Bonfire (Hayes Fire, Book 1)

By Mark Arundel

Action & adventure, Thriller

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632
11 mins

Chapter 1

The future is not set, there is no fate but what we make for ourselves.

THE EXECUTION WAS SET to take place at dawn. Viewed from the passenger seat of the Mercedes saloon, a hint of light rimmed the eastern horizon and foretold the inevitable future for the black and empty sky. We were travelling east across the city to witness a firing squad at work. The driver of the Mercedes saloon glanced at me for a second time. He wanted to talk. ‘Have you ever witnessed an execution before, Mr. Hayes?’ he asked. The man’s name was Chase, Benjamin Chase, and his appearance matched precisely his position with the Foreign Office in the diplomatic core as a military attaché especially his hair, which was wavy, but with just enough gel to keep it in check.
A memory flashed into my mind, a memory I had not recalled for many years: It was the first time I had watched a man shot dead. The killing happened in Belfast when I was aged fifteen. Although the man was four years older than I was, he was slower at running, which was unlucky for him. From the sounds behind, I knew they had caught him. Out of sight in the deep shadows, I stopped and then looked back. Perhaps I should have tried to help him, but I just watched... in silence. There were four of them. They beat him with wooden clubs. He tried to fight back, but he was never going to win. The concrete was wet with rainwater and it splashed when he fell. I remember he bravely lifted his head. From behind, the man stepped forward and then raised the pistol using two straight arms. He held the gun close and still. Without a suppressor, the noise was loud, very loud. He fired only once.
When a bullet enters a skull, two things always happen: the impact forces the head to move unnaturally, and the person drops. It is a sight not easily forgotten. You never forget your first time. Whoever said those words was right. People associate the remark with sex, but I can assure them it applies just as well to seeing a man shot dead. I pushed away the memory and looked at the illuminated dial on my wristwatch.
‘What time is sunrise?’ I said.
‘Sunrise,’ Benjamin Chase echoed. ‘All rather theatrical don’t you think? Although, I suppose, dawn is traditionally the time to carry out an execution.’ He leant forward and looked up through the windscreen. The eastern skyline had a pink blush like a teenage bride. ‘Officially, sunrise is four minutes past eight, but they’re bound to be late.’ He glanced at me again and when all I gave him in return was silence he said, ‘Is this your first trip to Libya?’
‘No, I was here a few years ago,’ I said.
‘Oh, were you, really, whereabouts?’ He sounded as if he was asking where I had stayed for an annual vacation.
‘Here and there,’ I said, ‘but mostly in the desert.’ He turned his head.
‘...the desert,’ he repeated. He wanted to ask me more but decided not to. Instead, he blasted the horn at a truck that had cut across him. ‘The standard of driving in Tripoli is awful,’ he said. There was a pause and then he said, ‘It’s not much further. Do you have your passport?’
The security checkpoint consisted of a sentry box and a barrier. It was never going to trouble the one that was once infamous in Berlin. Benjamin Chase rolled the Mercedes to a stop and lowered the window. The elevated spotlights illuminated the iron gates inside the high wall. One of the spotlights glared on the windscreen and lit up the Mercedes like a pantomime dame.
Unhurriedly, a uniformed guard approached and then leant in. Over his shoulder, he carried an assault rifle. It was a Russian-made AKM [AKM: Avtomat Kalashnikova Modernizirovanniy]. My view was not good enough to tell which particular version of the AK-47 upgrade it was. Chase spoke to him in Arabic and then passed him a folded piece of paper, which had appeared with the sleight of hand normally the preserve of street magicians. ‘Give me your passport,’ he said. I passed it to him with considerably less dexterity. He put it together with his own and then held them out for the guard to take.
The proud owner of the AKM studied the letter and then the passports. He looked in at me without speaking. The peak of his cap shielded his eyes, so all I saw was a big nose jutting from the shadow. In Arabic, he gave instructions to Chase before he returned the letter and the passports. He turned away and then shouted to the guard in the sentry box who operated the barrier. Hi-tech it was not.
The gates opened and Chase drove us through. We entered a large compound with buildings on two sides. The high wall extended beyond the gates and joined with the buildings to enclose the whole perimeter. Above the central structure was a small lookout tower with a stationed guard who controlled a spotlight and could see the surrounding area. When I saw him, I thought he looked an easy target for a sniper. The place reminded me of a concrete Wild West fort.
Chase parked near to the main building alongside the other vehicles opposite the entrance. ‘The name of our contact is Wahbi Muntasser,’ he said. ‘He’s the man in charge here today.’
Outside the Mercedes, the predawn air held a chill that was common after a clear night in January. Although Libya is an African country, Tripoli, the capital city, is on the northern coast. Where we stood was only a minute or two away from the Mediterranean Sea.
Chase buttoned his jacket. ‘Do you think the still, cold air adds to the drama?’ he asked and then grinned. He was nervous.
We walked over and he tried the door, but the guards inside had it locked. Using the inside of my fist, I banged hard. The sound was loud. It quickly brought a man who opened up. In Arabic, Chase explained who we were and asked to see Wahbi Muntasser. Despite only knowing a handful of Arabic words, it was easy for me to know what Chase was saying. What else would he be saying?
Inside, we waited. There were plastic seats and an inbuilt wooden desk. Above our heads, the strip lighting gave out a disheartening yellow glow. Like all police stations, it had the lingering smell of fear.
Wahbi Muntasser kept us waiting. When he arrived, his greeting was friendly. The broad smile and solid handshake were welcoming. I wondered whether he, too, was nervous.
He spoke English. Although, at first his thick accent had me fooled until my ears became accustomed to his distinctive articulation and creative syntax. Unfortunately, subtitles were not available.
We followed him into an office. He closed the door. ‘Sit, sit,’ he said. ‘Can I give you coffee?’ We both nodded. In Libya when offered tea or coffee it is considered impolite to refuse. Wahbi Muntasser poured the black liquid from a glass jug into white mugs and then handed them to us. ‘Nescafe,’ he said. The coffee was fresh and tasted good.
‘No other European country asks what you ask,’ our host said. Whether he considered this statement good or bad was impossible to tell. Chase and I waited. ‘You ask to see,’ he said and then smiled. It was good. Chase smiled back. ‘Perhaps you make sure we do it right,’ Muntasser said and then laughed. A laugh that came from his throat, but never touched his eyes. I drank some more of the first-rate coffee and looked at my wristwatch. ‘You agree he should die. Not all counties are the same. Some say we should send him home like a bad boy and say to him, “do not do it again”.’ Wahbi Muntasser made a disparaging sound with his tongue and frowned with annoyance at the thought of such a preposterous notion. He, also, looked at his wristwatch. ‘It is soon time,’ he said. ‘Come with me. Yes, bring your coffee.’ His English was improving rapidly, which made him easier to understand. As to whether that was a good thing I was undecided.
We followed Muntasser along a sparse corridor to the east side of the building. An outside door led us onto a wooden veranda with a slatted canopy of woven reeds. The sky had lightened further and a line of flying geese showed black against the bleached horizon. ‘Sit, sit,’ he said and pointed at the table and chairs. ‘Drink you coffee and enjoy the sunrise. I will soon return.’
Once Wahbi Muntasser had left us, Chase said, ‘I suppose we just sit and wait.’ His nervousness had worsened. We both sat. I drank the coffee and watched the flying geese. My companion fidgeted. The coffee inside his mug remained untouched. In respect of watching an execution or someone shooting a man dead, it seemed likely this was Benjamin Chase’s first time. I wondered why London had chosen him. He spoke Arabic and he was the man on the ground. They were the only two reasons I could think of.
As the geese disappeared from view, the cloudless eastern sky lightened with “Canute” inevitability. Wahbi Muntasser returned. ‘We are ready,’ he said. ‘It is time.’ I checked my wristwatch. The time was four minutes past eight. Chase and I stood up and walked to the front of the veranda. The sun’s rim peeked above the eastern horizon. Muntasser stood ahead of us on the ground and we each watched as two guards brought out the condemned man. His name was Moha Hassan al-Barouni and he was aged just nineteen. He came from a city called Zawiya, situated on the coastline, only twenty-eight miles west of where we stood. The crime for which the Tripoli court had sentenced the nineteen-year-old Moha Hassan al-Barouni to death was “treason” or more precisely “armed resistance to the state”.
His head was bare. Black, wavy hair contrasted against an ashen face. With his hands and feet bound, the two guards dragged his frightened, lean body to the wooden post beside the wall.
Chase watched and shivered. ‘It’s cold,’ he said. The nineteen-year-old Moha Hassan wore a loose, thin white shirt. If anyone that morning had the right to shiver, it was Moha Hassan al-Barouni.
The two guards turned him around and pushed his body back against the post while a third guard secured his neck and legs using two lengths of rope.
As the three guards stepped away I noticed a further four guards had appeared. They each carried an AKM rifle like the one I had seen the guard carrying earlier at the checkpoint. This time I had a clear view of the weapon. It was the most common variant of the AKM, the AKMS. The “S” stands for the Russian word “skladnoy”, which means, “folding”. The rifle has a metal stock with a folding mechanism instead of the usual fixed wooden stock. Folding metal stocks or not, four close range AK-47s fired at the tethered Moha Hassan and the outcome was not in doubt.
Wahbi Muntasser took a black square of material from his pocket. Moha Hassan turned his head towards the movement. In the young man’s eyes, I saw abject fear. Using one hand, Muntasser shook out the black material. It was a hood. He walked over to the frightened teenager and without speaking, placed the black hood over the head of the nineteen-year-old. The young man emitted a pitiful cry.
Next to me, Chase shivered again. Muntasser walked back and the four AKMS carrying guards stepped up. Muntasser turned to them and stopped. A deathly silence fell on the courtyard.
It was at that moment I heard the faint whine over my head of a passing bullet. I looked up. In the watchtower, I heard the dim thud of what sounded like a striking rubber bullet and saw the guard drop. Then the first explosion happened. The thunderous blast came from the west side of the compound. It shook the ground and the wooden veranda on which Chase and I stood as if it was an earthquake. Before anybody could react, there followed a second explosion.
To me it was unmistakable. I had caused the exact same explosion myself many times. It was a detonating stun grenade. The device had gone off behind the corner of the building closest to the guards. Muntasser was standing between the guards, Chase and me. Partially shielded as I was not all of the debilitating power from the intense flash and deafening noise affected me. Certain as I was that a second stun grenade explosion would follow, I immediately closed my eyes, put my fingers in my ears and turned away. My prediction was right. The blinding, deafening blast came without a seconds delay. This time it felt closer. I held my protective position in case there was a third.
To anyone who had never experienced a detonating stun grenade my defensive actions may have seemed overdone. They were not. Complete respect for the device is fully justified. Something that Muntasser, the guards and Chase had now discovered. All of them were experiencing temporary blindness and loss of balance due to over stimulated photoreceptor cells and disturbed inner ear fluid.
My ears sounded like they were underwater and my vision resembled a firework display, but in comparison to them, I was like the “butcher’s dog”.
Two baton-sized metal cylinders simultaneously landed on the ground ahead of me. One was close to the building and the other was near Moha Hassan. Immediately, both canisters began to release a rush of dense smoke that rapidly engulfed the courtyard. It was then I saw the first man.
He ran through the growing smog with an assault rifle over his shoulder and a combat knife in his hand. A keffiyeh covered his head and face so that only his eyes were visible and he wore a djellaba robe like a Berber-Arab.
The man reached Moha Hassan and using the knife cut the ropes that held him to the post. It was then I saw the second man. He appeared in the smoke close to the guards. From his movement, I could tell he was providing cover for the first man. He, too, wore a keffiyeh and djellaba and only his eyes, too, were visible. In his hands, he held an LMG [LMG: light machine gun]. It was an FN Minimi, which is probably the most widely used make of LMG. To pin down or eliminate enemy combatants with active, rapid fire from the hip the flawlessly designed weapon is perfect. I was pleased to see the man was not using his FN Minimi at that time for its specialised purpose. However, should the need arise I felt certain he would not hesitate to do so.
Freed from the post, Moha Hassan appeared shaky. His rescuer pulled off the black hood and despite the thick smoke, I saw an expression of miraculous relief on the teenager’s face. It was the look of reprieve for a condemned man who had been only seconds away from death. His saviour led him hurriedly westward beyond the man providing cover with the LMG. He, too, then withdrew and disappeared inside the screen of dense smoke.
It was then that I moved. My eyes and ears had barely improved, but I found my balance was good enough to keep me upright while I ran.
Leaving behind the prostrate Benjamin Chase I leapt from the veranda and ran past the seated Wahbi Muntasser who rubbed his eyes like a man worried he may never see again, to where the firing squad guards were scattered like toy soldiers in an impromptu game of skittles. The blasts from the stun grenades had taken them down and I saw a dark patch of ground scorched by the heat from one of the explosions. Beside the seared earth was an AKMS that a guard had dropped. I picked it up, turned westward and ran through the smoke.
I came out into the fresh air blown clean by the dawn breeze to see the rubble of smashed blocks and masonry and a hole in the compound wall. Passing through the hole were the two armed, Arab-dressed men and Moha Hassan. I ran after them. Through the hole, waiting for them was a transit van with a man already seated behind the steering wheel.
Moha Hassan was still unsteady on his feet. Stepping through the hole, he stumbled and fell. The man carrying the LMG stopped to help him. This gave me the vital seconds I needed. Still sprinting I lifted the AKMS assault rifle and using the sense of touch checked it was ready to fire and then raised it to my chest.
The man who had cut the rope was already getting into the van. I could hear the driver revving the engine in preparation of their getaway. The second man holding the LMG used his free hand to lift the shaky Moha Hassan and shove him towards the open van door. I aimed on the run. The man looked at me. Then I fired. The assault rifle barked, but in my hands, the recoil felt light. The man leapt at me. I had reached the hole. I fired again, and again the recoil was light. I realised the AKMS magazine was loaded with blanks. The man laughed. The keffiyeh muffled the sound, but he was clearly laughing. With the LMG held by his side, he raised his free hand and cuffed me on the side of the head. Then he turned away and hurried into the vehicle. The door slammed shut as the driver accelerated away with the wheels spinning for traction on the dry earth. I stood and watched while the dirty Ford van disappeared into the distance.
Behind me, I heard a man’s voice shout out. I turned and looked. It was Wahbi Muntasser. He was walking towards me on shaky legs. ‘Did they get away?’ he asked. He could see that they had. I kept silent. ‘Did you shoot them?’ I lifted the AKMS assault rifle.
‘This rifle is loaded with blanks,’ I said and threw it angrily to the ground.

Rarely had I seen such an unhappy expression as the one I now saw on the face of Wahbi Muntasser. Seated inside the office where earlier he had served us with high-quality coffee the depth of his scowl was impressive. I thought it unlikely that a repeat offer of the coffee was imminent. I could tell from his head movements that the man in charge had not yet recovered from the effects of the stun grenades. His vision may have returned to normal, but his ears were still causing him problems. He tilted his head and probed with a thick index finger.
Benjamin Chase was also suffering from the effects of the “flashbangs”, but worse. He sat very still with his head bowed and face covered by his hands. I wondered whether he might be saying a silent prayer.
As for the firing squad detail, since we moved inside to the office they had made themselves scarce. Before they disappeared none of them had looked fit enough to put the cat out, let alone join a posse and track down the bandits. I suspected that if asked they would have agreed.
Working in diplomacy as a military attaché Chase was politically astute and as a result unlikely to provoke Muntasser by saying anything controversial. In fact, looking at him he was unlikely to say anything at all. I, of course, did not work in diplomacy.
Despite his physical condition, Wahbi Muntasser was a cauldron of bubbling rage. He looked at me from under a deep frown. ‘Why did you not stop them?’ he said.
‘Why was the assault rifle loaded with blanks?’ I said. It was simply an argumentative response, as I already knew the reason. Muntasser sucked in air through pouting lips.
‘Two of the rifles had blanks,’ he said. ‘So the men could say they did not shoot him.’
It was an old firing squad tradition and one that many military organisations still followed. If some of the guns used are loaded with blanks, then the men in the firing squad can all legitimately claim not to have fired the fatal shots. A clear conscience is a wonderful thing.
‘How did they know the execution was taking place here?’ I said. Muntasser widened his eyes and made a pained, grumbling sound in his throat. ‘Who knew you had moved the location from the prison to here, to this police compound?’ His anger simmered and my question remained unanswered.
‘You saw the vehicle,’ he said. ‘What was it?’ That was a long shot. He was never going to find the men that way.
‘It was a dirty van,’ I said. ‘It might have been white or silver. In the bad light and with the flash and the smoke...’ He never let me finish. He waved away my unhelpful answer and moaned again. ‘What happened to the guards at the checkpoint?’ I said. ‘Where were they?’ If the incapacitation of the guard in the lookout tower by a rubber bullet was any indication the checkpoint guards were undoubtedly laid out, too.
Muntasser hollered. He continued to holler until a guard appeared. Then in Arabic, he barked at the man who turned and left with the enthusiasm of someone given orders to shoot his own grandmother.
‘We should be going,’ I said and stood up. It was time for Chase and me to leave. It was pointless for us to stay any longer. I nudged Chase who looked up with an expression that could have won him first prize in a “village idiot” competition. I pulled him onto his feet to help get him moving. Muntasser also stood.
‘How can I contact you, Mr. Hayes?’ he asked. ‘Where are you staying?’
‘The British embassy has all the details,’ I said. ‘Chase, here, is your main contact. You have his number. If you think he can be of any use to you.’ Muntasser looked at Chase and then back at me. His ugly grimace was answer enough.
Outside, the sun had lifted clear of the horizon and its rays felt warm in the cool morning air. Chase and I walked from the building to the parked Mercedes saloon. Chase stumbled.
‘Give me the key,’ I said. ‘I’ll drive.’



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