Thursday, January 15, 2009

The gift of the gab (short story)

I suppose you're wondering how an innocent, or fairly innocent, PR guy from England ended up in the cellar of an Italian deli in Toronto waiting for the Mafia bosses upstairs to decide how they were going to 'take care of me', or take care of me. To tell the truth, so am I. The start of the slippery slope was a year ago, in the form of a coincidence or accident. Back then, I was still working for a big public relations agency - although these days they prefer to brand themselves as 'relationship managers' or 'image consultants'. Whatever. Anyway, I won't bother telling you their name: you won't have heard of them. Only in England, I used to say bitterly, would you get a PR company that prized modesty and self-deprecation. They managed to stay below everybody's radar, including that of their clients, and money was always tight.

The firm had a fixed rule about travel expenses: if the client is paying, go first class, if the company's paying, go coach. As a result, I had become wearily resigned to arriving at obscure little airfields, miles from the labeled destination, at the whim of inventive bargain airlines. I had argued in vain before that the cost in time and energy of dealing with the transit links outweighed any saving in the fare, and repeated this opinion at length while preparing for a trip to Stockholm for a client presentation. My tantrum extracted a vague promise from the office manager that they would have a go at organising a car to pick me up from the airport while I was in the air.

So when I arrived in the cold, dark, windswept, hangar and trudged through customs, I was pleased to see a smartly-dressed chauffeur at the barrier holding a sign for "Mr Wite". I was used to answering to multiple personalities thanks to the vagaries of phonetics and accents, so I greeted him, gave him my bag, and gratefully entered the cosy interior of the hotel's courtesy car. After a painless and worry-free half hour, we reached the hotel. The driver gave me my case on the steps and was hailed by a departing guest; within seconds he was off again, leaving me to walk to reception. The hotel seemed well above our usual budget, but I wasn't complaining. It was only when I came to register that things came unstuck: the booking wasn't for me, Dick Wright, but for a Gary White, who was presumably still standing at the airport. The staff apologized for the mistake, and directed me to a nearby hotel which had vacancies. I was happy: I had been spared a lot of hassle and some expense.

It was only later that I realized that this was a trick that could be used deliberately: whenever I didn't fancy using public transport, I could pick out a driver with a name sign (proving that they didn't know the person they were meeting) and be whisked away. I tried this a few times, with varying success: sometimes I found myself ensconced in a pre-paid luxury room, sometimes there was a long and loud exchange of views on the steps of a run-down hotel. But it wasn't dull, and it was free, and I could usually employ my eloquence to escape any consequences.

The cost became a significant factor for me when I started to work on my own, my employers having tired of my freely-imparted wisdom. Unfortunately, clients proved hard to find. When I heard that Deano Rosso, the film star, was in need of representation, I had little choice but to max out my credit card on a plane ticket to Toronto in the hope of signing him up. Deano liked to call himself the Italian Rapscallion, but he was more generally known in the industry at The Meathead. He was a jerk, more famous for his bizarre and outrageous off-screen behaviour than for his talent. But I wasn't a critic: somebody with a lot of negative press attention was somebody who needed a publicity handler. His previous spokesman, who had tipped me off, was entering witness protection, having testified to a grand jury about some of Deano's earlier exploits.

So I arrived at Toronto needing a cheap way to the city centre. My spirits also needed lifting after seven hours sitting between a loquacious woman from Yorkshire impervious to her audience's indifference and a teenager whose earphones leaked tinny rock music for the entire flight. I was on the look-out for a suitable ride; there wasn't a lot of choice, so I had to answer to a different surname: I selected the name 'Giorgio', held up by a thin man in his twenties wearing sunglasses, a dark tie and sharp suit. When I went up to him, he simply nodded and led me silently to an old-fashioned limo with tinted windows. The interior smelt of leather; I sank back into the seat and enjoyed the ride. After the freeway and main route, we dived off into a tangle of smaller streets and smoothly drew up outside an old-fashioned building festooned with Italian flags. It wasn't a hotel: it was a deli. That's odd, I thought, while mentally I started to prepare an exit line so I could walk off. Before I had a chance, the driver had opened the door and hustled me across the pavement, through the deserted shop, to a staircase behind the counter. Here two more men were standing, also dressed in suits and sunglasses. The straps of shoulder holsters were visible beneath their jackets. I started to speak but was silenced by their immediate response: raising a finger to their lips. One pointed up the stairs, so I started to climb. There was a wood-panelled door; I knocked and entered.

The room was set out for a formal function: a table ran the length of it; on the far side were sat a row of men, dressed in suits. In the centre was a white-haired man, his thick fingered hands resting on the white tablecloth in a gesture of welcome. An empty chair was in the centre of the room, facing him; I sat in it as instructed. A little light entered the room through the vertical blinds on the street frontage; there were no other windows.

'You're probably wondering why you're here,' he started, 'after all- Vince Bellow's been in charge of this town since whenever. For a hundred years we have looked after ourselves. We have strong family traditions, and loyalties, and of course we have our commercial operations, our funders, and our colleagues in uniform. We're proud of our record. But we must be realistic - we cannot live on our past glories. And we have a problem.'

The men seated at his sides, who had been nodding smugly, leaned forward with interest.

'Over the last few years, the police and the FBI have been chipping away at us, and since Peter Safowicz became DA, we can’t move. They seem to know every member, follow every automobile, they track emails, tap phones, and check bank accounts. And they're beginning to get somewhere - it's not just the foot soldiers any more. They're moving up the hierarchy. Some of the fall guys are making deals; the city has lost its respect for us. They ain't scared of us no more. Our old friends in the police force can't help. They can tell us what's going on, but they can't protect us. We need to roll this back. That's where you come in, Mr Giorgio.'

I had been listening to his speech with mounting horror, and at last had my chance to speak. Unfortunately, my mouth flapped wordlessly and so he continued.

'We got a plan, you see, a perfect plan. If we are too well-known to get away with anything like that, we'll bring in an outsider. That's why you're here. Next Saturday, my daughter is getting married in the cathedral. The entire organisation will be there. I've invited politicians, police and the media. We'll have the firmest alibis ever seen. And while we're there, you'll be doing your job: shooting Safowicz. That should stop the rot and get the FBI running scared.'

He paused to look at his colleagues, savouring their evident relief. He smiled a little until I spoke.

'I'm sorry,' I started, my voice coming out as a squeak, 'there's been a mistake. Your driver picked up the wrong man. I'm Dick Wright, from England.'

Bellow gestured to someone behind me. I was pushed back into the chair and patted.

'He's clean. No wires or weapons', the searcher reported. Bellow relaxed a little. A thought struck him, and he turned to his neighbour, who was looking worried.

'Well Michael, where the fuck is our man?' he asked.

Michael produced his cell phone and started to punch at the buttons. Others started to mutter, the mood of confidence evaporating in an instant. Bellow tapped the table. Silence fell obediently.

'The plan is still sound: we just gotta wait. Take this pansy downstairs. We'll decide what to do with him later.'

So there I was, unwontedly privy to Mafia secrets, the condemned man in a cell, as good as. No doubt their best approach would be to kill me and dump the body somewhere obscure. I wouldn't be missed for days. Self-pity washed over me.

But then I started to rally. Maybe I wasn't going to make a pitch to Rosso. From a management perspective, though, the Mafia sounded like a business in trouble, with major reputation problems. The big secret with good PR is understanding your client's psychology, and I could sense how Bellow was feeling.

If I begged for mercy, he'd crush me like a cockroach without a thought. But he was astute enough to recognize that his operation was in a difficult situation, where his old certainties no longer applied. He had to be a leader, but he had no real idea where he was going. That was his weakness, and maybe I could exploit it by showing him a way out. I'd have to be convincing, though - I'd be pitching for my life, literally. And to make any impression I'd have to transform myself in their eyes from a quivering effeminate wimp to a master of business. I started to smarten myself up, and paced up and down the room, rehearsing phrases in my head. Then I knocked on the door: the guard glanced in without interest.

'Tell your boss I've got a deal to make,' I said.

He shrugged and led me back upstairs. As we approached the room, raised voices could be heard, which continued as we entered.

Michael was staring at his phone in disbelief. 'Are you telling me he was here? He landed? But the Feds got him? Shit!'

A concerned murmur ran round the room. I stepped forward and spoke loudly.

'You've got a problem - I've got a solution.'

The room quietened a little. Bellow gestured for silence, then spoke.

'You -help us? How? Right now you ain't got much of a future. Unless you're a sharpshooter?'

'No. I am an expert, though, at what I do. Which is to help organizations. I tell you what: you give me ten minutes to make my case. If by the end you haven't got three new actions based on my advice, you can shoot me.'

'Thanks for the permission,' Bellow smirked, but I could tell he was interested.

'I'll start with the obvious. You seem to be surprised that the police can spot you. But I could spot you, just because of the way you dress. Wearing sunglasses indoors, cars with tinted windows: you might as well put up a sign saying Something illegal happening here. Why do you think rock starts go around like that: is it so nobody notices them? I don't think so.'

One of the men quietly removed his sunglasses, prompting sniggers from his neighbours, and from Bellow.

'More generally, though,' I continued, 'you wear a uniform. Nobody wears suits any more.'

I lost the room: they sat back, offended.

'No, come on. There was a time, a generation ago, when you'd be wearing the same sort of clothes as everyone else: a little sharper, a little better cut, but broadly comparable. You haven't moved on: everyone else has. Again, you're standing out from the crowd. I can see why you might want to, but it’s not helping you at the moment. You think you're the only people with this problem? Every family business runs into this: there comes a time when the traditions and skills can no longer help, and you risk losing out to newer firms who are better attuned to the new opportunities.'

I stepped across to the window and opened the blinds. Those sat nearest the window flinched a little, as if half expecting a sniper's bullet; they then attempted to look unruffled.

'Look out there: main street. Small shops, small businesses. I suppose you go round and pick up protection: bags of coins, some low-value bank notes. The city's moved on, leaving just the small change behind. And see that office block: International Trading Partners, it says. What do they do? I have no idea- nor do you, or anyone. It's just an office; I bet the police walk past that every day without ever going inside. They could be running complex currency fraud, for all we know. Electronic money. And the beauty of it is that they can look after themselves. Their security is tight: they've got CCTV, and they've got guards who wear weapons openly. Just think about it!'

It was clear that I was persuading them.

'But let's go back to basics. Your ancestors looked for the opportunities of the time, and took them. You need to do the same. Think big. You know these boiler rooms: rooms full of scammers chiselling a few hundred dollars from investors' savings. Hard work, for little gain, when you think abouyt something like Enron, or Madoff's hedge fund. Reputable people queuing up to hand over their cash, no questions asked: that's the way to go!'

'And here isn't really the place to do it; you're wide open to scrutiny. You should follow the legitimate businesses out of town: get your own building in the middle of nowhere, with a perimeter fence and secure parking.'

Suddenly, people's eyes widened. I'd done it. They started nodding.

'That's what I've been saying,' whined one.

'It would help with the commute: I spend goddam hours on the freeway,' said another.

'We could have a firing range in the basement.'

Bellow looked around at the buzzing room, approving. He clapped his hands for silence.

'I'm impressed. You're smarter than you look. But now you're solving our problems for us, what's your big plan? How do we change?'

'That's not really my area, but since you ask me, I'd say you need to reposition yourselves in the market. Your old operations are the ones that are generating all this police interest. You could close them down, but it might be better to sell them off to your competition: you get the cash, they get to deal with the law. If you felt like it, you might even drop a few hints to the police: you won't be needing to pay them off anymore. But that's up to you. The biggest problem you'd have left is that there will be a lot of loose ends, unsolved crimes. I'd suggest persuading a few people to confess to all of them, and that would be that. I think my time's up.'

Bellow stood up and extended his hand. I shook it as firmly as I could.

'So why are you in town?' he asked.

I explained about my quest for a client to represent.

A little later we parted on good times and I stumbled to a hotel. The next morning, I tracked down Rosso's apartment and arrived there. He seemed hungover and confused, but was happy enough to see me.

'Hiya,' he mumbled, 'I hear you're good.'

I wondered who might have praised me, before I remembered that the Italian community was probably quite well-connected.

'Well, you've got the job: you can start straight off.'

For the second time in two days, things were looking up.

'Now,' he continued, 'I've had some trouble, and the press are all over it again. What you gotta know to start with is, I swear I thought that sheep was female.'


Copyright Martin Locock

1 comment:

Andrea said...

Hi Martin :) I find it really fun to read what you are writing, though your son never said to me that you have a blog. :) We will probably met in a month :)

Love Andrea, from Sweden.