Copyright © Stewart Clyde 2020.
The moral right of Stewart Clyde to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by him, in accordance with the Copyrights, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means without prior permission in writing from the publisher.
First published in 2020 by Hunt Press.
First published in Great Britain.
All characters are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Djibouti, Horn of Africa
A short man in a suit, with a wisp of a pencil moustache and eyes too far apart, watched the cargo ship as it slid alongside and docked in the Port of Djibouti. He stood near the glass frontage of the harbour master’s office. It was in a squat complex of white buildings, and he lifted a pair of binoculars to take a closer look at her. He focussed the field glasses on the bow and read the name. MV Nisha came into focus in thick white letters, streaked through with rust from the hull. The seventeen-tonne vessel, registered in the Caribbean, was a workhorse of the oceans, and its Bangladeshi and Filipino crew were used to transporting goods all over the world.
The short man felt the harbour master eyeing him and dropped the lenses.
“Very good,” he said.
“Anything else, I can do for you, Mr Bin Laden?” The harbour master asked.
“No,” Bakr Bin Laden said, and put the binoculars down on the map table behind him. “Please, just make sure my cargo is loaded securely. It is very important.”
“Yes, sir,” the harbour master said and nodded to the young porter boy standing near the door. The boy ran out of the office to see to his master’s instructions.
“My men are there to help,” Bakr said.
He moved around the table and looked at the nautical map. Djibouti was a tiny sliver of a country that shared a border with Somalia. He ran his finger up the coastline and stopped it on the Bab al-Mandab Straight.
“Djibouti is very small, is it not?” Bakr asked rhetorically, his Saudi accent heavy on the consonants.
The harbour master nodded solemnly.
“But it is very important. Do you know how many barrels of oil travel down this narrow straight every day?” Bakr asked.
The harbour master shook his head.
“More than three million barrels of oil, every day. Can you imagine? All travelling through this tiny contested strip of water, only sixteen miles wide,” he jabbed his finger into the map.
The harbour master looked proud and smiled.
Bakr’s finger followed the journey the MV Nisha would take. First, down to Mauritius, in the middle of the Indian Ocean, to fill up with twenty-six tons of raw cane sugar, then, around the Cape of Good Hope, and up the west coast of Africa. Past Morocco, and curving around to the right, into the English Channel and eventually up the Thames, before pulling into the Tate & Lyle jetty at the company’s Silvertown sugar refinery in east London.
“It is no wonder the Americans are building their African bases here,” Bakr said with indignation.
The harbour master’s pride dropped from his face and he shuffled nervously. Bakr went back to the window. He stood with his arms behind his back and watched American grain being unloaded from the MV Nisha.
It was an aid shipment, bound for Somalia. Bakr’s thoughts were on the future, the impact this ship would have on the world. He felt the harbour master’s eyes as they glanced at him. Bakr saw him, out the corner of his eye, shift from foot to foot. He thought of his brother, Mohammed, and his legacy. He was killed by the Israelis; he was sure of it. And Bakr’s duty was to keep growing the Saudi Binladen Group and maintain his brother’s influence, and it weighed heavy on him. Heavy lies the crown. It was a duty he would bear, insha’Allah, and fulfil the ancient texts.
Waiting on the dock, a man looked up at him. A man his brother had met, before he was killed. He was a doctor from Egypt, a man his brother had trusted, and Bakr had come to trust. He was a man of principles, and great imaginings and plans. Surely – surely – he was sent by Allah to drive the infidel from the sacred lands. Bakr looked down at the Egyptian, with a full, thick beard as it waved in the wind, wearing his usual white turban.
* * *
Abdi stood down on the dock, in the shadow of the giant container ship, he was also looking at the man in the white turban and watched as his beard waved in the wind. Somalian by birth, Abdi was tall and dark, with thick, round lips, and wide, vacant eyes. They were eyes that saw everything, and they saw without anyone noticing him. Abdi was invisible. His irrelevance to most people’s lives was an asset, and something he coveted. He wore a backwards facing cycling cap, and baggy basketball clothing. He worked on the dock, and other times as a taxi driver. When he knew something, he also worked for a woman at the American’s military base. She liked information and paid well. He’d thought about buying her a flower because she was beautiful, but it was expensive, and against the custom of his people.
Abdi watched the white-turbaned man. He seemed to be in charge, but he never moved much, or shouted like the dock foremen. To Abdi, he was quiet and he seemed wise. Abdi watched as men approached and spoke to him, and the white-turbaned man leaned in, pulled them close by their shoulders and spoke into their ears. As Abdi looked, the white-turbaned man noticed him. This was a shock. Nobody noticed Abdi, but the wise man had, and that confirmed to Abdi that he was a remarkable, and a very wise man. The woman at the military base would want to know about this man, he thought.
The Somalian looked away. A forklift bounced past and drove in-between, and Abdi moved off in the ship’s shadow towards his work. The dock was busy. A crowd of drivers stood next to a line of trucks. They smoked and chatted, as a blue ogre of a crane swivelled and dumped loads of coarse powder from a clamshell bucket scoop into their trailers. It was a slow process and grain ended up on the tarmac, and lay there like a dusting of snow. Abdi picked up a wide-headed broom and ambled over to the base of the spinning crane. He swept the American grain into piles on the dockside, all the while he checked over his shoulder and watched the Arabs. The white-turbaned man was gone, in his place were a group of tall, varnish skinned Saudis in white robes and red-checked headdresses. They hung around pickup truck with a single crate its flatbed.
It looked heavy. The bed of the pickup was weighed down so the back looked like it would drag along the dock.
Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti
“What?” She shouted back and gestured to the wound she was dressing. A five year-old girl sat on the examining table in front of her.
“It’s your taxi driver, at the gate.”
“Tell him I’m busy,” she said and smiled apologetically at the little girl’s mother, who had a look of silent concern.
“He says it’s urgent. He’s been pestering the guards for half an hour,” he insisted.
She looked over and squinted into the low sunlight. It was Tom Holland.
“Madam, I am so sorry,” she said.
The woman looked at the translator who stood behind Athene. The translator explained in Arabic. Athene washed her hands at the surgical table, and wondered what the Muslim mother would think if she knew that Athene were an Israeli Jew.
Not only a Jew, a kibbutznik. In the country’s early days, this group of stoical, avowedly secular Jews, whose parents and grandparents had survived the Holocaust, were Israel’s heart and her soul. And, although they were only a small population of Israel’s society, kibbutzniks were the core of Israel’s founding warrior class. They made up most of the country’s top military jobs and whole special forces units were comprised entirely of these warriors. As a people they were tough, confident and worked as a team, and Athene was one of the best of the best from this group.
“Coming!” Athene yelled back at Tom.
He was new in country, a bit green and eager to please, and like all of the new ones he had a crush on her from the moment he’d seen her. He smiled as she approached, he watched how her body moved as she walked towards him.
“He’s waiting at the gate for you,” he said in a quieter tone.
“Thanks,” she replied and walked past him, “do me a favour and check on that girl, would you?”
She didn’t wait for his response.
She kept moving and knew he would go over to the operating table, under the combat tents, and stand there awkwardly trying to make himself useful, like Brits tended to do. This part of East Africa was alien to them. No roaming antelope and lean, leaping tribesmen to make them feel partly at home, or just in a far-flung part of the Empire. She wiped her hands on her trousers to get rid of the last dampness.
Abdi, her taxi driver, stood silently in front of a combat soldier blocking his way at the front gate. The soldier turned to look at her. He had black wraparound sunglasses under his camouflaged helmet.
“Ma’am,” he said in a mid-western, polite farm-boy manner.
“It’s okay Private, he is with me,” she said and held up her badge enough for the soldier to glance at.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, “you have a good day now.”
One useful thing about being in the middle of this arid desert, somewhere in east Africa, and working with so many different agencies, governments and militaries, was no-one knew exactly who was who. And so, they all assumed you were someone important and left it at that.
Better safe than sorry.
“Hello Abdi,” Athene said.
She’d met him a few weeks after she arrived. He was selling mangoes and guavas at a stall outside the camp’s front gate. She’d watched him watching people and thought he might be useful.
He just nodded and walked away from the gate into the shade of a nearby wall.
“What do you have for me?” she asked.
He glanced around nervously from under his cycling cap and covered his mouth. He looked at the ground and reached into his pocket and pulled out a scratched mobile phone. He clicked a few buttons and held the small square screen for her to see.
She took the phone and peered at it.
“What am I looking at Abdi?”
“Cargo. A crate,” he said, his accent was heavy and he rounded on the vowels like they were black bowling balls. It was a grainy picture of the dockside crane lifting a large, square, wooden box crate.
“Okay, is there more?”
He took the phone back and clicked the previous picture.
It was a group of Arabs standing beside the crate. Abdi clicked the previous image. Athene took the phone back and held the screen close to her face.
“Is that …?” she clicked the buttons to zoom.
“Oh, my God,” she said, “when was this?”
Abdi jolted his head and flicked a hand over his shoulder.
“Yesterday? A week ago?” she asked and waved her arms.
He nodded once. Athene stood for a second and then turned and took off running. Abdi stood and watched her with an open mouth. She stopped herself and ran back in a gentle dust cloud.
“Sorry,” she said and pulled money from her pocket.
“I need this phone Abdi, but I will give it back to you. Can you come back in a few hours?”
Abdi nodded and gave her a small smile.
“Okay, thank you Abdi!” she said loudly as she ran back to the gate.
* * *
Athene burst into the Camp Commander’s office.
“Sir! I am sorry, but I have to speak to you,” she said and held out some fanned photographs.
The Major General John Tattler stopped mid-sentence. He and Tom Holland looked at Athene who was followed in by a Marine Corps officer.
“I am sorry, General, I couldn’t stop her,” the General’s Aide-de-Camp said and held onto her upper arm.
She broke the grip and said, “don’t touch me,” over her shoulder.
Tom Holland and General Tattler looked at one another.
Athene turned toward them and she had a double take when she saw Tom Holland standing beside the General’s desk.
What the hell was this pommy aid worker doing in the General’s office? The thought flashed into her mind, and was gone again while she tried to get what she needed.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” the General said and stood his Aide-de-Camp down with an open palm, “well, what is it?” he demanded.
Athene pulled a face at the aide, and he stepped back.
“I don’t have all day,” the General said.
“Sir, I have intelligence which suggests there could be an imminent threat. It’s raw, but it’s a good source.”
She heard the Marine officer scoff behind her. She ignored it. Tom Holland stood upright and his expression changed, he was more serious. The General was unmoved.
“An informant down at the docks.”
“An informant! Who is this person?” the General asked and gestured in her direction, while looking at Tom Holland. Athene wasn’t sure if the General meant her, or her informant. Tom just shrugged and kept looking at Athene. She spoke more to him now than the General.
“Sir, these images show something being loaded into a ship called the MV Nisha.”
She walked forward and handed the General the photographs. He looked at them and handed them, one by one, to Tom. They studied them in turn.
“What am I looking at?” General Tattler asked as he handed the last image past his shoulder.
“I don’t know exactly, sir,” Athene said.
“Well, I will tell you what I see,” the General said, “I see cargo being loaded onto a cargo ship, and grainy footage of a group of men standing by a pick-up truck. Am I mistaken?”
“No, sir,” she said.
“So, what am I missing here?” he said and opened his palms.
“Sir, that ship was supposed to leave empty. It wasn’t supposed to carry any cargo from Djibouti.”
“How do you know this?”
“I checked the manifest,” she said.
“And what does this prove?” he said.
Tom held one of the pictures close to his face. He looked at it for a long time.
“Well, sir, it is strange isn’t it?” she said.
“Not to me,” the General paused and realised he didn’t know her name. “Have you seen what it’s like out there?” he gestured past the aide, “who the hell knows what is going on in this Godforsaken place most of the time. I am not going to get my panties in a twist over some goddamn manifest error.”
“Sir, look at this,” Tom said to the General and held out the picture. He pointed to the person in the image. General Tattler lifted his gold-rimmed reading glasses onto his nose and squinted.
“What am I looking at?”
“This man, right here,” Tom said. “Do you recognise him?”
“No,” the General admitted and took off the glasses. “Who is it?”
Tom looked at Athene. She nodded to him.
“I believe it’s al-Zawahiri, sir.”
“What? You have to be kidding me,” the Marine officer said, and went to stand next to Tom, and looked at the picture. Tom held it out and pointed for him.
“He is in Pakistan,” the Aide-de-Camp said.
“You don’t know that,” Athene said. “What if he is here? What if he is planning a major terror attack.”
The Aide-de-Camp pulled a face and shook his head. The Major General sat back in his chair and twirled his reading glasses by the temple tip.
“What’s the destination of the ship?”
“Mauritius first,” Athene said, “to load up on sugar. Then London.”
Tom stared straight at Athene, wide-eyed, like he was trying to remember what he’d had for lunch. They were all quiet.
“Alright,” the General said finally, “I think I have heard about enough. Look here, the mission is Bin Laden, and it’s Afghanistan, and it is not this.” He waved a hand at the pictures. “We can’t go around chasing spurious leads about sugar crates and cargo holds.”
He indicated to his aide to lead her out. Athene looked taken aback, and Tom’s brow furrowed apologetically. The Aide-de-Camp led her out of the office and shut the door with a thud.
* * *
As the door clicked shut, the General turned to face Tom.
“Well, what do you make of all this?”
“I am not sure, sir.”
“I mean, who the hell does she think she is?”
Tom waited for him to continue.
“No, I am asking you, who the hell is she? Why is a … a Red Cross nurse,” his cheeks flushed red, “a damn charity worker busting into my office hollerin’ about tankers and terrorists?”
“Oh, she isn’t with the Red Cross, sir.”
The General looked puzzled and the red drained from his face.
“I am mean, she is, but it’s her cover. She’s MOSSAD’s woman in the camp.”
The General’s mouth dropped open, “what?” he exclaimed, “and I am only hearing about this now?”
“Well, it’s better if we all play along, sir. I am sorry, I thought you knew.”
“And what, you believe her? You believe this?” the General slapped the photographs with the back of his hand.
“I don’t know, sir, if what she says is true, it is compelling. If that is al-Zawahiri, that is very, very compelling …”
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.