I first saw her while sitting on a big, flattish rock under a Judas tree. I knew she was about my age by the way she walked. She crossed the ground at a steady plod as if resigned to the heat, but she’d still prefer to be somewhere else.
Probably not Maltese I decided. Her sensible shoes raised little puffs of dust as she made her way to my perch under the tree. It wasn’t me she was interested in though. I was lurking under the only bit of local shade.
‘Hello there – are you waiting for someone?’ she asked as she came within range.
‘I’m waiting for Mr Mifsud,’ I replied. ‘He’s meeting me here – to explain why my house hasn’t been built.’
‘I see.’ She sat heavily beside me, sharing my lump of rock and my Judas tree. ‘Well it is rather a nice location for a house - here on the coast.’
I stared across the patch of wasteland where we now sat side by side. We were quite alone the two of us and were certainly on the coast. I couldn’t deny that as the blue waters of the Mediterranean lay no more than fifty metres away beyond a few scattered rocks and tufts of browned grass.
‘But my problem,’ I explained, ‘is not so much the location as the lack of a house from which to enjoy said location. There should be a house here - mine.’ I turned towards her, common politeness finally getting the better of me. ‘My name is Alec by the way - and please excuse my manner. I’m very annoyed with Mr Mifsud.’
‘Oh dear Alec, I quite understand,’ she replied easily. ‘A number of people in Malta are annoyed with Mr Mifsud.’ She turned to face me, smiling brightly as if she’d made a little joke. Startled by the fact that she too must be waiting for Mr Mifsud, I studied her more closely. As I’d guessed, she was the same age as me – about sixty. Grey hair, dark skirt, white blouse and dusty black shoes as if she’d come here on business. To back up that conclusion she carried a kind of briefcase – brown leather and new.
‘So you know Mr Mifsud?’ I asked.
‘I know of Mr Mifsud,’ she replied, emphasising the ‘of’. After that she fell silent, as if she could say more but I was supposed to prompt her.
‘You know of Mr Mifsud? How am I to take that?’ I dutifully prompted.
‘Just that - I know of him.’ She shifted her position on the rock. I wasn’t all that comfortable myself, but there was nothing else to sit on.
‘What do you know?’ I asked bluntly.
‘I know who he is and I know his case number,’ she replied. ‘I also know he’s due here for a meeting of some kind.’
‘Yes he’s due to meet me... His case number? Are you his social worker?’ I laughed at the idea, in spite of my situation and that fact that I didn’t really know what I was going to do apart from rage and rant at Mr Mifsud. When he turned up of course.
‘Well he’s bound to have a case number isn’t he?’ Her tone suggested I’d said something naive. She frowned, fiddling with her new briefcase as if a little put out by my laughter. I noticed she wore gloves too. Another anomaly in this heat.
‘If you say so.’ I shifted my bum on the rock. It was hard and the Judas tree wasn’t all that shady.
‘Of course he has a case number. We have to allocate a case number so all the paperwork hangs together. The case number is our starting point. We couldn’t follow the Directive properly without it.’
‘The EU Directive. You must have heard of it - dealing with undesirables. The Eliminations Directive we call it, although that isn’t its official name of course. Anyway Mr Mifsud has to have a case number before we go on to the elimination stage. Nothing happens without a case number, but once we have one we swing into action.’
‘Elimination?’ I laughed again. ‘Are you going to shoot Mr Mifsud?’ I smiled at her as I said this, not wanting to hurt her feelings in case she turned out to be an ally - however unlikely that might be.
‘Of course I’m going to shoot him. I didn’t go on the eliminator’s course for nothing you know.’
‘Eliminator’s course?’ By then I knew I was floundering.
‘I haven’t done poisoning or explosives yet, but I’m certified for shooting. I may do poisoning and explosives next year, but then again I may not. I retire in a few years. This is just to give me something different to do before I retire.’
‘What – you’re here to shoot Mr Mifsud – as a pre-retirement project?’
‘Well yes – if he deigns to turn up that is.’
I gazed around the patch of waste land, the unfinished road and straggle of trees lining it. There were no buildings anywhere, no sign of human life, no sounds at all apart from our voices. The strangeness of it all was getting to me so I tried to lighten things up by going along with her story. ‘I’d like to shoot Mr Mifsud too,’ I said.
‘You can’t,’ she replied immediately. She sounded cross. ‘That’s my job.’
‘It was only a figure of speech... I mean I haven’t actually got a gun.’
‘More to the point, you don’t have the paperwork either,’ she replied.
‘Oh there’s loads and loads of paperwork generated by an elimination – reams of it. Ninety percent of my training was about dealing with the paperwork. Get the paperwork wrong in the EU and you end up in a right mess. The practical stuff - the shooting was easy. I was issued with approved elimination hardware - ’
‘A gun you would call it. Anyway I was taught about the safety catch and which way round to load the whatsits – the bullets. That was about it. The paperwork was on another level entirely. Much more difficult and far more detailed. That took up most of the course.’
At that point a blue Citroen bounced its way onto our patch of waste ground, breaking up what was turning out to be a more and more surreal conversation. At the sight of the car, my own troubles came flooding back. Perhaps this was the elusive Mr Mifsud? Or another nutter? My companion stiffened and clutched her briefcase tightly.
‘Here comes your case number,’ I said. I sniggered uneasily as I said it, but I don’t think she heard me. The Citroen drove up to us in a cloud of gritty dust. Mr Mifsud wound down the window and flashed his amiable but fatally dishonest smile.
‘I see you’ve already met each other.’
My companion fumbled in her briefcase and pulled out an automatic pistol. It was black and about the size of a small cannon. She pointed the thing at Mr Mifsud, squeezed her eyes tight shut and squeezed the trigger. There was a deafening bang, a puff of smoke and my heart nearly disappeared into my trousers. Then she opened her eyes and blinked.
‘Hit or miss?’ she asked eagerly.
‘Near enough,’ said Mr Mifsud, his smile as broad and toothy as ever. He hopped out of the car and opened the passenger door. ‘For your first practical you did very well – apart from closing your eyes. We can work on that.’
‘Did I really?’ My companion seemed inordinately pleased with herself. ‘But I won’t have to do all the completion paperwork will I?’ She dropped the huge pistol into her briefcase, fastened it up and climbed into the passenger seat of Mr Mifsud’s car.
‘No – no completion paperwork this time,’ said Mr Mifsud. He nodded an amiable nod in my direction and climbed back into his car.
‘What about Alec? What about his house he says you promised?’ I heard my erstwhile companion say as Mr Mifsud started the car.
‘Oh Alec is just here to supply background,’ said Mr Mifsud. ‘Somebody else will deal with Alec. He’s with another lot now.’ He drove away in a cloud of dust. I realised my mouth was still open, so I closed it. Then I thought about my next move, but soon realised I didn’t have one. In the end a house is just a house I thought... and I’d only handed over a deposit... a substantial deposit in used hundred euro notes... but only a deposit... I legged it.