The door pulled tight against its chain and a pair of dull, grey eyes peered out through the gap, squinting as they became accustomed to the bright sunlight. “Yes,” said the tiny voice from within – a reedy uncertainty evident in its tone. “Can I help you?”
Derek Fox smiled. His hair was tousled and his faced was smudged with dirt. He wore overalls bearing the name of a national house-building company. He was very polite; so unusual these days. “Sorry to bother you love,” he said, “But I’m working across the road at number seven and I couldn’t help but notice that you’ve got a couple of slates loose.”
“You’re not the first person to suggest that.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t realise that you already knew.”
“Joke,” she said. “It was a joke. Not a funny joke, but a joke.”
“You said that I had a couple of slates loose…”
The light of understanding dawned in his eyes. “Oh, of course,” he said. “A couple of slates loose. You had me going there.” He smiled. “Do you want to have a look?”
“Your loose tiles. Do you want to see them?”
“Oh, yes. Just a minute.” She closed the door while he stood uneasily on the step. He shuffled his feet and glanced uncertainly over his shoulder. He decided to give it to the count of five and then run. You couldn’t be too careful these days…
He was just about to bail when the door opened and the old lady appeared, pulling on her coat. Derek turned to walk back towards the gate when he felt her hand on his arm. “A little bit unsteady on my feet,” she said. “You don’t mind do you.”
He smiled. “Here, let me show you these tiles, Mrs?…” he said, patting her hand as they walked.
“Alice,” she said. “My name is Alice.” Together they walked along the path, through the gate and onto the street.
“There, look.” He pointed up to some uneven tiles on the roof. This was one of Derek’s favourite scams, and it was always so easy, particularly when there really were a couple of dodgy tiles to point out.
“Oh dear, whatever should I do?” she asked.
“It’s cold out here,” he said. “I’ll tell you what. Let’s go inside where it’s warm, you make me a cup of tea and we’ll see what we can do.” She nodded agreement and turned to walk back towards the house with Derek by her side. “So easy,” he thought.
Inside the house Alice led him into a dark room. The curtains were partly drawn and the ceiling pendant had no bulb in it. As his eyes became accustomed to the gloom, Derek began to discern the nature of the furniture that surrounded him. It was all of dark wood. The dresser was tatty: one door hung from its hinges and a drawer front was missing. The settee and armchair did not match, other than they were both equally threadbare. There was no television, no radio and no coal in the fireplace. It was cold.
Alice indicated the armchair. “Sit down,” she said. “I’ll make some tea.” She left the room and Derek could hear the tap running as she filled the kettle. Keeping one ear on her incessant conversation and the other on the bang and clatter of tea-making, Derek began to rifle through the dresser drawers, finding nothing but rubbish: cheap mementoes, old photographs and contorted cutlery. No money, but that wasn’t unusual; old ladies often employed much more singular hiding places for their cash. He would have to use his usual methods of extracting it.
He was seated, hands on knees, when Alice entered with the tea. She placed the tray at his feet. The metal teapot was badly stained, the two cups were chipped and did not match. The sugar was in a dog-eared bag. “I’m sorry,” she said. “But the milk’s gone off. I hope you don’t mind.” She poured the tea and handed a cup to Derek. “Sugar?” she asked.
“No thanks love,” he said. “Got to watch my weight you know. Doesn’t do to be too heavy when you’re crawling about on roofs.” She smiled and he pressed home his advantage. “So, what are we going to do about your roof?”
“Thing is,” she said. “I don’t have any money.” He almost stood to leave then, before she continued. “At least, not in the house. I’ve got a few bob in the Post Office, but I’ll have to go and get it out. How much is it going to cost?”
“Well, I’ll fit it in with my other work, so I can do it a lot cheaper than usual. Let’s say five hundred quid shall we?”
“Five hundred pounds! That sounds an awful lot for a couple of slates. Perhaps I ought to get another quote…”
“Tell you what. I’m already doing a job over the road, I’ll fit you in on their time. What about if I say four hundred pounds? It’d normally be a grand.” Alice breathed deeply and nodded. “O.K.”
Derek smiled smugly. It always worked. Now for the final coup de grace. “Thing is, because I’m doing the job so cheaply, what I need to do is buy the materials for cash. I can’t afford to pay the interest if I put it on my account, see. So, I’m afraid I’ll need you to pay up front. If you like, I can save you a bit of trouble. Just give me your Post Office book and I’ll go and get the money while you put your feet up. Then I can go straight round to the builder’s merchants and get things moving. What do you say?”
Alice looked doubtful. “Well,” said Derek, skilfully feigning hurt. “If you don’t trust me…” He put his cup down and rose to leave.
“No wait…” said Alice. She lifted a small vase and retrieved the bank book from beneath it. “There,” she said.
He took it and headed for the door. “I’ll bring the book straight back,” he said. “As soon as I’ve ordered the stuff.”
She took his arm. “You’re a good lad,” she said and, for a moment, he almost felt guilty. But only for a moment, and it soon passed. They walked to the door. Alice, somewhat unsteady, held on to Derek. He put his arm around her shoulder. “Lock the door when I’ve gone,” he said. “Go and have a nap. And don’t forget to put the chain on.”
She closed the door behind him and he turned to leave, carefully placing the bank book into his inside pocket. This would be the last time he could pull this one around here, she was the sixth today and he didn’t want to outstay his welcome. He drove his van away from the redbrick cul-de-sac and across the dual carriageway before stopping to open the savings book and check out what she had. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. The account had been closed for years. The stupid old trout! He put the book back in his pocket. He’d give her what for… It was then that he realised that his wallet was missing. At first he thought she must have… No, that just wasn’t possible. It must have fallen from his pocket while he was helping her to the door. She’d be keeping it safe until he went back with her bank book. Of course.
He knocked on the door until his knuckles ached. He looked through the letterbox and the windows. Not a sign. She must have gone out. He hoped the silly old bat hadn’t dropped down dead.
The woman next-door opened her door just an inch. Derek used his best smile. “I’m sorry to bother you,” he said. “But I’m a bit worried about the lady next door at number five.”
She looked him over. “Me too,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, the house has been empty for six months now, no sign of anybody even slightly interested in it, and then this morning the old lady came along and asked if she could have the keys for half an hour, said she used to live there as a child. Well I saw no harm, there’s nothing in there anyway. But, well to tell the truth, I saw you going in a little bit later and I thought, you know, that’s a bit funny. Then you left and she followed just a few seconds behind you and made no effort to bring the keys back, jumped straight into her car and shot off, so that’s when I called the police. Have you met detective constable Hargreaves?”