The Smuggler

‘Hello, is that Mr Carter?’

‘Yes, what can I do for you?’

‘I am from the Australian Federal Police, calling from the airport. We have a man here who has you listed as his primary contact in Australia. Do you know a Conan Tom Carter? He is from the UK, Cornwall, and claims you are his uncle.’

‘That’s sort of correct, I had heard that he was coming over here.’

‘He has been arrested for illegal importation of narcotics and therefore we will be requiring your co-operation with some further details.’

Tom’s wife stopped her dish washing mid-scrub of a saucepan; listening to her husband’s faltering but concise answers which gave out their phone numbers, address, work-places … she could guess this had something to do with the twenty-four hour disappearance of Conan but there was a look of anxiety on Tom’s face as he gave out more and more information. For a couple of months now his relatives, who lived over in a wealthy beach side suburb, had been proudly touting their position of close communicants with the overseas relatives in regard to the plans being made for Conan’s visit. Tom and Kay weren’t really bothered as they were too intent on enjoying the weekend away from their jobs in front of classes at the local high school.

Conan was a ‘friend’ on Facebook for all those nephews and nieces who had endless hours free to spend on the internet chatting about his arrival but when the morning had eventually come to do something in the real world they phoned Tom to ask if he would drive to the airport to do the pick-up. Kay was irritated by this imposition, after all the strut and swagger those kids had flaunting their close connections with the UK relatives, poking fun at Tom and Kay’s ignorance of social media. She put her foot down and Tom agreed, after all Conan should know how to use a taxi at his age. Then strangely, Tom’s sister Angela phoned and told Tom to ignore her kids’ request, in fact she was quite adamant that Conan should not be collected.

Hours after the flight had landed Talan called Tom from Penzance with concerns that his step-son had made no contact yet and that his travel companion had not even gone on the flight. According to Talan this mate was from a wealthy family and had paid for Conan’s ticket, a Christmas present, so they could go on a trip together, but at the moment of their departure from Gatwick he had unexpectedly abandoned him at the gate.

‘Well there’s really nothing to worry about.  Conan has money, even if he’s on his own he may have decided to have a night in the city before he comes out here to the suburbs. After all he’s not a child.’

Conan was in fact in his thirties but he had not ‘settled down yet’ as everyone euphemistically referred to his lifestyle, which was one that revealed upon closer inspection an immature and self-indulgent personality. He had left school as soon as it was legally permissible and with no attempt to gain qualifications in any field at all, the only jobs he ever held were part-time short –term positions with family businesses, opportunities offered to him in a spirit of what could be called charity. In an effort to support Talan with his new extended family, the relatives running their own shops or factories would give Conan a chance to earn a bit of money. Such kindness only encouraged the sense of entitlement that became more and more visible in the young man’s attitudes so that he became expert at spotting and negotiating freebies, to him this was a talent he was proud of: house sitting instead of renting accommodation; borrowing cars; freeloading for meals. His engaging manner worked in his favour and his scrounging ways were forgiven often because he could be surprisingly entertaining. As long as he moved on quickly enough and left a decent space between visits so as not to wear out the welcome mat he could create a circle to transit regularly and repetitively, and his track became global.

Somewhere along this pathway Conan came across the credit card concept but instead of picking up on the responsibility that using this entailed, his reaction was that of stumbling over a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Unhappily laying his fingers on seemingly unlimited finance coincided with the discovery of drugs. Even more unfortunate was the link between this commodity and a rough criminal element which could prey on Conan’s lazy innocence. The surprising thing was that he was clever enough to be deceitful, covert and furtive thus masking this particular evolution in his lifestyle from everyone except eventually his own mother. It took a couple of years before the gang had a noose of blackmail around his neck and then tweaked it tight with the demand that led to Conan’s role as drug mule.

Talan certainly worried that Conan seemed a bit aimless but he was supportive of his step son and admired him for his popularity, always ready to party – Talan had been shy, even awkward socially when he was young. He certainly never imagined that Conan could do anything reprehensible and felt confident that Tom would look out for him, even enjoy getting to know him on this trip to Australia. He had mentioned this hope to Tom when they had briefly spoken recently. So Tom felt a twinge of guilt on two counts: he had not collected Conan from the airport as first asked and he didn’t tell his brother about that. He consoled himself with the thought that although the terminal was only about forty minutes from his home, on a hot summer weekend morning it was a battle through the traffic best avoided if possible, and furthermore his sister and wife were both advocating doing nothing.

‘I saw Conan’s friend in the village,’ Talan explained, ‘he ran off when he noticed me approaching so I drove over to his dad’s mansion and had to beat on the door for ages. Finally the father opened the door and just said his son had an emergency to deal with here and had cancelled his plans. He shut the door in my face. I couldn’t find out any more so I left.’

Thus Monday evening’s phone call from the police was not totally out of the blue, but the staggering news of arrest and drug charges hit from left field. Tom rang Angela and told her he had no specific details about the crime but they agreed some legal assistance would be needed to help Conan who was surely innocent. One particular aspect of the police information unsettled Tom: why had Conan given his name as the preferred contact point? He had been completely uninvolved in the buzz surrounding his visit, in fact he had never communicated with the guy. The only thing they had in common was the name which Conan had taken on when he was adopted formally by Talan after the marriage to Tegan.

Tuesday morning Kay picked the paper up from the grassy verge and tore the cling wrap off, unrolling the tight wad as she walked up the driveway, glancing at the various headlines. She sat down at the table where Tom was just placing her second cup of coffee.

‘Oh my God, look at this!

Australian Federal Police have detained Conan Tom Carter at the Airport on Saturday. He was attempting to smuggle two kilograms of cocaine into the country with a street value of over $2 million. The illegal goods were concealed inside two suitcases …

‘Great, that’s my name splashed all over our local press, just what I need when I am going for a promotion! I bet he used me as his visa sponsor because that would get him through customs in the fast lane.’

Into Kay’s mind the word “wrecking” flashed. Part of Cornish folklore, the term is connected to legends about ships deliberately lured into danger by displaying false lights. Conan was showing just such cunning in the manner he had attempted to duck and weave his way into the country. His careful cyber-grooming of the young cousins, the secretive use of a name-sake to cause confusion at immigration and the last minute ditching of his travel companion. He was truly living up to Dr Johnson’s old definition of a smuggler being ‘a wretch who in defiance of justice imports contraband’.

Tom decided he would have nothing to do with any of it. He was not going to be drawn towards danger. This fellow was actually using an assumed name, his name. The more naïve cousins on the other hand were full of sympathy and pathos. Even Angela seemed strangely partisan, claiming the ‘poor boy’ needed support. She began weekly visits to the prison and became an expert on the regimes of a correctional centre. Over the next few months a trial was held and Conan was sentenced to eight years jail. Despite being sent to a country town prison at least four hour’s drive from them, curiously Angela continued to disrupt her life by tripping back and forth; she even chastised Tom for deciding not to visit with her and withholding his sympathy now that Conan was doing his time.

A year went by and Conan’s mother dutifully made the long journey from England to visit her son. Tom maintained his refusal to discuss the matter and made no effort to contact Tegan. This was enough to ignite Angela. She verbally whipped Tom with endless text messages and voice-mails when she could not actually harangue him in person. And that was how she let slip in one of her tirades a seemingly insignificant phrase:

‘He promised he would never say anything which could implicate the children’

It just popped out midst other claims of the prisoner’s contrition, the new leaf he’d turned over, his fine reputation with the guards, social work with indigenous inmates, a new interest in gaining an education … each item another indicator of his underlying goodness.

Angela’s children, Conan’s step-cousins, were both in their early twenties, leading what Tom in his old fashioned terminology could have described as ‘hippy’ styled beach-side existences, indulged by their parents so that any work was lucky to be a holiday job at best. Tom had long suspected the pair of them were using marijuana, perhaps even ecstasy pills, because as a teacher he had attended information sessions on the tell-tale signs of drug use. Those kids almost lived in that pool cabana at the back of their parent’s hibiscus clad tropical garden and for the last few years Angela had boasted proudly of the constant trail of friends wandering through the front gate to call in momentarily. She praised the stamina they gained by attending all night ‘dance parties’. Tom and Kay shook their heads at her guileless interpretations, raising their eyebrows at Angela’s unsophisticated dismissal of what was on her own door step; ironically her head was in the sand.

Angela had little time for Tom’s strong antipathy of drug pushers, misunderstanding a dedication to his profession with its role of mentor and protector that drove this stance. Needless to say he had watched his students flourish or perish depending on the contact they had with drugs. Wasted youth, he couldn’t abide it. He became torn; should he investigate and perhaps reveal the criminality of his own niece and nephew in order to prove to Angela that Conan was indeed a villainous ‘wretch’ willing to use his friends and family, betraying them for his own gain. He had a suspicion that she knew this but she could not face the truth, she had turned her face to the wall.

Tom joined Facebook under a pseudonym; on a whim he used Robert Mark’s name; this infamous smuggler from Polperro had at least repented before being shot for his crimes. The profile page allowed Tom to choose interests that he knew would attract his unsuspecting relatives and soon enough he had liked them as ‘friends’ giving himself access to their posts and even pages from the time before Conan’s fateful flight. Tom noticed that the kids had a habit of referring to various drugs types by giving them female names and then writing news of these products’ location and characteristics as though they were girlfriends. It was a fairly simplistic linguistic game: Cathy (cocaine) will be at the party by 9pm, she is coming with Max; Ellie (ecstasy) wants $40 (cost per tablet) when she gets to the beach on Friday. Damningly they also recorded their conversations with Conan, including news of a certain “Cathy” and her proposed trip to Australia, cryptic reference to her carry-on baggage weight, the cost of her luggage and the date of her arrival with Conan. The cousins were to arrange places for “Cathy” to stay and payments in advance to cover her expenses. The most sinister paragraph revealed a plan to use Tom Carter as a referee for Conan debarkation form on arrival at the airport and much mirth was had at how this would exploit Uncle Tom’s clean slate character. Their cryptic comments on the felicitous change of Conan’s birth name of Copinger, when his mother married Talan Carter, also caused amusement. Tom could send this information to the Federal Police.

Although many beacons shine their beam on the truth, they can be lost in a sea of fairy lights splashing about among the swells and waves, distracting our eyes and limiting our view of the true shore-line. Tom, in an attempt to navigate his way to the real story, had picked up the right clues and justified his stance. He avoided being wrecked on the rocks. Was his sister’s dedicated visiting regime and vehement loyalty to Conan purely driven by what she claimed Tom should be feeling – the unconditional love that one must have for family? He thought not.

The great dilemma perched him on the cliff face behind the safety fence, watching the young ones on the beach. The preventive man. His red shirt caught their eyes and they waved up at him innocently, carefree. Tom turned to Angela and hesitated to give any hint. In that moment they exchanged their pardons wordlessly. In accordance with Cornish historical records the lighting of a fire or any other form of signalling to assist smuggling was a severely punishable offence but in Tom and Angela’s case, although the officers might have been highly suspicious, they could hardly summons someone for not making a signal.

About clareseligman

A flash fiction/short story writer with an interest in the themes of cultural studies, travel, music, teaching, sailing and snow skiing.
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