Welcome to Smooth Resolutions - ‘Leading International Provider of Protective Security Services, Consultancy and Risk-Assessment.’ The ‘Bodge-it and Scarper’ of the private mercenary trade. In liberated Iraq right now, security’s the desert’s biggest paydirt after oil, and anyone willing to put their life on the table for a pile of Occupation chips can get a contract and a license to operate.
And that, in a nutshell, was my in. After a never-ending season of spiked stories and crass editorial venality I was all but washed up as a hack. Then a pal of mine, just back from an embed in Basra, suggests I get into the mercenary scene and write an exposé on the whole rampant blood-soaked jamboree. This is 2004, the height of the private military gold rush.
Worming my way in without military creds was not difficult. The HR recruiter stifled a snigger as he handed me a plane ticket and a thick wad of disclaimers. Next flight out of RAF Brize Norton. Congratulations: you made the grade as gun for hire.
The only people I’d ever shot were wearing Prada and smiles even more expensive. But, fake it till you make it.
Gunplay used to be invite-only round here, but the liberation created a level playing field. The only cap on free expression now is the price of hardware and the speed of your delivery. Militia groups and rival tribes fight the occupying forces and each other. Criminal gangs roam free, and every Coalition outrage bolsters support for the religious nuts who know a good thing when they see it. Suicide bombs and IEDs claim scores of innocent lives every month—in short, everyone’s making hay. School’s out.
As the military plane corkscrewed down to the BIAP (Baghdad International Airport) runway I felt my optimism chug away like smoke from a shot-up engine. Instincts are best at times. I don’t know why I ever expected an efficient, well-equipped operation with professional staff, armoured vehicles and adequate weaponry, but I got soft-skinned pickup trucks, locally made Kalashnikovs—and morons. Those copy guns are kind of 50-50, in terms of who gets hurt when the trigger’s pulled—the other guy or you. Think a fake Rolex that takes 7.62 ammo. Unsurprisingly, for an outfit with recruiting standards in negative figures, vehicles had no transponders, and comms with coalition forces were—putting it philosophically—occasional. They picked up work because they were around and there was lots of it.
In another bid to shrug prevailing trends, their compound was in Karrada, well outside the Green Zone. They made up for that by endlessly bolstering the concentric fortifications. Every time you pulled in after a mission they’d piled on more and more layers of Hesco, T-barrier, sandbags and razor wire. A laughable attempt to replicate the Green Zone in miniature, better resembling something a bored kid might make on an English beach out of all the fucking litter.
Still. I was in, undercover, and so far no one had figured me for what I was. Missions were a breeze; it turned out all I had to do was ride top-cover on the back of a pickup and blow out the engine block of any vehicle fool enough to get close. Easier than I thought.
I recorded whatever I could on a Digital Voice Recorder with a USB, which I also kept loaded with music files in case anyone got suspicious. As far as anyone was concerned it was just an Mp3 player. Whenever we had a spare moment in the Green Zone I’d upload it in the net cafe and wipe it clear.
It was all going like a dream. Seven weeks into a three-month contract without a hitch, and I’d already got enough to send white liberal UK into paroxysms of righteousness. Everyone was winning.
Collateral damage was far from thin on the ground, true enough. But we had a phrase: Iraq cuts no slack. You get slack—you get cut. Give people the benefit of the doubt and you won’t live to spend your hard-earned. And there’s no point going to pieces over a bit of roadkill when you’ve got to go out and do it all again the next day.
But one particular incident threw up a horrible dilemma, for me personally. Unbelievable but real. One of the other contractors just disappeared out of the blue one day. They’d tumbled him speaking on the phone to a British newspaper and the next day he wasn’t there at breakfast.
‘Where’s Nevis?’ I asked, to that bunch of stone-faced mercs. Eventually one of them just said: ‘Dead.’
Enough said. I couldn’t prove foul play but the subject seemed off-limits in polite society.
So when I dropped my own guard one day, fractionally, you can guess my most immediate thoughts. It was the start of the whole unravelling. A chain of events that affected us all.
We were escorting some investor on a routine trip to the Green Zone that day, so there was just Hargreaves driving, myself on top-cover as usual and the principal in the back. We had a few hours to kill in the Green Zone while the principal shook hands and kissed arse, so I was in the net café, openly jotting some notes. We’d just wiped a scooter off the road and I wanted to get it down while it was fresh. I was sat in a little booth and thought I had privacy. But a prickling sensation in the back of my neck made me turn around. Hargreaves was stood right behind me. He wheeled straight off at my movement, but way too slow.
I froze. There was enough on screen to hang the lot of them—or me for writing it. I was a long way from home. What had he seen? We finished the mission with barely a word between us and the subject wasn’t touched on, even later.
For the next few days I felt like a zombie. Dead hack walking. Eating and sleeping became unnecessary affectations. But fuck all happened. No one said a dicky bird. So eventually, one night when Hargreaves and me were on sentry on the interior gate, I decided I couldn’t stand any more.
‘Look, Hargreaves. I know you read my notes that day and if you deny it I’ve half a mind to just shoot you here and now. I haven’t slept for three fucking days and as far as I can see I might as well be a snowman for all that I’m getting out of this desert alive. Just one thing I don’t get. Why haven’t I been taken for a one-way trip in the pickup? How come I’ve even got this weapon?’
‘Because I haven’t told anyone,’ he replied, eyes darting around.
And it was like his face just crumbled and his shoulders slumped; the whole colossal man seemed to sag like scree rolling down a cliff face.
‘I’m a journo too.’
I let that sink in as the stars strolled indifferently across the desert sky.
‘Myself. Freelance. You?’
The following ten or so minutes of inevitable, garrulous hysteria gradually subsided into a mutual depression. As patrol buddies from the beginning, every outrage of bullet-largesse among the locals we’d witnessed were either his or mine or both. For two freelancers out there on their own dime we’d got jack we could actually report.
After shift that evening we sat in our shared quarters figuring out how we could get split up and reassigned. At least then we’d have notes to swap. We decided a brawl would look best and were considering the best time to enact one when Hargreaves’ mobile phone fell out of his pocket down the back of the couch. He was about to get it when he froze. From down where it fell came that distinctive, rhythmic, ticking noise that computers sometimes make when a mobile phone’s nearby and a text or call comes through. Reaching down he pulled out his phone and something else. A little green circuit board with a battery and two wires.
Eyes like washers, he grabbed my shoulder and shoved a finger to his lips. With the other finger he traced B-U-G on the sofa cushion.
S-U-R-E? -I answered.
He pulled out his pen and pad. Wrote: ‘I’ve used this exact same kind. Infiltrated a bunch of anarchists at the G8 summit years ago.’
The rest of the conversation was in pen. We knew we’d said too much; there was no concealing what we were from whoever was listening in. Fuck knows how long we’d been under suspicion or how many were in on it. But if the rat was alone and we could get to him before he spread word, we might save our necks. There was a bit more than a story at stake here.
We carried on talking like nothing had happened, then Hargreaves got up and went out saying he needed a piss.
The inner sanctum was basically a hangar with two rows of freight containers inside stretching its length—each converted into two-man sleeping compartments. The shitters were the other end of the corridor from our crate so it wasn’t going to set the rat’s alarm bells ringing to see Hargreaves walking down even at that time of night.
We resumed discussing the brawl when he came back. At the same time he wrote: ‘Anderson and Richards both got headphones on. I reckon Anderson. He’s alone, face down on bed with light off. Hunch, really.’
Now, the two biggest plagues on Baghdad’s streets currently are armed gangs and, believe it or not, stray dogs. Similar in many ways, both lurk in the shadows in packs and if just one has a beef with you there’s all hell to pay. Some mornings the only way to get out of the compound is to have a decoy blowing a dog whistle elsewhere.
So I gave Hargreaves the whistle I kept for such eventualities and said I needed a piss myself. Most natural thing in the world—women go together, men contiguously but in rapid succession.
At the nine-second point (Hargreaves had timed it), just as I passed Anderson’s window, Hargreaves blew hard on the dog whistle right into the bug mic. Those bugs degraded the frequency of any sound.
Anderson bucked from his prone position like a slab of sizzling bacon. I was through the door in a heartbeat, sat astride him with a knife to his throat. Hargreaves was right behind, pulling the roller blind down over the window. I ripped the headphones off Anderson’s head and whapped him over the face with them.
‘Anything louder than a fucking mouse fart and I slit you, Anderson,’ I hissed. ‘I’ve got fuck-all to lose. Lie down on that bench.’ Anderson had a bench in his room for doing setups. ‘Face down!’
‘What for?’ said Hargreaves.
‘I’m going to waterboard the fucker,’ I said. I didn’t give a fuck at that point.
So he lies face down and I cable-tie his wrists together and wrap a towel round his head.
‘Right, I need some water.’
‘Well the only taps are in the bogs down the other end. They’ve been dodgy all day though.’
There was nothing in the room but half a bottle of warm Diet Coke so I tipped that over his head.
‘Start talking Anderson! I want to know everything you know, and who else knows.’
Hargreaves just stared. ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ he said.
‘I’m interrogating this fucker using moderate physical pressure,’ I said.
‘Right, yeah. Tipping Coke on his head. Diet Coke at that. Doesn’t get much more moderate…’
Well there wasn’t any more liquid around and he still hadn’t cracked so there was only one thing left. Obviously I hadn’t actually been to the bogs when I said I was going, and what with all the excitement I was bursting anyway.
‘You can’t piss on his head!’ said Hargreaves, catching on.
‘Stop fucking undermining me in front of the prisoner!’ I hissed. He hadn’t a fucking clue at times.
Hargreaves just shook his head and started going through Anderson’s stuff; pulling out drawers, emptying them on the bed.
I started pissing. ‘You freaking fuck!’ yelled Anderson, shaking his head from side to side.
‘Make it easy on yourself Anderson. Tell us what we need to know and all this stops.’
Pretty soon I was all out of piss and still no answers. He was a tough one alright. I picked up my knife, deciding something less moderate was in order.
‘Er, you can probably stop anyway,’ said Hargreaves, holding up a wallet whose contents he’d just finished rifling through. What he’d found told us everything: It was a press card.
The long and the short of it was, Anderson was out there for some small-time, wingnut Yank rag I’d never heard of, on a tip to show how Brit mercenaries were too soft on the towelheads compared to their cousins from over the pond.
We left there in a fucking daze and practically fell over Wilkins in the pitch dark of the corridor. Something clattered in the darkness. It was a camcorder. Fucking hell!
The seed of an absurd idea started to germinate…
We frogmarched him back into Anderson’s room where Anderson was drying his hair after washing the piss and Coke out of his head in the bogs.
As it turned out, Wilkins put my mind at rest about one thing, at least. He was spying but not as a journo, he explained—thank fuck. And not on us either. Apparently some of the lads had called a closed meeting for midnight and he was gathering evidence. There’d been these rumours of mutiny pinging around for weeks but most of us dismissed it as gossip. But this meeting, from what he’d overheard, was all the chief suspects. He was going to film them and take it to the head-shed.
The likely lads were Richards, Jones, Parker and Creedy. They’d bucked Hobbs’ and Kowalski’s leadership in little ways for weeks up till now—pushing more and more—and Wilkins reckoned they were about to make their move.
(Actually, the real power was with Kowalski. Hobbs just got to boss us about on account of being so up Kowalski’s arse he could see out his navel).
Anyway at that point I decided to really tip things in our favour. Things were getting out of hand.
‘Well, we’re with you, Wilkins,’ I said, raising half an eyebrow at Hargreaves and Anderson. ‘But there could be trouble if this thing goes off half-cock. First thing, let’s get to the armoury and disable their weapons, just in case the wheels move faster than we know.’
So we opened up the armoury and put Wilkins on the door outside— ‘in case anyone comes along’. Then I removed the firing pins from every single fucking weapon in there except ours, which we now drew out for the last time.
‘Right,’ I whispered, out of earshot of Wilkins, ‘as far as I’m concerned this has gone far enough. I say we scarper. If those meatheads are planning a takeover bid they’ll be glad to be rid of us. We’ll offer to smooth their path in return for like-for-like. Take a fucking vehicle, bomburst out of here and floor it to BIAP. Anyone who follows gets a mouthful of metal. I could cheerfully shoot any one of those tossers. Especially Hobbs, the brown-nose little cunt.’
Hobbs was a brown-nose little cunt. I’d have had no qualms at all about shooting Hobbs.
‘So why bother with all that?’ said Hargreaves, ‘Now that everyone’s disarmed, why don’t we just fuck straight off?’
‘There’s still the towelhead guards on the outer layers,’ I said. ‘If they get word, we’ll have to fight our way out through them. Besides, Hobbs has definitely got a pistol, a Desert Eagle. Redneck fucking sleeps with it. And I bet he’s not the only one. Best thing’s to make a deal.’
‘Why you lot all tooled up?’ said Wilkins, when we got outside.
‘Why do you think? How d’you think that lot’ll react if they tumble us?’
‘Well, I want my weapon too, then.’
‘No mate, you just concentrate on filming. We’ve got your back.’
Unknown to Wilkins, our plan was to crash the meeting and offer to slot Hobbs and Kowalski for them—and anyone else opposed to their little regime change. Then they could stay and we’d just leave. May sound like taking the long way round the barn but apart from anything else I just wanted to shoot Hobbs.
So we crept through the hangar, skirted the strip of floodlit courtyard and hunkered down outside D block, the hut no one used. On the way I stopped to lift a drain cover and drop the firing pins down into the bottomless dark. Never heard a sound as they fell.
Sure enough, there was light round the edges of the door and voices coming from inside. Anderson knocked softly. Wilkins shot him a look of confused horror. There was a guilty scrabble inside and a voice said ‘One minute—don’t come in!’
I was in no mood for pleasantries so I kicked the door open and fired a few rounds into the ceiling, just so we understood each other’s position.
My gun fell silent as my jaw hit the sheet-steel floor.
Sat at tables (among others) were Richards, Jones, Parker, Creedy, Hobbs and Kowalski. On those tables were cameras, camcorders, voice recorders and laptops. Dirty coffee mugs everywhere and spiral-bound notebooks scattered about with furiously scribbled notes. In shorthand.
Every last bastard in the outfit was a hack of one shade or another.
Oh, Wilkins was Ha’aretz, by the way. He’d have told us when we bumped him, if we’d shown him our own cards.
The dumb silence lasted a good half minute before flipping over completely. Suddenly we were all bickering furiously and trying to establish how such an astral-clusterfuck could ever have come about at all.
‘So… what did ever happen to Nevis?’ I asked.
There was a pause and then Kowalski said, ‘Jones cut his throat.’
‘Well better that than blow the whole fucking show!’ said Jones, looking mortified.
‘Fuck off Jones, you just wanted him off your toes.’ Jones and Nevis were both Guardian, apparently; turned out the higher echelons there had double-booked and sent two hacks to do the job of one. Obviously they couldn’t both get the scoop.
‘Well, he’d have fucking done it to me,’ Jones muttered sullenly.
Just then the ground shook with the sickening jarring sound of a mortar landing way too close for politeness. Then another. And another.
We’d been so busy spying on each other and in-fighting we hadn’t noticed the local guards were getting overrun. This far inside the compound, we’d barely heeded the sounds of distant gunfire. Nothing unusual. Everyone’d just vaguely assumed someone else was keeping in comms with the boys out there.
So the cry goes up: draw weapons and every man to the wall. I’ve never felt stupider than when I had to break the bad news to them. I tell you, if looks could kill…
So, current sitrep: We’ve got three cranky rifles, Hobbs’ pistol, and a couple of kitchen knives. Not a smidgeon of military training among us. We’re under heavy attack this time, not blowing civvy cars off the road from the back of a pickup. There’s a horde of well-drilled Badr Brigade out there and they’re about to breach the last barrier. As for me, no one wants to talk to me. I’ve been sent to Coventry. I don’t even feel like shooting Hobbs any more. Fuck this for a game of soldiers.
© Jim Matthews 2013
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Jim Matthews served four years in the British army before quitting at the end of the 90's to study philosophy and literature at Anglia Ruskin University. Since then he has been occupied with art and writing of various kinds, which have, in the event, taken him to Iraq, Afghanistan and one or two other places like that. He has just signed a contract with Chiasmus Media for his novel, REBRAND.