Johnny was waiting at the corner. The usual corner, at the intersection of Avenue 59 and the Dogleg Boulevard. On the steps of the old church, a deconsecrated husk, its windows stripped of their lead and stained glass, its roof bare of slates. Like an abandoned car after the street scavengers had been at it, everything of resale value taken.
Johnny was waiting at the corner, where anyone who wanted to find him would be able to find him. The church faced the Ace of Spades café on the opposite corner, a local landmark. Full English breakfast for under N€5. Continental breakfast, including unlimited coffee, cheaper still. Everybody in the Thirteenth District knew the Ace, so if you were an outsider needing directions to Johnny’s pitch, all you had to know was that it was “diagonally across from the Ace” and that would be enough. There wasn’t a person in the district who couldn’t steer you straight to the café.
Johnny was waiting at the corner, muttering to passers-by. He didn’t tout for casual trade as a rule. Too risky. Any of the pedestrians bustling past could be a plainclothes cop––a plainclothes cop looking for an easy bust. Then again, a quick extra sale never hurt.
“Brown,” he said, loud enough to be heard, not so loud that it couldn’t be mistaken for talking to himself. “White. Powder. Icing.”
Never look people in the eye. If someone heard, came over, wanted to buy, fine. But Johnny was at pains to appear that he was just sitting there on the church steps, minding his own business, idling, spinning his wheels, passing the time of day. An ordinary citizen exercising his right to be in a public place doing nothing.
He wasn’t alone on the steps. A pair of tramps were ensconced at the very top, huddled against the church’s barred and graffitied door. A buttressed overhang kept the sun off their faces. They were arguing. About fleas.
“I know I got more bites than you do,” said one.
“Bullshit you have,” said the other. “Fuckers’ve been eating me alive this past week. I’m crawling with ’em. You should see my arms and legs. Got at least a hundred bites that I know of.”
“I got a couple of hundred.”
“Don’t believe me? What d’you say we put it to the test, eh?”
“You mean a wager?”
“You bet your arse I mean a wager. Whoever has the most flea bites gets…”
“Gets bought a litre bottle of hydromel by the other.”
“Whoa! A litre? Let’s not go crazy here.”
“Why not? Might as well make it worth our while. Or are you chicken?”
“No-o-o. Just need a moment to think about it, that’s all.”
“If you’re as badly bitten as you say, then it’s a no-brainer.”
“All right. You’re on.”
They spat into their palms and shook hands, sealing the deal with a mix of saliva and grime. Then they rolled up sleeves and trouser legs and got to work counting.
Johnny tuned them out. Tramps. Lowest on the totem pole. Bottom of the barrel. Yet still they gambled with what little they had. Still they courted Fortuna and all the other deities of luck. Hoping, maybe, for a little rise in their own stock. An improvement of circumstances, however slight. Looking upwards. Always upwards.
Johnny studied his feet.
“Brown,” he intoned softly. “White. Powder. Icing.”
Traffic rolled past. Humming electric and hydrogen cars. Buzzing battery-powered scooters. Swarms of bell-dinging bicycles. Now and then a bus puffing out bio-diesel fumes, bringing a whiff of the country to the city.
Sunday morning, edging towards noon. Johnny had been at his pitch since nine and so far hadn’t sold a single sachet. Not one gramme of produce. How the fuck were you supposed to make a living if no one was buying your stuff?
It was BetterLife, he reckoned. BetterLife was to blame. That time of year had rolled round again. People had heads full of nothing else. No one was interested in a hit of what Johnny had to offer, not today. Not when there was a bigger rush available, for free. The thrill of hunching in front of your TV set and watching, and waiting, to see if your number came up today––see if it was your turn to be in with a chance of leapfrogging over everyone else, shooting straight from nothing to everything in one (relatively easy) step. Business would be shitty all day, Johnny predicted. Just about the entire city, the entire country, the entire continent would be glued to their sofas, fingers crossed, rabbit’s foot to hand, St Christopher medallions clutched tightly, stroking the trunks of their Ganesha figurines, holding their little models of the seven Japanese gods of luck aboard their treasure ship the Takarabune, all the rest. Because this could be it, the moment when life changed. Radically. Irrevocably.
Johnny himself would not be among the many millions swelling the viewing figures for the show. After all, Johnny Fallon’s name would be coming up in the draw. Not because he wasn’t a legal citizen. He was. Just because he would never get that kind of break. Things like that didn’t happen to Johnny.
A pair of cowboy boots appeared at the periphery of Johnny’s vision. Nice ones. Expensive. Snakeskin. Steel studs around the toecaps. Cuban heels.
Johnny groaned inwardly. He knew whose boots they were.
He raised his head. Looked up.
“Chills,” he said.
A rickety grin beamed down at him. Teeth so brown and rotted and snaggled they looked like chips of splintered kindling.
“Johnny,” said Chills.
Johnny sprang to his feet. He had to make a run for it. If he was fast, if he sprinted, if he went flat out, there was a chance he might––
––not get anywhere. Chills was faster. His hand shot out. He caught Johnny by the collar of his jacket. Johnny’s work jacket, his only decent jacket, the one with all the little extra inner pockets sewn in.
A seam crackled, popped.
“Going somewhere, Johnny?” said Chills.
“Me?” said Johnny, stopped dead. “No. Uh-uh. Not going anywhere.”
“Good. ’Cause the boss wants a word.”
“Does he now?”
“You know he does.”
“No, I don’t. Why would Spike want a word with me? I haven’t done anything.”
“Only somebody who’s done something says they haven’t done anything.”
“Oh, that’s twisted logic.”
“No, that’s just the way it is,” said Chills. “Like the guilty protesting they’re innocent. The innocent know they’re innocent, so don’t feel the need to say so.”
“You’ve spent far too much time in police stations, Chills.”
“Too true, Johnny. But at least I’ve learned a thing or two there, and in jail. I’m a smart man now. You could say I’ve been educated by the state. Plus, you tried to run. Now, that’s as good as a signed confession right there. So, you going to come quietly, or…?”
Chills didn’t show Johnny his knife. He didn’t have to. Johnny knew it was there, in Chills’s back pocket, the shape of it hidden by the tail flaps of Chills’s long, tan-coloured leather coat. Most of Spike’s goons carried guns, but Chills preferred a butterfly knife. Small. Discreet. Stealthy. Didn’t attract attention when you used it. And didn’t earn you nearly as stiff a sentence if the cops found it in your possession.
Johnny nodded. “Quietly.”
“Then let’s go.” Chills took him by the elbow and escorted him across the road, for all the world as if Johnny was a doddery pensioner and Chills a boy scout.
A parked car was waiting a hundred metres up the street, a pre-electric American-import sedan, unconverted, combustion engine in full working order, running on nothing but good old-fashioned fossil fuel. A car owned by Spike Mordant. The kind of car affordable only to someone who had money to burn and didn’t care who knew it.
The driver was Slim Eddie. He glanced in the rearview as Johnny slid into the back seat, Chills following. Slim Eddie’s piggy eyes were full of pity––gloating pity, the kind that was worthless to the recipient, the kind that said You’ve fucked up and it’s your own fault and you deserve whatever’s coming to you. Johnny nodded to Slim Eddie. Slim Eddie just turned the ignition key with his pudgy fingers.
As the sedan drove off, startlingly noisy, Johnny thought of Luke.
At least his brother would be getting something out of this, he mused.
Luke’s life was the silver lining to Johnny’s perpetual cloud.
It was some comfort.
Spike Mordant. Who could be nicer than Spike Mordant?
He had a smile that could melt ice and charm snakes. He was handsome like a movie star––not a matinée idol, not one of those mayfly flavour-of-the-month prettyboy actors, but one of the ones with characterful faces and long careers, something behind the eyes that added grit to the looks, something hard and bright and knowing. He cropped his silver hair short. He stayed in trim, through a rigorous jogging regime and arduous twice-weekly sessions with a muay thai instructor. He also, if he took time off, climbed mountains. A holiday for Spike was a few days spent tackling the least easily scalable face of some godforsaken, storm-swept peak, just him, his pickaxe and pitons fighting gravity, icy gales and the blank hostility of sheer, bare rock.
He was an optimal man. He looked after himself and the people who worked for him. He owned a townhouse on one of the district’s once-fashionable streets. Where every other building in the neighbourhood was crumbling and rat-infested and atomised into dozens of tiny tenement apartments, Spike had the whole place to himself, every storey of it, and it was well furnished and maintained in good decorative condition inside and out. It was immaculately clean. Spike kept his house in order.
He had been a clergyman, once. Amazing but true. For all of three years he had served as a junior deacon in one of the city’s last remaining active cathedrals. He would have continued in the faith, too, and doubtless risen to priest or even bishop, but for one small hitch. Religion didn’t pay. And Spike hated God for that. The Lord did not provide, at least not well enough for Spike’s tastes. Working for the Maker was no moneymaker. And so Spike had resigned his post, quietly defrocked himself, and resolved to pursue a more lucrative calling.
But still, a former clergyman. Nothing nicer than a clergyman.
Spike greeted Johnny in the living room, then ushered him through to a lean-to conservatory at the back that looked out onto a small walled garden. Tropical ferns steamed and perspired in the heat of the conservatory.
Chills and Slim Eddie accompanied Johnny, which confirmed that this wasn’t going to be just a polite, friendly chat. Johnny noted, too, that the conservatory had a glazed-tile floor, unlike the living room, which had bare pine boards––the kind of wood that stained easily.
Johnny’s gut was a knot. The whole of him felt like one huge, pulsing heartbeat.
He’d been an idiot. A complete fucking idiot. He should have known, with his luck, not to cut the product. He should have known not to try and rip off Spike Mordant. Spike was bound to find out. Spike always found out.
“Spike…” Johnny began.
“I’ll stop you there, Johnny,” Spike said, as calmly and benignly as a bank manager discussing a defaulted loan. “Because, whatever you’re about to say, it makes zero difference. You can babble and plead all you like, but it won’t affect the outcome. You know you’ve done wrong. You know I know. So let’s just move on, shall we?”
“Move on,” said Johnny, “as in put all this behind us?”
Spike chuckled. “Johnny, Johnny, Johnny. My young pilgrim. Come on. You know me better than that. I can’t forgive a sin. I can’t shrive. Not any more. I meant move on to the next part of the process, which is where I tell you why I have to punish you.”
“Or you could just cut to the punishment itself.”
“And miss a chance to sermonise? No way.”
Spike put an arm around Johnny’s shoulders. A chummy gesture. Who, honestly, could be nicer than Spike Mordant?
“I work hard, Johnny,” he said. “I’m up by five every morning. Most nights I don’t get to bed before eleven, sometimes midnight. Between those hours it’s pretty much solid grind. I’m talking to suppliers and exporters. I’m checking over shipments of produce at my warehouses. I’m having meetings with people, influential people, the big cogs that turn better if they get greased and that spread the grease to the little cogs and make them turn better. I’m up late on the phone to Latin America and the Caribbean. All day long I’m on the go. I expect nothing less than full commitment from myself. I expect the same from anyone who works for me.”
He tightened his hold on Johnny, his forearm slipping to Johnny’s neck, putting a small amount of pressure on the carotid, not much, but the artery began to throb hard, harder than it already was, and Johnny’s head went light.
“After all, we’re talking about a controlled substance here,” Spike went on. “Something so rare and precious it’s literally worth its weight in gold. It’s been, what, fifteen years since the Pomovirus?”
“Sixteen, I think,” said Johnny.
“Glad to see you’re keeping track. The world’s stocks, wiped out in a single season by a freak strain of rhizomania. Millions of hectares of plantation devastated, reduced to compost, their roots rotted away by a virus-carrying fungus. The disease couldn’t be stopped, couldn’t be contained, despite the best efforts of international agricultural bodies and the World Health Organisation and even the military. All at once, a staple of most countries’ diets was almost entirely gone. You know all this already, of course.”
“Yeah,” said Johnny.
“But it bears repeating, if only to get it into that thick skull of yours why people need what we’re selling them and why it’s important that we sell them only the very best. Because sugar is a basic ingredient in so many foodstuffs and recipes, and without it, something vital, something essential, has gone out of life. Sugar is irreplaceable. Artificial sweeteners, fruit extracts, honey, corn syrup––none of it tastes the same or has the same effect on human body chemistry as the real thing. There’ve been case studies proving that sugar has euphoric and addictive qualities putting it on a par with marijuana and heroin. It makes lab rats’ brains light up in exactly the same way morphine does, and they suffer withdrawal symptoms when it’s taken away from them just like junkies do. And now there are perhaps a couple of dozen sugarcane farms of any significant size left, yielding a crop large enough to meet a tiny fraction of global demand, and big food corporations get first crack at the harvest, snap it all up and leave nothing for anyone else. The public seldom gets to see bags of the stuff on supermarket shelves, and when they do it’s available at prices most of them can’t even dream of paying. But I sell it. I go straight to the source. I have people who persuade the farmers to hive off a little of their crop for me. Then I put it out there on the street in small, affordable amounts, cheaper than anywhere else because I do it minus tax surcharges and the big retailers’ mark-up. I can offer people a brief, glorious reminder of the world as it used to be, a dip into a genuinely sweeter past, and I can offer it in any variety you can think of––caster, demerara, muscovado, cubes, whatever. The GESS Syndicate doesn’t like this, of course. There’s no revenue in it for them, which is why off-the-book sugar trading is illegal. But as America discovered a century ago with Prohibition, if you forbid people access to what they crave, they’ll go to any length to get hold of it, and there’ll always be someone willing to flout the law to give it to them.”
The grip tightened still further, almost becoming a chokehold now.
“But what all this hard work and this investment of time and money has gained me, Johnny, most of all, isn’t just profit,” Spike said. “It’s a reputation. In fifteen, sixteen years, I’ve made a name for myself as a purveyor of top-quality merchandise. If you go to one of Spike Mordant’s street dealers, you can be confident you’re getting nothing but one hundred per cent pure sugar. Some people in my line of work, some crooks, cut theirs with baby powder, laxative, aspartame, xylitol, acesulfame potassium, God knows what else. I don’t. I would never. I respect my customers too much for that. I don’t short-change. I’m a straight kind of guy. Everyone who knows me knows that. I may be Spike but my sugar is never spiked.”
With his free hand he reached into one of Johnny’s inner jacket pockets and fished out a small polythene sachet. He held it up in front of Johnny’s face and shook it. Granules of refined white sugar danced inside the sachet.
“This,” he said, “is not pure. Do you know how I know that? I’ve been getting complaints. Word’s been filtering back to me. Clients, very disgruntled ones, saying there’s a bitter aftertaste to the stuff they’ve been buying off the young man on the church steps across from the Ace of Spades. Kind of as if the sugar’s been stepped down a grade. Interfered with. By someone trying to skim a bit off the top for himself.”
Spike let go of Johnny. He unsealed the sachet, wetted a forefinger, dipped it in, then touched it to his tongue.
“Hmm. Yes. Supermarket saccharin,” he said, smacking his lips like a wine connoisseur. “About one part in four, am I right? Am I right?”
“And you thought––you hoped––nobody would notice?”
Again, a nod. There didn’t seem much point in bluffing or lying. It would only make a bad situation worse. Johnny’s best plan was simply to be compliant and let Spike do whatever he was going to. That way he might, just might, survive this.
“I don’t pay well enough, is that it?” Spike said. “You don’t feel you’re getting a decent commission?”
“No, the pay’s good, Spike. I’m doing all right.”
“Then what?” Spike sounded angry, but not at Johnny. Angry because he was bitterly disappointed. “Why would you want more?”
There was no easy answer. Or else, the answer was too obvious, too easy. Everyone wanted more, didn’t they? Everyone hankered after that little bit of added comfort, that extra scrap of income, that marginally thicker layer of financial security to cocoon them, that slightly larger sliver of the pie––that better life. Everyone wanted a house like Spike’s. Everyone wanted the pampered, playboy existence of the billionaires and their families up in Luna-B, circling the earth with not a care in the world. Everyone was striving towards that goal, like plants in the forest fighting towards the sun, millimetre by millimetre, clambering up their neighbours and strangling their rivals in order to get to the light. It was nature. Human nature. Simple as that.
“Because I did,” Johnny finished. “That’s all.”
“Yes,” said Spike. “Because you did. There we have it, in a nutshell. You just gave in to your baser instincts. You got greedy. You decided to steal from me. There’s no other word for it––stealing. You didn’t think about me, about my reputation, my good name. You just thought about Johnny Fallon and what was best for him, in the short term. You’re not even apologetic about it.”
“I am sorry.”
“Spoken like a schoolboy in the head teacher’s office. Not sorry you did it. Sorry you got caught.”
Spike sighed. He tutted. He looked wistful.
He punched Johnny in the gut.
No warning. No winding up to it. The punch came from the shoulder, straight down the arm like a flicker of lightning, Spike’s fist driving deep into Johnny’s unprepared solar plexus.
To Johnny it felt like a spear being rammed through him. There was pain, and lights filled his vision, and his lungs lost all their air, and he was dimly aware of sinking to his knees and of squeaking, actually squeaking, like a mouse. And then he was able to breathe again. And then he felt sick and had to bite the vomit back down, to keep himself from spewing all over his shirtfront and jeans.
And when his head cleared and the buzzing that filled his ears faded a little, he heard Spike say to Chills and Slim Eddie, “Take it from here. Hurt him, but don’t cripple him. Nothing permanent. No weapons. And no broken bones. Enough so his body forgets but his mind will always remember. Got that?”
(Who could be nicer than Spike Mordant?)
The two thugs grunted their okays. Spike left the conservatory, closing the door behind him, and Chills and Slim Eddie set to work. With proficiency. With great diligence. With the practised skill of two men who’d worked in tandem for years and knew how to alternate so that each could have a rest and not wear himself out.
They did this for the best part of half an hour.