Here it is:
A Little lie
Two men faced each other by the tracks just beyond the railway station. One made note of the green backpack slung over the shoulders of the man across from him, while the other recognized details of black jacket and hat. Signals acknowledged, they nodded to each other, stepped over the tracks and walked toward a stand of trees in the distance. The man in the black jacket made up for his lesser height with quick, energetic steps, easily keeping up with the taller man carrying the green pack. Once safe from curious eyes under the trees, they faced each other once more. “Roger?” asked one. “Simpson,” answered the other. With this confirmation that he had met the right man, the pack carrier held out his hand. “James Redding,” he said, “You must be Jock Sullivan?”
“It’s Matthew.” This brief reply managed to convey the message that the use of “Jock” came with a high price.
“Sorry, old chap. Roger referred to you as Jock in his instructions.” This was met with silence.
“Right,” said James. “Roger didn’t give me specifics about our target location beyond where to meet you. You’re the navigations expert of the two of us. You know where we’re going?” He realized how inane the question was, but wanted to draw some sort of communication from the man. Weren’t the Irish supposed to have the gift of the gab? Kissed by the Blarney Stone and all that?
Again, silence. This time accompanied by a roll of the eyes. What James didn’t know was that Matthew Sullivan had many reasons to think the English were arrogant sods, and that he had to physically hold his tongue still between his teeth to keep from telling this Redding ass just what he could do with his old chap school tie bonhomie.
“Listen, wee Jock,” Aha! A clenching of the hands. “We’ve got at least 3 days if not four there, and as many back again, with only the pair of us for company - and survival,’ he stressed, “so if you could answer, that would be marvelous. A simple yes or no answer will suffice.”
And so it began. Two men who had little to keep them together aside from instant and mutual dislike with a dash of distrust of the other’s nationality were bound to each other for the sake of friendship - theirs for Roger Simpson, and Roger’s for the Kovač family.
He shouldn’t have picked up the phone. That was his first mistake right there. He’d seen Roger’s number on the display and despite his trustworthy gut telling him to let it ring through to voicemail, he’d taken the call, and because of it now found himself in some I-could-tell-you-but-then-I’d-have-to-kill-you backwater and instead of relaxing in front of the telly watching Tottenham wallop Chelsea, he had a week or more of sullen Sullivan to look forward to. Not to mention the possibility they would likely be discovered and made the reluctant inhabitants of an unclean, uncomfortable prison under the beady eye of an unsavoury guard. He’d far rather watch Chelsea win than endure that. Again.
Roger had often convinced his buddy that the very thing he shouldn’t do, was exactly the thing he most wanted to do. In this case, it was that the backwater was exactly where he wanted to be. Of course that wasn’t exactly how he’d sold it. “Jock Sullivan is as solid as they come, Jimmy. We did some work together back in the day and have stayed in touch. He’s one of us.” Meaning all three were once part of the unnamed, acronym-rich, specialized services on behalf of their respective governments. “He’s already agreed to help me out but he could use someone with your skill set.” Meaning languages, most likely. Unless… was Roger talking about explosives?
“I received an SOS from Beata Kovač yesterday,” Roger had explained. “It was through a conduit I haven’t used in fifteen years, but the protocol was correct and I know it was from her.” Roger’s voice was calm and controlled, but he was right to be concerned. The Kovač family were deeply involved in the resistance effort, and though outright civil unrest had eased years ago, the secret police of the current regime kept a close and steady eye on anyone unfortunate enough to be named on the “Danger to the State” list. Goran and Beata Kovač were not just surveilled, they were phone tapped and frequently invited to tea with the head of the local state police detachment.
“Goran is being denied medication,” Roger said. “It’s some twisted attempt at persuading him to turn. He has enough information about the rebels to dismantle the effort if the State got hold of it. They’ve hit on a remarkably cruel way to ensure his loyalty.” There was heavy sarcasm on ‘loyalty’. “Goran will die. It will not be gentle, and it will not be quick. He’ll be in a lot of pain, Beata will suffer, and while he’s a tough old bird, she’s likely to hand over anything they ask for, to spare him that suffering.”
James knew stability in the region was tenuous, and that the dictator du jour was no gentleman. But were things as bad as this? He was years beyond intelligence briefings, but surely Doctors Without Borders should be granted entry to the country?
“No.” Roger’s voice was grim. “Crossing points have been locked down. Documents are scrutinized, unknowns are questioned. We’ve gone back in time, my friend.”
Roger went on to explain his plan. His old buddy Jock was familiar with the territory and knew a way in. He would meet James at the rendezvous point and guide him to the Kovač’s village. James was necessary for his medical knowledge, language skills, and knack for blowing things up. Roger himself couldn’t go because he was known by the locals. They couldn’t carry the amount of medicine Beata had asked for without drawing suspicion, so they would carry a discrete homing device. Roger would call in a favour from another friend with a pilot’s licence and access to a plane who would use the device as a guide and parachute the bundle of supplies - why drop only Goran’s medicine when this would be the perfect opportunity to provision the local resistance properly?
How could James say no to that?
Matt Sullivan insisted his own knowledge of the region was more detailed and current than what their maps could provide. So up hill and down mountain they went, crossing fields and passing through forests. They had only the green pack containing the bare minimum of what they needed - not to ease their burden, but because a large assortment of fancy survival gear would draw attention and arouse suspicion. They needed to appear local, like day hikers.
Sullivan turned out to be more than a walking GPS. He could bivouac with the best of them, was handy with a fishing line, and had an uncanny ability to set James’ teeth on edge. Why did the little guy have to be such a… wanker? It hadn’t taken long for James to catch on to the fact that the Irishman was sensitive about his height - or rather lack of it. Naturally, then, he had to take every opportunity to needle him about it. Through it all, the man was sullen and mostly silent, which in turn teased James’ inner pest to liveliness. The enforced partnership was unpleasant for both men.
Contributing further to their discomfort was the weather. It had taken to a steady, chilly drizzle that slowly turned open ground to mud, while in the woods, fallen leaves became slippery and uncertain underfoot. The sun rarely made an appearance, and the morose grey of each day was beginning to seep into their spirits. Random patrols seemed to be increasing in frequency on the roads they could see in the distance, meaning they relied on Sullivan’s skills at building shelter in the open rather than overnighting in a barn. More than once Wee Jock’s superior hearing saved them from stepping out of the safety of cover into what would have been an interesting situation with one of those patrols.
For his part, James kept up a sporadic - but satisfyingly annoying - one-way conversation for the pleasure of seeing the deepening imprint of stoicism on the Irishman’s face. Then on the second night he had the pleasure of being proved useful. A roving trio of patrollers found a fishing line Sullivan had strung from a tree, next to the beginnings of a fire pit. The two were setting about making camp for the night when they heard the unwelcome voices. Without a word, James and Matthew set a plan of evasion in motion: Matthew by dismantling the shelter into its component bits and pieces of nature, and James by circling around the by now excited patrol to their vehicle in order to install a cunning mix of explosive and stabilizer disguised as a stick of gum up under the body of the truck. When the engine came to life, the gum would receive the fuel it need to blow, creating the merest pop of sound, leaving no evidence, but managing to immobilize the vehicle most gratifyingly.
There had been a short game of cat and mouse by the dying light of nightfall, but once the patrol decided to give wheeled chase, the game was called when anger and confusion took precedence over pursuit when the truck wouldn’t start.
On the evening of the third day they reached their destination: the outskirts of a small town within bullying distance of the capital. Roger had described the location of the Kovač cottage as being at the end of a quiet lane with a large meadow just beyond. Its near-isolation meant their approach shouldn’t be noticed, but it also could make their presence glaringly obvious to any who happened by.
At their knock, Beata cautiously guarded against light spilling over the entry as she peered out at them. James quickly gave Roger’s name and the credentials that would assure her they were friendly. With a quickly smothered cry she gestured them into her home, closing the door and locking the night out behind them.
Excitement and gratitude were tempered with caution as their stories were told. Sullivan was only partially able to participate as his command of the language was rudimentary, but he followed as best he could, and James filled in the gaps in both directions. It didn’t take long for the two men to understand why Mrs. Kovač was dear to Roger: she scolded them, forced food and drink on them, insisted they wanted baths and clean clothes, and basically bossed them around like a long-experienced mother hen.
While Matthew took his turn using up the hot water supply, James slipped out back door and into the field beyond the house. He set up the homing device on a short tripod, arranging a rock and other bric-a-brac to subtly distract any eyes that might glance in this direction. Now there was only waiting.
It happened two nights later. Matthew was never more pleased to hear a sound that could very possibly send trouble in his direction: a plane was heard faintly overhead. Fetching James from where he sat reading to Goran at the kitchen table, he led the way out the back door, just in time to see the dark silhouette of a box and parachute drift to the ground. They worked silently, but quickly and efficiently as only two men who’d had similar training could do, to separate the box from the parachute straps, securely hide the chute, and carry the box into the cottage.
It felt like Christmas to the four people watching the lid be prised off the wooden crate. There were murmurs of surprise and delight from the Kovač couple as they discovered the requested medication for Goran as well as other medicines sure to be useful in the village, simple communications equipment, and - here Roger’s sense of humour was evident - chocolate bars, Levi’s jeans, oranges, and cartons of cigarettes. “As though we were behind the Iron Curtain!” scoffed Goran, but with a twinkle of delight in his eyes.
They had quite forgotten their need for caution in their exploration of the bounty when there was a terse knock at the door. All sense of gaiety was sucked out of the room as panic threatened to take over. There was no time to do more than repack the box and deposit it behind the sofa with a blanket hastily draped over it. Goran arranged himself in his armchair looking as weak as possible, while Beata took up some knitting. James and Matthew sat on the sofa with a game of chess arranged in front of them. They tried to give the impression they were not, in fact, an English and an Irishman, but were indeed local and perfectly belonged exactly where they were.
A second knock accompanied by raised and angry voices were quickly followed by a beefy shoulder to the door, allowing five bodies to fill the room. Beata sprang to her feet, protesting their sudden presence in her home and their muddy shoes on her carpet. The man in charge looked momentarily abashed before he remembered his very important role as head of the local detachment of state police. The others with him were volunteers, and that, perhaps, made them even more enthusiastic about their duty.
Questions were tossed and accusations were flung in a confused volley of voices. After hearing denial after denial that any of them knew anything about a flying box, the lead accuser demanded to know who the two strange men were. For all their training and despite all their experience, Matthew and James had never discussed how they should explain their presence in the cottage, trusting instead that their short tenure and plain good luck would make such a tale unnecessary.
Beata, without a pause, claimed them for her sons. She looked each official boldly in the eye, daring them to deny her maternity. “My boys went off to fight years ago,” she said. “You know this to be true, Nema.” this was directed at one of the men, the only one who actually lived in the village. “They stayed in the city to work, and have come home to visit their mother after too long away.” By some unlikely alignment of providence, the blustering men took Beata at her word. They trooped out of the cottage in order to disturb the peace of some other family, leaving the Kovač couple and their guests to laugh in giddy disbelief at their good fortune.
Three days later, the two men faced each other over the tracks once more, one in black jacket and black hat, the other with a small green sack slung over his shoulders.
“Best of luck to you, Matthew,” said James, gripping the other man’s hand firmly.
“Call me Jock,” replied Sullivan, with a smile on his face.