by Joe Davison
(Swans - January 3, 2005) We arrived in Paris late at night. My first sight of the Eiffel Tower, spectacularly lit up under a full moon, was tempered by the fact Muktar wasn't sure how to get to our hotel. After working a full day in the showroom, followed by a three and a half hour drive from Brussels, I was exhausted. I knew we had a busy three days in front of us and I wanted, needed, some sleep.
Muktar, reading my mind, said: "Don't worry, my friend. I'll find it."
I didn't have much faith in this pronouncement. All I could see in front of me was two or three hours of driving round Paris looking for the place. We had reservations there, made for us by Rashid from his office back in Brussels, and Muktar had assured both Rashid and I that he knew how to get to the place. He'd lied.
"Look, why don't we just find another hotel? We'll catch up with Heinrich tomorrow at the show."
Muktar didn't offer any reply. I wasn't sure he even heard. He kept his eyes on the road, moving his head in time to the Asian music that I'd been forced to endure for the entire journey. I focused on the rapidly approaching Parisian skyline. Under normal circumstances I know I would've found it breathtaking.
After driving round busy and unfamiliar streets for over an hour, Muktar took my advice. We found a place in a side street somewhere, close to the red light district judging by the prostitutes standing in doorways nearby. We parked the car and went inside.
The inside was worse than the outside. A stale smell hit me at the same time as I clapped eyes on the rotten state of the decor. I doubt you'd find this place listed in any Paris tourist guide worth reading. The old woman behind the desk greeted us with this unfriendly, blank expression on her face. If it weren't for the fact I was exhausted, there would've been no way I'd even have considered staying here.
She showed us up a steep set of narrow stairs to the second floor. Everything about it was seedy -- from the creaky floorboards to the stain-covered wallpaper. Muktar and I were shown into adjoining rooms. We each took our keys and immediately retired. I didn't even bother to switch on the light. I threw my clothes onto the back of a wooden chair and climbed into bed. Only four hours before I'd have to get up again.
In the morning I quickly dressed and made my way downstairs. Muktar appeared ten minutes after, looking remarkably fresh. The unfriendly woman from the night before was still there. Judging by the way she reacted after we complained about the state of our accommodation, she owned the place.
"You dirty people! You mafia!" she shouted after us.
We put our bags into the trunk of the car. It was early, I hadn't had so much as one cup of coffee to help perk me up, and we were on our way to Premiere Vision, a huge textile trade show being held on the outskirts of the city. Ahead lay a long, stressful day and I'd only had four hours sleep. Consequently, I quickly lapsed into a sullen mood.
The first thing we had to do was make contact with Heinrich. He was here from Düsseldorf, from the German side of the operation. If this was going to be successful, then we had to sit down together and work out a strategy for the next three days.
The arena was surprisingly easy to find. It was located roughly 10km from the center of the city. Crowds of people were milling around outside the entrance. In the car park, expensive, top of the range vehicles were commonplace, and the place literally reeked of money.
Muktar and I had to stand in one of four lines to sign up and get our accreditation. Expensively dressed businessmen and women from every corner of the globe filled the place, and by now I was no longer tired and couldn't wait to get started.
We each filled out a form requesting our names, the name of our company, and the company address. We both gave a false name; the ones we'd been using for the past six months or so. There was a more than good chance the authorities would come sniffing around after this was over, and the last thing I needed was for them to know my real name. I could feel the adrenaline rushing through my veins at this point. Here we were -- in amongst this glamorous, upscale crowd -- about to defraud thousands of pounds worth of merchandise from as many suppliers as we possibly could. Much depended on the success of this trip.
I'd been working with this mob long enough to know they weren't anywhere near as professional as they needed to be. Rashid, the boss, was a shrewd cookie -- of that there was no doubt. But he'd surrounded himself with idiots, men who weren't anywhere near as shrewd, and this was his weakness. He liked to have these yes-men around to bolster his ego. It had got so bad that over the past few weeks I'd even begun to regret ever getting myself involved. What had started out as a good, clever way to make a lot of money was beginning to get extremely dodgy. The authorities, both in Brussels, where I was based, and in Germany, were starting to take notice. I was worried.
Inside the main arena, the place was awash with people. Thousands of trade stands were vying with one another for business. Small, independent textile manufacturers from India were attempting to compete with huge multinational corporations from Italy. This was capitalism at the sharp end. Some of the smaller companies would survive or go under depending on the next three days here. Survival of the fittest, and we were here to fuck all of them - big and small.
Muktar and I were posing as buyers for two, separate textile import/export companies. The idea was to get as much merchandise on credit as possible. This merchandise would then be sold in the showroom and the credit never be paid. In time a bankruptcy would be declared, then another company set up elsewhere under a new name. Our job was to persuade the manufacturers and suppliers to give us credit. It wasn't all that difficult if you knew the game and how it worked. You had to appeal to the sense of greed that drives all businesses and businessmen: show them the rose garden, as Rashid had put it to me back in his office when discussing the finer points of fraud one night over a bottle of Scotch. Indeed, I'd learned for myself that most of these people believed what they wanted to believe. The risk they were taking in delivering large quantities of stock on credit was far outweighed by the anticipation of making a hefty profit. From us, though, they were guaranteed no profit whatsoever. None.
I followed Muktar as he led the way to the hall where ladies and gents casual wear was situated. Dressed in expensive suits, clutching leather briefcases, we blended in well. I saw more gorgeous women in one morning here, than I'd seen in the whole of the preceding six months.
Although we worked for the same organization, Muktar and I were at this trade show on the pretense of working for two different textile companies based in Brussels. In order for us not to attract any suspicion we both had to appear as if we were here separately and didn't know one other. Fraud was rife in this business, and the companies we were attempting to hit had learned from hard experience to spot shysters.
I was looking to order small quantities of jeans and casual jackets for my bogus company, while Muktar was here for large amounts of fleece jackets and material for his. The company I represented was small and unknown, having only just been set up. Therefore, I had to order small amounts if suppliers were going to deliver. But these individual small amounts would soon add up if I hit enough suppliers.
As soon as you entered a trade stand, the salesman or woman would meet you with the most insincere smile imaginable. They'd stand back and allow you to browse for a few minutes, usually three to five, before moving in.
"What interests you today, sir?"
"I'm looking for ladies and gents jeans."
At this, their eyes light up.
"Oh yes. And in what quantities?"
"Five hundred pairs of each. These look good."
Once you'd established what you wanted and in what quantity, they'd give you the VIP treatment. Shown to a table, you'd be showered you with wine and chocolates, while, at the same time, preparing your order. Sometimes when dealing with the larger suppliers, they would even have a girl model the particular garment that you were interested in ordering.
The hard and most important part came when discussing payment terms. Of course, the suppliers would try to negotiate cash on delivery or letter of credit.
You're job was to persuade them otherwise; usually with the promise of more orders in the future. The norm for credit was thirty days; however, if you were lucky, and good, you could sometimes stretch this to sixty days.
Muktar and I must've hit over thirty different suppliers on our first day at Premiere Vision. It was tiring, stressful work. Luckily, as the first day drew to a close, we ran into Heinrich, which meant that our hotel accommodation for the next two nights was now assured and I could look forward to a hot shower, soft bed and room service.
Heinrich was an interesting character with a colorful past. He'd served eight years in prison for drug trafficking in the former East Germany before getting involved in the textile business. Rashid met and brought him on board because of his knowledge and insight into how the business operated. I learned quickly, however, that Heinrich hated the Asians; he didn't trust any of them and was convinced they'd try and cheat him out of his share at the end.
Heinrich carried some kind of nervous twitch that made you feel as if he were winking at you all the time. But once he told me about the horrible experiences he'd endured whilst in prison, I understood both the twitch and his mistrust of his business partners.
The hotel where Heinrich was staying, where Muktar and I were supposed to have stayed the night before, was, as I knew it would be, a palace compared to the dump of the night before. It was clean and very spacious. I got into my room and flopped down onto an inviting double bed. I was about to drift off to sleep when a sharp knock on my door caused me to jump.
"Who is it?"
"Heinrich. Open up."
I got up and let him in.
"Come on, get dressed. It's time to hit the town."
I looked at Heinrich, standing there with a big smile on his face. I'm sure it was the first time I'd seen him smile since I met him.
"He's getting ready."
"Okay," I said. "I'll meet you down in reception in ten minutes."
"Make it five. I'm hungry."
By the time I'd had a quick shower and put on some fresh clothes, I felt awake again. In place of fatigue was the thrill of heading out to sample the world famous Parisian nightlife. Previously, I'd been too wound up to think about enjoying myself. Now I intended to make amends. After all, this was Paris.
We were driving up the Champs Elysées, listening to Heinrich's stories of his many and various experiences of Paris on previous trips. Each one seemed more wild and outlandish than the last. The line between fact and fiction was crossed in his good-natured exuberance, of that I was certain. However, I didn't mind. It was good to be in Heinrich's company. His enthusiasm was infectious.
Muktar was behind the wheel as Heinrich gave directions to a Brazilian restaurant he claimed was like no other restaurant in Paris, in the world no less. It was somewhere off the Champs Elysées, he claimed.
The traffic was wild, cars and motorbikes cutting in and out of lanes, horns blaring after them. Everywhere you looked there was flashing lights. At intersections, policemen frantically attempted to keep some semblance of order as they directed the chaotic traffic. I felt my heart beating faster. I can't explain it, but in Paris there's an excitement, a surge of energy in the air that you'll be hard put to find anywhere else.
Muktar parked the car in a side street as near as possible to the Champs Elysées. Heinrich was sure the restaurant was nearby; he couldn't be a hundred percent sure as it had been a few years since his last visit. We walked along street after street, following Heinrich's nose. Muktar and I were all for going to another place, one of the many we passed, but Heinrich was adamant we had to find this one.
There were conversations taking place on the pavement, people shouting to each other in drunken voices. I wished I could speak French. Heinrich must've had the same thought, because he turned to me and smiled. I smiled back and, turning to Muktar, saw that he was smiling, too. At that precise moment we all liked one other, suspicion and mistrust temporarily forgotten.
It was strange though. Even though Heinrich knew the Asians would cheat him, he still clung onto a tiny shred of hope that he'd, somehow, find a way to stop them. Rashid and Muktar had spoken many times of leaving Heinrich with nothing once this was over. In Rashid's office, I'd sat and listened, asking myself the same question: "If they can do it to Heinrich, what's to prevent them doing it to me?"
We found the Brazilian restaurant and found that Heinrich had been right; it was worth all the trouble getting there.
Before, whenever thinking of a restaurant, I'd always imagined a small, quiet place with couples sitting either side of a small table in candlelight, eating their meal and speaking to one another in low, hushed voices. This place was as far from that image as you could possibly get. In fact, it was more a nightclub than a restaurant. Inside, it was huge, with tables and booths surrounding a large dancefloor. The tables were served by beautiful girls dressed in traditional Brazilian costumes. They writhed and wiggled in and out of the tables, moving in time to the loud South American music being played by a four-piece band. Me, I was dumbstruck.
We waited at the bar for twenty minutes, until one of the tables became available. I'd already downed a cocktail at the bar, one that Heinrich had recommended, which went straight to my head. The drink, the music, the gorgeous girls, everything contributed to the sense of elation I was feeling. I was buzzing. We all were.
"This is what money can bring you, my friend," Muktar said.
Heinrich replied: "If I had enough money, I'd buy this place."
"If you did you'd be dead in one month."
"You should open one of these restaurants in Düsseldorf," I said to Heinrich.
"Why Düsseldorf? If I'm going to be dead in a month, I'd rather die here. In Paris."
The food was incredible. I ate a South American meat dish, with vegetables and sweet potatoes. Terrific. We ate and drank, and then drank some more. Nobody talked about business, or money, or problems, about anything that could possibly lessen the night's enjoyment. I smiled at all the waitresses, hoping in my drunken state that one of them might come back to my hotel if I made the right approach.
"I think that waitress over there is the most beautiful woman I've ever seen."
Both Muktar and Heinrich turned to look.
"She's a transvestite," Heinrich said flatly.
I was gobsmacked.
"No way. That's definitely a real woman. Look at her figure, her hair. There's no way she could be anything else."
Heinrich finished chewing a mouthful of food.
"I know her. I've been here before. That's a man, dressed up as a woman. Of course he's beautiful. They wouldn't employ him otherwise."
I stared at Heinrich, then back at the waitress. Muktar began to laugh. Heinrich joined in. I'd been taken, set up, and I could feel my face turn red. Bastards.
"Okay, okay," I said. "I knew she had to be a real woman. I just didn't want to offend anyone by arguing the point, that's all."
"Don't worry," Heinrich said. "If you want a transvestite, I know a place."
This set Muktar off again. He was choking with laughter. I ordered more wine. The night was still young.
The next morning the phone rang and I woke with a strange roaring noise coming from inside my head. It sounded similar to the noise you hear when you place a seashell to your ear. Muktar had ordered an alarm call for seven a.m. The combination of this call and the Pacific Ocean roaring inside my brain drove me straight to the bathroom.
Over breakfast we discussed the day's strategy and the business at hand. Heinrich thought we should split up and each go our separate ways, thereby negating the possibility of anyone becoming suspicious. Both Muktar and I thought this suggestion ludicrous.
"Come on, Heinrich," I said. "There are thousands of people there. No one's going to get suspicious at three men walking round. As long as we don't hold hands, we'll be fine."
"I'm telling you," he replied, "it's better to be careful. Who knows what might happen?"
I looked at Muktar, who was shaking his head. Heinrich was being cautious to the point of stupidity. Yet there was no point arguing with him.
"Okay, Heinrich," Muktar said. "We go together. You go alone."
Heinrich said nothing; he just drank up his coffee and began twitching nervously.
The second day wasn't as good as the first. Muktar and I concentrated on the big companies this time, but found they were much harder to deal with than the smaller ones. They weren't as desperate for business and could afford stricter payment terms. We hit three with no joy whatsoever. During one negotiation, as soon as I broached the subject of credit the guy nearly had a fit, accusing me of wasting his time.
I wanted to go back to the hotel and sleep. My feet were aching from tramping between trade stand to trade stand, and my brain couldn't function properly.
Muktar was relentless, determined to get some big orders.
An Italian company was putting on a fashion show. This was my opportunity to get some rest.
"Muktar, I'll catch you up later."
We arranged to meet at one of the many eateries located in the main hall. I grabbed a seat and settled down to watch the show. I spent the rest of the day there.
Back at the hotel, Muktar had to report back to Rashid over the day's events. He left me in the lounge to go and make the call. It wouldn't have bothered me before; I was used to the secrecy. In their company I was always kept in the dark, especially as they always conversed in their native tongue. But now, sitting in this hotel lounge by myself, I felt uneasy. I tried to shrug it off at first, blaming it on exhaustion. But I knew it was more than that. Being around Heinrich, listening to him going on about the Asians and their intention to cheat us had begun to have an effect. This whole operation would soon be at an end and I already knew they were going to fuck Heinrich.
Why not me? What was so special about me?
I racked my brains, hoping to come up with one thing that set me apart from Heinrich in their eyes. I was sharper than Heinrich. But sharp enough to not get ripped off?
The Asians, Rashid especially, had treated me well. So what? A nice hotel and a healthy expense account meant nothing. It had been in their interests to treat me well. I'd been sticking my neck out for them.
Round and round the questions went in my brain, until Muktar came back to the bar. He was in a buoyant mood.
"Okay, my friend," he said, clapping his hands together. "Let's finish these drinks and hit the town."
The last day at Premiere Vision and I was looking forward to getting it over with. I was anxious to get back to Brussels, where I could keep an eye on Rashid. I'd decided to keep calm, not to let them see I didn't trust them the way Heinrich had done; but I was also determined that from now till the end I wouldn't let Rashid or Muktar out of my sight.
After the last day at the show, the three of us went out to a small restaurant close to the hotel. The atmosphere was strained. Both the German and Belgian operations would soon be winding up.
I felt sorry for Heinrich. He'd tried to get me to support him, to help him betray the Asians, but I couldn't. They were too strong to allow that to happen and I would've been making a huge mistake. Heinrich was on his own, with no allies.
The meal ended and we said our farewells. Heinrich went back to Düsseldorf and Muktar and I returned to Brussels.
Six weeks later, once everything had been completed, I was lying on a beach in California. Muktar moved to Holland and started up another company. Heinrich took the fall and ended up in jail.
He'd been right all along.