Charity

I always love holidays, Christmas especially. I mean, you've got carollers, Christmas trees, little kids with happy faces, Father Christmas, the smells of roasting goose and chestnuts, and I even attempt to eat black pudding. This year, however, I just didn't feel the cheer. Maybe it was because my 'best' friend turned out to be a murderer. Or it could be that I had realised my own mortality--twice in two weeks. So, I was at home alone in my flat a few weeks before Christmas. My live-in--purely platonic--was off with friends, so I was left to amuse myself and ended up depressing myself instead. Then the phone rang.

'Hello,' I said into the receiver.

'Nick, where are you?' It was the voice of my younger sister Theresa.

'I think I'm on the other end of the line. Why'

'You're supposed to be here, dear brother.'

'I am here.'

'Not there-here, here-here.'

'Oh, yeah, I forgot.' I sighed. 'Okay, I'll be there.'

'What's wrong?'

'Nothing. I'll be there as soon as I can. Just allow for public transport delays.' I hung up the phone and walked to the closet to put on my winter coat. I also took my cane out of the umbrella stand by the door. I needed a cane because three months ago I had been shot in the leg and I still had a bad limp. Besides, it made me look distinguished.

I walked to the tube station a block from my flat and didn't have to wait long. I paid and turned to find the bus full--standing room only--the crass commercial Christmas crush. Somebody took pity on me though, and offered up their seat.

'Where are you going, young man?' asked a woman from amongst her packages.

'Lambeth to see my family.'

'Yes, my son and daughter are coming home from school tomorrow. I do love it when the family gets together, don't you?'

'Oh, absolutely. I haven't missed a Christmas with them yet.' I really had missed four.

'Dear, whatever happened to your leg?' She was genuinely concerned.

I realised I'd never see her again so I'd tell her the simple truth. 'I was shot in the leg while trying to catch an escaping murderer.'

She was taken aback at first then became the Patronising Old Woman of legend. 'Certainly, dear, I understand. Playing up a simple fall down the stairs.' Before I could say anymore, she stood. 'This is my stop,' she said, gathering her packages. 'Have a happy Christmas, love.'

'And you, too, ma'am,' I said as she left. Once she was gone, her seat was immediately pounced upon by a young mother with her five year old son. The kid couldn't keep still and kept squirming on her lap. I decided to try and be polite. 'Hello. What's your name?'

'Nicholas," he said with a sniff.

'Oh, that's my name.' I offered him my handkerchief.

'Mummy, that man stole my name!'

The mother was one of those over-indulgent protective ones who was clearly out of her league with handling him. 'Now, Nicky, you should be flattered he's using your name.' She went back to her magazine.

He started squirming again and accidentally kicked me in the leg half-an-inch from where the bullet hit. I grimaced in pain and held back my scream--and my temptation to smack him. His mother noticed my face. 'Apologise to the man, Nicky. You kicked him in his injured leg.' The boy sulked. 'Nicky, apologise.'

'I'm sorry,' he said quickly and insincerely.

'Oh, that's quite all right. It's not as bad as it could be.' And I meant it. If it had happened last month, I'd've been bedridden for two days. Thank God my stop was next.

My sister Theresa answered the door. 'Hi, Nicky,' she said playfully. I was ready to lash out at her because all I could picture was that obnoxious brat. I glared at her and she started to laugh. I must have looked quite amusing. I couldn't help myself and laughed as well. 'C'mon in and join the party,' she said as she took my coat. 'I'll introduce you to the ones you don't know.'

'Well, that leaves out two people,' I said with a smile.

'Oh, I know we don't move in the same circles. We're above you.'

'Right, ma'am.' I wrung my hands in the servile manner. 'Will that be all, ma'am?'

She gave me a playful swat and led me into the living room. She and my other sister Nora had done an excellent job of decorating the place. Fake pine needles and ivy were strung along the walls. They even had a small tree in the corner that was decorated with paper chains. 'Katie and Michael made those,' Theresa informed me. 'They wanted to help.'

'Where are they, anyway?'

'Mum took them out for a walk. I have no idea where she plans to take them.'

'As long as they're out from underfoot, right?' The kids were cute, but sometimes they could be too much.

'Okay, time to introduce you to everyone.'

Theresa led me around the room to introduce me to her usual circle of friends, none of them very interesting. She met most of them through work, that and the club scene. I made my way to an unoccupied chair in the living room to watch the festivities. There was some dancing, carolling, and good-time drinking.

I was sitting there in the corner when a very tall brunette came over with a drink. 'Hello,' she said. 'Not one for festivities?' She was Welsh.

'Not this year. Besides,' I said, pointing at my leg, 'dancing is beyond me right now.'

'How did that happen?'

'A long story.' I took a sip of my own drink. 'The name's Nicholas, Nick for short.'

'You're Theresa's brother. I thought I could see a resemblance. I'm Louise Llewellyn. Louie to friends.'

She had a very engaging smile. I discovered she was the middle child of seven from a small mining town in South Wales. Life became boring so she moved to London and presently lived in Paddington. She worked as a sales clerk in Harrods. She had met Theresa on a double date with two brothers.

Nora came over. 'I was wondering what had happened to you,' she said with a smile. 'Has he been monopolising your time?' she asked Louie.

'No, he just looked so lonely.'

'Most of the time he does that to keep people away. C'mon and get something to eat. Theresa and I baked all day and we don't want it wasted!'

I stood and the three of us walked to the dining room. On the table they had the ideal Christmas fare. Aside from sandwiches, they had cookies, rum cake, spice cake, banana bread, and black pudding. 'You two have definitely outdone yourselves,' I said indulging in a thick slice of spice cake.

After that, the night became more my speed. I'm not sure, but I think Theresa slowed it down for me. She organised a game of charades. It just so happened that Louie and I were on the same team. She was quite good. When I became flustered with the title of some American movie--I can't even remember it now--she came right in with it and we won.

I don't know what it was, possibly the cold, but my leg began to ache tremendously. I found Nora and Theresa in the kitchen putting away the perishables. 'It's time for me to leave, ladies.'

'Oh, Nick, can't you stay a little longer?' asked Nora.

'I'd like to, but my leg is killing me. Besides, I have to get back to work.'

'You don't have a job,' said Theresa with a smile.

'Not yet. That's why I have to get back to work.' I, too, smiled. No, I hadn't worked since the shooting, but I planned to changed that in the morning. 'I'll be over for Christmas. Nothing can keep me away this year.'

As I was approaching the door I bumped into Louis who was buttoning her coat. 'You're leaving too?' she asked.

'Long day tomorrow.'

'Yeah, me too. I have a few more presents to send to Wales.'

'You're not going to be there for the holidays?'

'Everybody else took off the days after Boxing Day so I chose New Year's. How are you going home?'

'Central Line to Tottenham Court. You?'

'Central to Lancaster Gate.'

'Might as well go together.' I buttoned up my coat and said good-bye to the general public. 'Shall we?'

* * * *

The next morning, my depression was on me again. Here it was, a time of cheer and good will, and I was planning on cheating someone out of money. Another reason I was depressed was because I couldn't come up with any ideas, mark or scam. I was in a slump. Maybe finding out about Bill really hurt me. He had used me and I hadn't realised it. I had trusted him and he was willing to have me swing for a murder he committed. 'God, I wish Soph was here!' I walked into her room as if I could catch a glimpse of her or feel her presence. I found her to be an extremely attractive person and I think--I hope--she felt the same about me. She treated me as a brother, however, possibly because you can't really be involved with someone you're sharing a con with. Things could go very wrong.

I walked into the living room and decided to go to the British Museum and Library in the hopes of finding inspiration. If that failed, I would go to a local contact who acted as a fence and gossip-gatherer. He could point me in the right direction.

I walked along New Oxford Street hoping for illumination from the stores lining the road. Nothing. Maybe I should seriously think of taking up a real job, give my life some stability. 'If this search proves fruitless, I'll start reading the want-ads in the Times,' I mumbled to myself.

Once inside the museum, I made for the sarcophagi. Egyptology lends itself to scams. New tombs and discoveries were always being found and there were very few people who were wise enough to distinguish a fake from the real thing. I sat down to rest my leg and began to watch people. No one seemed to be showing anything but a minor fascination with the artefacts--like those seeing them for the first time. I walked out and peered into the Grecian room. No, there really wasn't much call for things Greek unless there was some mythological attachment, like Schleiman's Troy.

I decided that another possibility was Roman coins. As I headed upstairs, I realised what a waste of time it would be. Anyone worth scamming would be at their country homes and manors for the holidays. I left the museum.

* * * *

Two days later I took the Tube to South Kennsington and walked up Brompton Road to Beauchamp Place. I entered a newsagents and the middle-aged man behind the counter greeted me like an old friend. ''Ello, Nick. 'Aven't seen you for awhile.'

'I haven't been working lately.'

'So I've 'eard.' He looked to see if the shop was empty before he spoke again. 'What do you want?'

'Just some advice. I can't come up with any ideas.'

'What about Sophie?'

'She's gone away for the hols. I'm on my own.'

'Okay, let's go to the backroom. I'll hear if anyone comes in.'

'Lead the way.' Mike was a fountain of information. There was practically nothing he didn't know. I followed him to the back room where he offered me a cup of tea. 'My problem is that I can't seem to think of any original scams. All I can come up with are ones that have been done to death.'

'Things have been a bit slow lately. The only ones who do any business this time of year are the dips.'

'Picking pockets I've outgrown. Maybe a professional beggar, eh? Little bit of make-up, claim a war wound?'

'I don't think that's your style.' The bell over the front door rang. 'I'd better go. Make yourself comfortable. Shouldn't be too long.'

Mike left and I sipped my tea. I heard him greet the customer and recognised the voice that replied. There was no mistaken that Welsh lilt. I walked to the curtain that acted as a door and peeked through the crack by the wall. It was Louise. I was torn between showing myself and watching. I decided on the latter.

She took a packet from her pocket and placed it on the counter. Mike smiled as he unwrapped it. I couldn't exactly see what he was smiling at, but I knew why. Mike was a fence and Louie was a customer. Since I knew them both, I stepped forward. 'Hello, Louie. They must pay you well at Harrod's to afford that,' I said as I noticed the gems on the counter.

Louie was astonished. 'Nick, what a surprise.'

Mike didn't know how to handle it. 'You two know each other?'

'Met at my sisters' Christmas party. I didn't know about her hobby, though.'

'Nor I yours,' she said with a musical lilt.

'Mine is not a hobby, it's a profession.'

'Some profession. You haven't worked in months.'

'But at least I have the luxury of relaxing and don't have to worry where my next paycheque is coming from.'

'What did you do, anyway? Fall down stairs? Slip on ice?'

'As a matter of fact, I was shot while chasing a murderer.'

'Yeah, right.' She turned back to Mike who was evaluating her gems.

'You heard about Edmund Newbury's murder off in Dartmoor, didn't you? Well, I was in on that. A couple of friends and I planned to scam the owner of the mansion with a fake séance. Things went wrong when Newbury showed up as he recognised me from an earlier con and accused me right there at the dinner table. Needless to say, that hurt our credibility. Later that night when Newbury was found dead, I was the prime suspect. 'It was decided that the séance should go on, but instead of contacting the man's wife, we'd try to reach Newbury and have him tell us who the murderer was. My friend playing the part of the medium does have some psychic abilities--she senses things--prepared for the séance. I was worried as to whether or not it would work because we didn't have a chance to set up properly. The detective on the case stood by the door and watched everyone as the mist formed. 'To this day, I'm not really sure how it happened, but Newbury's spirit appeared over the table. I think he really did materialise. He pointed his finger at the murderer who then ran out of the house using one of the guests as a shield. I gave chase and got shot in the leg.'

Louie looked at me, amazed by my story. 'I remember reading about it. They talked about the witnesses and mentioned one of them needing crutches. I guess that was you.'

'Yep. Now I'm healed enough to try again.'

'I apologise for my earlier remarks. I didn't know.'

'That's all right. It has been awhile since then and I'm having a hard time getting started again.'

'There was one I was thinking about. It would work better with two.'

A woman entered the store and began to browse. Mike gave us a subtle nod and I took Louie to the back room. 'Coffee?'

'No, thanks. I'm on my lunch and I have to head back soon.'

I sat down. 'Okay. What's this idea of yours?'

'As you know, I work at Harrods. All during the year, they've been raising money which they'll give to a charity of their choice. What I was originally thinking was to create a totally fictitious person and sob story. But now, you could be that person. The limp and the cane would make it more believable.' I was quiet for a moment. 'Well?'

'It has possibilities,' I said finally. 'It needs ironing out and some more detailed planning.'

'Does that mean you'll do it?'

'Let me check out all the possible angles. I'll let you know in a couple of days.'

'That's all I can ask for, I guess.' She looked at her watch. 'I had better be going. Thanks for listening. No, don't bother getting up.' She left.

A few moments later Mike came back. 'How was her offer?'

'It sounded promising, but I'm not committing myself yet. I have do to some research.'

'On her plan?'

'That, and on Miss Louise Llwelyn herself.'

* * * *

Two days later, I decided on joining Louie in her 'charitable' venture. I took the tube to Harrods, and, after searching almost the whole store, I found her in the jewellery department. She was busy helping a couple chose a wedding ring. I walked around the counters casting an expert eye over the gold and jewels. I listened as the couple decided on a gold band inlaid with a diamond and two emeralds. The man put it on his account and they left. I wandered over to the register. 'May I help you sir?' she asked as she lifted her head.

'Yes, I'd like some information regarding your Christmas Charity Fund.'

She seemed startled at first, but recovered quickly. 'Nick, what are you doing here?'

'You asked me, remember?' I gave her one of my medium-strength smiles.

'I can't talk now.' It was wasted.

'Okay, when do you go to lunch?'

'There's a little coffeeshop on Beauchamp on the way to Mike's. Know it?'

'I'll meet you there.'

She looked behind her. 'You'll have to go now. My supervisor is watching.'

I had some time to kill so I decided to do some browsing for Christmas presents for my family. I saw some dresses that would look great on Nora and Theresa; a suit for Mum; and toys for Michael and Katie. I also saw a beautiful silk blouse that would be perfect for Sophie. I wondered what she was doing and hoped she was thinking of me. (Selfish, wasn't I?)

It was just about time to meet Louie, so I headed for the Brompton Road exit. I noticed a familiar head in the crowd in front of me so I followed almost directly behind her. When she turned into the coffee shop, I went over to a table and called her name. 'Have I kept you waiting long?' she asked as she sat down.

'No, not very.' I picked up a menu. 'Their hot sandwiches are delicious. I highly recommend the Reuben.'

'I'll let you pick. You realise this is Dutch?'

'I wouldn't presume anything different.' Another medium smile. She smiled back. I ordered lunch and began to tell her of my ideas.

* * * *

Louie agreed to my plan but only after I assured her that I wasn't planning on running the whole thing. We decided that my character would be a former POW--German or Japanese, we weren't sure--and I was dying of a disease contracted at the camp. Because of this, he (I) couldn't get a job and had to squat in a derelict building. We hadn't yet decided on a disease when Louie had to go back to work. I told her I'd do more research. 'Same time tomorrow?'

'I guess so. Is there any way I can get in touch with you?'

I hesitated about giving her my number, but realised she'd probably ask Theresa anyway. I broke down and gave it to her. 'See you tomorrow, then.' She left after paying her share of the bill.

Walking to the tube station, I began to think on a disease. I was feeling quite partial to malaria, it would call for a great deal of acting. Louie said that they would have a doctor there to check every applicant in case of fraud. It was while I was passing a sidewalk Santa that I realised Harrod's was more likely to give to an organisation instead of just one person. Many such organisations were spread throughout the city, bombarding the public with requests for donations before fading away for another year. It would be perfect!

* * * *

I stopped at a friend's in Clerkenwell. He was surprised to see me and wanted to talk of old times until I told him I had some business. 'Anything for old times,' he said. I told him I needed some documents in order to create a fictional organisation. He said it would be a few days. I thanked him and said I'd stop by then.

Warming up to my new project, I brought a real estate brochure to see if there were any offices or buildings I could rent for this purpose. Cheap, of course. Some of them looked promising so I placed a check next to the description. Next on my list was a visit to the bank to check on how much I actually had in my account. If the rent wasn't too high, I might be able to get a decent place.

The bank manager couldn't do enough for me. I rarely entered the bank; only at the beginning of a scam and at the end of a successful one. Needless to say, my account never went any lower than £1,000. I was one of the better customers. (It's amazing what a good suit and neutral accent can do.) 'Mr. Adamson,' (I used my real name there--after all, it was my money) 'how good to see you again. What happened?' he asked upon seeing the cane. 'I hope it was nothing serious.'

'No, just a little shooting accident.' I left it at that. 'I need to check on my account balance. I'm planning a new venture and I need to know how much I can spare to put into it.'

'Certainly, Mr. Adamson. Let me go check for you.' I looked around the bank. I don't know how some people could actually rob them. The manager returned. 'You have a very healthy account, Mr. Adamson. You're sitting at £3,500 or thereabouts.'

Scamming was such a profitable profession! 'Thank you. I'll be back after I do some more research. You've been most helpful.'

As it was getting late, I called it a day and went home.

* * * *

The next morning I went to the estate agents' and told them in which office I was interested. (Proper English always leaves me tongue-tied) The agent--a man in his mid-forties--seemed surprised that a man of my 'tender years' was making deals such as this. I said I was only doing it on behalf of the organisation. He didn't seem to care where the money came from, as long as he got his commission. The office was on the third floor one of a newly-renovated buildings near the Old Bailey and faced the street. It was large, but not too large. I could picture a staff of five (easily recruited for a percentage). I already knew I wanted it, but pretended I was still undecided. The agent was trying hard; he even offered to try and cut the rent! I finally signed the contract-- Ned Allen--with a flourish.

I stopped at a pub for lunch, and, after a hand and cheese sandwich, I knew it was time to tell Louie what I had done.

I went to the jewellery department but she wasn't there. The head of the department told me to check Ladies' Apparel. From there I went to Sporting Goods, Children's, Kitchenware, and finally ended up in the Food Halls. She was working in the Bakery. 'How can you stand this?' I asked her, paying for an eclair. 'The smells alone would drive me crazy.'

'You get used to it,' she said. 'How're you doing?'

'Fine. Took a while to find you. It seems like you've been in every department.'

'Just about. I'll be getting off in ten minutes. I'll meet you by the Christmas tree near the Brompton Road entrance. I can't really talk here.'

'Sure.' I wandered towards the tree and browsed through the seasonal displays. She didn't keep me waiting long. I explained my reasoning to her during the ride on the Tube. She seemed a bit upset that I had done it without telling her, let alone asking her. 'How will we be recognised by the store?' I asked, knowing that was her department.

'The name and credentials of the charity are given to the committee which then sends a representative to meet with the workers to see if they really are deserving.'

'Do they have a tendency to give to ones that desperately need the money, or ones that just do a lot of good works?'

'It depends. One with a bit of both, I guess.'

We got off at St. Paul's and walked to the building. I think I made a good choice. She wandered around the office remarking on the space and the light. She looked out the window and saw Justice and her scales atop the Old Bailey. 'Operating right under their noses, eh?' She saw the humour in that. 'How many were you planning on?'

'About five. I have some acquaintances who'd work for a percentage. That is, of course unless you want to hire through an agency.'

'No. People who are in on it will be better. I just want to be around when you pick them.'

'All right. No time like the present.'

* * * *

'What are we doing here?' she asked as we walked into the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA for short). 'Are you planning to hire Laurence Olivier?'

'Ha. No, a friend of mine is here taking some courses. Since he has to pay . . .'

'I guess all good con-artists are actors at heart.'

We walked up to reception and the young secretary looked up. Another hopeful. 'May I help you?'

'Yes. We're looking for Roderick Masters.'

'We're not allowed to interrupt any classes.'

'Then he is in class at the moment?' She nodded. 'When will he get out?'

She looked at a schedule. 'Ten minutes.'

'Then, if you could direct us, we can meet him when he gets out,' said Louie.

The receptionist pointed the way and Louie and I began to roam the halls. We finally found the right lecture hall and waited. I had met Rod through a mutual friend a few years back and we hit it off famously. Occasionally we'd work together and his range of characters never failed to amaze me. the door opened and the students filed out. I spotted Rod and fell in step beside him, Louie following. 'How've ya been, Olivier?'

Rod looked up. 'Nick, it's been a long time. What brings you to RADA? Decided to take a few courses?'

'Very funny. I think I have a job for you. One that might prove interesting.'

'Let's go where we can talk in private.' We continued down the hall and that's when he noticed Louie. 'And who might you be?'

'Only the one who came up with the idea.' She turned to me. 'You didn't tell me he was so obnoxious.'

I shrugged. 'You can't have everything.' I explained the scam to Rod. 'You in?'

'It sounds a bit far-fetched. No, that's not the right word, but you know what I mean. Sure, I'll do it. You seem to have the golden touch. Things very rarely turn sour on you.'

'Great.' I knew he would join. Now I just had to keep his ego in check.

Rod and Louie didn't get off to a glorious start, so I thought we'd go for a fourth before things got ugly. Too bad Soph wasn't around. She had such a calming presence. 'Are you busy, or can you go on recruiting?' I asked him.

'Not doing a thing. I am at your disposal.'

'Just like every other form of garbage,' muttered Louie.

I tried not to laugh. It was pretty funny, but we didn't need dissension in the ranks. I pulled her over as Rod went to get some booked he needed. 'C'mon, go easy on him. I know he's arrogant and a bit egotistical, but he's good and we need him.'

'It won't be easy, but I'll try. You'd better talk to him, too, because if he goes too far, I won't be responsible for my actions.'

'Okay. Deal.'

We moved on to Covent Garden where we found our next addition working. I would have said 'hard', but she seemed to do everything effortlessly. 'Keeping out of trouble, Maggie?'

Her red head lifted and she turned her hazel eyes on me. 'Hey, Nick. Long time no see. Heard you was laid up.'

'Yeah. Back to work now and have a spot for you if you're interested.'

Maggie looked at Louie and Rod. 'Them, too?'

'You know Rod and this is Louie.' She nodded at them. 'Can you close do so we can talk?'

Maggie closed her stall, and, over a warm cup of tea, I told her our plan. 'Sounds pretty simple for you, Nick. You're usually more elaborate.'

'Its simplicity is what makes it so good,' said Rod.

'Okay. So if Rod and I are gonna be in the 'office' and you're the go-between, what's her part?'

'Louie is our informant. She works at Harrod's and can fill us in on what happens.'

'Oh.' She sounded disappointed that Louie's job was more important than hers.

'We have a couple more people to recruit then we'll meet Friday at that pub on the corner of Whitefriars and the Fleet--can't think of the name--at 7.00. Sound okay?'

'Fine.' She drained her mug. 'Now I'd better earn the honest stuff. See you Friday.'

Rod checked his watch. 'I've gotta get going myself. Got a date tonight. Ta-ra.'

'Do you have anything going tonight?' I asked Louie.

'Yeah.' I looked at her. 'I'm going with you.'

* * * *

I went home tired and aching. I fixed myself a cup of tea then promptly stretched out on the couch. My leg was driving me crazy. I know I was on it longer than I should have been, especially in the cold, but I refused to let on that it hurt. Foolish pride, I know, but sometimes it's necessary. I leaned over to turn on the electric fire (the warmth without the mess) and settled down for a nap.

I thought about the 'recruits' and hoped that the mix would even out the tempers. Louie and Rod were the ones I had to keep an eye on. Maggie was just very sarcastic, and if one didn't know she was kidding, it could start a major argument. The last two were friends of friends. I knew them to be reliable or else I wouldn't have bothered. There was a young American named Gary who was over here trying to make a name for himself. He said he was a writer working on the novel, a sweeping epic that would put 'War and Peace' to shame. He was in London to soak up atmosphere. Right now he was doing freelance for Fleet Street.

The other was a woman by the name of Ellen. She was pretty much a small-time thief, but did her work well. She knew her limitations, which was something very few in our line of business did. The ones who don't are usually the ones who get caught.

Well, tomorrow night we'd have our first 'meeting' and find out who would be doing what. I decided to write out my own plan of action and consult with Louie before mentioning it to anyone else.

* * * *

I woke with the sun in my eyes. The fire was off and I could smell coffee. For a moment, I thought Sophie was back, but I knew that was impossible. I sat up on the couch and yawned. I wrapped the blanket around me and walked into the kitchen.

'I thought the coffee would wake you,' said Nora as she poured. 'I hope you don't mind. You were sleeping like the dead.'

'No, it's quite welcome, as a matter of fact.' I poured a mug for myself. 'What are you doing here, anyway? Don't you have to work?'

'It's my late morning. I thought you might want a little company. Did you have a late night or something? You look it.'

I ran a hand through my rumpled hair. 'Most of that's probably due to sleeping on the couch.' I sat at the table. 'I got in early, actually. I only meant to rest up for a little while. My leg was positively killing me.'

'No wonder, traipsing about the city all day.'

'And how do you know what I was doing?'

'Louie called. I think she likes you,' she grinned.

'It's purely business. You should know that. Besides, she's not my type.'

'Men always use that excuse. I don't think Sophie would mind.'

'That hurts.' She was right, though. I seemed to be holding out for something I might not even get. Maybe I would try--only after this thing was over. Sophie treated me like a brother or just a good friend. I'd say that was a little one-sided.

'You said it was business worth Louie. Don't tell me you're both . . .'

'Okay, I won't.' I finished my coffee. 'She's pretty smart. It's her scheme we're working on.'

'With a few Adamson adjustments.'

'She's a novice at this sort of thing. It's only in her best interests.'

'Sure, whatever you say.' She helped clean the kitchen then left for work.

After a quick refreshing shower, I changed into some clean clothes then prepared my Plan of Action. I decided to make it almost like a military operation: we would all have our own parts to play which would lead to the main objective.

OBJECTIVE; To have Harrods give us the money for the charity account PERSONNEL: Nick--act as go-between for non-existent BOD Louie-contact with Harrods; cant work in office might be recognised Rod--works in office; also will act as Unfortunate Maggie--works in office; Unfortunate Gary--works in office; pamphlet extolling organisation Ellen--works in office as secretary MEANS: spread the word of the organisation by passing as one of the Unfortunates who will then pass it on; set up soup kitchens and hand out blankets, clothing, etc.; will bring us to committee notice PROFITS: Upon the conclusion of this operation, the monies will be divided as agreed upon. Taken into consideration will be the part played by each individual plus their contribution to the whole

I thought it looked pretty good. I was worried about actually stating the percentages, so I left it to be decided at the meeting. As I said, it should be on how much each individual contributed. Some might think that this was a polite way for me to say I wanted a big chunk of it, but I felt that it was only right. Besides, Louie put in a lot as well, it being her idea.

There was nothing left for me to do that day in order to prepare, so I gave myself the day off. Seeing Nora reminded me I needed to get a few more presents. I thought it best to stay away from Harrod's so I went to Selfridges.

* * * *

I waited at the pub that night, and, needless to say, I was a little nervous. Thankfully, Louie was the nest to arrive and I showed her my plan. She agreed that it was straightforward enough. 'Of course it's not carved in stone, but at least it gives us something to work with.'

We ordered some cold sandwiches and beer while we waited for the others. Maggie came in bundled up in a coat and scarf. 'Wouldn't surprise me if we had a blizzard tonight.' She rubbed her hands together. 'At least you picked a comfortable place. How can you have beer?' She ordered a pot of tea.

'We don't all have thin skin like you,' said Rod, pulling up a chair. He ordered beer as well. 'Who are we waiting for now?'

'No one,' said Louie. 'Not anymore.' She waved to Gary and Ellen who had walked in together.

I left her to make the introductions. When everyone was settled in with food and drink, I began to tell them of the plan. 'We'll be a charity organisation, the type that hands out food, blankets, and the like. Since we're starting late, we'll need to spread the word. I thought some of us could pretend to be "Unfortunates" and mingle with them and tell them where they can find food. The word will then spread through them and soon Harrod's will hear of it.'

'Why can't she just tell them about it?' asked Maggie.

'Because,' Louie answered, 'they'll need to check out my story anyway. For all they know,' she smiled, 'the charity could be a fake.'

The others laughed. 'What about the percentages?' asked Gary. 'How will we break it down?'

'First of all, how much will the check be for?' asked Ellen.

'Right now, it's about £20,000,' said Louie. 'They usually post the amount as it changes.'

'I think Nick and Louie should get at least 25% each,' said Ellen.

'That would leave 12% for the rest of us!' argued Rod.

'But they came up with the idea and have done most of the work so far. Nick's even put down the rent for the office.'

'I agree with Ellen,' said Maggie. 'We've only come in as support so we should get supporters' percentages.'

I kept my mouth shut (something I rarely do) and listened to them argue. 12% percent didn't really sound like much, but it depended on the total take. It could be quite substantial. Rod finally gave in and the percentages were agreed on. We put it in writing, dated it, and signed it to prevent any problems later.

Rod and Maggie agreed to act as 'Unfortunates' as well as work in the office. Gary liked the idea of writing a pamphlet about the organisation and said he would also try to mention it in some of his articles. Ellen would work as my secretary. Not mine, really, but the office secretary. I would be the head of the office, working on behalf of the Board of Directors.

After all the major business was done, I took them over to the office so they would know where to go. I showed them the spare key over the door of the office next door. 'Don't worry, it's still for rent,' I explained.

They all liked it and started planning on bringing in personal items to give it more atmosphere. 'Not too personal,' I reminded.

I took the Tube home with Louie and she said that she was feeling good about this. Before she was uncertain, now she was confident. 'It's going to work,' she told me. 'Just you wait and see.'

* * * *

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 blanket 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 thee 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?'