All a bit rushed this week but here goes:
By Neil Beynon
They met in the square near the river, the whoops and cheers of the bars and the brothels bounced over the granite of the buildings lending the square the feel of an empty room at a party. Leaves, wet from the recent rain, lay in clumps – dropped like draughts’ pieces across the paving stones.
Nikolei waited patiently beneath the porch of the church, the spire piercing the low-slung clouds, his collar drawn up against the autumn wind. Trying to ignore the waft of sewage from the river, swollen as it was from the recent rain. He did not know if Mikhail would manage to turn up but he could not risk abandonment, not now when the book was at stake.
Mikhail walked across the square, his metal tipped boots punishing the paving stones in loud tones that echoed. He was wrapped up against the autumn whether, his pea coat wrapped tight around him, his head encased in a woollen hat and his beard flecked with the remnants of the last downpour.
“Nikolei,” he said. “I wasn’t sure you’d turn up.”
“I was thinking the same thing about you,” said Nikolei. “ Anyway, I couldn’t really refuse. Although I dislike the choice of meeting place.”
Mikhail looked round and shrugged. “What can I say? I’d have met you down by the river if I’d thought I could get you near the brothels. This is pissy weather and no time for being outdoors, we should be inside with women and beer.”
Nikolei made a face. “I do not pay for it old friend, you know this.”
Mikhail did not smile. “No, you don’t. And that is why we are here. Now: you have something to tell me?”
“I found it,” said Nikolei, unable to hold it in any longer. “I found the book.”
“I found the book,” said Nikolei. “After all this time.”
Mikhail sat down on the steps of the church. He looked ancient in the sodium lights that lined the square, his beard looked carved from rock or granite like the church. Nikolei frowned.
“Are you not pleased?”
“Nikolei, Nikolei, Nikolei. I have known you twenty years, we have fought together, travelled all over the world and I believed I knew you better than any man alive. I didn’t think you could keep things from me. Yet, here you are damning yourself with your own words.”
Nikolei stepped back. Men and women in dark clothing were walking into the square, fanning out, and preventing escape. One or two had guns, a couple had nets but it was the ones that were carrying nothing that worried him most, the ones who were just a little bit too tall, a little bit too thin, hats pulled low to hide their hair.
“I haven’t lied to you,” said Nikolei. “I told you as soon as I found it. I thought we would collect it together.”
“You don’t have it here?”
“No, it’s somewhere else, somewhere far away. What is this? Why are they here?”
“They are here because you are here. Because you lied to me and because you’re not safe to be left running around.”
Nikolei looked for escape, there was none. He eyed the open sky but a helicopter beat it’s way above the murk, it’s light breaking through the cloud and making him blink in the glare.
“I’m your friend,” said Nikolei.
“You’re a god-damned freak,” said Mikhail. “You should have told me.”
“And you would have reacted any better?” asked Nikolei, finally drawing his hands from his pockets. He would not go down without a fight.
The gun was oil black and Mikhail was pointing it at him before he even finished drawing his hands into the air. His friend made a point of flicking the safety off in front of him.
“Don’t even think about it,” said Mikhail. “I’ve hunted down too many of your kind to fall for that.”
“It seems we both have secrets,” said Nikolei.
One of the dark-clothed people took Nikolei’s arm. She was too tall and a faint wisp of hair hung down from her hat, gleaming in spite of the streetlights, she tucked it back under with her free hand.
“You won’t find it without me,” said Nikolei.
“We don’t want to find it Nikolei,” said Mikhail. “That’s the point, that’s how we found you.”
As they led him away Nikolai looked back at Mikhail, one last attempt to plead with the man whose life he had saved and had been saved by in turn many times. But the mariner was not looking at him any more, he was staring up at the spire and all Nikolei could see was his back, a charcoal smudge against the granite.
As the square emptied two figures stepped from the shadows. Unblinking, Nikolei watched himself being led away, his face set and unreadable whilst his colleague kept his eyes on Mikhail as the mariner walked down to the river.
“Cold hearted bastard isn’t he?” said Nikolei’s colleague, Jay.
“He is what the world has made him,” said Nikolei. “He will learn. He just needs time.”
“We’re running out of time,” said Jay.
“No,” said Nikolei. “We have plenty of time.”
“I will not let you spend yourself on this futile exercise,” said Jay.
“You will do as you’re told,” said Nikolei.
“Because he was my friend,” said Nikolei.
The wind gusted across the square, gathering up the leaves in billowing clouds, clearing the board, ready to start again.