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Friday, 21 November 2014

Saturday Story - 'Cold Turkey'

Chor Virap, Wikipedia commons

COLD TURKEY

Nik Morton

 
Turkish-Soviet Armenian border, 14 February, 1976.

Even through the five layers of artic clothing, Alan Swann felt the insidious cold. The weight of his pack didn’t help, either. If he’d undergone SAS training, maybe he’d feel more confident. But he hadn’t. The training at The Fort in Hampshire had been thorough enough to prepare him for his career as a spy. He much preferred assignments in the Far East and the tropics, places he’d visited while in the navy. The trouble was that he spoke Russian fluently, with a Georgian accent, as well as Malaysian, Indonesian, German and French. As the Operations Officer said, ‘We have nobody else available with your capabilities. Somehow, Toker is on the loose and we’ve got to get to him before the Ruskies. Toby Barnes will be your back-up.’

Enid in Records said that Dudley Toker was one of the ‘last real gentlemen’ and she really missed his ‘wonderful smile and chivalrous airs. Not much gallantry about since the Sixties,’ she had ended when he picked up his papers and maps. What was odd was that Toker had vanished in Istanbul September last year, presumed dead. Then two weeks ago, the Comcen got a brief report in special code. From Toker. In the Armenian city of Yerevan, of all places.

So a hasty mission was set up. Toby Barnes was ex-SAS and a reliable partner in a crisis. They’d been on three missions together and tended to know how the other thought and reacted in extremis. Both operatives had jumped out of the airplane yesterday. The drop height was 30,000feet so the aircraft would go undetected. They didn’t open their chutes straight away. Instead, they plummeted to the earth in free-fall, as they were aiming to get as close as possible to the border to Armenia. Free-fall was fast, silent and generally accurate: a high altitude, low opening drop was ideal for insertion into enemy territory.

Swann maintained a normal delta position and descended at a rate of 120mph, the wind-rush against his polarised goggles quite deafening. The white expanse of mountains looked beautiful as he fell towards them. Barnes was more experienced and had opted for the tracking position and fell at 175mph. When they reached an altitude of 2,500 feet, they finally opened their parachutes. Barnes landed before Swann, about five hundred yards away. As Swann hit and buckled his legs, his feet sinking into deep snow, he felt enormous relief. No jarring of the knees this time, the soft snow cushioned the impact. Swann broke out his snowshoes and then strode across the virgin snow towards Barnes’s landing place.
 
They’d been dropped a mile from the Turkish-Armenian border. Surveillance flights suggested that there were no Russian sentries out here – it was too cold and inhospitable. They relied on radar to detect aircraft.

On their left were the twin volcanic peaks of Mount Ararat, the home of Noah’s Ark, its 5,000-metre height dominating not only the skyline but also the surrounding snow-clad landscape. This land he stood on, and the mountain, had once been part of Armenia until the Turks took it in 1915, committing genocide in the process. Death beckoned now, it seemed.
 
No matter how experienced and how professional you are, if luck’s against you, you lose. Swann found Toby Barnes: as he’d landed, the snow under him had fallen away and Barnes had tumbled down a deep fissure in the underlying rock. The parachute shrouds had snagged, entwining round his neck before he could hit the release and his neck was broken.

Neither carried any identification. All their equipment was manufactured in the USSR. Swann could safely leave Barnes where he hung. He offered a quick prayer for his companion and felt his throat was dry with tension. He sipped a little water then set out on his mission alone.

***

For the next two days Swann trekked down the mountain slopes towards the walled monastery of Chor Virap. The sky was eggshell blue and very clear. As he trudged over the snow he was aware that he left an obvious trail but there was nothing he could do about that except pray for a snowfall to obliterate his tracks. He continually scanned the empty sky for the slightest black speck that might become a deadly Soviet helicopter on patrol.

While the weak sun shone, he tried to avoid overheating, opening his parka. At least it wasn’t windy, so there was no wind-chill to contend with; frostbite was the worst enemy, followed by hypothermia. It was a case of keeping a balance, maintaining his core body-heat while he kept moving to his target.

The pointed tower of the seventeenth century church beckoned, emerging out of the dun-coloured assembly of buildings and wall on a slight promontory. He waited overnight under a makeshift canvas shelter and set out as the sun’s first rays shimmered like a halo around Ararat’s slopes.

***

Tayyip Sezer was a grizzled bent old man, an Armenian monk. Stocky and at least in his seventies, he seemed to be both tough and strong as he eased open the heavy wooden door and let Swann in.

‘We have been expecting you, sir,’ Tayyip said in broken English, closing the door.

‘How many are here?’ Swann asked.

‘Just five in our community. Enough to tend the vines.’ He gestured towards the south. Swann had seen the snow-covered vineyards on a sloping plain beyond the monastery. ‘You would like some broth, I think?’
 
‘That would be welcome,’ Swann said, pulling off his hood and goggles. ‘But I’d like to see your visitor first.’
 
Tayyip grinned, revealing stained crooked teeth. ‘He said whoever came for him would be impatient. Follow me.’
 
Across a cobbled courtyard, up a narrow dark alley and into a small doorway. Tayyip led Swann down a spiral stone staircase into what appeared to be a candle-lit wine cellar. ‘I’ll go and get the broth,’ Tayyip said and left him. For an anxious second he wondered if he was going to be locked up down here. The door stayed ajar.
 
‘Sorry it’s so dark,’ said a refined voice out of a shadowy corner, ‘but my eyes aren’t accustomed to too much light yet.’
 
Swann stepped forward. ‘Toker?’
 
‘Yes.’ The man stepped out into the glow of candles. ‘I think I know you – Alan Swann, isn’t it?’ He held out a hand.
 
Swann nodded, took off his mitt and shook hands.
 
Dudley Toker was tall and gaunt and wore a straggly greying beard. ‘Sorry about my appearance, but I’ve been on the run for a couple of months. I’ve been hiding here since I left Yerevan two weeks ago. That’s where I got my message out to you, thanks to Andranik Kocharian, a contact of mine...’
 
Glancing round the austere stone room, Swann said, ‘Two weeks down here?’
 
‘Tayyip was anxious for my safety. We were at college together years back. Two weeks isn’t so bad. Gregory the Illuminator was captive here for thirteen years.’
 
Before Swann could comment Tayyip returned. ‘Here, have this.’ Both men gratefully spooned up the thick vegetable and mutton broth. ‘I sacrificed a sheep in your honour,’ said Tayyip.

***

Later that day, Toker put on the spare clothing that Swann had brought and said his farewells to the monk Tayyip. Then they walked back towards the border.

Before they’d set out, Toker had explained that while working in Istanbul he’d learned about plans to assassinate Chairman Mao Tse-tung by poison. He was captured to find out how much he knew and whether or not he had informed anyone else. The Soviet plot was intended to point the finger at the CIA and thus throw China into Russia’s arms. ‘Just in case I don’t make it, old boy,’ Toker said.

He was weak from imprisonment, torture and food deprivation. It was a miracle that he’d escaped. Naturally, Swann wondered if Toker had been brainwashed or fed spurious information to cause embarrassment. But the man seemed genuine – and very courageous.

***

At the end of a gruelling two-day trek they crossed into Turkey and Swann sent his radio-message. Two hours later, he set a flare and a short while afterwards the Huey rescue helicopter swooped down towards them. Mission accomplished.

Behind the scenes, the Foreign Office informed the Soviet and Chinese ambassadors about the plan Toker had uncovered. Naturally, the Soviet ambassador strenuously disavowed any plot. Once the Chinese were aware, there was little point in going through with the assassination attempt. Several of Chairman Mao’s entourage disappeared mysteriously in March of that year and Chairman Mao died on 9 September, 1976, apparently of natural causes.

***

This story has been gleaned from certain manuscripts provided by several secret agents who served in International Enterprises, an adjunct to the British Intelligence Service, in the 1970s.

Swann and others are featured in the full-length adventures of psychic spy Tana Standish, beginning with The Prague Papers (Crooked Cat Publishing), published as an e-book on 26 November, 2014.


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'Cold Turkey' was previously published in The New Coastal Press, 2009.
Copyright Nik Morton, 2014.

This story was originally written in response to the writers' circle theme 'turkey'...

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