Target Practise

 

If my information were correct, my target would be in the hotel late in the evening. Perhaps I had never been blessed with anything else in life, but I had considerable patience. I was an expert at waiting. This was quite an asset in my profession, and in a country with so many queues.  

A recent trip to Austria reminded me that contrary to popular opinion, the average British citizen was more adept at queuing than their European neighbours. In Vienna, it seemed that the more robust and defiant you were, the quicker you got what you wanted. 

“Another Tennent’s please, Christine.” I picked up my glass and finished my first lager. I watched the young woman behind the bar as she concentrated on pulling the pint. She adopted a casual stance as she glanced down at the gradually filling glass, but still looked around her area of responsibility. She surveyed the lounge bar and its occupants. I’d picked up on the barmaid’s name from other customers.  

A member of the golfing fraternity arrived to join his group of friends. As he approached the bar, his presence was rewarded with a warm smile and a friendly ‘hello,’ from the ever-observant Christine. She was pretty and polite—perfect for the bar job.

“Thank you.” I handed over a note. I could have given her the exact money, but then I would have missed out on another look at her lovely face. She would have to bring me my change. I was rewarded with another flash of her smile and my change.  

I looked at my perfectly poured pint, with the head of froth lightly clinging to, but not going over the rim of the glass. Something done ‘just right’ always appealed to me.

It occurred to me that being a man in my forties, I shouldn’t be taking so much interest in watching this young woman doing her job. What if somebody was watching me and thought I was some sort of lecherous pervert? Well, as I glanced around the room steadily filling with golfers and couples in their autumn years, I thought, I can’t see anybody taking a keen interest in me.  

Christine surveyed the room again, then went out through an adjoining door. At a low but pleasant volume, the strains of Freddie Mercury and his associates were telling us that they wanted to, ‘break free’ and also that they were, ‘falling in love’.

Christine was in her early twenties and maybe not a massive Queen fan, but it might be that there were a selection of CD’s available to soothe the ears of the customers. I listened to the music and thought back to a period when my drinking was a serious problem. The music then would have played from an eight-track cartridge or an audio cassette machine. I clearly remembered many times leaning on a jukebox, trying desperately to focus on the titles and artists as I plugged my coins into the slot. Now that was going back in time—bad days. Enough!

As I sipped my second pint I considered leaving my bar stool for a comfy chair at one of the many tables, but I decided to remain where I was—I would be able to observe the place, and it’s clientele easily. I looked at the back of the bar and noted the names I knew from my past brush with stronger alcohol. Smirnoff, Hennessy’s, Glenlivet, Campari, Harvey’s. I had been to the bottom of so many bottles, and the only similarity was that deadly feeling of failure in the dawn of the new day.

I wondered if it was akin to that of the man or woman who wakes up beside a one night stand. A heady mixture of success and failure. On the one hand, feeling the accomplishment of, ‘yes, I’ve still got what it takes’ and on the other, the self-loathing of the unfaithful person.

I hadn’t taken on a contract for a couple of years, and I wondered if I could still perform.

During my second pint, I was once again given the brief attention of the lovely Christine as she brought out my previously ordered bar meal—a toasted sandwich. I’d never really been into fancy food. When the subject cropped up my standard line would be, ‘I eat to live—I don’t live to eat’. This tended to get a strange look from any companion.

A man who looked uncannily like Charles Bronson came in and sat on a bar stool at the opposite end of the bar. I caught his glance and offered a nod and smile. In return, I got a blank stare, and then he returned his attention to his choice of beverage. He ordered a Guinness.

Suits you, I thought, you’re probably bitter from head to toe. I wondered then if he was a regular, and I was occupying his usual seat. Tough. It was mine now, and I felt comfortable on it. Maybe both of us were doing that bar thing—assuming ownership of a particular seat.       

While I gave my stomach the good news—sustenance, I took in my surroundings again. The efficient Christine came out for a brief and rapid tour of her territory, taking orders, delivering drinks, lifting empty glasses and generally being pleasant. It was like watching a neon tetra in a tropical fish tank. Coming out from inside the tiny sunken shipwreck, darting around, then back into the protective shell. Even when there, she maintained a continuous, industrious routine.  

Charles Bronson may or may not have realised it, but I was able to catch him unawares on more than one occasion assessing me using the mirrors behind the bar. What was his problem? Perhaps he thought he knew me?  Maybe he was gay, and wondered if, or when he should make a move? Could it be the opposite—he didn’t like the look of me? Did he see me looking at the young woman behind the bar with a twinkle in my eye, and he had designs on her himself? Until he said something, I wasn’t particularly bothered or interested. Life, I learned a long time ago is too short for ‘maybes’.  

After my sandwich and my third pint, I’d go upstairs to my room. My next message or contact hadn’t been made. An early night would see me start my quest afresh the next day. I was mid-way in swinging my legs off my barstool when another customer joined our small gathering.  

The woman breezed into the room, and with a cursory glance around, came to the bar.  

I smiled at her, and in those first few seconds, it was like preparing to conduct an interview. I instantly liked what I saw, or I didn’t. In this case, I most definitely did. When she briefly returned my smile, it felt personal. She looked mid-forties, and though her complexion may no longer be porcelain, in her younger days it would have been.  

“A Merlot please.” The woman placed her wet umbrella against the bar stool in front of her. With an arched right eyebrow, she nodded to my notebook on the bar and said, “Research, or something more interesting?”

“A mixture of both actually,” I said. “I’m almost mixing business with pleasure.”

“Sounds intriguing.” She unbuttoned her white raincoat and slid it off her shoulders. She nodded to Christine, to acknowledge the glass of red wine. The woman loosely folded her coat, laid it on the bar stool then reached out a slender hand and lifted the glass to her lovely lips. If she was aware of me watching her, she was unperturbed.

“I needed that,” she said quietly as she placed the glass on the bar mat.

The more closely I looked, the more I got the impression she had already indulged in a few glasses before venturing into the rain. Had her day been working, or simply relaxing, then the rain came?  

To make conversation, I offered my opinion of the efficient young woman behind the bar. The response was surprising, both in the way it was accepted and in the way it was reflected directly at the blonde.

“Well, Christine,” the woman said brightly. “What have you been paying this gentleman? He’s very complimentary.”

I wondered if this wine-drinking woman was also a resident.        

Christine glanced at us both, smiled, then busied herself with her other customers. One of the golfing party was back at the bar with an order that took him five minutes to remember. From the slightly louder than necessary conversation at their table, his friends called the occasional derisory comment to him. By the time he started to relay the drinks back to the table, he was being blamed for everything from the size of the bunkers on the twelfth hole to the abysmal weather.

My new companion caught me studying her features.

Only then, it occurred to me that I was staring. “So,” I said. “What have you been up to today?” I acted as if I already knew her, which I didn’t.

As she spoke, I was captivated by her Scottish accent and the passion she had for the heritage site she had been visiting. I listened to her vivid descriptions of furniture, decor and artefacts. I was nodding and smiling, but concentrating more on her, not her tale of wonder. From my own experience of such visits around the world, I could understand her enthusiasm. It was a privilege to look back in time, and appreciate the quality of the simplest antiquities.

I was enjoying the present.      

As I listened, I shot a glance at Charles Bronson, who was still sitting at the other end of the bar. I caught him unawares as he was observing the woman and me. He looked away slowly and ordered another drink, trying to make it look casual. I knew when I was being watched. Could the local version of Mr Bronson perhaps lip-read? At the back of my mind, his presence continued to urge questions, even though I thought I had consciously told myself to forget him—I didn’t think he was my reason to be here.

Due to the proximity of her, I couldn’t fully appreciate my lovely recent acquaintance. I was relieved when she excused herself and headed to the enclosed courtyard for a cigarette. Her blouse was loose enough to disguise her upper body, but her trousers were tailored sufficiently to emphasise her shapely legs. She was wearing heels, of which I’d always been a fan.

As I watched her walk away with her elegant stride, I realised that an occasional menthol cigarette was one of the features I had to watch for in my target. I still hadn’t received a photo to confirm the details, but I was always alert to possibilities. My client had insisted that a very recent photo would be with me within twenty-four hours—due to a radical change of the target’s appearance. That time still had a little while to go, but I’d find out soon enough.  

I watched the woman as she came back, and though elegant, her walk wasn’t casual, it was business-like. I couldn’t work out why I thought that. When she asked what I was doing in the area, I used the story I had rehearsed. I explained that I was writing an article for inclusion in a travel brochure, and I was a freelance.    

This woman made me feel at ease and concerned me. I didn’t want to feel attracted to her, especially if she was the person I had been sent to locate—my target. To give myself some thinking time, I excused myself.

“Be back in a minute.” I got off my stool. “Just popping to the little boy’s room.” When I was walking away I thought, what is she going to take from that statement? I really had to work on my language. These days it didn’t sound right to use phrases like, ‘the little boy’s room’ even in jest. As I passed the end of the bar, I looked straight at Charles Bronson. He looked up from the text he was composing on his mobile phone. He had cold, staring, blue eyes. On the bar beside his glass, he had a lighter, and a pack of cigarettes—menthol cigarettes.    

On returning to the lounge, I was both delighted and dismayed at seeing the forty-something standing there, chatting to Christine. When I pulled myself up onto my bar stool, I grabbed my notebook and pen and made a couple of notes. Something I had to remember.  

“Was that important?” The woman smiled.

“It could be crucial.” I returned the smile, “I’m working on an idea for this visit, so I’ve got to get things down as they come to me.”

“Do you like what you see so far?”

I had so many one-liners rushing to be said, but I stopped myself being crass. “Yes, and this is a nice hotel.” While I spoke, I noticed the right eyebrow arch, and she smiled.  

“I was considering having another,” she said and slowly shook her head. “I don’t know if I should—I have important things on my mind.” She looked at the empty glass and sighed.  

Was that a cue for me to maybe suggest a nightcap? “Sometimes, it’s better to know when to stop.” Damn it. Why did I say that—thinking of my own experience? Five minutes earlier I’d wanted her to stay with me till the bar closed—at least.

“Thank you for such a sensible observation—I’ll finish now.”

“I’ve enjoyed your company,” I ventured, as she lifted her coat, bag and umbrella.

“I’ve enjoyed yours. Perhaps we’ll meet again.”

“Good night.” When she’d left the lounge, I picked up my pint and finished it in one. As I put the glass on the bar, I saw Charles Bronson do the same. When I passed him, I made eye contact, then headed for the stairs, rather than the lift. I stopped and absently looked at a painting of a horse and rider tackling a jump. I pretended to study the artwork. I was aware of Charles Bronson pressing the button and getting into the lift. I watched the illuminated numbers.  1 … 2 … 3 …  The elevator went to my floor. I used the stairs.

The next morning I woke from a fitful sleep. There had been nothing untoward when I got to my room the night before, and I’d used the tried and tested chair under the door handle. My dreams were pleasant, as I’d considered the possibilities of ending the night with the dark-haired forty-something. Into my dreams, the cold, malevolent eyes of ‘Charles Bronson’ would appear to destroy my fantasies.

I showered, dressed and went down for breakfast. Too early as it happened.

The dining room wasn’t open yet. I went to the reception desk and asked if there had been anything dropped off for me.

A handsome dark-haired man in his twenties smiled and handed me an envelope with ‘Private and Confidential’ printed above my name.

I thanked him and quickly stepped to one side. From the envelope, I removed two photos. One bore a striking resemblance to Charles Bronson but with no moustache, and the other picture, though not as clear, was of the attractive forty-something from the night before. On the back of the photos were brief details. If I didn’t get myself sorted out quickly, one of these two was going to be a victim, in the not too distant future. I headed back through to the dining room, now in time for breakfast.

Two members of staff at the doorway were in animated conversation, but I couldn’t hear the topic. One of them checked the clock on the wall, then turned to greet me.

“Good morning, sir,” she said brightly and allowed me to choose a table.

“Good morning,” I said. “Tea please, and poached eggs on white bread. Room forty-seven.”

“Thank you, sir.” She disappeared for two minutes and then returned to continue chatting.

I could hear the pair clearly though they may have thought they were quiet. The conversation was conducted in an excitable tone, so they were raising their voices.

“Apparently,” said one, “He left here late last night—the night porter saw him go.”

“So how do the police know he was stabbed to death?” said the other.

“It looks like he was killed and then pushed onto the rails in the dark. The killer didn’t count on the early morning train being cancelled due to bad weather.”

“So, all they know at the moment is, he was last seen talking to a dark-haired woman.”

When my glass of orange juice hit the table, it was a little harder than intended.

“Are you okay, sir?” One girl asked.

“Fine.” I tried to smile. “I’m sorry, but did I hear correctly—was it one of our guests who was found on the railway lines this morning?”

“Yes,” she said, excited. “I don’t know who Charles Bronson is, but apparently this chap looked like him. Stabbed once in the heart.”      

After breakfast, I went to the nearest public phone box. It was a quaint, old-fashioned one, and most of the little windows were broken or missing. Soon it wouldn’t have any windows. I pushed in some coins and dialled a number in London.  

“Yes!” came the curt response.

“My apologies for the delay. I have now had a confirmed siting.”

“We have another asset up there, so I want her out of action within the next twenty-four hours.” There was a brief pause. “If not, you will be out of action. Either, you are up to this, or you’re a dead man walking.” The line went dead. The call had lasted less than fifteen seconds.  

I put the handset on the cradle and turned to push the door of the kiosk open. I gasped, and my emotions went into a tailspin as I looked into the dark and beautiful eyes of the lovely forty-something. I lost the incentive to do anything when I looked down slowly to see the barrel of a pistol and a long suppressor squeeze through the broken glass and press against my stomach.

“I really was beginning to enjoy your company,” she whispered near the small broken windows. “Such a pity.”

*

For the past year, I’ve lived in a small village in Switzerland. I use a different name, my hair is shaved off, and I’ve exchanged my glasses for contact lenses. I keep to myself and hope to go on living here for some time to come. Before arriving and rapidly creating a new identity and background, I moved around the UK for a month living in bed and breakfast hotels.  

When I’d regained consciousness and felt fit enough, I collected my belongings and walked out of the hospital without a word to anyone. According to the chart near my bed, I had been in a coma for three months, and supposedly under police protection.

Among my personal effects was a sealed envelope with my name on the front. I opened it to find a short, simple message.

‘If you follow me—next time you won’t be so lucky. xxx’ 

***

This story is a selection from One Man, Two Missions: and other stories

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