6th February 2018 – RAF Northolt
Cécile, was in the grip of one of her terrifying, lucid dreams. They had begun not long after her brother and father were killed in an air crash. In the first one her brother had been sitting on the bottom of her bed, but he had no weight.
“Sorry if I scared you little ‘un,” her brother said to her, “I just had to tell you that I don’t blame him and neither should you.”
Almost paralysed with fear she asked, “Who?”
“Dad. We should never have taken off in that weather, low cloud and fog. But he wanted to get home. We both did. Don’t waste your time hating him like Mum does.”
But this dream was one of the worst and she was haunted by the smoke-filled interior of a cockpit, warning klaxons and the thunderous jolt of an ejection above a dark and hostile country. Cécile had only ever sat in the back seat of a Tornado on the ground, while a friendly navigator at Marham had explained what everything in this compact and uncomfortable little office was for. But she didn’t need much imagination to envisage the raw terror of ejecting from a falling, twisting and burning aircraft. And Cécile had a great deal of imagination, far too much of it and now she was living it, watching the burning Tornado spiral away below her.
The seat and parachute had gone and wreckage burned off to her right in a clump of trees. She watched the lights of vehicles disappearing off towards a town. She knew that what awaited them there.
Cécile screamed in her dream because she didn’t want to go there, but in the room it was more of a slight whimper as she tossed in the bed. Mercifully, when she woke up she couldn’t remember that part of the dream or what she had been forced to watch.
Now she was standing on the edge of a vast lake. She had always dreamed in colour, but this time she could actually smell the muddy, fetid water. Flight Lieutenant Emma Halling was standing next to her, not the Emma with the battered, bloody and broken face but a sadly serene version.
“Oh, Emma. I’m really so sorry.”
The ethereal version of the navigator shrugged, “Shit happens.”
“How can I be speaking to you if you’re…”
“I’m dead but dreaming.”
“One of them is dead as well. I swear to you on my life that I will get the other two.”
“They found Finn?”
“Yes. He’s back in England.”
“His wife will be glad.”
“I never knew he was married.”
“He always was a bit of a naughty boy. Very popular was out Finn, but a good skipper. It was just damnably bad luck. But they will never find me.”
Cécile sobbed in anguish.
“Don’t let them waste their time or risk themselves looking for me. I’ve gone, but at least there’s no pain now.”
The image faded
The strident ring of her mobile phone woke up Cécile and she was drained and felt sick.
“Wing Commander Hammond, it’s Bartlett.”
“Oh, hello, Mr Bartlett.”
“You’re on. The aircraft leaves in just over an hour. I’ve already rung Staff Phillips and he’ll meet you outside the mess with the car. Pakistan with a refuelling stop. Pack enough stuff for a week. The weather in Islamabad is going to be sunny but cold, around four degrees Celsius. You’ll be met by somebody from the Embassy, one of my chaps who goes by the name of Ash. He’ll pick you up at the airport and you’ll have a diplomatic wave-through. Oh and Cécile?”
“Yes, Mr Bartlett?”
“You are to draw your weapons. Phillips is already on to the duty armourer. Good luck.”
The line went dead and she rubbed her gritty eyes.
She had a quick shower and her bag was already packed for seven days. She decided to take out the linen trouser suit and replace it with a lightweight jumper and a pair of slacks. For the flight she wore a pair of Gore-Tex hiking boots and a breathable quilted jacket. She remembered to grab a wrap that would double as a shawl, so as not to inflame the lusts of Pakistani men with her blonde hair.
Phillips was waiting in the car outside the mess, “Did you get the duty armourer?” she asked.
“I went through the Orderly Sergeant, who said he should be there in ten minutes. Have you got your passport?”
“One of them. The one without the Israeli stamp inside it.”
She threw her small bag on the back seat and got in the car. It was a short drive to the armoury and the security light was on behind the wire mesh. They got out and Philips rang the bell, then the duty armourer came out and checked their ID cards. As they went under the light, Phillips glanced at her.
“You look like you’re set up for a morning’s shooting, Miss Barbour.”
“She looked at his quilted North Face jacket, hat and chinos and remarked: “And you look like a BBC sound recordist in your Snecware.”
“What our naughty airmen call the off-duty uniforms of SNCOs.”
Phillips shook his head, “The RAF. More of a hobby than a fighting force.”
Inside the armoury, two automatics, each with four magazines were laid out on a large table, together with four boxes of ammunition and a brown metal ammunition box.
“I’ll get the paperwork,” the armourer said. When he came back they both signed the papers, which the armourer stamped. If he was surprised to be dragged out of bed at two in the morning to issue weapons to a senior officer and Army SNCO, he didn’t show it. All manner of strange people transited through Northolt, including the strangest of the lot, politicians.
“We’ll mag up before the flight to save time and it will be less intrusive at the other end,” Phillips said.
The armourer nodded, “Then I take it yours is the Glock and yours, Ma’am would be the SIG.”
He pushed the boxes of 9mm rounds to Phillips and the .380 rounds to Cécile. Then he held up each weapon in turn with the top slides to the rear and locked. He held up the SIG first and said, “This weapon is clear.”
Cécile inspected inside the chamber, “The weapon is clear.”
He did the same with the Glock with the same result. Phillips noticed how quickly and deftly she loaded the four magazines and when they were finished, the armourer sealed each weapon with its magazines in a plastic food bag, marking their name and rank on each one with an indelible pen. He put the weapons in the ammunition box and sealed the box with wire and a stamped lead seal.
“So you can legally carry them on the aircraft,” he explained, “Just cut the wire with a Leathermans at the other end. Who wants the paperwork?”
“I’ll take it,” Phillips said.
On the flight line the BAE 146 was humming gently, waiting for them. Their bags were small and would fit underneath their seats and they had the entire aircraft to themselves. Phillips handed the ammunition box and paperwork to the very pregnant Loadmaster, who stowed it at the rear of the cabin. They chose a set of four seats with a table and settled in for the trip. The Loadie came back and seated them in.
“We will be stopping at Akrotiri to refuel and change crew. I’m not allowed to go into Pakistan in my “delicate” condition, in case the excitement makes him come early. Flight time to Akrotiri is five hours with an hour on the ground for refuelling. Then it’s another five hours to Islamabad. The time difference is five hours, so all being well you should arrive at around 19:00 local. The in-flight entertainment is a bit limited, but there are some butty boxes and I can get you tea and coffees, as much as you want.”
“Just show us where to make it and we’ll get it ourselves,” Phillips said, conscious that she was pregnant.
“I’m afraid you can’t, sir. Elf ‘n Safety and all that. You might scald yourselves with the hot water,” she raised her eyes.
Fifteen minutes later they were airborne and climbing out over the Colne Valley Park, before turning northwards around Watford to avoid the Heathrow airspace. By the time the 146 was over Southend, Cécile was asleep, boots off and curled up on her chair, legs on the other one. Phillips got a blanket from the overhead locker and gently covered her. He watched her for a few moments and then he too went to sleep. The Loadmaster sitting towards the rear of the cabin watched him and smiled to herself. She wondered why on earth a wing commander and a staff sergeant, both tooled-up, were flying to Islamabad.
The aircraft crossed the Channel into French airspace and was handed on to Italian air traffic control. It skirted the Alps to port and tracked down the boot of Italy. Phillips woke up as the 146 entered Greek controlled airspace. The seats opposite him were empty and the blanket had been neatly folded. He looked around the cabin and saw Cécile at the back sitting next to and chatting easily with the Loadmaster. Both women laughed and looked at him. He tried to envisage a lieutenant-colonel engaged in a tête-à-tête with a sergeant in his unit, nope, would never happen. There was more giggling which for some reason seemed to irritate him. He dragged his bag from under the seat and grabbed his washbag. As he walked past them to the rear of the aircraft he said:
“Just need to clean my teeth and shave.”
“I’ve already abluted,” Cécile told him solemnly.
As he shut himself in the lavatory, she shook her head, “He is very nice, but he can be infuriatingly proper.”
“He is rather good looking,” the Loadmaster opined.
“You know, I can’t say that I’ve noticed. Do you think so?” She was lying.
By the time he had scrubbed his teeth and shaved with an electric razor, Cécile was back in her seat, sipping a mug of coffee. Phillips looked at his watch which showed 07:30. That would make it around 09:30 Cyprus time. He slid into his seat and looked out of the window. The Mediterranean crawled slowly below.
“I asked for a tea for you.”
“Thank you, Ma’am,” he said rather stiffly.
“Do you know what was a refreshing change? Being able to have a chat with another woman about girlie things. Just for a few moments to be able to forget why we’re on this aircraft.”
Phillips sipped the tea, which tasted odd as he had just cleaned his teeth, “To be honest, it’s just another job to me.”
“Just another job? I’m just another job? Well, I’ll have to see whether we can liven things up to make it less mundane, a bit more memorable for you,” He looked at her over the rim of his mug. Those glib words of hers would come back to haunt them.
The 146 was beginning its descent into RAF Akrotiri, The land and Limassol to starboard. It rumbled onto the runway and pulled off after a very short landing run. The Loadmaster came to speak to them once the aircraft was stationary.
“You’ll need to get off while we refuel and change crew, so get a bite to eat and a coffee in the terminal. Don’t worry about your baggage and weapons. I’m staying on board to do a handover to my relief. I’ll see you on the return trip. Meanwhile, it’s a few days in the sun for me. Have a good rest of your trip.”
The steps were pushed up to the rear door and she opened it. The air coming into the cabin was fresh with the resin scent of fir trees and the temperature was warm without being oppressive. There was still enough snow on the Troodos Mountains for the hardy types to ski and snowboard. The inside of the terminal was quiet, but the Malcom Club kiosk was open and they shared a ham and cheese Panini and watched the accomplishedly scruffy airmen refuelling the 146.
“Have you ever been here before?” Cécile asked him.
“A couple of times, staying over for decompression, before they unleash us back into so-called civilised society. What about you?”
“Just stopovers after Afghanistan and Somalia. No decompression for those of us in digital posts. Just a quick chat with the padre and watch a film about how not to feel indestructible” she told him, “Oh and I did a court martial here as well.”
“Did you get the drunken idiot off it?”
Cécile burned her lip on some hot cheese and dabbed her mouth with a paper napkin, “No, actually I was prosecuting. Four scumbags from the resident garrison, who thought it would be fun to gang rape a Russian prostitute.”
“Oh. Mind you, the way some of them act out here…”
“They’re just asking for it aren’t they?”
“I didn’t say that,” Phillips said defensively, “It’s just because I’m a copper and I’ve seen both sides of the story.”
“She didn’t deserve to have her cheek bone fractured and her upper left incisors shattered. And she certainly didn’t deserve to be used as a squaddies’ sexual plaything for a weekend,” her tone was quite matter of fact, dispassionate and not in the least bit hostile to him.
“No, I guess not,” He agreed, “Did they go down for it?”
“Yes. Six months at Colchester, dishonourable discharge and a transfer for five years in a civvie nick. Actually, I did them a favour. If they’d got off, the Russian mafia who virtually run Limassol, were going to castrate them and dump their bodies at sea.”
It was to Phillips, astonishing the way they seemed to spark up one another. To be sure she was an extremely snappy person, but he was fascinated by her hidden depths. There was something about her that seemed to subconsciously trigger him to say the wrong thing. They changed the subject and watched the flight crew go out to the now turned-round aircraft. The Loadmaster, a male this time in a statutory desert coloured growbag came to get them. They noticed he was carrying a Glock in a shoulder holster.
“Wing Commander Hammond, Staff Sergeant Phillips. We’re ready to depart in about ten minutes, so could you please board.”
As they walked across the pan, Cécile turned round and saw the now off-duty Loadmaster watching them. She waved and the Loadmaster waved back. The sergeant had no idea why she had hung around to watch them re-embark on the aircraft, but some deep intuition told her that they were flying into danger. She wished them a safe return with a silent prayer and went to get on the transport to the aircrew transit accommodation with all mod cons.
The 146 took off and headed south-east into Israeli airspace and then on into Jordan. There was a longer flight across Saudi Arabia to avoid Iran and then across Oman and the Persian Gulf. By now the 146 was heading north, past the port of Karachi and on towards Islamabad. At 18:10 Local the aircraft started to lose height and the BAE 146 touched down at Islamabad International Airport at 18:55. It was dark and the aircraft taxied to an area away from the main terminal on a pan next to cargo sheds. They waited while the aircraft was shut down and gathered their minimal kit. As well as his small rucksack, Phillips carried the ammunition box. Together with the three aircrew, they walked towards a single-storey shed with a loading bay. Two Pakistani policemen were already in position to guard the aircraft.
Inside the shed, a man from the High Commission was waiting for them and greeted them warmly, “Good evening and welcome to Islamabad. My name is Charles Ash and I’m the assistant attaché to the military attaché among my other duties. I’ll be your point of contact within the High Commission for the duration of your stay. You all have rooms booked in the Islamabad Serena Hotel, which is four minutes’ drive from the British High Commission.”
Ash took Cécile and Phillips to one side, “I don’t see much point in your coming in to the High Commission this evening. There’s been a complication with your operation and it looks as though the Americans might have to become involved. I will explain everything to you tomorrow. There’s a hire car laid on for you and it’s a four minute drive from the Serena Hotel to the High Commission. Under no circumstances should you walk. There are route instructions in the vehicle, plus contact numbers and here is my card.
“As far as it goes, this is a bloody dangerous city, not as bad as Karachi, but bad enough. I see you’ve dressed sensibly. Keep your hair covered outside the hotel, Wing Commander Hammond because they pester the hell out of blonde ladies and carry your weapons at all times. No shorts or short sleeves, though you’d be mad to wear such stuff in this weather. Don’t use the hotel pool or gym. I take it your weapons are in the ammo box? You’d better load up.”
Phillips borrowed a Leathermans from the loadie and cut the wire seal on the box. Cécile took off her coat, went into her bag and put on a shoulder holster. The aircrew watched with mild interest. She put three spare magazines at the side pouch of the holster, pushed the forth one into the pistol grip of the SIG and holstered the weapon. Once her jacket was back on, there was no sign of the weapon. Phillips did the same with his Glock and they filed through the shed outside, to where a minibus and a driver was waiting. They climbed on board.
While the minibus was heading north to the city, Ash continued his briefing, “I’ll need you at the meeting tomorrow, squadron leader, but then you can head off. Use the car provided but there should be at least two in it. We may need to use other options rather than a direct flight to Jordan, but we can do all the diplomatic clearances from the High Commission,” he looked at Cécile and continued, “I’m afraid that you and Mr Phillips will have to do a lot of hanging around at the High Commission tomorrow, because everything is so up in the air. I’ll explain in the morning, so get a good night’s sleep.”
They were dropped off at the hotel and checked in. Phillips and Cécile were on the third floor with adjacent rooms, while the aircrew on the top floor because it was the quietest floor and above the traffic noise.
“Would you like me to wait here while you check the rooms?” she asked Phillips.
“No, come up and lurk outside while I give it a sweep, then we should still be able to make dinner, if you shower later.”
They had a simple dinner of risotto with alcohol-free wine. Phillips sat where he could see the doors into the restaurant and from the kitchens. The aircrew sat at a different table, preferring to keep themselves to themselves. Cécile didn’t mind at all, she was too tired to make small talk.”
“What do you think that chap Ash meant when he said, “everything is so up in the air.”?”
She shrugged, “Sounds like a problem to me, or a complication.”
“Aren’t you concerned?”
“Que Sera Sera, Mr Phillips.”
“The future’s not ours to see, “Ms Hammond.”
The British High Commission in Islamabad is a sprawling site of buildings set in wooded surrounds, within the Embassy Quarter’s security zone. They were in one of the out buildings and the sign outside had read Security and Development. It was quite clear that this small building was an SIS asset, well screened behind the main consular buildings. Cécile was wearing a loose-fitting trouser suit but she had taken off the headscarf. She had decided to use the back holster under the loose top in the small of her back. Phillips thought that she looked the dog’s gonads. So did Ash, who was explaining why “everything was so up in the air.”
“We managed to get a fix on Gamal Kirmani when he used social media from a cyber café in Karachi and we put a team from E Squadron on him for close surveillance. Kirmani is undoubtedly the brightest of the three, although Daffi Hashmi has charisma and an animal cunning. The unlamented Parinoush Mahar was merely a psychopath who was attracted to ISIL for the killing and the sex slaves.
“Kirmani must have twigged that we were watching him and he got on a bus to Hyderabad, but got off at the last minute and doubled back into the city of Karachi, leaving our operative stranded on the bus. And now this is where things get a little complicated. We thought he may have headed into the tribal areas for a meeting with a known Taliban commander. An American surveillance aircraft picked up a mobile phone call from Kirmani to this Taliban chap, who is unfortunately on the American watch lists. This Taliban chap is wanted for the murders of two American aid workers and for his involvement on an attack on Kandahar airfield. One of the Taliban’s henchmen picked up Kirmani from Multan and drove him north to Mingora which is in the Swat Valley, or as we call it, “bandit country.” Kirmani is in a property owned by the Taliban, we suspect awaiting a meeting.
“The Americans have made it quite clear that their Taliban takes priority over Kirmani, and any operation to apprehend him will be led by their Special Forces. This would likely result in both of them being taken across the border to their interrogation and holding facility at Bagram and I’m afraid that the Americans have not as yet agreed to your being present during Kirmani’s interrogation. Negotiations between ourselves and the CIA are ongoing at the highest level, but I’m afraid you’re on hold, Wing Commander Hammond, and of course you aircrew chaps,” he said to the pilot of the 146.
“Since the current US President has taken office, relations between ourselves and our CIA cousins have been rather strained. The President has been most awkward in his dealings with our intelligence community, making cooperation most difficult and rather tiresome.”
Cécile looked at Ash with an innocent face, “Could that be anything to do with one of your organisation’s former employees, leaking a highly suspect and salacious dossier to a third-rate internet media and entertainment “news” outlet. A dossier that alleges the leader of the most powerful democracy on the planet employed prostitutes to engage in sexual acts involving a glass coffee table and body fluids in a Moscow hotel. Frankly Mr Ash, I’m rather surprised that whoever put the dossier together for his forty pieces of silver, or $1.02 million dollars is still drawing breath.”
Ash stared at her, his face pinched with shock and anger. He said to the pilot, “I don’t think there’s much point in hanging around, Squadron Leader. As soon as I hear anything I’ll contact you. Ms Hammond, please excuse me.”
When they had left, Phillips sprawled in a chair and started to clap slowly, “Oh well done. Outstanding. Would you mind telling me what the hell that achieved, Ma’am? Alienating our hosts?”
She too sat down, “It wasn’t meant to achieve anything. But I’m sick to death of these self-serving incompetents with a blind fixation on the European project, infesting all levels of the government, the judiciary, civil service, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, security services and now the MoD. I’m sick to death of the elite’s pandering to the Fourth Reich, while demeaning the contribution made by the former commonwealth countries such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand, Kenya, India, Rhodesia and South Africa that were thrown to the wolves of the ZANU Patriotic Front and the ANC by Saint Maggie Thatcher and John bloody Major. If you had ever gone to South Africa and Zimbabwe, you would be able to see the disasters inflicted on the white population, who have as much right to live there as the blacks. And then I think of all those crosses across a peaceful and prosperous Europe, American crosses marking the graves of young American kids, who gave up their future so we could eat strawberries at Christmas, have cheap holidays and free roaming on our mobile phones.
“I don’t particularly like the US President, whom I consider to be a thin-skinned man-child. But whether we like it or not, he is not our president and he was democratically elected by his people, which is more than can be said for people like Mr Ash, or even our current Prime Minister.”
“But your own mother is from France,” Phillips pointed out.
“And a more bitter, self-centred and chauvinistic woman in terms of French superiority you could never wish to meet. And she thinks the EU is wonderful, “But Cécile, it has prevented war in Europe since 1945,” apart from Cyprus, Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo and she still lives in England because of my father’s pension, the grasping bitch!”
“Your views can be rather unsafe in our line of business,” he said slightly pompously, “It isn’t wise to alienate the people out here if you want to get the business done. You may be a very good lawyer, but your outspoken and combative way of operating may well grate on other people. Can’t you at least try to be a bit more understanding?”
“Kind and understanding people get walked all over and I’m sick of it! Why the hell do you thing I’m still a flight lieutenant and all of a sudden you seem to know a fucking great deal about me and my family, Mr Phillips! And now look what you’ve done. You’ve made me swear at you for which I’m sorry.”
Phillips sighed, “You carry a lot of bottled-up anger. Did that air vice-marshal try it on with you?”
© Blown Periphery 2019
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file