“What’s the matter, mate?” said the man who came to sit next to me on the bench on the seafront at Brighton. Seagulls were swooping and diving and screaming above us, my headache was getting worse, and I was on the point of wondering whether to go to Beachy Head along the coast, climb to the top and dive to my death.
“Cheer up, it might never happen,” he went on.
“It already has. You won’t believe the mess I’ve got myself into.” I confessed to him. He seemed like a pleasant character, about mid-thirties, my own age, with a friendly smile on a boyish, open face.
“A problem shared is a problem halved,” he went on.
“When my girlfriend finds out what I’ve done, it won’t be a problem, it’ll be World War Three,” I told him. “You see, she has a house along the road there,” I said, pointing. “I’ve been living there this week, looking after it for her while she’s away, working abroad. I told her I was going back to my flat in London on Friday night, but at the last minute I decided to stay the weekend without telling her. Since she’s not coming home till Monday, what’s the harm, I thought?” I closed my eyes, shaking my head, trying to dislodge my misery. “If only I had done.”
“Last night I decided to go out on my own, go to a few pubs and clubs. Take in the Brighton scene. Just to relax and enjoy myself on my own.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing, only I met this wonderful girl, Jane. We got talking, I’d had a few drinks, and before I knew it I had invited her back to my house—or rather my girlfriend’s house. I’m not really a two-timing bastard, honestly. Between you and me, Sam and I have been going through a bad patch, not long ago we’d decided to break up. We argue all the time nowadays. This house-sitting was a case in point—I didn’t want to come all the way down here and travel up to London and back every day for my work, but she wanted her plants watered and her fish fed, so muggins here agrees reluctantly. And when she told me I could go home on Friday, I thought, why shouldn’t I stay a couple more days if I want to? Have a chance to look around Brighton, instead of just rushing to and from the station like I did all this week.”
“And presumably Sam wouldn’t approve of you taking a girl back to her house?”
“Are you joking? I’ve only got to smile at a girl, and Sam is shouting and swearing at me. If she knew that I’d spent a night of passion with another woman in her bed. . .” I paused, covering my face with a hand. “But that’s not the worst of it. I sort of hinted to this girl that the house belonged to my mate, Sam—kind of gave the impression that my friend was a man.”
“And I don’t know what happened after we made love. I guess I was more drunk than I realised and very tired. At some stage I must have passed out. Next thing I knew I was waking up in bed. Alone.”
“At first I was really upset because she hadn’t left a mobile number or even a note, and I really wanted to see her again. Because to me, it wasn’t just a one-night stand, I really liked her. Then, when I opened the bedroom door, I found out why she’d gone without a word. We’d been burgled. Nothing taken from the bedroom, where I was asleep, but everywhere else there was chaos! Upended furniture, drawers tipped out all over the floor, they’d even peed on the shag-pile carpet! And the laptops, the spare phone, the microwave, the telly, the hi-fi, even some of the furniture had gone. Everything of value had been nicked and the house had been wrecked.”
“And you slept right thought it?”
I nodded. “I was out for the count. So now, not only will I have to confess to Samantha that I took a girl back to her house and had sex with her, but that same girl phoned some scummy friends and they robbed her blind! What am I going to do?”
“Have you told her yet?”
“No, I daren’t. She has quite a temper, and she’d come back on the first plane and smash my face in! Oh God. I’ve been wanting to end our relationship for some time, but I didn’t think it would end like this. Last time I had a row with her, she broke two of my ribs. She does that karate, unarmed combat stuff.”
“Have you been to the police yet?”
“On my way now. I’d better do it right away because she’ll need to claim on the insurance.”
At the police station I spoke to the man at the desk, and he filled in forms for me to sign, telling me not to touch anything, and that one of their officers would be calling round later on, and saying that they would contact the householder to let her know what had happened.
Later that morning, a male and a female police officer came round. When I looked at the woman, I did a double-take.
“Hello Toby,” she said, smiling as they came into the house, the same house she’d been in only a few hours ago. I remembered that while we’d discussed just about everything else, we’d never talked about our jobs.
“We’ve got some good news for you,” Jane went on cheerfully. “You’ll be glad to know we’ve recovered all your friend’s stolen items.”
“That’s marvellous!” I said, still stunned. “How on earth?”
“After you fell asleep, you looked so tired, that I didn’t like to wake you. But as I was leaving, just as I was about to leave a note with my mobile number, I heard a noise. I hid, because when I saw the intruder I recognised him as one of our local faces.”
“Criminals. Robbers to be precise.”
“Yes,” continued her colleague. “Archie Andrews specialises in ‘insurance jobs’. That is, he arranges with a householder to rob them, so that they can make an inflated insurance claim, getting back much more money than they ‘lost’, claiming all kinds of things missing that were never there in the first place. Lots of people operate this kind of scam, and it’s very hard to prove.”
“Unless you’re able to take a video of what they’re actually taking, like I did, and let them drive away, thinking they got away with it,” Jane said, smiling. “I realised you couldn’t be in on it, because the householder always makes sure they’re a long way away when it happens. And just to make sure, one of our guys followed you out of the house this morning, in case you were going to meet Archie, to secretly take back the goods—as sometimes happens too. His conversation with you confirmed our suspicions that you were just a pawn in the game.”
“A pawn?” I asked, still trying to make sense of it all.
“When we arrested Archie he confessed that it was a set-up and he’d arranged it all with this lady, Samantha Fortescue, whom he claimed he was in a serious relationship with. She’d made dubious insurance claims in the past, and he explained that getting ‘some daft mug’ to house-sit for the week was a ruse to make the insurance company think she’d done her best to keep the place burglar-proof.”
I was lost for words.
“I really enjoyed meeting you last night, Toby,” Jane said to me quietly, as her colleague was occupied with some papers. “Why don’t we do it again sometime?”