Conned – L.C. Tyler
He’d conned her. Of that much she was certain. The only things she could not work out were how and why.
In the background, the air-conditioning still purred respectfully. Looking out through the plate-glass window, the view was still exactly as it had been the day before: the city she had always lived in, but seen now from twenty-two floors up, its chaotic traffic proceeding slowly and silently along the dusty streets, the palm trees waving gently, the purple and red bougainvillea peeping over the walls. Her wedding dress was still draped carefully over the sofa in the small recess that qualified this as a suite rather than merely a hotel room. All that had changed since yesterday was that she had somehow mislaid her new husband.
She had met him only weeks before. Of course, the first thing that she had done was to run the plan past her friend, Maria. Maria, for all sorts of reasons, understood the ways of men.
‘What’s he like?’ Maria had asked. She raised her eyebrows inquisitively while sucking up the last of the warm froth at the bottom of her Coca-Cola bottle.
‘Rich,’ she had said.
‘And young and tall and handsome?’
‘Shame,’ Maria had said.
‘Rich is fine. Good looks aren’t important. You’re so shallow, Maria, do you know that?’
‘That’s what they tell me,’ Maria had replied. She twirled the bottle, as though wondering whether she had enough coins remaining in her purse for another. ‘If he’s got money, though, you’d have thought he’d be staying at the Hilton or the Marriott.’
‘He says he likes the Casa Blanca. It has lots of local colour. He likes being on the waterfront, by the fish market. He says he can stay in a Hilton anywhere. There’s nothing like the Casa Blanca where he comes from.’
‘He means it’s cheap.’
‘You couldn’t afford to spend a night at the Casa Blanca.’
‘I’ve spent plenty of nights at the Casa Blanca,’ Maria had said.
‘I mean, you couldn’t afford to pay to spend a night there.’
‘Does he give you money to sleep with him?’
‘Of course not!’
‘Just thought I’d check,’ Maria had said, putting the empty bottle on the table. ‘Go for the long-term approach by all means, if that’s what you prefer.’
She opened the wardrobe door. His suit still hung there on a hotel hanger- a hanger cunningly designed so that, if stolen, it would be useless in a normal wardrobe. There was such a lack of trust everywhere these days. She fingered the shiny grey material. It crackled with static electricity. He’d bought the suit especially for their wedding the day before.
‘No point in getting anything expensive,’ he had said. ‘Back home I only shop in Savile Row. Heaps of bespoke suits back home. I don’t need any more. I’ll just get the local tailor to run me up something. Where does your cousin Carlos get his suits?’
She had pulled a face. ‘My cousin’s suits look really cheap,’ she had said.
‘Yes, that’s what I thought too,’ he had replied.
He had proposed to her after a fortnight, thus disproving Maria’s theory that he was just a no-good cheapskate who wanted her for one thing only and wasn’t prepared to pay even for that.
‘So, he’ll take you back to the United States?’ Maria had asked.
‘To England. He comes from England. The places he lives in is called Finsbury Park – it sounds very beautiful. Finsbury Park. I asked if there were many deer in the park. He said I’d be surprised. We’ll be married and live in Finsbury Park, and I will get a British passport.’
‘You make sure you do, sugar,’ Maria had said. ‘And once you have the passport and are living in this park, what will you do then?’
‘I thought I’d give him the best three months of his life, then I’d divorce him and take half of his money.’
Maria had nodded. ‘Two months should be enough. You don’t want to get over-sentimental.’
She checked the chest of drawers. His shirts all seemed to be there. Four shirts in various colours. Half a dozen pairs of socks. One spare pair of underpants. He took a pride in traveling light. Surely if he had walked out on her, he’d have taken his clothes?
Then a sudden panic hit her. She riffled through the top draw again. They’d gone! She took each item of clothing out and shook it, then threw it on the floor. He’d taken them! His passport had gone and so had hers. It was true that she needed her old passport only until she got the new British one – but why should he take that? To stop her following him? And he’d got the ring.
‘Has he bought the ring yet?’ Maria had asked a few days ago.
‘He says that in England it is customary for the brides’ family to buy rings for the bride and groom.’
‘So you have?’
‘My father used his savings. It’s an investment, if you like. Once I’m in Finsbury Park and I have my own money, I can pay him back. And I’m going to be bought a really expensive diamond ring as soon as we are in England. He says he knows a … what did he call him? … “geezer” in Hatton Garden who can get him diamonds really cheaply.’
‘The geezer sounds a bit like your cousin, Carlos.’
‘Carlos only sells cheap cigarettes. And sometimes whisky. And cocaine, of course.’
‘Finsbury Park. Hatton Garden,’ Maria had said, dreamily, ‘London must be really green.’
‘That’s what he tells me.’
She sank down on to the bed – the super-king-sized bed that was the main selling point of their suite and that occupied slightly over half the floor space. She’d been a fool. While she was planning to divorce him and take his money – while she’d almost been feeling guilty about it – he’d been planning all along to swindle her father out of most of his lousy savings and run back to London.
How would she even pay for this room they’d spent one night in? She’d insisted she was not spending her first night as a married woman in the Casa Blanca – it was full of lecherous old men and ladies of doubtful morality. Now she saw this as a mistake. If it had been the Casa Blanca, she felt sure she could have come to some arrangement with the manager – he had been known to do such things – but the manager of this more upmarket hotel would probably insist on payment in some internationally recognized currency. She could be arrested and, if so, she was aware that the local police might have already formed an unfortunate opinion of her virtue and integrity. And what would she tell her parents? She did not often weep, but she did so now. In the process she failed to hear the door being opened. When she looked up he was standing in front of her. He was wearing the slightly stained blazer that he had been wearing when they first met and the same grubby tie with the green and red stripes. He had trimmed his moustache, she noticed, but not well – the pencil-thin line on the right was conspicuously higher than the pencil-thin line on the left. The remains of his hair, once blonde, were partly combed over his bald patch, partly hanging loose over his right ear. His beatific smile was enhanced and fully justified by the halo of alcohol that hung around him.
‘I realized you’d miss me, lambkin,’ he said, ‘but I’ve scarcely been gone more than a couple of hours.’
She looked at her watch. ‘Three,’ she said.
‘I had some business in town,’ he said. ‘Then I ran into your cousin, Carlos. We stopped for a drink or two. Might have been seven. Clever lad, your cousin.’
‘I thought you’d …. gone,’ she said.
‘And where would I go without you?’ he asked. ‘You were asleep. I slipped out without disturbing your slumbers.’
She rubbed the last of her tears away with the back of her hand. She had misjudged him. There would be no unpaid hotel bill, no painful explanations to her parents, no I-told-you-so looks from Maria. Still, it would be as well to proceed with Plan A without further delay. A small quota of guilt resurfaced – but not enough to make any real difference.
‘You have my passport?’ she asked.
‘I do indeed, my little lamb.’
‘And you have yours?’
‘Absolutely.’ He smiled, frowned, quickly checked his jacket pocket and smiled again.
‘Then we must go to the British Embassy without delay and apply for a British passport for me.’
‘That might be problematic,’ he said.
‘But I am married to a British citizen.’
‘Ex,’ he said.
‘I have just paid a visit to the Ministry of the Interior with my passport, your passport and our wedding certificate. I have renounced my British citizenship and am now a citizen of your own beloved country.’
‘But I thought we were going to live in Finsbury Park?’
‘That too might be problematic.’
‘Due to some slight misunderstanding with the authorities there, if I tried to return to Britain, I should probably be arrested at Heathrow. Or Gatwick. Or Luton. Or any other port of entry. Fortunately my new country apparently has no extradition treaty with the United Kingdom – at least, it doesn’t allow its own citizens to be extradited – so I am unlikely to return to London on anything other than a purely voluntary basis. That is to say, not in the foreseeable future.’
He placed her passport on the table and his own. Though but an hour old, the cover of his new passport had already begun to curl at the edges. The heraldic eagle, picked out in gold on the sickly green surface, looked sad and dejected.
‘I’m leaving you,’ she said.
‘That would be a shame,’ he said.
‘It would be what you deserve.’
‘It would be a dull life if we got no more than we deserved,’ he said. ‘Anyway, maybe you should listen to my plan first.’
‘Well, it’s a bit Carlos’s plan too. Did I say what a clever lad he is? Anyway, it turns out that there’s some land going dead cheap out by the estuary – palm trees, golden sands, the whole works. I’ve got enough cash to buy it. Then we’ll sell plots, maybe for just a little bit more than we paid, to the sort of people who live in Notting Hill and Hampstead, so they can build their dream home in the sun.’
‘I know where you mean. The land floods between August and October. You couldn’t build anything. That’s why it’s cheap.’
‘They won’t know that in Notting Hill, though, will they?’
‘They’ll want to come out and see it.’
‘So they can – between November and July.’
‘You’d need contacts to set the deal up here.’
‘I’ll handle the punters from the UK. They’ll trust me. They usually do for some unknown reason. Carlos understands who needs bribing at the town hall. Did I say what a clever…’
‘Yes, you did. And how much do you reckon you’ll make on it?’
‘We thought we’d clear a million after our expenses.’
‘Your misunderstanding with the authorities in the UK – did it have anything to do with selling land that flooded?’
He looked deeply insulted. ‘The Ritz Hotel,’ he said, ‘never floods. Anyway, what I asked for it was a fraction of its true value. If anyone should be feeling guilty, it’s the purchasers, not me.’
She took his arm affectionately. ‘I think,’ she said, ‘that we should move somewhere cheaper than this. This hotel is lovely, but we’ll need all of the cash you have in case Carlos can’t get the land as cheaply as he thinks or the town hall officials are greedier than expected. Carlos isn’t actually not that bright, as you’ll discover. But fortunately I do know who owns the land out by the estuary, and I also know one or two things about him that his wife would find distressing if she knew too. If I pay him a visit, I’m sure he’ll remember me. He’ll probably be reasonable about the price when I explain to him properly.’
‘So, it’s back to the Casa Blanca?’
‘For a day or two until I can find us a little flat somewhere.’
‘I’ll check out and pay the bill then?’ he said.
She surveyed the range of cheap clothing scattered over the floor. It would be a shame about the wedding dress, but it was unlikely she’d need it again.
‘Unless you want any of that stuff, I think we might as well leave quietly via the back door,’ she said.
‘My thoughts exactly, lambkin,’ he said. ‘It’s the only way to leave in my experience.’
L C Tyler is currently Vice Chair of the CWA. This short story first appeared in the CWA Anthology, Guilty Consciences.
Read L C Tyler’s profile here