Sweaty hands.

One man’s tale from the land of Graham Greene.


The soles on his scuffed leather shoes were thin, and he could feel every misshapen cobble as he crossed the road.  The street was empty, except for an abandoned motor scooter and a light coloured car that had not been washed in weeks. He noticed that it was parked in the same spot as yesterday when he had reconnoitred the route. Its smeared and opaque windscreen blended with the stained and dirt-covered buildings that loomed into the early morning grey sky. The area was deserted, which was not unusual these days. In previous times it would have been busy with office workers and shoppers making their way in life, but not now. Today there was no point in going shopping as there was little to buy, and the offices were all state-owned. Nobody rushed to work. To be a pedestrian was also to risk being picked up by one of the federal police patrols. In the old days, they had been friendly and helpful, but, like the rest of the country, they had new masters. The faceless men in shiny grey suites  hiding in secret buildings that were no secret. The same men who had changed allegiance from the violence of German extremism to the suppressive and secretive fears of the revolutionary East. For the whole of his lifetime, his country had been controlled by foreigners. But changes were coming.

       He stepped into the shadows of the closed doorway of a tobacconist and dropped his empty briefcase on the ground. Reaching up, he pulled the brim of his trilby hat lower and then lifted the collar of his brown three-quarter-length coat. Not that it was cold, it was more from habit than anything else. An attempt to hide his profile against inquisitive onlookers hiding behinds darkened windows. He was nervous, and his hands were covered with a soft sheen of slippery sweat. As he clenched them, his short dirty fingernails slide easily along his palms until they dug into soft flesh. The involuntary action made him self conscious. He slipped his right hand under his half-open coat into the frayed pocket of his baggy grey flannel trousers and pulled out a crumpled packet of cheap cigarettes. Despite his position as comrade supervisor of the water-stained concrete tower block he currently lived in, they were all he could afford. Still, they were better than nothing, and at that moment, he was grateful he still had one left. Slipping it between his dry lips, he crushed the empty packet and discarded it between his feet. Then feeling in his other pocket for the box of matches he knew were there, he lifted it out and gave it a shake. They were strike anywhere matches. Too often in his past life, deep in the trenches, the modern safety matches had failed. It was the sort of thing you never forgot. Sliding open the box, he picked out a likely looking match and slid its bulbous head down the wall. It flared into a sulphurous smelling flame that he disguised expertly with his cupped hands—another habit from his war days. As the end of his cigarette glowed red, he discarded the spent match with a casual, almost careless flick. He then drew down a draft of tobacco smoke into his already hungry lungs and luxuriated in the bitter taste. His hands stopped sweating, and he felt calm. He was tempted to look at his watch but knew that such an action would alert any casual observer to the fact that he may be waiting for somebody. In any case, he knew that his contact was due to walk by within the next few minutes. It would give him just enough time to finish his cigarette and act as if he was waiting for the shop to open.

         The street was still empty, and he became increasingly aware of his own presence. He felt exposed and vulnerable. A window opened and then abruptly closed. The sound was deafeningly close, and it made him take a double intake of breath. Without removing the cigarette, he coughed from the corner of his mouth and then wiped away a smear of nicotine-stained phlegm with the back of his hand. It left a yellowish mark that he wiped down the side of his coat. It blended in without really leaving any visible discolouration. This was not his first drop off. Far from it, but it was the first at this spot, and like any new rendezvous point, he was extra cautious. 

         While he kept his head bent down, his eyes flickered up and down the street. Stepping out, he looked around the corner. The car was still there. It was innocent enough, and he did not know why it drew his attention. He forced himself to look away and quickly stepped back to the doorway. Staring at something was a bad habit and could often lead you into trouble. People could be so easily offended these days. The temptation to look at his watch grew stronger, but he resisted. His instincts told him that something was wrong. While his cigarette was only half-finished, he decided to abandon the meeting. Pinching out the tip, he slipped the inert end into his pocket. The paper with its coded message was inside his coat pocket. Lifting it out, he folded it more tightly and popped it into his mouth. Before he moved away, he waited for the thin paper to soften and then swallowed.  With no other evidence to incriminate him and ignoring his briefcase, he moved away from the protection of the doorway. He walked slowly back across the cobbled road with his head down. 

      While he did not look directly at the car, his peripheral vision picked up a movement. Both front doors opened, and two men with matching black leather jackets got out and walked purposely towards him. There was no mistaking their intent, and it was pointless to try and run. He stopped halfway across the road and looked up. He was not armed, and his only defence was to act as innocently as possible, but one look at their faces told him that his time was up. He turned towards them in a final act of surrender and placed his hands out together, with his palms upwards and fingers slightly splayed. He noticed that they had started to sweat again.

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