I puff out smoke from my cigarette. My partner nudges me in the direction of the men holding the guns. They are staring avidly at us. I shake my head in dismissal. He’s a new partner, doesn’t know how to loosen up. The slight, fidgety movements of his shaking hands and the rapid blinking reminded me of myself when I joined ten years ago. And maybe that’s why I told him things that I never had told anyone.
“We’ll be standing around and waiting for a while. The other side always does that. Makes them think they are superior or something. I swear, this is the most and the only boring and infuriating part of the job. Anyways,” I said as I snubbed the lit cigarette under my foot. “Might as well get comfortable.” I patted his shoulder. The cigarette went out quickly on the damp floor. The drip-drop of water and the humming of god knows how many voices created a pleasant, monotonous tone. It suited the surroundings well enough. Clammy, dark and claustrophobic basement; there couldn’t have been a better setting for a drug deal.
I turned out to look at the boy. Not more than 20. “So, why did you join?”
He shook out of his gloomy daydreams in a snap, looking confused. So, I repeated the question. “Why did you join, you know, here? This gang?”
Perhaps he still didn’t understand the question or maybe the perplexity of such a query made him baffled.
“You mean le Syndicat du Sang-Gris?” I nodded. The Grey-Blood Syndicate. I never could comprehend what went through the mind of the person who came up with the name. Grey? Pfft! There was nothing grey about the organization, more like red; chaos, evil, death and destruction.
“I don’t exactly know, juzt zat, I needed money and my friend zaid to approach zomeone and zis is where I ended up.” For a well-established French mafia, there seems to be a lack of French persons in the gang itself. I suppressed a laugh. Seems like they are getting more patriotic.
“The same thing happened to me. Father was sick so I went out in search of money. A kind stranger,” I withheld a jeer. “Well, she came up to me and asked if I wanted money. I agreed, of course. She made me sell cigarettes at first and then I got more and more involved with the Syndicate, selling drugs, arson, handling payments, you get it. Anyways, it was all worthless. Father passed away within a year despite the treatments.” I shrugged.
“I’m zorry.” He apologised in his queer French accent. Another phrase I couldn't comprehend. Why do we say sorry whenever someone talks about death? It’s not like he was the reason my father passed away. Sometimes, my mind boggles over the strange yet hilarious ways humans handle awkward moments.
“You know, I’ve been here for the past ten years.” He turned and looked at me with wide eyes. “I knew you’ve been ‘ere for a while. But ten years is a long time to stay anywhere.”
I nodded gravely, yet, a small smile yearned to split my face. He doesn’t know what he has got himself into. So naïve, so ignorant. “You don’t understand, do you? This is the mafia, kid. You get in or you die trying
to get out.”
He took a step back in obvious shock. “But…I don’t want to stay involved in ze Syndicat. I want some quick money after which I plan to leave.”
This time, I let my laugh escape. “Well, life never understands our plans, does it?” He gave a nervous laugh and turned around. Our physical forms stayed right there, but our minds travelled a million miles. I know what he was thinking, for I was doing the same; assessing the circumstances that have led us here. But I know the full picture. Oh! I’m well aware. The thing I wonder is how much time it’ll take for him to realise. Maybe I can help.
“So, if I’m not intruding, why were you so desperate for money?”
“No, no, no intrusion zere. My sister, she’s ze only Famille I ‘ave, she waz shot by some people. She’s in a coma right now. I didn’t ‘ave enough money for ze treatment. Az soon I joined, I made enough to keep ‘er on the ventilator but I need to stay ‘ere so I can make money for medicines as well.”
I nodded. Amusing how similar our situations looked. “And what do you do? Is there something you’re good at?”
He nodded and for the first time, I saw some of his youth returning to him: the sparks in his eyes, a dazzling smile and even a happy, contented look. If the mafia hadn’t weighed him down, I was certain I was staring at a fine specimen of the human species. “I waz very well at ‘acking. Used to stick to computers for ‘ours, worming my way into places I wasn’t supposed to be. It was a thrill. And I do get to do ze zame things ‘ere. Zey gave me a computer and ze places I ‘ave to ‘ack. But it doesn’t feel ze same. Moore…..criminal.” He added as an afterthought.
He still hadn’t figured it out. “Before I came here, I was a salesman. I sold things that others wouldn’t even dream of buying. You see, I was very good at persuading people to do what I wanted them to do.” I paused, choosing my next words carefully. “Funny how they were already aware of my abilities. As soon as I got in, I was put up to all the tasks that involved negotiating: drug deals, selling and buying arms. It was as if they were already aware of how to use me.”
I waited for a while to let that sink in. Many revelations were waiting for this boy and who knows, maybe if he understood, realized, he may still make the miracle of escaping happen.
After a few minutes, he took out a handkerchief and wiped his brow. “You can’t be serious. Zey couldn’t ‘ave been already aware. Maybe zey…saw you or zey juzt needed people for zat job.”
I gave a mirthless laugh. “Then explain this to me. How were they so sure I’ll excel at all the negotiation jobs? Or that the very thing you needed to lay your hands on was a computer ‘cause you were a wiz with one? And while you’re at it, clarify how, at the very moment we needed money, when our families were in great peril, they were there to sort that out. There are greater things at play where and you and I, we’re just players to be controlled. Keep thinking whether you want to remain a player or turn the game upside down.” I turned around, willing the venom stored in me to not spill into my words and attack this innocent boy. He doesn’t know, I kept reminding myself.
And if the timing couldn’t have been better, out came our dealers. The mafia, I had learnt, had a flair for drama. They always wanted to live up to how they were portrayed in the movies. So, out came a man in his sixties, flanked by guards with striped guns, rifles and knives. And if that wasn’t cliché enough, the leader was wearing sunglasses as well.
“Hey, Samuel, boy, come here. How have you been? Sorry I couldn’t attend your cousin’s funeral. That’s the second funeral I’ve missed. But I can’t help it; too much would be revealed if I went. Anyway, did you receive the information about your father that I sent?”
A smile spread over my face, a genuine one. “Hey Big D. I did get the parcel, helped accelerate the search.” He patted my shoulder and signalled behind me for the briefcase that would be exchanged.
“Had to keep you waiting, my boy. Old man, bad memory. Forgot that I already had an engagement. And I see,” He gestured towards my partner. “You’ve brought someone.”
“Yes, he’s new in the Syndicate. Quite the same situation, both of us. I think he’s having trouble accepting it though.”
Big D shook his head in disgust. “Dirty work, those Syndicates always liked doing dirty work. Enjoyed it, even. I never understood it.” He thrust the briefcase in my hand.
I pulled our briefcase in my hand. Pulling some paper out of my pocket, I thrust both of them in his hand. “Well, that would be it Big D. I need to leave. The Syndicate will wonder what’s wrong. See you around.”
He patted the briefcase. “Wife has called you for dinner. She’ll skin me if you don’t come this time as well. See you then.” He said as we turned around. My partner stared at me in fascination. “What are you, buddy-buddy with a mafia leader?”
“He and I go long back. Pulled me out of a few spots and now, he thinks I’m his son. I don’t correct it; even like it sometimes.” We wound around the corner towards our car.
“What were zose papers? Why was ‘e so ‘appy to see zem?” he asked.
I gave him a mysterious smile and put a finger on my mouth in a shushing motion. “I’m turning the game upside down.”