Winner of 2019 IndieReader Discovery Award.
Young Americans get involved in a dangerous international heroin smuggling conspiracy.
When twenty-something post-grad Nick Fillmore discovers the zine he publishes is a front for drug profits, he begins a dangerous flirtation with an international heroin smuggling operation and in a matter of months finds himself on a fast ride that he doesn’t know how to get off of.
After a bag goes missing in an airport transit lounge, Fillmore is summoned to West Africa to participate in a fetish oath with Nigerian mafia. Bound to drug boss Alhaji, Fillmore returns to Europe to finish the job. But in Chicago O’Hare customs agents “blitz” the plane and a courier is arrested.
Thus begins a harried yearlong effort to elude the Feds, prison and a looming existential dead end. Smuggler relates the real events hehind OITNB.
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The highway, a graded red clay road raised right on top of itself, went north into the interior, through the bush — around armed checkpoints, beyond the Africa of hotel bars and jellycocos, into an immensity.
Red dust settled in the wake of the four cars speeding along.
Three hours later we turned down a road to a little village snowbound in noon heat. A stand of old trees and some wooden shacks made a center square. Then the land fell away, branches scraped the sides of the car and the road disappeared. We stopped and got out, the Africans replacing kufis and throwing sleeves of kaftans over their shoulders. Someone pointed to a thicket, and we clambered down an embankment into a gulley of thorn bushes and entered a low, red mud hut.
A figure naked to the waste was squatting on the floor, staring into a little pink plastic mirror with a cocoon bound to the front. Then he was staring into my face. Then the mirror. Back and forth — drinking clear liquid (African gin) from a scarred glass. As I squatted down and looked into his eyes, vaguely aware of the impertinence, something crawled out from behind his expression, flickered there for an instant and was gone. Then he was all lines, the geometry of indifference.
At the center of the hut an altar of mud and feathers and wax and bones picked at your attention.
The Nigerians, long black hands floating in front of them, sat on a low bench against the wall, impatient to find out what had happened to their shipment of heroin. And all around the hut children jostled for position in little windows, their blank, smooth faces revealing nothing.
The marabout, an oracle, tossed a handful of cowrie shells in a metal pan, considered their arrangement and tossed them again. Then he began to speak.
After a moment, one of the Nigerians interrupted. "The bag," he said, gently.
The marabout murmured something.
"The bag!" A Nigerian with designer sunglasses shouted in English.
The marabout repeated himself.
An explosion of voices ensued. "The bag, the bag!" everyone shouted.
The marabout spoke a different dialect of Yoruba. People shouted in French, in English.
In the midst of this, an image of the airport terminal rose up in my mind: Shaky, hand-held shot of shoes, suitcases — the frantic search for the bag. Standing in a phone booth, chopping the air with my hand, talking, talking, muffled by glass. ...
Suddenly the events of my life were so strange, all I could do was register the details, camera-like — the facts: I am in a hut in a village somewhere along the Nigerian border. I am thirty-one years old. (I'm sorry, L; I didn't mean it to come to this.)CHAPTER 2
I remember a conversation with a young English Professor one late spring day before I became a heroin smuggler. Slogging across the quad after a rainstorm, that kind of spring morning you get upstate when everything changes, he'd admonished me about "the writing life": "If you're foolish enough to throw your life away," he said.
It was like everything stopped in that instant, and though we went our separate directions, to dining hall and office, some trace of us remained there in the rain contemplating that proposition: To throw one's life away. What is the attraction of that? It is a young man's conceit, no doubt, presupposing a knowledge of all the world's wasted effort. A first cigarette, tasting of honey and lye. ...
Afterwards, I studied with a famous poet. There was a moment, too, when words and the rhythms of words themselves seemed a perfected kind of existence.
Later, but not so much later, I got involved in crime. It happened the usual way: I was broke and available, doing unpaid work for a desktop publisher and waiting tables for the umpteenth time. I lived with my girlfriend in a dusty Northampton apartment that let long, yellow sunlight into the room. L was finishing up college.
Days off we drove up to the mountains or Boston or the Cape, my Ford Granada rollicking along on old springs toward some final destination that was not yet clear. A close reading of my vita might have told another story. Of course it could have foretold any number of things. I was a good prep school boy, somewhat out of my league and sorely lacking in "cultural capital"; threw off personas in college like clothes: urban cowboy, hippie, punk, poet; and wrote some things later in grad school. ...
In fact, I'd recently been fired from the restaurant — those days I was always getting fired from restaurants — and been scraping rent together, subsisting on pasta and video rentals and free drinks. Not that I wasn't happy in my way. I didn't know any better; I was in love.
L and I strolled through town holding hands under hundred-year-old Maples; lay on the couch watching movies; ate, hiked, browsed and day-tripped, spending our coins one at a time.
We'd recognized each other at first glance with a start one rainy June morning in the A House alley in Provincetown and despite working at the same café all summer barely managed more than a few words, a couple innuendos, not out of any exalted notions about romantic love; we simply didn't know what to say.
The next year we fell in together right away all quickened breath and balled fists and for a whole summer ran in and out of waves on the long spit of sand on the outer Cape. (That slow burn formed part of our personal myth; like all lovers, we idealized ourselves.)
Then L returned to Western Mass and broke up with me, twenty-four and fully come into her own, and I returned to Hartford to lick wounds and compose strange, macabre poems in my bedroom at my parents' house.
That winter I half-heartedly went from job to job — they told me I needed to take a shave at The Courant — and wound up working at an all-night Greek diner across from the train station serving scrambled eggs to late night bar patrons. The cook, a crack addict who slept in a cot in the basement, scampered up the stairs when you rang a bell.
In the spring I showed back up in Provincetown in black jeans and cowboy boots, that catch in the throat each time you returned to town. It was like walking in in the middle of a film: Fabulous characters in eyeliner and beards cavorted up and down Commercial Street. Artists who'd been working for a week straight staggered out of garages high on fumes. And fishermen lacquered in blood and fish scales clutched at bar rails, roaring at the ceiling. Of course the whole thing was really about sex.
Not yet 30, I was old news already. Gone were college days I turned the heads of all the old queens lounging on the meat rack in front of Town Hall or made waitresses blush. Lacking anything resembling "buzz" I held on like a winded boxer, figuring if I could just go the distance some credit might fall to me. Mostly I hung on.
L and I reconciled, and in the fall we moved to Northampton to set up house in an apartment in some old row houses. If Provincetown was the place you came to when you couldn't run any further, the Pioneer Valley was where you dug in: a farming community built on silts drained from great mountains to the north. Historically a hotbed of rural dissent to the politics of Boston, it attracted political liberals to its five colleges.
L's classes resumed. I haunted bookstores, biked out to secret reservoirs and raced down hills shivering in the wind; hung about the town with its lovely pink brick and ersatz New York; made some abortive attempts to write poetry. —
Then Claire showed up. I knew Claire from Provincetown and was surprised to see her in Northampton. She and L lived together the summer L and I started dating. Those first weeks I'd see them dancing every night at the A House in jeans and T-shirts, sleeves rolled up on their biceps, captains' caps and lipstick.
After last call we'd ride our bikes to Herring Cove to go skinny-dipping in inky darkness, sudden kelp beds, swirling phosphorescence. One night we all went back to their apartment.
L fell asleep in Claire's bed and Claire and I continued to drink and to smoke cigarettes. Claire seemed like me to be searching for a narrative. Lacking another material she talked about architecture school in Boston. Art-forum magazine. Europe. I couldn't quite make out what she was getting at. Her words, cadences, pauses had the shape of an argument, yet lacked any discernible premise.
"The people who are doing that kind of work," she said with conviction, "are doing something new. The art world in general. ..."
Claire sprawled out on the bed between L and me. I turned politely away; in the sorting the following morning kissed L. ...
I was sitting on the stoop of a Northampton bakery drinking coffee when Claire came striding down the street with a young guy and girl in tow. She'd just moved to Northampton and seemed to be chasing after one or both young things; had wormed her way into their affairs and was orchestrating things to her liking.
Claire stood there on the brick sidewalk, a riot of blonde hair, making Harpo Marx faces. — And whether she figured the whole thing out in that instant, or it came to her in pieces, I don't know.
"What are you doing here?" she said.
"I'm a freshman at Smith College," I said.
"And I'm the big bad wolf."
We all hung out a few times in Northampton. On one occasion Claire was with the boy, the next time she had the girl, intent on making a show of it there on the couch.
L was up early mornings to do fieldwork in wetlands around Amherst; I was out drinking with restaurant people till closing. Each night I'd run into Claire in one of a half-dozen local pubs.
Drinking magnified our complaint. Claire wanted money and she wanted attention, and she wanted to be right. One of those seemingly indestructible people who suddenly reveal a maudlin side (and the next day are themselves again), she composed herself not in sentences or in paragraphs but in chapters, a southerner, after all, a Cincinnatian; she was telling a story, and she had decided to tell it to me.
Claire had a younger sister named Hester who lived in Chicago, kind of a witchy girl by all accounts, a redhead who'd been spending a lot of time abroad and was involved with an African, Claire said vaguely. She was starting a magazine called Nun Civa Orcus about voodoo and other arcane preoccupations. I didn't know what any of it meant. Clearly, Claire held her in awe. Yet the more Claire talked about Hester, the murkier the picture she made. It seemed that in trying to solve the occult mystery of her sister, Claire had somehow raveled herself and me in it. (Months later they'd have it out in the middle of the street in Paris, a couple of termagants flapping and tearing at one another.)
Not so much with words but with gestures, Claire hinted that a destiny awaited us. There was talk of the magazine and of travel — of busting out of the narrow confines of our lives, the modesty of our twenties. I sat and listened and stared into a drink.
Over the next few months the magazine started to materialize. Hester and her friend Barry sent photographs, and I began to design a pamphlet and wrangle copy into a coherent form at the DTP shop in Amherst. And Claire and I continued to conspire in bar and booth.
One night, satisfied with her dramatic build-up, Claire confessed that Hester was smuggling drugs for a Nigerian. And my heart sank. So this was the dark matter that invisibly shaped our conversations. And the more she went on about this Nigerian she referred to as Alhaji, the less enticing it all seemed. Of course I didn't really know Claire.
I didn't walk away, either. Instead, I hung around to see what was going to happen next. Rent was due. (Christ, rent. In the last three months I'd hauled my old Chevette out of a field behind L's old apartment and sold it for a few hundred dollars, then collected the insurance after somebody dinged the Granada, then borrowed from my parents. It looked like my string of luck was run out.) So one winter day Claire and I took off for Chicago.
What I told L was ostensibly true: I was going to help start this magazine. Here were the brochures, of which I was a little proud; and the poster that I'd sent to art colleges around the country calling for work; and half-believing it myself, a manifesto.
L looked at me doubtfully. "The rent," she said.
I'd get the rent, damn it. Maybe more than that. — You were good as long as you stayed within the bounds of law, right?
After a straight twelve-hour drive Claire and I pulled up to the apartment, the first floor of a three story walk-up in Logan Square a few blocks from some gang turf.
Hester was away, but the roommate, Mickey, expected us. With his whiffle haircut, his sharp teeth and narrow-set eyes, he looked like a small, predatory animal. He circled you like a dog. No doubt he was in the habit of sizing up couriers, but Claire wanted to keep him at bay, so I played dumb and stared up at the ceiling while she and Mickey spoke in shorthand of this and that.
It reminded me of scoring pot in high school all those years ago with my friend Chico: pulling up to some run-down apartment complex and slinking up poured concrete steps, hands in pockets, to meet the local dealer, a trade school dropout ... but because I wasn't "cool" just yet being left in the living room while they went into the back bedroom to weigh an ounce; afterwards, because everyone was invariably an amateur and pothead, a bag would be produced, pot cleaned of copious stems and seeds on the obligatory double-live album cover and a joint rolled and smoked because it was cool after all, it was fun, and while it may even have been business, it involved certain rites.
Later Mickey made dinner. We ate at a big table with heavy, dark chairs. Against one wall was an antique sideboard. The windows were covered with dark jacquard pattern drapes; shabby oriental carpet on the floor.
We drank several bottles of red wine. That REM song was on the radio: "Andy are you goofing on Elvis? Hey, baby. Are we having fun?"
"Oh, my God, I went to this place called Manhole last night," Mickey was saying.
"Did you wear a condom?" Claire said.
"Did I wear a condom?" Mickey said.
I got drunk enough to brave the night in Hester's room, a windowless cell with a mattress on the floor, a tangle of sheets and an empty wine goblet — a postcard of the Sacred Heart of Jesus stapled to the wall above the bed.
The next morning we had breakfast and coffee — Mickey was well-provisioned — and were just getting down to business, when the phone rang. Claire took the call in another room. Then Mickey went in after her. A half hour later Claire came out of the room, bags packed, dressed.
"See you when I get back," she said. Then she left.
Mickey and I continued to dodge one another for the next few hours. That evening we were watching TV when he pulled out a piece of tin foil. "You want to smoke some heroin?" he asked, very matter-of-fact.
I'd used once before; just a kid out of school, my experiments in "the dark night of the soul" wobbling into unsafe orbit, I'd shot up with an ex-con named Cosmos in the bathroom of a club I worked at. I remember the shot hitting me and staggering to the bar and laying my head in my arms. Next thing some lovely punk rock girl was worrying over me out on the street after closing.
All that stuff, the femme fatale posturing of my twenties, was behind me now. Alcohol was my heroin, a benefaction. After three drinks a weight rolled off and my breathing would ease, as if I'd been running all day long — as if I'd been excused or absolved or unburdened or disburthened. Problem was another, darker impulse always rose up, demanding to be endured.
In fact, I yearned for an experience — to try myself on some other, absolute scale of values, maybe. Lacking imagination, I'd make some half-hearted stab: Get in a car with the wrong people. Shoot heroin. Of course such gestures are fatal precisely because they're insincere.
I angled the foil and held a flame to the grains of heroin till they caramelized like sugar and a black thread of smoke unspooled, which you chased with a straw, a brief sensation of heat going in. I guess I got high; after using a needle there didn't seem to be much point doing it otherwise. We watched TV, entranced by a Star Trek episode, a race of cyborgs trying to assimilate humanity.
The next morning I spread all my magazine stuff out on the dining room table and tried to come up with a plan. There was a briefcase filled with brochures, ad rates and artwork, and the idea of a magazine called Nun Civa Orcus, another of Hester's attempts at self-concealment, no doubt — a name ... the magazine equivalent of calling your kid Hercules or Jasper or Mauna Kea or Fuckhead. At least I could pitch galleries.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Smuggler"
Copyright © 2018 Nicholas Fillmore.
Excerpted by permission of Iambic Books.
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