An overly-plump grey pigeon with white breast feathers in the shape of a heart waddled through the flock. He rocked back and forth in his approach as if nursing two arthritic hips. I assumed him the male of the species based on the way he bustled through his brethren. He was a good pound or two heavier than those pecking away busily to each side. Stout like an old soldier, he scattered the meeker of his species aside, leaving them to cower in his wake. He stopped a foot from my feet and looked up at me with disdain. Up close, his feathers displayed the ravages of time, years spent living rough. Though, his beady eyes were sharp and penetrating, the look of an alpha male and accustomed to getting his way. I decided to name him Frank, after my father. True, Frank, my father, was much more fastidious about his appearance, but the eyes had the same hard, cold, stare. The human Frank’s laser-focused glare made those caught in its tractor beam immediately question their worth without a word spoken.
Frank the pigeon’s look had the same effect. I tossed him a good measure of flatbread from the paper bag by my side and hoped he was satiated. Frank shuffled off with the flatbread clenched tightly in his beak, the crowd again parting before him. If only it were that simple to make Frank, my father, happy.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not some bum that’s never held down a decent job. I’m a well-respected foreign correspondent, I’ve travelled the globe for the past ten years reporting from the world’s hotspots. Granted, the imminent death of the printed newspaper was staring each of us in the profession squarely in the eyes; the work more freelance than it was in years past. But, robust reporting and the nerve to boldly go, etcetera, etcetera . . . Meaning, I eked out a living, albeit, ten thousand miles removed from Frank and his condescending stare.
My name is Matt Latham, the only child of Frank Latham. Excuse me – Sir Frank Latham. My mother, Dawn, died giving birth to yours truly thirty-four years and four months previous, come next month. And Father has never let me live that down. Frank spent the better part of fifty years of his life wooing and placating world leaders as Australia’s representative within the Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade. Although, his successes as a trade representative, then later as Ambassador, never did translate well to the home-front. Frank, managing each evening to deposit his diplomacy skills at the front door along with his hat, coat and umbrella. Later, with a scotch or three under his belt, he was happy to tell all and sundry that the worst trade deal he ever made was exchanging the love of his life for a little bundle of disappointment at the Harare Central Hospital.
I closed my eyes, leaned back against the hard wooden bench and allowed the warmth of the sun’s rays to wash away the negative thoughts of yesteryear. The drive this morning from Thessaloniki to Skopje, the Republic of Macedonia’s capital, took three hours. I’d arrived in time for an early lunch of Burek, a local meat and pastry dish, and a couple of Zlaten Dab beers. Dappled sunlight filtered through the limbs of the plane tree overhead. The combined effects of the travel, food and drink weighed heavily on my eyelids. The bench I’d chosen in the Parc de la Francophile faced the Vardar River which meandered by sluggishly under the late summer sun. To my left, a gaggle of young women chatted amicably while their flock ran amok in the park’s playground. To my right, nestled amongst the trees, lay a squat seven-building complex owned by the Macedonian Government.
My contact had chosen this park for our meet. She’d mentioned it in passing during one of our conversations. The harried call to my cell number came yesterday and caught me by surprise in my hotel room in Thessaloniki.
– Can you meet me tomorrow? I’ll be in Skopje.
– Sure. Where? What time?
– One in the afternoon. By the river, that park I told you about.
Besijana Shala worked within a trade delegation for the Republic of Kosovo. Her group arrived from the Kosovan capital, Pristina, that morning and were heading back tomorrow. Their itinerary strictly controlled by the Macedonian government. On the surface, the two countries maintained a friendly diplomatic relationship. However, this is the Balkans, and the depth of trust between Nations is as shallow as the graves that litter the mountainsides in this part of the world.
On the drive, north, along the winding E75 motorway I wondered of the urgent request to meet, and what the information Besijana wished to share may contain. With regards to Kosovo, the possibilities were boundless. Belgrade had begun sabre rattling once again with regards to the treatment of Kosovan Serbs in the north of the country. The central government, ruled by the Kosovan Albanian majority, called the protestations baseless and a smokescreen to incite unrest. While the Kosovan jihadists, a law unto themselves, went on their merry way plotting terrorist attacks throughout the region. The Macedonian government was taking no chances, hence the tight security for the delegation’s visit.
The fluttering of wings awakened me from my early-afternoon stupor. Besijana had taken a seat at the far end of the bench; she had half turned her back to me and began feeding the pigeons crumbs from a small brown bag. A light blue silk scarf loosely covered her long dark hair. Imitation designer sunglasses hid her dark brown, almond-shaped eyes. Her charcoal grey pantsuit, made from a cheap synthetic material, outlined her curves to perfection. Low-heeled black pumps completed the ensemble. I noticed the fire-engine red lipstick that accentuated her soft mouth the moment she turned slightly in my direction to speak.
– I can only stay five minutes. I had to beg to be allowed outside for a moment after lunch to enjoy the sun.
– What’s so important?
– A member of our delegation is working with the jihadists.
– They want the Serbs out of our country. That is a war we know we cannot win.
– What are they planning?
– Our delegation is scheduled to attend a conference in Croatia at the end of the month. Representatives from Serbia will also be present.
A terror attack on a Serbian delegation; wars had begun over less.
– How did you learn of this? And what do you propose I do with the information?
– I’m sleeping with him. I’m sorry if that hurts your feelings. And please, Matt. You’ve always asked too many questions to just be a reporter; I believe you can get in contact with the people that can stop this madness.
The first comment hurt more than I thought. Granted, we had only slept together the once, but even I still had a little pride. And the second comment was just a little too pointed for my liking. It made me wonder who exactly was in charge of this situation.
Growing up in consuls and embassies around the globe, and with a distant Father, leads a child to find his friendships anywhere he can. It’s no secret, though they’d like to think it is, that each nation’s security services make up a good proportion of embassy staff. Australia is no different. Over the years, agents of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) became mentors and some of my closest friends. And although after University I opted not to join the spooks on a full-time basis, I wasn’t averse to pushing a little information in their direction when the opportunity arose. For which I received a small stipend each month discreetly deposited into my bank account that certainly came in handy.
Besijana stood, balled up the brown bag of crumbs and dropped it in the trash can beside the bench. The growing flock of pigeons collectively sighed, then turned away in disgust.
– Retrieve the bag once the coast is clear.
And before I could say another word she was gone. I watched her retreat towards the government office complex with rapt attention. The sway of her hips transported me back to a night in Zagreb three months earlier. It was a far more carefree Besijana I encountered on that occasion. A Web-based trade publication headquartered in Berlin had contracted me to do a series of articles on the health of the various Balkan state economies. Six interviews spread over three days talking economics with the best and dullest each country offered up had me looking for a short pier on which to take a long walk. Then I met Besijana. My interview with her stretched on into dinner, which necessitated the need for several bottles of white wine, which later led to shots of Rakia at the hotel bar. Needless to say, I was truly able to make the fledgling Kosovan economy come alive for the readers.
Besijana had all but disappeared from my sight along the shaded path when she was met by two large security types wearing dark suits, white shirts and ties. The gorilla on the right took her by the arm and continued with her along the path; the other stared in my direction. I returned my attention to the flock of pigeons at my feet and resumed feeding Frank and his friends. From the corner of my eye, I watched gorilla number two turn, then look back over his shoulder. He made his best impression of Lot’s wife staring back at Sodom, standing frozen like a statue for almost twenty seconds, before breaking the spell and lumbering away.
I took that as my cue to leave. Lowering the small bag that had made Frank my best friend into the trash can, I spotted Besijana’s balled-up brown bag and quickly palmed it before taking the path that led to the river.
The hotel where I was staying was on the north side of the Vardar close by the 12th-century bazaar. I crossed the pedestrian bridge over the river, removed the thumb drive from the paper sack along the way, and dropped it into the front pocket of my pants. The streets were near empty in the early afternoon, with most of the shops that I passed closed. Time moved at a different pace in this corner of the world. Store hours were more a guideline and not to be taken too literally. Closing for lunch was expected; returning afterwards not always a given.
My assignment in Athens; two thousand words on the Greek economy a year removed from their near financial collapse, had been spit-polished and filed earlier in the week. Unsurprisingly, I found little had changed. The nation that had given birth to democracy over twenty-six hundred years previous was still resting on those laurels. The Greeks surmising that if that little nugget of knowledge offered up to civilization didn’t earn you at least three millennia of kicking back with your feet up, what did? I’d agonized over how to break it to the hard-working German readers, for whom the article was intended, that their euros were funding an economy that still paid workers an additional stipend just for showing up to work on time. The three-day side-trip to Thessaloniki to produce a short travel piece was my reward for a job well done, and an extra few days in the sun, before returning to the hustle and bustle of chilly old London.
I’d called London home for the past two years. The perfect city to lose one’s self; where little was expected from a mid-thirties transplant from the colonies. And half a world away from a Father that I’d given up on trying to please, an ex-wife whom I’d never been able to please, and my ten-year-old son. A son, Trevor, whose memories of his Father were stripped away piece by piece each and every day. The constant drip-drip-drip of derision and spite from his Mother eroding the fragile familial bond between us. The day would come when I’d be able to explain myself to him; explain why I could eloquently type a thousand words on any topic at the drop of a hat, but whose throat constricted and the words became a jumbled mess when trying to explain love and loss and betrayal. But it still wouldn’t be any day soon.
I had no idea what the thumb drive contained that sat comfortably in my left-front pocket, but my reporter’s curiosity was getting the better of me. I also needed an expert that would best know what to do with the information. A scoop was one thing, but an exclusive that came dripping in the blood of innocent lives was one I could gladly pass on, thank you very much.
Reaching into my back pocket, I pulled out my mobile and scrolled through the contact listing until I found the number for which I was searching. The ringing of the phone on the desk of Ryan Purcell at the Australian High Commission in London reverberated back to me over the airwaves a moment later.
– Ryan Purcell. How may I help you?
– Ryan, it’s Matt.
– Matt, ya’ old bastard. What are you up to?
Ryan, is technically what you would call my handler. I hated the term because I still didn’t think of myself as an agent. And forget any thought about adding in the word “secret.” Daring-do was never going to be part of my calling card, at least, not if I could help it. He was an old friend from our days together at Melbourne University, that just happened to be recruited by ASIS after graduation. Also, a good man to have a drink with and someone I trusted in turning over information that I uncovered in the course of my travels.
I knew that all calls were recorded as a matter of course, and possibly also by MI5, British Intelligence – if not others – so I kept the conversation short and cryptic.
– I’m in Skopje doing a little sightseeing and picked up a small gift for your birthday.
Luckily, it was his birthday next week, so the conversation would pass muster if anyone decided to check.
– They tell me the Macedonian mail service is a little sketchy and I want to make sure you receive it on time. Can I pass it along to someone here at the Consulate?
As this would make the first gift I’d ever bought for him, I felt confident that he’d gotten the gist of my call.
– Sure. Let me make a call and . . . some . . . loc . . . pos.
Ryan’s voice was cutting out. I checked my phone and noticed the signal icon registering just one bar. I crossed the road hoping to improve the reception, assuming the massive stone walls that surrounded the 10th-Century citadel I was walking in the shadow of had something to do with it. As I glanced to the left and right watching for traffic, I observed one of the Kosovan gorillas two hundred yards further down the road with a phone to his ear.
I turned away but kept him in my peripheral vision as I tried to reconnect with Ryan.
– Ryan, you were cutting out. Say again.
– I said I’ll have someone local call you as soon as possible. Keep your phone handy.
– Will do.
I ended the call, picked up my pace and thought through my dilemma. The knuckle-dragger I’d spied on my tail may just be taking a stroll around town. If so, then it was quite the coincidence. I didn’t believe in coincidence. In that case, he and his superiors had a fair idea that Besijana and I were talking. If so, they’d keep an eye on me while they asked Besijana a few pointed questions.
The good news was they hadn’t yet made a move, just keeping me under observation, meaning that Besijana hadn’t yet given anything away. The bad news was these bastards didn’t play games, so I doubted she could hold out for long.
As the implications of that scenario ran through my mind like a Tarentino movie, I resisted the urge to break out into a slow jog. Any sign of panic would surely tip my hand. All the while the thumb drive burned a hole in my pocket.
I’d reached the flagstone-paved alleys of the old bazaar. The narrow lanes wound back and forth in no discernable direction. Aged store owners, their faces deeply lined, sat on plastic chairs in front of their dilapidated storefronts willing passing tourists to step inside and sample their wares. The tangy scent of spices and roasting meat, beef and lamb, was heavy in the air. Out front of the many taverns, tables sprouted large green umbrellas advertising the local beer and formed a canopy repelling all daylight.
My tail had not closed the space between us quickly enough. I hurried down one alley after the other, turning left then right at random. After each turn, I’d quickly sprint ahead for ten or twenty yards widening the distance to my pursuer. Hoping I’d given the ape the slip I turned left once more and found myself in a large open plaza. Five laneways fed into the square with a large dun-colored mosque at its center. The open space was not what I needed, the first door on the left was an antique shop, so I ducked inside.
The elderly lady seated behind the counter snapped awake and smiled up at me with a mouth that had more gaps than teeth. Her leathery face, hardened by the sun, crinkled with the effort. I smiled back and gave the universal sign for “I’m just looking.” At least that’s what I hoped the waving of my arms indicated. The front window display was crammed with every knick-knack known to man, I could barely see the glass let alone the plaza beyond.
I only had to wait a moment for the gorilla to burst, huffing and puffing, into the plaza. My burly assailant gave the open expanse a quick look over and the realization that he’d lost me quickly dawned on his face. He pulled a mobile phone from his jacket pocket, punched a few buttons, then held it to the side of his square head as he dragged a paw through his thick black hair. The conversation was brief, the slumping off his shoulders as he trudged back in the direction from whence he’d come indicated he wouldn’t be getting an additional serving of bananas tonight.
The old lady behind the counter had fallen back asleep, or into a coma – it was hard to tell; her body sinking into the cushions as if she’d lost compression. I crept from the store and headed in the opposite direction to the gorilla and towards my hotel. Feeling relieved that I’d given my tail the slip, I looked forward to a cold beer at the hotel bar while waiting for the Consulate man to make contact. I’d feel a whole lot better once the thumb drive was in safe hands; however, the fate of Besijana put a damper on my exuberance. Once back in Thessaloniki, I’d try and make contact. The entire situation had been of her making, but that didn’t quell the guilt pangs stabbing me in the gut.
I pulled up abruptly as I rounded the corner leading towards my hotel. Ahead, gorilla number two was exiting the hotel, with a phone to his ear. I backed up slowly, back around the corner, and hoped he hadn’t spotted me. How did they know where I was staying? The answer was as clear as the look of panic on my face. I’d previously told Besijana this was my favorite hotel in town. They’d gotten that information from her, and I had to believe they also now knew what I was carrying. My rental car was in the courtyard behind the hotel, its only entry and exit point twenty feet from where the Kosovan body-builder paced. There was no way I could get to it without being seen.
I spotted a taxi on the other side of the street parked in the shade of a large pine tree. The driver had the front door open, the seat fully reclined and his legs spread-eagled through the open window. I raced across the road and slid into the back seat.
My closing the door jolted him awake, and he spat out an exclamation in his incomprehensible language.
– Do you speak English?
– Sure. Why the fuck you wake me? I’m on break, find another driver, alright?
– I don’t have time. I’ll make it worth your while.
– Why didn’t you say so? You want tour? I give grand tour of Skopje, at fair price for you. American?
– No, Australian.
– Even better, you get discount. I, Spiro. I have relative in Melbourne. How you say? Good day, mate. What your name?
It took an eternity for Spiro to complete the sentence but gave him time to get his seat in an upright position. He stretched a seat belt across his rotund gut and buckled it with a weary sigh. His face was deeply tanned and etched with lines that mirrored the cracked vinyl on his dashboard; a bald spot on the back of his head was shaped like a poached egg and surrounded by thinning salt and pepper hair.
– It’s Matt.
– No, pretty sure saying is – mate.
– You’re right. But my name is Matt.
– Ah, I get it. You Australians always pulling legs.
Speaking of legs, I was still trying to get mine situated in the back of the cramped Soviet-era Lada as Spiro pulled out of the parking space. I’m not a tall man, just a shade under six feet, but the rear seat had me wishing I was one of Snow White’s seven friends.
– Take a right here.
Spiro had come to a stop at the intersection. I chanced a glance to the left in the direction of my hotel. The burly hunk of beef was still stalking back and forth on the pavement. A moment later I knew why. He was waiting on his ride, and it had just pulled to a stop right beside us. I quickly slunk down as low as I could, but not in time. As Spiro turned right and the Kosovans turned left, the gorilla I’d given the slip turned to face me. His dark eyes were shaded under his Neanderthal brow, but even from a distance of ten feet, I could see them sparkle in delight. The last I saw, before they turned towards the hotel, was his ugly slit of a mouth part in the vague impression of a smile.
– So where do you want to go?
I answered as I pivoted in the backseat to look through the rear window.
– Anywhere, you decide.
As I suspected the sleek black BMW with diplomatic plates made a quick U-turn in front of the hotel, picked up their partner in crime and were heading in our direction. I dug for the mobile phone in my back pocket and hit redial. While I waited for Ryan to answer my call, I imparted on Spiro an added incentive.
– You see that BMW behind us?
– It belongs to somebody’s husband. And I really don’t want to explain to him why she was out late last night. I’ll pay you double if you can lose them. Understood?
– I got it, Matt.
Spiro let out a phlegmy laugh as he punched the accelerator. The Lada skipped a beat before an ungodly whine from the engine began to increase in pitch as the speedometer’s needle inched slowly to the right.
– You Australians, fucking hilarious.
Ryan’s voice crackled through my mobile.
– Matt? What’s wrong? And what’s that noise? You onboard a fighter jet?
– Just a Lada trying to break fifty. Listen, Ryan. I’ve got a tail, and I’m not sure I can shake it. I need that local help to call me ASAP.
– Got it. Head towards the Consulate if you can. I’ll light a fire under the locals.
– Thanks, Ryan.
– And stay off the main streets. Lance Armstrong on his bike could catch a Lada. And they’ve been known to explode at sixty.
Spiro crossed the Vardar River heading south on Boulevard Kocho Racin, one of the main north-south thoroughfares. Three out of four of the Lada’s cylinders sung a frenetic tune, the fourth had lost the beat. Ahead, Mount Vodno rose majestically above the city. In a warren of streets at its base was the Australian Consulate. I chanced a look behind; the BMW was closing quickly. Any closer and I’d be able to make out the line of drool on the gorilla in the front seat.
I was in the middle of placing my chances of escaping this mess at somewhere between “slim” and “I’m fucked” when Spiro spun the wheel hard to the left.
– Fucking Gypsies!
An ancient wagon equipped with four car wheels and being pulled by a donkey had emerged from a side street directly in front of us. Spiro missed the rear of the buggy by inches. My head snapped to the right and hit the side window with a resounding “thunk.” I felt a warm trickle of blood begin to snake through my hair as we passed the wagon. Three young Romani children sitting on the bench seat each shot me their middle-finger in unison. The donkey seemed slightly embarrassed.
I dabbed at the bump on the side of my head; the cut was not serious. More importantly, the Roma family had slowed the progress of our pursuers. They were blocked, for the moment, by the wagon and the surrounding traffic.
– Spiro, keep heading south but we need to get off this main street.
Spiro mumbled something under his breath that may or may not have been English. If I had to guess he was calculating how much to charge me for this thrill ride.
Just then the sound of my ring tone rose up from the wheel-well beneath Spiro’s seat; my phone lodging under there with Spiro’s manic wheel gyrations. As I bent over to retrieve my mobile, the rear window imploded showering me in glass, the bullet embedding in the back of the passenger side headrest.
– Jesus Christ, Matt. Who you sleep with? Macedonian husbands too lazy to care this much.
– She’s from Kosovo.
A sense of calm and understanding came over Spiro as he pulled hard on the wheel and turned left across oncoming traffic.
– Oh, that explains it then. Them bastards crazy.
I grabbed my phone and remained lying across the back seat.
– Matt Latham? I hear you need some assistance.
The voice was deep, concise and unmistakably Australian. If I had to guess, an agent on his first posting; not too far removed from the training academy, and yet to lose the ambling accent borne on a sheep-station far from civilization.
– You could say that. I’m under fire, south of the river, heading your way. We’re now on side streets, but I doubt we can out run them.
It came across as, “royt.”
– I see where you are; we’ll be with you in two shakes.
– What’s that in “getting shot at” time? And how do you propose to find me?
– We’re about five minutes from you. And we’re tracking your phone signal using GPS, whatever you do don’t turn it off.
I checked the display; the battery life reading showed twenty-two percent. I prayed it was enough as I hung up.
Spiro’s mumbling was growing in intensity as he swung the wheel wildly taking corner after corner. The Lada rarely had four wheels on the ground at any one time, and the engine was needing a priest.
– You okay, Spiro?
– I survive Tito and his Communists, I survive the Serbs and their bombs, only to die trying to save Australian who pork a Muslim.
Spiro chortled ironically.
– Ha, I make Muslim joke!
– Hang in there, Spiro. We’ll get out of this; you’ll be seeing your wife and family again in no time.
– Huh, if you knew my wife, you know that no incentive to live.
Parked cars lined both sides of the narrow streets leaving only room for one vehicle. If we met oncoming traffic, we were dead. Although the narrow streets and constant turning had slowed the progress of the BMW, and they’d been unable to get another clear shot.
I needed to buy a little time for the sheep farmer to reach me, and to get Spiro out of harm’s way. I dug all the cash I had out of my wallet and dropped it on the front seat.
– Spiro. Take this.
Spiro did a quick double-take. The wad of Euros, for him, would be close to two month’s salary.
– At the next corner, after you turn, slow for a second so I can get out.
– You sure? I drive you to Athens for that amount of money.
– No. It’s yours.
I just hoped that I’d be able to slip out unseen and the ruse would buy me at least another five minutes.
The BMW was about sixty yards behind us picking its way gingerly through the congested side streets. Spiro made another left turn and slowed just enough for me to drop out of the Lada. I landed heavily on my shoulder and rolled once before hitting the front wheel of a parked car. I shimmied between two cars and hid behind a rear fender just as the BMW rounded the corner. It sped past in pursuit of Spiro.
I crouched there a moment and took stock of my situation. My shoulder hurt like hell, but I’d survive. My shirt and pants were torn and filthy from the fall, and the cut on my head had begun to bleed again. The thumb drive was still safely tucked away in my front pocket, my wallet in my back pocket and phone . . . gone.
My body temperature dropped a few degrees as a rush of ice water ran through my veins. I knew I had it in my hand when I rolled from the car; it had to be somewhere close. I searched beneath one vehicle with no luck. I was about to look under another when a screech of brakes broke the silence.
Two hundred yards further along the street a delivery van had backed out of a driveway blocking the road and stopping the escape of Spiro. My pursuers would quickly realize I wasn’t in the taxi and any second would be doubling back. I checked under the second vehicle . . . nothing. I willed myself not to panic and searched under both vehicles again. The guttering lining the roadway would’ve had to stop the phone, yet it was clear in both directions but for a large pile of pine needles. I dove my hand into their dryness, crunching the brittle slivers into a million pieces. Finally, my hand closed around a familiar shape. The high-pitched whine of an engine in reverse told me it was time to run.
Turning left, I ran alongside the scarred, concrete exterior of an apartment building; graffiti provided the only color to its drab existence. I ducked down a walkway between buildings, ensuring my pursuers had no clear line of sight. The walkway opened into a courtyard that framed a U-shaped complex. I saw no way out without heading back in the direction I’d come. Ahead, an elderly lady dressed in black and carrying two heavily-laden shopping bags was struggling with the entry door to her building. I rushed up, smiled, held it open for her and followed her inside.
The small entry-way was stuffy, dark and smelled of fried onions and cat piss. The old widow continued on up the concrete stairs worn smooth with years of foot traffic. I leaned against the wall to catch my breath and check my phone. The battery showed seventeen percent life remaining and it had been six minutes since I’d talked with the sheep-farmer. Help, I prayed, had to be arriving any moment.
The entry door to the dark vestibule had a small window, about a foot square, reinforced with wire mesh. From my vantage point deep in the shadows, I could see children kicking a soccer ball in the courtyard, across the way was another building of identical design. I could also see the other building’s entry door that mirrored the one I’d just entered. And one of the gorillas was checking to see if it was locked.
I turned and began running up the stairs; I couldn’t be sure if the door I’d entered were locked or not. The squeak of a rusty door hinge answered my question.
In my youth, I’d played a little football, but these days my athletic prowess was limited to running down a good story, which didn’t require any actual running. However, when being chased by a gorilla with a gun, the six flights of stairs flew by. Unfortunately, when I reached the top, and an imposing metal doorway to the roof blocked my path, I realized I’d run out of options.
Saying another short prayer – I’d prayed more today than in the past twenty years – I tested the handle. It gave way with a reluctant groan. If I managed to survive, I was on the hook for a hefty donation to St. Stephen’s on Uxbridge Road next Sunday. With a solid nudge from my good shoulder, I squeezed through the narrow opening. I emerged onto the rooftop and into brilliant sunlight. Shielding my eyes from the blinding reflections off of numerous metal surfaces, I surveyed my surroundings.
The carcasses of hot water tanks, portable air-conditioning units, washing machines, even an old gas heater were strewn haphazardly in all directions. I searched for something with which I could bar the door when the crack of a gunshot echoed through the concrete canyons of the surrounding apartment blocks. It was quickly followed by two more. Then silence. My rescuers had arrived, though who had stopped the bullets was anyone’s guess. I ran to the edge of the rooftop hoping to get some idea.
The bordering of the roof consisted of twelve inches of wrought-iron latticework atop an eighteen-inch-high plaster and concrete ledge. From ground level, it would have appeared quite ornate, from my perspective it seemed an irresponsible safety hazard. The top of the wrought-iron came to just above my knee, and as I grasped the metal and leaned forward to get a glimpse of the scene in the courtyard below, I also discovered it was surprisingly fragile.
Before I could react the plaster facade supporting the wrought-iron crumbled under my weight and I tumbled over the side. My body hit the side of the building with enough force to knock the wind out of me, and there I dangled with just the crook of my arm looped through a piece of the latticework still connected to its shaky underpinning. I looked down; six floors and certain death if the metal work gave way. I shouldn’t have looked down. My head swam with a sudden rush of vertigo.
Above me, the sound of a groaning rooftop door, then footsteps headed in my direction. I looked up, directly into the blazing afternoon sun, a moment later the sun was blotted out by a hulking creature peering down at my tenuous situation.
– Matt Latham, I assume. Barry Jenkins is the name.
I raised my right hand, and watched it disappear into his colossal mitt.
– Jeez, Matt.
The sheep farmer named Barry exhaled a slight grunt as he pulled me to safety.
– Bet you’ve had better days.