By Patrick BAHZAD
It was 8 am only, but the sun was already high in the sky. Grabbing a bath towel, Basquier was about to go for the showers, after his morning jog. It had been two weeks already since he had joined Fleischer and the rest of the group. Around him, the small FOB was getting busy. “Voodoo Creek”, that was the name Fleischer had come up for it. A fitting description for a dozen housing containers that looked almost lost in that dried up valley, surrounded by a double wire fence, somewhere near the air base.
Basquier was just taking off his watch when he heard his boss outside, almost knocking down the door with his fist.
- Basquier, meeting in five ! Let’s go.
No shower then today, was Basquier’s first thought. He turned around, threw the towel unto his bed and started getting dressed. Outside, he could hear Fleischer knocking on another container door.
- Soubeyran, wake up, come on.
For or a minute or so, nothing happened, but then Basquier heard someone opening the door. He had a quiet laugh while putting on his desert fatigue. Soubeyran had been out all night, meeting one of his “girlfriends’” as he used to call them.
- Jesus, man, you look like shit, was Fleischer’s reaction as he probably saw Soubeyran’s unshaven face peeking through the container door.
Soubeyran was from the Cévennes Moutains in the South of France. Those mountain folks had a reputation as a tough people and Soubeyran was no exception, although he had picked another line of work than sheep farming, like his dad.
The Cévennes mountaineers were rather short usually, but Soubeyran was a giant, even by normal standards. His arms were as thick as the trunk of an old oak tree of his native Cévennes. With his shaven head and the scar on his right cheek, he definitely was no pretty sight, and that had earned him a nickname he hated and thus had to endure on a daily basis, “Pretty Boy”.
- All right, boss, I’m coming, said Soubeyran in a deep, slow voice.
Basquier could almost smell the whisky stench from inside the other container.
- Fuck that, was Fleischer’s immediate answer. You been drinking all night again with that hooker of yours ? I told you to cut it out. Get a grip on yourself, man.
- Sorry boss, won’t happen again.
- Where’s the Confederate by the way ?
- Checking the gear, I suppose.
The Confederate. Another nickname for another character. Pierre-André de la Tour, by his real name, was a former Navy Commando who had a passion for anything having to do with the South and the Confederation. Anything, from music to food, to history books and especially belt buckles carrying a Confederate flag.
Strange for the youngest son of a family of eight, raised strictly Catholic and brought up in the belief that French aristocracy still had a special place and a mission to fulfil in the French Republic.
- All right, Pretty Boy, said Fleischer as he walked away from the containers. You get the Confederate on your way to my office. Things are moving, so you better get going too.
Some ten minutes later, the meeting started in the sticky little office container Fleischer called his “headquarters”. The air was already burning hot and the ceiling fan which was turning at full speed did nothing to make it any better.
Fleischer was sitting at his desk, a thick file open in front of him. The three other men – Basquier, Soubeyran and de la Tour – had barely managed to find enough space for their wooden chairs. They were sitting opposite their boss, waiting for the news they had been expecting for more than a week already.
- Gentlemen, said Fleischer with a large smile on his face, I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is they found our man … The bad news is, we have been instructed to get to it tonight.
Basquier raised an eyebrow, while Soubeyran scratched his bald head and de la Tour just smiled back at his boss, but none of the three men uttered even a single word. When the boss discussed business, he didn’t like being interrupted, especially not to hear any complaints.
Fleischer stoop up and took a step to his left, pointing a finger at the large map that was hanging from the wall. The name of a small town had been pencilled in with a magic marker, next to the photograph of a man with grey hair and a beard.
- It’s been confirmed, it’s him, said Fleischer, looking right down at Basquier.
- You positive ? Sayid Tawab is there ?
- The guys at SIGINT have analysed all mobile phone communications to and from his daughter’s place. They’re absolutely sure it’s him. You got his file ?
- Yep, replied Basquier.
- Good, take his photograph with you and make sure it’s him tonight. I don’t want any fuck ups. You’re leaving at 1400 sharp.
A somewhat uncomfortable silence seemed to settle in. Soubeyran and de la Tour turned their heads towards Basquier. The two senior NCOs had worked with their Captain for several years now. Over time, the hierarchical link between them had given way to more than just genuine trust and respect. What united the three men was now a brotherly bond that had been cast through years of facing tough challenges together and managing – so far – to get away with it.
- What’s our back-up looking like ? asked Basquier.
- Your back-up, replied Fleischer, slightly amused. Well, your back-up is the twenty guys you’ll have with you. I think that’s plenty enough, isn’t it ?
Fleischer hadn’t changed a bit. Never having any doubts, always confident the men he had picked for a mission would be up to the task. And he still had this habit of presenting things in a way that made them look almost easy, regardless of the danger ahead.
Two days ago, when he first had explained the coming operation to his senior CO and his two NCOs, he had done it again. On the satellite pictures and drone vids he had shown them, everything made sense, even the timing seemed obvious.
- Fine, whispered Basquier .
He had hoped Fleischer would have thought the back-up issue over, but his boss hadn’t. Basquier didn’t like it, but that was it. He would have to make do with the manpower he had. One last time, the four men went through all the operational details, from start to finish. Once they had exhausted every remaining question, there weren’t many actually, Fleischer slammed his fist on his desk.
- That’s it, gentlemen … Bonne chance et bonne chasse* !
The other three knew this was the signal, the meeting was over. They gathered the few papers they had brought and left the office. They had quite a lot on their plate. With only a couple of hours left before departure, they had three teams of 7 men to brief before everybody would gear up and get ready.
At 1400, four SUVs left FOB “Voodoo Creek” through its main gate. The convoy drove quietly through the huge slum that looked like it was clinging onto the steep slopes of the mountain range, East of the capital. The wide avenues, basically dirt roads with potholes the size of a small crater, were littered with all sorts of rubbish. Countless kids dressed in rags were playing in pools of muddy water along the main avenue. People were minding their own business and nobody seemed to pay much attention to the white SUVs.
Basquier was sitting in the second vehicle, next to his driver. Officially, he was taking a group of European engineers to one of the mines located up North. He had stashed a couple of maps onto the back seat, together with a few computers and sport bags, supposedly the luggage of the engineers, who travelled light, due to their stay being only short term.
It was enough to fool a traffic cop, but they would get in trouble if some nosy local police chief asked them anything more … Most likely, the guy would be after some sort of ‘bakchich’, bribery money, but if he turned out to be some kind of local hero, things could get messy.
Once the convoy left the seemingly never-ending slum, they took a right turn and entered a brand new highway.
- Holy shit, shouted Samir, the driver.
He lowered his sunglasses slightly, looked to his Captain and broke out in laughter.
- They got no decent toilets, but better highways than back home. What you say, Captain ?
- Keep driving, Samir. Save us the stories for when we get back.
Samir was a second generation French of North African extraction. In his ways and deeds, he was as French as you could be though, except for the fact that he didn’t eat pork and only drank some red wine on special occasions. Like during a “méchoui”, a roast sheep BBQ, that Fleischer would personally organise after any major success.
- Hope Fleischer will pick a better sheep for tonight’s méchoui, yelled Samir, looking into the rearview mirror.
The three men on the back-seat, dressed in plain clothes as well, smiled back at the driver.
- Drive, said Basquier again. We got to be there in two hours.
* "Bonne chance et bonne chasse": French for "good luck and good hunting"
(part 2 next week)