The world is so full of a number of things,
I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.
- Robert Louis Stevenson

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Chapter Five: Duct Tape Is Silver (Part III)

On our way to Leith I was burning to ask him how he had found me. I didn’t. But as we walked and he told me a bit about the city, the festival, the friends he was going to ask to let me crash, and himself – the last bit all lies, I was convinced – I gave it some thought.
In Newcastle I had thoroughly checked my clothes for any more bugs, but I hadn’t opened the package, so I assumed that Bryan had placed another device inside that. That one probably had been with GPS capability, allowing him (and Charley) to locate me anywhere at least in the UK, probably Europe, or the world. Still, for Charley to be there so quickly, there had to be more to it. After all, I had at best spent maybe 10 minutes on North Bridge.
Charley had probably tracked my approach. He probably had noted my arrival via Maybury and Glasgow Road. He probably had guessed that I was on that bus. There had been other stops I could have gotten off, but the city centre was a logical choice. Perhaps he had been there already, on some other business. Had he seen the T-shirt on display somewhere and just decided on a whim that it would make for a great joke, or had he been prepared? Had he meant to check me out before I got to a phone, to see if I was with anyone, of I posed some sort of danger? Or was it just for a laugh?
There was of course no way for me to know for certain, but like him I could make some good guesses. The fact alone that he was the recipient of the mystery package meant he was some sort of player. And the way he had gone about receiving me smacked of the mind of a confidence artist.
I had learned about the art of confidence game and the frame of mind necessary to play them from Uncle Yalya. Of course wasn’t any uncle of mine, and his name isn’t Valya – or Valentin – and he is not really from Bulgaria as I will claim henceforth. But that is what I called him whenever I told this part of the story, even to Alex and Sim, and that are the lies I will stick to. They are comfortable enough and they serve to protect his real identity.
He really was the uncle of another bloke in Plötzensee, let’s call the nephew Janko. You see, visiting inmates there isn’t like the stuff you see on the telly. No bullet-proof glass, no telephone to speak through, not even any bloody no-touching the prisoners riles or any of that Hollywood stuff. Maybe they do that in real prisons, but where I got sent to it was just a big room with all the false cheer of a hospital cafeteria, and with little square tables, four chairs to each. Twice a month, in the afternoon, you could get a visitor. When they had signed in, you were called from your room, and then you could meet them there. They could bring money (an arbitrary maximum of 13 Euros per visitor, but only in coins) and there were overpriced vending machines where you could buy sweets and coffee.
One week my friend Leo came to visit. Uncle Valya was also there, sitting on the table next to ours, waiting for Janko. I learned later that when the warden went to collect Janko from his room, he had smoked a bit too much weed, too much even for them to turn a blind eye (hey, a stoned inmate is a peaceful inmate), so he took a trip to the infirmary and then to the head warden’s office. Back in the visitors’s lounge, when it became apparent that something had gone wrong, Valya spoke to me, very quietly and in a way that the warden at the door didn’t notice anything.
“Hey there, redhead. Can you deliver a message to Janko?”
Leo wanted to turn his head but I told him: “Don’t look away from me.” And without turning my own face away from Leo, I said to Valya: “Sure thing. Can do.”
Valya nodded and got up, just as a warden entered to tell him that Janko wouldn’t make an appearance that day. As he walked past me, Valya held a folded pieces of paper, wrapped in a folded 20 Euro bill between the fingers of his left hand, hanging relaxed at his side, where the wardens couldn’t see it behind the tables and the other visitors. I plucked from his hand and palmed it calmly without turning away from Leo.
Two weeks later Valya was back, and this time he asked to see me. Life inside was too boring for me to decline. When I sat down next to him, he told me he had liked the way I had handled things. Not just the skill, but the style.
“Still rough,” he said. “You have a lot to learn. But you show more promise than my nephew ever has.”
I blushed at the compliment, the first I ever got for being a thief. It was the best compliment I had gotten so far in my life.
“You don’t do it to get rich, do you?” he asked, peering intently at me. “You do it out of love for the art.”
I blushed even more, and he nodded and asked me if I wanted to be his apprentice.
“I will make you work hard, boy,” he said. “And you will not make money. You work for me. Am I exploiting you? Of course I am. I am a crook. But I will pay you back. Not in money, but in knowledge. You decide.”
And he offered me his hand, gob of spit in the palm and all. He was the one who taught me that sometimes you have to live the cliché. There is purity in clichés.
I spit into my own and shook.
From February to July of 2008 I learned from Uncle Valya. I learned a lot, but the most important lesson he had already given me by directing my awareness to something I had secretly known all along: You don’t do it for the money. You do it for the love of the art.
Charley was like that. I think his magic trick out there, on those ugly 1980s concrete terraces of Waverly Station, amidst the oppressive beauty of Edinburgh, that was his love of the art. He did it because he could, because he couldn’t pass up the chance to play me.
All of that went through my mind as we made superficial chit chat and I did my best not to tell him anything about myself that was real. But I waited for a chance to pick his pocket.
At a busy crossing I got my chance and peeked into his wallet. The Australian driver’s licence bore his picture and the name Steve Randle. As soon as I could, I slipped it back – but into the wrong pocket.
When we reached the run-down Leith tenement building were his lmates lived, he rang the bell.
Casually I said: “Thanks, Steve, for the bother and the hospitality, and stuff.”
His face remained unmoved, only his eyes grew cold and calculating. And he didn’t skip a beat, answering: “Aw, it’s nothing, mate.”
I grinned, as insolently as he had done when I first met him. For a moment, he seemed uncertain how to take this. Than he casually touched the pocket where his wallet had been, and then the one where it was now. Anger darkened his face for a second. I winked just as the buzzer sounded and he pushed into the gloomy staircase.
He introduced me to Curtis, Matthew, and Marcia, who welcomed me easily enough, and assigned me to a stained and sagging couch in the living room. We shared some tea and a joint. They didn’t ask much, and what little I said, I made up. Eventually, Charley got up to leave. He gestured for me to follow him into the hallway.
“You looking for work?”
“Depends,” I said carefully, and without intending to I touched my bandaged shoulder. “I don’t plan on growing roots here.”
“Just for the festival, perhaps?” And when I hesitated, he smiled his sunny smile. “Think about it. Half a million suckers waiting to be bilked. I watched you lie in there.” He nodded towards the room and his mates. “You’re not half bad at it.”
“What do you have in mind?”
“Straight short cons. Pigeon drop, Murphy, maybe a Badger game.”
He flashed the gold filling on one of his teeth and raised an eye-brow.
“What would my role be in that Badger game?”
“Oh, you’ll be the red-haired, irascible Irish kid brother of my wife, who demands I pay you off so you can get the marriage annulled. I don’t have the funds, of course, and when you make to kill me there and then I’ll convince her that she’ll end up in the papers if not worse if she doesn’t help me out.”
In Berlin, with Uncle Valya, I’d mostly played variations on the fiddle game, like where I left a worthless old book in some place, say, a café, and Valya came in, discovered it, claimed to be an antiquarian and that the book was worth oodles of money. He’d leave his card and the promise to buy it for hundreds, if not thousands of Euros. When I returned to get my book, the waiter or whoever had been in contact with Valya would usually offer to buy the book from me for far less than Valya had offered him – but far more than I was actually worth. The fiddle game is so useful because you need hardly any props, it incurs no expenses to speak of, and carries next to no risk. At worst an honest waiter will simply pass on Valya’s card and tell me about my chance to get rich. But believe me, if played right, such honest peeps are few and far between.
“I donnt haff ze Rrrait Ak-tsent,” I said.
“Oh, I’ll teach you, mate,” Charley said. “I’ll teach you.”
So, thinking of Uncle Valya, I spat into my palm and offered it to Charley. He grinned broadly, spat into his own, and shook it.

Chapter Five: Duct Tape Is Silver (Part II)

Cherry or Sheryl or so Valance left the motorway and dropped me off at the Maybury bus stop on Glasgow Road, where I took the 26 line to North Bridge. The plan was to ring up my contact, but he beat me to it.
When I got off the bus, I was astonished how crowded Edinburgh was, crowded and grey and wet and oppressive, with its massive Edwardian houses, as it presented itself to me under the cloud shuttered sky. For a while I stood on that bridge spanning the train station and marvelled at it all: The Scotsman Hotel at one end, and Princes Street at the other, Carlton Hill with its old burial ground yonder, and, when I turned around, beyond the grooved roof of Waverley Station, the park, and looming above on its high, rocky perch, the Castle. Of all cities I’ve been to, I think only Budapest is as immediately awesome.
Finally I decided to walk over to the Princes Street side, around the Balmoral, and then down to the train station. Train stations are fine places to make unobserved phone calls. Way too many CCTV cams, of course, but that’s the point: Who is going to sift that sea of images for something as innocuous as a simple telephone call? Especially given my complex and faintly ridiculous security instructions.
You see, Bryan had made me memorise – but not write down! – a mobile phone number. I was to call it, let it ring twice, hang up, wait 5 minutes, and call again. Someone was supposed to answer then, saying: “Oz here,” to which I was to answer: “It’s Bob.” And then I was to get instructions where to hand over the package.
On my way to the station, on the concrete terraces above the station, leaning against the low walls enclosing the horribly out of place shrubbery, was a bloke of maybe 25, wearing neat blue jeans, tasselled loafers, and a plain navy windbreaker – over an obviously brand new Ozzy Osbourne T-shirt.
He sucked on a fag and then grinned at me insolently.
“Bob, right?”
I halted, hesitated, and asked lamely: “Oz?”
He scrunched up his handsome face, blew out smoke, and said: “Please… call me Charley.” He put the fag back into his mouth and offered me his hand: “Charley Tully.”
We shook.
“You got it?”
I hesitated again. Charley sighed, got out his mobile and speed-dialled someone.
“It’s me,” he said into the phone. “He’s here. Will you please tell him to cut the secret agent crap?” He handed it to me. It was Bryan, who told me it was okay and thanks for everything. Charley took back his phone and held out his hand.
“Here?” I asked.
Charley made a big show of looking around. Exaggeratedly he pointed at a rozzer standing on the other side of Princess Street, opened his eyes wide, and put his hand over his mouth.
He stage-whispered: “Oh no, what if he sees us?”
I sighed, got the packet out of my satchel – pained and laborious, trying to avoid opening the wound on my arm again – and handed it to him. He didn’t even bother to stow it away or anything, just held it relaxed in his hand.
“Where are you stayin?”
“No idea yet.”
At that he raised an eyebrow.
“Mate, it’s the festival, you know?”
And when my face didn’t register understanding, he explained: “The Edinburgh Festival. All of August. It’s the bloody biggest festival of performing arts in the world. There’s about half a million visitors in town, as many as live here normally.”
Charley turned around and walked away from me. When I didn’t move, he turned around.
“Well, come along.”
“Where are we going?”
“Get you a place to stay. You don’t expect you’ll find a hostel or hotel room at the moment, do you?”
I said: “I suppose not,” and followed him.
“So, what do I call you?”
“Bob.” Deadpan.
He gave me a long look.
“Bob Moros.”
At that he laughed and we became friends.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Chapter Five: Duct Tape Is Silver

Feel it break your bones Mr. Jones
taste me as I bleed, taste my need
- Smashing Pumpkins: Spaceboy (1993)

The sales rep that had given me a lift out of Leeds got me as far as a few kilometres past Durham. I had fallen asleep in the stuffy warmth of his Volvo, the constant drone of his voice merged smoothly with the purr of the engine. After what must have been an hour – though it felt like 5 minutes – he shook me awake.
“You’re bleeding.”
Bloody was dripping from my hand onto my lap and the upholstery of the passenger seat. I pushed the jacket from my shoulder and rolled up the soaked sleeve of my T. The bandages had come lose and more blood was trickling down my arm.
The sales rep brought the Volvo to a skidding stop at the side of the motorway.
“Get out,” he snarled.
I looked at him startled. I mean, I was sorry for the stains on his seat cover, but I hadn’t expected this reaction.
“I cannot explain why I had you in my car,” was all of the cryptic answer I got to my puzzled look. “Get out. Now.”
I grabbed my satchel and did as he said. He pulled the door close from within and roared off, leaving me by the side of the M1.
I treated the wound. My next attempt to keep it under wraps and pressure wasn’t  much better, but I’d had enough experience with cuts to the arms to know that it wasn’t all that easy to bleed yourself dry even if you tried. I would live.
I made it to Newcastle that night, and appropriated enough money to stay at another hostel. This time no one wanted papers or a story why I had none. The next day I hitched a ride with a lady who drove a bloody big Japanese SUV and who made me listen to saccharine soft pop and her own sob story all the way to Edinburgh. She told me the story in that wonderful, melodious Scottish sing-song that I would come to cherish like few other sounds in the world.
Her name was Cherry or Sheryl or so Valance. She was moving back in with her aging rents in Perth after she had been fired from a job as some sort of researcher. She’d been accused of fudging some numbers.
“The thing is, I haedna cheated. No’ the way they said I did, anywae. I hae go’en the numbers wrong, tha’ much is correct. Bu’ it must’a been subconsciously. My boyfriend hae just left me when I wrote tha’ paper, and wha’ I wrote, it sorta proved an argument we’d been having. At least, it wid if I’d been right. Tha’ is to say, if I cheated on anybody, it was mostly on him.”
I don’t know what she thought she saw on my face, but she grimaced and said: “Yer right. I only cheated on myself.”
And after a brief, uncomfortable pause: “So, tha’ is my sorry tale. Wan’te tell me yer oon?”
I eyed her wearily. She laughed.
“It’s okay, laddie. Ye don’ hafta. I can tell tha’ it’s no’ a happy one. No noodle salad there either, huh?”
“Excuse me?”
“Never mind. I s’pose, things are tough all over.”
I suppose she was right. On the stereo Paula Cole asked us where had all the cowboy’s gone, but neither of us knew the answer.