DATE: 23 August 2013. Friday. One pm.
Bath City Centre, UK.
Castro reached up a hand to the low, white ceiling panels overhead. He pushed one up and placed something through the gap. Withdrawing his hand, he let the panel fall back into place.
The short dimly-lit corridor had three doors, one back into the pub and one for the men’s room and the lady’s room respectively.
Castro went back into the pub.
Two minutes later, Vaquero entered the corridor through the same door. With a smooth movement he reached up and removed the small parcel from its hiding place, replacing it with another in his hand. The ceiling panel fell back into position for a second time.
He pushed open the door of the gents and quickly went in, locking it behind him. Unbuckling his belt, he slid the small package into his underwear. In the mirror, he pulled his green trilby firmly down over his ears and brushed a greasy lock of hair out of his eyes.
Vaquero went back downstairs and resumed his seat outside, at a table on the pavement, his face expressionless. He produced a book from his jacket pocket and began reading.
Mick came by. As usual, his narrow face shone with ill-health and fever. He had been on the streets of the City since he was 16, when he first came out of his Care home. He was now thirty-five and from the look of him, he didn’t have much longer to go. His sparse fair hair was falling out and his back seemed to get more twisted by the day.
With his head down, Mick stopped at the first table he came to and searched through the ashtray with street blackened hands, fishing out dog-ends. He went from table to table until he came to Vaquero.
“Hi John, how’s it going?” Mick muttered.
“Good, thanks” said Vaquero, looking up from his page. He watched as Mick went through his ashtray for his cigarette butts. The butts went into the pocket of his camo-jacket and he lurched on. Vaquero watched his figure disappear around the corner of the Litten Tree onto the Milsom Street, towards the Royal Mineral Water hospital.
Vaquero’s pocket buzzed and he picked up.
“Yes, I’m about” he said. “How long are you going to be?”
“Okay, ten minutes then. Two o’clock, we’ll make it, yeah? See ya!….Don’t be late!”
From his seat outside the Cock and Weather, Vaquero could look to his left along George Street towards the Paragon or right towards Gay Street which led up the hill to the Circus. Friday lunchtime shoppers and weekend tourists filled the pavements.
Vaquero had chosen his seat with care. The whole city centre was equipped with security surveillance equipment; it was seemingly impossible to escape their gaze. Except Vaquero thought he had found a quiet spot.
Kurt arrived. On time.
“John” Kurt said by way of greeting and pulling out a chair, he sat down. He held out his hand which Vaquero shook. Cupping his hand, Vaquero withdrew it holding the money Kurt had handed him. He pushed his tobacco tin across the plastic white table top.
Kurt took the tin in his hands, opened the lid and took out the folded piece of paper inside. It was a small hand-made envelope. He palmed the wrap and casually transferred it to the inside pocket of his jacket.
“Cool?” he asked.
“Yeah” said Vaquero “I’m just waiting for Jackie. She’s supposed to meet me here, I dunno what’s taking her so long!” His eyes glowed green in a background of bloodshot red. Gravity had a firm hold upon the flesh under his eyes and today it hung mournfully down like a baying bloodhound’s. “You’re lucky to catch me!”
Kurt smiled. “I hear this stuff washes up good! It’s got legs on it, Tim said.”
“Yeah! I told you. I’ve never seen it this pure, you know? This is straight from Colombia, my friend. It’s going like hotcakes! We’re waiting for the next shipment now. It’s going to be a week or so.”
“So, how’ve you been?” Kurt asked.
“Not bad” Vaquero smiled a small contented smile showing his missing front incisors, “Jackie gave me a blow job this morning that almost turned my head inside out. She stuck her finger up my arse….just how I like it, a little bit dirty.”
Kurt smiled. “I don’t know how you do it, John, you must have the constitution of a horse.”
“Jackie and I were talking the other day and she said that I should be dead by now, that I am too old to be an addict.” A dramatically rueful glance skyward with raised eyebrows, “I guess I am too. Here, do you want a valium? I bought 24 from Pixie this morning.” Vaquero produced a plastic pill vial from his jacket and pried open the lid. “Do you want a couple of 5 mills?”
“No I’m alright. Save it for yourself. I don’t need it.”
“You haven’t been washing up, have you? Look at your hand! You’ve been snowballing! Be careful you don’t have a heart attack!” Vaquero smiled.
Kurt rubbed his hands together compulsively, defensively, with long rinsing actions. ”It’s okay. They’ll heal.” His left hand was distorted and misshapen where infection had set into the needle scars.
Vaquero kept silent. He had said more than he normally would to client. They’d known each other a number of years and in the words of Vaquero himself, he had a feeling they were “going to know each other for a long time”.
* * * * * * *
Castro glanced out of the window at the tables outside where customers were enjoying the midday sun. Vaquero was still there, talking to a tall dark man with a black North Face hoodie and a pony tail. From here, Castro could see the middle aged streaks of grey at his temples and rough unshaved look of his face.
With another glance around the pub to see that his staff were all busy on their cleaning tasks while business was quiet, he disappeared into the back room, punching in the security code to unlock the door.
A key hung around his neck and he unhooped it. On his knees, he inserted the key and unlocked and opened the safe door.
Ignoring the till drawers lying there, stuffed with cash and small change, he reached his arm into the back and removed a small cloth bag marked with the logo of Barclays Bank. Settling back on his knees, listening intently for approaching feet on the other side of the door, Castro took a small tobacco tin from the bag and took off the lid.
Inside, neatly folded, were about twenty more wraps. Castro emptied them into his hand and made another count. Twenty, divided into ten halves and ten grams.
He put them back and replaced the lid, putting the tin into the bag. His hand came out with a plastic zip lock baggie containing some folded cash. Castro opened it and took out the cash Vaquero had given him, adding it to the contents. Once finished, he quickly replaced it in the cloth bag and put it back into the safe, reaching in to place it deep inside hidden from casual view.
“Bang!” The safe door swung shut.
* * * * * * *
Ten minutes later Vaquero walked down Milsom Street, limping with hat pulled low and head down. He’d given up on waiting for Jackie.
The Bath shoppers dressed for the occasion and perfume wafted to his nostrils as he wove a path down the hill.
Red Ronnie was selling the Big Read from the position outside of the charity shop, standing patiently and silently with the magazine held chest-height before him. Their eyes met.
Vaquero walked past him, into the shop of second hand items, slowing to idly survey the people inside, while he self-consciously drifted towards the shelves in the rear, away from the till. His destination: the book section at the back.
The carpet muffled his footfalls as he cornered a display shelf .The books looked like they hadn’t been touched in months.
Vaquero reached down the front of his pants and drew out his hand again. Cupping it, he reached over the leftmost book on the shelf and dropped something behind it.
He glanced around to see if he had been observed. No.
Leaving the shop he gave Red Ronnie a wink and Ronnie smiled back, closed mouthed. Vaquero headed back up the hill to his seat outside the Cock and Weather.
* * * * * * *
Red Ronnie had had three hours booked on the pitch outside the charity shop. It was four o’clock.
It was a long time to stand silently with five wraps in your mouth. They were small and flat and so they fit into his cheek cavity like a squirrel and he could still talk without hindrance if he needed to. Clients would come up to him and he would cough out a product into his hand, his deal with Vaquero being every fifth one was his. The pitch was conveniently located just down Milsom Street from the Drugs and Homelessness Initiative doors which were just past Jollys Department store, so the DHI clients could pick up clean needles and wander down the street to purchase a little of what they liked.
He was “Red” for his politics….Ronnie had been a shop steward at Cadbury’s before he contracted Hep C and signed off on the sick. Now he lived on Disability Living Allowance and Housing Benefit in a housing association flat on the Paragon.
Young Billy arrived to take his place on the pitch, five minutes late. Red reckoned he had made six quid in total. He decided to stop in at Waitrose on his way home. He took off his seller’s bib, folded it and put it in his rucksack along with his unsold Big Reads. He buttoned up his overcoat which drooped from his thin slouched shoulders like a grey waterfall and picked up his bag. With a wave to Billy he set off.
His wraps remained in his cheek in case of stop and search….the police had no authority to search his mouth simply on suspicion if he was stopped and questioned. Not in the street. And he could always swallow.
In Waitrose, Red made his way to the liquor section and the single malts, where he stood imagining himself cloaked in a white light. He felt it in his chest and he felt it grow until it surrounded him in a shimmering shroud, gifting him with spiritual immunity. Fuckit. Go for it. Choosing his moment in time, he casually took a bottle of Glen Livet 15 year old malt from the shelf, dropped his arm to his side and let it slide into his gaping overcoat pocket. He kept his hand on its neck, covering it.
In his body, he was still. A calm glance over at Security. A glance at the till counters. Gently step away and….he was making his way out of the store. Measured steps, no hurry.
Out of the store, Red crossed Walcot St and began walking up Broad St towards home. He was relaxing by the moment. Yes! He’d done it again! There was no stopping the boy!
At the lights he popped into the corner Seven-Eleven and bought a pint of milk. He turned right and walked along the Paragon, a long row of four story Georgian houses, built into the hill to overlook Walcot St on one side and to face the road on the Paragon side.
His doorway was just like the others, plain and blue against the golden Bath stone of which the row of houses was constructed. Once inside and standing in his front hallway he finally took his wraps from his mouth. His two bedroomed flat was on the second floor and he took the four flights of grey carpeted stairs wearily. Struggling with the last stairs, time seemed to stretch, he couldn’t get through the door fast enough to start feeling better.
The ammonia was under the sink. He had put the stained test tube under there too. He put these together with the wrap on the kitchen table. Red cracked the bottle with a wrist twist and poured himself a stiff whiskey in a glass from the sink. He took a swig of the brown liquor, ignoring his ailing liver. He opened a wrap, unwinding the cellophane that had kept it dry all these hours in his mouth. Once open, the two inch square of paper held a small mound of off-white powder.
Standing up he took the test tube over to the sink and added about twenty drops of water, drop by drop.
Back at the table, Red picked up a spatula and carefully picked up some of the charlie and put it down the neck of the test tube. He added three drops of ammonia and lit the gas hob. He let the blue flame play about the base of the test tube. The cocaine sulphate solution began to bubble and cocaine hydroxide started to precipitate out of the solution, forming an uneven white pebble.
Red began humming to himself.
* * * * * * *
Crazy Tom the ex-cage fighter came round the corner of the Litten Tree, walking along George Street, in front of the Cock and Weather where Vaquero sat. He stopped when he saw Vaquero in his usual seat.
“Hey John, did you hear? Mick’s been arrested!”
“Well, I warned him” said Vaquero. “There was a warrant out for his arrest. He was supposed to appear in Crown Court.”
“Really?” said Crazy Tom, who was about five foot six high and five foot six wide. “What did he do?”
“Well, there are two stories… One is that a boy saw him squirting blood from his works into the sink at Café Costa and the other is that he actually injected the blood into the soap dispenser. Either way he was nabbed by the manager who called the police. The police gave Mick a blood test and he’s HIV positive and he has hep C. So it went to Crown Court….exposing the public to a dangerous virus, you know? But I saw him on the day and he didn’t go to court. Which means an automatic warrant and remand, you know?”
“What a bastard!” said Crazy Tom full of indignant outrage. “Doing something like that he deserves what he gets!”
“If they find out he did that in prison he’ll get a hiding” said Vaquero.
“Yeah!” said Crazy Tom plainly in agreement. He was stripped to the waist and his torso was a mass of green tattoos. His mouth was a yellow gash of tooth stumps and decay and his nose had been broken badly.
“Mick’s a nasty piece of work. I’ve been with him in Hedgemead Park and he just threw the needle down in the grass! That’s bad, you know? Think of the poor mother and the three month wait for the okay from a blood test after being pricked by an infected needle!”
“I guess we aren’t going to see much of him for a while.”
“And he’s not a registered addict so the most he can expect is a few codeine. They can’t force him to detox if he’s a registered addict… there was that case a few years ago where all those addicts got a payout for being forced to go cold turkey when they got arrested. But if he’s not a registered addict he’s going to suffer before they start helping him.” Vaquero could be eloquent when he was on topic. Pharmaceuticals and the law.
Crazy Tom grinned. “Serve the bastard right, I say! Alright John, I’ll see you later! Have a good day now!”
Vaquero sat in thought watching Tom continue on his way along George Street. It looked like he was heading for Victoria Park and the drinkers that hung out there.
The streets were going to look different for a while without Mick around, Vaquero mused.
* * * * * * *
With his right hand, Kurt held the lighter flame steadily under the teaspoon. In the spoon was a mixture of water and cocaine. As he heated it the cocaine bubbled and dissolved into the water, the crystalline powder slumping and merging with the fluid until it was a suspended white fog.
He picked up a cigarette filter and dropped it into the solution in the spoon. He dipped the sharp tip into the solution, poking it into the the filter and began pulling the plunger, drawing the solution into the syringe.
Carefully he placed the spoon down on the table near the full ashtray and pulled hard at the leather belt wrapped around his left upper arm which was bare. He turned his arm to the light, letting the veins inside his elbow inflate and distend. The tip of the needle looked keen against the white flesh as he inserted it. He felt a deep satisfaction as it plunged through the wall of his vein and into the dark blood.
Gently he withdrew the plunger until a red tinge appeared at the base of the syringe, then he reversed the pressure and gently and smoothly pressed the plunger home, pushing the solution into his arm.
He replaced the needle on the coffeetable. He took the loose end of the belt and unwound it, releasing the pressure on his arm.
Kurt’s eyes closed as he felt the pounding in his head beginning to pulse. His heart started racing and for a moment he thought he was going to vomit…. but the feeling subsided. He breathed out with sigh as the heat spread through his body.