The Joker in the Pack

Aristocratic assassin, Viscount Hastings reflects on a life-altering episode from his youth, when his criminal instincts weren’t quite so polished.

 

In 1985, I was unceremoniously booted out of the Navy and chose to launch a new chapter in my life by making the move from Royal Tunbridge Wells in Kent to Schoneberg, West Berlin.

New Year’s Eve; I sipped on a banana daiquiri and played a hand of blackjack with myself, as my girlfriend, Bambi, stared out the kitchen window watching fireworks lighting up the night sky. Downstairs, the Turks were cooking beef again and the sharp herbal scent came up through the floorboards. It made me hungry every time. The racket of revelers outside, smashing bottles and yelping hysterically, echoed through the laneway below. I stared at my cards. Two Queens and a joker.

A call on the landline came through. In South London, my ex-girlfriend, Natalie, had a serious problem and needed help. I told her to stop crying and tell me calmly what had happened. It took about twenty minutes but I got the details and told her I’d take care of it.

Her sister, Olivia, was in serious trouble. Aged nineteen, Olivia had an angelic beauty. How gorgeously those big green eyes and wavy blonde hair complemented her naïve manner. Like Natalie, Oliva’s early years were spent as a country girl in the Peak District. She had a freshness that made her irresistible to men. Olivia could’ve had practically anyone but the silly thing got herself mixed up with a mid-level heroin dealer called Cracker. Natalie tried to get her away from him, but she was in love and determined to straighten out her beloved dealer.

Now Olivia was in real trouble. Cracker scored his junk from a gangster known to the underworld as Albania. Though he usually kept Olivia out of his sleazier activities, they were in a hurry, having booked a table at a restaurant in London’s West End for that evening. Thus, she accompanied him when he made a quick stop to drop off some money at Albania’s joint in Pimlico.

The police showed up and surrounded the place. They were banging on the front door, which made Olivia turn sickly pale, for she’d never had trouble with the authorities. Her boyfriend couldn’t calm her down, so Albania, in what was an unexpected display of affection, gave her a hug and told her not to worry. The cops were after him, not her. If she let him do the talking, he’d make sure she’d be free and having dinner in Soho within the hour.

The front door exploded and a herd of police charged through the hallway and into the front-room. As two coppers turned Albania’s pockets inside out, he bluntly announced his innocence and directed their attention to Olivia. Ridiculous as it sounded, Albania insisted she’d imported heroin from Turkey, and was there in an unwelcome attempt to peddle the junk to him.

Even Cracker was baffled by the peculiar declaration and the police were clearly skeptical. A cop ran his hands over her jacket. When he hit an unusual protuberance, the room went quiet and a look of bewilderment contorted Olivia’s face. Further scrutiny turned up a pound bag of pure grade heroin. The re-assuring hug Albania had given her was an excuse to slip the dope into her jacket pocket. They placed all three of them under arrest. Olivia screamed the house down.

At the committal, her boyfriend threw his lot in with Albania, made a statement against her and got himself released as the cops built their case. In a couple of days, Albania would take the stand. If convicted, Olivia would be facing a mandatory ten-year sentence. Cracker had since gone into hiding but Albania was still in town. Interestingly, as things were to turn out, through her tears and blubbering on the phone, Natalie declared Olivia felt like the joker in a pack of playing cards. The shock of her imprisonment was making both girls physically sick.

Though Bambi objected, I told Natalie I’d get Olivia out of that mess. Natalie didn’t like the idea of me tackling it alone. Thus, she was pleased when I floated the idea of getting in touch with Sanchez Sanchez. Rumor had it the former officer had turned criminal. After completing basic training, we didn’t see much of each other, but he wouldn’t hesitate to stand by a brother from the Royal Naval College. Additionally, Sanchez had always been slightly crazy which didn’t hurt. That night, on my way to Tegel airport I called him at his home in Vauxhall and he wasted no time in heading to Heathrow to pick me up.

Plan A was Natalie’s preferred mode of operation. Beat Albania to a pulp and demand he leave the country. Though she’d described him as a reasonably passive fellow who carried not a gun but a blade, the method was too dramatic. Where possible in life I avoided the crass utilization of violence and accordingly elected to go with something slightly more sophisticated. Once again this was Natalie’s idea. Steal his stash and burn his house down. She’d handle it from there. The dope would be mine to sell, but I had no interest in falling down that rabbit hole.

Later that night, Sanchez and I left the car two streets away and slipped into the back lane behind Albania’s house in Pimlico. It appeared nobody was home. An icy wind swept over South London. I shivered and told Sanchez to move the car into the back lane. Would enter the house to see if I could find his stash. The whole bloody thing was improvised and not well thought out. Starting with good intentions doesn’t necessarily lead to the making of good decisions.

Gaining access via the kitchen window took forever as I had to break and carefully remove the glass. Once inside, I made my way to the living room. Headlights lit up the front windows. A car pulling into the driveway. My heart thumped like a piston. Time to revert to plan A.

When the front door opened, things turned very bad, very quickly. The bastard had speed, I’ll give him that, and what’s more, there appeared to be nothing passive about him. Like a raging truck, he slammed into my chest, knocking the wind out of me. We traded blows; he whipped out a knife and sliced my cheek. Cold steel–a terrible sensation. Adrenalin shot through me as I brought him down and we rolled around on the carpet. Finally, I slapped the knife away and repeatedly smashed his head into the wall until he crumpled into a bloodied heap.

From the kitchen, Sanchez stormed in. I dropped onto the floor and tried as best I could to stop my arms and legs from shaking. Albania’s eyes were open, but cold and lifeless. I vomited. A massive discharge of puke, from mouth and nose. Having never taken a life before it made my guts nauseous to think I’d stooped to that level. Sanchez picked up a pack of playing cards on the coffee table. Told me he’d always considered the placing of the joker on a dead body would make a great calling card for an assassin. He appeared to take great delight in placing the card on Albania’s forehead. Such flippancy staggered me, but I didn’t dwell on it. Simply lit a match and headed for the airport.

Four hours later, I was back on a flight to Paris. From there, I caught the train through Frankfurt and on to Berlin. Throughout the journey back I became increasingly aware of a curious feeling of omnipotence seizing control of my heart. I felt taller. Stronger.

Back in my apartment, I made myself a daiquiri. Had another one and then slipped into bed beside little Bambi. For the rest of the week, she wore a permanent frown on her forehead, for having lost my sense of self, I couldn’t speak to her or anybody else. Fortunately, she knew when to let me be and spent most of her time at work. Four weeks after the death of Albania, I received a mind-blowing call from Sanchez. He gave me an update on what was really going on, and in doing so changed the course of my life forever.

A few months earlier, with stealth and ruthlessness, Natalie and Olivia had taken over Cracker’s heroin dealing business. He went missing, undoubtedly at their hand, and as far as I know his corpse never showed up. Albania was a competitor they needed to eliminate in order to expand their customer base in the South London drug market. To take care of him they chose the one person who they knew could be relied upon to risk imprisonment to save Olivia, or any other maiden in distress. The one person who would blunder in and at the very least make Albania reconsider his future in the drug trade.

Probably with Olivia giggling by her side, Natalie had called me and laid out her cock and bull story, and I’d obliged them both. Didn’t even bother to check out the validity of the story. Simply rode in like a mindless white knight.

I mixed a banana daiquiri and settled on the pursuit of a new career. Had acquired a taste for adventures of a different kind. My first targets weren’t in London having taken off on a trip to Majorca. If, when I arrived at that Spanish island, Customs searched my suitcase, they wouldn’t have found much of interest. Clothes, toiletries, and personal items. In my wallet not one playing card, but two. One for Natalie and one for Olivia.

And both cards were jokers.

*

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