It’s a strange sensation, being dangled upside-down over the side of a bridge in the middle of the night.
You might say that it brings about a contemplative state of mind.
Look at the way the light shimmers over the surface of the Thames, your brain tells you. Probably big, sharp rocks under there, it points out helpfully. My, the rope around your ankles feels rather thin, doesn’t it? Sure hope it’s strong enough to continue holding a full-grown man…
These were my unfortunate thoughts as I swung helplessly in the breeze. I was especially concerned about my coat slipping slowly down my arms towards the swirling waters below. I’m rather attached to that coat. It’s a proper trench coat with lots of spacious pockets – I’ve no end of elixirs and doo-dads and curios stuffed away inside it.
There is a tendency to typecast men in trench coats as crooked characters, shady figures lurking on the fringe of the crowd with a range of dubious watches on offer for the discerning patron. This is totally untrue.
I don’t sell watches.
“How are we doing, Mr Hansard? Have you reconsidered my offer?”
This was the slick voice of Mr Scallet from high above. It was at his leisure that I was currently being, ah, held.
“I think I could be persuaded,” I called up to him. I was quite proud that my voice barely even squeaked.
I probably deserved this, I thought. I’d been going through a period of peace and quiet lately; not one of my sales had backfired in the past month, and no one had tried to kill me. This was quite an achievement, considering my usual run of luck was about as long as a one inch length of string on fire.
“Haul him up. Let’s see if he’ll be more co-operative this time.”
This is the sort of thing you come to expect, when you’re a dealer on the Black Market. The real Black Market, that is.
“You want we should rough him up some more, boss?”
The Black Market is the world I live in, thrive on, and it is a beautiful, surreal place. It’s where abstract concepts can be purchased in neat little boxes; where success comes in the form of an edible powder and fame can be hung round your neck on a single cotton thread. In need of a little luck? Heck, I know a guy in Blackfriars who can sell you it in a bottle.
I’m a here and there man, myself. I specialise in everything, if you know what I mean.
When Scallet had found me, I was specialising in inspiration.
“Mind his knees, boys. Wouldn’t want him bent out of shape now, would we?”
Inspiration is a funny thing. Some people are naturally lucky, and habitually stumble blindly over stray pieces of inspiration while going about their everyday business. Then they wake up in the morning with the next cultural innovation bouncing around inside their skulls. But for those not as blessed, inspiration is a bugger to get hold of. I should know. A bit of inspiration nearly took my arm off, once. It has a tendency to bite.
But it’s worth the effort, because there are many people out there – writers, musicians, talented artistes – who will pay through the nose for just a sniff of the stuff.
Mr Scallet had been in need of a bit of inspiration.
It was a month ago that we first crossed paths. He had stuck out in the crowd with his sharp Savile Row suit and equally sharp, well-groomed features. He’d approached my pitch, which, at the time, had been in the centre of the bustling Camden Stables Market. In the midst of the alternative scene, I offer the most alternative goods you could ever hope to find.
He flashed me a bleached white smile and asked for my best wares of ‘speciality’ interest, with that haughty tone of the wealthy and entitled. Instantly I took him for a naïve, rich fob looking for a novelty to waste his cash on. Perfect.
He listened to my spiel, and then dropped a grand on a purchase of nearly-rotten inspiration. I’m an artist myself, in my own way.
Except, it turns out he wasn’t as ignorant as I thought.
“Steady there, don’t lose your footing.” He made a show of brushing off my lapels. “Now that you are upright again, Mr Hansard, perhaps we can discuss this matter like gentlemen.”
“Over a glass of wine and a cigar?” I said.
“You’re a funny man, Mr Hansard. I enjoy your jokes. I find it vastly amusing that a man in your position would take his own life so lightly.”
One of his thugs prodded me hard in the chest. I teetered dangerously on the ledge for a second and my stomach lurched. Vertigo. I vaguely remembered selling a package of vertigo recently.
“Of course I’d be happy to offer you recompense,” I said hurriedly. “This is all a misunderstanding. I never like to see a dissatisfied customer.”
“Ah, another joke. Is that the reason you disappear the instant after you’ve sold something, Mr Hansard? You’re a tricky man to find.”
“I see you had no trouble,” I said weakly. The back of my mind was ticking over how much I could sell a vertigo cure for.
“You leave a certain trail of, what did you say? Dissatisfied customers. Really, I feel I’m doing you a service by catching up with you first.”
“You’re a very kind man.”
“I’m really not.” Scallet scowled. “Let’s be clear, Hansard. The inspiration you sold me was rotten. You’ve ruined a multi-million pound project and rendered an eminent engineer woefully worthless. Your life is not worth the profits I’ve lost.”
Ah, yes. The engineer. Perhaps the only innocent victim in this scene, though I’d argue he was guilty by association. Anyone who associates with a man like Scallet must have something coming to them.
I cleared my throat. “It seems to me,” I said, shifting my weight away from the chasm behind me, “It seems to me, if I’ve understood your predicament correctly, that what you’ve really got here is a problem of audience. That is to say, a lack of one for the product you’re selling, and not a problem with the product itself vis-à-vis improperly applied inspiration, to wit–”
“Shut him up.”
Fist to the face. No messing about, these boys. They’re professional goons. My head swam.
I suppose you could say I was starting to regret dealing with Scallet back in Camden. But how was I to know he was head bod of some engineering company that designed cars so expensive you’d have to be a millionaire just to purchase a brochure?
How was I to know he’d give that faulty inspiration to his lead designer, expecting the next great Lamborghini to come rolling out the doors? You can hardly blame me for his poor life choices.
Besides, no one can say it didn’t work. The inspiration worked like a charm. (I happen to sell charms as well, if you’re interested.) Scallet was speedily presented with the plans for five revolutionary new cars that were perfect in form and function. So what’s the problem?
The form: bulky, lumbering, utterly unsexy people-carriers designed with single mothers in mind. The function: boot space and large crumple zones. Nothing like the sleek and stylish sports cars coveted by Scallet’s rich and insecure customers.
Apparently, that’s not the result he wanted.
“We seem to be suffering a communication problem,” said Scallet. He pulled out a handkerchief and began wiping his hands in an idle manner. “You don’t seem to understand just how much I want to throw you off this bridge. The only reason I have not, is that I hope – for your own sake – that you can still be useful to me.”
The handkerchief dabbed at his temples. I imagined he was wiping the oil from his skin. Even his words came out greasy.
“Let’s be clear, Hansard. I want something more than just money out of you. I want something to truly justify the continuation of your miserable life. I’m sure a man of your… profession… must be able to offer something valuable enough to buy it back. That is, if your life can be said to have any worth at all. So tell me, what do you have to offer?”
“You’re not wrong,” I said with what I hoped was a disarming smile. It was probably spoiled by the blooming black eye. “Trust me, my life is the most valuable thing in the world to me, and I can happily offer you a fair trade. It is rather fortuitous that on this evening I do happen to have about my person an item that is widely considered to be the key to ultimate success.”
“I see it hasn’t done you any good so far.”
“On the contrary, I do appear to still be alive.”
“Appearances can be deceiving.”
Though his gaze was hard and sceptical, there was the faintest touch of intrigue in his voice. I know his type. I was wrong to misjudge Scallet the first time; I shouldn’t have taken him for a complete mug. I wouldn’t make the same mistake again. He might not be a dumb tourist, but he’s not from my world, either. Just because he knows all the cool slang and walks the walk, doesn’t make him one of us. You can tell by the way he wears his suit, his shiny shoes. And by the shifty way he watches the shadows, because he doesn’t really know what’s in them. And above all, by the fact he hadn’t killed me yet.
He’s still green. He’s had a taste of my world and thinks just because his tongue’s been scratched it makes him some kind of expert. He’s the guy in the restaurant who makes like he knows all about authentic Asian cuisine because he once spent a business trip in Vietnam. But his fork never touched the bottom of the bowl, and underneath it all he’s still just itching to find out what other dishes are on the menu.
Let’s see how this one tastes.
“The key to ultimate success,” I reiterated, affecting an air of calm, “lies in a rare and much sought-after elixir from the Amazon which, if drunk, will grant the individual a charmed life of fame, fortune, and superior sexual attraction. It’s a closely guarded secret, worth millions. It’s in the left inside pocket of my trench coat,” I added nonchalantly.
With a nod of permission, one of the thugs plucked the glass vial from my pocket and proffered it to Scallet for inspection. He rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
“You just drink it, do you?” he asked.
“No. Well, yes. It must be consumed on a moonlit night at the strike of eleven in a meadow of thyme. Tastes of strawberries. So I’m told.”
“Strange that you haven’t tried it yourself.”
“Success wouldn’t suit me. Besides, I wouldn’t have any wares to sell if I went around sampling them all the time.”
Scallet’s eyes flashed. “Do you really consider me so stupid, Mr Hansard?” Rough hands closed around my arms and shoulders. “Why don’t you have a taste.”
It wasn’t a question. My head was forcefully tipped back and the liquid rammed down my throat. I spluttered and choked, but managed to swallow, all the same.
“Now let’s see what your little trick really meant to accomplish,” he said. “Poison, perhaps?”
I grimaced theatrically. “Not my style.”
“What is your style, Mr Hansard?”
“Not as greasy as yours.”
Scallet’s lip curled. “I’d have thought you could come up with something more inspired. Cut the rope.”
I closed my eyes again. The boot planted in my chest was instant, and expected.
I tumbled backwards, air streaming past and the sound of blood rushing in my ears. I braced myself for the sting of water…
…and was pleasantly surprised to encounter a soft, rather slippery landing. A very ripe smell invaded my nose.
“’Ere, Gary! Some bloke’s fallen in the fish!” an astonished voice yelled. I grinned.
In the distance high above, I thought I could hear the faint sound of a car engine roaring into the wind.
The confused barge crew were kind enough to drop me off on dry land – but not before I felt I’d travelled far enough to be out of Scallet’s reach. For now, at least.
I found my car easily enough, in the same spot where his men had jumped me. I suppose they didn’t think I’d come straight back to it. Hey, with a little luck, they might have missed my miraculous escape altogether.
I’d have to give my mate in Blackfriars something to refund his loss. I was meant to deliver that bottle, not drink it.
I stepped back and surveyed my assets. One elderly Ford Escort; a pile of worn and slightly moth-eaten clothes on the back seat, a half-finished jam sandwich on the dashboard, a smattering of business cards for Jack Hansard, Purveyor of the finest Occult Goods – that’s me, by the way – a map of London holding the remains of yesterday’s chips, numerous parking tickets scattered about like confetti… and a trunk full of second-hand, second-rate inspiration waiting to be offloaded.
I smiled. Time to move on.