The Syrian Governorate of Al Hasakha, December 2017
Halward had spent a long time on the satellite comms link the previous night, as it took a considerable amount of time for the data-heavy image and video files to go through the data link. Part of the transmission was a verbatim transcript of the interrogations that Ripley had conducted the previous day. The hardware such as the phones USB sticks and DVDs were locked in an empty mortar rounds box and driven to the US airstrip, where they would be collected by a C130 of No 47 Squadron’s SF Support Flight that evening. From Turkey they would be couriered by Special Operations Falcon to Staverton Airport near Gloucester and within the hands of GCHQ within nine hours.
The troopers were conducting checks on the Supacats as they were preparing to move yet again. After breakfast, Ripley decided to interrogate the Egyptian for a second time and she spent a long time sitting on her own, working out how to approach the encounter. Every interrogation was a battle of wills, where either side could exploit weaknesses in the other. Generally she found physical violence to be counter-productive, unless she was dealing with arrogance born of ideology. In those cases it was important to disorientate and humiliate the subject quickly, so that she or he realised that they were approaching the encounter from a weakened position. Unlike the subjects of her attention, Ripley abhorred the use of pain and violence. She had allowed her disgust and anger of the murders of the Yazidi women and girls to rule her usually analytical approach. She thought about it for a long time and then considered what James Ellis would have thought of her.
Why the hell are you worrying about what James Ellis thinks of you?
I don’t know.
It’s not as though what he thinks is important. You’ve got a job to do. Get on with it!
It’s just that…
Just what? Are you losing your touch?
I don’t think so.
What do you think that Egyptian would do to you if your roles were reversed?
That’s not the point.
Ripley decided that she would play the softer approach. She looked around for Ellis, but he was away with Hogan at the airstrip. She found Grayson pretending he was busy folding up the parachute. He had been doing it for some ten minutes.
“Larry, could you do me a favour and stand outside the door while I talk to the Egyptian inside please?”
Grayson nodded, “Will I need earplugs?”
“I hope not.”
She wrapped the hijab over and round her head so only her eyes were showing and opened the door. The prisoner’s hands were tied in front of him and he looked away when she squatted next to him. The stitches in her thigh hurt from when Jamie Cairns had re-done them last night.
“May the blessing of His Name descend upon you,” she said formally.
He remained silent.
“Najjar, do you consider yourself to be morally superior to me? Do you believe that because I am a woman, you are better than me?”
He was breathing more quickly and still wouldn’t look at her.
“Najjar, I really don’t want to hurt you or even humiliate you, but before Allah, you will cower before me and I will be the last thing you will see before you die, killed at the hands of a woman, unless you speak to me.”
He slowly turned his head, “What do you want?”
“Yesterday you said to me: In the desert, in the desert. Do you know where the British pilots are buried?”
“Only the man. They said they took the woman somewhere else.”
“Where and was she still alive when they took her?”
“They said they took her to Raqqa. She was still alive, but later Kirmani said she died on the way and they threw the body in the Euphrates. She was very sick. You must understand that I wasn’t here then. I had nothing to do with it.”
“She was sick of disease or sick because they had tortured her?” He remained silent, which told her everything she needed to know, “You said you would show us where the male pilot was buried. How do you know where he is laid to rest?”
“Kirmani showed me the place when we drove past it.”
“Will you show us?”
“Yes, in return for my life.”
“Interesting that you bargained with your life and not the life of your wife, Salib. Are you a father, Najjar?”
“No, but Salib is with child.”
“I see, so you are bargaining with your life against those of your wife and your unborn child.”
She stared at him until he looked away. Ripley stood up and opened the door.
“You are a worthless piece of fucking shit, Najjar.”
Ripley sought out Halward who was negotiating with Martinez for some additional cans of diesel fuel. She hovered in the background until they finished the serious bloke stuff and walked up to them.
“Good morning, Major Martines.”
“Thiago, please. Paul tells me you’re on your travels.”
“See, they never tell me anything. I just do their housework.”
“We’ll be sorry to see you go,” Martinez said sincerely, “It’s been a pleasure to meet you, Ripley. Please look after yourself.”
They watched him walk away.
“It’s a long shot,” Halward told her, “The Coalition took the town a couple of months ago and I reckon the trail will have gone really cold.”
“The Egyptian told me where the pilot’s buried. He said the navigator died when she was being taken to Raqqa and they threw her body in the Euphrates.”
Halward sighed and put his arm on her shoulder, “I’m sorry, Ripley. They murdered her. We watched all of the video and it was the most God-awful thing I’ve ever seen. I can’t begin to describe what they did to that poor, young woman. They tried to take her to Raqqa, but their high command knew that she was too hot to handle and that they were in the shit. They tried to cover up that they ever had her so she was thrown into Lake Assad from the dam with breezeblocks tied to her feet. She was still alive when they threw her off the parapet of the dam.”
“Ohh please, no. So why didn’t the bastards get rid of the video evidence?”
“Because I reckon that Kirmani liked watching it too much. It’s just porn for them.”
Ripley ripped off her hijab and moved away, walking down towards the river.
“Ripley, don’t go too far.”
She sat down on the scrubby grass under the trees and watched the light of the morning sun glistening off the lazy water. Already clouds of small insects swooped and swayed above the pools at the edge of the river. Like microscopic murmurations of starlings. There was no Persian leopard and her cubs to lift her soul that morning.
“Damnation and fuck to all of your gods, whatever guise they might appear in. Fuck all of your prophets, priests, saints and deities. May you all rot in the hell that you created.” she said out loud and slammed the butt of her C8 into the ground.
“Could I please ask you to refrain from abusing that delicate piece of kit? After all, it is your carbine. There are others like it, but that one is yours.”
“Leave me alone, James.”
He sat down next to her, not close and he too stared at the river.
“I thought you had gone to the airstrip with Mr Hogan.”
“Indeed I did and now I’m back,” He handed her the hijab.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever wear it again. I don’t want to have any association with these bastards.”
Ellis sighed, “Ripley, would you please stop being a martyr. Do you think you’re the only one who finds all of this overwhelmingly bloody awful? You don’t have a monopoly on emotions, luv.”
She stared at him angrily, “I thought that you would understand of all people.”
“You got any cigarettes left, Ripley?”
“Why, so you can scrunch up the packet?”
“No, because I want one.”
“I didn’t know you smoked,” she said in surprise.
“Sometimes, mainly on ops and at Christmas. I decided to stop doing it because I’m beginning to feel age creeping up on me. But you’ve pissed me off so much, I’m going to smoke one of yours.”
“Well I want one as well.” Ripley said petulantly.
“I can’t stop you. But it means you will have broken your promise to me.”
She delved inside her body armour and into an inside pocket of her smock, then tossed the packet to him. It felt slightly warm from her body heat. She gave him the battered zippo lighter.
“Marlboro Lights? You bloody girl.”
“I thought I was a girl,” She pulled the front of her body armour open and peered down, “Yep, there they are. Definitely girly bumps.”
“Can’t say I’ve noticed.” He lit one and inhaled deeply, “Mmmmmmmm. It doesn’t matter how long it’s been, you always enjoy the first one.”
They sat in silence while he smoked and she couldn’t stand the craving and had to yap. “You keep asking me questions, but what about you, James?”
“Too boring.” He told her.
“I want to know. Are you married?”
He laughed, “Nobody would have me.”
“I would,” she said quietly, “Please, James, let me have a drag. Just one.”
He gave her the cigarette and she took a tentative draw, not wishing to start coughing. Ripley picked up the packet and the zippo and handed the cigarette back to James, then took her carbine. She stood up and went to head back to the laager and James continued to sit, watch the river and finish the cigarette, which was deeply unsatisfying after the initial nicotine rush. He thought she had gone, but then he felt her kneel down behind him. She reached both her arms round him, hugged him very tightly and put her head on his shoulder. And then he knew. They both did.
They headed out at 10:30, the Yazidi pick-up truck leading with the two Supacats following at a well-spaced interval. The Americans formed a little group and waved at them as the SF vehicles headed out to an uncertain future. Initially they followed the road to the north, which in turn followed the river, but then the pick-up continued north at a right handed bend in the main road, following a small track across a wadi towards a miserable clump of stunted trees. The pick-up halted and the four Yazidis got out, dragging the Egyptian. Halward and Ripley went with them while the troopers went into all round defence and manned the support weapons.
They walked cautiously towards the trees, following the men from the pick-up. Ripley suddenly shuddered.
“What’s the matter?” Halward asked.
“This is a place of death.”
The Egyptian led them a short distance into the copse and pointed between two trees. He said something and Ripley translated, “The pilot is buried here.”
Halward studied the ground carefully and noticed an oblong depression, “That is a grave.”
“Yes. Disturbed earth settles down to take up less volume after a time. I know that sounds counter intuitive, but it’s almost always the case. In the Chilterns there are still traces of First World War training camps and the trench systems that were dug to simulate the Western Front.
Ripley looked bitterly at the Egyptian, who turned away, “Do you intend to dig and make sure?”
He shook his head, “No way. This entire area needs to be investigated by a forensic team with specialist equipment. We’d just contaminate any evidence. We’ll mark the exact position on GPS and I’ll send a report tonight. Can you thank the Yazidis and we’ll press on. I’ve got orders to visit somewhere else before we double back to Raqqa.” He had no intention of ever telling her how the pilot was killed.
Ripley said their goodbyes and the two of them walked back to the Supacats The Yazidis watched them and waved as the SF vehicles headed back to the road in two dust plumes. They watched them for several minutes until the trucks disappeared from sight, and then they shot the Egyptian. They left his body lying where it fell, lit up some cigarettes and went back to the pick-up. The Chechen and the French woman were already dead.
On the road east out of Al Hasakah there was a low and rugged range of hills to their right, about five kilometres away from the road. Following the GPS, Halward ordered them to swing right off the highway and the two vehicle traversed a rough and rocky route until they dipped down into a dry wadi. They headed south east, following the water course that would be fed by the runoff from the hills. After about three kilometres they rounded a twist in the wadi and saw ahead scattered wreckage.
The vehicles halted and the troops deployed with Roberts and Cohen manning the .50 Cal. Ripley craned forward to get a look and saw that the wreck was what remained of a helicopter that was on its side. Halward said: “Come on. Let’s take a look, but don’t touch anything.
She jumped down and the two of them went on ahead cautiously. Halward had his electronic tablet ready to take photographs.
“They asked me last night to have a look and make some images, so they can pull all the threads together. I shouldn’t think that much will be left after three years and all the water that’s run through this wadi during the winters.
“Do you remember I said that on the night the Tornado went down, they tried to mount a CSAR operation to get the aircrew out? Well it was too late. The aircraft was shot down by a Stinger missile that had been provided by the CIA to one of the factions that were supposed to have been on our side, whatever that means. The crew were unlucky enough to eject over a sizable ISIL force back on the main road. Their PLBs were still squawking, so they knew where the crew were.
“They mounted a quick and dirty CSAR Op from Turkey, but there was no over watch AWACS on station. Two helicopters were sent but they landed in this wadi, which was swarming with ISIL fighters. They lost one of the helicopters to an RPG and three of the team were killed. They managed to get the wounded and the bodies out on the second chopper, but by then the Op had gone totally tits-up. By the time they stood up a second CSAR team, the aircrew were in Ash Shaddadi. The rest we know only too well, unfortunately. I don’t think there are any mines.”
Halward pointed at a flock of wild goats who regarded them disdainfully. Nevertheless, Ripley scanned the ground before putting down her feet. There were still some empty cartridge cases scattered around with larger pieces of aluminium, some still bearing signs of interior green paint.
“There must have been one hell of a firefight here.”
“There was,” Halward replied taking a number of photographs with the tablet.
There seemed little else to do once they had combed the area and they headed back to the Supacats.
“What an awful, depressing day this has been so far,” Halward said with some bitterness.
“I suppose so,” Ripley seemed to agree, but there was something else inside her. For the first time in years, she had a feeling that she had almost forgotten. There was a tangible sense of happiness and expectation.
She settled down in her usual place on the camouflage nets against the bulkhead. Frank Carson swung up into the driver’s seat. Doctor Mengele climbed up and went to sit next to her, but he knuckled her head first.
“Shift your arse aside, Ripley.”
Ellis was last on board. He put the Minime across his lap and yelled, “We’re all in boss.”
He barely looked at her. But in that brief, fleeting glance they exchanged everything they needed to know, for now.
CSAR – Combat Search and Rescue
PLB – Personal Locator Beacon
AWACS – Airborne Early Warning and Control
© Blown Periphery 2019