London, Sunday 14th January 2018 – Spooks
It had been a short walk from Vauxhall Cross, across Lambeth Bridge and then north to the Costa Coffee house just off Trafalgar Square. As it was a Sunday morning, it was easy to find a spare table in the café and he sat down with his Americano to read the Daily Star Sunday, a rare treat, instead of the Observer in the Vauxhall Cross headquarters of British SIS or MI6 as it was better known. Alan Bartlett was in no hurry that morning. After his meeting, he would go back to the office, finish a report for the following day and then drive home for Sunday Dinner. He rather hoped it would be lamb.
He looked up as a nondescript man wearing glasses went to the counter to order a double espresso and an almond croissant. He had a slight limp, because he had lost three toes to frostbite, dealing with what was euphemistically called an “incident” at a Russian Antarctic research base some ten years back. He looked over to where Bartlett was sitting and Bartlett gave a slight nod and a smile. He couldn’t help having a rather sneaking liking for Vanya Korovin. The Russian was quite a dour man and seemed to carry a cloak of sadness, as though still mourning the loss of a female Royal Navy officer, he had been partnered with in Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. He rather suspected that Korovin’s relationship with the woman had been slightly more complex than a simple operational association, but it never helped to pry in these matters. He knew that the Russian visited her grave from time to time and lay upon it a single lily, for whatever reason. Vanya Korovin had the most cynical sense of humour of anybody he knew. He was the Military Attaché at the Russian Embassy, Oh and he was a lieutenant-colonel in the Glavnoye Razvedyvatelnoye Upravlenie, perhaps better known as the GRU.
Korovin picked up his coffee and croissant and made his way somewhat awkwardly to the table to sit opposite Bartlett.
“Good morning, Colonel,” Bartlett said in Russian.
“Mr Bartlett. Always a pleasure. Would you care to share my croissant? They are very sweet for my taste since the doctor has identified I am slightly diabetic.”
It sounded as ridiculous as speaking in code, but it wasn’t intended that way. Korovin had a slightly stiff way of speaking.
“You’re most kind.”
The Russian sat down and looked at the headline of the paper on the table, “Assassin Fired Bullet at Queen. Somebody wasn’t doing their job properly, Alan.”
“It was supposed to have happened in New Zealand and it is of course, complete nonsense.”
Bartlett watched in mystified amusement as Korovin stirred three sachets of brown sugar into his espresso. He broke the croissant in half and indicated that Bartlett should take a piece.
“I shall probably go to the National Gallery later,” said the Russian, “I want to see Holbein’s The Ambassadors. I have been told that the painting contains much hidden symbolism and of course, the anamorphic skull portraying the ultimate futility of the ambassador’s mission and death itself.”
“It is beautifully composed,” Bartlett agreed, “It’s best to view the painting close in and from the right. You look down on the skull, which symbolises our own mortality and upwards to the cross, which represents God’s redemption.”
“Why did you want to have this meeting, Alan? Why hasn’t your organisation gone through the normal diplomatic channels?”
Bartlett looked at the woman outside the glass window on the street, she had been on the phone for rather a long time.
“One of yours?” he asked the Russian.
“Naturally. Where is yours?”
“Across the road, busking. He thinks he has a musical bent with the Spanish guitar.”
They both chuckled at the absurdity of it, “I suppose it provides them with a degree of training and I bet they were excited at the prospect of some hands-on experience. Actually, I’ve come with a begging bowl.”
“You want a favour after all the naughty things your politicians and media have been saying about us with regards to the Ukraine?”
Korovin dipped a piece of the croissant in his coffee and munched on it thoughtfully, “This as they say, had better be good, Alan.”
“It concerns RAF Tornado ZV 352 or more specifically, the aircraft’s crew. You will have seen the video clips from Syria?” There had been no official passing of information or any media, but Bartlett knew the Russians had seen it.
“I haven’t seen it and have no wish to. My Staffer Two watched it and said it was the most disgusting and harrowing thing she had ever seen. She is not prone to exaggeration, although I must have a word with her regarding the unfeasibly long use of a cell phone as cover.”
“We want these people, Vanya. And we want them alive if at all possible.”
“May I ask why?”
“My Government want them tried in The Hague for crimes against humanity. They want to send a message.”
The Russian sipped his coffee, pondering on the implications, “I would have thought that a more effective message would be to eliminate them with a drone strike. Why should they be allowed to exist in luxury albeit incarcerated in a very comfortable prison?”
“The politicians propose, we dispose. Now we know that Gamal Kirmani, I take it you’re aware of their names and identities from your “sources,” went home, or what he calls home to Pakistan. We have the Americans and the Pakistani ISI keeping tabs on him, so…”
“Just as a health warning, Alan, be very careful with your dealings with ISI. I have experience of their double-dealing from the past.”
“Double-dealings? I’m profoundly shocked. Not like us, eh? That’s why we have the Americans on board to ensure our Pakistani colleagues maintain a straight course. Now we believe that Daffi Hashmi and Parinoush Mahar slipped away from Raqqa and headed for Ad Dumayr and they were both seen there by our Jewish friends from “The Institute.” Mahar felt that things were getting a bit warm in southern Syria so he crossed into Jordan, posing as a refugee. He is now in Belgium and we are liaising with the Belgium authorities to lift him.”
“How much will your country’s security services miss the expertise of Belgian Intelligence when you finally leave the EU?” Korovin asked cynically.
“About as much as a duck hunter misses an accordion. Of course the situation is further complicated by my political masters wanting him alive. However, we’re confident that we’ll have Parinoush Mahar in our custody, once the diplomatic niceties have been dealt with. Which brings us to Daffi Hashmi, the person we want the most. We have video evidence of his involvement in the murder of the pilot and his torture, rape and subsequent murder of the navigator.
“My begging bowl is very deep, I’m afraid, Colonel Korovin. The Syrian forces control the region in that part of Syria and have virtually surrounded Ad Dumayr. We know the Russian Federation has air assets based at the nearby air base. Here is the request of my government. We currently have a Special Forces team in Raqqa. We would like to move them south to your air base near Ad Dumayr for use as a forward operating base. We then propose to fly this team by CH47 from Cyprus into Ad Dumayr, in order to capture Daffi Hashmi. Once he is in our hands, he will be flown to Jordan for interrogation and then back to the UK while a case is prepared, then onward to The Hague. In order for this to happen, we need the tacit approval of the Syrian regime and of course your cooperation and service support. I do realise that we are asking a great deal of the Russian Federation and that relations between our two countries are strained. However, if it were a Russian aircrew we would offer our full cooperation if you were in our position.”
“But that’s all just platitudes isn’t it, because we aren’t in your position?” Korovin said quietly, “So let me get this straight, your government and media have accused my government of shooting down a civilian airliner and the indiscriminate use of polonium in London, in order to kill a former FSB employee, whom we allowed to leave the country anyway. Every time your creaking IT infrastructure malfunctions, it is a Russian cyber-attack. You have mounted personal attacks on our president and have accused my country of interfering in the US Presidential Election. Your government has criticised our operations in the territory of a vital strategic Ally and now you want our help. You are asking us to allow your special forces to operate in an area we control within a sovereign nation that is engaged in a brutal civil war.
They were both silent for a long time. They both knew that a dynamic far more powerful than politics was gaining momentum.
“All right, Alan, let’s as you say, cut to the chase. What’s in it for us?”
“We have in our possession a number of so-called fighters who are Russian nationals, captured fighting for ISIL. As you are aware, the Russian Federation has provided 3,417 foreign fighters in the Levant, the largest group by nationality. They have provided details of terrorist training locations, future plans and who is supplying the finances and expertise. We are prepared to share that information with you.”
“Information may be useful, but my superiors will want the people as well.”
“Can I get you another coffee?” Bartlett offered.
“A glass of overpriced, fizzy water please. Any more coffee and I will slip into atrial fibrillation,” Korovon replied, somewhat over-dramatically. Bartlett smiled. Because he knew the Russian was something of a hypochondriac. He returned a few minutes later with another Americano and a glass and bottle of expensive, Italian, carbonated water.
“You’re right. It is damned overpriced.
“You can always put it on your expenses, Alan.”
“Our bargaining chips. There may be problems with allowing you to have them rather than their knowledge.”
“We want both them and their knowledge,” confirmed the Russian,” Unlike your government, our politicians don’t indulge in virtue signalling.”
“I will see what I can do.”
“As will I. We will need to see your ATOs, routes, composition of your teams and any eyes on the ground before you go in. I take it your helicopter will require refuelling at Ad Dumayr?”
Bartlett nodded, “It would be useful if you could ask your Syrian friends for a large scale map of Ad Dumayr that shows utilities and building plans, if they exist.”
Korovin finished his water and burped discreetly, “That will be my damned ulcer. I’ll leave five minutes after you.”
Bartlett gave him the newspaper and went out. The woman on the phone looked in through the window and Korovin gently shook his head. Bartlett crossed the road and put some money in the busker’s hat. Five minutes later the busker packed up and left. Korovin went outside and arm in arm with the woman, they walked towards the National Gallery.
Shrivenham (Joint Services Defence Academy and Command and Staff College), January 2018 – More Spooks
A gentleman and a lady in dark suits came to visit Cécile at the Defence Academy the following Thursday. They used one of the syndicate rooms and the two of them faced Cécile, one asking questions while the other made notes. They would swap over on alternate questions. The note taker would carefully watch her face for reactions. It started off easily enough, she was asked about her childhood, if she had been happy and how she had felt and coped with the sudden deaths of her father and brother.
“So you were sent to stay with your Uncle in South Africa. Was that to help you get over the tragedy?” Asked the woman.
“Yes, I believe so. It was my mother’s idea.”
“Did you resent that?”
How the hell could they know?
“Yes, I suppose I did. I felt like I was being got rid of because I reminded my mother too much about her loss.”
“Was your brother your mother’s favourite?”
“Aren’t they always?”
The woman smiled. My God, she is human. She continued: “And your uncle had a very interesting past in Zimbabwe, didn’t he?”
“It was Rhodesia then. He didn’t talk very much about it. He was a Selous Scout, so obviously he couldn’t hang around when Mugabe took power.”
“Was he a white supremacist?”
Because of her appearances in court, Cécile could spot the trap coming, “No, he just didn’t fancy becoming crocodile food in Lake Kariba. The Selous Scouts were not exactly loved by the ZANU Patriotic Front.”
“Did he commit atrocities during the Rhodesian War?” asked the woman.
Cécile smiled because she knew the woman was trying to goad her, “You’d have to ask him and good luck with that. As I said, he didn’t talk much about it.”
“Are you fond of your uncle, Flight Lieutenant Hammond?” the man asked.
“Yes. He taught me about survival in the Bush, how to shoot with various handguns and rifles, how to drive off-road, how to track animals and how to photograph them.”
“You were a teenager. Were you attracted to him?”
“I was very fond of him. I still am. He was my second father.”
“Was he attracted to you?”
“Not in the sense I think you’re implying.”
And then the subject switched to her finances, without any preamble. They produced copies of her bank statements and mess bills.
“You certainly don’t appear to live a very extravagant life-style, Cécile.”
She shrugged, “I live in the mess. I have everything I need on the base, food, a gym, bars and a library.”
The man held up the copy of the bank statement. Two transactions had been underlined in a highlighter, “Apart from these two transactions, which seem rather a large amount in and out of your account within a few days. £15,000 in and £13,950 out, plus £300 to a shipping company.”
“The £13,950 is to a gunsmith for an antique Purdy side-by-side. The £300 is to ship the weapon to South Africa. It was a birthday present for my uncle. The remainder was spent getting my car serviced and an MOT. You have obviously seen my financial affairs and know that I made a great deal of money as a civilian barrister and that I have considerable savings.”
“That is a very generous gift, Flight Lieutenant Hammond, if I may say so. For your uncle?”
“He collects antique firearms and as I have said, he was my second father.”
Then the questions switched again with no natural pause or break in rhythm.
“Would you describe your sexual relationship with Alec Stewart as a complete disaster, Cécile?”
If she was phased by the sudden searchlight being shone into her past private life, she didn’t show it, “I think you must have a jaundiced view of life and relationships if you think that any past liaison was a complete disaster. We were much younger and we met at university. How many university relationships stand the test of time?”
The woman made a steeple of her fingers and stared at Cécile. “How did you react when you found out he was bisexual?”
“I hit the roof.”
“Nevertheless, you continued with the relationship. Weren’t you worried about sexually transmitted diseases?”
“Of course. But we both took sensible precautions.”
“And you had no compunction with sharing Alec with other men?”
“I had plenty of compunctions, but I still loved him and he was still the person I met at university.”
“And yet it finished?”
“Inevitably, yes it did.”
“Why was that, Cécile?”
“Because I was struggling through my pupillage and he realised he was more homosexual than bisexual.”
“And how did that make you feel?”
She paused and thought about it. She had thought about it a great deal over time, “I suppose it made me jealous and resentful. I wondered if I could have done anything differently.”
“Do you resent the LBGT lifestyle?”
“No. But I resent the unrealistic expectations it causes.”
“Really? That’s an odd thing to say. What makes you think that?”
“In my experience, some gay people are anything but gay and happy.”
“From personal experience?”
“No from knowing people like Alec Stewart intimately, knowing that the paradoxes of the lifestyle create unrealistic expectations and a report in Psychology Today supports my view.”
“But you could say the same about heterosexual relationships, couldn’t you?”
“I would concede that, yes.”
“So you avoid all relationships. Is that why you are resolutely single?”
“I’m resolutely cautious.”
“Do you consider yourself to be a good legal officer, Flight Lieutenant Hammond?” the man asked, wrong-footing her again.
“And yet your Service career wouldn’t seem to support your assumption.”
“It isn’t an assumption, it’s a fact. However, if you had asked: Do you consider yourself to be a successful legal officer, I would have had to answer truthfully, good yes, successful, no.”
“Why do you think you’re still a Flight Lieutenant?”
Cécile thought about the question for a few moments, “Because being good at something doesn’t necessarily make you popular. And perhaps, people who manage careers, don’t think I have the necessary qualities for a senior appointment.”
“People like Air Marshal Pine perhaps?”
Cécile remained silent.
The man’s voice was smooth as he baited the trap, “It was a terribly unfair way to treat you, don’t you think? Potentially you saved him from being accused of committing a war crime.”
“I think the then Air Vice-Marshal had a lot of things on his plate, his being the Air Component Commander at that time,” she replied, skirting it.
“Why do you think he nearly made such a big mistake?”
“I didn’t say that he made a mistake. I advised him and he took that advice.”
“How did a junior officer manage to spot something that an officer of Air Rank missed?”
“Because as I said, he had a lot of things on his plate. He was making his decisions based on photographic reconnaissance imagery. I looked at an old map and noticed that what was assumed to be an oil pipeline and pumping station, was in fact a water pipeline supplying the town. I advised the AVM, sorry Air Marshal accordingly.”
“And he shows his gratitude by red-penning your post operational tour report. It all seems rather unfair to me.”
“I’m sure he had his reasons.”
“You’re not bitter?” the woman asked.
“Life is too short and bitterness destroys the person who feels it, never the person it’s directed against.”
The man smiled and gathered up all the paperwork, putting it in the attaché case.
“Thank you, Flight Lieutenant Hammond. You’ll hear from your desk officer in due course.”
“Is that it?”
“Yes, for now.”
And they left just like that, leaving Cécile a little shell shocked. She realise that she had been sweating so much she could feel the dribbles of perspiration running down between her breasts.
The two of them walked back to their car and sat for a few moments for a brief resume. The woman was driving and her fingers tapped the wheel.
“Smart cookie,” she said, “Smart but prickly.”
“Yes, very intelligent, but there was just something, as though we missed part of her. How are you on heraldry?” he asked and the woman shrugged.
“Dexter, rampant, sinister, that’s about it.”
“What about the term, absconded? Meaning that a charge is entirely hidden by another charge or ordinary being placed upon it, the concealed item is said to be absconded. I got the impression she was hiding something in plain sight.”
They headed west on the A420 and then picked up the A419 to Gloucester.
© Blown Periphery 2019
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file