Authors: Michael Gilbert
Tags: #The 92nd Tiger
The rumbling of the liner’s engines was the ineffective old air-conditioner bumbling away in the window of his bedroom. The heat was real.
He got up, switched off the air-conditioner and opened one of the side vents. It was six o’clock and the sun was well up. One or two dogs were wishing each other good morning. His third-floor flat looked out over the dhow harbour. There was a wisp of smoke going up already from the deck of each anchored vessel as breakfast was cooked. The sea was like blue grey oil paint.
He got back on to his bed, pulled the sheet over him, and reflected on the events of the past twenty-four hours. The departure from Heathrow, the arrival at Bahrain. The transfer to a much smaller aircraft. The first sight of Umran, as daylight was fading; a sandy peninsula, jutting away to the north, its spine formed by the darker brown of the Djebel Gozo. The landing on the short air-strip outside Mohara-el-Gib, the walk, in the dusk, to the ramshackle air-terminal building.
Here he had met Martin Cowcroft.
Hugo folded his hands under his head, and thought about Martin Cowcroft. It was clearly going to be of importance how he got on with him. He wondered whether he liked him. He was not sure, but he thought, on the whole, and judging by first impressions, that he did.
He was a good deal older than Hugo, but his lizard face gave no real clue to his age. Hair, skin and clothes had been bleached by sun and wind. He looked like a strip of sea-weed which has been too long out of water. The only touch of colour about him was the red and black brassard on his right arm. For he was the Commandant of the Umrani para-military police force.
He had seen the baggage stowed safely in the back of the sand-coloured Land Rover which was the only vehicle on view outside the airport, and gestured to Hugo to get in.
‘Kind of you to meet me,’ Hugo said. There seems to be a shortage of taxis.’
‘The riots made them scared to come out after dusk,’ said Cowcroft. Taxi-burning is a great crowd sport round here. Shop-looting, too.’
They were driving down a long straight empty road into the town. Most of the shop fronts were protected by heavy doubly- padlocked, roller-steel shutters. The ones that had no shutters had little glass left in the windows.
‘It seems quiet enough now,’ said Hugo.
‘Until next time,’ said Cowcroft sourly.
Another Land Rover was coming towards them. It had three men in it, and two machine guns. One was mounted to fire forward, the other, operated by a man in the back, was on a swivel mounting with a three-quarter arc of fire to the rear.
All three men saluted. Cowcroft waved them to a halt, stopped his own car, got out and went over. He seemed to be angry about something.
When he got back he said, ‘If I’ve told them once, I’ve told them a hundred times. The man driving the vehicle must
salute. They’re lousy drivers anyway. I used to have just the same trouble in India. I remember a Sikh sergeant trying to salute me when he was riding a bicycle
carrying a basket of eggs. Here’s your quarter. You’re on the third floor. I’ll give you a hand up with the luggage. There’s a government car for you. It’s in the garage at the back. Here are all the keys. There’s some cold food and beer in the refrigerator. I’ve got an Indian cook for you. He’s a fat thief, but he does know how to make curry. I’ll be pushing off now.’
Yes, on the whole, he thought he could get on with Martin Cowcroft. Taverner had already filled him in on his background. He had been in the Indian police in the Thirties. After this particular job had folded up, he had a number of posts, as assistant political agent and such like, up and down the Gulf and had finally cast up, a piece of jetsam from the old Colonial Empire, on the remote shores of Umran. ‘He’s like a salamander,’ Taverner had said. ‘He comes to life in the heat. One winter in England would surely finish him.’
Hearing sounds which he took to be his cook arriving, Hugo decided to get up.
After breakfast he went down to look over the car. It was a respectable middle-aged Humber. He drove out in it, along the coast road, to pay his respects to the Ruler.
Daylight had brought out some traffic. There were a number of cars, most of them newer, shinier and faster than Hugo’s. There were carts pulled by donkeys, some driven by old men with beards, others by small boys. There was a herd of camels grazing on what looked like a crop of small dry thistles. The road, which followed the line of the coast, was a good one, with two lanes and a metalled surface.
About five miles out there was a by-road inland to the left. A sign-post showed some words in Arabic which Hugo translated as ‘Township of Hammuz’. He remembered Taverner talking about Sheik Hammuz and ‘younger brother trouble’, and wondered if the two things were connected.
The best map he had been able to get hold of was a twenty-year-old Admiralty chart. This showed the road he was on, and the left-hand fork, as dotted tracks; but this was not surprising. The roads looked newer than the chart. He spread it out on the bonnet of the Humber and tried to get his bearings.
Immediately out to sea, was a chain of four little islands, which the chart called The Ducks and which did, indeed, look like a mother duck with three babies in line astern. Five miles behind him was the town of Mohara-el-Gig which he had just left. Three miles ahead of him, up the coast, was a cluster of buildings which must constitute the Royal Palace. Apart from this the map was almost as blank as an ancient cartographer’s idea of Central Africa. The only genuine road which was shown on the map ran across the base of the peninsula from Mohara to the coast on the other side and down the coast (he guessed) to Ras-al-Khaima. There was a tiny unmarked clump of buildings at the point where this road turned, which might be the Hammuz of the signpost. The rest of Umran seemed to be mountain in the middle and desert all round it. Not an over-populated country.
He got back into his Humber and drove on towards the Palace. It had been built as much for defence as for residence. A high crenellated and loop-holed wall surrounded a considerable courtyard. Entrance was by a deep archway, surmounted by bartisans, with an outer door, an inner door, and a gallery round the top from which attention could be paid to any unwanted visitors temporarily trapped between the doors.
Hugo drove through and parked his car beside a gun. He examined the inscription on the breech block and made out that it was of Turkish manufacture and date marked 1908. He was wondering how this venerable piece of artillery could have reached Umran when he realised that someone had approached softly and was standing immediately behind him. It was a very large Arab, in the khaki uniform of the palace guard, who introduced himself as Major Youba, and escorted Hugo into the presence of his employer.
He found Sheik Ahmed in a small room off the main
hall, with Prince Hussein and Sayyed Nawaf. All three rose to greet him and shake him by the hand. After ceremonial coffee had been brought in and poured from a brass pot into tiny cups, bitter but not unpleasant, the meeting proceeded to business. Hugo spoke in Arabic, stumbling occasionally over a technical term, but finding the words coming back to him with surprising fluency.
‘I understand,’ said the Ruler, ‘that all my arms left London by ship last Monday.’
‘All except the tracked vehicles. They are being picked up at Bari.’
Then they should be at Beirut by the end of the week.’
‘All things are in the hands of Allah,’ agreed the Ruler. ‘But here is someone who will be glad to see my beautiful toys when they do arrive.’
It was Martin Cowcroft, in white ceremonial police uniform, white helmet, sword and all.
‘I thought,’ said Hugo, ‘that your police were already fully equipped and that what was coming over now was for your army.’
‘Can’t give them to one and not the other,’ said Cowcroft. They’d be jealous as cats. A rifle out here is wife, family and food.’
‘Then a machine gun must mean polygamy,’ said Hugo.
This had to be translated for the Ruler, who was delighted. ‘It is true,’ he said. ‘A man with many shots in his gun will need many wives. But what the Commandant said is true. First we give arms to those we trust, our own policemen. Then we give them to our army who must be taught how to use them. We shall need instructors. You can obtain them for me from England?’
Hugo reflected that this was something which might have been thought of earlier. However, he said, ‘That should not be too difficult. With the reduction of our own regular army there should be quite a few N.C.O.s who would jump at the job. We have a nucleus of them down in Oman already.’
Shortly after this the arrival of scented water and a brazier announced the end of the audience.
When they got outside again Cowcroft said, ‘First thing I’d better do is take you out to see a compatriot of yours. He’d welcome the sight of another white face.’
‘His name’s Charlie Wandyke. He comes, as you might guess, from Lancashire. He’s running the Metbor diggings. He’s the most important man in the state right now. It’s because of what he’s getting out of that hole in the ground that we can afford all these new toys. We’ll go in my Land Rover. Your Humber wouldn’t appreciate this section of the route.’
North of the Palace the road deteriorated. It was now a winding and at times undefined track between outcrops of rock, wandering inland when the going along the coast became impossible, veering out again as the rugged mass of the
forced them back towards the sea.
It grew steadily hotter. Cowcroft’s reaction to this was to remove his helmet. ‘Wonderful climate,’ he said. ‘I haven’t had a day’s illness in five years.’
‘Wonderful,’ said Hugo, mopping the sweat from his forehead. It seemed to have got mixed up with a lot of dust thrown up by the Land Rover’s wheels.
‘Not much further now.’
They turned a corner, and Hugo saw a high barbed-wire fence ahead of them. A man who was squatting beside it approached them. His rifle was slung round his shoulder. The police sergeant who was driving the Land Rover braked sharply, and they skidded to a halt.
‘Tight security,’ said Cowcroft.
He produced a pass which had his photograph on it. The man examined it closely, then looked at Hugo. Cowcroft said something in an argot which Hugo could not follow. The man hesitated for a moment, then grunted, turned on his heel, unlocked the padlock which secured the gate and held it open for them.
‘I don’t think that’s tight security,’ said Hugo. ‘Suppose we had been saboteurs. Couldn’t we have rushed him, taken his keys and let ourselves in?’
Cowcroft grinned and said, ‘You might have been lucky. I shouldn’t care to try it myself.’ He was looking up as he spoke and Hugo saw what he had missed before, a platform on wooden stilts, masked against the bushy slope. On the platform was a machine gun. The man behind it saw Cowcroft grinning and grinned back, a flash of white teeth in a dark face.
‘I see what you mean,’ said Hugo thoughtfully.
They drove for a hundred yards down a gentle slope, and drew up in front of a T-shaped formation of wooden huts. A man came out. He was wearing a rather grubby bush-shirt, khaki shorts and desert boots. His face was red, and his sharp nose was redder still, and peeling. He had a sun helmet on the back of his head.
‘Good morning, Charlie,’ said Cowcroft. ‘I’ve brought Mr. Greest out to see you. He’s our new military adviser.’
‘Pleased to meet you,’ said Mr. Wandyke. ‘I’ve got a feeling that military advice is just what we’re going to need soon. Bags of it. Come inside.’
The office was air-conditioned and was agreeably cool. The table in the middle was littered with papers, drawings, plans, books and coffee cups. A bookcase behind the head of the table was crammed with books. When Hugo got near enough to them to read the titles he saw that they were mostly detective stories and westerns.
‘I thought we ought to begin Mr. Greest’s education,’ said Cowcroft.
‘You can begin it, by calling me Hugo.’
‘—Hugo’s education by showing him what you’re up to out here, Charlie.’
‘Haven’t I met you somewhere before,’ said Wandyke.
‘Only if you watch television.’
‘Of course. You’re the Tiger.’
Cowcroft looked blank. He said, ‘What Tiger?’
Hugo had long ago got hardened to this sort of thing. He said, ‘It’s a television series. Half-hour thrillers. It’s been going for some time.’
‘Do you mean to say you’ve never seen the Tiger on television?’
‘It’s some time since I was last in England,’ said Cowcroft. ‘All we get out here are programmes relayed from Saudi. Dancing girls and French films. Do you mean you’re an actor?’
‘I’ve been a number of different things,’ said Hugo. ‘An actor is what I was last.’
‘Think of that,’ said Cowcroft. He sounded neither pleased nor disappointed. ‘Fire ahead, Charlie.’
‘What would you like me to tell him?’
‘Tell him everything.’
‘The whole lot. Ruler’s instructions.’
‘If you say so,’ said Wandyke. ‘As long as you realise that what I’m telling you is so far known only to Martin here and the Ruler, and the Board of Metbor, and mustn’t go outside that circle until we publish our report.’
‘How much do you know about minerals?’
‘As much as the average schoolboy.’
‘Do you know what nitrites are?’
Then we’d better start at the beginning. Nitrites are minerals which only occur in places where rain has never fallen.’
‘Never, in geological time. There aren’t many places like that. The deserts of Africa and Tarapaca in Northern Chile, for instance. That’s where most of the world’s potassium nitrite comes from. This tiny patch of God’s garden happens to be another one. Rain’s pretty rare in these parts anyway. The maximum is around two good showers a year, which come across from Iran. They break on the
and what water there is falls on the western coastal strip, where a bit of primitive farming goes on. It gives this patch a complete miss in baulk. All right so far?’