Miss K started her career in 1998 as a receptionist in AT&T Bell Labs, which had its offices next to Texas Instruments on Wind Tunnel Road in Bangalore. She was good-looking, well-dressed, friendly and spoke good English. She won many admirers in a mostly male-dominated technology company.

There was just one person in her office who seemed to remain immune to her charm. That person happened to be one of the men discussing her exploits on the train (we’ll simply call him Mr A for the remainder of this story).

Mr A had become suspicious of Miss K early on in their interactions. Miss K would consistently compliment Mr A on his intelligence, wit and good looks, even though Mr A was sure he had none of those traits.

Mr A then became actively hostile towards Miss K, even though he was forced to maintain the outward courtesy required of him in a professional set-up. Maintaining the decorum required, he didn’t mention his suspicions about Miss K to anyone else in the company.

In one year, the number of employees in the company grew to over 100 and Miss K became even more popular. She nevertheless had to leave soon, as her contract was about to end and she had chosen not to renew it – to the disappointment of many of her admirers. One evening, at an office party, one of her admirers confessed to Mr A in a drunken state that the disappointment was not just because she was well-liked, it was also because she happened to owe all of them large sums of money.

Her modus operandi for acquiring such large sums of money from so many men in the same office is a masterclass in creating an alternate reality in the minds of her victims. She always complimented men on their intelligence, wit and good looks. She put up a show of enjoying their company in public places.

Then she eventually told them a story about a financial difficulty she faced because of a grave illness that her father (or mother or brother) suffered and how she needed money to get them treated. She even took her victims on a trip to the hospital to show them the relative in distress.

This show always proved to be very convincing and her victims gave her the money she asked for. The amounts she requested ranged from Rs 50,000 to Rs 200,000 (which in 1998 was a much larger sum than it is today). When Mr A investigated further, he was astounded to find out that there had been at least thirty victims in the company. This list included the legal counsel and the managing director.

So far, this story seems to be that of a common scam that’s run by people all over the world. They ask for donations or a loan to get over a horrible situation when no such situation exists in reality. What differentiated Miss K was the fact that she had been able to pull off this scam over a period of months with victims who all knew each other, and not a single one of her victims was ready to make a formal complaint to the cops.

Mr A was convinced that there was more to this story than he currently knew. He confronted a few of his co-workers who had lent money to Miss K and showed them incontrovertible evidence of her foul play. He revealed to them how over thirty people in the office had lent money to her and how her stories didn’t add up. He even told them how each of them had been told about a different relative’s chronic illness. None of this convinced them to lodge a formal complaint. Surprised by this, Mr A decided to approach Miss K himself and confront her.

He stopped Miss K outside the office elevator one day and asked her to return the money that she had borrowed from so many of his co-workers. Her response surprised Mr A. She said that she was not a thief, and she would obviously return the money – if her victims asked for it. After all, she responded, if they didn’t want their money back, why should she bother to return it?

Disappointed and confused, Mr A was about to leave when she made a comment that explained why none of her victims wanted the money back: “You see, Mr A, you think I was ensnaring victims, but in reality, I was recruiting friends. Friends who want to be the hero of their own story. A story in which they are intelligent, charming, good-looking and witty enough to make a woman laugh. I gave them what they wanted, and they gave me what I wanted in return. And now you’ve come into the story and you’re trying to make them a villain, or worse, the village idiot of their own story. By asking them to lodge a complaint against me, you want them to acknowledge that they aren’t the hero. Good luck with that.”

After her departure from AT&T Bell Labs, Miss K went on to work with Aditi Technologies, where she repeated the same play. This time, she was even more successful and netted over fifty new “friends” and close to Rs 30 lakh. Quite an achievement, given that not a single formal complaint has been filed against her anywhere. After that, she used the earnings from her exploits to open a new boutique in Bangalore that sold high-end designer clothing.

Years later, Mr A found out that she was running a boutique and decided to pay her a visit to see how she was doing. By now, he had lost his earlier hostility, which was replaced with a form of grudging admiration for Miss K, who had managed to take so much money from so many people over the years without a single person filing a formal complaint against her.

Miss K informed Mr A that she was doing quite well. Her business was growing and she was thinking of expanding it by opening more stores. Mr A couldn’t resist asking her about her former “friends” and if she had been contacted by any of them over the years. She responded that several of them came to her boutique to buy her exclusive clothing, but no one had come to her asking for their money back.

Mr A was stunned to hear this. It was one thing for them not to ask for their money back due to fear or shame, but it was quite another for them to continue to patronise her store. He asked her why any of them would do such a thing even though she had conned them.

She responded with the same brilliance with which she’d responded to his surprised queries years earlier: “I keep telling you, Mr A, they aren’t victims anywhere but in your head. They are my friends. I gave them purpose and meaning for a short time, and that made them feel different from how they’ve always felt. They loved feeling that emotion and they would never acknowledge that it was all make-believe. They continue to invest in those memories and the nostalgia that it creates, and that is why they come to my boutique. It allows them to relive the make-believe. They have suppressed all the evidence you gave them that pointed to the truth, and in fact are even more invested in the make-believe than ever before. So you lose and I win, again.”

The Art Of Conjuring Alternate Realities

A, HarperCollins India.