The Confidence Games

The Confidence Games

by Tess Amy
The Confidence Games

The Confidence Games

by Tess Amy

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Overview

Two female con artists must pull off the ultimate heist in this rollicking caper from a dazzling new voice.

Emma Oxley and Nellie Yarrow have been inseparable their whole lives. Ever since they reinvented themselves, changing their names and wiping clean their digital footprints, they have made a game of following wherever the next adventure leads and challenging themselves to thefts, street cons, and mind games.

Adhering to only two rules—they will only swindle men, and only ones who deserve it—Emma and Nellie are secure in their reputation as the most trustworthy swindlers on the European black market. Until suddenly, they must play to save their own lives.

Blackmailed into stealing a priceless bracelet from a high-security exhibit, Emma will reexamine everything she believed to be true. This heist takes her far beyond her comfort zone...and she and Nellie will need allies among the glitzy bejeweled gathering in London in order to survive. Will they be able to do the right thing before it’s too late?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593642504
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/09/2024
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 760,768
Product dimensions: 5.19(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.56(d)

About the Author

Tess Amy was born in Johannesburg but now enjoys a nomadic lifestyle, living between Europe and South Africa. She holds a master’s degree from the Durban University of Technology and is an outdoor enthusiast, an animal lover, and an unfaltering optimist.

Read an Excerpt

1

Nellie and I pulled up outside the Ritz in Piccadilly, handed the MG keys over to the valet and our luggage (and ancient tabby cat, Sir Sebastian) to the concierge, and stepped inside the hotel's glitzy lobby. It was March, the busiest and most important month in London's black-market jewelry trade: four flashy weekends of prestigious exhibitions at galleries all across the country, the most renowned of which-Tiffany & Co.'s Serenity and Splendor-would take place next Saturday.

Everyone who was anyone would be visiting London this month-celebrities, royalty, journalists, politicians, influencers. And one thing every good con artist knows is that where there's money and flashing lights, there's opportunity.

Tonight I wore my favorite ensemble, just subdued enough to make sure no one took any notice of me: a charcoal knit dress, black leggings, black blazer, and clunky ankle boots. The only touch of glamour I allowed myself was some sparkly copper eyeshadow to complement my pale green eyes, a teardrop necklace, and one opal-encrusted hairpin that held back my sleek auburn mane.

One of the many ways Nellie and I differed was that, for her, being seen was nonnegotiable. Dressed in a stylish yellow satin trouser suit and silver block heels, she was tall, blond, and tanned-all lean muscle and hourglass curves. Posture dead straight and unyielding, she strutted, never walked, moving with the air of someone who knew her place in the world. But if you looked closely, if you knew her like I did, you'd see the scar above her left eyebrow, the divot in her chin, the misshapen knuckles on her right hand, and you'd know how hard she'd struggled to get there.

We walked hip to hip through the hotel's revolving doors, Nellie's trouser suit rustling at her ankles, the diamond choker she wore as a knuckle-duster twinkling under the milky light of the crystal chandeliers. Heads swiveled as we moved, eyes passing over me, settling on her.

I preferred it that way. Gone was the Emma Oxley who cried in public and moped around in puppy-dog pajamas and pink fluffy slippers. In the last five years I'd learned to cry in private and hide my weaknesses, to blend with the shadows as Nellie and I swept through Europe like wisps of glittery smoke-Paris, Rome, Prague, Barcelona, and back again-chasing opportunity and swerving around infamy. Together we were an indestructible force, the perfect double act, the dream team. Bonnie and Clyde without the guns and murder. They called us swindlers, fraudsters, tricksters, cheats. But make no mistake: we never crossed anyone who didn't deserve it.

Nellie had come to believe in things like karma, cosmic justice, and the unbending laws of the universe and was therefore very particular about the targets we duped. They had to tick all the boxes, so to speak (think dating checklist, only better).

                1) They had to live in the city we were passing through (ten-mile radius, max).

                2) They had to be rich (I'm not talking Elon Musk rich, just goes-on-a-three-month-summer-holiday-every-year rich).

                3) (and this was a deal-breaker) They had to be the sort of person who deserved their place in the Games: that sleazy estate lawyer, that shady investment banker, that corrupt politician. But while Nellie was out to exact revenge on every lowlife she ran into, I was in it for the anonymity, the disguise of a hundred different names: the masks I hid behind.


“Ms. Robinson, Ms. Leeds?” the head butler said as we approached the reception desk and his colleague hauled our collection of Bottega suitcases and hissing cat up the grand carpeted staircase that led off from the lobby.

"Hi, yes," I said, "that's us."

If Nellie was the star player in our Games, I was coach and referee, the master puppeteer who pulled the strings. I knew every detail of every Game we had scheduled: the names and backgrounds of our marks, the items we planned to steal, and their black-market values. There was nothing-or almost nothing-I left up to chance.

"Welcome," the butler said cheerfully, though his eyes fixed on Nellie alone, as if I weren't even there. "And you've booked our Green Park signature suite, correct?"

"Yep," Nellie said.

"Wonderful. Then you're in 101, first floor." He handed Nellie a black-and-gold key card. A beat later, he remembered there were two of us and handed me one as well. "Follow me, please," he said, extending a hand in the direction of the staircase.

Nellie slipped her key card into the secret pocket of her trouser suit-one of many she'd had sewn in, especially for Exhibition Month. "Actually, we'd like to grab a drink before settling in. Which way's the bar?"

The butler gestured to the colossal French doors on our left, the entrance to the famous Long Gallery. "Just through there. The Rivoli."

"They're open still?" Nellie asked.

"Until ten thirty. But of course there's a minibar in your suite, fully stocked. I can arrange anything extra as well. Wine, whisky, whatever you request."

"Perfect, thank you," she said, then leaned in and whispered to me, "but a nightcap in our suite's not going to cut it, is it? It's Exhibition Month and we're staying at the Ritz. We have to celebrate!" Before I could protest, she seized me by the shoulders and flashed her megawatt smile, the same one she'd used to convince me a life of crime was my destiny.


Arriving at the Rivoli, we settled in a pair of snazzy low-back chairs and ordered two double vodka sodas and a plate of overpriced snacks: deviled eggs, fig and olive tapenade crostini, caviar on toast, filo pastry tarts filled with Brie. The bar was crowded at first, but by our third round of drinks, the late-night guests began to filter out, one by one, until it was just me, Nellie, and the barman.

I leaned back in my seat, my vodka soda resting on my thigh, and as I realized it was nearing ten, my thoughts drifted to tomorrow and what we had planned for the evening-our first take of Exhibition Month. Like all our Games, it would be an old-fashioned street con, repurposed and polished to a high shine. Sure, we could've made a lot more money dabbling in the vast ocean of online scams and high-tech trickery that were currently all the rage. But that was risky. Too risky, by my calculations. Besides, it gave us an unequaled sense of satisfaction to know that amid the constant advancement and ultrasophistication of the modern world, simple mind games worked just as well now as they had a hundred years ago.

Play would kick off at a pricey cocktail lounge nestled inside the Biltmore hotel in Mayfair, which we happened to know was hosting a number of Exhibition Month's most esteemed attendees. Including our first mark, thirty-eight-year-old investment banker Arlo Taylor. Taylor had money, obviously, and he liked to spend it on expensive cars and watches. More importantly, though, he had a string of very well hidden sexual misconduct allegations to his name. Safe to say, he ticked all our boxes.

"Cheers to us," Nellie said in a bright voice, raising her glass. "Together, always."

"Always," I repeated. "Nell, can you believe it's been almost five years since we started?"

"Hardly. And what better way to celebrate-"

"-than by screwing over a few entitled dickheads? Speaking of which . . . we should go over the plan." Nellie grumbled at that, but I insisted. It was all very well being able to finish each other's sentences, but preparation was the key to our impeccable record, rehearsing every move, every step, until we could do it all without thinking.

I pulled out my miniature marble chess set and arranged the board-white for me, black for Nellie-placing each piece with surgical precision in the middle of its appropriate square. It might've looked like it, but we weren't about to play any normal game of chess. This was a game of focus, thieving, and deceit, and the winner would not be determined by which king fell first, but rather by who snagged the highest number of possessions from the other without them noticing. I was pretty good at chess-the regular kind-but Nellie had been playing dipper's chess with her late great-aunt, a legendary pickpocket herself, since she was eight. That made her basically unbeatable.

"All right," Nellie began, her sharp blue eyes moving across the board. "It's tomorrow night, seven p.m. We're at the Biltmore. Arlo has just arrived. He's waiting in the cocktail lounge for his Tinder date, the one and only Ms. Janet Robinson."

I gave her a theatrical bow.

Days earlier, Dax Frederick-our tech sidekick (in training) and all-round assistant-had set up a Tinder profile on my behalf, using the photographs of a woman he'd found online who-at a stretch, a major stretch-looked vaguely like an airbrushed, two-stone-slimmer version of me. I mean, Janet. Arlo would no doubt think he'd been catfished when he met me, but hey, happens to the best of us.

"Has Dax confirmed the profile looks legit?" Nellie asked.

"He has."

A subtle frown creased her forehead. "You sure? We should probably double-check that. This is Dax we're talking about . . ."


We met Dax on a chilly autumn day in Bucharest, four years ago. Nellie and I had spent two long hours at a sketchy internet café trying to persuade a pockmarked teenager to recover files from our laptop, which had been, for the second time that month, blocked by ransomware. Though this was an apparently to-be-expected side effect of dark web trading, it wasn’t something we’d been prepared for or knew how to deal with. In any case, the teenager was no help whatsoever.

"Impossible," he announced after a brief inspection of our laptop. "Either you pay the hackers the ten thousand or your files are toast."

"Or we pay you half that and you fix it for us?" Nellie suggested hopefully.

The teenager's cheeks flushed red with excitement. But after some thought he shrugged and said, "I wish. But this is top-level stuff. You'll need to hire an ethical hacker."

"A what?" I said.

"You know, one of those dudes who-"

Before he could finish the sentence, as if summoned by prayer, an ethical hacker popped out from the café loo, and less than thirty minutes later, Dax had recovered our files and restored our software, free of charge. He vanished before we could offer to pay him for his services (or ask for his number-did I mention he was gorgeous?). But late the next evening, as Nellie and I were strolling through Izvor Park, a bit drunk from a night at the ballet-Swan Lake and too much Țuică-we happened upon Dax sleeping on a bench. He said he was there by choice, spinning us some long-winded story about how he worked part-time for the internet café and part-time for some tech company based in the Bahamas. We believed him right up until we noticed the scuff marks on his shoes and the holes in his sweater. As it turned out, he was unemployed, homeless, and dead broke. This might've been the point when most people turned away, but there was nothing Nellie and I respected more than a good-hearted person who knew how to lie. So, naturally, we offered him a position, and it was only several months later that we realized his computer skills were limited to very specific ransomware recoveries and not much else. But he could learn on the job. And besides, we were far too fond of him by then to let him go. Translation: I had a crush.


“Already done,” I said now, confirming I’d double-checked Dax’s work. His skill set was steadily expanding, but it never hurt to take extra precautions.

Nellie raised an eyebrow. "Meaning you've actually spoken to him? I thought . . . after the Incident-"

"Like I said, I've double-checked." No need to mention it was a great relief that said double-checking did not require any face-to-face interaction between the two of us, because, as Nellie was pointing out, the last time we'd seen each other had been one of the most mortifying nights of my life and I'd been avoiding him like the plague ever since. I accepted the fact that, since we were colleagues, we were going to have to talk about the Incident at some stage. I just hoped it wouldn't be for another hundred years.

"Anyway, Janet is thirty-one years old," I said forcefully, shaking off the memory, "and works for the Levi's UK social media team." I wriggled my shoulders and flashed a grin. Being Janet Robinson never failed to give me an instant surge of confidence. Funny that I knew exactly who I was when I wasn't being me.

"Cool. So, Janet walks up to Arlo," Nellie said, "introduces herself, lets him order her a drink, then another and another."

"But she's not really drinking them," I added, "so Arlo's the only one getting tipsy." I moved a white pawn two spaces forward. Nellie followed with a French Defense, handing me control of the center of the board while she built up a wall of protection with her pawns. Control for me, protection for her. Whether or not we did this intentionally, it was a perfect metaphor for our lives.

She flashed me a conspiratorial smile. "Three drinks in, Annie Leeds shows up."

I leaned back in my seat, arms folded tightly over my handbag, my mind skirting from the chessboard to Arlo to what Nellie was about to nick from me. They say women are good at multitasking because we're born to be mothers. I say: con artists. "Annie approaches Arlo and says, 'Oh, hey, Arlo! You're Elaine Taylor's son, aren't you?'"

Nellie moved another pawn forward. "Arlo nods, a bit confused, and Annie holds out her hand to introduce herself and explain, 'Our mothers know each other from book club.'"

"Arlo doesn't contest it," I supplied, moving my bishop forward, "even though he's never heard of Annie Leeds or this alleged book club."

Nellie smirked. "After all, Annie knows his name, and his mother's name-"

"-which subconsciously makes him inclined to trust her," I added. "I mean, why would she lie, anyway?"

Nellie took a long and languid sip of her drink, a glint in her eye. She shifted her pawn one space up to attack my bishop, which I moved quickly out of the firing line. "Annie walks off. But as soon as she's out of earshot-"

"-Janet will lean over and whisper in Arlo's ear, 'Shit, shit, I think that's her!'"

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