Chapter Two - Strange Consignment
It was five minutes or so before another man came along. He was much older than the first. With iron-grey hair and a short bristly moustache, he in fact looked every inch a military man. He shook each of them by the hand before speaking.
'Now, before you ask, there is no need for me to tell you my name because, apart from any other reason, you may have no cause ever to contact me again. 'But I do need to know which of you is which, as neither of you is in uniform.' After their second round of introductions, he continued. 'Right, first things first, and to save me from wasting my breath, as I'm not in the position of being able to order you to do anything until I've got you signed up, I have to ask: have either of you any overriding objection, or know of any factor which might preclude you from travelling abroad?'
Bob opened his mouth as if to speak, but then altered his mind and shut it again. Mr X, evidently noticing this, spoke.
'Mr Bateman, this affair is too serious for you to hold anything back, so tell me what you were going to say.'
'Well... it was only that if this job should involve us in working somewhere like the Arctic or on Mount Everest, I'm not much use at low temperatures. In fact, I'm practically useless when it's very cold, and so wouldn't be able to pull my weight.'
X came as near as he ever did to letting his face relax into a grin. 'I don't think that particular potential weakness of yours is likely to present a problem in the work we have in mind for you this time, old chap. Indeed, the next thing I was intending to ask you was this: what with today's weather forecast of blizzards and sub-zero temperatures here "in England's green and pleasant land", how would you both like to spend a week or two on an idyllic tropical island on double pay plus expenses?'
'Can we take our wives and kids?' Bob blurted out, after waiting a moment to allow the words to sink in.
'Not a chance,' replied X shortly.
'And haven't you any reservations, inspector?'
'Not specific ones, sir,' replied Bim, 'but I've been on the force too long not to know that every bait conceals a hook! So what or where's the catch?'
'You're right to ask, of course,' said X. 'Rather than answer your questions piecemeal, though, I propose to unfold the situation we have to deal with, first. We can discuss any problems that arise in the course of that afterwards.
'So, to begin with the basic position. If you have both seen this morning's newspapers, you'll know there's trouble in Ambouna — indeed, at this very moment we understand, on good authority, that what are believed to be Pakistan-based Muslim fundamentalists are trying to take over this strategic island state from its democratically-elected moderate Arab government under their Sultan, who roughly occupies the same constitutional position as our Queen and is also the religious head of the mostly Muslim population. The island is strategic for more than one reason. Here is a map of it, with a small arrow indicating the point of the invaders' beachhead. You can study it later,' he told them as Bim was about to unfold what he had been handed them.
'Firstly, the island and its territorial waters, besides holding reserves of oil sufficient to last for many years, have a small refinery that supplies virtually all of the Indian sub-continent's current oil consumption. Secondly, Russia has for many years coveted this island — not only for the oil reserves it contains, but also for use as a naval and air base. Centrally placed as it is in the Arabian Sea, in the event of war it could effectively cut us off from the Far East. If the island were to look like being forcibly taken over by some organisation such as the so-called Muslim Brotherhood, the Bolshies would soon find a fellow traveller there to call for help from them and that's just the sort of excuse the Reds have been waiting for to give them the opportunity to establish themselves in the area, as they would say, legitimately. Thirdly, relations between India and Pakistan have always been on a knife edge, as you no doubt know, and they wouldn't need a lot of excuse to be at each other's throats again. With a Pakistani sect, even one not overtly supported by its own government, sitting on their oil supplies and which, in the event of war, would be in a position to affect their communications with the West, it's a hundred to one that the Indians would revert to open warfare once more, for the second time within a couple of generations. We remember the carnage there was the last time they fought and at least one of the protagonists possesses atomic weapons now. Fourthly, although the Ambounese government has always fallen over backwards to avoid appearing to favour one side more than the other, in order to avoid offending the Russians they have retained close but covert relations with the British government. For about thirty years now there has been an unwritten understanding that we would support them if their independence should ever be threatened. And lastly, although the Yanks are nominally our ally, they also would dearly love a base on Ambouna and if we looked like reneging on our promises to them, the Ambounese government wouldn't hesitate to call them in rather than risk either fundamentalist or Russian domination. That's the position out there as of now, and I suppose you'll be wondering what the hell all this has to do with you.
'For a start, why did we choose yourself, Chief Detective Inspector Trotter? You will not have forgotten the Cathcart Sports Stadium Opening case, a few years ago,where your research, and diligent follow through, undoubtedly saved many lives. We keep a record of people like you, in case such talents should be needed elsewhere. And you, Detective Constable Bateman, why did we pick on you? Well, when you applied to join the force you filled in an application form and in your list of qualifications you mentioned that you spent several years in the ranks of the regular army, were commissioned and reached the rank of captain. In addition, you told us you spoke and wrote Arabic; and indeed, I understand that since your joining the force from time to time you have been called upon to serve as interpreter in court cases. How did you come to learn this unusual language, by the way?'
'My father was one of Monty's "Desert Rats", sir, and he met an Algerian lady out there,' Bob explained. He went back to Africa after the war was over to bring her home, and they were married here. So my mother is an Arab, and my sister and I grew up to be bilingual.'
'Ah!, so that explains matters very satisfactorily, and now we come to the crunch; that is, what task do we need you to perform? Well, we don't really know that, but it doesn't look like being a very big one actually. First of all, though, and before I describe it, I need your signatures on these two forms, which commit you to nothing other than to regard all I'm about to tell you as coming under the Official Secrets Act, which, as policemen, you will know means that it will be a serious crime for you to divulge a word of it to anyone, even to your wives.' They read the forms he passed over, and signed them.
'Now, a word about the situation in Ambouna as it actually now is, as opposed to the hearsay our newspapers are reporting,' he continued. 'We believe, although we don't know for sure, that the threat is nothing like as bad as these tales being published here in the press suggest; for instance, there is no long trail of burning villages with rape and mayhem. Indeed, there are virtually no villages there and only one town, Ambounadi. And at the moment the Sultan's small army seems to be effectively containing the invaders in an area of a few thousand square yards around their invasion point. However, our sources inform us that there may be reinforcements on the way to the invading forces, and they may already have landed, for all we know. You must understand that our official diplomatic representation on the island is very weak, comprising as it does only a small consulate, headed by an elderly consul, and staffed by natives. Since there are very few of our subjects residing in Ambouna, we've had no excuse to strengthen our representation there before this situation developed. The Ambounese authorities have now, however, asked us officially to send a couple of observers, so that the British Government can be kept au fait with the situation as it develops. Therefore we need you two to take up residence in the capital Ambounadi for a couple of weeks or so, by which time we shall know which way the wind is blowing. The Consul's name is Sir James Willoughby and, because we can't be entirely confident that his local staff have not been infiltrated, you will not be residing with him at the Consulate; instead, he'll have been notified of your arrival by means of the diplomatic bag and will visit you in your hotel. He'll be able to tell you all you need to know about local customs and inform you of what he's been able to discover so far of the invasion situation.
'Although you will be booked into the hotel as Mr Abimilech Trotter and Mr Robert Bateman and your occupation described as journalists, you should take your warrant cards as a means of identification. The Consul will make arrangements for your introduction to the Sultan and the Prime Minister and explain royal protocol to you to avoid your putting a foot wrong. Is everything clear so far?'
Bob muttered an affirmative, but Bim remained silent, looking, rather doubtful.
'Yes, what's the problem, Inspector?' X wanted to know.
Looking the man squarely in the eye, Bim replied, 'This can't be the full story that you're giving us, sir. For one thing, MI6 has staff that's specifically trained to carry out this sort of work, so what can possibly be the point of sending out two ordinary detectives like us? There are other factors that don't quite add up, either, but providing an answer to the first question may solve my other doubts.'
X picked up a pen from his desk and fiddled with it momentarily before looking up and replying. 'I was hoping you wouldn't ask that, but with the acumen you showed when you outwitted those terrorists in Scotland, I should perhaps have known better. What I'm about to tell you is even more confidential than what I've said so far.
'As I've already mentioned, they have officially asked us to send a couple of observers, but the British Government, realising how imperative it is that Ambouna should never fall into the wrong hands, has had a covert team of three men in residence there for the last ten years or so without the knowledge of the authorities. They all have other jobs as a cover, and if they surfaced it would be very embarrassing for us. Does that put you at ease, inspector?'
Bim ruminated for a few moments before answering. 'So we'd simply be going there under the guise of doing an investigative job for you, while all the time another and more professional team is actually carrying out the work and has been doing so for a long time. In fact, it seems we'd only be going out there as a sop to the local government — a decoration, with no real job to do. Is that, in fact, the real situation?'
The reply was emphatic. 'No, far from it, inspector, although I realise that's how it might appear to you. 'Our resident part-time members of the secret service out there can't reveal themselves and therefore have no means of travelling in the exclusion zone that the authorities have established around the area of the fighting. Additionally, since the secret service could not afford to tie up three of its best men on a dead-end job like that where they might well never have been needed, we employed business men already out there who have only had very cursory training in undercover work. Whereas we know, inspector, that you are a man of intelligence and initiative who can adapt himself to the situation in hand. Your colleague here has military experience, as well as knowledge of the local language. As far as sending out men from MI6 is concerned, these people are never sent on official missions, since this would identify them for all time. We'd never be able to use them again on the undercover work for which they have been trained.
'So the position is that we are getting no first-hand, accurate indication of the true position on the ground at the moment, since we are having to rely on whatever information their government chooses to pass on to us. That's a situation we're hoping you can rectify. Also, while you are there we'd like you to keep your eyes and ears open to try and find out more about some secret mission the Japs are supposed to have carried on there during the war, but that's only incidental to your main task. We need up-to-the-minute information because, if the attackers were to break through, the whole island could be irretrievably lost within a very few hours. Therefore, with the co-operation of the Indian government, we shall have a parachute regiment on standby out there near the west coast of India within a couple of days. If you should raise the alarm with us, they will be able to land at a very few hours' notice. Now, before we go into the nitty-gritty of the practicalities of the operation, I have to know whether you agree to serve your country in this crucially important role. I know from your past record, inspector, that you are a dedicated and patriotic officer; how do you feel about it?'
Bim tried, in his mind, to separate the facts now before him from the 'flannel' being laid on so heavily by X. He did not like someone bullying him into making fundamental decisions at such short notice as this. Then he felt Bob's eyes on him and he looked anxious; was that because he feared that he, Bim, would turn this opportunity down? Or was it that he was opposed to them taking on such a task? He didn't know the man very well yet, but from his military and sporting record at least there didn't seem to be much he was afraid of.
On the other hand, though, what would Harry, back at home with the kids, say if he were to clear off for a few weeks on what, he was under no illusions, might prove to be a risky adventure? He ran risks in his daily round as a copper, though, and Harry well knew that. She had been a policewoman herself at the time he met her,after all. So the risks could be no greater that when he tackled that Glasgow gang of thugs with only Constable Abe Johnston to help — and Johnston got shot anyway, leaving him on his own.
X's eyes had not left him as he turned the situation over in his mind and he glanced at his constable again. Suddenly it came to him that this reflection was just a formality; deep down, he'd never even considered the possibility of refusing to take on this duty.
'Yes, sir, of course I... ' he looked at Bob yet again, who this time nodded imperceptibly.
'I should say, we will be glad to serve our country in this way, sir.'
'Good chaps!' said X. 'First, please sign these forms, which officially acknowledge that you accept the fact of being temporarily seconded to the military, with all that implies over pension rights, responsibilities, and so on.'
'And military discipline,' Bim interjected, but nevertheless signed, as did Bob. When that was done, X continued.
'I have already checked with the Passport Office at Northampton and know you both have current passports; don't forget to pack them. You won't need visas. There is an envelope here for each of you; when you leave these premises, take a taxi to Harrods and ask for Mr Jonathan Brightly. He has already been told to expect you and will fit you out with the sort of gear you will need out there. The climate is comparatively temperate at this time of year but you will need lightweight clothing. You won't have to worry about paying Harrods — that's been taken care of. You'll be leaving for Aden by scheduled airline early the day after tomorrow and will then need to transfer to the twice-weekly Fokker for Ambounadi Airport. All the travel details and air tickets are in the envelopes. You've been booked in on the top floor of the Hotel Royal, which is the only European-style place you can stay at in the town. A parcel will be waiting for you in your hotel room, Inspector; it will contain shortwave radio equipment with scrambler facilities and full instructions how to use it, in addition to a few other items that you may need. The radio's why you will be on the top floor of the skyscraper, incidentally.
'You will also find included in your envelope, inspector, a telephone number which is only to be used in the case of emergency; that is, if for some reason you can't use the radio and there is vital information to send that cannot wait. You must both learn it by heart and destroy the paper before you board the aircraft. If you need to use the number, simply give your name, ask the person who answers if she has heard clearly, and on confirmation, put the phone down as though you've been cut off. Then stay in your hotel, because you should be contacted within the hour. Never use the public telephone system for transmitting confidential information, by the way; the manual system out there allows the operator to listen in to your conversation. Although I said earlier that you should never need to contact me personally again, it is just possible that you may come across some evidence that needs to be sent to us physically, perhaps something that we may need to identify. In that case, you will need to take it to the Consul for him to include whatever it is you wish to send in the diplomatic bag. It must be placed in an envelope and simply marked X101; a short note should be enclosed with an explanation of any circumstances relating to the contents and signed only with your own code number; you will each find your individual number, together with mine, on a note in these envelopes. Again, they must be learned by heart before you leave and the note destroyed. You must ask the Consul to seal the package for you before you leave him with it.
'There is £100 in cash in each envelope for out-of-pocket expenses before you leave this country and you should make arrangements with your own police authority to pay your wives (or joint banking accounts if you have one and haven't already made this arrangement) your usual salary while you are away; we shall pay you the balance on your return. In addition, there are 500 American dollars in your envelope, inspector, in case you need to grease any palms in that Arab country. There is a branch of Barclays Bank in Ambounadi, and a credit card is enclosed, which you should sign immediately; it will enable you to draw unlimited local currency, the 'amba', currently standing at the rate of five to the pound sterling. Your PIN number is given in you envelope, which again must be learned and the record destroyed. Needless to say, you are required to keep a written account of all your expenses. Check your envelopes now and let me know if everything is clear.' Five minutes later, they both confirmed that it was.
'A word of warning might not be out of place at this point. Out there it is assumed that money can buy anything or anyone, so please don't be tempted if they try to bribe you. It can be very tempting to be offered a large sum of money, apparently as a present. But apart from the moral aspect, once a bribe has been accepted, they have you where they want you, my friends, and you'll never have another moment's peace. Lastly, one of you should spend each Wednesday and Saturday evening in the hotel main bar from seven to eight o'clock (and stay sober!), when someone should contact you with any information we have to give you. He or she will also accept your twice-weekly progress report. As identification, your contact will say, "What are you drinking my friend — oh! sorry, I mistook you for someone else." You should reply, "Always ready to make a new friend, so let me get you something." The contact will then shake hands with you.' He handed each of them a note containing these details. 'Like the phone number, learn that by heart and destroy the paper before you board the plane.
'I'll leave you now, then, and send in the doctor, who will ask each of you a few questions and give you certain injections against tropical diseases.' He shook their hands, wished them a safe journey and left the room. It was nearly four o'clock.
Three hours or so later, Bim entered his Chelmsford home and dumped a large parcel on the kitchen table before kissing Harry and the three kids. 'Gosh, my arm's beginning to feel sore already, goodness knows what it'll be like in the morning,' he told them.
'What have you done to it?' his wife wanted to know.
'Had three injections for the tropics a few hours ago, love, and before you ask why, I'll break the news to you as gently as I can,' he told her. 'Detective Constable Bateman and myself are being temporarily seconded for a couple of weeks or so to the Foreign Office on some wild goose chase in the East, for which we've had to sign the Official Secrets Act. Do you think you'll be able to manage all right without me?'
'Huh!' snorted Harry with derision. 'That'll make one less to cook and wash for, not to mention clearing up after. I certainly think I should be able to manage that, and there's little that can be done in the garden at this time of year. Oy! but what about my new kitchen?' At the last minute, Bim funked the suggestion that she use some of her nest egg. Instead, he said that he'd thought things over and she could get their local chap to spend up to six hundred pounds, which should be sufficient to give her all she needed.
Her eyes lit up. 'Good, I'll go into Brown's tomorrow and choose. And now I come to think of it, my mum and dad could do with a break, so I think I'll ask them to come and stay with us for a couple of weeks, when you've gone. Mum always loves helping with the children, and you know how they adore her. As I shan't be able to cook with the kitchen all to pot, we'll be able to eat out, and that'll make a lovely change.'
She knew better than to ask him for details of his 'wild goose chase'.