Viva La Madness, p.3J. J. Connolly
Bridgetown is bustling when we arrive. I spent some time in Barbados a few years ago, before I landed in Curaçao. Today the main duty-free shopping street is crowded with affluent, retirement-age punters – sloppy Joes, emblazoned with ‘Jamaica’, ‘St Lucia’ – palm trees, parrots and sunsets. There’s three cruise ships in the harbour and the tourists are ashore in swarms, dropping their dollars for luxury goods and services.
Sonny’s told me to head for St George Street, over by the Lower Green bus station; he’s clutching a moist, hand-drawn diagram. He told Mort and Roy, if they got lost, to meet us there, specifically by a set of Cable and Wireless phone booths, four in a row. As luck would have it, I find it straight away and there’s a vacant parking space next to the phones.
‘What’s the time here?’ says Sonny, tapping his watch, on London time, approaching seven p.m.
‘About ten to three,’ I reply.
‘Good, we’re early,’ he says, getting out.
Only one of the four phones is occupied. Sonny stands, arms folded, in front of a booth where a young guy is parked up obviously talking to some lady friend – flirting, dancing, giggling and whispering – coaxing her knickers off. Sonny starts pacing in front of the guy’s phone box but Romeo’s oblivious, what with being all fired-up. I nod towards the other three phones but Sonny shakes his head. I work it out. Sonny isn’t making a call; he’s looking to receive one. He wants that phone booth, that number. Romeo puts the phone down and strolls off.
Sonny steps into the phone booth just as Mort and Roy pull up, pay the driver, haul their cases out the taxi and line them up next to the rental motor. Sonny’s now got the receiver tucked under his chin. He gets out a cigarette packet and slings it over to Roy.
‘Light us one of them, will ya?’ says Sonny.
‘What, someone chop yer hands off?’ says Roy, indignant.
‘I’m busy, ain’t I?’ says Sonny, nodding towards the receiver. He’s got the button pushed down. I was right. Roy lights a snout for Sonny.
‘Come on to fuck,’ Sonny says to himself, looking at his watch again.
‘What time you got, Sonny?’ says Morty, leaning on the motor.
‘Comin up to eight,’ he replies, showing Morty his wafer-thin, platinum timepiece.
‘If the guy said eight,’ says Mort with a shrug, ‘he means on the dot. You can set yer watch by these guys.’
The clock on the Anglican church starts to strike three o’clock. The phone rings exactly on the last chime. Sonny smiles, gives us a wink, lets it ring twice then picks it up. He has a short conversation, finishing with one final ‘Okay Skip, over and out.’
He puts the phone down. He’s grinning, rubbing his hands together like a racecourse bookie. He even gives me a playful slap on the shoulder.
‘Right, we’re all systems go. Royski, Mort, you know where you gotta be,’ Sonny says, and hands Mister Mortimer the diagram. Then he turns to me.
‘Give Roy them car keys, son.’
‘No, I’ll drive,’ I say.
‘No, Bullseye, you’re on point with me.’
‘But why? I don’t understand—’
‘I was told to bring you in there—’
‘You’ll see when you get there.’ He gives me the pointy finger, ‘You wanna consider it a privilege.’
‘Don’t worry, bro,’ says Morty, ‘you may have to do this on your own.’
Sonny shoots Mort a nasty, sideways look. Morty spots it.
‘You okay, Sonny?’ says Mort with a sarcastic wink. ‘Feelin the heat?’
‘Nah, nah, Mort, I just wanna get it done, have a shant. Go off-duty,’ says Sonny. He takes off down the street. ‘Leave the fuckin cases!’ Sonny shouts over his shoulder. ‘Follow me! And hurry up! Come on, we’ve got an appointment! You’d think we’ve got all day to fuck about, the way you behave!’
A minute later we arrive outside the Conciliated Bank of Barbados. Sonny spits his gum out on the steps, kisses the ends of his fingertips and lovingly pats the polished brass plaque, leaving grubby fingerprints. As we’re about to go in he deliberately holds the door shut for a split-second, turns to me, winks, flicks his head, extremely cocky now. ‘Look and learn, son,’ says Sonny Fuckin King, a man I wouldn’t ask to lick a stamp. ‘Look and fucking learn.’
Inside, the bank is colonial, wood-panelled, marble-floored but very hi-tech on the business side of the counter. It’s dark after the bright sunshine. The ceiling fans work overtime but are fighting a losing battle. A line of customers wait to be served – ladies with Sunday hats and battery-operated hand fans, gentlemen in short-sleeved shirts with string vests visible underneath, wiping sweat from the backs of their necks with neatly folded handkerchiefs. We stick out like a pair of snowmen.
‘Can you see Customer Services?’ he says, looking about.
‘Over there, Sonny,’ I point with a nod.
‘Don’t fuckin call me “Sonny”,’ he says outta the side of his mouth.
‘You shoulda told me that before,’ I whisper.
‘I’m tellin ya now, ain’t I, you cunt,’ says Sonny, the church-like acoustics carrying his voice like he’s singing opera. There is no known word for ‘tact’ in Sonny’s vocabulary.
Half the queue – young and old alike – turn and look at us disapprovingly, shake their heads and pull lemon-sucking faces.
Sonny, oblivious, rings the bell by the Customer Service window. A few seconds later a young woman appears at the other side of the counter.
‘I’m Mister Berkeley,’ says Mister King, ludicrously pointing at himself, ‘and I’m expected.’
‘One second, Mister Berkeley, someone will attend to you shortly,’ she says, then disappears.
A second woman, dressed like a head prefect in a sky-blue and white CBB blazer, comes to the window. ‘I’ll buzz you through,’ she says. ‘That one there.’
She points at a door with a wired-glass window and combination keypad where the keyhole should be. There’s a long buzz. Sonny opens the door. We walk through. Now we’re in a tiny room – I could touch both walls – like an airlock but with another windowed door. The inside door buzzes. Sonny tries to open it. But it doesn’t respond. Through the glass the woman shakes her head, motions for him to be patient.
I’ve seen these set-ups before – all buzzes and blips, one door has to be shut before the next one opens – in banks and prison visiting wings. As soon as the weighted outside door clicks shut, the inside door releases and the woman opens it and welcomes us through. But she turns to talk to me. ‘Good afternoon, Mister Berkeley,’ she says, ‘Mister Curtis will be along—’ I hold up my hand, say nothing but nod towards Sonny, now AKA Mister Berkeley. She turns to Sonny. ‘Oh, sorry, Mister Berkeley, I thought … I’m terribly … Please come this way.’
The woman, whose blazer badge tells me her name is Pearl and she’s a Customer Relations Manager, leads us down a windowless corridor, a total contrast from the sedate, old world, public end of the operation. There’s closed doors every ten feet. It’s air con chilly. She stops at a door, punches in a combination number, opens it. We’re in the airlock scenario again. We enter, like strangers in an elevator while we wait – an awkward shyness, thin smiles, shuffles and raised eyebrows.
When the inside door eventually buzzes Pearl motions us into a spacious room with no windows, furnished, at the far end, with comfy sofas and coffee tables with tasselled lamps. In contrast, at the end nearest the door, there are two metal office desks with an IBM computer terminal on each one. It has the air of plastic corporate hospitality, like it was ordered from an industrial furniture catalogue. On the walls there are repro paintings of boats being loaded with cargoes in Bridgetown’s Carlisle Bay. Fanned out neatly on the coffee tables are upmarket investment and fashion magazines – US editions. It has the feel of a private doctor’s waiting room.
‘Mister Curtis will be right down,’ says Pearl. ‘Can I get you some coffee? Tea? Iced water?’
Pearl gives me a cheeky smile, turns and goes through the rigmarole of getting out, leaving Sonny and me alone. He begins pacing the navy blue carpet with the CBB emblem woven through it in gold. I sit down, shuffle through the magazines and start reading an article in Cosmopolitan about plastic surgery addiction while Sonny tears up the carpet and huffs and puffs enough for two. But I’m getting more curious, working out what we’re up to – suitcases crammed fulla readies, pre-arranged phone calls, synchronised watches, aliases, appointments at banks, red carpet treatment …
I’m also starting to enjoy this. Something’s woken up, and that something deep inside likes sitting in the inner sanctum of a bank, being offered cups of tea or coffee, being welcomed in, being invited to enter.
A. Because for generations the likes of me were drilling through reinforced concrete walls during bank holiday weekends, bypassing security systems, coming down through ceilings, up from sewers, or using frontal assaults with sawn-off shotguns, trying to get the banknotes out of the bank. Nowadays the likes of me and Sonny are assembled here – locked in rather than locked out – one of us patiently reading in Cosmo about all-the-rage-in-Hollywood designer vaginas, the other wearing a hole in their monogrammed carpet, waiting for them to accept, with thanks, three suitcases full of plunder.
I hear the door buzz, look up and see a gent waving regally behind the glass. Another buzz and into the room steps a guy I take to be Mister Curtis. I’m pointing at Sonny to avoid any confusion and denting Sonny’s ego.
‘Mister Berkeley?’ he says to Sonny, half question, half assumption, sticking out a hand. ‘Rupert Curtis.’
‘Yes, that’s me. I’m Mister Berkeley,’ says Sonny, shaking hands, trying to sound like a swell. ‘Glad to make your acquaintance.’
I have to stop myself from laughing out loud. Sonny spots me grinning and snarls while Mister Curtis turns his attention to his paperwork. I get up to shake hands with Mister Curtis. Sonny – AKA Mister Berkeley – introduces me. ‘This is my colleague, Mister Hunt.’
Someone’s briefed Sonny on exactly what to say; the word ‘colleague’ is definitely not in his vocabulary. And someone has definitely got a sense of humour cos now we’re Monsieurs Berkeley and Hunt … AKA a right pair of Berkeley Hunts.
‘It’s good to put a face to a name, Mister Berkeley,’ says Curtis. ‘We always welcome meeting our valued clients face to face. And we are willing to accept cash … on occasion, when necessary, from the favoured few. You do understand, don’t you?’
This is flattery. Curtis would have your hand off if you walked in here with cash to deposit.
Mister Curtis is about my age, looks good – tanned face, sun-bleached hair, the sharp Caucasian features of a native of Stockholm or Oslo. His accent is pure Bajan – a well-preserved eighteenth-century West Country English. The white Bajans ruled the island for years – owned everything, the slaves and the sugar plantations – and they still occupy all the positions of power. They stick together and marry among themselves. I spot a long chain hanging from his belt, down almost to his knee and back into his front trouser pocket.
‘Everything appears to be in order, Mister Berkeley,’ says Mister Curtis, nonchalantly. ‘Shall we get cracking? Tempus fugit.’
‘Do what?’ says Sonny, mystified.
‘Time waits for no man,’ replies Curtis.
He leads us through the two-door arrangement into the corridor. We follow him briskly round a corner and up to a double steel door. There’s a very relaxed but very armed security guard sitting at a metal desk. Mister C greets him real friendly, first-name terms. They have a how’s-the-wife-and-kids chat while Mister Curtis fills in a form on a steel clipboard. He looks up at a wall clock, writes down the exact time then hands it to the guard. He steps up to the door, takes a long thin key from the chain and unlocks first a top lock then a lower one. Then Curtis taps in the combination. A long buzz. Tumblers roll inside the door. Then using his weight he pulls the steel door open.
We step into yet another antechamber – larger than any of the previous, with an ominous CCTV camera tilted down at us, its red eye blinking – with a heavy steel door. I realise that they’re giving us the new punter’s tour, showing us the vault so we can sleep peacefully knowing all our funds are tucked up safe.
‘This is a pain in the …’ whispers Curtis, like he’s said something naughty, ‘but necessary.’
He does the whole number again – keys, locks, combos, buzzes – and then, with a flourish, he swings the door wide open.
I’m looking out into an empty car park, behind Bridgetown’s main drag. I’m whacked by a surge of scorching heat, like I’ve stepped into a sauna. I’m squinting; have to shield my eyes from the intense late-afternoon sun. Through the haze I spot Mort with Twitchy Roy, leaning on the motor, bored, killing time, shades on, snout in one hand and the other shielding his eyes. The Samsonites are lined up, neat and tidy, straight as soldiers.
‘Are those your other colleagues?’ Mister Curtis asks. Sonny nods. ‘Best we get weaving then, hadn’t we, Mister Berkeley?’
DROPPING OFF THE BAGWASH
Money laundering is basically getting the nasty, tainted cash cleaned up and into the money-go-round so it can be spent without attracting attention. It’s getting it from being large chunks, or suitcases full, of paper into credit digits on a balance sheet. If you try to buy a property these days using cash, it can’t be done without creating suspicion. You can’t wander into estate agents with bags full of readies and select the Desirable Residence you want, although some whacked guys try. If you ain’t got the agent and solicitor seriously Vale of Kent you can end up getting seriously nicked. You can’t even pay off a large credit card bill in cash anymore. Bundles of cash ain’t a lotta good, not in the amounts that people are making these days. If you turn up at a bank and try and deposit over ten gee, they’re meant to inform the authorities, if they think its très suspect. Whether or not this happens depends on who you are, and who they are, what they have to gain by keeping quiet, and how corruptible or straight they are. If you’ve got good reason to be paying in cash – you own bars, nightclubs or a chain of dollar shops – fair enough. But increasingly everything – goods and services – is being bought and sold with plastic magic. In the future cash will no longer exist, wealth will only exist as credits on a database. Banknotes won’t be worth the paper they’re written on, but for the time being what you need is a ‘sink’, meaning quite literally somewhere you can sink your schwarzgeld into the system. When I was active, four years ago, I had shares in cash-heavy businesses – letting agencies, clothes shops, car washes, flower stalls – whose sole purpose was to spin the skull profits. If we did no trade that week, no problem; we’d still send a good few gee through the highly fictional accounts. I was paying income tax on drug earnings. I was a portfolio-maintaining, property-owning, role model.
If the law flop on you, kick the door off at six in the morning, cos they think, or they know, you’re up to skullduggery cos you’re living in a huge drum – six bedder, swimming pool, tennis courts – and you can’t show them where you got the funds, ze authorities can seize any assets they can find. Nowadays you gotta have a good, nod-and-a-wink accountant in the hedge as well as a canny lawyer on twenty-four-hour pager call.
It’s a game. If Sonny King wants to buy a house, a car, Park Lane with a couple of hotels on it or a nightclub to sink even more funny money into, what you need is a Credit Transfer or Letters of Credit from your highly respected bank. If an up-and-coming sniff retailer wants to treat himself to a BMW rag-top, straight off the forecourt, he has to riddle out how to do it without giving the salesman a chunk of cash, cos he’s obliged to drop the dime. The hard part nowadays is getting your loot into the sy
When you start to make money in the telephone numbers category – and Sonny is evidently making money – it’s handy if you can just tip up without any pretence about being legit and simply fire your soiled readies into the global bagwash. Finding an accommodating bank can be a lot harder than wholesaling vast amounts of drugs. Somebody obviously vouched for Mister Berkeley, so when we arrived it was simply a question of crossing tees and dotting eyes. It starts to become clear, judging by Mister Curtis’ sycophantic attitude, that Sonny is already an account holder of some standing but I get the distinct impression that this is the first time he’s dropped by in person.
Someone, most probably back in London, could have set up an electronic route around the like-minded establishments, so although Sonny’s readies woulda physically stayed in the vault of the CBB, Sonny’s credit balance would have been pin-balling around the global financial markets, never staying any longer than a few minutes in any location but leaving an impregnable maze to follow. You’d start off with crooked banks and slowly work your way towards the legit ones. If you’re very smart, know your shallots, have the right connections, you can send monies flying at the click of a switch into the labyrinth. Every transfer makes it that little bit more legit but you’d still need to show the UK authorities how you earned your riches, if you decide to bring it home; you could leave it tucked up in beautifully anonymous Zurich, or start buying up real estate abroad.
Sonny can deposit his chunk in Barbados and seconds later it’s landing in an account in Switzerland. If Sonny was to drop down dead here in the West Indies tonight – had the jammer up a ten-dollar hooker – nobody, not his relatives, business associates or British Old Bill could get those funds out of a Swiss bank. If you think about it, the peace-loving, neutral Swiss must be playing host to trillions or zillions of pounds, dollars, euros, francs and yen that’s been squirrelled away by profiteering Nazis, global narco-crims, corrupt autocrats, shady arms dealers or African dictators who’ve met an abrupt end. All that being dead secretive can work both ways, if you end up secretly dead. You put your loot in, on the QT …
Viva La Madness by J. J. Connolly / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes