Candy Crush

The girl ran out the courtroom, face hidden, tears streaming down her cheeks.

The doors opened wider and two burly men walked out, bearing Glock sidearms. They were dressed in blue serge, the words Prison Service stenciled across their jackets. Between them walked the girl’s husband, handcuffed.

There are a number of places where human misfortune congregates—tribunals, hospitals, jails… and from time to time airports.

When a plane goes down, the destination airport becomes a wailing wall.

But if the plane has been blown out of the sky, then the matter becomes incomprehensible, at least to the average citizen. This slammed home in Russia this week, as more became known about the Airbus crash.

Putin’s executive reacted in truly Soviet style—denial to the hilt. After the missile claims were dismissed, the airline CEO gave a press conference and said the plane was brought down. Putin countered. The UK blocked flights to Sharm el Sheikh and grounded tourists. The Egyptian government erupted in loud protests. Egypt’s president began an official visit to the UK. The Russians reacted on shared Western intel.

It was a bomb. For ISIS, this was a no-brainer.

Putin is pouring fire on anti-Assad areas of the Mid-East, while Obama, completely bereft of any initiative, makes faint noises about separation of US and Russian planes.

Egypt’s Sisi is a sworn enemy, after the destruction of the Muslim Brotherhood organization—which shares a Sunni core with ISIS.

Blow up the plane, send a message to the Kremlin that involvement in Syria has tragic consequences in Saint Petersburg or Moscow, and screw up the Egyptian economy, thus weakening the military government.

In some twisted formula of tragedy, perhaps ordinary Russians now understand better the pain ordinary people in Holland felt after the MH-17 missile strike.

As eyes turned to the bomb theory, the immediate question became airport security at El Salam. The Egyptian authorities were quick to point out that Sharm el Sheikh has hosted top-level summits—disingenuous when you consider the security that accompanies VIPs—Obama doesn’t fly sleazyjet.

The UK press is full of tales of security officials sleeping on the job, bribes being taken for queue-jumping, and my firm favorite, a baggage-screener spotted playing Candy Crush on his cellphone instead of watching the X-ray screen.

Was Candy Crush to blame? They say Semtex smells remarkably like marzipan.

Was Candy Crush to blame? They say Semtex smells remarkably like marzipan.

Whether it was Candy Crush or someone’s cousin, I’m still perplexed—a passenger may have been given a package to carry—perhaps a gift from local lounge lizard Ahmed to Irina, a homely office worker from Saint Petersburg who found love on a Red Sea package tour. But that doesn’t seem like guaranteed success—find the bomb at security, there goes the element of surprise.

So either a suicide bomber took something on board past security, or someone placed a bomb inside a passenger’s bag, or even inside the hold. In the first case the plane manifest will  reveal the bomber, and in the others, ground staff are involved.

Of course if the Egyptians catch the perpetrators of the bombing there will be a spot of torture involved. In Atmos Fear, there’s a chapter that takes place in Cairo, and I share an excerpt here.

The hawkers cried out to passing men and women, shoppers dressed in jilbabs, some of the women wearing the hijab, some in western garb.

Below the pump, two stories underground, the Yemeni let out a long and agonized scream. Even if the square above had been petrified into sepulchral silence, no sound would emerge. The catacombs of the General Directorate of State Security Investigations were built to last.

Senior Interrogator First Class Al-Maghri took great pride in his job. His training went way back to the days of the young Egyptian republic, when General Nasser procured the services of the KGB, and as his country drew closer to the US after Camp David, he spent time in the United States, and became familiar with what the CIA had to offer. The American interrogation bible was the Kubark manual, and Al-Maghri had been a diligent student.

The GDSSI interrogator looked at the scene in front of him. The Yemeni had been depleted of all human condition, stripped naked, his glasses crushed on arrival by a heavy boot. The American manual prescribed many things, including psychotropic drugs, isolation, and severe disorientation. The mild-mannered Egyptian, who looked more like a museum curator, with his aquiline nose and shining pate, had tried them all. But in the end, he preferred pain.

And if the men who committed this atrocity ever make it before a judge, they’ll be kept in a steel cage for the duration of their trial. In Portugal, the accused cannot even be handcuffed inside the courtroom—that’s why the prison guards stood ready at the back.

As I left the courthouse the rain poured down in buckets, and I stood in line to pay parking. But the guy in front of me wasn’t parked, he was buying tangerines.

I marveled at the third world ingenuity of the attendant—she not only handled the payments but sold fruit on the side for cash—you couldn’t get a machine to do that.

It made me laugh—in the midst of all the concerns about tax evasion, here was an illegal business thriving in the official courthouse car park, and no doubt it counted ministry of justice staff among its patrons—perhaps even judges. Still chuckling at this delicious irony,  I opened the car door. A man tapped me on the shoulder.

He was a middle-aged gypsy—thickset, swarthy, with sharp green eyes. I turned and he fished something from his pocket.

“Do you want to buy a watch?”

I was intrigued enough to step back into the rain. I looked at the man. I couldn’t help thinking he knew the inside of that courthouse pretty well—probably walked out between those prison guards on more than one occasion. It’s been years since someone tried to sell me a watch in a car park—and that was in downtown Bangkok.

“No. I don’t need a watch.”

“But look at this one. It’s a very good price.” He pulled out a Swatch and held it up.

“Thanks, but no.” I though back to the courthouse foyer. It was crowded with cops, National Guard, plainclothes detectives. “Don’t you think this is a problem? Selling watches in this particular car park?”

He shrugged. “These other ones… at least look.”

“Sorry. I really don’t need one.” I escaped the rain and drove away, watching the woman sell another bag of tangerines as the barrier went up.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

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