ALL THAT GLITTERS…. © Mollie Kay Smith
Wealthy widows, ripe for the picking. This thought expresses my only aim in life. I would find a rich foolish woman to keep me in luxury until my dying day. And today fate seems to be telling me I’ll not have much longer to wait. Maybe. Just maybe…
I let my mind drift over the last decade. During those few years nobody could deny that my success had been phenomenal. It doesn’t worry me that those in the know have begun to label me ‘The Iceman, the con without a heart’. ‘The Major’, as I now title myself, has gained a reputation in the trade as a con-man of the highest order, yet my method of trawling for people to cheat is an absolute doddle.
Craftily worded advertisements in local newspapers never actually promise that Honest Joe will pay good money for the treasures of those whose pensions no longer stretch far enough – but their message is plain.
I invite people to write in with a description of items they wish to sell, addressing their letter to a box number. The dozens tempted are not to know that ‘The Major’ doesn’t exist, that in reality Box X is plain Patrick Smith who twenty-five years earlier was a corporal working in the army stores and whose dishonourable discharge for petty pilfering is unworthy of remembrance.
Still…it was enough to launch me on a life of crime – though for years it earned me little other than a few spells in prison. But that was ten years ago before I dreamed up ‘The Major’.
‘Clients’ never realise that ‘The Major’, is of no fixed abode or even seldom to be found in the same county two days running. I arrange visits by my regularly changed mobile phone and nobody ever queries when I arrive that my business card carries no address.
Major Patrick Blair Harrison-Smythe, Blair Castle Antiques, Harrogate seems impressive enough to persuade enough idiots I’m legitimate. I constantly gloat on how pathetically gullible they are, so easily conned by my appearance and manner. They’re not to know that my car, like my shoes, my clothes, and hair style were deliberately chosen to create an impression of wealth and integrity. Even my voice is a fake. Fruity as good Muscat wine it proved harder to perfect than my appearance. Nevertheless I’m well aware of just how much it contributes to my success
‘Tell you what m’dear. I can see you’re disappointed because I can’t buy any of your little things so why don’t I cheer you up by giving you £15 for this old picture? You don’t need rubbish like that lying about. Might fall over it and give yourself a nasty injury.’
I’d been on the point of leaving the batty old woman with her Zimmer frame amongst the junk in her garden shed when I spied it. Even covered in spider’s webs and dust and leaning askew against the wall its quality screamed out.
I picked it up with as much nonchalance as I could muster and gave it a quick once over, making sure I didn’t show any interest in it whatsoever. My mind did cartwheels and sent pound signs flashing behind my eyes like numbers on a fruit machine. Definitely, I decided, it’s a Church Farm at Langham. Obviously not the one in the Tate Gallery painted by Constable around 1811, but my educated guess tells me it’s one of his earlier efforts, painted at the same location. I’d read only a few weeks ago that a few previously unrecorded sketches of his had recently come to light. Now this painting had all the hallmarks of being the real thing. I couldn’t believe my luck.
The old girl flashed a brief smile. ‘You’re right there. But is it really worth £15? It was in the shed when I moved in. Fact is I’d be glad to be rid of it.’
Recently I’d spent time bulling up on famous artists and if this does prove kosher, and I’m ninety-nine percent sure it will, the cash it’ll bring me will be counted in tens of thousands.
‘It’s a deal then, m’dear.’ I counted the £15 into her palm, regretting I hadn’t said ten. Or even less. She’d have been fool enough to have accepted even that, I thought.
Later, at my table in the 4 Star restaurant, where I enjoyed a sumptuous lunch accompanied by a bottle of Chateaux Margaux ’68 in celebration of my good fortune, I drink a toast to her and all the other fools that fell for my blarney.
‘Here’s to yet more stupid old gits.’ Then I drew deeply on the expensive cigar I’d purchased to wind up my lunch and added softly whilst checking the not insignificant bill: ‘Superb meal. Excellent service. Waiter’s wasting his time here. Should be in a grand London restaurant.’
I stroked the military style moustache I’d taken so many pains to get just right, knowing how well it supported the image I wanted so desperately to project. Then, shrugging, my shoulders under the jacket specially tailored for that same reason, I crooked my finger at the waiter indicating I wanted a word. ‘Look here, you idiot, there’s an error on this bill. What’s this item? I can’t recall having it’
‘Service charge, sir. It’s added for everyone.’
‘Service charge! Well you can jolly well take it off mine. The service I’ve had from you has been abysmal. Any problems get me the manager and I’ll tell him what a waste of time you are.’
He, of course, deducted the small amount from my bill as I enjoyed watching his expression of total frustration. During the short time it took for him to fetch my change my thoughts returned to the luck I’d experienced that morning.
‘If it goes on like this, old chum, it’ll be winter in the Bahamas,’ I told myself. ‘Lots of wealthy widows there ripe for the picking.’
This was evident after lunch when I met my next victims of the day, both octogenarians by the look of them. The doddery old chap was so taken in by the voice that at one point he even called me sir. The wife, with bones frail as a sparrow’s, served afternoon tea from a tray set with fine china. Sévres. A sneaky check under one of the saucers whilst neither of them was looking showed me the identifying curly mark. I’m clever enough to know it was genuine and it told me they were early, made around 1850. Even more exciting was the signature mark of the chap who had gilded them, the heavily painted L and G with on the left, halfway down the L a comma, and a dot after the G. Le Guay. Not the Ettiene Charles Le Guay whose hallmark was figures, subjects and flowers, of course. His LG was entirely different.
‘His Lordship gave it to us as a wedding present,’ the wife innocently and proudly announced in answer to my enquiry ‘It’s well over a hundred years old.’
That tea set was something I’d do almost anything to get my hands on. Try gentle persuasion first old chap, I ordered myself, leave the bullying as a last resort.
But these two proved harder than this morning’s batty old woman. No, the china was most definitely not for sale, nor was the beautiful cameo brooch she wore. ‘A retirement gift from m’lady. I’d never part with that.’
I did eventually persuade the old man to part with a toy mechanical carousel. ‘Been in the family ever since my grandfather had it as a boy.’ The old man’s eyes glazed over and he started to whitter on reminiscing of how he used to play with it when he was a lad. I cut him off quick, didn’t have time to waste on an old codger’s nostalgia. Anyway I was feeling a bit miffed at not getting the china.
‘Look, is the toy for sale or not. Can’t offer more than £50.’ I hoped my tone of voice would hide my greed. ‘The box, whilst original, is a bit tatty. Look, just here.’ I pointed to a mini-tear near the bottom, no detriment whatsoever. German, mid 1800s, extremely rare and in mint condition with its original box. Old Fred in Brighton would snatch at it for at least eight times more than I’d paid.
Even so, when I left the cottage I still felt angry that I hadn’t got the tea-set and the mangy old black cat sitting on my car bonnet didn’t improve my mood. It eyed me with eyes as rheumy as the old man I’d just left. Cats, I loathe ‘em. I took a swipe at it and sent it flying into the rockery. Thought at first I’d killed the damned thing like the one I squashed on the road last week, but then it got to its feet and limped off. Hearing its miserable miaux improved my mood so that even though I hadn’t been able to bully the old chap I still felt luck was on my side as I set off to visit the last person on my list that day.
I had decided this woman was not a widow because she had told me in her letter that if I couldn’t visit her at the date and time she stated I must forget it. Also her added PS had been ‘DO NOT TRY TO TELEPHONE’.
In my experience such restrictions usually indicate the correspondent is a married woman who doesn’t want her husband to know about any transactions. I rubbed my hands together gleefully; more opportunities for me to intensify the pressure. This was the sole reason I’d organised this visit to North Yorkshire on the date she suggested.
Grange House, her address, dominated an isolated hillside at the end of a winding tree-lined drive. Nothing like my usual haunts. Its well-manicured lawns and extensive terrace added to the house’s prosperous appearance. I almost turned away before greed conquered my doubts.
At the studded oak door I still hesitated. Even as my hand hovered near the lion’s head knocker of polished brass I was unsure. ‘C’mon now’, I thought, ‘this isn’t your type of place. Use some sense.’
I was actually stepping away from the door when it opened to reveal an attractive woman in her early thirties. I barely managed to quell the lustful expression which I knew must be gleaming in my eyes as I took in her outline framed in the light from behind the door. Tall, I guessed her at five-ten, and willowy rather than slim and with long, long legs encased in trousers of some floaty silky fabric. I would be the last to deny that my love of women is only slightly less compelling than my love of wealth.
‘Major Harrison-Smythe’ the woman said. ‘Exactly on time.’
I slipped off my glove, extended my hand. ‘Good afternoon, Mrs Tankersley. It is Mrs isn’t it?’
‘Yes, Mrs. Though I am in fact a widow. Here let me take your coat and gloves. Shall we enjoy a cup of tea before getting down to business? ‘
I was lost. Not only was she a good looking woman, but more importantly the rings on her fingers told me she was obviously worth a few bob. Thoughts buzzed through my mind like flies around spilled syrup. Rich widow. Rich widow. Rich widow. Not bad looking either! Knew it was my lucky day. I trailed after her like a pig on the scent of truffles.
The panelled hallway led into a drawing room furnished in authentic Chippendale. Seated on the edge of a chair my nerves jangled like prison keys, so much so that the Limoges cup and saucer rattled and I feared the tea would spill.
‘Come on you stupid idiot you’re going to throw it all away. Stop acting like a lovestruck teenager. Just think of the shekles in this place.’
It took all my self-control to get myself back into mode and I was thankful when she spoke as if she hadn’t noticed.
‘Now Major,’ she said answering an unspoken question, ‘what I want from you is a teeny bit of sympathy and a whole lot of confidentiality.’
Soft grey eyes appealed from behind heavy lashes. Gentle fingertips caught hold of my free wrist putting flight to all my customary caution.
‘In truth I’ve been very naughty and I think you can help me. I’ve been too frivolous by far and..’ She drew in a long wavering breath before continuing. ‘Seeing your advertisement was a godsend. As I said my husband is dead and I’m childless. I have nobody I can turn to. I simply can’t let any of my friends know…’
Her expression was that of a contrite little girl, abject after committing some misdemeanour. Yet the artfully made up face, the designer clothes and the silvery blonde chignon denied any naivety.
Had I not been so infatuated both by the idea that at last I might have found my rich widow, and the thought of all the goodies she had in the house, my inner self should have been advising caution. Still…
‘Madam you can depend on me.’ I moved gallantly to share her settee. She, in her turn, slid a little closer. This encouraged me to pat her hand as if it were a small animal in need of comfort. The action provoked a wavering smile to slide briefly across her face.
‘Please do call me Cynthia…er…Patrick.’
I felt the glow inside me growing. I asked myself whether the expression in my eyes would be enough to question if her words really did contain the wider invitation I was reading in them. ‘But …er…Cynthia, surely you have other means of obtaining cash without selling your little treasures?’
‘Indeed I have. There are lots of stocks and shares and such things. But my solicitor deals with all that and I can’t tell him about…well, you know. Then there’s my share in Bertrand’s business and the properties in Switzerland. But selling them would take too long. I need money now. Look, it’s simply that I’ve bought too many clothes and bits and pieces and I’ve got to pay something on my account before the end of this month. The fact is that my allowance is all spent and…’
Her face crumpled as if she were about to burst into tears. I held on to the settee arm to prevent myself from jumping up and down for joy. Didn’t want her to think I was about to have apoplexy. Evidently Cynthia was a woman of property; really a woman worth knowing.
‘So,’ I confirmed, ‘you are a widow. And with nobody in the world to look after you.’
‘Yes, I’m afraid so. But that’s not your worry. Come on, let’s see if there’s anything you can buy from me.’
During a tour of the house I wrote nothing down, merely made a mental inventory of the pieces I would get my hands on later.
She was so grateful when I held up the odd thing I told her I just might be interested in that I must surely have expressed sympathy. But only if her attraction for me as a woman had outstripped that of my desire for her belongings and her cash,
As it was I played it cool, not wishing her to think me pushy. The £500 in cash I put into her eager little hand I viewed as a down payment on my well-heeled future. What she thought I was buying were a small portable writing desk and a box of her late husband’s war medals.
She planted a kiss on my cheek saying: ‘Oh, Patrick, you really are a darling. What would I have done without you?’ Did I imagine her face lingered next to mine for a longer moment than necessary?
I scarcely glanced at my acquisitions, thinking they were chicken-feed compared to what I intended getting hold of later. But I was still sufficiently down from the clouds to notice the medals carried the same name as hers and amongst them was a Victoria Cross. God be praised. She obviously doesn’t know what that’s worth. Most people have a vague idea that these medals were awarded to military and naval personnel for actions of outstanding bravery. Few realise that it’s called the Victoria Cross because it was Old Queen Vic herself who founded the award by Royal Warrant in 1856.
I recalled my contact in York who specialises in medals explaining to me only recently how rare these were and telling me if I could get hold of one for him he’d pay me handsomely. In point of fact I got a bit bored listening to him rhapsodising on about them. But I do recall him telling me that all Victoria Cross medals since then have been struck from the Russian cannons captured at Sevastopol in the Crimean War and that during the last 150 years only about one thousand three hundred and fifty have been awarded. As anybody might guess they are mostly kept in family vaults and seldom come on the market. Collectors would give their eye teeth to get one. So, I gloated, this one alone will more than repay my investment. And, of course, there was still Cynthia….
I was beginning to enjoy the fact that she was so easily impressed. Every second seemed to bring further nourishment for my ego. And not only verbal strokes. I soon began to realise she was a very feely touchy sort of person. Little taps on my hand and arm, a casual rubbing up against me as she reached over to point out some item. It came as an unwelcome surprise, therefore, when only a mere half hour later she told me it was time for me to leave.
Still I perked up again when she planted another kiss on my cheek at the door.
‘Patrick, promise me you’ll telephone first thing in the morning. Now we’ve found each other we mustn’t lose touch.’
Her smile was adoring as she passed me a slip of paper on which she had written her telephone number.
‘Good-bye, m’ dear,’ I shouted through the open window of the car. ‘Until tomorrow.’ Then I added in an under tone through still smiling teeth. ‘Steady old son, mustn’t move too fast. Frighten her off. Time to ask her out for lunch when I ring tomorrow. After that a candle-lit supper or two, a few bunches of roses and Bob’s your uncle.’
On my way back to the hotel in Leeds I tapped out my theme tune on the steering wheel. Money, money, money. That fellow in Fiddler On The Roof certainly knew what it was all about
It was barely nine o’clock in the morning when I picked up the phone and punched in the numbers she gave me. I had my spiel all worked out. I broadened my smile, exercised my throat to ensure my voice would be as fruity as possible when the phone at the other end was picked up. As I waited for her to answer, I pondered on how important this call was to my future.
‘Hello. Who’s that?’ The voice at the other end sounded like its owner spent too much time on horseback or too often visited the whisky bottle.
I adopted my fruitiest voice to answer. ‘Good morning. Would you be kind enough to bring Mrs Tankersley to the phone? She’s expecting my call.’
‘Who is it?’
‘Major Patrick Blair Harrington-Smythe.’ I made my voice still more theatrical.
‘Never heard of you,’ came the reply. ‘I’m Mrs Tankersley. What d’you want?’
‘I’m so sorry, its Mrs Cynthia Tankersley to whom I wish to speak. Son’s wife perhaps?’ A little niggle entered my mind. Hadn’t she said she was totally alone?
‘Rubbish. Never had a son. Look I haven’t got time for playing games so clear off. Unless, that is, you can tell me anything about the gang of thieves which cleaned out this place yesterday. The house is swarming with police and I’m busy.’
For a while I stood, receiver in hand, feeling for all the world like somebody whose blood is draining away out of his toes.
She’d duped me! Impossible, I was too clever for that. She couldn’t have.
I lurched to where I’d left the medals the night before and picked up the box, cursing and telling myself that imagining I’d found my rich widow must have addled my brains.
The morning sunlight shining on the deep purple velvet of the box’s lining enriched its opulent appearance so that the ribbons and pins appeared etched into it; the medals glinted like newly minted silver. Of course they were fakes.
I flung the box with such vigour against the wall that it fell to pieces on contact. Amongst the debris were two slips of paper. Without thinking I stooped and picked them up, my movements as mechanical as that of the toy carousel I’d bought the day before.
I read what was written on the first one. ‘These reproductions of authentic medals are presented with the compliments of Tankersley’s Teas to commemorate their 50th Anniversary.’
My expression, I knew, could now in no way be that of a self-satisfied military gentleman. Anger and the need for revenge surged through my veins like molten larva. Not only had I doled out £500, the clever bitch had somehow made me lose my trademark iciness. She’d gloat about it, laugh about it with other dealers, make me look a fool.
Perhaps something on the second slip of paper would give me a clue as to how to locate her and get my revenge.
‘Talk about the biter being bit,’ I read. ‘By the time you read this me and my merry band will be far away. Imagine what a good team we could make. The Major and his Lady. Ring this number if you are interested.’
I recognised the number as being in Leeds, it seemed familiar somehow.
‘The grapevine has it you are the best in England.’ the note continued,’ I saw your advert and couldn’t resist the challenge of personally taking on a master.’ .
At that I preened like a peacock, enjoying the compliment, my confidence returning. ‘Perhaps I might go to Leeds for a bit.’ I mused, ‘Rich widows come in many guises. Little slut needs teaching a lesson anyway, nobody plays a trick like that on me and gets away with it. Lot of good things she got out of Grange House. .If nothing else I could have a few of those before I ditch her. One way or another I’ll make her pay.’
Then I spun on my heels. I caught sight of myself in the mirror; face now the colour of bleached linen, terror evident in my eyes.
‘Grange House! Oh my God. She did damn well win.’
In my panic I cried out aloud. This was no longer the ripe plummy voice of ‘The Major’ but one squeaky with emotion and fear.
I moved fast then. Dragging out my suitcase I slung in clothes, careless that they fell higgledy-piggledy and would emerge like rags on the morrow. Image held little importance now.
I muttered to myself as I packed. ‘Damned fool that I am. Took off my gloves didn’t I? Finger-prints. Left them everywhere. Clever little prig obviously hasn’t got her’s on record. Talk about my lucky day. By the time I get out I’ll be ancient. And everybody knows rich widows look for younger company these days. Whatever made me think that smart arsed little bitch was a woman worth knowing.’
As I closed the door of the room, hastening to make my escape, I caught sight of the medals winking in the sunlight, the red ribbon on the Victoria Cross mocked more than the rest.
It was at that moment I remembered what the phone number she had given me was. Given out every night on television when seeking witnesses to a crime: it was 0845 6060606 The West Yorkshire Police Headquarters!