Old friends and a questioned end.
He knew he’d screwed up and should by all rights be dead now but he’d been saved by some sort of miracle he couldn’t understand and it spooked him. The more he thought about it, the more uneasy he got about a nagging suspicion that he simply couldn’t shake; there was something about some aspects of the thing that were too familiar.
It was a straightforward case, just tail the client’s husband and see where he went; couldn’t be simpler but it had got very complex very quickly. The customs clerk wasn’t disappearing to meet a girlfriend but someone else altogether. Divorce related assignments were a steady part of his usual business but he didn’t like them. The spouse always knew in their heart but it invariably was his task to confirm their worst suspicions and that conversation was the bit he hated, especially when there were kids involved. The subject also appeared to be surveillance aware, which was surprising and though it complicated what was on the face of it a simple job, it made it more interesting.
Marriage and parenthood had made him wary of taking unnecessary risks. He was a provider now, a man with real responsibilities and those old free-wheeling days of only him getting hurt if it all went wrong, were long gone. If a case looked like it was going to get rough, he backed off it straight away. Not a problem. Those jobs didn’t pay enough for that sort of grief. He’d too much to lose but like a damn fool, he’d let his curiosity get the better of his judgement and very nearly paid the price.
There was only one way of dismissing or confirming the suspicion and that was to get in touch with an old friend. They’d been through some stuff together and he knew he’d get a straight answer from him. The “stuff” never happened officially and there were people who would still be very vigilant in ensuring it stayed that way, so he’d have to be circumspect. If his suspicion was correct, there’d be a standing tap on all his communications.
They had the usual direct channels but they’d also agreed some fallback procedures for precisely this type of situation. He bought a pay as you go phone for cash, giving false details to the retail clerk, who was barely interested anyway. The next step was a car journey to a regional town, where he purchased an hour’s time at an internet café. He set up a one-time junk email account and with it, placed an advert on an online auction site for a very specific but very obscure jazz album. The contact number in the advert was the same as his new phone’s but the penultimate digit of it was decremented by one.
He drove home and in the evening wrote an email to his friend. They were in the same line of business these days and after the usual pleasantries, he asked for some clarification on the banking rules supposed to detect money laundering activities. This was natural, since his friend specialised in financial crime and that wasn’t his own area of expertise. The eighth word of the last sentence contained a spelling mistake, which was the signal.
His friend replied the next day, giving the information he’d requested but it was really an acknowledgement; the last sentence of the email contained eight words. That evening, he took a drive to a different town and parking up, inserted the battery for the first time into his new phone and waited. At precisely eight o’clock, it rang.
‘How’re things?’ his friend asked evenly.
‘Edgy, all a bit edgy’ he replied. ‘Listen, I’ve got a question for you about an old friend. The one who spent some time in the snowy wastes, you know, the one who didn’t like it there and got out under his own steam.’
His friend didn’t reply to that.
‘Is there any possibility he’s still knocking around?’ he asked and waited.
After a very long pause, his friend replied tentatively. ‘There might be. Something happened at the end of our last meeting with him, while we were away getting our own repairs done. He disappeared.’
‘Disappeared? How do you mean?’
‘His remains did’, his friend explained. ‘People thought it might have been done by a helper; the thinking was that what he did was all a bit too much for any one person without some help.’
‘We both know he was alone,’ he replied to that evenly.
‘Sure’, replied his friend. ‘What makes you think he might still be around?’
He started telling his friend, in guarded ways, what had happened but it got too complicated, so he gave up and just told the story straight, from the first meeting with the clerk’s wife onwards. He’d picked up the subject after work and tailed him to a building in the docks area and was waiting outside it at a discreet distance, when he was jumped by a couple of armed goons, who bundled him inside. They tied him to a chair and started asking questions. From the first, he was truthful; just following the clerk for his wife to see if he was cheating on her.
They started giving him a heavy beating, just to be sure but he stuck to this story. They were very professional about it too; not getting carried away but just hurting him all the time, while being careful to leave him conscious and fit enough to answer questions. After what seemed a long time, they stopped and left the room, leaving one man to watch him. He was in a bad state and the guard was unnecessary.
It wasn’t a good sign, he knew. These were real tough guys and their connection to the customs clerk suggested it was a smuggling operation. Most probably drugs. Having satisfied themselves he was telling the truth, they’d gone to ask someone further up the line what to do with him and he had a fair idea of what the answer would be.
There was a sharp business-like double tap on the door and though his back was to it, he squinted over his shoulder through swollen eyes as his guard went over to open it. The door had barely opened six inches, when a hand from the other side deftly thrust a stiletto under the guard’s chin and all the way up into his brain. The guard was dead on his feet but his assailant grabbed the back of his head with his free hand and lowered him noiselessly to the floor.
The attacker entered the room silently and standing behind him, cut the ropes binding him to the chair. By the time he’d staggered to his feet, rubbing some feeling back into his numb hands, they’d disappeared.
‘What happened then?’ his friend asked.
‘I grabbed a gun from the dead guard and had a look for a way out of the place. There were bodies everywhere. Every one of them armed to the teeth and not one of them had even got a shot off. Christ, talk about the house of the dead. I just got the hell out of there’, he paused.
‘Did you get any blowback from whoever they called?’ asked his friend.
‘No, and I never will either. Someone visited the head honcho of the bunch that night. Killed him and every one of the guys supposed to protect him. Complete wipeout and as clean as you like. No way to connect me to any of it except the clerk.’
‘Where’s he now?’
‘Dead. Found drowned two days later. Police say it was accidental; no marks on the body, high blood alcohol levels, no suspicious circumstances. All very tidy.’ he replied.
He then asked the question that was really bothering him. ‘If it was him, why’d he help me out?’
After a pause, his friend replied. ‘Somebody with medical training pronounced him dead at the scene and nobody really checked him after that. Perhaps he felt he owed that person a favour.’
Getting no response, his friend reminded him gently. ‘That would be you, by the way.’
Still getting no reply, he added without rancour, ‘You’re a fool, a bloody soft-hearted fool. After all that happened, you still couldn’t resist giving him a break, could you?’
Ignoring his friend’s accusation, he replied, ‘Maybe, but if that’s the case, then I’m not the only one he might feel he owes a favour to …’ and left it hanging.
His friend thought it over. ‘Possibly’, he replied, turning the idea over in his head. If that was the case, it made him feel distinctly uneasy. The thought of somebody like that ghosting around him, waiting patiently to repay some kind of debt didn’t sit well. Eventually he asked, ‘Bottom line, what’s your gut feeling? Do you think it was him?’
‘Yeah, it was him. I either had the guardian angel from hell that night or it was him. Nobody else kills quite like that.’
After a while, he added, ‘He’s out there somewhere.’
They thought it over in silence. There didn’t seem much more to say.
‘You watch your tail’, his friend said, moving to conclude the conversation.
‘Seems like there was someone doing that for me all along’ he replied. ‘I’ll catch you later.’ They did the goodbyes and rang off.
He took the battery and SIM card out of the phone and burned the SIM carefully with his Zippo. All three pieces were discarded miles apart through the driver’s window as he drove home through the countryside.
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