HIGHWAY OF DEATH
FEBRUARY 25, 1991, HIGHWAY 80, NORTH OF SAFWAN, IRAQ
They’d been trucking along at 60 kph for ages and as the convoy of three Oshkosh fuel trucks approached a wall of smoke Corporal Katrina Fernando had no choice but to slow down even more.
I can’t go through that.
The huge black cloud was drifting across the face of the road and further to the west it had blotted out the sun.
She slowed the convoy to a crawl and it seemed impossible to continue to Basra now. Kat switched on the radio and called in. “Base, this is LB-9.”
“Go for Lunch Box-9. Identify yourself please.”
He was polite at least, but the code name was ridiculous. “This is Cpl. Katrina Fernando for LB-9 Base.”
“Copy that corporal, so what’s the problem?”
“The smoke is on the deck and we have zero visibility. Request permission to pull over.” There was a long pause while the request was passed up the chain. Kat let the mic rest in her lap as they drew ever closer to the wall of smoke. “Hello Base? How about it?”
“Patience LB 9, we are checking out the situation.
“Yeah, that’s fine but we’re moving into it now and you can’t see anything in there and there’s a lot of junk on the road.”
“Yeah LB-9, the captain wants you to hold your position until the smoke clears.”
“Do we have any idea when that is going to happen?”
“When the wind changes. God knows when that’s going to happen. Captain says dismount and dig in.”
“Dig in? In this smoke?”
“You’ve got your orders 9.”
She switched off the radio and sank back in her seat. “Damn.” The thought of having to face a night near that with these men was almost more than she could deal with.
What am I going to do now?
She switched to the intercom channel so that the other drivers could hear her. “Listen up. We’re pulling over here and stopping until this smoke clears.”
“You’re fucking kidding me?”
“You’ve got your orders. Get off the road and grab your shovels, we’re dig in. And make sure your foxholes are well clear of the trucks.”
Grudgingly they obeyed. It took a lot of effort to break through the hard crust but once she’d opened the ground the digging went easier and eventually she had a hole she could stretch out in.
By then the smoke had wafted down the road to envelope them. She walked the perimeter to make sure everyone was properly dug in and set up a watch schedule.
Kat couldn’t see why they wanted her to make camp inside the stinking cloud, rather than turn around. Then she thought, maybe they were trying to protect her from being spotted.
Nope, those guys didn’t have a clue, if they did she wouldn’t be there.
Not only was she nearly blinded by the smoke, it burned, and the toxic air felt like she was inhaling granular tar. With every painful breath she took, her gut told her that this was not going to end well.
Alone and sweating in her foxhole, she wondered why she was here. Yesterday she’d been a translator for Desert Storm’s Multinational Coalition in Dhahran. Now, she was armed to the teeth in full battledress, leading a convoy of trucks carrying jet fuel up to the front.
She was the corporal, the only NCO on this detail, so these five male recruits had become her squad, a squad of mystery-trolls spread out in foxholes behind her. She had their names, but she’d never seen them before and didn’t know anything about them. She sure as hell didn’t know if she could trust them and that made her nervous.
Especially that Redmond guy, she thought. She peered over her shoulder as if she could see him but he was on the far side behind the back of the convoy.
As if Redmond wasn’t bad enough, there were Iraqis lurking out there in the inky black, like the Zombie Army of the Apocalypse.
She was surrounded by men and as far as she knew most of them wanted to kill her.
They called this the Highway of Death, and Kat couldn’t argue with that. She was heading north to feed the hunter-killers, the Apaches helicopters and A-10 Thunderbolt Warthogs and from what she’d seen on the road behind her, calling them hunter-killers nailed it.
The Iraqi soldiers stole everything they could get their hands on when they ran from Kuwait City and headed for Basra. Then, to add to their sins, they tried to cover their escape by setting the Kuwaiti oil wells ablaze. They thought the smoke that rose over a hundred meters into the sky would blind the pilots chasing them. But it didn’t. unadulterated
Toxic ash fell like black snow, and she realized that those poor bastards couldn’t see the hunter-killers coming for them. The American kids in those flying guns grew up playing video games. To them, this war was a life-size version of River Raid. Whooping and hollering they swooped down on the Iraqis, as if they were avatars being picked up on their Windows targeting systems. Now charred bodies littered the highway, in some places they were stacked like cord-wood behind the burned-out vehicles.
For all Kat knew this wasn’t Iraq anymore. Somewhere back there she’d crossed over from the Twilight Zone into Hell.
The first watch was hers. Pilgrim, her co-driver, was sleeping in his hole twenty meters away.
When she pointed her flashlight at him all she could see was the crown of his sand-colored helmet.
After a couple of hours with Pilgrim she counted him as a dead loss. As far as she could tell Lee and Harding weren’t much better but Dempsey was different. He was quiet and he was the only one who seemed to know what he was doing.
She looked out into the black for any signs of movement, but it was no use, she couldn’t see a thing.
She remembered what Pilgrim had said when she asked him about Redmond. Steer clear of that bastard he told her. Redmond had said he wasn’t takin’ no orders from no wetback Mexican whore.
She shook her head and sighed.
Whore, always their fallback. Why are guys always such assholes?
The prevailing easterly wind carried the heavy toxic gunk right into her face and made her lose her train of thought, her eyes stung like they were on fire. Desperate for some relief, she started looking for the tiny bottle of eye drops. She was getting angry pulling things out of every pocket. “Jezzus, where did I put the goddamn thing?”
Then a fingertip touched the tiny bottle in her knee pocket. “Finally, there you are,” she said aloud, as her hand wrapped around the familiar container. She had a quick look around, then leaned back, and squeezed in some drops. Letting the cool liquid dribble down her cheeks she shut her eyes for a moment enjoying the relief.
I’m going to go crazy out here.
With the barrel of her rifle resting on the foxhole’s berm and the stock pressed into her shoulder, she draped her arm over the rail, took a deep breath and rested her chin on her arm. She looked across at Pilgrim again.
Shit, he’s still asleep. How long have I got till I get some shut eye? She looked down at her watch, 01:30.
Aw Jezzus Christ, another half hour. I swear to god I’m going to fucking die out here.
The next fifteen minutes passed in slow motion. Kat looked at her watch again, then tapped it as if that would make the time go faster. It didn’t.
She swore softly then signed softly as she sagged back to rest on her rifle. Her chin had just found a comfortable spot on her forearm when she heard a faint sound behind her, the crunch of a boot on gravel.
She spun around to face it.
A huge black shape was coming toward her. “Hold!” she snapped, projecting more confidence than she felt. She had her rifle pointed at his chest, her finger just a twitch away from squeezing off a round.
The troll’s hands shot up. “Whoa-ho-ho-ho!” he laughed.
The ponderous Georgia accent oozed out like thick molasses on flapjacks, “I come in peace, Chica.”
“Redmond?” Kat asked incredulously, then let out a sigh of relief. “Jesus! You asshole! What are you doing out here?”
“Come on, put the gun down, Chica.”
“Someone should put a fucking bell round your neck.”
He was less than a couple of meters away now and still closing.
“Nobody’s puttin’ no bell on me, Chica,” he snarled, then paused to soften his voice. “Hey, lower the gun, I’m on your side, remember?”
“I told you to stop but you’re still moving, so I haven’t seen any evidence of that so far. And don’t you ever ... call me Chica again.” She held the gun steady. “What the hell are you doing sneaking around in the dark? And where the fuck is your weapon? You should know that you don’t go anywhere without your weapon.”
“Don’t worry your pretty little head about that, I’ve got my side arm.” He lifted it out of the holster and waved it at her. “See?”
“Jesus, you’re such an asshole. What do you want?”
He holstered the Beretta. “Relax, I got lonely, ‘s all.”
“What?” Kat said, in disbelief.
“What say you and me get it on, Chica.”
“Say WHAT?” She stood up and the barrel of her gun almost touched his chest. “Get the hell away from me before I do something you won’t live to regret.”
His hand swung out and snatched the rifle away from her.
She staggered back but Redmond’s hand shot out and seized the collar of her vest. He tossed the rifle aside then began to pull at the Velcro straps on her chest. “Let’s see them big tits everybody’s bin talkin’ about.”
Frantic, she clawed at his hands, drawing blood. Redmond released her.
“So ...” he said. “You like it rough? Alright.” He punched her in the chest. Kat stumbled back into the foxhole and her helmet tumbled to the ground.
He reached for her. She swatted the blood-soaked hand away and backed up until she was pressed against a wall of dirt.
Redmond drew his Beretta and pointed it at her head. “Enough!” he shouted, and she stopped with one arm extended ready to fend him off.
“On your knees and open up for poppa,” he said, pulling down his fly. “And if I feel teeth, I’ll put a bullet in that tiny Mexican brain of yours.”
“So-help-me-god, if you don’t stop, I’m going to kick you so hard your balls will be coming out of your nose.”
He started to laugh as he struggled to get his junk out. “You ain’t gonna ....” And that was as far as he got.
Kat had long strong legs and Redmond was well within striking distance. She fired off a toe kick putting everything she had into it.
Redmond retched as he fell to his knees and let out a loud guttural scream. He would have landed on her, but she rolled away, got to her feet, and ran to retrieve her weapon.
He groaned, making miserable noises as he clutched his mashed genitals, “You-fucking-bitch!” She wasn’t going to stop until she was safely locked in the Oshkosh.
Pilgrim woke up. “What the hell’s going on over there?”
“You shut your fucking mouth!” Redmond yelled back. Holding his nuts, he stood up and aimed his pistol at her. “You’re fucking dead, bitch!”
She was reaching up for the door handle just as he fired. His bullet slammed into her back with crushing force.
The Beretta M9 fired a hard pointed 9 mm round with sufficient velocity to penetrate the material of her bullet ‘resistant’ vest. It entered at the shoulder, hitting her right scapula. There was no exit wound because the bullet made a left turn and kept on going into her neck.
Twisting with the impact, she bounced off the huge front tire and fell on her back. I can’t move. Dazed, her mind raced, trying to figure out why she was on the ground.
Oh Jesus, what happened? Then it struck her.
Shit! The bastard shot me! Help! Somebody, help! Help me!
But the words didn’t reach her lips.
Kat tried to catch her breath but choked on the blood in her throat. She was conscious, but all she could see was the endless black sky above her.
She began to feel cold and it was spreading through her body as death pulled at her.
Then there he was again staring down at her, filling that void with his grotesque body. With his left hand clamped on his crotch he pointed the Beretta at Kat’s face. “You’re going to die, you little wetback-fuck.”
She couldn’t make a sound, let alone scream. The barrel was all she could see before everything went out of focus.
A shot rang out, but she didn’t hear it.