Bill's Diary 1951 (Part 3)
First edition: 2017
Publisher: EB Society
Illustrator: not illustrated
Category: Bill's Diary 1951
Type: Continuation Books
Publisher: EB Society
Illustrator: not illustrated
Category: Bill's Diary 1951
Type: Continuation Books
On This Page...
Feeling very relaxed, Allie and I lounged in bed when the day dawned, listening to the kids yelling through the walls of their rooms. Kiki supplied the odd interjection such as,
"Wipe your feet!"
That's a remark Kiki's had in her repertoire right from the very earliest days when I first met her. There are times when the old comments come back for a kind of airing and I believe she told the manager to wipe his feet last night! After I'd told them to keep together the kids went out to explore the small village today while Allie and I relaxed some more and after we'd had a cuppa, I shut myself into a booth and managed to call to the Yard where Del updated some of the information he'd given me. A vessel is being held for us compliments of the Foreign Office, and we'll board it near a place called Shuyukh al Fawqani where one of their contacts happens to have exactly the craft desired. Surprise, surprise, Scottie entered just as Del was about to sign off; he'd called into the Yard to collect something so the 'phone was handed to him.
It was nice to hear Scottie's cultured voice again. He's being kept up to date with this particular assignment apparently and we chatted about the wider ramifications that might occur should the Maalouf or Uma character be allowed to carry on his shady doings.
"I've heard that name before. Is it the latest?"
"The latest in use apparently," Scottie said. "Be wary of him, Bill."
It was interesting to think the Honourable Sir Harold Scott was taking an interest in this case, and I told him so.
He replied over the rather crackly line,
"I keep myself informed Bill, despite my considerably reduced work load and anyway, your particular activities are always worth following."
That was unexpected. I'm of interest up top and I wondered why. Could it be my relationship to ABC? Perhaps it was the publicity engendered in past cases by those 'amazing children,' or was it just my pure diligence? I hoped it was the latter. The call ended on a very satisfactory note with my being assured of every assistance at their end.
When the kids returned I took them to the verandah and produced a map of the area. They learnt exactly where we were - officially, and I had their undivided attention for half an hour as we discussed things in general. Showed them photographs of Raya Uma although it wasn't a very helpful exercise because he looked different in each one. I could see some likenesses though because George from the Denham studios had given me a rundown on disguises one morning over a cup of tea in his office.
"There are certain aspects hard to alter," he'd told me and, apart from handwriting that is often a giveaway, he had mentioned that ears were difficult to alter and small facial areas especially round the eyes. Apparently the best way to penetrate a disguise was to look at it overall, rather than picking out certain aspects and relate what is seen to an actual photograph of the person. Another point of identification in this particular case is a scar reputed to be on Uma's right arm and described as fairly long and white.
The kids have their parts to play and the subterfuge is not too unreal - they're invalids being taken for a recuperative trip by their parents; t'was a relaxing day in all, apart from one incident when poor old Dinah learnt something untoward that, hopefully, will not invade her dreams too much. A snake glided past our feet and disappeared through the wooden slats that ran round where we were seated. It moved so fast I wondered if I'd really seen it but Philip had and it was necessary to restrain him from racing down the steps in order to search a nearby garden for the creature. Dinah's shriek brought the proprietor out and he warned us to beware of snakes in these parts, especially one that was very poisonous which he described as green with 'spotting.'
"Bargua!" he said becoming very animated and thrusting his hand out in an imitation of a snake striking. Dinah received yet another shock seeing she was on the end of his movement and was almost hit. The apologetic landlord disappeared into the kitchen where he grabbed a plate of goodies for us all. Eastern fare can be quite heavy and sweet so we couldn't make much of an impression upon it but we all tried the sweetmeats.
Had to make a note of that, as it'd be disastrous to have one of my precious family members attacked by such a creature. Thinking about it, the only 'bargua' I've ever heard of is the Bāguà theory incorporated into the Baguazhang style of combat - which can also be deadly but only if used by human beings intent on destroying opponents. Made a note to examine the guff that Del had handed me to see if there's a mention of such a dangerous creature.
We decided on another early night to prepare ourselves for tomorrow. Allie finished repairing a hole in one of Jack's pullovers round 22:00 and joined me in bed where I was reading.
"Nightcap?" she enquired as I started writing up the diary.
"No, just you," I replied.
"I'm no nightcap, but you're the right chap," she replied.
"Right chap for what?"
"For anything and everything," she answered taking the pencil out of my hand at exactly 22:11.
Oct. 13th (Sat)
No turning back now. The quarry is being pursued and this morning we set off with that very intention in the large car that Muhammad brought round to our hotel. Travelling in this country is like being whisked back to biblical times what with the odd camel being spotted and Lucy-Ann pointing out a woman who was walking along with a pitcher on her head. She was steadying it but Muhammad told us they often don't need to use their hands. Philip immediately grabbed a nearby bag of fruit and, placing it upon his head, tried to keep it balanced. He succeeded until Kiki decided a grape that was sticking out looked too tempting and made a peck at it, upsetting the bag and sending it to the floor.
"KIKI! You always spoil things. Mind your own business and keep your beak to yourself," Philip remonstrated as he began scooping up the fruit with Lucy-Ann's help. Kiki raised her crest but before she could let out her famous screech, Allie yelled out.
Must admit Kiki seems to understand when she's being ordered about - especially if it's Allie or myself or Jack issuing the command. I guess she takes note of our remonstrations seeing we're her meal tickets. She has to obey Jack of course although she can be very trying at times. As we drove through arid landscape the kids pointed out donkeys with pannier-baskets and their native owners adding to the weight, clip-clopping past the palms, olives and the odd pine tree. Muhammad drove us along a fairly dusty road until in the distance we at last spotted our destiny ... a river that looked very welcome to us because we were hot and the thought of cool water and swimming must have been on everyone's minds. Allie told everyone to gather up all the belongings so that we could make the transfer as quickly as possible, and very soon we had stopped on the river bank by the large jetty where a trim launch was waiting for us with one person on board. He was a full-blown native dressed in a kind of baggy loincloth with a turban-like covering on his head. His eyes looked quickly at us and then darted round as if he was wondering what to say but once he'd introduced himself as Tala and we had established a rapport, he looked quite genial while at the same time retaining a quiet subservience.
The launch was larger than I'd thought it would be. There was a cover that could be rigged up if some shade was required and there were bunks down below if the rather suffocating atmosphere could be endured. Soon all our stuff was aboard and after an exploration of the vessel and some instruction from Tala, I took the tiller and we pulled away from the bank. The native told Allie and I that he'd piloted the boat from a town on the other side of the river although from our position it was difficult to make out anything except fertile fields and trees.
A cool breeze hit us as we took up speed and the kids leaned out to touch the water as we glided south to where the river was split up by clumps of rock that made us decide to keep nearer the western bank for safety. Initially we could see bunches of native kids, all boys, waving to us from tree-fringed yards and 'then there were none.' Allie had inspected the cupboards below and reported we had adequate stocks of food, which was good news for the kids - especially the boys who immediately dug out some cans of soft drink and handed them round. The shores passed us by and at one stage we saw more children endeavouring to attract our attention, all very scrawny but lively to a man. Kiki flew over to them although she wasn't game enough to land on anyone's shoulder. She just kept at a reasonable distance above the boys telling all and sundry to "Send for the doctor" and "Blow your nose!" The second part was very appropriate; the children in these parts seem to suffer from runny nostrils. One of the older kids looked as if he understood her and seemed to be giving a translation to the other children who were all looking upwards in amazement. Kiki then flew to the roof of a small hut and, pulling out a straw from the corner, she flew back to land on Jack's shoulder. The native children became very excited and waved in acknowledgment when Jack called out a word he'd got from Tala. I asked him what it was and he replied that it was "Hallo!" in Arabic, and for a few hours afterwards, everyone was saying "Ahlan" to each other; they might have got the word right, but their accents didn't really cut the mustard.
Overheard Tala telling Philip in his broken English the river we're on has been tagged as 'Abencha,' but doubt it. Never heard of the name myself and it's nowhere in the papers Matt handed over. My German vocabulary offers only 'abend-lick' or something interpreted as 'twilight/evening' so I don't know Tala's source, but it goes well with the kids because it sounds like 'River Adventure' and as they're an adventurous lot, everyone seems happy with it. We spent most of the day just looking at the scenery and Allie took an afternoon rest on a camp bed arrangement. Kiki pulled at a peg in it and was severely reprimanded by Jack although she wouldn't have been able to actually extract it and send Allie tumbling ... a parrot's beak wouldn't be strong enough for that.
Jack acknowledged the logic but added that Kiki had to be discouraged from her habit of pecking at things because one day she might actually manage to remove some essential fitting and cause an accident.
Tala had been working the tiller for a while and I relieved him so that he could get us a meal that turned out to be unexpectedly good; probably because he just opened can after can after can. At least there was plenty of variety and we all got stuck in. Kiki had some grapes, which she dotes on and Jack had to take them away when she got too gluttonous.
"You'll go pop," I heard him say and Kiki of course answered.
"Pop goes the weasel."
"Pop goes Kiki," she was told and then Jack's pet retired under the side-table to peck at a crust that had dropped from Dinah's plate.
There was some reasonably fresh bread as well which had been bought from a trader before we boarded the launch although it had to be kept under wraps due to the flies that appeared, vanished after a few minutes, returned a little later, and then disappeared again. We all bedded on deck because when the sun went down it was still warm and, as the sky was one mass of stars, it was a unanimous decision. We bedded aft -Allie and I had our foam mattress and the kids were ensconced opposite in their sleeping bags. They chattered continuously, only stopping once to admire a large moon sitting above the hills on the horizon. There weren't many mosquitos so that was a bit of luck and it before long we all drifted off. Tala had curled up below the deck. Perhaps he felt safer down there, protected from whatever spirits that might be roaming about in the night air.
The first real day of our journey, was welcomed by one and all. Jack's interest was aroused by a few water birds he spotted, and Dinah with Lucy-Ann's help inspected every inch of her little niche in case there was an insect, or mouse, or anything at all for that matter that could be classed as 'livestock.' Philip joined Allie and myself as we studied a map laid out on the table and I pointed out a small town that was our first port of call. Allie was looking forward to doing a little shopping - she likes wandering around markets and choosing knick-knacks although out here, I told her, the quality might not be quite what we're used to.
"Not to worry Bill," she said patting my arm. "If anything falls to pieces, we'll ask for our money back."
"Sure," I said. "We'll turn round wherever we might be and hasten back. Might put our timing out a bit but if my wife is ever unhappy, I always like to put things right."
Philip looked up in surprise as we carried on with our subterfuge until Allie burst out laughing. Mr. & Mrs. Cunningham's acting abilities night have to be explored and if they gel, we could perhaps join a repertory group.
Scrappy day because we just lazed around in general. Tala stopped the launch for an hour so that we could have a swim although he didn't care to wet himself at all. Just grinned at us from the deck and watched the English visitors making fools of themselves as we splashed around and chased one another. When Dinah threatened to slap Philip because he had inadvertently ducked her, I thought it was time we got out. I didn't want any bad blood seeing Dinah's been quite good at restraining herself lately. Early in the evening we had more of a snack as opposed to dinner and then when darkness suddenly fell one of the boys connected a cord and the boat lit up quite gaily. According to the map we should have been approaching a place on the map that was down as Al Tabqah but Tal kept insisting we were approaching a place called Sinny-Town. I questioned his accuracy because there was no reference to it and I wasn't sure that he'd even been to this part of the country but sure enough as we rounded a corner of the river on the west side, a lit-up town appeared.
This was extraordinary and I wondered why HQ hadn't informed me, after all my briefings should have included the existence of such a place. However, we could always explore it tomorrow and meanwhile, as Tala seemed attracted by the noise and lights, I gave him permission to visit provided he didn't overdo the indulgence. He's a good worker and deserves a little time off so once the boat was secure he waved to us all and skipped off while we prepared for a morning visit. Before bedding down we spent a period leaning on the rail and listening to loud music spilling from the curious looking place a short distance from the river. It looked almost unreal as if it had been recently built yet it contained the characteristics of a biblical town. 'Too good to be true,' I thought. Tala hadn't returned when we camped down but I was fairly confident he wouldn't let us down seeing the department would have screened him. (22.15)
During our chat in bed last night the resolve was made that instead of flying back we'd go by sea so the family could have a few days of uninterrupted bliss without my having to spend any time on an assignment. "
"We can relax where we are right now." I said to Allie, " ... but there's never the full sense of freedom to do what we like" - and she agreed wholeheartedly. I think the fear of something happening to me is never very far from her mind but unfortunately that's a factor to be endured by we lawmen ... and their wives of course.
Tala returned in the night although not seeming to know when but he'd managed to obtain a short sleep and was discovered fiddling round with the engine when the rest of us got up. Allie and I had risen when Jack yelled out something so we joined him and the others in the stern some thirty minutes later. Tala's 'Sinny-Town' was still there beckoning and a peep through Jack's field-glasses showed a mixture of old and new buildings, a few odd-looking towers, and a construction that looked like some kind of a palace because it was too big for an ordinary dwelling, especially over here; and it didn't seem right to label it as an office complex.
Allie took a look through Jack's glasses and couldn't give any suggestions as to its makeup despite having a fairly reasonable grounding in Eastern history. As she said,
"Bill, if Matt hasn't included it in your resume, the likelihood is that Sinny-Town must have been recently built. The temple looks old but it seems as if it's a copy of an ancient-looking sanctuary."
I agreed, and the other extraordinary aspect was the number of people milling round - far more that we were used to seeing in the towns and villages we'd so far passed. Their clothes also looked too 'good.' After we'd had a bite to eat, Tala was left in the launch and the rest of us jumped onto the shore and made our way down a dusty path leading to the first structures that were little more than huts. Kiki became very animated when she saw all the people and after flying up a little way to gain a better perspective, she glided down to Allie's shoulder and muttered into her ear as though giving a report on her aerial inspection. As expected a bunch of native children materialized to follow us, although they stayed a little way behind in case the 'aliens' objected; Kiki, the chattering bird, is an irresistible attraction and just has to be investigated.
We'd hardly entered the town before realising it was a fake! It turned out the whole place is a movie set built for some elaborate film being shot involving the country's earlier history and the theme was clearly visible when we walked past buildings that were only 'fronts' - completely unfinished in parts. The ever-present traders' wares included quite a variety of fruits and containers of corn that looked as if they'd seen better days. Doughy looking cakes on other vendors' stalls were liberally covered with a syrup of some kind and plastic bags of spices decorated a bench that was housed inside a tattered awning. One large section of the town is composed of small shelters that are little more than 'shells' with struts and poles holding them up.
A movie lot no doubt and this was confirmed when we witnessed a procession of robed men and women. An attractive female resembling the images we've seen of Cleopatra was being borne along on a kind of flat cushioned prop by men who resembled slaves of old. Fascinating site all told and no one seemed to mind us just wandering. The kids gazed at the spectacle in awe and Allie whispered in my ear that the cast must be rehearsing a scene otherwise we probably wouldn't have been allowed anywhere near. In a few roped off places could be seen large movie cameras resembling those seen in pictures of Hollywood studios and some technical looking men and women were also spotted, standing round with viewing lenses hanging from their necks or scripts-boards being consulted. One of the cameras seemed to be filming the rehearsal because a chap with a pencil in his ear was craning his neck with eyes against a viewfinder whilst a focus-puller stood nearby ready to adjust the lens when necessary.
'Sinny-Town' all right. As I explained to Lucy-Ann - 'Cine' would be the correct epithet. A movie town ... and the location is typical; hot countries are often used for film productions because of the cheap labour and almost guaranteed good weather. The kids asked if they could wander off by themselves to examine things in their own time and I agreed, at the same time warning them, as always, to stay with each other and keep their eyes open. Allie and I didn't think they'd be at risk wandering amongst people who are here for a specific purpose but one must always be careful. It would also be a good opportunity for me to see what I could find out about the man I was pursuing - 'Raya Uma.' Just before the children made off I warned them to steer clear of any foods that might be offered to them - I didn't want anyone consigned to bed with stomach-ache because the presence of a doctor in a land such as this might be a rarity although, seeing this town was a film set, there'd probably be a few skilled medical men closeted away in one of the tents.
Allie and I wandered hand in hand round a market full of interesting exhibits and then encountered a fakir of some kind who was surrounded by several people, many of whom had dropped a coin or two into his dirty looking dish. His specialty was displaying an expertise at climbing a ladder which had knives substituted for steps. It was propped up against the side of a wall and as we'd noticed several of these on our way through the crowds, so it was obviously a flavour-of-the-month trick. Quite impressive it was although looking closely at the performers' feet they seemed thicker than normal and we wondered whether use was being made of flesh coloured leather or cardboard soles. The locals seemed very impressed however because all-in-all, their education wouldn't generally include scientific analysis such as that which we learn in our own country, and besides, they're a fairly spiritual lot and may attribute any out-of-the-ordinary happenings to a 'Higher Power.' In the area adjoining an actual section where the film crew were working, a sunburnt Mediterranean-looking man was warning the general public through a loud-speaker in at least three languages that anyone who wasn't a paid extra - " ... could they please keep out of camera-range." Allie and I may see ourselves briefly in the production one day because we'd been fairly close to the action.
Received a pleasant surprise when we stopped by a caravan that was selling drinks and small snacks with a counter at one side displaying various goods. Sitting at a nearby table was none other than my old mate Lou! He was by himself reading a paper printed in Spanish and sipping from a tall goblet. I tapped him on the shoulder causing him to glance up with a startled look on his face as he laid eyes on us both and, like me, he was dumfounded to see an associate in this part of the world, having had no briefing at all on my imminent presence.
"BILL! What a small world," he yelled (as one does) and we were invited to sit down. Calling out to an attendant who was standing nearby ready to serve the 'foreigners,' he ordered drinks all round and waited for me to introduce Allie. I performed the honours and he seemed quite impressed with her looks and erudition, but then, who isn't?
"Haven't seen you for yonks,'' Lou said taking a drink and lighting up a cigarette. He offered me one while I tried to figure out when we'd last met.
"Inverness ... West of Inverness?" I mused.
He remembered before I did. "Loch Alsh ... '47 wasn't it?"
Thinking back, it sounded right - I'd known him for some years and we'd seen him last, at least the kids and I had, when on holiday. At least it had started out as a holiday but had turned into one of those crazy situations that always seem to pop up when 'those children' are around.
"I remember you all going up there," said Allie. "It was when I got the measles of all things so you took the kids off my hands and ended up voyaging amongst the islands with all those sea-birds on them."
"Yep! I remember fixing you up with a boat," Lou said, " ... and you set off into the blue. Heard bits of what happened but now you can fill in the missing pieces."
Lou seemed delighted to find someone he knew.
"I've been her all on my ownsome for three days, having to arrange the loan of a boat for some VIP amongst other things. Are you the VIP, Bill? I was told absolutely nothing because I haven't got your security status."
So that was it. Lou Henty, a police stringer; one of several who are employed to arrange back up and equipment for the force. The department sent his type all over the place at a moment's notice and there were no complaints because they were well paid and able to adopt holiday status for a few days once their mission was over.
"That's me, Lou," I answered smiling at him. "Can't see why they didn't inform us. Had no idea you'd be out here."
"From the Strait of the Foaming Loch to this place, with a few others in between of course," Lou said grinning at us both. " ... and in a couple of days I'll be in Melilla."
I didn't know what British interests were in a small place at the top of Africa but the Yard has operations all over and people like Lou can be very useful with back up, and also as suppliers. Allie entered into the chat and we spent about an hour and a half discussing anything and everything of note. When I'd finished filling him in on the more stark details of our almost ill-fated voyage in Britain's north-western seas, I asked Lou if he knew of anyone that might be useful to the current mission. He told me the name 'Uma' was familiar in these parts but the character was often in disguise as part of his normal routine and was therefore hard to pick out in a crowd. Apparently if I wanted to meet him, the best thing to do was to wait until he contacted me - should he so desire.
"Well, that makes things easier," I said. "Won't have to scour the streets and search the shacks for him it seems."
"Good!" Allie said. "You always seem to be ducking off, but now you can just keep with me and wait for any approaches by the elusive Uma."
We ordered more drinks, smoked, and enjoyed the sunshine that was starting to filter through fronded ferns as the afternoon wore on. The film crew seemed to have all wrapped up by 15:30 and that was late according to Lou.
"They're behind schedule otherwise they'd have stopped for a siesta," he told us.
Allie thought we'd better return to the boat in case the kids were wondering where we were so after shaking hands with Lou and getting his current home address I told him I'd write or telephone him sooner rather than later. We left him sitting at the table leafing through a small diary filled with appointments. The sun had lowered considerably as we made our way back to the river past brightly garbed locals and small kids that seemed to appear from nowhere as always happens when new faces appear amidst the populace. Foreigners often mean 'handouts' but one has to be careful. We'd stopped for a moment to admire a baby that was being cradled by what appeared to be an Indian woman sitting up against a wall where a nearby tree afforded some shade. When Allie put a note into the baby's hands a big smile came over the woman's face and her eyes sparkled. It was a sad-happy situation - sad because of the unfortunate recipient's plight but happy to think that she and her toddler wouldn't go hungry that evening.
Got back to our launch round 16:30 and Allie fetched us both a cool drink. The kids weren't back yet. Tala had tidied up the cabin and when we arrived he left briefly to bargain with a retailer for something or other so, telling him we'd cast off when the kids had returned, I joined Allie out on the deck where we lazed in the warm lengthening rays of a sinking sun. Kiki appeared round the quarter to six mark, flying down to perch on the bow and shortly we heard voices as the children arrived back from their exploratory sojourn. They descended on us with the usual request,
"Mum, can we have a drink?"
"Aunt Allie, is there any lemonade?"
"At least you can say Please may we have a drink," Allie said, laughing at the children's exaggerated expressions that were supposed to portray them as dying from thirst. Dinah and Lucy-Ann were dispatched to the tiny space where a few drinks were stored while Allie got up and began preparing a meal of salad with a few local fruits that she combined. Soon we were gathered at the rickety table eating a delicious meal of salad, fruit, pita bread and lots of juice - an essential part of our diet under the tropical sun. The kids related several things that had occurred when they were away on their sightseeing jaunt - one being that a man had approached them and asked if 'Bill' was with them.
Not one of them had thought the man resembled any of Uma's pictures although Philip mentioned the chap had fairly white teeth. His arms weren't visible unfortunately so any scar was hidden. Raya Uma's a slippery fellow and he has a wide range of informants so the fact that a man stopped to chat and had actually asked if they were with 'Bill', is highly suspicious - in fact there has to be a connection. Philip then reported about a highly dangerous-sounding incident that had taken place in the markets; they'd stumbled across a native in the act of thrashing his assistant whom he was accusing of holding back money that had been collected. Philip and Jack had actually grabbed hold of the man and wrenched the stick from his hand.
"No way should you have done that," I told them immediately. "You must realise you're in a place quite alien to ours and anything could have happened."
Allie agreed. She and I were a tad more experienced as to the volatile nature of third world people despite the kids' own experiences in other countries. They're a bit young to fully understand the attitudes that permeate such cultures in this part of the planet ... sure they've been south, but not as far as the Middle East where life can be extremely cheap. Allie turned quite pale when Philip related how the native, who had only one eye, had opened up a container that held snakes and threatened them.
'Thank God Philip had been with them,' I thought to myself, and then we were told how the 'boy wonder' had practically charmed the creatures before finding the snakes' mouths were sewn up to make them safe for their owner. It turned out they were extra lucky that Kiki was with them as well because the snake charmer had called to some of his friends who'd run up to assist him but the irrepressible Kiki had yelled out for the cops and then did her imitation of a police whistle that startled the youths so much they'd bolted away with the snake-charmer! Whether or not they could understand the words Kiki had uttered is beside the point because her whistle imitation is top class.
The kids, as usual, had managed to look after themselves in what could have turned out to be a very dangerous situation which could have ended up in the reverse so I got them to promise they'd steer clear of any similar confrontations in the future - the girls at least should have moved themselves smartly from the scene and looked for a law enforcement officer, whilst the boys could have tried to reason with the man and not made any physical contact.
With that sorted out and a few subdued apologies, we went on to other things. Being together in this fascinating place was a wonderful experience and I didn't want to spoil it with recriminations, especially as the children are getting older and are usually very responsible when facing challenges. It was just that in this part of the world, one has to be a little more careful than when tripping along a Surrey lane. Kiki made us all laugh when she copied the boys' apology a few times with all the sincerity that a parrot can muster and then everyone's thoughts went to other things as Allie and I described some of the sights we'd seen and a fair that we'd passed by - in fact the kids' temperamental snake-charmer probably belonged to it.
Tala started up the boat a short time later and we were off once again. The kids sat by themselves on the deck under an extension awning I'd rigged up and read some books Allie had hunted out about the East in order to familiarize themselves with the environment and culture ... they might even have learned some 'No-Noes!' I reviewed a few notes amongst the guff I'd been handed at the Yard and noted the name 'Khalid' stamped on a creased photograph showing a dark looking Latin type. Although Khalid Silvera's mainly affiliated with the Lebanese security chaps in Beirut, he's done a small amount of work for the British side with satisfactory results. According to the documents, he's an agent of Italian descent, born in Lebanon, and whose stamping ground is in the Iraq/Syria region. Like Ronnie, he's a traveller although not so widely based - Ronnie's been practically everywhere but not, he told me, to that remote valley in Austria where the kids once found themselves trapped. Ronnie has apparently communicated with Khalid over in Jarabulus and then disappeared to make enquiries about Uma around the Ayn al-Arab region. The hunt for our man is in no way suffering from disinterest because Uma is classed as 'high priority' owing to his sheer ruthlessness. He'll stop at nothing so his apprehension is urgent. Ronnie has already been to several of his suspected locations, but as of date, there's been no report of any successes.
Allie managed to find a station on the portable that was actually spouting English although we couldn't be sure where it was located. Might have been a Forces wavelength, and soon we were listening to a selection of classics that seemed a little out of place. Some Arabian music would have been more appropriate but we sipped mint juleps and enjoyed the strains.
Around 18:10 a glance at the locally acquired map told us we were approaching a place named as 'Al Bukamal' although it was down on our standard map as Ala-ou-iya which, according to Tala, was an old title passing through the generations, perhaps spawned from Egypt's Kushite Period - Gateway of Kings.
Tala headed the launch towards a jetty and whilst he made the boat fast, we looked out to see what could be seen which wasn't all that much as the main part of town is located some way from the river. A few small boats were moored nearby and we heard noises coming from one although I don't think any locals slept on their craft from what we could make out in the evening dimness. They looked too small. We spotted a few familiar humps of houses and some had fires flickering in the doorways. A night bird sounded and Kiki had to answer it of course so she spouted quite a good imitation and then, realizing there was an interested audience, she proceeded to show off by repeating "Ding Dong" over and over again. She has a habit of doing that and the 'Dongs' ceased only when Tala thrust a chunk of pineapple at her.
Later, when the kids and Allie were playing a board game, I kissed the girls goodbye and slipped out to attend a rendezvous. Made my way silently through the trees along a track towards the nearest dwellings which were mainly huts and stone outhouses with a few carts and wheelbarrows evident ... there was even a car. Nearing the town proper I could make out larger buildings, walls of rock, and a mosque. I skirted round several palm trees that seem to be the main vegetation although a few pines and oaks were manifest and there were plenty of scrubby bushes that could afford cover if the night ended with a mad chase. Looking at a rough map with my torch I moved along the track and turning sharp left spotted a white-roofed house, which was marked down, as Silvera's place. Looking round carefully and checking the street was empty, I walked down a cobbled path and ducked round to the back where there was a lawn of sorts, a small shed, and a dilapidated porch. Jumping up the steps I rapped softly on the door but the house remained silent. There were no lights on and one window was shuttered so it could be assumed our agent was out somewhere - either on enquiries, or else living it up near the centre of the city.
I needed to see the chap so after pulling an old chair from the shed and placing it on the porch I settled down for a wait. Running over the known factors concerning Uma's case the question was that if Silvera had no information, should we just keep on cruising and calling into outlying villages in the hopes of finding our man? After smoking three cigarettes I fell into a light doze but came to when a noise was heard. Sprang out of the chair but too late; a blow on the head sent me reeling down to the dry grassy patch that represented a lawn.
Turning to confront my attacker who'd leapt down from the porch I dodged as he kicked out with a practiced technique that demonstrated he was familiar with the Japanese fighting arts. Gave him a cross cut to the shoulder but he managed to dodge it. Who was he? Not a friend of Silvera's surely. A burglar perhaps, or maybe a neighbour who'd spotted me and thought I was up to no good? In the dim light my assailant was substantial in build but I was confident in my own fighting skills, after all - the bigger they are the harder they fall. With that in mind, I considered the best course was to employ jiu-jitsu.
As he came at me again I grabbed his outstretched arm and, bowing slightly, literally flung him over my shoulder. He landed with a resounding thump that shook the ground but up he was up immediately seemingly unhurt, so I had to prepare for the worst. Despite his gorilla features he didn't seem all that evil ... quite amiable looking in fact, although a determined look about his face spelled that he wasn't going to let up. I didn't manage to dodge an uppercut but moved so that his fist connected with the side of my head. A jarring experience. Wading in, I grasped hold of his shirt and twisting around, managed to throw him over my shoulder once again but he grabbed hold of my hair and I went down with him. We both struggled on the ground each trying to gain the upper hand.
Where was Silvera?
We broke free of each other and got to our feet. Wasting no time at all, he came for me again and managed to counter my attempted hip throw (he was definitely a professional) and then I found myself blocking his version of a shoulder throw. Deciding it was best to end it there and then, I switched to the Yankee Judo method and using a standard arm drag, pulled him round and was just about to apply an ancient Sumo stroke when I realised that information was needed and an opponent in a coma can't be interviewed. The man gasped when I dropped suddenly, applied a hammerlock, and started putting on the pressure that ceased only when the nozzle of a gun pressed into the back of my neck. Unfortunately I hadn't been aware that a second person had materialised.
Releasing my opponent and getting up, I slowly turned to face a character of obvious Italian heritage. Black hair tinged with grey, a roundish creased face that sported a hint of stubble, blue shirt, black jacket and a cigarette in one hand. The other nursed a Smith and Wesson double action revolver and it was pointed at me. As often happens when one is confronted with stark reality in the form of instant death, my loved ones came to the fore ... Allie, Jack, Dinah, Lucy-Ann, Philip. Their faces were looking at me for just a moment and then suddenly vanished and were replaced with the image of a photograph I'd seen very recently of Khalid Silvera.
I gestured to him.
Fortunately, he in turn, had been supplied with a picture of myself.
"Bill ... Bill?" he stammered out in a heavily accented voice.
He stuck the gun into his wide belt and held out a hairy hand, which I shook. My attacker came up and clapped me on the back.
"Apenado! I not know ... Bill Gunnyam."
I turned and smiled at him.
"Cunningham actually. Hola, or do you speak English?"
He better at Spanish and Arabic but he make himself understood in Ingles," Silvera said. "Bill, meet Rami, he my bodyguard and carrying out duties I sorry to say."
"Capable? Clever? Si. Sorry about welcome - we on our way back from centre and Rami enter property first ... scout round - Silvera have contract out on head so Rami check house empty of assass ... "
"Assassin," I prompted.
(Note: The broken conversation is not fully accurate linguistically but is roughly what can be recalled of the encounter).
Rami was now grinning widely and his manner confirmed the chap was definitely on my side. When seeing him for the first time, I hadn't thought he looked a genuine thug.
"Rami good fighter."
I agreed but had to say,
"Can't get out of a hammerlock."
Silvera said a few rapid words to Rami in Arabic then turned to me whilst Rami looked at us, trying to interpret our conversation.
"He might have but your method of combat fast, Bill. Most hombres can slip hammerlock but your technique much advanced. I have heard of your proeza ... is it prowess? Bill, my amigo, what you done if Rami escape?"
I explained that if I hadn't been able to hold down his bodyguard I would have needed to put him to sleep, although I hadn't wanted to.
Silvera spoke again to Rami and the swarthy chap took a few moments to contemplate before laughing loudly and as he broke into Arabic, Silvera handed me a translation. Apparently Rami was near the top of his class in combat but didn't have the experience of old hands like myself ... something like that. He was a friendly chap once you got to know him.
"Discúlpeme!" he uttered, and suddenly disappeared.
"He go check property and road again," Silvera told me. "When matones ... (thugs?) after you, check can't be dropped for more than few moments. Entrar."
He led me to the porch and inserting a key, opened up and switched on the light, which revealed a fairly bare interior with just a few essential furnishings. Silvera directed me into a room that was presumably the lounge and I was directed to a threadbare but surprisingly comfortable chair. It was nice to relax and while Silvera poured out a couple of whiskies from a well supplied bar, I spoke to him. .
He was fairly well briefed as to why I had journeyed from the Mother country and after settling down with his drink he filled me in on the few details he had about Uma but they weren't all that helpful. The man and his cronies seem to have an interest in the movie-set town because he had money invested in it, and he also possessed a knack of finding props that other agencies couldn't supply. The articles he rounded up for the film companies seemed almost genuine and were hired out at exorbitant prices seeing 'authenticity' is the keynote for any current production. Exquisite harps, statues, and even a large and very authentic looking bed had been offered to the producers. Everything was highly insured and any contracts specified the return of each item. Uma's activity has to be a cover for an illicit lifestyle which includes smuggling in weapons for small armies, and the he's even been employed as a spy although not for a while because he's untrustworthy. One mystery was where Uma disappears to for several days at a time every now and again.
"All very mystery!"
"Mysterious indeed," I answered.
One or two things that Silvera told me tied in with Uma's profile at the Yard so it was a useful exercise because it proved to us that something concrete existed and Raya Uma was a man worth going after. But where was he? His disguising abilities made locating him more difficult but Silvera was of the opinion that Uma wouldn't change his appearance all that much because it was a time-consuming practice.
That made sense and we agreed the current prognosis was that that the stage was set for a 'Big Killing' and time could be running out. My brief was to find out whether or not his activities would harm Britain in any way, whereas the authorities down her were out to get him under lock and key come what may although we would help with that if any major operation was planned. After a couple more whiskies, Silvera took me into his office where there was a cluttered desk lit up by a standard lamp, and some shelves of books and files placed higher up. He saw me looking at the muddle and pointed to a picture of Aleppo.
"Important papeles behind in wall-safe. No visitors. Pocos know ... pocos know me or why I here."
I nodded. "That's one of the best ways to be in this kind of work."
He took the picture down, unlocked his safe, and reaching into it he handed me a small notebook that contained names and addresses of contacts that reside further down the river. Glancing through it, one name stood out - 'Ronald Dawson.'
"You on way down?"
"Yes. We should be in Abd al Khalaf tomorrow," I said to Silvera. "Dawson! Is he still at this address?"
Silvera looked at the name I was pointing out.
"Him? No, I think not ... think he get into hot water but manage to exit Abd al Khalaf ... by skin of teeth. That what you say? Think he in Jordan."
By the skin of his teeth! That'd be Ronnie! That chap courts dangerous situations; like I used to do until the knot was tied. As I mulled over earlier experiences, Silvera suddenly looked at me and almost as if reading my thoughts said,
"Casado ... you marry?"
"Ah, yes," he said, adopting a wise expression wise. "Not as free."
Well, that's one way of looking at it I thought.
"Danger has its attractions Silvera but I mucho enjoy married life. Ronnie still single and he thrive on danger - like danger - highly trained amigo is our Ronnie."
I was slipping quite smoothly into his vernacular as we spoke.
"He can carry on far longer when there's sticky situation and then pull out last moment before vamoose," I told him.
"He vamoose to Jordan?"
"Yes, but not think he there long because your funcionarios cable two days ago saying something suspicaz come up in Malta."
It was pleasant talking with Silvera. He appeared to be carrying out his duties for the British police in a dedicated manner and I wondered how many other organisations he was affiliated with. Didn't like to ask though. Downed my whisky before getting up just as Rami came in. He nodded to me and spoke something rapidly to Silvera before going into the office to twiddle the knobs of a small radio I'd noticed there. A haunting sound filled the room. It was some Arabic tune which Silvera started humming to as he shook hands with me, smiling all over his face. He wished me well, and acknowledging Rami who joined us, I was seen to the door. I walked down the lonely street that was lit up by a few lamps that made small patches in the darkness of a balmy night. Scents from the palm trees and other hedgerow filled the air as I made my way back to the Mannerings' temporary home on an ancient river of Biblical fame - the Euphrates.
Approaching, I made out the dark shape and then noticed something was going on despite it being after 01:00 hours. Calling out, I leapt up the tiny ramp and encountered a strange sight. Everyone was up and Philip who was standing on the deck in his pyjamas had a small native boy crouching at his feet bowing to him as if he was some kind of a God! Explanations came thick and fast; the young lad turned out to be named 'Oola,' and he was the boy that Philip and Jack had rescued yesterday from a snake-charmer who seemed to more-or-less own him. Philip actually threatened the man with a stick when he had looked as if he was going to assault the boy.
There's something about Philip that inspires utter devotion from lesser mortals. He still exchanges letters with that gypsy girl we met up in Scotland and who's now becoming an educated young lady with the help of a reputable girls college and right now it looked as if the magic was occurring once again only this time it's a boy who's stuck on him ... and I didn't like it. Can't have natives coming on board the ship late at night. The boy's hardly a yard in height and has a fair selection of marks visible over his body - visible because he wears only a loincloth. Some food gone from the store according to Lucy-Ann, which is unsurprising but we can't have this happening. I told him to clear off but Allie grabbed him as he stumbled past and held him in the light. The marks on his body weren't just ordinary welts that many of the native youngsters have; these were cuts and swollen bruises, especially on his back.
I told him to come nearer and he did so, albeit hesitatingly. I asked him what he was doing here and he turned to point at Philip saying that he'd brought his 'Lord and Master' a gift! Suspicion reigned but I'd experienced enough drama for the night and just wanted to settle into bed with my bruises, but as I was about to order him off the boat there came sudden panic. The native boy reached into his single item of clothing and produced a sinuous wriggling creature, which he thrust proudly towards Philip.
A man on holiday with his family doesn't normally pack a gun and I was that man. Maybe Philip's charm would work whatever circumstance occurs but a healthy degree of sweat broke out on my forehead and on everyone else's I'm sure, because the creature being offered to our Philip was none other than a snake!
A scream sounded from Lucy-Ann and Dinah disappeared (naturally). When I say 'disappeared' I mean it. There was a scrambling noise and she simply vanished! Oola had yelled out one word and it was a word I'd spotted in the papers from HQ - the creature he'd produced was none other than one of the deadliest around - a 'bargua.' In the summaries was a sheet that described some of the birds and beasts of the forest considered advisable to avoid, and this snake was one such example.
"Sand Viper - Greenish with red & yellow spots." I could remember noting that and now we were witnessing the personification. The other guff ran through at lightning speed, " ... spots develop later on ... bargua is a local name. Genus ... and so on."
Oola still had hold of it although it appeared to be wriggling out of his grasp.
I yelled blindly at him.
"GET RID OF IT! THROW IT IN THE RIVER!"
I nearly lashed out at the seemingly insane boy, thinking he'd take to his heels and put some distance between himself and the boat but just in time I remembered a scrap of information - the native's background was that of entertainers who make a scant living from tourists wanting to witness frightening things, at a reasonably safe distance of course. I suppose we all search them out whether it be tigers on the plains or, in this case, snakes being manhandled by indigenous natives of the Orient and these individuals must know how to handle them. As I held back, Philip took over and once again demonstrated his confidence that none of God's creatures will ever threaten him. He peered closely at the snake's mouth under the urging of our visitor, and then informed us the snake was harmless.
A tiger with its teeth extracted, a gorilla with no arms, or a snake with the inability to dispense poison nullifies all threats ... to an extent, but I wanted more info.
Talking in stilted English we heard how young Oola had searched out the pet because Philip had expressed his wish to own a snake. The little chap had found a woman willing to give him one after he'd asked her to make the creature harmless because he wanted to give it to his 'Lord and Master.' The woman had followed his wish by performing some kind of operation, which meant the snake, although innocuous, was now liable to last only a month or so because of its enforced 'surgery.' Philip grabbed hold of it and then as his magic took over we watched in fascination - almost mesmerised by his uncanny method of talking softly to the alien creature. I looked round at the others ... if we had been snakes, there'd be nothing but 'peace and love' radiating from our very personas despite not understanding exactly why. Could it have been the subtle emotion that weaved its way though Philip's softly spoken words? Anyway, the serpent lay still in its new owner's hands before being transferred to a pocket.
'Poor animal,' and then I thought better. It was in Philip's pocket and what better place could there be for any creature?
Soulful eyes surveyed my face as Oola asked in his very broken English if he could stay here with his 'Lord,' and as I just wanted to get into bed and sleep very deeply I agreed, with a little prodding from Allie, that he could stay the night. Tala was surprised to say the least that a boy from the village was actually allowed to stay on our craft but rather reluctantly agreed to let our visitor bunk down next to him. He had made up a bed in the bow seeing it was too hot down below so he scrabbled round in the galley cupboard and found a lumpy mattress, which he immediately bagged, for himself, giving Oola his mat. Leaving them to it I stumbled back to join Allie and the children who'd settled down again. I can remember putting my arm round her before flaking out like a doused light. (01:50 approx.)