Gabe drained his hot chocolate and scrolled back to the top of the page. He wasn't all that proud of what he'd written so far, but he knew he didn't need to be. It just had to be compelling enough to sell. He frowned and read the intro again:
“CONscience: A Shepherd's Guide to Sheep
I'm a conman. In fact, I already have some of your money...assuming you actually bought this book like a sucker.
My name is Gabriel Delling, and I've been running scams on people just like you for fifteen years. I'm one of the best, but now I've decided to put all that behind me and give you, the “marks”, a look behind the scenes. Some of my life may shock you, and it should. But most of it, I hope, will help keep you safe from people exactly like me. I'll give you the tricks to…”
His phone rang and he closed his laptop, leaving the sentence unfinished. He'd have to remember to revise “the best” to “the best in the world”. He'd read somewhere that you were supposed to hook people on the first page, and the latter sounded more epic. And it wasn't like there was a con artist regulatory board to dispute the claim. “Most Profitable Fraud” was a tough category to give out trophies for. He also made a mental note to somehow work nudity and violence into the intro. He figured he might as well pull out all the stops while he was shamelessly selling out anyway.
“This is Tony. What can I do for you?” He hadn't recognized the number, so he'd defaulted to his good-guy persona. Tony was Southern, and likeable, and nice for dealing with the bill collectors that always seemed to find his number. Plus he said fun things like “reckon” and “sure's shootin”. People love a good stereotype.
“Hey, it's me,” the caller said.
Gabe sighed and dropped the Southern accent. “James, come on, man. Are you calling me from a burner phone? I thought we were best buddies?”
James chuckled without any humor. “You get me the money you owe and sure, we'll be chums. We'll talk about cute boys, eat raspberry sherbet, and frolic through flowers and shit. 'Till then, I use a burner to call people who make me want to check my wallet several times a day.”
Gabe slid his computer into his bag. “You're hurting my feelings here, brother. I'd never stoop so low as picking pockets. I have standards.”
“Don't call me brother,” James said. “It sounds weird when you say it. And I didn't call to talk about our relationship. You know you're not my type. I'm giving you a chance to earn.”
Gabe sat back and lowered his voice. The coffee shop was relatively empty this time of day and the music would probably cover him, but caution never hurt. “Well, that's the nicest thing you've ever said to me. How much?”
“Ah, now he's serious. About twice what you owe me. Maybe more if you're smart.”
“You know I am, J. How much in numbers?”
“They're offering five, but I bet you could get seven. Minus what you owe, obviously. Plus my regular fee for delivering this to you on a silver damned platter.”
“That's not bad,” Gabe said, thinking it was actually great. He picked up his hot chocolate and found it empty except for some syrup on the bottom. He grimaced and glanced at the other patrons, finding only three loud teens who should probably be in school, and an older woman who had been sitting by herself for some time. “And that would make my take...” He paused. “Carry the one...”
James made a disgusted noise. “Man, I am not your accountant. You owe me two-and-a-half. I take ten percent off the top so that leaves you with just under four. That'll pay all those bills of yours for another couple months, plus get you some of that disgusting cherry shit you're eating all the time.”
“Pie, J. It's called pie. And I eat it in perfectly normal, human amounts.” He stopped and ran his free hand across his stubble as if deliberating. After a moment, he realized that nobody was watching the fake body language, so he dropped it with a silent curse. Sometimes it was hard to turn off.
He did need the cash, James wasn't wrong about that. His latest scam was a tell-all book about his seedy criminal past, but he was quickly learning how much legitimate effort went into writing. Every day it seemed less like a con and more like a job. He'd only managed about ten mediocre chapters so far, and even those were getting away from him. In the meantime, he needed to keep all his plates spinning.
But it never paid to seem too eager, so he injected a little skepticism and bored superiority into his voice as he responded. He was still an artist after all. “Huh. That sounds okay. But a pay rate like that for a few hours of work makes me itchy. There's a catch, right?”
James made a sound like a noncommittal shrug. “Maybe. But you know how this works: I just bring clients and vendors together. You bid out the job. If there's a trap, I'm sure a smart guy like you will be able to figure it out.”
Gabe allowed himself a laugh which he hoped could be taken as either agreement or doubt. “Well if I can't, you don't get paid. And for all I know, this might be how the Lincoln Serial Killer lures his victims. How about some details before I jump face-first into this mysterious brown liquid?”
James hesitated a moment longer than Gabe was comfortable with. In that pause, the older woman rose and went toward the bathroom, leaving her food and drink behind. She also left her purse. The Midwest never failed to amaze him.
“Hey, I admit it's a weird one,” James replied, “but those murders were, like, two months ago. You gotta figure that psycho moved on by now. There are only so many handsome young hunks you can kill in Lincoln, Nebraska before things get too hot. Also, you're not young or that handsome. I think you'll be fine.”
“Ouch,” Gabe replied. “Thirty-two is still young...relatively. And don't dodge the question.”
James sighed. “Okay, it rang alarm bells for me too. You'd want to keep your eyes open. Head on a swivel.”
Gabe rose and pulled out his pocket knife, palming it. “Super. You know how much I like vague warnings and opaque platitudes when my life is at stake. Let me just put these two birds back in the bush so I can light some midnight oil and stitch something in time.”
“Man, if you shut up for a second I'll explain,” James said. “A rich dude needs stuff stolen from a house. Basic B and E. In and out.”
Gabe glanced at the baristas as James spoke, but they were both engrossed in their phones. He moved toward the condiment bar and slipped six packages of liquid creamer into his jacket pocket, then he casually grabbed a few napkins, using them to cover the knife in his hand. As he passed the glass water carafe, he rubbed the cuff of his sleeve against the condensation beaded on the outside, soaking the fabric. “I'm sorry,” he said, “the number you have reached is no longer in service. Please hang up and call a petty thief. This is not a recording.”
James waited an extra beat. “You are obnoxious as shit sometimes.”
“I work at it,” Gabe replied. He thumbed open the knife in the napkins and drifted back to his table
“Yes, your majesty,” James said, “I am aware that your shit is of the finest quality and scent, but this is more than just a smash and grab. Easier, even. Apparently the guy behind the job is some rich bitch who wants to keep his wife from getting a bunch of expensive art in the divorce. It's his house. To screw over his own wife. Not how I'd do it, but then I'm not stupid enough to get married either.”
As he passed the woman's table, Gabe glanced down at her unattended purse. He couldn't believe she'd left it there. Some people were almost too naivé to live. Then he lowered the blade to her cup and pierced it just along the seam before moving back to his own seat. “And a little insurance fraud as a bonus, I bet.”
“I don't think so,” James said, thoughtfully. “He doesn't need the money. He just wants to keep his wife from getting the art. A real bitter marriage, I guess.”
Gabe grunted and sat back down. “Not a bad plan, actually. The art disappears and insurance pays out. The divorce is settled in the meantime. Our guy hires an investigator, and a year or so later the P.I. magically turns up a line on the collection—maybe from an art dealer who's happy to return the lot for a small finder's fee and the warm fuzzies of doing a good deed. The ex presumably took the settlement, so the guy gets back his unicorn watercolors. It's not entirely stupid.”
“Uh huh,” James said, “that sounds about right.”
Gabe picked up his receipt, then started pouring the creamers into his empty cup. “You also said this job rang alarm bells.”
James sighed. “Every damn job rings alarms for me. That's what I do. I don't like working for rich amateurs, is all. Something goes wrong and they hire a fancy lawyer. Let us take the fall. Fucking rich people.”
“I happen to agree,” Gabe said. He swirled the creamer around until it picked up the leftover syrup, then he poured it all onto his tray.
He used his pocket knife to punch a hole in the paper cup just along the seam, then he folded the blade and put it away. James was clearly waiting for more, but Gabe let him listen to dead air while he worked.
As expected, James grumbled a moment later. “Hey, you don't want it, that's fine. But you still owe me. Rich amateur this guy may be, but 'rich' is the operative word. Another easy one might not come along so quickly, so I hope you've got something else cooking.”
Gabe put the cup down on the tray. He'd pushed James as far as he dared, and he wasn't likely to annoy any more details out of him. “When's the job? Can I think about it?”
James's phone beeped with an incoming call. “Nope. That's the other thing: It might be as soon as tonight. In or out, I gotta know in the next hour. I'm gonna answer this other call, and then I'm picking up a sandwich. Call me back before my post-lunch guilt sets in and the job is yours.”
The line went dead and Gabe saved the number. James usually only kept a phone for a month at a time, but it would likely still be good for the day. He watched the woman come back to her table and find that her cup had leaked most of its contents. She went up to the counter and loudly complained until they gave her a free replacement drink. Gabe rose immediately after.
There was no helping it. He hadn't pulled off anything significant in months and he was running low on cash. He owed money to more people than James, and he had been hoping for some kind of hook-up to fall into his lap. The job being weird didn't make it any less worthwhile. The only other downside was that it would completely clear his debt with James, giving the man less incentive to throw him plum gigs. He'd need to find a way to accrue a little more debt to keep that relationship mutually profitable.
Gabe slammed his tray down on the counter in front of the young barista, sloshing some of the chocolate creamer in the process. He showed her his wet shirt cuff and the little slit in the side of his cup—the one that matched the woman's. He handed over his receipt and got back a fresh hot chocolate free of charge. Four dollars and seventy-nine cents. He was a real criminal mastermind.
He sighed and pulled out his phone as he shouldered open the door. There were quite a few benefits to his leisurely lifestyle, but one thing remained constant no matter how you lived: sometimes you just had to go to work.