Shadows and Lilies
Extract from Chapter 1
A distant buzzing noise gradually strengthened and resolved itself into the unmistakable thudding sound of helicopter rotors.
Charles looked up from an emailed consortium proposal for the production of Streak.
'When the Senior Service says half an hour, it means just that, evidently,' he murmured.
He went up on to the flat roof of Villa Hymettos, and sure enough, there was a Navy Lynx, hovering over the landing spot and about to touch down.
It was two months after the Egyptian adventures, and Charles was feeling harassed. Plans for the production of Streak were proceeding apace, and he was building up an order book for the Shadow, but while most of the Streak consortium of investors seemed to be leaning towards Eastern Europe, there was heavy pressure from Global to set up a plant in Sunderland. He definitely wanted to keep all his wingsail work close to hand, and within easy reach of Villa Hymettos. Heracles Somatos had partly solved his problem by renting him some extra space at Delta Boats in Glyfada.
'Charlie my dear,' he had said after being given a ride in the Shadow. 'You have a wonderful thing here. And how much diesel have we used on this trip? Nothing, you say? Zero, you say? Sunlight only? My God. If the fuel price keeps going up, and my customers for powerboats keep telling me cancels, you can have it all. All, I say. I could even invest, if you wanting?'
Charles had smiled. He liked the big boat builder and his two, as he called them, 'left and right hand men' Sotiris and Petros.
With the Italians languishing almost certainly unhappily if not actually desperate in an Egyptian Jail, Amanda was busy consolidating the InterPol presence in Greece, her high technology office at Villa Hymettos humming with completely secure communications.
She was also concentrating on the arrangements for their marriage, ably helped and sometimes hindered by Scarlett, who felt strongly that they needed to fly somewhere, perhaps to Milan, to get exactly the right sort of bridesmaid's dress for the wedding.
'And a dress for you, too, Mummy, of course,' she had added as an afterthought.
Charles, tired having too many things to think about, had been feeling that life was challenging him at every turn after sitting on the terrace of Villa Hymettos for some hours every day, reading all the latest proposals for finance and control. Sighing, he had put all the sheaves of paper down and turned on the BBC News.
It was showing a head and shoulders shot of the chubby features of the Prime Minister, and Charles listened raptly as the PM set out the amazing, long overdue but still extremely welcome news that all British troop were to withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan as rapidly and efficiently as could be arranged.
'Amanda, did you know about this, the troops, I mean?'
'Came as a secret cable this morning, no release until noon UK time. The delay would give them time to put his blusher and hairspray on and round up the hacks. Good news, though, isn't it? Far too late, but better than never.'
'Now all they've got to do to avoid turning the whole thing into a PR catastrophe is for no more of our boys to be blown up before we can get them home,' grumbled Charles. 'I'll bet there won't be a nose above a parapet until the choppers arrive.'
They had both always been convinced that the British government should finally realise that no-one had ever been able to control, or even slightly affect, the Afghans; not the British in the nineteenth century; not the Russians with more than 125,000 crack soldiers in the twentieth century, and that nothing whatsoever had changed in the twenty first century. So the boys were coming home. Those that had survived, anyway. And the American boys too, hopefully, in due course.
As one frustrated General had said, the Afghans would rather fight than eat, sleep or fuck.
The same day therefore Charles had been pleased to receive a burst transmission from Piers Marchant, the Commanding Officer of HMS Brilliant, the big 50 knot gas turbine powered frigate still making her leisurely way around the Eastern Mediterranean.
'Charles? Piers. We were given a marvellous reception in Alexandria, thanks to you. Really, we did very little, although it was rather satisfying to have put the bracelets on those nasties off Beirut.'
'It's so nice to hear from you,Piers,' said Charles. 'What can I do for you?'
'Well, Number One's got the con at the moment. Any chance of dropping in on you for a chat? I'd like to bring along Jimmie Herbert, my Captain of Marines.'
'No problem,' said Charles. 'When do you suggest?'
'Did somebody say your house has a flat roof? If so, how about half an hour.'
'I'll shift my car out of the way, and warn Ambrose,' said Charles. 'There's no wind to speak of and none forecast. Just as well, because I don't have a windsock yet. I'll get one and have a nice big yellow "H" painted on the roof.'
'I'll shift my car out of the way, and warn Ambrose,' said Charles. 'There's no wind to speak of and none forecast. Just as well, because I don't have a windsock yet. I'll get one and have a nice big yellow "H" painted on the roof.'
In no more than a few minutes the Navy Lynx set down as lightly as a feather on the roof of the house.
'I can't tell you how nice this is,' said Charles to Piers, who had crouched and come towards him while the rotor blades slowed and then stopped as the turbine wound down. The pilot got out, chocked the wheels and joined them.
'Charles, so good to see you again. This is Jimmie, my Captain of Marines. Somewhere we can sit and have a chat?'
Jimmie was not very tall, but broad, heavily muscled and impressive. Charles led them down to the terrace and they sat around the coffee table under the balcony.
'Something to drink? asked Charles.
'Pink Gin for me and something soft for Jimmie, because he'll be flying us back to Brilliant.'
'Ambrose, a Pink Gin, a glass of the Boutari Lefko for me, and a tall glass of juice, please.'
'Understood Charles, I shall be less than five minutes,' came the disembodied voice.
'Amanda, do you want to come down to say hello to Piers and his Captain of Marines, Jimmie Herbert?'
'There in a minute, darling. I must say that having a helicopter on the roof does add a touch of class. I might ask Ambrose for a glass of wine, actually.'
A minute or so later Ambrose trundled smoothly round the corner with Pier's Pink Gin, Jimmie's fruit juice and two glasses of white wine.
'Fuzzy logic, that was,' said Charles, smiling broadly at his guests' astonishment. Just then Amanda came down and was introduced.
'As lovely as ever, if not more so,' said Piers gallantly. 'And do I hear that you two are getting married?'
'You're invited,' said Charles. 'If the Navy hasn't sent you off somewhere by then. You could scuttle Brilliant, of course, which seems a little extreme. Surely you could say that it is absolutely essential that some latest gizmo is installed, and leave Harry in charge.'
'He paused and looked across at Piers interrogatively.
'Any chance of your lovely lady flying down? The Embassy Chapel no less. Room for several hundred at least. Amanda thinks that she should leave all the arrangements to Scarlett, actually. She's going to sing for us, anyway. Now then, what can we do for you?' he asked.
'Well, you know that the Her Britannic Majesty's government, in what passes for its wisdom, has at last, thank Heavens, decided to bring the brown jobs home. Long overdue, and far too many proud young kids blown up or maimed: so good. Very very good. Far too late, of course, but better late than never. However, there are still going to be too many nasties about. Five and the Special Branch seem to be doing a reasonable job in the UK, which still leaves a lot of rats in a lot of holes. So Jimmie here had an idea. Jimmie?'
The burly Captain of Marines thought for a moment.
'Well, thanks be that our lords and masters have at long last realised that the days of old, you know, are gone. Oil wars will happen, for sure, but no direct role for us. I've got solar panels myself, and I'm saving up for a wind turbine. So my boys and I brainstormed a bit, and we came up with the idea of the Snatchers. Piers here sent it up the line, and it came back with qualified approval, us being very highly trained as you probably know, and a new name. Focused Extraction, they want to call it, but we still call it Snatching.'
'Go on,' said Charles.
'Well, the idea is that if a real 'obstacle to peace and security', (those are Piers' words by the way, not mine, he has a way with words, they teach them at Dartmouth I suppose), can be identified, a criminal, a dictator treating his people badly, a terrorist, a madrassa teacher indoctrinating some poor but passionate lads from Bradford, then if it's anywhere near a coast we can infiltrate, surveille, and then snatch. Send 'em off to the Hague for example? Or whatever.'
He paused thoughtfully.
'Landlocked, it would probably be the SAS, they're quite good at that, but we could certainly get 'em in, and hopefully bring 'em out too, without a trace being left behind.'
'Brilliant idea,' said Charles. 'Clandestine it would all need to be, wouldn't it? Deniable even. Just someone brings in his morning cup of tea, and finds his bed's not been slept in?' No clues, no evidence.'
'Exactly,' said Jimmie. 'But we think we can do a reasonable job. And if there is a bit of collateral damage, bodyguards say, we shall have a small unit of Removal men, Cleaners etc.'
'Charles, wouldn't General Assad love this idea?' said Amanda. 'He's still so disconsolate about that Nile boat business, even though it wasn't his fault.'
Piers and Jimmie were looking confused.
'Assad is a great Egyptian friend of ours,' said Charles. 'Senior chap in the Egyptian Special Forces. Vital and totally successful element in our Alexandrian shenanigans. His people rotate regularly through Hereford, where the SAS teach them some absolutely terrifying stuff, as usual, but Assad, living as he says in a country composed largely of sand, has developed a very special set of tricks of his own.'
'His people can apparently simply disappear into the sand, armed to the teeth, with LRRs and water enough for several days. They breathe through special tubes camouflaged to look like dried reeds, can see through 360 degrees around them using very special periscopes designed as desert rocks, and on the word of command they rise up like a horde of extremely dangerous phantoms.'
Charles mused for a few moments.
'You're right, Amanda, and he thinks he owes us one, even if he doesn't. So I could introduce you, and if you wanted an inland invisible security cordon to prevent anyone getting away, for example, he'd be your man. What do you think?'
'Sounds an interesting chap for sure,' said Jimmie thoughtfully. 'Safe pair of hands, lips sealed and so on? We'd certainly like to meet him anyway, I think. Piers?'
'For sure,' said Piers. 'Might be very useful in keeping all secure as well. Suggest that it was 'unknown Bedouins', for example, while our chaps vanish into the night with the "subject".'
'Ambrose, could you call Major General Assad al Nasser on his secret line?' said Charles.
'Calling General Assad,' came the disembodied voice.
'Thanks to the Navy we all use burst technology now,' said Charles. 'Brilliant, well literally of course, and undetectable too.'
They heard the unusual Egyptian dialling tone, followed almost immediately by "Nasser?" in perfect English.
'Assad, it's Charles. And no more apologising for heaven's sake. It wasn't your fault, and Scarlett has your picture up on her bedroom wall, and is certain that you fixed the winching off, which she still remembers as one of the high spots in her young life.'
There was a quiet laugh.
'Charles, you are too kind. What can I do for you?'
'Well, if you're not too busy, would you like to nip over for a visit? We'd like to introduce you to Captain Marchant, Commanding Officer of HMS Brilliant, and some of his people. What are you up to at the moment?'
Amanda broke in.
'Assad, you're still on for our wedding? We haven't heard back from either you or Intef yet?'
'Amanda my dear we shall move heaven and earth, if necessary. And on the QT, I think the President was angling for an invitation also. We were mentioning that Scarlett would sing, and you know how he is?'
'We'll invite him and his wife of course, today. We didn't, because we know how ferociously busy he is.'
'Anyway, Charles,' said Assad. 'You know that both Intef and I were promoted two ranks by the President? And what does that mean? Paperwork!! So if you have any ideas for a bit more practical activity, I'll be there like a shot.'
'I'll put you on to Piers, and you can decide. Jimmie? Could we land another Lynx sized helicopter on our roof? Assad, here's Piers. We'll be available here, more or less anytime, given a bit of notice. Not a Chinook, though!'
While Piers and Assad were chatting Charles cuddled Amanda to him and offered to show Jimmie round the Villa.
A few minutes later, Piers looked across at Charles.
'Tomorrow, about the same time?'
'Fine,' said Charles. 'Assad, we'll all be so much looking forward to seeing you again. Don't bring a winchman, or Scarlett will want to relive her Nile experience.'
After another few minutes the Lynx lifted off to return to Brilliant, and Charles and Amanda waved until they were out of sight.
'Don't you even think about being involved in any of these wild schemes!' she said. 'Your next task is making an honest woman of me, after which I have my own plans to consider. Birth control pills need to be replaced, or abandoned, as you know.'
'Do you mean?' he said. 'I mean, really?
'Ambrose, could you bring us some more wine?'
She smiled at him with deep love.
'If all goes well, I may soon be going on the wagon for some time.'
The following morning, Charles, still drowsy, had been alerted by Ambrose that Willie was en route, and then was galvanised into action by the thudding sound of unsynchronised rotors.
He hurtled up the steps to the roof, to see not one but two helicopters, delicately dancing in the gentle breeze.
'Ambrose, coffee for six, at least six, on the terrace please.'
The two birds landed, nicely spaced apart, on his roof, and he welcomed first Assad with a bristly kiss on both cheeks, and then Piers and Jimmie. Finally, a neatly turned out man in his thirties got out of the Navy Lynx.
'Andy Jarvis, Five, liaison, and target selection if I can help. As you can probably understand, we're not too fond of SS as an acronym.'
'Charles,' said Assad. 'Here is my Captain Abdullah, who is much more in the field, or under the field, than I can be these days.'
Willie arrived and sent his official driver away, because there was now no room to park anyway. The big gates silently sealed off the tunnel. Catching sight of Willie Andy smiled broadly.
'Willie my dear!' he said. 'Haven't seen you for years. A legend in your own lunchtime! Sorry about the appalling protocol, these things usually take weeks to set up. But the RAF had a helo growling away on the roof of my apartment at first light, and some sort of BAe twinjet at City Airport, Piers was kind enough to pick me up at El Venizelou, and here I am, blinking a bit, but at your service.'
Introductions all round were made, and they had just got themselves settled on the terrace when Ambrose whirred quietly up to Charles.
'Your coffee as requested, Charles,' he said, and after Charles had transferred his tray to the table he silently returned to the house.
'Helpful little chap, isn't he?' said Charles cheerfully, pouring coffee for his visitors.
They chatted for a few minutes, Captain Abdullah silent as the grave, then Piers spoke.
'Well, we have some ideas which we'd like to float across you,' he said. 'You've heard of course that we, the British at least, are pulling out of Iraq and Afghanistan? Hopefully we'll be followed by the Americans, but it's an election year and Obama has be careful. But coffins are still going back in a steady stream, and no amount of Yellow Ribbon makes that any easier, does it?'
The Egyptians nodded silently.
'Well, of course, there will still be unpleasant and indeed dangerous people around. Thanks be that our lords and masters have at long last realised that the days of old are gone. Oil wars will happen, for sure, but no role for us. Jimmie here's got solar panels, and is saving up for a wind turbine. So our people brainstormed a bit, and we came up with the idea of the Snatchers. I sent it up the line, and it came back with qualified approval, the Marines being very highly trained as you probably know, and a new name. Focused Extraction, they want to call it, but we still call it Snatching.'
'Go on,' said General Assad.
'Well, the idea is that if a real 'obstacle to peace and security' can be identified; a criminal, a dictator treating his people badly; a terrorist; a madrassa teacher indoctrinating some poor but passionate lads from Bradford, then if it's anywhere near a coast, we can infiltrate, surveille, and snatch. Send 'em off to the Hague for example? Or whatever. Probably whatever, in most cases. Landlocked, it would probably be the SAS, they're quite good at that, but we could certainly get 'em in, and hopefully bring 'em out too.'
There was a few minutes silence while the visitors thought about the idea, and then Amanda came round the corner. Charles looked at her adoringly.
'Assad!' she said. 'How lovely to see you again. And who are these other strong silent men?' The introductions were made, while Charles poured her a cup of coffee.
'Well, what do we think?' she said. 'Whatever we do it will need to be, as Charles has said, clandestine. Totally deniable too, did you say darling?' I don't want it to be so deniable that you all end up in unmarked graves though.
Charles felt a huge wave of emotion as this lovely woman swept her sparkling eyes over the group, and he nodded silently.
'Our very rough preliminary idea, Assad, is that the Marines infiltrate undetected from the sea, head inland and locate the target, while your phantoms make an outer ring to prevent any escapes which might occur?'
'Unless your people are all fluent in Arabic, we should provide at least one of our people to work with your people to cope with any language problems,' said Captain Abdullah, speaking for the first time. 'And I rather expect that the first target has already been identified?'
'You're absolutely right, Captain Abdullah,' said Piers. 'Although Target One will need very careful selection. The anti fundamentalist and pro democracy wave which is currently sweeping across the Muslim world is good for the lives of ordinary people simply wanting to live productive lives in peace. But there are at least two Mediterranean dictators who are quite prepared to bomb their own people into submission to retain power. And I suspect that one of these might indeed be our first target.'
'Not easy, but highly desirable,' said Assad. Such men are surrounded by many people whose loyalty he has bought. Like their air forces, I have no doubt that they too have doubts, deep down, but the downside for them in the aftermath of this operation is potentially lethal for them and their families.'
'Planning first, then infiltration, then modifying the plan,' said Abdullah sobrely. 'But if we are successful the final result would be tremendously worthwhile. My General?'
'With your permission, gentlemen, I shall raise this idea for consideration in Cairo,' said Assad. 'But I suspect that, subject to secrecy and deniability, our project may well be approved, at least in general terms. The essential thing is that it must be an invisible operation. To the rest of the world it must remain a complete mystery.'
'We'll need a great deal of planning and preparation,' mused Willie. 'And an alternative in case a diversion is needed, and each item on the list will have to be fully worked out down the last detail. Should we perhaps do a little brainstorming?'
He steepled his fingers in his characteristic attitude of thought.
'My first contribution is that an avuncular elderly gentleman is living near Ancona in conditions of considerable comfort, controlling every criminal activity in the northern Adriatic region. In fact, if you are not a member of his Mafia family, you don't work. His tentacles are maintained and strengthened by his acting as a banker, large loans, small loans, so that he can yank on a string at any time without ever leaving his mansion. And since he is well over seventy, he could just have a heart attack in his sleep, so no need for the removals men?'
Willie leaned forward seriously.
'I do believe that if we can cut the head off this malign organisation, and so far as we can make out his only likely successor, Dinero, is now behind bars in Cairo, then I believe that the northern Adriatic criminal network will at the very least fragment, and perhaps can be rolled up completely.'
'Interesting for us,' said Piers thoughtfully. 'We've a courtesy call to Venice being arranged, which is just to the north of there. We could drop off a team of Watchers without even slowing down, a week or so before we go hot.'
'Our chaps did a bit of brainstorming themselves last night, which is why I had a file thrust into my hands as I was bundled into that nasty helo this morning.' said Andy. 'Apparently there is very dangerous fundamentalist cleric from Gaza, who ran a mosque, in Northampton I believe, preaching "death to all non Wahhabi" to gullible young locals who, you probably remember, marched off to London and committed atrocities of the most appalling kind.'
He leafed though his file.
'So we expelled him back to Gaza, where he promptly disappeared. Thanks to some very dangerous work by both Willie's people and Interpol, we've found him again. He's teaching at a Madrassa on the southern edge of Beirut, keeping a much lower profile, but now our northern lads fly down to him, at their own expense I might add. There are currently around twenty British young men there, learning how to build bombs of all sorts and sizes. Candidate?
Heads nodded cautiously 'Northern Ireland?' ventured Piers, and heads nodded again.
'And surely there must be something we can do about the rise and rise of Neo-Nazism?' cried Amanda. 'The pleased smirk on the face of that Norwegian monster nearly made me sick. And I've seen clips on television showing young men goose-stepping along and lustily singing the "Horst Wessel" song!'
'Remember that we also still have some very unpleasant people in Egypt,' growled Captain Abdullah.
The party broke up having agreed to form a loose task force and to keep everyone well informed.
'Hey, all this not going start straight away?' asked Amanda. 'I've got a wedding to arrange and hopefully attend, and we're well overdue for a little holiday anyway,'
Willie was instantly reassuring.
'My dear the planning alone is going to take weeks. Even the selection of our first target will be a combination of what is easiest and who might have to stopped urgently because of some impending disaster.
Jimmie took off to take Andy back to the airport, and while the RN Lynx was getting clear and climbing away Assad took Amanda to one side.
'Jamila asked me to tell you how much she had enjoyed meeting you and your lovely family. She is trying to fix me up with one of her girlfriends. I tell you, a blind date at my age!' He looked so woebegone that Amanda laughed happily.
'You're about the same age as Charles probably, you poor old thing. Youngest Major General ever, handsome, stellar record. Any intelligent woman will snap you up in a trice.'
He looked more cheerful, and reaching into his tunic he pulled out a bulky envelope.
'Intef asked me to give you these. He's written something between a story and a history, and wonders how to bring it to its logical conclusion? Oh and they did find the Seagull, still with paint on her eyes, and while they are delicately lifting her, millimetre by millimetre, they are building her a glass sided enclosure, climate controlled. He is very happy and says you will be the first honoured guests'
'Well look, Assad, could you act as postman and take this invitation to the President and his wife? You'll be quicker and more reliable than the post or courier?'
Assad smiled his assent, and tucked away the envelope in the inside pocket of his flying jacket. 'It will be in his hands within two hours, less if we go to Cairo first before returning to Ras el Tein. Do we have enough fuel, Abdullah?'
'Plenty,' said Captain Abdullah.....