52nd Anniversary Writing & Photography Contest – Honorable Mention
She was a natural, so natural I didn’t know I was being conned
by Raymond Dussault
We set a lunch date to finalize our separation. I made a promise to be civil. It had been six weeks since she moved out.
Dani and I had been married three years. We dated for a couple of years before the big day. We never fought. Not until the end anyway. Then we fought about one thing – our work. She wanted to abandon the career I had built over a decade. A business that had given us everything. Our Strand condominium, the matching Teslas.
It was work she loved at first. It cast us in the roles of Bonnie and Clyde, lovers and co-conspirators.
“I’m not spending the rest of my life selling insurance,” I said.
I couldn’t imagine a life of endless sales meetings and failed expectations. Self-employment fit me well. I had hoped we’d be working together, building something, charming strangers out of their money until death do us part. Now we were meeting in a coffee shop like strangers. A place walking distance from our condominium. What they used to call a greasy spoon.
It was sunny but cold. In 15 years of Southern California, I had never been so cold for so long. I was wearing a heavy fleece, but the wind sliced through it as I walked towards the restaurant.
The restaurant was warm. I chose a table near the window where we always sat.
Each time the door opened a chime would ring. I kept looking up. I looked out the long wall of windows and watched for her. Joggers, cyclists, surfers and volleyballers passed the windows. I didn’t know where she had been living or what direction she would be coming from. Then there she was. I noticed her right before she opened the door. I watched her turn and scan the nearly empty restaurant. I realized I was holding my breath.
Dani is slight and pretty. A bit over five feet, blonde hair, a buck and change in weight. She had pale blue eyes that reminded me of water. She sat down, reached out and touched my hand. I could feel the electricity between us. I wanted to kiss her. I took her hand and laced our fingers together.
“We don’t have to do this,” I said.
The chime rang. Two beefy guys walked in through the Strand door. They stood out in sport coats and slacks. For some reason they picked the table nearest to ours. It broke the mood and Dani pulled her hand away.
“Remember Sam?” she asked.
Sam was pushing 50, overweight, with a wife and kids. He pulled an unremarkable salary from the branch of a national bank. He lived well off the beach, where an average guy could still buy a house. For several months, I made a point of making big cash deposits when he was working. Dani tracked him when he left the bank and, before long, we knew his routine. He rarely went straight home, stopping at the bar at least a few evenings every week.
The night we posted up there, I had a stack of fake paperwork that looked like a prospectus and a balance sheet. Dani and I ordered ice cold Bombay gin martinis. The same drink we knew Sam would order as soon as he sat down.
When Sam came in, Dani put her hand palm down on the balance sheet I laid on the bar.
“Oh, my God! Is this real? You told me but I don’t think I…” she said.
The condensation from our martinis had wet the paper. Dani half turned Sam’s way as he slid on to the bar stool next to her. She waved the paper in the air to dry it. Then she laughed. It was her real laugh, loud and infectious.
“I love this man!” she said, meaning me. “He’s changed my life!”
Sam smiled and started to speak but Dani barreled over him.
“Celebrate with us! Do you want a martini? I love gin.”
“That’s my drink!” Sam said.
When the drinks hit the bar, two olives each, the way Sam ordered his, Dani pulled the olives from her glass, wrapped her lips around the first olive and sucked it off. She giggled. Sam swallowed, taking the bait.
“Are you two getting married?” Sam asked.
“Hell no,” Dani answered. She turned to me. “Not that you’re not a fine catch, Josh.”
She smiled and I shivered. Watching her work rattled me. She settled into any role, knew the right touch, the right word.
“I’m never getting married. Josh made it so I won’t have to.”
“I work with select investors. We’ve had a bit of luck with Dani here.”
It was the same thing I told Dani the night I met her.
It was mid-summer. I was in a bar that hangs over the plaza. It was a Saturday afternoon and sun streamed into the open-air space. It was busy and I was leaning against the bar, sipping from a goblet of lager. Dani angled her way to the bar and ordered a margarita. I offered to buy us shots and ordered an expensive tequila.
She said she was from Northern California, a beach newbie with under a year. The shots came, we took them and she was gone, swirling into her group of friends. It was several weeks before I saw her again.
She was sitting at the bar with a guy. I assumed it was a date and turned to leave but she spotted me.
I ordered drinks. An hour later we had dinner plans. Dinner slid into late nights, late nights into beds, breakfast mimosas and liquid lunches. I feared the inevitable questions. She wondered why I had money and free time.
At first, I made it a game. I’d get her to run harmless scams in bars. We made up stories to tell people we met.
“Let’s pretend we’re tourists. Three kids at home. Hate to go back,” I said. She loved it.
I taught her accents and ways to change her looks. I’d challenge her to see how far we could push a story. I guess I was grooming her. Getting her ready for the moment she found out what I really did. She found she had a flair for drama.
That flair helped with Sam. She kept him on the hook by flirting and I hinted that Dani had expensive tastes.
I know this all sounds terrible but neither of us knew the money wasn’t Sam’s. Turns out, every dime he invested was from the bank. The first check was 50K, the second doubled that and by the time he got caught he had turned over more than a million dollars.
Then I came home from the gym and Dani was on the couch crying. She wiped her eyes with a napkin. Sam’s arrest was on a news channel. The news people turned their cameras to his children. Two boys around 10. They were crying too, as their father was led to a police car with his wrists behind his back. Dani couldn’t look away. I sat on the couch and tried to hold her. She got up, went to our room and shut the door. I turned the television off.
Day by day, she seemed to forget what we had done. I avoided talking about work. I’d run small scams on my own, just to keep my mind sharp, but nothing large and nothing with Dani. I took her to visit family.
When we came back the weather was wonderful. Dani took a skate down The Strand. Somewhere she saw a newspaper. In the two weeks we were gone, Sam had hung himself in his garage. She came in the door with tears streaming down her face.
That night we fought. I tried to explain that the con was all I knew. I gestured to the nice furniture in our condo, to the view through our picture window. A full moon was rising over the Pacific Ocean. A few days later I came home to a note and empty drawers.
Now, sitting here in the diner across from her, I could see the tears ready to spill. I didn’t want to lose her. My life would never be so rich again. I put my hand over hers.
“I’ll quit,” I said. “We can quit. Right now. It’s all behind us. I’ll find something to do.”
She pulled her hand free and used her fingertips to wipe the dampness from her eyes.
“I’ve got to go, Josh.”
She stood up suddenly, turned her back and walked away. I stood to stop her. The two men in sport coats stood up from the table next to us. I looked at them and then at Dani as the restaurant door closed behind her.
It was then I noticed patrol cars sliding up on both sides of the diner. ER