by Andrew Foote

Chapter 34

It was three weeks before we had any news about our message to the Somalis.

We had all but forgotten about it to be truthful. Our lives had been preoccupied with studying and revising for the mock A's that would be happening just before the Christmas recess.

Life had settled into routine, the other boys who had been at Shap had re-joined us and school uniforms were now the order of the day. Thilo and I still carried the Beretta's, but the other's left their weapons in their gun cabinets during the day or until they found themselves on free study.

At first, I thought this was a risky strategy, but there was always a few of our number doing subjects other than sciences. We had most afternoons free, but those who were doing languages or arts had the morning free of formal lessons. There was always someone armed and ready. But that third week we had another visitor. Sir Malcolm returned.

"News of sorts, but at least they're talking to us, or rather, they're talking to you via us. How useful or otherwise it might be is hard to tell, so perhaps you might be able to see something we can't.

Please listen to this."

'As-salamu alaykum. (Peace be upon you.) We have information.

The foot soldiers who carry out the attacks originate from Angola, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria and Kenya, however, their leader, the paymaster is a South African citizen. We know this because payment is made in Rand, or for the procurement of arms, in US dollars.

We have reason to believe that the leader is a black African who is fluent in Swahili, most likely left handed and prefers using a fountain pen rather than a ball-point. More than that we cannot say, but we will continue to help you if we are able.

One further piece of information is that a body of men with no experience of life at sea have signed up as crew on a freighter bound for the port of Bremerhaven. There are no indications that it's calling at any UK port, but that might change.

May Allah smile upon you.'

" Now, that might not tell us much. A black South African national slims the potential ringleader down to a few tens of millions. We are, together with the co-operation of the South African authorities, running all the information through our databases, but as you can no doubt imagine, it's like looking for a needle in a haystack, but it has to be someone known to your late family, Thilo.

Any thoughts?"

"It could be any one of a hundred people. Left handed might give us a clue, but it's not something you tend to take much notice of.

Fountain pen? My father gave Moses a fountain pen, - a very expensive fountain pen when he left our employment to work with my uncle, but he's right handed. I remember this because he taught me to play cricket and baseball."

I made my own comment here.

"And what's more, I remember when he gave us these Beretta's and had us fire them at the quarry. He was a right-handed gun, - more than that, he wore a shoulder holster under his left arm meaning he'd draw down with his right hand."

"Scratch him then.

Anyone else come to mind?"

"Not off the top of my head. I'll give it some thought, and if I have a flash of inspiration I'll call you."

"Okay. Let's turn our attention to these people heading to Bremerhaven.

This might be rather less of a challenge given most modern bulk carriers only carry a small compliment of crew. Even the lowest ranked of these can multi-task once they're out at sea. Deck hands can turn to watchkeeping or small engineering duties. Chefs will be proficient bookkeepers and turn that skill to the duties of Purser and so-on.

This has to indicate that we're looking for an older vessel like a coaster or tramp steamer, but our problem here is that there are plenty of those in and around Africa.

Not only that, we weren't told what port they sailed from or when. We've been contacting as many port authorities as possible, but we're working on the assumption that the sailed out of a port on the west coast.

We've alerted Bremerhaven who have promised to put together lists of vessels that have booked berths over the coming six weeks, - especially ones that appear to be somewhat out of place."

I stood up and walked over to the window and looked out over the fells.

"What constitutes a 'body of men'? Two, five, a dozen?

Given that we've been targeted on four previous occasions, could it be that this is the method used to spirit these people into the country? Sail into a foreign port, transfer on to another ship bound for the UK, or even better, transfer on to a different ship whilst out at sea rather than risk coming to the attention of the immigration people?

I can't imagine they'd just grab a scheduled flight in order to get here, and anyway, how do they manage to arm themselves?

If it was me, I'd come by sea, - get put over the side in a small boat outside of territorial waters and sneak in to some remote location under the cover of darkness.

My knowledge of ships and boats you could write on the back of a postage stamp, but most sizable ships use GPS tracking transponders, so two vessels liaising at sea might be noticed.

Would radar be able to see a small boat near to the UK coastline?"

Sir Malcolm looked thoughtful.

"It's a possible scenario. It could explain how they're able to smuggle arms into the country for sure, but as for radar? I suppose it might be possible to spot something small if we had intelligence enough that indicated one particular area of coast, but normally they look for larger vessels within the three-mile limit.

It's something to think about, but you're right about the transponders. We'll flag this idea to all European Coastguard Authorities in the hope that they play ball."

After Sir Malcolm left we went back to our classes, but I felt moody and irritable.

Yeah, okay. So, nothing new under the sun, but I couldn't help wondering why the Somali's hadn't put some meat on the bones.

If they knew that this body of men had signed up as members of crew, why didn't they know what ship and from what port it had sailed from? It was like they were teasing us with little bits of information then leaving us to fit the jigsaw together, but this jigsaw had too many missing pieces.

Finally, the clock struck midday, and with lessons over for the day, we packed our books and went to the dining room for lunch.

"What's on the agenda for this afternoon. Thilo?"

"I've got a Botany assignment to finish, but to be truthful, I really can't be arsed right now. It's not due until Monday so I'm going to chill for the rest of the day.

Are you still chewing over what Sir Malcolm what's-his-face said earlier?"

"Yes. First, we know absolute Jack about what's going on, and then we know almost fuck-all. We're just marking time until they come at us again, and it makes me angry.

Next time they might come in mob-handed, maybe with superior weapons that we can't match. Maybe they send seasoned fighters who are way better than us. They hold all the cards and I just wish we could have sufficient intelligence to enable us to go looking for them rather than them come looking for us."

"I hear you. Attack is the finest form of defence, only we can't attack."

"Yep. Too many possibilities and too few answers."

"Perhaps we should look for a local answer?"

"Sorry, I don't understand."

"Okay. We're going to be stuck here until Christmas, yeah? If they do decide to come again, from which direction might they approach?

Coming by road would be too risky, so that leaves only three directions, all of which would mean them coming across the fells. You can't hardly wander into Alamo or Hertz Rent-a-car and hire a tank, meaning a four-by-four would be their only option, and fuck trying to drive something like that over saturated and boggy ground.

They won't exactly be travelling light either. They'll have whatever weapons and ammunition to carry meaning they would choose the shortest and easiest route possible, but also being mindful about staying hidden.

What might Clifford be up to this afternoon?"

"He's normally holed up in the library dreaming out the most torturous hiking adventure ever put together. Why?"

"Finish lunch then go and find him. See if he can lay his hands on a large-scale Ordinance Survey Maps then use his knowledge of the terrain and see what route he might take under those circumstances."

"That's a good idea! Work out the most likely route and figure out how best to defend it."

"Has to be better than pacing around and worrying. If nothing else, it gives us something to occupy our minds."

We found Cliff in the library although he wasn't dreaming about hiking. Playing games on his laptop occupied his time.

"I don't have any large-scale maps of the area, but up in my room I've got something that could do. Give me five, okay?"

We studied his map, and with his expertise in orienteering being our most valuable asset, we looked for all possible routes that they might take.

"Coming from the north would require one hell of a hike and especially if they're loaded down with kit. There's this line of hills that curve around, and without being proficient climbers, there's no way of passing them without a serious detour.

From the east is by far and away the easiest, but it's rather populated and it would be near enough impossible to keep from being seen, even at night.

For my money, I'd come up from the south, but even then, it's by no means an easy walk.

Granted, there are few hills to negotiate and the ground is low, but this time of year coupled with the amount of rain we've had recently, it'll be boggy as fuck and the rivers and streams might well come with their own set of problems.

Fording them dragging heavy kit, - fast-flowing ice-cold water and the risk of injury by slipping on submerged rocks?

I'll be honest with you. Unless you knew these fells very well, had the opportunity to walk them in half-decent weather and make notes about the likely problems, I wouldn't be daft enough to try."

"So, two out of the three possibilities are a definite no-go and the third is almost as crazy."

"Yes, but all assuming they are stupid enough to give it a go, just looking at the map would tell them to come up from the south. So, if you're thinking about mounting some kind of a defence, I think that's the obvious candidate."

"Thanks Cliff. You're a star! Drinks on me later!"

"I'll hold you to that promise, Steve!"

At least our session with Cliff had managed to lift my spirits. He was the quiet guy who loved his orienteering and all things tech, but that didn't make him a recluse. He just didn't go around acting crazy like the rest of us. We reckoned that his long-term girlfriend was partly responsible for this. Very much a looker, he met her whilst on a hiking/climbing holiday in the Pyrenees two years ago. They spent every possible moment together, with Cliff visiting her in Austria, or her visiting him in Scotland. There was even a sweepstake running to guess the month and year of their wedding!

Supper done and we went to the common room for drinks, and as per my promise, I paid for Cliff's.

"There's really no need, Steve? Glad to be of service time."

"I know that, but you were the only guy who was knowledgeable enough to guide us through it.

We're being fed that much crap, - we just wanted to explore all the possibilities should we ever have to face them in the future."

"So, why don't we do the real deal and go explore? Saturday the weather's looking good…… well, at least there's no rain forecast. Three hours there, then three hours back and you'll be able to judge for yourself."

"I'm up for it, how about you, Thilo?"

"Yeah, sure. I'll ask around and see if anyone else is game."

"Everyone? Like, really?"

"Yep. You know how it is. Midway through term; we've done all the wandering around Keswick for no real reason; the sports pitches are too waterlogged to use and the weather's going to be okay. The other option is to say here and drink ourselves into oblivion, so everyone has chosen some fresh air and exercise."

"Then get back here and……"

"Quite possibly.

Do you think we should say something to Mr Collins?"

"We'll have to. Off school premises and carrying arms and ammunition has to be sanctioned. You never know? He might even join us."

"Then I'll go and find him and maybe ask him up for a drink?"

"Nice idea, although how you might go securing an area like that might be difficult."

"But to have first-hand knowledge of the terrain would give us a significant advantage.

Cliff thinks that the other options are unworkable, and as we're reasonably sure that there's something coming, this route seems the most likely.

They have the advantage right now. We don't know when anything might kick off, nor do we know numbers or what their armament might be, but if we know the area like the back of our hands, that at least would be a bonus in our favour."


Do you have those maps to hand, Cliff?"

"Give me a few minutes and I will, Sir."

"Good man. Bring a pad of paper and a pencil if you have them."

We lost the pair of them to map reading for an hour before they broke off and re-joined us.

"I'm in complete agreement with Cliff's take on things. To risk approaching by road would be madness. Coming from the north would expend too much energy. The easterly route is too densely populated which only leaves coming up from the south.

Would anyone object if I came with you?"

"Jan answered for all of us."

"We thought you might, Sir. No problem whatsoever."

"What time do you want to get away, Steve?"

"We thought breakfast at seven-thirty, then draw our ammunition and be out of here by nine latest.

Cliff reckons three hours each way, then if we allow another hour to make notes or in the event of problems, we should get back well before we lose the light."

"Game on!

Let me buy a round of drinks, then I better get back."

"You run a mess tab, Sir. Remember?"

"So I do. Silly me!

Please remind me to settle it at the end of the month, Ben?"

"Never fear. We have ways of wringing cash from defaulters!"

"I'm sure you do, although I'd much prefer to pay on time than find out for myself what methods you use!

Chin-chin, guys!"

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