Ash Shaddadi, the Syrian Governorate of Al Hasakha, December 2017
They crossed the Kahbur River about five kilometres south of Ash Shaddadi at 08:45 the next morning. Ripley had picked up on the mood of the troopers, who seemed lost and subdued in private thoughts. She suspected that these highly trained soldiers had seen last night’s slaughter at first hand and had felt sullied by it. It was one thing to kill or be killed in the heat of the moment, but quite another to be involved in little more than mass murder, administered dispassionately from the sky. She understood how they felt but didn’t share their anxieties. Ripley had stared into her own heart of darkness many times.
The three vehicles took a right fork off the main highway and towards the town. About 500 metres to their right, the river wound through the valley, a relatively luxuriant course of orange groves and some habitation. As they passed a petrol station, three bodies were strung up from the sign by their necks, gently swaying in the breeze. They had been disembowelled and the carrion crows that had been pecking at the entrails took flight. It seemed fairly obvious that the Yazidis had wreaked their revenge on their ISIL persecutors. The troopers stared at the bodies grimly. This would make their job more difficult, knowing that the Jihadists left in the town would now fight to the death.
Ripley looked away, preferring to watch the elegant Egrets that rose up from the river and skimmed across the stumpy trees as a distant explosion startled them. She had seen the blood spattered and machine gun riddled walls, where the captured members of ISIL had been summarily executed. Their bodies left in ragged piles for the wild dogs. Less than a week before this road had been lined with the bodies of crucified and impaled Yazidis women. This level of barbarity was not only accepted, but it was expected and the hypocritical politicians in Whitehall were involved in fighting a proxy war against Russian domination of the Eastern Mediterranean, wrapped up as a “War against Daesh.” For every single member of the Special Forces involved in operations in Syria and Iraq, there were ten logisticians, medics, engineers and other support personnel who were required to enable this level of involvement. Halward’s patrol may have been the “Combat boots on the ground,” but there were many other “boots” on the ground in many other places.
The Supacats followed the Canadian GMV into an almond grove that surrounded a small clump of single-storey buildings. Camouflaged under netting were four American Desert Patrol Vehicles (DPVs). The vehicles pulled in under the trees and the troopers began to camouflage them while Halward and Caron went up to the waiting US Special Forces Operational Detachment Delta. They shook hands and made their introductions.
A Delta Team major who introduced himself as Thiago Martinez shook Halward’s hand warmly, “Good to have you and your boys on board, Paul. Always a pleasure to see you Hereford guys.”
A lieutenant and two sergeants nodded at the Brit politely. Halward explained to them as much as he could regarding their mission and both the Americans and the Canadian officer were astounded.
“You sure it was here? We’ve found no signs of anything of that nature,” Major Martinez said with a degree of scepticism.
“But you weren’t looking and there would be precious little of it left,” Halward pointed out and then pulled a ruggedized electronic tablet from a cargo pocket, which he fired up. He went through the images he had downloaded from the satellite comms link from a couple of days previously.
“We want these three individuals, alive. They may not still be here but they were. So we need real bodies with a pulse and a voice who can talk to my “interpreter.” We need a lead and we need every single piece of data holding electronic equipment we can get our hands on, cameras, cell phones, anything.”
Mike Caron shook his head, “Dammit Paul, I thought you guys were here to help us.”
“We are. My men, firepower and vehicles are at your disposal, as long as we are not diverted from my prime directive. The Prime Minister and Defence Minister wouldn’t be very happy.” Halward grinned to show that he cared very little about the happiness states of here today, gone tomorrow politicians.
The Delta Team Major suggested that they move to their headquarters building, again a single storey but festooned with satellite dishes and aerials on the roof. Inside was a duty signaller wearing earphones, over watching the hum of electronic communications equipment. He glanced up as the group entered, acknowledged his major, then went back to his e-book.
“OK, Paul. I’ll fill you in with the current situation and the constraints we’re operating under,” Major Martinez told Halward, referring to a large aerial reconnaissance photograph that dominated one of the walls, “Firstly, we haven’t been able to take Ash Shaddadi in its entirety, as the ISIL fighters are well dug in. They’ve learned that their vehicles and heavy weapons get a swift response from our Air, and bombing has made the centre of the town a great defensive position for them; think Monte Casino and Stalingrad.”
“Or Caen?” Halward observed.
“Yep, you’ve got it. Plus they’ve been busy little cockroaches, digging a network of tunnels to pop up behind our forward lines. Before we got here the Kurdish fighters and the Yazidis cleared the suburbs and were not very nice to any of the Jihadists they captured, particularly their women. While I can’t say that I blame them, it’s made it more difficult because they know what’s coming to them. They can’t go anywhere, so this is their last stand in these parts. You’ll find that taking prisoners to interrogate will be problematic.
“Second, we have external dynamics to factor in regarding the Iranians. I’m hoping that last night’s show of force will make them think twice about interfering, but if the Iranians come here in any significant numbers, they will become my priority over and above ISIL. The same goes for the Turks and the Russians. That’s my directive.” Currently my teams are getting excellent service support and there’s about sixty guys based at an airstrip we enabled, a couple of clicks to the southeast. It can operate C130s or even at a push, C17s if I need to get heavier equipment in. It also means I can get casualties out to Batman where our field hospital set up is located.”
Halward already knew this from his pre-deployment briefings at the Directorate Special Forces.
“Thirdly, there’s our troops, meaning the locals. This side of the river we have mainly Yazidis while my Captain, Hal Nolan on the eastern side has mainly Kurds. You’ll meet him this evening. They are all good soldiers, brave as lions and at least the Kurds and Yazidis will tolerate one-another for the time being. But they have their limitations. They break off contact to deal with prisoners and will shoot them out of hand. They absolutely hate the ISIL fighters and I can’t even begin to understand the dynamics of the different strains of Islam in operation out here. If they don’t agree with a task we give them, they won’t bother doing it. We really could do with war dogs to clear the buildings and tunnels, but they won’t accept dogs because they consider them to be…”
“Haram?” Halward suggested.
“Yeah, that’s it. To be honest I find their levels of barbarity to the jihadists to be quite sickening, although I do understand the reasons behind it, after the way their wives, mothers and children have been enslaved and raped. Even the boys. But it makes our job difficult and the violence is counter-productive. We’ve even had to fend off demands from the Human Rights Watch to investigate allegations of war crimes committed by the Kurds and Yazidis. It’s a shame the bastards weren’t demanding to come here a couple of years back, when ISIL was running the show. But isn’t it always the case?”
Halward nodded in agreement and thought about the persecution of British veterans for alleged “historic war crimes.” At least the Americans would never be so stupid and craven to allow that to happen to their veterans.
Martinez continued, now he was in his stride, “And while I’m delighted that your boys are here, you add a new dynamic to an already complex set of interdependencies. How can I put this as delicately as I can..?”
Halward put him out of his misery, “We’re Brits and everybody hates the Brits. It doesn’t matter. We spend a lot of time hating ourselves and as my chaps would say: We’re the Brits, we’re the pits and we don’t fucking care.”
The American major smiled, “Now Mike here would be aghast that anyone could hate the Canucks.” Caron gave a slight frown, “But we’re beginning to learn and grow a thicker skin.”
“What do you suggest, Thiago? That we run a popularity contest and kill the fatted calf for our Babylonian allies?”
Martinez looked at the British officer, trying to ascertain if he was on the receiving end of British irony, “Now that’s not a bad idea, Paul. We could invite the main players and introduce your team and those Mad Max Wagons. As for the fatted calf, I believe your field rations are pretty good. Maybe killing the fatted calf isn’t such a bad idea.”
“OK, but I thought you considered our food to be bland, tasteless and repetitive.”
“We’re on MREs, Paul. Or as I believe you Brits call them “meals rejected by Ethiopians.” There’s plenty of birds down at the river to supplement the rations and I’ll ask the locals to bring some bread.”
Halward had done this so many times and in so many places in the past, from African tribesmen to Bolivian soldiers. A sure way of gaining trust, that had held good throughout the history of mankind, was to sit down and share a meal.
“All right, we’ll see what we can throw together. I’ll have a word with my catering officer, Gordon Ramsey. He might be a bit sweary for your sensitivities, but he can produce a pretty decent stew.”
Halward had a think about who was the best cook and Signaller Carson immediately sprang to mind. He had cooked the meal on Sunday and they were still alive, although Ripley had a close call. Then he thought of Ripley, who would be an excellent cultural advisor, but she would hate him for it. He smiled and suddenly realised just how important this puzzling woman had become to them and to him especially. Carson had immediately protested, albeit slightly too much, secretly pleased he had been entrusted with such a culturally sensitive task.
Then his thoughts turned to fish and fowl. He doubted there would be much success in catching fish, but he knew there would be ducks and geese down by the river. Shooting them would be the best option, but apart from the noise there would be precious little left of a bird after supersonic cavitation from a high velocity round. The medic Doctor Shipman, AKA Corporal Roberts was a dab hand with the Helstrom .22 silenced pistol, colloquially known as the “Hush Puppy.”
“Mr Shipman, I have a task of the utmost importance for you.”
Roberts looked at him suspiciously.
“Could you please go down to the river with the “Hush Puppy” and shoot six ducks, or four geese, or any of the combination of the above as you see fit. They are to be eaten tonight at a feast, to which you are cordially invited, so could you please ensure there is enough of them left to eat.”
“Or geese, or both.”
“Are you having a laugh, boss?”
“No, Shippers. Your mission is of the upmost importance.”
Next he sought out Ripley, who was sitting in the shade under the almond trees, darning a pair of socks. They weren’t hers.
“Ripley, I am in need of your cultural knowledge and expertise. How do you feel by the way?”
“Tired and sore, plus the antibiotics have given me the runs.”
“In which case, you’ll need to wash your hands.”
He explained what Major Martinez had discussed with him, the taking of the town and the cultural dynamics of the various factions, “So I was wondering if you could give “Frank” Carson a hand in putting together a menu, you knowing what they can eat, what is and isn’t permissible.”
“Are you being bloody serious?”
“Please, Ripley. For me.”
“And because I’ve got a pair of tits, you immediately thought of kitchens and white goods, like I was some dusky version of Delia Smith?”
“Well you are darning socks. Besides, Nigella Lawson was busy smearing herself with chocolate and Nadiya Hussain hasn’t finished baking fairy cakes for the BBC crew.”
“As James Ellis would say: you’re all a bunch of bastards. What are you thinking of cooking for them?” she said with a sigh, realising that further protest would be futile.
“Well, if you could go through the various ten-man ration packs and rule out anything that would cause a diplomatic incident, like bacon grill or sausages. And the best way to prepare ducks or geese.”
Ripley looked at him sharply, “Water birds are a bit iffy. The problem is that water fowl fall between birds of the air and birds of the land. And they have webbed feet, so I’m not really sure. We never used to eat them, although I don’t think they’re haram. Plus there’s a major problem with ducks.”
“They are just too bloody cute to kill and eat, despite their being notorious rapists.”
“Ripley, are you still a little delirious?”
“Duck rape is very common in the avian world. At least three-quarters of all duck-on-duck action is forced and the males have a corkscrew penis. The males aren’t too bothered, any time, any place, anywhere is their motto.”
“Where the hell do you learn these things, Ripley?”
“I read a lot to stave off the boredom. How are you killing them?”
“I’ve sent Doctor Shipman down to the river with a Hush Puppy.”
“They must be killed by a Muslim.”
“I saw you do it myself, you duck murdering bitch.”
“Do you want my help or not?” she asked.
“Sorry, do go on.”
“It’s best to grill them over an open fire to get rid of the fatty taste, and smother them with paprika. I know you all carry herbs and spices to make the compo crap taste better. I certainly do.”
Halward beamed at her, “You’re a brick, Ripley. “Frank” Carson will be glad of the advice. On another subject, we need to have a chat, tomorrow first thing, if you’re available.”
“If we don’t all have food poisoning.”
She found Carson and the two of them went through the menus of the ration packs, “Main meals A and E are the most promising. Forget the stew and dumplings, stodgy crap. The chicken in white sauce is as tasteless as wall paper paste, but ask the boys for some tabasco sauce or curry powder to liven it up. The rice is easy, just wash it first until the water runs clear, then boil gently over a low heat in a sealed container, fifty-fifty rice and water by volume. About twenty-five minutes and throw in some nuts and pressed dates. There’s bound to be some around, preserved in jars.
“The best way to cook the duck is over an open fire pit. Can you pluck and de-gut the birds?”
“Good. Smear the half birds with plenty of paprika and cook them on the sand tracks so the fat can drain away. They will prefer the birds to be slightly overcooked from how you would eat duck. No pinkness. And most importantly, tell everyone to eat only with their right hands and don’t face the soles of your boots to our guests when you’re sitting on the ground. The best way is to kneel back on your heels like the Japanese Geishas.”
“Can’t you help me, Ripley? You’ll be here tonight won’t you?”
“Sorry, Frank. It’s a boys’ only do tonight. I’ve got my chicken with dahl ration pack, a nicely chilled bottle of prosecco and Eastenders on the telly. Harold Shipman will be bringing in the ducks, he’ll give you a hand.”
The embers of the fire glowed, fanned by a sudden breeze. The light lit the faces of the men around the fire pit, generally happy and well-sated after an excellent meal. Carson and Roberts had done them proud and only the carcasses of the birds and a few pieces of bread remained. Even the rice, which if anything had been slightly puddingish had gone down well, thanks to the inclusion of dried fruit and nuts. The grownups, including the Kurdish and Yazidi leaders were listening to Major Martinez through an interpreter. They were drinking green tea and some were smoking.
James Ellis stood up discreetly, picked up his carbine and patted Carson on the shoulder, “Nice one, Frank.”
He moved back into the shadows and sniffed the night air, as though searching for something, or someone. He found her sitting under the trees with her carbine, watching out to the road south.
“What you doing, Ripley? We missed you.”
“I’m doing what women in this part of the world have done for centuries. I’m being invisible.”
He sat down next to her and she explained: “Mr Hogan asked me if I wouldn’t mind just keeping an eye out, a kind of unofficial stag. The D-boys have put out a screen. I’m the forlorn hope.”
“You sound a bit dejected, Ripley.”
She sighed, “I do feel like that sometimes, but my mood is more… Reflective you could say.”
He nestled in next to her and she smiled in the darkness.
“What’s your real name?”
“I thought I’d told you. When we’re going home, not before.”
James looked at her profile and she turned to face him.
“I’ve decided that I don’t like Ripley,” he told her earnestly, “Now don’t get me wrong, Ripley is a great character and the younger version of Sigourney Weaver is definitely worth a squirt. So is the current version come to think of it, but she doesn’t even begin to do credit to your allure and enigmatic charms.”
“James, were they serving alcohol at the feast, or have you caught what I had?”
“I have decided that henceforth you shall be known as Scheherazade. It will be known only to us and shall be our secret.”
“Are you referring to Scheherazade of One Thousand and One Nights? You have been drinking. Where does this come from, James?”
“Because, according to Sir Richard Burton, not he of Broadsword calling Danny-Boy fame, like yourself she had studied philosophy and the sciences, arts, and accomplishments; and she was pleasant and polite, wise and witty, well read and well bred. And like Scheherazade, you never finish the bloody story and keep me wanting much more.”
She chuckled and playfully nudged him, “That is a slightly odd, but agreeable thing to say to me. In which case, you shall henceforth be my gallant Sir Tristan the most noble, kindly and this bit is important, the most chaste of the knights.”
“I don’t mind being chased, I just wish that you’d catch me,” Ellis sighed, “I’ll take over stag if you want to get your head down. To sleep that is.”
Ripley stood up and stretched. She crouched back down and kissed Ellis on his cheek, “Good night and thank you, my gallant and kindly Sir Tristan.”
As she walked back to the vehicles and her hammock bed, Ripley decided that she actually preferred Sir Lancelot du Lac and thought about giving James Ellis an upgrade. She had rather missed the point that Sir Lancelot would eventually tear apart and destroy the Round Table.
© Blown Periphery 2019
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file