Improvisation is key. Any con artist will tell you this. Running a long con is like staging a play with no prepared dialogue, where the star—your mark—doesn’t know it’s a play, and as his co-star you’ve got to keep the plot moving toward the swindle in the final act. But the details, the whole mise-en-scene, these are drawn from the world at large, and that can be chancy business. Curveballs are thrown. The unthinkable is thought. You’ve just got to be ready.
Probably the worst surprise is running into someone who knows you. Maybe they know you from some other context. Maybe they know you with a different name. Maybe they’ve even figured out since the last time they saw you that you stole their money. Obviously, that’s the worst. You’re working a mark and some hothead barges in to screw things up. Nobody needs that.
But that’s exactly what happened to Marcus in the art gallery when he narrowly avoided locking eyes with Claire, a woman he’d romanced and taken for $2,000 twenty years earlier when he was young and reckless.
To be clear, the running into someone he knew part happened. The hothead part remained to be seen.
He gave no sign of having recognized her, and turned his attention back to the 10 x10 explosion of black and yellow in front of him. But his mind raced.
She’d seen him for sure.
The timing couldn’t have been worse. He was staging the final act of his con, Tortured Artist, and was waiting for his mark, Shawna, to arrive. Marcus was a part-time art broker, and Shawna was there to possibly buy a painting from one of his clients, the brilliant young Spanish artist Edgardo Romero de la Pena, whose energetic canvas Marcus was currently pretending to study. He was ostensibly there to take her to Edgardo’s loft to see the new collection.
Claire was wearing a blue summer dress, her golden hair just skimming her shoulders. Her scent came to him as a twenty-year-old memory. The sight of her triggered it.
The first question was, could she place him? It had been 20 years, after all. He hadn’t seen any sign of recognition. But in that situation, he had to assume she had.
He turned to the next canvas, another duotone explosion, leaning close as if to scrutinize some critical detail among the riot of paint, while he weighed the second question:
Had she realized she’d been conned?
You see, if a con is properly executed, the mark should never know they were fleeced. After the final act, the mark might think they’re the victim of terrible bad luck, of law enforcement, a jealous lover, or any number of other things, but they should never suspect that their money is actually in the con’s pocket. The smarter ones might figure it out eventually, playing it out in their heads over and over on quiet nights.But even if they do figure it out, they can’t go to the police, because they would have to admit their own part in a crime, and even with close friends the mark will make up a bad luck story for losing the money rather than admit the truth. But it can be awkward and sometimes dangerous for the con artist to run into such people.
“Trying to find Waldo?” a voice said behind him.
It was Pia, the gallery owner, staring skeptically at the canvas from five feet.
“Just admiring the brushwork,” Marcus said, stepping back, and taking the opportunity to scan the crowd. He adjusted his wire glasses and smoothed his goatee. No Claire. No Shawna.
Pia turned and looked at the other paintings in the Edgardo showing. Six canvases in her smallest room.
“I like the blue and gold one,” she said. “Reminds me of college.”
“Easy. I have a client coming.” His face was a mask as he scanned the room.
“Please leave her enough money to buy something from me.”
Marcus turned to face her, allowing his peripheral vision to scan the room.
“How is business, by the way?” he asked.
Pia kept her eyes on the painting and said, “Full of idiots,” and wandered back into the main gallery.
Marcus glanced to the door and saw canary blue replaced by fire engine red.
Claire was gone. Shawna was here.
Marcus stepped forward and raised his hand. “Hello, Shawna.”
Shawna McLeary’s face brightened when she saw him, and shelumbered across the gallery to him, like a child seeing her friend across the playground. She was attractive but ungainly, slightly equine, sweet hearted but socially inept, always standing out and rarely in a good way. If it weren’t for her billions of dollars, Marcus might have felt a little bit sorry for her. She wore a loose red dress that amplified her cleavage and gave her a nice silhouette while obscuring the specifics of her actual shape. She had an expression of pleasant surprise finding Marcus here, despite that they had an appointment for twenty minutes earlier.
“Hey, Marcus,” she said, ignoring his hand and kissing him on the cheek.
“It is lovely to see you, Shawna,” he said. She was tall enough that she looked directly into his eyes.
“It’s lovely to be seen by you, Marcus,” she said, putting a hand to his chest.
Marcus didn’t reply, but blushed, smiled, and looked down. He could do this routine in his sleep.
Marcus never had sex with women he conned, had given it up years ago. It makes the final act too complicated so he just didn’t do it. He’d allude to a dark heartbreak in his past or something of the sort, which usually made them want him more. He did enjoy that.
Shawna turned to scan the paintings in the room.
“Where is Senor de la Pena?”
“I do not know,” Marcus said with a just a hint of concern. “He was supposed to meet us here. And he’s not answering his phone.”
Shawna inspected the price next to the black and white painting. 23,000. Marcus thought it classier to omit the dollar sign.
“Someone really paid this?”
“This room sold for $178,000,” Marcus said matter-of-factly, checking again that Claire was really gone.
“But they were like half that in the catalog you showed me.”
Marcus nodded wisely and said, “Think how valuable the next ones will be.”
She stared at the painting. “It’s amazing.”
Shawna was a perfect mark. She was rich, had no taste, and felt entitled to anything she wanted. She had married for love five years earlier to a tech billionaire, and when he died suddenly three years later she experienced a period of intense grief followed by an extended and ongoing campaign of lavish spending. Marcus was pleased to have met her during the latter, and she fell right into her starring role as the patron of an up and coming new artist.
“And why do you think I should buy the piece you want me to buy?”
Marcus stiffened and took a breath. “I don’t want you to buy anything. I think you should consider adding it to your collection, which is quite a different thing.”
Shawna slapped his arm affectionately.
“You’re so sexy when you get stuffy, Marcus. And why do you think that?”
Marcus softened his stern look and turned to face her.
“In order of importance: 1) It’s a stunning work with a darkness I think you’ll appreciate; 2) Edgardo is a significant new artist which will bring your collection forward; and 3) It will make a very safe investment.”
Shawna licked her lips in a way she believed was seductive and said, “You think I’m dark?”
Marcus looked at her lingeringly, staring at her mouth before raising his eyes to hers.
“I think you understand the world.”
If he’d been seducing her, that is when he would have leaned in for the kiss. But since he had other plans, he forced himself to break away and look at his watch.
“I’m worried Edgardo’s not here. Let’s take a drive to his loft. He’s probably working, but I don’t like him not calling.”
“He’s been very moody lately,” Marcus added.
They left the gallery and drove in her luxury electric sports car nine blocks to the warehouse district where Edgardo lived and worked. There were no sidewalks and the street gradually gave way to gravel that ran all the way up to the front of the building. Shawna slid the car right up next to the building facing the front door.
It was open.
“Ok, now I’m nervous,” Marcus said.
They got out of the car and crunched toward the open door. Shawna said, “I’m sure everything is fine,” but her tone said otherwise.
The warehouse had two floors with living space on the bottom and an open loft for painting on the second floor. Inside, they stepped into the living room next to an open kitchen, with a staircase to the second floor hugging the far wall and disappearing into the ceiling.
“Edgardo? Are you here?”
Not a sound.
A muffled response from above. They stepped toward the stairs.
“Yeah, I’ll be right there,” they heard from above in a surfer drawl that even Shawna knew couldn’t be the Spanish artist.
Shiny black shoes and dark blue pant legs appeared on the stairs. Then a leather belt with a holster and a gun.
“Hello,” Marcus said to the cop.
“Oh, hi there,” the cop said as his badge and head appeared. “I was just finishing up. I’m Officer Grant.”
On the ground floor he made no move to shake hands, and Marcus and Shawna just looked at him stunned.
“Were you friends with…Mr. Romero?” the cop said, reading from his notebook.
“It’s Romero de la Pena,” Marcus said. “Can you tell us what is going on?”
Shawna chimed in, frightened. “What do you mean by were?”
Officer Grant was young, and you could tell from his face he knew he’d screwed up.
“I’m afraid I have some bad news for you folks,” he said, closing his notebook. “Um, Mr. Pena, I guess – well, he’s no longer living. He died. He’s dead now.”
He opened his notebook again to stop himself from talking.
Marcus exhaled like he’d been holding it in for a full minute and staggered toward the sofa for support.
Shawna said, “My God. What happened?!”
“You two are friends of his?”
Marcus nodded absently and said quietly, “Yes, I’m his agent, and his friend.”
Officer Grant shifted uncomfortable.
“What happened?” Shawna repeated.
The cop stammered and consulted his notebook. “Well, I’m afraid to say he killed himself.”
“My God,” Shawna said.
“No!” Marcus yelled at the couch cushion, the perfect line between distraught and overcome.
“I’ve been here with the crew all morning. I saw him before the coroner arrived.”
Marcus turned and stared at him in disbelief.
Officer Grant went on. “Slit his wrists in the tub. Must have just drifted off to sleep.”
Marcus and Shawna were quiet.
Grant consulted his notebook absently.
Marcus whispered, “Jesus.”
Grant coughed and said, “Yeah, well, I’m sorry for your loss.” He nodded and closed his notebook. “Well, I’ve got paperwork on this. Coroner’s office will have a report in a day or two if you want to follow up.” He stepped to the door.
The two of them watched him leave.
At the door he turned and said, “Yeah, um, I’d stay out of the upstairs bathroom until you can hire a cleaner. You don’t want to go in there.”
Marcus walked around the couch and sat on it heavily. Shawna came and sat on the opposite sofa.
“I’m sorry for your friend,” she said.
Marcus smiled at her and said, “Thanks. He was so brilliant, but so troubled. You can see it across every canvas. Such a genius, such a waste.”
That line could sound corny, but from Marcus it sounded exactly right, and Shawna nodded and choked up a bit.
“Such a waste,” she said.
Truth was, she was shocked, but she was also excited to be part of this shocking moment. Being rich buys you access to most things, but it can’t buy you perfect timing, which is what this was. It was like finding herself in a reality show, and she felt a little shameful about the thrill in her stomach. How often do you discover the death of a famous artist accompanied by his agent and friend?
“Such a waste,” she said again, her eyes trailing up the stairs.
Marcus just shook his head and said, “Well, I was glad to help steward his work while he was making it. Proud. A great artist.”
Shawna nodded, and then said quietly, “And his final work is upstairs?”
Marcus looked at her, and then craned his neck to look at the stairs.
“I hadn’t thought of that. His final work.”
They were quiet for a moment, and then Shawna said, “Can we go up and look at it? I mean, you did bring me here to show me a painting.”
Marcus smiled and nodded. Shawna led the way.
Passing the first floor ceiling, they emerged into a wide-open creative space dominated by 11 paintings held by massive wooden easels on wheels. The large piece they’d come to see stood alone against the far wall, while the remaining paintings held their own space along the adjacent wall. Opposite that stood a single painting in front of a worktable of paints and brushes. Behind them were two doors, one of which presumably led to the bathroom.
She immediately walked to the large painting, drawn in by its power and terrible angst. The paintings had been produced at the same time as those at the gallery, and Marcus had hired an art student to paint all of them for $3,000, materials included. The kid spent half his take on speed and finished the paintings in about a week, roughly three months earlier.
“My God,” Shawna whispered in awe. “There’s so much pain here.”
Where the gallery paintings had been full of hard edges, these explosions were more fluid, more chaotic, more frenzied. Shawna McLeary didn’t know anything about art, but she trusted her heart, and she was beginning to fall in love with this painting. She turned to the others and fell in love with them as well. They were masterpieces.
Plus, she reasoned, at this point they must be worth a fortune.
Marcus stood at her side waiting for the wheels in her brain to turn all the way.
“What happens to the paintings now?”
And there it was. The final turn.
Marcus shrugged, exhaled, and said, “I hadn’t even thought of that. What happens indeed?” He rubbed his mouth and studied the ceiling. “As far as I know, his only family is his sister, so it will be up to her.”
“Will you still be able to sell them?”
He shook his head. “Not unless she hires me. My agreement with Edgardo ends with his death. Ended, I guess. But I don’t think she’ll sell. I’m quite sure she’ll keep them, if only to let the value increase now that he’s dead.”
Shawna nodded, and suddenly wanted the paintings more than she’d wanted anything in her life.
“How high will it go?”
“Hard to say. This collection was to be listed at nearly $500 grand, and that will probably double immediately, and then it will probably double again over the next decade. Depends on the market. But yes, she will do well whenever she sells this collection.”
“And as his agent you won’t get anything from that?”
“No. As I said, that agreement is over.”
He nodded sadly, and let this fact sit there quietly, letting the thought work its way to Shawna’s lips.
“If only you had sold these paintings to me this morning.”
Marcus nodded quietly, letting the larceny hang between them.
“You’d get your full commission.”
“You’d have an incredible collection.”
A pregnant pause, and then:
“I brought my checkbook.”
“You should hold them for at least five years.”
“We were coming here to celebrate with the artist.”
Marcus just nodded.
She wrote him a check for four hundred seventy-two thousand dollars in exchange for a bill of sale and a promise of same day delivery.
And then she was gone. Marcus sat quietly for a while on the stool, looking at a painting that had cost him roughly $150.
Not bad for a month’s work. He’d made up a phony sales catalog, created a few websites about the artist, and staged a showing at the gallery by giving Pia $2,500 for a one-week show. The warehouse was his, purchased during an economic downturn a decade earlier. Counting the expensive dinners he had bought for Shawna, he’d invested maybe seven grand on this particular rendition of the Tortured Artist, and now he had a check for half a million dollars in his hands.
Behind him the cop walked into the room.
Marcus didn’t turn, but said, “You sure she’s gone, Alex?”
“Yeah, I watched her peel out.”
He came to stand next to Marcus, picking at the adhesive film of his moustache with a pinky nail.
“She go for it?”
Alex the fake cop began unbuttoning his shirt and said, “I really don’t know how you can bullshit so hard, Marcus.”
Marcus turned and walked toward the stairs, tucking the check into his suit pocket, and said, “It’s a gift. You get those paintings to her tonight, ok? Wrapped and pretty.”
“You got it, boss. And then I’m gonna get drunk.”
Marcus smiled as he reached the ground floor. He didn’t have his car so he pulled out his phone to call for one.
He stepped outside, pulling the door shut, still working his phone.
And then he stopped short and looked up.
Claire was standing in front of him, leaning against her car.
“Hello, Marcus,” she said.
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