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Authors: Richard Asplin

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BOOK: Conman
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Christopher Laurie. AKA Rudy, AKA Whittington, AKA J Peckard Scott, AKA Lord knows who.

And when I say ‘they explained what the trick was called
later
,’ you understand me right.

Later. When I saw them again.

Which I’d absolutely no
intention
of doing, you understand?

God, growing up in my family had taught me that if nothing else. I was well out of it.

It was just that …

See, when my headache and I got back to the shop, Laura was waiting for me.

She said I’d had a
visitor
.

“Some hairy fellah. Making a real scene. Rattling your shutters, kicking the door. He was pretty pissed off. Wanted to know where you were. Where
were
you? You’ve been closed for hours.”

“Sorry. Were you … ? I mean was there something I … ?”

“Just wanted to say hi,” Laura said. “Brought you a bun.”

She looked at me, not blinking. In a way women don’t tend to look at me. Ever. I felt the usual spidery heat creep up around my ears. I apologised with a shruggy cough, hauling up the cold clattering shutters.
Saying hi
? This woman needed a hobby. Or her coffee shop needed a marketing drive.

“And this hairy fellah,” I probed. “Forty-ish? Beard?
Red Dwarf
T-shirt under a pyjama top?”


Star Trek.
Or
Star Wars
. One of those.”

“Figures,” I sighed.

We moved into the chilly shop. Two dozen notes pushed under the door from eager collectors offering me top dollar for my entire stock, plus a bunch of flowers from the offices of Boatman Beevers and Boatman apologising for their miscalculation were all notable by their absence.

“That smell’s not getting any better,” Laura said. “Still
underwater
down there?”

“For the time being,” I said. She was right. The fleshy stench of death and rot was seeping into every page, every poster, every print, even up here on dry land. It wouldn’t be long until my life’s work was all just skip filler.

Moving out the back, I snapped on the blinking lights, the filthy kettle and my Disney tape,
The Jungle Book’s
‘Trussst In Meee’
slithering
about the shelving, spreading unease. I promptly snapped it off again, my unease levels being dangerously high as it was.

“So who’s the hairy fellah?”

“The
fellah
is Maurice. Freelance dealer,” I said, booting up the
laptop in the office with a clickety-click. “Also a
Connect Four
grandmaster and the one man I don’t want to see. It clearly isn’t enough for him that his solicitors are lurking in my letterbox every morning.”

“Solici – ? He’s
the guy
? Shit.” Laura had perched herself against a packing crate full of poster tubes and was gesturing at me with a Lucky Strike. “And you’ve been out avoiding him?”

“Not quite. Remember Wednesday? That chap in the hat with the photographs?”

“Your lunch date?”

“He wants my help,” I said, rattling in my password and leaving my web-page to drag itself into life, “and he’s willing to pay well for it.” The kettle clicked off loudly so, leaving the computer whirring, I clambered over tubes and cardboard in the kitchen to throw coffee granules all over the lino. “Did Maurice say he’d be coming back?”

“Not to me. Wants help doing
what
?”

“Oh you don’t want to know. One of these?” and I waggled the Nescafé.

“Quick one,” she nodded, so I found another mug, wiped living things from it and splashed some hot water about. I heard her edge into the small kitchen behind me.

“Really. I want to know,” she said.

“Nnnyyeaa
hhaayyy
!” I said, which isn’t much of a segue, I’ll grant you. But Laura had chosen this moment to slide her hands onto my shoulders.

Not
place
, you understand.
Slide
. This with the addition of fifteen extra aitches in every word.
Whhhhant to knhhhoww
, like she was blowing out birthday candles in my ears.

Anyway, me being me, the spoon went one way, the milk went another, my body spasming like an epileptic marionette on the end of a cattle prod, barking my leg on the cupboard with a yelp. Elbows clucking, I spun around, pinned twitchily against the
now-granulated
counter top, chins doubling. Laura stepped away a little, palms and eyebrows raised.

“S-sorry,” I said, blushing, waving a spoon feebly, “and ow.” My knee began to throb.

“Not a lot of room in here, is there,” she said. “That mine?”
and she reached for a coffee mug, waving off the awkwardness like it was a drowsy wasp. I stood blinking, slack-jawed. Should I say anything? What
was
that? An
advance
? Or was she ridding me of dandruff like she was my mother?

With an awkward half-smile and a feeble “eh-heh”, noise, I blushed and bumbled out of the kitchen, returning to my laptop, punching in my password and trying to think about other things.

Had I ever been comfortable around women?
Truly
comfortable
? Their casual tactility, their teasing squeezing? It had certainly taken a while with Jane. Two and half long university years in fact, trying to work out what was flirting and what was friendliness. Through candle-lit comedy quarrels over Tolkien and
Time Bandits.
Over
Thunderbirds, Thunder-Cats
and
Blue Thunder
. And even by the end –
after
I’d proposed,
after
Jane had accepted – one freezing Christmas-Ball night, flushed with wine, wriggling in a too-tight tuxedo, only
then
was I certain Jane’s hand jammed down my rented trousers in the front seat of her Fiat Uno wasn’t just
having
a harmless laugh.

 

Laura slunk from the kitchen so I attempted to move it all along.

“Do
you-uu
,” my voice squeaked. “Ahem, sorry. Do you think it was dishonest?” I said. “Only giving him a tenner for the signed Siegel & Shuster pic?”

“The frhhhuitcake?” Laura said breathily. “If he wanted to be treated fhhhhairly, he should have been more pohhhhlite. Is that what he said then? That you were dishhhonest?”

“He said a lot of things.”

I focused on the screen, my page advertising the Siegel & Shuster. There they stood proudly, typewriter under arm, pants over trouser. Christopher had been right. Not a single click of interest. And right about my email account too. There among the usual spammy drivel from
facebook.com
, three cheeky chancers – dealers no doubt – offering fivers in cash to
take the photo off your hands.

“A lot of things about what?” Laura pressed.

“About …” I looked up at her. Her eyes widened. Or I was falling towards them. I didn’t know which. I did know, however, that I needed to tell someone about my meeting.
Anyone
. Get it out there, out of my head, off my chest, into the real world.
J Peckard Scott, Christopher Laurie, Henry David, a brown
envelope
and how they were planning to put the
con
into ‘massive
con
sultancy fee’.

 

“Hell, I’d do it,” Laura said, coffee cups drained, a
long-story-shortened
later. “Who wouldn’t? Mixing with grifters? Learning the tricks, all the switcheroos and double bluffs?”

“I don’t know,” I said, knees loose. “I … I don’t
know
. They said I’d be doing nothing
technically
illegal. But …”

“You’d be ripping-off this comic buff, whoever he is.”

“Well, helping Chris and Henry rip him off. Y’know.
Technically
.”

I could feel myself slipping, my insides writhing like angry snakes. A hundred grand. A hundred
grand
. Just for helping. Maybe I wouldn’t even have to
be
there? And maybe he
did
deserve it, whoever he was? Maybe he deserved it more than I deserved to let bad plumbing take my family and livelihood? Take my life?

Christ.

I gave myself a shake and moved out of the office, into the dull glare of the empty shop, over to the basement archway. The thick dead stench of damp and waste clung about the wooden steps, about the peeling walls.

“What does your wife think about all this?” Laura asked. “The solicitors? Going under?”

A guilty pain leaned on my kidneys.

“I haven’t told her,” I said.


You haven’t
– ?”

“No. Not … Not yet. Not everything. She knows there was a
leak
. But the rest? She doesn’t …” I chewed my lip angrily. “She doesn’t need the worry.”

“You’re coming home with solicitors’ threats, stinking of rotten cardboard. And you haven’t –”

“I promised,” I said. I swallowed hard. I thought about my wife. Her father. “When Jane fell pregnant. I promised I would take care of them. Both.” I shut the basement door, fat, swollen wood sticking, bulging in the frame. “Y’know I’m the
only
person she’s ever met that hasn’t cared about her title. Who wanted to talk to her about
her
interests. Who didn’t think dressing as Wonder Woman and playing Lois Lane at primary
school wasn’t
unsuitable for someone with her heritage.
She loves me for that. And I love her because she doesn’t care who she is. She likes a summer blockbuster, popcorn, can name everyone who’s ever drawn
Judge Dredd
and doesn’t mind who knows it. She’s … I
love
her.”

The shop fell quiet. I let my eyes drag around it. For the last time? It seemed that way.

“Do you think you’ll be able to keep your flat? I mean, legal fees? They can really …”

The pain in my side leaned a little harder.

“I don’t know.”

“Maybe it’s time you told your wife. In case?”

“Not yet,” I said. “I’ve got a few …” I sighed. “Not yet.”

Laura was pulling on her coat.

“And you’re sure she hasn’t figured it out?”

“Jane? Never,” I said. “I’ve been careful.”

 

“Hey there,” I hollered a few hours later. I had nursed a lonely pint in the pub near work for a while, scoring numbers onto napkins with a chewed biro but it was no good. I had to get home to my family. Thumping through the door, I wrinkled at the perfume that still clung about the thin walls of the flat, twisted with baby poo and warm milk. “Hello-oo?”

No answer.

“J?” I said, climbing the stairs.

Nothing.

There is a sixth sense thing. A shiver. An uneasy vibration of atmosphere that tells one somehow when something isn’t right.

Regretfully it turns out, I don’t have it.

Which is why I slapped a chirpy grin on my mush, dropped my satchel to the hall floor next to the pushchair and Jane’s overnight bag and wandered into the lounge. Jane sat on the tatty couch watching television. Lana was on her lap dozing.

Overnight bag
?

“Hey sweetheart,” I said, leaning in for the kiss. Jane didn’t reciprocate. Didn’t respond. Didn’t move. Hovering an inch from her awkwardly, I slowly retracted again. This wasn’t right. I looked over at the television. It was awfully dark. Awfully dark and awfully
quiet and awfully off. Off, as in
not on.
In fact, not on, in the same way going through all my box files and digging out all the secret paperwork and laying it all on the carpet in a huge incriminating fan is
not on.

Overnight bag.

Shit.

“Were you going to tell me?” Jane said. The cat, clearly hogging all the sixth sense, squeezed out from beneath the couch and darted into the hall for cover.

“What?” I said, my voice squeakily high. The wrong thing to say. “What have you –”

“Found out?” Her voice was firm. Level. Practised. She’d had this conversation already without me. Jane cradled Lana gently, laying her on a blanket next to her and got up.

“Look, Jane, look –”

“Look at what? Hn? Look at what?” she said. Not shouting, exactly. But not happy.

Oh God. Oh God she knows. She knows. Oh God. Keep calm. Calm.

Shit.

“Take … take it easy, it’s not as bad –”

“Look at what? All the solicitors’ letters you’ve been hiding? Look at the bank statements you’ve stuffed at the bottom of your files? Final demands from
plumbers
?
Drain clearers
?
Skip hire
?”

“Jane …”

“Dad phoned. Said his financial chap would be able to put together some portfolios before we scheduled the meeting.”

“Jane –”

“But he’d need some idea of our status. So he asked me to look up some figures. The savings, the shop …”

Daddy knew.
Daddy
knew. Oh
Christ
.

“Did … did you tell him … ?”

“About what? About
WHAT
?! Where would I fucking
start
?!” she yelled suddenly, writhing, fists clenched. “The
two
missed
mortgage
payments
?! Is that right? How have we missed
two payments
?!
Where’s the money?!

“I was going to –”

“They’ll take the
flat
, Neil!”

“They won’t take the
flat
.”

“They’ll take the
flat
! That’s what happens! You don’t pay? They
take the flat
!” She scooped Lana up, cradling her, protecting her in her shoulders. Crouching unsteadily, she rootled through the carpet of paperwork. Through letters I’d thought I’d hidden. Letters
I had
hidden. God knows how she’d found them.

“Who the fuck are
Rod-o-Matic
? Is this
right
? Three
thousand pounds
you’ve paid them?” She stood, brandishing an invoice. “A
little leak
you said?”

“I said –”

“You
said
,” and her eyes blazed, “a
little leak.
You stood by my hospital bed. Six weeks ago. In the maternity ward. I asked you and you
said
a ‘little’ leak.”

“I … I didn’t. I was …”

“And
THIS
?!” she screamed, moving to the mantelpiece, snatching up a letter. My Siegel & Shuster photograph and a ceramic Lex Luthor were sent tumbling.

“Easy –”

“What the
fuck
is
THIS
?!”

From my spot by the door I recognised the letterhead. Boatman, Beevers and Boatman.


Thirty-six thousand pounds
?!” she yelled, waving the heavy legal stationery at me. “Why do we owe this Maurice man
thirty-six thousand pounds
?!”

“It’s all right,” I said, moving towards the mantelpiece for repairs, stomach tumbling. “I-I mean I’m sorting something out …” The photo was okay, a little bent at the –

“Leave that.
Leave it!
Who is he? What have you
done
?”

BOOK: Conman
7.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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