The Tunisian Tangle - thriller extract

It was shortly after five o’clock on a sunny afternoon, halfway along the causeway that crosses the Lake of Tunis, that Craig was kidnapped.

To the North, beyond the sandy edges of the dyke and the lazy cat’s-paws skidding across the lagoon, the white minarets and villas on the distant shore seemed to be suspended in space, shimmering in the heat. South, on the other side of the Carthage railway, was the deep-water canal, with a freighter slowly gliding along behind a tug on its way to port. Then came the other protecting dyke and the southern half of the lake glittering in the hot sunshine and far away, the rugged outlines of misty mountains. There was little traffic on the road. It could hardly have been a more peaceful scene.

The Rolls was taking it quietly too, whispering along the smooth highway, very grand and elegant. The short chromium flagstaff on the bonnet carried a leather sheath with the Ambassador’s standard correctly rolled up inside it. Craig sat alone in the back seat, idly watching two flamingoes fly past, looking for something juicy in the shallow green water below, the rosy plumage of their great wings vivid in the light of the westering sun. Then things began to happen.

Peter Craig’s view of the birds was interrupted by a man on a motor-bicycle, who rode slowly past, turning to rake the interior of the car with a penetrating stare. He was dressed in a dark grey leather jacket and breeches, white belt and holster and a white Sam Browne that carried a red star badge. Under the white helmet the square goggles faced forward again and the man accelerated and began to wave his hand at the chauffeur, signalling him to stop.

The driver hooted angrily. He wasn’t exceeding even the low urban speed limit, and after all, he had a Corps Diplomatique number plate. He tried to pass, but the traffic policeman kept his machine in front of the gleaming bonnet and continued to wave furiously. The Rolls slowed demurely to a halt. A black Citroën 127 drew up alongside, and two men emerged very quickly, with automatics in their hands. They wore dark glasses and black leather jackets above blue jeans. One thrust his gun through the chauffeur’s window and shouted something in Arabic. The other opened Craig’s door.

‘Descendez, Excellence,’ he cried sharply, the muzzle of the automatic pointing at Craig’s head. Two other cars came up from behind, hooting angrily but squeezing past in the left-hand lane. Their drivers had no wish to get involved in what was obviously a police affair.

Craig didn’t move. ‘Qu’est-ce que se passe?’ he asked, not unreasonably.

For an answer the man fired through the floor of the car near Craig’s feet. ‘Descendez!’ he repeated, in a high-pitched voice that carried a note of strain. Craig complied, and was hustled into the back of the Citroën with the gun prodding his spine.

There was a third man there already, with yet another gun, but he was holding it by the barrel. As Craig tried to avoid the blow he was pushed violently from behind and fell forward. He felt a stab of pain.

When he came to his senses he was crouching in an attitude of prayer on the floor of the car, with his nose on the carpet and two pairs of feet holding him down. He twisted his body and stared up at the faces peering down at him through sunglasses. The big man who had used his pistol butt was obviously itching to do it again if he tried to rise from his undignified position, so he kept his head down and fingered the swelling bruise resentfully. It was painful. ‘Qu’est-ce qu’il y a?’ he asked coldly.

Soyez tranquille,’ admonished the smaller of his captors, and continued in fluent French, ‘We will explain all to you later. If you behave as we’d expect from an English gentleman you won’t suffer. But remember, my friend here is very strong.’

Craig nodded—and even that hurt. He allowed his eyes to be bandaged with a black scarf.

‘Just a few more kilometres,’ said the same voice, reassuringly, ‘and we’ll be able to make you more comfortable.’ A hand patted Craig’s shoulder. ‘We have no wish to harm you, Monsieur l’Ambassadeur. You will be quite safe.’ He was helped to sit with his back to the door, but leaning forward so that his head could not be seen through the window.

Voilà,’ said the voice. ‘That’s better, isn’t it?’

Merci,’ said Craig humbly. So that was why he had been called ‘Excellence’. They thought he was Sir John Radcliffe. He could see no advantage in undeceiving them. Presumably they wanted him for ransom, either money or—what? Political prisoners? Concessions? It could be anything, these days. He’d have to find some way of escaping, but with that big thug around and the car still moving along at a smart pace, to try to open the door and throw himself out would be suicidal. One way or the other. He wondered what had happened to the Ambassador’s chauffeur, a grey-bearded, fatherly old boy who had served the Embassy for thirty years. He must have been scared out of his wits.

The car stopped, and Craig heard a gate swing open, squeaking on its hinges. Then the crunch of a gravelled drive, a sudden silence from the tyres as they passed over concrete—or perhaps grass—and finally the indefinable sounds of a car engine in a confined space. Doors closed.

He was helped out of the car and through a doorway—he heard the sound of a latch. There was a short pause, and then his blindfold was removed and he stood blinking in the light of a single electric bulb suspended from the wooden ceiling of a small, oddly shaped room. It was about twelve feet long by five, and furnished with a bed, a chair and table, and a bucket discreetly covered by a heavy wooden lid. The door through which he had been brought was in one of the long walls, and the thug stood in front of it, gun in hand. There was no window.

The thug was certainly big, with a chest like a beer keg, and the pistol looked small in those great work-hardened hands. He wore blue overalls. The other man was standing with the driver of the Citroën by the table. They were both dressed in coloured shirts, with half-boots showing below the legs of their blue jeans. The big sunglasses hid their eyes, but there was no doubt that they were young, probably in their late teens or early twenties. The wispy beards had never been trimmed. They told him to sit down, quite politely, and began to confer in low-voiced Arabic. The boy who had held Craig up in the first instance was slimmer than the driver. He was talking with an air of authority.

There was an involved knocking at the door, muffled by some kind of sound insulation. Two taps, pause, two more, pause, then one. The thug opened it, and the motorcyclist came in, still in uniform, his face radiant with satisfaction. The sight of Craig’s brooding stare sobered him for a moment, but then he threw his helmet into the air, caught it, clapped it on his head at a jaunty angle and stood with arms folded, scowling the part of a stage policeman. Even the leader laughed, before calling sharply for order. The three younger men turned to face Craig, a half-circle of hidden eyes calculating, assessing, trying to, foresee how he would react. Craig was reminded of the searching looks that children give a strange adult. The thug, much older than the others, maintained his malignant scowl.

Craig spoke in French, addressing the leader. ‘What is the meaning of this charade, monsieur?’

‘I regret, Monsieur l’Ambassadeur, that we have to inconvenience you, but I’m sure that our demands, which are reasonable, will be quickly met when the Government knows that we have you in our power. We shall then release you.’

‘What demands?’

‘The release of some of our friends, university students like us, who are wrongfully held in gaol. In the meantime we shall make you as comfortable as possible. You have something to read—’ he pointed to some glossy magazines and a copy of Che Guevara’s Guerrilla Warfare in its French translation, lying on the table—’and there will be food later.’

‘And if I wish to relieve myself?’

‘Er—that.’ He pointed to the bucket. There was a suppressed giggle from the motor-cyclist.

‘I’m afraid that’s the best we can do at the moment, Excellence, but it will be emptied before meals. If you have to remain here longer than one night we shall make other arrangements, and also provide you with a change of linen.’ He raised his voice menacingly. ‘Don’t try to escape, monsieur. The walls and door are sound-proofed and very solid, and there is no one near. You have a switch for the light here, by the door.’ He paused, thought for a moment, and nodded. All points satisfactorily covered. ‘We will leave you now.’

‘I should like a bottle of wine,’ said Craig. ‘Dry wine. And a cloth and some cold water for my head.’ He stroked the lump over his ear and showed the blood on his hand. A bottle could be useful in various ways, he thought.

The leader was upset, and threw a reproachful glance at the big man. He started forward to look for himself, then thought better of it. ‘You shall have them at once,’ he said. ‘One of my friends will bring them.’ He went out of the door, opening it just enough to slide through, and was followed by the others except for the thug, who remained on guard.

A few minutes later a tray with a bottle of Vin de Messe, a glass, a small basin of water and some lint were brought in, after which Craig was left alone. The moment the door was closed all sounds from the outside ceased, but Craig saw the door quiver, as some sort of locking device was operated. He wondered how it was done without being visible on the outside. Probably the back portion of the garage had been partitioned off to form the secret room. The door wall was of newer wood than the side and rear walls, but solid, and the door was quite immovable.

The construction was of thick boards nailed to studding—he could see the lines of the retaining nails, well punched into the wood. Near where the flex for the lamp was suspended from one of the ceiling joists a hole, six inches square, acted as a ventilator. He switched off the light for a moment and looked up through the little opening, but could see only a pattern of evening sunlight on the leaves of a fleshy creeping plant.

They were amateurs, of course, even the thug. They hadn’t checked the papers in his wallet and had left him his pipe, tobacco and lighter, and even his pocket knife. It looked as if they hadn’t explored his pockets at all after he had been knocked out. They had a lot to learn.

He took off his coat, because the little room was very warm, bathed his head, drank sparingly of the wine—because he wanted as much weight left in the bottle as possible—and lay down on the bed, his mind busy. There were various things he could do, such as sawing away at the side wall, where the marks would be hidden by the bed-head, but it’d take a very long time even if the knife blade didn’t break. Or make a commotion and when the thug arrived lay him out with the bottle. Shouting would be no good, obviously, but if he pushed burning strips of Che Guevara through the ventilator someone would come running, and even if they’d gone away leaving a guard he’d burn himself an escape hole in the roof. Provided, of course, the whole roof, which would be tinder-dry, didn’t catch fire. On second thoughts, not a very viable solution.

What else? He looked at the lamp. Switch off, disconnect the wires, attach one to the terminal in the switch and have a live wire handy to touch the muzzle of the thug’s automatic when he pushed it through the doorway. An attractive idea, because he badly needed a gun, but it was wishful thinking: he’d probably electrocute himself, tampering with the switch in total darkness.

In any case, it was useless trying anything just yet. He must wait until the police hunt was on, and in the meantime be a model prisoner. After all, he thought, he was supposed to be Sir John Radcliffe, and must act like an Ambassador. He went to sleep.

* * *

The crack of an automatic woke him up with a start. Craig looked at his watch. Eight o’clock. The sound had come from the ventilator in the roof. He pushed the table under the lamp and climbed on to it so that he could get his ear close to the opening. There was shouting outside, and then another shot, but from—of all things—a shotgun. A bellow of pain was cut short. Then silence. He jumped down, seized the wine bottle with one hand and the heavy lid of the bucket with the other and stood facing the door.

He saw it quiver as the bolt was thrown, and the door burst open. The leader of the gang was thrust forward into the room. Police, thought Craig, rejoicing, and lowered his weapons. The boy’s face was white under the dark spectacles, and grimacing with pain from an arm-lock applied by the tall man who came in behind him. He was dressed in a loose dark jacket and slacks, with a black silk handkerchief knotted round his neck under the collar of the dark blue shirt. He held the young man easily with one hand, while with the other he pointed a shotgun at Craig, wordlessly inviting him to drop the bottle and the bucket-lid.

Craig looked up. The man’s face was concealed behind a nylon stocking which covered the whole of his head, outlining a jutting nose and broad cheekbones. ‘Allons, Monsieur Craig,’ he said quietly. ‘We are your friends.’ Craig held on to his bottle but dropped the lid and stood aside while the newcomer pushed the young man forward and made him stand at the rear of the room. Another man in a stocking mask appeared in the doorway. Craig put the bottle back on the table.

Then he felt the boy’s eyes on him. ‘Are you not the British Ambassador?’ It came in an anguished whisper.

‘No,’ said Craig.

‘Come, monsieur,’ said the man in the mask, ‘we must get you back safely to your hotel.’

The boy who had kidnapped him sat down suddenly on the bed and covered his eyes with his hands. Craig felt oddly sorry for him.

‘You see,’ he said gently, ‘the Ambassador was going to Le Kram as usual, and kindly offered to take me with him so that I could go on and visit the Punic excavations. But at the last moment an important telegram arrived and he couldn’t go.’

‘Allons, Monsieur Craig.’

But Craig was still looking at the young man’s bowed head. ‘C’est comme ça,’ he said. ‘C’est la vie … ‘

‘Merde alors, ‘ came in a muffled voice, with all the frustrated bitterness of youth.

* * *

Craig went through the door and found himself, as expected, in a garage. The bonnet of the Citroën faced him. To one side the motorcyclist, the driver and another man, presumably the one who had held up the Ambassador’s chauffeur, stood facing the wall. The moon had risen, and he could just see them in the reflected light, and the shadowy figures guarding them. No guns were visible. The tall man took him by on the other side and out into the open.

On the concrete apron of the garage the thug lay on his back, arms outstretched in a glinting pool of blood. The smashed spectacles were still over his eyes but there wasn’t much left of the rest of his face. It was easy to see why his bellow of pain hadn’t got very far.

‘He attacked me,’ explained the man with the shotgun, simply. He gently pushed Craig forward towards a car—it looked like a Mercedes 220—that was parked ten feet down the drive with a small cloud of condensing steam round its throbbing exhaust. ‘We must leave quickly, before the police arrive.’

Craig didn’t like the sound of this, or the idea of frying pan into fire. Nor did he like being pushed around. He took a step forward as if obeying his rescuer, then turned without warning and got both hands on the shotgun, which the man in the nylon mask still held comfortably cradled under his arm. Craig wrenched it away with a vicious twist that wrung a gasp of pain from the man, tripped him, pushed him over as he stumbled, and ran backwards to the other side of the drive. The tall man got to his feet as quickly as a cat, facing the shotgun in Craig’s hands. He slowly raised his hands above his head, crying out something in guttural Arabic.

It was a position of stalemate for all of five seconds; the two men staring at each other across the width of the gravel drive. Then Craig heard the note of the car engine change, a small screech of gravel, and the grey Mercedes slid backwards between him and his vis-à-vis. He found himself staring into the eyes of a woman, who sat beside the driver. Ignoring the gun, which he lowered instinctively, she stepped out, a tall woman in a white sifsari, who held one of its folds across the lower part of her face. She faced him, shaking her head reprovingly.

‘Really, Mr Craig,’ she said in French, ‘we are only trying to help you.’

‘Then why don’t you call the police? And why d’you hide your faces?’

‘Good questions,’ she said with a little laugh, completely at her ease, ‘and there are equally good answers. But please get into the back seat. Just look around you.’ He had done that already. There were two other men in stocking masks standing silently, with their automatics pointing at his stomach.

‘How do I know you’re not trying to kidnap me, like your rival gang?’

That stung. ‘We are not a gang,’ she said sharply. ‘We are a group of public-spirited citizens, trying to save our country from anarchy.’

‘Isn’t that the Government’s job?’

‘It’s difficult for men in offices to understand the problems of the young. We do our best to help.’

‘Very laudable. What are you planning to do with me?’

‘Drop you off at the first place where you can pick up a taxi. We prefer not to get involved with the authorities; it is time-wasting. Besides, there is that unfortunate accident to be considered.’ She nodded towards the body of the dead thug, which was being hauled to the side of the drive. There wasn’t the slightest flicker of emotion in her voice. Craig stared at her.

She continued, ‘I see that you still don’t trust us,’ and drew out of the folds of the robe a small Colt automatic, which she handed to him. ‘You can keep me in the sights of this if you like.’ She opened the rear door of the Mercedes and stepped in, with a swirl of draperies. Craig kept the shotgun under his arm, stolidly chocked the magazine of the little Colt, and handed the shotgun to the tall man, who now stood by, still massaging his arm. Craig had no intention of apologising to him; the sight of that gruesome heap of mortal remains was still in his mind. He got into the car and sat beside the woman, holding the gun in his lap.

She spoke to the driver in Arabic and the car moved off down the drive and turned into a road between suburban villas, separated by large gardens and groves of palm trees and eucalyptus.

As they passed into more densely inhabited areas the street lighting became more frequent, and he was able from time to time to catch glimpses of his companion as they talked.

The sifsari hid her figure completely, and her dark eyes and strongly marked eyebrows were all he could see. She gestured occasionally with the slender brown hand that lay on the armrest between them. It was her right hand; the other still held the fold of white silk across her face.

‘How did you know my name?’

She laughed. ‘Your Embassy issued a communiqué and I heard it on our car radio just before we arrived at the villa. It wasn’t in the regular news bulletin, so that’s why that young fool didn’t know he’d got the wrong man.’

There was no need to ask what the communiqué had said; he would learn soon enough. It was she that he was interested in. He wondered if he could get enough glimpses of her hand to be able to recognise it again. ‘It was clever of you to know about the kidnapping and where they’d taken me,’ he suggested. It was the hand of a young woman—twenty to thirty, perhaps, but difficult to be more exact when it was so obviously well cared for, with smooth, well-manicured fingers. No ring—the marks were there, where she’d taken them off the second and third fingers. As the flashes from the street lamps lit up the hand for a few seconds at a time he studied it out of the corner of his eye, every contour, the knuckles, the set of the slim fingers, the way the wrist wrinkled.

‘Yes,’ she was saying, ‘we keep track of what they’re up to and when it’s something very stupid, like today, we try and stop them.’

‘By force, if necessary.’

‘It’s sometimes the only way.’ She half turned, and he saw for a fleeting instant the dark eyes, intent on his face. ‘You must realise, Mr Craig, that no one regrets more than we do what happened to that man. But he’d have killed my friend—he’d tried once already and had his pistol raised. The little finger of the hand tapped on the armrest. ‘We’ll have to help them get rid of the body,’ she added thoughtfully, ‘or they’ll have trouble with the police.’

‘Which you don’t want?’ That movement of the little finger was interesting, perhaps characteristic. He must make her do it again.

‘No. What’d be the use? And after all, we sympathise with their attitude towards the Government. It’s just that we think the way is through constitutional channels.’

Craig saw that the car was about to pass a streetlight. ‘It sounds very proper and above-board,’ he sneered, with his eyes on the white blur where her hand lay. ‘Constitutional channels!’

He got the reaction he had worked for. Just as the flash of light illuminated the interior of the car he saw her hand bunch up, and the little finger, separated slightly from the others, tap nervously on the leather rest. ‘I admit it’s a cliché,’ she said sharply, ‘but some clichés have a meaning, and this is one of them. You can achieve reforms by constitutional means or violence. We prefer the former.’

The car had emerged from the suburban area and reached a highway he recognised. It approached the city from the direction of La Marsa and would soon pass the airport. The car began to gather speed.

‘Violent revolution,’ remarked Craig thoughtfully, waiting for another streetlight. ‘But of course it never gives the people what they want, does it?’ The wayward finger was tapping again. ‘It only produces anarchy or dictatorship. ‘

‘Of course,’ she said quickly. ‘That’s exactly what I mean.’

I wonder, thought Craig, but aloud, ‘I’m almost sorry for that other group, the ones who captured me. They’re very young, you know. The police will get them.’

‘I hope not. And if you want to make things easier for them,’ she added, ‘you can ask the Government to forget all about them.’

‘And the man you killed?’

‘Why not? It’s no concern of yours, now that you’re free.’

‘With a little help from my friends,’ said Craig lightly, in English.

She laughed suddenly. ‘Ah, the Beatles. One of your better exports. I have the album with that song in it.’

The lights on the highway were frequent. ‘A bit out of date, aren’t you?’

The finger separated itself from its fellows, stiffly, outraged.

‘Perhaps, Mr Craig,’ she said coldly. Then tapped on the driver’s shoulder. ‘We’ll let you out here. It’s only a little distance to the airport entrance, and you’ll find plenty of taxis arriving empty. Have you money?’

‘They took nothing away from me. Unlike you and your patriotic friends, they have no professional expertise. But thank you for offering, and also, I suppose, for rescuing me.’

She held out the slim brown hand. ‘My pistol, please.’

Craig stared after them as the car accelerated away.


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