419, by Fionn Murray
Ger sat at his desk in the office. It was 5:30 on a Saturday evening, and he was trying to work up the nerve to buy drugs.
It was October; the last time Ger had slept for eight consecutive hours had been mid-July. To fall asleep, he required a bare minimum of fifty-five minutes of uninterrupted silence: any sound above a given decibel threshold (the washing machine cheerfully beeping upon completing a cycle, the shutters descending on the garage around the corner, his son Conor hurling a racial slur down his headset while playing computer games) would reset the clock. He’d experimented with a couple of cans of Perlenbacher before retiring, or a mug of sweetened peppermint tea, or even (in desperation) guided meditation via a smartphone app: but even in combination, these could only shave off a few minutes at the best of times.
July was when the client had first contacted Ger’s boss, Ivor. Ger knew the client was an investment firm based in London, but the terms of the NDA were so stringent that even he only ever referred to them as “the client”. Ostensibly, the firm was merely “exploring” the possibility of relocating most their staff to Dublin, as part of a wide-ranging risk assessment. Unofficially, Ivor knew that the decision had been made and signed off less than two weeks after the June referendum: the upper management was only holding off on a public announcement until the logistics had been ironed out, at which point it would be too late for the shareholders to raise an outcry. So, as the most experienced QS in the company, it fell to Ger to plan for the construction of a new campus in the docklands, large enough to facilitate at least 700 full-time staff. Ivor had never undertaken a project of this scale before; if the company managed to complete it in time and under budget, a steady stream of big contracts would be nigh-guaranteed. It was a big “if”, though.
Thus did Ger’s “new normal” begin, in fits and starts. Eight-hour days became nine, then ten; five days in the office became six, sometimes seven; lunch hours vanished. After the first two weeks, Ger’s sleeping schedule and that of his wife Mags had become so skew that he’d started sleeping in the spare room. Within a month, the grey hairs on Ger’s scalp had doubled. His face somehow appeared gaunt and pasty from one angle, and bulging and choleric from another, while his brow settled into a perennial frown, hard and inflexible as granite. His weight boomeranged from fortnight to fortnight: there were week-long stretches in which all he could stomach was coffee and Nurofen, followed by ravenous mornings on which he’d devour three breakfast rolls in ten minutes. Interlocking matrices of tiny grazes covered his cheeks as a result of trying to shave while half-asleep.
To Ivor’s credit, he made every effort to be accommodating: opening Ger a personal expense account, keeping a taxi service on retainer if Ger was too tired to drive, circulating an office-wide memo urging staff to be considerate in the event that certain (unspecified) colleagues were not observing the usual standards of social grace or bodily hygiene. Every day, new design requests rolled in from the client, each more baroque and laden with notions than the last: specialised light fixtures to match the fluorescent characteristics of actual sunlight, motorized desks which could be used for sitting or standing as the user preferred, an in-house physiotherapy clinic so that staff would not need to leave the campus for their sessions.
“Exactly how much feckin physiotherapy do you actually need when your job is sitting at a desk all day selling shares,” Ger growled at no one in particular. “You’d think these lads had just come home from Afghanistan or something.” After nearly three months, Ger couldn’t remember the last time he’d dreamt of something other than mazes of copper wire, roll upon roll of reflective insulation, crates of responsive thermostats. He couldn’t simply leave his work in the office: even asleep, he was clocked in, on call. He’d barely seen Mags in weeks. He was buying so much paracetamol that the girl in the pharmacy had once slipped a Samaritans leaflet in the paper bag alongside his receipt. He was on first-name terms with all of the Polish security guards who had to take turns cajoling him out of the office at closing. He was having attacks of hypertension, his blood pressure was soaring, he didn’t even have time to check who was playing Anfield this weekend. Beer or red wine simply weren’t cutting the mustard to help him relax: he needed something stronger.
His first thought was going to the GP and seeing if he could wheedle a Valium prescription out of him, but Mags would be sure to find out and he didn’t fancy having that conversation. There was nothing for it but to go the illicit route. The problem was, in all his forty-eight years, Ger had never touched anything stronger than Bushmill’s (and only at Christmas). He had nothing but contempt for the spaced-out couples with prams he passed on Talbot Street, cadging coins for fictitious hostels, barely thirty teeth between them. He would read stories about “head shops” in the Sunday supplements, and tsk-tsk, and tell Mags it was “disgraceful” such loopholes could be so easily exploited. Conor might mock him for being unfamiliar with the concept of a “roach” or the “Mary Jane” double entendre, but he took a certain pride in his ignorance.
But now he found himself wanting to buy drugs, but having utterly no idea of how to go about doing so. Never mind not knowing who to ask; he didn’t even know what to ask for. Resting his elbows on a stack of printed ISO documentation, he covered his face with his hands and tried to think of the relevant terminology. “Dope”, “jenkem”, “smack”, “monkey’s eyebrow”, “elderflower extract” were the first few to come to mind. Valium was meant to help you relax, he wanted something like that; but some drugs, he was dimly aware, had the opposite effect; they made you excited, bouncing off the walls.
Well, those spaced-out couples on Talbot Street: perhaps they bought their supplies somewhere close to home? It was something to go on. He glanced at his phone: 5:40 p.m. Trying not to think about how ridiculously he was behaving, he stood up from his desk, marched hastily to the coat rack to don his blue windbreaker, and left the building. A security guard named Kostas, pushing forty with a greasy combover, was on the evening shift today, and looked positively startled to see Ger leaving before sunset.
Ger briskly made his way west along the quays, hanging a right just after George’s Dock, straining to ignore the sinewy surges in his guts: the faster he walked the less nervous he felt. Along the way, he walked past an endless parade of briefcases, greatcoats, pencil skirts, silk blouses – none of these people could help him, they looked far too decent. He might have had better luck with the occasional Brazilian student or Just Eat cyclist he crossed paths with, but decided against it: finding what he sought was going to be hard enough without trying to navigate a language barrier.
He walked up Amiens Street, then left onto Talbot Street. The understated solemnity of the Omagh monument contrasted grotesquely with the stomach-churning aromas emitting from the row of takeaway pizza shops across the road. Passing underneath the DART bridge, he noticed a woman sitting in front of the bookie’s. Her hair was matted and stringy, jagged cheekbones bulging out, skin scarcely distinguishable in tone or texture from the pavement beneath her, dried muck caked on the ends of her navy tracksuit bottoms. It was impossible to gauge whether she was twenty-three or forty-four; you’d have to cut her open and count the rings, he thought. She clasped a battered Insomnia cup in her hands. Ger approached her.
“Any spare change for a hostel pal,” she said. It wasn’t quite a question, it was devoid of any inflection at all, she was going through the motions without any expectation of a response. She didn’t even look at him, her sunken, glazed eyes fixed on a bichon frise tied to a bollard across the street, periodically barking without enthusiasm.
“Sorry love I’ve none on me,” Ger started, then stopped himself. He reached into his pocket and fished out a euro, and dropped it in her cup.
“Cheers pal, god bless,” she said in the same reedy monotone, still staring at the dog.
“You’re grand love, get some food into you,” Ger said, rubbing his wrist with his thumb. “Eh – would you mind if I asked you a question?”
“What,” she said.
“Ask you a question?”
“Would you happen to know, eh,” he began, glancing across the road and running a hand over the back of his head. “Would you happen to know anywhere I could buy some, em, some drugs.”
The word was a shibboleth, a trigger phrase finally prompting her to meet his gaze, furrowing her brow. “I don’t use drugs, I’ve never used drugs in my life, who d’you think you are casting aspersions on me, I know me rights I’ve never done anythin like that, you’re a bleedin tick-”
“No no no, c’mere, it’s not that love,” Ger said, hunkering down next to her, trying to ignore the shooting pains in his thighs. “I know you’re not on drugs, I’m only saying, as in, do you know where I could get some.”
She narrowed her eyes. “Are you a guard.”
“No I’m not,” he said, discreetly gesturing for her to lower her voice.
“You’re a bleedin copper you are, I’m not tick, I wasn’t born yesterday like. Gwan and feck off back to Store Street already-”
Abandoning the attempt, Ger shudderingly stood up. Her tirade continued as he resumed walking towards the Spire.
Half an hour later, Ger had walked all the way to Moore Street and had spent an additional six euro and thirty cents on three other panhandlers, but been met with essentially the same response from all of them. Did he really look that much like a policeman? Patchy stubble and bloodshot eyes notwithstanding, he simply looked too respectable and too old for his queries to be taken at face value: everyone heard his question and assumed there must be an angle. He could hardly blame them.
What on earth was he doing?
In a chain coffee shop, he ordered a cappuccino, then sat down on an overstuffed leather couch. He took a moment to wipe his brow on his sleeve, willing his armpits to stop sweating. His phone buzzed in his pocket, startling him so much he nearly knocked over his coffee. It was a message from Mags, asking if he could print off an essay for Conor in the office printer, as the home printer was out of toner.
He was short on time, and ideas. In resignation and feeling terribly foolish, he opened the browser on his phone and laboriously typed out “how to buy drugs” with his index finger. The search returned Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, Cialis and Viagra. He frowned, and amended the search to “how to buy drugs dublin.”
Boots, McCabe’s, Adrian Dunne. He amended the search again to “how to buy illegal drugs dublin.” Finally, something promising: a website he’d never heard of called “Craigslist”, which featured dozens of posts full of alien terminology: “42O”, “Benz0$”, “Quaaludes”. Some were accompanied by photos of round clumps of some furry green substance; he suspected this might be dope, but wasn’t sure. He tapped on the first such post. The description advised him that a range of substances (“ec$tasy”, “premium Moroccan ku$h”, “#dublincocaine” and more besides) could be delivered anywhere in the city centre within two hours, and that he should contact the poster via an app called Kik. The poster’s username was xX_dota_powder_Xx.
After a full hour of embarrassment, Ger had reached his peak: the cold sweats had ceased, the palpitations gradually attenuating in intensity. At this point, no option remained but to barrel through the awkwardness to the other side. Signalling the barista for the same again, he downloaded Kik and set up a profile. When the app prompted him to fill in his personal details, he thoughtlessly entered his forename, but then stopped himself: presumably a degree of discretion would be advisable. He deleted “Ger” and replaced it with “drugbuyer2016”.
He found “xX_dota_powder_Xx” and, taking a deep breath, texted “Hello”.
Three tortuous minutes later, a response: “howiya pal what’s the story”
His right knee jiggling up and down, Ger replied, “How’s it going… I saw your ad… I want to buy some drugs”
“ha ha cool what do you need”
Ger hesitated: if this person became aware of just how ignorant Ger was, he was sure to be ripped off. Best to forestall that revelation as long as practicable. “What have you got on you?” he asked.
xX_dota_powder_Xx replied: “ive got everything pal
“got a few ounces of some banger hash in over the weekend
“few grams of ket, 30 quid a gram
“ive about 20 yokes with beamer stamps on them”
Ger was reminded of holidaying in France, arduously piecing his way through menus, looking for solitary words he recognized and hoping to infer the meaning from context, much too proud to ask the waiter for assistance. The word “hash” looked familiar – was that the same thing as dope? That sounded right. That was what people with cancer were after, to help them unwind after the chemo.
Okay, good, let’s try that.
He texted: “I see… how much for a hash?”
xX_dota_powder_Xx replied: “ha ha cool
“so the hash comes in 25 bags but the minimum order is 5 bags
“but if you buy 5 bags the fifth one is free
“so it’s a 100 quid for the whole lot pal”
Ger frowned. Was that a reasonable price? In the day job, Ger drove a hard bargain, but now found himself so far outside of his frame of reference that haggling would have been pointless. He’d had no idea drugs were so expensive: how could those spaced-out couples pushing prams afford a lifestyle this lavish?
“Okay grand, that seems fair… send me your bank details.”
xX_dota_powder_Xx replied: “ok so
“we only take payment in steam vouchers
“with bank transfers and paypal there’s a paper trail
“it’s too risky
“but they cant trace steam vouchers
“so its safer for you and me pal”
Of course, Ger thought, there was no way it could be that simple. He noticed the barista behind the counter periodically glancing over at him, apparently curious as to why he was hunched over so intently, gawping animatedly at his phone. She probably thought he was anxiously awaiting the results of an endoscopy, or disputing an insurance claim, or something similarly age-appropriate.
“Okay… sorry but where would I get a steam voucher?” he asked; surely this person was already guffawing at Ger’s ineptitude.
xX_dota_powder_Xx replied: “grand
“go to gamestop
“before you go in take out 100 quid from a cash machine
“ask them for a 100 euro steam voucher”
Ger didn’t appreciate being bossed about by this cocky dealer, most likely less than half his age; but there was no sense in objecting. Google Maps told him there was a GameStop just around the corner, but it was already closed: the nearest open branch was in the Stephen’s Green centre, and it was closing in half an hour. He tossed a tenner on the table and raced out of the coffee shop, hailing a taxi. Just a couple of minutes after 7, he had the voucher in hand. Professing his ignorance to the sales assistant, he gathered that “Steam” was a website on which one could buy computer games and download them to one’s PC, not unlike Netflix. He sat down on a marble bench in front of the Gaiety, the only such bench not covered with a sleeping bag, and allowed himself a prolonged series of sighs. He scratched his knee (his legs were itchy from all the walking), then withdrew his phone from his pocket and texted: “Okay I’ve got the voucher… what now?”
xX_dota_powder_Xx replied: “sound pal
“okay I can meet you in an hour
“you’ll see me in a white audi
“I know your not a timewaster but before I come out
“can you send me a pic of the card so I know you have it”
Ger dutifully took a photo of the voucher and sent it.
xX_dota_powder_Xx replied: “deadly
“on the back of the card there’s a bit of foil
“like on a scratch card
“can you scratch it off and send me a pic of that so I can verify it?"
Ger retrieved a fifty-cent coin from his pocket (the one bit of change he hadn’t wasted this evening) and scratched off the foil to reveal a fifteen-character code. He took a photo and sent it.
xX_dota_powder_Xx replied: “cheers pal
“let me verify that and I’ll get back to you in a minute”
A minute passed.
Ger didn’t want to seem pushy, but it had been a stressful evening, and he didn’t even know where he was supposed to be meeting this person. The music blaring from Sinnott’s bar was giving him a headache, and the two cappuccinos taken in quick succession were accelerating his heartbeat again. He unbuttoned the second button of his shirt (his armpits were positively saturated by this point), took a deep breath and then texted, “All good yeah?”
A minute passed without response.
Ger sent a couple more follow-up messages and heard nothing back.
It wasn’t until 7:30 that it dawned on him.
A quick Google search confirmed it: the fifteen-character code was all that was needed to redeem the voucher and claim the cash value.
He’d been had.
Ger growled. He punched his thigh, then the bench. He wanted to break something, dart across to the smoking area in Sinnott’s and smash a rake of empty pint glasses, but common sense prevailed. Frankly, his humiliation outweighed his fury. He’d really been so naïve as to trust a drug dealer called “xX_dota_powder_Xx”; been fool enough to entrust €100 to someone he’d never met, who for all he knew didn’t even have any drugs in their possession and was just waiting to spring traps on easy marks.
What a fabulous evening.
He was too tired to drive home, so instead he shambled over to Great George’s Street and hailed a second taxi, promising the driver a fiver if he didn’t say a word. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt this ashamed of himself, but be grateful for small mercies: at least it wasn’t a public humiliation. Mags would never learn of his gullibility; the only person who knew what an arse he’d made of himself was “xX_dota_powder_Xx.”
“You’re home early pet!” Mags exclaimed when he opened the front door at twenty past eight. “Something happen?”
“Oh yeah, nothing really like,” Ger said, carefully removing his windbreaker (his back was giving him hell). “Ivor said he’d been in touch with your man in London and they’re, well, they’re happy how it’s coming on, so he said I might as well take off.”
“That’s good,” she said, brushing her curls behind her ear; she thought he didn’t know she’d been dyeing her greys. “Did you eat? There’s coddle left. We can watch some telly if you’re not too tired.”
“Yeah thanks love, I’ll have it in a bit, just need a sit down first. Could you grab us a beer?”
They sat quietly on the leather couch in the living room, holding hands as he sipped his Perlenbacher, Mags’s beloved Einaudi wafting from the soundboard. The embarrassment was starting to recede.
“Oh pet,” Mags said, startling him such that he dribbled a little beer on his shirt. “Sorry to pester you, did you print out that essay for Con?”
“Feck, sorry love, slipped my mind. He won’t need it til Monday yeah? I’ll do it for him tomorrow.”
“Where is he anyway?”
“Oh, you know,” Mags said, rolling her eyes. “Comes home from school, says hello, straight to his room.”
“Where else?” Ger said, rolling his eyes in turn.
“Yeah. He mentioned earlier that he’d won a competition or something, he got a voucher to buy some new games with. Well for some, eh? Lucky sod.”
Ger blinked. He let go of Mags’s hand, leaned forward and set his beer down on the coffee table. His nostrils flared, bile rose in his stomach.
“Lucky sod is right.”
Fionn Murray is a published writer whose short fiction has appeared in The Sunday Business Post, The Honest Ulsterman, Headstuff and Anomaly. His novel Mayfear was highly commended in the 2022 edition of the Irish Writers' Centre Novel Fair
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