The heat of Macedonia was at its peak. It was a hot country in the summer, and this year was no different. There was only a minimal breeze rustling the trees and it to was warm adding insult to the day’s experience.
The man got up from the old creaking lounge chair, it made a noise similar to his own discomfort. He must have fallen asleep in front of the television again, it buzzed away in the distance at the edge of his awareness. He checked his watch, matched it to the clock above the kitchen doorway. He wound his watch a few times and sighed. It was warming up already and it was only 7am, what a cruel joke. He would turn on the air conditioning when he came back, but for now he would get breakfast ready. He prepared a pair of tomatoes, sliced some cheese and grabbed a handful of olives. The tomatoes were large, ripe and plump. He sliced them up, prepared one in a small container for later, the second one he set up on a plate. He wasn’t hungry himself, he would eat something later. He filled the kettle with water and started it boiling in on the small rusted stove top. He would replace the stove and oven this year. One expense each year, that was his budget. That enabled enough for expenses, plus his own poisonous habits. He groaned and cracked his back as his plump form contorted. Running a hand across the stubble on his chin, he thought that maybe he should go and look for work, but what was the point? He had enough to survive, if you called this surviving. He wasn’t a well man, that was for sure, before he was, but now, he knew he was on his way to an early grave. Already he looked close to fifty even though he hadn’t quite turned forty. But that was what life had done to him, no sense in complaining now.
He checked his watch again, yes it was today, it was nearly time as well. His mind flashed back, as it often did close to this day. He recalled it only five years ago as if it were yesterday. It was hot then as well, he said so to his darling wife. She looked so beautiful. He looked around as he heard screeching of tires, it was someway off in the distance, he thought nothing of it. But he did forget something for work. He was on holidays for the summer break, the factory closed for the whole month of July, he, his wife and baby daughter spent the whole time together, but today he needed to drop something off at the office on their way to Ohrid. They would spend a few days by the lake and relax.
Turning back he walked quickly back to their apartment, found the bag on the kitchen bench where he had left it so he wouldnt’ forget. He chuckled to himself, his wife was right, he was forgetful.
The water was boiling he realised as his mind flashed back to the present. He poured himself a coffee and returned to his chair, he sat it on the side table and stared blankly at the television, he paid no attention to the morning news that was playing, his mind was elsewhere.
A skid of tyres, a loud crash. His heart froze, he ran outside, there was blood, so much blood.
The doorbell rang, it was a low buzzing sound devoid of personality. He stood up and walked to the door, opened it as if there were no hurry in the world.
He barely looked at the man standing in the doorway before returning to his seat. The man walked in, cleaning his black shining shoes on the mat. They cost at least 200 euros each, about six weeks rent in this part of Skopje.
‘Zdravo,’ the visitor said, standing near the front door.
The man in the chair made no acknowledgement, sipping his coffee before responding. ‘Take a seat,’ the conversed in Macedonian as always.
‘Thankyou, the man said, his expensive yet casual clothes clashed horribly with the old furniture in the living room. The carpet also was twenty years old and showing every day of its age. The visitor sat at the other end of the room in another equal yet opposite chair, he held a brief case on his lap. His fingers fidgeted for a moment before he slid the case across the carpet, so that it sat halfway between the two men.
‘There it is, I can wait whilst you count it,’ the well dressed man said.
‘No need, I trust you.’
‘Very well. How have you been Tomoslav?’
‘Fairly well,’ the older man said, hacking a cough, he still didn’t look at his guest.
‘Will you finally replace your furniture here? There should be enough in the case for that at least?’
‘Not that it is any of your business,’ the old man muttered, ‘but I was going to fix up the kitchen this year. The one passion I have left is for food, although not necessarily for myself.’
‘That is good, a man should have passion in his life.’
‘Yes.’ He said simply.
Derrick looked around not entirely sure what to say next. It had been four years, it was the same every year. Awkward and entirely too long a visit as it was, but he didnt’ want to just hand over the case and leave, that felt incomplete somehow.
‘You can have the case back from last year,’ the older man said suddenly, gesturing at an identical case that sat near the television.
‘You needn’t have bothered, you can keep it if you want.’
‘I have no need of it, what is in the case goes away quickly enough, and what is left is merely a shell.’ The older man waxed philosophical like this on most visits.
Five years ago, it had been a hell of a day. Derrick had started his campaign to clean the streets of Skopje only twelve months prior. It had been a tough fight, this had surprised him. After securing almost every part of Serbia and spreading his influence throughout the Balkans, taking on Macedonian gangs had seemed piecemeal by comparison, but he had underestimated their fortitude. At first it simply seemed that it would take longer than expected, but after six weeks of constant, yet discreet action, it was clear that his men could not make headway. He had decided to send in some of his creatures, the shapeshifters. They usually took longer, but their ability to infiltrate an enemy operation was unparalleled, but it took time, weeks, sometimes months to come to fruition, but he deemed the territory too tough to tackle otherwise.
After giving them a month’s head start, Derrick moved to Skopje himself, he would oversee the operation to rid the city of its largest and longest serving gangs. After that, the smaller gangs, the ones that were doing no harm, to his operation or to society itself, could live on freely, as long as they didn’t tread on his toes.
Thus, it was a hot summers day, five years ago to the day that Derrick had launched an attack on an enemy stronghold. ‘The Streets’ as it translated from Albanian, were an exclusively Albanian gang that dealt in multitudes of small time transgressions, such as narcotics to ‘job searching’ and did it all in such a slapdash fashion that they cared nothing for the result. The fact that their drugs found their way onto school grounds, the fact that helping people find work usually just turned into people trafficking and exploitation mattered little to them. Derrick thought that Skopje, indeed Macedonia, no, all of Europe deserved a better class of criminal.
This stronghold was not the only such one in the city, but it was the largest and it would break the back of the biggest gang in Skopje. Derrick had it all planned. His team of six, two nameless, four human, would scope out the area acting as eyes on the compound, which was in fact an old estate house that had fallen onto hard times. He and his advisor, Viktor, would wait and watch as well, but they would all move in on his orders, attacking from every angle and thus trapping the gang inside the house.
They estimated there were six Albanian gang members in the house at any given time, but they hoped to catch another six or seven as they had finally learned of a meeting. Three of their leaders, the entire top of their hierarchy, their personal guards and a few grunts, all in the house at the same time.
What went on in the house was not clear, they didn’t handle drugs there, that much they knew but it was important enough that they had some hands on deck at all times.
They planned the raid for the early morning, whilst they prefered to work at night, the meeting was scheduled for about 7am. So Derrick and his ‘men’ had arrived an hour early and set up shop. He had removed one family from their home, they were terrified but knew better than to argue, but Derrick offered them compensation, stuffing the equivalent of six month’s rent into the father’s hands as they bustled them into their car.
‘Where should we go?’ He had asked.
‘Go stay with a friend, come back in three hours.’ They had done exactly that.
Derrick had finished chewing on the last of his baklava, a thick and heavy pastry, this one had meat in it, he then drank the last of his yoghurt, his breakfast was done. He threw the yoghurt into a bin near the window he was looking out. It was a second story apartment window, the family had left in such a hurry the bed was unmade and clothes were scattered around.
The stronghold, a large house that was raised up on stilts, with cracked and weakened wooden steps leading up to the verandah, was covered in shade which was no doubt a great relief to the occupants. There were several large trees in the grounds and a small fence, what was once a white picket fence, that stood at about waist height. There, on one side of the grounds stood also a small brick building, what was no doubt intended as a laundry, that was certainly used for another purpose.
Two cars had arrived already, two of the leaders were in the house. As Derrick watched, he heard the door open behind him, he knew it was Viktor, his advisor before he even looked around.
‘The third car is arriving now sir, all the pieces are in place,’ he said in Serbian. Despite being a shapeshifter, Viktor seemed quite attached to his ‘character’, that of a weaselly, hunched Serbian man, a shifty type not to be trusted in even a trivial manner.
‘Very good, once he moves inside, we move as well.’
‘Very good.’ Viktor slid away out of sight, it was nearly time. This would be a push, the beginning of the end of the gangs of Skopje. It would be their’s in short time, at least that is what Derrick thought at that moment.
The Albanians all moved inside, one man stood guard out the front, and one out the back. Derrick walked out of the apartment he was observing from, he looked across at a woman who stood with her face buried in a book as she sat on a bench. As she glanced up at him, he nodded, she returned the nod subtly and after a count of five, her book disappeared, and a small pistol emerged from her handbag.
Turning his attention to his right, a man walked his dog, Derrick nodded, the man tied the dog to the nearest post and from underneath his coat he pulled out a small assault rifle. He knew that Victor had alerted the rest of his team and no more signals were required. They converged on the property, the large trees providing enough cover from the two guards. Derrick moved up to the fence and casually stepped over it, the man who was standing guard walked down the three small stairs towards him. He didn’t draw a weapon, but Derrick knew that he had some on him and would use them in an instant if he made any threatening movements.
Before they reached each other, the man began to fall, Derrick jumped forward and grabbed him before he hit the ground, dragging him close to the house so that he wouldn’t be seen by anyone else. The silenced bullet had done the job, the man was dead.
He walked up to the front door and knocked.
The rickety wooden door opened, Derrick gave a wry smile and gestured behind him.
‘I’m sorry to bother you,’ he said in Serbian, ‘my dog seems to have gone missing, I was wondering if you saw it?’
‘No, you must leave.’ The voice came back from behind the door in a rough Serbian approximation. But the man behind the door opened it and looked around, obviously confused as to why the guard was nowhere in sight.
Derrick took the opportunity and looked around the yard as if he were following the man’s gaze, but with his left hand he rolled a small device into the house, it made a loud ‘clank’ as it hit the ground.
The Albanian man looked back, at that moment Derrick struck, he pulled out a gun and fired a shot into the back of the man’s head, he fell to the ground, Derrick ducked back away from the door as the device he’d rolled into the house exploded and a huge puff of smoke lit up the room. Smashed glass flew in all directions as the same thing happened all around the large house, his team had no doubt taken out the guard in the back and now they threw in their smoke grenades with gusto. Attaching a gas mask he had underneath his jacket, Derrick charged in. There were bodies everywhere, of men lying on the ground, gasping and coughing, searching in vain for an exit. He kicked one hard in the head knocking him out, put a bullet into another. He checked his targets and within two minutes he’d heard back from his entire team. They had scoured the house, a total of thirteen confirmed Albanians. Derrick tied up the man he had kicked and only then did he remove his mask. The smoke had left the house and it was now easy enough to move around unaided.
‘Check the laundry outside,’ he said, ‘there could be more.’ He couldn’t help but smile, the mission had gone off without a hitch, this would be a major blow to the gang, they would crumble within days.
He heard a cry outside, the group followed. One man was escaping, he had been in the laundry hiding it seems. One of his crew followed, a shapeshifter, he flew after the man, but evidently the Albanian’s head start meant that he would escape. The creature suddenly stopped and changed his stance. Derrick knew what he was going to do, he looked up and a moment too late he saw a woman with a pram not too far away from the gang member.
‘Nay!’ He cried, but it was too late. The creature shot a whip of energy, it flew at the Albanian as he ran across the road. Like a laser it sliced right through his right side, he dropped to the ground, but the laser kept going and Derrick’s heart sank as he saw the woman drop to the ground, blood all around her. A man came out of a nearby apartment, he was panicked, he ran to the woman and dropped to his knees. He picked up the baby, the baby was alive and screaming, the man began to howl in despair. Derrick felt sick. He walked up to the shapeshifter and placed his gun directly between the creature’s eyes.
The creature looked at him, it had an empty look, as if it didn’t even care what happened next. This is what separated them from human’s, Derrick reflected, a human would care,a human would fight. He pulled the trigger.
Back in the apartment and the horrible memory faded away. Derrick had been wrong that day, not just about the mission going off without a hitch, but also about the gang’s of Skopje. It had taken him the best part of the past five years to finally crack the tiny little city. At some point it just became about ego, he had captured every part of the Balkans, he could have left the city, but no, he decided it was too important to show weakness. Regardless, his victories meant nothing now. Tomoslav looked to have aged a decade or more, he knew the man drank, but he knew he cared very much for his daughter. He knew that he hadn’t been back to work since and would not likely live much past 50 at the rate he was going. But at least the contents of the briefcase that he brought each year kept them going.
There was a sound from further into the apartment. Tomoslav began to stand up. ‘If you’ll excuse me, that is my daughter, I must get her ready for school.’
‘Of course,’ Derrick said, as he to stood and picked up the empty briefcase. He walked to the front door, went outside and wasn’t going to look back, but Tomoslav had followed him and stood at the doorway.
‘Why do you come here every year?’ He asked.
‘I believe honour is important, I made a pledge five years ago.’
‘Not that, you could send someone else, you could transfer the money into my account. Why do you come personally?’
‘I like to see where the money is going. Knowing that it helps gives me assurance that it is not being squandered.’
‘I think you want something else.’
‘You want forgiveness. You know you can never get that. Your actions, no matter what you say to rationalise them meant my wife died, my life was effectively over that day. Nothing can change that now.’
‘You were collateral damage to an important cause, and I am sorry.’
‘But still, you want something I can not give.’
‘Perhaps.’ Derrick looked down at this expensive shoes, he didn’t know what else to say. ‘I’ll see you next year.’
‘I’ll be here.’ Tomoslav closed the door, but Derrick could still hear him as the man suddenly came alive. He greeted his daughter his ‘sweetheart,’ as if he’d not seen her in a week. He could imagine him giving her a hug and some breakfast.
Perhaps the man was right, perhaps Derrick sought something he could never get, either way, he wouldnt’ stop coming, not until he took his last breath. But now, he had to get back to Serbia, he had something to attend to.
(C) T.W. Norrich ‘The Nameless Saga’ 2016