Cécile passed the language course with considerable effort on her part. The history and culture aspect she found to be relatively easy and she did surprisingly well in written Arabic, but she struggled on the viva voce aspect of the final examination. However, she was a borderline pass and attended the end of course piss-up, where she had to deflect the amorous intentions of some of the course’s male members. It was a pity because one of them, a Royal Marine major was rather nice, but he was also rather married and Cécile did not believe in “detachment rules.”
She was looking forward to helping out in the RAF Courses Department and had been welcomed by the RAF Courses Director.
“Great to have you on board, Cécile. At last we can do the legal bollocks with someone who knows what it all means.”
“By “legal bollocks,” are you referring to the Laws of Armed Conflict, sir?”
“That’s it. You’ll knock ‘em dead, if you can get them to stop dribbling over you.”
But Cécile never got to teach the Law of Armed Conflict on the RAF Junior Officers, Command and Staff Course. An email arrived from her desk officer, instructing her to report to Air Command at 10:00 on the following Tuesday. She set off early from Shrivenham in her Mazda MX5, heading towards London and then turned off towards High Wycombe at Reading. She parked in the car park and then booked in at the gate, showing her authorisation email from her desk officer and 1250 ID Card.
There are three military bunkers in the Chiltern Hills in and near RAF High Wycombe. The bunker at Dawes Hill is now abandoned since the Americans left and the valuable site and its prime land is being sold off to property developers. Headquarters Bomber Command moved from RAF Uxbridge to Walters Ash in the late 1930s, the beech woods of the Chilterns providing natural cover for the building works and the construction of the first bunker. Before its expansion in the 2000s, the site was laid out like three small, haphazard villages with none of the grid-like layout of other RAF stations built in the 1930s. Even some of the buildings resembled a school, village pubs and farm and of course, a Manor House for the Officers’ Mess.
From the bunker, Air Marshals Portal, Pierce, Baldwin and Harris conducted the RAF’s strategic air offensive against Germany and later the Nuclear Defence of the United Kingdom against the Soviet Union. The bunker is now flooded and is too dangerous to enter, which is a national disgrace. A new bunker was built in the 1980s to house Headquarters RAF Strike Command and it was towards this bunker that Cécile walked. She presented her ID card at the gatehouse and signed in, and her mobile phone was taken off her and placed in a box. Then she went down the stairs and through the double anti-blast doglegs. The concrete corridors sloped gently downwards like a drift mine, to the reinforced steel barriers and turnstiles. There was a telephone on the wall and she rang the four digit extension number. A wing commander answered.
“Good morning, sir. This is Flight Lieutenant Hammond and I’m at the bunker turnstiles.”
“Good morning. I’ll send one of my chaps up to collect you.”
While she was waiting, a couple of senior officers came past and after scanning a key card, entered a number. Unsure whether a bunker constituted inside or outside, Cécile saluted anyway. The senior of the two returned the salute and looked her up and down approvingly. He was a member of the two-winged master race.
“Does someone know you’re here?”
“Yes, sir. Somebody’s coming to collect me.”
They went through the turnstile one at a time and disappeared though a large, open, steel blast door. Eventually an RAF Police Flight Sergeant appeared and looked at her.
“Flight Lieutenant Hammond?”
He pushed a key card through the bars, “Swipe it in the box on the wall. When you get a green light, enter the four-digit code on the card. The turnstile should click and then you push through. It can be stiff, so give it a good shove.”
She followed his instructions and he waited for her at the other side of the turnstile.
“Good morning, Ma’am. I’m afraid we have to do some health and safety stuff before we go down, as you haven’t done the bunker familiarisation course. Put this visitor’s pass on and you’ll be escorted at all times. We’ll be going down to one of the CAG rooms on the second floor. So just follow me.
“Now if there’s a fire down inside, things get a bit interesting. Have you ever seen the film Alien?”
“Do you remember when Ripley activates the Nostromo’s self-destruct device and all the klaxons go off? Well it’s a bit like that down there. We have four minutes to exit the bunker and an automated message will count down every twenty seconds, telling us how long we’ve got to get out. You are to follow me, but if you get lost, follow the flashing arrows. The assembly area is on the grass enclosure just to the right of the outer gate you came through. Don’t leave it until all the names have been checked off.”
“Err, what happens if we don’t get out in four minutes, Flight?”
He smiled in a very sinister manner, “There’s a lot of Gucci kit down there, that’s worth a great deal more than the people who operate it. The entire complex gets flooded with inert gas and anybody still down there gets asphyxiated. Any questions?”
“No, I think you’ve covered that quite succinctly, thank you.”
She followed him through the first and then second blast door and they went down a concrete staircase. The silly opening song of Are You Being Served popped into her mind:
Ground floor perfumery
stationery and leather goods,
wigs and haberdashery
kitchenware and food…going down
First floor telephones,
gents ready-made suits,
shirts, socks, ties, hats,
underwear and shoes…going down
Second floor carpets,
travel goods and bedding,
material, soft furnishings,
restaurant and teas. Going down!
“This place is basically a four-storey Faraday cage floating in a shock absorbing cushion of gravel,” the Flight Sergeant told her, “It’s designed to protect whoever’s inside and their kit from a several megaton air burst and a several kiloton ground burst. Whether it would be worth being protected is a pretty moot point.”
They continued down past the doorway into the first level and down two more flights of stairs to the second level. They went through the fire doors and corridors stretched away in front and to their right. There were air and utility conduits on the ceilings and folded bunk beds like those in a ship against the walls.
“Ma’am, the ablutions are at the end of this passage. Do you need to use them before we go in?”
He waited for her while she went into the most stainless steel and utilitarian ablutions she had seen in her life. She knew beyond doubt that she would soon become claustrophobic if she had to stay down there for any considerable time. The air was dry and there was an unmistakable smell of cooked food that permeated the level. She sniffed.
“That will be the canteen. You get used to it, although some people say the forced air overpressure makes them feel a bit queasy,” he said, “This way Ma’am.”
He paused outside a set of doors that had a sign: STRAP Area. Absolutely no admittance if the red light is on. He opened the door and indicated that she should go through, “The boss is inside, Ma’am. I’ll wait out here until you’ve finished, then I’ll escort you for your meeting with COS Ops in A Block.”
Cécile went inside what was a large room with desks running the length of the left wall and two arms off each end of the top table. The top table was raised and had about six high swivel chairs behind it. It was also raised slightly on a podium. The arms had around eight swivel chairs facing inwards and behind these was a second tier of seats against the wall. These were ordinary chairs, the cheap seats. Computer screens and lamps were recessed into the table. The room was dimly lit and the air conditioning made the room feel uncomfortably chilled, despite her jumper. Cécile wanted to fold her arms.
A Wing Commander had been sitting at the end of the far leg and he stood up when she came in and advanced to shake her hand, “Good morning, Flight Lieutenant Hammond. It’s Cécile, isn’t it?”
“Yes, sir,” She noticed that he didn’t tell her his name.
“Please sit down. You can have Met Man’s usual seat.” On the table the lamp was lit and a dark red folder annotated: Op ERUDITE, Top Secret UK, US, Aus, Can Eyes Only was sitting under the lamp. There was also a pitcher of water and a glass on a tray. As she pulled out the chair to sit down, Cécile noticed that a Bag Air Sickness NSN 8105991302180 was sitting discretely on the chair next to her.
“Right, Cécile. Rather than waste time with you’re asking me what the hell this is all about, read the file first and hopefully you’ll understand why you’re here. Then I’ll answer any questions you may have. Finally, if you are up to it, I’ll run a DVD. There aren’t too many enclosures in the file so it should take you around twenty minutes. Don’t worry about memorising people or locations. Once you’ve finished your pre-deployment training, you’ll have your own copy.”
Cécile blinked at him and he smiled, rather sadly she thought and then opened the file and began to read. It took twenty-two minutes because she had to re-read several enclosures, not believing what she had read. The terse writing of the report was every bit as horrible as the grainy images in the file. She finished the last enclosure, put her head in her hands and the Wing Commander reappeared.
“Do you wish to continue?”
“How long have you known about this?”
“With the incontrovertible proof, since December of last year. The film you are about to see was discovered by one of our Special Forces teams operating in Syria. It was their mission and last year was the first time we were able to get a unit in there.
“I must warn you that the film is appalling. If at any time you feel unable to continue to watch it, stand up and I will end it. Then you can leave and there will be no repercussions on you or your career. I will be behind the curtains in the operator’s booth. Are you ready?”
He slipped behind the curtains and a large screen flickered into life. The film images had the same annotation as the file. Unlike Ripley who had watched it five weeks before, she knew she couldn’t leave. Despite their injuries, Cécile instantly recognised Flight Lieutenant Finn Waldrum and Flight Lieutenant Emma Halling. The flickering images seemed to paralyse her body.
She watched in sickened disbelief as Finn Waldrum was torn apart by two 4 x 4s. She watched the five weeks of degradation, torture and sexual abuse committed against Emma Halling, not believing a human body could withstand such cruelty. The digital display in the corner of the recorded footage gave times and dates. Cécile remembered the last time they had spoken while she waited for the transport in Marham’s Officers’ Mess to take her to Brize Norton.
“Don’t let those senior officers insist on breakfast in bed, Cécile. None of this: How would you like me today, sir? And don’t let them make you dress in those funny wigs your lot wear.”
“That’s only in a civil court. My boss will be AVM Pine. Do you know him?”
Emma had wrinkled her nose, “Ex Harrier boy. Arrogant as fuck, so good luck.”
Emma briefly touched her hand and went for the morning’s briefing. Cécile had gone on to the death of her career in the RAF.
The film was coming to an end and Cécile had to consciously remember to breathe. She was unable to swallow and a small dribble of saliva ran from the corner of her mouth. It was the last despairing expression on Emma Halling’s battered face as the breeze blocks dragged her under the muddy waters. Her expression was serene, almost grateful. Cécile closed her eyes and emitted a single, anguished sob. But perhaps the worst thing had been the expressions on the faces of their tormenters, they had been in rapture, dancing and grinning as their bestiality was filmed, taking it in turns to grab the camera. She didn’t need any files or photographs to remember those faces. Cécile knew that she would do it, even if it took the rest of her life. She picked up the glass of water with a shaking hand and sipped it to help her to swallow.
She felt a hand gently press her shoulder, “I’m so sorry you had to see that. Is there anything I can do?”
She shook her head.
“I’ll give you a couple of minutes alone to compose yourself. I’ll be just outside.”
She was shivering. It must be the air conditioning, she told herself. Cécile stood up and went to the door. The Wing Commander and Flight Sergeant were waiting outside.
“The file is still on the table, sir.”
“I’ll deal with it. The Flight will take you to COS Ops’ outer office, if you’re quite ready.”
The two of them left the bunker in silence and she collected her phone from the gatehouse. On the top floor of the office block, the Flight Sergeant introduced Cécile to the Chief of Staff’s Squadron Leader.
“Good luck, Ma’am,” he said and left.” Cécile had the distinct impression that the SNCO had felt sorry for her.
“Good morning, Flight Lieutenant Hammond. You can go straight in to see the Air Vice-Marshal, but I’ll have to take your phone. You can get it when you’ve finished.”
She went in and saluted. There was just the AVM in the inner office and he stood up and greeted her warmly and then showed her to a couple of comfy chairs, “Good morning, Flight Lieutenant. Do you mind if I address you as Cécile?”
“Not at all, sir,” she said and removed her hat.
“Can I get you some tea or coffee?”
“No thank you, sir,” she didn’t trust her hands not to shake.
He sat down in the opposite chair and smiled sadly at her, “You’re a very intelligent woman so I won’t insult you by not being absolutely honest with you. You’ve read the file and seen that God-awful film as I have. You saw what happened to my aircrew and you know the people who are responsible for it. I wanted them dead at the hands of 39 Squadron, but I have been overruled by the Secretary of State for Defence and the Prime Minister. They insist that these three individuals are to be publicly tried for crimes against humanity in an international court. Far be it for me to criticise my political masters.
“ACOS A1 and your desk officer have assured me that you have one of the finest legal minds in the Air Force and quite possibly the Armed Forces. I have read your file and the report from the DV Team and I have seen nothing that would make me doubt that. Therefore I want you to put together a case for their prosecution, a watertight case, so that some smart-arsed civilian lawyer can’t get them off. And I want you to prosecute them.
“In order to do that, I or rather the politicians want you to be involved with their tracking down and the arrest. I want you to talk to them as soon as they are in our hands. We want you to find out why they did it and what motivates them.”
It seemed perfectly clear to Cécile what their motivation was, but she just nodded.
“You will need to travel to Belgium, Pakistan and possibly into Syria. We realise that we are asking a great deal of you and this operation is not without its dangers. You will receive a bespoke course of advanced training to prepare you and you will be allocated a personal close protection officer. All of the military’s legal assets will be put at your disposal. Can you achieve this and ensure that these men are prosecuted?”
“The problem is that video evidence can be notoriously difficult to ensure a successful prosecution, sir. It would be better if we could find some DNA evidence. We know that Flight Lieutenant Halling was continually raped by all three of these men, but her body will probably never be recovered. In any case, DNA deteriorates rapidly in the presence of heat, water, sunlight, and oxygen. Those essential conditions of life also speed the process of death, potentially rendering DNA useless for analysis in a matter of weeks.
“I would suggest that a forensic team should be sent to where the evidence was found in that underground complex, particularly the room shown in the film where Flight Lieutenant Halling was… Was tortured. It would have stood a better chance of being uncontaminated down there and DNA should be obtained from the mens’ relatives and their last known locations in this country. Obviously we can take DNA from the men when they are apprehended, but the family DNA will make a cast iron cross match, so we know we have the right people.”
“I believe that the Home Office forensic team that recovered the pilot’s body was dispatched to Ash Shaddadi as well. They spent several days in the area and are putting together their findings and a report,” the AVM told her.
“How long will I have to put a case together, sir?”
“As long as you need. But it must stick. You can have as many people as you want from the Military Legal Services, but regardless of your current rank, because of your legal experience and let’s not be falsely modest, your success, you will be the main prosecutor. That comes directly from the Secretary of State. But most importantly, will you take the assignment, Cécile?”
“You will know I was at the Headquarters in Qatar when the aircraft was lost. I also did a tour at Marham and knew the crew, although not well. To use a word that I think is overused, but it will be like a form of closure for me. Yes, sir. I’ll take the assignment.”
The AVM seemed to be almost relieved, “Excellent and thank you. It will not be an easy task, but we believe that you of all people can complete it. Your training will start almost immediately and when you have finished it, you and I will both go for a final gate briefing at PJHQ. From then on, the conduct of the mission will be down to you. You are relatively young, but in no way inexperienced, but nevertheless, good luck to you. I believe that you have an appointment with your desk officer. The good Wing Commander is not aware of the complete nature of your mission and the less people that know… Well, you get the picture.”
They both stood up and the Air Officer shook her hand warmly, “There’s an excellent library at Shrivenham. I know that you will be extremely busy, but if you get a chance, read a book by Simon Read with the title, Human Game. It will put what you are about to do in perspective.”
She put on her hat, saluted and left the inner office, picking up her phone from COS Ops’ ADC. Rather than try and find her way to the connecting block through the labyrinthine offices, Cécile left the building and walked round to another entrance for the Personnel Management and Training Wing. She made her way up to a vast, open-plan office and found her desk officer.
“Good morning, Ma’am.”
The Wing Commander stood up to greet her and ushered her into a glass partitioned side room. They both sat at the same side of a desk.
“This is all very hush-hush, Cécile and I’m afraid that I’m not in the know. But I must ask you, are you quite happy doing whatever it is their Airships want you to do?”
“I am, Ma’am.”
The Wing Commander looked at her doubtfully, “I have to say, you look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“In a manner of speaking, I have.”
The desk officer had two envelopes with her and gave the first one to Cécile, “This is a kit list you’ll need to take to clothing stores and the armoury at Brize Norton. It authorises you to draw everything you will need. Also in there is authorisation to travel to Hereford and the joining instructions for your SERE course at _____.
She picked up the second envelope and held it up in front of Cécile. “I have to tell you that you’re improperly dressed.”
“I’m sorry, Ma’am, but I don’t understand.”
Inside the envelope were four sets of wing commander rank slides and a new 1250 identity card, “Congratulations Wing Commander Hammond. Your paid acting rank commenced at 00:01 this morning. You will be acting two ranks up for the duration of your assignment. On its successful completion, your promotion will be announced in the London Gazette as substantive squadron leader. Now whatever you do, don’t blow it on luxury holidays and fast cars,” she smiled to show she was joking.
“I’ll try not to Ma’am, I mean… I’m sorry but I can’t call you by your first name. It doesn’t seem right, somehow. How did you know I would take the assignment?”
The Wing Commander smiled, “Intuition.”
Cécile drove down the hill past the Officers’ Mess, to pick up the A4010 to High Wycombe then down to the M4. Suddenly she felt clammy and her stomach was twisting and griping. She pulled the Mazda off the road and only just got out of it as she vomited up the two glasses of water she had drunk. As she was bent double, dry retching, she suddenly understood what had been the expression on Emma Halling’s face. It was a calm acceptance of her death. It was gratitude.
“I’ll get you, you bastards,” she said out loud and a runner plodding up the hill gave her a strange look.
© Blown Periphery 2019
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file