Chapter Ten - A Strange Prisoner
The tropical day was now at its hottest, and with our two detectives in the full glare of a sun they were not acclimatised to, even travelling downhill was slow work. A glance at his watch told Bim that it was approaching four o'clock by the time that, exhausted, they arrived back at their transport, to find Alf sound asleep in the shade of a rock. He raised his eyebrows on spotting their captured rifle when they shook him awake. He opened his mouth to speak, but on second thoughts, decided to mind his own business.
From here, although still five hundred feet up, the battlefield and remains of the enemy convoy were well out of sight, so Bim explained the state of play to the driver, who found it difficult to believe he had slept through it all.
'I now want you to drive us to the remains of that shattered convoy, because I need to see if there are any of the wounded lying out there in the sun,' he concluded.
'Yer must be jokin', Guv! Yer say the wreckage is only a mile or so from their weapon trenches, which means if they've got any high-powered rifles out there we'd be sittin' ducks! So pardon my French, but not bloomin' likely, if it's all the same to you!'
Although Bob was feeling slightly put out that the inspector had not discussed this proposal with him, loyalty persuaded him to help. Knowing the military mind better than his superior officer might have done, he joined in. 'It's not all the same to us, Alf, and as I understand you are under our orders at the moment, you are ordered to do as we tell you — which is to take us out there bearing a white flag, if, as I suppose, you don't carry a Red Cross one.'
'Yer ain't my superior orficer, an' I ain't obeying no orders like that, say what yer like, an' I'm bloomin' sure my captain'll back me up when we get back.'
'There's two of us, we can both drive, and we're going to take a look at the remains of that convoy, whether you like it or not,' Bim told him. 'So you can please yourself whether you want to be left behind here to be collected later, or drive us yourself,' he announced, as he absentmindedly withdrew his wallet from a trouser pocket, and fingered a Yankee banknote for fifty dollars.
'Yer get yerselves killed, an' I'd be left 'ere ter starve an' die of sunstroke.' He snatched the money and stuffed it into his shirt pocket, before starting the engine and telling them to jump in. Feeling under the seat, he pulled out a folded piece of cloth and handed it to Bob. 'Arabs don't 'ave nothin' ter do with Red Crosses, they use that there,' and when they'd unfolded it, the cloth proved to be a Red Crescent flag. As there appeared to be no pole of any sort in the Land Rover, Bim grabbed the machete that was part of the vehicle's equipment, went over to one of the stunted trees and cut off the straightest branch he could see, stripping off the twigs as he walked back, to tie on the flag and fix the stick in an empty holder built into the side of the truck; this had been put there to carry a rifle.
'Onward, Christian soldiers...' Bob started to sing as they moved off. He had no idea why his boss wanted to risk approaching the convoy, but didn't intend to ask with the driver listening; his ingrained sense of discipline ensured that he fell in with Bim's wishes without query; he knew he would find out soon enough what was in the wind.
After descending the remainder of the mountainside and arriving once more at the level of the desert sand, Alf started off confidently at his usual twenty miles an hour, at an angle of about forty-five degrees from the tracks he made coming, without referring to map or compass. Sure enough, less than twenty minutes later they saw wisps of smoke, as Bob remarked, evidently rising from those of the bombed hutments that were still smouldering. A few minutes after that, the remains of the convoy gradually came into view.
The two policemen jumped out the moment the Land Rover pulled up beside the remains of the first vehicle and commenced walking down the row, looking at each shattered body for signs of life. By the second vehicle, where he appeared to have fallen from the door, lying with his front downward and shaded by his truck's cab from the sun, they found their first possible patient. With head turned just sufficiently to the right for his nose to be clear of the sand, he was a short man with a blood-stained back; and the body was, at least, not shattered. Bim lifted a wrist, and felt a thin pulse. He beckoned the driver, who brought his vehicle over and stepped out, leaving his engine running, to help the policemen lift the lifeless form into the back of the Land Rover. Just then there was a sharp crack, followed by a more distant bang, and they saw that a hole had appeared in the windscreen where seconds before the driver had been sitting. Within a split second he had leaped back into his seat and the two passengers had to jump back in as he was moving off, to avoid being left behind. For a few minutes he seemed to have quite forgotten his policy of sticking to twenty miles an hour, as his speedometer touched fifty.
When they had moved out of range, he reduced speed once more and drove down onto the beach, where the receding tide had left the perfect driving surface of a hard white strip of sand. On their left was a continuous row of coconut palms, with here and there a group of date palms. A few hundred yards along, they passed a group of shacks. The first had a heap of oyster shells in front. Another had coconut shells heaped up and a frame stood there with a coir doormat that was about half-finished stretched on it. Yet more huts had fishing boats drawn up the beach in front of them. All was left there higgledy-piggledy and without another human in sight, as the owners had apparently left them when the fighting started. So that was what the newspapers had meant by 'villagers fleeing', Bim thought.
'I knew I ought ter 'ave 'ad more bloomin' sense than ter take a bloomin' stupid chance like that. Anyway, do yer want me ter stop at the tents over there?' he asked them, pointing over to their HQ behind the guns, which was now abreast of them.
'No, but stop as soon as it's safe. I want to look at our wounded prisoner,' he was told. Still grumbling under his breath, Alf stopped the Land Rover.
'He's no Arab, see — he looks Chinese,' Bim said, as they took a closer look at the man's face. 'And what's more, he looks too old to be fighting — must be in his sixties, I should think.'
'My guess is not Chinese, but Japanese,' Bob replied with some confidence. 'You look at the back of his head and the nape of his neck, and you'll see it's shaped more like a European's. But the Chinese mostly have a flat back to their heads.' Bim, knowing nothing about that, did not argue, but started to take the man's clothes off to see if any first aid was needed.
With shirt removed, they found just a single bullet hole penetrating his right shoulder blade and exiting from the front. The bleeding had now stopped and the small clean wounds were in no need of immediate attention. They then took down his tattered and blood-soaked trousers and exposed another wound in his back; it was at the base of his spine, very nasty, and probably caused by shrapnel; there was no evidence of the missile having an exit and blood was still seeping from the jagged wound.
'Pass the first-aid box, Alf!' said Bim. Reluctantly obeying, the driver muttered that they should not be wasting good stuff on the b's. Stuffing the gaping hole with lint, he pressed down on it with his hand and held it there for a couple of minutes, before applying two strips of Elastoplast to keep it in place. The man stirred, opened his eyes and suddenly screamed in agony; the inspector snatched the syringe and a phial of morphine from their receptacle in the lid of the box and broke off the neck. Quickly filling the syringe, he plunged it into the bare thigh. Slowly the scream faded, and the eyes closed peacefully once more. It had been years since Bim had a chance to practice his first aid training.
'Right, Alf, that new hospital of yours, just as soon as you can make it, and there's another ten Yankee dollars if you can get us there within twenty minutes. And you can take it from me that your commanding officer won't be all that pleased with you if we let this, his first prisoner, die on us, because this fellow may be able to answer some very vital questions. Like why, for instance, Japanese men were leading a gang of Muslim Brotherhood in the direction of that mountain.' Suddenly understanding the signification of those remarks, Alf, who was not as dim as it sometimes suited him to make out, put his foot down without fear of sand in brake-drum or carb, travelling at speed over that damp, hard sand. Perhaps the thought of another ten dollars had something to do with it, too.
In the back, Bim was in the meantime going through the wounded man's pockets, while his colleague monitored pulse and breathing. He pulled a wad of papers from a back pocket of the trousers. Partly soaked with blood, much of the printing was still legible. He showed it to Bob: 'Look, it's Chinese writing, after all,' he whispered in order that the driver should not hear. Bob took one look, and shook his head as he replied as quietly that it was probably Japanese.
'Until a few centuries ago, the Japanese had no calligraphy of their own,' he explained. 'The Chinese, on the other hand, had the written word for thousands of years before we did. But because their huge nation was split into dozens of tribes, with each one speaking its own dialect or language and incomprehensible to the others. Instead of using an alphabet like us, they evolved a picture language of ideographs, which once learnt, could be read and pronounced in any dialect or language one wished — in English, if you like. So although the Japanese and Chinese tongues are unrelated, when communications were opened between the two nations the Japanese were able easily to adapt the Chinese written word for their own usage. They do have an alphabet in addition, for use in enabling them to pronounce new or unusual words; but over the years the Japanese have changed from the usual form of writing vertically, as the Chinese mostly still do, to writing from side to side like us; at least, they generally do in every day matters. You see these papers; they're written across-wise, which means that it's almost certainly Japanese.' Bim murmured that he understood, and slipped them into his pocket before the driver spotted them.
'Sorry I didn't have time to warn you I was going to try and get hold of a prisoner,' he whispered, 'But I didn't think of it until the last moment.'
Beating the clock to earn the driver his reward, they drove into the emergency wing of that same new hospital they had passed the day before and the patient, together with his clothes, was moved onto a stretcher and carried into the accident department. Bim then told the driver to go back to his commanding officer and, if he was unavailable, to see the orderly officer for the day and explain the situation to him. He added, 'Tell him that I think it may be better to place the prisoner under twenty-four-hour supervision, not because he might try to escape in his present condition, but in case he tries to commit suicide.' That was at one time thought to be a favourite pastime with his race, and for all Bim knew, it might still be. Alf was told he could now go and pass on the message; he nodded, and drove off without another word.
It was an Indian junior doctor on duty, and the two nurses assisting him were of the same race. The man removed Bim's temporary dressing from the spinal wound, took one look at it and said he would need to fetch the consultant; it was twenty minutes before he returned with a tall, thin, middle-aged Frenchman. He, in turn, examined the broken flesh and Bim warned him that he had been given five mil of morphine. Then the surgeon called for a probe and, after folding back a loose flap of skin, he drew in his breath, then instructed sharply, in heavily accented English, 'Nurse Patel, go and ask sister to prepare ze theatre for immediate spinal surgery, and call on ze head porter on your way back, and tell him to send two men with a trolley at once'. Turning to the two policemen, and looking very worried, he told them, 'Nous courissons un grand risque ici. . . I wish to say, zis man, part of 'is spine is gone, peut être ze piece is in ze abdomen - me, I don't know. But ze spinal cord est en l'air, you understand?' They understood, and he turned from them to tell the other nurse to take the patient's blood pressure. Moments later, she reported it was hardly detectable.
'Plasma infusion at once, until we know 'is blood group, and I'll take a blood sample to find zat.'
Another minute or so passed before two porters appeared with the trolley, and the surgeon supervised the delicate task of moving the patient onto it without bending his back, after which the team started to rig up the plasma drip.
'Nothing more we can do here Bob, and I don't particularly want to meet any army personnel at this moment — then we won't need to conceal anything from them. We'd better slip off before Alf gets back with his Land Rover.' He led the way through to reception, passing on the way, without noticing them, an Associated Press reporter and his photographer, who had landed on the airfield only an hour earlier.
In the foyer, they asked the Chinese lady receptionist to telephone the number their first Indian minibus driver had given them and ask him to collect the two. Seconds later, and with a nice smile, she told them that he would be along in a few minutes.
They waited for him on the road outside, the dusk having by this time fallen. True to his word, the driver arrived five minutes later, wreathed in smiles and driving a very dilapidated old banger, all signs of its make having disappeared. However, as it evidently went they climbed on board.
'The British Consulate, please,' the inspector called. 'And how is your poor head?' That was a mistake — as the driver wove his way through the traffic, which at seven-thirty in the evening was now quite heavy, he told them at great length how he had suffered.
Suddenly, he forgot all about the agony he had undergone and blurted out, 'Oh, do you know, sirs, I just heard on the wireless that the invaders broke out of their landing place today and were halfway here before our brave Indian soldiers drove them back, killing hundreds of them. And the Sultan has bought some more modern aeroplanes, and two of them went up and killed many more, and bombed their camp. Ah, here we are at the Consulate. Do you want me to wait and run you home when you're ready, sirs?' Bim told him that they would walk that little way when they had finished their business and gave him ten ambos without asking how much the fare was. As the driver accepted that with a word of thanks, he assumed it to be more than sufficient.
After ringing at the front door, they were led once more into the office, where the Consul was still at his desk. After giving him a very condensed account of the day's happenings, Bim asked, 'Has the diplomatic bag left yet, sir?'
'Oh no, we don't send one off every day, only now and then when there's something important to send,' he was told. 'But the last plane leaves at nine o'clock tonight, so if you have anything to send we can just about catch it.' Bim told him that he had indeed something urgent and asked for a foolscap envelope and writing paper, which he was quickly given.
After dashing off a speedy note explaining how the papers came into their possession, he added an account of the so-called mystery the Japanese had left behind them after they left the island during the war and their supposed solution. After signing it with his own memorised code number, he addressed the envelope to the Foreign Office with the code X101 written in large letters on the front and stuffed the note he had written together with the wounded man's papers inside it, the blood on them now having dried. He then asked the Consul to seal it before putting the envelope into the diplomatic bag, which he was told was always done anyway.
It was now eight o'clock, or four in England, and although, as Bob reminded him, it was a long time since they had a good square meal, Bim decided that perhaps it would be better to use their shortwave radio before they left and warn those back home what was on the way to them. In the event of it being information that warranted immediate action, if they had someone who could read Japanese waiting there critical hours might be saved.
The Consul unlocked the safe and put their radio on the table. It took them twenty minutes to contact the person they needed and another ten, with the scrambler online, to relate the day's key happenings, which he guessed were being recorded at the other end. The listener thanked them very briefly and rang off without further comment.
'If you gentlemen would care to wash your hands, dinner will be served in about ten minutes,' their host told them. Seeing their surprise, he added, 'I contacted the chef soon after your arrival, as I guessed you were probably feeling peckish after being away all day.'
Ten minutes later, feeling far from elegant in their grubby and sweaty khaki shorts and shirts, they were led through to the dining room, with its elegant tableware and brilliantly polished Sheffield plate candelabra, to be served a delicious lobster curry by a native waiter in a dinner jacket that could have come from Savile Row. Seeing their discomfort, the Consul smilingly told them not to worry; they could come dressed up another time. 'And I won't ask you to guess the nationality of my excellent chef!' he remarked, with a grin.
It was an hour later, when they were walking home in the dark, that the inspector asked his junior colleague, 'And how did you come to learn so much about the Japanese and their form of writing?' Bob explained that during the early years of his army service, he had been posted as an observer with the American army of occupation in Japan. Although he had not learned much of the language, he had picked up quite a lot of useful information about their customs.
On entering the imposing portals of the Royal, the commissionaire appeared purposely to avoid their glance. At the reception desk, surprised to find the receptionist still on duty, Bim asked the little Chinese woman whether anyone else had moved onto their top floor during the day and was thankful for the negative reply as she handed them their keys.
'I suppose you realise, Bob, that it was only the evening of the day before yesterday that we stepped out of our Fokker Friendship at Ambounadi Airport! There's been so much packed into our first fifty or so hours here that I quite forgot about writing home — my wife'll kill me!'
Bob breathed in sharply at the reminder and confessed that he was in the same boat. The two turned back from the lift and were fortunate in obtaining postcards and stamps from the reception desk.
'The next post is collected at nine o'clock tomorrow morning,' the pretty little lady told them.
'Goodness knows what I'm going to put on mine,' Bob worried. 'Don't see what we can write about, other than the weather!'
The lift carried them up to their rooms on the top floor. Bim's did not need his key, as the door to his room opened at a touch, and it was a state of chaos that met his eyes. Every drawer, cupboard and receptacle had been emptied out and strewn onto the floor, with his bedclothes and mattress thrown on top. They hadn't had much property in the room anyway, and it did not take long to ascertain that nothing appeared to be missing. As he finished his check, Bob put in an appearance and said his room was in the same state.
The inspector rang the manager and asked him to come up at once. It was hardly necessary to explain what had happened, as they showed him the state of the rooms. The man, an Arab, tried to look surprised as he apologised and he promised to send two of his staff to put their rooms straight immediately.
'Tell me, how can criminals or terrorists possibly get in here and cause all this disruption without the collusion of your staff?' Bim asked him furiously. After a moment's hesitation, the man replied, nervously, 'Me, I also get threatened. There are bad men everywhere, what can I do?' Realising his helplessness, the inspector left it at that.
While the staff were tidying their rooms, although it was getting late, the two policemen went down into the lounge and wrote almost identical missives to their dear ones, while trying to calm their nerves with some of the watery Indian beer.
Earlier on, soon after dark, the commander of the Sultan's defending forces sent a truck out to collect the remaining bodies and their weapons, still lying out there on the desert. He was surprised to find they included three more that were typically Japanese.
After sleeping better than he had anticipated, Bim was awake early on the Saturday morning and had finished his breakfast by the time Bob came down and told him, 'I'd have been down earlier, but I've been listening to the local radio news in Arabic. They're saying that another large force of the invaders landed after dark yesterday, further along the coast to the east, and that they have probably joined up with the others by now.'
'If it's been broadcast, we can be pretty sure our people will have monitored it, so there'll be no need for us to report the fact,' Bim replied. 'I reckon we've earned a day's rest - what do you think?' Needless to say, Bob did not take much persuading. Consequently, they spent most of the morning, before the sun became too hot, in their swimming trunks on the hotel's private stretch of beach, alternating between bathing in the limpid, warm seawater and sitting in the shade of a beach umbrella imbibing iced drinks. Bob, an expert swimmer, disappeared out to sea for half an hour on one occasion, with his boss on the point of sending out a search party when he at last returned.
They had lunch at the hotel, after which Bim telephoned the hospital and asked how the injured man they had brought in yesterday was progressing. After some delay, they were put through to the French surgeon who told him, apologetically, that although they carried out a six-hour operation on the man's spine yesterday and that it had appeared to proceed quite successfully, infection had set in. Although kept in intensive care, the patient developed acute meningitis and had died about an hour earlier. Bim expressed his sympathy and agreed they could not have done more.
The pair followed local custom and took a couple of hours siesta and after that read books from the house library. Remembering that on Wednesdays and Saturdays they had orders to stay in the bar from seven o'clock until eight in case information had to be exchanged, they had decided to take an afternoon tea and dine after eight. Before that, Bim wrote out a detailed account of their adventures so far, the current position as they understood it to be and a report on the death of the injured prisoner.
At seven-thirty the messenger duly appeared, a smartly-dressed young woman who introduced herself in the ordained manner, to which they responded with the ordained reply. She asked for an iced lemonade and then told them that she was one of the air crew of the plane that took off at nine o'clock that evening and therefore could not spend long with them. Receiving Bim's sealed report, she said she only had a verbal message to pass on; this was that they should sit tight for the moment and await further instructions because the situation was being taken care of. She had also been told to congratulate them for their good work of the day before.
The young woman left them after a stay of only ten minutes and they moved into the dining room. More residents must have left during the day, as there were only half-a-dozen other diners sharing the room with them. Tonight, deciding they had earned it, Bim ordered a bottle of Californian white wine. Starting off their meal with a soup course, they followed with a local fish dish accompanied by diced vegetable and egg fried rice and completed their repast with ice cream and tinned peaches and some very good coffee. All in all, although far from reaching the standards of the Ritz, they enjoyed their meal and went to bed early for a change.
They were both tired and slept too soundly to hear the succession of heavy aircraft passing overhead during the night. Bim was awakened soon after dawn, with the constable hammering at his bedroom door. When he was let in, he said excitedly, 'Just heard on the wireless that there's been parachute landings inland during the night!'