On our way to Leith I was burning to ask him how he had found me. I didn’t. But as we walked and he told me a bit about the city, the festival, the friends he was going to ask to let me crash, and himself – the last bit all lies, I was convinced – I gave it some thought.
In Newcastle I had thoroughly checked my clothes for any more bugs, but I hadn’t opened the package, so I assumed that Bryan had placed another device inside that. That one probably had been with GPS capability, allowing him (and Charley) to locate me anywhere at least in the UK, probably Europe, or the world. Still, for Charley to be there so quickly, there had to be more to it. After all, I had at best spent maybe 10 minutes on North Bridge.
Charley had probably tracked my approach. He probably had noted my arrival via Maybury and Glasgow Road. He probably had guessed that I was on that bus. There had been other stops I could have gotten off, but the city centre was a logical choice. Perhaps he had been there already, on some other business. Had he seen the T-shirt on display somewhere and just decided on a whim that it would make for a great joke, or had he been prepared? Had he meant to check me out before I got to a phone, to see if I was with anyone, of I posed some sort of danger? Or was it just for a laugh?
There was of course no way for me to know for certain, but like him I could make some good guesses. The fact alone that he was the recipient of the mystery package meant he was some sort of player. And the way he had gone about receiving me smacked of the mind of a confidence artist.
I had learned about the art of confidence game and the frame of mind necessary to play them from Uncle Yalya. Of course wasn’t any uncle of mine, and his name isn’t Valya – or Valentin – and he is not really from Bulgaria as I will claim henceforth. But that is what I called him whenever I told this part of the story, even to Alex and Sim, and that are the lies I will stick to. They are comfortable enough and they serve to protect his real identity.
He really was the uncle of another bloke in Plötzensee, let’s call the nephew Janko. You see, visiting inmates there isn’t like the stuff you see on the telly. No bullet-proof glass, no telephone to speak through, not even any bloody no-touching the prisoners riles or any of that Hollywood stuff. Maybe they do that in real prisons, but where I got sent to it was just a big room with all the false cheer of a hospital cafeteria, and with little square tables, four chairs to each. Twice a month, in the afternoon, you could get a visitor. When they had signed in, you were called from your room, and then you could meet them there. They could bring money (an arbitrary maximum of 13 Euros per visitor, but only in coins) and there were overpriced vending machines where you could buy sweets and coffee.
One week my friend Leo came to visit. Uncle Valya was also there, sitting on the table next to ours, waiting for Janko. I learned later that when the warden went to collect Janko from his room, he had smoked a bit too much weed, too much even for them to turn a blind eye (hey, a stoned inmate is a peaceful inmate), so he took a trip to the infirmary and then to the head warden’s office. Back in the visitors’s lounge, when it became apparent that something had gone wrong, Valya spoke to me, very quietly and in a way that the warden at the door didn’t notice anything.
“Hey there, redhead. Can you deliver a message to Janko?”
Leo wanted to turn his head but I told him: “Don’t look away from me.” And without turning my own face away from Leo, I said to Valya: “Sure thing. Can do.”
Valya nodded and got up, just as a warden entered to tell him that Janko wouldn’t make an appearance that day. As he walked past me, Valya held a folded pieces of paper, wrapped in a folded 20 Euro bill between the fingers of his left hand, hanging relaxed at his side, where the wardens couldn’t see it behind the tables and the other visitors. I plucked from his hand and palmed it calmly without turning away from Leo.
Two weeks later Valya was back, and this time he asked to see me. Life inside was too boring for me to decline. When I sat down next to him, he told me he had liked the way I had handled things. Not just the skill, but the style.
“Still rough,” he said. “You have a lot to learn. But you show more promise than my nephew ever has.”
I blushed at the compliment, the first I ever got for being a thief. It was the best compliment I had gotten so far in my life.
“You don’t do it to get rich, do you?” he asked, peering intently at me. “You do it out of love for the art.”
I blushed even more, and he nodded and asked me if I wanted to be his apprentice.
“I will make you work hard, boy,” he said. “And you will not make money. You work for me. Am I exploiting you? Of course I am. I am a crook. But I will pay you back. Not in money, but in knowledge. You decide.”
And he offered me his hand, gob of spit in the palm and all. He was the one who taught me that sometimes you have to live the cliché. There is purity in clichés.
I spit into my own and shook.
From February to July of 2008 I learned from Uncle Valya. I learned a lot, but the most important lesson he had already given me by directing my awareness to something I had secretly known all along: You don’t do it for the money. You do it for the love of the art.
Charley was like that. I think his magic trick out there, on those ugly 1980s concrete terraces of Waverly Station, amidst the oppressive beauty of Edinburgh, that was his love of the art. He did it because he could, because he couldn’t pass up the chance to play me.
All of that went through my mind as we made superficial chit chat and I did my best not to tell him anything about myself that was real. But I waited for a chance to pick his pocket.
At a busy crossing I got my chance and peeked into his wallet. The Australian driver’s licence bore his picture and the name Steve Randle. As soon as I could, I slipped it back – but into the wrong pocket.
When we reached the run-down Leith tenement building were his lmates lived, he rang the bell.
Casually I said: “Thanks, Steve, for the bother and the hospitality, and stuff.”
His face remained unmoved, only his eyes grew cold and calculating. And he didn’t skip a beat, answering: “Aw, it’s nothing, mate.”
I grinned, as insolently as he had done when I first met him. For a moment, he seemed uncertain how to take this. Than he casually touched the pocket where his wallet had been, and then the one where it was now. Anger darkened his face for a second. I winked just as the buzzer sounded and he pushed into the gloomy staircase.
He introduced me to Curtis, Matthew, and Marcia, who welcomed me easily enough, and assigned me to a stained and sagging couch in the living room. We shared some tea and a joint. They didn’t ask much, and what little I said, I made up. Eventually, Charley got up to leave. He gestured for me to follow him into the hallway.
“You looking for work?”
“Depends,” I said carefully, and without intending to I touched my bandaged shoulder. “I don’t plan on growing roots here.”
“Just for the festival, perhaps?” And when I hesitated, he smiled his sunny smile. “Think about it. Half a million suckers waiting to be bilked. I watched you lie in there.” He nodded towards the room and his mates. “You’re not half bad at it.”
“What do you have in mind?”
“Straight short cons. Pigeon drop, Murphy, maybe a Badger game.”
He flashed the gold filling on one of his teeth and raised an eye-brow.
“What would my role be in that Badger game?”
“Oh, you’ll be the red-haired, irascible Irish kid brother of my wife, who demands I pay you off so you can get the marriage annulled. I don’t have the funds, of course, and when you make to kill me there and then I’ll convince her that she’ll end up in the papers if not worse if she doesn’t help me out.”
In Berlin, with Uncle Valya, I’d mostly played variations on the fiddle game, like where I left a worthless old book in some place, say, a café, and Valya came in, discovered it, claimed to be an antiquarian and that the book was worth oodles of money. He’d leave his card and the promise to buy it for hundreds, if not thousands of Euros. When I returned to get my book, the waiter or whoever had been in contact with Valya would usually offer to buy the book from me for far less than Valya had offered him – but far more than I was actually worth. The fiddle game is so useful because you need hardly any props, it incurs no expenses to speak of, and carries next to no risk. At worst an honest waiter will simply pass on Valya’s card and tell me about my chance to get rich. But believe me, if played right, such honest peeps are few and far between.
“I donnt haff ze Rrrait Ak-tsent,” I said.
“Oh, I’ll teach you, mate,” Charley said. “I’ll teach you.”
So, thinking of Uncle Valya, I spat into my palm and offered it to Charley. He grinned broadly, spat into his own, and shook it.