One more hour and I will be over the border, and safe. Three hours after that I will be able to catch a ride into Tirana. Minutes after that I’ll be at my place and able to settle down for anywhere up-to the next year. It’s the best place for me now. I’d been twice before, have some local contacts and even had a place I can pay for in cash. At one time my AirBnb contact, “Elton” was now almost a friend, and certainly a great help.
It’s not that I’m some kind of criminal or anything. Life just played out a certain way for me, stubborn in it’s frequency of providing me new challenges. But I’ve always been up for a challenge. Most of the time I relish them.
My name is Steven, but back in college everyone knew me as Slink. I had embraced the name after it was given to me during yet another problematic border crossing, This one from Montreal to Upstate New York. My fiends and I had made a very questionable decision to light up a joint just minutes before the US border. Especially given the relative heft of our growing drug collection.
Long story short, we got busted. Knowing that I was the only member of our scruffy little crew who did not have a police record (yet) I took the fall for the entire stash, told the officers that all of it was mine. My friends were let loose to find a hotel in the town where I was to be arraigned the following day. They never made it there.
They had, in fact, not even crossed the street by the time I caught up to them. In a flash of calm desperation, I had asked the officer who was taking my information for the bathroom. Down the hall, second door on my right, she informed me. Well, funny enough Down the hall and just ten feet to my left was the exit. I put on a business-like face, walked with quick determination and simply left the building.
Slink became my handle for many years after. And I started to live up to it. Somewhat daring, and expertly maneuvered disengagement became a bit of a lifestyle for me. At first it was free movies and concerts, slinking in and out without notice. But as the decades passed I continued to apply the same methodology in my career, my debt, and then later in my marriage.
And that’s where I find myself now. My ex-wife (the owner of my former home) informed me that my passport had finally been revoked. She had received a letter from the IRS. It’s not as if the hounds are at my heels or anything, but it’s best that I avoid “official” land borders, even in Shengen countries where the security is lax, if not nearly nonexistence.
My foot hit something hard, and flat. Far too uniform to be any natural detritus, and being that the nearest town was still miles out, it engaged my curiosity. A metal sign, thick and cold. Half buried in sod and decomposing. The characters still remained readable between the framing swaths of rust.
One hundred and ninety. It certainly wasn’t a speed limit, even going through the mental hoops of converting M/hr to Km/hr in my head. Also I hadn’t seen pavement for nearly an hour already. One-ninety. It seemed familiar to me somehow. One-ninety nearing Albania.
I walked for another thirty minutes before the sunset became undeniable. It was fine, I was prepared for this as well. I always carried a compression sleeping bag, and a small one-person tent, being a fan of the outdoors. It looked like I would need to spend the night before reaching a town with a bus stop.
I feasted on cheese and bread from my pack after settling up camp. I even had half a bottle of Raki to lift my spirits and warm me while I awaited sleep, and dawn.
The bottle stopped dead, inches from my mouth, when I heard that bark. One single bark of a canine. I am unable to say “dog” because the bark was not like the bark of a dog. Similar, but different. Drawn out and more guttural. Less of a warning, and more of a statement somehow. It sounded close too. Very close.
I wrapped my remaining food back in the plastic, then wound that with some spare clothing just to be safe. At least there was only one. If a wild dog made his way into my camp, surely I could send it packing with some bread and cheese, and simply creep off while it was eating. Packs of wolves were known to occasionally take out a remote hiker, but one single animal? I could take or at least escape one dog.
I swigged at the bottle and put it aside. Then nine more barks rang out. Each one marking a position circling me, covering each cardinal direction. Shit. Ten wild dogs. More than enough to be a problem. The first had erupted from the West, the direction I was heading. Then nine more in the South, East, between them, and so on.
One, then nine, then silence.
One Nine Zero. Again. The number plagued me. The sign. The barking, Albania, one-ninety. what was that? It was something, I was sure of it now. When I read the sign it had seemed familiar. But now with the unexpected closing in of those wild dogs it nearly surfaced, but remained elusive still.
I decided to use my phone, I still had a bar, and amazingly though the data connection was obtrusively slow, it was functional. Google pulled up nothing. There was nothing in my email. A short time later (remaining constantly vigilant for any intrusion into my space), I found what I was looking for in my photos, from the last time I stayed in Tirana two years back.
It was a photo of a sign at a museum I had visited, and looked quite similar to the sign I had stepped on previously.
“Unit 190” The English translation of the title stood out in bold sans-serif.
Only a few paragraphs were readable in the photo but they were more than enough. Back in the 1940’s when Fascism crept in and out of the country from all sides, over decades, one of main goals of the occupying forces was to secure the borders. Too often had political refugees managed to escape Albania whilst being hunted by the Sigurimi (the military wing of party intelligence).
They had succeeded in this endeavor mainly due to the introduction of Unit 190. One of the first programs of its kind. In an undisclosed location in the Dajti mountains was a K-9 training camp, using a mixture of chemical, psychological, and some speculate, occult means to train an elite selection of dogs to patrol the wild areas of the border, and neutralize those attempting to cross it.
A single bark rang out again, slightly closer but still directly between myself and my destination. After a pause, nine others joined in the chorus of chilling, mathematical communication.
I know that the program had been abolished, following several incidents with local children in the border towns. The last official killing of an illegal border crosser was in 1990, another fact that was stored in my museum photo-reel. But perhaps some had escaped destruction. They were animals of course. Apt to surprise you in their physical cunning. Apt to feel death closing in on them and simply slink away in the night.
And those traits that had been bred into them? Injected into them? Could they have been passed down via natural selection? Their mission? Was that something that could be instilled into blood and bone?
Philosophy has time to ponder. Survival does not.
By the time the next set of alerts echoed in the night, flaunting their increasing proximity, my tent was down, and both myself and all my belongings were fifteen feet up a tree. I was able to tie some of my stronger clothing across two branches creating a questionable hammock for the evening. But sleep would not come.
The dogs, however, did.
I can see them now in the clearing below my tree, circling. Ten of them, evenly spaced and circumambulating around me. Every thirty minutes or so the Alpha sends off another guttural ping. Moments later the nine reply. Stating their positions. Confirming their readiness.
The charge on my phone is running low, though I do have a slow solar charger I can use in the morning. For now, this is where I am. In a makeshift hammock in the trees. No civilization within sight. Posting to Reddit for help or advice.
At this point, I don’t see any possible way for me to slink out of this situation.