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Authors: Richard Asplin

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BOOK: Conman
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He looked at me. He seemed to be deciding something, one way or the other, tossing a mental coin. With a little nod, it clearly landed Neil side up as he put down his bread and wiped his fingers on his serviette.

“Indeed. Does Ecclesiastes 3:17 not tell us there is a time for every activity, a time for every deed? And more importantly, was it not Douglas Adams who stressed that time was an illusion and lunchtime doubly so? So in that spirit, I will allay your fears at the outset. I am in need, Mr Martin, of a consultant. An expert. Somebody who knows their, as it were,
onions
, and many in your field assured me
Heroes Incorporated
was the emporium to frequent and you, its welcoming proprietor, a man whose brains were pick-worthy. Hence my interest in your credentials. All very straightforward.” He licked
his lips, eyes shining. “So. Are they to be trusted, these peers of yours?”


Consultant
?” I said. Behind my eyes little men in green visors began to set mental abacuses a-clacking with fat commission percentages. “Well …” and I sat up, cleared my throat, and proceeded to persuade him exactly how spot-on my peers had been.

 

The blond waiter arrived back during my school days, and I had lobster salad with mango and lime ordered for me. My host chewed bread through my university years, nodding with the occasional I
see
, the odd
righty-ho
and at one point a frankly upsetting
indeedy-dumplings
.
The waiter returned to top up my wine glass as I was leaving university killing time at Brigstock Place.

“Owned by a Mr Taylor back then I understand,” my host
interrupted
.

“Y-yes that’s right. Do you … ?”

“Your part-time became full time eight years ago and when Taylor retired, you borrowed a hefty deposit from a certain
Ear-lin-law
and bought him out. Which was … forgive me,” and he was back flipping through his notebook. Every page was full to the edges with tiny blue handwriting. “… three years ago.”

“Right,” I said, a little disconcerted. “Sorry, how do you know … ?” But he didn’t look up from the book. Just stuck his tongue out a little, flipping the pages back and forth.

“Jointly run stall at Earl’s Court every year with another dealer. One Maurice Bennett. Fairly reliable mail order. Clunky website that could do with updating. Stock-wise, perhaps an over-reliance on Golden Age comic books and
Superman
memorabilia they tell me, but otherwise, pretty much exactly what I’m looking for.”

“Right. Good,” I bounced. “I-I mean, I’m glad I come
recommended
.”

The lobster arrived in its dressing and we spent a silent minute or so deciding exactly how to wrest its secrets from its shell. My host expertly dissected it like a graceful surgeon. I plumped for the all-out overhead attack, shrapnel flying, hundreds wounded.

“Can I ask at this point,” I said, “who
you
are?”

“Who indeed,” he said, in exactly the cryptically playful manner
I was hoping he wouldn’t. “Well how shall we begin this, Neil? Shall we perhaps say I’m
two people
? Or is that tricksy and playful and liable to have you opening my throat with your butter knife?”

“Tuesday’s character with the suitcase being your
other
self?”

“Quite,” he smiled. “My grumpy seller routine. I sometimes wonder if the hat’s a bit much. Let’s call
that
rather rude man … Rudy, shall we?”


Rudy
?”

“And we’ll call
this
me … Mr Whittington.”

“And that’s your name? Whittington?”

“Good heavens, no. I’m merely riffing, as I believe old jazzers used to say, on a mayoral theme. But Rudy and Whittington, for the time being, are who I are. Anyhap, pleased to break shellfish with you, Neil. Here’s to swimming with bow-legged women,” and he held out a glass to clink. I clunked it obediently.

“But you’re not
actually
Mr Whittington,” I said, head
beginning
to thud a little.

“Well it would seem I
am
. Thanks to
you
, dear fellow. The moment you deigned to pick out a tie and polish your shoes, in fact,
you
cast me as Whittington. You’ve treated me politely. You let me order your food, choose your wine without complaint. For all the room to see,” and he wafted a knife at the other mumbling tables, “we are two well-brought-up gentlemen enjoying a
well-brought-up
lobster. Mr Martin and Mr Whittington.”

He wiped his mouth and lifted his glass with a small smile.

“I know I cannot be
Rudy
today, Mr Martin,” he said. “This is not how Rudy is treated.
Rudy
is used to receiving sighs, eye-rolls, tuts and threats. He is used to being ejected from shops, not joined at lunch tables.”

“Right. Right, I see what you’re –”

“He is used to being cheated, Mr Martin. Usually, mentioning no names
just
yet, by unscrupulous dealers who are shrewd enough to spot a half-buried Siegel & Shuster autograph in a case full of junk.”

“Yessssss,” I said slowly, putting down my knife and fork. I felt the lights were beginning to dim for the main feature. “Yes. Look I’m sorry about that. I don’t know –”

“If I was Rudy
today
, Mr Martin, you would by now have
presumably asked our preposterously blond waiter to rifle through my jacket while you distracted my attention? So you could meet him in the lavatory and cut up the score. You
haven’t
done this, so I presume today I’m Whittington.”

I felt my face colour, my underarms prickle.

“Sorry,” I began. “I don’t know why I did that exactly –”

“Some unseen force guiding your hand perhaps? Your female friend working you with wires? A spectral –”

“No, I mean … I don’t
normally
do that sort of thing.”

“Ah.
Out of character.

“Right, exactly.”

“Hmn. In my experience Neil, we are never ‘out of character’. It is a contradiction. The fact one has
done
a thing means it’s surely part of one’s character to do it. Your character simply hadn’t got round to it yet.
Your
character it turns out, is one who, when the right opportunity arises, likes to make a
dishonest
buck fleecing rude and smelly fellows out of their heirlooms. That’s who you are, Neil. And try as one may, one can’t
escape
who one is.”

Shit, I thought. The whole damned lunch was a set-up. He was no dealer, no collector looking for expert evaluations. Just a bored aristo, whiling away his yawning afternoons by egging harried shop staff into impropriety, only to enjoy ticking them off about it in fancy hotels at a later date. I crumpled my serviette and tossed it to the table.

“You feeling guilty now, Neil?”

“I don’t know,” I said. Which was true. I didn’t. Not at that point. I was too cross.

No fat consultancy fees. No two per cent commission. No lifeboat.

Shit.

“Or do you just feel caught?”

I sighed. Whittington was topping up my wine glass.

“You really want to know?” I said.

“Even more than I want to know where you got that rather fabulous tie from.”

So I thought about it for a silent minute, the restaurant around us fading to quiet, and then really told him.

If you’re wondering why I bothered, why I didn’t just tell the mad old fool to get stuffed, head back to the shop and begin nailing
out-of-business
signs over the windows, then I’ll tell you. And I can be sure of this because I’ve spent a great deal of time recently asking myself that very question.

It was because … hell, because the truth was I
didn’t
feel guilty. I knew I should. But I didn’t. Even with him sitting there in front of me. I mean he’d come into
my
shop, yelling, shoving, shouting the odds. Criticising this, pointing at that, knocking over displays. And despite her protests during our massage, I had Jane to support. A young family to think of.

Frankly, it had served him right.

 

“Of
course
it served him right,” and my host gave a shiver of disgust. “I’m surprised you went as easy on him as you did. Most people just hide the Siegel & Shuster under their desk and throw me out.”


Most people
?”

“Whereas
Whittington
? You wouldn’t dream of swindling
him
, correct? You, Neil Martin, like most, have decided to treat the world depending on how it treats you first. With either contempt or courtesy depending on whether it’s a Rudy or a Whittington. Good, good,” and with a smile and a twinkle and a little nod, that seemed to be that. He clicked his finger to beckon over our waiter, whom I watched as he bowed smartly and wafted off for the sweet trolley. When my eyes fell back on the table, a stiff brown envelope had appeared between us.

“To beeswax then,” Whittington said. “I require, as I mentioned at the outset, your help. If you will, a
hand
. I have in my
possession
–” and he paused, weighing the words, placing two flat palms on the envelope, “an item of interest.”

I licked my lips.

“Valuable?”

“Bahh, schmaluable. The trick, poppet, is
not
in finding an item of value. But in finding a customer who values your item. But if this satisfies your curiosity, a short correspondence with a friendly gavel-wielder has fenced off a sterling ballpark of
high six figures.
But only if –”

And he stopped mid flow, the waiter approaching the table, gliding a silver trolley across the rug. We sat in silence while he talked us through the spread in a clipped public school brogue, Whittington pointing at the cheesecake, which was sliced and served. The waiter wheeled off and Whittington resumed.

“… if waved about in a room full of the right people, of course. Mmmn, dig in dear fellow.”

“Can I ask what it is?” I munched.

“What it
is
, old chum, is
for sale
. Which is where I’m hoping Neil Martin and his Brigstock Place
emporia de retrograde
might come in. Mmmn! Didn’t I tell you? This cheesecake is to die for. I shouldn’t really,” Whittington said, licking his lips and delving in again, “but I had to. A man called Grayson – dealer like you – told me if I was ever here I was to try it.”

“You want me to display this thing in my shop?”

Whittington continued to munch.

“Where I
guarantee
it will be snapped up within
hours
. Now, naturally I wouldn’t … mmn this biscuit, dreamy. Naturally I wouldn’t expect you to do this for nothing, little chum. So what do you say? What’s fair?”

My heart began to thud, hope rising in my chest. I
concentrated
on my fork, slippy in a clammy grip.

“Shall we say, what? Twenty per cent of whatever you can get for it? How’s your dessert by the way? Isn’t it
divine
?”

 

Well I
mean
. The dessert might have been divine. Or it might have been turds and biscuits. At that point, my head was suddenly, and rather understandably, elsewhere. It took all my self-control, in fact, not to snatch his little silver pen and that little black book of his, jump onto the table-top and dance around in a circle doing the maths right then and there. My father had been right. A lucky turn, a lucky streak, call it what you like. Things were on the up.

Whittington continued to witter on about having happily
ascertained
my character as a professional and whatnot, but I tell you, I wasn’t taking it in. Twenty per cent of a high six-figure sum. We were talking a
hundred grand.
A hundred grand,
minimum
! For hanging whatever the hell it was in my window.
A hundred grand
?! My feet were dancing, my face trying to control a big goofy grin, maths
running through in my head – pay off the solicitors, pay back the bank, get the basement cleaned up. I could hear music playing suddenly.

The theme to
The Archers
, as a matter of fact.

Yep, you heard me. Deet da-deet-da tum-ti-tum. The bloody
Archers
.

 

Whittington put down his fork and reached under his newspaper, sliding out a book of matches, an oily Zippo lighter, a small penknife, a fountain pen and finally a small silver mobile phone. The tinny theme was louder suddenly. I felt other diners glancing our way.

“Apologies apologies,” he said, thumbing it open. “
A-hoy hoy
?” A frown scuttled across his brow. “Hmn, where should we … let’s see,” and Whittington flipped to the back of his notebook where a list was written in a neat blue hand. “
The Clarendon
I did yesterday,” and he crossed out a name. “
Claridge’s
I’m at as we speak, so it’s … yes. There’s a little Italian place on Brewer Street.
Con Panna
. I find public places more private. What time shall we say?”

I thought this a good time to excuse myself and go to the
bathroom
. I needed to splash myself with cold water. To walk, to dance. Needed the opportunity to drop to my knees and scream worshipful thanks to the patron saint of lucky escapes. St Jammy of Dodger, or whoever.

I left Whittington to his call.

 

Stood among the glistening tile and gleaming brass of Claridge’s gents, I breathed long and slow, releasing the best part of a half bottle of ninety-nine Latour against the porcelain.

A hundred grand.

My stupid face grinned back at me in the pale reflection of the polished wall. And well it should. The disaster was averted, the crisis passed.

 

If I’m honest about it, in the huge tide of relief that sunny
afternoon
, the biggest and most refreshing waves were those washing in from Chelsea. Specifically, from a large five-bedroomed house off the King’s Road.

See, I knew what Jane’s father thought of me. Unsurprisingly I suppose, as he made almost no effort whatsoever to hide it. When
Jane fell pregnant for example. He’d exploded in a spray of cigars and tankards, which Edward’s type always does. The
family line
and all that.

BOOK: Conman
7.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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