Contains violence and a description of suicide.
Jean-Claude took the morning BA flight from London to Tirana, and it landed at 13:00. He got a taxi from the airport to the British embassy at Rruga Skënderbeg 12, Tirana, Albania. He showed his SIS pass and was admitted to meet the Diplomatic Co-ordinator, to tell them the purpose of his visit and retrieve his weapon. He booked in at the Crown Boutique Hotel and Spa in central Tirana, had a shower and relaxed before phoning Carrion Crow. He was tempted to call Afarin, but he didn’t want to mix business with pleasure. Libya had been an exception forced on him by events.
Having prepared himself, Jean-Claude phoned Carrion Crow’s number.
“Good evening, this is Wren. Could I speak to Crow please?”
Jean-Claude had learned to speak Shtokavian and a little Kosovan in the Legion. “Vous serez notre interprète, Garçon chic,” His Sergent Chef had ordered.
“This is Crow speaking.”
“I believe you have some information for me?”
“There is a bar called the Melbourne Bar off the Skanderberg Square. Meet me there at 22:00. It’s open all night.”
And he hung up. Short but sour, Jean-Claude thought. He went down for dinner at 19:00. He had a good meal and a glass of Albanian wine, read a newspaper, and went back to his room, put on the shoulder holster and Glock, then headed off into the night. It was a fifteen-minute walk to the bar, which was noisy but not packed. He saw Crow sitting at a table in the corner and went across to say hello and ask if he wanted a drink.
“Yes, Rakija,” and that was it. No hello, how are you? Kiss my arse.
Jean-Claude ordered the drinks and sat down opposite the man, waiting for the drinks to arrive, “I take it you have a piece of good information to request that I fly out to Tirana, Mr Crow.”
He looked at the English officer with baleful eyes, “My information is always good, Mr Wren. Was I not right concerning those whores in France being sent to England?”
“Some of those “whores” were young girls.”
Crow shrugged, “This is Albania. You must start them young because most are worn out and ugly by the time, they reach thirty.”
Jean-Claude looked at the man who said he was offering him information, usually reliable. Unfortunately, he was such a loathsome bastard. His features were sharp, his eyes darting around and missing nothing. But he must have something to be able to operate in the dirty world of Albanian criminality.
“How are you, Crow?” Jean-Claude asked, keeping the conversation general. He knew that he would have to wait until Crow got to the point in his self-aggrandising manner.
“Keeping my head above water. You know how it is, Wren.”
“Indeed, I do,” Jean-Claude said with a smile.
“Mr Wren, do you know what the major exports from Albania are?”
Jean-Claude thought about it, “Crude petroleum and leather goods I believe.”
“No, English. Guns, drugs, and girls. We could swamp the European market, but that would devalue our main assets, so it’s little and often. We run prostitution in many English cities and if you want a PP 200, (very popular with English drug gangs), we can provide them. They take any 9mm round, cheap, and cheerful. And drugs. Albania is on the main route for drug supply, all the way from Afghanistan to Birmingham, and we take our cut.”
“You’ve proved your point very well, Crow. So why am I here?”
The barman brought their drinks across, Rakija for crow and a small beer for Jean-Claude so they stopped talking. He wrote on a beer mat and went back to the bar.
“You should try Rakija.” Crow told him. Rakija the collective term for fruit spirits (or fruit brandy) popular in the Balkans. The alcohol content of rakia is normally 40% ABV, but home-produced rakija can be stronger (typically 50%). Jean-Claude had no intention of going anywhere near the stuff.
“No thank you. I’ll stick to beer. I’ll repeat, why am I here?”
“All of that contraband has to get to Europe. It can be moved by road, but vehicles are subject to checks, and it is not a particularly quick way of moving bulky items such as drugs. The best way is by sea, on a coastal freighter that regularly travels between Turkey and Europe. Inevitably, the Greeks are masters of the coastal freighter routes. Old rust buckets that the crew don’t ask any awkward questions, providing they get their cut.”
“But how do you know which of the many coastal ships are carrying contraband?” Jean-Claude asked.
The Crow smiled superciliously, “Because if you are part of the loading party. You know what they are carrying and where on the ship they have stashed it.”
“And I suppose that you know the ship and where it’s going.” Jean-Claude stated.
“And if you agree to pay me money, lots of money, so will you.”
The Crow reached into his coat pocket, pulled out a photograph and lay it on the table facing Jean-Claude, “This is a Greek registered ship called the Larissa, 12,000 tons displacement. Mid superstructure with large cargo holds fore and aft. It does routine cargo voyages from Turkey to Europort in the Netherlands. This journey it started at Izmar with the heroin already on board, hidden in flour sacks. It will call in at Patras and then at Durrës, where the guns and girls will be loaded in an ISO container. The guns are in barrels of oil, wrapped in waterproof plastic bags, the drums re-sealed and welded.
“The next stop is Trieste where the drugs will be unloaded. It will make stops in France, Spain and Hull, England, before heading for Europort to pick up timber. The girls and the guns are a valuable commodity in England. As you know, Durrës is around twenty kilometres west of Tirana. I would like you to meet me there tomorrow in the Bar Oliv at 18:00 tomorrow.”
“Why do I need to go to Durrës? If we know the times and destinations, what’s the point?” Jean-Claude asked.
“Because at 18:00 the docks will be quiet, and I can show you the ship and get you a manifest. It shows the timings for all the stops and a breakdown of the cargo and locations. Once you have that information, you can let the police know at any country from where to stop and search the vessel.”
“I see you’ve finished your Rakija. Would you like another one?”
Crow nodded with a sly grin, “Why don’t you join me?”
“Because I have a stomach ulcer. I’ll stick to beer,” he said catching the attention of the barman who presently brought the drinks over, writing on the beer mat again.
“Mr Wren, I know you think I’m a no-good criminal, but I have provided you with good information. For example, that shipment of girls at Calais. Why my countrymen were slaughtered so brutally is a mystery to me and the families of these men. I take a great deal of personal risk and I think that risk should be rewarded financially. If your country can pay for all those criminal migrants to stay in four-star hotels, you could give me renumeration for taking the risk to warn you.”
Jean-Claude thought that this was particularly amusing, “I’m sorry crow, that’s too much. 10,000 Euros with half up front, the rest after the successful interception of the illegal cargo. Take it or leave it and I’ll be on the flight home tomorrow.”
Crow drained his Rakija and thought about it, “OK, 10,000. Bring it with you tomorrow.”
“I’ll bring 5,000 and you get the rest later. That’s a king’s ransom in Albania.”
Crow stood up, his chair scraping the tiled floor, “All right, agreed. Remember, the Bar Oliva at 18:00. Please give me ten minutes before you leave.”
Jean-Claude watched him disappear out of the bar and head off into the night. He sipped his beer thoughtfully and decided that there were parts of his job he hated. He walked back to the hotel in a slightly despondent mood and went to bed.
The next morning, he went down to breakfast, stopping at the reception to ask them if they would book him a hire car. It arrived by 10:00 and he drove to the embassy, left his weapon at reception, and asked to speak with the Chargé d’affaires or whoever was acting as the assistant Ambassador.
They met over coffee, “Thank you for agreeing to see me at short notice. You’ll be aware that I am SIS.”
“Your boss kindly let us know that you were coming. How can I assist you, Mr Mortimer?”
“I’d like to withdraw 5,000 Euros from the contingency fund. We will reimburse you through the FCO.”
“May I ask why?” the Deputy asked him.
“I have received information from an agent, that there will be a ship loading at Durrës an illegal cargo destined for Western Europe and the UK. Firearms, heroin and sex slaves. The weapons and women are destined for travel to the UK, on the ship that will dock in Hull. My agent is taking me to see the ship and manifest tomorrow. Once I’m sure that the information is accurate, my department can notify the Italian interior ministry and police, or army units can search the ship at Trieste.”
“And I suppose the money is payment for your agent?”
“We operate in a dirty world, blundering in the shadows.”
“Quite. I’ll authorise the withdrawal of 5,000 Euros and you can sign for it before you leave.”
“Thank you, Deputy. Would you like me to wait in reception for the money?”
“If you would.”
They both stood up, “Thank you for your cooperation, Mr Deputy.”
“Good luck, Mr Mortimer.”
Jean-Claude drove back to the hotel and spent the day looking round shops. He purchased a set of ivory silk bedroom wear for Afarin and toyed with the idea of buying her some expensive perfume. She never wore perfume, and it was the lady’s choice, so he forgot the idea.
He had a nap in the hotel then drove to Durrës, which the travel guide described as a port city on the Adriatic Sea in western Albania, west of the capital, Tirana. It’s known for its huge Roman amphitheatre. Nearby is a 9th-century church with mosaic-covered walls. The Archaeological Museum displays pieces from the Greek, Hellenistic, and Roman periods. Broad Durrësi Beach has shallow waters. Nearby is the former summer villa of 20th-century King Zog. There was no mention of the trafficking of drugs, weapons, or sex slaves.
He parked the car and found the Bar Oliv in a maze of streets near the docks. He went inside to the heady smell of Turkish cigarettes, but there was no sign of the Crow, so he had a small beer and waited. Crow came in and immediately ordered a drink at the bar then sat at Wren’s table.
“Had to make sure you weren’t followed,” he explained.
“Why so late?” Jean-Claude asked.
“Because the dockyard workers will have gone, and the ship should have docked.
Crow unlocked a small gate into the docks and locked it behind them. With Crow leading the way, they walked along the quay. Piles of ISO containers behind them, small and large. The waterside was flanked with cranes, but the docks could almost be deserted.
“That’s the ship up ahead,” Jean-Claude scrutinised the ship, central superstructure with two cranes fore and aft. He thought it looked smaller than the ship in the photograph.
“Why is there no activity?” Jean-Claude asked.
Crow looked at his watch, “They won’t start until eight-thirty.”
They walked further along the dock, and Jean-Claude began to feel uneasy. Something wasn’t right. He looked at the ship carefully then turned to Crow. Crow had gone.
The bullet hit him on his right-hand side, blasting through the large descending colon. He went down and dragged himself to cover in a gap between the ISO containers and drew his weapon. The second bullet, fired between the ISOs hit him in the right lung and his mouth filled with blood. But the firer was careless and exposed himself, so Jean-Claude shot him in the neck and head. The man behind was spattered with his colleague’s blood and brain matter and stupidly tried to wipe the gore off himself. Jean-Claude killed him with two shots. How he wished he had his Legion HK 496.
He crawled to the end of the container and opened sustained fire on four men who were trying to flank him. One went down and another, obviously shot in the leg, hobbled into cover. Jean-Claude changed magazines, blood frothing from his mouth. He hadn’t looked up and a .223 rifle projectile hit him on the right side of his liver, the cavitation causing horrendous damage to his pancreas and right kidney.
He knew he was going to die alone and far from the woman he loved. He slumped back and closed his eyes, then he heard a man wriggling along the gap between the ISOs.
“Tell me, Mr Wren, have you heard of Gjakmarrja, Wren, or should I say Mr Mortimer of the British Secret Intelligence Service? Gjakmarrja is a blood feud, the social obligation to kill an offender or a member of their family to salvage one’s honour. You and that bitch slaughtered many good Albanians in that building in Calais. All these men want revenge for the murders of their families and there you lie, dead or dying. They will kill the bitch in due course, and she will beg for death, you see the problem for you is there was a survivor from that massacre. Honour has been satisfied and I’ll take my 5,000 Euros,” Crow said going through Jean-Claude’s pockets, “Where is it you bastard?”
In his greed, he missed the automatic the Englishman was still holding in bloody hands. Jean-Claude opened his eyes and shot the Carrion Crow twice through the head, then the Glock fell out of his hand. He closed his eyes again and got on with the business of dying in a pool of his own blood. The pain had gone, but he felt an infinite sadness that he would never hold Afarin Khan or feel her beautiful, flawless skin under his hands ever again.
Jean-Claude whispered a prayer remembered from childhood, the blood running out of his mouth onto his chest.
Sainte Marie, Mère de Dieu,
priez pour nous pauvres pécheurs,
maintenant et à l’heure de notre mort.
They could have had everything, brought new life into the world, supporting each other through thick and thin. He gave a single sob and died, a lonely death for a decent, kind and brave man on a dirty dockside.
We so nearly had it all…
Afarin got back from Hereford after having been poked and examined by an Army doctor. She passed her fitness test and MATTs and submitted her PVR form. She slept that night at Hereford then drove back towards Wiltshire, becoming bogged down in heavy traffic. The journey took two hours more than it should and she was happy to open her little house and put the gas fire on. She prepared supper and put it in the oven and decided to phone Jean-Claude. She was surprised to ger a: The number you have dialled is not recognised. She tried again with the same result.
“I bet the silly arse has dropped and broken it.”
She had supper watching the TV and went to bed because she was tired after all the driving, slept well and woke early. She tried to phone him again but got the same message. By now she was getting worried. She went for a walk and when she came back a car was parked outside her house with two people in it. Nervously, she checked her fighting knife was in the small of her back and walked up to the car. To her surprise, Alan Bartlett and Eva got out of it.
“Hello, Alan, what a lovely surprise and welcome to my Gaff, Eva.”
Eva’s face looked puffy, and her eyes were red. Perhaps she had a cold.
“Can we go inside, Afarin?”
“Yes, of course. I was waiting for Jean-Claude to pitch up, there’s something wrong with his phone.”
Inside, she asked: Would you like a cup of tea?”
“No thank you. Afarin sit down please,” Bartlett said flatly.
“What’s wrong? Have I done something I shouldn’t have?”
Eva sat next to Afarin and put her arm around her.
“This is bad, isn’t it?”
Alan Bartlett sat on a chair facing them. His face looked grey and ashen, and Eva was beginning to cry.
“Afarin, I am distraught at having to tell you this, but Jean-Claude has been killed. He was running agents in the Balkans and one of them went rogue and tipped off the Albanian mafia that he was there. He went down fighting and died during the shot out…”
“How many did he take?” she had no idea why this was important.
“Three, including a rifle shot.”
“Where is he now?”
Eva was openly weeping. Afarin’s expression was totally blank.
“In the hospital at Tirana. We’re moving him by road to Pristina tomorrow, because it’s the only airport that can take large jets. He will be repatriated and transferred to Cambridge and hopefully we can scatter his ashes next to his father.”
“I see,” Afarin said without any inflection.
“Afarin, I… We are sorry for your loss. He was a very remarkable man, and something has been taken from all our lives.”
“Is there anything I can do for you?” Bartlett asked.
“Would you like Eva to stay with you?”
He stood up while Eva embraced Afarin, “I’m so sorry,” she whispered. Call us if you need anything.”
“I won’t need anything. I had all I ever needed.”
“Goodbye Afarin. We are always there for you. I’m so very sorry.”
They left and closed the door gently behind them. They headed towards the motorway and Eva dried her eyes.
“I loved him, Alan. He was so kind and gentle once the alcohol stopped corroding his soul.”
Bartlett sighed, “I suppose she took it fairly well.”
“No, Alan, she took it extremely badly. She showed no emotion. That’s not good. Do you know they were getting married?”
“Oh God, you can’t be serious,” Bartlett said and pulled in at the side of the road.
“I’m being deadly serious. He had asked Julian to be his best man before he left. He was going to ask for your blessing when he came back from Albania.”
Bartlett put his head in his hands, “Oh dear God.”
“She has lost her guardian angel, Alan. She has lost everything, the poor, tortured girl.”
Bartlett couldn’t drive for several minutes because his eyes felt gritty and wet.
For the next day and night, Afrain produced chalk and charcoal drawings. They were the product of a sick mind, disturbing representations of victims in hell, male and female, twisted, tortured, broken and screaming, like Goya’s dark paintings. Then for the next three days, Afarin sat on the sofa staring at the wall, seeing, and feeling nothing, smoking prolifically. The only times she got up was to go to the toilet or drink some water. She didn’t feel the gnawing hunger and her fingers became yellow with nicotine. She didn’t cry, just sat and stared sightlessly, her head full of toxic thoughts.
On the fifth day she got up, made some green tea and two pieces of toast with honey. She went upstairs and ran a bath and put aromatic oils in it and while it was filling, performed Sunan al-Fitra, shaving her entire body. Next, she stepped into the bath and cleansed herself, the oils softening her skin and she scrubbed the nicotine off her fingers.
She dried herself with a soft Indian cotton towel and went to her wardrobe. She selected black socks and black briefs, because she didn’t want to make a mess if she defecated and urinated at the moment of death, although she had purged herself. She gave her shattered head and the profusion of blood and brain matter little thought. She chose a black niqab and hijab and went to a shoebox in the wardrobe.
Next, she carefully took out a chamois leather package and unwrapped it. There was a Glock 29SF with one-hundred rounds of 9mm hollow point ammunition, in bandoliers on the holster straps. It had come back from Basra with her, hidden in her clothes and she had decided to keep it, a dangerous decision that would have resulted in dismissal and a period in a civilian prison. She wiped the oil off the pistol’s working parts with a flannelette cloth and loaded one of the two magazines with ten rounds. She knew this was wrong, against everything in her life and she thought about the Qur`an interpretation of suicide:
And do not kill yourselves [or one another]. Indeed, Allah is to you ever Merciful [Qur`an 4: 29].
She lay on her bed, composing herself. The bullet would go up through the first part, the thin bones of the floor of the skull. Next it would destroy her brain stem, no more thoughts, aspirations, love, or pain. Nothing. The expanding gas from the Glock’s muzzle would turn her brains into clotted cheese and the bullet would blast through her skull, providing a convenient vent for the internal pressure and the blood and brain matter. She cocked the Glock, removed the slide lock, and stuck the muzzle in her mouth. Would it hurt? Of course, it would, but it would be over so quickly. She took up first pressure on the trigger and felt her heart hammering away with fear. Not for long. The sweet spot was coming and…
“That’s a pretty stupid thing to do, Afarin.”
She released the trigger and took the automatic out of her mouth. She sat up. Almost paralysed with fear, she looked across the room and he was sitting in the chair with his legs crossed, watching her.
He smiled sadly, “At your service.”
“But… But you’re dead unless this is a horrible joke.”
“No joke I’m afraid. I’ve kicked the bucket, didn’t make it, got the chop, I’m brown bread, dead.”
“But you came back to me. Why?”
“To stop you doing something stupid. I am your guardian angel.”
“Why should you care if you’re dead?”
“Because I love you and want to keep you from harm.”
“How can you love me if you’re dead?”
“Certain things transcend death. The St Michael pendent is on the bed next to you. Why aren’t you wearing it?”
She thought she had put it in a jewellery box in the bedside table, but there it was on the bed next to her, “It reminds me too much of you.”
“Please wear it for me.”
She put it on and looked at him, that sad smile of his that stirred up so many emotions in her.
“Thank you. You are beautiful and I want you to know that. This is not the end for you, it is the beginning. You have many things left to do, love a man, bring babies into the world, nurture them and watch them grow and leave. You will be contented and one day, you will die. It is the way of all life. Love it for what it is, Afarin Khan and don’t waste your life grieving for me. Remember,”
Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am in a thousand winds that blow,
I am the softly falling snow.
I am the gentle showers of rain,
I am the fields of ripening grain.
I am in the morning hush,
I am in the graceful rush
Of beautiful birds in circling flight,
I am the starshine of the night.
I am in the flowers that bloom,
I am in a quiet room.
I am in the birds that sing,
I am in each lovely thing.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there. I do not die.
“I tried to lead the best life, remembering kindness. I found someone who I loved and tried to do the best for her. I am not bitter and took life for what it is. All I ask is that somewhere you will remember me and find a space in your soul to hold what we were to each other. I love you more than life itself. Ironic don’t you think…”
She felt it building inside her. All the emotions she had bottled up erupted and she wept like all the bereaved people do. She couldn’t see for the tears, and she howled and sobbed until she was weak and gasping for breath. When she could finally see again, she looked across at the chair, but it was empty. She tore off the hijab, changed into casual clothes and went downstairs to make tea, tidy up and cook a meal.
Later she unloaded the Glock 19, re-oiled it, re-wrapped it and put it back in the shoebox in her wardrobe, lay on the bed and looked up at the ceiling, wondering what the hell she was going to do with her life. She never again picked up a paintbrush.
© Blown Periphery 2022