Readers sometimes ask me where I get the ideas for my novels. Am I a people watcher? Do I do a lot of research? The answer to the first is no, not really. The answer to the second is always the same – yes, I do a lot of research. I did two years – at least – before I started to write The Man Who Played Trains. It didn’t stop there, because during the novel’s rewrites and edits I did even more, it is important to get everything right. The story is one thing; the factual parts on which it is based must be correct.
This is the third of my True Tales. Read this and the others and you will get an idea where I get my material.
For reasons you will soon understand, I won’t name names or places – except that this was San Francisco, California, in the late nineteen-eighties. I was working as a consultant to a drilling company, a firm owned by a long chain of other firms (you know the kind of thing, numerous addresses in small print along the bottom of stationery). I had no idea what these other firms did, nor did I care. Nor, thankfully, can I recall their names.
My visit was short, no more than a week. I flew into San Francisco International where I picked up a hire car reserved for me by the firm, probably the most powerful car I have ever driven. It was quite pointless in a city like SF. I had expected something much smaller.
After a couple of days in the company’s office I was stopped in a corridor by the CEO, who asked me if I would care to meet him later, for supper. It would be a small affair, he said. And it would be early, because the big boss, Mister Giovanni, did not like to eat late. Supper, for me, was something I had when I was a boy. Back then, for reasons still unknown to me, I was given a snack and drink to be consumed shortly before bedtime. What the CEO meant, of course, was dinner. He gave me the address of an Italian restaurant and suggested I meet him there. Seven o’clock, he said, and warned me not to be late. Mister Giovanni, he added, would not like that at all.
To be sure I’d find the restaurant that evening I set off mid-afternoon, heading away from the places I was getting to know (my hotel in the city, the old harbour and the tramcars). All I remember of the place was that it was in a run-down neighbourhood with not a soul to be seen. I parked up, got out of the car, and walked to an entrance little more than a door in a wall. While staring at it, with my back to the street, a woman from apparently nowhere sidled up to me. She was mid-twenties, with high heels and big-breasts – a lady of the night in broad daylight. She asked me if I needed anything. Anything at all.
I did need something, I realised. I needed to get the hell out of there. A car had drawn up across the street and its two occupants were now out of it, leaning on it Humphrey Bogart-style, staring across at me. I walked to the middle of the street. From there, but no further, I called out that I was lost. They said nothing.
That evening, wearing a pale, lightweight suit, I arrived at the restaurant at ten minutes to seven and found the door in the wall locked. I waited in the car for a while and then called my CEO. He had changed his mind, he told me. He wasn’t coming.
At exactly seven the door in the wall opened. A man dressed in black smiled at me mechanically as he ushered me in to a long narrow room that surprisingly was busy with waiters and diners. A man had come in behind me and together we followed the maître’d (or his Italian equivalent), down to the far end of what, surprisingly, was a very plush room.
Beyond a floor-to-ceiling blue velvet curtain was a private dining area as big as the restaurant space I had just walked through. A long table sat centrally. It was about the size of that in Michaelangelo’s Last Supper, except that unlike Michaelangelo’s table, this one had seats on both sides. There were seats across the far end of it too, just a short row of three. Unlike all the others in the room, these chairs had arms. I was shown to my place, five down from the top end and three up from the curtain – a definite pecking order. Being close to the exit seemed a good place to be.
The three chairs at the end of the table stayed empty. The others filled up, all but the one reserved for my CEO. At fifteen minutes past seven, three men slipped in around the velvet curtain. The first man, despite the warm California evening, wore an overcoat over his shoulders, a coat not removed by the maître d’ as might be expected but by the last of the three men to come in, a huge man dressed in working clothes and built like a brick outhouse. He hung the coat on an empty wooden coat stand in the corner of the room while the maître ‘d did that thing with the chair with the arms, pulling it right out, guiding Mister Giovanni into it and slipping it gently forwards. The third man in the group carried a leather bag that he set down by his chair. He was, I learned later, Mister Giovanni’s financial director.
What else happened? Not much. Hardly anything was said. During the meal those around me swapped niceties, including a whispered comment that Mister Giovanni wasn’t there to see us, we were there to see him. What I didn’t expect, but probably should have done, was that a number of the diners tucked huge white napkins into their collars before they tackled their several-course pasta-based meal. Oh, I almost forgot. The event was paid for at the end by the man with the leather bag, in cash. For everyone to see.
How do I remember detail like that from thirty years ago? (Seriously, would you forget something like that?) Was it Mafia? How do I know? They all seemed so very nice.
There are so many ways such real events can be turned into fiction.