This was back in 1955, when Tangier still functioned as an international free port, before Morocco took it over. You could buy any kind of action you wanted in Tangier in those days; women, boys, dope, booze, free-market money both real and counterfeit, gold, contraband diamonds, anything else portable. There were no import duties, no taxes, no trade restrictions of any kind and not too much policing by the Belgian flics who were supposed to keep order around town. Americans, like other nationals of the governing powers, had extra-territorial rights, too. If you did get into trouble with the law in Tangier—it was pretty hard to do, but it could be done—the judge of your case was one of your fellow-countrymen, usually your own consul. Normally he’d pass sentence by telling you to haul ass out of town before nightfall and not come back. It was a nice setup all round, if you didn’t get stabbed in a back alley for your pocket-money. That could happen, too.
One of the best buys in Tangier then was American cigarettes. A pack sold for the equivalent of about fifty cents U.S. on the black market in France and Italy. In case lots on the dock in Tangier you could buy the same pack for about eight cents. Since it was a run of only three days and three nights in a reasonably fast boat from Tangier to the French coast, a lot of smuggling went on. Much of the contraband was landed southeast of Marseille, where the shoreline is cut by dozens of little calanques, narrow inlets big enough to harbor a good-sized power boat where it won’t attract too much attention. I had a chance to ship aboard one of the contrabandiers as a deckhand and, if I wanted to invest my own money and take my own risks, become one of the minor partners in the venture. For services rendered, like swabbing the decks and heaving the trade goods.
I heard about it from Jean-Pierre, a friend of mine who had been a sous-bartender at the Martinez until Cedric caught him watering the Scotch to make up for what he was pilfering. He had connections, including the kind necessary to convert Emmaline’s thousand dollar check into francs at the black market rate. He hadn’t clipped me too badly on the deal, so I knew he was fairly honest, for a crook. He thought, or hoped, that a wealthy playboy like me could be persuaded to spring the necessary investment and cut him in for a piece because he was such a sweet fellow. He was décavé, as they say. Flat. Stony.
"Figure-toi," he said, over a beer he had persuaded me to buy him. He spoke better English than I did French, but I preferred to practice my French whenever possible. Since I was putting out for the beer, he obliged me. The dollars-and-cents figures are my own translation of what he said in francs, to make it easier to follow. "Figure-toi. With a thousand dollars we buy twenty cases, twelve thousand packs. At retail, that’s six thousand dollars, five thousand clear profit. Even if we wholesale them to get our money back fast, we can get thirty-five cents a pack easy. Let’s see, wait a minute, that works out at—"
"You wait a minute," I said. "What’s all this about ‘we’ and ‘our money’? What are you planning to put up?"
"Every sou I have in the world." He looked hurt. I suppose the way he had looked when they caught him watering the Scotch.
"How much is that?"
"Three hundred francs."
Three hundred francs was then, at the old rate, worth something less than seventy-five cents American. I said, "What did you have in mind for the profits from my thousand dollars and your three hundred francs? Something like a fifty-fifty split?"
"Certainly not. I concede that you should have more than half. Say seventy-five twenty-five? I have to do the cooking aboard the boat."
"Say nine hundred and ninety-nine to one if you serve soup the same way you serve whiskey. Anyway, I haven’t got anything like a thousand dollars left. I’ve been living on it for a couple of months now. Let’s start over again."
As it worked out, I was able to get up a good part of the thousand by cashing in the gold cigarette case, the wristwatch and the wardrobe Emmaline had bought me, including my elegant evening clothes (still with stray bits of confetti in the pockets). It left me stripped down to pretty much the assets I had on my back, but with those big profits to come on the investment I wasn’t worried. Jean-Pierre begged, borrowed or embezzled enough to sweeten his share of the pot a bit, and we went aboard the cigarette-runner in Marseille harbor.
It was a converted British navy cutter with a souped-up engine and a false name that Jean-Pierre and I had to paint over its rightful registry as soon as we were at sea. Its captain was a hardcase Corsican who went by the name of Le Sanglier. A sanglier is a wild boar, of which both Corsica and Sardinia still have respectable populations. They are among the most dangerous, ugly and single-minded killers in existence if you challenge them. Some sportsmen choose to do so with a lance and a pal standing backup with a rifle in case the lance misses. A sanglier will not only rip your guts out with his tusks if he can get them into you, he will eat your guts afterward for lunch. To look at, this one was no exception. All he lacked was the tusks sticking up out of his lower jaw. He had been away three times for murder, according to Jean-Pierre.
The mate—I guess you could call him that since he was the one who yelled at Jean-Pierre and me to get off our culs whenever anything had to be done aboard the cutter—was another Corsican, a relatively benevolent type who called himself La Planche; The Plank. He had only been away for murder once, which made him something of a sissy. All the gangstaires and hard characters doing business on the Côte d’Azur were Corsicans, great boys for a nice friendly vendetta with their pals when they weren’t knocking off other people. The Boar and The Plank were typical specimens. They were the ship’s complement except for Jean-Pierre, me and the engineer, who liked engines better than he liked people and mostly stayed below playing with his toys. If he had a name or nickname I never knew it, although I suppose the French cops did.
We put out of Marseille, stopped briefly at Barcelona for some reason that took The Boar ashore for a while but was none of my business and did not make me nosy. I am never nosy in any way about the doings of tough mecs like The Boar and The Plank. Two days and three nights later we put in at Gibraltar to fuel up for business. We shipped what seemed to me like an over-large deckload of high-test gasoline, in drums, as well as topping up the cutter’s fuel tanks. I was still keeping my nose strictly to myself, but The Plank bought a couple of bottles of something while we were at Gib, and while he didn’t offer to share with his hard-working crew it made him talkative enough to explain why we needed all the extra essence.
"Can’t always find it in Tangier," he said. "Then you’re in trouble. The Spaniards, dirty bastards, they run customs patrols out of Ceuta. As if they owned the Mediterranean. Even when you’re beyond the territorial limit, they come after you. With machine guns, no less. There are also pirates who cruise around looking for honest commerçants, to steal their goods. Even a good fast boat like this one, it can’t outrun a bullet, and they always aim for the fuel tanks, to cripple you. What we do is, we rig an auxiliary feed-line and pump for each engine so we can tap into a drum right away if we’re hit, tu piges? That way, we know we can keep moving. In this business, you keep moving or you’re out of this business."
He laughed at his own wit and had a pull at his bottle, not offering it around.
"Jean-Pierre kind of forgot to mention the bit about the shooting," I said. "Does anyone ever get killed?"
"Oh, now and then, now and then. There’s no need for it, though. Not if you stow your cargo right."
He didn’t volunteer any further explanation, so I didn’t ask for one. But I found out what he meant when we tied up in the darse at Tangier, where the dockside warehouses are, and began to heave cases of American cigarettes aboard.
The Boar must have been heading up some kind of a syndicate operation, or else he had knocked off a bank lately. Jean-Pierre and I lugged cartons until our tongues were dragging and still they kept coming, wheeled out of the warehouse to dockside on a hand-truck and dumped there for us to load by hand. I lost count of the number of tons of tobacco we sweated aboard the cutter, but The Boar didn’t, not for a moment. Neither did the warehouse checker. Not at $60 a case, cash and carry. The trouble was, they didn’t check their tallies with each other until the loading was finished. At that point The Boar’s count was two cases short of the warehouse checker’s count.
Cash and carry in this kind of trading means cash down first, on the barrelhead, carry only after the money has been counted. Any other kind of arrangement would mean quick bankruptcy for the sellers, dealing as they are with crooks and gangstaires who would think nothing of loading up and taking off without payment if they could get away with it. According to the checker, The Boar had received the merchandise he had paid for, and that was that. According to The Boar, he still had two cases coming. Difference of opinion. Clash of wills. Argument. Not for long, though.
The Boar had an odd expressionless voice, without much inflection. I think one of his Corsican amici had tried to cut his throat but succeeded only in damaging his vocal cords. In a later year I saw this happen in Brazil, where a guy pushed a bamboo pig-sticker three inches into another guy’s throat during a fight without doing much more damage than a tracheotomy. An inch to either side of the gullet he’d have caught an artery or a major vein. The Boar had a scar where it would have happened to him, and his odd voice might have been the result of scar tissue on his larynx. He never raised it or strained it in any way. He didn’t need to.
The warehouse checker was reasonable about it, and patient enough, but a Frenchman himself and therefore a pighead. He said, "Observe, mon vieux. I am paid a wage because I know how to count. I have checked goods out of this warehouse for fifteen years to earn my wage. I do not look at the girls’ tits when I should be minding my business, nor count that which does not pass before my eyes. If you wish you may unload the boat and we will count again." (I felt my spine go at that.) "Otherwise the transaction has been completed. C’est fini. Bon soir et bon voyage."
"Two more cases," The Boar said in his funny voice, although by "funny" I don’t mean in any way comical. He never joked, laughed, smiled or showed any visible sign of enjoyment that I ever noticed. He may have done so while he was killing people.
"I don’t make mistakes," he said. "Other people make mistakes."
He was standing on the cutter’s deck, the warehouseman on the wharf. The tide was so low, and the cutter so heavily laden, that The Boar’s head was about at the level of the warehouseman’s knees. He talked to them, or maybe to the guy’s feet, not bothering to crane his neck until the warehouseman said impatiently, "Dis donc, don’t be a stubborn fool, man. You have the mégots you paid for—"
The Boar looked up then. I couldn’t see his face. I was standing behind him. But just the reflection of it, so to speak, in the warehouseman’s eyes was enough to scare me at second-hand. The warehouseman stopped talking with his mouth open, looking sick. In the same dead, expressionless voice The Boar said, "Nobody cheats The Boar."
That was the end of the debate. He jerked his thumb at Jean-Pierre and me, motioning us up onto the wharf. We went where the thumb indicated, up on the wharf and into the warehouse. The checker kind of tottered along after us. Jean-Pierre and I had each picked up another case of cigarettes and were on our way back to the cutter before he caught up with us. If he saw us or the cigarettes go by, all he registered was a No Sale. He still looked sick, as if he had taken a good stiff kick in the balls.
The Plank showed us how he wanted the stuff stored, most of it as deck-load stacked and lashed and covered with a tarpaulin to make head-high breastworks around the wheelhouse except for such peepholes as were necessary to navigation; another breastwork around the high-test drums, another along both thwarts building up at the stern to higher than waist level. He knew his job, The Plank did. When Jean-Pierre and I finally collapsed of bone-weary fatigue after personally transferring the contents of one whole warehouse to the cutter, we were able to poop out behind the security of the prettiest fortification you ever saw sandbagged with Lucky Strikes, Camels, Chesterfields and other popular carcinogens. A spray of machine-gun fire wouldn’t do the merchandise any great good, but the tobacco would still be there and saleable, even if shredded, and the slugs weren’t going to come through the thickness of a double tier of tight-packed cigarette cartons nearly a yard through. I felt some better about making the run for home and mother when I realized what we had constructed for ourselves.
We got out of Tangier that night around 1 a.m., winding up easily as we went across the bay. The Boar had the heavily laden cutter doing twenty knots or better by the time we cleared the end of the breakwater. He had sensibly picked a moonless night for the enterprise, counting on speed and darkness for insurance, and ran without lights as soon as we were in open sea. The cutter’s engines were finely tuned, well-balanced and well-muffled, first-class power plants. The Boar was no fool when it came to business, or looking out for Numéro Un.
We had to run the Straits of Gibraltar at their narrowest point, about ten miles or so west of Ceuta and the Rock, and the Spaniards had patrols working out of both sides, Algeciras as well as Ceuta. Their boats weren’t as fast as The Boar’s cutter, couldn’t touch it in a stern chase. Bullets could, as The Plank had remarked. It was something to think about, although of course not seriously with all those fine fortifications around us and all those well-nourished horses thrumming away below-deck.
I don’t know where territorial limits end and the high seas begin in the Straits. I think they must be international waters open to all shipping, and I don’t think Spain legally had any right to patrol them as it did in those days. As a matter of international law, about which I don’t know too much, it seems to me that the mere fact of a load of a few tons of tax-free cigarettes legally bought and paid for aboard a boat is no basis by itself for persecuting the boat’s owners and/or operators before they have done anything to justify persecution. Like maybe smuggling the stuff ashore where they shouldn’t. Anybody who tries to relieve them of their lawful cargo by force and violence before that happens is no better than a Communist or a lousy hijacker, in my opinion. There we were, peacefully humming along through the night minding our own business and molesting nobody when force and violence burst at us without warning out of the nearby dark in the shape of a bright stitching of machine-gun fire laid squarely across the cutter’s bow. At the same instant the beam of a powerful searchlight snapped on to catch us in its glare, and a voice began yelling through a bullhorn warning us in three languages to heave to before they blew us out of the water.
Copyright © 2003, 2006 by Kendal Dodge Butler.