Are you lost daddy I arsked tenderly.
Ring Lardner, The Young Immigrunt, 1920
The Mini was parked about a mile from the dock, in a quiet suburban street with small trees where no one was likely to break into it, not that it was worth much. There was enough of a dawn to make the streetlights look foolish, glowing orange in a gray beginning to resolve into color. Cars lined the road, slumbering in their shined-on-Sunday glory. It was a Bank Holiday Monday and the world was sleeping in.
"Gi' us the bag."
They froze. Turning, they saw a hard case standing in front of a van with 'Acme Painting Supplies' written on the side. He wasn't tall but he was eight feet wide and not fat. Also he had two companions getting out of the back of the van and two more approaching the doors of the Mini. Where the fuck did they come from?
"Gi' us the fucking bag."
Blackie was about to say something but Whitey waved him down and passed over the backpack. The three got back into the van without another word. They waited until the other two were driving away in the Cortina they'd come from, up the street, and then pulled out nice and easy and took off after them. Blackie stared at the space where their tail-lights used to be. He began to shake like a sapling in a force one gale and put his hands on the car roof to steady himself. He thought he was about to throw up. There were no words.
"Get in," said Whitey, very, very softly. There was tenderness spun gently around his tone, but the center was adamantine. "C'mon, kid, get in the car." He was sunk deep behind his skin, keeping the words and the pain suppressed so his gut could work out what to do. This was his arena, as thinking was his mate's, and he needed to act just right and he needed to do it in pure certainty. Romantics might call it the way of the warrior, mystics the style of the saint, but Whitey was a street kid in deep shit and he didn't call it anything, which may be why he stood a chance of grasping it.
No crap about the Native American heritage, please. He was an intelligent primate, trying to focus his faculties in the midst of crisis. The Indian image is legend, the savages noble only by contrast with the scientists who stare at their memory. People have that quality of stillness and depth inside them all people, else they be robots but most of us don't find it accessible. We glorify strangers for it, and pretend that they pass it down in some mysterious way so that we ourselves need not try to look for it within ourselves. Whitey wasn't being Cherokee, he was being a person.
Blackie was on the verge of being sick.
"Who the fuck were they?" he groaned, looking over from the passenger seat.
Blackie's world was falling apart. He'd never really been frightened before, never understood that when he'd poured petrol onto the gangplank he'd used to escape the prison barge of the family business he'd made certain there would be no direction left to call home. It had been a game, all of it, even the casual jokes about vacations in the cozy little nick, even the elaborate precautions against being caught with incriminating evidence, even the lawless image of the honest anarchist. He'd never had a sense of consequences; like responsibility, they had been something you didn't acknowledge and wouldn't deal with. He planned, he calculated, but he never saw what he was doing. And now he couldn't see what to plan.
There must have been nearly ten grand in that bag. It was their stake, or most of it. It was gone. He got that far and then he couldn't even formulate the next question. Oh shit. His mind was totally short-circuited.
"What are we gonna do?" he muttered.
Whitey was staring off above the road, going very fast with the precision of a Formula One racer. He was usually a terrible driver but this morning it seemed he didn't have to be, if he took his mind off it. His lips began to relax till he was almost smiling.
"What if he did it?"
"He did it, he wants to see us. He didn't do it, he wants us to see him."
"Fuck, man, we're trying to get away from that shit."
"Just after six."
"Can't ring yet. Go to Waterloo, get breakfast, call him at eight."
"I don't want breakfast, man."
Whitey glanced over and then spoke to the windshield.
"You dunno what you want. Why didn't they duff us up?"
"You gave them the bread."
"Yeah, but ... tough fuckers. Do it for fun. Gotta know what's going on. Mario'll find out."
They made the call at eight. Evidently it was expected, because they got immediate directions to an address in Streatham, where they were told to walk in without knocking and wait in the living room. Half an hour after they got there, Mario walked in. He was freshly shaved and smelled of cologne. His suit was immaculate, his shirt striped with a white collar, his bodyguard enormous and totally silent. He didn't waste time, motion, or words.
"You boys are in trouble," he opened. They waited. He was telling them. Different trouble? "There's a warrant. Old Bill's watching your flat and they'll be in as soon as you get to bed."
Blackie was almost catatonic. Whitey was very still but at least he was present.
"Got taken," he said. "Five of 'em. Worked the Isle of Wight."
"You silly pricks."
Mario pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his palms, then sat down with his back to the window. He lit a Peter Stuyvesant without offering them around and looked around the room. The furniture was imitation Danish modern; five years before it had at least been fashionable, now it was just uncomfortable. There were ducks on the wall and a large potted plant in the corner. He'd grown up in rooms like this, a south London Italian, quick with a blade and smart enough to want out. At thirty, he was a junior executive, with a wife and kids in Dulwich, a nice piece in Shepherd's Market, a taste for good champagne and a sincere inability to understand what the younger generation was coming to. But his mama didn't raise a fool.
"You boys trying to get up or out?" he asked. He had too much presence to need to make threats. People told Mario the truth. They just somehow knew it was a good idea.
"Stupid fuckers. You ever think of letting us in on your little secret?"
Blackie was about to explain but saw Whitey playing stoneface and tried to follow his lead. It seemed to be the right thing to do.
"What you got in the place?"
Blackie felt the eyes on him and tried to keep his voice matter of fact.
"About a grand," he said. "Little less."
"Forget that," advised Mario with a thoughtful nod. "Might be enough to keep the rozzers quiet if I put a word in the right ear. Got any more?"
When they didn't immediately respond, he went on.
"Look, boys, I shouldn't be doing this but I like you. I'll let you have one mistake. OK. But you gotta understand, I'm your only hope. Without me, you go down. Five years, maybe eight. They're gonna find heavy weight under your sofa. Trust me, they want someone. There's pressure. I'm telling you, it'd be easier for me to just walk away, let 'em have you, and after this caper I'm tempted. Rodge here thinks I'm soft but I like to look after my people. It's just the way I am. Goodness of me heart."
At that, Mario had the decency to smile. A little.
"So tell your uncle. What have you got?"
Mario waited patiently. Rodge the Enforcer leaned on the wall, which looked about ready to quit. Whitey caught his partner's eye and nodded.
Blackie told. It was humiliating, but he was in shock and didn't really feel anything till later. At least when he was explaining their system of hiding places and listing the assets that were in them he could be knowledgeable, in control of the information if not of the situation. He left out the account in Switzerland, which they might be able to get to, and that decision gave him some vestige of self-respect. He didn't consider whether Mario might be wise enough not to press them about it, for that very reason, but he couldn't have known without forfeiting it so perhaps it was just as well. Otherwise he laid a true bill and even felt gratified to pick up a nod of appreciation for its clarity. It reminded him of being top of the form in school.
School, however, was a decent enough symbol for what they had been trying to avoid, the nameless horror they ran from. The regimented satisfaction of other people's goals? The systemic subordination of individuality? The awful sense of absence that came from living someone else's dream? The futility of success or the terrible consequence of failure? That's about how muddy it was, how inchoate and, like most emotional responses, how confused by the abstractions that are meant to clarify.
What was certain was that Blackie hadn't thought it would come to this. The humiliation was not in the failure itself, that was only a temporary set-back, like an exam you can always re-sit; nor was it in the cry for expert help, which was only sensible, as when you call a plumber to fix the drains or a tow-truck to pull the car or a lawyer to get you out of jail. The horror he felt was that he had been fooling himself. He'd been playing a game and thinking he was detached from it, that somehow there were special rules that applied since the system was going to fall and they were trying to dance in the ruins. Being busted would be a drag, but also a badge of honor. Being evaluated as a junior member of Mario's team was not. He hadn't wanted to be anyone's person. Especially not some smooth-dressing rough-talking upwardly mobile thug's. He recognized the middle-class bias and hated himself for that too. He felt as phony as a toupee.
He wanted to start all over again.
Whitey's take was different, of course. He had never been tempted by straight society's rewards because society had never even bothered to pretend he might get them. Conformity was a non-issue, because no one had ever thought there was any point in encouraging him to do anything. They flogged him into an obedience they never expected to last. At some point he would presumably have chosen some form of organized crime (either the Mob or one of the legal alternatives quoted on the Stock Exchange) and settled down to a drab middle age, had it not been for the middle-class revolt of the mid-sixties. If he was admired by his partner for savvy and street smarts, he reciprocated by responding to the idealism he wasn't much good at articulating. They had common ground in a love of sensation and reactive rebellion, and they complemented each other better than either of them knew.
Whitey understood that you couldn't start over, but he sure wanted to wipe the slate.
The original plan still made sense to both of them. Overland to India and wherever showed up. Kicks, man, and lots of good, cheap dope. Out of sight, out of mind; outasight 'n' outta your skull. Tempus fugit for the temporary fugitives. There was enough cash for starters stashed around town and they should be able to wire for the Swiss once they got somewhere. It was worth a shot. What else was there to lose?
Mario fixed it. His concept of a fee structure was a little one-sided he thought it perfectly reasonable to charge 100% of what he recovered and then rebate whatever he felt like afterwards but he was undeniably efficient. No charges were filed, since to everyone's amazement neither drugs nor cash had been found in the raid, which reflected poorly on the tipster behind it. (Since the fink was believed to be their ambitious former money man, his bad rep could be seen as a beneficial side-effect.) The passports were recovered and, at Whitey's request, supplemented with more creative documents just in case. One-way tickets by train to Thessaloniki were acquired and, just to be sure that they weren't wasted, Rodge the Enforcer accompanied the aspiring travelers as far as the Channel, where he handed over an envelope.
"Two years, right?" he explained. "I see either of you cunts before September '71 I'll break your fuckin' legs for yuh, know what I mean?"
Rodge was not one of nature's most enlightened beings. His grasp of the vernacular was stronger on emphasis than on anatomical accuracy, let alone verbal felicity. People did, however, usually grasp the gist of what he had to convey.
"What if we run into you on the Costa Brava, then?" joked Blackie.
Tilt. Bad move. Neither subtlety nor a sense of humor was a major component of an enforcer's job description. Physical strength and quickness were considered of greater importance.
"Fuck off, creep," clarified Rodge.
"Yes," agreed Blackie, with a sudden burst of understanding. "Right, then."