Chapter Six - Palms are for Greasing
After their first breakfast in the Royal, which the pair discovered to their regret was devoid of smoked flesh of the pig, and so comprised only cereal followed by toast and English marmalade; Bob remarked;
'Seems strange they insist on sticking to the Moslem laws about eating unclean meat, yet serve alcohol and allow smoking in the hotel.'
'Some Moslems aren't the only ones to obey the rules that suit them,' was Bim's reply; 'Take our own established Christian Church, for instance. After the rite of Mass, Eucharist or whatever they choose to call it, if there's any of the wine that's been blessed left over, the priest has to drink it, every drop. But however much blessed bread or wafer is left over, they can put that back, or leave it out for the birds. This doesn't seem to be a country of extreme religion though,' he continued;
'I've only noticed a couple of mosques so far, and although our windows here aren't double-glazed, I didn't hear the call of a muezzin this morning, did you?
'More like Turkey perhaps, as the women don't wear the yashmak or cover themselves down to the soles of their feet, and the men mostly appear to wear Western clothes. What's more, we've been given to understand their royalty behaves in a constitutional manner.
'I expect we left them with a constitution similar to our own, like we did in India when they obtained their independence.'
They carried on to discuss how they would spend the spare hour they had before The Consul came for them.
'What about us going for a walk along the sea-front,' Bim suggested. 'There should be less chance for someone to take a pot shot at our backs if we walk along the beach. By the way, you have got your pistol with you, I hope?' When his colleague confirmed that he had, they left the hotel, passing the now unsmiling Sikh, who stood at the door, as usual. (They had made a point of not tipping him.)
'Do you think he could be in the pay of the enemy?' Bob whispered, when they had descended the steps.
'Who knows?' Bim replied. 'After the fall of Singapore, we know a lot of his race defected to the Japs and acted as guards over our prisoners of war for the conquerors. And we've been told that those same Japanese troops that came down through what is now Malaysia, occupied this island for a couple of years during the last war. So this chap could be one of those prepared to sell his loyalties to the highest bidder. Anyway, we all know that every race has its black sheep. And if he is a fifth columnist it would account for the fact that our erstwhile neighbour upstairs seemed to have been warned that I had a visitor last night. So since we also know that this bloke is prepared to earn an immoral buck, we must assume it's quite possible.'
Bob observed; 'What you say may be true, but I don't know we ought to attach too much blame to the Sikhs for going over to the Japs after the Singapore catastrophe. You must remember the colonials treated the Indians as second class citizens before India was given her independence. Even in the army, with the native soldiers fighting for us, they weren't allowed into our messes or clubs, and couldn't obtain commissions. I mean to say, how were they to know they were stepping out of the frying pan into the fire?'
Once outside, Bim led the way past the dustbin area that was below the window of their late shadow's room and took a sidelong glance at the ground down there. No attempt seemed to have be made yet to clean up the pool of congealed blood he saw on the paving, although the body had gone. They carried on down to the nearby beach and saw they were in a small bay. Over to their left, hardly a quarter of a mile the other side of their hotel, they could see the derricks of a small dockland area.
As they left the private hotel beach behind them, the inspector remarked;
'It's a wonder the devils didn't try to land here, to save themselves a long fight over the desert, because there don't seem to be any defences at all; so there'd be nothing to stop them on this part of the coast.'
Bob agreed that it did seem rather strange, and continued,
'As you know, I've been trained in military tactics, and as they did decide to make a beachhead where they landed, since it's all desert inland, modern thinking would have been to make a series of rapid further landings along the coast, leapfrogging behind the defenders' lines, as the Japs did so successfully when they came down the Malayan peninsular. Instead of which, they've been reinforcing their original beachhead, which seems incomprehensible to me. The only thing that would make sense, would be if they didn't want the town at all, but had some inland target in mind.'
Being a comparatively small island, Ambouna is not subject to the regular land and sea breezes like bigger land masses are and, at this hour of the day, a very pleasant zephyr was coming in off the sea. As they walked eastwards along the front, they passed several other high-rise buildings, with only the fringe of coconut palms between them and the sea. It was as they left these behind them, that the sound of distant gunfire began to be heard, and Bob said he hoped the invaders hadn't broken through the government's encircling troops.
They carried on walking eastwards along the sea-front, soon leaving the urban area behind them. For a while the coast road a hundred yards over to their right ran alongside the edge of the shore, bordered on its farther side by scattered chalet style houses - probably holiday homes before the invasion erupted. Half a mile further on, however, the road turned inland for a short way before coming to a dead end, and the buildings edging the shore were replaced by timber huts; as there were boats grounded in front of most of these, they concluded they belonged to fishermen.
Bob was looking at what seemed to him the rather strange construction of the native craft, with their high bows, low gunwales, and masts well forrard, when he suddenly whispered;
'I'm sure I just saw someone skipping along behind those huts, as though he was trying to stay out of sight - and he was carrying something that could easily have been a rifle.
'I saw him crossing the gap between the next two huts.' They stopped, and both watched the next gap for half a minute, but no-one reappeared.
'Just one of them visiting his neighbour, I suppose,' Bim suggested.
'But I'd have sworn he was trying to avoid being seen, by the way he was stooping as he ran,' Bob protested.
'It's half-past-nine,' the inspector said a few minutes later, 'and time we went back, I suppose.' As they turned round, there was the sharp crack of a rifle shot; it came from the direction of the fishermen's huts a hundred yards away.
'Missed!' said Bim, as he instinctively ducked.
'Come on,' Bob called. 'We're sitting ducks out here, and our pistols are no more use than pea-shooters from this distance.'
Drawing their weapons, nevertheless, they started to run flat out toward the huts, which were not only evidently harbouring their attacker, but the nearest cover for themselves as well.
'Take the next gap, don't stay near me,' the old soldier yelled as he ran, not wanting to make things easy for their attacker. Bim only hesitated for a split second before he understood and complied. Arriving at the two gaps between dwellings, they each crept round the side of the nearest hut, pistols held at the ready, only to meet round the back having found no sign of their attacker.
The two holstered their weapons and made their way back along the line of huts until they joined up with the road;
'Well, we do at least know it wasn't your imagination now.
'It wasn't such a brilliant idea after all, walking along the beach,' the inspector confessed. 'Still, how could we know someone would be taking pot shots at us with a rifle? Of course, they may not have meant to hit us - could have only been trying to scare us off,' he continued.
'Well, if there'd been anywhere to scare us off to, I've an idea they would have succeeded, as far as I'm concerned!' Bob replied. Bim grinned, and then reflected;
'Perhaps it was just some mugger wanting to rob us of our loose change and passports, though I very much doubt it.' The two stepped out, and arrived back at the hotel in plenty of time to be picked up as arranged.
Changing the subject as they awaited the arrival of The Consul, Bob observed;
'I'm a bit worried about how we're supposed to behave when we enter 'The Presence' of the high and mighty Sultan.' He was only half joking when he continued; 'Do you think he'll be able to have our heads chopped off if we don't bow low enough, or infringe some obscure Arab protocol?'
The inspector gave a short laugh; 'In the unlikely event of there being anything like that to worry about, I'm quite sure The Consul will give us fair warning about how to act.'
The consular Daimler arrived on time, driven by one of the native staff dressed in a smart chauffeur's uniform (which must have been pretty uncomfortable, if he had to wear it in the heat of the day). The man got out and opened a rear door for them. The Consul beckoned for them to join him on the roomy rear seat, separated from the driving position by a glass partition.
'There's been a little action since I saw you last night,' he told them before they moved off. 'The news in the souk has it that a boatload of enemy reinforcements got blown out of the water, early this morning, with only a few survivors managing to swim ashore. I'm damned if I know what happened to it, as the island's sparse defences don't include any warships, and I'm sure none of The Sultan's feeble troop of artillery are capable of hitting a moving boat in the dark...'
Bim gave his colleague the mearest suggestion of a frown and agreed it was strange, adding; 'We've seen a bit of action too, since last night, sir. We were taking a walk along the sea-front half an hour or so ago, when someone took a pot shot at us from behind some of those fishermen's huts, and scapered before we could even see him. We're hoping it was only someone wanting to rob us.'
'That's most unlikely, muggings are virtually unknown on the island. Punishment here is still according to The Koran, which means they only need to be suspected, let alone caught in the act, of robbery or theft, for them to lose a hand, or worse. What's more, this makes the second time they've tried to get you, and you only arrived yesterday,' Sir James reminded them (they needed little reminding, Bob reflected);
'I'm surprised at that extreme form of punishment persisting here,' Bim replied, 'Because we were only just saying that these people didn't seem to be strict observers of religious doctrine, as are the Saudis, for instance - more Westernised.'
'You'll find there's a strange mixture of East and West out here,' The Consul explained; 'You can easily put your foot in it, so if you aren't sure about anything, the best policy is always not to try it. We don't have very far to go, as the palace is in the suburbs the other side of the so-called city,' he added.
Still worried about the protocol, Bob asked; 'How do we have to behave in the royal presence, sir?'
'Just like you would if you were being entertained by our own queen,' was the reply. 'And the less you say, without being directly asked, the less chance there is of your giving offence. They're very sensitive, so we always have to fall over backwards to avoid giving the impression that we are patronising, or trying to treat them like a colony, you see.'
They drove round the outside of town, passing several more mosques on the way, with The Consul explaining that the centre was always in a state of chaos at this time of the day. They arrived at their destination, the palace, a quarter of an hour later. Somewhat to their disappointment, this proved to be another large detached Victorian villa, clearly designed by the same architect as was The Consulate. The door was opened to them, however, by a gorgeously uniformed servant, and the delightfully cool air inside indicated that, unlike The Consulate, they had installed air-conditioning.
Bim had no ideas of what to expect, but Bob had vague expectations of The Sultan being dressed up as in one of the pictures he retained in his mind from his childhood recollections of pictures in 'The Arabian Nights'. In the event, the pair of them felt shabby in their khaki tropical shirts and shorts, as both Sultan and premier arose from their chairs wearing morning dress, and looking as if they had just stepped out of a band-box.
The only concession to Arabian tradition in the room's furnishings were in the splendidly luxurious carpets hanging on the walls in lieu of wallpaper; Bob's inexpert eye took them to be Persian. The furniture itself was all top quality European stuff.
However, when The Consul had introduced them, they were greeted courteously, first by The Sultan, who hoped they had had a pleasant journey out, followed by his Prime Minister, and invited to be seated. Another uniformed servant immediately brought in the glorified brass apparatus necessary to provide them each with a tiny cup of strong sweet coffee. Until that was consumed, the accoutrements cleared away, and they were left alone, only pleasantries were exchanged.
The Sultan sighed, before coming round to the purpose of their visit;
'I sometimes wish I could be back in peaceful Cambridge, where I spent some of the happiest years of my life,' he began in unaccented English. 'The responsibility of keeping order among the different factions here, and trying to balance the influence of the great nations (several of which would only be too pleased to get a foothold on our small strategically placed island), let alone trying to run the place on a shoestring, was trying enough, before we were invaded by these villains; 'I hardly know which way to turn, now.'
Bim ventured; 'Surely not on a shoestring, sir? With all your oil royalties, I would have thought you could have afforded better defences than we see around us!'
The Sultan was not offended, but smiling ruefully, he replied;
'You're mistaken there, old chap. You see before you someone whom Cambridge did not teach much on the subject of dealing, or rather, bargaining, with a great oil company. The contract they persuaded me to sign before they would begin investing hard cash in the sinking of wells, did indeed allot to us the royalty of a Yankee dollar for every barrel of oil extracted. It did not commit them, however, among all the pages of small print, to extracting any given quantity within stated time limits, neither did they promise to pay for it promptly. As a consequence, they are holding production back, and keeping most of the oil in reserve for a rainy day. What they do produce is refined here, and then what we don't use ourselves all goes to India and Pakistan, who keep them waiting for payment for months, or sometimes years. And we don't get paid until the company does. To return to the reason you have been seconded to us, though, I'll hand you over to Mr Mohammed Tarouk.'
The Prime Minister began to speak in good English, although with a strong accent;
'When the first landings were made, only a week ago, the numbers of the invaders were only comparatively few, and we thought our armed forces would have no difficulty in driving them back into the sea, or at least containing them. We were wrong, though, because since then more reinforcements have been landed, and now our guess is that it's only a matter of days, before they'll be able break through what you might call our thin red line. As a matter of fact, were it not for the fact that another shipload of them seems to have exploded a few hundred yards from the shore this morning, my guess is they'd have been already pushing us back by now. In addition to the military front, you see, they've infiltrated fifth columnists, to spread defeatism, and try to sabotage our establishment. Luckily, we think we have caught and shot what we hope is most of these, but much psychological damage has already been done.'
'There's at least one you haven't caught,' Bim interjected, 'And he fired a rifle shot at us this morning when we were taking a walk along your beach.'
Mr Tarouk didn't sound all that surprised, when he replied that he was sorry about that, and then continued;
'One of the problems that concerns us is that we don't really understand the purpose of their invasion. Had it been one of the great powers that was attacking us, it could have been because they wanted to use our island as a naval and air base. But you see we are practically all desert here, and with virtually no arable land, we cannot sustain ourselves. So nearly all foodstuffs, and most consumer durables, have to be imported, although we are beginning to build a few factories. These include one for processing the various fish that surround our shores, and another, for extracting and refining various palm oils. Our imports, therefore, use up all and more of the moneys forthcoming from our oil revenues. But these people who're attacking us can't be doing it for the mineral oil, as they would know they couldn't sell any of it. If they took the wells over, the international oil companies would see to it that they were boycotted when they tried to market their production.'
'So what, in the name of The Prophet, do they want our island for? We tried to make some of the captured spies talk before they were executed, of course, but were unsuccessful, and concluded these underlings just haven't been told what's behind it all.'
Bim gave an imperceptible shiver, as he tried to imagine what their 'tried to make them talk' involved, before saying,
'As you know, Your Majesty, and sir, we are here as a primary means of contacting our government quickly if the situation should become critical, because it is not in our interest any more than it is in your's, for the position here to become irretrievable. As that situation has evidently not yet arisen, I would like to ask permission for my colleague and myself to borrow a Land Rover, or some other such vehicle, as soon as possible, so that we can travel to the high ground in the centre of the island. From there we should be able to look down on the conflict, and get an overall picture of the battleground.'
'You can have the use of my own Land Rover this afternoon, if you wish,' The Sultan told them, 'But travelling over the desert in our hot afternoon sun is something that even we, who are accustomed to it, would hesitate to attempt. So I would strongly advise you to leave it until sunrise tomorrow morning, which is at about half-past-six, and incidentally, unlike your home country, doesn't vary more than about half-an-hour all the year round.'
Bim agreed with the recommendation, and then remarked;
'There is one thing that intrigues us Your Majesty. Our government seems to have heard rumours of some secret activity having taken place when the Japs were in occupation of your island. I wonder if you know anything about that?'
His Majesty's smile disappeared, as the told them shortly; 'Since I was away in Cambridge at the time, I wouldn't know any more about silly tales of mysterious goings on than you do'.
The Sultan then told them that Mr Tarouk would make all necessary arrangements for the vehicle and also see to it that a packed meal would be provided as well as the necessary fuel. Bim thanked him for his forethought and, after they had shaken hands all round, the Prime Minister himself escorted the three of them to the front door.
'I think the situation is even worse than His Majesty believes,' he confided before they left. Just before they reached the car, the Prime Minister called the two back; after handing each of them an envelope, he told them that they contained extra reasons why the British Government should be persuaded to help.
'Please don't open them in the presence of The Consul,' he added, before they hurried back to the car.
The Consul did not ask them why they had been called back and, as he sat beside them on their way home in the Daimler, Bim asked him to return them to The Consulate first, where he thought it necessary to update Whitehall on the current position, by means of their radio.