Imprisoned member of WW1 allied patrol charged with retrieving stolen gold bullion.
|les Baumettes Prison
At four-thirty am the man was led into the wash area. He wore loose grey prison garb and wrist irons that shackled his hands firmly. It was a full hour-and-a-half before the other inmates would be roused. The guards would have preferred leg restraints too but the Governor had felt differently for some reason. Nevertheless the effect created was that of a subdued inmate lost within the vast confines of a prison where during the hours of daylight flecks of dust danced within shafts of sunlight that broke through in seeming defiance of the solid grey mass of concrete.
The three guards who accompanied the man knew that the reality was very different. The prisoner had been brought in three days ago following a brawl outside a dockside bar in which he’d killed two members of the local Corsican mafia with a serrated bayonet. He’d fought like an animal during his arrest, and on arrival at the fearsome les Baumettes had refused to give a name. Baton-wielding guards, intent on maintaining iron discipline, had beaten him into some kind of submission in which he’d at least ceased to hit back, but only after a violent struggle in which a young guard had gone over the side of a twenty-foot high steel gantry, crushing his spine as he’d landed on the edge of a heavy wooden dining table. He was currently lying paralysed from the neck down in the hospital wing where his pretty young wife of two months was engaged in changing his soiled sheets up to four times a day. The door to the prisoner’s cell had opened late the following night and as two guards had entered and moved aside the inmate had found himself face to face with the Guard Capitaine. A bull-like man in his fifties, the officer’s rage was barely concealed.
“Whatever happens, whatever tricks you pull, know this. If the system doesn’t deal with you, I will. There will be a reckoning.”
The prisoner had swallowed hard after the Capitaine had turned abruptly and left.
There wasn’t much doubt that following a perfunctory trial the prisoner would either be given an appointment with Madame Guillotine, or be shipped out on the first available sailing to endure a miserable existence for the remainder of his natural life in the swamp-infested hell of the devils island penal colony of French Guyana.
That had been the belief amongst the guards at any rate, until the strange course of events over the last few days. The routine beatings and hosing down of such a difficult prisoner had commenced on his arrival. However on his second day the Governor had ordered that the prisoner be made presentable and brought to his office.
The Governor had insisted on wrist and leg irons, and on the inmate’s arrival had dismissed the guards. After fifteen minutes or so the Governor had summoned the guards and ordered the prisoner returned to his holding cell. However he had been adamant that further punitive measures were to cease. The prisoner was to be extended full mess and washing facilities, and treated in a humane manner. Wrist irons only when out of his cell. The majority of guards at les Baumettes were not men of great intellect or imagination. On the whole their employment within the prison offered positions of power that would be otherwise unattainable in their everyday lives. Not wishing to threaten the status quo, they’d accepted and executed the Governor’s orders unquestionably. And were continuing to do so, even after a thromboembolism deep in the Governor’s brain had led to his collapse and a complete loss of neurological function not four hours after issuing such orders.
Ramon Ballastaros crouched to examine his face in the dull mirror above the sink. Like the rest of his body it had filled out and strengthened in the years since the war. The bruises would fade, unlike the livid red scar that ran from under his eye across his face and down to his throat. He’d heard about the Governor’s stroke-induced vegetative state and knew that he was now in serious trouble.
The Governor had at one time served as an Inspector with the Directorate-General of Customs and Indirect Taxes and alarm bells had rung when he’d been shown the gold coins found to be in the prisoners personal belongings. Ballastaros had retained ten of the coins and had coveted them over the years as a reminder of what awaited him. He’d agreed that the Governor should take eight of the coins immediately to cover expenses involved in arranging Ballastaros’ freedom, and that a further payment would be made once such freedom was secured and he could at last collect the remaining gold.
After making his escape from the pass in the Pyrenees he’d ran straight into a patrol of French Chasseur mountain troops who had eyed him suspiciously as he’d recited his story of being part of a patrol tracking a band of British deserters involved in the theft of French gold bullion. He’d been taken back to Toulouse from where contact with the Directorate of Military Intelligence Command HQ at Goussainville had led to passage to Paris under armed escort.
Ballastaros remembered vividly the snivelling little Colonel, the same one who’d seen them off in Albert, and the way he’d taken such an interest in events and probed relentlessly for any weakness in his story concerning the whereabouts of the gold coins. Ballastaros had maintained that he had wandered off half- conscious following his facial injury, and that he knew nothing of the gold or the fate of the others. Eventually the little Colonel had questioned Ballastaros’ integrity in leaving the others to die. He’d slapped down the photograph that had been taken on the porch the day they’d set out.
“Take a look at the men you ran out on.”
With that the General stormed out of the room.
Ballastaros never saw the officer again.
He was instead sent back to the transit camp in Albert from where he’d received orders that he was to be posted to the Legion headquarters at Sidi-bel-Abbes in North Africa. Ballastaros had had the distinct impression that he was being shunted out of sight amidst a damage limitation exercise, but had little in the way of options. To be apprehended for desertion so close to the front would have had only one outcome. The last four years had involved countless patrols into the Atlas Mountains in pursuit of rebel Berber tribesmen, in addition to blockhouse postings in the soulless deserts of Morocco and Algeria.
And so an arrangement had been arrived at with the Governor who had omitted to register the coins, or indeed any of Ballastaros’ personal possessions.
He straightened and held out his chained wrists to the guard closest to him. The other two had moved to stand by the washroom doors after checking that the doorless cubicles were empty. Ballastaros knew that he was considered to be at risk because of the nature of his crime. Unbeknown to the guards he was also still at risk from the Basque clan he had defiled, which was why he’d had to come through France in order to retrieve the gold. Nevertheless the Corsican mafia operating in Marseilles had a reputation for vicious retribution against any that crossed them. Ballastaros cursed himself once more for becoming drunk and belligerent in the dockside bar, for the angry words that had passed between himself and the two thugs who had taken exception to his derogatory remarks about ‘Corsican dogs’ as he’d pocketed his winnings at the card table. They’d been waiting as he’d left the bar and had rushed at him with drawn knives. Instinct had taken over and Ballastaros had allowed them to close on him before reaching for his trusted bayonet. The first of the Corsicans had dropped silently with a severed jugular. It had been the second who had caused problems after Ballastaros had sliced open his abdomen. His high-pitched screeching as he’d bled out had alerted two beat policemen who happened to be close by. Their whistles had in turn alerted others and before he knew it Ballastaros had been trying to fight off seven or eight policemen. All of this after setting foot on French soil not six hours earlier for the first time in over four years.
Ballastaros had grown hard and was no stranger to killing.
On his discharge after five years service with the Legion he’d headed straight for metropolitan France with only one goal in mind- the retrieval of the gold coins from their hiding place in the mountains to the south. He almost groaned with frustration at his current position. He chanced a crafty sideways glance at his guards as he rubbed his chaffed wrists.
The two by the door alternated between watching over him and talking quietly to each other whilst the one behind him maintained his vigil. They were all armed with eighteen-inch oak batons weighted with lead insertions. These bozos were still carrying out the Governor’s instructions. They’d even allowed him access to his possessions and the use of writing materials. He’d written everything down in a letter, and had inserted the photograph of Brannigan’s patrol that he’d carried with him. He wanted his story on record for reasons he couldn’t quite articulate. He’d handled the two gold coins left over from those he’d carried for so long one last time before concealing them in his possessions and handing them to a guard to be returned to wherever the Governor had seen fit to deposit them. The guards however would only act in such a manner until someone instructed them otherwise. That time couldn’t be far away. Time was running out for Ballastaros and he’d decided that allowing himself to be chained and taken back to the cell could spell the end for him. The next few moments would decide his fate.
He turned to the closest guard and indicated the open cubicles.
The guard stepped back and slightly to the side. Before he’d even stopped moving Ballastaros had clamped a hand around his throat in an iron grip and forced him into the cubicle. The back of the guard’s legs gave way as they made contact with the toilet bowl. As he dropped to a sitting position Ballastaros gripped his head on either side and gave a violent twist. There was an audible crack as the neck was broken and the guard slumped back limply. The guards standing in the doorway gaped for several seconds before reacting. They weren’t used to prisoners stepping out of line in such a blatant manner and thought nothing of rushing forward together with raised batons. As they drew level with the cubicle the dead guard’s baton swung out in an arc catching the first man squarely under the nose. His head snapped back as his feet left the ground. On landing the back of his head slammed into the concrete floor and caved inwards like a soft, ripe plum. Ballastaros turned to the third guard who advanced cautiously, holding the baton before him. Ballastaros feigned a swing towards the man’s body. The guard reacted quickly by bringing his arms in to cover his torso. As he did so Ballastaros flicked his swing towards the hand that held the baton bringing his own weapon into solid contact with the guard’s knuckles. The man howled and dropped his weapon, drawing his broken digit into his side as he recoiled. With his good hand however he managed to lift the whistle attached to a lanyard and sound off three shrill blasts before Ballastaros brought his baton down hard on top of the man’s head with a sickening thud.
Ballastaros knew that his best chance lay in reaching the cookhouse that was situated below his cell window. He had observed the flat roof and the five-foot gap to the rounded ridge of the prison wall where two supports for the three-foot high barbed-wire fencing met. At this early hour the prison was almost silent as he took the stone steps to the courtyard three at a time. He suddenly backed into a dark corner as voices reached him. Two guards, their batons drawn, raced past his hiding place and made their way upstairs to where the whistle blasts had originated. Ballastaros waited several seconds after they had passed and then moved on quickly. He turned left and was suddenly through a stone archway and into the cobbled prison courtyard. Sure of his bearings he headed for the cookhouse and with barely a pause jumped onto several piled sacks of flour and catapulted himself towards the roof of the building some ten feet from the ground. His fingers found purchase and in one fluid motion he hauled himself up. He heard shouting behind him but continued towards the wall. Without looking down he launched himself across the gap between the building and the slightly higher ridge of the wall. The barbed wire left no more than six inches of rounded wall but Ballastaros used the wire to pull himself up. Ignoring the searing pain of the vicious barbs cutting into the palms of his hands he climbed until his feet found purchase. He shuffled to the point where the two supports met and gripped them tightly. In a single motion he vaulted the wire. Rather than attempt to find purchase on the other side of the wall he dropped the whole fifteen feet to the ground below. He landed hard and rolled. A jolt of pain shot through him as he bit his tongue, but could not stifle the elation he felt at being free. He was close to smiling as he looked up…straight into the perfect black circle created by the tip of the barrel of a Ruby military pistol. The pistol bucked as it exploded into life and Ballastaros was thrown onto his back as the 7.65mm round tore through his diaphragm and shattered his spinal cord on exit. Lying on his back Ballastaros noticed for the first time that the sun was rising and squinted as its brightness blinded him. As his vision cleared he focused on a face, that of the Guard Capitaine behind the pistols barrel.
The Capitaine looked down into Ballastaros’ face as his mouth opened and closed in shock.
He smirked humourlessly and shook his head as he shot Ballastaros through the right eye, turned, and slowly walked away…