Archive for the ‘crime’ Category

For two days he drifted around Orkney. He got onto public busses when he saw them and got off at random stops, to walk along the one track country roads or simply across the windswept plain. On the seemingly limitless sky clouds and sunshine changed periodically according to an inscrutable schedule determined by far away currents and convection.
At the Standing Stones of Stenness, a Neolithic circle of stones set on a narrow peninsula between two shallow lochs, he met an old man walking with two hounds. The boy had been standing in the shadow of one of the stones smoking and watching two crows argue in coarse voices when the man suddenly spoke.
“Memories, huh?” the man asked. His windbreaker was the dark blue of municipal uniforms, and he had a lazy eye that made it hard to know what he was looking at.
The boy smiled noncommittally and tossed aside the cigarette. The old man slapped the cold stone next to them. “They got memories, too, you know?” he said, and when the boy didn’t answer he answered himself.
“Yes, old memories. Do you know that they have been set up at the same time the earliest civilisations started out in Egypt and Sumeria, India and China.”
The boy looked around, across the lochs and the pastures dotted with gorse and tufts of wild oats, all the way to the end of the land and the sea many kilometres distant.
“What did people do in this place?” he asked the old man. “There’s nothing here.”
The old man looked around as well, with his mismatched eyes, and then watched his dogs chase each other between the standing stones.
“Maybe that is what they came for.”
In Kirkwall he had two strange encounters that would haunt him for a long time. One of those happened as he picked pockets in the cathedral. A clump of tourists was listening to a guide tell some tale about a woman unjustly accused of witchcraft, and who mysteriously disappeared from a dungeon cell underneath the church the night before her execution. The boy had mingled with the group and used their shoving and pushing and the distraction through the guide to steal wallets. Just when the guide encouraged them all to peer inside the gloomy hole that lead down to the dungeon and everyone was craning their heads, a hand closed itself around the boy’s wrist.
“Not this one, Jack. Believe me. It’s not worth the trouble.”
The man was tall and stared at him with intense eyes. Then he let him go. The boy slowly walked away, so as not to rouse the attention of his other victims and make sure nobody else would remember his face.
He strolled through Kirkwall for a while, and listened to two heavily tattooed girls play Minstrel Boy near the harbour. The long-haired, dark one sporting raven feathers on her arms was playing the guitar, and the cropped, blond one with the Celtic knots and heavy leather choker and bracelets played a fiddle.
At dusk he walked around the Peedie Sea, a small body of water at the Western border of the town, cut off from the sea by a narrow sandbank with a road running across. The sky was overcast and reflected the town’s lights a sickly sulfurish yellow. In the shadow of a silo, amidst high stands of pricklyburr he met the tall man from the Cathedral again.
“Hold this for a moment, Jack.” The man was holding out a red glow stick. The boy took it and in its light watched the man set fire to the spiked fruits of the pricklyburr, drop them into a bowl and inhale the lazy white smoke.
“Thanks.” The man took another hit and the boy thought he could see the man’s pupils widen and swallow all of his pupils until there was nothing but two limitless black wells. The man’s voice was cracked and strangely quivering when he spoke again: “I have something for you, Jack.”
The man took something small out of his coat pocket and handed it to the boy. The boy turned it over in his fingers. It was a guitar-pick made of ivory, with scrimshaw filigrees and patterns winding around in it in slanted likes like some sort of unearthly writing, and a silver framed hole. The boy didn’t play the guitar, but the pick seemed to be almost too heavy to be useful.
“My name is not Jack.”
“Isn’t it? Well, it should be. Run a string through the hole, wear it like a charm. You’ll never be caught again. And now go away, Jack, and don’t come back. Take the light and go back to where you came from.”
By then darkness had fallen, and the boy made his way to one of the hostels.  That night he had some problems bluffing himself past the age and ID check of the Kirkwall hostel. He tried to sell the yarn that he had gotten separated from his sister (the girl at the check-in counter seemed more receptive to a boy with a big sister than one with a big brother) who he was travelling with, that his papers had been in the backpack she carried, and that she would arrive the next day, but the girl at the check-in counter wasn’t buying it.
“Ah’m sohry, bit Ah cannae do it, luv.”
He nodded, resigned to try another hostel. He pushed his hands into his pockets and encountered the strange, heavy guitar pick. He took it out and looked at it again.
“At’s a pretty thing. D’ye play the guitar, luv?”
“Do you have a string or something?”
Maybe feeling sorry for denying him earlier, she hunted around her desk and handed him a length of some gilded cord.
“There ye are, luv.”
He ran the cord through the hole in the pick, just as the stranger had recommended, and tied both ends off. He slipped it over his head and centred the pick on his chest, underneath his T, when the girl said:
 “Leuk, there is yer sis.” And at his startled expression: “’At is yer sister, luv, in’er?”
The boy turned around and saw a young woman carrying two backpacks, a violin case, and a naked guitar. It was the blond girl with the Celtic knot tattoos who he had listened to earlier. Something about her indeed bore an odd resemblance to him. And somewhere nestled in the corners of her eyes there was weariness he recognised. Trusting his gut, he rushed towards her to help her with her luggage and said loudly:
“Hey, I thought you’d arrive tomorrow, sis. I forgot my ID in the backpack. Stupid of me. Good thing I was wrong.”
The young woman sat down the larger of the bags and handed him the other one without perceptible hesitation. “I don’t think so. You didn’t forget it in Aberdeen, you numbskull, did you?”
The boy knelt down and began to rifle through the strange bag. The young woman started to chat with the check-in girl, telling her about the annoying wet end of a little brother, and got three beds on her ID.
“Come on, wet end,” she said, jingling the room keys. “You carry the bags.”
And in the hallway: “Listen, kid.  I only agreed because I really can do without a scene right now. Don’t let me regret it.” After a pause, “Annie. You are?”
“Wet End. And thank you.”
Annie laughed. “Alright.”
In the room they were joined by her dark haired friend with the raven feather tattoos.
“Did you get it?” Annie asked, voice discordant with tension.
The raven girl nodded but asked:
“An’ who would tha’ be?”
Annie looked around as if she had completely forgotten her new relation.
“That seems to be my little brother, Wet End. Wet End, this is Bev.”
“Mistaek,” Bev said, with a broad Irish accent. She took a small package from a pocket which Annie grabbed with obvious greed. “Ye don’t want her fer a sister, ye want me. I’m the fun one. But ye can be my brother as well, if ye want te.”
Annie excused herself to the bathroom. Bev took up the guitar. She strummed it once, rolled her eyes and began to tune it. The boy sat on the edge of a bed and relished the pain her comment had caused him. It took Bev a while, but when she was satisfied, she started in on what the boy eventually recognised as “Johnny I hardly knew you”.
He and Bev then spent the night talking and her teaching him the basics of playing the guitar, while Annie lay in blissful stupor on one of the beds. The boy wondered how his sister might have turned out if she had still been alive. Early in the morning he got up and searched through the packs of the sleeping girls. He took almost a hundred pounds and an old but well-whetted, well-oiled Swiss army knife. He gave Bev a light kiss and then snuck out of the room.
That day he travelled the islands again, and slept on fresh hay in small, lonely barn in the middle of a wide, lonely field. The next night he took another ferry further north.

The air in the cottage was cold when the grey morning filtered in through the shutters, but Sim’s naked body, next to me under the thick down covers, radiated heat. For a while I stared a the ceiling, and beyond it I saw all the ceilings under which I had woken in the past, in my mum’s flat, in juvie, in the flats of strangers, in the guest room of aunt’s, in the pit in Leeds, in all those hostels, in Dewey’s tent, and the different skies I had woken to when there had been no ceiling, from the night of being buried to the lost time in the Mullardochs.

I turned my head and looked for Sim’s face, peaceful and asleep, being slowly lifted out of a sea of shadows that clung to him, that caressed his cheeks and temples, the dark locks stuck by dried sweat to his forehead, his lips and neck, that clung to and caressed all of that like a mother saying good-bye to a child forever.

It took me a while to realise what the feeling was that filled me then. It took me a while because it had been so long since last I had felt it. It had been 484 days, to be exact, I later figured out since the day Hendrik first kissed me. The feeling was bliss, the sort that makes everything else meaningless.

And then, as if sensing my gaze, he opened his own eyes, sleepily, and smiled – a puzzled, content smile, almost as if in wonder where he was. I know it is impossible, but I swear that in that moment a single beam of sunlight broke through the clouds, found its way through the blinds covering the windows, graced his face, and made his eyes glow like a clear, cool, mountain lake in the spring sun.

“What’ss t’ time?”

“Not sure. Around seven. Maybe bit before.”

He smiled again and without letting his eyes leave mine tentatively moved closer, as if expecting me to push him away. When I didn’t he carefully laid himself into the crook under my shoulder, his head on my arm. Like that first kiss, in the holiday home, it was as if he entered my embrace like someone testing and then immersing himself in unknown water.

He pushed the covers down and ran his dirty fingers over the tat on my chest: A clock-face framed in two curved words, “pain” above it, and “killer” below.

“Is tsat whit ye feel?”

“Not now, no. But at the time it was very, hm, comforting.”

He took my arm, the one below his head, the way one wraps oneself into a coat an looked at the silver scars running along it inside, from the wrist almost to the inside of the elbow.

“Whit wuss ut tsat ye gat first?”

“I got the tat afterwards. After I… got back. To remind myself that the option remained. That even if I didn’t do it, every day would bring the day closer that…” I trailed away without finishing the sentence. Sim nodded.

“Wull ye tell us hou ye dead ut?” He looked back into my face. “Tsat’ss why tae ye Sassenach.”

“I know,” I said, running my hand softly through his curls. “I’m not all stupid, ye ken.”

“Och aye te noo,” he said, deadpan. And then: “Wull ye?”

I let my head drop back into a pillow. “I…” I faltered, took a deep breath, tried it two more times. But I didn’t find any words that didn’t either make it sound ridiculous or pathetic. “Not now, okay?”

Something must have stopped him from pursuing that one. Instead he pushed himself up on an elbow and began to inspect my body.

Last night we had done everything in darkness. Sim had wanted to turn on the light, but still in the role of the teacher I had advised him to try it by touch, smell, taste, and sound at first. Like with picking a lock, those senses are far more useful in sex than sight, and as long as we can we rely far too much on our eyes. It diminishes our world. And like the good Padawan that he was, Sim had heeded that advice then. But now he took the chance to fill in the blanks that particular experience might have left him with.

He touched the blackened, L-shaped scars on my shoulder almost with reverence. Two nights before, sitting by the lake, I had told him about Julie and about Ponyboy. Sim made as if to kiss the scar, but in the end didn’t.

“Hou mony tattoos uss’t tsat ye hae?”

“Three. Painkiller was the first one.”

“Whan wat uss tsat ye hae’t made?”

“Three years ago, pretty much.”

He whistled, a real boy whistle from between his lower lip and his upper incisors. “Yer paurents alloued tsat?”

“Are you daft? My mum totally lost her rag, every time actually. But it wasn’t like she make me wash it off, could she?”

“Daur say no. Shaw us t’ issers?”

I rolled onto my belly and showed him the barcode on my bum cheek with the tiny words – in some dot matrix font – “sold under sin” printed underneath.

“Hendrik had me get that one. He paid for it… in a way.”

Sim nodded. “And t’ last ane?”

I showed him my other shoulder, opposite the scarred one. The tat there looked unlike the painkiller and the barcode tattoos a little amateurish, in a pale blue ink. It was a three-layered piece of cake with what might have been a cherry on top.

“That one’s from juvie. My mate Sebi did it with a sewing needle and ballpoint pen ink.”

Sim thought about it for a while, then he smiled. “T’ cake uss a lee?”

“Och aye.”

I was still grinning back at him when the bed cover began to slide off the bed and off both of us. Sim caught it quickly, but not quick enough to keep me from noticing the welts on his back, and buttocks, and his upper thighs. He covered them as if nothing had happened, but there was a weariness in his eyes now as he tried to gauge my reaction. I didn’t show any reaction, I’m sure, but I probably kept my face blank for just too long. But, anasını satayım, too many things suddenly made sense:

Why Conall had been so ready to believe me, and why his father hadn’t. Why Sim had tried to get me away from the house, and why he had been so sore when he came by the next day. Why he was so skilled an emotional reader, and such a master at misdirection. And all the little, bitter comments.

When I didn’t say anything, he echoed me: “Och aye.”

What else was there to say – except that question that burned inside me. Had it been because of me, because he had warned me? A question didn’t dare to ask, afraid of what obligations it might put on our friendship.

Instead I asked: “What’s on the agenda today?”

I think Sim was relieved when he laid down on the bed next to me. At least he didn’t move away.

“Want tae come wi us tae kirk?”

“Don’t you think that’d be risking a bit much?”

Sim grinned at me, his beautiful, crazy, wild grin. “Nae at aw. Te day uss kirkin at Saunt Lorcán’s. Tsat means t’ kirk wull be fou o’ fowk, wi t’ pipe band, and awbody clappin haunds wi t’ priest and aw. Smookin ye in and oot wull be a pure skoosh!”

I hemmed and hawed, feeling very uneasy, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer, and his excitement was catching. The thought was kind of thrilling. And anyway, I never could refuse him anything.

He had told his rents he was spending the night at a friend’s. The friend was in on it, more or less, and used to covering for Sim. Sim rode together with me to the A832, but dropped me off there to loiter behind some rocks and wait for him. I had taken the Zimmer Bradley along and spent the next 45 minutes in the company of Rumal and Orain, until Sim returned together with Conall and Caena in the Defender Pick-Up. The rest of the family had ridden either with neighbours or in their dad’s saloon.

Sim reintroduced me to his brother and sister, who he declared loudly to be trustworthy, and Conall excused himself for having almost gotten me nabbed.

“Masel uss sae sorry, Danny. A really dinnae expect fer ma paw tae actually gae and clipe on ye.”

I tried to take it with some grace, which I might have gotten off reasonably well, and they complimented me and Sim that with the new hair cut, dye job, and different clothes none of those who had seen me before would recognise me as long as I staid in the background.

The church itself was a big, grey, squatting block of a building, and brimming with festive worshippers. Once we arrived there, Sim bade me stay behind, and dashed off – turned out he was one of the altar boys and had to change before service. But as soon as he was away, a young man, early to mid twenties, walked up to me. He was wearing dark slacks, brown suede shoes, and a moss green blazer. He had Sim’s dark curls and bright blue eyes.

“Hey. A’m Aidan. Ye must be Danny.”

Carefully I shook his hand. He was tall and look good in that charismatic way that has nothing to do with looks and that people have who see more than they let on and who can form an opinion without sharing it.

“I’m Sim’s brother. He asked me te look efter ye, while he’s busy.”

Aidan was there in the company of his girlfriend, Lydia, who in turn had a younger brother, John, who was in Sim’s year at the local High School. Aidan left me with Lydia and John while he said hello to his mother and his siblings. He no longer lived at home, and, apparently, wasn’t currently on speaking terms with his father. Lydia started to chat with me, but it was awkward with unspoken chunks of life barring us every way. When John asked me about football we were all very relieved.

That mass was the first time I actually prayed to God again since ‘Nette’s death. I prayed the way I had done before she had gotten sick, the way she had taught me. In prayer you do not ask God for anything. If you have eyes in your head and a brain to understand what you see, you know that God does not change His plans because of the whims and wishes of humans. And if anyone ever comes to you with tales of miraculous cures, ask them why no amputee, however deserving, however hard praying, ever re-grew the littlest finger, let alone an arm or a leg? What, God does cancers and comas but no missing limbs? No, there is no heavenly wishing well. Prayer, done properly, means giving thanks for the world as it is, and listening for God’s voice, to tell you how you can contribute to its beauty and splendour.

Fittingly the sermon’s theme that day was Job 37:14 – “Stand still and consider the wondrous works of God.”

I reserved the right to heed or not to heed his words, as I saw fit, but we both – God and I, like God and Job before – knew that to do either was at my own peril. So I knelt down, in all the earnestness of my heart, and swallowed my pride, and for the first time in 3 ½ years I gave thanks. For, though I knew that my life was fucked up beyond belief, on that morning I was grateful for it indeed.

Afterwards Sim dodged his rents, and joined Aidan, Lydia, John and me. It was clear enough that Sim and Aidan shared a special closeness. Amongst his brothers Conall might have been Sim’s every day best friend and companion of many small adventures, but Aidan, the oldest of the siblings, was Sim’s hero and role model.

Aidan had come with Lydia and John in his extremely sexy black Toyota MR2 roadster, a car he had treated with luxurious contempt: The inside smelled of smoke, dope, and spilt beer, and there were parking receipts, betting stubs, and crushed cigarette boxes littered about. Aidan took me along, first dropping off Lydia and John at their rents’s place, and then me at the cottage. On the way there, along the A832 and down the port hole riddled cart rut across the moor, Aidan quizzed me.

“Sim thinks pretty big of ye.”

“He thinks pretty big of you.”

“Aye,” Aidan laughed and tried to dig a pack of fags from the breast pocket of his blazer. I leaned over, got it out, lit a fag, and gave to him. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”

“So. Oniweys.” He took a puff and hemmed and hawed a bit. “I’ll ask ye straight up. Are ye plannin’ on playin’ some sort o’ con on him and ma family? Or usin’ him fer some other crooked deal?”

“What makes you think I would do that?”

He looked at me through a screen of smoke.

“Sim told me just enough about ye te hae me worried, but nae enough to know what yer up te.”

“Did he now.”

“Look. I dinnae care what the two o’ ye are doin’ up here, as long as ye daena play fause wi ma wee brother.” And when I didn’t say anything: “Ye see, Sim doesnae put trust in fowks. But fer some reason I cannae fathom, he put his trust in ye.”

Not enough to warn me about you, I thought. But then, he probably put more trust in you than you deserve yourself. Do you really know your own brother so little?

I took a fag for myself. The cottage appeared at the end of the track. The car shuddered and shook on the uneven ground.

“I have no intention of playing false, Mr. MacLeod. I have no intention of hurting Sim. But…”

I searched for words outside amongst the heather, the crags and pools, and didn’t find any. Aidan stopped the car. He opened the door, dropped the fag end onto the ground and extinguished it with a well practiced twist of his right brown suede shoe. He looked at me and nodded. “Aye. Life sometimes deals us a shite hand.”

We both got out. There was a hint of the sea on the air.

“Well, Danny.” Aidan offered me his hand across the roof of his roadster. “If ye’re ever in need of a place te stay, feel free te come te me.” And he handed me his card, naming him a solicitor, and giving his address in Port Maree.

***

When I saw Sim again later that day, he was in a foul mood. Tourists had rented the cottage and would be arriving on Wednesday. Our time together had gotten an official time limit. But – he had to grin at the cleverness of himself – he had strategically annoyed his dad into giving him the chore of making the cottage presentable for the tourists. That meant he also had an official reason to come by after school on Monday and Tuesday, which he did.

The weather was rather dreary and cool, but we still had a blast. On Monday I met him at the gates of his school and together we played two cons I had dreamed up. The marks were day tourists passing through, minimising the threat to Sim of being caught, and the nature of the game made maximum use of the fact that he was well known to the locals, while I was a stranger as well.

Tuesday we rode the horses to the tip of the peninsula and swum in the sea. Later we fished in the lake. And later still I helped Sim clean up the cottage while he introduced me to his favourite Scottish punk band, The Real McKenzies. And then he put on Nick Cave and we practiced dancing some more. From dancing one thing lead to another, and ended with him kneeling in front of the bed while I buggered him energetically.

Had we been caught doing this before 1861, it would have meant death by hanging for me. Until 1980 it would have meant penal servitude for life or no less than 10 years. (Though only if I had been of legal age myself, I suppose. I never understood the British rules regarding the age of criminal responsibility.)

This is what it meant in 2008:

Suddenly Sim grew pale as death and stared over my shoulder. Someone had come in under the cover of Nick Cave singing about the Mercy Seat.

I turned around as fast as I could, given the circumstances, and could hear Sim wince as I did. Then my ears were ringing and I stumbled backwards and fell over the edge of the bed, the entire left half of my face in sickening flames.

Over me stood, face contorted by rage, fists balled and in the air, Sim’s father. I have no idea what he screamed or even if it was English, Scots, or Gaelic, but the meaning was clear enough: “I will kill you.”

I doubt though that he really had that resolve. Few do. He just thought it was the correct and manly sentiment to show at such a moment, and  that in the end some judicious violence would suffice. Of course neither of us knew that he had actually succeeded, but that it took one year and two months for the impact to run down the skein of fate and finally break my body.

I was still stumbling to my feet, hampered by jeans and boxers bunched around my ankles when Sim – his legs were untangled and naked but for a single, vividly orange sock – jumped up and went between his dad and me, begging – begging! – him to stop.

His dad caught him with a backhand slap to the temple that sent Sim flying across the room like a rag doll, until the corner of a table connected with his head and broke his flight curve.

He crumpled to the floor like a heap of wet clothes.

I told you I sometimes see red?

I assume I must somehow have gotten out of the jeans, and I must have grabbed whatever I got my hands on, Sim’s heavy-duty bicycle lock as it turned out, and I must have attacked Mr. MacLeod.

I only remember that I heard two sound: Furious and insane sounding bellowing – that must have been me – and then a soft whimpering. The red haze receded enough for me to realise that the whimpering had come from Sim’s limp body. That was enough to bring me back into the real world.

Mr. MacLeod was lying on his back, his right wrist and leg apparently broken, his face almost as pale as Sim’s had been when he had seen him. And I was standing above him, the bicycle lock held high and about to be brought down with all my strength onto his head.

I still wanted to murder him. That is not a figure of speech. I wanted to see his skull crack, his face split, and his brains run across the floor in a pink, frothing mush. I wanted to stomp into that mush and make it squish. I wanted him to be eradicated from this earth.

But the rage was fading almost as quickly as it had come. Having heard Sim’s one whimper had been enough to cut away the bottom of my heart and to let everything boiling in it fall out, leaving nothing but a terrible and cold emptiness.

Keeping the lock firm in hand I retreated to Sim and knelt down net to him, to feel his pulse. I didn’t feel it, but I was probably too shaken to do so anyway. He was breathing though, so he was still alive. There was blood pooling under his head and I couldn’t see where it was coming from. I didn’t dare move his body for fear of doing more damage.

Instead I fished his mobile from the pocket of his jacket – a jacket he had hung over the back of the chair – now knocked over – just an hour ago, when we had still been laughing. And hugging. Dancing. And kissing.

Pushing aside premature grief was very hard.

I concentrated on dialling emergency services.

“There has been an accident. Someone has been hurt at the head. He is losing a lot of blood. Unconscious. Fourteen years.”

She wanted to know where I was. I asked Mr. MacLeod. When he didn’t answer right away, I roared at him and hit his broken leg with the lock. He roared, too, in pain, and then told me what I needed to know. I passed it on to the shocked emergency operator and hung up.

I got dressed, gathered up my few belongings, stuffed everything in the nylon backpack Mr. Roth had given me, and waited by the window. I had expected an ambulance, but when I heard the helicopter, I knelt down next to Sim and gave him a small kiss on the forehead and, ignoring his father, hurried out of the house and hid amidst the birches.

I watched the medics carry Sim and his dad away. I saw that they had put a serious looking inflatable brace on his neck and that his face was uncovered. I couldn’t give tuppence about his dad.

When the helicopter had left, I picked up the bike Sim had left again carelessly lying on the gravel of the cottage, and rode off.

***

I went to Aidan’s place, the one noted on the card he had given me. There was no police car at his front door. When he opened the door for me, he was holding the telephone in his hand.

“I heard. What happened?”

I stumbled over my words, anger and grief and self-reproach tying my tongue. With a few quick, precise questions he sussed the situation.

“Stop apologising,” he said absentmindedly. “I know ma dad.”

I took a deep breath. I looked at him hard. Then I said:

“If you know your dad, you know he will put all of this on me.”

Aidan looked up, his face a question mark.

“I want Sim to live,” I continued. “I don’t see what I can do to help beyond this, but if there is anything, I will, even if it means going to the rozzers. But if your dad thinks he can finger me for Sim’s attacker and get away with it he’s wrong. If none of you will speak up, I will. I’ve seen the marks he left on Sim. Everything will come to light and he will go down with me.”

Aidan still didn’t react.

“I don’t know how badly you want to see him in jail, but they got my voice making that 999 call. They have me shouting at him and hurting him. My fingerprints are all over that cottage, and probably all sorts of other traces. And my prints will eventually lead them to everything about me. You’re a fucking solicitor, you do the math.”

He looked back at me for a while, thinking. I believe he was really pondering whether he should let both me and his dad go to jail. But then he took his phone again:

“Ma? It’s Aidan. I know, I’m on ma wey there. But ye must listen now, ma. Send Iona te the wee cottage. She must scrub it doon. No, everything. Change linen, and do every light switch and door knob, water tab. Anything somebody might put his hands on. No, ma, if ye daenna want yer husband in jail fer a very lang time, ye will dae it. Richt noo! Aye, A’ll see ye there. And ma? If ye get ther first, make him shut oop until A’m there, too, aye?”

He turned to me, looking grim and a bit sick. “I have te go now. Ye can stay or leave. There’s food in the kitchen. Help yerself.”

It was one of the longest nights of my life. I spent most of it sitting on the windowsill, staring out at the street, expecting police cars. I finished all my fags, remembering with each one the two boxes of Marlboro Sim had brought me. Remembering every damn thing we’d done together.

I got up once to pee, and another time to drink some water from the tab.

The sky was greying when Aidan returned.

“He’ll live. It’s a fracture and they say his brain is swollen, but they say he’ll make it.”

I slumped down in a corner against the wall.

“Ye gotta leave. They dinna believe our yarn aboot the accident and ye havin’ been chust a hiker passin’ through, but I daena think they’ll be able to pruive anything, once ye’re gone.”

I nodded. I gave him my e-mail address, in case he or Sim ever wanted to contact me later, and we went down to his car. We rode in silence. The land was still just as beautiful as it had been when Conall had taken me. He let me out at Braemore Junction. We shook hands, and he said farewell cordially enough, but there was little doubt he wished I had never set foot in his family’s house.

Then he took off, in his sexy black roadster. I stood where he had let me off, at the car park for Corrieshalloch Gorge and the Falls of Measach. I was 1,971 kilometres from Lake Iešjávri, as the crow flies. 1,971 kilometres and 86 days. And 1,533 kilometres and 191 days from a little, run down farm house in Lower Silesia.

And 3,026 kilometres and 393 days from that dinghy Greek guesthouse near the Aegean Sea.

Not that any of these places would have meant shit to me then. All I knew, as I stood there, was that I couldn’t go south. That I couldn’t go back.

So I struck out my thumb and waited for a northbound car to take me along.

The sun was slowly dying in a bloody swamp of stringy clouds above the Hebrides when Sim returned. He came on horseback.

“Ower t’ muir uss t’ shortest wey,” he explained as he dismounted. He was keeping two coins palmed, one in each hand. One of them fell to the ground as he tethered the horse to a tree. He picked it up with an apologetic shrug.

“Hae tae haud at practeesin, richt?”

“Right,” I said, and I couldn’t have felt prouder.

“Sae, whaur uss we gaun?”

“I had the other cottage in mind, the one a bit down the shore. It seems to be empty at the moment.”

“T’ McDonagh boothy?” His face fell. “Tsat’s dreich. Naessin tarein bit stour’s sel and moose-wabs.”

“Nothing there but what?”

He rolled his eyes: “Dist and speeder wabs.”

“Oh. Yes, which is why it’s a good place to practice. We’re not going to knock over Fort Knox on our first try, are we?”

The disappointment on his face remained.

“Okay,” I relented. “How about we try your rents’s house, later, when they’re asleep?”

Sim shuddered. “Certes, and tan ma paw kin catch ye lairnin masel hou tae be a berglir? Tsat’s a mischancy thochtie, mate.” Then his face brightened: “Och! Masel ken chust t’ perfit goose. Ut’ss in Port Maree, bit ut’ss geylies oot-t’-way. Ut’ss belangin tae somebody frae Edinburrae, bit ut shoud be emptie te noo.”

“You are crazy, you know that, Sim MacLeod?”

Aye. Masel uss, ussna A?” He grinned. “C’mon, aff we gae.”

He climbed back onto the horse and scooted to he very front of the broad saddle. “Ceana telt msel ye ken hou tae ride. Ye tak t’ reins.”

I stepped into the stirrup he had just taken his own feet out of, grabbed the saddle horn, and swung myself into the saddle behind him. He leaned back into me as I reached around him on both sides to take the reins, and I had to think of Hendrik and the rides on his motorbike.

Without waiting for his directions I nudged the horse into canter and went to the narrow path across the moor to Port Maree.

“Och, ye awready ken yer wey aboot,” Sim commented.

“It pays to know your exits. If you want to be a thief, you better keep that in mind.”

Bitterly he muttered: “A leart tsat lesson lang syne, mate.”

Silence settled over us as we rode through the chilly September night. He snuggled his back against me and I kinda hoped he didn’t notice my wood, but I had told him enough for him to be forewarned, and anyway, he neither joked about it nor shied away. A low waning moon winked heartlessly through ragged clouds and the lonesome beauty of the land burned itself into my soul forever.

The house Sim lead me to was a nice, modern, flat-roofed holiday home at the north end of the village, set back a bit in the hills above the beach. We left the hose tethered to a clump of wild gooseberry bushes in a hollow hidden from the village behind the last crest of the shore-side hills. Sim wanted us to camouflage ourselves Ranger style, with mud across the faces and grass and leafy twigs and heather stuck across our clothing, but I stopped him.

“Bit ut’s really wirkin. A wis amang t’ best at ACF fieldcraft.”

“ACF?”

“Airmy Cadet Force. At schuil. At’s tis paramilitary sivival trainin, ken, Bear Grylls like. And masel uss guid, guid at’ut. Pent and ryss and t’ like, tay brak t’ contours, mak ut real fickle fer t’ issers tae ken us fer human.”

“Ryss?” – “Twigs, man. Twigs, and grass, and leafs. And pent fer t’ face. Make-up.”

“Yes, Sim. I believe you are really good at paramilitary survival, and if it was a matter of getting shot at or not, I’d agree. But you’re going to break into an empty, unprotected house. It’s our job nobody sees us at all, with twigs or without. And if we are caught, you can always say, we were just bored and had a look around for a laugh. At best you get a slap on the wrist for trespassing. But if you show up in bloody camouflage, that’s not going to stick. When they see you meant business, they get you for B&E. That’s no joke. We are breaking into a house.”

He sobered a bit and followed me over the wall, across the sloping lawn, and to the front door. By then the moon had set, and the only light came from the street lamps beyond the wall and the bushes. Sim wanted to take an electric torch from a pocket. I held the wrist.

“No light,” I whispered. “The beam of a torch at night is really suspicious. Someone who has a right to be here would turn on the porch light, and if they were coming or leaving they’d have a car down by the street and everything.”

“Bit hou wull we appen t’ door?” he whispered back.

“I’m going to teach you how to pick a lock now. And that is done by sound and touch anyway. Here, gimme your coins and take these.”

In the darkness I pressed two small tools into his hands, a safety pin and a small flathead screwdriver I had taken from a tool box back in the cottage.

“To pick a normal security lock you need a pick – that’s the safety pin in this case – and a tension wrench – the screwdriver. The pick has to be both thin, so you can get it inside the lock and move around inside, and strong, so it doesn’t bend away once you start to poke at things. The wrench has to be able to administer torque, that is pressure on the cylinder, turn it, you know, like a key would. So it needs to fit into the slit and apply pressure on the sides, but leave as much room as possible so you can still move the pin freely. It’s always a sort of compromise.”

I showed him how to apply torque with the screwdriver and the guided his other hand with the pin into the lock. While I had waited for Sim that evening I had bent the last three millimetres of the pointy end of the pin upwards with some pliers.

“The thing about the pick is this: Most stuff, like paper clips, especially those made of brass or copper, are too soft. Once you try to press against the pins inside the lock, they bend somewhere along the long part between your grip and the little bent pointy end. And those covered in plastic are usually too thick to get inside properly. So you need something made from steel, but stull just pliable enough so you can bend the end 90 degrees without it snapping off.”

“Like a sauftie-preen?”

“For example. A good, long, not too thick steel paperclip can work, too. Really fine hacksaw blades can also be good. Wire is mostly too soft, but that depends. Okay, now feel around inside the tumbler. Scrape the pin along the bottom. Can you feel how the point keeps catching?”

“Aye.”

“That’s the pins. There is 5 to 8 pins in a lock like this. Each pin is actually two steel pins and a spring pressing against them. When a key is inserted the teeth of the key push each set of pins exactly so that the break separating them – remember, it’s always two pins and a spring – is aligned perfectly with the side of the cylinder, so that one pin is exactly outside, and one is exactly inside. But when you remove the key, the springs move the pins so that they go across the line and pin the cylinder in place, so it can’t turn. Got that?”

“Aye.”

“What you want to do is push each set of pins so that the crack between them is aligned perfectly with the cylinder wall and you can turn the lock with the wrench… the screwdriver.”

“Bit winna t’ springs push t’ pins back, ance A muive tae t’ neist ane?”

“Spot on, mate. That’s why you need to keep torque on the cylinder with the wrench all the time: Not so much you can’t push the pins anymore with your pick, but enough so the pins don’t slide back in. Once you get a feel for it, you can actually hear and sense the tiny click when a pin separates at the crack.”

“Och, ut’s fickle, eh?”

“It’s a lot harder than it mostly looks on the telly, but it’s not magic either. Just try to feel and hear and imagine what’s going on inside the lock.”

“Uss’t up or doon tsat A thrimmle t’ pins?”

“Can be either way. Depends on how the key is put in. You always push the way the teeth of the key are pointing. In Germany it’s usually downward. I think it’s the same here. I read that in America it’s usually upwards, but I’ve never been there myself.”

“Doon, richt.”

And then I settled down and let him work on it. I knew that the first time takes forever. And it did. It took Sim almost three hours, and he was bathed in sweat at the end. It’s not easy to stay crouched in front of a door, keep constant but delicate pressure with a tool not really good for the job with one hand and try to make tiny adjustments in a space you can’t see with the other.

Once, after about half an hour, Sim wanted to give up.

“A cannae dae it, Dana. A wull be here awe nicht.”

“I got time. So do you. Or do you have somewhere else to be?”

“Naw, atweel no. Bit tis maun be gey dreich fer ye. A tsocht we would hae fun te nicht.”

“I got time, Sim. You want to learn this or not?”

After that he concentrated on the lock.

I learned a lot about Gaelic cussing that night. It’s not only very strenuous, but it also incredibly frustrating. Every time your tension torque slips all the pins you already got into the correct position will slip back, and you have to start from scratch.

But he kept at it, and around two in the morning he turned the cylinder with the screwdriver once around we heard the latch slide back one setting.

Then the cylinder caught again and the door was still locked.

“Whit’s wrang?”

“It’s a double lock. Most are. You need to turn the key twice before you can open the door. But of course as you turn, the pins slip back, so you need to pick it all over again.”

“Och nae. Nae!” And he followed that with a long stream of Gaelic obscenities. “Ye kenned at woud happen?!”

“Yep. Well, I was pretty sure it would.”

“And noo?”

“Here, let me try this.”

I took another safety pin from my pocket and took the screwdriver from Sim. I applied the screwdriver and pushed the second safety pin into the lock and ratcheted it quickly in and out in a somewhat jiggly sawing motion. After a few seconds the cylinder turned a second time and this time the bolt inside slid all the way back and I could push the door open.

Sim stared at me with open mouth.

“Hou’d ye dae tsat?”

I grinned and pressed my second make-shift lockpick into his hand. He felt it and realized that I had not given it a single 90° twist at the end, but had rather bent it into a zig-zagging shape, not unlike a normal key, only that all “teeth” were roughly the same size and shape.

“Sometimes this works, too. You must apply the right amount of torque but then you can try to simply jiggle the pins quick enough and hope they will all catch at the right spot. Works a lot faster than picking each pin individually.”

An Taigh na Gall ort!” Sim spat a couple of nasty insults my way. “Hou wisna ye at telling masel tsat rich oot?”

“Sorry, I’m just a simple Englishman,” I said, grinning. “When you get excited I can’t understand you. What did you just say?”

“Feech! A askit: Why dinnae tell me hou tae dae tsat richt awa?”

“Seriously, Sim? Because now you actually learned how a lock works. Now you also know why this trick works. Now you understand a lock. And anyway, ratcheting doesn’t always work.”

“Hou lang uss it whan ye pick a lock?”

“Depends on the lock, of course. But normally I got it down to about 20 minutes. But that took a lot of practice I mostly practiced on the door to the roof. It was pretty difficult, and nobody ever bothered me when I sitting at the top of the staircase.”

I opened the door wide.

“Please, come in.”

The house was exactly what you would expect from a holiday home when it wasn’t it use. Lots of pine wood, and carpets and cushions in subdued colours and patterns that inured them against stains and dirt. The fridge door was propped open with a neatly folded kitchen towel, and in the cabinets remained a bag of sugar, a carton of salt, and an open pack of rice.

Sim went to the fuse box and turned the power on. Then he turned on the lights in the living room. I thought about telling him not to, but the windows were shuttered, the curtains were drawn, and the room itself, on the lower level, was hidden from the street behind the wall and the hedge.

“Hey, leuk here!” Sim had found a bottle of Scotch in one cabinet. We opened it and took turns drinking directly from the bottle.

Then Sim turned on the stereo and began to dance in the middle of the room. I sat down on the couch, lit a fag, had some more Scotch, and watched him. When he noticed me watching, he said: “C’mon. Dance wi us.”

“What?”

“Dance wi us.”

“But we’re both blokes.”

“Aye. And tsat baszers ye, pìobair?”

“I can’t dance.”

“Nowey!” Sim laughed. “Ye canna dance? Masel wull lairn ye! C’mon.”

For a second I thought about telling him to fuck himself, but then sighed, put the fag between my lips, and went over to him.

“Ut’s gey easy, Dana. Leuk. Ye pit yer caurie haund here and gie’s isser. Sae. And noo ye coont tae fower, wi t’ muisic. Ane, twa, tsree, fower, ane, twa, tsree, fower…”

I concentrated on matching his steps and after a while I actually got into the rhythm. Then Sim stopped and knelt down by the rack with CDs. He went through it and then pulled one out.

“Tis uss a Walz. Haud on.”

He put the CD into the player and then Robbie Williams and Nicole Kidman began singing: “I know I stand in line you think you have the time…” Sim came back over to me, took up position again and showed me the gentle swayin one-two-three steps of the Walz.

And then we danced. For real. Slow, and close, to this insipid, silly, clichéd, soppy song. His nails on his fingers on his hand on my shoulder were dirty and badly cut. He smelled of sweat and horse. His belt buckle pressed against my crotch. From his nose his breath came through the neck of my T and was hot and chilling at once on my chest.

In this plain, almost anonymous living room of the empty holiday home I had taught him to break into, drunk on Scotch and excitement, success, and our own daring, we danced.

And when Nicole Kidmen left the stage and Robbie Williams started into the brassy “Do Nothing Til’ You Hear From Me”, Sim looked up into my eyes and with a burning face asked hoarsely: “Will ye lairn us t’isser stuff an aw?”

And when I didn’t answer right away: “Ye ken, whit ye dae wi…”

Not wanting to make him spell it out, I kissed him as gentle as I could. At first he tensed, and I had to think of Tim, and wondered if I had made a mistake again. But it wasn’t the same tension, there was no real shock in Sim’s body language, more a shivering, excited fear, and when his tongue met mine, it was as careful as a testing of the water. Careful, but curious.

After a while we cleaned up, turned off the lights, and rode back to the cottage. This time I used the bed. And Sim stayed.

Continued here

I walked Sim to the curve in the path, where it left the birch wood and started out onto the open moor, past the bony white scrags, and I kept staring after him when he had ridden his bike down that path far longer than it took the darkness to snuff him.

I knew that even by my own fucked up standard I could leave whenever I wanted. All I had promised was to teach him as long as I staid, after all. I hadn’t said how long that would be. Also, while I had promised to teach him what I knew, I hadn’t specified what part of my knowledge. So why was I so uneasy? Why didn’t I simply up and leave? Why didn’t I stay and just teach him some harmless coin tricks, and some confidence tricks so elaborate or so dated that he wouldn’t ever be able to actually use them?

I clearned and locked up the house and withdrew into the woods again. I didn’t really believe he would rat me out, but I didn’t fancy being caught asleep by some farmerishly early visit of his dad or anyone else of his family.

But that night sleep refused me, even on my soft pillow of moss and wormy wood. So after a while I decided to pay a visit to Port mare. It was a decent hike and I arrived just before dawn. Port Maree is a bit larger than Inverewe, and something of an administrative centre for the peninsula, with houses threaded on a main road that follows the long curved beach.

The combined supermarket and news agent wasn’t officially open yet, but they were getting deliveries and the bloke there sold me a packaged sandwich and a can of ginger beer, and told me to try the hotel for internet access. I made my way along the beach, and watched the Atlantic turn the sand a silvery mirror again and again, only to be blotted up each time. And each time the waters disappeared they took my footprints with them.

Crows and sea gulls raucously greeted the returning fishing boats. At the far end the sand darkened with algae and sea weed and gave way for blackened, fishy smelling boulders. The hotel was one of the Victorian country houses that looked all pretty and perfect from far away, but from close up revealed all the little damages time had wrought, the many patches and spots that had been painted over, added to, and modified to keep up.

Inside the night clerk was setting the tea room for breakfast. She allowed me access to one of the two computers they have for guest use, as long as I left before the shift ended. I checked mail, blogged the last couple of days, and then opened the Yahoo browser messenger to see if there were some night owls from the US or some early birds from Europe online. Indeed, both my BDSM Daddy Matt from Texas and Peter, an elderly queer bloke from the Midlands were on.

I tried to talk to both of them about Sim and the promise I had given him. The paedophile African-American Baptist Sadist and the closeted Anglican Poofter agreed that it was bad enough I was doing this stuff, and that I should get my arse back to Berlin onto a school bench, and that it would be better to break my word than to go through with it.

I told them both they could go screw themselves. Master Daddy Matt told me to beat myself with a birch rod or ruler or so the next time I wank. The night clerk asked me to finish up. I erased the browser history and logged out.

I checked out what I assumed must be Sim’s school, Maelrubha High. It was a Saturday, though, and the school remained dead and empty. I stood at the fence for a while and pressed my face against the iron rails. The sky was low and dark, and in a glowing a cold light the colour of polished tin just above the hills.

When I left Port Maree for the emptiness of the moors, I didn’t take the A832, and didn’t try to hitch a ride. Instead I walked off the end of Lohim Road, a patchy cart rut that soon disintegrated into a mere deer pass through the hills and past the small lakes of the peninsula. It took me close enough to the cabin that I could cut across the heather, grab something to eat and a new book, and went for an uneasy nap in the woods. Later I settled down in my look out post again, practice coin tricks, reading a Darkover novel, and waited for the boy.

When he arrived, we got right at it.

“Whit wull ye lairn us first?”

“Nothing. You’ll show me first, what you already know.”

“A ken naeting aboot stealing an t’ like.”

I tossed him a coin. He was still moving a bit stiffly, but apparently his soreness was better, and he caught it out of the air, without effort of fumble.

“There, very good.” I grinned. “Now put it in your palm and hold it very lightly between the ball of your thumb and the edge of your hand. No, that’s already too hard. You hand doesn’t look natural that way anymore.”

He relaxed his hand.

“Let it drop down to your side. Keep it relaxed.” I watched him. “Great. You’ll keep that coin there all evening, and when you leave, you will continue to do so every moment you can. I mean every, okay, this is hard work. Under the shower. While brushing your teeth. Sitting in school. Doing your homework. Doing your chores. Train yourself to be able to do anything with a coin palmed. Switch palms every now and then. Keep your hand relaxed and try to not clink the coin against anything.”

Then I questioned him about hobbies and chores. As a crofter’s son he obviously knew his way around animals.

“See, that’s useful: Animals can both warn a mark and attack you. On the other hand, make friends with a man’s pet and he will more likely trust you. Every little bit you know about animals, especially dogs, can help you.”

He also knew how to sharpen blades, how to tie various knots, how to climb sheet poles, how to use the saw and the claw-hammer efficiently, and how to repair fences. He had acted in school plays – amongst other roles that of the Artful Dodger in a school performance of “Oliver, The Musical” – and had been playing the fiddle since he was 5.

“Aw tsat uss uissfu?”

“Sure. Take the fiddle. Your fingers and hands and arms are strong and nimble from the practice. It’s given you a good sense of timing and a good ear. Nearly everything can be used by a thief and liar. What you are good at determines how you go about the art. The other thing that determines any grift are the weaknesses of the mark. After all, you don’t want to make it hard on yourself. You want it to go off smoothly.”

His greatest asset, of course, was that he really wanted it. Whatever I told him, or showed him, he sucked it up like it was cream and he a starving kitten.

Like, after a while he began t complain that his hand was cramping up around the coin he was still holding in his palm.

I told him: “That’s why you have to practice.”

And he grinned at that. He grinned and then concentrated on relaxing his hand without letting go of the coin. And when it fell out of his hand, he picked it up and put it right back. And he asked me for techniques to strengthen and relax his hands.

I taught him the basics of change raising, pocket pocking, and cheating at card. He immediately understood the three main challenges: To be aware of where the mark’s attention was; to find ways – or better yet: to use already present opportunities – to distract the mark and steer his attention away from his misdeeds; and finally the quickness and smoothness to pull it off in a minimum of time with a minimum of movement. The last bit, he’d simply have to practice, and practice, and practice, but that was nothing new to a life-long fiddle player, was it?

And he was already brilliant at distraction and misdirection.

Finally he said: “Masel hae tae gae hame and dae ma chores or ma paw will tak a sparey.”

“How do you explain your absence anyway?”

“Naessin tae it. Yesterday A makkit on masel hae tae practeese wi t’band.”

“You play in a band?”

At that he actually blushed a bit. “Aye. T’ Port o’ Daw. Masel sing and fiddle. And t’day A chust said maself wuss meetin in wi ma mates.”

“Can you come back later?”

His smile deepend. “Shuir. Want fer me tae bring sometsing? Mae fags?”

“Actually, I had a field trip in min. Want to learn how to break in somewhere?”

Continued here

Sim’s directions had been surprisingly accurate and helpful. Normally peeps don’t really see the world around them, the less so the more common it is to them. For the most part they are unable to describe it in useful terms to a stranger. But Sim had it down so dead on that I found the place on a lonely moor, in a moonless night, without once getting lost.

I had gotten off the narrow, winding footpath here and there, though, especially where the wooden posts of the overland power line didn’t exactly follow it. Several times I had sunken into muddy pools of moor water, mostly only to the ankle or the knee, but more than once all the way to the hip. When I finally got to the cottage, water was squelching in my boots and crumbs of peat were itching my arse crack.

The cottage was a blocky, square stone building, thatch-roofed, and directly at the shore of a lake, hidden well by a dense birch wood. A short wooden pier lead directly from the house onto the lake.

Everything was dark and quiet when I approached. I got out the keys Sim had given me. At first they didn’t seem to fit, and for a second I thought it had been a cruel joke, but then I was past the catch in the lock and the door opened. Since all the windows were covered by shutters – and there was little enough light outside – the inside was pitch black. I felt for a light switch and found it, but flipping it did nothing. With the help of Mark’s Death Arcana Zippo I eventually found the fuse box and turned on the power.

The cottage had one room, one kitchen, and a small bathroom that obviously had been built in later. At first the faucets wouldn’t run, but some more look revealed an electric pump. Witching it on yielded fresh water, and an electric geyser even made it hot. I quickly stripped and warmed up under a steaming hot shower. The electric kettle, some old Tetley’s bads, and a thermos allowed me to warm up from the inside as well. The only thing I really missed was fags, but I had smoked my last on the walk here.

I never considered not going to the cottage, or not waiting for Sim the next day. I know that most peeps don’t get that, but to me there is a big difference between lying and breaking my word. Call it pride, but lying is a way of gaining control and power. Breaking my word cheapens myself. It’s not that I don’t do it, it’s just that I am loathe to, and usually need a pretty good reason.

But all that didn’t mean that I trusted Sim, of course. His dad had already proven to be a hypocrite and a snitch, and his older brother an idiot for not knowing that. Don’t get me wrong, I really liked the family. But I wasn’t going to put my fate into their hands, was I?

Next to the door I found several pairs of Wellingtons, some raincoats, and an old woollen seaman’s jumper. Of my own wet clothes I only put back on the woollen knee socks Mr. Roth had given me. (Unlike cotton, wool, I had discovered on my journey, keeps you warm even when it is wet.) Then I stepped into the smallest pair of rubber boots, and put on the jumper – it hung down to my knees – and one of the rubberized rain coats. I cleaned up my mess as good as I could, took one of the woollen blankets from one of the bunk beds, and an Orson Scott Card from a stack of Science Fiction and Fantasy books on a shelf, turned off all the lights, faucets, switches, and fuses, and cleared out.

In the birch wood I found a well hidden spot, a bit up a hillside, from where I would see both the cabin and the path leading across the moor without being seen myself. I hung my clothes to dry, snuggled up in the blanket, took a crumbling, moss-covered log for my pillow, and tried to get some rest. Given the circumstances I slept reasonably well.

At first light I put my own cold and still damp clothes back on, and climbed the nearest hill top. I would guess the elevation at maybe 300 meters and I had a pretty good view of the surrounding area. He land was very beautiful, in its bleak and monotonous way: Undulating, mostly shallow hills in shades of dark auburn, burnt umber, and sepia, broken here and there by pale grey and chalky white ridges of bare rock. There were patches of heath and rushes. Most hollows contained small lakes or pools. To the Northwest the country got rougher and rockier, to the West, beyond the lake, there were mountains. The foot of the hill I was on and the shore of the lake were bearded with birches and pines. There might have been a road on the far side of the lake, and maybe a house a good way down the shore, but that might have been a ruin. Other than that there was no sign of human life in sight. I though that this was actually a pretty good spot to lay low for a while.

Walking had warmed me up, and my body heat soon dried my clothes, except for the boots. For the rest of the morning I walked around the area, checked out escape routes, vantage points, and other useful features. I found out that the house I had seen wasn’t a ruin, but boarded up and not in use, like the MacLeod cottage. It had a small pier. On the pier lay, turned over against rain, a small fibreglass rowboat, which I heaved into the water and used to scout out the small island closest to the MacLeod cottage. On the South side of the island I found an old, overgrown orchard, many of the dark, crooked branches weighed down with ripe apples. I collected some, sat down on a comfortable rock, and while I ate my fill, I read the Orson Scott Card. Later I took a dozen more apples along, enough to last me the rest of the day.

I returned the boat and walked back to the cottage for some more hot tea. There was no food in the kitchenette, but sugar, and I poured enough in the thermos to make the tea viscous with it.

Finally I returned to my look out post and in the company of Mr. Card I waited for Sim.

In the late afternoon someone came riding down the path on a bicycle. It was him, dressed in a school uniform, black-and-yellow tie flying behind him like a streaming pennon. Over the waters the tall, helmet-shaped mountain had just been set aflame by the setting sun, and the reflection of those burning rocks gave everything a grim, war-like hue, and his wite button-down shirt, damp with sweat, seemed soaked in blood.

I watched him skid on the gravelled path as he turned into the final curve to the cottage. When I was satisfied that nobody had followed him, I came down the hill behind him. By the time I reached the bike, dumped carelessly on the ground, wheels still coming to a stop, he had disappeared inside. He looked crestfallen, when he came back out, but as soon as he saw me standing in the m idle of the track, his face lit up again.

“Awricht, Dana. Masel tsocht ye didna come efter aw.”

I crossed my arms, didn’t return the smile.

“I gave you my word, didn’t I?”

“Aye, sae ye did, Mr. Blanchard.”

“He could have asked, before calling the bloody police.”

For a moment Sim’s face darkened. It took me a second to realize that it was with shame, not anger.

“Yer richt. Masel hae tae apologise fer ma Paw. Hisel’s a menseless, unwycelike oof what tsinks tey rules o’ courtesy dinna apple tae Sassenachs.”

Sassenach – or Saxon, Gaelic for Englishmen and sometimes all foreigners – was a word I knew already. But more than than I knew the sound that crept into Sim’s voice as he said it, that helpless rage and anguish about someone you couldn’t stop loving, no matter how much you wished to. I had heard it often enough on my own voice.

“Well, thank you for warning me. And for offering shelter.”

“Och, least A coud dae. Finnd ye t’wey awricht?”

“Yeah. Only got wet feet.”

“Bit ye dinna bide inower.”

He gestured towards the house that indeed looked as if I hadn’t set foot inside. It wasn’t a question, the way he posed it. I hesitated just long enough to see the expression of shame and rage deepen on his face. He understood too well.

“I shouldn’t have doubted you. I’m sorry.”

He shrugged.

“Och aye. Let’s gae ben and git ye wairmt oop and fed.”

On the way inside, I noticed he was limping slightly.

“You okay?” I asked, nodding towards his leg. “You hurt?”

“It’s naessin. Chust a wee bit sair.”

Sim opened the shutters of the two windows that were not visible from the lake or the path, turned on the heating, and put on the electric kettle. He told me to take off my wet boots and socks and put them on the radiator.

While he did that I asked: “So, what happened after I was gone?”

“Naessin much. Masel telt Conall. When oor paw finnd ye gaen, he suddent hae minds ye wis oan yer wey tae Ullapul, Conall haed. Bit oniwey, t’ polis un An Gjerstan wisna seekin fer ye. Aisser yer fowks ne’er cawd ‘em, or tay dinna ken ye’r in t’ Gailtacht.”

“Gailtacht?”

“T’ Hieland. Here awa.”

He smiled and spread his arms to embrace the land in its entirety.

Well, that figured. There was no reason for anyone to be looking for me up here, after all. The last I had been spotted was leaving a bus not even quite out of Wotton, Gloucestershire. I couldn’t decide whether to be relieved or disappointed.

Suddenly Sim grinned and got something from his backpack.

“Bit chust tae be shuir, masel brocht ye tus!” He handed me a pair of scissors and a pack of dye. “And tus.” And he produced a plastic bag stuffed with old clothes.

I weighed the pack in may hand and gave him a grim smile. Half an hour later I had somewhat scrubby, short, dirty blond hair, and was dressed in threadbare jeans, a white T, and a zippered, olive jumper with elbow patches. Looking in the mirror I had to admit that no verbal description would connect me with the boy who had sat down for supper at the MacLeod dinner table. Sim even made me exchange the motorcycle jacket I had stolen from Ruth for a sheepskin-lined denim jacket that had once belonged to Aidan, another of Sim’s brothers, who no longer lived at their rents’s place. I only refused to give up my Oxblood Doc Martens.

“Sae guid as new,” Sim confirmed. “Hark, masel hae tae gae hame fer tea, bit if ye want, A kin come back efter.”

“That would be great. You sure you won’t get into trouble?”

“Me? Nae!” He grinned again, his marvellous chipped grin. “Ye kin caw msel Sim Blanchard, mo caritsh. Onie usse tsin ye want fer me tae bring on ye?”

So I asked him for fags, and off he went, still limping. Again I went outside and spent the time in between up on the hill. This time when I saw him return, alone and un-followed, I went back inside in time, turned on the radio, and waited for him there.

He had brought me two packs of Marlboro.

“Bit no inower or ma paw will ken.”

We went outside onto the short pier. I tore open the pack, got one out, broke off the filter, sparked up and sucked in a lung full of smoke. I offered the pack to Sim and after a moments hesitation he took one. He did his best to hide that he was unused to it, and I pretended not to notice. We sat down next to each other.

“Everything alright at your rents’s?” I asked

“Shuir. Nae problems at’a.”

And then he asked, timidly: “What’s yer tale, tenn, mo caritsh?”

“Ran away, travelled around, got no real goal.”

He peered at me in the deepening gloom, blinking when smoke got into his eyes. He waited for me to continue, but I brazened it out.

“C’mon,” he finally said softly. “Tsat’s no fair.”

I sighed, and then to my own surprise I found myself nodding, and beginning to talk. And to my much bigger surprise I found myself not even making up stuff.

I didn’t tell him much of the hard facts, like my name or where I was from. I moved my aunt from Gloucestershire to Wales, and altered all other names and dates and locations somewhat. But as the night progressed and he kept asking questions, I told him more and more of the truth, the whys and hows, of the joys and the pains and fears, as good as I understood them myself. I told him a lot about Edinburgh – which I made out to have been Glasgow, although he knew too much of both cities to be fooled, it turned out – and he sucked up everything about the cons, about “James” (i.e. Charley), and about “Kit” (Ponyboy), and about my trip through the Highlands. I even mentioned Cannich.

Finally we fell silent.

“Gie’s anusser,” he said. I did and lit it for him.

He rolled onto his tummy and blew the smoke over the quiet water.

“A ken what happened tae ye in Corie an t’ Shee, in t’ Mullardochs.”

“What happened to me there?”

“Ye wis taken by t’ Deena Shee tae Elfin.” He turned his head and looked over his shoulder at me in the darkness. “Tae Fairyland. Tay bide unner t’ hills, t’ Shee. Bit when yer lacer bruik, tey bud let ye gae.” And at my amused expression: “A’m bluidy serious, Dana. Tay ar real, sae tay ar.”

He looked back down onto the water and into his own dark reflection. Then he extinguished the fag in the lake and but the butt to the others to dispose of in the bin later. He rolled onto his side, propped up his head on his hand, elbow on the planks of the pier. He paused, began to say something, hesitated, and began again.

“Will ye lairn us?”

“Learn…?”

“Lairn. Teach.”

“Teach… what?”

“What ye ken. Lairn us tsievin. Connin. An aw tsat.”

“You want me to give you a course in Larceny 101?”

Sim laughed, a quiet, mirthful laugh, if a bit shakey.

“Aye.” And pleadingly: “Ma shay duh hull ay.”

Cehenneme git!” My words were out before I could think about them. “I will not. Are you nuts?”

Sim sat up, awkwardly. He got to his feet stiffly and walked back into the cottage. I put out my own fag and followed him. Sim turned on the light.

“Why the fuck would you want to learn any of that, Sim?” I asked. He blinked at me in the bright light of the lamp over the table.

“Hou no? Ye’re daeing it, aren’ ye?”

“Weren’t you listening? I went to jail.”

“An tsat dinna stap ye, A notice.”

“Look, I appreciate your help, I really do. And if there is anything I can do for you, I will. But that is crazy. You live in a village with, what, maybe one hundred inhabitants? That’s about as many as in the single kahrolası tower block I was raised in. How long do you think I would have lasted had I only plied my trade in my own kahrolası house? Or your school – how many pupils are in that school?”

“A hunnert and aichty-nine.” Face and voice sullen.

“My school has 2000 kahrolası pupils. My kahrolası primary school had 600. And I never would have been so stupid to try to steal in either. I know it sucks to hear that, but your world is too kahrolası small to be a crook in, man.”

“A daena ken tsat wird. Kuh-ro-lasse?”

“It’s Turkish. Means damned.”

“Wha sais masel wull bide here foriver?”

Siktir git! That’s not a party game, Sim. That’s not a kahrolası adventure novel. If you don’t practice that, and practice every day, it’s no good to you at all.”

“Sae?”

“So, you can’t practice here. And you’re bloody fourteen. By the time you’re eighteen you’ll have forgotten all of it. Look, Sim. Some stuff you can learn by doing. Playing football or riding your bike. Some stuff, that’s a really bad idea, like flying a plane, or free climbing, or picking kahrolası pockets. You’ll only get in kahrolası deep trouble. I don’t need to waste my time for that.”

A phit! Ye’re nae twa years aulder tan masel if yer a day, and if ye gat yersel t’ jyle hinder year, ye haed tae hae stairted yer tsievin t’ same age as masel uss noo.” He glared at me. His face was pale, and his thick dark curls hung down his forehead. He shook them out of his eyes with an angry flick of his head. “Mebbe masel wull practeese on a kuhrolasse suit wi bells, like tsay daed auld lang syne. Oniwey, whit’s it tae ye? Aren’ye chust efter telling me aw aboot hou ut’s yer ain richt tae fuck oop yer ain life houaniver ye chuise? Ar ye really gaen tae tell us noo masel nae hae tsat richt? Feech, if tsat’s sae ye kin fuck yersel, Sassenach!”

We stared at each other across the table. Sim had his fists balled tightly, and his shoulders were shaking.

“Why did ye tell Ceana to get me out of the house yesterday?”

“Whitwey?”

“Ceana told me you put her up to it. To ask if I would accompany her to feed the horses. Why?”

He swallowed and stared at the floor. Then he sighed.

“Masel haed tae talk tae Conall aboot ye. And mak siccar ma paw and ma maw wadna pit quaistans on ye. And… and masel etteled at getting ye pit oop in ma chaumer.”

“You… what… ettled? Chaumer?”

He sighed again. “A tried tae get ye pit oop in ma bed-room.”

I thought about that.

“How? Never mind why. How did you do that?”

“Bi makkin on tae ma maw masel didna want ye tar. Tsat’s aw it teuk.”

“You took extra long to clean up your homework before supper, too, didn’t you? To keep the chair next to you free, so that I would have to sit there.”

The anger still nested in Sim’s eyes, but he couldn’t quite suppress a grin. He shrugged.

“You are one devious bastard, you know that?” I asked.

“Telt ye, ye kin caw masel Blanchard an aw.”

“Aye, so you did.”

Across the table I offered my hand to him, even though in my heart of hearts I knew it was a mistake. But then, I never could say no to him.

“Okay, Sim MacLeod. For as long as I stay, I will teach you what I know.”

“Ye hecht?” His eyes were hard. “Ye’ll haud tryst?”

I didn’t know those words, but the meaning was clear enough.

“I promise. And I keep my word.”

And so I did, damn me. And so I did.

Continued here

I spent a couple of days on the Isle of Skye, walking around mostly along the shore, swimming in the sea, and reading my way through a bunch of cheap crime and romance novels I picked up at the hostels. In the hostel in Uig in the north of the island I met Ruth, a thief from London who had specialised on backpackers. We spent a night of getting drunk on whiskey and swapping tales and tips about grafting and life on the street. I tried to get her to join me in some confidence game, but she wouldn’t. She had been screwed royally by another con artist a while back and had been caught. It had cost her 10 months and 2 prison rapes. She would never again trust anyone to play anything more complex than straight theft. She tried to get me to team up with her for that. I’d had enough of that in Leeds.

Thursday afternoon I got a ride out of Broadford Bay. Sparring was opened right away with the confession of the Honda Civic Si diver who had picked me up that he normally didn’t take on hitchhikers because of “how today’s youth is”. I probably succeeded in confirming most of his prejudices – more than he knew when he finally kicked me out at that unmotivated roundabout outside Achnasheen, since I had lifted his wallet and a high end mp3 player from the coat he had flung on the back seat.

I was still giving him a two fingered salute and shouting some choice expletives in Polish and Turkish after his diminishing hatchback when a muddy, dented, bottle-green Defender One-Ten Pickup stopped next to me. Two sheep were bleating under the aluminium hard-top covering the bed. The window was cranked down and a large, slender brown dog looked out. Past him, from the driver’s seat, a young man with a freshly stitched up face peered at me.

Faesger ma. Masel ween ye want fer anusser ride.”

He wore dirty curderoys, tall, olive Wellingtons, and a colourless, coarse woollen jumper. His hair was cropped to a fuzz. The stitches on his left temple and cheek gave him a rakish appearance, but underneath he seemed friendly, and open, and ready to laugh.

He reached past the dog and opened the passenger door. I climbed in.

“Thank you.”

Isheh do veha,” he answered and put the car in gear. “Masel uss on t’wey tae Inverewe, by Port Maree. Bit if yer gaun aist A coud tak ye tae Garve or Ullapul.”

None of these place names meant much to me, though I had heard of Ullapool. So I said: “Ullapool would be perfect, if it’s not too much trouble.”

He let the clutch come too fast, and stuttering and coughing the Defender crawled out of the roundabout, and only picked up speed as we passed through Achnasheen, past the train station and a burned down hotel. The dog sniffed at me and gave a short bark. His tail thumped against the vinyl upholstery.

“Awricht. Masel uss Conall. T’ dug uss Jovantucarus.”

“Daniel,” I answered.

“Nice tae meet ye, Danny. Whaur ye frae?”

That one was always tricky. If you are too far from home, it raises all sorts of questions. But passing yourself off as local obviously doesn’t work either. Back in England I had sometimes gone with relatives living somewhere beyond where my ride would take me, sometimes embellished with a sick single mum and the need to stay with said relatives for a while, but in the Highlands I had made the experience that peeps were apt to go out of their way and hand me over to my imaginary family. So I went with this tale instead:

“I’m from Canada, but my dad’s grandmother came from Scotland. My parents are visiting some distant relative today, but I didn’t want to, so they let me explore a bit on my own.”

Conall was astonished at how far I had gotten, on my own (I kept underestimating travel distance in the Highlands, it may not be much as the Crow flies, but given the state of the often single track roads, it was a lot in travel-time), but I think I would have pulled it off, had not a police car come our way shortly after, lights flashing. Normally, the best way to react to the rozzers is by keeping your face under control and just going about your business as if nothing’s amiss. But the A832 between Achnasheen and Garve had been bloody deserted and I still had the wallet and the mp3 player of that Civic driver burning a hole into my pocket. So I slunk down and pressed myself into the corner between seat and passenger door. Conall watched me and raised an eyebrow, but kept on driving.

“Sumtsun masel shoud ken?”

I tried to turn my slinking manoeuvre into a yawn and stretch, fully aware that it wouldn’t be convincing, not after my worried glance into the wing mirror. But the police car had disappeared behind us, and it set up my next yarn nicely.

“C’mon, Danny. Masel uss no blind. Why’re ye hidin frae t’ polis?”

I summoned up the memories of Cannich and all the shame and resentment I could and put on a sullen face. And I told him about an abusive dad, and a stupid cow of a mother who never fought back – and how last night he had gone off on one of his rages again, back in the holiday cottage on Skye they had rented. How normally I would weather these storms at a friend’s place, but how there wasn’t anyone here. So I’d taken some money and planned to make the best of it, stay in some hostel, and wait out the three days it usually took him to calm down again.

I mostly stared out the window or at the scuffed tips of my boots as I talked, my head ducked to match the role of the battered child, but I threw Conall a furtive glance, and to my astonishment saw he had swallowed it hook, line, and sinker. There was no doubt on his face, just compassion and concern.

“You will not hand me over to the cops, will you? If they drag me back now, only one day into his fit, he’ll smile and be polite and my mom will back him up in everything. They’ll make it all out to be my imagination and stuff. But he’ll kill me once they’re gone. Seriously, you must promise not to tell!”

Conall promised, solemnly. And then he invited me to stay at his family’s place for the night. I tried to wriggle out of that, but I’d dug myself in too deep, and short of jumping out of the car and running away, there wasn’t a no he’d accept for an answer.

So at Braemore Junction, he took the turn for Wester Ross, and in silence and a golden sunset we drove through some of the most breath-taking land I have ever seen. On the right the sea, quiet and slate grey, and reaching for the horizon. And on the left the earth dark with moor and heath, and the rushes pale golden and shivering in the wind. And behind that, dusted in snow, the mountains, rising, and rising, like time made substance.

Continued here

When I opened my eyes it was well after sunrise. Two people were coming up Glen Tilt. They were still away enough for me to take a leisurely leak against the rocks, straighten my clothes, shake the ants from my hair, have a drink down at the stream, and light a fag.

My first impulse had been to scramble uphill and go into hiding somewhere, but I figured, they’d see me running away, and I didn’t like that idea. So I sat down on a rock by the side of the water and waited.

It was a bloke in neat blue jeans, and a neat, zippered sweater in dark marine, and a baseball cap in the same colour, and a lady in a grey tracksuit trousers, a sweater in a startling cool magenta, and a white baseball cap with a black bill. Both seemed to be in their 30s or so.

“Hi there, young man,” the bloke said, when he reached me, and wiped the sweat off his face. He had that athletic chubbiness that seem to be specific American. His eyes were brown and friendly, in a rather patronizing way. Hers were a water blue and shifty, as she sat down her backpack and sat down heavily next to it.

There was a funny thing going on between the two of them. One thing Uncle Valya had taught me is to never trust people’s words but – if anything – their bodies and their eyes. And looking at the two of them, beyond their surface behaviour, this was what I saw: His attempt at friendliness towards me, his smiles and words, was an act – meant to put her at ease. That she, while outwardly calm, was in the grip of panic, like a deer staring at you frozen in fear and ready to bolt. But she wasn’t afraid of me, nor of him. I think it was the mountains. I think it was their age, their silence and loneliness.

“Hull,” I answered, put the fag between my lips, and offered him my hand. A little bit astonished he shook.

“Hey,” he asked. “You wouldn’t be on your way to Inverey?”

“Inverness?”

“No, no,” he laughed, strained, and put more of himself between me and his lady as if to shield her from whatever I might have to say. “Inverey. A little, er, a little village, that’s… look…”

He pulled out an ordinance map from his pocket.

“Here,” he pointed to a small hamlet at the end of a tiny road in the middle of the mountains. “And, we’re rught about, er, here… right?”

His stubby finger poked vaguely at an area covering several streams and trais somewhere Southwest of Inverey. I took the map and looked for Blair Atholl an Glen Tilt.

“I’m not certain, Mister, but we should be somewhere in this valley, here. Probably near the end.”

Together we determined our most likely position. It was almost funny how they both began to visibly relax, like little kids that had just made it out of a haunted house, or peeps who just barely avoided a dangerous accident. I doubt it had much to do with the meagre and uncertain information I could provide. I think it was mostly the fact that the mountains had yielded another soul, a human face to speak to without feeling crazy. I wondered if they would have felt the same in some stretch of wilderness in whatever US State they came from, or it was in part due to their sense of being so far from home.

While he and I were brooding over the map, she put down her backpack and began to produce a surprising amount of food: Sandwiches, cut into little squares and neatly wrapped in cling film and stowed in little Tupperware containers, apples and carrots, peeled and sliced to finger size, and small PET bottles of Isotonic drinks.

“Can I offer you something too?” she asked. I studied her face, the one behind her mask. She really wanted me to share their food, to stay with them.

“We also got some Mars bars, somewhere,” she added, almost pleadingly, and began to dig for them.

“That’s my wife, Helen,” the man said. “I’m John. John Campbell.”

We’d already shaken hands, but he’d been too tense then for introductions, so there was a brief, awkward moment now.

“David,” I offered in return, clearly pronouncing it dah-vid, not day-vid. “David Silberknopf.” Sil-bur-kuh’nobf. And to Helen I said: “Wouldn’t say no to a sandwich and a drink, ma’am. Ta.”

She handed me both with a thankful smile.

I asked John: “Could I have a look at your map again?”

It was the first time I’d looked at a detailed map of the area, and I decided that I wanted to head north, through Glen Dee, towards Aviemore.

Helen looked around. “Are you alone, David?” (Of course she had to pronounce it day-vid.)

“Yup,” I said.

“Where is your family?” she asked.

Defiantly I looked her straight in the face. Then I pointed roughly East-Southeast. “Thataway, ma’am.”

She didn’t get it and actually craned he neck to look at the steep, bare hillside. I sighed.

“About one thousand kilometres thataway.”

“Kilometers?” she asked and frowned. Then she said: “Oh,” and after a moment, again: “Oh.”

I busied myself with the map, but I could feel her eyes ravelling all over me, over my oversized M65 jacket with the sleeves rolled up, and my face still bruised and scabbed with the traces of Ponyboy’s caresses.

“How old are you, David, if I may ask?” Day-vid again. This time from John.

“Sixteen,” I lied without looking up.

More silence while we ate and I studied the map.

“Are you a runaway?” Helen sounded timid, but she couldn’t let it go.

I looked up again and debated making up some story. But somehow the strange balance of power between them and me made me feel unnecessarily mean if I did so. So I answered as straight as I could: “I suppose that you could say that.”

John had watched me as well. I handed him back his map.

“Where are you headed?” he asked, as he took the map and looked down on it. I showed him, none too precisely.

“We’ll have the same route up until here,” he observed.

“Yup,” I said again.

“Do you mind if we walk with you?” I smiled, though I didn’t much care for the looks passing between him and his wife.

As we walked Helen wanted to know if I’d been abused. If I had been beaten. And she gestured towards my face. When I refused to answer that, she dragged her husband into this. They both began to offer me “solutions”, from finding some church organisation that would put me in a new home with good, Christian folks, to going to the American Embassy and asking for asylum (like, huh?). It was only when she tried to drag God into things, too, that I got seriously annoyed.

“I’ll square with God myself, and I’d appreciate it you stayed out of that, thank you very much, ma’am,” I said through gritted teeth.

“So you believe in the Lord God, and in our saviour Jesus Christ?” she asked, half apprehensive, half relieved.

I thought about quoting Riddick at here – I absolutely believe in God, and I absolutely hate the fucker – but then thought, that would only lead to more hassle. I certainly wasn’t going to tell her the fully story, was I? So I just nodded curtly and walked on.

After t hat we walked in silence for a while. Not much later, John, still trying to ease things for Helen, proposed a rest. They offered me more of their food, but I declined, probably somewhat haughtily, in favour of an apple of my own. We’d left the river Tilt and had not yet reached the Dee, so I had to do without drink.

Helen drew John away from me under the pretence of wanting to show him some part of the scenery, and when they returned, he said: “David, we have decided that we will accept your decision to run way” – as if it was theirs to accept – “and we’ll not speak of it any more. I apologize if we came on strong.”

And Helen chimed in: “If you are willing to put your fate in God’s hands, we shall have faith too.”

I smiled wearily, but  wasn’t especially sorry that I had made use of the time they’d been away to go through their backpacks and take 60 quid from thm. Since they’d been taking pictures during the break, I also decided to relieve them of their camera before our ways separated, to make certain they didn’t keep any record of our meeting.

True to their word they didn’t mention the topic for the rest of our time together. I the early afternoon we reached the White Bridge across the River Dee. They would go East from there towards Inverey, and I’d turn Northwest, along Glen Dee, deeper into the Cairngorms.

Helen insisted I take several of their sandwiches, and a bottle of isotonic drink.

“We will pray for you,” she assured me, as I reached with my right hand past John to shake hers, and lifted the camera from the pouch on his belt with my left.

“That you for the food and the company, ma’am,” I said, slipping the camera into my back pocket. “Have a good journey. God bless.”

Continue here

In the two weeks that followed, we played a lot of games – though for some reason we never played that Badger game he proposed. Once he learned of my chromosomal preference though, we developed a vicious house remix of the Spanish Prisoner. The Spanish Prisoner (and its modern famous variant, the Nigerian Mail Scam) is the basic free lunch that turns out to be anything but. In its classic form the mark is approached with a tale of woe and injustice. Somewhere some authorities are keeping the roper from access to his rightful wealth. Penniless as he is right now, he desperately needs some funds to pay the bribes necessary to get his treasure to safety – an investment he would pay the mark back a hundredfold, once successful, of course.
Everyone who hears of this game thinks he could never be lured, but the beauty of it is that in truth everyone can be lured – given the right lure. For some that lure may not be money.
The version we developed and that we called The Teen Ticket went roughly like this: The mark encounters me and Charley in some seedy queer watering hole, with me practically begging Charley to help me in return for (only shyly and obviously very reluctantly hinted at) sexual favours. Charley, although obviously lusting, remains cold-hearted and distant, pointing out that he couldn’t possibly take advantage of me, given my age, because of the legal risks too him – and implying that he couldn’t give tuppence for my fate otherwise. Eventually he shakes me off, and leaves me in some dark corner, quietly struggling with tears and ready to be approached by the mark.
My legend would always be some variation on this tune: Coming from some backwater European village with ultra-conservative sexual mores I had followed the internet invitation and promises of true love by some lecherous old poofter. Upon arrival here I found that he had been in contact with several young chaps, and that a rival had arrived at the same time. The best story to hook the mark turned out to be some lurid tale of how the old man had made my rival and me enter a perverted bidding war of what we would be willing to do in return for bed, board, and affection. As long as I blushed a lot, stumbled over my words, played up my continental accent – giving it a slightly eastern twist – and obviously almost choked on trying to repeat the offers I had been forced to make and those that had trumped mine, it almost invariably assured the success of the game. I’m not quite certain why, but I think it was the combination of fanning the mark’s hidden desires, and at the same time providing a way to  avoid the associated guilt by offering him the role of the good Samaritan.
Anyway, the conclusion of the tale would always be how the old man had kicked me out but not without buying me a ticket back to the continent. After all, once he had found the perfect loverboy, he wanted to get rid of the worthless runner up. But I had burned my bridges and had no place to go, and no money to stay. Being not even 16 I couldn’t easily return the ticket for cash – and that was what I needed help with.
I wouldn’t directly offer sex, and I wouldn’t ask for anything, not for money, nor for a place to stay. All I would ask for is for the help of a grown up to get a refund for the ticket (a ticket rightfully mine). But implied was of course, that once I had that, I would still be in need of a bed to sleep in and perhaps a companion to warm it.
The cruel genius of the game was that none of this mattered. The entire routine, the sob story, the process of going to the train station and getting a ticket refunded (a very time consuming process in Edinburgh at the height of the Festival), it all had only one point: To keep the mark occupied. Because as he kept me company in all this, I would relieve him of his flat- or hotel-keys and pass them on to Charley. Charley would then in all leisure loot the place, return the keys to me, and eventually I would ditch the mark under some pretence.
I wish I could tell you that the marks we suckered deserved it, that they were evil paedophiles who only helped to get into my breeches – though I do think most of them were paedophiles (or hebephiles, if you want to get technical) and did want to get into my breeches. But I am not certain many of them would have had I truly given them a chance. And, I suppose, with several of them I really wouldn’t have minded.
But the reality was that none of them deserved it. It was a rotten game, through and through, a cruel, calculating mindfuck, designed to play at once on the best and the worst that exists in every human, and to exploit it shamelessly.
And I loved it every single time. I loved the guarded, tentative way they approached me. I loved elaborating my story, fine tuning the details to the body language of the marks so to evoke the maximum mix of lust, horror, and compassion. I loved their attention. I loved that through all this I remained untouchable: I was a “child” and they were queer men. And they knew it. As far as I know none of them went to the rozzers.
I loved how I could make them dance on my strings, how I could make them hungry to give, only to then take behind their backs, how – using the subtle alchemy of the con – I turned their yearning and generosity into my profit, and their shame and fear into my armour.
I loved offering them the chance of something too good to be true (with the promise of a clear conscience to boot) only to snatch it away just when they reached for it, and leaving them blue-balled and bleeding.
And a few, precious times I got to see that crazy, anguished flicker of hope for something long given up on in their eyes. And I knew that was the real reward I was playing for.

Continued here

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.

Continued here

All would have been well if it hadn’t been for the problem of the observer. You see, whenever we did that lift and passing off routine, we would walk away from the mark in opposite directions. If I had been made making the lift, it was my job to draw any rozzer or other witness away from the goods in Julie’s possession. But even when I really lost sight of Julie it was never more than ten minutes before she was suddenly walking by my side again, ready for the next lift.
I kept looking for the watchman that I was told had me under observation at all times, but aside from the occasional glimpse of Tyler or Roger in the distance, I never spotted anyone. Even when I went inside one of the arcades and department stores, even when I went to the loo of some fast food restaurant, nobody hurried after me, and still, a few minutes later Julie came towards me, as if she’d known exactly where I was.
Part of the reason I wanted to know how they were keeping tabs on me was of course that I thought about escaping but was too scared to try. Colour me yellow and call me a sissy, but I was pretty certain that if I tried to run and was caught by, say, Melanie or Lonnie, my chances of leaving Leeds alive would have been bloody slim indeed. I didn’t intend to do anything rash. But I wanted to know how they always knew.
It was more than that, though. I consider myself pretty sharp and keen eyed. I mean, anasını satayım, Uncle Valya and I had trained how to make and shake a tail and how to find a spot where you couldn’t be observed. And it bugged me badly that I couldn’t figure this out.
Then, Friday afternoon, Julie and I were at the Burger King at the back of the railway station. I was queuing for those mini pancakes they serve and going through my pockets for change when I noticed that some coins had slipped through tear from the pocket into the lining of my jacket. You know the bother when coins or pens or something slips through such a tear into the lining? Well, I dug around in there, rather absentmindedly, when I noticed something stuck in the seam that was about the size of a thumb-drive.
I wormed it out and looked at the thing – and that was when the penny dropped. The cunts had bugged me. It was a bloody tracker, too small for a real time GPS tracker I’d say in retrospect, but obviously with enough range for downtown Leeds. Julie, or someone, must have had an app on their smart-phone telling them exactly where I was at any given moment. They probably had slipped it in while I was taking that shower on Wednesday, before we went to town to work the first time.
Of course, that was when I could have walked. The next moment the smug bastards let me out of sight I could have slipped the tracker into someone else’s pocket, someone boarding a train or getting into a car, and quietly left town while they were chasing the decoy. Hell, I probably could have slipped out some back way right then.
Why didn’t I? Why, oh why, didn’t I take the blue pill, huh?
The tracker bothered me a lot. It wasn’t that I was being guarded, I mean, they had told me as much. I didn’t mind Nate waiting outside the shower with the taser, I didn’t even so much mind the 14 hours of sensory deprivation, even though I didn’t exactly relish that either. Too many memories, too many ghosts. I don’t think I would have minded if they had snapped one of these ankle monitors onto my leg. But the sneaky, covert way they’d gone about it bothered me a lot.
I thought about scarpering. But it felt as if running would be like leaving a sentence hanging before you made your point. Maybe I am flattering myself. Maybe I just didn’t want to stop being their dog. It was just that after I could run, staying implied consent. And I couldn’t give that either.
As I said, that was Friday, my third day with the Harehills Crew – not counting that first evening when I ran into them. That day it wasn’t Tyler or Roger or one of the others who took us back to Julie’s grandma, it was the boss man himself. Bryan was in a grim mood, you could see that at once. He picked us up in front of the rail station and one we got to the house he came in with us. He knew Julie’s grandmother and went upstairs to say hello.
“What’s with him?” I asked Julie while we waited in the kitchen.
“Problems.”
I didn’t say anything, but I suppose my face said it for me.
“When Bryan took over last year, there was some bad blood. Some of us feared he was just going to annex us to the Beeston Crew.”
“I see. At least I would if I lived in a universe where that sentence made any kind of sense…”
She rolled her eyes, not really pissed off.
“The Beeston leader, Asiv…”
“The bloke you wanted to send a message using my dead body?” I interrupted and she nodded, not breaking her stride.
“… he and Bryan used to be mates, been to prison together and stuff. But then Asiv…” She made a vague gesture. “He made some choices for his crew that Bryan couldn’t go along with. Difference of philosophy.”
“Philosophy…” I echoed dryly.
“Fuck you, man.”
I held up both hands. “Difference of philosophy, fine. Still, Bryan is a Beeston man, has a falling out with his old boss. How’s he get to lead the Hillhares?”
She gave me a hard look, checking if I was taking the piss, and then continued.
“Bryan was as good as dead if he defied Asiv on… that. He needed protection. We knew he had contacts, intel, not just on the other crews, but also business. He knows people, from prison. Big fish. Still, some felt that was just enough to buy him protection, membership at best. Not the right to lead us. But Bryan has his pride. So he fought Dimitri.” And at my raised eyebrow: “Dimitiri was boss before Bryan.”
“Where is Dimitri now?” I asked, afraid of the answer.
“Prison. Has nothing to do with Bryan. Bryan and Dimitri got along pretty good afterwards, Dimitri was his second, like. If Dimitri was still around, they wouldn’t be weaving their little intrigues.”
“Melanie and Lonnie?” I asked. Julie nodded. Suddenly I understood something.
“So, the thing about killing me… that was…?”
“Yeah. Mel has been trying to get Bryan to hang himself for months now. But Bryan is too smart for her, and he got some, uh, loyalty in the crew.”
She fell silent, and her eyes travelled towards the door we were expecting him to walk through any time now – and beyond into memory. I remembered the flicker of eyes, the brief contact, back when they were deciding about my life.
“They… do not know about you… and him?” I asked carefully.
Her smile was paper thin and soaked in pain.
“And you have been…” I continued, tasting the words for their truth, following my intuition the way a snake follows its own flickering tongue. “…since long before he and Asiv… back when he was still…”
Julie cracked another beer. “Some of us are so sharp they might just cut themselves.”
I looked at her, sitting there in her camouflage clothes, her unlaced rude girl boots. She held her fag the way I did, between the thumb and the middle finger, index finger resting on the butt for control, glowing point cupped in the palm. I raised my bottle and clinked it against hers.
“To loyalty.”
She looked up, her grin so at odds with the darkness in her eyes as to be almost a grimace, and clinked hers back against mine. And she muttered:
“Sure, mate. To loyalty.”
Continued here