|Publisher:||Grand Central Publishing|
|Product dimensions:||4.18(w) x 6.75(h) x (d)|
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Con EdA Novel
By Matthew Klein
WARNER BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Matthew Klein, LLC
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIt's the world's most simple con, and any idiot can do it, even the one sitting next to me.
He's twenty-five years old, dressed in khakis and a pinpoint Oxford shirt. He has soft hands and wears glasses. I'm guessing a dot-commer, college-educated. Probably he read about this con in a book, or maybe on the Internet, so he wants to try it out. A story to tell his friends. Here in the Blowfish he has found the perfect place to give it a whirl: a friendly bar without obvious thugs who might break his fingers, but far enough from home that he'll never have to walk past the door again.
So here he goes. He's sitting at the bar, one stool over from me. He's talking to the guy on the other side of him, a beefy fellow in a badly fitting suit. The beefy guy has one solid eyebrow across his forehead and a big signet ring on his pinkie. I'm guessing that he has stamped that signet into the cheeks of one or two men that have tried to fuck with him. Maybe the Dot Com Kid doesn't have such good instincts after all.
Dot Com says to Monobrow, "You know what? I'm feeling lucky. You want to play a friendly game?"
Monobrow is holding a glass of JD near his mouth. His hand is so big that it wraps entirely around the glass and makes it seem like a trifle. He chews on an ice cube and looks at the kid. He measures him in about a second. "All right," he says.
Dot Com says, "It's called the Pot Game. We each put some money in a pot. Say, I dunno, twenty bucks." He takes a twenty from his pocket and drops it on the bar. "Then we both bet on the pot."
Monobrow thinks about it. He takes a money clip out of his jacket. A fat wad of cash. That's another bad sign. No one carries that much cash unless he's in a certain line of work. Work where checking accounts are frowned upon. Now I'm thinking that I ought to break in, stop the kid before he gets hurt. But before I can act, the big man peels a twenty off his roll and drops it on the bar. "I'm in," he says.
"Okay," the kid says. His face is a mixture of fear-will he be found out?-and excitement-that he's actually trying the con. He has probably thought about doing this for weeks, maybe months. What a great story he'll be able to tell his other dot-com friends. "It's simple. Each player gets to bid on the pot. Whoever bids the highest wins the pot. Got it?"
"Yeah, okay," the big guy says. From the look on his face, math was never his strong suit. But the rules are simple, and the kid doesn't seem very threatening ...
The Dot Com Kid says, "All right. There are forty dollars in the pot. So I guess I'll start off the bidding by offering to buy the pot for twenty bucks."
Monobrow thinks about it. The pot's worth forty dollars. The kid's willing to pay twenty for it. Still room for a profit. Monobrow spits his ice cube into his glass of JD, rattles it around like a craps die. "Yeah?" the man says. "I'll give you twenty-five dollars for it."
This is where the kid should stop. He should wave his hand magnanimously, take twenty-five dollars from Monobrow's hand, slide him the pot, and then he should walk the fuck out of the bar with a five-dollar profit, and fast, before Monobrow warms up his synapses. But the kid's greedy. Not for money-he probably has more than enough of that, maybe millions of dollars of stock options in some company that sells something useless on the Internet. No, the kid wants a better story. He's already envisioning it: getting together with his friends tonight, at a SoMa bar, and telling them how he took this blue-collar guy-those are the words he'll use, blue-collar guy-for a wad of cash-enough to pay for a round of drinks, and so-hey?-why don't I treat tonight, gang?
So Dot Com says, "You're bidding twenty-five, huh?" He makes a show of rubbing his chin, thinking about it. "You're a tough one, mister. All right, I'll offer twenty-eight dollars."
Monobrow chuckles. He's already worked out the math, so he doesn't even need to think. Any bid under forty dollars means a profit. "Thirty bucks," he says to the kid.
The kid pretends to flinch. He sucks in his breath, as if he just ate something spicy. The kid says, "Ooh. Too rich for my blood. You win. I'll take your bid. You win the pot." He holds out his palm. Monobrow peels a twenty and a ten off his personal roll and hands it to the kid. The kid pockets it and graciously waves his hand over the forty-dollar pot. He says, "The forty dollars is yours."
Monobrow takes the pot, adds it to his roll. Did you catch what happened here? Monobrow put in twenty dollars in order to play the game. Then he paid the kid thirty dollars to "win" the pot. So in total, he paid out fifty dollars, in order to win a forty-dollar pot. The kid took him for ten bucks in two minutes. This is the old Change Game. There are a hundred variations on it.
Now, though, Dot Com Kid is making a big mistake. He's hanging around the bar. The first rule of cons is: Never let the victim know he's been had. The second rule is: If you break the first rule, then run like hell. But the Kid is sipping his beer, watching the Giants game on the bar TV. Finally, he gets up from his stool and settles his tab in a leisurely fashion, dropping a few singles, one at a time, on the bar. God, he's hopeless. Your tab should always be settled before you start. You need to be able to leave the moment the con is done.
I can see the wheels turning in the big guy's head. He's obviously a criminal; criminals can smell a swindle faster than straights. It's all the years of ripping everyone else off: If the big man had spent thirty years dancing ballet, chances are he'd know a good plié when he saw one, too. Meanwhile Dot Com is watching Barry Bonds on the television. Dot Com is standing behind his bar stool, gaping up at the television, without a care in the world. He's about to be disillusioned. Fast.
"Wait a second," Monobrow says. He's blinking, as if he's bothered by sweat. But the bar is cold as a meat locker. "That ain't right."
Dot Com looks down from the TV, realizes his mistake. If he had gone straight home, he could have watched Barry Bonds highlights on SportsCenter, and he would have kept his ten bucks and his pretty looks. But now, none of those things is certain.
Monobrow says, "You trying something funny, pal?" Monobrow rises from his stool. He's nine inches away from Dot Com. Dot Com grasps that, for a lousy ten bucks, he's about to get beaten up. Or worse.
"Sorry?" the kid says. Which is the right move. The three rules of running a con: deny, deny, deny.
Monobrow is in the kid's face. The kid probably smells scampi. The big man says, "I paid out fifty! You gave me forty. You think you're smart?"
The kid goes white. Now the story he will tell his friends won't be as charming as he thought. And it may be recounted not from a SoMa bar over a chardonnay, but from a hospital bed with an IV drip.
Too late. The big man sends a right hook up into the kid's jaw. The kid's arms windmill around as he goes flying and crashes into the bar. He arches his back and lies on the bar top, soft like a bartender's rag, with his feet on the floor. Monobrow reaches down and clutches the poor kid's throat. He pushes down, hard. The kid's eyeglasses are crazily askew, one earpiece off the face completely, and his eyes bulge behind the lenses. "You little fuck," Monobrow says. "You wanna fuck with me? You picked the wrong guy, pal." He reaches into his too-small jacket and pulls out a gun. He presses it against Dot Com's jaw. Surely this is not what the kid expected when he read about this Change Game on the Internet, or when he practiced it in the mirror last night.
A patron with a gun always attracts a bartender's interest. He was at the far side of the bar, twirling a swizzle stick in a glass, when the ruckus started. The bartender is a young man himself, early twenties. He calls out, but not too loudly, "Whoa there." It's clear from his tentativeness that he doesn't own the place-he's just a worker bee in the middle of a four-hour shift between classes at Santa Clara or Stanford. He'd prefer no trouble in the bar while he's in charge, but, then again, he'd also prefer not to be shot. If he has to choose, he'll take trouble over being shot. So he says, holding up both hands as if he's the one being stuck up, "Let's all just calm down." Yes, good idea. Let's all calm down-as if the kid lying on the bar and turning red, with his eyes bugging out of his head, is acting unruly. If only Dot Com would calm down, by not gurgling so loudly, then everything would be fine.
Now's a good time for me to step in. I'm only a few feet away from the kid who's choking, so I don't have to speak loudly. I say, "That's enough." This action sums me up perfectly: I wait too long for everything, and then it's too little, too late. Celia, my ex, would agree.
Monobrow turns to me without releasing the kid or lowering the gun. He has a you-gotta-be-kidding expression: He can't believe some fifty-four-year-old guy with salt-and-pepper hair, a paunch, and tired eyes is approaching him in a Sunnyvale bar while he's in the middle of killing someone. He gives me a one-second glance, then turns back to Dot Com. He says to Dot Com, "Now I'm going to teach you a lesson." He pulls back the trigger with his big thumb. It makes a click.
Dot Com's fingers scrabble feebly at the beefy hand clutching his throat. It is implacable. I can tell the kid is trying to say something, but he can't breathe and no sound comes out. I'm guessing the general idea of what he wants to say is, "I'm very sorry."
I stand up from my stool so that Monobrow can't ignore me. I say, quietly, without menace, "Come on, he's a just a kid. He didn't mean anything by it."
"Mind your own business, pal." And then, still staring at the kid: "The kid tried to rip me off."
"He learned his lesson. Look, he took you for ten dollars. I'll pay you twenty bucks to make it up to you." I reach into my back pocket, pull out my wallet. I look inside, hoping that I do indeed have twenty bucks. Unfortunately, I have only a ten and six sad-looking singles, wilted like day-old lettuce. Whoops. I say, "Here, take whatever I have. It's sixteen dollars. You still come out ahead. Plus the kid knows never to mess with you again. You taught him a good lesson."
The big man turns to me. He lowers the gun from the kid's jaw. It's not clear if he's standing down or repositioning to take a shot at me. He says, "What are you, a fucking guardian angel?"
"Just a busybody who doesn't know when to keep quiet," I admit. I take the bills from my wallet, hold them out to him. He releases the kid, who slides off the bar and falls to the floor. Monobrow swipes the money from my hand, counts it. He stuffs it in his pants pocket. He drops his gun into his coat, turns back to the kid. Dot Com is rubbing his neck. He has five purple bruises around his throat, one for each garlicky finger, like a well-worn page in a precinct fingerprint book.
"Your lucky day," Monobrow says to the kid. He's obviously a pro, because he knows the exact lesson the kid failed to grasp: Always walk away when you have a profit. He's not going to hang around the bar and wait for the police, who are surely on their way. Come to think of it, neither am I.
Monobrow smiles at the kid with a face that indicates absolutely nothing in the world is funny. He gives me a little nod and walks out of the bar. The kid's eyes follow him and then stare at the door for a good ten seconds, to see if Monobrow is going to change his mind and return. When it's clear he won't, the kid looks up at me. He whispers, "Thank you."
I kneel down beside him. His eyes are watering, maybe from choking, maybe from crying. I don't think he's going to join his South of Market friends tonight. I feel I should give him some advice about how to run a con. Teach him to get out before the mark figures it. But then I decide his conning days are over, and tomorrow he'll go back to writing performance reviews, or breaking bread with venture capitalists, or whatever it is he really is good at. Running Change Games isn't one of those things.
So I decide against giving advice. I have something else I want to say to the kid. I say it softly, so that no one else in the bar will hear. When he sees I'm about to speak, the kid turns his ear to me, as if he's ready to receive golden wisdom. But I'm thinking about my empty wallet, and the fact that I gave the mafia goon my last sixteen dollars. I say to the kid, "Hey, you mind reimbursing me sixteen bucks?"
By the time I leave the Blowfish, I have forty dollars in my wallet. That's all the kid had left, and he was happy to give me whatever he had. In fact he offered to write me a check for more-"I'm good for it," he assured me, as if I had any doubt-but I refused. Half because I'm a good guy, and half because I prefer not to leave a paper trail.
You may wonder if I helped the kid because I thought I'd make a profit. I entered the bar with twenty bucks (then spent four on beer), and I left with forty. But I walked up to a guy brandishing a gun. He was a guy who looked comfortable with guns, as if he had some practice with them. So ask yourself: Would you walk up to a guy with a gun and try to stop a fight for forty bucks? It would take a certain desperation for a man to do that, for forty bucks, wouldn't it? So just what kind of guy do you think I am?
But, okay, yes. The thought of a small profit did cross my mind. Briefly.
After I walk out of the bar, it's time to go home. It's six o'clock, and so I've timed peak rush hour perfectly. I will now spend the next hour driving eleven miles to my apartment in Palo Alto. Had I left Sunnyvale an hour earlier, or an hour later, I could have cut my commute in half. But that would indicate good common sense, something I lack.
I walk to my car and press the key-chain remote. The Honda chirps brightly. I hear footsteps running toward me. Without turning, I know they are women's heels.
I turn. She is half-walking, half-running. I remember her from the bar. She was at a table in the back, barely visible in the dark. The only reason I noticed her was her big Jackie O sunglasses. Not many people wear sunglasses in a dark bar.
She's blond, in her twenties, rail-thin, with big breasts that cannot possibly be real. She's wearing dark glen plaid pants-with loose cuffs but tight around the thighs and rear-and a beige ribbed sweater. She's obviously trying to dress down and look inconspicuous, but she's fashion-model gorgeous. It's impossible for a woman like her to be inconspicuous.
She says, by way of introduction, "That was nice of you, back there."
I guess she didn't see me take forty bucks from the kid. Or maybe she did, and she has low standards. I say, "Thanks."
"You ran out so fast. I nearly missed you."
I give her a little smile. Polite, but not too interested.
She says, "Can I buy you a drink?"
Here's another lesson for you men. Never in the history of the entire world has a woman offered to buy a strange man a drink. Unless she wants something. So don't flatter yourself. You're not that good-looking, or that rich, or that funny-or whatever you think you are. If a woman offers to buy you drink, you are only one thing: a sucker about to be fleeced.
Excerpted from Con Ed by Matthew Klein Copyright © 2007 by Matthew Klein, LLC. Excerpted by permission.
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