Authors: Stephen Leather
By Stephen Leather
The change in the engine note as the Hercules began to descend woke Dan ‘Spider’ Shepherd from a fitful sleep. He glanced around him. As usual Jock McIntyre and Geordie Mitchell were still sleeping. Both of them had the uncanny ability to sleep anywhere at any time, no matter what noise and distractions - even gunfire - there might be, yet on a whispered word of command, both would be instantly awake and alert. James ‘Jimbo’ Shortt’s lanky frame was also prone among the jumble of equipment stacked and lashed to the Hercules unforgiving steel floor and walls, but his eyes were wide open, staring at the ribbed metal roof.
Shepherd yawned and stretched, then peered out of the tiny window to his left. As the Hercules banked around, he caught a glimpse of the radomes of the listening station high on the flanks of Troodos Mountain. Beneath him, the dark shadow of the Hercules was etched across the brilliant white salt flats north of Akrotiri, the heat rising from them in shimmering waves. The aircraft rumbled in and touched down with a thud that shook Jock and Geordie awake.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Cyprus,’ Jimbo said. ‘Thank you for flying Crabs Airlines, please remain in your seats until the aircraft has come to a complete stop outside the terminal and the pilot has switched off the seatbelt signs.’
‘You’d have made a lovely stewardess,’ Geordie said, ‘if you weren’t so butt ugly.’
The Hercules juddered to a halt and as the tailgate was lowered, Shepherd hoisted his bergen onto his shoulders and led the others down the ramp on to the concrete hardstanding of the UK Sovereign Base Area. It was a fiercely hot day but after the tropical heat of Sierra Leone the lack of humidity in the air was as refreshing as a cooling breeze.
‘Not much of a welcoming party,’ he said as he looked around. A lone figure, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt was striding towards them. He was craggy faced and greying at the temples and though his legs and upper body were hard muscled, the thickening around his waist suggested that he was now spending more time driving a desk than on training and ops.
‘Anyone know him?’ Shepherd muttered as the man approached.
‘No,’ Jock said, ‘but you can tell he’s been around a bit, one of the old and bold.’
‘How do you know?’
‘Just look at his right hand.’ Shepherd followed his gaze and saw that the man’s fingers were curled over.
‘All the old guys get like that,’ Jock said. He held up his own hand. ‘In fact it’s started to happen to me too - it comes from holding a rifle for years.’
‘Morning guys,’ the man said as he walked up to them. ‘I’m Rusty. I don’t think I know any of you, do I?’
‘You’re not Rusty Nail?’ asked Jock.
‘The very same,’ said Rusty, narrowing his eyes. ‘Do you know me?’
‘Not personally, but I know you by reputation,’ Jock said. ‘You’ve worked on a couple of team jobs with a mate of mine: Spud.’
Rusty broke into a smile. ‘Bloody hell, that’s a blast from the past. Any friend of Spud’s is a friend of mine.’
The others introduced themselves. ‘So are you just passing through like us, Rusty?’ Shepherd said.
‘No, I’m based here.’
‘I didn’t even know we had a presence in Cyprus,’ Shepherd said.
Rusty nodded. ‘It’s not an operational section, purely administrative.’
Shepherd glanced around, squinting against the bright sunlight. Beyond the usual sprawl of hangers, concrete buildings and Portakabins that characterised every overseas base, he could see pine clad mountains in the distance to the north, and the sails of windsurfers and yachts speckling the Mediterranean beyond the sandstone cliffs and beaches flanking the peninsula that surrounded the base on three sides. ‘Looks like a pretty cushy posting,’ he said.
‘You can have it, if you want it, and welcome to it,’ said Rusty sourly.
‘So what happens here?’
‘Workwise? Not a lot. The Regiment has a permanent cell here, but it’s only two guys - grey-beards like me seeing out the last few years of service before being pensioned off. There are a few Scalies to run the signals equipment and deal with messages to and from the Head Shed in the UK.’ Scalies was short for Scaleybacks, in reference to the radio equipment the signallers carried on their backs like turtle shells.
‘So if it’s that quiet, why is the Regiment here at all?’ Jimbo said.
‘Partly because historically we’ve used the Base Military hospital here as a stopover to repair guys ill or injured on operations in Africa and the Middle East before sending them on to the UK, but that’s about it.’
‘And the other reason?’
‘Because of those.’ Rusty pointed towards the radomes on Mount Troodos, just visible through the heat haze. ‘Being here gives the Regiment prime access to the intelligence generated through the listening station up there. It’s run by GCHQ on behalf of us and the Yanks. Just about every terrorist organisation in the Middle East maintains an office on Cyprus. It’s a convenient centrally located meeting place where they can launder their money and arrange the purchase of weapons, and it’s also useful as a jumping off point to gain access to Europe through Greece. So both the UK and the US maintain a good sized security presence on the island, but life here is nowhere near as interesting as that makes it sound, at least as far as we’re concerned. Most of the time we’re just watching the grass grow and the dust blow. It’s bloody frustrating. I’m out in a few months and I need to be back in the UK working on my contacts, getting onto The Circuit so I’ve a job lined up for when I hit civvy street, not twiddling my thumbs and counting down the days to my retirement in a dead end job on a sunbaked rock in the middle of the Med.’
‘Why did they send you here then?’ asked Shepherd. ‘Punishment detail?’
Rusty smiled. ‘You’d think so, wouldn’t you, but it’s mainly because I speak fluent Arabic and, having worked all over the Middle East - Oman, Jordan, the UAE and a couple of places we don’t talk about - I know the culture too. I guess they thought that if you’re going to carry out surveillance on Arab terrorists, it probably helps if you can understand what they’re saying to each other.’
‘So that just leaves the question of what we’re doing here,’ Shepherd said. ‘Because none of us speaks a word of Arabic.’
Rusty spread his hands wide. ‘On that one, your guess is as good as mine. While you’re waiting to find out, you can work on your suntan or go windsurfing and wake-boarding down at the Lemming Beach Club at Happy Valley, or even clubbing at Ayia Napa if that appeals. When I first came here, back in the day, before I’d even joined the regiment, Ayia Napa was just a sleepy little village, with the most perfect beach you’ve ever seen a couple of miles down a one-track dirt road. Nissi Beach was a horseshoe-shaped cove with a little rocky island just off-shore that you could walk through the shallows to reach. The water was crystal clear and as warm as a hot bath. That’s all still true, but back then there was a small camp-site and a grass-roofed beach-hut where you could buy a beer or an ice cream, and that was it. Now Nissi Beach is wall to wall with high rise hotels, and Ayia Napa is all amusement parks, bars and vomit-strewn streets full of stag and hen nights, clubbers and pissed up squaddies.’
Jock shook his head. ‘Bloody hell, Rusty, you must be even older than you look. Ayia Napa’s been like that as long as I’ve been passing through here.’
‘Sounds perfect,’ Jimbo said, ‘I might take a look tonight.’
‘I won’t,’ Shepherd said, ‘I can see enough pissed-up teenagers in Hereford without going looking for them here as well.’
The SAS compound was in a corner of the base, wired off from the RAF section. There was the usual concrete admin building, still with its Cold War protection of berms and concrete blast walls, and offices the size of broom cupboards and a slightly larger briefing room. Surrounding it was a huddle of tents and Portakabins. ‘That’s yours,’ Rusty said, pointing to a converted shipping container screened from the sun by an awning and with a clanking, rusted air conditioning unit precariously attached to the outside.
‘All the comforts of home,’ said Geordie.
‘The canteen’s there.’ Rusty gestured towards a huge khaki tent on the far side of the office block, ‘or if you fancy something edible, there are food shops and cafes in Episkopi at the western end of the base area.’
‘And bars?’ Jimbo said, trying not to sound too eager.
‘I use the Beach Club at Happy Valley. There’s a spare Landy you can borrow to get down there.’
Rusty left them to unpack their gear. ‘What’s Rusty’s story?’ Shepherd asked Jock.
‘He’s a bit of a legend,’ said Jock. ‘He’s one of the few to have worked undercover in Belfast. His Irish accent is pretty much perfect, Spud says. He was into some pretty heavy stuff over there in the early eighties.’
‘Shoot to kill?’ asked Shepherd.
‘That’s the story according to Spud,’ said Jock.
‘Let’s give him a few beers and see if he’ll tell us some war stories,’ said Jimbo.
‘I doubt that’ll happen,’ said Shepherd. ‘He didn’t seem the sort to go running off at the mouth.’
Shepherd and the others stashed their kit in the shipping container and within half an hour they were stretched out on sun loungers on the sand in front of the Beach Club.
‘I’ve said it before,’ Geordie said, ‘and I’ll say it again: this is the life.’
‘Remind me, why are we here?’ said Jimbo.
‘Because our masters, in their infinite wisdom, have sent us here. Who are we mere mortals to question it?’ As usual, Jock’s low, growling voice and impenetrable Glaswegian accent made even the most anodyne statement sound like a declaration of war. ‘People pay good money to come here on holiday and we’re here for nothing, courtesy of HMG. So stop your whingeing and enjoy it.’
‘I’m not whingeing, I’m just wondering how long we’ll get to enjoy it before we’re re-tasked.’
‘The longer the better as far as I’m concerned,’ Shepherd said. ‘After a couple of months in Sierra Leone, rescuing diamonds from the mercenaries for HMG - and getting bugger all thanks for it - we’re due a bit of downtime. With a bit of luck they might even forget we’re here. If we stay long enough, we’ll not only get a sun tan, we might even get a bit of skiing in the mountains as well. Now pass the Ambre Solaire and get the beers in.’
‘I hate to tell you this, but it’s your round,’ Jock said.
Shepherd sighed and shook his head. ‘You’ve tried that scam on once too often, you tight-arsed, tartan-wearing, bagpipe blowing, Irn Bru supping, deep fried Mars Bar guzzling git. It’s your round and don’t give me the old “I’ve forgotten my wallet” line either because I can see it in your pocket’.
‘That’s not his wallet, Spider, he’s just pleased to see you,’ Geordie said with a laugh. ‘Anyway, when you two drama queens have finished arguing about who’s paying for it, mine’s a pint.’
Jock departed for the bar, still grumbling. Shepherd lay back and closed his eyes, enjoying the warmth of the sun on his body. He was just starting to unwind when a shadow fell across his face. ‘About time too, Shepherd said. ‘I’ve got a thirst you could flaming photograph.’
‘So glad you’re pleased to see me.’ They were not Jock’s gravel-throated tones, and the accent was English upper-crust, not Glaswegian. ‘After what you said to me last time we met, I wasn’t sure what kind of welcome I’d receive.’
Shepherd shaded his eyes, squinting into the sun. A tall man was standing over him, his face shaded by a Panama hat. He wore an immaculately cleaned and pressed cream linen suit and a white cotton shirt and, despite the heat, he was also wearing a tie.
Shepherd scowled at him. ‘And you’re no more welcome now than you were then,’ he said. ‘What do you want?
Jonathan Parker’s professed occupation of Third World importer and exporter was a cover for his work as an MI6 officer. Shepherd and his team had first encountered Parker in Sierra Leone when they’d rescued a botched operation that Parker was supervising and there was no love lost between them.
There was a mouthful of expletives from Jock as he came out of the bar and caught sight of Parker. Geordie and Jimbo looked equally unhappy at seeing the MI6 officer. Parker ignored their surly looks as he brushed the sand from a sun lounger with his handkerchief and the perched himself on the edge of it. ‘I’ve a little job for you,’ he said, having glanced around to make sure they could not be overheard.
‘We’ve got jobs,’ said Jock. ‘We’re in the SAS, or have you forgotten that?’
‘No need to be tetchy,’ said Parker. ‘Wouldn’t you rather be doing something soldierly than lying on a beach?’
‘The only lying going on is when you open your mouth,’ said Geordie.
‘Guys, come on now,’ said Parker. ‘There’s no need for this. I’ve got a job that needs doing and you’re the perfect candidates for the task at hand.’
‘Send someone else,’ Shepherd said. ‘We’ve only been here about twenty minutes after two months on ops in Sierra Leone. We’re due some R and R and then a spell on stand-by before we go back on ops.’ There was a rumble of agreement from the others.
‘Sorry chaps,’ Parker said imperturbably. ‘No rest for the wicked and all that. There’s a rather delicate situation in a certain Middle Eastern country and we need your expertise. There is no one else available with your range of skills, and don’t worry, it’s already been cleared with the MoD and Hereford.’
‘So have some of your pet mercenaries gone rogue on you again?’ asked Shepherd.
Parker flicked a speck of dust from his lapel, as if brushing away the comment. ‘No, nothing like that, this is purely a training task.’ He paused. ‘Now I don’t want to spoil your fun, but it is a matter of some urgency. Shall we say 1600 hours in the briefing room back at the base?’
‘If it’s just a training task, why the urgency?’ Shepherd said, but Parker was already walking away up the beach.
The four SAS men were in a mutinous mood as they filed into the briefing room just before four o’clock. Rusty was already there and Parker swept in a moment later, followed by five signallers, between them carrying a piece of electronic equipment the size of a three-drawer filing cabinet.
Parker glanced around the room, then cleared his throat. ‘Right then, you are to deploy on a top secret bodyguard training task in a Middle Eastern country. After neglecting the Middle East in the dash to join the EU, HMG is concerned to maintain what little influence we still have in the region and the state in question is a crucial part of that.’ He paused, and made eye contact with them one at a time. ‘Background: there are two cousins from the ruling family locked in a power struggle. The Ruler is a modernist aligned to the West. He has two wives, one an American Muslim, a college graduate and a licensed pilot. The second wife is the daughter of another Middle Eastern ruler. She was brought up as a strict Muslim but is trying to modernise her outlook with the help of wife Number One.’
Jimbo laughed out loud. ‘Any man who wants two wives needs his head examined,’ he said. ‘Twice the nagging.’
Parker ignored the interruption. ‘The ruler is an interesting character, a trained F16 pilot who also flies his own Airbus, and needless to say the country’s huge oil reserves mean that he’s one of the richest men in the world. So far, all pretty straightforward. However, the ruler’s religiously conservative cousin is determined to get back what he believes, probably rightfully, is his throne.’
‘Why rightfully?’ asked Shepherd.
Parker grimaced. ‘We deposed his father in a bloodless Palace coup several years ago - he was threatening the security of our oil supplies and even flirting with the Russians - so we sent him into exile in London and he lived out his days in a Park Lane hotel before dying a few years ago. His son insists that if we had not deposed his father and forced him into exile, he would now be the legitimate ruler of the country, so he has set out to depose his cousin and reclaim his throne.’
‘Sounds like he has a point,’ said Jimbo. ‘Who are we to decide who runs a country? Our politicians do a shit job running the UK, they’ve no business telling other countries what to do.’
Shepherd threw Jimbo a warning look. ‘Is the cousin a serious threat?’ he asked Parker.
‘He’s been missing from his usual haunts for several weeks now and sigint and humint suggest that he’s recruited a group of Chechen mercenaries. It looks as if he is getting backing, money, arms and men from somewhere, though we’re not sure where as yet.’
‘Now why does that not surprise me?’ said Jimbo.
Parker ignored the interruption but his lips tightened. ‘We picked up electronic intelligence on the plot, and so we’ve decided to dispatch you to train a hand-picked cadre of the ruler’s troops as an elite bodyguard group,’ he said. ‘And of course we want you to keep the ruler alive until the BG group you’ve trained is operationally ready and the coup plot has been dealt with.’
‘Why us?’ Jock growled.
‘Because you’re the best available team and you’re already on the spot,’ said Parker. ‘You’re here and you now your stuff. The proverbial bird in the hand.’
‘Now that I could work with,’ said Geordie. ‘A bird in the hand is just what I need right now.’
Parker gestured towards the signallers’ equipment. ‘I’ve brought along something that should help, state of the art electronic gadgetry to support your team in-country.’
Parker nodded to one of the signallers, a ginger-haired guy in his late twenties whose Adam’s apple wobbled when he cleared his throat. ‘It’s an electronic comms and suppression system,’ said the signaller in a West Country accent that hinted of cider and sheep-filled fields. ‘It can detect bugs and intercept them and also put a blanket transmission blackout on an area. It will also suppress signals to detonate IEDs and other types of bomb. The system operates largely automatically and is part of a network run from GCHQ in Cheltenham.’
‘What’s it weigh?’ Shepherd asked.
The signaller frowned, not understanding the point of the question. ‘Just under one hundred pounds,’ he said.
‘Then the system’s fine,’ Shepherd said, ‘and we can make good use of it, but if that’s all it weighs and it operates semi-automatically, why do we need a five-man team of Scalies to run it?’ He saw a couple of them bridle at the use of the semi-derogatory nickname the SAS used for signallers but he was in no mood to be sparing feelings.
‘Because,’ Parker said, with exaggerated patience, ‘you need them available 24-7 and working the same hours that you do.’
‘Exactly. And we’ll only need one man for that. We work hard and he can do the same. Having too many guys lying around with nothing to do is just a recipe for problems in-country. He glanced across at the signallers. ‘So which one of you Scalies is the most experienced?’ he asked.
‘That would be me,’ said the one who had spoken before. ‘Mike Smith. They call me Beebop’.
‘And if I tell you that we will be working all the hours God sends and maybe a few more on top, Beebop, would that put you off?’
Beebop grinned. ‘No, it’ll keep the boredom at bay.’
‘Good, you’ll do then,’ said Shepherd. He looked at Parker. ‘You can send the rest packing. Beebop’s all we need. ‘ Parker nodded at the remaining signallers and gestured at the door with his chin. Shepherd waited until the other four had filed out of the room before continuing. ‘Okay, so a five-man team then: me Jock, Geordie, Jimbo and Beebop.’
‘And I’ll be there from time to time to liaise with the Sheikh on behalf of HMG,’ Parker said.
Jimbo’s hackles were up straightaway. ‘I’m guessing you’ll be doing your liaising from the comfort of a five-star hotel in the capital, not in a tent in the middle of the desert with us,’ he said.
‘I’d sooner he was in a hotel anyway,’ Shepherd said, heading off Jock, whose short fuse was legendary. ‘That way he won’t be getting under our feet. Right, let’s get on with the planning. Usual rules: if you don’t speak up at the planning stage, you don’t get to complain about anything afterwards.’
‘Just before you start,’ Rusty said. ‘I may be talking out of turn here but, correct me if I’m wrong, none of you guys speak Arabic, do you?’
‘No, we’ll be using translators,’ said Shepherd.
‘Well, like I told you before, I speak fluent Arabic and I’ve worked extensively in the Middle East. Make me part of the team and I can run the admin for you.’
Shepherd grinned. ‘At this rate, we’re going to be up to battalion strength before we even get out there.’
‘But it makes sense to take Rusty,’ Jock said. ‘He’s up to speed on admin, right?’
Rusty nodded. ‘I know what I’m doing,’ he said,
‘It’ll make the training a whole lot easier with an admin guy who can anticipate our needs,’ said Jock. ‘If the ammo is on the firing point before we arrive we can get straight into the training. If the vehicles are filled up and serviceable when we need them, that saves hours if not days out in the desert. And don’t forget the daily grind of making sure we’re properly fed and watered allows us to get on with the job in hand.’
‘I’m your man for that,’ agreed Rusty. ‘Plus you won’t find a better Arabic speaker.’
As Shepherd still hesitated, Rusty added, ‘Plus if I’m on the ground in the Middle East, I’ll be in a much better position to latch on to some work for when I leave the regiment.’ He grinned. ‘You’d be doing me a big favour.’
‘What about the admin here?’ asked Shepherd.
‘My oppo can cover it,’ said Rusty. ‘There’s not enough work for one, let alone two of us here anyway.’
‘Fair enough,’ Shepherd said. ‘All agreed?’ He looked around the circle of faces. Jimbo, Jock and Geordie all nodded. ‘Then you’re in, Rusty. Welcome aboard. You can start by giving us the Intel brief.’
‘Brilliant, thanks,’ said Rusty. ‘There’s little to add to what Mr Parker has already told you. We’re monitoring the ruler’s cousin and his group and they have been flagged as top priority, but there’s not much sigint, electronic chatter or any other sign of immediate concern.’
‘Okay,’ Shepherd said, ‘Let’s get the kit sorted. Weaponry?’
‘Just one point on that,’ Rusty said, ‘unlike bodyguards in Western countries, it’s normal for BG’s in the Middle East to carry their weapons openly, so there’s no need for the usual worries about concealment. You can have whatever you want.’
‘Thanks,’ Shepherd said, ‘you’re proving your worth already. So, what do you reckon Jock?’
The Scotsman thought about it for a moment. ‘I think we’d be best with the Heckler and Koch MP5K,’ he said eventually. ‘There’s nothing better for close quarter work. And for shorts we’ll use the Browning 9mm pistol. They use the same ammunition and I’m assuming there’ll be no shortage here?’ He looked over at Rusty and Rusty nodded. ‘Anyone disagree?’ asked Jock. There were no objections; everyone could see the sense of his suggestions.
‘Now, let’s talk training,’ said Shepherd. ‘Geordie?’
‘I’m assuming that most of the guys we’ll be training won’t be university educated,’ Geordie said. He glanced at Rusty for confirmation.
‘They’ll probably be illiterate,’ said Rusty. ‘But that doesn’t mean they’re unintelligent and their powers of recall may surprise you. Because they don’t write anything down, their memories are generally pretty good. They’ll speak very little English, though.’
‘Okay, so we’re best sticking to an uncomplicated syllabus,’ Geordie said, ‘with much of the normal intellectual content removed. We can take out the complicated large convoy drills and keep it simple, with just the three vehicle drills. We don’t need to do any visiting Heads of State planning now; we can do that later when the internal security situation has stabilized, and we can cut out the counter-bombardment and anti-sniper training completely.’
They spent the next two days planning the training, assembling the equipment and stores they would need and loading them on to an RAF Hercules. On the evening of the second day they took off and flew due south over the waters of the Mediterranean before turning east to cross the desolate, desert wastes of Saudi Arabia. They followed the old pre-jet age route of pipelines and pumping stations before entering the target country covertly, flying at low level without navigation lights. In the distance they could see the glare from the capital’s glass and steel skyscrapers piercing the night, lit up like an Arab Las Vegas. But as they flew on into the ink black night, the vast emptiness of the desert was broken only by the occasional tiny flicker of a Bedu camp fire.
The Hercules landed at an air strip deep in the desert and they unloaded their stores and equipment under the curious gaze of the men they would soon be training. Rusty took charge of the stores and having seen them stowed to his satisfaction he began sorting out the camp routine, planning training sessions and meals around the regular Muslim calls to prayer.
The training base was a tented camp with rudimentary facilities and, like all desert locations, it was burning hot by day, and bitterly cold as soon as night fell. The SAS men shared two tents while the Arabs slept in a large communal marquee. There were a couple of showers, one for the Brits and the other for the Arabs, which were topped up daily by a municipal water bowser that trundled in across the desert each morning. The same vehicle also supplied the water for all of the other camp requirements.
The Sheikh arrived early the next morning in a convoy of vehicles that raised a dust trail that could be seen from miles away. Armoured vehicles and troop trucks travelled at the head and tail of the convoy, with three armoured Mercedes limousines with blacked out windows in the centre.
Geordie laughed out loud at the convoy. ‘All we’re missing are marching bands and fireworks. Is there no Arabic word for covert?’
‘He’s a Sheik,’ said Rusty. ‘That’s how he travels.’
‘How do I address him, Rusty?’ Shepherd said as they watched the convoy rumbling towards them.
‘When you first greet him you should call him “Ya Sheikh min al Shayookh” which means “Oh Sheikh of the Sheikhs”. The Ya always precedes the greeting and makes it more respectful. After that you should call him “Ya Sheikh” unless you’re talking to him later on a private, one to one basis, then you should call him “Ya Seedee” which means “Oh Sir” But he’s Western educated, just calling him “Sir” will probably be just fine.’
The convoy swept into the compound and after a pause to allow some of the dust cloud to dissipate, the sheikh emerged from his Mercedes, followed by his retinue. He wore traditional dress - a thobe in dazzling white cotton decorated with gold thread, and a light sandy brown bisht also with elaborate gold trimming - and his skin colour and features were unmistakably Arab, but when he spoke, his accent was pure Eton and Oxbridge. ‘Gentlemen, I bid you welcome,’ he said, ‘you are honoured guests in my country.’
‘Ya Sheikh min al Shayookh,’ Shepherd said, hoping he was pronouncing it right, ‘we are proud to be of service to you.’
He introduced himself and his team and the sheikh then led them into a marquee, spread with a huge Persian carpet. The sheikh’s servant served mint tea and then withdrew leaving them to talk. ‘I walk a tightrope in my country,’ the sheikh said. ‘I try to do enough to keep happy those who, like me, want to see our country modernise and play the part in the world that our wealth and our destiny requires. But it also has to be slow enough to take with us as many as possible of the more traditional and conservative elements of our society.’ He sipped his tea. ‘It is necessarily a slow process but we are winning, though there are those such as my cousin who would seek to set the country on a different path.’ He sipped his tea again. ‘I assume that, once trained by you, the bodyguard teams will work in very close proximity to myself?’
Shepherd nodded. ‘Yes, Ya Sheikh,’ he said.
‘And how would you select those men?’ asked the sheikh.
‘We would normally use a process based on the physical fitness regime of the SAS to select the most suitable candidates,’ said Shepherd. ‘Fitness and skill with weapons. They would be our main criteria.’ Jock, Geordie and Rusty nodded in agreement.
‘I’m sure that will often be the correct approach, but not in this case,’ the sheikh said. ‘These bodyguards will be working cheek by jowl with me, will they not? And they will be armed with a round in the breech, so they could kill me in a heartbeat.’ He waited for Shepherd’s agreement before continuing. ‘So the men you will train as my bodyguards, will be selected not on the basis of their physical fitness but purely on their loyalty to me. The men outside are all Bedu, of my own tribe. Their loyalty to me is absolute and unquestioning. These are the men you will train.’
Shepherd could see that it was an order, not a request. But he knew that the sheikh was talking sense. Loyalty was the prime concern. He nodded in agreement. ‘I’m sure that’s the most sensible option,’ he said. ‘Sacrificing expertise for absolute loyalty makes perfect sense, but rest assured, Ya Sheikh, that after we have trained them they will all have the skills they need to protect you.’
The sheikh smiled. ‘That is good to hear,’ he said. ‘Can you tell me exactly what will you be teaching them?’
‘Body protection and some explosive recognition, but the main effort will be devoted to teaching them a simplified version of a Presidential Escort group,’ said Shepherd. ‘A PEG as we call it. I’m afraid acronyms are an occupational hazard in the forces.’
‘Don’t worry,’ the sheikh said. ‘I trained at Sandhurst myself, and I’m quite used to them, but please explain how a PEG operates.’
‘Well, a PEG consists of three Presidential Escort Sections,’ explained Shepherd. ‘Each section is four cars and crews with any associated support. Car One, with a driver and four crew, travels in advance of you to check the routes and search the venues that you will be visiting. Car Two, with a driver and another four crew, travels immediately in front of your vehicle to protect you in case of ambush or attack. Car Three, with a driver and four more crew travels immediately behind your vehicle, ready to respond in the event of an ambush or attack. And the Team Leader travels with you in your vehicle and will protect you with his body in the event of an attack. The three sections work one day on duty, one day stand-by and one day rest.’
The sheikh nodded, satisfied. He asked a few more questions and then began preparing to leave, but Shepherd had one further request to make. ‘Forgive me, Ya Sheikh, but we would also want you to wear a PLB - a personal location beacon - at all times so that, in the unlikely event of you ever being kidnapped or going missing, your bodyguard team will be able to locate you using their communications system.’ He saw the sheikh hesitate and reached into his pocket to pull out a tiny PLB, not much bigger than a penny. ‘As you see, it is very small and discreet,’ he glanced at the sheikh’s hand, ‘and could be fitted, for example, inside the gold signet ring you wear on your little finger. If you’re ever required to activate it, just a sharp tap on a solid object will start it transmitting.’
The sheikh frowned for a second or two but then he nodded. ‘Very well, if you feel it is essential, give it to me and I shall have it done.’
The sheikh and his convoy set off back to the capital a few minutes later in another cloud of dust. As soon as he had left, Shepherd and the team started work. The Bedu tribesmen were indeed all illiterate, but far from stupid. They had no problems memorising instructions and were quick learners.
Training began at five-thirty each morning, shortly after the Bedu had finished their dawn prayers. Throughout the day the men broke off to pray together, facing Mecca. They broke off training at midday and sunset to eat. The cooking facilities consisted of two Pakistani cooks using brushwood fires to cook Bedu food in large aluminium vats. The SAS men joined the trainees, eating together from enormous aluminium platters about six feet in diameter. The ate with their right hands, either rice with vegetables or goat, and naan bread.
The weapons training involved a lot of range work and the first session was a vivid demonstration of how much there was to do. When the first batch of trainees were issued with their weapons they immediately began firing them into the air.
Shepherd yelled at them to cease firing. ‘You know what we say?’ Shepherd said, when he’d brought the firing to a stop. ‘When people start firing upwards, it’s time to get indoors because every round is going to obey the laws of gravity and come down again. If it hits you, it’ll kill you just as dead as if it had been aimed at you in the first place. It’s also a waste of ammunition, so that was your first and your last burst of celebration gunfire - understood?’
Rusty translated and the men looked at the ground guiltily.
There was more wild firing over on the range, with rounds spraying all over the hillside behind the targets. This time Shepherd let them fire away because there was no danger of them hurting anyone. Once they had emptied their weapons, Shepherd gave them the lecture they needed. ‘That was terrible,’ he said. ‘You can see that from the fact that most of the targets are untouched.’ He waited for Rusty to translate before continuing. ‘You will almost certainly be operating these weapons at close quarters in what will often be crowded areas, because where the sheikh goes a crowd will gather. So the aim is to kill the terrorist, not the innocent bystanders and that means aimed shots, double-taps, not bursts.’ Rusty translated again.
Once the ground rules had been established, the Bedu proved quick and able pupils. Jock, Geordie and Jimbo had built a Close Quarter Battle area, dug out of the face of a sand dune and divided into sections with baulks of timber, in which they trained the bodyguards relentlessly, firing off thousands of rounds until every man could put a double tap into a target in the blinking of an eye. Jock had given up the lead role when it became clear that none of the translators could understand his Glaswegian accent, and instead Geordie led the sessions.
The bodyguards also had to learn explosive recognition and body protection drills, and vehicle convoy drills. That took a great deal of patience and time to perfect because there were no tarmac roads anywhere near the training camp and the Bedu trainees were not the best drivers in the world.
As soon as the first Presidential Escort Section was trained up, Shepherd took them up to the capital for on-site familiarisation training. Rusty went with him, since the bulk of his admin work was finished and with the systems he’d put in place the camp practically ran itself. They had developed an excellent working relationship and Shepherd found Rusty’s local knowledge and his extensive understanding of Arab culture a great help.
After a few weeks the other two sections were also fully trained and arrived in the capital to begin their work with the sheikh. There had been no sign of the rumoured threat from the sheikh’s cousin, but Shepherd was relieved that his team was back together. After observing their trainees in action for a further couple of weeks, they were ready to complete the formal handover to the Bedu team leaders, and then return to the UK, unless the Head Shed chose to send them somewhere else.
They were unwinding with a beer after the day’s practice drills when Jonathan Parker appeared. Jock gave a snort of disgust when he caught sight of him. ‘How is it that every time I’m relaxing with a beer in my hand, you seem to appear?’ growled the Scotsman.
‘Sheer good luck, old chap,’ Parker said, with a mirthless smile. He was carrying a battered leather briefcase.
‘Good luck for who?’ was the baleful reply, but Parker ignored him. He sat down at their table, opened the briefcase and took out a typewritten document. The heading ‘TOP SECRET - UK EYES ONLY’, was the highest possible security classification. ‘We have an intel update,’ Parker said. ‘Sigint suggests that the sheikh’s cousin is now supported by a band of Chechens and they have succeeded in infiltrating the country through one of its porous desert borders. They are now believed to be in hiding.’
‘You mean you’ve lost them,’ said Jimbo. ‘I tell you, you secret squirrel boys would be lucky to find your arses using both hands.’
Parker ignored Jimbo and passed the sheet of paper over to Shepherd. ‘They pose an immediate, serious threat to the safety of the sheikh. You will need to take a closer role in his protection until the situation is resolved.’
‘I’m not sure that’s necessary,’ said Shepherd. ‘We’ve trained the sheikh’s PES for exactly this kind of eventuality. They’re well-armed, well-motivated, and well-trained, and they’re well on top of the situation. I’d back them against a Chechen rabble any day. We should be returning to the UK, not staying to nursemaid them when they don’t need it.’ There was a rumble of agreement from the others.
‘Be that as it may, you will be required to remain here for the time being,’ said Parker. He took the sheet back from Shepherd and put it in the briefcase. ‘The safety and security of the sheikh is of vital importance to HMG’s interests and influence in the region. I shall be remaining here as well.’
‘That’s all we need,’ Jock growled.
‘And I will keep you updated on any additional intel we receive,’ Parker said, as if Jock hadn’t spoken. Parker stood up and walked away. Shepherd swore. It was clearly a fait accompli and they had no choice in the matter.
A couple of days later Shepherd received a summons to the sheikh’s palace. He was ushered into a marble-pillared receiving room and a few minutes later the sheikh appeared, alone. They sat together on a large overstuffed sofa. ‘I’ve been contacted by my cousin, who wants to meet me to talk over our problems,’ said the sheikh. ‘He wants me to meet him alone at a remote location in the desert where we will be safe from prying eyes and can maintain secrecy from the various tribal factions.’ He held up his hand as Shepherd began to protest. ‘A reconciliation or at least an arrangement with my cousin would bring great benefits to my country,’ he said. ‘It would unify our nation and also neutralise the greatest potential source of threat to my rule. So it is a prize worth risking much for.’
Shepherd shook his head. ‘You will be putting your life at risk, Ya Seedee. Out on your own, in the desert? It’s asking for trouble.’
‘My cousin has guaranteed my safety on his honour,’ said the sheikh.
Shepherd wanted to tell the sheikh that a man’s word counted for nothing when imaginable wealth and power were at stake, but he held his tongue, not wanting to appear disrespectful.
‘If I reject his offer, my own honour will be impugned, so I am morally obliged to meet him and have agreed to do so,’ the sheikh continued. ‘We are to meet alone without any advisers or bodyguards.’
‘Ya Seedee, with respect, this breaches every rule of bodyguard training that we have instilled in your men. If they are not with you, they cannot protect you.’
‘Nonetheless that is my wish.’ The sheikh’s tone was that of a man whose word was law and Shepherd knew there was nothing he could do to change his mind.
Shepherd returned to base and briefed Parker and his SAS team. ‘We can’t allow him to do this,’ said Shepherd. ‘But I don’t see how we can stop him.’
‘He can be stubborn,’ said Parker.
‘Can’t you explain how stupid he’s being?’ asked Shepherd.
‘He’s an absolute ruler,’ said Parker. ‘Western educated, but he’s not going to let me tell him what to do.’
‘But you can tell him how dangerous it’ll be.’
‘He knows that already, I’m sure. But he thinks he can trust his cousin, obviously.’
‘Then you need to tell him that he can’t trust him. Come on Jonathan, the cousin wants to meet the sheikh alone in the desert. How is that going to end well?’
‘It seems to me that our option is to follow him covertly,’ said the MI6 man.
‘So you’ll be coming with us, will you?’ asked Jimbo, his voice loaded with sarcasm.
Parker swallowed. ‘Actually yes, I will.’
Jock scowled. ‘Do me a favour, You’ll be more of a hindrance than a help; we’ve no room for passengers or dead weight.’
‘I’m afraid I’m going to have to insist,’ said Parker. ‘I was given the responsibility of ensuring the safety of the sheikh, and my neck is on the line if anything goes wrong.’
‘All right,’ Shepherd said, after a lengthy pause. ‘But if anything kicks off, do as you’re told and keep out of the way. This isn’t a job for amateurs. Right, we need vehicles. Jimbo, what can we get our hands on before sunset tonight?’
Jimbo uncoiled his lanky frame. ‘There’s nothing armoured, the best we can do at this notice is a couple of 4 x 4s - Toyota Landcruisers.’
‘Then they’ll have to do,’ Shepherd said. ‘But because of the risk of IED’s, we need to reinforce the floors with sandbags.’
‘Sandbags?’ said Parker.
‘It’s pretty rudimentary protection but it’s better than nothing,’ said Shepherd. ‘Jimbo and Geordie, you get that sorted, and Jock, you take care of the weapons. I doubt that the Chechens won’t have any armour, but a couple of GPMGs will take out their vehicles if it all goes tits up.’
At sunset that night, they took up positions from where they could observe the two main entrances to the sheikh’s palace. Shepherd, Rusty and Parker were in the lead vehicle, and Jock, Geordie and Jimbo in the other. Just after midnight, with the capital’s streets deserted, Shepherd saw a nondescript black car drive out of the rear gates of the palace. The way the guards on duty snapped to attention told him that the driver was the sheikh. Shepherd passed the word to Jock’s group over the net and they began to track the sheikh as he drove across the city towards the desert.
They followed him without difficulty until he left the tarmac road and set off across the desert on a graded track. Away from civilisation, they were forced to switch off their vehicle lights and resort to using night vision goggles. That slowed them down and the sheikh’s car began to pull away from them. Shepherd saw the lights of the sheikh’s car disappear from view as it breasted a rise and dropped down the other side. He accelerated, driving on the limits of visibility through the NVGs, and as he crested the ridge he saw the black car stationary in the distance ahead of them. It was surrounded by a group of armed men who were dragging the sheikh out of the car.