Manolo called it the Everybody Laughs Scam, but as I approached the couple on the bench I found that prospect hard to imagine. The woman looked teary-eyed and the man had the strap of his camera bag wrapped three times around his fist.
“Excuse me,” I said. “Do you speak English?”
“Uh-huh,” said the man. He sounded American.
“Sorry. I don’t want to interrupt. I just—I got robbed here a couple of days ago and, well—did you just get robbed?”
The woman nodded. She was wringing her thin hands. “They took my purse.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” I said. I felt like a bad actress reading from a script. There was no way this was going to work.
Her husband was staring at me, angry and suspicious. A few minutes ago someone invisible had taken his wife’s bag and there was never going to be an opportunity for him to punch that person in the face.
“This neighbourhood is really bad for thieves,” I said. “They got my wallet. All my money. My credit cards, my license. Everything. I felt so stupid.”
“Did you go to the police?” asked the woman. I could tell she was hoping there was still some way to reverse her misfortune. Knowing what was in her purse, I could understand why.
“I did go to the police,” I said. “But it’s hard. They don’t really speak English and I don’t think they care. They basically just told me I should go look in the garbage cans.”
The woman nodded at the ground and the man sighed. “Her pills were in there,” he said. “Now we have to go to a doctor, get a new prescription. Everything is closed.”
“Yeah, it’s siesta time,” I said. In Barcelona, some shops were almost always closed. The woman wiped away a tear that had escaped, smudging her mascara into her sunscreen. “We just wanted to go to the Gaudí buildings. Take some pictures.”
nodded. One minute you had plans for the future, the next minute you had only the present. “You know, I don’t know if I should tell you this, but I actually got my wallet back.”
The woman’s eyes widened. Her hope passed through me like a bayonet and I had to hold myself steady.
“How?” she asked.
I took a quick glance over my shoulder. “There’s this guy who works at the reception desk at my hostel. He’s really nice—we actually went out dancing the other night—and anyway, when I told him my wallet had been stolen, he said he’d call this guy, some guy who knows all the thieves in the neighbourhood, and he might be able to get it back for me. Not with the money—obviously—but with everything else. And he did. Look, he got it back!” I flashed them the last wallet Manolo and I had stolen. “Anyway, I don’t know if he’d be willing to do it again but this is pretty much the exact same spot where I got robbed.”
The man was still looking suspicious and I could feel a flush intensifying on my face, spreading toward my ears. Don’t give them time to think, that’s what Manolo had said. “Anyway, I’ve got to head back to the hostel now. I just thought I’d mention it. It’s the Black Cat, if you ever want to go and try to talk to the guy at the desk.”
“Wait,” said the woman. “Are you going there now?”
“Yeah,” I said. “A friend of mine’s waiting for me. I should really go.”
She looked at her husband. He was puzzling something out. “Where are you from?” he asked.
“Canada,” I said.
“Oh!” said the woman, turning her whole body to face me. “Would you mind if we came with you to the hostel?”
“Linda,” her husband said. “I think we should just forget it.”
“No,” she said. “I don’t want to forget it. Do you think we could talk to the desk clerk?”
“If you want,” I said. “I’m not sure if he’ll do it for you. And if he does, you’ll have to give him a little money. It’s not for him. But he has to pay the other guy. The guy who goes to talk to the pickpockets.”
The man shot his wife a look but she ignored it. “How much?” she asked.
“Not much,” I said. “I think it was twenty. For me, it was totally worth it.” I flashed the stolen wallet again. “My life is in here.”
I waited while they gathered their things and then the three of us walked in the direction of the hostel. When we came around the corner, Manolo was standing outside, smoking a cigarette. His costume was a wristwatch he’d bought at the dollar store. He thought it made him look more professional, like he actually had a job.
“Hey, that’s him,” I said. I waved. “He doesn’t speak much English. ¡Hola! ¿Qué tal?” I kissed him on both cheeks, taking a second’s comfort from the familiar smell of his sun-warmed skin. “Estos turistas son víctimas de un robo.” I turned back to the couple. “I’m just telling him that you were robbed.”
“Sorry. I know you told me not to tell anybody. But I just felt really bad for them. You know, super malo. Ella necesita sus medicinas. Her pills. ¿Entiendes?”
He looked backwards through the glass doors and up the stairs to where the hostel reception was, then back toward the couple. “¿Qué perdieron?”
“A purse,” I said. I was glad he’d remembered to ask that. When we’d been practising the night before, we’d both kept forgetting to ask what had been stolen.
“Yes,” said the woman, speaking slowly, “It was my purse.” Her earnestness and desperation were blinding. I had to look away.
“It was blue,” she said. “About this big. With a zippy part on the front.”
“Azul,” I told him. “Con un bolsillo.”
He nodded. “Los veo en una hora. Esperen en la terraza. Nada de policias. No entren al hostal.” He looked at his wristwatch.
“He says he needs an hour. You should wait on the terrace of the restaurant around the corner. He says don’t go into the hostel. He’ll get in trouble. And no police.” I turned back to Manolo. “You’ll bring it to them, right? ¿Vas a traerla?”
He nodded. “Dame el dinero. Veinte.”
“Okay. You just have to give him the twenty euros.”
“Now?” asked the man. He looked like his head was going to blow up.
“Yes, he needs to give it to the guy.”
“And what happens if they can’t find it? Do we get our money back?”
“Mmm … I’m not sure. ¿Qué pasa si no la encuentras?” I asked Manolo.
“Nada,” he said, shaking his head.
“You just have to keep your fingers crossed,” I told the couple.
The man expelled a snort of disgust and opened his wallet. He took out twenty euros, folded it and passed it to Manolo with a menacing look. Manolo walked into the building and I took the couple around the corner, pointed to the restaurant terrace. “I really hope it works out for you,” I said.
“Thank you,” said the woman. “Thank you so much.”
I walked back to the hostel and up to the second floor where Manolo was waiting for me on the landing. My legs were shaking. I couldn’t believe it had actually worked. We looked at each other for several seconds. Then Manolo started laughing, covering his mouth with his hand as if he didn’t want me to see his teeth. I’d never seen him laugh before and he looked pretty funny. The next thing I knew I was laughing too—I couldn’t stop it from happening. It had been so long, it almost hurt. Manolo held a finger up to his lips. He was trying to be quiet, his eyes glistening with the effort. Then the laughter in me rolled over and there were tears underneath. I turned away from him and placed my hands on the wall, pulling in long deep breaths of humid hallway air. The purse woman was lucky. Most of us didn’t get a second chance to touch the things we’d lost.
Manolo tapped my shoulder and I wiped my eyes and turned. He winked at me, handing me the twenty euro bill. I folded it and slipped it into my pocket, along with the other forty we’d already taken from her wallet. Then we sat down on the stairs to wait. The blue purse was hidden behind a potted plant in the corner. I was sorry that I wasn’t going to see the woman’s face when Manolo gave it back to her, to see if everyone really would laugh, just like Manolo had promised.
Becky Blake is a Toronto-based writer who has worked as a journalist, script consultant, advice columnist, and playwright. She won The CBC Short Story Prize in 2013. Her short stories and articles have appeared in publications such as Kiss Machine, Front&Centre, NOW, and DailyXY.