Viva La Madness, p.45J. J. Connolly
The Toffia could teach a fighting dog a thing or two about survival. They’re ruthless, but at the same time they can be charming – the world’s their extra oyster and they know it. I’ve watched Bilkos who run naughty little firms let themselves down badly around genuine swells, but most especially around the gals – they go boss-eyed and bandy-legged, their compass spins out of control. Villains who’ve clawed their way up from scuzzy council estates can be the worst snobs once they get a few quid.
It works the other way around as well. Toffs love a scallywag – till they actually meet a real gangster. Then the mocking villain that is reality doth intrude. Some swells, throughout history, have gone slumming and ended up with more than they bargained for. But these aristocrats, despite their squabbles, will always look after their own. You can hate them for it if you want, but it gets you nowhere.
I hear the hall clock chiming. It’s exactly one o’clock. As I look up Miguel and Raul are being escorted across the dining room – Miguel is his usual sleek Prada self while Raul, his half-brother, is huge, fuckin obese, breathing heavy, and already sweating profusely. Giles is up on his feet and apologising for them having to leave the hired help outside – no bodyguards on the premises. I’m glad you understand.
But Raul doesn’t appear to be listening. Quick as a flash, without anyone seeing, after the head waiter has doubled back to base, he pats down both me and Giles – runs his hands quickly over my chest, into the small of my back, and then, double rapido, and completely unselfconsciously, into my crotch. Satisfied, he does the same to Giles. Giles is taken aback. I half-expected it; it’s standard procedure for American crims, both north and south. Raul tosses our phones onto the tabletop, and, quick as a conjurer, peels off the backs and removes the batteries. He then places his own phone on the crisp linen, clicks his fingers for Miguel’s. Raul removes the batteries so they can’t be used to record the conversation. Then Raul pulls out a small electronic device, turns it on and leaves it sitting in the middle of the table. Miguel watches everything like a cobra.
‘Microphones. Bugs,’ says Raul, breathlessly, in a heavy South American accent, nodding at the device. Raul, it transpires, doesn’t speak that much English. Miguel is translating for him but also seriously checking out Giles Urquhart – his attire, his manners. Miguel is a guy who observes and adsorbs. Every now and again someone fits exactly your preconception of upper-class English Aristocrat, and this is one of those times. Tall, tanned, well-cut hair, dark navy linen suit, Oxford collar, salmon-pink shirt, purple and maroon tie, handmade pigskin chocolate brown tasseled loafers. Manicured nails. Cufflinks in well-worn silver – definite heirlooms. Battered 24k gold Rolex – vintage, of course. Giles is a geezer who could certainly pull women, and that would score points with Miguel.
But Raul, meanwhile, has trouble fitting into the chair. I think Miguel might be embarrassed by his half-brother’s size, but he’s inscrutable.
Q. Could this Raul fellow nonchalantly watch somebody being slowly tortured to death while eating a hero sandwich?
A. Without doubt. Raul could slice and fillet, crush and burn, break bones, pull teeth, and then sleep the sleep of angels.
Giles goes into a well-rehearsed thumbnail history of the club – the prime ministers who fought duels, the ne’er-do-well dukes who lost the entire family estate in one night at the gaming tables, the singsongs around the piano during the Blitz.
‘Spare me the history lesson,’ Miguel snaps. ‘You are a lawyer, is that correct?’
Giles nods, but he looks a tad put out.
‘You practise?’ Miguel asks.
‘I represent select clients, whose anonymity is essential. I control investments and facilitate tax strategies.’
‘You wash money?’
‘No, Mister Zambrano,’ says Giles, exceedingly polite, ‘I get it to where it can be assimilated back into the monetary system. Let me reassure you, Mister Zambrano, we have a lot to lose, so we must insist that anything that is said around this table, stays here.’ Miguel says nothing but Giles continues. ‘We are here to solve a problem … your problem.’ Giles has suddenly gone into lawyer mode; a harder edge enters his voice. Miguel made a mistake upsetting Giles too early.
‘What’s this all about?’ asks Miguel.
‘Shall we order?’ suggests Giles calmly. Miguel’s eyes narrow while Raul’s eyes tell me he’s thirty minutes off turning cannibal.
‘You want to give me a clue?’ says Miguel, knowing Giles’ little game.
‘Of course …’ says Giles, picking up a menu. ‘The Dover sole – the best I’ve ever tasted. Judge a kitchen by its Dover sole. The beef and lamb are wonderful, but can be heavy, ’specially in summer.’
Miguel realises he’s gonna have to be patient. The waiter comes over and Giles orders the Dover sole three times, but Raul wants proper fish and chips, twice – Demedos. And mucho fries. Turns out Raul does have a smattering of English – when it comes to food.
Miguel doesn’t want to appear impatient but the suspense, and Giles’ nonchalance, is killing him. He turns to me. ‘So, why did you ask us here today? Apart from the Dover sole.’
I look to Giles, who gives a tiny nod in my direction.
‘It’s good news and bad news, I’m afraid. We have made investigations and have concluded that both Jesus and Santos are now deceased. After the details of their trade in children’s organs got out … they didn’t stand a chance.’
‘The irony is,’ interrupts Giles, ‘that the attention that your chaps, and Mister de Lucia, brought down on Jesus Zambrano, and the importance of ascertaining the whereabouts of a piece of missing kit, instigated something of a treasure hunt.’
Miguel nods. He doesn’t bother translating for Raul.
‘Furthermore,’ I say, ‘the parties responsible for the deaths of Jesus and Santos are now dead themselves. Is this a problem?’
Miguel shakes his head. Raul is hungry, eating tartare sauce with a spoon. Giles tells the waiter to bring some bread, and some butter.
‘So, you brought me here to tell me those two were dead?’ says Miguel. ‘That’s bad news? The missing kit … any sign?’
Giles doesn’t miss a beat. ‘That’s the good news, Mister Zambrano,’ he says. ‘A third party now has control of the memory stick. Through our connections we have managed to locate it.’
‘We don’t actually have the piece of equipment,’ I say, ‘in our possession.’
‘Or know exactly where it is.’
‘But we can get it.’
‘We are operating as agents for the party holding the merchandise.’
‘And what do they want,’ Miguel asks me, ‘this third party?’
‘The party who hold the merchandise must be pacified. To try and take the memory stick by force would result in a lot of bloodshed in London—’
‘Something …’ Giles cuts in, ‘the authorities are not prepared to allow. Internecine hostilities are out of the question. You understand? We need you to help us to help you. Is that possible?’ Miguel nods, statesmanlike. ‘We need you to actively stop searching for the equipment … to stand down the guard.’
‘Okay, maybe,’ says Miguel, suspecting he’s being grafted. ‘But what do they want for its return?’
‘They will be recompensed, if you are agreeable, by you discharging a debt they owe …’ says Giles. Miguel looks quizzical but interested. Giles marches on, ‘They owe thirty million dollars to an organisation in Brazil.’
‘Are you seriously suggesting I give some bunch of Brazilians thirty million dollars?’
‘No,’ says Giles calmly. ‘That’s the figure they owe. I’m suggesting you, or your family, influence them to overlook the debt … Or negotiate compensation … Make up their loss … At wholesale prices … Return goods, to them, product, to the value of the debt.’
‘Influence them?’ repeats Miguel, digesting the information, seeing how it could work, thinking he could be getting a deal with a capital Dee …
‘To you?’ asks Miguel double-quick. ‘Not to us?’
Giles shakes his head. ‘They will deliver the merchandise to us.’
‘Can they be trusted?’ asks Miguel.
‘I assure you, Mister Zambrano,’ Giles replies, ‘this will not be a problem.’
‘So how did they come into possession of the equipment?’ Miguel asks me.
‘For me to ask them,’ I reply, ‘would be a breach of protocol. It’s one of the terms and conditions …’
‘As we say over here,’ says Giles, ‘no questions asked.’
‘Meaning?’ asks Miguel.
‘Meaning,’ says Giles, like it’s fucking obvious, ‘exactly that – we don’t ask questions.’
‘How they came to steal it from the thieves,’ I tell Miguel, ‘is their business not ours. If you want an explanation, Miguel, you might not get your equipment returned. You might not get both.’ Miguel’s face says nothing. ‘The theory, Miguel,’ I tell him, ‘is that they stole it from the people who killed your cousin.’
‘Fair exchange is no robbery …’ says Giles.
‘Robbery is never fair, Mister Urquhart,’ says Miguel, pure deadpan.
This kid’s been playing poker with grown-ups since he was old enough to count. Miguel doesn’t believe me. He’s trying to work out how thieves would stumble across a memory stick inserted in someone’s anus …
‘Miguel,’ I shrug, ‘you asked me to locate this thing and that’s what I’ve done …’
Miguel asks Raul if it would be possible to find and influence this Brazilian crew. Raul laughs – grunts – we find them easy … all we need is a name …
‘That shouldn’t be a problem,’ says Miguel. ‘So when we discharge this debt you return our property?’
‘The discharging of the debt prepares the ground,’ says Giles. ‘It’s the first part of the operation. After you discharge the debt, the property becomes our property.’
‘Meaning what, exactly?’ asks Miguel, betraying the first sign of anxiety.
‘How can I put this?’ Giles asks himself. ‘To be precise, it becomes the property of the people I represent …’ Giles nods at me, ‘and the people my colleague works for.’
‘Your bosses?’ asks Miguel.
Giles nods. ‘And they, I’m afraid, don’t come cheap.’ Miguel looks concerned but Giles continues. ‘To put a deal like this together requires a certain amount of trust … We have partners, junior partners, who must be included in any trade …’
‘This nightclub owner?’ asks Miguel. ‘Am I right?’
‘Correct,’ says Giles. ‘He and his associate Mister Burns were conduits, working backwards and forwards, and were partly responsible for locating the equipment. Santos offered Mister King one million dollars for the return of the equipment.’
‘It pricked their ears up,’ I say. ‘Got them and their connections mobilised, asking questions.’
Back to Giles. ‘They retain an interest – they’re muscle. But we are not here on their authority.’
‘I would ask you, Miguel,’ I say, ‘and you too, Raul, not to do anything to anger or antagonise them. We need to keep them out of the way. Please don’t give them a reason to get excited.’
‘They’re hovering,’ says Giles, ‘but they don’t understand diplomacy.’
‘Or pragmatism,’ I say with a shrug.
‘There is a risk, of course,’ says Giles, taking a sip of water, ‘that this operation could bring unwanted attention from the law. You understand me, Mister Zambrano? All this is factored in when calculating, and justifying, our fee.’
‘But all the money in the world,’ I say with a touch of resignation, ‘is no good if you’re not alive, or at liberty to spend it.’
‘Alas, money makes sensible people envious,’ says Giles, philosophically.
‘And a little greedy,’ interjects Miguel. ‘Do you not agree?’
‘Listen, Miguel, you’re talking to the government here …’ I indicate Giles and myself. ‘You don’t wanna be talking to the army, I can promise you.’
‘Ditto,’ says Miguel, nodding at Raul. ‘Can we talk numbers?’ he asks.
‘You don’t know what we’re selling yet.’ Giles pulls out of his inside pocket documents, printouts, fresh off the stick, from Smiler’s laboratory. ‘The people I represent, my bosses as you put it, insisted I show you these … If you’ll care to study them you’ll realise that the party who hold the originals have only allowed us every fourth page. These are “read only” documents … samples, as it were.’
Miguel is taken aback, surprised that anyone except the deceased Wunderkind could even open the files. Giles lays the printouts on the tabletop, flattens them and points at the page numbers – every other even number. Miles and miles, page after page, of figures, enough to send you dizzy.
‘You’ve had personal access to the equipment?’ asks Miguel, expressionless, but realising he’s been lulled into complacency, ambushed in daylight.
‘Just to clarify, Miguel, the files contained on this memory stick are records of numerous accounts held in the Cayman Islands and New York, together with thousands of sixteen-digit passwords.’ Miguel’s eyes bore into Giles’ as he loads it on. ‘And an Austrian fairy tale to be used, no doubt, as cipher to place the correct password with the correct bank details. I think I’ve got that right. Added later are recorded conversations, mostly of you – in fact, exclusively of you – talking with various associates.’ Miguel begins to take more notice. But Giles isn’t finished. ‘Miguel, the device also contains photographs of a woman I believe is your sister in compromising sexual situations. I take it you were aware of the existence of these pictures?’
‘I’m going to take the fifth,’ says Miguel, starting to look a little sick. Miguel knew they existed but it’s impossible to work out if he knew they were on the memory stick. Now he’s translating to Raul, relating this sudden turn of events. Raul shoots me a look like he wants to eat the messenger.
Giles continues the case for the prosecution. ‘The photographs I have no interest in. The party holding the device let me study the electronic ledgers. After I studied them I left the party holding the memory stick no wiser as to the true content, or should I say, the true value of the information contained on them. They seemed to believe the valuable cargo was the compromising photographs – the reason you wanted the device returned immediately. My boss has told me to organise, to negotiate, the discharging of their debt as a sign of good faith.’
‘Maybe I should be talking to your boss, Mister Urquhart,’ says Miguel, leaking a little anger.
‘He is a firm believer in delegation,’ replies Giles, with pure, solid charm. ‘I am only following his instructions …’
‘Where I come from, delegation can be seen as an insult.’
‘This is London,’ says Giles. ‘Things are done differently here.’
‘You simply have a more sophisticated form of corruption,’ says Miguel with an edge, turning to sit sideways on.
‘Touché,’ says Giles.
An army of waiters descends and serves up lunch. Miguel asks for a dry white wine. The headwaiter tells him he’ll send the wine waiter. ‘Please,’ says Miguel assertively, ‘just bring it.’
Giles is impressed. In a strange way, I think Giles and Miguel are growing to like one another. They respect one another’s antagonism. Anyone else but Miguel would have their elbows on the table, head in hands, but Miguel’s been to business school. Business school is gladiator school. In America commerce is a blood sport – physical contact is mandatory – some brave warrior will be carried from the field with the figurative bloody nose. The waiters disappear leaving Raul with his two lunches, one under a cover to keep warm. Miguel ignores his food as Giles takes up where he left off.
‘The ledgers contained on that memory stick are evidence of a Ponzi scheme – I
Miguel’s eyes look like he would gladly kill that fucking banker in Miami stone fucking dead if Jesus hadn’t already done so, but he retains his enigmatic air. It’s good news – the memory stick is coming home – but it’s going to cost him dear.
‘The photographs would only be an embarrassment,’ continues Giles, ‘if it were not for what you’ve grandly entitled The Plan – a long-term campaign to promote your sister Jenna as a future political candidate, some kind of Venezuelan Eva Perón. I believe your own cousin was attempting to blackmail you, and your sister, with these compromising photographs.’
Miguel’s pragmatism is getting tested to destruction but he realises that unleashing Raul would sever all connection to the memory stick. They realise they have to give a little to get a lot. It’s a trade; we both have something the other wants … Giles is priming Miguel towards what he called tender blackmail.
‘Please don’t think us rude or insensitive,’ Giles goes on, ‘but as a precaution, we have brought some insurance. And like all insurance we hope we never have to use it. Sealed copies of these documents,’ Giles taps the papers on the tabletop, ‘and copies of the photographs have been placed in the vault of a firm of solicitors with instructions that they are to open them if any harm comes to my colleague or myself.’
Miguel has his eyebrows raised, watching Giles’ performance with almost detached interest.
‘Everything is about containment,’ says Giles, ‘keeping things under wraps. If we’re lucky, that piece of equipment will end up with us, and not some incorrigible scoundrels. If those photographs were to fall into the wrong hands … it could lead to all sorts of despicable behaviour … Or if they were to realise their true value … We’re speaking hypothetically here, Miguel. You do understand, don’t you?’
Miguel shrugs and nods. He wants to ask the price but isn’t going to and Giles isn’t going to tell him till he asks. Our Giles pushes on.
Viva La Madness by J. J. Connolly / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes