All great cities are built on rivers.
Paris on the Seine, New York on the Hudson, Cairo on the Nile. London, on the banks of the Thames, is no different.
The wet streets of the old city glistened in the midmorning sun. The rain from the night before, and the day before that, never gave the puddles a chance to dry. However, the nicest day of fall had arrived; it hadn’t yet rained that morning, but the air was heavy with the promise of a storm to come.
The ancient city on the Thames moved at a bustling pace. Tourists flocked to the capital filling the streets, museums, shops and alleyways. Cafés were packed with the morning crowd; locals chatted about the weather and shared laughter as the morning passed by.
Igor Romanski didn’t have the time to sit at a café. He strode east along the river after having crossed the Millennium Bridge. His thick-soled black derbies, which many Londoners wore thanks to the ever-present threat of rain, were uncomfortable but necessary. He wore a long navy-blue Sunspel car coat—collar turned up against the cool breeze coming off the river— with dark jeans and a blue jumper. A leather backpack was slung over his broad shoulders. Igor’s wide face framed his restless gray eyes. With a name like Igor in a Western country, he had to work diligently to fit in with the class in which he operated in England.
He hustled towards Borough Market, which on a Friday morning would be buzzing. There, people could buy baklava from a Turkish deli, or fresh Stilton from Cornwall, or even pied de cochon—pigs’ feet—cured and brought in from Spain. The European Union allowed different cultures to collaborate, and nothing exemplified that better, perhaps, than the market. Igor smirked at the irony. If only they knew what I was doing.
He entered the market from the west, glancing into dark alleys flanking his route. Igor navigated past them, as he had done dozens of times before, entering from Park Street, past The Anchor pub. There, he peered into the reflective, smoked-glass windows of his landmark to see if he had been followed. Pleased he hadn’t been, Igor passed under the high railroad tracks as the sun, fighting an endless battle with the stubborn English sky, disappeared from view.
Igor surveyed the collection of stalls converted to storefronts, surrounded by steel beam pillars painted British racing green. Signs identified the various shops, where one could find almost anything: potpies, Indian spices, fresh eggs, and fish caught that morning. The stand to his right was piled high with brightly colored fruit and vegetables in greens, burnt yellows, and shiny reds. An elderly couple caught his eye as they crossed in front of him distractedly, causing him to abruptly stop walking. The man hunched over, weakened by age, shuffled along, and held the hand of his wife. Igor clenched his jaw in an effort to suppress his desire to whip them to hurry on and sought out another path.
His mobile buzzed in his coat pocket. A text message from a number he didn’t have in his contacts.
Is it done yet?
Igor silently cursed the impatience of his partner.
I will make contact when it’s finished.
He fired the message off, presuming that would be the end of the conversation. The phone buzzed another time.
Make sure everything is ready. Soon we will have a new guest to entertain.
Igor grunted and tucked away his phone. He couldn’t afford to linger on the ambiguity because he had a job to do. But who was the new guest? Another target or a potential client? He gritted his teeth and refocused on the task at hand.
He proceeded further through the right side of the market, maneuvering with his hands stuffed deep in his pockets. To any shop owner or onlooker, he was hidden in plain sight. Conceivably, he was a man out buying ingredients to make a romantic dinner at home, or, judging by his smart dress, he was a chef from a nearby restaurant picking out fresh produce. Igor didn’t care what strangers thought as long as he wasn’t memorable. That was the key. He wanted to blend in amongst the crowd, and for that reason he’d chosen the market.
Igor slowed his pace and feigned interest at an Italian olive-oil shop. Light-colored wooden barrels were arranged around the inside of the store, creating a woodsy, musky aroma. A small bread basket sat on the counter for curious customers to try the product. Igor turned his head cautiously, allowing his shoulder to creep upwards, blocking the bottom half of his face, and looked back down the way he came. The elderly pair were still shuffling through the market, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Satisfied he wasn’t being followed, he continued on.
Who was the new guest? He strained to push the thought from his mind. He had to focus. The market was just about to hit the peak of its busiest hour—midday—when the lunch rush came.
He walked for a bit and then ducked into a cheese shop. An older woman sat behind the glass case that kept the cheeses cold. There were a few people in the shop, amongst them a young woman with a bright yellow raincoat who picked up small boxes of Camembert, opening them and prodding them with her fingers. The shopkeeper trudged over to help her, speaking fast in broken English—probably German, Igor thought. He climbed up two wooden stairs that creaked with displeasure under his weight and went towards the back of the shop. There, he peered into the cold case at the blue cheeses from all over Europe.
Igor peeked over his shoulder at the shopkeeper who was busy discussing the best texture for Camembert—“Was it to be enjoyed tonight, madam? Perhaps tomorrow?”—and decided she was well occupied. He walked back to the front of the shop, his heavy derbies thudding across the wooden floorboards but again he was paid no attention, which was ideal because straight ahead was the shop that was his true destination all along.
The store’s red sign displayed the name “Vin Merchants.” The sign was adorned with light oak paneling that covered the standard green steel beams of the market. Two oak wine barrels framed the cramped entrance. The shop was divided in two by wooden wine crates stacked on top of each other to waist height. In the back-left corner, a man was behind the counter. He was bald, with a shiny pink head and small green eyes that were occupied by his clipboard.
Igor ventured in the shop, grabbed a bottle, and studied the label, spinning it in his hand carefully to read the back.
The shopkeeper peered at Igor over the top of his reading glasses.
“Anything I can help you with, sir?”
Igor stared at the man for a brief second, shrugged his shoulders, and scanned the wines against the wall. “I am looking for a special bottle.” Igor’s English was polished; the Russian accent he grew up with had been buffed away by years of effort.
“Well, I’m happy to help. A particular style maybe?” The man set the clipboard on the counter.
“Yes, I am looking for a bottle of 1997 Bordeaux, preferably Château Giscours.”
Igor let his request hang in the air, studying the thinly veiled pained look on the shopkeeper’s face. He leaned over, his elbows resting on the counter, and blew a huff of air.
After a moment, the shopkeeper smiled. “Now that is indeed a rare bottle. Unfortunately, I have to tell you that it isn’t possible to find, nor would you want to. 1997 was a disastrous year in the Médoc. It rained during the entire harvest. And Château Giscours was not, as you would say, a sought-after château back then. Actually, a Dutch businessman purchased the château in ’95. He revamped everything, but it took many years to make it the prestigious winemaker it is today. Could I offer another suggestion?”
While the man spoke, Igor strolled about the shop, vaguely listening to the story. On the wall he found a 2012 Château Malescot St. Exupery. He held it up with both hands, cradling the bottle like a newborn. He looked up to find the shopkeeper staring at the bottle, then up to meet his eyes.
Igor shrugged. “Perhaps I was mistaken. I was simply asking for a friend.” He walked to the counter and could feel the man’s eyes on him. “But I would like this bottle to have for my dinner tonight. Would you recommend it?”
The man straightened and cleared his throat. “Certainly, but...” he bent below the counter and pulled out a bottle; its dark glass hiding its contents. “...While the bottle you picked is great, might I recommend this one as well?”
“That’s kind, thank you.” Igor saw the shopkeeper had a bead of sweat on his forehead, displaying the same nervousness he did every time Igor came.
Igor thumbed through his wallet, making sure to find the card corresponding with the account he was layering the illicit money from. The shopkeeper rang Igor up and gave him a receipt for the exorbitantly overpriced wine with a gruff nod. Without another word, Igor left the shop with his two bottles of wine in his backpack.
He walked eastward past Southwark Cathedral, its Gothic architecture and small size out of place next to the market. He avoided the cool breeze coming off the River Thames, but only for a short distance, before ascending the stairs leading up to London Bridge.
Igor had always dreaded the next part, but it was a small price to pay and a necessary precaution. Only time was lost. The winding way home had taken him on two different Tube lines, two buses, and a meandering half-mile walk, until he reached South Kensington.
Igor had filed out of the dark Underground station and spilled onto the sunlit streets, passing several boulangeries—thanks to the French neighborhood—with long queues as he walked towards his building. Having finally arrived back, he climbed the narrow flight of stairs and opened his apartment door. The door creaked, as if giving a sigh of relief that Igor had returned home. The work was done—the hardest part, at least. He laboriously took off his heavy shoes and went into the kitchen to boil the kettle for a cup of tea, one of a few English habits he’d picked up.
The apartment was dark, with the only light coming from the sliding glass doors that led to a small balcony overlooking the tiny parcel of land with three trees and a bench deemed a park by the city. The walls were a tired khaki, and a blue velvet sofa occupied the living room, while the kitchen was confined. But he didn’t mind; he rarely stayed here.
While the kettle boiled, he made for his bedroom, which was only large enough for a bed. The apartment certainly wasn’t home. He’d nearly forgotten where that really was, if anywhere. Having a home was a privilege he wasn’t allowed in his line of work.
Igor tossed his backpack on the bed and, from underneath it, dragged out the large duffel bag hidden behind the golf clubs he never used. He took out the IBM laptop and dutifully went to work replacing the battery, inserting the tiny screws into their proper holes. The laptop came to life with a small chime. Igor plugged in the internet router, then opened a dummy Gmail account and typed out a lengthy password with great care.
In a blank email, he recalled the drop earlier in the day and relayed the message via the agreed code.
Order was filled today. They didn’t have the 97 you asked for.
It was a safe signal; no one had been prying around the shop.
He grabbed the bottle the shopkeeper had given him and spun it around to look at its contents under the light. The dark-green glass obscured the rolls of banknotes inside. Now, Igor thought, I have enough for the job.
He suddenly recalled the vague text messages, the various questions left unanswered in his mind, but he would find out soon enough.
Everything is ready for next week. I look forward to meeting our new guest.
Igor saved the email as a draft so no electronic trail would be left. He double-checked that it had been saved and turned off the computer. The person for whom the message was intended would see the draft when they signed in later. He detached the battery, then carefully put the computer back into the duffel bag and under the bed.
A loud, piercing whistle came from the kitchen: the kettle was boiling.