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Diary of a Con-Man 2: Charity (2/2)

Title: Charity
Series: Diary of a Con Man
Word Count 6920
Summary Nick Adamson knows that charity begins at home--especially at Christmas
Author's Note I decided to do a Christmas story and odds are that things wouldn't have been so simple as I made them, but that's the point of fiction, right?



For the next few days I believed her. We got the office to look like an office. Rod took his role to heart and went without shaving for a few days. Maggie rummaged around used clothes shops for that 'authentic' look. We had bought some food and inexpensive blankets to hand out once they did their shop.

A few days before Christmas, Louie called from work. 'They're on the way! Give them about twenty minutes!'

'Okay, gang, they're coming! I want this place to sound busy!' I sat at my desk and waited.

Gary's desk was positioned by the window and he saw them. 'Battle stations!' He started pounding on his typewriter as did Ellen, while Rod called Maggie and they pretended to hold two separate conversations.

A man and woman entered; both had 'Harrods' written all over them. She wore a tweed skirt and matching jacket. Her hair was pulled away from her face, not severely, but just enough to look professional. He was in a pin-striped suit and carried a leather briefcase. I didn't know this was such a formal occasion. I stood and greeted them in my best professional manner. The woman introduced herself as Barbara Evans and her associate as David Perry. 'We are here to observe your organisation for consideration in Harrod's charity fund.'

'Wonderful. How can we help?'

'We just need to gather some information regarding your efforts to help the less fortunate.' She pulled a form out of the briefcase.

'Yes. Well, this is our main office from which we organise the shipments of food and blankets to shelters and soup kitchens. We have formed some of the shelters ourselves in some of the forgotten areas of the City. We are only a small portion of the workers--only one shift. The others are spread out, delivering and following up on shipments.' We walked around the office, both of them watching the others work at their desks. 'We've divided the City into equal parts for each of us to be in charge of. We call the different shelters and churches to see what is needed. We also go to the areas ourselves to make notes. We then discuss alternatives, type them up, and send them to each of the board members for the final approval. When that is done, we act upon it.'

'Where are your board members?' asked Perry.

'Some are in America, France, Australia, and the English countryside.'

He jotted that down in his notebook. 'How long have you been in existence?'

I was prepared for this. 'The board has been involved in other ventures for about fifteen years. This particular "arm" is relatively new, about five years.'

He closed the briefcase then they both shook my hand. 'Thank you, Mr. Allen. It has been very informative.'

'That's it?' I couldn't believe it. I thought they'd dig through the papers, interview the staff.

'We have other charities to look at, Mr. Allen. If you are chosen, you will be notified the day before the public announcement. Happy Holidays.' They left.

Rod came over to the window and watched with me as they entered a parked car and drove off. 'That was quick. I wonder how much goes into the decision?'

'Not much, considering that we just joined the ranks of the real ones.'

'Will they check up on the Board?' asked Ellen.

'I'd be surprised if they didn't. I've had the papers drawn up that list them. However, most of them are on foreign shores at the moment, and Harrod's will have a tough time tracking them down before the deadline.' I smiled. 'The thing is, we can't let things go. We have to work just as hard to prove that we are not a front.'

I went over to my desk and placed a call to Louie. 'Yeah, they just left. No, they hardly did a thing, just asked a few questions then left. Are you free for lunch? Great. The coffeeshop on Beauchamp in about an hour? See you then.'

* * * *

Everything was running smoothly. We had no complaints about our food or services and our critics seemed genuinely impressed. All we were waiting for now was the call from Harrod's announcing us the recipients of the check.

Two days before Christmas, the day before they were to give out the check, it came. Ellen answered the phone and waved excitedly for me to pick up the line. I knew from her smile what it was about. 'Yes, this is Ned Allen.'

'Mr. Allen, this is Jonathan Grant, the Charity Committee chairman from Harrod's. It is my great pleasure to tell you that your organisation is the recipient of our check totalling £25,000.'

He paused to allow me the chance to tell the others. 'That's fantastic! What was it that tilted it in our favour?'

'Our inspectors felt that it was your commitment that made you most deserving. It is unusual for a group of young people like yourselves to take charities so seriously.'

'Thank you, Mr. Grant.'

'The presentation ceremony will be tomorrow morning at 10.00. Will that cause any problems?'

'No, 10.00 sounds fine. Until then.' I hung up the phone and turned to see their faces staring at me. 'We've done it,' I said softly. 'We're getting the money!'

While they were celebrating, I called Louie. 'We've done it,' I told her. 'Your idea was great.'

'I knew they made the decision this morning, but they hadn't announced it in the store yet. How much?'

'He said it was close to £25,000. What would you say to a little champagne tonight?'

'Are you sure that's wise?'

'No, but it'll definitely be fun. Come over here when you're done and we'll go out, all of us.'

'Oooh, champagne,' said Maggie. 'You must be in a good mood.'

'I think we deserve it. Anybody know of a good champagne?'

'Dom Perrignon,' said Gary with a smile.

'Something we can afford.' I put on my coat. 'I'll go down to the off-license and pick up a bottle. Anyone care for a stroll?'

'Sure,' said Ellen. 'Maybe we should pick up some cheese and biscuits as well. We'll need something to eat.'

'Good idea. Why don't you guys give the place a party atmosphere?'

'As you wish,' remarked Maggie.

Ellen and I picked up two bottles of inexpensive champagne, cheese, biscuits, and some pâté. I figured why not go the whole way. On our way back to the office, Ellen seemed to have something on her mind, but didn't know how to go about saying it. 'What do you want to know?'

'Am I that obvious?'

'To the trained eye. What's on your mind?'

'How long have you been doing this? I mean, you seem to have so much experience.'

'I started out as a pickpocket then gradually climbed the ladder. I've been doing cons for about four years now.'

'Four years? That's all? I would have thought more than that.'

'I won't even ask how old you think I am.' I laughed. 'It's all in the image you project. You have to get into your character, create a background for them that you can build on if necessary.'

'Maybe you should give lessons.'

'It's an idea.'

We arrived at the office and we surprised to find that they had decorated it in a seasonal style. One of them had also brought in a portable record-player that was currently playing Let It Snow. 'Planned or spur-of-the- moment?'

'Most definitely planned,' said Rod. 'We were just waiting for the right time.'

'Did you know about this?' I asked Ellen. Her smile was the only answer I needed. 'Okay, then. Let's get started. I'll chill the champagne.'

Maggie and Ellen set out the cheese and pâté on one of the plates. I could hear them yelling at Gary and Rod. 'If you two don't stop, there won't be any left for the rest of us!'

'I came out with the bottle sitting in a make-do ice bucket and some plastic cups on a tray. 'Ready?'

'Shouldn't we wait for Louie?' asked Gary.

As I hesitated, Rod said, 'Why? She'll be along soon.'

I started working on the cork. The bubbles were becoming quite agitated as I fought with the bottle. I could feel it beginning to loosen, so I aimed it away from the others. I finally got it fee and the cork shot across the room and almost hit Louie as she came in.

'That's a fine welcome,' she said, taking off her coat. 'I hope this is the first bottle.'

'Yeah, it just took Nick awhile to open it.'

I poured the glasses and Maggie passed them out. 'A toast. To Harrod's, for failing to recognise a good con.' The others laughed and sipped their champagne.

'To Nick and Louie for planning this,' said Maggie.

'Wait,' said Louie. 'Make that "to all of us". Nick and I didn't do this alone.'

'Here, here,' I agreed.

The night then became a party. We all talked of what we'd do with our shares, and, from there, the ultimate 'what if' question: what would you do if you had £1 million? Travel and spending sprees topped the list. We then began to swap stories about past cons. I knew I had to be drunk because I told them of the séance con that turned into a murder investigation. Once I realised what I had said, I wanted to kick myself.

'You were there?' asked Ellen. My reputation soared in her eyes.

'That was all in the news,' said Gary. 'I remember all the fuss it caused.'

'How did you get involved?' asked Maggie.

'I was used, pure and simple. An associate tried to discredit Newbury by involving him in a con. When that failed, he put me on the track of Kennsington-Smythe, knowing very well that Newbury would be there. He killed him that night and tried to blame me. Needless to say, I was very careful in choosing you guys so it wouldn't happen again.' I felt like I had just made a confession.

'I hope I've lived up to the trust you've placed in me,' said Maggie. 'I hope we all have.'

I looked at them and felt pleased with our accomplishment. For some reason, I wouldn't feel comfortable about it until my share was in the bank.

At about 11.00, I recommended that we call it a night. 'Remember, we have to be at Harrod's by at least quarter of 10.00.'

'Spoilsport,' laughed Gary.

'Well, you can stay if you want, and show up tomorrow looking like a bum, but I'm going home. Good night. Lock up when you leave.'

There was a slight nip in the air as I walked to the Tube station. Could mean snow tomorrow. That would mean a white Christmas. Things in a city always seem to look better under a blanket of snow--it covers up everything dirty.

* * * *

I woke at 8.00 the next morning. That was the one thing I didn't like about working. I put on my robe and padded out to the kitchen. As I passed the window, I saw that a light snow was falling. Maybe I'd leave early and walk to Harrod's. I put on the kettle and spooned some instant coffee into a mug. I switched on the radio and Bing Crosby came on singing White Christmas.

I sat down with my coffee and toast and glanced through last night's newspaper. There must not have been anything important, because nothing stayed with me. I looked at the clock. If I wanted to walk, I had to get moving. I showered, shaved, and changed into a conservative blue suit. I then put on an overcoat, got my cane, and went on my way.

There was a lot of hustle and bustle in the streets and all I could do was wonder why. Granted, some people still had to work, but their places of business weren't about to disappear in the next five minutes and I doubted very strongly that their bosses would fire them for being late the day before Christmas.

I arrived at Harrod's twenty minutes early. I tried to find Louie, but I couldn't see her. I asked one of the salesclerks where the presentation was to take place. He directed me to one of the lobbies where there was a large Christmas tree. I weaved through the crowd that was gathering and made my way to the front. I saw the others standing to one side of the podium. A middle-aged gentleman dressed in a black suit came over and greeted me with a firm handshake. 'Mr. Allen? I am Mr. Grant, the committee chairman. It is a pleasure to meet you.'

'Thank you, sir.'

'Now that you are here, we can proceed.' He walked over to the podium. 'Ladies and gentlemen, members of the press, I would first like to welcome you to this special occasion. In this season of giving, the managers of Harrod's like to acknowledge an organisation or individual that, in our minds, best exemplifies the spirit of the season. This year we have chosen a charity run by a group of young people who freely gave up their time to help the less fortunate of the city.'

He was certainly laying it on thick. He went on to say that in this day and age it was unusual to see young people taking an active interest in the world around them. My eyes wandered around the gathered crowd to see if Louie had gotten a chance to watch. As I was looking, I noticed a young clerk walk quickly around the audience and whisper to one of the committee members. I knew that something wasn't right. The man was wringing his hands as he tried to explain that whatever happened wasn't his fault.


One of the members stepped up beside Grant and waited for him to finish a sentence. He backed away from the microphone and the message was relayed. He shook his head then stepped forward. 'Ladies and gentlemen, something. . .unexpected has occurred. If you will please be patient while we try to rectify the matter.'

Disappointed, the crowd thinned. Mr. grant came over to us. 'Mr. Allen, the most dreadful thing has happened. The charity fund has been stolen!'

'What?' I couldn't believe my ears.

'How?' asked Rod. 'You didn't keep it in the store?'

'No, of course not.' He was indignant. 'We have a special account in the bank and deposits are made daily. This is most distressing.'

'That's a definite understatement,' remarked Maggie.

I knew it! I was this close to having the money put in my hand and the whole thing falls apart! It had to be a conspiracy! I then began to wonder about who actually pulled it off. They had a lot of nerve, that's for sure. 'Have the police been called yet?'

'The bank called them after they notified us. I'm sure someone will be over soon.' One of the committee waved for his attention. 'If you will excuse me.'

'What are we going to do?' asked Ellen. 'You lost all the money you put up for the rent and stuff.'

'What can we do?' asked Rod as we walked out of the store. 'The money's gone.'

'We can go after it, that's what we can do.' I stopped and looked at them. They were staring at me as if I had grown a second head. 'What?'

'You can't be serious,' said Gary.

'Never been moreso. I've already had one plan go wrong on me this year before I had a chance to get the money. I'm not gonna let that happen again.'

'Yeah, but how are we going to get it back? We're not the police.'

'I know. That will be in our favour. Together we have more contacts than the whole of Scotland Yard. I think if we spread out and ask questions, we might just get some answers.' They all looked at me and slowly nodded. I don't know if they agreed or were just humouring me. 'If you find anything, call me. Right now, I'm going to get some tea.' I walked off and left them there.

I went to the coffee-house on Beauchamp. I was becoming a regular. I found a table in a corner and ordered a pot of tea. How could this have happened to me? I still couldn't believe the whole thing came apart. Earlier in the year, I thought the Fates were conspiring against me in order to make me go straight. Maybe they still were.

'I thought I'd find you here.' I looked up to see Louie standing there. 'I tried to find you once I heard what happened. When you weren't in the store, I came here.'

'Take a seat.' I motioned for the waiter to bring a second cup. 'Come to commiserate?'

'Of course not,' she said, sitting. 'Where are the others?'

'They went in search of clues. At least that's what we talked about.' I took a sip of tea.

'While you seat here where it's warm having tea. Have you no morals, Mr. Adamson?' she asked with a smile.

'If I did, I wouldn't be what I am today.' I cracked a smile. 'I need to calm down and start thinking straight before I go tracking down a thief.' I looked at her. 'I can't get over this happening to me again. Last time, it was a man I called friend. What if it's one of the people I chose myself? I can't be good at my job if I'm not a good judge of people.'

'You have no way of knowing that it's one of them--or even me, for that matter. You just have to be aware of that possibility, but don't let it cloud your judgement. For all we know, it could be anybody.'

'This somebody knew Harrod's account number. He knew who was authorised to sign. This wasn't just some average run-of-the-mill operation. We're talking pro.'

'I have an idea. Why don't we go to the bank, check things out, then head back to my place and make a list?'

'List?'

'The type of knowledge and equipment needed, then the suspects.'

'You just don't want me wallowing in self-pity.'

'You're wasting energy that could be put to good use.' She sipped her tea.

I was silent for a few minutes. Her idea sounded good. It couldn't do any harm, and it certainly might help. 'Okay, let's go.' I put some money on the table and we left.

* * * *

We arrived at the bank around lunchtime. As I was dressed in a suit, I decided to pass myself off as an insurance clerk asked to check on their security for a potential client. I was shown to the manager's office. He was a very professional-looking older man--maybe in his mid-fifties. He sat back in his worn leather chair and listened to my story. I made up a client and said that he had a significant amount to deposit without actually mentioning figures. 'He has sent me to a few other banks so he can compare security measures before deciding.'

'As you are aware, Mr--' he looked at my card, 'Andrews, this is a very unusual request. You can understand that I am unable to show you our system. I can show you our vault and you can see the size of the door. It has a time lock. Once it is closed, it cannot be opened until the set hour.'

'I'm sure that will be unnecessary. What about your signing procedures?'

'When each new account is opened, we have the customers sign a card which is kept on file. This way, we have something to compare the signatures against when withdrawals are made.'

'I heard you had a little excitement here earlier.'

'Excitement? Oh, yes, the Harrod's charity account. The teller assures me that she followed procedure. She checked the signatures, found they matched, then asked for identification. With all this done, she made a bank check for the full amount.'

'Thank you for your time. I will mention this to my client. I'm sure there will soon be many rumours flying about. Good day.'

I met Louie outside. 'Any information?' she asked.

'Not much. The manager said that the teller followed procedure then made out the check.' In my helplessness, I set a quick pace. 'We're still in the same place as before--nowhere.'

'Were you expecting a dramatic breakthrough? That only happens in the movies. I've heard that some cases drag on for months before anything happens. We just have to keep searching. I can check around at the store to find out who on the committee could have signed for the check. We'll have to wait, however, since it'll be closed for the holidays.'

'Not unless we can get into the offices in the next two days.'

'You can't mean to break in? Have you ever done it before?'

'Not exactly on this scale, but at least the store'll be closed.' I couldn't believe what I was thinking. I had never done a burglary before. That would definitely be a last resort. Louie could get me the floor plan, that was no trouble. I was getting excited.

'Hey, where are you going?'

'Sorry.' My feet had automatically started for home. 'Habit.'

We walked to her place, a small studio flat over a newsagent's. 'Convenient for the morning Times.' I was expecting a cramped hole in the wall, but it was tastefully decorated to give it that lived-in look without being cluttered. It was small for my taste, but it was comfortable in its own way. I sat on the worn couch as she turned not he fire. As if she were reading my mind, she said, 'I know it's a bit small, but it's good enough for me.'

'I was just thinking that it has a comfortable feel to it.'

'Good. Make yourself at home while I get us something to eat.' She went into the kitchen. 'I don't have much. I hope sandwiches will be okay.'

'Fine. I'm not picky.' I was a bit nervous, sitting on the couch doing nothing while she prepared lunch. 'Do you have paper? I could start on the list.'

'There's some in the drawer of the coffee table. I'll be there in a few.'

I found the pad where she said and a pencil alongside it. I didn't know where to start. I'd feel a bit self-conscious if I started with my associates. I decided on the Harrod's people.

SUSPECT MOTIVE MEANS OPPORTUNITY

Barbara Evans advancement signature time to go to bank beforehand
David Perry " " "
Jonathan Grant money " hired someone?


'Couldn't that apply to all of them?'

'Yeah, you're right. Why don't you do it?'

Rod Masters money forger/con artist time in A.M.
Maggie ? " con artist "


'I guess we all fit into the same category. We all wanted the money and we all had the time to get to the bank in the morning. This is a tough one, boyo.' She sat on the couch next to me and took a bite of sandwich. 'Beer or soda?'

'Beer, I guess.' I was beginning to feel uncomfortable with her so close. 'Um, I think we should go about this differently. Start with what happened and work backwards?'

'What do you mean?'

'A sort of process of elimination. We figure out how the actual theft was done. We then go to the "Opportunity" category and see who could have done it. From there we go to "Means" then "Motive"--narrowing it down each time.'

'Isn't that pretty much the same thing?'

'Well, kinda. But this way we start off with what we know.' She nodded and I began. 'One: whoever it was knew who signed on the card and either forged the withdrawal or stole a pre-signed one. Two: X had enough time to get from the bank--which opens at 9.30--to the presentation ceremony at Harrod's at 10.00, leaving fifteen minutes, if he was at the doors once the bank opened.'

'Could be done by Tube. He'd have to wait for a bus or taxi and he'd get stuck in traffic in his own car.'

'Good point.' I finished my sandwich. 'There's still one thing we don't know: who was able to sign for it?'

'You'll find out tonight.' She smiled.

'You sure have a lot of confidence in me.'

'Someone has to. Doesn't look like you do.'

'Thanks a lot.'

'Let's not think about this anymore. Without any new information, we're only giving ourselves a headache.'

'Good idea.' I stood and started to put on my coat. 'Thanks for lunch.'

'What do you think you're doing? Just because we're not talking business doesn't mean you have to leave. It's Christmas Eve and it's no time to be alone.' I didn't know if she meant me or herself.

'I've got to be at my place in case any of the others call.'

'Fine. I'll come too.'

* * * *

I didn't have much at home in the way of dinner, so we stopped and got some Indian take-away. We got back to my place and I could hear the phone ringing through the door. Once I opened it, I dropped the bag on the kitchen counter and ran to answer it.

'How nice of you to answer. I was just about to hang up.' It was Rod.

'Any news?'

'None to speak of. I checked the cabbies that usually wait there. I even found the one who was there in the morning. Nobody flagged him down and he was the only one there.'

'Well, cross that out. No one'll be around tomorrow so we'll have to wait. Enjoy the next two days and don't worry about it unless you get a sudden brainstorm. Okay?'

'Sure thing, boss.'

'If you hear from the others, pass it on.'

'Gotcha. Happy Christmas.'

'You, too.' I hung up the phone.

'Who was it?'

'Rod. He checked out the cabbies down by the bank. It seems that your idea about the Tube was right. It'll be hard to trace that way. I came late so I have no idea of the order of how everyone else arrived.'

'I didn't make it at all. I couldn't get away from work.' She sat down in a chair in the living room. 'So, what are we going to do?'

'Wait for more information like you said. We can also plan my visit tonight. You'll have to give me a general idea of the layout and any other necessities.'

'This isn't exactly what I had in mind when I told you my idea. This is getting a bit deep for me.'

'Kind of a baptism by fire? Normally, they run smooth. Someone just picked the wrong guy to cross.' I took off my tie and went into my room to get a jumper. I came back feeling much more comfortable. Louie had started the fire and put on the radio. The BBC was playing Bing Crosby again. 'Make yourself at home.'

'Thanks. I already have. Nice place you have here. How long have you had it?'

'Not long, a couple of years. It's in a central enough location.' I put the food in the fridge for later. 'Can I get you anything?'

'No, nothing right now.' She looked around. 'Pretty big place for just you.'

'Well, it's not just me. My roommate's away for the hols. Her friends get together every year and she went to join them.'

'She? You've got a girlfriend?' Louie was surprised.

'She's not a girlfriend, not really. She stayed to help nurse me after the shooting and decided to stay. There's nothing between us.' Unfortunately.

'What does she look like?'

I walked into the living room. 'Here's a photo,' I said, taking out my wallet.

'You carry a picture of her in your wallet? You must like her a lot.' She looked at the picture. It was one of my favourites of Sophie. I took it myself when we were at one of the parks just a couple of months ago. She was laughing at something and the wind was blowing her hair. I guess I was a little less than objective.

'Do you think that this thing tonight is such a good idea?'

I was glad to hear that I wasn't the only one having second thoughts. 'I was going to ask you about that. I did want to call it off, but wondered what you thought. I'd be way out of my league. I've never burgled before--if that's the right word. We've got to find another way.'

'I don't want you to think I'm not worried, but I can't seem to concentrate on this on Christmas Eve. Maybe if we ignore it, something'll come to us.' She stood and walked around the room. 'How come you don't have a tree? You don't have any decorations at all.'

'Just never got around to it.'

'Tonight you will. Get your coat.'

'What?'

'We're getting a tree and decorations.'

'No way are we going to find that stuff. It's too late.'

'You're not the only one with connections.'

* * * *

I was standing in the middle of Trooping the Colour and the drums combined with the horses' hooves were giving me the mother of all headaches. Then the kettle whistled. A kettle? I sat up in bed and instantly regretted it. Too much mulled wine and holiday cheer last night. I wondered how Louie was feeling. I grabbed my robe and shuffled down the hall to the kitchen. 'Couldn't you sleep?' I asked.

'It would be hard to sleep and travel and the same time.'

'Sophie? What are you doing here? What happened to your friends?'

'Nothing. They're just idiots, that's all. I guess I've changed and I realised how shallow they are. So, I came back here to be with a real friend.'

'Oh.' I saw her bags in the corner and sighed with relief. She hadn't been to her room yet. She hadn't seen Louie.

'Is that all you can say?'

'Sorry. Just surprised, is all.'

'It also looks like you really hung one on last night, too. I've never known you to drink excessively. Here, let me pour you a coffee.'

'Ta.' I sat at the table and watched her move around the kitchen. God, she's beautiful. And she came back to spend Christmas with me! She put some bread in the toaster and sat down with me as she waited. 'Happy Christmas,' I said, raising my mug in a toast.

'Happy Christmas.' We clinked mugs and drank.

'I thought I smelled coffee.' It was Louie wearing one of Sophie's night-gowns and robe.

Sophie turned to me and I felt like curling up as small as possible. I didn't say a word.

'Hello. You must be Sophie. I hope you don't mind that I borrowed some of your things, but it was late when we finished decorating and Nick said I could stay. My name's Louie. It's really Louise, but my friends called me Louie.'

Sophie's toast popped up and she went to get it. 'Would you like some, Louie?' She got out some more bread.

'Yes, please.'

'Have you known Nick long?'

'Only a couple of weeks.'

'Oh?'

'No, it's nothing like that.' She seemed embarrassed. 'No, we're business partners.'

'So, you're in the, ah, trade as well, are you?'

'Yes, though I'm not as accomplished as Nick.' She sipped her coffee.

I felt it was my turn to say something. 'We met at Theresa's party, then again at Mike's. She had an idea for a con so we got together and worked on it. She works at Harrod's. . .'

'So you decided to con them out of the Christmas charity but it backfired and someone stole it first,' Sophie finished.

'How did you know?'

'A strange new invention called radio. "Ned Allen" sounded suspiciously like one of your aliases and it decided me on coming back.'

'I think I've lost my touch. The past two cons I've tried have gone wrong.'

'Why don't you fill me in on everything and I'll tell you what I think. Maybe an objective perspective is what you need.'

We told her about the idea of the con and everyone who was involved. Louie pulled out a Polaroid photo she had taken the other night when we were celebrating the good news. She knew Rod and Maggie. 'That's Gary-- he's American--and that's Ellen.'

Sophie studied the photo intensely. 'I knew she looked familiar. Her name wasn't Ellen at the orphanage.'

'You were at an orphanage?' I couldn't believe it. Just when you thought you knew someone.

'It's something I don't like talking about. Where are you going?' She directed this at Louie who was rushing into Sophie's room.

'We've got to get dressed quick.'

'Why? What's the deal?'

She stuck her head out the door. 'The other night we were all talking about what we were doing for Christmas and Ellen said that she was going home to spend it with her family!'

I got up and talked to her through the closed bedroom door. 'So, maybe she was adopted?' I looked at Sophie who shook her head. 'Okay! Wait for me!'

After I had dressed, we locked up the flat and headed outside. 'Right. Now that we've got ourselves a suspect, where do we go? If it was Ellen, she could be anywhere right now,' said Louie.

'She doesn't know that we've caught on to her. She doesn't know about Sophie. She might just stay home and leave the day after tomorrow.'

'Public transport is running on a holiday schedule, so she'll have a harder time getting anywhere,' added Sophie.

'That's fine, but where does she live?'

'Good question. We'll have to go to the office and check the files. I asked that everyone give me an address and phone number.' We walked to the Tottenham Court Road station and board a train bound for St. Paul's. It wasn't as crowded as a normal weekday, but it wasn't as empty as I thought it would be. I felt sorry for the engineers who were missing Christmas morning with their families. Christ! What about my own family? They'd never forgive me if I missed Christmas with them--again.

I unlocked the office door and went inside. Sophie followed and smiled. 'Coming up in the world, eh?' She walked to the window. 'The Old Bailey. Nice touch.'

'Thanks.' I pulled out the file I was looking for. 'Here we go.' I ran my finger down the list. 'I've never heard of this street. Do either of you know it?'

'I'm just a transplant, remember?' said Louie. 'If it's not on or near a major artery, I'm lost.'

'I've never heard of it either. Do you think it's in the suburbs somewhere?'

'She doesn't look the suburban type to me. I think I should invest in an A to Z.'

'What about Gary? They always arrived together. Maybe he knows where she lives.'

'Good idea.' I picked up the phone and dialled the number. 'Gary, this is Nick. Yeah, Merry Christmas. Listen, do you know where we can find Ellen? Why? She took something of Louie's by mistake. Yeah, it's pretty important. The South Bank? That narrows it down a lot. Can you be more specific? You took the Tube. Which line; Victoria, Bakerloo, or Northern? Black? What do you mean, "black"? Oh, colour-coded.'

'Northern,' Sophie mouthed.

'Okay, that's the Northern line. You got off at a major train station. Near a big church? Like a cathedral? No, you've been a great help, Gary.' I hung up the phone. 'If he's gonna stay here, he's got to learn to give proper directions.'

Louie took a map out of her purse. 'Like I said, I get lost. Here's the Northern line and the South Bank stops. The only one that remotely fits his description is the London Bridge stop: major station and Southwark Cathedral.'

'Looks like we've got a little trip ahead of us,' said Soph.

'That map doesn't list her street, does it?' She shook her head. 'Didn't think so. Let's get going then. I've got plans for the holidays.'

During the ride I thought about Ellen. I should have realised from the beginning that her naïveté was just an act. Especially when she was flattering me on that walk back to the office. She must have had this thing planned once we asked her. Part of me wanted to kill her, and part of me admired her for carrying it off. But how did she get the signature? If she were a forger as well, she'd still need one to copy. I'd have to ask her about that.

We found Ellen's building with only a little difficulty. It seemed that everyone we asked had their own idea of where it was. We went by the majority and thus found ourselves in a small cul-de-sac with her building on the cusp. She had a top floor flat and we trudged up the steps with Sophie in the rear. I rang the bell and waited. We knew she was home, we heard her moving about.

She answered thee door with a rushed air. 'Oh, Nick, Louie. What a surprise. I was just getting ready to go to my parents' for the holidays. I guess I can spare a few minutes.'

'This isn't a social call, Ellen,' I said.

'Oh?'

'We know you have no family, that you were raised in an orphanage,' said Louie.

'We also know that Ellen isn't your real name.'

'What nonsense! Who's been saying such things?'

Louie and I parted so Sophie could confront her. 'Hello, Jackie. It's been a long time.'

Seeing that her lie had fallen apart, Ellen--or Jackie--collapsed onto the sofa. 'God, I really thought I pulled it off.'

I sat next to her. 'What made you do it? You were going to get a decent enough cut.'

'After all the years I've spent doing baby scams and small-time thefts, I was due for something big. How old do you think I am? Twenty? Twenty-two? I'll be thirty next year, and what have I got to show for it? Bugger all! I figured I had worked hard enough and it was my turn in the sun.'

'Now we know why, but how?' asked Louie.

'Let's just say I have certain "assets" and I know how to use them. I approached one of the junior members of the Board--not as myself, of course--and convinced him to look at your operation. How else do you think you got noticed?' She was quite smug about it. 'I was allowed access to his office and discovered that he was one of the signers on the account. I took one of the account slips and hid it in my purse until I had perfected his signature--more of a childish scrawl, actually. It was easy.'

'But the manager at the bank said it was a man who got the money.'

She looked at Louie. 'You haven't been doing this long, have you? I dressed up as a man. A good con artist is also an actor. Why am I telling you all this, anyway?'

'Because we're not the police,' said Sophie.

'And we're not going to turn you in,' I added. 'Why should we? I know Rod would want to hang you from the nearest tree, but I don't think we're in the best position to judge. You'll return the money--anonymously, of course--and take your cut as planned. Then you can go on your way. We won't tell the others what happened, but, if you ever try to pull this again, word'll spread do fast, that no one'll go near you. Understood?'

She nodded and shook my hand.

'What are you going to do for Christmas?' asked Louie.

'Now that I've had to cancel my earlier plans, nothing.'

'Why don't you come with us to Nick's?' asked Sophie.

Ellen turned to me questioningly. 'Well. . .'

'My mum's place, actually. She does an open house for the neighbours so you don't have to worry about being an imposition. It could be fun, just what you need.'

Ellen smiled. 'You've got yourself a deal.' She put on her coat and picked up her purse, inside which was the bank check.

Louie went with Ellen to drop it off at the local police station while Sophie and I took the Tube back to my flat so I could get the presents for my family. She took a small package out of her bag and handed it to me. 'Happy Christmas, Nick.'

Surprised, I opened it after giving her mine. Inside was a beautiful pair of cufflinks. 'Soph, they're wonderful, thank you.' I kissed her full on the lips. I pulled away once I came to my senses. 'Sorry. Got carried away.'

She smiled and reached into her pocket, pulled out a small twig and held it over her head. 'You have to now. Mistletoe is a Christmas tradition.'

I laughed and kissed her again. Christmas is truly a wonderful time of year!

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