She breakfasted alone, although she could hear the sound of someone with a vacuum cleaner in another room. There had been no sight of Jean-Claude and she decided that she was a little disappointed. It was a plain and simple breakfast of fruit, yoghurt and croissants and she took one with plenty of jam and rich butter.
There was little of note in the newspapers and a great deal of celebrity rubbish. She went outside for a cigarette and thought she heard a car pull in at the front of the building and car doors closing. About five minutes later, Jean-Claude came looking for her.
“Good morning, Afarin. Everybody’s here, so could you come with me please.”
She followed him back into the house and along past the dining room. He made his way into a sitting room with chesterfield chairs, a sofa and a warm, coal and log fire. Alan Bartlett, she recognised but not the woman note taker and of course Jean-Claude. She embraced Bartlett and shook the woman’s hand.
“Good morning, Afarin. You’re looking well under the circumstances. I hope this won’t be too traumatic for you, but we need to know what happened in Basra. Ava will take notes, Jean-Claude and I will be asking the questions. If it gets too upsetting for you, we’ll have a break. How are you?”
She sat down on the end of a sofa and Bartlett sat next to her. Jean-Claude and the female were on two chairs facing them.
“I’m all right, Alan. It was a bit hairy getting out of Basra but they have been looking after me very well, thanks.
“Right, can we start with the helicopter crash please, Afarin,” Jean-Claude asked, starting proceedings.
“The city was reasonably quiet prior to the SAS undercover team getting rumbled, and then it all kicked off. We knew the JAM was gathering in strength, and then the Iranian Revolutionary Guard got involved. They were crossing the border freely and the Army is Basra seemed unable or unwilling to stop them. The Army was too few and had to shelter in their bases overnight. Old State Building and Basra Palace were regularly attacked with rockets and RPGs.”
“But you still managed to locate the Loadmaster and where he was being held?” asked Jean-Claude.
“We got lucky. I’d already been through that district of the city, but something made me decide to check again and I saw him being manhandled out of the car. We expended a great deal of time and effort on Mr Gilmore. When I saw him, he had been given one almighty kicking. I would love to know if he is all right now.”
Jean-Claude looked at Bartlett.
“He is undergoing rehab at Headley Court and his wife regularly visits him. He needed several operations on his jaws and face.”
“I’m glad he made it.”
“He is immensely grateful to the SAS team who rescued him from the house. They were going to behead him and film it. I’m afraid he knows nothing of your role, Afarin, and probably never will.”
“It’s the way it should be,” she said with a shrug.
“What happened in the weeks after the RAF Crewman was rescued?”
“The whole city was restless and weapons for the JAM were pouring in from Iran. The attacks on British bases intensified, until everyone was withdrawn to the airport. That left us in an almost impossible situation. There were just two watcher teams trying to cover a city of around 950,000 people, most of whom were hostile.”
“And this affected your operations?”
“Yes. We were out on a limb, but the Divisional HQ still expected us to gather good intelligence, even more so with the JAM getting stronger and Iranians operating with impunity. They were giving the JAM instructions on which targets to attack. Basra was a no-go area for the British.
“It could have been so different if we had got the power and water on as soon as we took the city, but there were never enough troops and the local population became disillusioned with us. Frustration turned to violence, and the JAM just filled the vacuum we had caused. To our national shame, we abandoned the city and its people.
“Whenever we went out, the JAM was mounting illegal checkpoints, we had to take phenomenal risks to resupply and I guess our time there was numbered.”
“When did you realise, they were looking for you, Afarin?”
“Going out of foot, I got the impression that we were being followed or that they were watching the house. The others thought I was being paranoid, but I just knew. It was a gut feeling and I began to feel afraid. I think the Iranians pinpointed our transmissions back to the HQ.”
“And they came for you?”
“Yes, two or is it three nights ago. They managed to disable the proximity alarms. I heard something on the roof, most of the houses had flat roofs to collect water. There was a blast from a hollow charge device they used to blow in an entry and they came down quickly, at least six of them. Do you mind if we pause while I have a drink of water, this has made my mouth dry?”
The woman stood up and poured a glass, which she handed to Afarin with a smile.
“Thank you. They came straight into my room, as if they knew who they were looking for. Dressed in Black with black body armour. I had my Glock, but luckily, I also had the combat shotgun. I fired at their heads because they had body armour…”
She stopped and her face was drawn and pale, “Sorry, it’s just that I’ve never killed anyone before. I shot three of them, by which time the other watchers were up and firing, clearing a way out to the pick-up. If they had nobbled it, that would be game over. I had no time to get dressed, just pull on my shoes and a t-shirt
“Two of the boys were in the back, firing with their carbines and I was firing out of the front passenger window. We went through a roadblock and damaged the front of the pick-up, and then it was a terrifying ride to the airport. We had to leave everything behind, the radios and microwave dish, but one of the boys grabbed the krypto. We were pelted with stones by crowds of men, whipped up by the JAM, but we got out. God knows how we managed it.”
She took another drink and Bartlett noticed that her hand was shaking slightly. There was a strange look in her eyes, the look of mania, “Are you all right, Afarin?”
“Yes, I’m OK to carry on. When we got to the airport, they refused to let us in, thinking we were a bunch of Iraqis. Malik gave them hell and demanded to see the officer of the guard and they eventually let us in.”
“I think you’ve missed the point. Are you all right?”
“The three boys said I should go home straight away, because I was the youngest and they managed to wangle me on a flight. The rest you know.”
“I want you to think carefully about this, Afarin. Are you absolutely sure your team was compromised?” Jean-Claude asked.
“Yes. The men that attacked the patrol house had the latest Iranian kit and they knew which room I was in. The rest they would have killed, but I was going over the border, so they could make regular films, showing what they had done to me and send them back to the HQ. Like they did with that CIA guy they took in the Lebanon, William Buckley. That is why I made sure I killed as many as I could. I was determined to go down fighting, or blow my own brains out, rather than being abducted to Iran.”
She paused and the room was in almost total silence, apart from the wood burning on the fire. Bartlett looked at her and the woman finished her notes and looked up.
“How do you think you were compromised?” asked Jean-Claude.
“I’ve done nothing but think about that. We were so careful, in the vehicles or on foot. The only thing I can think of is when I did a close recce of Muwafaqiya Police Station. This guy from the JAM asked me what the hell I was doing, but I’m sure he was Iranian. Maybe my accent just wasn’t right, I’m not a natural at doing the Shia inflection and perhaps he picked up on it and had us followed. But it could have been anything, from a footprint to the way the boys walked.”
“The other team has been withdrawn,” Bartlett told her.
“I think that about wraps it up. Do you have anything more, Jean-Claude?”
“Nothing from me.”
Bartlett nodded, “Would you leave us alone for a few minutes please.”
While Jean-Claude and the woman left the room, he stood up and put more wood on the fire, “It may be spring, but it’s chilly outside.”
He sat back down and held Afarin’s hand. He knew he would have to handle her with kid gloves and was frankly, dreading it. Somewhere down the road but close by, someone was attacking a tree with a chain saw.
“Afarin, I am so glad to see you home in one piece. The question is, where do we go from here?”
She looked at him with slightly puzzled expression, “Well, I go back to Hereford, then go on a few weeks leave, then see what job they or you want me to do when I get back. I would have thought it was obvious.”
“Afarin, have you thought this through? You have had an extremely difficult tour, where you saved the life of an RAF crewman and were almost killed. Six months of deprivation, constant fear. It isn’t right that someone so young is put through that and I think…”
“I don’t care what you fucking think, Alan! I have been trained to do a job, and other people think that I’ve made a good job of it.”
Bartlett sighed. Not for the first time he wondered if perhaps people should have told her NO more often. He wasn’t in the mood for a long, protracted argument, whereas she was digging in.
“Nobody has said you didn’t do a good job, least of all me. You’re tired and you’re not thinking straight. You will make mistakes and you and worse, the people around you are dead. You yourself admitted that maybe your accent just wasn’t right, you’re not a natural at doing the Shia inflection. And that’s just one example.”
“You’re forgetting just one thing. I don’t work for SIS, I work for the Special Reconnaissance Regiment. So, Alan, you can go and fuck yourself,” She snatched her hand away angrily.
“Please don’t swear at me, Afarin. You know I don’t like it. It would take just a few words to the Director SF and you would be off the active list.”
Her face was twisted with fury, “You would do that to me? You fucking bastard, Alan Bartlett! You know that this is all I’ve got, and you want to take it away from me. It just isn’t fair!”
“All right, stop being petulant. You can carry on with one proviso,” He baited the trap, which is what he wanted to do from the start. It was a pity that Bartlett had no children, he was an expert psychologist, “You’re in no position to refuse my offer.”
“First, you go on four weeks’ leave. Not negotiable. You will go to Hereford to get your leave pass signed and not go back to the place. They are already aware and think what I’m going to suggest is a very good idea.”
“But what’s the other part of the offer?”
He smiled and shook his head, “I want you to relax on leave, not be constantly worrying about the next job. Give me a ring when you get back and we’ll discuss it then. You can come to London and we’ll meet up. In the meantime, I’d like you to learn Hebrew. Why will become apparent. Do you have any idea where you’ll be going when you’re on leave?”
She looked at him. She really hated fighting and arguing with Alan Bartlett, because she realised, he was the only friend she had, “I have no idea, probably somewhere in the country I’ve never been before. And I might do some house hunting. I need to put down roots.”
He gave her a card, “Afarin, if you get into trouble or it just becomes too overwhelming, give me a call. I promise I’ll look after you.” She took the card and suddenly became overcome with emotion, wiping her eyes on the sleeve of her garment.
“I’m sorry for shouting at you, but I’ve finally found something that I’m good at. They trained me for months, and I’d be lost without it. It may sound stupid, but I crave the excitement and the danger.”
“And my worry is that you’ll make a mistake and there is no room for errors in your business.”
“Please trust me, Alan.”
“I do, it’s everyone else I don’t trust. Now, there’s a hire car going to be dropped off this afternoon. Use it and have a good holiday,” He embraced her, “And please remember that card and use it if you need to. While you have a spot of lunch, I’d like to speak to Jean-Claude, about the report we need to put together. Goodbye, Afarin and be happy. I’ll see you in a few weeks.”
Jean-Claude was in the dining room, chatting with the woman from Vauxhall Cross and drinking tea.
“Jean-Claude, Alan would like to speak with you.”
He went in and warmed himself by the fire.
“Jean-Claude, I’d like you to do something over the next few weeks.”
“Keep an eye on Afarin Khan and make sure she doesn’t do anything stupid.”
“And how the hell will I know where she is, or where she’ll be going?”
“The car that’s going to be delivered will have a tracking device fitted. You will be able to follow it through your satnav.”
“That’s a bit devious even for us, isn’t it, Alan?”
“I’m very worried about her. You will be her guardian angel. You don’t have any other plans, do you?”
“What are you worried about specifically, Alan?”
Bartlett looked away and said quietly: “I’m worried she’ll kill herself.”
“My God! You can’t be serious.”
“She told me it’s the danger she finds exciting and she needs to properly decompress.”
Jean-Claude smiled ruefully, “So you want me to keep her out of trouble?”
“Yes, but I know it won’t be easy. Give her a couple of days to sort matters out at Hereford and as soon as she starts to move, so do you.”
“What do I do if she goes abroad?”
“Follow her the best that you can and let me know. It will be brushing up on your field craft. Phone me every night at eight PM, please.”
“Thank you, Alan, for the responsibility. I wouldn’t want anything to happen to her either.”
Jean-Claude spent a couple of days in Hereford, looking round the town and Cathedral, taking in the Mappa Mundi. On the third day he went down to his car and switched on the satnav function. He was amazed to see the trace was on the M50, heading east.
He hurriedly checked out of his hotel and her car was on the M5 near Gloucester, by the time he made it to the M50.
“Where the bloody hell are you going, Miss Kahn?”
Her car continued on the M5 past Bristol and left the motorway on the A358.
Minehead? Exmoor? Your guess is as good as mine.
At Minehead she stopped and booked in at the Old Ship Aground. He watched her carry in a holdall and found a hotel nearby, doubling back to hide behind a newspaper in the bar. Later he would find a hotel nearby.
Before dinner he saw her hand in her key at reception and walk along the quay. It was high tide and the sea was rough from a sudden, spring storm. She stopped and looked at the boats in the harbour and Jean-Claude’s heart went out to her, because she looked so small and lonely. When she came back, he slipped into a fishing tackle shop as she went past. Later he saw her dining alone in the restaurant and left to find his own hotel in Minehead and phone Bartlett.
The next morning after a quick breakfast, he waited in is car with the satnav on and her trace started to move. She seemed to be following the coast road and headed off towards Ilfracombe.
Oh no, not the bloody sea again.
She parked at the harbour and went into the Museum, where he could watch her from his car. After a couple of hours, she came out and headed down the promenade to look at the rocky coastline. The sea state was better than it had been the previous but he still got out of his car to where he could see her. Back near the quay she had a cup of tea in a café and got back into her car.
Here we go, the tour de bloody Devon.
Her next port of call was in a hotel on the outskirts of Barnstaple, where she checked in. There were no other hotels nearby and Jean-Claude gave her half-an-hour, then went in to see if there were any rooms. That evening she dined in the dining room, while he had a drink and some sandwiches in the bar. She didn’t go out again that evening, so he didn’t need to worry about her throwing herself off the Taw bridge. He drunk rather more than he should, mainly due to boredom and went to bed at 10:00.
The next morning her car had gone and Jean-Claude saw the tracker near the beach at Saunton Sands. He drove west and parked up, seeing her car near a surf and lifesaving club. He grabbed a pair of binoculars and went up unto the dunes, for some observation. When he saw her again, she was wearing a blue and yellow wetsuit and was bareheaded. She was with a group of about eight and they were learning how to surf, the basics on shore first. Later, they were involved with falling off the boards and being buried in the combers. He watched her come out of the water, very trim in her wetsuit and naughtily, he zoomed in on her prominent nipples.
I think you need a thicker wetsuit, Afarin. That’s not very bloody professional of me, is it?
She got changed and drove back to the hotel and he waited in his car until she went to her room. The cold seas and clambering on and off the board must have tired her, because he didn’t see her again that night.
Afarin was extremely worried that she was being followed. She remembered seeing a gunmetal three-series BMW in the car park at Ilfracombe and in the hotel car park. The previous day she felt certain that somebody up in the dunes was observing her. She moved her car into Barnstaple and walked back to the hotel. It was still gloomy that dawn with an overcast sky and there it sat, the gunmetal BMW. Proof that someone was indeed following her.
It was facing the hotel’s main entrance, so whoever got in wound approach from the front. She knew that she had to act quickly. Afarin went back to her room and grabbed her Fairbairn Sykes dagger. Then she went down to the gym, where a few early morning fitness fanatics were making use of the equipment. There was a net hopper full of basket and tennis balls and she took one. In a cubicle of the ladies’ toilet, she made a hole in the tennis ball with the point of her dagger, sheathed it and carried the ball outside.
She selected the passengers’ door and placed the tennis ball against the keyhole, with the hole facing the lock. With the heel of her hand, she hit the ball firmly and the blast of air went into the lock. There was a satisfying clunk as the door unlocked, and Afarin opened the rear, driver’s side door, got in and re-locked it. The back of the car was untidy with waterproof clothing and she slid behind the driver’s seat and pulled a large, Barbour coat over her.
She was extremely uncomfortable by the time the man came out to the BMW and he turned on the engine and satnav. He found what he was looking for and drove out of the car park.
Jean-Claude watched the trace and wondered why the hell she had decided to stop at a VW dealership, when it wouldn’t be open yet. He suddenly felt a cold blade against the left-hand-side of his neck.
“Pull in on the left. If you turn round, I’ll open your carotid.”
He complied and stopped the car.
“Why the fuck are you following me?”
“Alan Bartlett asked me to.”
“Jean-Claude?” She moved the blade of the knife away from his neck, “Why?”
“Because he is worried that you’ll kill yourself.”
Afarin sighed and clambered out of the back and got in the front passengers’ side. She pulled a handful of tissues from a box in the central compartment, “You’ve cut your neck.”
“No, I bloody haven’t, you have,” he said in a peeved voice, pressing the tissues against his neckline.
“That is the most fucking ridiculous think I’ve heard. Why would I kill myself?”
“He doesn’t think you’ve decompressed sufficiently.”
She shook her head, “For such a nice man, he can be particularly stupid.”
Jean-Claude looked at the gathering traffic and said nothing.
“Why you, Jean-Claude?”
“Because I am your guardian angel and I was there.”
“Do you intend to follow me around for the next three-and-a-bit weeks?”
“Yes. What are you doing down here, apart from surfing badly? You did look nice in that wetsuit, like a baby seal”
“I’ve never been here before, the West Country, and my surfing wasn’t that bad. I could lose you; you know. I bet that car I got from Oxford has a tracking device. I could get another car.”
“You could,” he agreed, but you won’t. What’s the next port of call?”
“Plymouth. I fancy moving to the south coast. To make it easy for you, I’m staying at the Jurys Inn Hotel. I’ll see you for dinner in Fletchers Restaurant at 19:30.”
“Cross my heart and hope to… Well, you get it. I’ll get my car and check out. See you in Plymouth.”
Jean-Claude also checked out and took a leisurely drive down the A386 to Plymouth. As he crossed the moor, it started to pour with rain, but it brightened up at Tavistock. At the top of Crownhill, the city was spread out below him, the ships in the harbour and Drake’s Island. He drove into the city centre and found the Jurys Inn Hotel, where she had booked a room for him in one of the most expensive suites in the hotel. There was a note left at reception for him:
Your expenses should cover it, Cambridge boy.
He smiled, went up to his room and took a lengthy shower. He lay on the enormous bed and watched the TV then dressed warmly but casually for dinner. It was a fifteen-minute walk to the restaurant and once again, she had booked a table. He had a scotch while he waited and when she came in, he was bowled over by her. She was wearing a long, grey silk dress and a black hijab that left her face uncovered. Jean-Claude stood up politely.
“You look beautiful, Afarin.”
“I’ve got my wetsuit on under this. You can’t be too careful in case you try to jump me.”
“My neck stung in the shower,” he told her with a sad face.
“I’m sorry, Jean-Claude. I thought you were somebody with not very honourable intentions.”
“I’m your guardian angel, don’t forget.”
She laughed gently and they went through to their table. He ordered a starter of scallop with venison to follow and a glass of red wine. She didn’t have a starter and went for the sea bass with an elderflower spritzer.
“I bet this is a bit more upmarket than Basra,” he observed.
“I didn’t eat properly for six months and lost four kilogrammes of weight. This is heaven.”
Once again, he proved to be good company, genuinely interested in her and her experiences. He was both humorous and self-depreciating, but she suspected he took life more seriously than he made out. As the evening wore on, she noted his mannerisms, his body language and she could tell he was sexually attracted to her. The feeling was not unreciprocated. She looked at him a lot, looking away when he made eye contact with her. Lifted her shoulders and leaned forward when she spoke. It was one of the most enjoyable meals in a man’s company she had ever had. They walked back to the hotel along Plymouth Ho and to his surprise, she took his arm.
“Why did your parents call you Jean-Claude?”
“Because I was born in France, in Rouen and my mother was French. My father was a medical scientist.”
“Why did you move to England?”
“I was twelve when my mother was killed in a car crash. I was in the car with her, but I survived.”
She gripped his arm tightly, “Oh, Jean-Claude, I am so sorry.”
“Dad moved back to England and worked at Cambridge. He died of cancer five years ago, but I think it was a broken heart”
“You are an orphan.”
“Yes, and so are you, Afarin Khan.”
Back at the hotel he asked if she wanted a night cap, expecting her so say no. She went into the bar and he ordered a coffee and large brandy for himself. She asked for a coffee.”
“You’ll be up all night,” he told her.
“Perhaps,” she said, smiling enigmatically.
While they were sitting down, she asked him about women in his life. Definitely not married, no steady girlfriends and he had a flat in Richmond, where he could cycle to work.
“Bit risky, isn’t it?” she asked.
“As long as you don’t do anything stupid like going up the inside of a lorry. Yours is the risky business, Ms Khan.”
He finished his brandy and she stared at him over the rim of her coffee cup, “Thank you for a lovely evening, Jean-Claude.”
“I really enjoyed it… And your company.”
She put her coffee cup down on its saucer and stared at him, “This is the time when the ball is well and truly in your court, Jean-Claude, because I’m not well-versed at these matters.”
They stared at each other for a long time. He took her hand and they left the bar together.
© Blown Periphery 2022