Poverty. Politics. Betrayal.
The new novel that readers are saying ‘can’t be put down’ and ‘deserves the hype’.
It wasn’t until chicken schnitzel and Sacher torte that Jon Evans began to realise the full consequences of his actions. The Frenchman had been dead for several weeks by then.
Their meeting was fortuitous, he remembered, though not as unlikely nor as preordained as he would have liked to believe.
It was a Saturday morning, and Jasmine had just stepped up to the podium to deliver her speech. It was Jon’s speech, he reminded himself. He had written it. But no one would know. Her fluent delivery and the scant usage she made of the teleprompter ensured that all eyes were on the new prime minister. All eyes except her husband Jon’s, who was glaring at the young man two rows away.
‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’ As she repeated the phrase, each time her voice box reached the long ‘u’ syllable, the crowd grew quieter, until at last only the shuffle of feet could be heard.
The man, mid-thirties, had sweeping brown hair that thinned at the temples and a cropped beard that hinted at some exotic origin. The beard’s hairs were a shade darker than the hair on his head, and they bent at the ends almost to a curl. His blue eyes were piercing, and although he looked at Jasmine, or rather at the back of her head, Jon felt that the man’s eyes were also looking at him sideways, everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
Jasmine was on the fifth or sixth sentence now. She paused. The audience cheered on cue.
Jon looked down at the cardboard programme and found the man’s name on the attendees list. Jean-Pierre Mokrani, cultural attaché of France.
Mokrani was a regular on the cable news circuit before his appointment to the embassy. Jon and Jasmine had lived in Paris then. France 24, Al Jazeera, CNN, Euronews, TV5Monde. Mokrani was always on one of these channels, engaged in a panel on a contemporary cultural issue or answering questions about his party’s latest political move in opposition to the government. It had been a shock when this rising star on the sociopolitical scene accepted the French president’s request to join the foreign service, quashing his ability to speak openly and critically. The media had even suggested that the French government had coaxed him into service in a keeping-your-enemies-closer strategy. In short, this was precisely the man Jon needed.
Mokrani shifted his gaze in Jon’s direction. But only for a moment. Then he was staring at the back of Jasmine’s head again. But in that moment, they were entirely the same, Jon Evans and Jean-Pierre Mokrani, in their ridiculous roles, warming the benches in crumpled morning suits, with wandering eyes and tight lips.
Chapter 1 (Excerpt)
Milo first appeared in New Bond Street on 21 March, the first day of spring. Tereza, his mother, and Arsenije, her most recent boyfriend, sent Milo there with a faded tartan blanket, three pounds sterling in coins, a felt top hat, and a crude cardboard sign. The instructions were clear: place the blanket in a visible, high-traffic area, and sit down. Position the hat in front of you, and prop the cardboard sign in front of the hat. Place the coins in the hat. Look sad. And wait.
Terence stepped out of the Green Street tube station at 9:30 a.m. This was an early morning for him, but he’d had a hard time sleeping, tossing in his plump, feather-filled bed until about three and then waking up before eight. The tossing-about annoyed him more than the sleeplessness did. The designer bed had cost more than a few months’ salary — a true luxury to someone whose income could vary from month to month as drastically as his did — and for what? Only to toss about in discomfort. Had honesty prevailed, Terence would have admitted to himself that his overworked mind, not the pricey bed, was the real culprit. But staggering across the busy London thoroughfare, his thoughts were on caffeine, not philosophy or psychiatry. The city buzzed this time of morning, and the long line outside his usual Starbucks surprised Terence; he was used to being one of only a handful of people there at his usual 10:45 arrival time. The urge for a caffeine jolt was stronger than his patience to queue or any brand loyalty, so Terence did what anyone with a mild stimulant addiction running on five hours of sleep would do: he went to find the next nearest café.
Although New Bond Street was a change of scenery, a new workplace so to speak, Milo had no problem setting up his station. And why would he? They had given him the same instructions the last time (at an intersection in Piccadilly Circus) and before that too (on the high road of a Leicestershire village). Only minor details were ever altered: the show money would increase or decrease based on Arsenije’s analysis of how much would appear reasonable to passersby. Tereza and Arsen might ask Milo to dress differently, sometimes in tatty hand-me-downs, sometimes disguised as a backpacker or a down-on-his-luck ne’er-do-well. But today, he’d been told to rely on the tried and tested homeless trope. That meant jeans with holes in them like tears from a giant mouse’s gnawing, trainers without laces and socks, and an oversized T-shirt. He had attempted to explain to his mother and to Arsen that holey denim, no-show socks, and oversized T-shirts were trendy these days, but they couldn’t grasp the concept.
‘You’re just trying to get out of going again,’ Tereza said.
‘You gotta believe me. It’s normal to dress like this now.’
‘Nevertheless,’ Arsenije replied in his accented English so that it sounded like nay-vay-duh-less, ‘You’re going!’ And with that, they put Milo on the bus outside their temporary dwelling at a hostel in Croydon. He got off an hour later in New Bond Street, accoutrements in tow.
Two doors from his usual Starbucks, Terence entered a no-brand café. A sign with the single word ‘Coffee’ hung over a wooden door. Only the tiniest amount of sunlight crept into the shop from a single pane of glass. There was no queue, though, and only one customer inside, an old man in his late seventies, perhaps a leftover fixture of the neighbourhood’s once-thriving Old Masters art scene or perhaps just a doorman at one of the grand old hotels nearby getting his Americano before his shift began. Terence’s spirits lifted. In three off-and-on years of patronising the Starbucks, he had never ventured a mere two doors down. But wait, was there something wrong with this place? Why would people wait on line for five, ten, or even fifteen minutes for a coffee so mass-produced that it had the same taste no matter where they were in the world, when they could get a better variety just a few feet down the road? Yes, there had to be something wrong with this no-name, no-customer place.
‘Can I help you?’
Shit. The yellow-eyed, middle-aged store assistant had snuck up from behind the café’s pinewood serving counter. Well, what difference did it make now? Terence thought. Any coffee would do, even this one.
‘A pound-fifty, please.’
‘For a double? That’s it?’
The assistant, whose name tag he now noticed read ‘James,’ nodded his head and smiled. Terence pulled out his bank card, involuntarily moving it in a downwards motion as though he were paying using the contactless feature.
‘Oh, sorry,’ said James, ‘cash only.’ He pointed to a handwritten sign on the door’s window.
Terence froze, then began desperately patting the sides of his trouser pockets. Nothing there. He searched the pockets of his rucksack. Nothing there either save a few paper receipts and an old electric bill.
‘I, uh, I need…’ What would he do? Go to the cashpoint? Fine, fine, but that would take the same amount of time as if he had waited in the queue at Starbucks. Damn it!
‘Don’t sweat it,’ said James. ‘This one is on the house.’
‘Are you certain?’ Terence couldn’t bring himself to look at James, this sunray-haired, chubby shop assistant. Eye contact would make it too real. Though it was a small gift of only a pound and a half, probably nothing of real value to the store’s inventory, it had saved Terence from a minor humiliation. He looked away for a moment, then bit his lower lip and looked up at James, grateful for the kindness of a stranger.
James smiled again, and pushed the Styrofoam cup across the counter.
By 10:00, the suits and brogues and high-heels had disappeared into office buildings and storefronts. Sharp tourists and chic locals replaced them, wearing faded denim cutoffs, sneakers, and white T-shirts. But Arsen had been right on some level: you could distinguish these folks by their designer bags, by the brand labels on their shoes, and the Rolex watches on their wrists.
There was a trick to working the streets, and there was a goal. The trick was to look ahead, or down, or up, or across… at a vantage point so remote that it was clear you were not sleeping or otherwise preoccupied (from intoxication, for example) but that you held on to some decency, some self-respect. You did not look your patrons in the eye. Milo had tried that before, and his glare had outed him. The goal, then, was twenty quid per day. It had been £15, but Tereza became unconvinced that she could feed herself and, at the same time, enable Arsen’s various gambling, drinking, and smoking habits on a mere £450 per month. Twenty quid per day, and Milo could keep two. He thought, more than a few times, of holding onto the excess on days when the felt top hat came in over budget. But skimming more than his share seemed fraught with problems, not the least of which was what would happen to him if they found out. It had been enough that once he’d had a cheeseburger and fries. When Tereza found the crumpled receipt in the pocket of that week’s chino uniform, she’d yelled at him for five minutes. But the whipping from Arsen’s imitation leather belt had left deep purple and magenta scars that still hurt if Milo thought too long about them. And if he thought about those scars, he thought about the other ones, too. The scars no one could see, the scars that would only manifest if he let his mind reach far back. Today, he fixed his vantage point on a crowded Starbucks on the opposite corner. The constant flow of people moving in and out made for interesting people watching and kept his mind off remembering. It was working, too. More than a dozen people had crossed the streets on their way to wherever they were going and dropped some coins into his top hat, seeming remnants of their caffeine-addicted payments. Just judging from the amount of foot traffic, Milo estimated he was at nine or ten pounds already. Every half hour, he’d glance around to ensure no one was looking and then swoop out the bulk of the money, transferring it to his pocket, leaving a little show money. When most of the day labourers moved inside, though, traffic slowed. Even the Starbucks was empty. Two doors down, a shop with only the word ‘Coffee’ above its entryway held even less appeal. Milo sighed. He knew there was little use in complaining. There were worse things, he imagined, like sleeping in a park. And two pounds a day was enough to get a sandwich if someone didn’t offer him food, which they normally did. With the roughly £300 he’d saved already, he might get away soon, maybe fly to the States or take a train north, look for work, maybe go to school, and afford a simple room somewhere. Just a little while longer, and the money in the small wooden matchbox he kept in his rucksack would pave the way to something better. Just as long as Arsen didn’t get wind of it. Milo felt sure his mother’s boyfriend would not take kindly to a hidden stash of small notes.
This is an excerpt from A Dragonfly’s Wing, a new political thriller from Jeremy Bradley-Silverio Donato. Available for purchase here.