“The problem is,” Pete said, “he hasn’t got any money.”
Carol gave him a level stare. “What are you proposing to do about it?”
They’d talked around the question for some time: knowing her husband as she did, Carol could see what was coming.
“It’s a question of nine grand. That’s what he needs. But, he wouldn’t accept it from me.”
She was about to ask why it was important that Pete bail Rickie out but she knew the answer. They’d been friends since way back and Pete had, frankly, had all the luck. They both had talent – Rickie for making art and Pete for making money – but it was the luck that was causing the guilt. Pete had made two small piles from publishing and IT. Most recently, his account had been swelled by the death of his father, whom he’d never liked, whose will had been proved at the surprisingly large sum of £800,000. Pete suspected that the secrecy with which the wealth had been concealed suggested something dubious about how it had been made. Pete’s father had been a lawyer working in and around the fringes of the city which supported this view.
Rickie, on the other hand, had been dogged by ill-fortune. When he was six he’d lost half his thumb in a car accident. His parents had been well meaning but inept and had been swindled out of their savings in a time-share scam. Rickie’s life as an artist, a perilous enough calling at the best of times, had staggered from one crisis to another. A rich benefactor had died the day before a meeting which would have confirmed a massive commission. His aunt, from whom Rickie nurtured expectations, had late in life married her secretary who scooped the pot when she died in a boating accident in Spain. Two months ago, his studio in Bethnal Green had been destroyed in a fire. The contents included virtually everything of any worth Rickie had created.
The final and current irony was that he’d been awarded a place to study at the RCA from September. It was now late August. He had no art and, worst of all, no money. Cash needed to be found quickly. It was only that morning that Pete had realised how precarious his friend’s situation was.
Rickie still had his pride, or at least Pete thought so. Certainly the question of money, and their respective access to it, had remained unspoken for 20 years. It could not be spoken of now.
Carol studied her husband. He was a good man. He wore his wealth and his good fortune lightly. More than once she had spotted small acts of generosity to friends, Rickie included: the falsely low restaurant bill agreed with the owner, the balance settled by him privately; the supposedly free theatre tickets which had in fact paid for; the purchase of a work of art of Rickie’s through a proxy. Carol had always rather liked the piece: a sinister but elegant abstract creation in variety of pale metals which looked like a necklace, and a strange flower, and an escaped spirit, all housed in a glass bell-jar that perfectly conveyed the idea that the work was part of some long-forgotten and esoteric Victorian collection. In case Rickie saw it and twigged, it had to be kept out of sight.
Pete had never broadcast these acts of generosity – she had discovered some and suspected others – which made them all the more genuine. It was for this reason, and others, that she still loved him; and was therefore happy to tolerate, even indulge, his generosity. It was his money after all. She also had her own. For this reason too they were comfortable together.
This situation, however, couldn’t be remedied by such small gestures. Serious money was needed. Pete was pacing up and down. He went to the fridge, opened a bottle of Chablis, poured two glasses and sat down. She knew what this meant. They were now in conference and he was going to thrash the matter out.
“You could get the money to him anonymously,” she said. “There must be a dozen ways.”
Pete took a sip of wine. “Name two.”
“Well…you could tell him he’d won a prize…”
“No one falls for that any more. Anyway, he’s suspicious. Plus, you’d need a bank account under a fictitious name to pay him. That might have been easy 20 years ago. Not now.”
“You could transfer the money to his account.”
“He’d know where it came from.”
“It could be a mistake. By the bank.”
“How could I tell him that? Anyway, he’s honest. And nervous about money.” Pete took another drink. “The trouble is, he doesn’t understand it. When he has it he thinks he doesn’t deserve it and doesn’t know what to do with it. When he doesn’t have it he doesn’t know how to get it.”
“How about buying one of his artworks – oh, forget that. They’ve all been burnt. Hey – you could commission him to do something and pay up front.” She took a big slug of wine. “That’s it.”
Pete was shaking his head. “The art world doesn’t work like that. Plus, if I were to commission something he’d spent half the money on materials and half his time on making it when he should be studying. He’s very diligent, wouldn’t want to rip me off.”
It seemed to Carol that Rickie’s many virtues were presenting real obstacles to his happiness but she said nothing.
The wine was finished before they agreed that there was only one way, in this particular time and with this particular person, of getting nine grand anonymously to a struggling artist.
Pete was broadly right in his view of Rickie’s situation and character but with one important error. Pete’s opinion of Rickie’s attitude to wealth was predicated on this being the same as his own. For Pete, being poor was the worst thing he could imagine. Rickie had always been poor and, as Pete had said, viewed money with a mixture of misgiving and confusion. He had lived hand to mouth for so long that poverty was normal. He managed to get by and was personable enough to have and retain a decent circle of friends. He was, also as Pete knew, honest: like Pete with his wealth, he wore his honesty lightly. He told a good story in the pub, was self-deprecating without being abject, dealt fairly with his lovers and his creditors. Add to this his sufficient talent and his absolute dedication and you had a man of integrity. Thus it was that he was able to survive where better artists, but lesser men, had failed to do.
None the less, as Pete and Carol were finishing their Chablis, Rickie was sitting in his living room overlooking Colombia Road with his mind clouded and depressed to an extent he’d rarely known. There were three main problems, which between them infected every aspect of his thoughts.
The first was the loss of his studio. Any good artist, writer or composer always believes that their next creation will be the big one. None the less, the destruction of the best part of twenty years’ work was hard to bear. Yes, there were photos: but were he to have been a novelist or a songwriter the question wouldn’t have arisen, every sentence and every chord being saved to the cloud seconds after it was created.
The second was the RCA course. This was a game-changer. To have been offered it at all vindicated everything he’d tried to achieve: but he needed money, more immediately and in larger quantities than at any time before. The rent here was already more than he could afford. A host of other costs were building up as well. He was aware of how many times Pete had arranged that the full cost of the kind of evening he had wanted to enjoy had fallen mainly on him. He understood that the pleasure of giving is greater than that of receiving, even though he had rarely been in the former situation.
As he stubbed out his roll-up he resolved to make a virtue out of necessity, call Pete and ask for help. It would be possible to dress it in a way which gave his friend – whose obsession with money and profit Rickie over-estimated – a benefit. He could, for instance, create a work of art for him. With an RCA degree at his back, this would be worth three times more than it would today. Pete was a good mate. He would swallow his pride and call him tomorrow. But would he say yes?
The third problem, which was different from and yet trumped both of the first two, was what was going on at number 31 across the road. He knew a drug den when he saw it. As he tilted his head, he was looking at one. This caused him disquiet for several reasons. One, as any 50-year-old artist or anything else would share, was the late-night noise, and at times the violence, which sometimes went beyond what one might fairly expect from a London street.
There was also a darker concern. More than once, since these troubles had started brewing, he’d needed the complete oblivion and disconnection that only powerful opiates can provide. Twice in the last month he had trafficked in products he could ill-afford and which left him with the sensation that he was on the top of a snow-capped and mist-ringed mountain, about to experience a transcending rush before crashing into the darkness below. He had, with great difficulty, managed in the first two experiences to create some kind of controlled landing. Much as he needed the highs he was all too aware of the lows. All this was due to something that most of his friends, including Pete, had never known or suspected: until about three years ago, and for about eight years before that, Rickie had had a very nasty little heroin habit.
Rickie was out the next day and came back at dusk. The windows at the den across the road at number 23 were, as usual, bathed in their usual crepuscular light, suggesting dark transactions in shadowy corners. People came and went with their usual furtive frequency.
The business was run by Will. He ran a tight ship and would much have preferred that the transactions could have been conducted under a higher wattage where he could judge customers more clearly and where thefts or other deceptions would be more apparent. However he’d been forced to accept that bright lights spooked his clients and drew attention to the property. Like Rickie, Will was honest. He paid suppliers on the nail and expected the same from his customers. If he said that coke was £35 a gram and a bag of smack £12, those were the prices. If he said he’d never deal with a supplier again because he’d tried to sell him something cut with rat poison then he never would. if he said he owed you a £100 he’d pay you. If he said he was going to break your arm he’d break your arm. You knew where you stood with him: and, in this shifting world, there’s much to be said for that. He was one of the only major dealers in London who had not only a full-time bodyguard but also a full-time accountant.
One thing about his business, the matter of the lighting aside, that irritated him was the fact that most of the transactions had to be done in cash. He would have preferred chip and pin, BACS or Bitcoins but, of course, the nature of the business precluded this. Nor would most of his clients have been able to cope with these options. Most had little more than the cash they’d scraped together for the deal. Where they’d got this from wasn’t his problem. His honesty and integrity had strict boundaries. He looked after his own business. How everyone else managed theirs was up to them – end of.
This cash business had started to loom larger in his mind because, recently, six grand that was owed to him had gone AWOL. He hadn’t yet got to the bottom of which of Scotty and Asbo, two of his less-trusted henchmen, had ripped him off or screwed up or whether the problem was further down the line. He’d take his time and sort it out.
When Rickie got back the he walked up to his first-floor flat and opened the door. There was a thick envelope on the floor just below the letter box. He picked it up, went into the living room, turned on the light and took it over to the desk by the window that overlooked the street and, opposite it, Will’s empire at number 23.
He turned the envelope over in his hand. It was flexible and over an inch thick. The envelope was white and stout and sealed with tape but there was nothing written on it. He felt curiously reluctant to open it. He was expecting nothing of this nature, hand-delivered or otherwise.
Standing there with the light behind him and the curtains open and holding in his right hand something about the size of a gun or a wad of cash, Rickie was likely to attract attention: and he did. Asbo in the first-floor room directly opposite was in a nervous, twitchy mood, waiting for a tricky customer to turn up who was, as always, late. The man across the road seemed to be staring at him, or at what little he could see of Asbo through the half-drawn curtains. That wouldn’t do. He stood up to close them.
As he did so, something about the man’s manner caught his attention. Furtively – partly out of necessity but mainly out of habit, for Asbo did everything furtively – he watched the man open the envelope, stare incredulously at its contents and remove them. Asbo saw they were banknotes, several wads of them each bound with red rubber bands. The light caught them and he could see they were purple. Twenties. Asbo was used to looking at money. He reckoned that lot was between seven and ten grand. He licked his lips.
After a pause, the man opened what was obviously a desk drawer and put the notes in it. Then he turned away and picked up what might have been a coat. Jeez, he was going out – this was going to be easier than he’d dared hope. Two minutes later the man left the house and turned left down the road, obviously deep in thought. Asbo grinned to himself. When he came back he’d have something else to think about.
Rickie did indeed want to think. What the hell was going on? The money looked like about ten grand. There was no note. Where had it come from? What was it intended to buy? He’d momentarily forgotten that this was the kind of sum he urgently needed. He prided himself on his ability to concentrate utterly on whatever he was creating but ignored the flip side, that he was, when so engaged, incapable of recognising, still less thinking about, anything else. This may be a good recipe for artistic endeavour but it’s an ineffective way of coping with modern life in a big city when threats, opportunities and decisions appeared incessantly, each clamouring for attention. Thus is was that he found himself constantly in the red: spending, for instance, so much time on perfecting a work of art that he neglected to be careful how much his materials were costing, to chase previous clients for money or to lay any effective groundwork for future commissions.
His current problem was the reverse. Bereft of both past creations and present inspiration, he was none the less rolling in cash. The provenance worried him. He was no businessman but it was clear that the terms were uncertain. By accepting it, what would he be committing to?
He had thought about going to score some smack in Hackney but now realised that this was not an appropriate reaction. Also, he had no money on him. He laughed. What an irony. He turned and retraced his steps down Cambridge Heath Road.
Asbo acted swiftly. Telling Scotty that he had to go out for ten minutes and to deal with the client if he showed, he took some tools from the first-floor cupboard and slipped downstairs and out of the house.
Just as Asbo had spied on Rickie, so the ever-suspicious Scotty now spied on Asbo. Scotty saw him cross the road and go into to number 22. A few minutes later he saw him in the front room. Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it: and Asbo had not learned from Rickie’s misfortune and didn’t draw the curtains. Scotty saw Asbo reaching into the drawer, taking the money, and rushing out of the room. When Asbo got back to the house, Scotty was ready for him.
As Asbo was an experienced burglar and as he knew what he was looking for and where it was, when Rickie returned soon afterwards there was no evidence anything odd happened. It was only when he pulled open the drawer and saw no envelope there that his reason snapped.
He knew when he was pissed or high and when he wasn’t. He was therefore certain that the envelope had been there before he left: now it was gone. No one seemed to have been in the flat. He’d been burgled before and knew what that looked like. His mind filled up with theories and then, like a blocked toilet, stopped working altogether.
He found himself back in the position he’s been half an hour before: standing, hopeless and confused, by the window and staring at number 23.
What was going on there was interesting. Two polices cars, sirens wailing, had turned up and four coppers were wrestling someone to the ground. Another person had run indoors and, after a short scuffle, was hauled out. A police van turned up and the two men were flung into the back. The police stood about questioning people for a bit: then the convoy slipped away, sirens now stilled, in the direction of Bethnal Green nick.
Rickie couldn’t tear his view away. There was some connection between the events that he could not see. After a while, he saw that a clean-shaven man of about his own age had appeared in the doorway of number 23 and had locked his gaze to his. The man step forward and crossed the road. A few moments later Rickie heard his door bell ring.
What happened after Asbo’s visit to Rickie’s flat can be told very simply, Scotty challenged him to say what he’s been up to. Asbo, spooked that he’d been watched, refused. Scotty reminded him of a favour Asbo owed him. Asbo refuted this. Scotty put out an arm. Asbo threw a punch. Scotty threw a punch. Asbo staggered backwards onto the pavement. Scotty followed him and grabbed him round the throat. Unnoticed, an envelope fell from Asbo’s pocket and lodged in the weeds by the wall in front of the house. A public-spirited passer by dialled 999 and gave a succinct description of what was happening. Two patrol cars happened to be in the area and were there in minutes. The rest you know.
The key turned in the door and Pete came in. He was running his hands back and forth across his hair as if to check it was still there, his habit when he was stressed.
“Did you drop it off?” she asked.
“Yeah.” he sat down then stood up again, looking slightly wildly round the room.
“Sure.” He sat down again. “I mean, it wasn’t that hard. What could go wrong?”
Carol poured him a glass of wine and, as she passed it to him, kissed his forehead. “You’re a good man. A good friend.”
For the first time since he’d come in, Pete smiled. He seemed reassured. “I think so,” he said.
For Will, what had just happened had broken every rule. Although Asbo and Scotty were, he knew, unreliable and had bad blood between them, both had useful qualities so he’d followed a policy of divide and rule. Now they’d both been carted off in a meat wagon, the punters had scattered and the police had something tangible. This might prove stronger than the blackmail he held over a Sergeant and a Detective Inspector at the local nick. With GBH involved, the thing could spiral out of control. Asbo and Scotty had quite possibly undone two years’ work.
That problem was filed away for the morrow, when they would have been released and either fled or returned shamefaced to number 23. What concerned him now was putting a lid on things. Will had seen more of what had gone on in the last hour than Asbo, Scotty or Rickie would ever know. It was clear that the argument had involved money. it was equally clear that the man across the road was involved. By an excusable association of ideas, he saw a connection between this and the recent loss of cash.
There was no reason to delay. Will crossed the road, pushed open the lower door, went upstairs and rang Rickie’s bell. A few moments later Rickie appeared.
“Hi,” Will said, “We need to talk.” He gently ushered Rickie into the hall and shut the door behind him.
Rickie offered no resistance. He led the way into the living room and sat down. Will sat down opposite him.
For some time, Will said nothing. He was conducting a rapid survey of the room and of Rickie. The man was in some kind of creative profession, he could tell that by his clothes. Basically of no fixed abode – the place didn’t have the clutter or warmth that spoke of a home. Everything suggested a lack of money. The man himself was both guilty and confused. He’d seen him before, had marked his twitchy manner and pegged him as an ex-junkie. He’d also relapsed recently: he was hating, and also loving, the thing that once had been the centre of his soul. That he had relapsed suggested some stress or problem, which probably came back to money. This was a man who did not understand the stuff. No one who lived in a flat like this could.
All these thoughts and conclusions ran through his mind in about three seconds. For a while longer he sat still, saying nothing, staring across the room at the unhappy man opposite him, partly just because he could but mainly to be sure.
Not for the first time, Will wondered what he was doing in this game. His clear and immediate perceptions about a situation would have made him a millionaire in almost any reputable business, rather than a millionaire in an illegal one. Even now, with a crucial conversation about to happen, he afforded himself the time to reflect on this career and why he still pursued it. Was it the risk – or was it the control that, by being outside the law that most people respected, he could make himself the absolute master of the world he’d chosen to create?
Now, however, the clang of the prison door could be heard. These reflections, like the matter of Asbo and Scotty, were postponed. This man sitting opposite him was the centre of his troubles.
Will suddenly straightened up and offered Rickie a smile. Rickie returned with a ghastly one of his own.
“I think you know who I am.”
Rickie blinked. “No.”
“I know who you are. I live across the road. I’ve got a problem.” Rickie was about to ask what kind of problem but Will kept the initiative. “I’ve lost some money. It may have been mis-delivered. People make mistakes. Two of my associates, earlier, made a mistake as well. Two mistakes, in fact.”
There was a long silence, during which Rickie struggled with various conflicting emotions.
“I don’t know what’s happened,” Rickie said at last. His head sunk down.
“But you do know something about this. You can help me. And I can help you. I don’t think anyone else can.”
Rickie said nothing. He was in no position to help himself. Nor could he think what the right answers were: not that the man had actually asked anything, merely stated facts, which was far more unsettling. Indeed, Rickie could barely think at all.
Will realised this and stood up. No more could be accomplished tonight. He tossed a small plastic bag onto the table. “It’s on me. You need it. We’ll talk tomorrow.”
Will had another of his intuitions. The man was a dupe. Somehow he’d got involved in this by accident. There was a package involved. This bloke had just got mixed up in it. He didn’t think he was any threat. He watched Rickie hungrily eye the bag on the table. Come tomorrow, the man would be either a client or an absentee. Asbo and Scotty were the ones he needed to deal with, unreliable bastards. Their time was up.
“See you tomorrow,” he said with an airy wave, and left Rickie in a state of darkening confusion.
Next thing Rickie knew he was coming down. He felt as if he was falling through the sky and being tossed in a brutal thunderstorm, tumbling down towards a dark and jagged landscape into which he knew he would soon crash. By the time this sensation had passed it was nearly four in the morning. On the floor by his side was a small bag to which a few small crystals still clung. He rolled over and stared blankly through the undrawn curtains at number 23 across the road. From this position, he could only see the roof, orange in the streetlight and faintly sheened with what he realised was rain. He felt an itch in his left arm and reached to scratch it.
The next day, as Will partly suspected, Rickie made a hurried and inelegant retreat. However, by this time it made little difference to Will what Rickie knew or said. His problem was now solved.
First thing the following day Will had seen the envelope in the weeds and had plucked it out and had deemed himself satisfied. Remember I said he was a straight man? Well, here’s the proof. He went back to Rickie’s flat to tell him he was off the hook, but the bloke had already scarpered.
Something was still not clear to him about what had happened and on this uncertainty he brooded for some days. He suspected this was the wrong money, that wires had got crossed. Scotty crept back the following day but Asbo had, like Rickie, done a runner: another loose end Will didn’t like. After careful reflection, at the end of the week he sold out to a rival for a knock-down price and moved to Amsterdam where he bought a couple of bars. Seems he’s doing well there and planning to expand. Smart bloke, people say, runs a tight ship. You know where you are with him.
Rickie, like Asbo, vanished. He was used to moving on but this was the first time he’d run away. The sequence of events appeared simple to him: money had been mis-delivered; someone else, God knows how, had taken it; this man with the dead eyes thought he still had it and would, unless he paid him back, kill him.
The heroin had given him a jolt, too. That was, once again, now his purpose. The RCA could wait. He’d get himself sorted out, re-start, re-boot, re-apply.
Sadly, this never happened as he died of an overdose in Leeds six months later.
Not having had an answer to his calls, Pete went round and found the place deserted. He tracked down Rickie’s landlord who told him the lease had been up at the end of the month, that he’d returned the keys and had taken most of the few personal possessions he’d brought. His deposit had covered any dilapidations. If Pete wanted to rent it, he was too late: it had already been taken.
A week later, on the first day of term, Pete called the RCA and established that Rickie had not taken up his course. They were cross about this. Rickie had been awarded a scholarship from an American University he had applied to. What were they going to do with the nine grand that they’d just received?
Pete hung up. The plan had gone to hell. Rickie had grabbed the cash and run off. It was unlike him but there was no other explanation. He felt so let down. The irony was that Rickie hadn’t needed Pete’s money anyway. Pete asked himself what the hell he’d been thinking of, playing god like that.
Carol was equally depressed. This proved to be a hinge on which their relationship swung. Neither had as much confidence thereafter in each other’s judgement. Pete’s easy-going positivity became tinged with cynicism; her emotional warmth cooled into something approaching indifference. They were soon unable to recognise the person they’d fallen in love with. I’m not betraying any confidences when I tell you that within two years they’d divorced.
Do you want a happy ending? I’m sorry, there isn’t one. Unless you liked Will, of course. Will was alright. At the end of a story, one person is generally happy in accordance with their desires and expectations, if not always with their just desserts.