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. The night I had spent 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. And that one probably had been one 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 Waverley Bridge.
Charley probably had tracked my approach. He had probably noted my arrival via Maybury and Glasgow Road. He had probably guessed that I was on that bus. There had been other stops I could have gotten off, but the end of the line in the city centre was a logical choice. Perhaps he had been there anyway, 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, posed some sort of danger? Or was it just a laugh?
There was no way for me to truly know, 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 artists.
I had learned about the art of confidence games and the frame of mind necessary to play them from Uncle Valya. Of course Uncle Valya 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, so I will stick to my old lies. They are comfortable enough and they serve to protect his real identity.
He was really the uncle of another bloke in Plötzensee. 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 rules or any of the Hollywood stuff. Maybe they do that in real prisons, but where I went 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 then get sweets or coffee.
One week it so happened that my friend Leo came to visit. They sent me to the visitors’s lounge, but he forgot to turn in his mobile phone. It rang in the hallway, they tried to confiscate it, he got into an argument, the warden on duty was an arsehole, and Leo was sent away. At the same time Uncle Valya was there, waiting for his real nephew, who also didn’t turn up – when they went to collect him 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.
For about ten minutes Uncle Valya and I were sitting there, waiting for our respective company. When it became apparent that something had gone wrong, Uncle Valya asked me to pass on a message to his nephew. He wrote it on a small piece of paper, and just when he was done a warden came in to fetch me back to my room. More out of reflex than any real necessity I palmed the paper. And Valya, probably similarly anxious to see his note not in the hands of wardens, watched me make it disappear.
Two weeks later he was back, but 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 that he liked my technique. 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 had.”
I blushed at the compliment, the first I ever got for being a thief. Let me tell you, it was the best compliment I had gotten in my life so far.
“You don’t do it to get rich, do you?” he asked, peering intently at me. “You do it of love for the art.”
I bushed 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 spittle 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 shook his hand.
And from February to July 2008 I learned from Uncle Valya. I learned a lot, but the most important lesson he had already given me, 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 the ugly, 1980s concrete terraces of Waverley Station, amidst the oppressive beauty of Edinburgh, that was his love of the art. He did it because he could, and 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 drivers licence bore his picture and the name Steven Randle.
When we reached the run-down Leith tenement building were his mates lived, he rang the bell.
Casually I said: “I just wanted to thank you for all the bother and hospitality and stuff, Steve.”
I grinned, as insolently as he had done when I first met him. For a moment he was dumbfounded. I handed him the wallet.
“Oh, I believe this is yours.”
He took the wallet, anger darkening his face for a second. Then the buzzer sounded and he pushed into the gloomy staircase.
He introduced me to Curtis, Matthew, and Marcia, who welcomed me easily enough, and assigning me to the stained, sagging couch in the living room. We shared some tea and a joint. They didn’t ask much and what little they did, I made up answers for. Eventually Charley got up to leave.
He gestured for me to follow him into the hallway, and there he asked me: “You looking for work?”
“Depends,” I said carefully. “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. A Badger game is where you seduce a married person and later exhort hush money. It wasn’t hard to see that he would be pretty good at the first part.
“What would my role be?” I asked.
“Oh, you’ll be the red-haired, irascible Irish kid brother of my wife, who demands I pay you off, so that you can get the marriage annulled. But I don’t have that kind of money, and you threaten to kill me right there and then, and we’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 a variation of the fiddle game, where I left a (worthless) old book somewhere, like in a café, and Valya came in, discovered it, claimed to be a antiquarian and that the book was worth oodles of money. He’d leave his card and the promise to buy it for hundreds or 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 it 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 of my chance to get rich. But believe me, if played right, those are few and far between.
“I don’t have the right accent,” I said. Or rather, hamming it up: “I donnt haff ze Rrrait Ak-zent.”
“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 – I think he knew exactly what I was trying to say – spit into his own and shook on it.