What happens when a veteran conman is conned by someone he once conned while trying to con her again? The reader never knows what hit them.
Urbane art broker Marcus Durant likes to keep his work separate from his personal life, and since his work involves swindling tech billionaires with worthless paintings, this is only prudent. But when an old flame named Claire reappears from his past—the one time he mixed business and pleasure—and invites him to join a fool-proof heist, Marcus can’t decide whether to fall in love or rob her a second time. Claire, meanwhile, has her own agenda and falling for Marcus isn’t on it. She’s just using him to gain access to the local museum, where she plans to execute a hoax on the art world so audacious it would make Banksy blush, provided she can stay ahead of the law.
Clockwork (61k words) is a twisty literary heist that keeps readers thinking to the last page.
Excerpt (Chapters 1–3)
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.
When first he met her 20 years earlier, Claire wasn’t even what he was looking for. He wanted to get into one of the rare book collections at Berkeley, and he was trying to find someone who looked like himself so he could steal their ID, but then he met Claire and changed his plan.
This would have been ’93 or ’94, somewhere in there. He was driving up the coast from LA to Seattle to meet a potential business opportunity, but he wasn’t due for a week so he took a detour to the Bay Area to look up a different business opportunity. Marcus was still trying to figure out how to make his way in the world. He met with the Bay Area opportunity, an old geezer running a well-worn scam, but without a line of sight on a mark he decided to stay the night and then continue north.
Then fate, as it often does, intervened. This time in the form of a loud professor of the classics who had taken up residence on a barstool at a local bar, and this loquacious old coot put an idea into Marcus’s head that he was unable to shake. And in the morning the idea was still there so Marcus decided to stick around for a day or two to see if he could make anything of it.
“There’s a fucking fortune sitting right there with a little grey-haired lady protecting it!”
That caught Marcus’s attention. He was drinking a beer next to the professor, bearded and elbow patched and on his fifth pint, and Marcus was playing a game he sometimes played with straight people where he invited them to imagine what they would do if they led a life of crime. It’s harmless enough bar talk, and it was a good gauge of character.
“I mean, we’re just talking about larceny, right?” the drunk professor had said. “The problem is you gotta know what you’re doing. I rob a jewelry shop, what the hell am I going to do then? I don’t have a fence. You need a fence for that, right?”
“One would assume.”
“But books, now, books I know all about them. Made my living on books. My shoddy, academic living. And I know there are millions of dollars of rare manuscripts sitting right up the hill in the University Library. Book after book—some amazing, incredibly valuable manuscripts. I would just check one of those out and never return it.”
“What would you take?”
“Hmm… I’d probably steal one of their John Muir journals. Full of pictures and stuff. Collectors eat that up. Hey, you want one more?”
Which is why Marcus was leaning against a post overlooking Sproul Plaza on the Berkeley campus at 2 p.m. on a Tuesday in April. He watched in amazement as literally hundreds of people walked in every different direction while somehow managing not to run into each other. This was before cell phones, so people could see where they were going.
He’d checked out the library and saw that the special collection was in its own area, behind locked doors, and you had to actually sign in and speak with, yes, a little grey-haired lady. If he’d been a robber he could have cleaned out the whole place with a hand-truck for all the security they seemed to have. Of course, who knew how the books were kept once you got inside?
His plan was to find a student who looked enough like him, steal his ID card somehow, and then bluff his way past the old lady. He’d mess up his hair, buy a backpack, fit right in.
The trouble with this plan was he wasn’t much of a pickpocket. He had no trouble being sly, creating diversions, misdirecting. But he had no idea how a human was supposed to lift a wallet out of a man’s pocket without getting caught.
He was thinking of that problem while he studied the crowd. They were mostly students with slung backpacks and purposeful gaits. Marcus had done some college a while back, but it didn’t suit him. Too structured, he said at the time, but mostly it was boring. He liked to follow his own nose and create his own path, not follow some professor’s syllabus or major’s requirements. All that was for straights.
Several candidates walked past, but he stayed put.
Marcus yearned to have more than normal people, to be more. It wasn’t just that he despised the cookie cutter lives people led, and it wasn’t that he had no morals to guide him along a lawful path. Rather, of all the options in front of him, crime was the most interesting.
He spotted a good candidate, but he was wearing tight jeans. Nope.
Marcus liked the artistry of the crimes he committed, the puzzle at the center, the graceful execution of a plan. He was good at it. He liked studying a system to find the flaws, and then finding ways to exploit those flaws for his own enrichment. Sure, it was illegal, but he didn’t think it was wrong.
“You have the time?”
The voice was soft and luxurious. Her eyes wet blue.
In the time it took for him to pull back his sleeve to look at his watch, he had decided on a new plan.
He knew how to charm young women, so he put his skills to use. She was an undergraduate in art history, and he was fascinated by art. She grew up in Pasadena, and the Norton Simon was one of his favorite museums. Jazz was all he listened to. This stuff was easy for Marcus, and if sex was treasure he’d be as rich as he wanted. But it’s one thing to get a woman into bed, and it’s another thing entirely to get her to commit larceny on your behalf, which was the flimsy centerpiece of his new plan.
His initial feelers told him she could be game. She had confessed to shoplifting for sport and even stealing things she didn’t need (an alaskan salmon, a beach umbrella) just for the challenge of it. On that basis alone, Marcus persisted in getting her into bed. But afterward, when they were just talking, staring at his hotel room ceiling, it was she who brought it up, the idea of stealing from the university.
“There’s a bronze statue in the entry of one of the buildings, right out in the open,” she said. “You could just carry that thing away and nobody would stop you.”
Marcus laughed and turned to her. “It’s got to be a thousand pounds. You going to put that in your backpack?”
But then she said something that stuck with him and made him fall in love with her a little bit. She said, “Well, that’s just a detail.”
Which is exactly how he always looked at an obstacle. It had nothing to do with whether he would reach his objective. It simply determined the way in which he would achieve it. The details of the problems gave you the shape of the solution.
“That’s exactly right,” he said.
“I mean, we could use a hand truck or something.”
Since that was exactly what he’d thought that morning at the library, he took it as a sign, and blundered ahead.
“I know something we could steal that’s a lot lighter.”
He’d never really worked with anyone, and it was unsettling. He didn’t like the idea of partners. He had plenty of associates, people involved in one aspect or another in his business dealings, but nobody he’d call a partner, nobody he’d share things with and nobody he’d risk his freedom on. That was something he’d never considered.
To be clear, he didn’t see Claire as a partner. He was using her to get what he wanted, which was a John Muir notebook he could sell for cash. She was just a tool.
But in the hotel room when they talked it through, he was playing the game, and so they agreed on a 50/50 split. She’d get the book, he’d fence it, they’d split the proceeds – that was the deal. And since he didn’t even have a fence, it seemed pretty fair. Except that he didn’t want a partner, he wanted it all, and he was planning to take it if he could.
Claire seemed to treat the whole thing as a lark, a madcap adventure, and Marcus was happy to play along with her. She was an art history major, and she worked on her reason for needing to access the collection, deciding she was doing a study of naturalist paintings, or something like that. They bought a 3-ring binder and created a hidden pocket inside the back cover, which they obscured with handouts from some of her classes. They had sex five times in the two days they were making their preparations, and each time seemed to get her more into the plan. Marcus smiled just thinking about it.
On Friday morning, three days after they’d met, Claire walked into the rare books room and said hello to the grey-haired lady. Marcus watched from across a broad hallway with workspaces lining the wall. Claire greeted her warmly and explained her visit. She was cool and natural, fumbling into her backpack as she spoke. She listened attentively. Spoke more. Pulled her wallet from her bag, fished out her ID, and handed it over. She spoke intermittently while the lady did something. Don’t talk too much, but talk some. That had been his brilliant advice.
She disappeared inside with the grey-haired lady, he couldn’t see her any more, and so he sat and watched the grey-haired lady’s desk for a while, and contemplated the architecture of the building. The grey-haired lady returned to her desk and got to work doing whatever she did. She was so still that she looked like a statue through the warped glass of the door. Marcus glanced at his watch. He counted the people he could see through the light well to the first floor. He thought about what he would say to the book dealers when he showed up with the John Muir notebook. He looked at his watch again. He wasn’t nervous. It was fine. She could be in there an hour and he’d be unconcerned.
And then she was back. A friendly goodbye to the grey-haired lady as she pushed through the door. They’d agreed to meet somewhere else, so she didn’t come to him then. But when she passed him she smiled and winked and he knew she had it.
He exhaled a deep breath and realized he had an erection.
Except that she didn’t have it.
“You’ve got to understand, there’s no way we could get at the John Muir stuff. This isn’t like a library where they have these on the shelves, Dewey decimal style. Gladys showed me around, showed me exactly where the John Muir stuff is kept.”
“Oh, my god, she’s so sweet. I thought she was going to pull a mint from her pocket. But yeah, Gladys gave me the little tour, showed me where I can view things, where I can work, and so on. She was obviously proud of the collection, and showed me some of the highlights like a museum docent would. That’s when I saw the John Muirs.”
“So tell me again what you got.”
“I looked around. So many books and manuscripts, and most of them honestly looked really dull, but then I found a collection by a woman named Alice Eastwood, a naturalist who explored the West, collecting plant species.”
“And she’s famous?”
“I don’t know. She’s in the rare book room, so she’s got to be something.”
“So you took a guess on this Eastwood lady.”
“It was just so beautiful,” she said, pulling her binder from her bag. They were in a café on College Avenue and it was crowded, but nobody was paying attention. She wasn’t worried about being seen so much as handling this thing with care.
From the hidden pocket, she pulled a thin brown notebook, not unlike something you could get at a stationary store, but old, and covered in a hand-drawing of a flower. At the bottom, in script, it said, Field Journal, Big Sur, Fall 1897, and beneath that Alice Eastwood. The flower was faded but lovely, and Claire held it in her hands like it was a religious relic.
“Field journal,” Marcus said skeptically.
“She was a botanist. You’ve got to see this stuff.”
She opened the book carefully to reveal page after page of faded writing and beautiful hand illustrations of plants and landscapes.
Claire looked into Marcus’s eyes with wonder.
“I don’t think I can sell it,” she said.
“We’re definitely selling it,” he said.
“It’s so beautiful.”
“Enjoy it while you have it.”
And she did, for an hour, while he drank his coffee and took pleasure in her pleasure, so open and honest and unconcerned with anything but itself.
He’d wanted to make off with the booklet, but he couldn’t shake her, and he literally couldn’t get it out of her possession. She held the binder it was in against her chest.
And then, to make things even more challenging, she adamantly insisted on going to the “fence” to sell it. Marcus didn’t have a fence. He had never done this before, and was operating on his native criminal instincts. But since his “fence” was actually just a name of an antiquarian bookstore he’d memorized from the yellow pages that morning, he would have preferred to keep her at a safe distance for that reason.
But that was not going to happen. Marcus was accustomed to convincing people to do things his way, and he’d never met anyone so good at not being convinced, of holding to her own line. It wasn’t just that she was stubborn, it’s that she was right.
Sitting outside the shop in the car, Marcus drew the line on going in alone. “He’s gonna get spooked if he sees you.”
“Tell him I’m your cousin, and it’s my piece, and I’m nervous about anyone else holding it,” the last of which was actually true.
“You worried I’m not going to give you your half?”
“And if I were?”
“You can see the door from here. What am I gonna do? You can frisk me when I get back. And I mean everywhere. But there’s no way I don’t do this alone.”
They went together.
A literal bell over the door announced their arrival, and a musty book smell greeted them. The store was long and narrow with floor-to-ceiling shelves along the walls, two parallel sets of shelves on each side, and a walkway to a counter in the back, behind which a bald man with glasses at the end of his nose sat reading a book.
She held the binder, and they moved slowly toward the back, admiring the books along the way, faded gilt titles running the spines, perfect row after perfect, dilapidated row. The final set of shelves had locked glass doors, and the books here were more spaced out, more unique, and Claire paused to admire them while Marcus stepped up to the counter.
The old man didn’t move but looked up over his glasses expectantly.
“Hi, there,” Marcus said in just above a whisper. “We have a manuscript we are interested in selling.”
The old man set down his book and nodded.
“We do buy the interesting manuscript,” he said. “From time to time.”
“Have you ever heard of Alice Eastwood?”
“No, I can’t say that I have.”
Claire stepped to the counter, opening the notebook. “She was a botanist, one of the first westerners to explore Big Sur, and this is one of her notebooks.”
Marcus didn’t know if this was true, but it landed exactly the right way. The bookseller stood up straight and turned his attention to the notebook emerging from the secret pocket.
“My great-grandmother was a friend of hers, and had some of her things, which I just inherited.”
Completely engrossed in the manuscript now on the counter, the dealer said absentmindedly, “I’m sorry for your loss,” turning the pages carefully.
Marcus wanted to signal Claire that he wanted a moment, but she didn’t need his instruction. She was watching the bookseller slowly become entranced by the book, and was waiting for him to turn to her favorite picture, a straight ahead look at a blooming flower, a pointy star taking the full two-page spread with spidery writing in the lower corners. In fact, this was the flower of a dusky onion, allium campanulatum, a native to Big Sur.
“This is unbelievable,” the bald man said, looking up at Claire.
She just nodded and Marcus just watched.
“I mean, this is outside my area of expertise, but this is clearly authentic, and it feels like an important document.”
Marcus’s stomach shifted from anxiety to eagerness. His face gave no sign.
“I never met my great grandma,” Claire said, “But my grandmother used to show me these drawings sometimes when I was little, and this one always transfixed me.”
Marcus was unaccustomed to working with someone else, and so it was disorienting following someone else’s lead. But as he stood there, nodding solemnly to her story, he found his erection returning.
The man stood up and took off his glasses, smiling at them sadly in a way that Marcus knew at once was a negotiating technique.
“I couldn’t begin to say what this might be worth. It’s beautiful, but someone who specializes in California history would have a better idea, so you might want to try that.”
Marcus nodded wisely, and worked on his response while waiting for the man to continue. But Claire jumped in.
“I know. Unfortunately, we’re in a time crunch and we can’t do the diligence on everything the way we would like. I have some paintings, too, and it’s been a real struggle to figure out what to do with them.”
“I see,” the man said, glancing down at the manuscript and back up at Marcus who had sold enough stolen merchandise to recognize dawning awareness in a buyer when he saw it. The next words from his mouth would likely tell the tale.
But again, it was Claire who spoke, and she said the exact right thing.
“Can you refer us to someone nearby?”
“You know, if you wanted to leave this with me, I would be happy to investigate it a bit further, so I can give you a fair price.”
Marcus watched Claire to see how she dealt with it, and again, she did the right thing, remaining silent, and looking at him expectantly, making it clear as could be what she wanted.
“But without further investigation, I could offer you, say, fifteen hundred dollars for this object.”
“Let’s call it two grand,” Marcus said.
As they drove back to his hotel, elated, Marcus knew he had experienced something new, something that drew him in and sustained his arousal. Claire was so smooth and perfect in that situation it was like watching a movie, a perfect actress delivering a perfect performance. For a solo operator this was a heady experience and he was already impatient for the sex they would have immediately at the hotel. He looked at her as he drove, admiring the stack of 20s in her lap, and their eyes locked in happiness, which is when Marcus had a horrifying realization.
Was he in love?
The idea was absurd. He’d been in love before, he was pretty sure, and it didn’t feel like this. But for a few minutes he gave into it, imagined them working as a team, taking bigger targets, perfecting their act, making love every night. She was probably the most beautiful girl he’d ever known. And he’d only known her for three days at this point, which meant in a way he didn’t really know her at all.
Nope. Not gonna happen.
Back at the hotel in bed Marcus found himself staring deeply into her eyes, and felt the power of her staring back at him, something he’d never felt, something more than sex. When it was over the feeling was gone, and it was replaced with mild panic. He made a decision, and acted before he could change his mind.
“You ever been to the track?” he asked.
Later, standing at the paddock, she said, “So how does this work exactly?”
“Friend of mine works here in the management office. One thing he oversees is the incoming feeds from tracks all over the country which you can bet on here.”
“What about the incoming feeds?”
“Well, for the out of town races, they run them on those monitors up there, but they only have six monitors, and they have up to eight feeds simultaneously, so the extra feeds they put into a queue and play them when the monitor is up.”
“Ok, but surely they don’t do the betting based on a delayed feed?”
“That’s right. The race is closed when it runs and technically no further bets can be placed. Except the system can be manipulated to allow late betting on out of town races if not for a secondary security system.”
“So when my friend’s boss is gone, he’s in charge, and he has a way to disable the secondary security for two minutes at a time.”
“And today is the day all those stars align.”
“Race Eight from Belmont.”
“And then your friend is going to call that payphone and tell us what to bet?”
“Yes, and we’ll have about 60 seconds to get our bet placed at Window One, which is right over there.”
“A sure thing?”
“Easy money,” he said. “The very best kind.”
In the end, it worked how it was suppose to. Claire took the call and was told to “place your bet” on Galloping Gal, and Claire put their $2000 on the horse as instructed. But then the horse came in second, which lead to a tense discussion about the difference between betting to win and betting to place. But it was moot, because the money was gone. Disbelief.
Before they left, Marcus pretended to go to the bathroom and instead went to Window One, where his new friend slid $1500 back to him. The story about the delay in the feed was true, but not the one about the betting systems. The cashier was able to print a phony bet slip after a race had closed, and as long as the slip was never claimed it wouldn’t be discovered. He just needed ropers like Marcus to bring in the marks, and he’d earn his 25%.
At the hotel, Marcus used his frustration at losing money to create an opportunity to have a fight, which created an opportunity for him to pack his bags and leave. The cash in his pocket didn’t make the departure any easier. She was crying on the bed when he last saw her, and he hesitated in the car on whether to go back and confess the whole thing and take her to Seattle with him. But that was clearly insane.
So he left town according to plan. Alone.
“I can’t believe our paths crossed after all these years,” Marcus said.
They were on the patio of a seafood restaurant. The weather was good, but it wasn’t crowded and they were able to speak freely without being overheard. Marcus still had no clue what it was that she wanted.
“I know. Can you imagine?”
He couldn’t. But he played along.
She was friendly enough. As in the gallery, he was worried that she’d figured out his deception, but her smile told him that wasn’t going to be an issue. Still, she had followed him here, and that was no coincidence, so what exactly did she want?
“And now look at you. So successful in the art world,” she said.
“I found my passion and I got lucky.”
“So you’re a dealer?”
“I’m a broker.”
“What’s the difference? I don’t know anything about art.”
“I don’t have a gallery. I’m sort of like an agent at large, on the lookout for interesting art that I think the world should see more of.”
“And Edgardo Romero de la Pena is your client?”
Marcus smiled his sad smile.
“Not anymore,” he said.
The waiter brought them drinks and bread, and took their orders.
“And what about you,” he asked. “What did you do with your art history degree?”
Claire laughed while taking a sip and spilled on the tablecloth, making her laugh more.
“The first thing I did was not get an art history degree. I switched to math, ended up getting an MBA, becoming a business strategy consultant.”
Marcus was surprised, but also not surprised. She was smart, and he’d always thought art history was a waste of time, ironically.
“Well, good for you,” he said. “And life seems to have treated you well. You look fantastic.”
It was true, she did. Her blue summer dress was well-tailored, and the flashes of gold were embroidered flowers, obviously hand-done. She wore a gauzy scarf that failed to conceal her smooth shoulders and tall neck. Her hair was to her shoulders, no bangs, with modest gems in her ears. But her eyes were exactly as they had been, blue like her dress and impossibly pale. Eyes that could drown you.
“I’m sorry I left the gallery without speaking with you,” Claire said. “I just hadn’t thought about you in years, and then there you were, and it didn’t seem right to interrupt you.”
“No worries. It was a surprise.”
“Yeah, but it’s more than that,” she said to her plate, before looking up into his eyes. “That week I spent with you changed my life, Marcus. It had a huge impact on me.”
Marcus looked interested, eager, but his stomach flopped. Here was the moment of truth. Did she know?
“Well, there were two big moments for me. The first was when I walked out of the library with the notebook. It was literally the most pleasure I’d ever felt in my life. I’ve dreamed of that feeling ever since.”
Marcus nodded, felt a kinship. “I know exactly what you mean.”
“It wasn’t just the stealing. That part of it I was sort of indifferent to. What thrilled me was my ability to adjust the world to suit my own needs, that I could take control and make things happen the way I wanted them to. That I didn’t need to be bound by rules.”
Marcus braced himself. “What was the second seminal moment?”
He was afraid to hear the answer.
She hesitated and looked grave.
“The second moment was when I fucked things up at the track.”
And there it was. His con remained intact.
“It helps to think about a large corporation as an organism with multiple systems, much like humans and other animals,” she said while trying to corner the last piece of salmon from her salad. Marcus had already finished his sandwich, and he enjoyed sparring with her while waiting for whatever it was she wanted to tell him.
“Even cephlapoda,” he said, showing a fork of calamari.
“Indeed, any mollusca at all,” she said. “You’ve got overt systems, like marketing, product development and so on. And then you’ve got processes that connect them in different ways, security, corporate governance, and so on, which themselves are systems. And then you’ve got corporate culture, which acts as another system of sorts.”
“And collectively these systems power the body corporate,” he said.
“And where do you fit in, as a, what you called it, a strategic advisor?”
“My firm does lots of different things for various parts of corporations, but generally speaking my role is to come in and assess the strength of various systems against what the client wants to achieve, and then recommend specific actions to close any gaps.”
“Specific actions which tend to include additional large contracts for your firm?”
She smiled. “I told you. I like to create my own opportunities. This job lets me find interesting problems to solve and then solve them. It’s fun, and it’s profitable. And it can’t be a con game if the client is happy at the end, right?”
Marcus laughed, but this made him nervous. It was a knowing comment, innocuous and dangerous at the same time.
“So what kinds of interesting projects do you get to do?”
“Are you familiar with control engineering?”
“Well, there’s a practice in control engineering called FDIR, fault detection and isolation. Pinpointing the faults and potential faults in a system. It’s good for figuring out what might make your rocket explode, for example. But I created a practice in the firm that focuses on this for a variety of corporate systems.”
“That sounds interesting, but what does it mean exactly?”
“It means I get to break things and get paid for it.”
The waiter came and cleared their dishes. They ordered coffee.
“I will give you a very interesting example of a project I’m working on right now, as a matter of fact, and the kinds of opportunities that this work lends itself to.”
Marcus sat up. This sounded like she was getting around to the point, and he wanted to be sharp enough to plot his reaction to whatever she said in the instant she said it. It was rare that he experienced this kind of unpredictability, and he realized he was enjoying it.
“I have a client, a global conglomerate you may never have heard of, but one of their portfolios contains many hundreds of different entertainment, destination, and lifestyle brands that you would probably recognize, given the tailoring of your suit. High-end stuff. Hotel chains, casinos, yachts, you name it. So they’re in the business of buying and selling business, essentially, and a huge part of what this portfolio manager does, this 200 billion dollar general manager, is integrate companies into their corporate systems. And then of course remove them when they’re sold.”
“Well, with all these different layers of corporate systems flying around, they were worried about security breaches, risk profiles of different activities, and so forth. Pretty straightforward stuff, but requiring massive detection tools resulting in a massive amount of information.”
“And from that you identify the most profitable holes for your firm to plug.”
“Oh, definitely that. But for me the fun part is swimming through the sea of information, finding the currents and the shoals. Exploring for the fun of getting lost and then found.”
“Like Sinbad the Sailor.”
“Exactly. The island of Serendib.”
“And what did you find on your island?”
“Same thing you showed me twenty years ago.”
The waiter came back with coffee, but her gaze was locked on Marcus, smiling in expectation, as if the whole look, the whole extended stare was the first part of her answer, which was only completed when the waiter was out of earshot and she uttered the final three words, three crisp syllables, the siren song no mark can resist.
“A sure thing,” she said.
“They are heavily invested in gambling, with glitzy resorts and casinos all over the world, but they’ve also been buying up online gambling properties, websites where you can play poker, bet on sports, bet on anything. There’s a million of these betting sites, billions of dollars, so it’s not surprising that these guys would buy in.
“But unlike their brands that they wanted to integrate into their portfolio, they wanted to keep these gambling sites separate, continue to let them operate more or less independently. Strategically, they didn’t want to upset the ecosystem, so they just bought up a half a dozen of the big sites and let them keep chugging.”
“But you got involved so something must have happened,” Marcus said.
“No,” she said, “Nothing happened. I don’t do tactical response. No, the directors just wanted to tighten the financial systems to remove or at least reduce skimming. See, a lot of this world is filled with unsavory characters, grey markets, fronts, that sort of thing.”
“The mob,” he said.
“I don’t know what that is. But there are lots of criminals who have invested in these sites, and you can bet that some of them were wetting their beaks.”
“Sounds like a dangerous job, getting those beaks out of the company trough,” he said.
“I can take care of myself,” she said.
“Not with gangsters,” he said.
She waved it away. “The first job was to audit the big betting properties, look at the layers of their systems, see where the weak spots were, just like any project. Except this time it was hard cash money flowing through those pipes.”
She sipped her coffee purposefully, and set it down carefully before continuing.
“And as I’m watching these different systems stack up in front of me, conceptually, I begin to sense where the potential weak spots are, how information flows and how that information tracks to the money changing hands. How it works as designed, but also how it might be manipulated, where things might slip through, and so forth. Which jogged a certain memory from my wild and wasted youth.”
She took another sip more slowly, leaning back in her chair, waiting for Marcus. It was cooler now, and he was happy to sit and watch the shadow from the awning creep up her leg, but he was following this closely, and he didn’t need any time to think.
“The track,” he said.
“The track,” she said. “I was sitting there looking at the systems for placing and routing bets, time management for all betting entities in the system, redundant systems to verify the event and the bet matched, the whole thing. The mechanisms of the whole place were sitting in front of me.”
“But you found a weakness,” Marcus said. He still didn’t know where exactly this was headed, but he couldn’t help but notice that he was being led down the path just as he had led her so long ago.
“We found gaps all over the place, the thing was a mess. So much so that the tech team at my firm is going to be busy on it for years, tearing up the code and plugging all the holes. But for now, with the right hidden system in place to make small interruptions to the flow of time, someone could do very well.”
Marcus smiled. He still wasn’t quite sure what she was up to, but he knew how to set up a mark as well as the next guy, and the idea of a narrow window for easy money is straight from the sucker’s playbook. He knew he should just pay the bill and leave, that no good would come from this. Instead, he kept on going, lost as he was in her blue eyes.
“But,” he said.
“But I need your help. I can’t do it without someone else, and I don’t have anyone else I can ask,” she said.
“You haven’t seen me in twenty years!”
“That’s what makes it so perfect. Listen,” she said, leaning over the table and lowering her voice, even though nobody was nearby, “The hack is in place, and I think we can easily get away with placing a dozen large bets over the next few weeks. But I need someone unconnected to me to make the bets themselves.”
“You must have friends you could turn to?”
She shook her head. “Marcus, I don’t do this. I’m a consultant. I like to steal expensive scarves, but this is something else. I can’t just go to my friends and ask them to join me in a felony scheme.”
He smiled. “So I’m the only criminal you know.”
“I’ve racked my brain trying to think of someone for this, and then this morning I ran into you.”
“A sure thing,” she said.
Marcus felt a trill in his stomach, and noticed he was partially erect. Her lips were red, pressed into a suppressed smile, slightly chapped along the lower lip, and all he could think was that he wanted to kiss her.
They faced off across the table. He had two choices, as he saw it. He could take her to bed and get drunk on this woman, lose his head and probably his money. Or he could keep things professional.
“I’m in,” he said, choosing option two.
He was going to rob her blind.
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