They weren’t as big and impressive as they had claimed. Not in Scotland, anyway. He knew how well connected they were in Eastern Europe because he’d seen it firsthand. Worked those long-established and deep-running networks and made good money from them. But here he was, Martin Sivok, thirty-one, short, stocky and standing in a foreign country. He needed their connections to help him now if he was going to survive the upheaval working for them had brought about. They got him some work. Some. Like, a little. Crappy jobs for crappy money.
Back in Brno they had been the biggest gang in town and had enough strength to make sure they stayed that way. A healthy percentage of the high-value drugs coming into the city and the region passed through them. Money flowed in with it, and Martin got his cut because Martin did some very dirty jobs for them. They liked him, they valued him. That’s why they helped him get west and get safe when he was running from the police.
They tried to find him work, but it wasn’t the same when they stepped outside of their own territory. There were other people in Glasgow, people who had been here a long time. Outsiders were growing rapidly in influence, but there was an old guard fighting to protect what had always been theirs. The gang that brought him across, they weren’t looking for trouble with the old guard. Working with them in supply, rather than against them in distribution. Making less money but avoiding any real conflict, for now at least. It was a different tactic from the norm, and one that meant Martin and his skills had nowhere to play in Glasgow.
So he was bounced back to the bottom of the heap. Nobody wants to be down there in the gutter of the criminal industry, not for long. Even kids starting out, their motivation is to get upwardly mobile. Get into the clouds where the money and influence are hidden. Well Martin had been up there already; he had just lost altitude. Meant learning the ropes in the new place; going back to school.
Learn who’s who, that’s important. Work out who you can do jobs for and who you can’t. Who you can trust and who’ll throw you overboard as soon as they’ve used you. Who has a long-term future in the city and who’s one step away from their ending. Work out who’s fighting wars against who so that you can try and benefit from the inevitable work conflict provides. Oh, and work out what the fuck these people are saying. His English was pretty good before he got here, been speaking it in bits since high school. Watched a lot of American TV and listened to a lot of music sung in what he thought was the right language. First day off the plane in Glasgow and he realized he’d learned the wrong English.
Took a while to get used to everything, but he did. He completed the often menial jobs they provided for him and made very little money along the way. He was practically living off his savings the first time he met Usman Kassar. He had mentioned his situation, a couple of times, to an absurdly hairy Polish guy with good English that seemed to be running things for the old gang hereabouts.
“There must be other things you could get me. I have done much more than this, back home. I can do it again.” Hinting at the high-value work he had made a living from.
“I know what you did,” the hairy man said, shrugging. His name was full of Z’s and Y’s, but Martin could never remember in what order. “There’s nothing here. People here, they have their own men like you. Men they trust. Men they’ve known for years. They don’t trust you.”
“I could do that work for you.”
“We aren’t doing that here, and we won’t be. I’m not teasing you here, kid. We have a good thing going that we won’t screw up. London, sure, other cities maybe. But we have a deal in Glasgow. A good one. There are others though. As long as you aren’t working against us, you don’t have to only work for us.”
That was disheartening. He’d been working for one gang for more than ten years, worked their toughest jobs back home. Now he was out of sight and out of mind. Hey, you want to go work for someone else you go knock yourself out. He felt dismissed. They’d brought him here as a courtesy, a thank-you for all the profitable work he’d done for them in the past, but they probably assumed he’d find work with someone else right away. He had clung on to them for too long.
Joanne Mathie knew what she’d be coming home to. She’d spent the previous evening stocktaking at the bookshop and spent the night at her sister’s. Had warned her daughter Skye she’d be back at ten o’clock the following morning, and any piles of partygoers better be cleared by then. Joanne would have been surprised if Skye had kept her word, so there was no shock when she opened the front door and found a sickly teenage girl blocking the corridor. Skye had thrown a party, and thrown the house around with it.
Joanne stepped over the girl in the corridor and went looking for her daughter. There were people in the living room and the kitchen, half of them asleep and the other half wishing they still were, nursing all kinds of headaches. Strangers asleep in various rooms and various positions. There was beer on the carpet and what looked like a bloodstain on the kitchen table that she didn’t want to think about. Couldn’t find Skye. Went upstairs looking for her. Found her in her bedroom, still under the quilt with a gormless-looking soul lying next to her.
“You get up,” Joanne shouted at her, before turning to the boy, “and you get out.”
The boy did as he was told, not so much as a good-bye as he pulled on some clothes and sprinted for freedom. Joanne stood over the bed while Skye made no effort at all to move.
“What?” Skye shouted.
“I tell you you can have a party but I’ll be back by ten so get the place cleaned up. That was all I asked of you. Have you taken a wee peek at a clock?”
“Just get out of my room,” Skye said petulantly, pulling the quilt over her head.
“This is the last time,” Joanne shouted, slamming the door behind her as she walked out of the room.
Went into her own bedroom and paused. A stocky, shaven-headed young man lying on the floor at the bottom of the bed, all on his own. Looked like he’d managed to have a happy enough time, aided only by a bottle and three cans lying beside him. Joanne kicked him good and hard on the ankle. A man lying on the floor of her bedroom uninvited, a kick was the least he deserved. He sat bolt upright, growling something in a language that may have been foreign or may have been drunken Glaswegian.
“Out,” Joanne said harshly, pointing at the door.
He got up and made to leave, pausing when he saw her begin to tidy up the mess he’d made. Walked back across and insisted on picking up everything he’d left on the floor, apologizing in broken English. Went downstairs with her, picking up more rubbish as he went. Refused to leave until he had helped her move furniture back into place, including tipping two sleeping people off the sofa and barking at them to leave when they dared complain. He had the place cleaned and cleared in a little over forty minutes. She felt obliged to offer him a cup of coffee.
Said his name was Martin, from the Czech Republic, and emphasized the fact he was single. Joanne was thirty-nine, tidy dark hair, a pretty face, and short, which suited Martin. Truth was he had no idea where he was and had no money for a taxi so leaving wasn’t a tempting option. They chatted for almost an hour, Joanne enjoying this straightforward little man. He was smart and self-effacing, but there was an unmistakable edge to the quiet confidence that radiated from him. An ordinary face with eyes that routinely hinted at far more than was spoken.
He visited the house the following day, and things moved fast. Joanne was old enough to know her mind and not debate it. She liked Martin and Martin liked her so they spent a lot of time together. Three months after meeting and he had practically moved in.
Usman Kassar. Jesus, the first time Martin met him he was convinced the boy was a halfwit. Had a big puffy jacket, oversized red headphones draped round his neck and some goofy cap or hat on. He was dressed for attention. They were exchanging a large sum of money for a significant quantity of pills and his outfit could scarcely have been less suitable. Doing a drug deal in an outfit you’d have to be high to wear. Could have carried round a neon sign and he wouldn’t have been any more conspicuous.They were exchanging a large sum of money for a significant quantity of pills and his outfit could scarcely have been less suitable.
It was in the back office of a hairdressers in Hillhead that the deal was done. A group of Pakistanis with Scottish accents and Eastern Europeans with Eastern European accents. Everything had long since been agreed, this was just the twitchy handover. You do the negotiation first, separately. Don’t negotiate with the gear on the table, that has a habit of clouding stupid people’s judgment, which is typically not clear to begin with. Martin didn’t know who any of them were, not even the guys he was there with.
One was Polish, the other might have been Ukrainian, maybe Russian, didn’t speak enough to clarify either way. Didn’t matter, Martin was just there to make up the numbers.
There were polite handshakes to begin with. The gear was handed over, the cash moved the other way. The possible Ukrainian pocketed the packet of money, the man Usman was with took the bags of pills. That fellow seemed jolly, he and Usman happy with the deal. The sellers though seemed to be trying to play up to some inscrutable Eastern European stereotype, all scowls and shrugs that would disappear when there were no strangers around, so Martin played along. Give the people what they expect.
The possible Ukrainian and the other guy on Martin’s side left together. Left him, nothing more than hired muscle they didn’t need any more, to make his own way home. He was starting to stroll down the street, hoping to bump into a bus stop, get himself closer to Joanne’s house in Mount Florida, which was neither a mountain nor in Florida. They were good with names round here though, he would give them that. He heard footsteps scuffing along the pavement behind him.
Usman Kassar made up an excuse with his brother, told Akram he was going to meet a mate so couldn’t take the pills back with him. Story accepted, and Usman went scuffing off down the street to catch up with the foreigner. A lazy person running, not getting their feet off the ground properly and not caring about the noise they made. Struggling to catch up with that little guy.
Wouldn’t make a good first impression and he knew it, the little skinhead frowning over his shoulder at the approaching Usman. You’re unarmed and alone and some guy you’ve just done a drug deal with is running toward you. Usman was on his own too, sure, but that didn’t mean anything. He would be on his own if he was looking to attack. Akram would then drive up alongside so that he could jump straight into the car for a getaway. Sort of thing the foreigner had probably done before, back in the day, before he graduated to more complicated things.
Usman assumed he looked as impressive as he felt, young and tough and bristling with masculine energy. He was busy hanging on to his oversized headphones, and his attempt at running had neither the pace nor the urgency of a man in a real hurry. Also, he sure as shit wasn’t afraid of being seen.
“Here, mate, wait up,” he said, wheezing out the last couple of words. He had run fifty feet, at most. “Slow down, slow down, man.”
Martin wasn’t walking quickly. He stopped and looked at this young man. Martin was thirty-one, but he looked older; Usman was twenty-five, but he looked younger. Thin as a rail, smooth cheeked and full of grins. He stopped beside Martin with one of those trademark grins all over his face, leaning forward with his hands nearly at his knees, panting.
“You are not fit,” Martin said quietly. Going for the deadpan approach, because that was what they had played in the hair-dressers.
“Aye, no, I’m not. Smoking too much good stuff. I know it, man, I know it. Listen, pal, you’re Martin, right, Martin Sivok?”
Martin frowned at that. First time anyone here had known his name before he’d told them and that made him suspicious. Someone had mentioned him to this kid and this kid had some way of profiting from it. Something else Martin had seen before. You hear a name and hear a few things that that name has done. You put pressure on that person, try and work an angle that puts money in your pocket. Blackmail, mainly. You give me money or I tell local police about you. Simple stuff if you can persuade the other person you have the balls to follow it through.
“Why do you want to know?” Martin said. Low tone, taking a single step forward to make the distance between him and this guy uncomfortably close. Let him see how quickly this could turn very nasty.
“Here, Jesus, calm yourself, man. It’s nothing bad. Fuck’s sake. Man, he said you’d be cool.”
“Przemek. That how you say it? Przemek Krawczyk?” Neither pronunciation anywhere close to correct. “I don’t know how to pronounce his name. We just call him PK. Everyone round here does, or we’d be falling over our fucking tongues. The Polish guy. Big hair, big beard. You know him, right?”
Martin nodded. The name, a mangled spit of vowels, sounded at least in the ball park of the hairy Pole’s. He knew him, just didn’t know why he’d be talking to this guy about him.
Usman looked at him and puffed out his cheeks. “Man, you’re hard work. He said you’d be cool about this. I don’t know, maybe he was wrong. Look, he told me you were a serious guy, you know, a guy who did big jobs. Said you were bored of the shitty stuff they have you doing for them. Said you might be looking for something a wee bit better.”
Martin said nothing for a few seconds. They were out on the bloody street and this wasn’t a conversation that sat comfortably in public, Usman knew. Two people had walked past them already and there were others coming into range. You don’t approach a serious guy in the middle of the fucking street where people can see you. But, maybe Martin wasn’t that serious any more. The Pole had said it was a while since he had pulled a big job, and reputations got swallowed fast.
“I’m interested in good work,” Martin said eventually. “If it’s serious. If it’s properly organized. If it’s with people I know and I trust. I don’t know you,” he said, and turned away.
That reaction wasn’t a surprise, the tough guy thinking he was swinging on the top branches of the tree. Always took men like him a while to realize that their celebrity only burned bright in their own neck of the woods, and now that they had left their home city some younger spark would be filling that vacuum.
Martin started to walk away, made it a few steps and found Usman bolting in front of him. He stood blocking the path, a big grin still on his face.
“Look, wee man, I know you’re reluctant. Sure you are. You don’t know me from Adam. Probably don’t know the city very well either, am I right? You come over here and you don’t get the sort of respect you got back home. People don’t treat you the way they should. Am I right? Yeah I am, I’m right. I seen it before. We got guys come over and they think they can be the same thing here they were back home. Doesn’t work that way, does it? You left behind whatever reputation you had back in the old country. So you need to find some right good jobs for yourself. Can’t lean on your old chums, you need to find good jobs for yourself, and I got a couple of belters.”
“These belters,” Martin said, only half sure of what the word meant. “You take them to your friend back there. Or another friend. I don’t know you well enough to trust you.”
He made a step to walk past Usman. Shove past him, if that was what it took. You wouldn’t know it to look at him but Usman was a determined man, happy to push his luck if it needed a nudge. He blocked Martin’s path again and held up a placating hand.“I need a serious guy, right. I know you’re a serious guy. You done the sort of thing I need help with, so this’ll be easy for you.”
“Right, here’s the thing. I need a serious guy, right. I know you’re a serious guy. You done the sort of thing I need help with, so this’ll be easy for you. I got a bunch of jobs planned out, I been scouting for ages, got all the detail, right. But I get that you don’t trust me because you don’t know me, that’s fine, so here’s what we do. I’m going to give you my number, because I know you won’t want to give me yours. You call me when you’re ready and I’ll tell you about one job. Just one to start, that’s fair enough. You and me, we talk it out. I tell you all about it, and how you can make a good fifteen grand off it. A week’s work, tops. Right?”
Martin stood and looked at him, considering it. Usman smiling, trying to look reasonable and persuasive. Couldn’t do any harm to take the phone number even if he had no intention of ever phoning the guy. Everyone promised big money for little work. It was the detail that would separate Usman from the criminal herd, but Martin had little intention of phoning to hear it, he just wanted this conversation to be over.
“Fine, I will take your number,” Martin said, taking his phone out of his pocket.
Usman told him the number, told him how to spell his name as well. As Martin turned to walk away Usman put a hand on his shoulder and stopped him.
“I bet you’re thinking that I’m some kind of bullshitter, eh? Big mouth kid and all that. Well I ain’t. This job, it’s a good one. I got all the plans and info to make it work clean. Just needs a driver and gunman, two-man job, me and you. But you wouldn’t have to pull the trigger, no way. Minimum thirty grand return. Minimum. You think about it. Call me and we’ll discuss it, I’ll give you the details. Don’t have to say yes, but at least talk to me about it. How are you ever going to get to know people in the business if you won’t work with them?”
Usman nodded, convinced he’d nailed the speech with that last gem at the end. Throw in a catch-22 that only he can solve for the new guy in town. He turned and walked back down the street, his tall and thin frame rocking side to side as he walked. An affectation, an attempt to look like the coolest man in Glasgow. Hard to say who he thought he was impressing, but he seemed committed to it. Going for a gangster swagger.
Martin took a walk to the nearest bus stop, still unsure of where everything was here. Best way to learn your way about was to travel in ignorance, watching the city going past and waiting for it to get familiar. He would make a little money just for turning up at the drug handover they’d done today, but only a little. Working security, a job he was no good at. Not in Glasgow, anyway. Here he was just a short man with a mean look and a funny accent whose threats were mostly misheard. God, funny accents summed up half the city from where he was standing, but he was the odd one out. So he wasn’t even intimidating here. No reputation. Nothing. He was starting from scratch, and how do you start from scratch without taking a chance on new people?
Excerpted from the book For Those Who Know The Ending by Malcolm Mackay. Copyright © 2018 by Malcolm Mackay. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.