The Swiss Assassin by Ian McKinley

EXTRACT FOR
The Swiss Assassin

(Ian McKinley)


The Swiss Assassin

2045 - Zimbabwe

 

I first encountered the Franklin girls in Zimbabwe, while it was actually an independent country. Like many African countries, it goes through cycles of stability – when investment pours in to pillage local human and natural resources; destabilisation – when a small number of individuals high up the local totem pole conspire to rip-off the entire cake for themselves; conflict – when international arms dealers and mercenaries take it off them; then collapse – when either they are taken over by a bigger neighbour or warlords go apeshit. Of the last two options, the former often results in the original country re-emerging as a result of local independence pressures, while the latter requires external intervention to reboot the entire process back to national stability. That’s where Thanatos gets involved – which is why I appeared in this particular scene.

After graduation, Mary Jane and Jennifer Miranda Franklin were undecided about whether to move into the rat race of the real world or the lotus-eating existence of post-graduate academia. The twins thus decided for the free holiday in a far-off land provided by volunteer aid work. Unfortunately for them, they were assigned as teachers to Zimbabwe, just as it was rapidly transitioning through the destabilisation-conflict-collapse phases in an unexpectedly rapid manner.

The Franklins arrived at a school for the children of rangers of the Mutirikwi Park, a location that was remote even from the regional centre of Masvingo. Indeed, so remote that the national breakdown free-fall had already become ground-rush before they were fully aware of the risks that they were facing. Over a period of two months, they followed news reports of rebellion over a gradually degrading internet, but it seemed to pose little direct threat to them. The progress of rebel forces towards Harare, supported by Zambia, initially concerned the locals only to the extent that it frightened off tourists, who were now rarely seen in the parks or at the nearby ruins of the city of Great Zimbabwe.

Even after Harare fell and government-paid salaries vanished along with all support services, the war seemed to be distant. The collapse of both the army and the police force removed all barriers to the rebels, however; within a week the pillage of Masvingo commenced. Typically, the rebel forces had now fragmented and individual warlords were carving out their own particular fiefdoms. Southern Zimbabwe was now under the control of the most brutal of these, a man called Jason Twalla.

***

Even before this particular conflict, Jason Twalla had been identified by Thanatos as a concern. Born in Harare to a local businessman and the British woman that he married, he was brought to the UK as a child, when the excesses of the Mugabe regime at the turn of the century started the country’s slide into economic chaos. Twalla senior had seen the writing on the wall and diversified his interests outside of Zimbabwe, positioning himself well to act as an interface between the opportunists of the City of London and the expanding mineral and tourism markets throughout the African continent.

Jason received a private school education and obtained a first in politics from Oxford, while rising through the ranks of the university officers’ training corps. To his father’s evident surprise, he then joined the army and was fast-tracked from Sandhurst to command of an army combat unit in the Middle East and then to the SAS. His military record showed well the reasons for his rapid advance through the ranks – high intelligence, great fitness and utter ruthlessness. He thrived in combat, which was summed up in a report by a commanding officer: completely at home in high-risk situations and has a particular aptitude for wet work. Just as well he’s in the Regiment – otherwise would probably end up a serial killer!

Even the SAS was too tame for Jason, however, leading him to resign after four years and move to Africa to work as a mercenary in a range of local conflicts. Here the truth of his CO’s appraisal became clear as he built a reputation for gratuitous brutality. Nevertheless, this was Africa, where such brutality was expected. His military experience, combined with political nous, moved him towards his long-term goal of carving out a little kingdom for himself in the country that had thrown his family out – Zimbabwe.

Brutal conflict during a civil war would not, in itself, warrant our intervention. Jason’s reputation was, however, at the extreme end of what was tolerable and rumours were growing of atrocities that would clearly be classified as war crimes. Twalla was an intelligent man and, in contrast to some of the other warlords, knew well what it would take to allow Thanatos to be let loose. Thus, he was careful to ensure that we never obtained the hard evidence that we needed to allow us to take action. The trail of bodies in his wake showed the results of violent rape and sadistic torture, but he was careful to leave no witnesses alive and assure that his accomplices remained completely tight-lipped.

As Africa coordinator, I had Jason on my list of top five potential targets. In his particular case, the absence of any other evidence meant that I had to take a more active approach, getting micro-drones into place to provide a record clear enough to allow me to take action. This was proving to be far from easy: his SAS background gave him a very good overview of the tools that we had at our disposal and he made sure that he had counter-measures to hand whenever he and his troops went off the rails. Finding fried drones at the locations of atrocities was evidence of sorts, but too circumstantial to provide the support that I needed.

After he established the capital of his new empire in Masvingo, Jason had to build up the finances needed to support it. Initial funding from Zambia was drying up and needed to be replaced by taxes from his new subjects. The major source of income would come from selling rights to local resources to the multinational vultures who were already lining up to feed on the carcass of this vanquished land. In the interim, foreigners captured during his campaign were a more immediate source of revenue, as they could be ransomed to their home governments or their relatives. He also needed to build the foundations for a long-term regime, maintaining the support of his blood-thirsty soldiers and assuring sufficient fear by the general populace to prevent any thoughts of revolt. Thus, when he came to hear about a couple of British women teaching in the middle of nowhere, he decided that he could kill two birds with one stone.

***

By the time that they came to Jason’s attention, the twins had finally realised that they were in a perilous position and started to make plans to escape. The fundamental problem was that, even if they could get a hold of a vehicle, all roads were blocked by checkpoints and, given their obvious ethnicity, they would inevitable be taken captive. On foot, the distance to the nearest national border was the biggest challenge, together with the likelihood that key bridges and settlements en route would be controlled by the occupying army.

A call to the UK government for help was the most obvious solution, but the local cell-phone network had been poor when they first arrived and non-existent since the fall of Harare. Undeterred, they appealed to the parents of their pupils for help and accumulated a collection of old radios from storerooms in the various ranger stations.  After a week of trial and failure, reviving ancient satellite radios and hooking them up to equally geriatric satellite TV dishes, they finally managed to make contact with a ham radio enthusiast in Pretoria, who linked them up with the British Embassy in South Africa.

The Embassy supplied them with platitudes and vague promises of assistance when resources became available, but also informed Thanatos of the situation. That was when I finally had a chance to act.

***

My first thoughts when I heard about the Franklin girls focused on getting the evidence that we needed in order to intervene. The twins and the school fit the profile of locations of past atrocities. If he followed precedent, Twalla and his cronies would rape the European women and then confine them for transport back to his base while his troops rounded up the villagers and murdered them en masse. Women, girls and probably some boys, babies and young men would be brutally raped – before, after or while they were murdered. This was not loss of control, but deliberately planned in order to forge links of absolute evil that bound the soldiers and ensured their loyalty. Although there would be no hard evidence, all details would be spread by word of mouth, providing a clear message to his subjugated population of the consequences of opposing him.

Having prior links to a likely target was the first sign of progress in this case, so I mobilised all locally available resources to get stealthed drones into place. I was also able to borrow a few channels on a CIA spy satellite in order to set up direct communication links while the drones were en route. My first contact with Mary Jane was thus over a low-res vid-link that dropped out every couple of minutes. Regardless, she came over as cool and calm, despite being well aware of how precarious her situation was.

“Can you hide away for the next day or two?” I asked after I had explained what she had to expect from Jason and his army of psychopaths.

“Too late,” she responded immediately. “The village is surrounded and they have already begun to herd the locals into the playground in front of the school building.”

“Well, can you set up a camera to cover that playground, something that wouldn’t be obvious? If so, you’ll need to put it in a Faraday Cage: that’s a

“I know what a Faraday Cage is,” she cut in grimly. “You think he’ll use an EM burst before he gets started?”

“Always has done in the past,” I replied, “which is why we have no evidence that he is personally responsible for these actions.”

“Can’t we do something for the villagers?” For the first time I could detect fear in her voice.

“I can’t do anything at all until I have unambiguous evidence of a war crime. I can try to get ready to move as soon as you can get that video to me, but you’ll need to remove the Faraday Cage before that can happen.”

Suddenly it was Jennifer on the line, but the connection was so poor that I didn’t even notice the transition. “Okeydokey, I think we can get something sussed out here. How much time do we have?”

“From what we’ve been able to work out from battlefield forensics, he’ll round up the villagers first, to ensure that there’re no witnesses. He’ll group them closely together, then use an EMP, an electro-magnetic pulse, to take out any electronic monitoring, cell-phones, drones, whatever. In cases where anyone present can be ransomed, they’ll then be taken off; the women will be raped and men beaten up – maybe also raped if they’re young enough. After any hostages are clear, the massacre will begin; sometime after sunset to minimise the chance of spy satellite video. They’ll take their time with that – but it’ll be done within a few hours.”

“Is there any way of stopping the killing? Can you get here faster?”

“I’m in the air as we speak, heading for an air force base in Mozambique that the Brits are using for Zimbabwe evacuations. However, our drones will get to you well before I do and, if they can extract evidence from your camera after the Faraday Cage has been removed, I’ll have my committee standing by to authorise a rapid response.”

“But will that stop the killing?” I was suddenly aware that this was not someone that I could calm down with arm-waving and wishful thinking.

“I’m afraid not,” I confessed. “We’d need video from the beginning of the massacre to have any chance of that and I can’t get drones there fast enough if they have to stay stealthed.”

 There were about five minutes of silence and I began to wonder if I had lost the link. Then the sisters were back, huddled together in front of the cell-phone camera. “If we can give you video from immediately after the burster goes off, what can you do?”

“I’m not sure how you could do that. Anyway, in that case, I can use supersonic attack drones to gas the entire area. A fast-acting anaesthetic will stop anything going on, with, I hope, minimal collateral damage. It won’t help you though, as you’ll probably be clear of the vicinity by then. Finding you will be tricky, especially if Jason’s hand goes from the helm and his soldiers lose the control of all of their top commanders at once. You’re going to be in a lot of danger then.”

“Couldn’t you use the GPS from one of our phones to locate us?

“Nice idea but, first of all, they’ll be fried by the EM pulse and, even if not, there’s no way Twalla will let you keep a phone with you. After being raped, you’ll probably be moved and held captive naked. Demoralising, in addition to being typical of the man’s inherently evil nature.”

To my amazement, the young women merely exchanged a glance and continued, apparently unperturbed by these horrors. “Assume that we can do it and that you’ll have both video and our GPS immediately after the EM burst. What can you do?”

“I’ll be in Mozambique by sundown and our drones there will be fully prepped and at the edge of Zimbabwean airspace by then. We should be able to shut down action in your village about thirty minutes later and I’ll try to pick you up as soon as I can after that. Depends where you are though; I can’t promise anything specific at the moment.”

A synchronous shrug of their shoulders. “I guess we should get everything ready then.”

“Apart from the camera, I’m not sure what I can suggest.” Despite my attempt to control it, I could sense a sense of impotence seeping into my voice.

A wry grin was exchanged. “Well, we have a few ideas. First liberal application of Vaseline to target orifices and then laxatives and some cow’s blood if we can find it. We may not be able to stop them raping us, but we can reduce our pain and make it as unpleasant for them as possible.”

I had no response to that, but resolved to do everything possible to save this incredibly plucky pair.

***

To my disappointment, when I arrived at the very basic Mozambique air force emergency landing strip, the entire place was crawling with Yanks. I know that British and EU overseas military resources aren’t what they once were, but this is rather pathetic. Nevertheless, the Americans had been updated on the situation from Geneva and seemed happy to help in any way possible. They have all the best hardware without a doubt, which could help considerably, but also SEALs to provide ground support. Of all of the elite forces that I’ve worked with, SEALs are the least consistent in terms of professionalism. Some are good, maybe Delta standard, while others are little better than psychopathic yahoos. Lack of any clear external control tends to do that. In any case, there’s a serious risk that going up against a group led by an ex-SAS officer could bring out the worst of inter-force rivalry. That I really do not need!

To my amazement the Franklin girls were as good as their word. Just before sunset, a video signal was picked up by our spy satellite and displayed in the portacabin that the Americans had decked out as a state-of-the-art command centre. I leaned forward towards the screen showing about fifty villagers crammed into the corner of what appeared to be a primitive school gymnasium. Rebel soldiers in a ragtag mixture of different uniform components but, in all cases, with orange armbands, had tied up all the men and older boys and started to drag them into a line against one wall of the building.

Three of the soldiers stood together and were clearly distinguished from the others in terms of both their clean, starched, khaki uniforms and their postures, which radiated command and self-confidence. Despite the low resolution of the image, I was fairly sure that the tallest of the three was Jason Twalla and the other pair his most trusted lieutenants. I grimace when I noted that all three were gesticulating at their captives with huge machetes. “Fucking Africa!” I groaned under my breath. Anywhere else it’d be a case of gunning down the enemy, here they liked to get up close and personal with large, razor-sharp blades.

I set up the link to copy these images to Geneva and New York, where the Thanatos Executive and the UN Oversight Committee would give the okay for action in response to unequivocal evidence of a war crime. The communications officer had now taken remote control of the smartphone feed and was able to zoom in just as Jason lifted a boy about fifteen years old by his hair, turning him towards a man that I guessed would be his father, before expertly disembowelling the lad with a single slice of his blade. We had no sound, but the rebel commander was laughing while he ensured that the blood and guts fell over the screaming man. By the time that about a dozen victims had been brutally slain, we had a go and the drones were streaking towards their target.

I checked on the GPS signal from the Franklin twins, which was displayed on a large-screen monitor. They had started to move just before the massacre commenced and were following a road heading towards Masvingo. The trace was moving at about 50 km/h, which was probably reasonable for a car on the poor quality roads in that area. The hostages were being taken back to base with no particular rush.

There was a clear conflict here. I should go with the team that would follow the drones and secure the murder site. There I could carry out the executions of the three ringleaders and anyone else identified from the videos as actively participating in the slaughter. Nevertheless, I had promised the girls to get them out and was painfully aware that, without their courage and cleverness, I would never have been able to nail down these bastards so quickly.

I would have to use a bit of fancy footwork to talk my way around it, but my decision was quickly made. I confirmed plan B to a rather bemused SEAL group leader and he immediately set off with his team towards the school, with a load of my drones accompanying them in the holds of their fast-attack helicopters. I then raced off to the VTOL troop transporter containing the hostage extraction team.