Cyprus is the third largest and third most populous island in the Mediterranean, and a member state of the European Union. It is located east of Greece, south of Turkey, west of Syria and Lebanon, northwest of Israel and north of Egypt.
THE DAY BEGAN quite normally. Well, as near normal as any day can be in the Special Investigation Branch. But before the sun went down Les Hooper would be hot on the trail of a gunrunner.
He lit up a Senior Service, untipped. Smoke curled lazily like a slowly writhing snake in the humid air trapped in the low brick hut with a tin roof that turned the place into an oven. The Cyprus summer had arrived early. The clack-clack of two-fingered typing drifted from the main office. An ear-blasting roar from a RAF Lightning jet fighter landing at Nicosia airport the other side of the nearby perimeter wire made the loose windows rattle as if struck by a gale force wind.
Les swallowed a mouthful of the lousiest cup of tea ever brewed. The Canadian sergeant had made it. He should’ve been court martialled for attempted poisoning. His taste buds ruined, Les climbed heavily to his feet. On the way through the outer office, Jim, the vile tea maker, gave him an easy Canuck grin. The Canadian was dosed with prescribed uppers so floated ten feet above everybody else. Laconic when doped to the eyeballs, otherwise noisier than a fairground barker. Les looked long at him and the smile never wavered. He probably believed he made a mean cuppa. How much longer would the Canadian last before his yearning for happy pills saw his career sink without trace?
Outside, Les tugged the damp sweat rag from round his neck and wiped his dripping brow. The land was flooded with sunlight but fresher than the stuffy office. Not for the first time his thoughts strayed to green and pleasant England. Pleasant? Income tax up, duty on cigarettes and booze up. At least fags were cheap in Cyprus. Les took a final satisfying puff and flicked the butt into the dust.
50 yards away a British UN helicopter shattered the air as it lifted noisily from a tarmac pad into the clear sky like a huge dragonfly. A few unidentified flowers struggled to survive in the bare soil alongside the hut. Bjorn, the Danish sergeant, had dug a small makeshift garden. He didn’t come over as a hearts and flowers man, considering that he spent his spare time chasing women of doubtful virtue in the city. He had failed to turn up at the office on time more than once. Mostly he got up Les’s nose. At the end of the hut a solitary vine of mysterious vintage grappled for life. It never bore fruit and how it came to be clinging to the bare wall of the SIB office was anyone’s guess.
Les attempted with difficulty to thrust Bjorn from his mind. The Dane behaved like an over-sexed polecat. Undoubtedly he considered himself a ladies’ man and believed all females worshipped at his feet. He was blind to the certainty that their admiration flowed from the attraction of his wallet Only a day had passed since he warned the Dane he would not tolerate his off-duty antics interfering with his work. But of course such behaviour is not constricted to nationality for similar delinquencies can be found everywhere.
A wing of small birds swooped across the facing car park. They looked like sparrows. Les couldn’t tell a bustard from a tit. He glanced at his watch, wondering whether he should sneak off for a cool drink somewhere. Perhaps not. He was supposed to set an example.
Eric, the Finnish sergeant, crawled from the hut into the bright sunlight, jerking to a halt when he saw Les. A slim, pale-faced man, he looked like a 4B pencil without the lead. A complete contrast to Bjorn, he preferred to hide in a corner rather than blow his own trumpet. His uniform drooped from his skeleton likeAphrodite a scarecrow’s Sunday best. A pancake squatted on the top of his head masquerading as a blue beret. Les dubbed him Rin Tin Finn, for no other reason than he liked the soubriquet. Mind you, Rin Tin Tin the canine film star had more savvy. He screwed up currant eyes in the glare and saluted. Les thought perhaps Eric took the mickey. If he possessed any charm he successfully kept it well hidden. Yet compared with Bjorn they were like the Pope and Genghis Khan.
His current enquiry covered machinery missing from the Public Works Department of Nicosia City Council. The Cypriot Greek government couldn’t use the machinery because it was in the Turkish area of control on the other side of the Green Line, which divided the city between the two opposing factions. The Turkish area was covered by the Finnish contingent of UNFICYP (United Nations Force In Cyprus). But Eric wandered along blind alleys, crashed into brick walls and came up empty handed. The whereabouts of the missing lathes, drills and grinders remained a mystery to him.
‘It’s about time you managed to solve something.’ Les spoke softly but the weight of his words could not be mistaken. ‘You’ve spent two weeks running around in circles and achieved sweet FA. The provost marshal is beginning to get shirty and wants results. He suffers from a false illusion that a Finnish detective should be able to solve a Finnish crime.’ Privately, Les thought the Canadian PM knew as much about crime detection as Les knew about ornithology.
Eric responded with a vacant stare and, ‘I try very hard. It is difficult. They do not want to tell me anything.’
Les sighed and kicked a pebble. Eric was a boil on the arse. The Finn arrived at the SIB detachment with an awesome reputation earned entirely because he was the son of the Police Chief of Helsinki. But Eric didn’t travel on an express coach, he rode a donkey cart. He was as much use as an ice candle.
‘You’re supposed to work at it until they do tell you anything,’ Les groaned. ‘You can’t just wander around and wait for Christmas. The solution is not going to rise up out of the ground and slap you in the face.’ Patience isn’t always the virtue it’s cracked up to be. Sometimes it can be a damned hindrance. He waved an arm in sudden irritation. ‘Oh, go and get on with it.’ The machinery began to grate on his nerves. After all, Eric shouldn’t need to tear a gut to find the stuff. It was big, heavy and awkward. The thieves had to unbolt it from the floor to cart it away. And hiding it on the small island would be like trying to conceal an elephant in a bird cage.
Eric adopted a hangdog expression. For a fleeting moment Les thought he was about to burst into tears. ‘Sometimes I do not understand,’ he announced in a soft voice.
That separate nations are divided by different values is not in dispute. But such differences exist in the fundamental makeup, not normally in every day menial circumstances. When foreign nations are grouped together in a proposed solid coalition, such as the United Nations, some individuals seize upon character conflict deliberately as an excuse for misunderstanding. Such was Eric’s tour de force, an expert in deviousness. Les suspected strongly he wasn’t the Finnish yokel he projected himself as but used interracial blemishes as an opportunity to dodge labour. Basically, as a detective the wretched man made a good dustman.
Les said wearily, ‘Like King Bruce and the spider, Eric, keep on trying.’
Eric’s face looked like cracked walnut. He wandered off in mental daze.
Further thought was interrupted when John, the Irish contribution to the unit, peered outside to say a Swedish soldier had shot himself with a sub machine gun in Famagusta. Les returned to his office and briefed big Olof, the Swedish sergeant investigator, on special points to look for and get photographs. Olof was liable to charge in like a bull in a china shop. ‘Take your time. There’s no rush, the soldier’s dead,’ Les said unnecessarily but he didn’t want Olof cutting corners. ‘If you have any suspicions about the death, ring me at once.’
‘It is suicide,’ said Olof flatly, as if that was the end of the matter. He’d solved the case before he’d tied his boot laces.
Les had heard rumours that suicide was a Swedish pastime although he thought the Swedes were too gregarious to top themselves on a regular basis. He banged Olof between the shoulder blades. ‘Don’t take it for granted. Keep your mind on the task in hand.’
Olof was a large ox of a man, happy and amiable. Nobody picked a quarrel with him for he was built like a brick outhouse and his hands were bigger than bulldozer blades. Like many Swedes, he believed their own publicity of being strong, likeable blonde Adonises. He usually sailed before a fair wind but presently had drifted into a storm. His brain took holidays in his trousers, which led to an embarrassing consultation with a Swedish doctor. The affliction was meant to be confidential, but could not have been broadcast any wider if it had been announced on the six o’clock news. His wife was flying to Cyprus for a holiday and his course of jabs would end too near to her arrival for peace of mind.
Things could even get worse. Like treatment in the UN hospital, run by Austrians and gruesomely nicknamed the “abattoir”. Olof spent the time on his knees, hands clasped and sweating blood in case his unspeakable ailment overshot normal cure time. He kept a photo of his wife on his desk. She was a good-looking woman with large blue eyes and a mane of long, blonde hair. It was impossible to tell whether the hair colour was natural or not. Les grinned evilly. He had a perfect lever to keep the Swede on his toes.
The phone jangled again. Two members of the Greek Cypriot Customs invited him to join them for a beer at the usual place. It was the best offer he’d had all day and one he couldn’t refuse. And his conscience was clear for this was liaison duty. Ten minutes later he leaned on the small bar near the check-in at the airport with a cold Becks. The ale slipped down his gullet like nectar. The building was new and reeked of white paint and glittered with chrome, like a city hospital waiting room. A straggle of serviceman snaked past the door, looking like kids on a zoo outing, newcomers who had just landed on a Bristol Britannia.
Kostas and Spyros, the Customs men, were a contrasting couple. Kostas, short and fat with a face like a demented gargoyle, ambled around like an American tourist. His was a forgiving soul and gave the impression he was only along for the ride and never bullied anyone. Spyros was tall and incredibly handsome with a lean, smooth-shaven face. One smile and women collapsed in a jelly but it was the smile on the face of the tiger. His expression gave no clue of his real feelings. A cold fish, he was utterly ruthless and made the KGB look like a Sunday school convention. No one ever caught him turning a blind eye. Between them the pair were top dogs and woe betide contraband runners and smugglers who crossed their path. On a lighter note, in appearance they reminded Les of Neil Simon’s play “The Odd Couple” with funny men Walter Matthau and Art Carney. Except Kostas and Spyros couldn’t be classed comedians.
Les followed them to a low bench against a tiled wall almost under a flight of open plan stairs leading to the airport’s upper floor. This was a favourite spot for the two Cypriots and they sat there betting on which colour knickers the next woman to climb the stairs would be wearing. They bet just a few cents each time and white was void. This unique use of the stairway never appeared in the architect’s plans.
Les emptied his glass and lied that he had better things to do than gamble on the colour of knickers. He strolled reluctantly back to his boiling office and began checking reports. The ubiquitous phone brought a halt to his concentration. It was Lieutenant Colonel Jason Macaully, the Canadian provost marshal, from his desk in the adjacent hut. Some guns were missing from an armoury at a British UN compound near the Turkish enclave of Kophinou (see map above) about 25 kilometres southwest of Larnaca in the south of the island.
“See to it,’ the PM snapped. Macaully was a large man with a barrel chest. He came from a family of lumberjacks in British Columbia. He spoke as if he were felling trees. Short, sharp and choppy. Les smiled. Macaully saw himself as a celebrity. He swaggered around as if he were Humphrey Bogart but in reality was Shirley Temple. He believed the peasants worshipped him. Les wondered how his sanity would endure if he learnt men were laughing up their sleeves. What it boiled down to was he lived in fantasy land and his subordinates viewed him as they would the taxman, someone you have to suffer.
No rest for the wicked, Les thought. He called for John. He liked the Irishman, who went about his work like a church mouse, only quieter. His expression was always one of repose, giving the impression nothing could cause him anguish. Friendliness and seeing evil in no one were hardly features needed to be a copper and it follows that he had not distinguished himself in crime detection. Les’s normally sharp intuition failed him for once and he deliberated whether John’s waters ran deep although he never unearthed evidence to judge him as anything other than a law-abiding, God-fearing teetotaller. Perhaps it was a characteristic of Limerick citizens.
“Right, John, duty calls. Get a car.” The SIB fleet consisted of two antediluvian unmarked civilian cars. Both were kept running by superhuman efforts of Service Corps mechanics and SIB faith. By the time Les emerged into the sunshine, John was squashed behind the wheel of a clapped out 1956 Ford Zodiac 206E, which looked like the loser in a demolition derby. He had probably invoked leprechaun magic to persuade the engine to fire. The UN transport allocation system seemed to be that when a vehicle reached pensionable age dump it on the SIB.
On the trip out of the city they passed the Chrysaliniotissa Church near the Archbishopric. It was the oldest Byzantine church around, built in 1450 by Queen Helena Palaeologos, a Greek married to John II. They skirted round an old crusader castle, for Cyprus became the outpost of operations against the Muslims after the crusaders were booted out of the Middle East. Sometimes Les imagined he was in Cyprus on some sort of crusade. There again, perhaps he was a nutcase like the provost marshal.
When they reached the Larnaca to Limossol road, a Greek army Landrover nipped out of a side road in front of them. A mile farther on and the Landrover driver waved them past. John flattened the accelerator but 10-year-old Zodiacs resent being flogged and 50mph uphill was like trying to make a hare out of a tortoise. A nervy soldier in the back of the Landrover raised his rifle and pointed it menacingly at them. Perhaps he thought they were assassins or a Turkish death squad. As the Greek army has a dodgy habit of shooting first and asking questions later, Les grabbed the UN sign from behind the seat and quickly stuck it in the windscreen. Fortunately a downhill stretch saved their bacon and they crawled past the Landrover with stiff smiles and waves of phoney mutual friendliness.
John blew out his pale cheeks and muttered, ‘This old banger nearly got us shot.’
Despite the presence of the UN peacekeeping force, the so-called peace was as fragile as a butterfly’s wings. The troubles began back in the 1950s when Cyprus was still a British colony. The Greek 80 per cent of the population agitated for ENOSIS, union with Greece. From 1955 to 1959 they carried on a bloody guerrilla war led by EOKA (National Organisation of Cypriot Fighters) led by General George Grivas, supported in many ways by Greece. However, the 18 per cent Turkish population had no intention of meekly allowing themselves to be ruled by Greece. Ankara backed TMT, a Turkish Cypriot separatist group.
Although Britain, Greece and Turkey were NATO allies, firm agreement remained as unlikely as a Liberal landslide. Eventually, in 1959 the three countries reached a compromise and Cyprus was given a power-sharing government. This failed. In 1963 Cypriot leader, Archbishop Makarios, tried to reduce the status of the Turkish minority to an insignificant role, whereupon Turks and Greeks began a ferocious intercommunal struggle. Turkey threatened to invade, Makarios refused a NATO peacekeeping force and finally UNFICYP was established on the island in March 1964. Turkish Cypriots in Greek areas retreated into enclaves defended by local forces led by regular officers who received their orders from Ankara. Both countries established national troops on the island. This was the status quo when Les arrived in 1968.
Arriving at Kophinou Les learnt that on the evening of Monday, 4 March, two sub machine guns, a self-loading rifle (general issue to the British army), and a bayonet were stolen, not from the armoury but from a tent in the compound occupied by the Royal Green Jackets, a British light infantry regiment. Many soldiers had access to the tent and there was a case to be made about leaving weapons unguarded. Recovering the weapons was important. How important? With Greeks and Turks at each other’s throats at the drop of a hat, supplying weapons to either side was like lighting the blue touch paper.
Only a couple of years earlier patrols of the Greek Cypriot National Guard, led by General Grivas, surrounded the Kophinou enclave and in the ensuing fighting 26 Turkish Cypriots were killed. So it was vital that news of the missing weapons was not leaked. If the potential explosive situation in the enclave was not to erupt again into open conflict, the weapons must not fall into the hands of the Greeks or the Turks. A tall order, for Les could only ask himself that if neither side now had them, where were they? The situation was also politically tricky, for the British did not want to be accused, however wrongly, of supplying weapons. When the stakes are high the most farcical situation can be twisted into a false truth.
First of all Les organised a thorough sweep of the compound and scoured every nook and cranny. The unit had carried out its own search earlier but he needed to be satisfied in his own mind that the missing guns were definitely not still there. There was no trace of them. He started listing every soldier with access to the tent and when this approached the 100 mark he knew it would take him till doomsday to question everyone. Armageddon could arrive before then. Other methods were needed to get the wheels turning.
Where to begin? The obvious place was the guard tent and soldiers who were on guard the evening the weapons vanished. After an arbitrary process of elimination he decided six men were worthy of closer scrutiny. However, despite questioning them he learnt nothing and remained frustrated. It didn’t take an Einstein to work out that if the guns were no longer in the compound someone must have carried them away and that someone may well have passed the guard. He couldn’t discard the possibility of the guns being tossed over the perimeter wire and picked up later, but he didn’t think it likely.
He and John sat in a tent staring at each other like dummies. He had no wish to sit around kicking his heels yet there are times when it pays to concentrate the thoughts. John broke the mood. ‘Don’t overlook the Turkish village. They would snatch your hand off for guns.’
‘I agree,’ said Les. ‘I’ve thought of that. We’ll stroll in and say to the headman, “Give us our guns back.”’ He snorted. ‘I don’t think. We’ve already had Greeks point a gun at us today. I don’t fancy having my throat slit by Turks.’
His adamant answer brought a smile to John’s lips. ‘I think we’d be safe. The Turks feel they need us more than the Greeks do.’
‘Ever the eternal optimist, John, but I think we’ll postpone risking our necks until we’ve run completely out of ideas.’
‘So what do we do?’
‘Desperate situations call for drastic measures. Let’s go.’
He sieved through the six men he had picked out as top candidates for information and decided upon a Rifleman Goodison as the best candidate for what he had in mind. The soldier was young and inexperienced. Les jumped in with both feet.
‘Rifleman Goodison, I’ve already spoken to you about the missing weapons. Now I’m arresting you for conspiracy to steal arms.’
Alongside him, John gave a sharp intake of breath. Goodison’s jaw almost hit the floor. His youthful face paled and his eyes widened. Les waited. Several minutes passed before the poor soldier could speak. ‘You can’t. I don’t know anything about it,’ he stammered. ‘Honest. I wouldn’t do that sort of thing.’
Les grimaced. ‘You would say that. You were on guard and the guns must have been taken out of camp through the only gate. How can you say you know nothing? No one’s going to believe you.’
The young soldier’s lips trembled. ‘I’m telling the truth. You must believe me.’
While this exchange was going on John sat silently with an expression of disbelief on his face. Les glanced at him and gave him a surreptitious wink. He said to Goodison, ‘Well, although I don’t believe you, I’m going to give you a chance.’
‘I’ll do anything,’ Goodison pleaded. ‘You can’t blame me.’
Les said, ‘I’ve finished for today, now I know who’s involved.’ He gave Goodison a wicked smile. ‘So you’ve got’ – he looked dramatically at his watch – ‘till about midday tomorrow to come up with better answers than you’ve already given. If you’re not the thief you’d better have his name when I see you again.’ He picked up his briefcase. ‘I hate to think how many years in the nick you’ll get for stealing guns. And if I were you, I’d keep our little chat to yourself.’
As they climbed into the car John spluttered and said, ‘You’ve left him a physical wreck. You’ve got no evidence. You can’t treat him like that. I believe him when he says he knows nothing.’
Les patted John on the shoulder. ‘Don’t worry about it. If you really want to know, I also believe him.’
John sniffed. ‘What was all that about back there?’
Les relaxed in the passenger seat, trying to ignore a sharp spring that insisted upon sticking in his backside. He said, ‘I don’t know about the Irish army but the British have a strong code of comradeship. You don’t drop a mate in it; on the other hand you don’t let a mate take the blame for something you’ve done. I’m sure the Irish are the same.’
John noisily engaged the gears. ‘I suppose so.’
‘Also,’ Les continued, ‘in a close-knit unit, no one can do anything without others knowing about it. You can’t keep secrets under your shirt when you work, play and sleep side by side.’
‘So you pressurise an innocent man into ratting on his mates.’ He hesitated a moment, not sure how to continue. Eventually he determined to say what he thought. ‘You’re the most cold-blooded fella I’ve ever met.’
‘Hey, what gives you the right to the moral high ground? I’m going to crack this case so listen and learn. Remember the old adage – “If you can’t stand the heat, keep out of the kitchen”.’ Les gave John a wide grin to show he bore no hard feelings. ‘That’s one of the problems with this United Nations thing. I’m stuck with a hotchpotch of nationalities because it’s politically expedient to have a man from every nation involved in UNFICYP SIB. I need very broad shoulders.’
John swung the old car round a sharp bend with a violent wrench on the steering wheel. An uncharacteristic show of displeasure. Worn tyres squealed and the suspension groaned in its death throes. ‘Don’t misunderstand me, sir, but I think you’re wrong. You’ve got to have someone from all the nations to show we’re impartial.’
‘You’re climbing on your high horse again, John.’ Les slowly nodded as if agreeing with himself. ‘Before you gallop off, here’s a thought to tax your brain,’ he offered pompously. ‘The UN commander here is an old Finnish general dragged out of retirement. And he flies around in an executive jet. Look what we travel in.’ Les closed his eyes and tried to relax.’
John refused to bite and said. ‘Supposing he says nothing. You can’t arrest him.’
Les opened one eye a crack. ‘You know that. I know that. But Goodison doesn’t know that.’ He thought John would never make a good detective. He spoke ill of no one. How can you be successful if you’re blind to liars and cheats? Perhaps one day he would cast a stone into John’s virtuous pool by telling him the truth – He grinned to himself – or smash his rose-coloured spectacles. He shuffled around in the lumpy seat before saying, ‘I possess an uncanny knack of disbelieving everyone. Trust is a rare commodity. In my book all have an axe to grind, financially or morally.’ He dug into his pocket to find a cigarette then changed his mind. He smoked too much. He scowled. ‘But I’m wrong. John, you’re an exception and it disturbs me. Don’t answer that; I need to think.’
Thankfully the journey back was tranquil. Despite the discomfort he almost dozed off. The sun was dropping like a stone and the heat becoming bearable. He owed allegiance to no deity but still hoped his guardian angel would solve his problems anyway. An observer of his confident air on the outside could have no inkling of the doubts he suffered on the inside.
After dinner he leant on the mess bar sipping cool beer when he spotted Hawksworth near by. He was a warrant officer conductor in the Ordnance Corps and a flash of inspiration jerked Les into action. He sidled up to him. ‘How are you, James, working hard?’
Hawksworth, a heavyset Yorkshireman with thinning hair, gave a weak smile as if he resented Les’s approach, before his natural civility took over. ‘Of course. Bearing up under the strain. I had a trip in a Gazelle today. It was great. I’m beginning to envy those Air Corps chaps.’
Les lit a cigarette. ‘You wouldn’t get me up in a helicopter. I don’t even like standing on a chair.’ He pursed his lips thoughtfully. ‘You deal with heavy stores, don’t you? Such as workshop machinery and similar stuff?’
Hawksworth’s expression tightened like a drum. His dismissive manner changed to a more guarded tone. He drew himself up to place a shield between himself and his questioner. ‘As a matter of fact, I do. Why, can I help you in any way?’
The man’s body language told Les he was on the right track. ‘You might as well know. We’re enquiring into gear that vanished from the PWD in the Turkish zone. Just the sort of thing you deal with. Drills etcetera.’
He waited. There was a long pause during which he could almost hear James’s brain churning. But the man tried to act casually as if the subject was no more important than a broken jug. ‘I can’t for the life of me guess what you’re hinting at,’ he grated, ‘but why should I know anything about it?’
Les gently squeezed his arm in a friendly gesture. ‘James, I don’t want to listen to a load of bull. I’ve had a hectic day and I’m tired. To be reasonable, I wouldn’t call you a thief. You’re a good man.’ A smear of patronising wouldn’t do any harm. ‘Because it was no longer in use, the person – ‘ He emphasised person. ‘ – responsible for removing the machinery probably thought it had been abandoned, so decided to appropriate it for his own purposes.’ His eyes mercilessly attacked Hawksworth. ‘What d’you reckon?’
‘I’m no thief,’ Hawksworth cried, ‘ and I resent your attitude.’ The significance of the outburst was not lost on Les. The guilty always protest louder than the innocent.
‘So you should, if you’re conscience is clear,’ Les swiftly corrected him. He was on safe ground now. ‘It’s my job to recover the stolen property and, by God, I’m going to do it. So don’t try giving me a hard time or it may rebound on you.’
Hawksworth quickly changed tack. As a most senior warrant officer he deemed himself fireproof and was confounded to draw a short straw. He emptied his glass and ordered two more beers. When they arrived he pushed one in front of Les, knowing he was on a sticky wicket and hoping to ease his torment. He lifted his beer. ‘Cheers! Sounds a reasonable explanation.’ His fingers trembled slightly.
‘Cheers!’ Les repeated and continued, ‘Tell you what. . . .I’ll give the culprit one day, until tomorrow evening, to return the property. If that happens we’ll say no more about it.’ He grimaced. ‘On the other hand, if it’s not returned, I’ll arrest those involved for theft, no matter what their position or rank.’ He gazed unwaveringly at the warrant officer, his eyes like orbs of steel. ‘See how fair I am?’ It was his second bluff of the day.
Hawksworth’s face sagged and lost colour. ‘But – ‘
Les quickly lifted a hand to cut off the other man’s words. ‘No buts. That’s my proposition. It’s not open to discussion. If the stuff isn’t returned by the deadline I shall be disappointed and very sad to see a friend court-martialled.’ He drank the beer and stubbed out his cigarette. ‘Thanks for the drink, James. . . .and as far as I’m concerned this conversation never took place.’ James Hawksworth’s pride had been punctured. His shoulders slumped and Les left him wearing a expression like a gladiator’s final moments and rubbing his balding head anxiously.
Later that evening Les sat in his room and wrote a letter home to his wife.
Another long day behind me. All I seem to do is work but I suppose that’s expected of me. I sometimes feel the strain of trying to keep a bunch of different cultures in line. Even the three Scandinavians – Danes, Swedes and Finns – have difficulty in seeing eye to eye. Add to them the Irish, Canadian and Brits and you have a right bag of monkeys, I’ll tell you. Most of them think they’re on a glorified holiday and behave accordingly. Some believe the Nicosia bar girls were specially employed for their pleasure – at least the Dane who works for me does. Perhaps I shouldn’t tar every Scandinavian with the same brush but at present I’m feeling a little bushed.
I spent much of today at a small Turkish controlled place called Kophinou on the south coast of the island. I can’t tell you what it was about because it’s one of those top secret affairs the army loves to pretend never happened. Suffice to say it’s very important and needs all my attention. Sometimes these days I think I may be becoming disillusioned with my lot. Then another time I’m full of the joys. It must be serving here that’s at the root of problem. Or perhaps I’ve been in this job too long.
I really shouldn’t burden you with my troubles. You have your own struggle at home with the kids and no support from me. It shouldn’t be too long now before I’m boarding a plane to come home. I’m counting the days.
I’m sorry this is such a short letter. I’ll try to do better next time. Maybe I’ll be more like my old self tomorrow – a normal miserable git. I’ve just had a nightcap in the mess and gave a cocky WO of the Ordnance Corps a fright. He doesn’t know that I probably couldn’t touch him. Now I’ll try getting some sleep and put the far from united United Nations out of my mind.
Goodbye for now, my darling. I love you,
The following morning after a dreamless night, Les summoned Eric to his office. The Finn saluted and Les smiled smugly and said, ‘Today I want you to go to your friends and spend the day there. Keep an eye on the Public Works Department where the machinery was stolen from. You may get a pleasant surprise.’
Eric answered with a vacant stare and his stock phrase. ‘I don’t understand.’
Les sniffed and patted his face with a sweat rag. ‘I’ll speak slowly. As you failed to clear up the mystery of the missing machinery, I have solved it for you. It will be returned today. When it is, tell the Finnish commander what a clever fellow you are and leave it at that.’
‘How you do that?’ Eric asked.
Les tapped the side of his nose. ‘I’ve been doing this job for a long time, that’s how. Now leave me in peace. . . .and don’t visit the sauna, otherwise you will shrink and vanish like the Cheshire cat.’ His smiled at the Finn’s puzzled face.
Macaully poked his head round the door. ‘Get over to headquarters. Captain Stannard wants to see you.’ His bushy eyebrows lifted. ‘You know him?’
‘Hardly,’ said Les. ‘I’ve heard the name. . . .I think.’
‘Pull the other one,’ spat the PM ungraciously. ‘You know everyone.’ He didn’t wait for further comment and departed.
Cyprus is the third largest and third most populous island in the Mediterranean, and a member state of the European Union. It is located east of Greece, south of Turkey, west of Syria and Lebanon, northwest of Israel and north of Egypt.
In the main office Taffy, the British element, was complaining bitterly that he went to dinner at the Swedish camp the previous evening and the main course was soup. Olof was splitting his sides at the tirade. As the Welshman voiced his unflattering opinion of Swedish cuisine, he toiled to prepare a plan of a road junction where a soldier had died in a traffic accident. Being a draughtsman was one of the many skills expected of a SIB man. Whether or not such an accomplishment was easily acquired, or, as in Taffy’s case, with unenviable difficulty, mattered not.
Les wandered over to the HQ block. Stannard’s office was a small room at the rear of the building. The officer himself greeted Les quite cordially. He wore a light weight grey suit and a Coldstream Guardsman’s tie. ‘Glad you came over,’ he said as if Les had had a choice in the matter. ‘You can guess why I wanted to see you. Sit down. Coffee?’
‘No thanks,’ said Les. He pulled out a chair. ‘Just had some undrinkable tea.’ He snorted politely. ‘I assume you’re going to ask me about missing guns.’
‘How’s your enquiries progressing?’
‘So, so. Don’t exactly have anyone for it yet, nor do I know where they are, although I have my suspicions. I’m working on it.’ His lips curled. ‘Time is the watchword.’ He had no intention of being thumb screwed.
Stannard shook his head in despair. ‘We must get them back. If we’re suspected of supplying arms to either side, the balloon will go up and heads will roll.’ He studied Les as if judging how sharp the axe would need to be. The truth was, Stannard was worried about his own neck. He belonged to the Special Intelligence Service, MI6, and the missing arms case must have been dumped on him. He was relying on Les to come up with good answers.
Les gingerly fingered his throat. ‘So long as it’s not my head.’
Stannard grinned humourlessly. ‘The commanding officer of the Green Jackets won’t be having sweet dreams. Even I’m on dodgy ground. What information do you have at this moment?’
Les gave the question deep thought for a minute or so and decided he would play the same game as everyone else – keep his cards close to his chest. ‘I don’t have any.’ Which, of course, was true. ‘You’ll need to give me time.’ Anything he said would be passed on to the MI6 section head and if any promises failed to materialise they would have a ready-made scapegoat in him.
A shadow passed across Stannard’s features. ‘How much time do you require?’
Les noticed for the first time that Stannard had a very long nose. He gave the officer a lingering look. ‘Give me a chance. I’ve only just begun my enquiries. I have to stick rigidly to the rules if there’s going to be a conviction. I can’t report conjecture and supposition as fact. . . .’ He nearly blurted, ‘like you,’ but choked back the words in time. He could speak from experience, having had some dealings with intelligence services in the past.
The other man chose to ignore the sarcasm. He shrugged. ‘Do your best to speed things up. We want quick results.’
Les left behind a very worried officer scratching his exceptional nose. He wondered if they called him Pinocchio.
Things came to the boil on Wednesday, March 6, 1968, Les shouted for John, the man from Limerick, and ten minutes later they were bumping along the pot-holed and dusty road to Kophinou in a car that would have been banned from a scrap yard. John swerved dangerously to pass an old Greek country bumpkin in baggy pants astride a sleepy donkey. ‘D’you think the soldier’s going to tell you anything?’
Les replied, ‘I forgot to read my tarot cards this morning but if he doesn’t then I predict a long slog ahead of us.’ He eased his rear in the badly worn seat and watched the citrus plantations with their masses of colour go past.
Goodison came into the room with his head bowed. Les greeted him politely and asked, ‘What have you got to say for yourself? Do I arrest you or have you got the information.’
The young soldier raised his crestfallen head. Dark rings round his eyes betrayed a bad night. ‘You’ve got to promise me. . . .if I tell you, you mustn’t say I told you.’
Les nodded conspiratorially. ‘Fear not, my lips are sealed tighter than a Scotsman’s wallet.’
Goodison failed to smile and Les watched as he wrestled with his conscience, his mouth twitching, taking deep breaths as if the air had suffered a sudden loss of oxygen. Eventually he said in a hushed voice, ‘Tug Wilson took ’em.’ He paused. ‘He’s in the same platoon as me.’
Welcome relief surged through Les. He felt as if a heavy weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Although he’d anticipated success, it’s an indisputable truth that fate can rear up and kick you in the teeth just when you think the clouds have cleared. His eyes narrowed suspiciously. ‘I hope you’re right.’
Goodison dropped his head again. ‘I wouldn’t lie to you.’
‘Okay,’ Les told him abruptly, ‘you’re free to go. I know where to find you if needs be.’
He wasted no time in getting hold of Wilson. He was a small man in his early twenties with dark hair and spoke with a strong Lancashire accent. After the preliminaries Les said easily, ‘What’s a man born in Manchester doing in a southern regiment?’ He was adept at putting suspects at their ease when it served his purpose. A compliant victim bends easier than a resentful one.
Wilson forced a weak smile. ‘My family moved to Winchester and I joined up there.’
Les cast aside the small talk and said, ‘I’ve been making enquiries into the loss of two SMGs, a SLR and a bayonet from a tent in this Kophinou compound last Monday. You know about it.’ He leant forward and his eyes stabbed at Wilson. ‘From the evidence I have you will be arrested for stealing them. Do you wish to say anything? You’re not obliged to say anything unless you wish to do so, but anything you do say will be taken down in writing and may be given in evidence.’
Les’s sudden switch of tactics shocked Wilson. He quickly fell to pieces and put his hands up. He blurted out a story of how he took the guns and handed them over to a local Turk. He smuggled them past the guard in a kitbag. He reckoned he received no payment; he did it from the kindness of his heart when drunk. He stuck rigidly to this story and no amount of dire threats and cajoling budged him. He said he couldn’t even identify the man to whom he gave the guns.
Les sighed. He knew the futility of continuing. Wilson had reached his Rubicon and refused to cross it. From somewhere in the depths of his mind he’d resurrected a mule-like streak. Les had met this sort of behaviour many times. Culprits willingly opened their hearts but only to a fixed barricade, beyond which they refused to pass. Although dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s often helped them they refused to do so. If there was light at the end of the tunnel it wasn’t yet in sight.
Fortunately English is a national language of Cyprus so without further ado he shot to the Kophinou headman’s house, a single storey, squalid building with whitewashed walls and vegetables growing in the garden. Tough-looking Turkish fighters allowed him past without hindrance. On the short journey John said, ‘Yesterday you believed Turks would cut your throat.’
‘Think about it,’ Les told him. ‘Today we know – we think – the guns were brought here, so we’re on firmer ground.’ He chuckled mirthlessly. ‘I hope.’
The headman, an elderly man with grey-streaked black hair, ushered them into his home and introduced himself as Rauf. A vague scent pervaded the small room, which was exceptionally tidy and clean with a set of high-backed cushioned chairs set around a low table. A shotgun stood in one corner. Les believed the smell was incense. When seated he told Rauf the story. ‘If it’s true,’ he ended, ‘someone in this village has the guns.’ He hoped he conveyed friendliness. ‘Don’t you think it would a good idea to return them?’
The Turkish headman rocked to and fro in his chair and whistled silently before saying. ‘I cannot help you. If the guns are here then I have no knowledge of them.’
Les, deeply aware that he must treat this man with kid gloves, said in an even tone, ‘I find that difficult to believe. I am sure you don’t want to be involved in a fuss over a couple of guns.’
Rauf called his wife, a small woman with wide hips, a volumous black dress and a white scarf tied over her head and fastened under her chin. He said something in Turkish. When his wife left, he said, ‘I have asked for some coffee. I hope you will join me.’
‘I would be pleased to,’ Les told him.
The coffee was thick and strong, came in ridiculously small cups and was hot and sweet. Les sipped gently at it. ‘Why don’t you tell me about the guns?’ he persisted.
Rauf’s dark eyes swept round the small room as if an answer was plastered on the wall. Then he said, ‘I can see you are not a fool. But I cannot help you directly. It is more than my position here is worth. Even my life, perhaps. The people trust me and rely on me and my guards to protect them. To keep Greeks at bay we need arms.’ He replaced his cup and saucer on the table. ‘You must see the police. Perhaps they can help.’
Les fixed him with an arched stare. ‘You don’t have any senior policemen here.’
‘True,’ said Rauf, unperturbed. ‘The Chief of Police is in Leftkosia.’ He stood up. ‘Sorry, but I cannot help you any more.’
Les rose to his feet. Rauf used the Greek name for Nicosia. He knew he’d reached the end of the line. ‘Thank you for your kindness and hospitality. I wish you and your family well for the future.’
Rauf took his hand in firm grip. ‘Farewell, my friend, I wish you well also. And success.’
Back in the car, John, who had been a silent witness throughout, said, ‘Looks like we’ve had it.’
Les shook his head. ‘No way. The guns are in the village and the old codger knows it. He would like to return them to avoid trouble but he daren’t. These are difficult times, as you know, and hotheads would give him stick if he took it upon himself to return them.’
John said, ‘As I said – we’re up a gum tree.’
‘No, we’re not,’ Les insisted. ‘You’ve got to read between the lines. If the headman is ordered to return the guns by superior authority, then he’ll be in the clear. That’s why he mentioned the police chief.’
John’s smooth forehead creased in thought. Finally he said, ‘You’re probably right.’
‘John, you’ve known me long enough to realise I talk sense. You may not always agree but you must admit I usually get there in the end.’
John almost cracked up. When he regained his composure he announced, ‘The Irish police school never taught me some of the scams you get up to but I surrender. I’ll never doubt you again.’
‘Till next time,’ Les concluded as he joined in John’s merriment. It had been a profitable day. He felt as if he’d nearly reached the end of a long and difficult journey. They would stop at the station before hitting the buffers.
The following morning saw Les crossing the Green Line and entering the imposing stone fortress containing the headquarters of the Turkish Cypriot police. He thought he now knew how Daniel felt in the lions’ den. The front deskman called for an escort and Les followed him through a labyrinth of doors and corridors deep into the heart of the building. It was dark and murky; no daylight penetrated there. An occasional bare light bulb cast a small pool of illumination at intervals. Policemen armed to the teeth guarded every corner, fingers on triggers. He was finally ushered into a large office. The walls were bare except for a large picture of Attaturk, father of modern Turkey. Behind a desk slightly smaller than a tennis court sat a huge figure with an enormous black moustache who made Les foolishly think of Richard the Lionheart and the Crusades. He probably had a scimitar hidden under the desk. The whiskers concealed any movement of his mouth so Les couldn’t tell whether he was smiling or not. He shook hands and sat down. The inevitable small cups of strong coffee arrived and the Chief of Police asked Les why he had called.
In between chatting about his time in Cyprus and describing the members of his family and where he lived in England, Les managed to explain all about the guns and where he strongly suspected they now were. And finally, could the British army please have them back?
The policeman pondered this for considerable time, he fierce black eyes constantly sweeping over Les, who shuddered at their onslaught. Thank goodness he was a visitor and not a prisoner. The policeman stroked his bushy moustache and said, ‘You understand the Turkish minority here are persecuted by the Greeks. To protect ourselves we need arms. You cannot blame a poor country village for welcoming more guns whenever they can.’
Les said, ‘I understand. No one is apportioning blame to anyone.’
‘I see your position,’ said the chief. ‘You are – what you say? – between the devil and the deep blue sea.’ He leant back in his chair, proud of his command of English, and spent a moment looking at the yellow-stained ceiling for inspiration before continuing, ‘We policemen always have to pick up the pieces.’ He suddenly sat bolt upright and slapped a hand on the desk. Les nearly jumped out of his skin. ‘Tell your army that if they visit Kophinou the weapons will be returned.’
‘Thank you very much,’ said Les, feeling as if he’d just been freed from the rack. He realised the police chief knew all along about the guns and where they were. The game was up. He probably had the serial numbers in his desk.
So the weapons were returned, secretly and without publicity. Equally secretly, Wilson was court-martialled in the British Sovereign Base at Dekelia for stealing them. When Les attended the trial the court president threw him out because it was being held in camera. He explained that as the investigator he knew more about the case than anyone, but he was still excluded. Common sense is a scarce blessing and even dignitaries like court presidents are not immune to the lack of it.
The missing machinery arrived back at the PWD magically, like a rabbit out of a hat. Rin Tin Finn regarded it as a miracle and spent days wandering around under a halo of disbelief and figuratively tapping his head. From then on the Finn stopped saluting Les and instead bowed subserviently like a extra in the Mikado. Les thought Eric was close to applying for admission to Finland’s equivalent of a funny farm. To describe the Finn’s about turn he changed one word of a treacle tin motto: “Out of the weak came forth sweetness.”
Throughout the course of these prodigious occurrences the Canadian lumberjack cruised along oblivious to the effort that culminated in triumph. In his usual abrupt manner bordering upon the discourteous he congratulated Les with a growled ‘Good!’ Perhaps he’d just seen a large fir toppling whereas the stolen guns could have led to a full scale forest fire. And graveyard silence from the master spy, Captain Stannard. He was probably celebrating keeping his head. Les’s reaction was one of cynical amusement.
He was accustomed to the long-suffering Special Investigation Branch not receiving the credit due. But success is its own reward. As Robert Louis Stevenson said, “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive and the true success is to labour.” He quoted this to Macaully who first looked bewildered, brightened and then said, ‘Good!’
The beaming smile plastered on Olof’s face told the world he had been cleared by the quack and could look forward to sharing a bed with his wife without guilty explanations. Olof’s unmitigated happiness stuck in Les’s mind for a long time.
The suicide was genuine. Photographs showing copious bloodstains and how the bullets tore chunks out of the walls were quite good. Unfortunately those of the body in the mortuary were as much use as ice cubes in an igloo and looked as if they had been snapped by a child with a Brownie box camera. They were taken from the doorway and the corpse was so far away in the prints it was like playing pin the tail on the donkey to find it. Les tore a strip off Olof, who invoked Scandinavian indifference. He was too overjoyed about snuggling up, disease free, to his pretty blonde wife than care what some transient British warrant officer might think.
One morning the Danish stud was again conspicuous by his absence. Olof sauntered into Les’s office to disclose that Bjorn had spent yet another night on the town contributing to a whore’s housekeeping allowance and consequently was suffering the daddy of all hangovers. By then Les was sick to the gills of the self-styled Copenhagen playboy. He told Olof, ‘What Dane? We don’t have one. We’re awaiting a replacement.’ Ten minutes later the provost marshal swung his axe and proved the accuracy of his words.
Unlike the Dane, Jim, the grinning pill popper, survived. Remember, the PM was Canadian too; blood is thicker than water. Les didn’t give a toss; he was going home. And for many months afterwards he kept wondering if that really was a tear in John’s Irish eye when he left. Even Taffy wore a long face. Eric bid farewell with a suspicious glint in his small eyes and a hesitant handshake, as if he first wanted to make sure Les had really left before he solemnized his departure.
The day Les finished his tour he carried his gear through Nicosia airport to the plane, overwhelmed by such a surge of pleasure that he felt like running. He didn’t even notice the heat and dust. The deadly twins, Kostas and Spyros, were there to say goodbye so the airport customs allowed him a free passage. The last time he saw his friends they were sitting under the open stairway with features of intense concentration, blatantly up to their old tricks again. The picture would live with him forever.
His face creased into a big smile as he looked back to watch to the Island of Love disappear into the Mediterranean heat haze.