For the next while the Friday Fillip will be a chapter in a serialized crime novel, interrupted occasionally by a reference you might like to follow up. Both this chapter of the book and the whole story up to this point can be had as PDF files. You may also subscribe to have chapters delivered to you by email.
In his tartan suit Alexandre Goncourt was a picture and a half. The material had faded with time, as had he, but an orange thread in the weave had resisted the years and it laced him with a grid so vibrant that it might have been blinking. His shirt was starched and improbably white, and his maroon rep tie was littered with ducks. He was mighty pleased with himself.
Rangel served tea in china cups and offered round a plate of arrowroot biscuits. Mitman, the magician who had produced this picnic from nowhere, declined; Goncourt took two; Rangel permitted herself one, because she, too, was pleased with herself: Goncourt had just signed a retainer for her services in connection with a spate of donations he was planning. Tax breaks, he had explained.
He patted Mitman on the knee. “His doing, you know. With that lending business, he got me thinking, and then I thought about giving instead of lending, and that felt alright. Better than alright. It felt . . . light.” He’d told them this twice already, but it didn’t matter to any of them. Goncourt exuded such rosy satisfaction that you wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that he’d only that day married a young woman — and you would have indulged him in just about anything.
“The obsession isn’t gone,” he was saying. “I guess things don’t work that quickly. But the real problem was selling, is selling. I can’t bring myself to sell my things. Heaven knows why. And I know it’s odd but at the very same time I don’t mind at all if there’s some benefit from giving so long as it comes indirectly, like a tax break.” He tapped the side of his head with his forefinger. “Nuts, hey?” And he took another cookie from the plate. “Well, it’s as my mother used to say — she was English, you know — there’s nowt so queer as folk.”
Mitman smiled to himself. “Will you have some more tea? I’ll be mother, now,” he said, as he poured into Goncourt’s cup. “It’s only bad luck if two women pour from the same pot, you know.”
Rangel thought fleetingly of the tea party in Alice in Wonderland. But there was nothing absurd about the hefty retainer he’d given her, and his joyous relief was genuine — and infectious. If he wanted to chat, to ramble on, she had all the time in the world for him. And then she realized he was saying something about Julius Sanders and she dropped back into the moment.
“ . . . had a whole set of wooden false teeth. I did covet them. But Sandy refused to sell them to me. Serves me right, I suppose, not being a seller myself. He was always a bit mean, Sandy was. Still is, I suppose. And I don’t mean just tight with a dollar. No, he enjoyed being able to cause you discomfort. Pain, maybe. But he was a dentist, after all. So that’s probably no surprise. Did come as a surprise, though, that he was interested in, well, you know.” Here Goncourt shook his head and looked down for a moment. A silence descended.
Rangel said with artificial brightness, “Shall we just go over one or two documents while you’re here?” But Goncourt wasn’t listening. He was caught up in thought.
He shook his head again. “I’m a pretty good judge of character,” he said, lifting his head but still not seeing the others. “Wouldn’t have expected that of Sandy. A couple of the other buffs maybe. I don’t want to slander anyone. So I’ll say no more. I remember how stricken he was when he was charged. It flummoxed him. I could tell. Fair flummoxed him, it did.”
“‘Buffs’?” asked Mitman, for something to say.
“Hmm?” said Goncourt, coming slowly awake.
“‘Buffs.’ Were you and Dr. Sanders in the same fan club. Model train buffs, that sort of thing?”
Goncourt laughed. “Oh, my, my, no.” Then he cocked his head to one side, looking rather like a rooster, Rangel thought. “But come to think of it, there’s not much difference.”
“Between . . . ?” Mitman prompted.
“Of course,” said Goncourt. “You have no reason to know. Sandy and I are — well, I still am — members of the Buffaloes.” Mitman frowned quizzically. Goncourt puffed out his chest somewhat. “The Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes,” he said.
A different sort of silence emerged. Rangel bit back the urge to say ‘Twinkle, twinkle little bat.’ Summoning all her experience in interviews, she asked with aplomb, “Perhaps you’d tell us about them? The . . . Buffaloes? If you’re allowed to, of course.”
Goncourt waved a bony hand, as if to dispense with a lot of unnecessary waffle. “Oh, heavens, nothing secret about us. We’re just a charitable organization, a bunch of men who dress up in fancy clothes and wear lots of medals. Masons for the middle. Been doing it for two hundred years, mind. Not me, of course, though you might think so from looking at me. Started as something of a joke, I think, a kind of protest back in England. Kept rolling. I joined because you have to pledge allegiance to the British Crown and that was my youthful poke in the eye to my French father. Only seven of us left in our lodge now that Sandy’s been ejected. Not even enough for all the officers that a lodge should have. And to top it off, Julius Sanders was Worthy Primo — the chief poobah, that is.” He sighed. “I’m City Treasurer — not of Backton, you understand — it’s just a title in the Order. City This, City That. Dominic Archer’s City Tyler, for example. A tyler’s a kind of doorkeeper. All in good fun.” He ran his palms down along his thighs. “Silly, though,” he said, suddenly abstracted.
Abruptly Goncourt stood up. “Must be going,” he said. He shook hands briskly with Mitman and then with Rangel. “Good day,” he said. “Good day.” They heard the outer door to the motorhome click shut, and he was gone.
“Well,” said Rangel, after a while.
“You know what this means,” said Mitman, after another while. Rangel lifted her eyebrows. “You’re going to have to work,” he said. “If you will take clients, there really is no choice.”
“Do you think that Sanders — ?”
“No,” said Mitman, repressively. “Oh,” he added, turning around as he was about to leave her office, “a really hunky firefighter came around looking for you earlier today. I think he left you a note.” And he turned away so she couldn’t see his grin.
“I THANK YOU FOR coming, gentlemen.” Tu Duc Vinh nodded at the waiter who backed out, closing the door to the room. Vinh walked behind each of the seven men seated at the rectangular table, leaning in seven times to pour small cups of scented tea. He poured for himself and then took his place, carefully chosen to be merely a seat at the end of a side of three. He would be chief among them, but not by using symbolic things like assuming the head of the table. And none of that round table equality nonsense. No, there would be a chief. It would be he. And it would be because of his merit.
He unbuttoned his suit jacket, shot his cuffs, and sipped from his teacup. Unhurried. “I will use English,” he said, quietly. “With apologies to all of you, I fear, to those for whom it is their mother tongue of course, and also to those for whom it is not, as it is not for me. I lack knowledge of your beautiful languages, alas. English is, however, a lingua franca, a not perfect but practical way of proceeding even so. Which brings me to the point of my invitation and my proposal of a not perfect but practical common venture, a syndicate, if you will.” Expressions around the table remained blank, but all eyes were on Vinh.
“I will begin,” he said, “by talking about rock.” He smiled faintly. “Not the small, crystalline material some of you may be familiar with. No, let me tell you about mineral aggregate.” Taking his time, speaking slowly but without hesitation, Vinh gave them the outline of a business proposal. He explained that his organization had almost by chance invested in a gravel mine. In actual fact, the investment had been part of a move to block an initiative by the local Calabrian organization in order to motivate them to accept an arrangement concerning prostitution in the area. “I say modestly that we were awash with cash, an embarrassment of riches with which many of you are familiar, I am sure. Then we were awash with gravel and crushed rock, which initially did not seem to be a fair transformation.” This got him a few insincere smiles. “And then we were flooded with legitimate money in all forms.” He looked at each of them in turn. “Flooded,” he repeated.
He explained that mineral aggregate, that most humble of all substances, was literally the basis on which the nation’s infrastructure was built. Housing, highways, rail lines, construction of all kinds, consumed vast quantities of stone, gravel, and crushed rock. The demand was perpetual, the sources ubiquitous, and — this was also a crucial point — the means of production simple, not to say brutally simple: cheap labour. Yes, of course, machines were involved. But a ready supply of unskilled workers, something that everyone there had lucrative access to, was important.
In the next decade their province alone would require one and a half billion tonnes of mineral aggregate. He gave them the figures for what that would mean in the way of financial returns. Of course, certain established players would need to be approached, persuaded to welcome new investors. But a surprising number were comparatively small, local operations. And persuasion had never been much of a problem for good businessmen.
Yes, he conceded, anticipating the objection, environmental controls would increase but that would only serve to drive up the price of the product. Besides, these would become be opportunities for their sons and daughters to become lawyers to work to manage the whole business of regulation. This brought a smile to some faces.
He continued. Murmured discussions began.
“I suggest,” he said, after a pause to let conversations build interest among the members, “that this, gentlemen, is simply the first and most obvious project that a syndicate such as ours might find . . . beneficial. Our infrastructure, one might say. I do not suggest that you abandon your . . . traditional ways. I am a great believer in tradition. But I am also a great believer in change, when change is advantageous.” He deliberately moved the teapot out of his way and opened his hands palms up on the tabletop in front of him, an offering. “We do not need to compete. We would do better to cooperate in the way we now do respecting territory. Slowly at first, to be sure, as we work out the necessary arrangements, the financial and operational and control structures. But eventually —” he snapped his hands shut into two fists “—everything can be ours.” He left his fists on the table and directed his deliberate gaze at each of the men in turn. “Everything,” he said again.
© Simon Fodden