Friendly face, neutral voice. Eric had found it such a useful way to start a deal that he’d grown a beard to hide his expressions.
A lot of the youngsters he dealt with could do with a lesson in neutrality, but none more so than Simon, who was grinning at him across the table as he said, “you’re gonna like it, Barbie.”
Barbie as in barbed wire as in fence. London loved nicknames but Simon didn’t know it was one of those nicknames that people used about someone rather than to them. Simon didn’t know a lot.
Eric replied with a carefully neutral grunt.
“So, you gonna offer me a pint?” Asked Simon.
“On Sunday morning?” Eric exchanged neutral of scandalised. “I run a respectable, law-abiding pub. I can’t go breaking the Sunday trading laws by selling alcohol on a Sunday morning, can I?”
Simon frowned. Eric could see when realised Eric was talking about charging for the pint he expected for free. Tough. Only Eric’s more profitable contacts got to do business over free pints, and Simon had a lot of work ahead of him before he qualified.
“So you buy knock-off on Sunday morning, but you’re law-abiding ’cause you don’t sell beer?” Simon had caught up at last, or at least come as close to catching up as he was likely to.
“If I could sell beer, I’d open the pub, wouldn’t I? I can’t buy no knock-off when I’m pulling pints for my punters, can I?”
“Oh. Right.” Simon was still frowning.
Eric didn’t mind a bit of digression. People came to him with a plan for how the negotiation would go, and digression distracted them from it. Simon, however, had never formed a plan in his life. The problem wasn’t so much distracting him as keeping him from forgetting why he was there in the first place.
“Let’s have it, then,” said Eric. “It better not be another load of cassette players. I still don’t know what you expected me to do with them. Put them in the TARDIS and sell them in nineteen eighty-five?”
“No, no, it ain’t that.”
“And no more toasters with European plugs on, neither, like last week. People round here have sockets with three pins, not two.”
“No!” Simon was on the defensive now, which was where Eric wanted him. There was still a slim chance he’d got something worthwhile this time.
“Well then?” Eric spoke like a man tired of waiting.
“Right.” Simon opened his sports bag and placed an off-white object shaped like a blunt cone on the table.
Eric folded his arms. “What’s that? A marble statue’s dildo?”
Eric rolled his eyes. “What is it?”
“Rhino horn,” said Simon. “Thirty grand a kilo in Vietnam, and that’s three kilos. I weighed it.”
“Are you winding me up?”
Behind his cynical tone, Eric was interested. They’d been talking about rhino horn on the news the other night, and Simon must have been taking a break from Scandi porn or the cartoon channel or whatever he normally watched because that price was about right. He’d never shifted rhino horn before, but he knew everyone in London worth knowing. Someone would know someone who wanted it. He wouldn’t get thirty grand a kilo, but it was worth more than the usual phones and tablets he handled. A lot more.
With Simon, there had to be an ‘if’.
“Where’d you get a rhino from?” Eric asked.
“What you want to know that for? Thought you didn’t wanna know where stuff comes from.”
Eric sighed. “If it’s a box full of toasters, then I don’t want to know what lorry it fell off the back of. And if they’ve got European plugs, I can work out for myself that it was stacked up near Dover because the French were on strike again, am I right?”
Simon looked down. Eric was right.
“But I never heard of no lorryloads of rhinos dropping their horns off the back,” Eric went on. “So I want to know. Where’d it come from?”
Simon pressed his lips together that he drove the blood out of them.
Eric stood up. “Well, if you’re going to sulk, we’re done.”
“All right, all right. I got it at the Natural History Museum.”
“Natural History Museum. In South Kensington.”
“Yeah, I heard, but…you nicked the horn off the rhino in the Natural History Museum?”
Simon grinned. “What do they expect? It’s just sitting there, waiting for someone to -”
“I know, I took the kids there last month. They loved the whales hanging from the ceiling. But what were you doing in a museum?”
“The whales are well cool. Everyone’s looking up at them so I can go through their handbags. I never stop thinking about business, me. I should be on The Apprentice. So I got a couple of phones, but then I see the stuffed rhino and I think to myself, Simon mate, that’s real money, that is.”
“And then you looked at the wall behind the stuffed rhino,” said Eric.
“To read the sign on it. You can read, can’t you?”
“Course I can!”
“Good. So what did it say on the sign?”
“The sign that says it’s not a real horn in the stuffed rhino.” Eric flicked a fingernail against the horn on the table. “That sound like rhino horn to you? That’s plastic, that is.”
Simon’s frown was back. “How’d you know what rhino horn sounds like?”
“It’s plastic. Learn to look around you before you nick anything. How you haven’t been locked up yet, I’ll never know.”
“Plastic.” Simon looked devastated, then he pulled his expression into firm lines of resolution. “You’re having me on, that’s what you’re doing. You just don’t want to pay for it. Well I’m not having it. I nicked it fair and square and I want a fair price for it.”
Eric sighed. “Take the horn with you. I’m not the only fence in London. See who else’ll have it.”
“I will.” Simon snatched the horn off the table as if he was expecting Eric to grab it first. “I’ll take it to Raghead Rashid.”
“You do that. Make sure you call him that when you get your horn out. That’ll get you a good price.”
Simon’s attempt at a glare made him look likely to burst into tears.
“Something to say?” asked Eric.
Simon turned on his heel and marched to the door.
“And don’t come back until you got something worth my time,” said Eric.
Simon slammed the heel of his hand against the door, intending to fling to open ahead of him. The door opened inward so he marched into it and cracked his forehead. “Ow!”
He yanked it open and marched out.
“Muppet,” said Eric.