In this short story, first published exclusively on the W&N blog, we meet John Gaunt who features in Paul’s 2011 novel, More Than You Can Say, out now in Phoenix paperback.http://paultorday.com/book/more-than-you-can-say/
THE EYES HAVE IT
The eyes have it.
That’s when you know. You look at them and you decide what effect those eyes would have on a punter a week behind with his loan repayments. If I find the eyes scary, the punters will be ten times – twenty times – more scared than me.
I need to explain I’m in the Domestic Credit business. Doorstep lending, some people call it. Any amount advanced: no security or credit references required, and upwards of fifteen hundred per cent APR. So it helps to be punctual with your repayments, from a number of points of view.
And I employ Loan Repayment Executives to call on you if you are late with the payments. Their job is to explain why it is in your own best interests to pay up what you owe, when you owe it. Which is usually yesterday.
“My boys,” I tell the executives. “Be nice. And if you can’t be nice, be careful.” That means that if they choose to break the law, it’s nothing to do with me. All I want is my money back: that is the principal plus compound interest running at five per cent a day.
I recruit from all walks of life but in recent years that has included a lot of ex-squaddies. We train these people, put them in harm’s way, and then make them redundant. Mostly they are desperate for a job. Not many people can be bothered to employ ex-soldiers. Wrong skill-sets forCivvie Street.
Their skill-sets are fine by me. But it’s the look I check for when I am recruiting. That scary look. This bloke had it in spades. His eyes looked as if he’d been frightened so badly and so often that he was beyond scared. Even I found it hard to look straight at him.
“Was you special forces?” I ask. Most of them try and blag me about how they can’t talk about what they’ve done: probably because they were in charge of catering. This guy is different. To start with, he’s a Rupert, not a squaddy. The first officer type I’ve had.
“No, logistics,” he answers, without a flicker of a smile. His voice is posh. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in our business. Gives us a bit of style. “Logistics?” I asks.
“Moving people from A to B. And back to A again, if required.” That makes no sense but it doesn’t matter. I get back to business.
“And you understand what I need?” I asks.
“You need your money back.”
“Good boy,” I tell him. I point a finger at him like Alan Sugar and I say: “You’re hired. Commission is five per cent per week on repayments. Leave it to me to work out what that comes to.”
He gives me a faint smile, this time. It’s not exactly a ray of sunshine.
“What’s your name, by the way?”
“Gaunt. Richard Gaunt.” The way he says it he sounds like 007. Is he sending me up? The face gives nothing away. It’s like a mask: except for those scary blue eyes.
“Go and see Ollie next door,” I tells him. “Ollie will get you started and go through the loan book for your area with you.” Ollie is my go-to guy and he’s also personal security: six foot four and seventeen stone.
Then I forget all about Richard Gaunt. I’m not a people person. I’m a pound notes person. But soon enough I notice that performance for Richard Gaunt’s manor is way above average. After six weeks his returns on loans rate is over ninety per cent. Nobody’s ever done that before. Not even Ollie, when he worked the streets.
“What’s going on?” I ask Ollie. “Is this guy good, or what?”
“He seems to have a way with him, doesn’t he?” remarks Ollie. “I think I’d better keep an eye open.”
I’m not sure that Ollie isn’t jealous. But a few weeks later he comes into the office looking flustered.
“You’ve got to get rid of that soldier,” he tells me. I don’t like being told what to do. I like to think things through for myself. So I frown, just to let Ollie know he’s a little bit out of order.
“And why is that, Ollie?” I asks.
“I checked up on him,” says Ollie. He’s a little bit out of breath, as if he’s been hurrying. Seventeen stone on the hoof. “He was visiting Flash Freddie.”
“Good,” I tells him. Flash Freddie has a tendency to spend my money on his clothes and cars and we often have trouble with him, although he always pays up in the end. God knows how. But Ollie’s next words shock me, and I’m not easily shocked.
“I found the soldier sitting in Freddie’s kitchen with a carving knife on the table in front of him. Freddie could hardly speak. He was in tears.”
Flash Freddie in tears! I’d have paid money to see that. Ollie continues:
“The soldier was telling Freddie he was going to have to cut his arm off if he wasn’t repaid.”
“He said what?”
“Well, what I heard him say was: he wanted his pound of flesh, and Freddie’s arm seemed like a good place to start.”
Of course we have to call Richard Gaunt in after that. When I asks him to explain himself, he says:
“Oh, I was just quoting Shakespeare to Fast Freddie. You know. ‘The Merchant of Venice’. ‘The pound of flesh which I demand of him is dearly bought, tis mine, and I will have it.’”
He gives that faint smile again.
“The pound of what?”
He pushes across an envelope containing – as it later turned out – five thousand pounds, which is all the money that Flash Freddie owes. “But when Ollie turned up I was just about to explain to Freddie that the quality of mercy is not strained, and on receipt of the money owed in used twenties, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.”
“You know, you ought to see a doctor,” I tells Richard Gaunt. “Threatening to cut people up: that’s not normal, that isn’t.” I think for a moment. “In fact, it’s not legal.”
“I’m sorry to be a disappointment,” says Richard Gaunt, and the way he looks at me then turns my insides to water.
“Not at all,” I reassure him. “Just a leetle bit too enthusiastic for your own good –and mine.”
I pay him off. He doesn’t object – it’s a lot of readies. Then he takes the money and leaves, without saying goodbye. I’m relieved to see him go, although sorry in one way. He’d been good at his job. It was just his methods are rather odd, even by my standards. But the man’s still out there somewhere. And he’s a walking time bomb.
© Paul Torday 2011