Sunday, March 31, 2013

Beirut Shoot

I had a fantastic afternoon wandering around Mar Mikhael with Ingebjorg and Kristin, browsing through funky little stores and marvelling at how lovely and warm the temperature was. The first stop of our photo shoot were these colourful stairs. As I was sitting there, this old man approached enthusiastically humming the American national anthem...well, not humming, it was a lot of 'ra pah pah pah'. I told him I wasn't American, so he asked me to sing my national anthem. I declined, but he was still happy to jump in for a few photos...what a character! 
After some more wandering we headed for a most incredible 'brunch' (it was more like a late lunch!) at Tawlet. Somehow, Ingebjorg and I mustered up the energy on our full bellies to do a little "Where's Wally" photo shoot. We'd passed what looked like a graveyard for old buses  and headed back there. The gentlemen there were happy to let us in, but told us to make it quick. 

Wally was very happy to be going on a bus ride 
 But this bus wasn't going anywhere any time soon!
 I love the reflections of the buildings in the window.
Ingebjorg must have an encyclopaedic knowledge of Beirut graffiti, because she remembered this one from our last visit here together in October. I can't decide if this is more Munch, or Home Alone. 
We kept walking around the little streets and I noticed an open doorway (beside a bright yellow Lamborghini  and stepped in to check it out. It was the perfect setting for a silhouette. 
All fun and games this weekend!! :-)

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

I Spy...

J. set out another Humanitarian Fiction challenge, this time, a spy thriller. I was pretty exhausted today, after a long day of meetings and shitrep writing, but I dug deep and churned this baby out. If anything, I'm hoping that this guilts Cynan into writing the next 3 instalments of his Zombie story (which is incredibly awesome, and I'm starting to wonder if he's delaying it just to annoy's not like he has a full time job/life or anything!)

Anyways, guilt trip is my contribution...

I Spy

“I spy with my little eye, something beginning with E...”
“Isn’t it a bit early in the morning for games Ken? I haven’t even put the kettle on,” I said as I nodded towards the jug under the tap.
“It’s never too early for you to find out your next assignment.”
I turned off the tap in an instant. “Tell me.”

“This is going to be a big one Deb, we’re going to need all of your skills and all of your talent. There’s rumour of some big money floating around, no-one’s saying who’s holding but we suspect it’s one of the major players. We need you to get on the trail, chase down the sources. The end game is infiltration, and then we cash in from there.”

I was intrigued. I was part of a small team in a private agency, not affiliated with, or contracted by the government at all. Many people didn’t even know we existed until it was too late and we got we were after. I have a very special set of skills that can’t be taught in universities; only learnt in the school of life and this sounded right up my alley.
“Have you got a file for me?”
“It’s in your inbox. Get that kettle on and get moving, I don’t want to see you in this office again until it’s done.”

Ken was a good boss. He knew his stuff but tended to shy away from the field after an operation went sour a few years ago. I liked that he let me get on with things, and gave me the resources to get what we needed.
My fingers tapped a rhythm on the countertop while the jug boiled; my work could not begin until the Ethiopian/Java blend was pulsing through my veins. Tap, tap, tap... “Money for Nothing,” I realised half way through the chorus. Finally, the steaming cup in front of me, I opened up my inbox and downloaded the encrypted file Ken had sent.

It was juicy. The amount was millions, and it didn’t seem like many others had caught on to it. I knew we wouldn’t be the only interested party on this one, and it was up to me to make sure we got there first; the only way was to get there first. The reward we’d get for this would be one of the biggest wins we’d had in recent years. I scanned through page after page, looking for a way in. Bingo. Francois du Monde, 45 years old, recently divorced, handsome. This was going to be fun.

A few more pages and I had what I needed. A few mouse clicks and I had a ticket to Geneva, there was no time to lose. “See you in a day or two Ken,” I called as I headed for the door. “Confident are we?” “I spy with my little eye...espionage,” I called back with a laugh. “That’s my girl, go get ‘em!”

It was a short flight, but I used the time I had to learn more about Francois. Born and raised in Geneva but now based further north with regular trips back home, trained as a lawyer specialising in arms trade and money laundering, and a prime target for information. If anyone was going to know about this money floating around, he would. It would just be a matter of getting him to share that information with me. Ken’s file contained all sorts of juicy bit and pieces, but most importantly, the bar Francois preferred at the end of a hard day of lobbying in Geneva and the fact that there just so happened to be an arms trade meeting on this week. I hurried through the airport, dodging women with small yapping dogs in the arrivals area and dashed for a taxi. I had some time to kill, and figured there was no harm in a free lunch.

“Jackson,” I purred, “I’m in Geneva, are you around?” Of course he’d be around; he was such a good little bureaucrat. “Deb, how nice to hear from you. Yes, I’m at the office. Do you want to stop by for a late lunch?” “You read my mind; I’ll be there in 20 minutes.” “I’ll put your name at the door, you shouldn’t have any problems.” I didn’t bother saying goodbye, and directed the driver to the Palais. He stopped as close as he could get, and I waited for an eternity as he wrote out a receipt. In my line of work, no matter how large the payoff, every dollar, or franc has to be accounted for.

I checked my hair in his rear view mirror, fluffed it up and snatched the receipt. “Merci,” I called as I shut the door. I stepped into the revolving door and strode confidently to the security desk. “Deborah Carlton, to see Jackson James.” Such an American name, for such an American, I thought as I slid my I.D across the desk. The security officer handed me a lanyard and directed me to the seventh floor. No escort required. I found myself humming along to a muzak version of “Call me Maybe” and quickly stopped, disgusted at myself. The doors slid open and there he was, blonde and tanned and trying to be nonchalant.

“Deb, babe, you look great,” his Californian accent grated as he bent down to kiss me three times on the cheek. “Jackson, how are you?” “All the better for seeing you. I don’t have a lot of time, they need a briefing paper by 7, but I’ve cleared an hour.” “Well, let’s make the most of it then.” “I’m afraid the canteen will have to do,” he said as he headed for the lift. 

“What’s the briefing paper on?” I asked, trying to sound as if I didn’t know. If only Jackson James worked on money laundering with Francois du Monde this would be a more useful hour. “Peacebuilding in Mindanao, it’s an island in the Philippines. We’re trying to get a big grant but it’s been really difficult.” “Oh I think I’ve heard of it,” I said casually. I wasn’t going to reveal to him that I’d spent time there trying to work around the MILF after Ken’s breakdown. “It sounds like a really interesting place, but there’s just not a lot of interest any more  I wish I could go, but...” he trailed off, probably trying to avoid the reality that he was a desk jockey who would likely remain that way for a long time.

“But what about you, what are you doing here Deb?” “Oh just a few meetings, nothing interesting. Swiss banks aren’t as exciting as the movies tend to make out.” It was the story I usually used with people like Jackson, or the hairdresser at home. No-one ever wants to hear about banks. One of the many skills I’d developed in my line of work was being an excellent listener. I asked the right questions, and didn’t need to say more than a few words the entire hour. It was creeping closer and closer to the hour where I’d find Francois. “Sorry Deb, I’ve really got to get back.” “I understand, it was so nice to catch up.” “How long are you in town for, can I see you again?” “I’ve got a flight in the morning,” (lie), “and a load of meetings this evening,” (lie), but I’ll definitely give you more of a heads up next time so we can catch up properly,” (lie). He beamed at me, “promise?” “Promise.” (lie). He kissed me three times again, lingering on the last one. I smiled brightly and turned to leave. “Good luck with Mindanao,” I called over my shoulder, and strode out of the building. 

At this time of the afternoon the traffic wouldn’t be too bad, I calculated that it would take me half an hour to walk to the bar, enough time to pick the perfect vantage point to intercept du Monde.

The evening passed in a blur, well it did for du Monde. Another one of my finely honed skills is holding my liquor, something Francois had yet to master. I’d gotten exactly what I needed, confirmation of the existence of the money and the source. I sent a text to Ken on the way to my hotel, “I spy with my little eye, something beginning with S...” Moments later, his reply. “I knew you could do it, write it up and I’ll sign it off tomorrow.

I pulled out my laptop and typed furiously.
Hand Relief International hereby applies to SIDA for $3 million for peacebuilding activities in Mindanao.  

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Byblos afternoon

My friend A and I took a little trip up to Byblos on Sunday afternoon. It was her last chance to see something (anything) in Lebanon after only being here for a short time from HQ. The morning had been a bit rainy and cold and grey, but we decided to go anyway. There were some blue bits straining to poke through the clouds when we arrived at the harbour. 
We then wandered around the old castle, which had a pretty great view out over the sea.  
We stopped to take a couple of pics in the ruins of a teeny tiny theatre - look at the teeny tiny decorative columns!
And then I had to bust out a quick to say, the accoustics weren't great with all that sea breeze about.  
We admired the little railway that seemed to go nowhere 
And then finished off with a late lunch, a cold Almaza, and a spectacular sky over the harbour! 
It wasn't my first trip to Byblos, but it was really nice to get out and about in the fresh air for a change!

Friday, March 15, 2013

Have a break, have a kitty cat

I'm sorry, it's been a busy week full of meetings and more meetings. In my spare time I've been trying to choose photos to make a photo book for the year I spent in Lebanon a few years ago. So to keep you entertained while I think of something more interesting to write, and knowing how much the internet likes cats, here are a few photos that will be included in my photo book!

Squee!! I wonder what these cats are up to these days....

P.S. I've been using Shutterfly to make photo books and have been really impressed with the quality.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Adventures of Bob and Cathy

Right. So my crowdsourcing was somewhat successful. Wendy very kindly offered her and KJ's services to write a chapter each. But since I didn't want my (fake) parents ending up a day-glo orange bikini wearing robots (long story) I decided against that. KJ suggested they end up in a Vietnamese jail - I haven't gone quite that far, but it did give me the location for the story. Wendy, genius as always wrote a few sentences which have been basically dropped in word for word. I won't say which part it is, but I for anyone that knows Wendy it will be pretty obvious. Unfortunately I didn't see Steph's contribution until after I'd written the whole story, but perhaps "How about they end up inadvertently helping George Clooney out of a hostage situation, and George repays them with millions?" can be used in another story another time. Coincidentally though, "George" was included in the story...

So to my lovely parents, here's your story - I hope B&K are never quite as adventurous as B&C (I do worry you know!)

The Adventures of Bob and Cathy

“What do you think about this for George?” Bob turned to look at the ornamental dagger his wife was holding up. “I think it’s perfect dear, let’s see what sort of bargain you can get it for.” Cathy had become an expert haggler over the course of their travels around the world, and it was always a joy to watch her in action. He stood back and look disinterested while she picked up and put down a few other items, then made to leave. “Wait Madame, wait, come back. I give you special price. What do you want?” Cathy played along with the game, a smile dancing in her eyes. While she loved a good bargain, she also knew when to stop so that both parties were satisfied with the price. She handed over the money, five times less than the initial price, and declined a plastic bag. Bob took the dagger from her and nestled it safely in the bag slung across his body.

“Let’s get some dinner, I saw a little dumpling place back there.” Bob grabbed his wife’s hand and they strode through the night market, weaving their way through the streams of people that stood a good head or two shorter than them. It was becoming easier to drown out the constant cries of “sir, come look,” and “madame, good price” that had been so overwhelming on their first visit to Vietnam years before. They found two stools in a busy dumpling place and pointed out which dumplings they wanted from the menu.

“I can’t believe we have to go home tomorrow, it’s just gone so quickly,” Cathy sighed. “You’re right, 7 weeks away from home is too long, but 2 weeks away is not enough.” Bob shifted his weight on the stool, tucking their bag neatly between his body and the bench. “I think the kids would love it here, don’t you?” “I’m sure they’ll be dying to see all the photos when they come home for Christmas,” Bob replied with a cheeky grin. A very small old woman placed their steaming bowls of dumplings in front of them, holding up a fork in one hand and chopsticks in the other. Cathy smiled at her and pointed at the chopsticks. They’d become quite adept with chopsticks after their numerous visits to Japan to see their son George.

“Mmmm, this pork one is so good Cathy, you have to try it,” he held out the half finished remains of a dumpling to her, clamped steady in his chopsticks. She leaned over and popped the rest in her mouth. “Oh that is delicious, the coriander and garlic are divine.” They sat in comfortable silence, devouring the rest of their dumplings and ordering a banana split to share. A different woman brought their dessert, “would you like to try our special tea? It’s very good for digestion.” “Yes please,” Cathy answered, taking a big spoon of banana and ice-cream.

Two small cups of steaming liquid appeared in front of them. Bob took a small sip. “Well, that’s different,” he said, taking another sip. Cathy followed his suit, “hmmm, it’s spicier than I expected.” They polished off their dessert and drained the last remnants of tea and Bob settled the bill, leaving a nice tip for the service they’d appreciated.

The night air had cooled off a couple of degrees when they stepped back into the street. “That was delicious Bob, we’ll have to remember to tell Ron and Jessy about it for their holiday.” “I’ll make sure I find it on Google Earth when we get home. I’m not feeling particularly tired yet, should we carry on walking?” “That’s fine Bob, I thought after all that food I’d be ready to roll into bed, but I feel the opposite, like I could stay up all night or do three Zumba classes in a row.” They shared a smile and linked hands.

“How beautiful! What do you think is down there?” Cathy said pointing down a small side street lined with colourful paper lanterns.  “Let’s find out,” Bob said and led the way, ducking to miss the low hanging lanterns. At the end of the little street there was a red door hanging wide open, with a small neon sign above it. Bob shot his wife a quizzical look and she nodded her ascent. He did a double take, having expected his usually cautious wife to not agree to enter a strange building where they didn’t know what they’d find. He gave a small shrug and took a step through the doorway.

There were a number of closely spaced stairs leading in a curve and he gingerly stepped down them one at a time, making sure Cathy was right behind him. The staircase opened up onto a large room, filled with green felt covered tables, surrounded by well dressed men and women playing poker and mahjong. They were spotted by a young woman in a slinky long red sequined dress. “Good evening, may I help you?” “Um, I’m sorry, we just wanted to see what was down here, we’re not really dressed for a casino,” Bob stammered.

“There is no dress code sir, you’re both very welcome to play,” her English was perfect, with the rounded vowels of someone who had studied at the finest international schools. “Come on Bob, a little flutter can’t hurt.” “Follow me; you can change money for chips this way.” “Are you sure honey?” “Oh what’s the harm, we can afford to play a little bit.” They followed the slinky young woman to a counter and changed fifty dollars worth of currency into chips. “What shall we play? The mahjong looks quite different to what I’m used to playing on the computer, so perhaps we’ll give that one a miss.” “Well, I guess we’ll try poker then Bob, you can sit at the table dear, you’re much better than I am.”

He pulled out a seat at a less busy table with a small minimum bet. It had been years since he’d last sat at a poker table. They were playing traditional five stud poker and Bob was relieved it wasn’t the Texas Hold Em that had seemingly taken the world by storm over the past decade. The cards were dealt and he picked them up carefully, making sure no one, not even Cathy could see his hand; as much as he loved his wife, she didn’t have much of a poker face. Three kings, a Queen and a two. Bob could hardly believe his luck. He threw out the two and held his breath as the replacement card was dealt. His face showed disappointment as he looked, but inside he was jumping; it was the last King. Four of a kind, what were the odds of that? He made a show of betting sensibly, but at the last bid, he went all in.

Eyebrows were raised around the table, none higher than Cathy’s standing a few feet away. Two of the men at the table folded and there remained one young man at the other end of the table, sunglasses blocking any expression from his eyes. There was a large pile of chips in front of him, and fifty dollars didn’t make much of a dent in that pile as he slid the chips forward. “I call.”

Bob lifted over his cards, one at a time starting with the Queen, and grinning widely as he turned the last King. The young man at the end of the table threw his cards down in disgust, and Bob suppressed a further grin as he brought the chips towards him, there was no need to be a sore winner. Not wanting to push his luck any further, Bob gathered up his chips. “Thank you gentlemen, that was fun,” and walked back to the cashier where the sequined lady was standing. “Well done sir, it is not often that someone beats Jun Ki Sun.” He counted the notes handed to him by the cashier. “Well, I don’t know who Mr Ki Sun is, but the hand was very hard to beat,” he said modestly. He turned to leave, but was stopped by a small hand on his forearm. “Mr Ki Sun is the leader of one of the largest crime syndicates in the city. He is not a man who takes losing well, and I highly recommend you and your wife leave the premises as soon as possible.” She looked down, ashamed. “We’ll do that, thank you miss...?” “Miss Ki Sun, I’m his sister.” He nodded to her and she bowed.

His eyes found Cathy across the room, and then sought out the table he’d been sitting at. Jun Ki Sun was no longer there. He quickly wove his way through the tables to Cathy. “Well done Bob, you didn’t want to play again?” “We have to get out of here Cathy, now.” He grabbed her hand and they walked purposefully up the stairs. “What’s going on Bob? What’s the hurry?” “The man I beat, he’s the leader of a gang who doesn’t like losing.” “Oh my god,” Cathy gasped. They hurried out the door, past a squat beefy man in a dark suit that hadn’t been there when they’d entered.

“You have something that belongs to me,” a voice called from further up the alley. Bob stopped and looked behind him; the beefy man was taking slow, menacing steps towards them. Out of the shadows Jun Ki Sun appeared. “I don’t like losing, it would be very smart of you to return what you took from me.” Bob gulped, and felt Cathy’s hand trembling in his. “Now we don’t want any trouble, I’ll give you your money back, just let us go.” Cathy’s hand slipped from his and Bob watched in horror as she walked towards Jun.

Bob thought he knew his wife of 40 years pretty well, but as he watched her take out the gang leader with a spinning high kick and a cry of “hi-yaaaaaaaaa”, he realised her ability to keep on surprising him was what had kept their love alive for so long. But while their love would never die, he knew that unless he whipped out the ornamental dagger Cathy had bought just hours ago, he might be dead, as he heard heavy footsteps come up behind him.

Bob didn’t have time to grab the dagger, but he wouldn’t have known what to do with it anyway. His army training, some 45 years behind him suddenly reared its ugly head and he ducked the punch thrown by the heavy man and managed to land a sharp jab in his side. A quick side step and another punch landed on the big man’s face, knocking him out cold. “Cathy?” he yelled. “I’m ok, he’s down.” Bob looked at his wife, standing tall over a crumpled mass on the ground. She ran lightly to him, grabbed his hand and pulled him from the alley, jumping gracefully over the unconscious body of Jun Ki Sun.

They ran all the way back to their hotel, not stopping to look behind until the door was bolted safely behind them. Bob looked at his wife in amazement. “Where on earth did you learn to do that? It was incredible!” “Oh Bob, I told you if you just came to one of my Zumba classes you’d be amazed at what you can learn. Such fun!”   

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Special Special Shout Out

Today is my parents' wedding anniversary. They've been married for a very long time so I just wanted to take a minute to thank them for being so supportive and encouraging, patient and caring and just generally all round amazing folks!

My dad sent me a youtube video the other day of a very well trained dog. I've been trying to convince my parents to get another dog for years (would you believe that guilt tripping them by saying I'd spend more time at home if there was a dog to play with didn't work?). Dad wrote back "We don't need a dog when we have such clever offspring who amuse us. More short stories please."

So I told Dad to give me a topic and I'd write a short story especially for them. "What about the excellent adventures of a middle aged couple in an Asian country - your choice of country."

I wish that I could've had a little story ready for today, but it's been a busy few days and I'm going to crowdsource some ideas - leave a comment with a suggestion for an adventure and I'll include it in the story!

Monday, March 4, 2013

Patient Zero - Part 2 (1,000th post!!!)

I can't believe this is the 1000th post on my little blog, but then again, it does seem like half a life time ago that I started this blog which was in late 2008. What better way to celebrate such a milestone than by sharing the highly anticipated conclusion to... 

Patient Zero 

Hamish switched off the sat phone and looked over to Charles and Sophia who were both staring in horror at the bodies outside. “I don’t know how much of that you heard but there may be military coming in. We need to lock ourselves in and sit tight. Charles, I need you to grab food supplies for a week.” “A week? I thought you said they’d be here in two days.” “I’m not going to take any chances. If we’re going to get through this, then we need to be smart.” Charles nodded and rushed towards the kitchen, keeping his eyes on the people outside on his way. “What should I do?” Sophia asked. “I want you to grab the records and relevant samples and make sure they’re safely inside the supply room. We need to have the documentation chain of what’s happened here.” “What are you going to do?” “I’m going to reinforce the windows where I can, and try to make this place a bit safer.”

He grabbed whatever he could find, pushing bed frames against doors and balancing desks against the window ledges, blocking the view of the zombies outside. There were groans and moans coming from the thirteen bodies outside, and he watched in horror as a figure came running up behind them, yelling for a doctor. It was a little girl and she barrelled through the zombies, not noticing anything amiss, to bang on the front door. “Doctor!! Doctor!!” she screamed. He watched in horror as the zombies noticed the child and grabbed her. Blood coloured his eyes as he turned away, the little girl’s screams echoing around him. There was nothing he could do. He took a deep breath and went to place a table in front of the last visible window pane. One of the zombies looked up from the body of the little girl and seemed to stare straight through him. He shivered and hurried about the rest of the clinic, trying to provide as much protection with the equipment they had.

“How are we doing?” he asked Sophia who was walking to the supply room with a pile of folders in her arms. “Almost done, I just want to triple check that we’ve got everything. You look pale. What’s happened?” “They just murdered a little girl in front of me. Tore her apart. I can’t...”he voice trailed off. Sophia pulled him into her arms, and tried to comfort him. “We’ll make it through this Hamish, we will. There’s nothing more we can do for them except wait.” She felt him take a deep breath against her shoulder and sighed. “You’re right. Where’s Charles?”

“Right here boss. We’re all set. Food, water, peepoo bags, mattress.” Hamish looked at his logistician, calm in the face of zombies. “Ok, let’s get in there.” He took one last glance around the clinic, and heard the unmistakable sound of glass smashing. “Go!” They hurried to the supply room and Hamish couldn’t help but look behind him. The undead were climbing awkwardly through the front window. He pulled the door shut behind him and bolted it. “Where’s the sat phone?” Sophia and Charles looked at him in horror. “I thought you had it,” Charles said. Sophia was shaking her head.  Hamish grimaced. “I need to get that phone, we’re done without it.” His heart was racing and sweat formed at his temples. He didn’t want to open that door, he didn’t want to get any closer to the zombies out there, but there was no choice.

“Wait boss. I brought this in, just in case.” Charles gave him a wan smile as he handed him one of his shinty sticks he’d brought from Scotland to play with the kids. Hamish took a deep breath and looked at his colleagues. “I left it in my office. Lock the door behind me, and when you hear me yell ‘open the damn door’ then let me back in.” Sophia’s eyes were welling up, “wait. You can’t go out unprotected.” She handed him a pair of gloves and safety glasses, pulled a mask over his nose and mouth, and reached up to arrange a surgical cap over his ears.

He nodded and slid the bolt back on the door. He peeked out through a tiny gap in the door and didn’t see anything. Tightening his grip on the shinty stick, he opened the door and sprinted to the office. The coast was clear, not a single body along the way. He snatched the sat phone off his desk and made for the hallway. As he rounded the corner he was stopped in his tracks by two women, gums bared as they shuffled towards him. He steeled himself for what he had to do, and swung the stick to connect with the first zombie’s head. Blood splattered everywhere, but it wasn’t red, it was the same sallow grey of the zombies’ skin. There was grey spattered on his glasses but he didn’t try to wipe it away. He felt pressure on his left arm and turned to see a grey hand trying to grab him. It was Maria. There wasn’t time to think and Hamish lifted the stick again and swung it as hard as he could. He didn’t stop to see if the job was done, and hurried back to the supply room screaming for Charles and Sophia to open the damn door. Once safely inside with the door bolted firmly behind him, he careful removed the blood soaked gloves, mask and cap and tied them tightly in a bio hazard bag.

He let out a deep sigh. “I take it you ran into some trouble,” Charles said. He nodded and looked down at the floor. “It was Maria. And another woman. They...I...the stick.” Charles put a hand on his shoulder. “You did what you had to do to keep us all safe. It’s ok Hamish.” “You’re right. But that was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life.” He paused and picked up the sat phone. “Let’s see where the rescue mission is.” He dialled the number for Doctor Waldorf and waited to be connected. “It’s Hamish Macleod. Have you got any news for me?” “Are you all ok?” “Well, me and my team are ok. We’re locked up with supplies, but it’s getting worse out there. I just don’t think there’s going to be many survivors, you have to get us out of here.” “Of course. The military are sending a chopper, it’s all been approved with the government there. They’re going to take care of it.” “What about those who haven’t been infected, how are we supposed to get them onto the chopper?” “I don’t know the details Hamish, someone will be getting in touch with you soon with the evacuation plan. All I know is that they’ll be there tomorrow morning at 5am. Will you be all right until then?” A terrible feeling washed over Hamish but he pushed it away. “We’ll be fine. I’ll wait to hear further instructions.” “Ok. Take care.” Doctor Waldorf disconnected the call.

“What’s going on?” Sophia looked at him expectantly. “They’re sending a military chopper; it should be here at 5am so we just have to hold tight until then. Someone else is going to call with the evac plan. “Man, I haven’t had a helo evac since Darfur,” Charles said, “bit of a different situation there.” They smiled weakly at each other. “You look worried Hamish, is there something else?” “When I asked about evacuating the people who weren’t infected he didn’t know. I’ve just got a bad feeling that we’re going to be the only ones that get out of here.” “You think they’d leave people behind to die?” Charles asked. “I don’t know what to think.”

They sat in silence, jolting each time another window broke, or the sounds of groaning made it through the door. Every so often there was a thump on the door, but the infected didn’t seem to put much effort into trying to get in. “Those poor people,” Sophia said, her arms wrapped around herself. They sat, lost in their own thoughts as the hours dragged by. “Hamish, get some sleep, you’ve been run off your feet for days.” Charles passed him a pillow and waved in the direction of the mattresses he’d arranged behind some shelving. “Thanks Charles, but I don’t think any of us are going to get much sleep.” “It’s worth a shot.” Hamish took the proffered pillow and lay down with his hands over his eyes. How on earth had it come to this? He evened out his breathing in an attempt to relax, and just as he felt he was slowly drifting off to sleep the ringing of the sat phone jolted him up.

Sophia tossed it to him and he connected. “Doctor Hamish Macleod.” “Doctor, my name is Major Steven Jackson. I’m aboard a helicopter bound for your location. We should be landing in two hours. What can you tell us?” “Hello Major. I can’t tell you much more than you already know. We have infected undead in and around the clinic. We are barricaded in a room in the north-west corner of the building. I think you’ll need to come in and get us.”

“Have you had any contact with the infected?” “None of us have been bitten, and we’re all vaccinated. I managed to stop a couple of them a few hours ago with a shinty stick so it doesn’t appear too difficult to stop them.” “And you think they’re definitely already dead and are now undead you say?” “Well some of them are, there are probably a number of people in the community who are infected who are not yet dead, and some who have died that haven’t yet returned from the dead, but most importantly there are people out there who haven’t been infected at all. We need to help those people Major.” “Our orders are to get you and your team out safely first Doctor Macleod. We’ll then be given further orders on how to contain the situation.” “Major, what does that mean?” “It means we’re coming for you soon Doctor. Stay where you are, our squad will come in to get you. Be ready to run in two hours.” The phone line went dead.
“They’re not going to help the community are they?” Sophia asked. “I don’t think so. I think something terrible is going to happen.” “This is messed up Hamish.” “I know. They’ll be here in two hours, we need to make sure we can run with what we need to take with us. Let’s divide up the files and samples now to make sure we can all carry what we need.”

“Sophia, did you happen to get our passports?” Charles asked. She smiled at him, “of course I did Charles. But I think they’d let us go even if we didn’t have them.” “True, I just didn’t fancy having to go out to grab them with Hamish’s stick thing.” They busied themselves with sorting out the files and organising samples into thick bags that they could run with. There was nothing to do but wait.

The steady thumping of the chopper’s blades rose from a distant beat to a roar. They stood up and grabbed their bags. “Everyone ready?” Hamish looked at his colleagues, so calm under pressure, like this was any other emergency evacuation they’d experienced before. “Ready Doctor Macleod,” Sophia said with a small smile. “Ready boss,” Charles’s teeth barely showed through his smile. “Ok, now we just wait for the signal.” “Did he say what the signal would be?” “No, but I think we’ll know it when we hear it.”

The sound of gun fire rang out across the dawn, and it was a constant sound. “My god, it sounds like they’re mowing them down,” Charles said. “They’re probably trying to clear a path to get in.” The gun fire slowed down with what sounded like more targeted pops every few seconds. They could hear heavy boots making their way through the clinic. Hamish banged on the door and shouted. “We’re in here; follow the sound of my voice.” “Doctor Macleod, we’re just clearing the rooms, we’ll be with you shortly,” a voice called back. More pops of gunfire burst out, along with voices yelling “clear.” There was a banging on the door, accompanied by the same voice. “Ok, open up Doctor.”

Hamish slid back the bolt and looked into the face of a soldier. “Follow me sir.” The soldier turned and jogged down the hall, and they followed him in single file. Hamish watched the soldiers stationed at each window pointed out, and noticed more in the yard outside, surrounding the helicopter. “Oh my god,” Sophia cried. Strewn throughout the clinic and across the yard were the grey bloodied bodies of the infected. “Into the first chopper please,” the soldier shouted. They ducked their heads and ran towards the first of two helicopters that had landed in the yard. A large man reached out a hand to pull them each in. “I’m Major Jackson. Glad to see you’re safe and sound Doctor.” “Thank you Major, it’s good to see you. What happens now?” “Now, we fly you to the capital and put you on a plane. There’s nothing more for you to worry about now, you’re safe.” 

Hamish let his head fall back into the seat and looked at Charles and Sophia, both who looked relieved and worried in equal measure.  As the helicopter lifted off the ground slowly, Hamish looked down to the clinic that had been his home, to the bodies on the ground, and as they climbed higher, to the people standing outside their huts watching the helicopter leave. “Major, those people down there, they’re not all infected. They need to be evacuated until the virus is contained.” “Don’t worry Doctor, the virus will be contained. Get some rest; we’ve got a couple of hours ahead of us.” The tone in his voice meant that there was to be no further discussion. Hamish looked out the window and watched the second helicopter lifting off and was horrified when seconds later, small explosions rocked the ground below.

“What’s happening, what are you doing?” he screamed at Major Jackson. He watched as more and more balls of fire exploded around the village. “They’re innocent people, you can’t do that.” Hamish was hysterical as he watched the world erupt into flames below him. “The virus had to be contained Doctor. There was no other way.” Hamish looked to Sophia and Charles, both of whom had tears streaking their cheeks. There was nothing to be said, and they sat in angered silence for the rest of the journey. As the sun rose around them the two helicopters banked towards civilisation, a civilisation that Doctor Hamish Macleod had major wasn't sure he wanted to be a part of anymore.  

Twenty four hours later as Doctor Hamish Macleod sat with Doctor James Waldorf in Atlanta to work through the samples that had made the journey with him from the jungle, he mindlessly rubbed a small graze on his left arm. At the same time in a small central American country a short flight away, the dirt that had been piled onto the grave of Maria de Silva’s cousin stirred ever so slightly.


So there you have it - always leave it open for a sequel I say! If anyone else participates in the challenge, please leave a comment with a link to your story.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Patient Zero - Part 1.

As promised, here's my contribution to the Aid Zombies challenge. It's 5,000 words and is pretty quick and dirty, but there was a story to tell so I wrote it down as quickly as I could. It's not grand literature, but I hope you'll get a kick out of it. So without any further ado...

Patient Zero

Dr Hamish Macleod wiped the sweat off his brow. The humidity was stifling and not for the first time since his arrival two months prior he wished he was back home in the Isle of Skye. He washed his face at the tap stand and let the water run over his head, washing off another stressful day. The MSF clinic was full to capacity, with a long line of people waiting at the entrance. “Hamish, I need your help.” He shook the water drops from his head and turned to face Sophia Martinez, the senior nurse. “What’s up?” “We’ve got another one. Anxiety and partial paralysis.” He hurried back into the clinic to examine the patient. They’d been streaming in for days now, all presenting with the same symptoms which made no sense. A woman in her 30s sat on a chair, breathing shallowly her arms slack by her side. “Her husband says she hasn’t been able to move her arms since last night.” Hamish examined her, talking to her in his basic Spanish and trying to keep her calm. “Como te llamas?” “Maria de Silva,” she said quietly. Knowing that her story would be the same as the other 20 cases he’d seen throughout the day, he turned to Sophia and asked, “diabetes?” “Yes, Type 1, just like the others.” “Please explain to her husband that she needs to keep up her insulin, and to come back tomorrow if there has been no change. And take a blood sample.”

He turned and walked to the office at the back of the clinic. “Charles, how are the insulin supplies?” The logistician looked up from his paperwork and his thick Zimbabwean accent replied, “we’re going to need more soon boss. It’s running out pretty quickly. There’s a boat leaving tomorrow so we’ll put our order in on that, but we won’t get any supplies for about 8 days.” “Is there enough to last?” “Yes, we should be ok.”  “All right, put the requisition together and I’ll sign it off in the morning.”

The rest of the afternoon passed in a blur, with Hamish doling out the same instructions to patient after patient. When the clinic was finally empty and the temperature had dropped, he went for a run to clear his head. The jungle was calming and he ran the route connecting the clinic, the school and the market place. Lungs burning, he stopped by the side of the track to take some deep breaths. Hands on his knees he looked into the greenery beside him and saw the carcass.  The coati was on the small side and he could see no sign of attack from another animal. Thinking it was slightly odd, but very keen for a cold bucket shower, he stood up and started to run. “What could be causing the symptoms we’ve seen today?” he asked himself. He rounded a small bend in the track and came to a halt at another coati carcass. Again, no sign of injury or blood. He nudged it with his foot to turn it over, and there were no signs of trauma. “Oh my god,” he said out loud and sprinted back to the clinic.

“Hamish, are you all right?” Sophia called after him as he ran to the supply room. “I can’t be certain, but I think we’ve got a serious situation on our hands.”  “What’s going on?” He grabbed a sample bag, two masks and four pairs of gloves. “Follow me.” Sophia ran after him, her heart pounding with fear. She saw Hamish slow down and came to a stop beside him, and stared at the dead animal in front of them. “It’s a native raccoon. There are loads of them around here.” “Yes, this is the second dead coati I saw on my run, there’s another one further up the track.” “And what’s the problem with a dead coati?” “First things first, put on a mask and double glove.” She followed his instructions and stared at him in confusion. “What is going on Hamish?” “I went on a course to India last year, on rabies.” “You think we've got rabies here? It’s not endemic at all.” “It’s just a suspicion, but the slight paralysis we've been seeing could be a symptom. I need to get this carcass back to the clinic to take a tissue sample. There’s a boat leaving tomorrow so we need to get this tissue and some of the blood samples to the CDC in Atlanta.”

“Oh holy shit Hamish. That’ll take weeks. It’s 4 days on the boat just to get out of here. Then a flight to the States...we’re not going to know for a couple of weeks. But wait, none of the patients we've seen have been bitten by anything. It can’t be rabies.” “I don’t know. It’s extremely strange. But we need to have confirmation one way or another.”

Hamish didn’t sleep too well that night. An outbreak of rabies would decimate the tiny population. He’d checked the supply room and there was no rabies immunoglobulin, no treatment for anyone who may have been bitten. All MSF staff received a full course of vaccinations before deploying on any mission so he wasn’t concerned for his team. But as the only medical facility in the area he had a responsibility for the community. He tossed and turned until he could no longer pretend to sleep.

He prepared the samples to send to the CDC, carefully packaging them to prevent any damage, and made sure to include the sat phone number on every item. When a finding was made, he wanted to know about it immediately. He documented the cases and outlined his suspicions. At 11am a young boy came rushing into the clinic, tears streaming from his face. He spoke in rapid Spanish to Sophia who gasped and turned to Hamish. “One of the women we saw yesterday is dead. Maria. This is her son. He says she screamed all night that the devil was coming for her, that she was looking at the devil. It sounds like she convulsed and then died.” Hamish swore quietly and moved over to the young boy. He crouched down and told the boy that he was very sorry, and asked if he could come to the house. “Sophia, can you please make sure that Maria’s blood sample is included in the package going to CDC and make sure it gets on the boat? I’m going to examine the body.”

The little boy led the way to a small shack. Women were sat outside, wailing the customary cries for the dead. He nodded at them and entered the house. Maria’s body was laid out on the bed, her arms and legs contorted at unusual angles. Her husband, who Hamish had met the day before, sat quietly on a chair beside the bed. “What happened?” Hamish asked. Ramón numbly described the previous evening how her entire body had been thrashing against the bed. He thought she’d been hallucinating as she’d described seeing strange and scary things. Then suddenly, her screaming had stopped and she was still, but her body remained tense and twisted. He’d checked to see if she was still breathing, but she was already gone. Ramón’s head was bowed. Hamish looked over the body, and noticed the fingers clenched tightly together. His suspicions were growing, but there was nothing that could be done for Maria.

“Ramón, has anyone been bitten by a coati recently?” Ramón paused for a second to think. “Maria’s cousin was visiting from the capital a few weeks ago. He mentioned that a coati had bitten his ankle. But he was ok, he went home again and was feeling fine.” Hamish’s brain made a complicated leap that at a later date he could not recall how it had happened. “Did he have diabetes too?” “Yes, most of us do. Can we bury her now?” “Yes. Of course. Please make sure that anyone who touches Maria washes their hands carefully afterwards.” Ramón didn’t ask for an explanation of his wife’s death, and Hamish didn’t really have an answer for him. He left the man to his grief and walked slowly back to the clinic.

“What are the burial rituals here?” he asked Sophia. “Well, death is celebrated by women. They will wash and dress the body and chant for its safe passage to the afterlife. I don’t know a lot about it Hamish, but I think there’s a type of voodoo involved. You look tired, you should call it a day.” “I’ll be in the office.”
Five days passed, with more cases like Maria’s presenting at the clinic. The body count was mounting and the community was getting angry. They’d had to close the clinic early as Charles was concerned there’d be a riot. Hamish grabbed the satellite phone and called headquarters. “The situation is serious. I haven’t heard anything from the CDC and I need to get in touch with them. What’s the number?” He punched in the number and waited for a connection.

Dr Stephanie Rosenberg was at her desk when the call came through. “Hello Doctor Macleod. No, I haven’t seen the results yet. Let me follow up and I’ll call you back within the hour.” She raced through the labs to find Dr James Waldorf. “James, where are the results from the MSF clinic? The rabies case.” “I’ve been looking at the data for the last half hour. It doesn’t make any sense.  The variant strain is not classical human rabies. There seems to have been a mutation in the virus. The documentation said there’d been no bites noticed on any of the patients, but there is a rare transmission route of non-bite exposure. I’m just not sure how it could have happened.” “You need to call Doctor Macleod, he’s got a riot on his hands and he needs to know.” She passed him a small piece of number with the satellite phone number on it and left the room.

“Doctor Macleod? This is Doctor James Waldorf at the CDC. I can confirm that you’ve got rabies present. It’s a mutation that I’ve never seen before and I just don’t understand how it’s spreading if no bites have been reported. Non-bite exposure is extremely rare, but it’s the only explanation.”
Hamish felt a lump in the pit of his stomach. He knew the answer and there was nothing he could do to help the people of the community.

“There was a bite. A few weeks ago. Nobody reported it and no treatment was given, not even tetanus. There are a large percentage of people in the community who have Type 1 diabetes. They share needles. That’s how it’s spreading.” “You mean there was a bite from the infected animal, that has since been transferred to other humans through the sharing of insulin injections?” “That’s exactly what I’m saying Doctor Waldorf.” “What’s the mortality rate?” “We’ve had 13 deaths in the past six days.” “Do you have any immunoglobulin?” “No, nothing at all.”

“We’ll fly some in for you to dispense to everyone who may be affected. It’s not going to help everyone, but it’s the best we can do for you.” “Thank you Doctor, I just hope it isn’t too late.” A scream came from the room next door. Hamish dropped the phone and wrenched open the door. Sophia was staring at the windows. “What the hell is going on?” she yelled. The clinic was surrounded by people, slapping their arms ineffectively at the windows. “Hamish, look at that woman,” she said pointing at the figure seemingly leading the charge. “It can’t be. I saw her body, she was buried...” he was looking at Maria da Silva. Her eyes weren’t focussed, her skin a shade of grey.

“It’s the voodoo. It must be the voodoo. I’ve heard about this from friends who worked in Haiti. People come back from the dead.” “Come on Sophia, you’re a scientist. This isn’t voodoo. The CDC confirmed it’s rabies but it’s a mutated strain.” “A mutated strain that brings people back from the dead?” He shook his head in shock. This was too much to take. A rabies outbreak that was creating zombies.  He approached the window slowly to examine the bodies on the other side. “Maria? Can you hear me?” There was no response, and he counted twelve others. “13 died correct?” he called to Sophia. “Yes, that’s right.” There was pounding on the back door to the clinic. 

He ran to the door and peered out the window beside it. “Doctor, help me.” He stared at the man at the door, eyes wide and pleading. “Ramón, what happened?” “Maria. Oh my god. Maria...” he switched to rapid Spanish that Hamish couldn’t keep up with. “Sophia, come here quickly. What’s he saying?” She listened for a few seconds. “Maria came back into the house. He thought she had recovered so he hugged her. She bit his neck.” Hamish noticed Ramón’s hand clasped over his bleeding neck. “He’s asking us to help him.” Hamish swore. “There’s nothing we can do. He’s already infected with the strain from sharing needles with his wife, and the bite will just speed things up. You need to explain that we don’t have any treatment for him, and that he should just go home. Tell him that we’ve got help coming in a couple of days, he just needs to hold on.” She spoke to him and Hamish watched his face fall. He turned and walked away from the clinic. “Do you think they’ll get here in time?” “No. But there’s no need for anyone else to know that. We just need to figure out what to do.  Get Charles in here, we need to barricade ourselves in, it’s not safe. I need to call the CDC back.”

Patched through to Doctor Waldorf, Hamish outlined the change of events. “My god. This is incredible, unbelievable.” “James, they’re zombies. There’s no other word for it. The dead have risen and are biting people. The infection is going to spread and I don’t know what we can do.” There was silence on the other end. “James?” “I’m still here Hamish, I’m just trying to take this in. Do you have a safe building where you can sequester yourselves?” “Yes, the medical supply room is the clinic is secure. We’ll just need to grab some food and barricade ourselves in.” “Do that. I need to raise this to the highest levels. The outbreak needs to be contained and your team can’t do that. We might need to send the military in.” “Do what you need to do James, but please keep me updated.” “Of course, stay safe Hamish.” 

Zombie aid worker fiction

It is a truth universally acknowledged that an aid worker in possession of humanitarian fiction must be in want of zombies.

Tales from the Hood has set out a challenge which is a hell of a lot more fun that his last challenge for non-boring aid posts. Zombie aid worker fiction. Ideas started brewing yesterday afternoon, and I've spent today writing instead of working. One of my colleague's first career was as a microbiologist and enjoyed being distracted by me asking questions about transmission routes and laboratory testing. So without naming names, I'm giving her a big shout-out for all her suggestions.

I'm not quite finished it yet, but I will post it here when it's finished (ideally tonight so I can catch up on the work I was supposed to do today tomorrow!!).

Hope you like it! :-)