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Excerpts from Criminals, Courtesans, and Constables.
In today’s excerpt, our unnamed protagonist is back on the run again:
Two months later I’m sleeping in the middle of the bloody night when both my landline and mobile refuse to stop making noise.
The first thing I saw was a text from a number I always used to get Mauricio:
get out of your house now
All lowercase, too. Typical Mauricio understatement. Both phones were still ringing, so I picked up the mobile on the off chance it might be Mauricio. It was. He used the codeword and advised me the constables had added who knows what up and decided I was the lead suspect in the murder of the ambassador. Our contact said they had a warrant for my arrest and a warrant to search me flat and I had, more or less, ten minutes before they were at my door looking to execute both.
This made no sense. There was no way to tie me to this. Even if there was, who in the bloody hell knows where I lived? Bloody Americans. Only dictators pester the innocent better than they do.
I do a pretty good job of both planning and keeping my head when others might be unprepared and lose theirs. I’ve long had clothes set aside, a bag packed and an escape out the back for just this eventuality.
The clothes were some old khakis and an old polo shirt and a cap, all comfortable and designed blend in in a lot of places. The bag was rather useful. It contained papers that were my own affair, having nothing to do with The Firm, all legit, too. There was some disguise stuff in there as well. Not the full blown kit the constables would never find but enough to allow me to change me appearance enough to confuse matters. There were some clothes, too, plus some toiletries and some food and no small amount of America currency in a variety of denominations, though most were graced with the picture of the tedious Mr Franklin.
There was also a framed picture of Monica and me in the bag. I dressed because I couldn’t really flee starkers because that’s how I slept, and after I dressed it was a simple matter to pick up the bag and leave, probably never to return to a home that was never a real home in the first place, not that I was bloody likely to recognize a real home anymore. It had been years since I’d been to me cottage.
I barely made it. The cars were pulling up in front just I as I scooted out the back. If they had the back covered I was nicked, but there was no reason for them to expect any problems so they did not cover the back entrance, their mistake for not controlling what they could control
I had tested this route for this occasion periodically in case something had changed. The back door led to an alley and from there it was a simple matter to cross between houses out to the street and within a minute I was in a cab, never difficult to find at any hour in this city. I gave him a drop off point nowhere near where I would end up so that when the constables interviewed him later he would give them a bum location. Just for funsies, and utterly out of habit, I had him make some the odd turn and backtrack to make sure we didn’t have any company. I got out in another borough, paid the fare, headed to the tube. It took a while because I was still searching for company that wasn’t there, but I was walking up to me intended location before the sun came up.
I was on the run again. It was hardly what I was looking for, but it was interesting and it had the benefit of being familiar.
I ‘ve always met the people I needed to in my life, generally when I need to meet them, and so it was with Beth. Every good thing that has happened to me, if you can call moving courtesans, collecting ransoms and getting rich good, came because I met her.
I was wearing the suit at the bar one night when Beth came up and bought me a drink. Just like that. Hallo, I’m Beth, may I buy you a drink? Or, rather, hallo, you can either let me buy you a drink or you can let me buy you a drink. Those are your options.
Blimey, I fancied her. Blonde and about twice my age. American. Stacked. Body that wouldn’t quit. Had an ease about her that got me thinking she was born in a fancy hotel bar, which probably wasn’t too far off the mark cause blimey, she could drink.
She bought me a drink or two then dinner at the hotel’s fancy grill. She said she visited here frequently and had seen me here before and was glad she was finally able to come say hi as if something had always prevented her in the past. I was glad, too. I stayed the night and the next day and night, when we took a limo to the only 5-star restaurant in the city.
Scared shitless I was. This was the Premier League right here. I don’t get nervous too often, but I was nervous that night, a dead common younger man out for his first 5-star dining experience with a beautiful older woman.
I traveled in a variety of circles back then.
I was the grimey small town pimp and extortionist. I was also a familiar, if not beloved face, at the bars in the finest hotels in the big city. I knew, and could talk with, everyone from a guy getting off his factory shift looking for a little, to the wealthy, the ones who owned the factories that worker toiled at.
Let me tell you something, the workers weren’t the only ones looking to get a little; I knew a wealthy gentleman or two that would not dismiss out of hand the prospect of the company of a beautiful young woman who knew how to behave. One gent pulled me aside over brandy and cigars at one function and allowed how his marriage was hardly sending the poets scurrying to their notebooks: he was open to something on the side.
Rachel, I thought, would be perfect. By now, for a while, actually, she had become completely comfortable in the luxury circles this gentleman lived in. She had the looks and body he would demand, and pay for, and she could oral you crosseyed and ride your tallywacker till it snapped off. She was funny and a good listener. And while we were certainly having fun, I wasn’t looking for a wife and she wasn’t looking for a husband. Or, more accurately, she wasn’t looking at me as the shining example of potential husband material. She liked the odd luxury night out, of course, but I never told her how I really made my money and she didn’t believe me when she said I‘d inherited it.
We were playing out the string, each of us wondering who would leave whom first, when I asked Rachel if she would like to make some money.
Word of mouth is important for any business, especially a call girl operation where you can hardly buy a billboard or a radio advert. (Hi, I’m Rachel!). It took a while, but soon Rachel was working as often as she wanted and after about a year two big things happened.
The first was obtaining an heir apparent as a client.
Both of us were at the palace for a state affair. I was with a wealthy woman I knew and Rachel was with a client, and I noticed the prince could not take his eyes off Rachel and soon enough he was chatting her up. I made my way over and Rachel said hi, making it plain to the prince we knew each other. This was one way we drummed up trade. Rachel excused herself, leaving the prince with his tongue hanging out and I could have asked for the crown jewels and gotten them. As it was, I advised the prince I could arrange some quality for him with Rachel whenever and wherever it was convenient for him. He grinned slightly and scratched his nose summoning an aide over, telling him I would explain to him what it was about, and to make it happen, the sooner the better.
I told the aide, Sir Someone or Another, that the prince had the highest possible level of interest in seeing the lady with the red hair and I was able to make that happen. Sir Someone or Another stroked his chin and turned, motioning that I should follow him. We went down a small hall and through an anteroom before he opened a door and there we were, the holy of holies, the Throne Room.
It was a very long room, at the near end of which were two chairs up a couple of steps. We walked toward them in silence and the next thing I knew we were hopping up the steps and sitting on the throne just as if we were sitting down somewhere else, anywhere else, for tea. (Later, Rachel would share how she had earned part of a fee on the throne and even Monica and I would later have a go of it there.) Amiably but directly, he asked how I could make that happen as if he didn’t know. I explained Rachel’s availability and I reached into a pocket, removed a folder and took a card from it. It had a phone number on it and quoted the fee, our regular high-end fee with a healthy royalty supplement. Sir Someone or Another looked at it and put it in his pocket and said brilliant and there we sat on the throne, rulers of nothing in particular, except how we spent the 24 hours each of us has every day. He spent his 24 hours ensuring royalty was organized and taken care of and I ran Rachel out of luxury hotels and, soon enough, palaces. In time, I would get used to throne rooms.
Monica walked in like she owned the place: she was beautiful and confident, looking like she had been meeting older gents in the bars of luxury hotels for years. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but it was plain they were hitting it off and in a few minutes, they appeared to have been together for years. By chance, I was still in town when the client left, a bit earlier than planned, and Monica and I had dinner at a casual bistro. She was radiant, I think more because her first courtesan weekend was over than any joy she had for the job, but she said she enjoyed it immensely. She was not born poor she said, but boy, she got used almost immediately to the 5-star life and wanted more of it, and if accepting money for her company was how she got it, well, OK. I liked Monica so much I was her client from time to time so I could sprinkle the fairy dust, but we had a bond and afterward, she stopped taking my money.
There was plenty of work for both of them. Rachel had built a good name for me. I produced beautiful, younger women who knew how to behave in the finest restaurants, hotels and beds on the planet. Discretion was assured. On our end, at least. You would be surprised how brazen men got with Rachel or Monica on their arm doing everything but taking them home to meet the family. It was their job to ensure they did not end up in the papers. We did our part. I never notified the media.
Some years passed.
Life was on cruise control. I was traveling to the finest places on the planet. I was fabulously wealthy. I saw Monica regularly.
I was bored stiff.
I was neither particularly substantive nor shallow, but I seemed to be requiring something more interesting than first-class air travel and luxury hotels. Funny how life works out because I was out of the business before that calendar year was out.
First, Rachel died, slamming into a tree on one her treasured ski holidays with a favored client. The death of his courtesan caused more than a little inconvenience for the client and if you enjoy things like this happening to people like this you might well have found it funny.
Neither Monica nor I found it funny, though. Rachel dying hurt. A lot, I’m not going to lie to you. We were seldom lovers anymore, but we’d always had a bond and Monica felt her loss, too.
So we were down one courtesan, and I had some zero interest in rustling up another one.
Monica was looking to wind down, too, though she had been saying that every hour on the hour almost since her first assignment. She had the nest egg she wanted in the bank. And certain rather smart investments. She still wanted to see certain clients who paid well and were fun and good lays and who took her to her favorite places, but that would total a handful of trips over the course of a year as opposed to the handful of trips over the course of a month, sometimes a week, she currently waded through.
Lindsay came this close to getting married to a wealthy chap her age who, hilariously, was the son of a client. Lindsay backed out, though. I offered my Rolodex to Monica who declined it but Lindsay snapped it up and it turned out she has management skills, too, because the last I heard she had developed her own stable of courtesans and was making more money than even she ever dared to dream of.
And that was that. My courtesan racket was over. Monica and I were unable to part, however, and we continued to see each other regularly. Perhaps not particularly often, but regularly, usually around the holidays when neither courtesans or me, for that matter, were in too much demand.
How he heard of me remains a mystery: he hadn’t been a client of the girls because I met and vetted every gentleman, but it was certainly possible he knew someone who was. I had heard of The Firm, though not of him specifically because the Chairman disdains the limelight. He knew about the girls and said he was impressed with the clientele we had built up, some of which he named. This was for my benefit, so I would know that he knew what he was talking about, which didn’t worry me probably as much as it should have. He said The Firm did things other people were unwilling or unable to do for themselves. He said their only ideology was making money and that The Firm, rather happily, would take money from A to bomb B, then take money from B to shoot down A’s plane. The Firm also had its own in-house enterprises, too, mainly kidnapping and extortion.
He had work for me.
Kidnapping turned out to be a lot of fun. If you’re the kidnappers. If you’re the victim it tends not to be fun and if it is your husband we’ve snatched well, we apologize for the sleepless nights, though you really should be resting easy because we’ve assured you everything is going to be OK if you follow instructions.
If you’re the asset we’ve also assured you that this is nothing personal, that our only goal is to exchange you for a large sum of money so unless you’ve pissed someone off and they don’t want to pay your ransom, you are probably going to be OK, and we apologize for keeping you chained up in a tent, but that’s the way we do it. We’ve done our homework, so we know what meals you favor and you can bet you’ll be seeing them regularly.
Kidnapping is big business, too. It may not seem like it because snatches seldom make the news because most follow our instructions about not yapping to the coppers or the press, but don’t kid yourself. The Firm makes an awful lot of money collecting ransoms and it is rare when something is mucked up to the point where the asset has to be killed because The Firm does not want that any more than the family does. We merely want some money and when we get it everyone ends up happy. The ransom was always an amount the family or company could easily afford, too, just like the fees I charged back in the early extortion days.
The planning was immense. It had to be because as the Chairman was fond of saying Plan A better work because the kidnapping racket seldom allows for a Plan B, which is generally getting killed or, worse, caught. First they had to identify a family or company that could afford to pay a ransom that was worth The Firm’s while. Then there was a proper victim to ID then we had to decide if it was feasible. Then the actual grab had to be planned and then there had to be someplace to put him for a few days because generally families and companies didn’t keep the large sums of money we require lying around. The Chairman supervised, no, commanded is a better word, every step.
My job was to make contact with the victims family or employer to ensure them that if they did everything we said more or less when we said to do it, their loved one or CEO would be returned safely. The first call was always great fun. We always left a so-and-so’s been taken and we would be in touch card at the snatch site, so they were expecting to hear from us. Like in the movies this note was sometimes made of letters cut out from magazines and newspapers. You could hear the strain and fear in their voice. I never used my real voice for these calls and they were kept brief to avoid being traced. They were told we had so-and-so and he hadn’t been beaten yet and if you did what you were told he would be returned safely. I told them I would be in touch and hung up. Ideally the person on the other end said nothing. I would let them enjoy a sleepless night before calling them again and announcing our ransom demands and later on Day 2 I would call to check and see if they planned on paying the ransom and advising when to have it ready. We are not fools. We knew, sometimes better than they did, that collecting a lot money in cash did not happen immediately. To really keep them on edge, I generally did not call them during this period, though they would receive a picture of the asset holding that day’s newspaper in the mail, so they know he’s alive.
On the day the ransom should be ready I called to ask if it was. Usually it was, though sometimes they needed an extra day or two and we had enough comrades in the banking industry that we generally know if this was true or not.
After a couple of years with The Firm, I started branching out. Again with the need for something more interesting because Lord knows collecting ransoms wasn’t exciting enough. A comrade said people like us needed to be where the smoke was and if there wasn’t any smoke we were willing to create it just to make life interesting for ourselves and others, too.
So we created some smoke when the Games came to a nearby country. This wasn’t a Firm Original Operation, we were hired out by someone, but we went at it with our usual zeal and while I wasn’t directly responsible for any of deaths – logistics and planning were me racket – my hands were as bloody as those who actually set the detonators. But I was where the smoke was. Life was me and I was life and I was smack-dab in the middle of it and to bloody hell with anyone else. If someone choked on my smoke, sorry. I was determined never to live in a grimy flat with a drunk wife and a thief son and an easy daughter.
But mucking up the Games wasn’t the problem. What got me nicked was an extortion racket I was working on my own that went completely wrong. The asset decided to whine to the police, which was contrary to my orders, and I got nicked in a sting. Bully for him. He got out of paying his extortion money. Not bully for him because now his family, and everyone else who follows the news, knew his secret, a pretty high price to pay when easy, weekly payments would have kept everything on the down low. Not to mention the fact I wouldn’t have been nicked. It was almost funny: two decades of never earning an honest pound and I finally get hooked up not in a heroic blaze of glory but because someone sniveled. Go figure. I started out in the dock, but the evidence was more compelling than my verbal denials and I eventually pled guilty for a lesser sentence.
The first thing I saw were some folded clothes on the counter and the second thing I saw was the assistant warden. She advised me this was a Firm operation and to put the clothes on with the highest possible level of alacrity. There were some corduroys and a tacky shirt and a tweed blazer with patches on the sleeves and a prison visitor laminate. Everything fit perfectly. There was a fake moustache and fake teeth to change the look of my mouth and some gel for my hair which the assistant warden applied and briefly fussed over. The loafers had lifts which experience has shown to be a disguise technique as simple as it is brilliant. I am so nondescript it doesn’t take much to disguise me and in no time I was a different person. I looked like a prison official from the home office who had come by to visit the assistant warden. The official had been signed in by the screw before the civilian clerk arrived.
The assistant warden and I exited the office and went down the hall to a desk where I gave the civilian clerk the laminate and signed out. There was some danger there because my signature had to match the sign in one, but it was a nondescript scribble that was easy enough to copy.
We went out the front door to a private car. A back door opened and I went inside. A comrade I had never seen before was in the back seat and The Chairman was driving. He made a crack about how it was about bloody time and how he had worried they’d have to come in and walk me out holding me hand.
In less than five minutes I had gone from prisoner to prison official, from custody to freedom. I was underground again within the hour. The assistant warden and the screw were under suspicion almost immediately after evening count turned up a missing inmate, but it didn’t matter. They had left for the day soon after and visits to their residences by the warden and some coppers showed their apartments abandoned.
Mauricio noted the train had little security, passengers weren’t screened and bags weren’t checked, hardly a surprise for big-city mass transit, but worth noting nonetheless, and I pointed out the storage bins both above and below the seats, meaning a bag left there was not likely to be noticed. At meeting that night we noted this and The Chairman, while he didn’t immediately proclaim our genius, put it on the short list. There were a lot of other suggestions, too, and the The Chairman was open to all of them, and by the end of the week The Chairman had narrowed them down to a dozen or projects that were, as he liked to say, in play.
We weren’t hired for twelve mayhems, however, only one, and with little difficulty The Chairman pared down the list. We were not fanatics hell bent on destruction, so some of the bolder plans, like kidnap and behead the most famous athletes, were eliminated early. The plan had to be relatively simple with a low risk of capture with the minimal death toll the customer wanted.
In the end The Chairman decided on our plan, to upend a light railway track. The client merely wanted to make the point that the quadrennial revels were happening at their pleasure and they did not require tons of rubble. This caused no small amount of consternation amongst those elements in The Firm that wanted to kill large numbers of people but we pride ourselves on customer service here at The Firm and we didn’t want to disappoint. Nor did we want to do more than we were paid for. The Chairman had quoted a fee for a mischief and not all out terror and that is what we were going to deliver.
The client specified the incident happen in the middle of the Games so we had some time to kill before Go Day so we played tourist. Most went and watched some prelim football matches, but I watched some other things that were easier tickets to get. Saw me some team handball, popular in this part of the world, and baseball, a sport I ‘ve never understood, plus some field hockey, which I really enjoyed. They deserved bigger crowds than they got.
Not having many people at these events was both good and bad. Good because you see it unbothered and up close. But I was envious. I got to see greatness at the end of my arm and I realized I had no greatness in me.
These people had purposes for their lives. I whored out girls, collected ransoms and, now, this.
They were striving. I merely wanted to do something more interesting than living in a crummy flat with a drunk, loud wife and snotty kids.
They woke up every morning and answered to something inside them that commanded them to go and become their very best.
I woke up every morning asking only to be contrary.
Some of the athletes I was watching would have medals to show for their life’s efforts, something tangible that declared their life’s work had paid off. My best has never been needed for anything, except perhaps recognizing the type of (young) woman the rich and royal would pay good money to hop in the sack with.
All I had to show for me life was a lot of illegally earned money. Although a lot of money and a luxury life was nice. I am not complaining. I’ve a bit of contrarian in me and this is the bed I made for myself.
But they had things I ‘ll never have, worthwhile things I could never buy, no matter how many palace beds my girls slid into. They got up every morning knowing how they were to spend their day and then went out and did it. I got up every morning and whored girls out and planned mischiefs at their Games.
I also saw Monica before the Games. Now closer to middle age than youth, she was as beautiful and vibrant as ever, still the planet’s preferred courtesan, a role she seemed to both be aware of and relish.
I was me. A balding, middle-aged man, still trim, mind you, and distinguished, wealthy and cultured. There were no disguises with Monica.
We both needed each other. I needed her to feel human. Most days I didn’t really care about feeling human. Most days I was content to accept the life I ‘d constructed for meself. It wasn’t for everybody, which was good because lives everybody else lives are boring, an utter drudgery to be avoided.
Maybe I’d done well and maybe I hadn’t and I was at a point in my life where the final sums, while still a ways off from being tallied, were beginning to interest me.
On the one hand, I had a fortune and here I was in one of the great cities of the world spending fun times in and out of bed with a woman desired by the rich and royal the world over, not to mention me.
On the other hand, my only real experience was taking money from people
Monica, for all the money and splendor the immense pleasure of her company got her, enjoyed our occasional holiday that showed to herself she had value outside of being desired and paid for. She needed to know our laughs were genuine and our interest in each other real. I was a fun, necessary interlude from the splendor of her year’s labors. But that’s all I was, though, an interlude, an occasional breath of fresh air.
Though older than she used to be and seeing only a few preferred clients now, Monica was still the elite’s favoured courtesan, regularly showing up at palaces and Wimbledon and award show red carpets. A lot of the world had seen the photo of an Oscar winning gentleman holding the result of every dream he’d ever had with Monica on his arm. She looked radiant, as always and gave the impression she was present backstage with Oscar winners as a matter of course. She matter-of-factly reported that within an hour after making his acceptance speech he had an is-that-all-there-is air about him and she left him in the wee morning hours stoned, trying to get the top-of-the-world feeling back again. It was not the only time over the years Monica had reported the famous, wealthy and royal were just as screwed up and dysfunctional as everyone else.
Besides, she liked being the center of attention and she liked the control having men pay her for her company and body gave her over these men. Some might think since she was on the payroll the men were in control but don’t kid yourself. They wanted and needed her and were willing to pay an awful lot of money for the privilege and pleasure of possessing her for whatever length of time they paid for. She could say no anytime and leave them to their boring, royal and wealthy lives, their state dinners, their boring wives and ungrateful kids. From palaces to boardrooms to private jets, control was hers. She was the one being desired and paid for and that made her Monica supreme.
Meanwhile, I collected kidnap ransoms and ran the odd extortion. On the other hand, Monica was here because she wanted to be with me, perhaps the only person she wanted to be with who didn’t pay her.
Eventually it was time to part. We both had to get back to work. Her client was arriving the following day and I had to get back to The Firm. We said goodbye in the suite, after lunch, her eyes betraying the breezy goodbye she offered while a stake was driven through me heart. I wanted to warn her to stay away from a certain train in the middle of a certain night but I couldn’t do that to my comrades at The Firm. Besides, the chances of Monica being on a public train with her client at the hour were about as likely as planetary alignment, so I didn’t worry about it.
On the designated day I presented myself at the place at the designated time, a few minutes early because that’s what you do. I stood around looking at nothing in paritcular for a few minutes when I heard a voice behind me say both my original, given name – which I seldom used anymore and caused a small fright – and The Firm’s codeword. I turned around, saw the assistant warden who had walked me out the front door of the nick, and gave the countersign. Ever efficient, she smiled at me – not without some warmth – and instructed me to follow her. We ended up at one of those infernal chain restaurants that fester like weeds here in the States. Little they served was edible, which was rich considering this is a country that likes to whine about the food where I‘m from.
Waiting for us at the table was Mauricio. Small talk was brief. Plainly we are all fine and you do not talk about what you do for The Firm even with comrades from The Firm. It was part of controlling what you could control because there was no need for others to know what you were doing. Knowledge kept in the back room was control the same as knowledge you put out on the shelves.
Mauricio gave me a folder with his usual plain paper, printed letter inside. Graciously, it welcomed me to the States and advised if everything was not in perfect order with my accommodations to let him know with all possible haste. Then it got down to business, explaining, in necessary detail, The Firm’s operations in the city, mainly extortion because crime responsibilities and territories in the city were rather specific and crossing previously set boundaries could get bloody, and my role in them. I was left with the impression there was a lot left out, plainly because it wasn’t anything I needed to be bothered knowing. After I was through reading it Mauricio took the letter and the folder back, doubtless so he could destroy it before it appeared in tomorrow’s headlines.
The work would be easy. Like any enterprise it required a hands-on manager to keep the workers guided, inspired and in line and when that’s accomplished all you have to do is maintain it. I would, nominally, be working for the assistant warden, who appeared to a district manager or regional vice-president or some such for The Firm, it was hard to tell. But it was made clear I would report to her. It was also made clear we were to stick to Firm operations and not freelance with any side gigs. Except for the assistant warden and me having a go of it from time to time, we adhered to that.
I ‘ve always been a bit of a lad and I was open to having a go of it with the assistant warden. She had done her homework, knew about Monica, adding it was plain I had feelings for her. I shrugged almost diffidently; it was none of her business. She added she didn’t want to get in our way, but Monica wasn’t here right now and she was, so how about it?
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