such a short distance in American terms, but a world away from Abby’s life in Tonshasa. Edenville was a coastal town, with whitewashed colonial houses built by the British and adapted by the Americans, and treelined streets, flower beds, municipal services.
Abby walked along the rows until she came to her own tent which was at the far end of the compound with only a chain link fence between her and miles and miles of savanna. She lifted the flap, went inside. There were no locks here because there was nothing to steal. She had her laptop and her cell phone, but she always carried them with her. The only other things she owned were her few items of clothing and her medical textbooks, which no one would want to have.
She stripped and washed in cold water still left from the morning, brushed her hair, and tied it into a ponytail. Then she found a pair of grey jeans that were relatively clean and added the only white blouse she owned that had survived the heat and the moths. She looked at herself in the sliver of glass that served as her mirror. She would never match up to Ambassador Kane in terms of cleanliness, but she thought she’d do.
She picked up her backpack, walked outside to her rusted heap of a Land Rover and flung the pack on the back seat. She got in the driver’s side, crunched the gears into first, and bounced down the rutted track to the entrance. Once through the gate she turned south and headed to Edenville, and that useless bastard Kane. She was ready for him this time; wasn’t going to take no for an answer.
Marcus Kane stood at the window in his office on the second floor of the United States Embassy, staring down at the street below. From here, Edenville looked clean and neat and ordered, and when he’d first found out about his posting to the East African Republic’s capital city a year ago that’s how it had seemed in the pictures he’d been shown. He’d thought it would suit him, because he was clean and neat and ordered himself, and liked everything around him to be the same.
It wasn’t until you got up close that the truth was revealed. The white walls of the buildings were dirty and stained, the paint peeling, the brick crumbling and adding to the endless dust. There was no escaping the stuff. Sand, mainly, and dirt. It got everywhere, sticking to every surface, invading every crevice until he shed it when he undressed, like skin, clouds of it landing on the floor, encircling him, its sharp edges gritting his bare feet as he headed for his second or third or fourth shower of the day.
For all its faults, the administrative centre of the town was the nicest part. Once you got away from it the streets grew narrow and rutted, the housing dilapidated, the poverty pervasive. He’d had no choice in coming here, and no time to prepare. One minute he’d been enjoying the delights of Paris, the next he’d been on the plane east with little more than his suitcase. It had taken six months to get the rest of his belongings sent across, and by then he’d wanted to send them back and go with them, tucked into the baggage hold, a stow away from his own life.
“This is the perfect place for a man of your talents, Kane,” the US Secretary of State had said when he’d ambushed him in the dining room of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. “Major conflicts there affecting American interests. Needs someone with your negotiating skills. Proper feather in your cap if you can sort it out. The President has his eye on the region.”
He'd believed him too, or at least he’d wanted to, until about five minutes after he’d arrived and he’d read the note left by his predecessor, expressing his joy at being freed from his prison and his commiserations for Kane. He knew then it was a punishment mission, meted out to him because of what he’d done in Paris, and who he’d done it to. Looking back, it seemed ridiculous he hadn’t realised straight away, but it had all happened so fast, and had been made to seem like an opportunity, or maybe there’d been an element of denial, if he were honest with himself.
He watched the tide roll in, bringing with it more sand, and sighed. Nothing to be done but to make the best of it, which he was trying every day to do, not always successfully.
There was a knock on the door, and it creaked open. He turned to see who had entered. It was his secretary, Gaia.
“What is it?” he said.
“Your three o’clock is here, Sir.”
Kane looked at his watch, surprised it was that time already. Where had the day gone? He didn’t feel like he’d achieved anything of note.
“Fine, send him in.”
“Yes, Sir, and don’t forget you’re meeting Doctor Griffin later. She’ll be here between six and seven.”
God, he’d forgotten he was meeting her. “Can’t she be more specific about what time she’s coming? I can’t sit around waiting for her.”
Gaia shrugged. “I guess her line of work is unpredictable.”
Kane dismissed her with a wave of his hand then walked over to his large oak desk and sat in his creaky old chair with its faded green upholstery that had seen better days like everything here. He undid the buttons on his blue jacket, adjusted the cuffs of his grey striped shirt so they showed evenly. Abby goddamned Griffin. She was the last thing he needed today. Infuriating woman, wanted everything on her terms, as evidenced by her casual attitude to timekeeping. Did she think he had nothing better to do than hang around waiting for her? She was only coming to beg things from him he couldn’t give her. She could have saved them both the time and trouble and just called him.
The good doctor wasn’t the only problem person in his life, however. Charles Pike, the man he was about to meet, was an American businessman who’d been in Edenville for at least as long as Kane, making his fortune off the backs of the local people. Pike was short and squat, and he had that short man syndrome where he asserted himself to the point of being overbearing. What was it called? Napoleon Complex? Yes, that was it. He was dark-skinned, bearing the same earthy hue as the local people. His ancestors originated here as he’d told Kane one night over a few too many drinks, economic migrants to the United States two generations before Pike was born. Said he’d returned to boost the economy of the land of his fathers, but Kane hadn’t seen much evidence of that in the short time he’d known him. He was draining them if anything.
Kane’s family were Europeans, Scottish people cleared from their lands in the eighteenth century to make way for sheep which were more economical and enriched the landowners more than the poor people cast out. How far man had fallen, worth less than a beast of the earth he was supposed to reign over, if you believed the bible guff. It was the same here, the people valued as muscle and sinew, strength and tenacity, and when those assets were gone, when they were soft and broken, exhausted and old before their time they were cast aside.
Kane’s unwanted ancestors had settled in New York, prospered, and moved to Washington where Kane was born forty years ago. They were McCain’s originally, but his grandfather had changed the name; Kane didn’t know why.
Humans were in constant flux, restless, migrating, searching for a better life, the perfect life. Such a thing didn’t exist as far as Kane was concerned. There was only the endless striving.
“Charles Pike, Sir,” said Gaia, showing the man in and then leaving, closing the door behind her.
“Mr Ambassador,” said Pike with a slight nod.
Kane didn’t bother to stand; he gestured to the chair opposite him. “Please take a seat, Charles,” he said. He sat back in his chair, put his hands together on the table and contemplated the man. He was wearing a combat vest over his shirt and tie as usual, as though he fought in a war zone instead of working in one. He was sitting ramrod straight, trying to look dominant, but the incessant stroking of his black goatee gave him away, Kane thought. He had insecurities, probably more than just his height. Kane was tall, six feet give or take a millimetre or two. He didn’t need to use that to assert his authority, though. As United States Ambassador he WAS the authority. “How’s the wife?”
“Oh, fine, you know.”
Kane nodded as though he knew or cared what his wife felt or did or was. “And the children?”
“Kaden has finally got over his flu and gone back to school. Been under my feet for too long.”
“Ah. Good. So, what can I do for you today?”
“The same thing you did for me last time, or rather didn’t do.” Pike’s tone was one of exasperation and disappointment, as though Kane was one of his children who had failed to clean his room when asked. He searched his mind for what had been the last in a long line of requests from the businessman. Oh, that thing with the Republic’s Minister for Transport.
“Have you not heard from Miller yet?”
“No, otherwise I wouldn’t need to be here.”
“Well, I spoke to him and he said he would be in touch. It’s only been, what, three weeks or so?”
“It’s been a month,” said Pike. “I can’t afford a delay like this.”
“I’m sure he’ll call you when he can.”
“That’s not good enough. I need you to get me in to see him. A phone call isn’t going to cut it now. I’ve got product waiting to be moved and that goddamn bridge is still unusable. He needs to fix it. I’d get my guys to make the repairs but every time we go near it, his men stop us. I’m starting to think there’s more to it than a so-called supply issue.”
“I can’t make them move any faster,” Kane said, twirling one of his silver cufflinks. They’d been a gift, and even though the memories they brought tortured him at times, they were also comforting. He often found himself fiddling with them when he was under stress. Like Pike with his beard, he supposed. He stopped playing with the cufflink, pulled his jacket sleeves down over his cuffs to reduce the temptation. It wouldn’t do to let Pike see his discomfort.
“I’m not convinced you’ve tried very hard,” said Pike, his frown heavy, his eyes narrow and accusatory. “Are you the Minister’s man?”
Kane banged his fist on the table in annoyance at Pike’s suggestion. “That’s enough of that! I’m not to be bought by anybody as you well know. You’ve tried often enough.” He pushed back his chair with a scrape and a loud creak. He’d had enough of this idiot. “I’ll speak to Miller again, impress the urgency of the situation upon him.”
Pike stood, and Kane moved around to his side of the desk, stood in front of him, using his height now to show his dominance, because the man had affronted him, and he was simmering with anger. He did more than he should for the likes of Pike, and this was how he was repaid. Accused of being corrupt, taking bribes. It was taking every ounce of his self-control to remain relatively calm.
“There’s an event, isn’t there, this weekend? Some government function,” said Pike, undeterred.
“It’s the Republic’s anniversary celebration, yes. What of it?”
“Get me into the event and I’ll speak to him myself. Then I’ll be out of your hair.”
Kane stared at Pike and he stared back. He wasn’t going to back down, and Kane didn’t have the energy or the will for a fight. “Fine. Gaia will sort out an invitation with your secretary.”
Pike nodded. “I guess I’ll see you there.” He opened the door and left, leaving Kane fuming in his wake. He hadn’t even said thanks, the arrogant low-life bastard!
He slammed the door shut behind Pike, returned to his desk and slumped into his chair. He couldn’t stomach people like him, who thought everyone was as morally bankrupt and corrupt as they were. This place was full of them, from the Republic’s top officials to the American citizens he was here to protect, to the government he was here to represent. All here for one thing, to exploit this country and its resources and do it for as little cost as possible.
He held his head in his hands. He’d committed a lot of sins in his life, but nothing that warranted this punishment surely. It was a heavy price to pay for pissing off the wrong person. He could have killed someone and got off more lightly. He might yet, Pike being first in line.
He buzzed Gaia. “Tea,” he said when she answered. “And can you call Doctor Griffin, tell her I can’t see her today.”
He took out his blue fountain pen, the one he’d had since he graduated cum laude from Yale too many years ago to remember and opened a file of papers that needed his signature.
“Doctor Griffin isn’t answering her cell,” said Gaia when she brought him his tea.
“Keep trying,” Kane said.