Chapter 21 - To England's Green and Pleasant Land
It is still December, and back here in England it is early on a Sunday morning. In Whitehall, the duty senior civil servant in the War Office is again looking through the translation of papers. They had arrived overnight, having been sent by Detective Chief Inspector Trotter in the diplomatic bag, after having been taken from an unlikely Japanese prisoner among the detachment of the so-called Muslim Brotherhood that were engaged in the invasion of Ambouna. They had been translated by the Japanese speaker who had been standing by since 4:00am.
In disbelief, he had read them a second, and now, for a third time. After examining the map that came with them once more, he sighed, and had to admit it must all be true; reluctantly, he picked up the red phone.
The Prime Minister was not too pleased to be woken up by the telephone at eight o'clock on a Sunday morning, but after he had listened to all the civil servant had to tell him, Sir Edward suddenly hoisted his bulk upright with the nearest he could manage to a jerk.
'Call a meeting of heads of the three services here at Number 10, for as soon as they can all make it. Any that cannot be reached, send their second in command — and come yourself, with a secretary to take notes. In the meantime, radio instructions to our lads near Bombay to stand to, and await further instructions. Ring me back as soon as you have an agreed time — remember, earliest possible. They must fly in, if that's the quickest way!'
The meeting, which did not last very long, took place two hours later and was immediately followed by a coded radio message to the OC of the parachute regiment that had been standing to on the Bombay military airfield, to embark and make the drop on Ambouna as soon as it was practical. The message included all known details of the military position there at that moment. (They had, in any case, been at four hours' notice for action ever since they had landed there, after the Ambouna landing had been reported.)
A photostat of the original papers, together with details of the steps that had already been taken, was sent by hand to the Japanese Ambassador, who immediately telephoned his Prime Minister and followed up with a faxed copy. A company of Sappers was put on standby and orders issued for them to be equipped with the latest gas masks and flown out to Ambouna as soon as they and their equipment were ready. Their task would be to retrieve the sarin and seal it in plastic, ready for it to be flown out and incinerated in Japan, since that was its place of origin.
By the time his message to act was received by the parachute regiment's Colonel on Bombay Airfield, it was seven o'clock in the evening by West India time. The CO weighed up the situation: they would be flying westward, which meant they would be gaining time by the sun; it was essential they make their drop after dark, so whatever they thought back in London, he decided it to be best not to take off until after midnight. He called his officers together and told them that the men could stand down and get a few hours rest, but to be on parade with full equipment at 23.30hrs.
So the bugle sounded five minutes before parade time, it took them half an hour to board and settle their equipment and they were airborne dead on midnight. The aircraft were flying south by south-east, with the result that the men jumped from their giant Hercules aircraft over Ambouna not long before the dawn.
In the event, not a single shot was fired. In fact, the parachutists were hardly needed; a troop of Boy Scouts could as successfully have accepted the unconditional surrender of the now leaderless Kashmiris, who were not only running short of water but disillusioned at the realisation that their promised island home appeared to consist entirely of desert sand.
The Royal Navy apprehended the Samurai Society's three ships in international waters; the Indonesian authorities grounded the three Dakotas, raided their local office and arrested the staff; and in Hong Kong, where they did not bother with red tape, Hajimoto's financial organisation was raided and its funds confiscated. The whole operation was wound up and copies of the secret society's membership lists were faxed to Japan.
After opening his 'Sunday Pictorial' on that same Sunday morning, Wicker was turning over the pages slowly after eating his breakfast with his mum and dad when he sucked in his breath to let out a surprised 'Ah!' His eyes stood out like chapel hat-pegs as the Associated Press photographer's picture (taken in Ambounadi Hospital the previous day and immediately faxed through to London), hit him.
'Well bugger me if it ain't that bastard Hajimoto got his comeuppance at long last — oh, sorry, mum...'
On the Monday morning, the two detectives made their leisurely way to the Consulate, hoping no orders had yet been received for their immediate return.
'Might as well have a day or two of real "idyllic" holiday while we're round this side of the world,' Bob had remarked hopefully.
'We'll have to see if we can persuade the Consul to want to keep us around to help him clear up all those imaginary loose ends for a few days,' Bim had told him.
It seemed they had no need; when they were led into his presence, the Consul seemed glad to see them. After shaking each of them enthusiastically by the hand, he told them.
'So glad to see you both — saved me a call. I have to tell you that the Sultan has requested our presence on Thursday next at four o'clock in the afternoon. Don't ask me what for, as I don't know, and if I could make a guess I wouldn't tell you. So, until then, I suggest you take things easy. Don't spend too much time on the beach in the direct sun and get yourselves burnt, though. I'll let you know more details of the venue when I have more information myself, but in the meantime, I suggest you get the hotel to clean and press your most presentable clothes. Incidentally, there's a lot of rounding up of fifth columnists going on at the moment. Now the threat is over, witnesses are coming out of the woodwork by the hundred — the problem's going to be sorting the genuine evidence, from individuals trying to get their own back for other reasons. But I'm thankful to say that's not our problem.'
Back at the hotel, the first thing they noticed was the absence of a commissionaire on duty at the door. They found the manager was awaiting them in the hall; he told them he was sorry, but he was hoping to find a suitable replacement as soon as possible as the Sikh had just been arrested. The little Chinese receptionist greeted them with a happy smile and a wink. They changed into beachwear and made their way down to the sea.
'I'm going to ring home later, when my wife's got the kids off to school, and tell her we can't get away from all this work until after Friday at the earliest!' Bim said with a grin.
'I'll take over the phone when you've finished with it,' his constable replied. They made the most of the intervening days, and in eating plenty and taking little exercise they both put on weight.
At 4.30pm on the Thursday, the Consul fetched them in his roomy old Daimler, and they were surprised to find themselves arriving at the the Parliament building, which they had not come across before. It was rather like a large English church hall and built incongruously in the Gothic style. The Consul told them it was a legacy left to them by the departing British.
They were greeted at the door by the Prime Minister and led up a central aisle between rows of seated deputies to a dais at the far end of the hall. There, seated on a throne, and to Bob's delight adorned in colourful robes that might have come straight out of the Arabian Nights, was the Sultan.
As he arose to greet them, all those in the hall also stood. (Bim noticed there were no women among them.) After shaking hands with the two, he told them in his perfect English, 'Hope you don't mind this spot of show, but my people do love a bit of ceremony.' Then he made a long speech in Arabic into a microphone, which Bob afterwards explained was a lot of exaggerated flowery talk about what they had accomplished during their stay.
Then, at a word of command, another extravagantly dressed official came forward, bearing a silk cushion with a tassel on each corner. On it were placed two gorgeous silver stars, each four inches across, and with a huge crimson jewel glistening in the centre. A small bar underneath was inscribed with each one's individual name, followed by, 'For Service', and beneath that, THE AMBOUNA STAR. The Sultan took them up separately and pinned one on each of their left breasts. He then kissed them on both cheeks and the whole congregation of deputies, still on their feet, roared their congratulations.
'What a shame we haven't got a photographer,' Bob had whispered when the official had come forward with the stars, and he realised what was about to happen. The words had hardly left his mouth when that same Associated Press photographer moved out in front of the seats and began work with his camera and flash.
After each of them was persuaded to say a few words, they moved off into another room, where an alcohol-free banquet was already laid out on long tables. During the course of the next three hours, between eating minute courses and drinking strong sweet coffee, dozens of speeches in Arabic were interposed, during which the two tried manfully to stay awake.
On the way back in the Daimler after it was all over, the Consul advised, 'When you get home, I suggest you frame these, and above all, don't attempt to wear them. The stones are garnets, but the remarkably thin silver plating is only on spelta, and you'll find that it will rub off in no time if you attempt to give it any wear — I know because I have one myself. It isn't that they're mean here, on the contrary. But they just don't have any money, although as you found out, that doesn't preclude the odd back-hand.'
He added that their flight had already been booked for them, and take-off was at 6.30am on the morrow, Friday. He was sorry for the short notice, but he had only just received the instruction late that morning and it had taken a long while to arrange the flights. By the time they got back to their hotel it was well past eight o'clock in the evening. They both tried to ring home several times before their plane took off, but for some reason the lines to England were out of action.
Before they went to bed, the Associated Press man brought each of them an individual coloured photograph of the earlier presentation. He did not think to mention the fact that he had already faxed copies through to his London office.
It was gone eight o'clock that evening, after missing their connection in Aden, that Bim eventually arrived at his own front door. He had decided not to phone home from the airport to announce his return, but rather to give the family a surprise. In that, he miss-cued. After he rang the bell Harry opened the door and threw herself into his arms with tears in her eyes.
'Thank God you're safe, you should have got back hours ago. Superintendent Jolley rang and told us you were on your way this morning, so I was sure there'd been an accident.' She set him free and led the way back to their living room and the kids, whom she'd allowed to stay up in the hope of seeing their dad.
Emotion safely out of sight, his wife was soon her old usual stoical self once more. 'As my old dad would have put it,' she said with a grin, 'I suppose it'll cost a shilling to speak to you now!' And with that she thrust a copy of the Sunday Telegraph at him, open at a picture of him receiving his Ambouna Star.
Just then the front-room door opened, and mother-in-law appeared rubbing the sleep from her eyes. 'Oh... are you back already?'