A bald man, stubby and well muscled, stepped into the inn. He looked about, in search of something or someone.
At last another man, lean with very long hair half-eclipsing his face, looked up from where he sat alone and gestured to him.
“Over here friend.”
The long haired man kicked a stool forward from under the table as the other came toward him.
“Have a seat.”
“I know you must be hungry so I’ve ordered food and drink for us. Best to do business with a full stomach.”
“You like eastern style food? They’ve got lamb boiled up with wheat and those sour berries…”
“But before anything I want to show you this ring I got for the wife in the local market. I hear you know about this sort of thing…Lean forward, the light’s better in the middle of the table.”
When the new arrival’s head was close to that of the other, the long haired man dropped his voice, while continuing to turn the ring about.
“Have you ever seen anything like it?”
“I have, in fact. Bit of a coincidence. Let me show you.”
The bald man pulled a ring from his sleeve and showed it to the other, who nodded then spoke even more quietly, but without changing his casual expression.
“You’re a professional, same as me. I don’t need to tell you to act naturally. As far as anyone is concerned, we’re two commercial types, here to do business.”
“Understood. I’ll keep my voice low and make faces like I’m talking business. In a seaport like this I assume everyone talks everyone’s language.”
“It’s a good bet. Can’t be too careful. We’re not dealing with a fool. They’re used to me in this place now. I’ve been eating here nightly the last week, so I’m starting to blend with the furniture.”
“I know the drill.”
“You’ve received the same orders as me with regard to discretion?”
“Yes, no fuss, no witnesses if possible. I’ve done political jobs before, and on foreign soil.”
“You know why you needed to be with me on this…this contract?”
“It’s pretty obvious. Your people and my people don’t like one another but they both want the same problem dealt with. Neither side will take the word of the other that the job’s been done, hence the double contract. I take it you’re considered trustworthy by your people.”
“I have that reputation. I deserve it. And you?”
“The same. If I tell my people the job’s done they’ll know it’s done. Only…”
“It’s pretty obvious why we’d want the old man dead. But your people…I mean to say…”
“Reasons of money, politics. Nothing new about any of that.”
“Of course. But the old man was like…like your…”
“Forget it. He was what he was once. After tonight he’s a memory. I don’t like being the one to push him off the twig, but my loyalty is to my people, not to an old man I don’t even know. In the normal course of things my job would be to dispose of you. You’d be expected to do the same with me. We may very well need to deal with one another one day. But that’s not tonight’s job, is it?”
“You’re right…I’m guessing he’s not here yet?”
“Not yet. There’s a table in the corner that’s always left vacant for him. Everyone seems to know it’s his table…which is a bit of a problem for us.”
“Yes. It means he has friends, maybe has the respect of the locals. He has a reputation for getting cooperation from people wherever he goes.”
“He’s known for that. So we need to be doubly careful. I’ve made sure to sit in full view of him, and not to exploit the fact he’s only got one eye. If we sit where it’s hard for him to see us that’s suspicious, straight away. He’ll be facing me, so the only look you’ll get at him is when he walks past us on the way in. You’ll know him by the slow shuffle and slight limp. Not that I’d believe he’s as lame as he makes out. Maybe he is…”
“And maybe he isn’t. I like your thoroughness. So how do we get to him. Do we follow him when he leaves? That could be tricky. A very smart man who’s been on the run for all these years won’t want to be followed out of here by two strangers.”
“That’s why I’ve been resisting the temptation to try tailing him at all. I have another idea. He’s like all old men. He pisses a lot and takes his time to do it. They have a hole in floor in the store room out the back. I suggest we wait for to him go in there, then follow him after a few minutes. If we keep things casual, act a little drunk and merry…”
“Seems like the best plan…Look, our dinner. Oh, I need this!”
The two men sat back as a waitress placed two steaming bowls in front of them. The long haired man put his arm round her haunch and drew her toward him. Looking bored but not annoyed by the attention, the girl let him fondle her. He spoke a little more loudly, so as to perhaps be heard by others in the room:
“I’ve been telling my friend about your house wine. I hope you’ve got a fresh jug or two for us…unwatered.”
“We always draw it fresh, sir. And there’s no water in it, ever…”
“Good, because once I’ve told this gentleman how much he is actually going to get for his shipment – as compared to what he expects to get – he’s going to need a big drink.”
There was some laughter from the nearby tables as the girl walked off to fetch the wine.
After they had eaten and were enjoying their wine a figure shuffled past them. Neither turned his head, but the man with long hair briefly lowered his lids as a signal. All the bald man saw was a lame and ragged figure, obviously old, heading toward the corner table left vacant.
Both men resisted the temptation change their manner in any way. When the new arrival was out of earshot the long haired man spoke, his manner not matching his words:
“So, that’s him. Once about as famous as a man can be. His face plastered all over the world.”
“It feels strange to be this close to him. I can’t match…you know…his name to the poor wretch who just limped by.”
“Well, live long enough and we’re all poor wretches.”
“So now we wait.”
“He’ll drink for a bit, maybe amuse himself with a chat, some reading, some drawing…”
“Mind still active, eh?”
“Maybe more than we realise. Anyway, after half an hour he’ll head for the piss hole out back. That’s our chance, but we’ll need to play it well.”
“I suppose we may as well drink a bit ourselves, or it’ll look suspicious.”
“Sure. Let’s have a drink and relax for real. That’s the best way…So, where are you from? The big city?”
“I was born in Sicily. Lost my accent…but I’m a Sicilian.”
“Really? So am I. Not that your people would ever let me go back there.”
“I suppose not.”
The two men drank on, speaking in cordial murmurs.
Some noise from the other end of the room.
“What’s he doing now?”
“Oh, he’s drawn something on a piece of old linen by the look of it. Now he’s showing it to the owner of the inn. They’re chatting about it. Now the young waitress is taking a look…He often draws things with a piece of charcoal.”
“Maybe. He’d have plenty of those.”
They waited another twenty minutes.
“This is it. He’s getting up to piss. I suggest we now act a little drunk, then follow him after maybe five minutes.”
“That’s a long piddle.”
“Well, make it four minutes. But we can’t give the impression of following him in.”
They drank on and spoke a bit more loudly. At last, they got up together, looking well pleased with their meal but a touch unsteady. The long haired man spoke to his companion for others to hear.
“I’m bursting. Think I need to strain the turnips.”
“Me too. Do they have a pot in this place?”
“Better! A hole in the ground. Follow me down that corridor in back…”
When they reached the corridor which led to the store room and piss hole, two tubby men, dicing on the floor, were blocking their way. Neither looked sober.
“Excuse us, friends. We have an irresistible urge.”
“Certainly, certainly. That’s why we spend our time here near the piss hole. My friend has a bladder that leaks like his boat. And nobody can tell his boat from his fish trap…”
“Now you’re too fat and slow to dive for urchins you’d be glad enough to own a boat like mine…But let these gentlemen pass, or they may do their business on your skull…”
“Certainly, certainly. Excuse us gentlemen, if we don’t stand. Just step round us, if you will…Ah, here comes old One Eye! That was a quick one…by his standards.”
The old man, wiping his hands on his ragged clothes, was coming toward them. The bald man and the long haired man froze in indecision, if only momentarily. Then, after a lightning exchange of glances, they knew what to do. They would finish the business now.
Suddenly a light went out, and the corridor was completely dark.
Just at that moment, one of the tubby drunks groaned as he started to rise to his feet:
“Why does everyone have to piss at once? Now One Eye’s bumped the lamp again. I can see we’ll have to move from here…”
As he stood he fell into the arms of the bald man, almost sending him to the floor.
“Oh, please excuse me, sir. Once I was as lithe as a reed, could gather twenty urchins in a dive…”
His friend draped himself round the long haired man’s shoulders and began to slur:
“Now I ask you sir, do you believe this tub of tallow could ever have been much of a diver? I ask you to be my witness that he is is more the type to burgle other men’s craypots. I mean, just look at the sorry sack of guts…”
The old man walked right past them as they tried to wriggle free of the drunks. They could see the deep creases of the famous face, the scars, the bandage round the dead eye…This was him!
They were just about to follow when one of the tubby drunks grabbed at both their legs.
“You’re going the wrong way, sirs. You must be drunker than me. The piss hole is this way…”
They kicked the drunk away, but in the few extra seconds of distraction the old man had passed right by them. A moment later he was obscured by a supporting pillar and some piled casks.
There was a slam. By the time his two pursuers had blundered back into the dining room, the door to the outside was wide open. They dashed on to the street.
“Quickly, you run left and I’ll run right. He can’t get far.”
Each man chased in his appointed direction. After a few minutes they came back together in front of the inn, panting.
“He can’t have outrun us. There are no side alleys in these eastern towns, just house on house.”
“Maybe he ran into a house…but there was no time…and in this dock neighbourhood they keep their doors bolted…unless…”
“Unless he never left the inn!”
They turned to rush back inside, only to find the door not only closed but bolted. They began to hammer on it as loudly as they could. Eventually a head peeped from the window above. It was the young waitress.
“Sirs! Are you all right?”
“Of course we are. Just open the door!”
“We bolted it because we thought something had happened. In this neighbourhood, what with Greeks, Lebanese…Not that some of them aren’t nice people but…”
“Yes, yes…just open the door!”
“Perhaps if you went home now, sirs. You’ve had a lot to drink and…”
“Open up! You don’t know who we are and you don’t want to find out. Open! There’ll be some money in it for you. And for your boss. But open now or you won’t have a door!”
After a long wait – far too long – the door was opened. The bald man grabbed the waitress around her neck.
“Now, I want you to tell me where he is. Right now. No games.”
“Who sir? Where who is?”
“The old man. One Eye. Where is he?”
“Oh…I know who you mean! He’s got that rag round his head to cover his dead eye, and likes to do drawings…”
“Where is he? Do I have to shake the life out of you, girl?”
“Didn’t he leave before you?”
“No games, I said. Where is One Eye? Or do I have to tear this place apart?”
The remaining customers and the owner of the inn had been watching on impassively. At this last threat, the owner spoke:
“Didn’t I see him go upstairs? I wouldn’t have thought he could handle the climb, but I thought I saw him going up the steps.”
The long haired man tugged the bald man away.
“Of course! The roof. All these houses have flat roofs…”
“And all connected to each other!”
A few minutes later they had pushed through the trap and were standing on the roof of the inn. Before them, in the darkness, a sea of roofs, each with a trap down into a dwelling. Beyond the roofs to the west, a sea full of boats and ships. To the east, mountains and then Asia. The bald man shook his head. The other asked:
“What do you want to do?”
“Nothing. We’d need an army, and even then…”
“What gave us away? We did nothing to indicate what we were.”
“We convinced ourselves and most others. The problem was to convince him. All we can do is learn for next time, if there is a next time.”
“So the whole long process just starts again? We wait for him to get settled somewhere, probably in the east, hope for luck and good informers?”
“What else can we do? He won’t surface here now. We’ve played our hand. We’ll be lucky if we’re allowed to try again.”
“But we had him, cold. I could have stuck a knife in his throat or gizzards easily. God, if it weren’t for the orders about discretion I could have just walked up to him at his table and opened him up. I just needed a few seconds. Instead, he won a few seconds with stupid distraction. Just a few seconds when we were off balance, hesitating…All he needed.”
“It’s all he’s ever needed. The stupider the distraction the more effective. When will we learn? When will the world learn?”
The two men were sulking at the table where the old man had been sitting. The innkeeper brought them a large jug and some cups. As he was leaning to serve them the long haired man gripped his arm hard. It was a murderous grip like only some can apply, and it said as much as his words:
“In the normal run of things I’d find a way to torture every one of you till you squealed what you know. Then you’d be put to eternal silence…”
“Just listen to me. I know the man we were after is long gone, and nothing you can tell us will help find him. All we want now is discretion. I am about to put a large sum of money down on this table. Make sure that money gets spread around so everything which happened here tonight remains secret. If you try to involve the local authorities you may find you embarrass them and yourself far more than us. Actually, you won’t be embarrassed. You’ll be too dead to be embarrassed.”
The long haired man emptied a purse on to the table. The innkeeper gasped at the sum.
“Pick it up, keep some of it, then spread the rest around to buy complete silence. Understood?”
The two men began to drink sullenly. The bald one began to inspect a piece of old linen left on the table. He let out a sigh.
“What is it?”
“This drawing the old man did. What do you make of it?”
The other inspected the rag smeared with charcoal lines and figures.
“It looks like a plan of an old battle. Pretty weird battle, though. No attack. Stationary elephants blocking and unblocking a blind pass. A breakout then feigned flight down a valley…the main body of the army retreating along ridges…Maybe something he was just doodling…Maybe a memory of a battle long ago…”
“Or maybe the plan of an action which occurred less than an hour ago? A plan passed on to confederates?”
The long haired man winced and could say nothing for a moment. At last the other asked:
“What will you do next?”
“I’ll have to tell certain Numidians to whisper to certain senators of Carthage that their inconvenient hero is still on the loose. And you?”
“Certain of the Senate and the Roman People will have to be told the thing they least like hearing in all this world: namely, that Hannibal Barca has won yet again.”