Monday, 20 August 2012

A walk in the park

Roll call

“.. and last and definitely least, here’s B-B. So glad you could disturb your slumbers and make it in for duty this month.”
  Good-natured laughter filled the Squad Room as the late-arrival sat down on a squeaking, complaining plastic chair several sizes to small for him.
   “Pipe down. Alright,” went on the sergeant, “We’ll be patrolling by squads today as usual from noon. Yes. I said ‘noon’. This morning after roll call we’re going to muster for a Combined Services Operation. We’ve got a live one in Old Town so it’s all hands on deck today. That’s right baby boys and baby girls; we’re housecleaning so get your hairy backsides down to the armoury. Suit up, tool up and get to the Briefing Room as quick as you like. Today people, before I pop a seam. And hey, hey, hey! Let’s be careful out there, okay?”


   “The Intel is that the bad guy’s holed up at this house,” the Lieutenant pointed to a projection of a dwelling in the middle of a maze of interconnected terraces with small, cluttered back yards and high, uneven roofs. “It’s right in the middle of a densely populated area full of folk we don’t want to wake, let alone frighten, so it’s softly-softly today.”
   The new Lieutenant’s name was a byword for inexperience and naïveté and a few veterans broke their professional glassy-eyed stares to gaze briefly at the ceiling in silent prayer.
    “Insertion will be by the back door here,” he highlighted the entry point with a laser. “Tiny’s up first for that, being our resident housebreaking and general trespassing expert.” Satisfied grunts came from around the room for this. Tiny was no longer tiny at all but he had grown up in a world where strangers just strolled into private homes and stole whatever they wanted. The Service was a great practitioner of ‘set a thief to catch a thief’ and Command never, ever wasted experience. It seemed that the Lieutenant had been reading their service files: not too stupid. “Once inside, Corporal Brown’s section will sweep the ground floor and I want that to be done lickety-split. Got that?” The immigrant NCO nodded crisply at the Lieutenant. “The ground floor being secured, I’ll lead the sweep team upstairs and once Elvis’s Team Two has secured the front room, here, and the bathroom here, Elvis, Tiny and Brown will do the kick-down and I’ll be first through the door to sweep the rear bedroom here.” Murmurs of approval at this: the quickest way for an officer to earn respect is to lead from the front and there’s nowhere more forward than the sharp end itself. Perhaps the new boss would work out before someone got seriously hurt after all... 


   “Too thick.” Tiny discarded the lock-pick and pulled out another. He wiggled it around for a moment. “Too thin,” he muttered. I could be safe and sound working in my parent’s non-destructive testing business, he thought. Ah, here we go. This one’s optimal. The third pick slid sweetly into the lock and in a moment there was a satisfying click and the door swung open silently on well-oiled hinges; much to Ed’s relief as Tiny jumped off his shoulders and waved Brown’s team inside.
   Tiny paused for a moment before going in and looked up to where the glamour boys were flying C.A.P. Pete and T.B. were the best in the sector and if Pete was a little too keen on the juice he didn’t let it show at all when flying top cover. T.B.’s sweet soprano called down: “All’s well up top. No-one’s looking our way. You’d better believe it.”
    The War was almost wholly clandestine and the Service rarely let civilians in on the details. The world was full of children: hurt, frightened children who didn’t need reminding of what they have to fear and if that means hiding their protectors and what they had to do away from sight, then so be it.

Go-no go

   “Front room, clear!”
   “Bathroom clear!”
   It was time.
   The Lieutenant was whistling to himself nervously through hidden teeth. A classic…wood city limits. You go to the fields on weekdays and have a picnic on
   “Okay, it’s time. Brown. Elvis. Tiny. The door, if you please.”
   “Si, senor,” Brown said; his South American childhood burning through the newfound clarity of his Service English. His childhood and the fear.
   And then the door whooshed open from the combined thrust of Elvis, Brown and Tiny’s shoulders and the Lieutenant dashed in…sliding across toy-strewn carpeting to lift the edge of the duvet up with his Service-issue weapon…scanning under the bed but it was clear of everything but dust bunnies and a solitary sock…and then a dash for a low cupboard under the window… he wrenched it open and jumped back to avoid an avalanche of hastily-tidied away books…and last the breathless sprint towards the huge wardrobe in what felt like slow-motion and his mouth felt like cotton wool as he took hours to reach the half-open door that could swing open to reveal the target at any moment; alert and enraged and coming at him… and Elvis, Brown and Tiny’s almost-silent footfalls padding behind him sounded miles away and what am I going to do if the bad guy leaps out and opens up on me at point-blank range and kicks the stuffing out if me and all I have to fight back with is this stupid under-powered Service issue popgun piece of junk and it’s just all too much to bear…and here’s the door and here’s the handle and here’s…an empty space where the bad guy should be…and next the relief and the shock and ordering the sweep teams to double check everywhere in the target house again and calling for extraction and ordering the whole lot of them back to base…


   “…must have exfiltrated scant minutes before we deployed,” the Lieutenant concluded. His troops stared blankly at him; professionally glassy-eyed and expressionless again after the tension and fear of the operation.
   “But, Santa Lucia, sir,” growled Corporal Brown, his English almost returned to the middle-class accent he had acquired recently, “How can the Air Force have missed that one?
  “Look, I don’t want to go all around garden for the rest of the day about this one, but it does seem probable that while the spotters briefed T.B. and Pete when they arrived to set up for Combat Air Patrol the bogie sneaked out under cover of that very thorough briefing. We think he went out of the rear window and across the rooves. However,” added the Lieutenant with a grim smile “our beloved brothers-in-arms of the Air Force have redeemed themselves by reacquiring the bogie in this lightly forested area here.” The laser illuminated a patch of mixed woodlands and rough pasture to the north and west of town. “Command confirms that the Intel’s sound and the order to deploy came down from the very top. Yes, ladies and gentlemen: this is from W himself.”
    Breathless murmurs for this. The Commander-in-Chief rarely interfered with the war at the operational level but when he did it was a sure-fire indication that the op concerned was going to be no picnic.
   “So here’s the deal. The area’s mostly scrubland; full of wild shrubs and tall grasses and herbs with plenty of shadow and cover below waist level; ideal for the bogie to bivvy up in - and to ambush from. We’re in full Covert Ops order this afternoon so you’d better get those disguises right. It’s a popular area for recreation that families visit and I do not, I repeat not, want anyone scaring the children today. Not a single one. We go in, do the job and bring the bogie back dead or alive and without getting the sawdust knocked out of us, okay?” The Lieutenant looked at each of his troops in turn; making eye contact to rub the message home. He went on. “I will remind you that, as the terrain is woodland I don’t want any mess so once you’re inside the tree-line you will follow strict hygiene procedures at all times -…” catcalls and whistles at the instruction that was a byword for redundancy “- and finally that this bogie’s regarded by Command as the hardest of the hard-core. In fact our target is believed to be responsible for most of the nightmares in our sector. So be alert: he’s tricky, resourceful, smarter than the average one of us…and utterly dedicated to prosecuting the War for his side. So expect the unexpected.”
   “Just want to be …,” growled Elvis to the noisy amusement of his comrades.
  “Stow that fluff, Corporal,” snapped Rupert. “I repeat; if you go down to the woods today, you’re in for a big surprise.”

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