If you’re ever in Atlanta, Georgia, may I recommend the Georgia State Capital Museum? During my time there, Atlanta was the second most violent place in the Union. The actual murder capital of America was, as I’m sure you will recall, Cabot Cove, home of ace detective Jessica Fletcher of ‘Murder She Wrote’ fame. If I may recycle my Alexandra Bastedo joke, Tom Bosney was murdered twice in one series. Believe it or not, people would sit through all the episodes with a clipboard and pencil and work it all out. I am indebted to them. Between September 30th 1984 and May 19th 1996 Cabot Cove (population 3560) suffered an annual homicide rate of one thousand four hundred and ninety murders per million. Not only more than Atlanta, more than Venezuela, Brazil and Columbia (combined). Regular viewers will recall that partway through the run, Jessica escaped the small coastal community in Maine and took an apartment in the centre of New York City, presumably for some peace and quiet.
Meanwhile, Atlanta wasn’t such a bad place, the violence being confined to certain areas and certain demographics. When I was in Richmond Virginia, there were five murders in one morning. This wasn’t even the main item on the news. I quizzed a Virginian and received a very Virginian answer. The travel to work area was large. The murders may well have taken place dozens of miles away. Likewise, it was bad people killing bad people, usually over drugs. Nice people, feel free to look the other way.
Back in Atlanta, there was an underground railway, an arts centre and everything was called ‘Peachtree’. The best Chinese restaurant in the world was a lean-to shack squeezed between the Peachtree department store and the Peachtree Mall. Three dollars bought you a plastic plate, fill it up as often as you can (like?) from the buffet. The staff will coo over you if you’re English.
Fortified, one can strike out for the State Capitol and its impressive Capitol Building, similar to the one in Washington DC but better, even to the point of having a gold dome and, of course, a museum full of stuffed animals. Keep the constitution, we want to see taxidermied squirrels playing cards.
If struggling for directions, just follow the big yellow school busses. The place was always full of kids.
Above the gaming table, all seemed well with the stuffed squirrels. They were in good order, neatly attired, their little claws holding tiny, properly sorted hands of playing cards. They wore vizors or spectacles. Modest wagers were placed in front of them, sufficient and sensible ‘bank’ in the centre of the table.
However, a glance beneath showed a different tableau. Guns and knives were concealed under tiny chairs. Little feet stretched out to surreptitiously pass cards between players. Five aces had been dropped on the floor. Indeed, there are public truths and private truths even among dumb, dead beasts. I recall the best piece of financial advice ever given to me. May I share it with you? A young girl on the other side of a building society counter, on a rainy day in a market town, once confided to me that,
‘People are funny when it comes to money’.
Write that down and stick it on the wall above your desk.
Meanwhile, back in the old country in the old days, the clock on the wall, the clock at the racecourse and the clock on the till, might say three different things. It was possible to put a bet on a race after it had finished. Some people still managed to lose money. Such is the life of the punter. If challenged, the till receipt is documentary proof showing the race hadn’t started, even if the rest of us know better.
Now that all things are connected together by this remarkable thing called the ‘internet’ you might think this is no longer possible. Long-suffering readers, aware of long seconds and shorts seconds on computer processors and back door traps on motherboards, might not be too surprised if the clock on the bookie’s wall starts to turn backwards and the till starts churning out receipts dated 1975. If there’s a retired English travelling gentleman standing nearby (dressed like Arthur Daley) with four stitches about the left eye and a shark-bite up his right leg, then don’t be shy, ask me to remind you what won the last four races, get in the queue and win some of your own money back.
Now you might think that’s absolutely ridiculous but you might also think that you’re betting ‘in-play’ while watching live sport. You aren’t, it’s already happened, there’s a delay on the feed to your TV or phone to give the bookie a chance to react to events before they appear to happen. That’s (part of the reason) why they’re rich.
If you’re at the event, you have a bit of an advantage, likewise if you have access to the bookie’s feed. Bear in mind they’re trying very hard to catch you. As ever don’t be too greedy, take a little bit out of the pot now and again when no one’s likely to be looking, or plan one monster smash and grab and then disappear with it.
Gambling had its uses, more so if the odds, in every sense, are tilted in your direction.
We’re at the Manila Orchid Hotel investigating a plot to assassinate the Holy Father during the approaching Papal Visit. A team of assassins has flown in from Pakistan after laying a false trail suggesting that local terrorists from the Muslim South of the Philippines would carry out the attack instead.
There is a reward for information leading to their capture. No heroics, just pass on the information and let the professionals get on with it. At least, that’s what we were led to believe.
Originally daunted at the prospect of finding three or four tiny dots of light in a Manila galaxy of twelve million stars, we’ve been able to narrow it down and narrow it down and then narrow it down a bit further. I have been using my contacts, Gisele her cousins.
We now have individual’s names, aliases and likenesses and the organisations and front companies funding them. What we don’t have is the address of their safe house.
There’s a knock on the door of my twelfth-floor suite. It’s the hotel’s General Manager.
Lesser fantasists, or even humble authors trying to make a living by passing on important truths known only to themselves, might cultivate a ‘Night Manager’ (whatever one of those is). Those of us who are fully blown Walter Mitty’s went to boarding school with members of the General Manager classes.
Such a man stands before me. He must remain anonymous. Although we’re the same age, I must say, dear reader, he does look a lot younger than me. He is immaculately dressed and can’t ‘pop in’ as he’s between important meetings even though it’s only five-thirty a.m. Rather there is only time to say,
‘Dona Josefa, Quirino, Room 603,’
while handing me my complimentary ‘Manila Bulletin’ and, in a much louder voice, wishing me a good day, apologising for the hour, and reminding me to get in touch if there’s ‘anything else’.
The final piece in the jigsaw, allowing a big shout-out, not only to the guy in the suit I went to school with, but to the profession as a whole. Everything you’ve heard about them is true, and a bit more. Travelling gentlemen rely upon the GM’s and they never let us down. Razor-sharp, well informed, very professional, dripping in contacts, hard-working, unflappable and, let’s face it, likely with a pretty young wife, three ex-wives and an unknown number of children at private school – they have to be.
Many of the senior hotel wallahs in South East Asia were legends. We salute them. Many of you will know who they are but, by the very nature of the beast, they must remain discreet, their exploits anonymous.
One last word on the General Manager. Consumer advice; park a car with CD plates in his underground carpark and allow himself, his older children and his pretty young (fourth) wife to use it anytime. This helps to ‘oil the wheels’ and puts you onto the mega-corporate discount rate.
If you were to say to me that this has all been a bit too easy, I’d be cross but if you were to correct yourself to ‘a bit too do-able’ then I’d have to nod in agreement, whilst sat in the corner of our early morning case-conference, looking out from the twelfth floor, over the sunrise and first wisps of Ermita smog.
There is a dog-eared tourist map pinned up on the wall, next to a row of blurry black and white photos. Little piles of index cards are arranged on my desk with an overspill onto the floor. I have a laptop plugged into a phone socket.
Gisele, my business associate, is pointing at ‘Quirino’, a wide road which cuts inland at Manila Bay from Roxas Boulevard to Taft Avenue. It’s on the Pope’s motorcade route, as the Embassy of the Holy See is nearby. She’s never heard of the Dona Josefa Apartments, neither have I, a trip via taxi or jeepney will reveal all.
Gisele is in a foul mood. Last night’s date went badly, herself and Bibi quarrelled and, I’m reliably informed, it was happening during her most fertile time. In her absence, I’d done a tour of the fleshpots in the nearby ‘Strip’, cultivating the bar ladies. Believe me, there is no pleasure in that. The reason I’m awake at five-thirty in the morning is that I haven’t slept all night let alone been in a bed.
It had been boily hot and very noisy. The bars shake with loud music and flashing lights. Somehow, the music manages to be awful despite the fact that every single one of the sixty million (then) inhabitants of the archipelago were excellent and beautiful singers.
‘All of me, why not take all of me’, is la chanson du jour, usually followed by ‘I’ve been praying such a long, long time, praying for a boy like you.’ They are thundered out continually from every stage in every bar, the smaller the singer, the bigger the lungs. I don’t want to be crude but a friend insists upon me that a similar law of inverse proportion applies to jockeys in shower rooms. Whatever that can mean.
As a near teetotal, repressed, puritan, church-going prude, who would make a theological discussion between Knox, Calvin and Luther (in the back room of a mortuary in Erfurt during a plague) seem like a fun night out, this is torture.
To make it worse, the ladies hardly wear any clothes and I just can’t stop thinking about Gisele’s ‘fertile time’.
The trick to handling (don’t start) bar ladies was to not take up too much of their time, stay in a public place where you can be seen, pay them well and ask them a small number of quick-fire questions, some of which you already know the answer to. Pertinent ones being, ‘is your new boyfriend burnt and missing a few fingers?’ and ‘can you translate to and from the Arabic for a dollar a day?’
I’m also on the lookout for petty jealousies. Have any of the ladies suddenly started boasting? Bought jewellery or cars? Been on holiday? Moved to better accommodations? Do they really deserve that, while you live modestly? Tell me everything you know quickly, for a dollar, and maybe we can bring them down a peg.
Suffice it to say, our suspects were very prominent, splashing cash about, with very regular and predictable movements. Beyond ‘hiding in full sight’ they were jumping up and down in the centre of the room, waving vigorously while an assistant held up a giant arrow with ‘over here’ painted on it in giant luminous letters (and smelling of nitro-glycerine). I suspected that they were overconfident both in the false trail that had been set for them and in the intention of their god. Certainly, I’d gleaned enough information to pass it on to the GM, in the middle of the night, for him to ring around his contacts and, within a couple of hours, get a location for the suspect’s safe house accommodations.
Back in the case conference, I made a quick cell-phone call. Gisele looked along our list of suspects. At the time our point of maximum concentrated disruptive effort was focused on four individuals.
‘Khalid Sheik Mohammed, timber import-export’, she drew an obvious conclusion, ‘You meet these people when you’re near the Muslim areas in the South?’ she asked, ‘or your associate, gangster – gangster Cortez?’
‘No, I don’t’, I answered pretty honestly, ‘there are more moderate voices to parley with, there is a plan down there, for harmonious living together. The Pope being murdered by Muslims won’t help it.’
I promoted our aims from saving lives and claiming a reward, to allowing all peoples to live together in peace and harmony. Tempting an overconfidence in the intention of my own god I heard myself say,
‘Humiliating the Morro extremists by disrupting their plot may give them that final, fatal good hard kick, I am very optimistic’.
There were positive changes taking place in the South under new mayor Rodrigo Duterte. Free markets, the rule of law, democracy and the anticipated Papal visit were paying dividends already.
The poor were expecting the Pope to end capitalism, the rich, likewise, expected him to end communism. I might as well add an end to conflict between peoples to the list.
Also in our little rouge’s gallery, Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, proprietor of a series of Arab / Philippine businesses. Ramzi Yousef, a well-known bomb maker, Abdul Hakim Murad, at that point still a bit of a mystery but by now an acquaintance of mine by sight, very indiscreet in the girly bars.
There was a knock at the door, a response from my cell-phone call already, it was our Arabic speaker. We needed her to trick our suspects into the Orchid’s casino, while myself and Gisele raided their bomb-making safe house.
What are the odds on it all going horribly, horribly wrong?
To be continued……
© Always Worth Saying 2019
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file