Chapter Four - Blown Cover
The sergeant, looking delighted at the prospect of a no-risk spot of action, with a shout of what sounded like 'Jaldi louw!', jumped to his feet and rushed out, followed by his men and Bim. By the time they reached the entrance, Bob had dragged the Arab out of his cab, torn his shirt into strips, and with them bound the fellow hand and foot. Not that he looked like trying to get away, as he was still out cold. The Englishman handed over the pistol and knife he had taken from their captive.
'Nice work, sir,' said the sergeant. 'This man is a stranger - certainly not from round here.' Turning to his men, he told them to spread out, and not come back until they'd found The Royal's minibus.
By now there was a crowd of the airport staff gathered around them, gazing with interest at the prone figure on the ground. The sergeant turned to one of them and, for the benefit of the two detectives, told him in English to contact the police station by phone, ask them to send their van to collect the prisoner and, with an extra driver, to bring in the Land Rover he'd been driving. And finally, to ask the buffet to send out a jug of coffee and some cups. Turning to Bim, he explained that he and his men had to remain on duty here, which was unfortunate as he would have liked to have been present when they questioned this Arab, who now slowly opened his eyes and stared vacantly at his surroundings. When he started to mutter something incomprehensible, the sergeant kicked him in the ribs and he relapsed into a dazed silence.
The coffee appeared simultaneously with the return of one the other policemen in the minibus. They had found it driven in behind some of the airport outbuildings, with the Indian driver conscious by this time and struggling to release himself from his bonds. He now appeared to be fully recovered as he was driving his vehicle. A streak of dried blood across his forehead was the only visible indication of any injury and, when he saw his attacker lying on the ground, he gave further signs of his recovery by leaping out of his cab and delivering him a further kick in the ribs.
'That's enough, feller!' the sergeant called apprehensively. 'We want him in one piece for the interrogation - and you needn't worry about him enjoying that!' he added with a grin.
The two collected their baggage from the Arab's Land Rover and hoisted it into the minibus, which had a fairly respectable logo of The Royal Hotel emblazoned on its side. The Indian driver jumped back into the driving seat, called back to ask them to confirm that they were indeed for the hotel and, since they still seemed to be his only passengers, a few seconds later he was tearing off at breakneck speed as if the very devil himself were after them. They had earlier been quite surprised to discover that the Ambounans drove on the left, as in Britain.
'We're in no particular hurry!' Bim called out, apprehensively.
'I have a very bad headache and I want to get home quickly to take a rest,' he replied. That bloomin' Arab nearly killed me, if I could get hold of him he wouldn't last very long.' It seemed that Arab and Indian drivers alike were veritable Jehus on this island.
The airport had evidently been built on the wilderness, a mile or two in from the sea, and far enough from Ambounadi city for safety; they now travelled for five miles or so over a modern roadway across the desert sands, before habitations began to appear. Their driver, who spoke good English, after moaning for ten minutes or so about how shocked he was after his rough treatment, chatted to them on and off all the rest of the way.
'I've been to England myself, you know, sirs. I worked in Liverpool for five years, driving for a Lebanese man who had a clothing factory.'
Now and then as he spoke, he took his eyes off the road to look at them over his shoulder, and the two Englishmen gritted their teeth. Luckily they seemed to be the only traffic on this straight road.
'It's better out here though - no winter you see,' he continued. 'After I got married, my father-in law got me this job.' He handed them a card with his name, telephone number and address. 'If you need anything at all, you just give me a ring - my wife will take a message if I'm out. I know all the cheapest shops if you want clothing or presents to take home, and I can get you special discounts. I know all the best restaurants and I can drive you there very cheaply. I have my own car - this bus belongs to the hotel and you see driving it doesn't take up much of my time.'
They were now passing through an area that looked more like a South African township.
'Who lives in all those shacks?' Bob asked him.
'Oh, you mustn't go there - that's where all the low-class people live,' he told them. 'Lascars, who leave their ships as soon as they've earned enough money to take a few month's rest, and Tamils who work in the dock and do all the dirty jobs on the island. You'll find that all the real work on Ambouna is done by Indians, because the Arabs are very lazy, sirs. I'll take you to some very nice places - very cheap!'
They soon left the shanty-town behind them and passed a modern hospital with a notice outside in both English and Arabic.
'Very fine new hospital, sir,' he told them proudly. 'Only finished last year by the English. We all get free treatment now, like your National Health Service.'
Near the hospital they saw a splendid new Mosque, with a lovely gilded onion shaped dome.
'These Arabs are all Moslems, so they have an excuse to take time off work to pray five times a day. Me, I'm an American Baptist Christian, only have Sundays off,' he explained, and added 'At least, when there's no work to do.'
Soon, they entered broad streets lined with high buildings that mostly had shops and offices on the ground floor. Their driver took them right through this heavily build-up area and finally stopped in front of The Royal Hotel, a clean looking high-rise building, which was built adjacent to the sea front. Before they descended, Bim whispered,
'I think it might be wiser for us keep to ourselves the fact that you speak their lingo. That way you may be able to pick up more information they don't want us to know.'
A tall Sikh commissionaire, smartly dressed in spotless white tunic, trousers and turban, wearing a sort of Sam Brown belt bearing a long dagger with ornamented hilt in a sheath on the left side and a pistol holstered on the other, hurried down the flight of steps from the portico in an evident endeavour to open the minibus door before the driver could descend and reach it. Bim tipped the latter five Ambos, which, being the equivalent of a British pound, one would think should be appropriate. He grabbed Bim's two cases, leaving Bob's two for the Sikh to bring; they both dropped their burdens in front of the reception desk, which was occupied by a very sweet looking young Chinese woman. The entrance hall was built in an attempt at achieving a heavily ornate Rococo style, and evidently no expense had been spared in its rich furnishings. They were to find the rest of the hotel was built and equipped in 'American Skyscraper' style.
As soon as the driver was out of earshot, the commissionaire turned to them and said;
'I expect that man has been trying to tell you he'll take you where you can buy cheap. 'Well, don't take any notice of him, he's got arrangements with some shops to charge the customers he takes extra, which he gets back in commission. I can give you introduction cards to the real bargain places, when you're ready to go shopping, Sahib.'
He was addressing these last remarks to Bim, as the elder of the two, and then left them to resume his place in the entrance. The two detectives turned to the desk to book in. The young receptionist gave them a conspiratorial smile and, in perfect English, told them;
'My advice is - take no notice of any of these Indians - they're all as bad as each other. Go where you want, and do your own bargaining. All the shops here will accept less than the marked price. May I have your passports please, they will be returned to you later in the day if you wish, but you would probably be better off leaving them in the hotel safe. Thieves can get a hundred Ambos here for a British or American passport, you see. In fact, I don't advise you to leave anything valuable or secret in your rooms, because since we were invaded, there seem to have been a lot of strange faces about. And there are ways of getting into this building without being intercepted,' she added significantly.
Ben wondered about the short wave radio transmitter that was supposed to have been left in their room; if what she had told them was the case, would that have been lifted? They would soon be able to find out.
The young Chinese pushed the register towards them for signing, which they each did, as plain 'Mr'. Bim thanked her and agreed that the passports should be left in the safe for the time being. She rang a bell and soon an Indian porter appeared to help carry their bags to the lift; after entering it with them, he conducted the two up to their respective rooms on the top floor.
They were pleased to see these were adjacent to each other and opposite the lift, which was in the centre of a long corridor. There were no signs of anyone else being about up there and Bim asked the porter if there were no more residents on that floor. Bim noticed a slight hesitation, before the man replied,
'There's only one other room occupied up here, sir. The troubles the other end of the island are scaring most of our usual visitors away. Please don't hesitate to be ringing if you are wanting help with anything, sir, and if there's anything else you are needing at any time of the day or night, there's always someone on duty to attend to you.' With that, he left them, seeming relieved to get away before they questioned him further.
Bim found his room to be very well furnished, provided with radio, coffee maker and including an en suite bathroom. His window looked out across the beach to the calm azure sea beyond; idyllic was indeed the word, at least in appearance; he hoped it would stay that way, now. It was doubtful, though; after the welcome they'd received so far, he reflected, they would need eyes in their backs; at least now, however, they knew how things stood on the island.
Before unpacking, he started to search the drawers and cupboards for the parcel which should have been there containing the radio among other things. There were many places in which it could have been deposited, but ten minutes later he gave up the search. It was indeed missing. He picked up the phone to call reception but, on second thoughts, put it down again. If strangers had been loose up here, besides pinching their radio, what else might they have done? The enemy were sophisticated enough to use two-way radios, as they had already noted, so there was no telling. Of course, it might have been put in Bob's room, though he'd been assured it would be left in his.
He looked around for something heavy enough to hold the contacts on his phone down while he examined it, and found a cut glass ashtray that did the job. He unscrewed the earpiece and, sure enough, there was a small bug held in place by a piece of blue tack. Better not remove it; if they were being observed by the enemy, he would rather they did not know he'd tumbled to them. If the phone was bugged, what else? It would be necessary to check everything; but first he must warn Bob.
The constable looked up sharply when Bim opened his door without knocking and then he saw his superior officer standing there with finger on lips, beckoning him out into the passage.
'My phone's bugged, Bob, so we can take it yours is too. I'm going to search everywhere else now, because if they're interested in our calls, they probably want to know what we discuss as well. Two pairs of eyes are better than one on these tasks, so you'd better come and help me to search my room, then we'll check yours together. While we're doing that, don't forget only to talk about bland things we don't mind them hearing.'
'So our cover's gone, like that?' Bob said with raised eyebrows.
'Yes, but we already knew that. Why else would they have tried to kidnap us?' his boss replied.
'Might have been a simple case of armed robbery,' Bob suggested. Bim merely grunted and, ignoring such a remote possibility, in view of that Arab's phone call to his accomplices, told him;
'That simply means that we'll need eyes in the back of our heads from now on. At the moment we know our enemy is equipped with firearms and we haven't even brought our truncheons with us. Their actions so far have demonstrated it's possible their spies could have infiltrated anywhere, even if their fighters are still being contained.'
He switched the radio on, and found some loud music. They found a bug sellotaped under one of the two drawers in the bathroom vanitory unit; another was in the light fitting in the WC and a further one in the standard electric lamp in the living-room-cum-bedroom.
'Aren't we going to immobilise them, sir?' Bob asked when they moved back into the passage.
'No, we'll let them think we don't know they're listening,' Bim told him. 'And while we're about it, don't call me 'sir' any more; We're supposed to be journalists, so call me 'Bim' in future.'
'OK sir - I mean Bim - oh dear, that's going to get some getting used to,' he replied.
'The main thing is, I suppose, that we must remember not to mention anything ordinary tourists wouldn't talk about.' They moved into Bob's room, which was similar to the other one, and found bugs both in his phone and in the same places there. After moving back into the passage where they could talk, Bim said,
'The waves from the kind of bugs they're using only carry a few dozen yards, so they must be monitored from this floor. And since only one other room's let, it must be to one of the Moslem Brotherhood's lot. So now we know where we stand. We should be able to discover which room he's using, if we keep our eyes skinned. And, what's more, we're lucky he's the only other occupant on this floor so, if it comes to the push, we should be able to immobilise him without anyone else knowing anything about it.' After a moment's reflection, he added; 'Since we're quite certain our cover's definitely blown and, because The Consul's office is the only setup here to have been informed of our coming, he's clearly got a n***** in his woodpile. So one of our first tasks must be to put Sir James Willoughby wise to that fact.'
Bob was about to reply when they heard the lift come up to their floor; the doors opened and a gentleman, from his clothing almost certainly a diplomat, came through the doors; he was carrying a case. Seeing them standing there in the passage, he recognised them at once, and began to tell them that he was The Consul; but Bim put a finger to his lips and steered him back into the lift by an elbow. After telling his colleague to wait in his room with the door open, so that he could see if the only other tenant up there left his room to follow them, Bim pressed the ground floor button.
Before Bob reached his door to return to his room, his sharp eyes saw the door at the end of the right arm of their passage open and a male figure step out. Catching a glimpse of Bob, it immediately disappeared back inside again, evidently hoping not to have been spotted. Bob, leaving his door open so that he would see anyone going for the lift, turned on his radio loudly and, after some knob twiddling, landed a programme in English, spoken with an Indian accent.
In the lift, as it began to descend, Bim rapidly explained the reasons for his quick turn around.
'I assume you are delivering our radio, sir, but there's no way we can leave that, or any other sensitive items in either of our rooms now,' he was saying as the lift came to a stop. 'And I think we'd better go for a walk in the street outside where we can't be overheard before we say any more.'
The Sikh commissionaire looked at them keenly as he opened the external door for them. Once outside, the inspector found the branch road to the hotel climbed steeply up from the sea front where the tall building was situated, to join the coast road above. A few moments later Bim asked where their transport was, but was told that his visitor had walked, as The Consulate was only a few hundred yards away.
'Let's go there now then, sir, and by the way, how did you come to recognise us?' Bim asked.
'There was a photograph of you both in this morning's diplomatic bag, together with the information that you would be arriving on the four o'clock plane; And we are walking in the right direction if we want to go to my place.'
While wondering where Mr X obtained their pictures, Bim observed;
'You can't have been the only one to look at the contacts of that bag, sir, because one of the enemy was waiting for us at the airport exit and immediately recognised us.' He proceeded to relate details of their first introduction to the island.
'I have your radio et cetera in my case - I wasn't prepared to leave it in your room like they said, as nothing's secure on this island now, as you appear already to have discovered,' the diplomat said. Bim then told him,
'We had already decided that since our rooms are bugged, which indicates they must be accessible, nothing compromising can be left in our rooms, so we'll leave the radio and whatever else they've sent us in The Consulate safe, if we may, and come to you when we need to use it; It's a bit of luck you won't be too far off. The only thing is, they booked us in on the top floor because the radio evidently works better high up.'
The Consul explained that The Consulate was on the cliff top, and their radio should work perfectly well from there. When they arrived, Bim found that the building could have been one of those Victorian detached villas so common in the London suburbs, with the only feature distinguishing it from other similar ones nearby being the highly polished brass plate on the wall by the front door. Seeing Bim's surprised look, The Consul told him that the island had been a British colony before the war; later, during the second world war, it had been occupied for a couple of years or so by the Japs. Afterwards, it had become independent at roughly the same time as India. The architecture of this and the other villas was really quite unsuitable for the Ambounese climate, but the plans had been drawn by London architects and, ever since, the residents had been stuck with it. He took Bim into his office, took two parcels out of his case, and laid them on his desk, remarking as he did so;
'These two parcels for you came in the diplomatic bag only this morning, as well as this letter - as you can see, I haven't opened any of them.' The letter was simply a delivery note for the goods in the parcels, which Bim was to sign, and leave with The Consul.
'It must have been a pretty big bag,' Bim replied, as he extracted a penknife from his trouser pocket, broke the seals, and cut the string round both of the parcels. One package contained the radio and collapsible aerial, together with instructions; the other, the inspector saw with relief, held two ·38 BSA revolvers, a hundred rounds of ammunition and two holsters with belts. It took Bim a moment or two to recover from his surprise, then he said;
'It looks (in spite of what we were told back in the Foreign Office) as if they expected us to get some action and our experience so far suggests they're too damned right! So I'd better take this artillery with us. I see the belts only hold twenty rounds each, though, so I'll take forty of them and leave the rest with you, since they're too compromising to leave behind in our room when we go out. It's a good job we're both police marksmen. I suppose that's partly why they chose us, though that wasn't mentioned when our mission was explained. The crafty so-an'-so's!' he added as he wrapped up the weaponry once more.
However, the diplomat was thinking of other matters, when he replied;
'From what you have told me, at least one of my six staff is an agent of the invaders. All except one of them have been with me for years and I think each of those would die before betraying me. But, about six months ago, one of my old hands just disappeared; even his wife and family told me they didn't know what had happened to him. Now, it looks as though these callous terrorists may have killed him and either dropped his weighted body in the sea, or buried it in the desert, just so they could infiltrate one of their own men. Because no sooner was the edition of our local newspaper published with my advertisement for a replacement, than Hashim appeared, speaking good English and asking for the post.'
'I should have guessed he was too good to be true - there would be no difficulty in finding Arabs here who'd do anything for money. But none of us knew of the forthcoming invasion then. What I'll do is to get my leading man to one side and tell him of the position. I'm quite sure he'll quietly tip off the rest of my old staff as soon as the opportunity arises, so that they can be careful what they say in front of the traitor.'
(A few days later, Hashim's body would be found washed up on the beach, with its throat cut.)
'Now, as far as the position on the island is concerned, gossip in the souk this morning has it, or so I'm told, that our Sultan's forces are only just managing to hold their own, as reinforcements are being landed at night from the sea behind the invaders, who, rumour has it, are equipped with some Czech armoured cars. The Sultan has no armoured vehicles at the moment and not many troops; What he has are virtually all Indians, except for the officers and some technicians, who are mercenaries garnered from various European nations. I fear that if these Moslem Brotherhood, or whoever they are, break through, they'll be virtually unstoppable. So we're going to need outside help, need it quickly, and the most urgently needed equipment will be light tanks and their crews. I told our people how things would be as soon as I heard of the invasion, but the trouble has been that with no journalists or civilians allowed near the fighting, I only get to know from what the authorities care to tell us and from rumours gathered in the souk by my staff. The entire airforce here, by the way, consists of three old Meteors - all apparently on their last legs. They're based on the civvy airfield where you landed, because there's nowhere else for them. There are quite good facilities there though, because it was enlarged and equipped as a military airfield early on in the war.'
As Bim left the consulate, three Meteors passed overhead in the direction of the fighting. He did not hurry back to discuss the position with his colleague, as he was trying to assess calmly their present situation, and decide just how they should proceed for the best.
When he reached the hotel portico, he heard the sound of aircraft returning. Somehow, it sounded different this time and he stopped to look up into the sky. There were only two planes left in The Sultan's airforce now, it seemed. He observed the setting sun, and realised darkness would soon be upon them.