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A remarkable grifter

Manish Nandy |

Serge came to see my father with a recommendation from an old college mate in another town. He had found a job with a tea company in our town and needed to quickly locate an affordable place to stay.

We lived in a large third-floor apartment in an old but well-preserved building. An additional room on one side served as a guest room, used by our occasional overseas guests. Evidently father took a shine to Serge, for he brought him along to meet the family.

The reason became clear presently. Father was considering letting him use the guest room, because he could not think readily of an alternative for one thing and, for another, nobody was going to use the room anyway for some months yet. Since a stranger would be living so close to us, father thought mother and I should get to see him first.

Serge was a lean, handsome man, with a dark shock of hair, neatly brushed back, and a light, well-trimmed moustache. He had a soft, well-modulated voice and a winning smile. Mother was usually circumspect and took time to make up her mind about a person, but she broke the rule for Serge. She started asking him what she could do to make his stay comfortable.

Serge graciously replied that the accommodation itself was a great favour and he could not think of anything else to ask for. Instead, he said, he would like to be useful to the family in any way mother could think of.

Serge moved in the next day and within a week became a seamless part of our family. Father simply took him like a person who had always been there, and mother, uncharacteristically, would ask him to do an odd thing or two for her.

The biggest change was in my life. It was a quantum difference to have an older, friendly person right next to me, who could answer all questions, seemingly solve all problems and was ever present to help me or to give me company. He became my ally and model, my admired mentor. Then, I don’t know how, he also became my friend. There was little I couldn’t tell him. There was nothing I didn’t.

In summer our family went for our annual vacation in another town for a month. It was a time for relaxation and outings. This year, however, it was cut short after just three weeks by an urgent call from the police. We returned to a house that – not only had a cop outside and a detective inside – was topsy-turvy in every room.

Someone had systematically searched every nook and cranny for anything of value. Everything valuable was gone. The small box in which mother kept her jewelry was on the floor, broken and empty.

Then Dubey, the wiry, tight-lipped detective, took my parents aside for a detailed discussion. I could overhear his repeated questions about who could be suspected and who could have accessed the key. I heard father say that he had no suspect among the neighbours and, though he had left a duplicate key with Serge, he was above suspicion as a virtual member of the family.

It was a dismal time for us all, and Serge turned very gloomy and taciturn. I did not know whether it was in sympathy for us or a result of the hour-long interview Dubey had with him. I was sad that he hardly talked with me – or with anybody else for that matter.

The climax came on the fourth day. The evening before Serge had gone out shortly after dinner, saying he was going for a walk, and had not returned. Dubey arrived midday with his Inspector and two other cops. Bluntly he told father and mother that they were fools to trust Serge, whom they had now come to arrest.

Dubey had had the broken house lock checked by a specialist who had concluded that it wasn’t broken at all; it had been opened normally with a key and then deliberately mutilated to give the impression that a burglar had broken it. Dubey had checked all the references given by Serge, and found them false; he had never worked for a tea company.

Dubey’s men had tracked down two of Serge’s past employers who had both sacked him, one for defalcation of funds. Serge was, Dubey said, just a grifter, a con artist who preyed on gullible people like my parents.

But Serge was nowhere to be found. He was never caught, arrested or prosecuted. Probably he pursued his artistry in another town under a different name.

The detective’s attribution of gullibility rang in my ears for many days, if only because it was so misdirected. Surely the most gullible was a young boy who had loved and trusted Serge and put his heart in a friendship that was just a mirage.

A conman leaves some detritus.

The writer is a Washington-based international development advisor and had worked with the World Bank. He can be reached at [email protected]