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Viva la madness, p.23
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       Viva La Madness, p.23

           J. J. Connolly

  Sonny’s guy leads me up the stairs, to the second floor and into a large, empty office. The premises used to be a call centre; there’s power points and telephone plugs everywhere. The low ceiling gives the room a claustrophobic effect but luckily there’s English air conditioning – broken windows. Bedding is rolled up in the corner along with a camp bed. There’s a kitchen area with tea-making facilities and a brand new microwave. It’s basic indoor camping but Smiler doesn’t appear to mind; he’s probing on the New Frontier of this computer lark, deep in uncharted wilderness.

  Smiler salutes when he sees me, appears happy that I’m on my Jack, without the dynamic duo. He leads me into a room in the far corner where his laboratory is set up. Smiler’s new server is a beast – humming and blinking, the size of a door, the firepower of a million home computers and fans running to keep it cool. You could run a city with that. It’s plumbed in, ready for action but Smiler still has rows of laptops with leads running away to junction boxes then into the mighty server. There’s a smell of electronic equipment burning in, a comforting bouquet of warm copper connection.

  ‘I see you’ve made the place your own …’ I tell Smiler. ‘Done a bit of decorating.’

  ‘It’s a lonely life, comrade,’ giggles Smiler, with a pervy leer, ‘being here on me own.’

  Above his work space Smiler has stuck onto an employee of the week noticeboard printouts of the couple in the Florida hotel room, enough to make an impressive collage – some photos clipped then blown up so big that they’ve pixellated into arty porn or pornographic art. A bit Warhol. He’s opted for multiple, identical shots of the fit woman with half an erect penis in her mouth.

  ‘That, Smiler …’ I say, pointing up, ‘ain’t fuckin right.’

  Smiler chuckles then points out, like a proud father, his number one computer. Fragments – small random blocks of pixels – of something are beginning to appear, like a microscopic jigsaw puzzle slowly taking shape. Smiler punches some keys and the pixels become so magnified they blur. He zooms in on an indecipherable letterhead.

  ‘It’s definitely a file-sharing program …’ says Smiler, impressed. ‘Checking through websites, downloading what it needs, and using it to decipher the information on the stick.’

  ‘Is that how it’s meant to work?’ I ask.

  ‘To be honest … I don’t know.’ He shakes his head. ‘There’s obviously a key to this – a site that operates as a combination lock.’

  ‘How long till we get something worthwhile?’

  ‘I can’t say it’s ever going to work,’ shrugs Smiler.

  ‘You sure this is the solution?’ I ask.

  ‘If you’ve got a better one,’ says Smiler, ‘let me know.’

  ‘So, what shall I tell Sonny?’

  ‘As little as poss,’ he replies.

  I sit him down with a cup of strong diesel and a few chocolate digestives – I’ll make sure you get paid, Smiler. Trust me. No harm will come to you …We are allies, you and me.

  Flavio telling Sonny that the Venezuelans wanted Jesus’ phone records got me thinking. I got Smiler to obtain the list of calls made, or received, by him. Smiler reckons hacking into a hotel mainframe is as easy as a gentleman jewel thief breaking into a garden shed.

  Smiler gets to work – a little man-management works wonders. He hacks into an online reverse directory using a restricted code and then wires a Spanish translation program in, then some billing software. All in about a minute. He nods at more translated transcripts piled in an in-tray. I sit down on an old armchair to read but doze off with the sun on my face.

  Smiler’s red-hot laser printer wakes me up. I look at my watch. I’ve been asleep for fifteen minutes. Smiler has left a stack of new paperwork. I find phone numbers and the identity of the destination … notes in Smiler’s spidery writing … subscribers … calls made to numbers he’s identified as disposable mobile phones … airport lounge payphones … bars and private homes in Miami and Caracas … airlines and embassies … the Venezuelan embassy in Paris … the ambassador or chargé d’affaires in Haiti … calls to remote islands in the Carib … timings in EST and GMT … Jesus’ old phone bills … Smiler’s scrawled note … subscriber allocated new number red ringed … new number restricted! Smiler is alight, eyes like a mad scientist.

  ‘Would you say you were obsessive, Smiler?’ I ask.

  ‘About certain things, yes,’ he says.

  Smiler beckons me over; ‘Have a look at this.’ I go over to his monitor. He taps the screen with his chewed-up biro. ‘Jesus calls a payphone in Heathrow Airport arrivals lounge at exactly nineteen minutes past eight in the morning. He talks for twenty-seven minutes, ends the call … Then, one minute later, he signs off the hotel bill, leaves the Cosmo …’ Smiler shrugs. ‘Maybe he left to meet someone at Heathrow?’

  I nod, but knowing Jesus’ modus operandi it’s more likely he thought it would be hilarious to have someone, maybe Santos, meet him at the Cosmopolitan at the exact moment the Eurostar train – departing London, Waterloo, bound for Paris – was going underground, entering the Channel Tunnel, at Ashford, Kent, not far from where he’s buried. Jesus was meant to be having the champagne breakfast when Twitchy was abducting him.

  One number leaps out of the printout because it’s been called repeatedly. The calls are always short, between ten and fifteen seconds – in batches, at three or four in the morning London time, BST, night after night. Smiler sits me down.

  ‘Let me show you something …’ Smiler points at the first call, connected for only five seconds. ‘That is someone receiving a call, accepting it, and straight away pushing the red button to reject it after answering to see who it is. They don’t wanna talk to the caller.’

  Smiler points with his ballpoint at the second call in the batch. It’s comparatively long – one minute, thirty seconds. ‘The second one is the caller ringing again and leaving a long message – the maximum length you can leave.’

  I nod, taking in Smiler’s analysis. ‘And the rest, the others, are the caller ringing again and again and the person they’ve called pushing the reject button … or they’ve turned off the phone so they can’t leave a message.’

  ‘You know that just by looking?’

  ‘You never been in love?’ asks Smiler.

  ‘We talking being in love or stalking?’

  ‘Never had yer heart broken?’ asks Smiler.

  ‘So tell me, Romeo, who’s getting all the calls from Jesus? Who is the object of his desire?’

  ‘A party by the name of Jenna Zambrano,’ says Smiler, real smug.

  ‘Jenna Zambrano …? Like on the recordings?’

  Smiler gently nods; the cat that got the canary.

  ‘And, I bet you a pound to a paper hat,’ says Smiler, pointing up towards his montage, ‘that she is Jenna Zambrano, the bird Jesus was ringing from the Cosmo. You wanna bet?’

  Smiler starts hunting around on his messy desk under piles of papers and food wrappers, getting impatient. He finds what he’s looking for – Sonny’s three gee – wrapped in an elastic band.

  ‘Here,’ he says, waving the money under my nose, ‘I’ll bet you three grand … that if you ring that number …’ he taps the phone bill with his pen, ‘she …’ he points up at his collage, ‘answers. Three grand, okay? You on?’

  ‘You ring it, Smiler,’ I say. ‘Tell her about your artistic tribute.’

  ‘See, I don’t give a monkey’s, either way,’ shrugs Smiler unconvincingly.

  ‘How can you be so certain Jesus was ringing pin-up girl?’

  ‘It’s a hunch,’ says Smiler. ‘We having a flutter, or what? I’ll dial the number for ya. You’ll then know that the bird in the photos was the same one that was rung a million times by this Jesus kid.’

  ‘You know what I think? You wanna get some proxy thrill by getting me to ring her.’

  ‘We on or what?’ he asks, dead droll.

  ‘It’s eight in the morning on the East Coast. She’ll still be asleep.

  ‘Exactly!’ says Smiler, clicking his fingers, like it’s a fait accompli, ‘She’ll be unawares! You speak the lingo, a drop of the old Spanish. Chat her up a bit …’

  ‘So what are you suggesting?’ I ask. ‘I ring her up and do what exactly?’

  ‘Establish my theory about the missing dude ringing this bird from the Cosmopolitan Hotel. I ring the number – she, Jenna, answers, and we’re in business. If it ain’t her, you take the money …’

  ‘Could be any woman answering … don’t necessarily mean it’s this Jenna woman.’

  ‘No, no,’ he says. ‘You say “good morning, Jenna” – in Spanish of course – and if she says, “you’ve got the wrong number, no Jenna here,” you win. But if she says …’ Smiler adopts a beyond-fuckin-bizarre sexy accent, ‘“Hiya, Jenna here. Who’s that?” I win. You understand the wager?’

  It’s all the more perverse because while Smiler’s talking I’m absent-mindedly studying his homemade collage.

  ‘Look,’ says Smiler, ‘if it’s being traced you’re worried about, I can fix it so she won’t know what continent you’re on.’

  Smiler is tapping digits – international exit and entry codes – into his cell phone while he clutches his biro, like a pirate’s cutlass, between his teeth. He hits the speakerphone button. It begins to ring – a flat American tone. Smiler hands me the receiver. A woman – young, sleepy, yawning, stretching, still in bed – answers. This is gonna be easy.

  ‘Hola,’ she says. ‘Quién es? Eres tú, Miguel? Quién es?’

  Hello. Who’s that? Is that you, Miguel? Who is this?

  ‘Hablo con Jenna?’ I say, as innocently as I can, ‘Jenna Zambrano?’

  Is that Jenna – Jenna Zambrano?

  ‘De qué se trata? Qué hora es?’

  What’s this about? What time is it? She suddenly gets a bit angry, ‘Mierda,’ – like she’s just realised the time.

  ‘Estoy tratando de rastrear un huésped que estuvo en nuestro hotel,’ I say, ‘dejó algunas cosas sin pagar.’

  I’m trying to trace a guest who was staying at our hotel – they left without paying for certain items.

  ‘Oh, sí, quién podría ser entonces esté?’ she says, the first bit of suspicion entering her voice.

  Oh, yes, who would that be then?

  I’m about to answer when she asks, ‘Preferiría hablar Inglés si no hay inconveniente?’

  I would prefer to speak English – is that acceptable?

  ‘Are you English?’ she asks.

  ‘Yes,’ I say.

  ‘I thought it was an English accent,’ she says. ‘Am I right?’

  ‘Yes,’ I say, a knot tightening in my stomach.

  ‘Is this Jenna Zambrano?’ I ask.

  ‘Where did you say you were calling from?’ she asks, swerving the question.

  ‘The Cosmopolitan Hotel, London.’

  ‘Be easy enough to check,’ she says inoffensively, with a laugh. ‘What did you say your name was?’

  ‘Call her Jenna,’ whispers Smiler. I say nothing but now she’s laughing, catching on fast.

  ‘I don’t think you’re from the Cosmopolitan Hotel at all,’ she says, ‘oh, but what a nice English accent – a London one I’d go as far as to say.’ She does a very good impression of a swell’s accent, ‘I had to go home …I ran out of Cologne.’ I laugh but I say nothing. ‘You think that’s funny, don’t you?’ she says, ‘I can hear you laughing …’ She’s keeping me on the phone – trying to trace, or tape, the call. ‘But, you know what? … Are you still there?’ she asks.

  ‘Yeah,’ I reply.

  ‘I think you’ve spent time in the Caribbean – just a hunch – but you’re bloody blue collar. What’s your name?’ she asks double-quick, trying to catch me out. She does her posh accent again, ‘What’s the matter? Is it raining cats and dogs in London?’ She returns to her normal voice, ‘If you’re not going to tell me, I’ll call you Mister English … after where you’re from.’

  ‘If ya like,’ I say, then regret it. This is dangerous – charged.

  I hear the static and echo off the satellite. I could finish the call, hit the red but …

  ‘What is it with you English guys?’ she says, ‘You can look at all the pretty girls but you just can’t bring yourself to talk to us, can you? You going to tell me your real name?’ she waits a few seconds. ‘Give me a name, any name …’

  Smiler is drawing his finger across his throat. ‘Kill it,’ he hisses. ‘You mad?’

  ‘I think this was a mistake,’ I say, ‘I better be off.’

  I go to hit the red when she says, ‘I thought you’d rung to claim your bounty.’


  ‘Oh, yes,’ she says, but her voice has dropped an octave, deep and sexy, ‘don’t play the innocent, Mister English. The reward. Shame to let it go to waste …’ She’s purring. It should sound ridiculous but it’s incredibly seductive. ‘We could blow it together, in a big puff of smoke … Good times, Mister English …’

  ‘What’s the reward for, Jenna?’

  She laughs. ‘Come on, English, it’s too early to get smart. Is it morning where you are? Where are you? London?’

  ‘Could be for a couple of things, Jenna, who knows?’ I say.

  ‘Let me get this straight … Jesus Zambrano was last reported in London and now I’ve got a Londoner, with a dash of Americano, who speaks a poco español ringing me from an untraceable line at eight in the morning, like he’s trying to catch me cold. And now he’s acting the innocent …’ She waits again. Then, to provoke me, ‘or real fucking dumb …’

  I say nothing. A hint of menace enters her voice, ‘Mister English, you’ve gone all quiet, but will you answer one question for me?’

  ‘Maybe.’ I cringe like a teenager.

  ‘Is Jesus Zambrano alive or dead?’ she asks, extremely seriously.

  She waits patiently; I can hear her breathing. Five long seconds tick by …

  ‘That’s not an answer …’ she says. ‘You won’t be hard to find. Now if you’re not going to talk to me …’ She laughs; a mixture of sexy and sinister. ‘Adios.’ The line goes dead.

  I hand the phone to Smiler. I realise I’ve fucked up and I’ve got a tug in my pants.

  ‘I’ll have to owe you that three grand, Smiler, I ain’t got it on me right now.’

  ‘It’s not a problem …’ he replies, awkwardly holding the phone, like’s it’s evidence. ‘Don’t worry about it, actually … Forget it …’

  We sit in silence for a half minute – pondering, feeling naïve, the worst possible crime around here.

  ‘Smiler, you used to get hold of those quality passports.’

  ‘Yeah?’ he says, rolling his chair over to me.

  ‘Can you still get them?’ I ask.

  ‘Should think so,’ says Smiler with one eye on Sonny’s sentry. ‘Do you need one?’

  I nod.

  ‘I’d need to make a call, and I’ll need a photo,’ says Smiler. ‘Maybe I can get a price on two,’ he adds.

  ‘I won’t need two,’ I say.

  ‘No, but I might need one.’

  I get up to leave, suppress the urge to clip Smiler round the ear, and collect the next instalment from the in-tray. I stop at the door.

  ‘Smiler, next time you have a hunch … Do us both a favour – keep it to yourself.’



  I get to have a proper read of the next instalment on the rattler to Liverpool Street. This one is as crisp and clear as the daylight. The extended Zambrano Clan is split over the proposed marriage of convenience of Jenna Zambrano to the idiot son of a high-ranking Brigadier General in the Venezuelan army. Everyone has political ambitions for junior; he’s being groomed for the senate. This arrangement would be a serious coup for the family, making them invincible, giving them a large degree of respectability both in Venezuela and abroad. Politically they would be untouchable. With the vast amounts of mone
y the Zambrano family have acquired, together with the apparent respectability of the General’s family – who can trace their lineage back to Spain – it would launch them into orbit. They could still be flying their gear around on military aircraft, using diplomatic channels, but they wouldn’t have to worry about falling foul of the authorities. They would be the authorities. In South America they put the poor thief in prison and make the rich thief El Presidente.

  It’s the same the world over – crims ultimately want respectability. A lot depends on the marriage; they can’t afford any scandal. Papa Victor is canvassing opinions. And Miguel totally disregarding them. Jesus must have been planning to use the photos to blackmail Jenna’s family. Are Santos and his firm in London to retrieve the memory stick for Miguel? Trying to retrieve the bone for their master?

  The next few pages answer the question – Miguel and Santos are adversaries, although Santos is not in the same arena. There are snide references to that prick Santos – Nuestro dizque Inglés or Our Pretend Englishman and Comandante Churchill. Transpires he’s a devoted ally of Jesus, collaborating with him in drug trafficking and his other repulsive antics.

  There’s a solitary sheet of paper among the lengthy exchanges – a short, terse telephone conversation between Miguel and some security operator who works for him. The Yank from the Cosmo maybe? The transcript has a scrawled note from Smiler in the margin – In English.

  Is the boy dead? asks Miguel and the other guy replies that he is. Miguel is cursing, in English, this is very bad, that fucking Austrian mother will want blood. The other dude replies simply, Give them Jesus … It’s overdue … If they listened to you, boss … Miguel again: this could have bad implications. The security op again: they found everything, in the sea, but no head – he laughs – funny, he was paid for his head. Miguel: I’m not in the mood for funny right now. Buenas noches.

  The episode ends abruptly – cliffhanging stuff.

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