Chapter 23 – The Woman from the “Det”
The Special Reconnaissance Regiment, or SRR, is a special reconnaissance unit of the British Army. It was established on 6 April 2005 and is part of the United Kingdom Special Forces (UKSF) under the command of Director Special Forces, alongside the Special Air Service (SAS), Special Boat Service (SBS) and the Special Forces Support Group (SFSG).
The regiment conducts a wide range of classified activities related to covert surveillance and reconnaissance. The SRR draws its personnel from existing units and can recruit male and female volunteers from any branch of the British Armed Forces. (Wikipedia)
It is very difficult to get a poor, post operational report unless you clash severely with someone in your command chain or you are a complete tube. SAC Khan’s post operational report was by any measure absolutely exceptional and it was signed off by the Director of UK Special Forces. She was interviewed by the Station Commander of RAF Marham and congratulated. Two days later a man in a dark civilian suit interviewed her in the Station’s conference and briefing facility. He was well-spoken and his eyes never left hers, which she found disconcerting.
“Ms Khan, have you ever heard of a unit known as 14 Intelligence Company or the SSR?”
“I have some literature that I would like you to read. It is of a rather sensitive nature and you should not let it out of your sight. When you have read and thoroughly understood it, please give it to the chief clerk or station duty officer for safe keeping. I would like you to consider the offer we are making on the final page.”
That was it, he gave her a card with just his name and a military telephone number, shook her hand and left. She read it and re-read it several times that late morning and afternoon, then made her way to the Station Headquarters and the Chief Clerk.
“I was given this paperwork this morning, Flight. I would like to formally apply for special duties.”
“Are you sure? This will be for years, not just a few months on an operational tour.”
It was as though he had been expecting her. He had.
“Honestly, I’ve thought it through and made my mind up.”
He sighed, “All right, but think it through again tonight and if you’re sure, come back in the morning and we’ll start the ball rolling as far as the paperwork goes. You’ll need to go for a briefing to __________ and from now on, everything to do with this is classed a Secret UK Eyes Only. That includes everything you say. For what it’s worth, I think you’re incredibly brave. You’ve proved that, but the next few years if you’re successful will be grinding and gruelling. You may not come out of it at the other end the person you were when you went into it. You may not come out of it at all. Think on that, SAC Khan.”
* * *
It started with medicals and aptitude tests. They became progressively harder as did the physical training. Five mile runs became ten, then fifteen. Then carrying weight. One hour circuit training followed by a swim and then a run. She would be woken in the early hours and made to do aptitude tests. She was taught how to memorise things by word association, then made to run to checkpoints and memorise the contents of cached ammunition boxes. She would have to run to a certain place, reconnoitre it then run back and produce a scale tactical map.
The training became progressively harder. She was kept awake and given no food and water for what seemed like days. She was stripped and hosed down in a cell with a fire hose, while men would laugh at her as she tried to cover herself. She was interrogated, beaten and hurt in extremely cunning ways that left no marks. And all the time there were less and less of them. She lost count of the number of times she wanted to jack it in, but some perverse attitude kept saying “fuck them.”
She spent endless hours on a range firing various hand guns and machine pistols. Never stationary. She fired out through the windscreens of cars and learned to drive defensively and aggressively with police drivers, clocking up speeds of over 100mph through country lanes. Then she learned how to fight with knives, everyday objects and knees, elbows and hands, never fists and always in defence. Makeup artists from London theatres showed them how to change their appearance and gender with theatrical makeup and wigs. Members of the Magic Circle showed them how to perform sleight of hand tricks and conceal objects around and in their bodies. She was taught how not to walk and run like a girl.
The culmination of their training consisted of her syndicate being given a target of strategic importance. A nuclear power station, a high security prison, a prominent, well-guarded person, an airport or a crucial military establishment. The syndicate would research and reconnoitre their given objective. Produce detailed models and plans of the target and fully understand its everyday routine and workings. Then they would separately plan a means of infiltration and carrying out their given task. There followed a Character Assassination Group (CAG), where the syndicate members would forensically tear the plan to pieces and pick holes. The person whose plan they all thought had the best chance of success, was elected team leader.
Afarin’s plan was voted as being the second worst, and using the best plan her syndicate infiltrated an RAF airfield in Scotland. In broad daylight they placed a teddy bear wearing a fake explosive belt in the cockpit of a Tornado F3 in the Quick Reaction Alert Hardened Aircraft Shelter. They also left a bright red oil drum marked “bomb” in the cellar area of the officers’ mess bar, and stole the Station Commander’s car from outside SHQ. The Station Commander who was also AOC Scotland was in it at the time.
She had done it. She had taken the exhaustion, abuse, physical and mental pain and self-doubt and got through. The little Girl from Derby was now a member of the “Det.”
* * *
It was always the kids that provided the signpost. Follow the gutter rats to find out where the action is. This area of Basra was a ghastly sprawl of poorly-constructed, single-story buildings, set in a filthy, rubbish-strewn district north of the Abu Mustafa markets. She glanced across at the other side of the street where her shadow was keeping sight of her. Malik was dressed as a poor workman, his beard was unkempt and his dish-dash filthy from the engines and vehicles he was supposed to be working on. She was shrouded in a Chador, the all-covering garb favoured by Shia Muslim women in the predominantly Shia city of Basra. She was a washer woman, a basket of washing balanced on her head. She even shimmied her arse like the Shia women, because she had been taught to walk like them.
She was the eyes. Malik was her back stop, her protection in the febrile atmosphere of a city in the midst of insurrection. Two hundred metres behind them was a Toyota pick-up, their Q-car with the heavy artillery should the shit really hit the fan. The Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM) had already taken two SAS undercover operatives who should have known better, that morning and the insurgents were not in the mood for finding more on their doorstep. They were following the trickles of the street urchins northwards, and more heavily armed men, wearing the black of the JAM were apparent, lurking on roofs and in alleyways. Ahead was the only substantial building in this slum district, the two-story, brutalist architecture of the Muwafaqiya Police Station.
She made a close observation as she approached, noting the aerials and satellite dishes on the roof, along with the myriad of black-garbed JAM armed with assorted Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs) and AK 47s. The British were reaping the fruits of their inability and unwillingness to occupy and police Iraq’s second largest city. The JAM had poured into the vacuum and they now effectively ran the city. The building was surrounded by RPG screens, a throw-back to a time before the British Army handed it back to the criminally corrupt Shia police force. She made an unobvious circuit of the building, remembering doorways, windows, loading bays and all ways in and out of the complex. On the last quarter a member of the JAM came up to her and shouted in accented Arabic:
“Get out of here, you disgusting split-arse. Why are you not with a chaperone?”
“I am a widow, and I must make a living collecting washing. My children have to eat,” she replied in Arabic, avoiding eye contact. She suspected this man was Iranian, possibly Revolutionary Guard.
He kicked her, “Get away. You disgust me.”
She hurried back down the street while her shadow watched the JAM militiaman. Bored with his misogyny, he went back into the police station. Two blocks away, the Toyota pickup was waiting. Malik got in the cab with the other two men. Afarin naturally got in the back because she was a woman. The rear glass window was slid open and as they headed back to the safe house, Afarin told them what she had observed.
“You take too many risks,” Malik told her in a mixture of annoyance and concern.
“At least we now know where the JAM are holding them. They’ll need to move fast.”
* * *
Their safe house was in Al Quiba in the south of the city, a nondescript house that was in turn kept under observation from another safe house of the second team. When the Toyota arrived, the men went straight into the building, leaving Afarin to struggle out of the back of the pick-up with her washing. To have done otherwise would have invited suspicion. Two men were already inside waiting for them to return. Although they were both wearing Arab headdress and clothing, one was an intelligence officer, the second a captain in the SAS.
“Give us ten minutes while we produce some drawings and maps.”
While Malik drew a tactical map with ranges and datum points, Afarin drew a plan, elevation and three dimensional view of the police station. It was draughtsman’s quality and would be used for briefing the assault teams. Because she had been the “eyes,” Afarin briefed their two visitors.
“Could we have a team rappel down from a helicopter onto the roof?”
She shook her head, “Too many obstructions on the roof to tangle your rappel ropes, plus there’s a sangar of sandbags which is manned. The chopper would be a sitting duck.”
“OK then,” the SAS officer said looking at the drawing of the police station, “What’s the best way in?”
“Through the eastern side of the building where the loading bay is. You’ll need to go through the wire with some big vehicle such as a tank, while you distract the JAM round the other side.”
They rolled up the map and drawing and shook the hands of the team. They seemed almost humbled by the level of risk taken and the commitment.
“Gents, lady, you are truly remarkable and brave people,“ the SAS captain said without a flicker of bullshit, because he knew when his teams went in, they had all the firepower they could handle. That evening they would get their men out.
The special reconnaissance team had done their job and thought that they would get the rest of the day to clean weapons and see to personal admin. Afarin was desperate for a long soak in a bath, a proper bath but it wasn’t to be. The team leader’s sat phone went off just before 11:00 hours. He listened and then his face became grim.
“A Puma has gone down east of the Arvan Rood waterway, near Sinbad Island. No word on casualties but the CSAR team needs to pinpoint it. And we’re it again. We’ll take both the Toyota and the Passat. Afarin and Malik in the Toyota, me and Percy in the Passat. Fully tooled up. Fuck subtlety, just find them.”
“What do we know about the crew?” asked Afarin as she put on a shoulder holster and then the Chador.
“Three. Male pilot, flight lieutenant, female co-pilot, flying officer and a sergeant loadie, male. No names as yet.”
Afarin got in the cab of the Toyota this time and in the foot well, within easy reach was a Remington 870 shotgun with a folding stock and an H&K MP5A3. They headed northwest towards Dur el Naft and turned right to follow Dinar Street, which runs parallel to the Shat al Arab waterway. They kept the Passat in sight as it turned to cross the huge bridge that crossed both the waterway and Sinbad Island. The sky was full of helicopters and the air was rank with burning tyres. They turned off the main highway once across the waterway, past the Al Jazeera building and were in the heart of bandit country, Firuziyah District. “Follow the kids,” Afarin told Malik and as they drove past the Fayhaa Mosque they saw a large and gathering crowd ahead of them.
The Passat was ahead of them and it pulled in when it became obvious the crowd was too dense. They saw Percy get out of the car and look back at them.
“Stop here, I’ll go in on foot. You’ll have to stay here with the wagon and the artillery.”
She got out of the Toyota and did a quick radio check to establish contact with all of the team members. She headed towards the crowd while Percy hung back to cover her. There atmosphere was febrile with much shouting of Allahu Akbar with associated firing in the air. The crowd were mainly civilians with as yet, few black-clad members of the JAM in sight. She pushed into the heart of the throng and saw what looked like two bodies being carried by men in old tarpaulins. A member of the clergy seemed to be directing operations and she pushed in closer. The bodies were dressed in desert flying coveralls. One had a ruin of a head and upper body and he, she assumed it had been a he, was quite obviously dead.
The second tarp contained the body of a woman. They had removed her flying helmet and a shock of auburn hair hung over the edge of the tarp. Her eyes were closed and she looked almost serene until Afarin saw the mangled lower limbs. She looked at the striking, peaceful face and remembered a vibrant young RAF helicopter pilot on an Armed Forces recruitment stand, in a Derby college. She turned away, tears prickling in her eyes.
Afarin keyed her throat mike, “Positive ID numbers two bodies. Repeat two only. Co-pilot definitely, possibly the pilot as well. Mobile one, suggest recce of possible landing site for CSAR.”
After a few minutes it became clear that there was a definite rift within the crowd. The civilian contingent carried the bodies towards the precincts of the mosque and the members of the JAM wanted to take the bodies. Even corpses can be bargaining chips. There was a heated stand off until two Merlin helicopters swept low across the buildings and landed in a sports stadium close to the mosque. The undercover team, which had marked the landing site watched, the Merlins disgorged around fifty troops of the CSAR recovery teams. They were very heavily armed and while half fanned out to secure the landing site, the others headed for the mosque. There was a brief exchange of fire until the outnumbered JAM melted away. The undercover team waited for the crowd to dissipate and then headed back to the safe houses for updated orders.
“So where’s the third one, the Loadie?” Afarin asked rhetorically. They knew they wouldn’t be getting much sleep over the next forty-eight hours.
* * *
“Right, let’s look at what we know. According to the USAF Rivet Joint, at around 1200 today the signal from Gilmore’s PLB went off air in this area where the Hassan River meets the Shat al Arab,” the team leader said pointing at the location on the map, “From that we have to assume he was captured by the JAM. Now what would you do if you had him? Malik?”
“Into Iran quickly, before we set up border surveillance at the crossings.”
“Up to Amarah then across the border into Iran at Chaddabeh.”
“I don’t think the Iranians would want him on their soil. Politically too controversial. I think he’s back in the city in one of their strongholds and they’ll keep moving him… Until…”
“They’re going to kill him and film it, like they did with those American security operatives and hung the bodies on the bridge in Fallujah. They’re not interested in exchanging him for some bottom feeders in the JAM. They want to show the world and more importantly, the Iraqi Sunni population how powerful they are. The Shia that is.”
There was a shaken silence in the room.
“And there’s two undercover teams, eight people to cover an entire city.”
“Not quite,” Malik pointed out, “We can discard certain areas such as downtown, the ministries and close to our bases. And there are the Special Forces covert teams.”
“One of which has just had to be rescued from a police station, so that just leaves sixty percent of the city,” Afarin observed quietly, looking at the map.
* * *
They knew they were facing an impossible task, even with the satellites and Tornado GR4s that made constant passes over the city with their RAPTOR pods. Less than thirty undercover people were looking for one person in a city the size of Newcastle. The regular Army patrols were predictable and it was impossible to search every house, garage or industrial building, had they known where to look in the first place.
It was 15:30 when Afarin made her eighth sweep of a city area on foot. She was in the Al Hayyaniyah district having been dropped off with her basket of washing. Their vehicles had to keep moving because occupied parked cars were immediately suspicious and unoccupied strange vehicles had the tendency to be regarded as a bomb. She was beginning to feel despondent as the enormity of their task struck home. They had been passed a photograph of the man they were looking for and she had memorised his impossibly, handsome face with his just long enough to get away with it hair. You poor bastard, she thought.
It was an unlovely slum of mainly single story houses, chaotic shops and garages and storage buildings. A seething mass of humanity with endless places a person could be hidden. Fate plays a hand in all the endeavours of mankind. Napoleon recognised this when he said to his marshals, “Yes I know you’re good, but are you lucky? Perhaps God had other plans for an insignificant dot of humanity called Giles ‘Gary’ Gilmore.
As Afarin shimmied across a road junction, just another bint in an Arab city carrying a basket of washing, a car turning right nearly hit her. The driver hooted angrily and she jumped back, dropping the basket. She looked into the car as it swept past imperiously. Two men in the front, dark glasses. She couldn’t see into the back because of the tinted windows, but she felt something in her guts. Morrison used to call it his spidey senses and she smiled to herself at the memory. She made a show of carefully picking up and dusting off the washing and watched the car covertly but carefully. It pulled in halfway down the street and the two men got out of the front and one man from the rear left side. He went round to the other rear door and pulled out a body. Hooded and slumped, but Afarin recognised the bloody brown issue t-shirt and soiled, black issue boxer shorts. The man could barely walk and was in a bad way. She clicked her jaw to activate the throat mike. “I’ve got him. Position as follows…”
She waited until they disappeared inside of a building and went down the street on the opposite side to the car. For the next half an hour she conducted a close recce of the building front and back, getting in as close as she dared, memorising everything, air con boxes, drainpipes, windows, mainly barred, doors and what she could see of the roof. She was glad when the second team was in place to relieve them and she finally extracted back to the Toyota. She clambered in the cab and Malik was beaming at her.
“Fucking good effort, Afarin. Time is as they say of the essence. We’re to go straight back to BAS.
Percy took some photos of the surrounding area where they can get a chopper in. The assault team is going in tonight. You’re a bloody star!”
“We got lucky, Malik. Or rather Mr Gilmore got lucky. Let’s hope we’re in time.
* * *
She had borrowed a T-shirt and trousers that were far too big for her, because she had been wearing nothing apart from pants under her chador. She felt dirty and dishevelled. She was still wearing sandals when she went in front of the assembled bad-arses to brief them. Afarin loathed speaking in public and blinked nervously in front of the thirty-odd members assembled in the Divisional headquarters briefing room. There was the main four-man assault team and four more back-ups. The force protection who would secure the area, the drivers, helicopter crews and medics. The ground teams were all armed, faces and hands blackened and looked at her expectantly as she was introduced by J2 Int as “the eyes.”
Afarin started off by outlining the ground area, routes in and out, helicopter landing points and RV points. The Int boys and girls had been busy putting a PowerPoint presentation together, which included images taken from the Tornado RAPTOR pods. Her precise drawings had been scanned and included in the presentation. As she spoke her glance swept across the audience and she faltered when she looked at the assault team at the front of the audience. Henry Morrison was looking at her coolly and Jarvis was giving her a broad grin.
Stumbling over her words, she kept going, but she could feel her face burning. Henry looked away, a strange expression on his face. She was glad to finish the scripted bit, but the questions were endless. The helicopter crews wanted to know about power lines and obstructions in and out of the LZ. The state of the ground on the LZ regarding FOD. Rotor clearances. Dust state on the ground. Bright lights in the area that could glare out the NVGs. The assault teams wanted to know how many were in the building, the state of the windows, obstructions inside the walled complex. Afarin felt like telling the hard-faced bastard with the broken nose that she hadn’t exactly been able to knock on the door and invite herself in. Jarvis just smiled dreamily at her. Henry studiously avoided eye contact.
Once they had wrung all of the information out of her like a dishcloth. Afarin gratefully sat down and swigged water while the Assault and back up teams conducted some very quick and dirty planning. She was exhausted and listened to brief snatches of their conversations.
“Go in with unmarked vehicles. Frame charge for the main door. In through the roof too risky. Bars on back windows. Spare frame charges for locked internal doors. Cooper, you carry the frame charges, Jarvis, you place ‘em. One way in. No time to secure houses either side. Flash-bangs, shitloads of them. No CS. Clear entire house once Gilmore’s extracted. No NVGs, too constraining and they’re always going tits-up. Take anything like phones, papers, laptops, flash drives. Go in with unmarked vehicles, out on the Merlin once the Chinook, Gilmore and the medics have fucked off to Shaibah. Booby trap the door? No, danger of civilian casualties, you know what the fucking kids are like. Don’t want ‘em getting a gob full of Mr Claymore’s finest. Right that’s the plan, vote. For? Against? Fuck’s sake why Cooper? I can’t carry three fucking frame charges. I’ll take two. Jarvis the first one for the main door. OK agreed.”
“We have a plan, Stan. Let’s go and get our Crab friend.”
And then they were gone. Afarin went for a shower and went back to the briefing room, to hang around with the Int team and the Det teams. They all felt like Barnes Wallis waiting for the signal to come back from the Ruhr Dams.
* * *
The night smelled of thick, heady tobacco smoke, hydrocarbons from the GOSPs and the stench of raw sewage coming off the Tigris. No dogs were barking, unlike in other cities. The only sounds were snatches of wailing, caterwauling Jinglie music from a distant radio. Edge was crouched in the deep shadows between two parked cars. His personal radio was turned down low, its earpiece taped in his ear, throat mike in position. He was wearing SBAV Sentinel body armour with groin protection, as he would be going in first. Morrison was just behind him, talking very softly on the radio.
“Red team in position. Radio check.”
“Two,” said Edge.
“Three,” came Jarvis’s voice.
“Four,” Cooper affirmed.
“Blue team ready,” came over the net. Edge recognised the voice as Moose.
“Go, go, go!”
There was an explosion from the roof of the building, the external lights went out and Jarvis scurried along the wall, carrying a large, elliptical object, which was effectively a plastic frame holding a circle of C3 explosive. He went through the gap in the wall and Edge and Morrison waited either side of the gap and were joined by Cooper, carrying more frame charges. Edge was armed with his standard C8 Carbine while Morrison carried a Remington 870 shotgun, loaded with Hatton breaching rounds, solid shot to blow off door hinges and locks. A Hatton or Breaching round is 12 Gauge and weighs 1.4 ounces. It is composed of powdered steel or copper with a wax binder. It is designed to destroy locks, deadlocks or hinges, without harming anyone within the room beyond. However in an enclosed space up to twenty feet it is lethal. Like Cooper and Jarvis, his C8 was rear slung. Assault operations was one of the few occasions SF troops used slings. They were all carrying respirator haversacks packed with stun grenades and wearing ski masks.
Moving quickly, Jarvis placed the frame charge against the main door, clamping it in place on the upright jambs. He pulled the fuse toggle and turned to move back out into cover. The fuse may have been faulty and the frame charge went off prematurely, catching Jarvis in the blast. He was blown off his feet, his smock and trousers burning. He was beating out the embers when Edge and Morrison went over him, followed by Cooper. There was no time to go to assist their comrade, who was for the moment on his own.
Edge went through the doorway, the torch taped to his C8 sweeping the hallway, which was full of choking smoke. At the end was a door. Edge pointed the torch at the handle and Morrison blew off the lock. They each threw a stun grenade into the room, then they both hammered through the door, Edge going left, Morrison right. A man in a long robe was standing over a body cowering on the floor. Edge fired a three round burst at the standing man’s centre of mass and he slid down his own blood on the wall. Somebody appeared from a doorway on the right and Morrison blew in the man’s chest with a Hatton round.
Somebody yelled: “GILMORE STAY DOWN!” Edge looked at the cowering body and realised that it was chained to the radiator, “Gilmore?
Edge was horrified. The RAF crewman’s head seemed twice its original size and his body was smeared with blood and his own filth.
“The fucking bastards!”
Jarvis came in, slightly unsteady on his feet and a trouser leg and sleeve partially burned away, while Cooper cleared the room off where they had forced entry. Cooper threw a phosphorous grenade into what resembled a well-appointed film studio, complete with backscreen, a setup camera, sound and lighting. They knew who was going to be the star of the show and the long knife on the black flag confirmed it. A man staggered out screaming, the phosphorous burning through his suit and into his flesh. Both Jarvis and Cooper fired at him, nearly cutting the man in half.
“It’s Gilmore!” Edge yelled above the gunfire, as Morrison was being a bit feisty with somebody on the stairs. He placed his hand gently on Gilmore’s head and Jarvis used bolt cutters to cut the chain.
“Wait until we’ve cleared upstairs, then get him to the chopper.”
Edge bypassed Morrison who had finished sweeping the empty kitchen area. He went up the stairs first, stepping over a body, Morrison following. As he turned on the landing, a round hit him on the front trauma plate of his body armour, hurling him against the wall and winding him. He swung the carbine and a torch illuminated a woman with a pistol. She obviously wasn’t used to firing it as she raised it again. Morrison fired from below and the Hatton round shattered her pelvis. She went down screaming and Edge finished her with a short burst to the head. They cleared the rooms with stun grenades, firing at wardrobes and throwing stun grenades under beds. In the second room, a man fell out of the riddled wardrobe.
Edge changed magazines and burst through the door of the last room after the boom and high-pitched screech of the flash-bangs. He fired at a cupboard’s twin doors and swung his carbine to the bed. Two terrified and screaming children looked into the torchlight. He thought about the Loadmaster’s battered and degraded body.
“Leave them, Edge!”
They both went downstairs and Morrison went on the radio, “Red team. Target clear, we have our man.”
Cooper had been trying to do some rudimentary first aid on Gilmore, but it was difficult to know where to start. Morrison produced a folding canvas bag and with Edge, they went through the building lifting every electronic communication device they could find or papers, including searching the bodies. They heard the wop-wop of the Chinook and trying to be as gentle as he could, Cooper lifted Gilmore who screamed in agony.
“Sorry, mate. We’ll get you outside and the medics will look after you. You’re gonna be OK,” But Gilmore had passed out with the pain of his broken ribs.
Once the Chinook had taken off for the field hospital, a Merlin landed and the assault, cover and force protection teams got on board quickly. As it lifted off, the dust of the wretched city swirled in its wake and Edge felt sick for what he had contemplated doing.
* * *
12,000 feet above Basra, a Tornado GR4’s weapon systems operator (WSO) released a Brimstone missile. Its solid fuel rocket boosted the little missile to supersonic speed, while the WSO maintained sight of the target with the laser designator. The missile’s modest HEAT warhead would avoid collateral damage in the streets and buildings around the target. The Brimstone impacted with the building’s flat roof and the crush fuse activated the warhead a few milliseconds later after it had punched through into the room below. Everything within the top floor was vaporised, causing the upper storey to pancake down onto the ground floor, crushing everything below. It was like Edge had said:
“They show precision guided bombs going down ventilation shafts on the news, but they never tell you that there are people at the bottom of that shaft.”
* * *
At 03:30 they heard the helicopters returning and a few minutes later the bad-arses burst into the room, reeking of firearm residue, explosives and blood, mixed with testosterone.
“We got him,” Morrison said, “I need a drink!”
Afarin who had expended a great deal of emotional energy on Giles Gilmore asked him softly: “Will he make it?”
Morrison looked at her as though noticing her for the first time, “He’s not good. The bastards gave him a right old kicking, but the medics think he’ll get through it.”
“And what about the…”
“Dead. Every last fucking one of them. Pour encourager les autres.”
* * *
The Station Commander of BAS authorised the opening of the All Ranks Club, “The Camel’s Toe” despite it being the early hours. The party was tinged with sadness because although Gilmore was safe in the field hospital, the bodies of Andy Mount and Louise Skelton lay still as eternity in the refrigerated reefer behind the medical centre, waiting for their repatriation flight. Afarin was exhausted but smiled at Jarvis, glad of his company. He was shouting at her because he had been temporarily deafened by the frame charge going off prematurely.
“Look at you now,” he yelled and guffawed, “The gash with the ‘tache.”
Later, the sergeant from the assault team with the hard face and twisted nose came across to speak with her. To her surprise, he put his hand on her shoulder and smiled at her. It seemed to light up his soul through eyes that had been grey and cold.
“You are an incredibly brave woman. A man owes his life to you, not to me or everyone else here because I’m just a trigger man. She who saves one life saves the world entire. Thank you.”
And then he was gone.
Afarin didn’t feel even slightly brave, just tired and lonely. She went outside craving a cigarette and stared up at the stars and the lightening sky to the east.
“I tried to find you for two years,” said a voice from the shadows. She went to him.
* * *
Morrison watched her getting dressed, first the shoulder holster and then the chador over the top of her head.
“Don’t the straps chafe?”
“You get used to it,” she said slipping on the sandals.
“So that’s it for another two years.”
He was still in bed. She went and sat next to him and bent down to kiss him. The chador made it almost impossible.
“You’ve sacrificed everything to serve your country. Is it worth it? Do you think your country gives a flying fuck about you? Like me you’ll probably end up dead in some fly-blown shithole.”
“Oh, Henry, I thought that of almost everyone, you would have understood. There’s nothing for me, no home or family.”
“I waited for you.”
“Could you ever see the two of us living together in multicultural nirvana?”
She ruffled his hair, “Bloody liar.”
She opened the door of his corimec.
“See you in two years.”
He could tell she was smiling because her beautiful eyes shone like the sun breaking through a sad, wintery sky.
* * *
It was difficult to sleep in the evacuation ward of the Role 2 at Basra Air Station. Faye had gone, sobbing, meaning well but really not helping at all. It was difficult for him not to feel sorry for himself. For someone as vain as Giles Gilmore, it was a shock when he saw his smashed and ruined face in a mirror. He was due to go home on the Tristar that night. In a way, Gilmore was lucky. There was a Czech general surgeon with a specialisation in oral and maxilla facial surgery in the field hospital at Shaibah. His jaws were wired to stabilise them and wire cutters were tie-wrapped to his wrist. If he was going to vomit, he would have to cut the wire cleats holding his shattered mandible and maxilla together, rather than choke to death. It would take several operations to rectify his crushed cheek bones and the orbital floor of his left eye. Gilmore felt sorry for himself, then he thought of Louise and he cried. His hot, salty and futile tears seemed to put it all in perspective.
The RAF Nursing Sister was talking to the young MT driver, “I know he looks a right old mess now, but he will get better.”
Faye looked at her with forlorn hope.
“All that swelling will go down and his face is a bit lopsided because they broke some of the bones in his face. They’ll do some operations and in six months he’ll be fine and as handsome and vain as ever.”
The young girl cried her heart out while the older woman cuddled her, trying hard not to think that all men were bastards.
“But the problem is, you mean well, but you’re not really helping. He’s been through an awful lot and is probably now at the guilt stage, because he survived and the others didn’t. You remind him of what has happened, and I know you don’t want to. Just let him go for a bit. Let him get it out of his system. He’s going home tonight, but you’re staying here, so you need to think about you. Get it?”
Faye smiled gratefully, “Thanks ma’am. I didn’t think of it like that. I’m here for a few more months.”
“Yes dear, you are. And so am I. There will be a lot more Mr Gilmores to take care of.”
The duty nurse went into the area behind the medical facility where they parked the ambulances and enjoyed a cigarette. On the evening of the next day, someone else wanted to see Sergeant Giles “Gary” Gilmore. He was the sort of person who wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“I’d like to visit Sergeant Gilmore.”
“Out of the question, Pocket Magnum PI. He’s due to fly out tonight and he’s been through enough.”
“I have a present for him.”
“I’ll give it to him.”
“Would it help if I said I was one of the team who rescued him?”
The RAF Nursing Sister had qualified as a State Registered Nurse fifteen years previously. She had seen a lot of life… And death. The man in front of her was fairly typical fare that she had met on operations. She could smell clean hair and a freshly showered body, but the clothes always gave it away. There was the faint but fetid aroma of vehicle and gun oil, gun residue, stale sweat. And fear. He was slightly below average height, wiry and very hard. His face may have once been handsome, but now it looked like someone had set it on fire and put it out with a shovel.
His eyes were cold and grey. Part of her was uneasy, but she knew this man was capable of kindness as well as violence and she knew that the patient on her ward owed his life to this man and other men like him.
His eyes softened, so she did as well.
“Ten minutes, max!” she said.
“Don’t worry. It won’t take that long.”
Gilmore opened his eyes and saw a hard-faced man scrutinising him.
“I know you,” Gilmore mumbled through immobile jaws.
“Probably,” the man agreed.
“You came to get me.”
“Me and a few more blokes. And ladies too. Aren’t you lucky?”
“I don’t feel very lucky.”
“Well dry your eyes, coz I’ve got a present for you.”
The man held up a black, cylindrical object. It was a particularly nice flask, the type beloved by aircrew that doubled as a large, insulated mug.
Gilmore laughed. It was the first time he felt good for a long time. The man tossed the flask onto the bed and smiled, but the warmth didn’t quite seem to reach his eyes.
“Seeing as how you saved my life, I would like to thank you…”
“Edge, my name is Edge.”
He turned and left.
“Bye, Edge.” Gilmore closed his eyes and slept.
© Blown Periphery 2020
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file