Phillips came down to breakfast and saw Cécile sitting on her own reading a newspaper. He was bristling with annoyance, “I thought the agreement was I would come and get you and we would go down for meals together.”
He could never get over that officers would read newspapers at the breakfast table and considered it to be very rude. She looked up at him with an even stare.
“Mr Phillips. This is rather too early in our relationship to have a domestic in a foreign hotel. Belgium is a relatively safe country and I wanted to be alone to think, which I have done. Now, would you care to join me, or are you going to continue hopping from one foot to another?”
“Remember what I said about our working together being a two-way street? Well just think about it,” he said and pulled a chair out to sit opposite her. She folded the newspaper and put it on the chair next to her.
“I’ve been doing a great deal of thinking over the past few hours, as the sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care wasn’t forthcoming.”
“Macbeth does murder sleep—the innocent sleep. The Scottish Play, act two, scene two.”
Cécile looked at him with grudging admiration, “You certainly know your Shakespeare, Mr Phillips. Are you an aficionado of the Bard or a luvvie?”
“I suppose you could call me a luvvie,” he conceded, “Or at least my seventeen-year-old self. It was nearly twenty years ago, and yet I can still remember all of my lines. Naturally, I was cast as Macbeth for my brooding good looks and dark, flowing mane. The lines may have remained in my head, but unfortunately the dark, flowing main didn’t remain on it.”
She gave a low chuckle of delight, which he found to be particularly sexy, “I couldn’t envisage you with a dark mane, flowing or otherwise. In my opinion for what it’s worth, you look fine as you are. It’s that Mark Strong look. I bet you have to beat the ladies off with a stick.”
“Only when they mistake me for him. A policeman’s lot is not a happy one. Now,” he said picking up the menu, “What would you suggest?”
“The Belgians can’t do a decent breakfast. It’s a buffet, cold meats, cheeses, fruits, yoghurt. You get the drill? You help yourself.”
He made a bee-line for the buffet while Cécile caught the attention of a hovering waitress. She asked for a pot of tea and a carafe of coffee. He came back with a plate of a few meats, cheeses and bread and a bowl of fruit salad with a dollop of yoghurt.
“I’ve ordered you a pot of tea and coffee for me. Will you need to taste mine first?”
“Now, now, Ms Hammond. I hope you’re not going to be one of these women who constantly drags up everything from the past and we’re not even married. Did you phone the Embassy?”
“Yes, at 05:30. The boys and girls at the Avenue d’Auderghem are running around with their collective arses on fire. I told them who I was and insisted on speaking to the military attaché and not that bloody idiot Adcock.”
“You were pretty harsh on him, you know,” he said, “Do they do toast?”
When the waitress arrived Cécile asked her for some toasted, sliced bread.
“I don’t care,” she said once the waitress had gone, “He was extremely rude to you and I’m not prepared to tolerate that. Besides, that’s my job.”
He glanced at her sharply and she grinned to show she was joking.
“What was the butcher’s bill?”
Cécile sighed, “Seven police officers, fifteen civilians living in the flats, twenty with varying degrees of injury, but the undercover chap survived, although he had to be dug out of the rubble. Luckily he was in a stair well when the bombs went off and being the strongest part of the building, the concrete walls protected him.”
“What about Parinoush Mahar?”
“They have found no trace of him.”
“He got away? After all that surveillance work, he got away?”
She shook her head and said matter-of-factly, “No, Mr Phillips. He could never have got away as there was a cordon sanitaire around the block of flats. It isn’t strictly true to say there is no trace of him. There will be traces of him on individual bricks, pipework, conduits, wiring and attached to the bits of people he murdered.”
Phillips was shaken, “You sound like you couldn’t care less.”
Just then the waitress brought the toast, small pieces cut from probably a small bloomer loaf. She stood up, “I’ll get you some jam and butter. There’s no marmalade.”
When she came back she put the side plate down in front of him, sat down and put her elbows on the table, resting her chin on her fists. He noticed for the first time that her eyes were brown flecked with grey, dark with fury.
“How dare you say I couldn’t care less? I care deeply for the civilians and police officers killed and injured, but I didn’t put them in that position, their own government did, too busy trying to pull one over on the Brits. I didn’t send in the Clouseaus, that was their own security services. They should have let our team grab Mahar, or even better still, put a 7.62 round through the worthless bastard’s head. And for your information, Mr Phillips, I’m glad he’s dead. I’m glad that I won’t have to waste my time putting together a case to try the scumbag in a court of law. But most of all, I’m glad that they will never find enough of him to bury and be a bloody martyr to their disgusting, depraved cause.”
A dribble of jam slid off the toast and dropped on the plate. Phillips put the toast down on his plate, “Ms Hammond, I’m truly sorry that I have upset you. You hide your emotions under an armour of what appears to be indifference. I don’t know if it’s your background or your legal training, but sometimes you are so difficult to read and I’m a professional copper. Please accept my apology.”
Cécile leaned back in her chair with a sigh and looked up at the ornate lights. She rubbed her eyes, “Mr Phillips, it’s me who should be apologising to you. I’ve had very little sleep and this whole thing is affecting me much more than I thought it would. I have felt so angry since I watched the films those monsters took and despite my vocation, that’s a laugh, despite my job, I don’t believe these men should be allowed the privilege of a trial. I think they should be disposed of like rabid dogs. But here we are, you and I and I’ve just gone off on one. Sorry.”
“This toast is awful,” he said.
After breakfast they packed and as there was no embassy car that morning to take them to Melsbroek Air Base, Cécile ordered a taxi. The 146 was waiting with its engines running and they went on board after a brief search of their luggage. As the aircraft climbed away above Vilvoorde she asked Phillips, “How long do you think we’ll have before we need to go to Pakistan?”
He shrugged, “It’s impossible to say. But I get the impression they’ll want us out there quite quickly. Why?”
“I need to go to the Headquarters of the Military Court Services at Upavon. I want to speak to a couple of people I would like on the prosecuting team, just to warn them off without telling them what it’s about. I’ve been told I can’t approach them directly until all three, or rather now the two of them are in custody.”
“If I were you, Ma’am, I wouldn’t speak to anybody just yet. The situation, as they say, remains rather fluid and after last night’s fiasco, they might cancel it altogether.”
She nodded, “Yes, you’re probably right.” Hopefully, she thought to herself.
Bartlett decided to walk the 1.4 miles from Vauxhall Cross to Downing Street, knowing that if he went via the embankment and across Westminster Bridge it would take about thirty minutes. He was in no hurry anyway, because he knew what was waiting for him. He had been summoned, not his boss, nor the Head of MI6, but him personally. He knew that wasn’t good.
At the gates of Downing Street he showed his security pass to the police officers who let him through. The policemen on the door nodded politely and pressed the door button. It was a long time in opening, which told Bartlett everything he needed to know about the tone of the meeting he would be having. When the door eventually opened he was shown inside where an electronic device swept his body to detect large metallic objects or explosive traces. He knew the Prime Minister was slightly paranoid after the March 2017 terrorist attack on Westminster Bridge and the murder of a police officer within the environs of the Palace of Westminster.
He was shown into one of the Cabinet Briefing Rooms where the Prime Minister and the Defence Secretary were waiting for him, sitting two chairs apart but facing him and the door. Bartlett was convinced he would be kept standing, but the Prime Minister said:
“Good morning, Mr Bartlett and thank you for coming, do sit down.” There was absolutely no warmth in her voice and the Defence Secretary seemed to be avoiding eye contact. Technically as MI6 came under the auspices of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Foreign Secretary should also have been there. However, it was no secret that he and the Prime Minister detested one another and he had only been given the post in the hope that he would fail by making an embarrassing gaffe. In the event the Foreign Secretary would resign in the July to embarrass and weaken the PM, ostensibly over the strategy for leaving the EU, but more honestly as good old-fashioned political opportunism. As he sat down, Bartlett marvelled at the shabby and faded interior of 10 Downing Street, well past its prime, much like the country and the politicians who were supposed to serve it and its people.
“We’ve read your report, which is succinct and to the point. However, there are a number of points that I, we would like to raise and seek further clarification. You indicate that you approached the Belgian State Security Service in early January and received approval to allow an undercover team to investigate the movements and intentions of Parinoush Mahar.”
“Not quite, Ma’am. We already knew the intentions of Mahar because we had an undercover operative with him, who had gained his trust. ISIL operations in Syria were becoming too dangerous, so he intended to move to Libya in March. The four-man team, which I believe is what you are referring to, was under orders to apprehend Mahar in what we refer to as a “hard stop and lift.” The aircraft was waiting to fly Mahar to Northolt for onward move to the high security facility at Paddington Green Police Station. The operation was blocked by the Belgian federal prosecutor’s office, literally at the last minute. We don’t know why, but suspect the reasons were political rather than operational.” Is she really so stupid or is this an attempt to humiliate me?
“I see. What evidence do you have that the Belgian decision was politically motivated?” asked the PM.
“I don’t have anything from two separate and reliable sources, but given…”
“Then I would suggest that you leave the political conjecture to the politicians,” her lips were tight and her eyes were like the cold of the Aurora.
“Mr Bartlett. It would seem that the actions of your team cause some consternation among the senior officers of the Belgian DSU, “ said the Defence Secretary in his slightly nasally voice, that tended to put the inflections on the wrong syllables, “The head of your team referred to the Inspector leading the operation as “Van der Valk.” The Belgian Inspector of Police was threatened with physical assault. I thought these operatives were supposed to be drawn from the best of our Special Forces. What on earth went wrong?”
A journalist had described the Defence Secretary’s performance in the House of Commons thus: Drivel hosed out of him like mud from an elephant’s trunk: A Defence Secretary is meant to fill people with trepidation, so in some ways [he] is superb at his job. Trouble is, he frightens us loyal British subjects. Pointing in the wrong direction, old bean. It’s the enemy you’re meant to terrify. Or en-EM-y, as he would possibly say.
“What went wrong, Secretary of State, is that the Belgian police sent in a team that was poorly briefed, poorly led and woefully poorly prepared for the task, despite the first class and totally accurate intelligence provided to them by our undercover operative. The DSU chose to ignore our advice and unnecessarily jeopardised the life of our undercover operative, who was nearly killed in the debacle, had to be dug out of the ruins and is now in hospital. The team leader was extremely concerned for his safety and made his views felt to the DSU Inspector in a robust manner.”
“But this wasn’t just a failure of an operation, it was a failure of trust between the UK security services and the intelligence services of Belgium. This may have caused irreparable harm to our future security, losing the trust of a staunch ally, at a time when we need all the friends we can get.”
Bullshit, thought Bartlett, “Sir, my report references an earlier report, prepared for your predecessor on the capabilities of the Belgian Intelligence and Security Agency, the (VSSE). If you had read the report you will find that far more intelligence goes into Belgium from GCHQ than we receive in return from virtually all of the European intelligence agencies, with the possible exception of France.”
Bartlett couldn’t help but think just how poorly served the British defence and intelligence community had been by a succession of lacklustre defence secretaries. The Russians must be quaking in their boots, he thought as the man haranguing him refused to even make eye contact.
The PM rode to the figurative rescue of her Secretary of State for Defence, “You must understand the importance we attach to apprehending and trying these three, now unfortunately two men. This operation has been an embarrassing setback.”
“I do understand, Ma’am,” But what he really understood was the political gutlessness of politicians who had the power, but were too cowardly to sanction a state sponsored killing of three men whose murderous depravity had made forfeit their right to life.
“We will expect daily progress reports concerning this operation, which hopefully will not again be mired in such controversy. Thank you for your time, Mr Bartlett. That will be all for now.”
As Bartlett left 10 Downing Street, the policeman on the door could have sworn he mumbled, “At least she wasn’t wearing those fucking ridiculous, gold leather trousers.”
He thought about contacting Colonel Korovin to see how the Russian side of the planning was progressing, but decided against it. Much as he would have liked to see the friendly/unfriendly fellow-traveller, he knew he was in no mood for Korovin’s caustic wit. He walked back to Vauxhall Cross and briefed his boss about the meeting. She was sympathetic but could at times be more political than a politician.
“It was bad luck, Alan. Just damnable bad luck through no fault of ours, but they don’t see it that way. They can only think in five-year cycles and their pressing concerns are not always the same as ours. Let’s just hope the Pakistan operation goes off more smoothly.”
Bartlett looked at his watch and realised it would be around 18:00 in Islamabad. He signed a Top Secret removable hard drive from the registry, referred to as a “brick” and went to an unused security terminal. He composed and sent an e-mail to his staffer in the High Commission requesting an update. The reply came back around fifty minutes later.
From: charles ash (Islamabad-Ash_Charles@fco.gov.uk)
To: alan bartlett (VC-Bartlett_Alan@fco.gov.uk)
Date: 03 Feb 2018, 13:54 UTC
Our friends from the Agency have unfortunately lost Kirmani in Karachi, who is believed to be heading north for a meeting with as yet an unknown person. We have an E Sqn team in place to intercept him once we have a tracer on his likely whereabouts.
Sorry I can’t be more positive at this time, but our friends, the hosts are confident they can narrow down the search area. I would suggest you have your legal eagle stood-to for a quick NTM.
Mr K has proved to be rather unthinking with his phone and social media use, so the E-boys reckon they can nab him as soon as he’s careless again. Our friends from the ISI are being uncommonly helpful. If you need extra muscle, we can get a CH47 across from KDH or OAZ.
As per your instructions, we’ve submitted diplomatic clearance for the 146 and the Falcon to Jordan via Oman and Saudi. I guess you need the Falcon because it wouldn’t look too good conducting extraordinary rendition in an aircraft of the Royal Flight. Will keep you informed.
© Blown Periphery 2019
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file