ROCK Part 2

This is longer than my usual ‘short’ story.  If you haven’t read the earlier part, I really suggest you go to ROCK Part 1.  Otherwise, this one may be a little harder to follow than you’d like!

The scene is the Gibraltar fortress in WW2.  The two Abwehr saboteurs – Ulises Lope Guiomar and Gonzalo Olegario, having killed a US soldier, have just avoided being discovered by the Black Watch corporal ‘Braw Wullie’ McEwen and his simian companion ‘Hairy Wullie’ – a most unusual Barbary macaque.

Renoir and Hairy Wullie
Renoir (left) and a Barbary macaque

Ulises jumped down from the back of the truck. “Thanks, buddy,” he said, already taking on the accent he’d learned in southern California.

With the brisk step he’d adopted, he stepped smartly across the parade ground, carefully not following the Scottish corporal and the monkey. He was startled when a sergeant major from one of the engineering companies shouted at him.

“You there! Soldier! Get your hair cut!” the pompous RSM ordered.

Guiomar stopped in his tracks and saluted perfectly. “Yes sir! Right you are, sir! As soon as I get off duty, sir!”

“See that you do!” The officer gave a curt nod and continued on his way.

Gonzalo Olegario realised he’d been holding his breath as he watched the little exchange. The soldier who’d just come over to buy some oranges looked at him in concern. “Are you okay, mate?” he asked in a voice that might have just left the East End of London.

“Eh? Oh, si. Sorry, senor. I was distracted by one of the apes – no, monkeys they are, si?”Hairy Wullie close

The Londoner laughed. “You’ve been talking to that mad coot McEwen, haven’t you? Don’t worry about the monkeys mate – you get used to ‘em around here. They’re harmless, if you keep an eye on ‘em.”

Ulises had been much less concerned than Gonzalo. He moved and worked with absolute confidence, an air that gave nobody any cause to doubt that he was the GI he presented himself to be.

There were a number of entrances to the tunnel complex in the section of the Rock that he was approaching. He selected one that had a numeral 5 on a small sign mounted on the rock face. A British soldier was guarding the tunnel entrance – a man that Guiomar was confident had not been among his customers and thus would have no chance of recognizing him.

He saluted the guard and said, “Been ordered to HQ”.

The rifleman gave him a wry smile and replied, “You’ve picked the long way, matey. You oughta use Tunnel Number 7. More direct. Take you a good three quarters of a mile or more, this one.”

Guiomar squared his shoulders and offered a practiced smile. “Reckon I need the exercise,” he said.

“Suit yourself, matey,” said the guard and waved him on his way.

As soon as he was well inside past the guard the Spaniard broke into a run. He was remarkably quiet for a man in heavy boots inside a tunnel. He’d spent a lot of time practicing a running style that saw him seemingly glide, rather than slamming his feet to the ground.

Once clear of the daylight streaming in at the entrances, Gibraltar’s tunnel system was a gloomy place. Long stretches of tunnel were only sparsely lit by small bulbs, feebly penetrating the darkness. The holes punched in the limestone had not created high ceilings or wide corridors. In some places groundwater seeped through the stone above and dripped slowly onto the floor.

Guiomar stopped outside a closed door, poorly illuminated by a flickering light. Evidently the wiring to this socket was faulty and the charge wasn’t getting through properly. The Brandenburg smiled, rather like a shark. This was clearly a storeroom of some sort. With luck it would contain something volatile behind the locked door. He reached into his blouse and extracted one of the packages from the special vest. He squeezed and felt a small piece of copper buckle under the pressure of his thumb. He felt more than heard thin glass crack.

It had begun. He had about two hours to finish the job and get well clear. He wedged the first package into a cleft in the rock wall near the door, and then took off along the corridor at a steady pace.

Whenever he heard voices or footsteps either in his tunnel or one of the several that intersected his progress he quit his run, but strode forward at brisk military pace, saluting or nodding sociably as appropriate. Three more times he stopped in quiet, dark, deserted areas of the tunnel. On each occasion he placed one of his packages into a nook or cranny, after first pressing down hard with his thumb on just the right spot.

As he neared a bend he again slowed down, seeing the glow of a brighter patch of light ahead. Ignoring a tunnel that led off to his left, he settled back into his brisk stride as he approached the puddle of light. The man standing under the bulb was one of the Black Watch, and was clearly on guard duty. Guiomar didn’t break stride as he drew near.

Jock Edwards was an amiable man, but he took his duty seriously. “Halt. Who goes there?”

For a moment Ulises considered reaching for his stiletto. He could throw the blade with deadly accuracy, but a guard meant there were likely to be other personnel nearby. He decided to brazen it out. “Got orders to report for duty down here,” he said smartly.

“No’ here ye havenae, pal. No’ withoot ma knowin’ aboot it. Restricted area, this is.”

Guiomar frowned. “Well nobody told me,” he said sourly. “I just go where I’m told.”

‘I’ll tell ye where tae go,’ Edwards thought to himself, but instead asked, “Where is it ye’re meant tae be?”

“Comms Room,” answered the man in the American uniform. Every base had somewhere like that, he reasoned.

“This is the way tae the Command Centre. I’d say it’s the Communications Room ye’re after. Ye’re miles oot. Back the way ye came. Look for tunnel 27 on yuir left. Follow that till ye hit the intersection wi’ Number 9, left again, right ontae Number 12. Stick wi’ that and ye’ll find yer way right.”

The faux GI grunted an evidently sour “Thanks” and went back the way he’d come from.

“Scunner,” muttered Jock to the shoulder blades of the man who was disappearing back around the bend.

With a grim snarl Guiomar knelt in a patch of darkness and set his final package. If he could do damage to the Command Centre he hadn’t known about, that would be an excellent result. If he at least eliminated the guard who’d inconvenienced him he’d get some satisfaction from that thought.

The last charge laid, he retraced his steps as rapidly as possible back to Entrance Number 5.

He brought his pace back down to a rapid walk as he passed the guard on his way back out into the daylight.

“Mission accomplished?” asked the guard, casually.

“Yes,” came the reply. ‘You’ll know soon enough,’ the Brandenburg thought to himself as he strode across the parade ground.

Gonzalo saw him coming. He took a final handful of coins from a customer, gave the soldier a smile and a couple of oranges. “You will be my last for the day, senor,” he called to the approaching Ulises, for the benefit of his departing customer.

Satisfied that no one was watching, Guiomar clambered into the rear of the truck and swiftly changed back into his earlier clothing. The uniform blouse was rolled tightly and stuffed under a crate. Moving smoothly he dropped back to the ground.

Resuming his normal voice, “We should go now, mi amigo,” he said to Gonzalo, who was standing ready to toss two almost-empty crates back onto the vehicle.

The two Brandenburgs made their way casually to the checkpoint. Inspection on the way out tended to be a little more cursory than that upon entry, and so it proved.

“Profitable day?” asked one guard, while another flicked up the canvas to make sure no pieces of equipment had found their way onto the rickety old lorry.

“Oh, si, sargento,” replied Gonzalo with his usual broad grin.

Even Ulises managed a smile as he said, “Si, very successful.”

Olegario restrained himself from accelerating away too obviously. The truck probably wasn’t up to it anyway, but he had no desire to attract attention.

While Ulises Lope Guiomar had been working his way along Tunnel 5, Braw Wullie McEwen had been busily going hither and yon through numerous branches of the rambling network, conveying messages between signal stations and offices, many on behalf of the Navy officer who had commanded the base before Eisenhower’s arrival. It was hardly onerous duty, and he was impressed at how graciously the senior Navy man had accepted Eisenhower’s command. A lesser officer would have bristled, and taken out his annoyance on the men below him. His simian ‘shadow’ ambled placidly along beside him.

McEwen stopped at the sound of running footsteps from the corridor he was approaching. A tall, well-proportioned man in his fifties ran around the corner, his field jacket open and flapping. The corporal stood to attention and snapped off a sharp salute. Hairy Wullie copied his action.

The Commander in Chief of Operation Torch – enjoying the only exercise available to him in the fortress – grinned broadly and returned the salute, slowing only slightly as he passed. Several of his staff rounded the corner, less suitably dressed for running than the General, and followed him like the tail of a comet.

One made up enough ground for Eisenhower to glance over his shoulder and ask him, “Did I just get saluted by a monkey?”

“I think it was one of them Scottish soldiers, sir” puffed the adjutant who hadn’t noticed the smaller figure.

McEwen turned right at the intersecting tunnel, and headed the opposite direction to where the CO and his staff had come from. Just before he turned he waved a greeting in the direction of Jock Edwards, clearly distinguishable as he stood right under one of the tunnels’ newer, brighter light bulbs. The duty guard waved back.

Edwards smiled to himself. The aggravation of the surly lost Yank was made up for by the amusement of seeing the General leading his less fit subordinates on their daily trail, and realizing that they would have just encountered the Watch’s unofficial mascot. (The new Commander had, of necessity, spent most of his time since arrival underground, and was likely to do so for a while yet. This chafed a man who loved the outdoors as Dwight did.)

Braw Wullie rounded a curve, whistling softly as he headed for the small signals room that was his destination, conveying another message on behalf of the Admiral.

Suddenly Hairy Wullie broke from his ambling gait and dashed ahead into the gloom. It was a particularly badly lit stretch of tunnel with too few bulbs. Even the reflection of their flickering light in several puddles didn’t add much to the illumination. The monkey had stopped in one of the darkest parts of the corridor and was hunched over something.

Puzzled, the soldier broke into a trot. “What are ye aboot, lad?” he called to his furry companion.

The macaque was sniffing and biting at a package wrapped in brown paper. He’d plucked it from a cranny in the rock. His attention had been drawn by a scent of oranges too faint for human nostrils, but which stood out like a beacon to an animal nose.

The corporal pulled the parcel from Hairy Wullie’s reluctant paws, and examined it under the miserable light of the nearest bulb.

Explosives were not normally part of the responsibility of the average soldier of the Royal Highland Regiment. William McEwen, though, was not the average soldier. The men who served above, below and beside the Corporal were frequently struck by his breadth of knowledge of unexpected subjects.

“I’m just curious by nature,” he would explain casually.

Curious enough that after The Evacuation, when there was still so much uncertainty about the Battalion’s next deployment, McEwen had made an effort to learn all he could about bombs large and small, and all the bits that could make them go off.

When he took the package from Hairy Wullie’s small hands, and saw what was revealed under the paper that the monkey had torn, he knew precisely what he was looking at.

It was commonly called a ‘timing pencil’. A Number 10 Delay Switch detonator. British made, but it was well known that plenty of them had fallen into enemy hands. He was less sure about the plastic explosive that the detonator was attached to, but common sense indicated that, by the size of the package and where it had been placed, whatever it was would go off with a hell of a bang.

He could tell by its colour that the timing pencil was on a two-hour delay, but it was obviously impossible to know when it had been activated. The detonator cap end of the little device was too well secured in the plastic for him to risk trying to tug it free – the whole thing may well go up in his hands, bringing down roof, walls and God knew how much of the intricate tunnel system.

Muttering colourful curses McEwen ran, clutching the parcel as carefully as a handful of fresh-laid eggs. He skidded to a halt when he spotted a little pool of water reflecting a nearby light bulb. He squatted and held the package fuse side down in the puddle, making sure that the timing device was well immersed.

The water, he knew, would stop the chemical reaction eating at the alloy wire that held the detonator charge in place. The package was still dangerous to handle, but at least it wouldn’t now explode at any tick of the clock.

“I’ll bet good money there’s mair than one o’ these devilish things been put doon here,” the corporal said. He turned to look closely at Hairy Wullie, squatting by his side. He gazed intently into the monkey’s eyes and said, “Find the packages, lad.”

The macaque tilted his head to one side for a moment, as if pondering the instruction then lifted his head and sniffed the tunnel’s dank air. He took a few steps in the direction they’d come from, but then turned quickly and loped on ahead.

McEwen carefully moved the now sodden parcel to the side of the tunnel – he’d come back for it later if all went well, and ran after his furry companion.

The monkey loped on all fours with his nose in the air. At intersections he’d stop, sniff in both directions, then take off on the trail that Guiomar had inadvertently left.

Within minutes, Hairy Wullie had located four more of the bombs. The orange scent they’d acquired called to him like a siren. Three had been dealt with in similar manner to the first – two in sizeable puddles and one in a convenient latrine.

The final device though was a problem. McEwen presumed it to be the last because Hairy Wullie had suddenly lost interest in looking for more. Evidently there was no more scent trail for him to follow.

The problem was that there was simply no water conveniently close. They were still a considerable distance from Entrance Number 5. Braw Wullie feared, or perhaps instinctively knew, that time was running out.

In his mind’s eye he could see the terror of any of his comrades caught under collapsing sections of the Rock. That enraged him considerably more than the potential impact that damage to the strategically crucial base would have on the Allied war effort.

“The spalpeen that planted these will suffer,” he promised Hairy Wullie, bounding along behind him.

Suddenly he saw a stairway cut into the wall of the tunnel. He recognised it as leading up to one of the Rock’s many natural caves – one that opened onto a view over the sea and was used as a convenient natural lookout post. He charged upward and into the cave.

At full speed he ran to the mouth of the small space, shouldering aside the soldiers on duty. One of them had time for the syllable, “Wha-?” before McEwen hurled the package out and away from the lookout post.

His practice in the hammer throw served him well. The mighty heave launched the explosive well clear. It was just starting to descend when the timing pencil did its job.

The blast was impressive, for all that it did no more harm to the Rock than to dislodge a few small stones and limestone dust that cascaded harmlessly.

The two lookouts stared open mouthed at the spot in the sky where the bomb had gone off. Their ears rang. Braw Wullie McEwen had the same problem, so none of the men heard him say, “Noo the man that planted them will get what he deserves.” Hairy Wullie probably didn’t hear it either, his fingers lodged in his ears after the noise of the explosion.

Out in the Campo de Gibraltar, Gonzalo was trundling the lorry around a winding coastal road when the bomb went off. He looked up and around in shock – the timing was about right, but the loud blast did not come from where it was expected. Above and behind them, yes, but over the sea?

The moment of distraction was fatal. The rear wheel of the old truck slipped off the road. The axle cracked, the back of the lorry collapsed and the whole vehicle slid rear-first off the small cliff. It somersaulted once and landed heavily upside down on a scatter of rocks.

Crumpled in a painful heap on the ceiling of the cabin, Ulises made a noise somewhere between a groan and a curse. Opening his eyes he saw Olegario’s legs, and realised the driver had been thrown partially through the windscreen. Clearly Gonzalo was dead.

Guiomar ground his teeth. He had liked his partner, but this was no time for remorse. He had to get out of the ruined truck as quickly as he could.

A scant couple of feet behind him a teetering crate finally fell onto one of the sharp rocks that jutted up through the canvas. In the crate was the sixth bomb – the one that Guiomar had missed when distracted by the two Wullies. That last impact was the final straw for the little alloy wire inside the pencil timer. It snapped, releasing the firing pin of the generator.

Ulises Lope Guiomar had almost levered himself painfully out of the cabin window when the world in front of his eyes exploded. His last split second was one of terror.

Back up at the mouth of the cave, oblivious to the final act of the drama below, Braw Wullie leaned on the parapet wall and explained to the lookout guards, as best he could, what had just happened.

With a heavy sigh he leaned down and scratched the head of Hairy Wullie, sitting quietly at his feet.

“I think ye’ve earned yourself a good ration of fruit, wee lad. Come on – I’ve some in the barracks.”

3 thoughts on “ROCK Part 2

  1. Thanks. I’m gradually building up a body of Dubious Magic short stories to add depth and background to the story arc of the novels, the first of which should be back in print within a few weeks, all being well!

  2. A most enjoyable read. Of course I started out thinking you were recounting a recorded incident. I never was that bright ! Keep up the good work.

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