1850 HOURS: the wind whipped across the platform, prickles of rain stinging the grey faces of the commuters. This was autumn.
Not good autumn, with its crunchy leaves, mugs of soup, and the smell of a distant bonfire, but the dismal autumn of slimy pavements, and the sense of a tunnel’s gradual approach.
But where the man in the black cable-knit jumper came from, this evening would have been considered mild, an Indian summer, before the hard-packed Siberian winter.
He took a mobile phone from his pocket and stared at the picture on his screen – a man in his forties with glasses and a disappointed face. This man was the target? This man looked as if he would get mildly annoyed about cheese toasties cut on the diagonal.
And yet hadn’t he, just minutes before, managed to cause a diversion in a Nando’s restaurant? Leaning on an unstable table, then crashing to the floor, and losing his tail during the consternation… he may well be a twisted genius.
The phone buzzed in his hand. If he was startled by it, he did not let it show. “Sergei,” he said, in Russian. “The target is here. He’s running for a train for Crewe.”
“Shadow him,” said Control, also in Russian. They were both Russians. It made sense.
Sergei slipped into the target’s carriage and sat across the aisle and behind him, observing him for 20 minutes as he attempted to dispose of an empty apple juice bottle discreetly. The target gave up and settled in his seat. And Sergei did the same, staring at the rivulets of rain on the window, his thoughts drifting back to St Petersburg, and Natalia. Drifting . . .
The train halted. The target was already heading out of the doors. Sergei snapped into action, dragging his shoulder bag behind him.
He watched the target sprinting along the platform, heading towards another stationary train. He knew! How? Then he saw the target slow down, shake his head, and shuffle off.
Sergei reached the train. Its destination sign read “Liverpool,” but it was parked by the buffers. Surely he hadn’t thought this was his actual train! What, did he think it was a magic train? This was an idiot.
Or was he? The target was disappearing into a cafe. Sergei followed, watching his quarry get a bar of Dairy Milk from a vending machine.
“Argh!” said the target, as he pulled his hand out, scratching it on the metal slot cover. “A QUID too! It’s 65p in work!” the target grumbled, as he bustled past Sergei. Sergei followed the target to the departures board. He twitched. Sergei looked at the screen. The Liverpool trains were cancelled.
So why was the target waiting for a Chester train instead of going to Manchester and hopping across? He must know he had a tail.
Either that, or he was a total plantpot. He could see now why he had been given this job, as the only man in the KGB with an encyclopaedic knowledge of northern England train timetables.
Another twitch. Was that a little tear? Sergei looked at the board again. All Chester trains were now cancelled.
2050 hours: The train to Holyhead arrived. The target boarded it, followed by Sergei. This train was going to Chester. That made sense. Then an announcement on board. “We apologise, but this train is being diverted to Warrington before it arrives in Chester because of flooding on the line.” Another tear in the target’s eye. None of this added up.
2200 hours: the target staggered from the train into the Chester departures court. He looked up at the board and let out a cry that sounded like true anguish to Sergei. The Russian read it too. All Liverpool trains were cancelled.
For the first time in his career, Sergei, the iceman assassin, had a pang of human feeling towards a target. This poor man just wanted to get home. And over the next couple of hours he stayed with him, boarding two buses and another bloody train, and then tailing his taxi from Liverpool city centre.
0015 hours: the target exited his taxi and walked up his path. There was a sickening crunch. He had trodden on a snail. He whimpered.
Sergei dialled. “Control,” he said, in Russian. “I can’t do it. This man, Bainbridge, has suffered enough.”
“Who’s Bainbridge?” said Control, in Russian. “You massive divvy. You’re supposed to kill Michael Gove.”