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Authors: Richard Asplin

Conman

BOOK: Conman
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For Neal, who’ll enjoy this one
and
Luthfa, without whom nobody would be reading this.
Love to you both.

 

 

 

 

“Wait, is this a
con
? Is
that
what this is? Are you … are you trying the old switcheroo with me? Trying to pull wool over my leg? … You
swear
? Because let me tell you right now Mr Cheng, I’ve had exactly my legal limit of swindlers, marks, mitt fitters, cacklebladders and cold pokes. Up to the brim, you understand? Enough to last my family and me a long time. To last us the twenty years I’m going to have to spend in prison if I don’t get the thing back, in fact … Yes,
prison
Mr Cheng. Big grey building? Nestling among ten acres of beautiful rolling concrete? Conveniently situated for group showers and buggery, ideal for the first time offender … ? Well it’s where they put husbands like me. Idiot husbands who … Look, look forget it, just give me a price to have it back. A proper price. And don’t try and jerk the fleece behind my back. How
much
?”

 

Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to come back in here disturbing you. It’s just the police said … and it’s a bad line and it’s … Sheesh, bad day, bad line. Bad from the beginning. From forever. I won’t be long. I’ll get out of your hair. You get back to your drink. Ignore me. Really, I’m sorry.

 

“What? But you only paid … No
way
? Redford
and
Newman?
Nobody
gets Newman. The guy’s a hundred and sixty years old, wired up to an intravenous bottle of spaghetti sauce in Beverly Hills …
Swear
? … Lord. Okay okay, but c’mon Mr Cheng,
please
. You gotta do me a better price. My daughter … there’ll be lawyers.
Lawyers
. They’ll say I …
God
. C’mon, it’s
me
, Mr Cheng.
Please
?”

 

Woahh, sorry, sorry. Oh look, I spilt your drink all over – let me –
barman
? – let me get you another. Sorry. It’s just this guy on the phone, he’s got my life in his hands and the police told me
to … oh it’s too complicated to explain.
Barman
? Whatever my friend here is having.

 

“Look Cheng, haven’t you been
listening
? I don’t
have
that kind of money … Well, I-I’m suggesting you
lend
the thing to me. Just for a day or so. An
hour
even. The police said I needed … Yes, the
police
. Where do think I’ve
been
for the last … Well when’s your buyer
coming
? … Oh for Chrissakes, three hours? … No, I keep telling you, I can’t, I don’t have it. Look I beg you,
promise
me you won’t sell it … Earl’s Court, I’m in Earl’s Court. A pub. The World or The Map or something …”

 

Huh?
Atlas
? Oh, oh thanks. Thanks my friend. How’s your drink? Look, I’m sorry about the yelling. It’s just … well as you can see from the suit, it’s been quite a day. This? I dunno. Corn syrup I think. I know, I know, it stinks. Hell, I didn’t get any on your … ? Okay. Again, I apologise.

 

“Cheng? My friend here says it’s The Atlas. Earl’s Court … No, round the corner from there. Look, give me three hours. I’ll come up with something. I
have
to. Jane’s dad is saying she’ll …
God
, just
promise
me you’ll stall your … Fine. Three hours.”

 

God. What am I going to do?
Three
hours. So that’s …

Right. Of course.
Great
.

Excuse me? Hi, sorry to bother you again. My watch is … well it’s … long story. Do you know what time it is?

Already?

Okay okay. Right. Calm. Don’t panic. That gives me …

Christ
.

Do you know if there’s a bank or anything around here? Pawn shop maybe? Somewhere I can sell … I don’t know, a lung or something? What’s a lung worth? You want to buy a lung? A kidney? How are you for kidneys?

Hn? Sorry, I know, I’m in a bit of a … I’ve had a …

Oh no, no I couldn’t, I don’t want to intrude on your –

Oh that’s kind, you’re very kind, thank you. You don’t have a tissue, do you? My nose is beginning to … 

Thanks.

Man. What time did you say – ?

God. Where’s that phone. Let me … let me try her again. Sorry. I’ll just be … I need to make a …

 

“Hello Jane, I – ? Edward
please
. I need to talk to … Because I’m her
husband
and I
love
her and I need to explain. We’re a family, I would
never
… I
can,
I can
prove
I didn’t … well no, but – in a few hours. I’m trying to …
Please
Edward, tell her …”

 

Christ.

 

“Tell her she … she is everything to me.
Everything
. You
understand
? She’s why I get up in the morning. She’s the whole point. Her and Lana. They’re the whole point. They’re all I have. Forget the rest. Forget the shop. That’s not who I am.
They
are who I am. My family is who I
am
. You take them away from me and I have nothing.
Nothing
. And … and tell her if she goes and she takes our daughter I might as well be guilty of everything they say I’ve done because then I’m in prison for life anyway. You tell her that. Edward? Edward, are you – ? Edward?”

 

Great.

 

I’m sorry. You don’t have to –

Well thank you. Thank you, that’s very kind.

God look at my shirt, this syrup’s getting all over the place. I’m gonna take my jacket off, put it on the … oh God it’s everywhere. Gaah, my lighter’s all sticky. My cigarettes. All my pockets … God it’s all over the letters, damn. Sorry, can you hold … thanks.

How? Oh you don’t want to know. No really, enjoy your drink. I’ll just …

Man. Man oh
man
.

And look at
this
place.
Look
at it. It’s like nothing
ever
happened. The bar, the tables. Like they were never here.

Hell, maybe they
were
never here? Maybe it’s me? Maybe I’m losing –

Letters? Oh. You’re still … Thanks, sorry, my mind’s all …

From
? What
these?
Ha.
From
indeed. Her name’s … God she was right, they even
smell
like her. Go on, sniff the …
see
? Clever touch. And look, even the postmarks – oh you can’t see, they’re covered in this damned syrup. God it’s everywhere. My matches, my notebook … Anyway, trust me. Postmarks. Six months ago. Four months ago. Here, this one? Three weeks ago? Clever clever clever.

In fact, you want clever? Let me read you … No I insist, here we go, you listen to this. You won’t believe it.

“… and the more I think about your words Neil …”

Oh, that’s me. Neil Martin. How do you … oh, sorry. It’s just syrup, it’ll scrub off. Sorry.

Anyway –

“… the more I think about your words Neil, the more I feel the same. Just thinking of you gives me a sick ache inside. A painful teenage ache. Because that’s how it feels when we’re apart, Neil. Painful because I imagine you with her and I know I have to wait so long until I can see you again …

And so it goes on. Pages and pages.

Oh you don’t want to know. Just hope you never meet her. Don’t meet her or anyone like her. And don’t … don’t lie to the only person you ever truly loved, either. Don’t ever do that.

I’m rambling. I know, I’m sorry. I’m a bit … Jus

t tell them the truth. I mean it. Tell them
everything
. Tell them you
love
them.
Show
them you
love
them. Every day. Don’t let it … don’t let it in. Don’t let it start. Do the right thing. Do the good thing.

Oh, and balance your chequebook every month.

I know, I know, it sounds …

But I mean it. Every month. Cheques and balances. Keep on top of it. And plumbing too. Hell, don’t neglect your plumbing.

That’s how it can start.

Or at least, that’s how it all started for me.

All … all
this
.

Plumbing. And a cheque. Writing a very small cheque.

Or rather, wishing I had.

God, I
really
wish I had.

With a deep breath, I flipped back through the stubs, reading out loud to the room like a teacher at registration.

“Okay okay. Let’s not … let’s not
panic
. C’mon now. Visa bill. Next bill. Road Tax …”

Dionne Warwick warbled from the stereo, goading me to take it easy on myself. Fat chance.

“… vet bill, Mastercard, Jane’s Visa. If you have not yet received a new cheque book …”

I flapped it shut and a little more panic squirted into my stomach.

It wasn’t there.

Not that I really expected it to be there. It wasn’t the
chequebook
for the business account and it hadn’t been there the first six times I’d checked it. But it was my last hope. A clutched straw at the bottom of an over-scraped barrel on the beach at Last Resort.

Throat tight, I chewed the inside of my cheek, trying to keep my gaze from the corner of the desk. From catching the eyes of the two beautiful female faces smiling from behind the glass of a silver photo frame.

Shit, I thought.

The cat wandered into the lounge idly across the Easiklip flooring and sat on the rug, looking up at me. I swivelled around in my creaky chair to look at him straight.

“Did you pay it?” I asked. “Please. Tell me
you
paid it?”

Streaky remained silent, but his look said he would have paid it if he’d been asked to. Because he wasn’t the sort of forgetful cretin who’d put his whole family and future at risk. He started washing his bottom.

Trying to keep a lid on the fear, I swallowed hard, turned the
photo-frame face down and began to wade purposefully through the paperwork on the desk for the hundredth time. Letters from the bank, from solicitors, trade fairs. It would be here. I must have paid. I must have. I’m not an idiot.

But what started as a purposeful wade collapsed quickly into a despairing yowl as an unquestionable fact arrived, dropped two leaden suitcases and took up permanent residence in my bowels.

I was an idiot. I hadn’t paid it.

I got up itchily and clicked off Dionne because I don’t know about you, but I like to choose a CD to fit a mood, and Bacharach just isn’t panicking sort of music. I let the small flat sit in a brooding silence for a long while. Of course, the cat might have called it a peaceful silence, or a tranquil silence.

But then the cat didn’t know what
I
knew.

Loose knees shaky, I wobbled into the kitchen to distract myself with tea. Blu-tacked to the kettle’s smudgy surface was a small pink cardboard star with
‘£2
’ printed on it. I blinked and it vanished.

Easy there, Neil.
Easy
.

I jumped at the sound of the phone in the lounge. Our nice phone. White bakelite. Heavy, with a proper circular dial and a real
ringgggg
to it.

I stood listening to the real
ringgggg
for a moment. Hating it. I’d gone off the phone recently. I preferred letters. Letters I could ignore more easily.

Ringgggg.

I moved back into the lounge, past the couch that had a blue cardboard star on its arm, proclaiming “
£
50 o.n.o.” and hauled up the receiver.

Bedlam. A party. Laughter. Music.

“Hello?” I said. More music and laughter. Some people clearly not doing their accounts. Or at least, not doing mine. “
Hello
?”


Heyyy, is Franny there
?
Francesca
?” Laugh, shout, thud.

“No. No there’s no-one here of that name. I think you have the wrong –”


Is that Mike
?” Thuddy guffaw shout.

“No. There’s no Mike and no Francesca. You have the wrong –”

He hung up, so I did too.

I blinked a few times. The small ‘
£
5’ sticker on the telephone dial didn’t move. I blinked harder. That got it.

I sat on the
£
50 couch and dragged worried eyes about the lounge.

This mental car-boot pricing, working out what I was going to end up selling everything for, had begun recently. Ever since the firm of Boatman, Beevers and Boatman, EC3 had written to me asking about the cheque. Their first letters I’d ignored. The next few I’d fobbed off. Brief responses about ‘pending payments’ and ‘full recompense in due course’.

But they kept coming. Each one leaning a little harder, pressing a little further, like an escalating bar-room threat. “… Dear Mr Martin, please be informed that unless contact is made with this office by Friday, November 6th, we will have no choice but to take legal action …”

Yeah?

Yeahhhhh
.

I was halfway back to my kettle, mentally breaking down the next ten days into a workable rota of self-loathing and deceit when there was a scream.

But a real
scream
. A terrifying, throat-tearing scream.

Palms cold, I bounded over the cat and back into the lounge. There was a rev of un-tuned engine and squeal of tread-less tyres. I whipped open the curtain.

She was on her knees, face in shadow, bathed in the UFO glow of the yellow street lamp, a crunch of broken glass lying like spilt diamonds about her. The light from my window must have caught her eye because she turned to face me, face torn with anger.

“The
police!
” she bellowed. “Get the
police!

Heart thundering, I heaved up the bakelite, whirring the nines and clamping it under my ear. As I was connected, I craned a look back out onto the dark street. She was stumbling to her feet, one shoe off, leaning on our wall for support, whirling her bag like a slingshot and yelling into the night.

“Go on! Take it!
Take it!
Kill yourselves, you dickless fuckers! Wrap it round a postbox. Very rock and roll. Very
in the hood!


Police emergency,
” the phone crackled.

“Hi yes yes, a woman has been attacked, or carjacked I think.”

“Two killed!” the woman bellowed up the street, kicking and whirling. “Two killed in nine-year-old Honda Civic on the
Upper Richmond Road!
Oh very
Tupac.
Very P fucking
Diddy!

The policeman took the details and said officers would be there soon, so I hung up and hurried down into the cold blast of the street. Lights were clicking on in the Georgian mansion block opposite, nets twitching as local residents felt the tremor of their property values dropping. The woman was slumped against my wheelie bin with her bag at her feet, breathing deep, shaking.

“I’ve called the police. They’re on their way. You all right?” I jittered, heart thumping.

Gathering her thoughts and cigarettes, she eventually eased herself up. She had a nasty graze on her temple and three thick waterfalls of dark red hair had come unclipped from an
evening-out
arrangement, tumbling lazily over her face and shoulders. Her dark cocktail dress was now sequinned with pavement grit. She pushed her hair aside, revealing a striking pair of dark brown eyes.

“Bastards,” she sighed eventually. “You got a light?”

“Uhmm, I-I’ve got tea?”

“Any vodka you can stick in that?”

“Er y-yes I should be able to find some. Come on in. God, you all right? What happened?”

“Put a lot of vodka in,” she said, leading the way up the scruffy steps. It really was a very short cocktail dress. “Don’t worry if the tea won’t fit in there with it. And grab my other shoe could you?”

Head tumbling, I watched her disappear inside the flat and then scurried about on the pavement for a moment, eventually retrieving a dark brown velvet stiletto from the kerb and hurrying in after her.

 

“Groovy place. What do you do, collect this stuff?”

Her name was Laura. She sat on the couch, breathing deep. Nervous chit-chat, calming herself down. Her other shoe was off now, painted stockinged toes curling anxiously on the edges of the rug. The first vodka I’d fetched hadn’t even touched the sides so I’d fixed her another. I drank tea and the cat watched her from the footstool as she lit up a shaky cigarette, taking long and slow draws, peering about the room.

“I guess so,” I said, handing her a chipped saucer as a makeshift ashtray. “It’s my job.”

Laura peered about the geek-chic walls. The posters, prints and props.

“Superman, huh?” she said. Understandably I suppose, as the Man of Steel’s iconic, brick-chinned visage was present a little too often in frames and figurines about the room. Not to mention his proud, hands-on-hips stance on my t-shirt. Laura exhaled a cloud of blue smoke and blinked at me from behind her hair. “This a gay thing?”

I coughed a little into my tea, getting it up my nose a bit while Laura took another shaky suck on her Lucky Strike and
apologised
, licking her lips.

“Sorry,” she said. “Nervous. Stupid. I’m a bit rattled. After …” and she motioned at the window. “Forgive me, I didn’t …”

“No of course, fine fine,” I repaired. “You’re not the first. I suppose it’s all a little camp. But no. It’s a … father-figure thing. Rather a clumsy one at that.”

“Father figure?”

“Long story. It’s turned into a sort of hobby anyway. Just the rarer stuff,” I said, trying to sound as heterosexual and un-geeky as I possibly could from within a fitted tee and beneath a cheap framed print of Christopher Reeve. “How are you feeling though? Anyone you want to call?”

“I’ll use your bathroom I think,” she said and wobbled to her feet, hoisting her bag. I led her down the hall, through the narrow gallery of comic book covers and clip-framed movie stills and fetched her a towel.

The police arrived while she cleaned herself up. Two huge guys – one young Manc constable and one old Scottish Sergeant – thudding up the stairs, waterproof jackets rustling. I sat them down and made more tea, leaving them to worry the cat and sniff at all my Clark Kents.

Moments later, carrying a tea tray through, I met a fresh-faced Laura coming down the hall, zipping up her bag and coughing a lungful of acrid cosmetic tang.

“Knocked off a bottle of something in your bathroom,” her voice said through the stinging cloud. “Bit of a stink I’m afraid.”

I not-to-worry-ed, blinking back the stinging tears and gave her to Scot and Manc for their questions. The officers were clearly taken with her, that much was obvious, both talking at the same time, interrupting each other, trying the old ‘sexy cop – sexy cop’ routine.

I meanwhile fussed with spoons and coasters like a Jewish mother, dropping enough eaves to pick up a bit of background. Laura was thirty-four years old. She worked in a sandwich bar on Old Compton Street in Soho. She lived alone. She’d been heading out to a party. Yes, it was her car. A Honda. Yes, it was insured. No, she didn’t get much of a look at her attackers. Yes she was shaken but not hurt. An ambulance wouldn’t be necessary. No, she’d never met me before and yes, black with no sugar would be fine.

She took a mug from me and mouthed a silent thank you from her dark painted lips and I suddenly found myself momentarily joining the policemen in the gut-sucking-in.

Hell, not that I want you to get the wrong idea about my marriage. Jane and I are –

Were

Well Jane and I. It’s a happy marriage. Hand on heart. Other women, one-nighters, whatever. It’s never really been on my radar. I’m a family man. Have been since always. A beautiful wife and the cutest baby daughter. Enough woman for me.

My gut-suck act was something else. A symptom. A defence. I’m a blusher, you see. A stutterer. With women. Talk too much, don’t talk enough. Hopeless, always have been.

Luckily, Jane rescued me from a lifetime of bachelor bumbling by taking the lead at University. She brought me out of my sappy self one common-room afternoon, interrupting my reading with a drunken rant about how Batman wasn’t a proper superhero. Bashful or not, this was home turf so I wasn’t about to have that and we went toe-to-toe over strength vs powers for the better part of the evening. She knew her stuff and I knew mine and the rest sort of just fell into place.

She still won’t have a picture of Batman in the house, so I have to keep my – numerous – Dark Knights in the shop office.

Now you can get all Freudy on my ass if you wish. We can tire the moon with whether I’ve ended up surrounding myself with a houseful of macho superheroes in body-stockings and
scarlet cod-pieces
because
I’m no good around women. Or we can go the other way and say that I’m no good around women due to spending all day selling comic and movie junk and developing no conversational skills beyond
eBay
and
Kryptonite.

I’ll take either of those bets, no problem. A bit of both I expect.

What I
do
know is that if Jane hadn’t stepped up and thrown down a beer-fuelled Bat-Gauntlet and my best friend Andrew Benjamin hadn’t sat me down and given me a good talking to I’d be a lot worse than I am now. A woman like Laura would have had me snapping into a foetal position and dribbling. Fortunately for my gut, she didn’t stay much longer. The cops gave her a crime number and they left. She waived a lift home, which left her sitting on the edge of my
£
50 couch staring into an empty mug.

 

“So,” I began, easing myself into the armchair opposite. “Old Compton Street, you said? Just round the corner from me. Brigstock Place.
Heroes Incorporated
?”

Laura reached into her bag and started up another cigarette, her face glowing in the flickering match light.

“Missed that one,” she said.

“Most people do,” I sighed. “Not that it’ll be there much longer …”

“No?”

“It’s in a little trouble. A lot of trouble.” I glanced over at the desktop of paperwork, my stomach tumbling. “Sorry, you’ve been through enough. I don’t know why I’m –”

“Because you helped me out. C’mon, fair’s fair.” I looked back at her. Laura had sat back and crossed her legs, arching a stockinged foot. “Go on, get it off your chest. Trouble?”

My eyes lingered on her legs for an idle moment, before
snapping
back to my teacup.

“Well, there’s a convention coming up next month. Earl’s Court?” I got up and fetched a slithery flyer from the desk and handed it to her. “Mostly trade. I’m meant to have a stall. Me and this other guy, Maurice. Posters, autographs …”

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