Ratcatcher - By Tim Stevens


His world turned on its head for the second time at precisely ten eighteen p.m.

He’d been taken into custody a little under ninety minutes earlier, but that had nothing to do with it. They did the job efficiently, boxing him in, two in front and two behind. Four men, swift and grim, clearly plainclothes law enforcement officers.

One of the men in front of him stepped close, said something. He shook his head.

‘Non parlo Croato. Solo Italiano.’

The man nodded as if unsurprised, tipped his head: come with us. He followed the front pair to the unmarked saloon parked up on the kerb ahead.

Before he got in the back he glimpsed the glitter of light off the restless water of the bay, the masts of the boats shifting in the embrace of the marina at the bottom of the hill. He glanced at his watch. Five past nine. Fifty-five minutes to go.


The room was a cliché: ivory linoleum curling at the edges, dusty fluorescent lighting strips with one bulb flickering like an eyelid with a tic, cheap wooden tabletop with metal legs bolted to the floor. The smell was of tobacco and sour sweat.

He sat facing the door, alone. After seventeen minutes, at nine forty-four by the clock on the wall, the door opened. A woman came in, dark-haired, with glasses like an owl’s eyes. Two of the men who had picked him up followed her in. One seated himself in the chair. The other leaned against the wall, arms folded.

She stood across the table from him, his passport grasped loosely between her fingertips like a soiled rag. Without introduction she said, her Italian accented but fluent, ‘Alberto Manta, of Lugano, Switzerland. Arrived in Zagreb on September second. Checked in at Hotel Neboder here in Rijeka the same day.’ She paused. ‘Why are you here?’

He said, ‘I’d like to use my phone call now.’

‘But you’re not under arrest. Were you told that you were?’

She held up a finger. The man leaning against the wall came forward and handed her a folder from which she drew a sheaf of photographs. She dropped them on the table, fanned them across the surface. There were four, a series taken on a street with a long lens, showing him, neat goatee beard and hair a little longer than was fashionable for a man of his age, grinning and slapping the back of a shorter man whose nose was distorted sideways.

‘This man,’ she said, tapping the top photo, which showed just the man with the deformed nose.

He said: ‘Drazan Spiljak. A business associate. Imports and exports. I sell luxury hand-woven carpets, he’s helping me break into the Croatian market.’

‘He’s a drug dealer. One of the big players here in Rijeka. Cocaine from Colombia, heroin from Afghanistan. Poison that ends up in the streets and the playgrounds of my country and yours, Mr Manta.’

He spread his hands. ‘What can I say? Of course I condemn it. But Mr Spiljak is free, walking the streets. He runs a legitimate business. I can’t turn my back on a good opportunity just because of some rumours about a man.’

‘Rumours.’ She half turned, looking down, then glanced up at him, eyes narrowed. ‘You’re looking at the clock, Mr Manta?’

Had he been? Sloppy. ‘I’m late.’

‘For what, might I ask?’

‘A meeting.’

Nine fifty.

She paced, to her right and back, then placed her hands on the table top. She leaned forward and lowered her face to his.

‘It would be better if you left, Mr Manta. Left Rijeka, and Croatia altogether. We have scum enough with Spiljak. We do not need any more.’

‘I’m free to go?’

She straightened without a word and left. The men followed, one signalling him to remain seated. The door closed.

He kept his face impassive, aware of the spyhole in the door. Nine fifty-five, his watch told him.

Ten o’clock.

Time had run out.

At three minutes past ten the door opened and one of the men came in and tossed his phone and passport on the table. He stood, checking the display on the phone. Five missed calls. He followed the man out.

To a clerk at the reception desk he said, ‘Taxi rank?’

‘Turn right, then again after two blocks.’

He stepped out into the night, walked quickly but unhurriedly up the road, raising the phone to his ear. The first message had been left at nine thirty-two.

‘Thought we said half past. He’s here, they’re having drinks on deck.’


The next, at nine forty-six: ‘They’ve gone inside now. Get a move on, sunshine.’

He turned the corner and strode straight past