Escape From Saranda
Lorik Antic gasped for breath as he collapsed onto the sand. The rowing had taken it out of him. But it was all worth it. He wasn’t fit for this game anymore; his fatigue and sense of purpose told him that much. His decision had been a just one. It was time to get out.
He had jumped ship about thirty kilometres out from Saranda, the port in the south of Albania out of which his station had been based. At this time of year, it was mainly full of holidaymakers, what with the country’s decision to move with the times and invite just about anyone visiting Greece or Corfu in, or indeed anyone willing to buy up the property. But on the last ferry of the day there were relatively few of these, just some day-trippers out from Corfu who must have missed the afternoon connection. The vessels that ran between Saranda and Kerkyra were small cruisers, and it was difficult to lose yourself, hide yourself away as it were. But Antic, who made the trip every other day, had figured out a moment.
Just a moment. On this particular late crossing to the Greek island, they passed a larger ferry headed up towards Bari from Igoumenitsa in Greece, via Kerkyra, and the turbulence in the water caused by the larger vessel was usually enough to put the holidaymakers in that frame of mind where they looked out over the water, in case the contents of their stomachs decided to make an appearance. At that moment, one could steady themselves against the driver’s cabin and make their way around to the back of the cruiser, where there were two lifeboats bound to the wales. And that was precisely what one had done.
Ignoring his own nausea, Antic had quickly untied the lines and freed one of the dinghies. He waited as the cruiser rocked on the waves, and the heads of the boatmen and the passengers followed the path of the bigger ferry, before pushing the orange shape over the side and, vaulting the handrail, he followed it. He very nearly bounced upon hitting the rubber but he managed to grab onto the small, white mooring line on the front of the dinghy and stop himself. There had been a peculiar, rubbery splash as he had landed, but it seemed to have been drowned out by the engines. Everyone still onboard continued to gaze out of the port side at the Bari ferry.
He had floundered in the slipstream of the cruiser until he began to drift off, still bobbing slightly in the makeshift waves. It had occurred to him that this was a reasonably busy shipping lane, and that he should get moving before he was spotted or simply mown down. It occurred to him too as he detached the oars from their brackets and began to row towards the headland of Kassiopi that he had removed one of the two lifeboats that the ferry needed to comply with safety regulations, and he felt a little guilty. But it was a short trip that never ran into any problems so far as he had seen, and besides, if the tourists weren’t so overweight they could all fit in the other dinghy.
As could probably be gleaned from his attitude towards tourists, Lorik Antic was local, or at least as local as it was possible to be in this part of the world. He wasn’t sure, for instance, what country he had been born in. He knew from his parents before they had died that he was Kosovo-Albanian, which for some reason meant that there was a group of bastards living next door that he was supposed to support and another group of bastards in Serbia someplace that he was supposed to oppose. When he was a kid, he had been taken to an international friendly football match between Bosnia Herzegovina and Albania, and had been hit in the face by a flare thrown by a Bosnian fan. While he had cried at the burning sensation turning his tears into molten wax, his uncle who had accompanied him had shouted something to someone else in their stand. After the match, there were reports of a scuffle in the streets outside the stadium in Bari, and that a Bosnian fan had been killed. Antic was in no doubt looking back that it had been the man who had thrown the flare. And it had bothered him, because although his eyes had stung for a while, he was no wuss and it had not been worth a man’s life. The whole conflict was stupid. His country. Theirs.
Maybe that was the day he was destined to become an International. Going where he liked. Seeing what he wanted. And taking as much or as little for himself as he desired. But those dreams had been shattered. He was not seen as a valuable enough asset to jet around the world, checking on the many thousands of back-street deals and pipelines of small, wrapped packages going one way and hard cash the other, or as being a strong enough man to go along as an enforcer or bodyguard. He was a rat in the pipeline, and had been from day one. Antic had taken some time recently to consider that. He had wandered around the docks in Saranda where he was stationed, not fifty kilometres from where he had grown up, probably. He had spied a rat running along a rusty length of piping on one of the bulwarks. It had been raining and the pipe must have been slippery. But the creature had clung on with its little claws and eventually made it to the other end of the tightrope, disappearing valiantly into a hole in the sea-wall where it presumably made its nest. A rat was a strong creature; small enough to dodge bullets, and cunning enough to achieve its ends. He had hatched his escape plan that day. And it had been easy.
What Antic’s paymasters required of him on a day-to-day basis was to meet with their guy in Kerkyra. The man; a squat fisherman who met him in an internet cafe, of all places, would drop a small parcel on his keyboard and leave, immediately. It was Antic’s job to first pay the man, by depositing money in a small storage locker downtown, before returning with the package to Saranda. There were sometimes sniffer-dogs at the port in Kerkyra, and Antic got around them by purchasing some of the pungent moussaka from the takeaway restaurant in the terminus. It seemed to distract the dogs. That said, he was told the contents of the parcel were untraceable anyway. The Internationals didn’t muck about.
There were never dogs in Saranda; the mutts there had too many fleas. The customs guys looked at you for the standard four seconds and let you pass. Sometimes, they didn’t even stamp his passport anymore. Antic would head home, perhaps picking up his groceries with what he skimmed off of the Corfu fisherman’s pay, and wait in his apartment until he was visited by the man in glasses. He would wordlessly take the parcel from Antic and pay him. The man was always well-dressed, and that’s how Antic knew that he regularly skimmed some off of his pay-packet too. He supposed if everyone did it, it became okay.
And that was his life. But he had never enjoyed it. It was dull and repetitive. His possible homeland and its neighbour Corfu held no appeal for him anymore. He figured if he was a rat in the pipeline, he could escape and he could thrive. They would never find him. He was intelligent and nondescript enough to avoid suspicion anywhere he might choose to live, and could do a damn sight better on his own without being fleeced by some flashy punk every other day. But even he, self-confident to the point of being brash, had not reckoned on it being this easy.
He had set out to board the late ferry, as he sometimes did, to meet with the fisherman the next morning. No-one saw him. No-one looked twice. There were contacts with the organisation who sometimes stopped by to check on things, but they were not due for another month. By the time they looked in on him, he would be long gone. He had taken the dinghy and rowed with all his might across the shipping lanes to Corfu. The vista of the mighty Mount Pantokrator was a beacon in the distance that he aimed for, but it slid out of sight as the currents dragged him further and further West. If he allowed himself to drift much more, he would become stranded in the Ionian Sea and completely at the mercy of the tides. But he was not one for giving up, much as the rat. He plunged the oars into the water and made a beeline for the cape, where an old castle lay in ruins and, passing that, was then pulled into a cove where the outer buildings of the small town were still visible. It looked like a haven for tourists. The current finally released him and he was able to ease the dinghy into the bay and felt the sand and shingle beneath him as he touched the beach. He had just enough strength remaining to jump out and drag the lifeboat ashore before collapsing in a sweating and steaming heap on the cool sand.
Okay, he thought, maybe not so easy…
The warm water lapped against his ankles. It was late in the year, but the waters around here were always tepid. Antic blew loudly and pushed himself to his feet, brushing grass-like seaweed and sand from his clothes. It was colder out of the water and he forced himself to keep moving, dragging the dinghy towards the top of the beach.
No-one else was visible, as by now it had grown very late. It was not dark, as the sky was clear and a crescent moon illuminated much of the Ionian Sea. There were artificial lights glowing in nearby Kassiopi. The man in the glasses up on the cape didn’t need any of them, though. This was the twenty-first century. The binoculars that he had been given saw in infrared. He had used a pocket-torch to get up among the ruins, which were protected by the locals to an extent. The old castle was a place of some historical note, having stood many hundreds of years ago. Now all that remained were hunks of green rock and collapsed pillars. Perhaps for that reason, the locals had only seen fit to put up a small, wooden fence. He had just needed to climb over it.
The leader of The Internationals had requested he keep an eye on Antic ever since it had become clear that he was skimming money off somewhere and could have been stockpiling it for an escape. He had caught the earlier afternoon ferry over to the island and had driven up the coast a way to his lodging near Ipsos. The call had come through as he had pulled up, from the captain of the ferry. A woman had watched him as he put his phone away and got back in his car. Maybe she had seen the expression on his face change.
He had met the fisherman up where the man had his mooring, up towards the north coast, by which time he had supposed the cruiser would pass him on the way. The fisherman had met him with the equipment up on the winding coast road. He was Greek, and smiled at the ferry below them as it passed on its way to the port.
“You will have to hurry, sir, if you want to beat him to the town. The ferry will dock in twenty minutes.”
“He’s not on board. It appears our friend has jumped ship.” They spoke in English, the Greek man with a strong accent. All of the pipeline was required to speak the language.
“You know the captain?”
“He knows me. Good night, sir.” The man in the glasses got back in his car and the tyres spun as he continued on his way north to the tip of the island. Kassiopi. It was the logical place to land if you jumped out in the shipping lane. The fisherman had supplied him with binoculars and dark clothes and a long suitcase, such as one might carry a fishing rod in. It lay ominously on the back seat.
Antic would probably have been chastened to learn that the man in the glasses who so regularly came to his house dressed flashily because he was wealthy, not because he was a thief. His name was Edgar Sanchez, though he was incredibly pale for an Iberian. There were not many Internationals above him in the chain of command; those who were would seldom be out on so exposed an island. He was here because he was an enforcer, stationed in this neck of the woods to make sure this leg of the pipeline, where it passed into a former Communist state, ran smoothly. Dissenters such as Antic were not uncommon. He knew all their names, but none of them ever learnt his.
Edgar Sanchez had parked his car at the roadside; a trend in Corfu, where car-parks were at a premium, and had proceeded through the tourist haven to the remains of the old fortification. The sign at the entrance had described a little about its history. As he had scanned the sea for any sign of the orange dinghy that had been described to him, the enforcer had periodically glanced at the words. He had respect for monuments and ruins. The day you stopped respecting the old was the day you became it.
It had not been difficult to spot the incoming lifeboat, with its little man struggling in his battle with the current, and then to find a secluded spot to settle in and track his progress. He had always been taught not to spend too long seeing a man and thinking about him, because you could grow attached. But he rather enjoyed it. He imagined all the thoughts and fears and emotions. He imagined the elation at escaping his easy job. As he grew close; enough that he could detect the glisten of sweat on the man’s brow through the binoculars, he noticed the mark on the man’s face and spent a happy minute wondering how he might have got it. He had noticed it before in their regular meetings, but it had never interested him until now; now that he had chosen to escape. It was an hour before Lorik Antic reached that beach and lay on the sand, and Edgar Sanchez watched the entire time.
It was hard for the Kosovo-Albanian not to smile as he padded up the beach. The packed sand felt nice under his feet; he had taken the liberty of removing his wet shoes. It would not be difficult to hitch a ride or jack a car somewhere around Kassiopi, and once he was up into the foothills, they would never get to him. He was still smiling when the bullet hit him with the force of a dropped anvil and he was driven over backwards into the sand. Blood had exploded across his face. He began to cry, the grin still on his face, the tears hotter even than they had been that day at the football match. So close, yet so far.
But he was not dead. Someone was out there, someone thought he was taken down. Would they know which part of his body had been hit in the dark? Possibly not. He had to keep calm, try and slow his heartbeat so that he didn’t lose too much blood. If he played dead, the killer might leave without checking his body.
The minutes passed agonisingly, one by one, the night air as still as stone, except somewhere unseen where the waves hissed up against the beach. His blood was making a channel in the sand as it flowed down towards the water. But he didn’t move. He daren’t. Out of the corner of an eye, he tried to examine the wound. It appeared to be in his upper-arm or shoulder. He could be okay. He could still get out of this yet.
His thoughts didn’t turn to the man who might have shot him, who made his way back down from the ruin with his equipment packed away again. They just focussed on staying alive, staying still and waiting out as much time as he felt comfortable with. He wished sometimes that he could look at his watch, as he lost count of the minutes. In the end, when he figured that as much as half an hour must have passed, he slowly turned his head on its side, feeling cold sand on his cheek and his neck crick. Had the bullet come from the old castle? It was surely the best lookout spot. How had they known where he was?
He turned his head the other way. The beach was deserted. In the distance, he heard what might have been an engine as a car passed in the semi-darkness. It was enough for him. He rolled over on his good side, hearing his pulse now bashing at his throat, and tried to use his arm to drag his way up the beach. It wasn’t far to the slip-road. He tried to push with his legs, but they felt oddly numb. Perhaps it was the shock.
But there was no second shot. The fool must have left him to die. And a fool he was! Antic grinned again, through the blood and sand on his face, gritting his teeth as he came up onto his knees. He had reached the shallow wall at the top of the beach and managed to climb over it, wary of not disturbing his damaged limb. There would be a doctor’s surgery in Kassiopi. He was going to be fine.
“Stop, please.” The voice had come from nowhere. Antic looked around, sweating again profusely from his chest and back. Had it been a Spanish accent?
“Thanks.” A man emerged from a patch of olive trees. There was a black bag on his shoulder and his skin was pale in the half-light. Antic squinted, but he didn’t recognise him. Then the man reached up and replaced his glasses, which had been pushed up over his head. To look down the scope.
“You…” He wasn’t surprised. It had always been a small hope anyway.
“Yes. I’m afraid I am the enforcer. You will know what this means. I’m aware you might be in pain, so I will ask you now, quickly…”
“I took nothing! No money, no packages! Someone on the ferry was looking at me funny so I took a chance on the little boat!”
“I will ask you now,” Edgar Sanchez continued, “about your scar. On your face. How did that happen, please?”
“I don’t understand…” Antic felt as if he hadn’t heard correctly, “I wasn’t running, if that’s what you thought, sir! I just didn’t want to get intercepted. A guy was watching me funny…”
“Don’t worry, he was working for me. You were not instructed to jump overboard. This is all beside the point. What is the origin of your scar, please?”
“My what?” Antic pointed wordlessly at his face and the other man nodded. He seemed genuinely concerned. Maybe there was something he could appeal to, some better nature.
“This? I got this when I was small. A flare hit me. Now, please listen…”
“I see. How unfortunate! What happened that a flare should hit you?”
“I was at a football game. Why are you asking these questions?”
“It is important. The football, of course! With Serbia, was it? The match?” The man had smiled knowingly. Antic tried to stop his mind racing in order to think. Where was the other man from, and where would his allegiance lie?
“I don’t remember. Somebody like that. Why is it important?”
“Scars tell a lot about the people who have them. Yours tells me you did right to get out of the world you were in. Ethnic cleansing, barbaric acts of vandalism, and so on. Your story makes sense to me.” Antic crumbled at this. He was dead. He could not talk this man round, as he was clearly operating on a different level of sanity to himself. And all the while, something remained cold and distant about him, like he were acquiring facts that meant nothing and their acquisition was mere sport.
“You are right, sir. And if that’s all… could you do it quickly?”
“I thought as much. That’s not a pleasant existence for anyone to have to bear. And you being so young. Do what quickly? Oh yeah, right…” The enforcer slashed once with a previously unseen knife and Lorik Antic fell away into nothing, but what was in fact a pool of his own blood. Edgar Sanchez stood there a while, watching the body twitch, nodded to himself, and made off back to his car.