Chapter Three - A Ticket to Ride
When the two stepped out of the taxi at Gatwick Airport that Wednesday morning, it was just beginning to snow. It was still freezing and a strong breeze was blowing the snow into swirling flurries on the roadway in front of the terminal, Bim, dressed in a thin raincoat more suitable for warmer climes and with only light clothing underneath it, shivered. With difficulty, he sorted the sterling change from his pocket and, after paying their fare and collecting a receipt, he grabbed his cases and ran for the entrance; Bob, similarly dressed, had sensibly gone into the terminal building before him.
When they had checked in at the Freddie Laker desk and collected their boarding passes and tickets, they bought a newspaper apiece, and sat down in the lounge to while the pre-boarding time away. After a few minutes, Bim spoke up.
'I see there've been a couple of Iranian terrorists blown to bits here in London. It seems they were carrying a bomb up by Marble Arch, when the thing exploded prematurely. So you see, it's not only in Ambouna that the Muslim fundamentalists are trying to spread their terrifying ideas.'
'No, there seems to be trouble everywhere,' Bob replied. It was only last month that Robert Bradford, the Belfast MP, was murdered by the IRA and it's not long since the Egyptian fundamentalists, or Muslim Brotherhood as they like to call themselves, killed their president, Anwar Sadat. Now I see that the Poles' so-called government are admitting that they shot seven workers dead (you can bet it was lots more if they've admitted seven!) when they were demonstrating against General Jaruzelski imposing martial law. They've also arrested fourteen thousand strikers, I see, and that includes their leader Lech Walesa — you can bet those dock workers won't take that lying down, not now that they've got the bit between their teeth. The Gestapo have also driven armoured vehicles into some of their factories, to break up the sit-ins. And now they've cut off all communications with the West, I suppose in the hope that their actions won't be reported in the free world.'
'Yes, it certainly looks like universal unrest,' said Bim. As you know, the Jews occupied the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur War. 'Well, now they are saying they intend to annex them, and even the Yanks are objecting to that. You can be sure it'll prove to be a running sore for well into the future, if they do. Syria's too big a country to be sat on for long.'
'You talk about running sores - well, just you listen to this,' the constable replied. 'Terrifying reports that are reaching us from New York confirm that a new kind of what has so far proved to be an incurable and fatal disease is sweeping through their major cities. The symptoms include a form of pneumonia and cancers, especially of the skin. In addition to that, because their immune systems seem to have been destroyed, they are unable to recover from what are normally regarded as easily curable diseases. I sincerely hope it doesn't spread to Britain, but how can we keep it out with modern international travel facilities?
'And apart from world-wide wars and rumours of wars,' Bob continued, 'President Reagan was shot and wounded in March, and the same thing happened to Pope John Paul in May. It hasn't all been doom and gloom though, lately: at least we did have Di and Charles' fairy tale wedding to cheer us up back in July, and I see here that the Russian Sakharov family have given up their hunger strike now that the Soviets have agreed to let their daughter have a visa to go to join her husband in the US.'
Eventually, with the newspapers read almost from beginning to end, their flight was called; they put their sterling currency away and were able to move through the gate to board one of Laker's DC 10s. Even by this time the Dakotas were at least forty years of age and beginning to look old, with the insides somewhat tatty. However, those planes were marvelously reliable still, with accidents virtually unheard of.
As the two had not compared tickets and boarding passes, Bim realised for the first time that they were seated at opposite ends of the plane when a stewardess directed them to their seats. At first annoyed, he subsequently realised the reasoning behind it. They would have found it difficult to avoid mentioning the purpose of the trip in their conversation, sitting next to each other for hours. Their cover would then have been blown if there were terrorists or fellow travellers on board. As he looked round, he saw that virtually all the other passengers seemed to be Arabs — apart, that was, from a sprinkling of Indians — so the two detectives stood out quite enough, anyway.
By the time they left the runway it was just after eleven o'clock and their plane lifted off in what seemed to be very nearly a blizzard, as Bim observed when he peered out through his porthole. Before long, they rose above the snow-bearing clouds into perfect dazzling sunshine, after which a pretty young air-hostess brought everyone a disposable cup containing coffee and a small packet of biscuits. It was not until a couple of hours later, when the captain told them over the tannoy that they were now crossing the Mediterranian, that the cloud cover was broken and they saw the vast expanse of azure sea beneath them, with land in the distance on either side. The air-hostess then brought them a late lunch, consisting of a small shepherd's pie in a plastic container, together with a few 'plastic' carrots and potatoes. This was to be followed by ice-cream. Shortly after they had eaten, the captain's voice was heard again.
'We are now approaching Cairo. Please fasten your seatbelts and there's to be no smoking until we have landed. It is bright sunshine down there and the temperature is approaching ninety-five degrees Fahrenheit. For those passengers that are leaving us here, have a nice stay and I hope you have enjoyed the flight!'
Half a dozen or so Arabs, all of them male and dressed in their native flowing robes, left the aircraft and several newcomers came on board. As they got up to stretch their legs, Bim was surprised to notice the fact that those passengers now on the plane were all wearing European-style clothing. The ground staff refuelled the plane and another party soon came on to fill all the vacant seats. Another ten minutes passed before they were given clearance for take-off.
Airborne once more and now leaving Cairo behind them, Bim studied once more the map with which they had been provided by the Harrods' man, to try to memorise its contours; it indicated that the island of Ambouna was approximately 48 miles long and 25 across at its widest point; it wass roughly oval in shape and broadside onto the equator 1,500 miles to the south.
A couple of hours or so later, the captain's voice awoke the two from the deep slumber that the rhythm of the engines had induced. 'We are about to start our descent to Aden, so please fasten your seatbelts and put out your smokes. All passengers for Ambouna will be leaving the aircraft here and I understand that your Fokker Friendship aircraft is standing by on the runway waiting for you. For the others, we have freight to unload, some to ship and we shall refuel before taking off on our final leg to Bombay.'
Al Mukha, Aden's main point of contact with the outside world, bore little resemblance to a modern airport. After a few hundred yards' walk across the open ground, during which the foetid Yemeni air was almost overpowering, they mounted above it all once more in the infinitely more noisy, small, modern plane; but in spite of the din from two jet engines that were only a few feet away, the inspector nodded off once more and was soon joined in that by the constable. It seemed to Bim that he had scarcely closed his eyes before the new captain's voice awakened him again.
'Ambouna is now visible on the horizon, ladies and gentlemen, and we shall be landing in about twenty minutes — that is, if we can get clearance.' And again, fifteen minutes later, 'We are commencing our descent now, so please — no smoking and fasten your seat belts. Since you have been flying into the sun ever since you left Britain, you have gained four hours against GMT. Now would be a good time to reset your watches. By Ambounese time, it is exactly ten to four in the afternoon, or fifteen hundred hours, fifty minutes.'
From the air, the island did indeed appear to be a veritable idyllic haven, with its golden sands fringed with palm trees as far as the eye could see all along its perimeter. In the distance on the eastern horizon, they could not help noticing dark smoke rising. What they could observe of the hinterland, however, appeared to be little more than a sandy wilderness with a background of oil wells about ten miles away on the western side and, in what was nearer the centre of the island, rising ground leading to a small craggy mountain, with white cliffs glistening out of its sides here and there. Ambounadi, the capital city and port, could clearly be seen ahead of them and seemed from the air to be a modern city, consisting of a mass of skyscrapers. The airport was also now coming into view, several miles to the west of the metropolis.
It was almost four o'clock by local time when they touched down at Ambounadi Airport, which their map showed to be about five miles from the built-up edge of the city itself. After a smooth landing, they descended from the plane into what felt like an overpowering heat after England's frost and snow. But within a few hours, dressed in their tropical clothing, they were to find the atmosphere quite pleasant — except, perhaps, during the hottest part of the afternoons, when they later were to discover that siesta was the rule on Ambouna.
It took some time for them to arrive at the customs barrier, as they had not tried to elbow their way to the front as had most of the other passengers; consequently, they were near the end of the queue. Those in front of them were all having both their bodies and baggage searched most carefully and they saw two male passengers carted off by uniformed officials. Before their own turn to be examined came round, they saw that there were half a dozen Indian police officers watching over the proceedings. When they did, however, eventually reach the customs barrier, they were pleasantly surprised, because, after glancing at their passports, they were waved through without any semblance of a search.
It took them some time to find and acquire their baggage, as there were none of the modern handling facilities here. When they at last discovered where they needed to go, they again found themselves at the end of a queue, awaiting their turn to show the porters their paperwork and be handed their property. They had hardly reached the pavement outside, being the last passengers to leave the exit, when an old Land Rover with 'THE ROYAL HOTEL' scrawled on the side in chalk, pulled up beside them.
'Goin' Royal — get in pleass,' said the bearded Arab driver.
'If the bloomin hotel is as rough as its transport, I don't look forward to our stay with a lot of pleasure,' said Bob, as they clambered on board. Hardly giving them time to find a seat, their driver moved off with a jerk which threw them back in their hard seats.
'Hi, there! You be more careful!' Bim called out as they tore up the road.
'I reckon he's already spoken all the English he knows,' Bob remarked when there was no reply. 'We'll have to sit back and enjoy the scenery and hope he gets us there in one piece.'
They had not travelled more than a few hundred yards before the two saw the driver pick up a portable telephone and, driving with an elbow on the steering wheel, commence to dial.
'At least, it seems they have some modern facilities...' Bim began, but Bob stopped him with a wave if the hand as the Arab in front of them made his connection and began to speak into the phone. The constable's jaw dropped as he listened to one side of the conversation that followed. After a few seconds, he quietly slipped his hand into his jacket pocket and when it emerged his partner saw it was equipped with a set of heavy brass knuckles. He packed a pretty heavy punch without them, but when those knuckles connected with the base of the Arab's skull, he collapsed over the wheel like a poleaxed bullock. Before he could be pulled aside, they veered off the road; fortunately, they were by now well away from the buildings surrounding the airport and there was only the desert sand on each side of the road. Nevertheless, with the driver's foot still pressing the accelerator pedal hard down on the floor boards, things were rather hectic for a few seconds, until he was hauled bodily to one side and Bob managed to knock the gear lever over and apply the hand break before switching the engine off.
'What the hell was all that in aid of?' Bim asked fiercely.
'We just narrowly escaped being kidnapped and probably 'taken for a ride', as the Yanks would say,' Bob told him, as he leant over and withdrew a heavy automatic and a long knife from the inert Arab's belt. He then explained that he had heard the fellow tell whoever was at the other end of the phone that all had gone according to plan. The minibus driver had been knocked out and tied up out of sight and the two infidels had come like lambs. He had wanted to know whether he should take them straight out into the desert and shoot them, or bring them in to be questioned, as arranged. The only thing was, he said, he wanted to get rid of them quickly, in case the minibus and its driver was found.
'That was all I gave the b****r time to say. As we don't know how far off his mates are, we'd better beat it back to the airport pronto.' He climbed over into the driver's seat, restarted the engine, and drove the vehicle back onto the road.
'A dangerous weapon that I didn't know you carried about with you — doesn't look to me like official issue; where did you get it?' Bim wanted to know.
'When I pulled in Nick Fuller for that intimidation case last year, he managed to land me one in the belly with it. Luckily, I managed to kick him in the groin at the same time and was the first to recover. Thought it might come in handy some day, and I've carried it around ever since. This is the first chance I've ever had to use it, though.'
By this time they had arrived back at the airport entrance.
'Stay with him till I get back!' Bim shouted as he jumped out of the back and ran inside the airport buildings to where he had seen the Indian policemen. As there were no planes coming in now, he found them in their rest room, drinking coffee and smoking. He addressed himself to the one bearing a sergeant's stripes.
'I assume you speak English...' he began.
'I certainly do, sir, what can we do for you?'
Bim forgave him for the interruption, and proceeded to relate details of their experience.