Vincent Mortego parked his silver Porsche in the most prominent position that he could find and waited for the crowds to arrive. They drifted in from the shadows of the large metallic waste bins and from the dimly lit stairwells, tiny pinpricks of light that twinkled like stars in the black night.
Vincent smiled to himself as he exited the car and locked the door, his fingers weighed heavy with gold. ‘Good evening gentlemen,’ he said confidently. ‘And how much is it going to cost me for you good people to look after this vehicle?’
There was a delay as the figures in the shadows assimilated the vision before them. And then one of them moved forward and spoke: ‘Fifty, Mr. Mortego.’
Vincent smiled almost indulgently and beckoned to the voice: ‘Come forward so I can see you,’ he said quietly.
A large black youth moved into the light. He was probably about eighteen and wearing a spotted bandana. Partially obscured in his hand was a lit reefer.
‘It’s Lyndon, isn’t it?’ said Vincent. ‘Lyndon Carter.’
‘That’s right Mr. Mortego.’
Vincent knew everybody in the estate. And everybody knew him. ‘How’s your mother?’ he asked.
‘She’s all right.’
‘Is she getting over the operation?’
‘Yeah… She’s all right.’
‘I’m very pleased to hear it. Give her my regards won’t you?’
‘Yeah… I’ll do that.’
As his eyes grew accustomed to the darkness Vincent made a few calculations. He counted fifteen figures surrounding the car. He felt no danger but that wasn’t the point. He smiled as one by one the windows in the estate began to light up, interested to see what was happening below, expecting violence. This was the point: Vincent wanted everyone to know he had arrived.
‘I’ll tell you what I’ll do,’ he said. ‘I’ll give you twenty-five now and another thirty when I’ve finished my visit. How does that arrangement suit you?’
‘That’s sweet, Mr. Mortego… Thanks’
‘Excellent. It’s a pleasure doing business with you gentlemen.’
Vincent reached into his Armani jacket and pulled out his wallet. He peeled off five £5 notes and handed them over. Then he moved to the back of the car and opened the boot. ‘Give us a hand with these, boys,’ he called.
Soon Vincent was climbing the stairs to number 25 Bentham Court, the modest Islington council flat that was home to the boxer Simon Clarke. Behind him strung out like servants attending to royalty Lyndon Carter and his gang struggled with their packages.
With Vincent Mortego it was difficult to disentangle the lies from the truth. Like oil on water the lies usually floated to the top. Most people knew that he was a poor North London boy but his accent seemed to suggest that he came from finer stock. Cursory research would reveal that Mortego had enjoyed no less than three separate spells at Her Majesty’s pleasure and yet Vincent claimed an honours degree in marketing from Harvard, as well as the ability to speak four different languages. It did not matter that nobody had ever been present to hear him demonstrate his polyglottism.
Vincent was a handsome thirty-two with refined coffee coloured features and an elegantly cut goatee. He wore only the best clothes and was seen with only the best people. He had appeared almost from nowhere five years ago when employed as the press agent for leading British boxing promoter Vinny Reilly. In that role he had perplexed and confounded the sporting press with his combination of style, grandiloquence and unrelenting charm.
In under a year Mortego had outgrown his boss and started up his own PR agency. Quickly added to his books was the standard combination of Page Three girls, disgruntled footballers, sub-standard/faded pop stars and even the odd politician. He liked to tell people that he was the black Max Clifford.
What Vincent didn’t have on his books, however, was a boxer. And that was why he was currently ringing the doorbell of number 25.
‘Good evening Mary,’ said Vincent to the large West African woman who answered the door. ‘Is Simon in?’
Mary Clarke was a god-fearing woman for whom her door was always open. She never saw the bad in anybody. ‘Why, it’s Mr. Mortego. Don’t you just look a vision? How have you been keeping?’ she exclaimed. ‘Come in – Simon’s watchin’ the telly.’
‘Oh please,’ smiled Vincent. ‘It’s Vince.’
The Clarke’s council flat was modest and lived in. The furniture well worn but clean and homely. The only thing that set it apart from any of the hundreds of similar flats in the council estate was the silverware. Everywhere you looked there were cups and trophies, testament to Mrs. Clarke’s youngest son’s extraordinary aptitude for controlled violence. The pair moved into the kitchen.
‘Simon – you’ve got a visitor,’ called Mary, through a serving hatch.
It took a few moments for Simon to appear. He seemed irritated to be dragged away from Eastenders. ‘Mr Mortego,’ he exclaimed in surprise.
‘I’ve told you before… It’s Vince… please,’ said Vincent, holding out his hand and shaking Simon’s firmly, his dark eyes exploring the younger man’s.
‘What can I do for you?’ said Simon awkwardly.
‘It’s just a courtesy visit,’ said Vincent. ‘I’ve brought a few things for your mother.’
Vincent gestured towards the front door, where Lyndon Carter and his cronies had deposited their boxes. ‘Please,’ he said.
Simon regarded the boxes warily. ‘What’s this about?’ he asked.
‘Just some gifts,’ said Vincent.
Simon’s mother had a broad smile on her face as she tore open the boxes. ‘Look Simon!,’ she exclaimed. ‘It’s a fur coat! Oh my, it’s beautiful!’ she held the coat against her cheek, luxuriating in its warmth and softness.
Vincent regarded her with genuine happiness in his eyes.
‘Oh my word,’ continued Mrs Clarke. ‘These are beautiful flowers!’
Christmas in the Clarke household continued as a new hat was revealed that was perfect for Sunday morning service, chocolates, a new Walkman and an expensive looking set of ring boots for Simon. There was no present for Mr. Clarke senior. He had flown the coop when Simon was only two months old.
Simon stood impassively in the kitchen, his arms crossed. ‘I’m sorry Mr. Mortego but we can’t accept these,’ he said.
Vincent frowned. He looked hurt. ‘Why ever not?’ he said.
Simon shrugged, looking uncomfortable. ‘I don’t know,’ he replied. ‘It just don’t seem right.’
A smile appeared on Vincent’s handsome face. ‘That’s very impressive and not entirely unexpected,’ he said.
‘What do you mean?’ Simon looked confused.
‘I mean it says a lot about the kind of man you are,’ explained Vincent. ‘It shows that you have intelligence and loyalty and principles. These are qualities that are hard to find nowadays.’
Simon seemed to relax a little.
Vincent continued: ‘Please don’t refuse my gifts. They’re for your mother really and I think she would be very disappointed.’
‘I think I know my own mother better than you do!’ snapped Simon.
‘Of course! Of course!’ said Vincent defensively. ‘Naturally I have no wish to offend you with my last comment. These gifts are merely a token of my appreciation of your tremendous talents. Please take them.’
Mrs Clarke turned to her boy. ‘Don’t offend the gentleman, Simon,’ she said gently. ‘Don’t insult his generosity.’
Simon thought for a moment and the tension seemed to drain from his shoulders. ‘OK… OK…’ he said. And then: ‘Thanks…’
‘You’ve got a fight coming up soon?’ said Vincent, changing the subject.
‘That’s right… Mike Chulumbe.’
‘Chulumbe?’ said Vincent frowning. ‘Surely at this stage in your career you’re ready for a sterner test of your abilities?’
Simon looked angry again. ‘Mr. Andretti’s in charge of who I fight.’
‘Of course he is. And you won’t find a better matchmaker in the whole of the country.’
‘That’s right,’ said Simon, sounding a little unsure of himself.
‘It’s just that…’
Vincent looked around at the flat. ‘It’s just that someone with your talents deserves to be fighting bigger names… And earning bigger purses.’
‘What are you trying to say Mr Mortego?’
‘I’m not trying to say anything, Simon. I’m merely applauding the decisions you have made. I believe that in Mr. Dino Andretti you have a manager who will always look after the best interests of his fighters. I mean… Look at what he’s doing for Oliver Long.’
Now Simon looked confused again. ‘What do you mean by that?’ he said.
Vincent Mortego pulled back his shoulders and prepared himself for a longer speech. ‘Haven’t you heard,’ he said. ‘Why only this morning Mr. Andretti flew off to Milan with Oliver…’
‘We all know that…’
‘…And I think it’s incredibly commendable that Mr. Andretti is prepared to risk his licence so that his fighter does not forfeit his purse.’
Simon once more looked confused.
‘A little bird tells me that Dino’s doing the old pro’s trick of concealing Oliver’s cut so that the fight can proceed. I think it’s a fantastic thing that he would do that.’
‘Oh… That,’ said Simon, pretending to be party to the subterfuge.
‘One can only hope that everything goes according to plan,’ said Vincent.
‘That is to say: Mr. Andretti has to consider himself fortunate that he has a fighter who is able to prevail with only one eye. Oliver Stone is, of course, a genius. One of the most talented fighters to have come out of this country in twenty years. Present company excluded, of course. ‘
The room fell silent as Simon took in Vincent’s words. And then the other man ostentatiously pulled back his sleeve to reveal a gleaming watch that seemed to have been cast from a solid block of gold: ‘Anyway, it’s been a pleasure to spend time with you, Simon. And you too Mary. I shall have to leave you now. I unfortunately have an urgent appointment that I can’t afford to miss. Please accept these gifts with my sincere affection. I just want you to know that you have a friend. Heaven knows we could all do with a friend in these troubled times.’
Vincent reached into a side pocket and pulled out an embossed business card. He handed it to Simon. ‘Here’s my number,’ he said. ‘Call me any time you like. Anything I can do to help, you’re always welcome.’
Vincent left the flat and headed back to his car. Lyndon and his group were sitting on the concrete pavement waiting for him. Vincent smiled at them as he opened the door. ‘Many thanks for your assistance, boys,’ he said. ‘It’s greatly appreciated. ‘
There was a pause and then Lyndon spoke: ‘What about our thirty quid?’ he asked.
Vincent eased himself into the driver’s seat and his smile broadened. ‘Ah…’ he said. ‘It pains me to have to do this but I’m sorry to say that you are about to be the recipients of one of life’s hardest lessons…’
‘What?’ Lyndon grunted.
‘It’s all about market forces,’ explained Vincent. ‘You see, the mistake you made was to accept my offer of half the funds up front and half the funds upon receipt…’
‘Don’t know what you’re talking’ about…’
‘I’m sure you don’t Lyndon. Let me explain: The next time that you find yourself in a similar position be sure to demand that you receive all monies in advance. Because I’m now sitting in my car and you no longer have any control over what I do next. And what I’m doing next is starting up my engine and driving away. I’ll see you later boys. And do be sure to remember me to your mother, Lyndon.’