A CHANCE MEETING IN THE PRISON LIBRARY CHANGED Gabe McGregor's life.
Thanks to Billy, and the zealous attentions of the young prison doctor who ran the Wormwood Scrubs drug program, Gabe was clean for the first time in three years. But temptation was everywhere. The irony was that those guys on remand had been talking out of their arses. Gabe had tried to kill himself, corroding his intestines with bleach, because he thought he wouldn't be able to get a hit here. The truth was there was plenty of heroin available if you knew the right people.
Gabe responded well to the methadone. Billy told him: "You can't go back now, son. It's the road to hell, sure you know that as well as I do."
"I won't go back, Billy."
Gabe heard himself saying the words. He felt himself wishing they were true. But every time he thought of the years of boredom and loneliness stretching ahead, of how he'd let his mam down, of the mountain he would have to climb if he ever did get out of here, the hopelessness and despair became unbearable.
It was only a matter of time before he went back to heroin, and he knew it.
The prison doctor liked Gabe. Sensing his patient's weakening resolve, he arranged a job for him cataloging books in the prison library.
"It's one of the better places to work in this dump. Quiet, decent blokes in there, no real hard cases. You'll be earning money and you'll be busy."
Gabe was grateful. The doctor must have pulled quite a few strings to get him such a cushy job. But still he found the work monotonous and soul destroying, arranging books alphabetically by author, title and subject matter.
"That's the trouble with you bleedin' Scots. No imagination."
Gabe turned around. Behind him, seated at one of the Formica worktables surrounded by fat legal tomes, was a small, middle-aged man. He was completely bald and sported a thick, black Charlie Chaplin mustache that made him look as if he belonged in another century, like a music-hall performer or a magician from a Victorian circus.
"I beg your pardon. Are you talking to me?"
"Yes, jock, I'm talking to you." The man's cockney accent was almost comically strong. "Every day you come in 'ere, and not once 'ave I seen you read so much as a page. It's like watching a kid stack shelves in a candy store and never stick his hand in the pick-and-mix."
"I'm not much of a reader."
The man laughed.
"Take a seat, jock. Go on. Pull up a pew."
Gabe looked around. Both the librarians were engrossed at their computers. He wasn't supposed to stop and chat on the job. In fact, nobody was supposed to talk in the library at all. He'd have to make it quick.
"Marshall Gresham." The bald man proffered his hand as Gabe sat down.
"Let me ask you a question, Gabe McGregor. You've seen me in 'ere, right? Most days?"
"Ever wondered what I'm up to? With all these boring-looking books?"
"Not really," Gabe admitted.
Gabe's gray eyes met Marshall Gresham's blue ones. Marshall had amazing eyes. They literally sparkled, like sunshine bouncing off the sea, and they seemed to invite confidences.
"I'll tell you, shall I?" said Marshall. "I'm working on my appeal. You see, Gabe McGregor, I 'ave a low opinion of the legal profession in general, and of my own brief in particular. The thought crossed my mind that while I'm banged up in 'ere, fending off shit-stabbers for the next ten years of my life, my poncey bloody solicitor is going home every night for steak-and-kidney pudding and a shag with his missus. Now, which of the two of us would you say is more motivated to see me walk through those gates to freedom?"
"Ah, but motivation isn't everything, is it, Mr. Gresham? Your lawyer is a professional. He knows how the appeal system works. You don't."
"I didn't." Marshall Gresham gestured to the books around him. "But now I bloody do. Tell me, Gabe McGregor. How's your lawyer getting on with your appeal? Heard much from him, 'ave you?"
Michael Wilmott. Christ. Gabe had almost forgotten the man existed. He'd been so preoccupied with his addiction and the daily struggle to get clean, he'd filed everything else in his life under P for "pending." Permanently pending.
Marshall Gresham raised a bushy black eyebrow. "I'll bet his wife makes a mean steak-and-kidney pudding."
The first thing Gabe did was sack Michael Wilmott. The second thing he did was swallow his pride and write to everyone who might be able to help him raise money to pay for a new lawyer. He composed a simple note, countersigned by the prison doctor, telling people he was clean and determined to make a fresh start. Marshall Gresham helped him with the spelling. ("Bollocks to dyslexia. You have to work harder than other people, that's all.") Gabe sent the letters out to everyone he knew who wasn't a user or a criminal, expecting little. He was overwhelmed by the response.
Ther®®se, his last "girlfriend," the one who'd kicked Gabe out after he stole from her, sent him a thousand pounds.
You could be anything you want to, Gabriel. Make me proud.
When he got her note, Gabe burst into tears.
More money followed, gifts of hundreds from classy London friends (almost all women), tiny donations of a few quid from old mates back in Scotland that again brought tears to Gabe's eyes. These people have nothing. They can't afford to help me. But here they are, trying. His mother, Anne, who had not heard from Gabe in almost two years, sent him fifty pounds stuffed into a card that said, simply: I love you. No mention of the fact that he was in prison. Not one word of a reproach.
I love you, too, Mam. One day, I'll repay your faith in me.
Day by day, as the money trickled into his life and the drugs trickled out of it (he was almost off the methadone now), Gabe's natural optimism and faith in human nature revived. Claire, his first London sugar mommy, was a lawyer. "I know a great criminal guy, Angus Frazer. He owes me a favor or twenty. Let me see what kind of deal I can do for you."
Marshall Gresham was impressed.
"I'll tell you what, kid. You either have the biggest knob in Scotland, or you're a charming little bastard. You fleeced every one of these birds, but here they are falling over their knickers to 'elp you out."
Angus Frazer was not quite as brilliant a lawyer as Claire had made him out to be.
He was at least five times better.
A handsome Old Etonian with a hooked nose and regal bearing, Angus Frazer could play judges the way that Gabe McGregor could play women. When Angus Frazer finished his summing-up, the appeals-court judge was starting to think that perhaps Gabe shouldn't be in prison at all. Perhaps the Walthamstow home owner whose skull had been crushed should be the one doing time? After all, it was he who had wantonly derailed the life of this bright, promising, determined young man. A young man whose glamorous ladyfriends packed the court's public gallery like hopefuls at a Hollywood casting call.
Gabe's sentence was reduced to ten years, the minimum possible for his offense. Angus Frazer told him: "You've already served four. With good behavior, you'll be out in another three."
Three years! Only three more years! To the new Gabe, it was nothing. Thirty-six months.
"I don't know how to thank you, Mr. Frazer. You do understand, I can only pay half your fees today."
Angus Frazer smiled. He was a wealthy man, not usually given to doing favors for ex-junkies. But in Gabe's case, he was glad Claire McCormack had twisted his arm. There was something about the boy...it was hard to put into words. But Gabe McGregor made Angus Frazer feel glad to be alive.
"Don't worry about it, Gabe. You'll pay me back one day, I'm sure."
Yes, sir, I will. On my father's grave, I'll pay you back ten times what I owe you. One day.
Marshall Gresham was inside for fraud.
"So, how much money did you steal, then?"
It was the sort of question Marshall would only have tolerated from Gabe McGregor. The two men had become fast friends.
"I didn't steal any money, Gabriel. That's why I'm appealing my conviction. I rearranged quite a bit."
Marshall allowed himself a small smile of pride.
"Two hundred and sixty million."
Gabe was silent for a full minute.
"What business are you in, Marshall?"
Another minute's silence.
"I think I'd like to learn the property business. Will you teach me?
"Why, Gabriel!" Marshall Gresham's twinkly blue eyes sparkled even more brightly than usual. "I'd be delighted."
Suddenly thirty-six months felt like thirty-six minutes.
There was so much to learn, and so little time. Indeces, interest rates, prices per square foot, building costs, planning law. It went on and on and on and for Gabe it was like learning not only a new language, but a whole new way of thinking.
Marshall Gresham told him: "A lot of things have changed in the markets these past few years. All this new Internet money." He shook his head disgustedly. "People have lost their 'eads. Don't listen to anyone who tells you that the fundamental market forces are any different than what they've always been."
Gabe nodded silently, drinking in Marshall's advice. It was his new drug. He couldn't get enough of listening to the older man's voice. Every word from Marshall Gresham's lips sounded like money, like hope. Gabe's future made flesh.
"Location. That's the key. If I were going into this game fresh, from scratch, I'd stay out of London."
Gabe was silent, but his face said why?
"Overinflated. Too many bleeding Poles. And Russians. Too many barriers to entry. To be honest, I'd forget the U.K. altogether. And America. You want a market that's still up-and-coming. Get in on the ground floor, like I did."
Get in on the ground floor.
Yeah, sure. But where? And with what?
Marshall Gresham made it sound so easy.
Marshall was right about the Wormwood Scrubs library. Look past its linoleum floors and filthy, chipped Formica tables; past the well-thumbed Dick Francis novels and fashion-model autobiographies - My Life: The Untold Story, by Misty Holland. Who on earth read that crap? - and a world of infinite possibilities was there for the taking.
A lot of cons took Marshall Gresham's route and went straight for the law books. Some had even done open-university degrees while inside. Others lost themselves in fiction, an escape of sorts from the grim reality of prison life. For Gabe, whenever he wasn't wading through books on real estate and business, it was history he turned to. Specifically the history of his famous forebear, Jamie McGregor.
It was amazing how much had been written about Gabe's great-great-uncle and the illustrious company he founded. In America, Gabe discovered, there were professors who'd devoted their entire lives to the study of Kruger-Brent, Ltd. As if it were a country or a war, a great king or a pandemic disease.
No wonder my father and grandfather were so obsessed. Apparently they weren't the only ones.
Gabe had always known that Jamie McGregor died a wealthy man and that his direct descendants - the Blackwell family - had become even wealthier. But the sums of money he read about now were so large, simply thinking about them made his head ache. It was like trying to imagine the distance to the moon in inches, or the number of grains of sand there were on a beach.
But it wasn't the money that fired Gabe's interest. Nor was it the company whose interests spanned the globe and now even reached into space, thanks to a 1980s acquisition of a Finnish satellite business. It was the man, Jamie McGregor himself, who fascinated Gabe.
Gabe read about Scotland in the 1860s, the life of crushing poverty from which Jamie had escaped. It made his own childhood seem positively luxurious. He learned about the treacherous sea crossing from London to Cape Town. Thousands had perished on the journey from hunger, exhaustion or disease, chasing their own dreams of striking it rich in the Namib diamond fields. Not one in a million had done it. But Jamie McGregor had been that one, triumphing over inconceivable odds.
Years later, just months before the stroke that incapacitated him for the last years of his life, Jamie McGregor was asked by a South African newspaper reporter what he considered to be the secret of his success.
"Perseverance," he'd answered. "And courage. I went into places that most people considered far too dangerous. Trust no one but yourself."
Gabe thought about this. I trust Marshall Gresham. And my mother. And Claire. And Angus Frazer. Maybe if I follow rules one and three, I'll be two-thirds as rich as Jamie McGregor was.
Then out of the blue, another thought struck him.
What had Marshall said? Find a market that's still up-and-coming. Get in on the ground floor.
And Jamie McGregor? I went into places that most people considered far too dangerous.
Suddenly the answer was obvious.
A little bit of research confirmed Gabe's excitement. The South African rand had all but collapsed against the U.S. dollar since the fall of apartheid. Property in Cape Town was going for a song as white families fled, fearing a new explosion of black violence. Fearing revolution.
If the revolution comes, I'll lose everything. But if it doesn't...
At last, Gabe McGregor had a plan. He would go to Africa to seek his fortune.
Just like Jamie McGregor had done before him.
By 7:30 A.M., Gabe was on a subway into central London.
By nine, he was waiting outside the glass doors of the exclusive Coutts Private Banking offices at number 100 The Strand.
"Can I help you, sir?"
The security guard gave Gabe a look that made it perfectly clear that the last thing he wanted to do was help him. Gabe didn't blame the guy. He'd shaved and smartened himself up as best he could, but in his thin gray jacket and ancient, rain-soaked jeans, he did not look like a typical Coutts customer.
I've left you a little something at Coutts. Just to get you started.
It was typical of Marshall Gresham's generosity. He'd already done so much, kick-starting Gabe's appeal, teaching him the real-estate business. Billy and the prison doctor might have gotten Gabe clean, but it was Marshall Gresham who'd kept him that way. Marshall had given Gabe hope, something to live for other than heroin. He hadn't so much saved his life as given him a whole new one.
And now he wants to make sure I have money for a bed and a meal tonight.
It was both touching and much needed. Gabe had walked out of Wormwood Scrubs with only five pounds to his name, and that had gone on his subway fare and a bacon sandwich at Kings Cross. This afternoon he'd start looking for construction work. Friends inside had given him a few contacts. But it was nice to know he wouldn't have to sleep rough on day one.
"I'm here to see Robin Hampton-Gore." Gabe spoke softly but with confidence. "I believe Marshall Gresham informed him I'd be coming."
The guard's look now said, And I believe you're a chancer come to try your luck with a sob story. Well, if you are, good luck to you, mate. You won't get far with Mr. H.-G.
Out loud he said: "Wait here, please, sir."
Gabe waited there. Five minutes later, as much to his own surprise as the guard's, he found himself being escorted into a corner office by a genial man in a pin-striped Savile Row suit and the shiniest pair of wingtips Gabe had ever seen.
"Mr. McGregor, I presume?"
The man sat down behind a comfortingly solid mahogany desk. He gestured for Gabe to take the chesterfield chair opposite.
"Robin Hampton-Gore. Marshall told me you'd be coming. Waxed quite lyrical about you, in fact. He assures me you're going to be the next Donald Trump."
Gabe laughed uncomfortably. For a ritzy banker, Robin Hampton-Gore seemed suspiciously friendly toward an ex-heroin addict, just out of prison for burglary and aggravated assault, whose only recommendation came from a convicted fraudster.
"Marshall's an old friend of mine," Robin explained, as if reading Gabe's thoughts. "He made me in this business. He was my first big client and he stuck with me, long after he became so rich he could have insisted on someone far more senior handling his account. I owe him a lot."
"So do I," said Gabe.
Robin Hampton-Gore unlocked the drawer of his desk with an old-fashioned brass key and pulled out a crisp white envelope.
"This is cash," he explained unnecessarily, handing it to Gabe. "Marshall thought you'd need some immediately."
Gabe broke the seal and gasped. Inside was a small fortune. There was a smattering of tens and twenties, then hundred after hundred after hundred, the distinctive red-inked bills fluttering between Gabe's shaking fingers like rare butterflies as he thumbed through them, trying to count.
"There's only ten thousand there. It's a float. The rest is in an account in your name. I have all the details here."
Robin Hampton-Gore passed Gabe a second envelope. This one was already open, with a sheaf of Coutts letterheaded paper sticking out of the top.
Gabe stammered, "I...I don't understand. What do you mean 'the rest'? I think there must have been a mistake. I only need a couple of hundred quid."
Robin Hampton-Gore laughed. "Well, you've got a couple of hundred thousand." He handed Gabe a third envelope and his business card. "It's a letter from Marshall. I trust it explains everything, but if you've any further questions, don't hesitate to call me."
Gabe's hands were still trembling. As ever with Marshall Gresham, the letter was short and to the point.
It's not a loan. It's an investment. Fifty-fifty partners.
P.S. Don't forget to write from Cape Town.
Gabe felt a lump in his throat and swallowed hard. Now was not the time to get emotional. He had too much to do. There were so many people he was indebted to. Marshall Gresham, Angus Frazer, Claire, his mother. He couldn't let them down.
I'll pay you all back. Every penny.
I'm going to Africa to make my fortune.
I won't be back till I'm as rich as Jamie McGregor.