Authors: Tim Stevens
Tags: #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Literature & Fiction, #Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Collections & Anthologies, #Anthologies, #Espionage, #Thrillers, #Short Stories & Anthologies, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Spies & Politics, #One Hour (33-43 Pages)
A John Purkiss Short Story
Copyright 2012 Tim Stevens
Kindle Edition, Licence Notes
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Everything about the man’s face was sharp: the right-angled nose, the cliffs of his cheekbones, the way the features snagged Purkiss and dragged him into a past that was only a handful of years away but seemed as distant as childhood.
The man was leaning on the railing of a wall that dropped to the rocky beach, a mobile phone clamped to his ear. Purkiss was approaching from his left, and would reach him in ten paces. Taking care not to attract attention by slowing down, Purkiss instead angled the direction of his stride so that he’d pass well behind the man. As he drew nearer he risked another glance at the profile.
Yes, there was no doubt about it.
The man’s name was Oleksander Motruk. A Ukrainian national, he had until 2003 been an officer in the MVS, his country’s Ministry of Internal Affairs. A security policeman, and one with a reputation for brutality and corruption that eventually became an embarrassment too far. After his sacking, he’d set up a freelance business running guns in the western Mediterranean. His clients had included drug lords, nascent resistance movements in North Africa which had been quashed by their ruling regimes before they’d got off the ground, and Islamist groups in France and along the Dalmatian coast.
Purkiss knew this because in the middle years of the previous decade he’d been stationed in Marseille himself, an agent of Britain’s Special Intelligence Service. Motruk’s was one of the faces he’d burned into his memory, the data in his dossier attached to the image using a peg-based memory system Purkiss had adopted and customised. He’d never encountered Motruk personally, but his interest in the man had been keen; Purkiss’s brief had been the detection and monitoring of suspected Islamist terrorist cells in the city and the Ukrainian’s name had come up time and again in connection with possible candidates. Motruk’s name had faded from the local intelligence chatter around 2006, and the assumption was that he’d been killed, was in jail somewhere, or had moved on to new pastures.
So what was he doing here in Malta, seven years later?
Purkiss stopped and turned and leaned on the rail, gazing out over the harbour. The distant glitter of the sea hazed into the skyline, the horizon molten by the heat. Gulls circled the high uncovered sun. A few yards away, below him, the fishing boats, the
, bobbed and nudged one another, resembling aquatic peacocks with their bright colours and painted eyes. Along the railing to Purkiss’s left, he became aware of Motruk straightening and beginning to amble away.
Purkiss gave it three seconds, as long as he dared. Then he began to follow.
Motruk walked with purpose but no hurry, ignoring the murmured entreaties of the waiters lolling outside the pavement seafood restaurants. Purkiss kept up easily, noting that the Ukrainian wasn’t employing any counter-surveillance methods. The streets were ancient, the buildings almost uniformly rustic looking and sunbleached. It was an ancient fishing village, Marsaxlokk – pronounced
, the guide book said – and Purkiss had come there for the sense of history and the nearby ruins. Both were now forgotten.
After ten minutes Motruk took an abrupt turn down a side street and went through a grimy glass door. Purkiss passed by, noting the sign in English: Three Ships Guest House.
He waited at the far end of the street, watching the entrance, for fifteen minutes. Motruk didn’t emerge. The sun burned its way across the zenith and Purkiss shifted in his cotton shirt and chinos, feeling the sweat in the creases.
Stepping into the shade of a grocer’s awning, Purkiss took out his phone. The voice that answered was ragged with tobacco tar.
‘Quentin, it’s me.’
‘John? You’re supposed to be on holiday.’
‘I am.’ Though a holiday wasn’t what Purkiss thought of it as. ‘I need a favour. The number of the local Service head here in Malta.’
Purkiss had arrived in Marsaxlokk on one of the island’s yellow buses, a clattering heat-trap with a dashboard festooned with Catholic iconography, but he rented a car for the return journey to Valletta. The capital was a mere four miles away, the narrow route through the vineyards and the swarming midday traffic making it seem further.
He’d been in Malta three days, and had so far visited the Ggantija Neolithic temples and explored the architecture of Valletta itself, where his hotel was. The trip had been chosen on a whim, a week before he’d flown out. Malta, where he and Claire had been planning to come on their honeymoon. Malta, whose name was thought by some to derive from the Phoenician for
Claire, a fellow SIS agent, had been killed in Marseille before Purkiss’s eyes more than five years earlier. He’d left the Service after her killer’s conviction for the murder, and had gone to work for Quentin Vale. Now, his remit was to track down members or former members of the Service who’d gone rogue, and bring them to whatever justice could be achieved with the minimum of public fuss. But things had changed last year, when he’d met the man ultimately responsible for Claire’s death. Purkiss had let the man live, something he’d come to realise was an error.
He didn’t know quite why he’d decided to come to Malta. To wallow in awareness of what might have been? To find that elusive phenomenon so beloved of modern discourse:
? Perhaps it had nothing to do with Claire. Perhaps he wanted to immerse himself in the sights and smells and experience of the place, to find meaning and a new focus for his life in the historic and strangely alien melange of architectural styles and megalithic culture.
Because Purkiss didn’t know if he could continue with his work any longer.
‘Amanda Cass.’ Her handshake was firm, and dry despite the heat. She was fortyish, short, her fair hair bobbed. Her brown eyes remained levelled on his but Purkiss could feel her appraising his whole person.
The man introduced himself as Leon Silverman. He was younger than Cass, in his early thirties, fashionably slovenly with his unbuttoned shirt and unshaven chin. His eyes were lazy behind thin glasses; an odd combination, Purkiss thought.
‘You said a courtesy call, Mr Purkiss.’
‘That’s right.’ The office was behind a nondescript door somewhere at the back of the High Commission building, which was itself on a peninsula facing the walled capital Valletta across the bay. The Service didn’t advertise its presence in the embassies and consulates in which it was based. Cass and Silverman had both met him in the lobby and escorted him in silence to the lift and up. Iced tea was on offer; Purkiss accepted.
‘An hour and a half ago I saw Oleksander Motruk in Marsaxlokk.’ Purkiss gave them a concise biography, as well as the name and address of the bed and breakfast he’d seen Motruk enter. Cass listened from across her desk without moving. Over to Purkiss’s left, Silverman sat with a tablet computer in his hand. He too watched Purkiss silently.
When Purkiss had finished he glanced from one to the other. ‘Any idea why he’s here?’
‘Thank you, Mr Purkiss,’ said Cass. ‘We’ll look into it.’
‘Fair enough.’ Purkiss stood. ‘You can’t tell me anything. I’m no longer Service.’
It wasn’t so odd that neither of them had made any notes, Purkiss thought. The room was bugged and they’d have recorded his every word.
He’d done his bit as a good former spook citizen. He’d spotted a known enemy, or at least somebody who’d been an enemy less than a decade ago, and he’d passed on the information. What the Service did about it was up to them.
Purkiss drove the short mile to Valletta itself and strolled the hot early afternoon streets, trying to lose himself in the bustle. He’d parked the rental car near the Museum of Fine Arts and he debated going into the rococo building for an hour or two. There were further megaliths to be explored inland, and towns to be reached by means of a leisurely trek.
But it was no good; the mood was gone. Motruk’s beaky face kept dragging his attention back to it like a papercut.
Purkiss climbed behind the wheel and followed the road back out though the city, heading towards Marsaxlokk.
They could have been of one of any number of nationalities – Greek, Turkish, Maltese itself – but Purkiss thought they were Italian. There were two of them, one older and portly, the other younger and leaner, both in beautifully tailored light suits and mirror sunglasses. They gripped Motruk’s hand one after the other, each turning the handshake into a back-clapping bearhug. Forming a semicircle a few paces behind the two men were the hoods: four thickset men in tighter, less well fitting clothes, their gazes similarly hidden by dark shades but clearly roving.
Purkiss had taken up the same position at the end of the street across from the bed and breakfast after doing a quick but thorough appraisal of the area. It was possible – unlikely, but possible – that Cass and Silverman had got surveillance into place already, and if that was the case Purkiss didn’t want to get in the way. But he thought they wouldn’t have acted that quickly.
Besides, he’d got the impression that they hadn’t been all that interested in what he’d had to tell them.
At two fifty p.m. Motruk had emerged from the guesthouse and begun walking quickly away. He hadn’t had the air of a man on the lookout for followers, and though Purkiss knew this could be deceptive, he was fairly sure both that Motruk was unaware of him as he set off in pursuit and that there was nobody else in the field, SIS or otherwise.
Purkiss tracked him in the direction of the sea. The boxy rows of a huge shipping container terminal stretched into the distance, cargo vessels hauling themselves mastodon-like into bays in the port. From his Marseille days Purkiss knew the Freeport Terminal was one of the busier ones on the Mediterranean.
As soon as Purkiss saw the knot of suited men standing waiting for Motruk he peeled away, wandering along one side of the terminal and gazing at the containers as though some kind of shipping aficionado. He took up a position behind the base of a large, inactive crane and watched from there. Snatches of the men’s voices reached his ears but he couldn’t make out any of the words, nor the language they were speaking in.
With his phone he took the best pictures he could, grimacing at the quality. But there was no way around it; whatever the subject of discussion, Purkiss couldn’t risk tipping Motruk and his companions off by trying to get closer.
After fifteen minutes or so, the group split up amid more handshakes and embraces. Purkiss watched Motruk set off on foot back the way he’d come. The six men piled into two cars, expensive executive models. Once they’d gone he set off after Motruk once more.
The ten mile car journey between Marsaxlokk and the town of Mdina was one of the most difficult Purkiss had undertaken.
There was nothing inherently problematic about the terrain. Purkiss had followed Motruk to a small public car park behind the bed and breakfast and, once he’d established the man was going to one of the cars, had quickly headed back down the street to his own rental vehicle. He’d waited until Motruk’s blue VW saloon emerged from the car park entrance and then fallen in behind, three cars back. Before long the village was behind them and the narrow single-lane road was winding to the north-west, the vineyards giving way to scrubby rock on either side.
After three miles, there was no traffic between Purkiss and Motruk’s car in front, and that was what made matters difficult. He didn’t want to approach too closely, but on the other hand dropping back too far would also arouse suspicion.
Purkiss’s rental, a Nissan, had no satellite navigation system. Instead he opened the map function on his phone and propped the handset on the dashboard. The multilingual road signs began to announce Mdina, a town Purkiss had been intending to visit at some point.
The town loomed ahead at the top of a hill, a medieval walled site stark against the deep blue afternoon sky. Traffic was beginning to thicken once more, buses and coaches predominating. Car parks started to appear, and a sign indicated that vehicular access to the town was restricted.
When Motruk pulled in at one of the car parks Purkiss drove on, choosing an area several hundred yards further on the other side of the road. He sat behind the wheel and watched Motruk appear behind a knot of backpackers trudging their way towards the arch of the main entrance gate. Purkiss slipped out, thankful to be on foot once more.