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.