Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing: homeFiction

Protected part 2

A short story in five parts

Since I’m dead set on telling the truth here, I think it’s important to record that Greg did not set out from the beginning to be a crook. The business was legitimately, if unspectacularly, profitable and Greg took visible satisfaction from its incremental, organic growth. Year by year, the enterprise consolidated its position and, while running it didn’t come close to stretching Greg’s formidable intellect, as far as anyone could tell he was happy and fulfilled. I was the one who chafed.

I was uncomfortably conscient of the fact that my input wasn’t necessary to the success of the enterprise. I was being carried, not pulling my weight; I was taking out more than I contributed, which was approximately nothing. In my newfound commitment to truthfulness, I feel obliged to note the fact that I can’t say why this should have bothered me, given that it clearly didn’t bother Greg. I suppose it left me feeling that my position was precarious. If there should ever be a downturn in the business — and surely the one certainty about any kind of economic activity is that it is cyclical — if ever it became necessary to trim excess fat, then I would be the obvious candidate for trimming. On top of that, having little or nothing to do, I was understandably bored. But most importantly of all, my self-esteem was at stake.

Confronted with the daily reminder that Greg was a shrewd and capable businessman, it wasn’t long before I began to look for ways to validate my own claim to significance. I wanted to amount to something. The electrical goods supplier was obviously thriving without my contribution so, objectively, the best course of action would have been to resign my sinecure and go and do something completely different. Unfortunately for me, I had the unshakeable feeling that I wasn’t qualified to do anything other than teach, an activity for which I’d already convincingly demonstrated an utter lack of aptitude. The one thing I’ve always been very good at is reading. That’s why I’d believed in the first place that an English literature degree would have been a good use of my talents.

Following my disappointing encounter with the canon of great works in English, I continued to read, of course, only now I read anything except literature. History and biography, of course, up to a point. But I’ve never really been able to get my head around history. In fact, it’s indistinguishable from literature, except that it works on a greatly expanded scale. The behaviour of monarchs, governments, societies and peoples are just those of individual fictional characters writ large: the occlusion (and mixture) of motives, the shifting of alliances, the pursuit of an abysmally understood approximation of self-interest, the determined (if presumably unconscious) eschewal of rational motivation — they’re all of a piece whether the arena is the the drawing-room or 16th-century Europe, and all equally incomprehensible to me. Most biography tends to suffer from the opposite problem. Motives are unpersuasively clarified, explanations offered which are too rational to seem plausible to anyone who has observed actual human behaviour. Subjects are cast either as highly principled persons of irreproachable character or as selfishly cynical schemers without a redeeming feature. It wasn’t all that long before I concluded that history and biography have little to recommend them over the merest literature. But I still needed to read.

Popular or “genre” fiction helped to fill the gap for a while — actually for longer than, in retrospect, I believe I had any right to expect. Certain popular genres — romance, science fiction and YA for a start — had no appeal for me at all. In fact, I was effectively restricted to crime and spy fiction; and within crime, I had no patience with serial killers and little tolerance for “procedurals”. In a strange way, my release from the obligation to read literature, history and biography, combined with the frankly formulaic character of the low quality fiction I was reading, freed me to read anything and everything, and I did just that. I read trade magazines and technical manuals, IRC threads and newsgroups. I read how-to books from earlier decades, which offered untestable solutions to problems which no longer existed — which were, in many cases, no longer conceivable. I even read some of Greg’s accountancy protocols and the tax code. I’ve never really doubted that it was some synthesis of this misdirected, heterogeneous reading that led me to the idea.

For the first few years, the mainstay of the business had been washing machines, fridges, cookers, stereos and televisions, but recently there’d been something of a shift, and mobile phones had assumed a disproportionate importance in our turnover. Greg adjusted nimbly to the changed market. Unfortunately for him, it hadn’t stopped changing. As long as a substantial number of people wanted to own their phones outright, Greg could make money from them. Technological development and economies of scale even brought the prices down for a while so the market remained hospitable. Lower prices meant higher volumes and the business maintained its profitability, more or less. However, as the manufacturers learned to add features — cameras, media players, email — and started to push prices up instead of consistently lowering them, more and more people discovered that they were content to get their phones on contract from the telecomms companies. Greg found his market suddenly and irreversibly shrinking.

But he’d lost none of his entrepreneurial agility. Noting that the market outside of Europe and North America had very different characteristics, he set about putting in place an export operation. It was then that I saw the opportunity to make myself instrumental in the continued success of the business. By all means, I urged, let the phones end up in Africa or south Asia but not before we had fully extracted every scrap of the value they still retained within the EU. I dare say you’re shocked. I, the person who would eventually shop Greg to the authorities, am the same person who had encouraged him to get into VAT fraud in the first place. That, I’m sure you’re thinking, sounds very like entrapment. Well all I can say — and remember I’ve undertaken to be completely honest with you — is that it wasn’t like that. Not at all.

It wasn’t until many years later that I reluctantly concluded that the only way I could avoid going to prison was to cooperate in bringing Greg’s career as a VAT fraudster to an end. When I first urged him to embark on that career, I didn’t foresee or intend that my advice would lead to his arrest and conviction. Circumstances changed several times in the intervening period and consistency in the face of changing circumstances is the utmost folly. There was no intentional link between my initial luring of Greg into crime and my ultimate betrayal.

For a start, it isn’t exactly true that I lured him. I was the first to have the idea but at that stage it was far from being a detailed plan. I’d been reading, somewhere, about VAT carousel fraud and how it was depleting the VAT revenues in several European countries. Naturally, the publishers of the article wanted to shock and entertain their readership without providing an instruction manual for aspiring copycats, so the piece was light on details. After reading it, I had a vague understanding of how the fraud worked but I certainly wouldn’t have been able to put the pieces in place to carry it out. Somewhere else, I stumbled upon a suggestion that mobile phones might be the ideal commodity on which to base this kind of fraud. All I did was put two vague ideas together to form the sketchy outline of a proposal.

I hadn’t been expecting Greg to seize on it but he surprised me. Several years later, he was to tell me that my idea came just at a moment when he’d begun to feel at once bored by running the business and worried about its prospects of survival. Cashflow was good and margins were substantial but he had overinvested in mobile phones just as the market for them was about to change its nature. That needn’t have been a problem if he’d still been full of enthusiasm and fire. My suggestion provided a glimpse of the prospect of recovering the capital he’d tied up in the phones. For once in my life, my input could be described as timely.

As I’ve said, as yet that input consisted of just the vague outline of a plan. But Greg was the detail man and the task of designing a scheme was exactly the challenge he needed at that point. He’d have to balance illegality and commercial uncertainty on the one hand with security mechanisms and cut-outs which allowed him to manage the risks to himself, his business and his family on the other. Eventually, he was to carry all the details of the complex scheme in his head but that would come later, only after it had become a reality. For now, as long as no overt act existed to convert his grandiose plotting into an actual conspiracy, he worked on the backs of sheets of waste paper, recovered from the recycling boxes.

He treated the planning as an intellectual exercise, almost a game, emitting a little grunt of satisfaction whenever yet another element of the design slotted into place. The planning took up the bulk of his spare time over three or four weeks. Then, he gathered up all the sheets of waste paper, opened the top of the range and shoved them in. In the following days, he got in touch with accountants and lawyers in Holland, Italy, Spain and probably a few countries I didn’t know about to set up a string of companies whose main object was the trading in electrical and electronic goods and which immediately registered for VAT.

Greg never told me the details of how these companies operated. I assumed that he installed local management who carried on a legitimate business. Where he got the money to do this while so much of his capital was tied up in the mobile phones is something I can only guess at. My ignorance of these details is one of the reasons I wasn’t able to point the police in the right direction when the time came, so they had to investigate him for conspiracy to murder instead. What I do know beyond doubt is that, in a little over two years after the burning of the waste paper, Greg was the indisputably the preeminent VAT fraudster in Ireland. He retained that position throughout the late 1980s and all of the 90s. He seemed unassailable.

In those days, you’ll remember, Ireland was beset by paramilitary groups on the one hand and vicious drug-dealing gangsters on the other. The former had insatiable fund-raising requirements, while the latter combined limitless greed and ambition with moronic thuggery. These two groups included the most dangerous men in the country. Greg’s enterprise, which was at once phenomenally profitable and devoid of any legal protection, was a conspicuous target from their point of view.