It was a dark and chilly night, and the Italian and I were on our way home. The wind was whipping gently round the lampposts, blowing up sweet wrappers and the occasional calling card; even busty Stacy seemed to be shivering in her cardboard prison. It was no night to be charitable – if the man who stopped us had not been so small and grey I would have walked on immediately, consumed by my own need for tea and warmth.
He had the face of someone bludgeoned by life. A disappointed nose sat over a drooping mouth, the lips imperfectly drawn so that they were very slightly wider at one end; his pale blue eyes looked up in full expectation of rejection. "I'm sorry to bother you," he set out, "I wouldn't usually ask..." The Italian snorted impatiently and started to move off. "I was mugged!" he insisted. "They hurt my wrist – look!" and he proffered it, flapping uselessly. He continued in a rush: "They took all my money. I told the police, they said I was a big boy. I've walked all the way from Bayswater, and people keep on telling me not to play on their emotions. I don't live in London – it's 20 miles to get home."
"Why don't you call someone then? Puttana, Alice, let's go." The Italian is always rather sceptical.
"They took my phone. I don't know anyone's number."
"Then get a cab."
"I live on my own – I don't keep cash in the house." He sagged a little. "Look, I don't want you to give me any money. Can you lend me £12.50? Please? I work for the Samaritans – call them! They'll tell you who I am."
I reached into my wallet and handed over twenty quid. A pretty small risk, financially speaking.
"That's so kind, thank you, thank you so much. Now you must take my number so I can pay you back. It's very important that I pay you back..."
As he walked off into the night at a measured, honest pace, I really believed I had done a good deed. Unlucky Anthony Marks would get home tonight and my halo would gleam a little more brightly. I need hardly tell you that when I rang him the next day, a tinny pseudo-female voice regretted to inform me that this number did not exist.
Of course, I've given money to a beggar before only to see him vanish into the pub – and I've thought... ah, what the hell? There are enough occasions when I reach the end of a day in desperate need of gin; and I've always had a warm(ish) bed to go home to. But in a funny way, this one felt rather special. Used to being mindlessly ripped off by the computer which controls our bank accounts, or the high street chain which charges seventy pounds for a dress costing the manufacturer a fiver and made by a small child making less than that in a week, someone actually dedicated ten minutes of his day to embezzling from me personally.
From Cervantes' Novelas Ejemplares onwards, the conman has been a staple in the writer's armoury. One of my favourite lines from P.G. Wodehouse is said by Uncle Fred, the Earl of Ickenham, trying out his own skills: "Give me your wallet, to show that you trust me." Herman Melville, Dickens and even Graham Greene allude to this stock character, his crimes ranging from the roadside hustle to elaborate plans to rob old ladies of their pension funds. The conman's incarnations range from raggedy teenage thieves, who use the classic distraction tactic, to suave, suited charmers. In the last few years, however, he has popped up chiefly in science-fiction novels and on reality television, both sure indicators of a dying breed. (And thanks to Gordon Brown, stealing pension funds comes under the heading of respectable legal practices, so the fun has gone out of it for the enterprising criminal.)
For most of us, it is difficult to find a pure con-artist of yore. They are far beneath the public radar, preying on the vulnerable, scamming refugees out of the money they had saved to buy an illegal passport, or sitting pretty in the higher echelons of private companies, creaming profits to buy fast cars and expensive houses. In either case, their success has little to do with their presence or charm; they are simply nasty people in the right place at the right time.
Compare that to The Sting, in which Johnny Hooker undertakes intensive training under two different masters. He learns not just the variants of the sting but the etiquette – how to dress, how to walk, what to say, how to say it... By the time Paul Newman in the guise of Henry Gondorff gave his masterclass in cheating at poker, the actors had effectively destroyed the chances of a generation of potential hustlers. Not only did they tip us off to the most important working methods, they also raised the stakes aesthetically. Who else could be that good looking and gaze at you as masterfully whilst ripping you off? Over thirty years on, they are still unrivalled in that arena.
And this is why I fell so easily for the dubious wiles of "Anthony Marks". Admiring the trade but warned by Robert Redford, I would never stop and talk to a handsome man who asked for money. No amount of pheromones and charming pleas could sway me. The good old-fashioned sob story, however, is another matter. There is always the possibility that this one could be genuine, that by ignoring a man's plea for help a tragedy might ensue. Here, the stakes are too high. So if you look pathetic and you have an inventive imagination, you should try me one cold night. If I haven't heard it before, you might be good for a tenner...