South by Southwest by Chris Green
I have been sitting around the house all winter waiting for the call. I have been waiting so long that I have had time to set up a profitable giclée printing business. ‘Just be ready,’ I was told. That was last October. I have frequently wondered whether the phone they gave me actually works. It looks very basic. I don’t even know the number. When I try to find out by phoning my landline from it, it comes back with number not recognised. Like everything else in this game, anonymity seems to be the key. I’m wondering whether the people who have signed me up, whoever they might be, have changed their minds about giving me a mission. They may have decided that as I was dismissed from the service that I am a bad risk. But there again, they must realise I am cheaper than others who might have similar experience in the field.
I am in the middle of my morning ablutions when it happens. I hear Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head playing. At first, I wonder where the tinny tune is coming from, but quickly track it down to the black Nokia.
‘Meet me at the railway station at 1100,’ says a female voice, with a trace of an accent I cannot place.
‘How will I recognise you?’ I ask.
She replies that there is no need for me to recognise her. She knows what I look like. ‘And bring everything you might need for a week away from home,’ she says.
I take this to mean I should include the Glock in my luggage. While I would not describe myself as a hitman, in the field it is important to be armed. It gives you that extra sense of security.
Laura does not know I am a sleeper agent. I phone and tell her not to expect me around for a few days. She seems to take it well, too well perhaps. She does not even ask why. As we have been seeing each other for three years, you would have thought she might have shown more of an interest. I have the feeling it may be because she wants more commitment. Or perhaps she feels I have been drinking too much lately.
I make a habit of arriving for a meet ten minutes early. This gives me the opportunity to do a reccy. If I do not know the person I am meeting which is frequently the case, I challenge myself to spot them before they introduce themselves. I have quite a good success rate. On this occasion, I not able to. The concourse is crowded. Most of the people milling around look suspicious. They are all dressed like extras from North by Northwest. Perhaps there is a fifties overcoat and hat convention somewhere. Eventually, a woman in a fashionable dark suit with a wide-brimmed hat seems to come out of nowhere. She hands me a black folder.
‘The instructions are here,’ she says. She looks me in the eye. It is a firm stare. ‘You will find a number to call when it is done. Phone from a public call box. You will notice a deposit in your bank account.’
Before I know it, her shapely silhouette is disappearing into the throng of passengers. I make my way to a quiet seat outside the station complex. I open the folder and carefully read the instructions. I am to liquidate Maxwell Pagan. So it is a hit after all. But, what was I expecting my clandestine mission to involve? Recovering a stolen bicycle? Helping a cat down from a tree? In the murky world of undercover operations, it’s never likely to be a walk in the park. If there were not an element of danger, they would not be employing my services.
There is a grainy close-up of Pagan wearing a trilby and a mid-range shot of him in a blue double-breasted suit. All very old school, but how could anyone recognise him from these? Pagan is believed to be somewhere in the South West of England. There are details of several sightings in Devon and Cornwall. I should check out these locations as a starting point.
They have provided me with a rail ticket to Exeter. Second class. And booked me into a hotel under the name, Foster Grant. Who thinks up these names? I check my bank account on my iPhone. The deposit could not be considered generous for a hit but what did I expect from these cheapskates? Their initial retainer ran out in the first week. What do they imagine I’ve been living on all this time while I’ve been waiting for the call? I’ve no doubt they would argue that as I am freelance, I am open to other offers. But they must realise it is difficult for an out of favour agent to find work. In this business, there seems to be a zero-tolerance towards drinking and word quickly gets around. It’s a good thing that I have been able to apply printing skills to counterfeiting to keep the wolf from the door.
I do not know the South West well, so on the train, I get the laptop out and take a good look at Google Maps to acquaint myself with the lie of the land. Devon and Cornwall have hundreds of miles of spectacular coastline. There are worse places to find yourself for a week. The downside is that with the sightings of Pagan being so far apart, there is a huge area to cover, much of it wild. I decide that when I get to Exeter, I’ll hire a four by four.
Who exactly is Maxwell Pagan? The dossier is short on facts. I have no age, no address, no phone number, no car registration, no profession, no family information, no character traits, no clubs or organisations, no affiliations, no interests. Just a couple of photos and a list of sightings. Apparently, he is five foot nine. I look around the train. Nearly everyone is about five foot nine, even the women. Unsurprisingly, an internet search is of no help. There are several Maxwell or Max Pagans across the pond, but the search engines give me nothing closer to home. I search the UK Electoral Register, onlinelandregistry and DVLA. Not a single Maxwell Pagan.
People assume that undercover agents work for security organisations like MI5 or MI6, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. None of the organisations I have worked for has any monikers. We are just loose groups of individuals given instructions from people we don’t know. We don’t have colleagues. We don’t work in open-plan offices where we talk about Champions League football in our breaks. Nor do we go out on ops together in unmarked cars with gizmos and gadgets. We are merely operatives paid for doing a job that might or might not be legal.
I am at the Café Alf Resco at the harbour-side in Dartmouth, enjoying an afternoon cocktail. It’s quite relaxing listening to the jazz playing and looking at the boats. But wait, isn’t that man in the unseasonable trench-coat with the dark glasses the same one I saw at Exeter station? If it is, it could indicate that I am on the right track and someone else is looking for Maxwell Pagan. Perhaps they are tailing me thinking I know what I am doing. But it could mean they are after me and waiting for the right moment to strike.
‘Does that man come here a lot?’ I ask the well turned-out barista. His name badge says, Mario. He doesn’t look Italian.
‘Which geezer would you be talking about, guv?’ he says. He doesn’t sound Italian.
‘The one with the big coat on,’ I say.
‘Couldn’t say, mate,’ he says. ‘We get so many weirdos around here that I don’t take a lot of notice. Know what I mean. It’s the Naval connection, innit.’ He’s not from around here, either. He’s probably from my neck of the woods.
‘So you wouldn’t have noticed this one either,’ I say, showing him the photos.
‘No, ‘fraid not, squire.’ he says with a practised air of distraction. I get the impression that he would say this even if he had seen Pagan. Perhaps I should have left the enquiry until after I’d tipped him and slipped it in on the way out.
Trench-coat does not appear to follow me when I leave Café Alf Resco, but here he is again at Tangerine Tree in Totnes. He is tracking me somehow. Should I search my hired Freelander for a GPS tracker? He must have realised that it is going to be warmer than yesterday because he has got rid of the coat. He has a summer jacket on but I wouldn’t be betting that he isn’t packing a gun. Perhaps he thinks the Rayban sunglasses render him unrecognisable. Doesn’t he realise that I have been on courses? I debate whether to approach him and ask him politely why he is following me, whether to point a gun at his head in the car park or whether to suggest we pool our resources to find Pagan.
None of these happens. I don’t know how I come to be tailing him in his big Nissan, but I manage to stay behind him all the way across country to Mortehoe. Technically speaking, it is not my fault he drives over a cliff, but testimony to my driving skills that I do not follow him. I do not think there are any witnesses, which is handy as there is bound to be an investigation.
Witnessing an accident in the field is always traumatic. It is something you come across time and time again in this line of work but you never get used to it. You can never be sure of the facts and there is no way to go back and check. What’s done is done. That’s it. Move on. But still!
I find some suitably cathartic music on the radio, Sibelius I think, and take a B Road back to Exeter. This takes me through Exmoor National Park, a unique landscape of moorland that goes on forever. I am not in a sightseeing frame of mind. I might as well be on the moon. I have a medicinal shot or two at Cullompton Services. When I get back to my room at the Travelodge, I find a woman in my bed, which is nice, but I wasn’t expecting one.
‘Room service is improving,’ I say.
‘Save the smartass for later,’ she says. ‘Now, let’s get you in a good mood then we can discuss how we’re going to find Maxwell Pagan.’
This is certainly a surprising offer but not an unwelcome one, and she seems particularly adept at cheering a lonely man up. Half an hour later I feel much more optimistic.
‘I’m Olga,’ she says, by way of a belated introduction. Whether or not this is her name doesn’t really matter.
‘I’m Foster,’ I say. Whether or not this is my name doesn’t really matter. ‘I guess it’s time to review the case then Olga, wouldn’t you say? What have you got?’
She takes out a folder similar to the one I have but red and hands me a wad of large-format photos of Pagan. If you saw this person, you would recognise him easily from these pictures. They are clear and sharp. Also, they look as though they might have been taken around these parts.
‘This one’s in Penzance,’ she says. ‘And, there’s Fowey. Then we have Plymouth, I think. This one’s Truro. …..’
‘This one is Exeter,’ I say. ‘And is that one with him in front of the estate agents, Torquay?’
‘Babbacombe,’ she says. ‘Then there’s Bude and Padstow.’
‘He moves around a fair bit,’ doesn’t he?’ I say, examining a photo from force of habit to see how much it has been Photoshopped.
While I am doing this Olga unfolds an A3 spreadsheet listing all the locations where Pagan has allegedly been sighted within the last month, along with the times of day. She is a mine of information. Why she needs me is not obvious.
It is not until the next morning that I discover why. Olga has disappeared, along with my gun. This might be a staple of spy thrillers but it has never happened to me before. I have never been done over like this. I must be getting rusty. At least, I have avoided the other clichés, like being knocked unconscious, interrogated and tortured, or tied up and left in a dark room. But how could I have been so trusting? What was I told all those years ago? Trust no one, not even me. I can hear, my instructor, Boris Whitlock saying it.
I cannot face the thought of breakfast at the Travelodge. Perhaps this has something to do with all the supercilious drones there will be sitting around in their business suits, checking their Outlook calendars and tweeting away on their smartphones. More likely though it is to do with my hangover. How much did I have to drink last night? Instead of breakfast, I take the Freelander for a drive down the estuary with the windows open to the little town of Dawlish, home of the black swan as it advertises itself.
In the field, you constantly face the risk of things going wrong. You have to brace yourself for setbacks, accustom yourself to occasional misfortune. You establish procedures which minimise the risk. This is something you learn over time. Perhaps you never stop learning. So, what is the lesson here? There’s no such thing as a free lunch, perhaps.
I need to go somewhere quiet where I can regroup and decide what to do next. After all, I have been in difficult situations before. I just need to compose myself. My rule of thumb is to give it fifty-five minutes to adjust to any new situation. A new strategy should then present itself.
I settle on a table outside a café on the Strand and order a full English breakfast. It is then that I catch sight of him. It is definitely Pagan. He is going into Pearson Ranger Estate Agents. Might this explain the sightings? He is buying property in the South West. I realise that land and property ownership can be a contentious issue, but it is not usually a reason to kill someone. On the other hand, someone must have a reason or I would not be here now. I do not know who has ordered the killing. Mine is not to reason why. I am being paid, however badly, to do a job. Why do I do it? I don’t know. I suspect that I am just a bad man.
So, to the task at hand. Now that I have found Pagan I can tail him, but Olga has my gun. There are other ways to take someone out, but in my line of work, the bullet is by far the most popular method. Olga may, of course, appear anytime and do the job for me. She might be hiding around the corner, or in the back seat of his car waiting for him to return for all I know. It seems likely she is being paid by a different agency to the one who is paying me. My people don’t appear to be the type to pay two hitmen. But what the hell! Is any of this important? Why don’t I just hand the money back and go back to my giclée printing?
I hear the great Boris Whitlock’s booming baritone, from all those years ago in the underground bunker in the secret location that wasn’t even on OS maps, saying, ‘failure is not an option. No matter what difficult circumstances may arise, you must always complete your mission.’
With this in mind, I sidle down the street to Pearson Ranger and look in the window. I cannot see very much of the inside but I can’t help noticing that all the houses advertised in the window except for one have been marked, SOLD. What an odd situation! I realise that property has been on the up and Dawlish might be a popular location, but surely the market can’t be that buoyant. I remember some friends of mine telling me only last week that they had had to drop the price to get a sale. Boris Whitlock’s voice starts up once again. I begin to wonder how I can complete my mission. Could I strangle Pagan with my tie or my belt?
Pagan emerges from Pearson Ranger. He does not appear to notice me but then why would he? Why would he be aware of my existence? I keep an eye on him as he crosses the road. He is exactly how he looked in Olga’s photos. Displaying an air of self-confidence he goes into the estate agents on the other side of the road. Placing myself outside, I can see at a glance that except for one, all the houses advertised have big stickers on saying SOLD.
I can’t just go in and strangle him. I have to wait for him to come out and then …….. Before I can work out my strategy, Olga drives up and parks her car. I don’t know whether to be puzzled, shocked or angry.
‘How did you know I would be here?’ I say. ‘Or for that matter, Pagan?’
‘I’m guessing you don’t even remember the conversation we had last night,’ she says. ‘When I saw the empty whiskey bottle this morning, I didn’t think you would be up for much today, so I went on ahead to do a reccy. I’ve been all around Dawlish and Teignmouth this morning. You’d be surprised just how many estate agents there are here.’
‘What!’ I say.
‘Last night we reasoned that this morning we would discover Pagan buying up property in Dawlish and Teignmouth.’
‘We did? How did we work that out?’
‘I told you. ……….. Don’t you remember? I had a call from my …….. researcher. And from his information, we worked out that Pagan would be here today. ……… Perhaps you felt bad at having brought so little to the table.’
‘Well, I must have remembered something about Dawlish at some level. I mean, I came here, didn’t I?’ I say, trying desperately to recover some ground.
‘You do remember us finding out the reason that we have been given the task of getting rid of Pagan, don’t you?’
‘Do I?’ I say, trying to remember something, anything, of last night’s drunken conversation.
‘He is buying up Devon and Cornwall house by house, little by little, piece by piece and we have been assigned to stop him. You don’t remember saying you couldn’t understand how someone who had been making such obvious moves had left so little trace.’
‘It does ring a bell, now you come to mention it, yes.’
‘Pagan, of course, is not his real name. But, Foster, and I don’t suppose that is your real name either, the fellow in there already owns large chunks of Devon and Cornwall. He is rich beyond belief and yet no-one seems to know who he is. He might have made his money out of mining or telecoms, gas pipelines or media ownership, currency manipulation, pharmaceuticals, illegal drugs even. Nobody knows. Anonymously, he is building an empire down here in the South West. All I can tell you is that my people don’t want him to build an empire down here in the South West.’
‘I don’t suppose you know who your people are either,’ I say.
‘Do you know who your people are?’
‘No, I don’t. I’ve absolutely no idea. But if what you say is true your people and my people, whether or not they are the same ones, must stand to gain from getting Pagan out of the way, or they wouldn’t be doing it.’
‘And they pay us peanuts.’
‘Same old, isn’t it?’
‘Let’s get on with it then.’
‘Well, Olga, and I don’t suppose that is your real name either,’ I say. ‘You’ve got the gun.’
‘What gun? I don’t have a gun. Why do you think I teamed up with you?’
‘But you have my gun,’ I say.
‘What! I don’t. …….. Oh no! You mean you’ve lost your gun too.’
© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved