The crimson skies of morning broke along the horizon, a hue of laundered freshness that spread like blended wildfire from rooftop to rooftop.
A necessity of investigation. Smith, Vlad and the few knew they had to work fast, to find out the truth that lingered and hid just beyond their grasp.
The risks are high for they are more certain than ever that Julius and his Syndicate of Assassins are behind it. One word to the wrong place and a hierarchy of bums and no goods, each clamouring for their place further up the tree of power would be only to happy to report them to those at the top. They would see only a means to move on up the pyramid.
And once some-one began to fall from the highest rungs of the ladder, there were plenty on the way down waiting to put their knives in to see how far they would fall.
A lifetime’s collection of underworld contacts could be gone through. A list of scum and beatniks as long as the M25 circle, and just as undesirable. And when those assortments of no-goods had turned up nothing, there was only one place left to try, in the hope that something the others had missed had been turned up here.
And that was Rob. He could talk bollocks all day long, morning to night, nothing but bollocks. And the thing was, what Rob normally knew about the things he went on and on about, you could write in wax crayon on the back of a first class stamp.
Unfortunately, Rob was the only person clued up enough on the etiquette of doing business on the street without pissing off one too many Syndicates. A petty street peddler all his life, this was the doper’s favourite choice for spliff filling, regardless of allegiance.
Years on the streets, plying his trade without concern for Syndicate borders or rank alike, there were many things you could pick up in passing that others missed.
In the ethereal dive of the dope deal, it was polite to talk about everything and nothing over a quiet smoke to check out the quality of the merchandise.
With Rob the merchandise was always good; there was no need other than custom to have a parting spliff and a dose of the bullshit. There were rumours as to what his home grown weed was nurtured on, and if the urban myths were true, it could have been anything from stale beer to fresh cow dung. But as long as the stuff packed its mellowing punch, no-one cared to ask. His shit was good. Better than his small talk rambling chatter – and all his talk was small.
If you fought through the bullshit, the info was there. After all, Rob should hold a PhD in Dodginess Technology by now, having seen the insides of enough jail cells to write the happy junkie’s guide to places to spend an unexpected forced night. He had seen it all, heard it all.
That was the charm. He came across as such a scatterbrained no hoper without a clue, that customers couldn’t help but feel at ease and say more than they probably should have.
But that was half the pleasure of it, having an ear to listen that didn’t ask questions, and regurgitate what it had heard to others.
Therapy of a psychologist without the expense. And there wasn’t an illegal drug on the face of the planet that he couldn’t get. Quality control was never an issue – Rob had been buying for long enough to have weeded out the shites from his suppliers.
No-one sold him down the river on a deal, he knew his narcotics better than his own palm. If a nine-bar had been laced with any formula at all, he knew by the subtle changes in texture and colour. If it didn’t crumble right, he didn’t want to know.
It was just Rob’s way of having a good time, bumming through life, getting nowhere fast, and never anywhere special at that.
But he was having a good time of it, and that was what mattered in his game at least; he didn’t aspire to being anything else. He was happy being almost a nobody that didn’t get bothered, and escaped all the hassle of life.
Rob had reached the pinnacle of his own little civilisation, and was just happy to keep on being there in perpetual euphoria. At least that was what it was to him.
He was a locked blackhole of combined knowledge that no-one ever thought to tap. The idea just never occurred that this spaced bum had actually heard more real truths than hearsay.
Between those ears, half hidden by the raggedy unkempt hair was a mind that acted like a multi track.
All his clients had a track to themselves – a conversation over a joint never had to start again from scratch the second time. It was just he never, intentionally or otherwise, let those tracks collide with each other. You never caught him talking someone else’s tune.
Maybe that was why he had survived so long.
To make an appointment wasn’t hard – you just turned up with cash in hand. Life never bothered with bureaucracy of business around Rob. Cash in hand, and a willingness to hear out his bullshit. It didn’t matter when the shit was this good.
By the time Smith arrived on his doorstep, it was an act of desperation over all other forms of motivation. A lifetime’s supply of contacts across the city had turned up zip.
Trying to keep his motivations secret too had been a task unto itself. One hint in the wrong place would fire off the alarm bells all up the train of command. It was a long way to fall from the top.
He never bothered knocking – Rob’s theory was only the uninitiated like coppers bothered with formalities like that. The serious buyers just walked on in.
The soft pine smell of the tack hit him as he walked in, strong and lingering in the air. The walls were stained a lighter shade of brown, legacy of years of constant smoke. The smouldering fires in this place only went out when Rob did, and even that was never for long. At least the smell that always lingered never had the harsh foulness of straight tobacco ash.
As expected, Rob was in, kneeling on the floor in front of an impressive bong that stood several feet high. Around in the gloomy background the sum total of Rob’s life was strewn messily from the sink in the corner, across the hand woven rug to the bed. A cluttered table by the end wall gave the impression there was little that Rob believed in that wasn’t transient in his life.
As those hang-dog hippy eyes looked up, Smith knew that it was his last good chance at finding out what had really happened to Matthius. But underneath his dim and messy exterior, Rob was no real fool. Playing one might keep the punters happy, but without that spark of controlled sentience waiting underneath this world wouldn’t have taken a kind eye for long.
A lighter crackled in his hand.
“Come in, come in. You’re just in time for the new batch.”
Smith knew the usual routine.
“Yeah, in from Marrakech this morning. Good shit, high on pollen, low on chemical. Best I’ve had in all week. Lucky you got here before the rush.”
The lighter flame played over the gauze, a familiar gurgle of bubbling water from the wooden body of the bong as Rob inhaled. Even the appearance of infrequent custom could not deter Rob from the first toke.
Smith settled himself down onto the edge of the unmade bed, patiently waiting for Rob to exhale. It was never good form to rush the experienced smoker. Especially not when they might have information that you wanted.
Rob continued, holding the smoke in for almost a full thirty seconds. Somewhere, hidden in the junk of the room, a clock ticked through the peaceful quiet.
At last he breathed out, sending the plume of blued smoke into the already smoky air.
“Excellent material, highest purity I’ve had from this supplier ever.”
He offered the bong pipe across. Smith shook his head – getting light headed was not an option, just yet.
“Suit yourself. If you’d prefer a normal smoke, there’s some stuff on the desk.”
Smith looked over, ignoring the gurgle of the bong as Rob went for seconds. On the desk sat a huge block of resin, translucent and green rapped in cellophane to keep fragments in. Along one edge, the plastic had been peeled back, revealing a short crumbled edge, with a generous amount removed, already mixed in the bong.
He noted from the fresh smell percolating the room that Rob was right about the quality of this stuff. Even Smith’s amateur nose could recognise that fact.
Next to the block, a few loose fragments sat with a bag of tobacco and a box of papers on an old LP sleeve. Gently he slid the sleeve and its load onto his knee. Even now, he mused, ignoring the fragments and rolling himself a straight tobacco cigarette, they still pressed a few LPs somewhere for muppets like Rob who still believed in the hippy format.
He figured, correctly, that Rob didn’t even understand there was music on that grooved disk in the cardboard sleeve. To him, it was merely the quintessential rolling board. A hand-me-down from the legacy of the first pioneering beatniks who had pushed the frontiers of mind expanding bullshit.
Tobacco crinkled between the paper as he gently rolled, his mind deep in formulation of how to get the knowledge he needed out of Rob. If indeed it really was there.
From the floor came the crackle of lighter flint. The gurgle of water signalled Rob was going for the third toke. No real danger of him overdoing it – the man was hardcore in this environment.
Finishing his rolling, he licked the paper down, and bounced the finished article on its end on the LP to settle out any loose grains.
Feeling in his pocket for his own lighter, he suddenly found one offered to him. Appreciatively, he took it and lit up.
“So, what can I do for you?” asked Rob at last, as he received his lighter back.
“I’d just like to talk for a bit, that’s all.”
Smoke plumed to the ceiling.
Rob shook his head, smiling.
“This isn’t the Samaritans, man,” he paused a moment before continuing, “Here, I just sell copious quantities of weed.”
“And other assorted drugs, so I’ve been told.”
“Yeah; PCNBA man is the only way to party.”
He took another pull on the cigarette.
“But I need to ask a favour of you, if I may.”
Rob lit his lighter again.
“No credit man. Nobody gets credit from here, not even the top Syndicate men who are regulars. In this house everybody pays for the shit up front, and I guarantee the quality is always good.”
The bong gurgled again. Smith knew he now had another thirty second spell to speak without interruption.
“I know people talk to you all the time, every time they buy. It doesn’t matter who they are, what they do, or which Syndicate pays their expenses bill. They all shop for their weed and other assorted pill-form pleasures here. Stands to reason you hear an awful lot from them all.
Over a friendly joint.
Smoking weed is what you might call a sociable pastime. You get together, you roll a few, buy a couple of ounces.”
There was another pause as he gauged the beatnik’s reactions.
“And you talk.”
Smoke plumed again.
“Maybe. We talk about lots of things, everything. The state of the countryside, the state of the drains. Everybody has their theories and slants. After only a few tokes, everybody’s a philosopher at heart.”
Another laugh. Rob had a curious giggly laugh. It was almost like a girls laugh. When you really listened objectively to it, it sounded, well, silly.
Smith gently stubbed out his half finished cigarette in an ashtray he found on the desk amongst the mess. From the taste of the tobacco, it was apparent that Rob never wasted any of the fragment from the blocks he crumbled bits off. Anything left on the LP cover would get swept back into the tobacco for use in another session. Nothing needed to be wasted.
For an occasional user like Smith, there was enough already lingering thick in the air for comfort. Too much, and he’d end up losing the plot altogether.
“Sometimes we talk about serious stuff. Sometimes about nothing at all,” Rob continued, the power of the cannabis loosening the tongue, “Sometimes we even come up with astounding breakthroughs in ethics and morality. The conversation can never be predicted or anticipated, only ever followed to its inevitable completion. Along the way we take in the sites. But it is a random process that is rarely ever repeated.”
“I need to know what you know about Matthius. Has anyone mentioned what’s happened to Matthius?”
Rob looked surprised. After a moment his mind caught up with him, and he looked down at the now burnt out contents of the gauze.
“You should know. You work for him,” he paused, “Pass the hashtray over; this one’s down to ashes.”
His turn to be surprised. Taking the ashtray from the desk, he passed it over, and watched as Rob carefully emptied the bong of embers ready for another session.
“You’re smarter than everybody I’ve spoken to gives credit for. You know a lot more about people than it seems.”
Ash fluttered briefly in the air. Most landed in the ashtray, but some was lost into the already dusty carpet.
Clearly Rob was not prepared to give over too much too soon. There was a reputation, of sorts, at stake.
“If you don’t want it to be known of this meeting here between you and I, that’s okay. I swear I won’t let it get back to anyone. I need to know what happened to Matthius – sure I work for him, or at least I think I do.
Something’s not right, and I’m suspecting but not getting anywhere at finding out for certain. Now, I know everybody comes here and buys and smokes and talks. I want to know, need to know what you might know about anything that could make things a little clearer for me.”
“Sounds pretty heavy to me, man, maybe you ought to chill a little more.”
Rob reached for the block, to refill his bong. Smith hid his mounting despair, and went for another try.
“Look, I know you don’t want to talk about what you’ve heard in case there’s any fall out back to you. All I need to know concerns Matthius, nothing else. Has he or hasn’t he been murdered?”
Fragments of tack, scraped from the block scattered onto the gauze in an art of years of practice that made it all look like clockwork.
“I didn’t hear the magic words.”
Smith removed a bundle of stale smelling used notes from his wallet.
“Will cash do? Fourteen grand.”
The notes crinkled in his hand. It was a sound that reached for a primal instinct in all street scum, no matter what. Rob was small time – laughably all it took was almost small change.
The junky looked up, a lighter poised between bong and nothingness, arrested but lit.
“Not quite the magic words, but they seem to have hit the spot.”
A grubby tack discoloured hand reached out and took the notes. The bong was forgotten, at least for the moment.
He talked slower, more thoughtfully now, despite the effects of the drugs. And always, those grubby hands were fingering the money.
Fourteen thousand wasn’t that much, at least to someone like Smith. But for Rob, it was worth at least two keys of green, even at bottomed out prices.
True, he grew all his own, so technically didn’t need to buy it in. But what was the harm in a little extra cash?
“I did a run to Matthius’ place about a week ago, something like that, maybe just under. It’s not like I keep a written record, and my memory’s not like it used to be.”
The money was carefully pushed to one side, stuffed into an old trainer and slipped out of the way under the bed.
Gently he eased the bong pack between his knees – drugs were never a secondary concern for long in this room.
“Usually he takes four ounces, once a month, regular as ever. He’s been kosher on me on that one for nearly two years. Always there at his place, with the cash, no haggling, and a free smoke before you go.”
He looked up briefly, a glint in his eye.
“Normally I wouldn’t deliver, but he was very persuasive. Didn’t like going out himself much. And this isn’t exactly a prim and proper neighbourhood for Jacqueline to be wandering about in by herself.”
“So I always dropped it round.”
The bong was lit again, and another thirty seconds elapsed before he continued.
“I rang for this month’s stash, just to say it was ready – almost didn’t bother, like, ‘cos he was such a regular and there had never been a hitch. But he answers the phone anyway, and it’s him. Except the strange thing is he doesn’t want any, at least not delivered. Said it would have to be a couple of days then he’d send someone for him. Strange thing was he didn’t want to talk, or say anything more.”
Another long pull. This time he managed to hold his breath for closer to forty seconds.
“You know when you ask in a chain shop about something, and the morons they have serving always come out with the same old well-rehearsed script that never answers the question no matter how many different ways you ask it. It was something like that.”
Smith nodded. The description tallied with his more recent conversations over the phone with Matthius.
“So what did you do?”
“Nothing you can do. The man no want his weed, it’s not my case to argue. When the dude he said he would send never showed, I just forgot about it.”
Smith got up to go.
Rob looked up, the glint in his eye again.
“For fourteen thou, you get more than just a snippet. Now I’m not in the business of pursuing these sort of things – round this way meddling where it is unwanted can get you killed. But I know a man who might be able to help you.”
Smith sat down gingerly on the end of the bed again, as Rob prepared to go for another toke from the last of the glowing embers.
He had to wait for the answer. There was no rush.
“A man who came here for weed two days ago. I’ve seen him once or twice before; he’s not a regular. He let slip a couple of hints by accident that set me thinking.”
Rob looked thoughtfully at the now dead ash on the gauze.
“No. He was good at keeping all he could under wraps. He was very good. But I knew there was more to him than met the eye. He works for the Julius Syndicate.”
“Oh yeah, like I could just ask them. Do you know how long I’d last doing that?”
“There was something else. I think he’s batting for both sides on the sly.”
“An informer? No, not certain. Call it more of a suspicion driven by gut feeling. I could be wrong, but I don’t think so.”
Smith thought for a moment, thinking it all over. Rob might be nothing more than a doper, but he had a knack for reading people. It was partially what had kept him alive for so long.
“Where can I find him?” he asked.
Rob was already reaching for the LP sleeve and the still huge block. At the rate it was going, he was certainly making the most of the fourteen grand Smith had given him. At least he wouldn’t have to worry about smoking into profits for a while longer.
“Area 12 – residential block. I caught sight of his keycard. That area’s mostly slums and derelicts waiting for bulldozing. There can’t be many people around there.”
Rob’s brow scrunched as he pushed his memory.
A long forgotten memory stirred in Smith’s mind.
“Koyaté you say?”
He mulled the name over. Could it be the one?