Sergeant Martin McDowell was not pleased. He just got off the phone with the Chief Superintendent’s office. They had given him explicit instructions on how to accommodate two MI5 agents who would arrive at his office shortly.
There goes my lunchtime, he thought. Lunchtime in his terms meant the time between midnight and 1:00 a.m. His shift started at 8:00 p.m. He had been with the Belfast Harbour Police for eight years and contacts with Britain’s secret services were nothing new to him. He hated their arrogance, and how they made abundantly clear that he was only an unsophisticated police officer, a servant for their purposes, and quite unable to fathom the magnitude of their work. After all, Belfast Harbour was his domain, and they would not know how to find any vessel to inspect if it were not for the Harbour Police.
A quick bite from the salami sandwich and a sip from his cup of tea was all he could manage. Then he saw the door open and two men in civilian clothes entered his office and approached him without further ado.
“Good evening, I am Lieutenant Barrett,” said the man in front of him. He nodded toward his colleague.
“This is Second Lieutenant Hughes. It is our task to inspect all vessels leaving the Port of Belfast en route to the North American continent, and we need your assistance identifying those in your jurisdiction and locating them.”
I know that already, McDowell thought irritably. That was exactly what the Chief Superintendent’s office had told him, and instructions had already been given to hold the departure of all ships leaving Belfast Harbour until all crewmembers and passengers had passed an additional identity check.
“Those’re a lot of ships,” McDowell told them, still chewing his sandwich.
“This is not a drill, Sergeant. This is a matter of National security,” Barrett responded harshly. “I demand your full cooperation.”
“All right, all right,” Mc Dowell answered, holding up both hands. “Hold your fire. I am not the enemy here. Let’s see what we have.”
After wiping his mouth and hands he turned to the computer desk, typed some keys, and studied the information on the screen.
“The first ship on the list is the ‘Isabelle Sanchez’ leaving for Quebec City,” he said after a few moments. “Registered in Guatemala. Cargo is woodcutting machinery bound to Northern Canada. It is a small ship – I mean, in comparison to the large container ships. She’ll make it easily through the Saint Lawrence River.”
“Guatemala, huh?” asked Hughes, but McDowell only shrugged his shoulders.
That’s just the way it is, you prick, he thought.
“If you don’t mind, we will use my official Harbour Police vehicle,” he said instead. “That way I don’t have to explain the route to you.”
“As a matter of fact, we do mind,” Lieutenant Barrett responded. There was still no noticeable sympathy in his voice. “We will follow you in our own vehicle.”
Have it your way, McDowell thought. He proceeded to print out a list of ships they would need to inspect, verified the dock information for the Isabelle Sanchez, and the three of them went down the stairs toward the Harbour Police parking zone.
The drive took several minutes, and they parked both cars in front of the gangway leading to the Isabelle Sanchez.
“The captain is a Scotsman and the first mate is Irish,” he informed them as they walked up the gangway. “The rest of the men in the crew, six overall, are from the Philippines.”
The two agents had to admit that McDowell knew his job. He knew his way around the ship, and he showed them quickly to the bridge where they met the captain, Sean McKibben, a man in his late sixties.
McKibben, in his washed-out blue jeans, snakeskin cowboy boots, and dark green flannel shirt, did not match the popular conception of the commander of a trading ship the size of the Isabelle Sanchez. Despite his unusual appearance and eccentric behavior, he was, in fact, a highly capable captain. Nobody would be able to match his vast experience, and his superiors did everything in their power to entertain his oddities. Ultimately, they hoped they could keep him away from any thoughts of retirement as long as possible.
He, just like McDowell, was not pleased with the late night disturbance, and he was eager to get it all over with as soon as possible. If he could manage to leave before the next low tide set in, he would be able to compensate for the delay. Otherwise he would have to notify headquarters, and that had never been a pleasant experience.
“Hey, Sean,” McDowell called out to him. “Sorry for the hold-up.”
McKibben nodded but didn’t say a word. There was no use arguing with the local authorities. He looked suspiciously at the two agents as McDowell pointed to them.
“These two gentlemen here,” he said, “will check the papers again, and they will need proper identification for all crew members.”
“We will also need to inspect the ship,” Barrett added. “A K-9 unit is on the way and will arrive shortly.”
McDowell was surprised for a moment but didn’t respond. He gestured to the captain to be quiet. Resistance is futile, he, the devoted Start-Trek fan, tried to signal, and somehow the captain understood.
Curious and alarmed by the unusual commotion on the ship, another man entered the bridge from the opposite side and stopped abruptly to look at the unexpected scenario. McDowell was amused to see that both MI5 agents, trained so well to deal with the unexpected, looked intimidated by the six-foot-seven giant with his broad shoulders, baggy eyes as a result of many long nights of drinking, gray hair down to his shoulders, and a gray beard reaching his trousers.
“Hey, Ian,” he called out to the first mate. He knew how to handle the sailors and defuse the potential of an unpleasant confrontation.
“Thought, you were going into retirement.”
“This’s gonna be the last trip, Martin,” the man answered with a raspy voice while glaring at the intruders. He looked like he might draw a large machete knife from behind his back and attack what he truly considered his enemies.
“That’s what you said the last time,” McDowell laughed. “I’ll believe it when I see it.”
The K-9 unit arrived a few minutes later, and the hour-long search revealed nothing out of the ordinary. All papers were in order, and the captain received the authorization to leave the harbor. Very soon, preparations for the departure were in full gear even though the gangway was still connected to the ship and the dock.
“Sir,” McDowell, paging through his printouts, said to Lieutenant Barrett. “Next ship on the list is…”
“The next ship will have to wait, Sergeant,” Barrett interrupted him sharply. “Please proceed back to your office and wait for us. We will meet you there in about thirty minutes.”
Well, fuck you very much, McDowell thought. Without a word he entered his car, and, shortly thereafter, he took off.
The two agents who still stood on the dock next to the gangway watched his abrupt departure as they lit their cigarettes.
After a quiet moment, Barrett turned to Hughes.
“Hey, Roddy,” he said to him. “Why don’t you go and take a really long piss? I don’t want you to get involved. If something goes wrong, I will take the heat.”
“Are you sure about this, Geoff?” his partner responded. “I mean, is he really worth taking such a risk?”
Barrett took another deep drag from his cigarette and took his time to release the smoke from his lungs.
“I owe him, Roddy. I owe him big time. He saved my life in Afghanistan, and believe me, that was a real eye-opener. I cannot tell you how much I enjoy my wife and kids these days.”
He took another drag and continued. “Besides, it is time to get rid of that fool Spencer. He is nothing but a burden and embarrassment to the service. Northern Ireland does not need more fuel poured onto the fire. They are tired of the killings. If we are serious about the peace process – and I believe we are – we need to dispose of people like Spencer whose minds are only set on unconditional war.
“Really, that is all they know, and, within their limited mental capacity, that is all they are good at. They are convinced they know how to win a war, but they are incredibly unable to deal with the peace process, and peace in Northern Ireland is what we need right now. We have other, more serious challenges on the mainland.”
Hughes remained skeptical. “I hope you know what you’re doing.”
“Don’t worry about me, Roddy. It’s all for the best.”
Second Lieutenant Rodney Hughes threw his cigarette butt to the ground, smothered the remainder with the sole of his shoe, turned around, and walked away. Soon thereafter, he disappeared into the darkness. Geoff Barrett watched him and waited for a few more moments. Then he walked to the back of the car and opened the trunk.
“Are you still okay in there, Finn?” he asked.
Finn climbed out of the car, slowly putting his feet on the asphalt. He felt terribly stiff, and he stretched.
“I’m telling you, my friend,” he said with a loud grunt. “I am getting too old for this kind of stuff, but thanks for the ride. It is very much appreciated.”
Barrett laughed, “I still can not believe that the great Finn Whelan, who escaped the reach of the combined forces of all British intelligence services for years, finally got caught by regular police forces.”
“Hey, you were late for the pickup!”
“Yeah, I know. Sorry about that, chief! After all, we knew they would turn you over to us eventually. They had strict orders.”
Finn reached back into the trunk and retrieved the red duffel bag. He turned to Barrett, and they shook hands.
“Take care, Finn,” Barrett said. “And keep out of trouble. Next time I will not be able to help you.”
“There won’t be a next time, my friend,” Finn assured him. “I am retired now.”
With those words, he turned and quickly walked up the gangway to board the Isabelle Sanchez. Barrett watched him disappear, and when he was finished with his cigarette, he walked around the car, opened the passenger side door, and stepped inside.
There he sat quietly and remained in deep thought. He remembered the first time he had met Finn Whelan in a barrack near the Bagram airfield in Afghanistan. At first, both men did not know what to make of each other, and they approached each other with extreme caution, but in the end, it helped that they kept an open attitude in view of the task in front of them.
Geoff Barrett, at the time still a Second Lieutenant, had been assigned to identify al Qaeda suspects with British accents by analyzing their voiceprints. These voiceprints had been picked up by Royal Air Force Nimrod spy planes monitoring the Taliban battlefield radio signals.
While the role of UK troops in Afghanistan was defined as destruction of terrorist infrastructures in Eastern Afghanistan, there was also a concern that British Muslim extremists were supporting Taliban and al Qaeda attacks on British troops. Moreover, there were strong indications that they might return home to plot further terrorist acts in the United Kingdom.
The meeting with Finn Whelan was arranged by pure coincidence. A British Colonel had talked to his American liaison, a high raking CIA officer, mentioning his concerns that the extremists might try to infiltrate British police forces using methods similar to those used by the IRA in the 1970s.
“I have just the guy for you,” the CIA man assured his British colleague, “And, quite coincidently, he’s right here in Afghanistan.”
Two days later, Finn arrived at the barracks, and, after a short period of getting acquainted with each other, they soon became friends. Barrett appreciated Finn’s expertise, but, during times of socializing, he also learned a great deal about the workings of MI5 intelligence services during the Irish troubles, more than he had ever learned since he had joined the service. He remembered the heated discussions they had, and while there remained many points of disagreement, they highly respected each other’s non-confrontational position.
A week later – Finn was about to return to his previous assignment and had left the building – a grenade hit the barrack with Barrett inside, killing six of his colleagues. Barrett himself survived the blast and spent the next two weeks in a hospital before he was transferred to London for rehabilitation.
Until today, Barrett hadn’t seen Finn Whelan again. He had no memories of his rescue, but he was told that Whelan was the first at the site. Without Finn jeopardizing his own life under constant fire, Barrett would not have survived.
Another minute later, Second Lieutenant Hughes appeared back out of the darkness. He entered the car, taking place behind the wheel, started the car, and turned on the lights.
“Are we done yet?” he asked Barrett.
“We are done here. Let’s go and continue complicating Sergeant McDowell’s miserable life.”
Hughes carefully released the clutch while hitting the gas pedal and steered the car down the dock toward the Police Harbour office.