Just as he was about to take the stairs up to his apartment on the second floor, leaving the old-fashioned and small elevator for those who might need it more, the concierge stopped him: “Un momento, I have something for you.” This was nothing unusual, for he received so many packages of books that the concierge already should have known his name by heart, although he still referred to the address label each time he read it out when handing over the mail: “Andreas Moser”. In fact, Moser carried one of those books in his hand at that moment. In accordance with his personal preference which valued books far higher than any form of human interaction, it had been his companion during a very late lunch.
But this time, it was not another package bearing the name of the American online retailer whom small bookshops and anti-globalization activists loved to hate. I was a large but thin cardboard envelope in glaring yellow, bearing the logo of a courier service. Feigning that he had expected such a letter, Moser nodded “grazie”, although his lawyer’s mind had already appreciated the fact that the concierge had signed for it and that he might therefore deny ever having received the letter if it involved a lawsuit or something of a similarly annoying quality.
Once in his apartment, he opened the envelope only after taking off his shoes, washing his hands and pouring a glass of Coke. Moser didn’t appreciate being sent mail by courier. If people thought that their business was urgent, it rarely was. Nor was it usually important, and he loved pointing out the difference between these two parameters.
One sheet of paper, A4, no letterhead, no date, no signature. Printed in a typeface which was too large, like one would do in a film to allow viewers to read the kidnappers’ request for ransom over the addressee’s shoulder. But Moser had neither children (luckily) nor a cat (sadly), so no ransom could possibly be squeezed out of his cold heart or his meager bank account.
Without extending the courtesy of even a hint of salutation, the letter began:
You will be surprised to read from us after such a long time,
“What, are Nigerian scammers sending letters by courier now?” Moser wondered, frowning and beginning to get angry about this waste of time.
but we have been following your stay in Italy.
A stalker? A fan? Unlikely. It began to give him an idea about whom the letter might originate from.
We will come to Europe soon and would be happy to meet with you again.
That sounded like a job! A smile hushed across his face, not so much at the prospect of having to work, but because Moser had already been wondering when he would be remembered and someone would recognize that his talents might be put to some good use in what was turning into Cold War II. After he had been arrested and tortured during a mission in Iran five years ago, he had been retired and was only kept on board for the occasional small job.
We have booked a cruise on the Black Sea
Moser began to appreciate this rather creative way of coding a message, wondering whose idea it had been. The company must have finally hired someone who read books from time to time.
and we are going to fly to Romania tomorrow, where we will spend a few days before embarking on the cruise.
Romania sounded good. Moser had never been there, but the thought of steep mountains and deep forests had enough of a positive connotation. And real bread, potatoes and sausages after one year of pizza and pasta.
Tomorrow however did not sound good. These Americans always thought that going from one European country to the next was as easy as going from Washington to Chicago.
If we will like it there, we are thinking of staying in Eastern Europe over the winter. You know that John has family connections dating many generations back and he would like to see if he can do some research about his ancestors.
So this was a long-term assignment and it would involve old-school espionage instead of brute force. Moser, who had turned 39 this summer, appreciated that not so much because it was appropriate for his age but because it suited his intellectual and analytical talent.
It seems that to him it’s also a bit of an emotional matter to connect with his roots.
Moser was lost about this sentence. Try as he might, he couldn’t make out what it alluded to. Puzzled, he continued to read:
We mailed this letter by courier because we have had bad experiences with the Italian mail recently.
Meaning that he should be careful to avoid the attention of the AISI, the Italian domestic intelligence agency. If it wasn’t too late already.
That’s all for now; we have to run to be at the theater at 9:45 p.m.
No good-bye, no kind regards, nothing. Moser looked at his watch. It was 17:25. He had more than four hours to catch a flight. Plenty of time, yet the adrenalin, or whatever the appropriate chemical substance was, kicked in, signalling the cherished combination of excitement and complete focus. He poured himself another glass of Coke and very much craved a piece of chocolate.
Packing his bag took around 20 minutes. Moser programmed his laptop in a way that all data would be erased if someone tried to access it, just in case he would run into trouble at the airport. Travelling by plane, there was no point in taking his gun. He hid it in one of the hollowed-out books in the living room. Sadly, books were the perfect hiding place because nobody else ever touched them.
After the warning in the letter, leaving the house through the front door was not an option. From too many of the windows on the opposite side of Via Niccolò Pizzoli he could easily be watched. He remembered the car bomb which had been planted in front of his house shortly after he had moved to Bari and which he had narrowly survived. If he was to be followed, Moser would of course detect the tail after turning a few corners, but even better was not having any tail at all.
The house had a basement, but the door to it was always locked and Moser had never checked it out before (“getting complacent” he scolded himself). There was a large courtyard which served as a parking lot for the tenants of the houses by whom it was fully surrounded and for the office workers in this relatively central part of Bari. The parking lot had two exits, both of them loosely guarded by members of a family who either had a legitimate business of who had simply one day put up their chairs and began to charge money. Such was the entrepreneurial spirit in Italy. If only the tax collectors could catch up with it.
One of the exits went into Via Pizzoli, so it had to be the other one, exiting around the corner into Via Perrone, opposite from the Church of Santa Maria del Rosario which doubled as an alarm clock every morning at 07:15. The bus stop to the airport was only one block away, in Via Crispi.
The apartment had several balconies to the courtyard, and there was a patio just one floor down. No real obstacle. Moser let his backpack drop, climbed across the guard rail, turned around and lowered himself, landing elegantly like a cat (or so he thought). A quick move across the patio. Nobody had seen or heard him over the blaring sound of the TV sets, blasting the usual dumb stuff into Italian living rooms. Almost no difference between Berlusconi’s and the other channels anymore. Another guard rail, the same procedure, and Moser had reached the ground floor. It was full of cars, scooters, motorbikes, bicycles, neatly parked, almost packed like sardines. The parking attendants were worth their money. He had to assume that they knew their customers, so he couldn’t simply take a bicycle and speed off.
He had an idea: because the parking attendants parked the cars, these were probably unlocked and the keys were kept by them, to be handed over to the owners when they returned. 17:54. Soon the first office workers would show up and drive home, to a restaurant or to meet their lover. But which car would leave first, or at least soon? The cars were parked in three rows and he guessed, or rather hoped, that the parking attendants parked the cars of those leaving first in the front row. Moser ignored the small cars, Fiat 500 and such, and set his eyes on a red Alfa Romeo 156 in the first row. He snuck up to it from behind and tried the hatch to the rear trunk. It opened. There was plenty of space, so this was as good a choice as any other.
He climbed into the trunk, folded a piece of paper twice, held it over the locking mechanism and pulled the lid close from inside. This way, he could open the lid again by pushing his legs against it. Now, he just had to hope that the owner of the car wouldn’t want to put his or her groceries into the trunk before driving off. It didn’t matter where they were going actually, because Moser just wanted to get away unseen and the plan was to get out of the car after a few minutes. Lastly, he hoped that the ride would be smoother than the one in the opening sequence of Quantum of Solace.
In the darkness and the silence, Moser dozed off. Dreams of winding mountain roads, dark bread with sausages, forests with green, yellow and red foliage, goulash, rivers with the water twirling around boulders, communist-era apartment blocks, snow, castles, old trains formed a kaleidoscopic image of the country that would be his new home. The bang of a car door awakened him. One bang meant only a driver, no passenger. And no child, thank God. He checked the fluorescent dial of his watch. 18:21. Plenty of time.
Moser didn’t want to get the GPS out of his backpack to remain ready to escape any second. He could not sense whether the car was going left, right or straight, possibly distracted by the driver who had started shouting into his mobile phone almost before turning the ignition key. Hopefully Romanians would be a bit quieter than Italians.
It was slow traffic, stop and go. Moser waited until 18:26 and decided to get out the next time the car stopped. Opening the hatch slightly, he saw the car behind. Only a driver, female, who would probably not get out of the car, even if she spotted him. The driver might honk, but then honking was so regular here, that it wouldn’t draw any reaction, except more honking and some shouting. Backpack already over both his shoulders, Moser lifted the lid open, jumped out and walked away briskly, but without any apparent hurry. He had no idea where he was, nor where he was going, but it was important to appear normal. Turn the next corner, speed up, turn another corner, keep walking straight, cross a busy road, walk into a side road, turn left or right and walk in the direction where you came from. Anyone following him would have lost him by now.
Then he recognized the area from the signs indicating the courthouse and the cemetery. They had gone west. Moser set out to find one of the two train stations in the area, Bari Crispi or Bari Brigata, from where he knew there was a direct train to the airport about every half hour. He got to the airport at 18:52, where he purchased an overpriced piece of chocolate cake and a Romanian dictionary at the bookstore, wondering why the price of everything at airports was marked up, except for newspapers and books. The dictionary wasn’t very helpful either because the reference language was Italian, and about two thirds of the words looked the same in either language.
Concentrating on the cake instead, already hoping to find a good Sachertorte at least in the parts of Romania which had once belonged to the Austrian empire, Moser realized – rather late – that the letter he had received this afternoon had not provided for the possibility of him declining this mission.
Was this a trap? If he got stopped and interrogated, he didn’t really have any good explanation for travelling to Romania. There was no cover story, no back-up plan, nothing. He tried to remember the one sentence in the letter which he had been unable to make sense of, when he noticed that he had left the piece of paper in the car. “Damn it!” And the airport cake wasn’t very good either.