There’s a lot of ugliness in the world of international football. Inexperienced private detective Tony Cattone is on the case.
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Travel is Dangerous
I found a hair in my meal on the first-class transatlantic flight from Philly to London paid for by someone I had never met – a friend of a friend of an inadvertent client. It was long and black and I was only partially sure it was human. Eager to eat something that wasn’t on stale bread for the first time in weeks, I removed the hair and ate it anyway.
My first case outside my hometown and it was on a different continent. “They’re sportsmen. They’ve got plenty of money. And they wanted someone far away who wouldn’t mind if a few powerful men from Europe, South America, Asia and everywhere in between who operate beyond the law ended up wanting to squash him,” I was told. Not having much to squash, it sounded like a plum gig to me. I didn’t ask many questions because he didn’t have many answers. But he did have my $300 advance and a promise of double the rate I would demand of clients if I had them.
Walking fast toward the exit, using my periphery vision to watch for swarms of MI6 agents looking to take down the foreigner who assaulted a customs official with his crappy sense of humor, I reached the area near the door where worn out drivers and suckered friends and family members waited for their pick-ups, holding signs of varying legibility. Reading the ones I could, trying not linger long enough to give anyone false hope, my name was on none of them, though I was told it would be.
Over by the doors, a woman yelped and dropped her bags. “Watch it, princess! I’m a cripple!” shouted a man bounding into the terminal with an exaggerated limp, shoving the startled woman aside. As he approached the group, he whipped his head around and waved a wrinkled paper above his head. It said “Tony the Yank.”
He laughed and shook my hand when I introduced myself. That’s when I noticed he was missing the top of his index finger. “They call me Tiddle. Bert Tiddle. I used to be a footballer,” he said loud enough for the departing flights to hear. “Come on. I got all the cabs going mental behind me.” He turned and headed back where he came, limping to the point where it looked like he was dancing. I followed.
Middle-aged, medium height, with a barrel chest and thinning hair, Tiddle looked more like an old bare-knuckle boxer than someone who played a sport with a ball. He wore a bowling shirt that was older than me, along with stained black pants and boat shoes that still had a price tag on them. He was the kind of guy I would’ve followed even if I wasn’t getting paid to.
Engulfed in a chorus of curse words and blaring horns was a car I should’ve expected to be his – a yellow Ferrari sullied by scrapes and dents that became visible once you got close.
After telling the irate cabbies that he would “beat them like one of his 18 kids,” he cleared his throat and looked me over.
“What happened to your face, son?” Before I could answer, he headbutted me. There was a bright flash, then black.
With eyes like mail slots and an invisible gorilla sitting on my nose, I could tell that we were in the Ferrari and driving way too fast down a snaking country road. I sat up and adjusted my seat belt.
“Facking hell! You weren’t supposed to wake up before we got there!”
Tiddle kept his eyes on me instead of the road. “I ain’t doing that again, so if you see where he lives, then sod it. He should’ve hired someone to do this.”
“Who’s the cheapskate on mystery lane?” I asked, scratching crusted blood off my mouth as I did.
He guffawed. “You’ll see. And you’re going to ruin your pants when you do.”
“Maybe we should go back to the airport then. I only brought two pair.”
We sat in silence the rest of the way, passing manors one after another, walled off from the street and each surrounded by trees, while the engine tried to drown out Dean Martin’s warbling on the radio. The Ferrari stopped at the gate for a long, Tudor style barn that dwarfed the shacks on either side of it. Tiddle pressed the buzzer, shouted “I just drove three hours with this numpty in my car. Open the gate!” into the box. The gate opened.
The inside of the place was tasteful if you’ve got a tongue made of wood polish. The walls were covered with oil paintings of race horses and pictures of grandchildren. Exotic flowers seemed to be plotting a slow takeover.
“I got ‘im!” Tiddle shouted to no one.
A man in a fluffy white robe, naked ankles and brown leather slippers turned a corner and walked towards us in no rush, sipping from a red mug.
“Shut up. Wife’s sleeping.”
Tiddle spoke louder: “This is the Yank.” He turned to me and pointed at the man in the robe with his thumb. “You know who that is.”
I looked him over again and said I didn’t.
“Ha!” Tiddle bellowed. “He really is a Yank — this is Sir Alex Ferguson, you twat. The people sing his name every Saturday.”
Ignoring Bert, Ferguson spoke to me in a Scottish drawl: “What happened to your face, lad?”
I nodded in Tiddle’s direction.
“Oh hell, Bert. I didn’t pay him to have his nose broken. You’re an idiot, you know that?” Tiddle chuckled.
Ferguson had the sour, expressionless face of an old sea captain. His grey hair was neatly parted and his glasses slipped down a veiny red nose that could turn a lesser man off alcohol forever.
“Go clean yourself up, Tony, and meet us in the other room. What’ll ya drink?” He asked, taking a sip from his mug.
“Whatever you’re having.”
“It’s red wine. Good, too. Portuguese,” he said, holding up the mug. “Couldn’t find the clean wine glasses.”
I washed the remaining flakes of blood off my face in the hall bathroom and did a little looking around before walking in on Ferguson scream at Tiddle with more force than the headbutt that helped me catch up on my sleep. On a marble end table was a stack of coffee table books that contained picture after picture of Ferguson holding up unnecessarily large trophies and grinning the satisfied grin of a man with the answer to every question the world asks of him while the younger ones he commands jump around and shout to draw attention to his accomplishments. I was glad I found the books before he put them in the back of a closet somewhere.
In Ferguson’s library of wine bottles, we sat in oversized leather chairs and sipped our mugs of Portuguese red. The yelling had stopped and the plotting had begun.
“A FIFA official is in town as a guest of the Qatari owner of Manchester City Football Club,” Ferguson whispered, as if the person he was talking about was sitting right behind him.
“The team you coach?” I asked.
“You’re lucky I don’t let Bert beat you senseless for that. I’m the manager of Manchester United, boy. The greatest football club in the universe. Ask that again and you’ll be walking back to America on broken legs.”
I nodded to show my understanding and told him that maybe one day a big city team like London Football Club might call him up. Ferguson and Tiddle looked at each other and laughed – I suspected at me.
“Now,” Ferguson resumed with a calming sigh. “These FIFA blokes are slippery bastards. They’re brazen, but they close ranks too well to be taken down. We-“
“It’s an international group. We want a change — we all have our reasons. We’re going to take it.”
I gulped the wine, wishing it was bourbon, and asked how.
“You’re not being paid to ask me questions, Cattone. What we need is a totally unattached outsider to work their way inside, get the dirt on them and then not forget what they’ve seen once FIFA apply the pressure that a billion-pound, international organization that answers to absolutely no one can apply. In other words, we need a lamb with enough ignorance and dumb luck to make its way through the slaughterhouse alive. What do you say to being that lamb, Tony?”
Inside the VIP section of a downtown nightclub thanks to one of Ferguson’s players who didn’t care to tell me his name before disappearing in a group of women, it was too dark to notices the subtle differences from every other club. But there were colored lights, music too loud to recognize and too many people crowded together, trying to convince each other to have sex with them. And sitting on a white leather couch in a roped off corner, flanked by a group of people a quarter of his age, was the man who met the description I was given: “a face like a turkey and thin hair painted with crap red dye.”
“This evening will end with a surprise at least one of you will never forget!” he bellowed to his group with a smirk and an unsettling matter-of-fact tone. No one reacted.
When one of his hangers-on got up to hit the bathroom, I moved in next to turkey face and yelled in his ear. “What champagne would you recommend for an American tourist that wants to celebrate nothing in particular?”
He smiled and held up the shiny bottle that was on ice in front of him. “Dom Perignon – White. Gold. I told them – take a helicopter to Harrods in London and get it special for me. The bottle is made of white gold. It costs over £15,000.”
I said my budget would only allow for anything under £10,000. He made himself laugh and said, “You better stick with me then. I will introduce you to women, too.” I couldn’t turn that offer down for at least several different reasons.
He introduced himself as “Lord Nicolas” and told me he would soon be knighted even though he was from Brazil. I gave my name as Tom Plier and asked what he did to earn that honor. “I am a football man,” he proclaimed. “These things happen for football men.”
The club’s manager refused to fly back to London just so he could overcharge the jowly old football man for more of his favorite champagne. So Lord Nicolas, the Brazilian nearly knight, went into a fit, announced we were all leaving for “somewhere more respectable” and hurled his empty, gold-plated bottle over the dance floor. It surely knocked someone out cold who may or may not have been seconds away from slipping into a similar state anyway.
At an Italian restaurant that was reopened after hours just for him, Nicky pulled a handful of 100 pound notes out of a manila envelope and giggled as he told a jittery companion to find him “someone who will make love to a big toy truck.” Without questioning what model truck or what positions would be required of the someone, the skinny kid took money handed to him and ran out.
Nicolas kept giggling until I asked him about the money.
“It’s my per diem.” He held the envelope to his sagging, blubbery chest.
“I didn’t know ‘football man’ was such a profitable title.” My eyes stung and I wanted to chop my nose off my face.
“People love football,” Lord Nicolas stated, only after shoving a handful of olives down his throat. “They throw their money at it. We’re the ones who catch it.”
“And do The People know how generous they’re being?”
“Ha!” He tossed the envelope on the table, letting some of it spill out. “They do not care. The media tries to make them care, but they don’t, Tom. They don’t! The only ones who care are those who crave it for themselves. Who would say no to that?”
He picked up the envelope again, letting a few escaped stacks of cash remain on the table. “Here, take it.” Lord Nicolas tossed it at me. “I have more.”
The money felt heavy and heavy felt good. It somehow ended up folded over and secured under my shirt by my tightened belt.
Nicolas stood up and whipped his hand towards the door. “The show is here!”
The skinny kid had returned with a yellow Tonka truck in one hand while the other guided a drunk banker in three piece suit. He looked at Nicolas like he wanted instructions on what to do next, but didn’t want to ask. So, he pushed a couple of tables aside and dropped the truck on the tiled floor.
“Do it! Do it!” Nicolas clapped as the others tried to talk amongst themselves.
“I’ll do it. I don’t care…” the drunk man slurred, eyes half open and undoing his pants.
“No, no – do not remove your clothes, sir. Don’t make this perverse!”
The man shrugged and flopped down on top of the truck. He slapped his body against it with violent force, refusing to stop. The metal of the toy banged against the tile, smashing pieces out of place.
“He’s doing it! He’s doing it!” Nicolas laughed then leaned over to soil my ear. “You were at Ferguson’s house earlier, yes Tom? Tell him he can have all the trophies he wants, but he will never win.”
He went back to laughing. The truck humper ran out of steam. I left.
Back at Ferguson’s, I broke the news that he had peepers. Hoping he would consider it a small victory, I mentioned that Nicolas thought my name was Tom. Ferguson said that didn’t make me safe. Then he told me to go home.
Still unsure what day it was or whether I had actually done anything, I asked him why he was so interested in cleaning up the corruption.
“Because I’m a football man.”
That’s when I left.
I decided to sit in coach on the flight home to avoid getting used to the teasing luxury of first class and so I wouldn’t have to find another hair in an otherwise wonderful meal. Somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, I remembered I still had the money. I woke the guy next to me and asked him if he had any kids who played football. He furrowed his brow and went back to sleep, but the woman next to him said both her kids played. I plopped the envelope full of cash on her tray table and told her to buy every team in their league a couple thousand new balls.
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