In A Lonely Place
“I sometimes think that God in creating man somewhat overestimated his ability.” — Oscar Wilde
“North Carolina? Alan had to be kidding,” Roy muttered. While the isolation of the Outer Banks appealed to him, Roy had no intention of leaving New York City and heading south. True, he needed a change. But not just any change. Besides, the money would have to be exceptional for him to even consider it. After a half-hour of pointless musing, Roy picked himself up and headed home. As he passed Wanda on the way out, she cheerfully told him he looked awful. Great. If anyone knew what awful looked like, it was Wanda.
Roy hoped Alison would be home. He needed a friendly face, some companionship, and a little compassion. But the apartment was empty. Collapsing on the couch, exhausted, he glanced around the room. It took him a minute, but something felt wrong. Not only was Alison not home, her things appeared to be gone. When she’d moved in, Alison had brought very little with her. It had struck Roy as odd at the time, but he hadn’t said anything. Now, he slowly began to look around. There was no evidence Alison had ever lived there.
He quickly kicked his search into high gear, pulling drawers open and looking deep into closets. Much to Roy’s dismay, not only was Alison missing, but so was his not inconsequential “cash stash,” his extra credit cards, and some expensive jewelry he never wore. Stunned and angry, Roy knew he’d been played. Alison may have taken her time, but she’d done a good job. He immediately called to cancel the cards, but it was too late. Alison had already been on a shopping spree. Roy had trusted her. Loved her actually—in an odd sort of way. Now all he felt was betrayed.
On the kitchen table, wedged between the salt and pepper shakers, there was a note. Roy wondered why she’d even bothered. Did she have some perverse need to justify her deception? Why not just get the hell out if that was the plan from the beginning? Tempted to toss it, his curiosity wouldn’t let him.
I am truly sorry. I know you don’t believe me, but I am. I never expected to like you as much as I did. I’ve never had a “normal” relationship and I allowed myself to believe that maybe I could. But what I do is too ingrained in me. At the end of the day it’s always about my needs. No one else ever attended to them, so I have to.
I’ve used the open house gambit before, although usually at higher-end properties. Real estate agents—the men, that is—are especially gullible and needy. Usually the sex—when it comes to that—is tolerable at best. You, I enjoyed. I realize that’s not much solace. I intended to make quick work of the grift, as I generally do, but staying at your place agreed with me. It almost seemed like I had a home. And you seemed to enjoy my company.
I actually contemplated telling you the truth, or just leaving and not taking anything. But, unfortunately, that was impossible. Grifting is what I do. It’s who I am. So when I started to become attached, I knew it was time to get on with it. I liked you, Roy. You’re a good guy. You didn’t deserve this. I know I hurt you. That was never my intention.
I was going to take your laptop, but I was afraid some of your work might be on it and not backed up. See, I do have a heart. I’m also sorry that I wasn’t more enthusiastic about your writing this morning. I was already planning my exit and not in the mood to be complimentary. You’re good, Roy. You should keep at it.
Don’t bother with the police; it would just be a waste of time. Besides, you don’t seem like the type. I’ll be long gone by the time you read this. It’s not often when I care, but I did this time. Life plays nasty games with us all.
After reading the note several times, Roy stashed it in a drawer. Someday he might need to remind himself that anyone can be a patsy. Slowly, though, the hurt began to subside. Replaced—strangely enough—by a small sliver of understanding. Roy was all too familiar with getting by the best you knew how. And it wasn’t long before a genuine feeling of sadness at the thought of never seeing Alison again nudged aside his anger at having been deceived. He even allowed himself to be touched that Alison had acknowledged she liked his writing—a small consolation perhaps, but not unappreciated.
It took only a few calls the next morning. The jobs listed on Alison’s rental application were phony—every last one of them. There would be no way to trace her. Roy remembered the apartment Alison claimed was her parents’. He splurged on a cab. A woman’s voice answered the buzzer. In a heavy German accent, she asked what he wanted. He had questions about Alison, he said, having not the slightest idea if the name would mean anything to her. Emma Becker, Alison’s aunt, buzzed him in.
Alison had been staying in her apartment, Emma said, while she was recovering in the hospital from a collapsed lung. She really needed to give up smoking, but found it close to impossible. Short and excruciatingly thin, Emma had white hair pulled back in a bun, bright blue eyes, and a warm, engaging smile. In a surprisingly deep voice, she said she knew Roy probably had a lot of questions, quickly adding that she had no idea where Alison might be. Then she offered him a cup of coffee.
“Thanks. Coffee’s fine, unless you have something stronger?”
Emma smiled and pointed to a threadbare armchair. Roy sat down, as Emma reached into a nearby cabinet for a bottle of cheap scotch.
“This will have to do,” she said. “I haven’t tasted the good stuff in years.”
“Anything’s okay. Thanks.”
“Quite the shock, huh,” Emma said good-naturedly, grabbing two glasses, sitting down, and lighting a cigarette.
She seemed to sense Roy’s surprise.
“Alison confides in me. There aren’t a lot of people in her life, and she knows I don’t judge her. Mind you, I don’t approve, but I almost understand.”
“I liked her. It’s especially tough to be taken in by someone you like.”
“I’m sure it is. But don’t be too hard on yourself. You weren’t the first and you won’t be the last.”
“I still feel like a fool.”
“You shouldn’t. Alison’s good at what she does. Sadly, she’s been doing it for a very long time.”
“Who really knows? Alison’s childhood was chaotic and lonely. Her parents were serious alcoholics. She had to fend for herself much of the time. Her prospects for a normal future were always slim. An older boyfriend introduced her to grifting at a young age. She was a natural.”
“How could I have been so wrong about her? I mean I knew she was troubled. But she could be very sweet. And she was smart, entertaining, and very appealing.”
“She is all of those things, I suppose. A little young for you, though, don’t you think?”
“Hey, she picked me. Not the other way around. I was flattered.”
“You were suckered,” Emma said, smiling. “What name did she use?”
“Alison Meier. At least that’s what she put on her rental application.”
“That was her mother’s maiden name in Germany. Her last name is Becker, same as mine. Are you planning to go to the police?”
“I don’t think so. What’s the point? Get my money back? Not going to happen.”
“It’s a shame, really. Alison’s parents—my brother and his wife—couldn’t be bothered to raise her. It took a heavy emotional toll. She withdrew into herself. I wasn’t even allowed in for a long time. But Alison can be loving and generous when she’s willing to chance it. She’s always been good to me. Grifting just became a compulsion for her, an obsession. A way for her to get back at a world she believed had treated her badly.”
Glancing around the room as Emma spoke, Roy noticed the miniature sculptures again and asked about them.
“Another time, another place.” Emma said wistfully.
“Did you make them?”
“Yes, I made them. But it’s a long story and I’m not in the mood.”
“Understood. They’re quite beautiful, though.”
Emma seemed momentarily lost in her thoughts. Roy let her be as he finished his scotch. Thinking perhaps it was time to get going, he started to get up.
“Don’t leave yet,” she said, lighting another cigarette.
Roy sat back down. Nodding slowly at Emma he said, “I hope you realize I’m very grateful to you for being so forthright. You didn’t have to be.”
“No. I did,” Emma insisted. “Besides, I haven’t had company for a while.” She looked down for a moment, then back at Roy. “I’m a lonely old lady, Roy, and I haven’t lived my life very well.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means I regret many of the choices I made. Unfortunately, there are no do-overs in life.”
Emma would get no argument from Roy. He distrusted people who claimed to have no regrets.
“Care to elaborate? I’m in no rush. I got up to leave because I thought I was overstaying my welcome.”
“Hardly, Roy. I have nothing but time these days. I’m just not up to it. Another time, perhaps.”
Too bad, Roy thought. He doubted there would be another time.
“Okay, then. How about one for the road?”
Emma was happy to oblige. Halfway through her second mid-day scotch, her reticence disappeared. She started to recount stories from her early childhood in Berlin during the war. Emma had vivid recollections of the Allied bombing and her parents’ frantic escape to South America in the summer of 1945. Then, in the autumn of ’46, her family bought their way into the United States, or so she’d been told. But that’s where Emma’s storytelling left off. Memories beyond that point somehow seemed off limits and Roy wasn’t about to push.
The second time Roy got up to leave, Emma didn’t stop him. Besides, staying would have meant another scotch, and Roy had had enough. He thanked Emma again for her honesty. She told him to forget it. She should be thanking him for breaking up the monotony of her day. Roy took out his business card and handed it to Emma.
“You’ve been a big help. Call me if the mood strikes you. Let me return the favor some time.”
“Don’t be silly. Just don’t forget about me. God only knows when I’ll see Alison again.”
On his way down four flights of debris-littered stairs, Roy wondered what Emma had meant by asking him not to forget about her. He felt pretty sure he’d never see her again. Alison was a different story. He knew he’d never see her again, but she’d be hard to forget.
Unable to sleep that night, Roy relived his other failed relationships, silently absolving himself of responsibility for their demise. Now he had another to add to the pile. Tired and depressed by morning, he spent the day at not one, but two exceedingly long and boring real estate closings. The back-to-back events put Roy more on edge than usual. He’d finally made some money, but the commissions were paltry. As he headed to Ken’s office for the meeting Alan had worked so hard to arrange, he thought about grabbing a drink, then decided it was a bad idea.
Ken’s receptionist—bearing no resemblance to Wanda—announced his arrival.
“You can go in now, sir.”
Ken greeted Roy warmly and immediately offered him a drink. Roy smiled, but declined.
“You don’t mind if I do?”
“No, of course not. Usually I’d join you, but I’ll pass for now.”
“Anything else I can get you? Soda? Water?”
“No. I’m fine.” Roy said, friendly but reserved.
“Give me a minute,” Ken said, as he hiked to the other end of his office. “Check out the sights.”
Floor-to-ceiling windows constituted three of Ken’s office walls. Central Park was visible fifty-four stories below. It was a spectacular view. After several minutes, Roy turned to take in the rest of the elaborately decorated office. He watched as Ken poured himself an expensive single malt scotch. He thought about buying a bottle for Emma as a thank-you.
Handsome, fiftyish, and trim, Ken had chiseled features, penetrating brown eyes and a full head of grey hair. Unlike Roy, he appeared relaxed as he walked back across the room. This was Ken’s show.
He motioned for Roy to sit.
“Nice place, if you have to hang around an office all day,” Roy offered.
“I don’t, but thank you.”
Perched on the edge of an expensive Italian leather armchair, Roy’s apprehension showed.
“I know this is your meeting Ken, but I need to ask a favor.”
“Sure. Good ahead.”
“Let’s skip the small talk. I’m much too curious about what I’m doing here to have to wade through polite but unnecessary conversation. Besides, I’m pretty sure you already know a lot about me.”
“I’m sure you know Alan was extraordinarily vague about everything. He mentioned moving out of New York City, the Outer Banks, bungalows, and significant compensation for the ‘right guy.’ But he didn’t connect the dots and he didn’t specify what constituted the ‘right guy.’ He had to do a lot of coaxing just to get me up here. So the sixty-four-thousand dollar question is: Why am I here?”
Ken didn’t hesitate.
“Because I think you can help me, and I know I can help you.”
“Really?” Roy asked, skeptical and sounding it.
“Really, Roy,” Ken said, adopting an excessively serious tone. “Alan knows you pretty well and I’ve been doing business with Alan for years. We’ve made a lot of money together. I trust his judgment implicitly. That’s why you’re here.”
“That’s what Alan said.”
“I know who you are, Roy—and not just from Alan. It’s not unusual for any smart businessperson to research the people with whom he might work. It’s common sense. I’ve been successful in business because I haven’t taken unnecessary chances. There’s risk in any deal without adding to it. I wasn’t about to start working with a total stranger.”
An interesting euphemism, Roy thought. He wasn’t especially happy that Ken had checked into his background, but he wasn’t about to say anything. Instead, he wondered what Ken might know that he wouldn’t be putting on the table.
The investigator’s report had, in fact, contained information that made Ken consider reversing course, but Roy had no way of knowing that. For his part, Alan was certainly aware of Gretchen’s involvement with Roy, but hadn’t known she’d gone on to marry Tommy Thompson with whom Alan was acquainted through his work with Ken. And Ken, having had numerous business dealings with Tommy, knew Gretchen, but was unaware of her earlier relationship with Roy. Learning from the report about the connection between Roy, Gretchen, and Tommy pleased neither Ken nor Alan. Nonetheless, they had decided to proceed, believing it unlikely problems would result from Tommy’s ownership of the land adjacent to The Bungalows. And what Roy didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him, although both Ken and Alan knew it would only be a matter of time before Roy found out should he accept Ken’s offer. Of greater importance, however, would be keeping Tommy in the dark about Roy’s potential involvement.
“So who am I?” Roy asked, slightly indignant.
“Honestly, Roy, someone down on their luck. Someone who could use a break.”
Roy objected to Ken’s patronizing tone, but again chose to remain silent.
“You’ve had an unconventional career to say the least—a lot of impressive jobs, but almost all with relatively short tenures. That’s a bit troubling. Now you’re busting your ass for a third-rate real estate firm—and not liking it much—because you need the money. You’ve never been married, no kids, currently unattached, I believe. But most importantly, Alan assures me you’re not afraid to take chances, and not afraid to bend the rules.”
Roy looked bemused. Pointing at Ken’s drink, he requested one of his own.
“An interesting assessment,” Roy added, as he got up, walked across the room, and gazed out the window.
Ken appeared pleased. He’d gotten Roy’s attention. He knew there weren’t a lot of Roys out there willing to overlook the messier parts of the proposal he was about to present and, equally important, who also possessed an incentive to do so. He wanted to hang on to this Roy.
Handing him his scotch, Ken asked if he could get him anything else.
“Yeah. Some details would be nice.”
“Coming right up,” Ken said, jokingly. “You know, Roy, it doesn’t do either of us any good if only I think you’re the right guy. You need to agree. Hopefully you will.”
Roy wasn’t so sure.
…to be continued…