If all of the sex, drugs, and fighting last night had taken any toll on Leyla’s ability to do the job, it didn’t show. She had arrived at the ‘Kenneth Denmali Gallery’ at around 7:35 with a very curt text informing Connor they were ‘otw.’ He had set the stage perfectly with a couple plants and a slew of patsies to make sure the floor was buzzing by the time the mark arrived with Leyla in tow. She was stunning in the red outfit that she had matched with glossy, red lipstick and an elaborate hair-do. The room went completely silent when she entered- every single male in the room was jealous of the man who had her on his arm. Connor smirked; they might not be so jealous if they knew how many different ways this guy was about to get taken.
The mark let Leyla, who was being as physically affectionate as she could, lead him around the room first. It neatly lined up getting the first part of the job done. They had several pictures of him canoodling with Leyla and were ready to seal up the envelope to send to his wife by the time the blonde had roped him into a nice, deep kiss. Now he was nice and pliable, so Connor signaled the plants to do their thing. One quick nod and Mickey nudged his buddies, who he’d wrangled in on the promise of a small cut, both dressed in the nicest clothes they could get their hands on.
“Is this an original Valentino?” The skinny man of the pair asked. He was too loud by half, but it pulled everyone’s attention to the intriguing collection of colors and shapes that stood prominently in the center of one of the walls. The work was fine, but Connor picked it mostly for the name of the guy who’d made it. Marcio Valentino sounded like the name of some scraggly Italian painter who was sure to be a coveted artist, even though the guy himself was probably a bucktooth teenager who mostly just liked ‘pretty colors.’
“Oh my God, it is!” The other half of the pair was a lady in her fifties who redefined simple elegance with a black party dress and a pair of black, t-strap heels. Connor made a note of her in case they ever needed a lady plant again. She was really selling it. “Excuse me, sir? Could you come here please?”
Connor approached, all attitude and hips. He had found that an effeminate accent really sold art jobs and made the mark feel at ease. He was simpering and sassing to flamboyant effect tonight, “Yes? How may I help you?”
“How much for the Valentino?”
“Ooooh! You have exquisite taste. I was just telling my stylist, Jacqueline, about it this morning. I said to her, Jackie, I couldn’t possibly let that go for any less than one thousand dollars. I mean, how many times does one get their hands on an original Valentino?”
Leyla looked over and nudged her date. They joined the crowd that was quickly gathering around Connor and the plants. She pouted and whispered in her date’s ear, and finally he spoke up. “I would buy that painting for one thousand.”
The lady plant didn’t even bat an eyelash. “Excuse me! I was the one who was going to buy this piece.”
“Then you should have made an offer first.”
Connor pursed his lips and looked at both of them. “Honey, he did make his offer first.”
“Well, what if I offered one point five for the painting?”
“Yawn. Pablo, can you come pack this up for the nice man?”
“Wait! Three thousand.”
“I’m feeling a little moved by your desperate plea.”
“Sugar, for four thousand, you can roll it up and take a bath with it! Sold.” Connor gave a hearty, girlish laugh. The lady started reaching into her purse.
“Wait! That’s not fair! You agreed to sell the painting to me for one thousand.” The hook was in. Connor was ready to tug.
“I’m sorry, sweetie. But money talks in this business. In another five years that painting will clear six figures. Do you really expect me to let it go to you now just because you spoke first?”
The man eyed the painting then the lady, his nostrils flaring. “Seven thousand dollars!”
Connor’s eyes went wide, but he got a handle on his composure. “Darling, I don’t think you can beat that.”
The woman looked distraught, “No, wait! I can come back tomorrow. I’ll pay you ten. Fifteen even!”
“Sorry, hon. It’s a done deal. Pablo, take care of this nice man.”
Mickey came around, dressed in his normal ‘shop assistant’ attire, and pulled the painting off the wall. The crowd gasped at the high price that the Valentino had just fetched. Mickey took the check, which would be used for identity theft later, in payment. This set off a feeding frenzy among the patsies in the crowd. If one painting was worth seven grand, they figured, the other work must be worth at least half that. Leyla winked and blew a kiss at Connor as she walked out the front door with her mark in tow. Connor scowled at the blonde as he did his best to make order out of the chaos of a dozen orders coming in at once.
As the last order was taken, the last painting packed away, and the last sculpture boxed, Connor counted the take. Minus the amount they’d have to pay out to all the ‘winners,’ they had wound up with nearly fifty large, an incomprehensible amount of money.
Connor looked at the great big pile of checks then looked around at the gallery. Mickey was off in the back wrapping up the remaining pieces and the plants had all taken off with the crowd. He looked at the large pile. He could just take it and leave, he realized. Fifty grand would stretch a long way if he lived frugally, or he could parlay it into a new scheme. He picked up the money, thought it over for a moment, then divided it out. He made out five checks of ten thousand each from their dummy account, one stake each for the main players and one stake to split between the plants. Ten large is still a nice haul, he told himself as he pocketed his share. The other three he placed in envelopes and handed off to Mickey.
“For you, Brody, and your buddies.”
“Hey, thanks, Connor. Your little blondie did really, really good tonight.”
“Yeah,” Connor said grimly, “she’s a peach.”
“You don’t sound happy about it.”
“Do you ever get the feeling like you’re being used, Mick?”
“Of course! Everybody uses everybody. It doesn’t mean she doesn’t also care about you.”
“You’re such a softy, Mickey.”
“She gets the work done. That’s all that matters.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Connor, don’t fuck this up.”
“Mickey, it’s about trust. She broke it, and I don’t know what else you want me to say.”
“Almost a year and we’re all doin’ better than we ever have. That’s ten large sittin’ in your pocket. Don’t let bullshit get in the way.”
“You’re a pal, Mick. I gotta go catch up with Leyla. She’ll be doin’ the ex-girlfriend any second now. Funny how the philanderers never see it when you play the wife card against them.”
“Alright, Connor, just think about it.”
“Yeah.” Connor walked out of the gallery. The night was still and calm, and the neighborhood actually did look quite a bit better with the gallery in it. Lights in other shops were on, people were walking about, and a few of the other empty storefronts looked to be undergoing renovations.
In another week it would be closed down again, and everything would probably go back to the way it was: another empty promise in a block made up of the discarded husks of businesses. It was the grifter’s lament, at least to Connor, that you only ever played at building things instead of making anything substantial. Bitterly, he realized that was his entire relationship with Leyla: A play-act for people who couldn’t build up any real emotional connection. He knew what he had to do now. He did his best to harden his heart as he continued down the sidewalk.
Connor could just make out the outline of her in the dark corner that was their rendezvous. The glow of a faraway streetlamp silhouetted her as she leaned against the wall of a building. As he came closer, she saw him and came out into the light, beaming ear to ear. Connor shot a thin smile at her, his guts writhing inside him.
“Did you see my performance?! I had him on the hook so hard! Seven grand, I couldn’t believe it!”
“Yeah, you did amazing, doll. Really, I’ve never seen anything like it. You were solid gold tonight.”
He pulled her stake from his pocket and handed it over. She looked at the number then looked up at him. “How’d we end up with ten large each?”
“Your gentleman set off a wave of purchases. That’s not even all of it. When the rest of the job rolls in, you’ll have maybe one or two thou more.”
Leyla’s face radiated excitement. She wrapped her arms around Connor and hugged him tightly. “That’s amazing!” Breaking the hug, she eyed him up and down. “Come back to my place. I’m in the mood to celebrate.”
She came close, trying to bite playfully at his neck, but Connor backed away. “Look, doll, we can’t do that again. Not ever.”
She look was alluring in the dim haze of streetlamp. “So you’re saying you didn’t like it?”
“What? No, it was great. But we’re partners, do you understand? I gotta know that the job is getting done and I can’t do that if we’re in the sheets together.”
She was trying to curl some of his hair through her fingers, apparently having lost none of her determination. “It seems to me the job got done perfectly well tonight, better than ever, even.”
“We got lucky. Look, dollface, I keep the job compartmentalized for a reason. If Mickey gets flipped, he can’t turn over on anyone but me. Same goes for you and Brody and any plants we pick up. I do it to keep people safe. You and I sharing a bed together, that makes things fuzzy. I can’t keep the job segregated and I also can’t keep my mind off of you. That’s bad business.”
Her eyes were warm, almost smoldering in the night. “So you can’t keep your mind off me? That’s good to know.”
“You’re not listening, Leyla! We’re partners, but that’s all we’ll ever be. Now, you’re stunning, and in any other position I’d give my left arm for even a date with a gal like you. But if we keep on having a few laughs on the side, we’ll both end up in jail or worse.”
“Sorry, I stopped listening at ‘give my left arm for a date.’”
Connor pushed her back and walked away. He was feeling frustrated at her refusal to listen. She ran up beside him and grabbed his arm. “Connor, I was just kidding.”
“Well I wasn’t. No more sex. No more drugs. No more bullshit. You and I are all about the job. That’s all.” It was tearing him up inside to have to say it, but he knew as he said the words that it was the right decision. Already he could feel his chest lighten.
“I don’t think so.”
She grabbed his face and held it until his eyes met hers. The warm blue had grown piercing, intense. Connor became transfixed by the heat of her gaze. She dropped her hands, but he couldn’t break the stare. “I said, I don’t think so. I like you, Connor. You make me feel beautiful and you don’t act like you own me or try to take advantage. You probably don’t know this, but that’s a pretty hard quality to find in a guy.”
His mind felt dull and lumpy. He felt like he wanted to make a snappy retort, but no words would come. Instead he settled for, “Thank … you.”
She smiled and licked her lips. “You’re welcome. See how much nicer it is when you listen to me? Now here is how it’s going to be: we’re still going to be partners, but I will have sex with you whenever I want. Maybe it will be every day. Maybe it will only be for big jobs. But you will always be there when I call. Does that sound like a reasonable arrangement?”
“Totally … reasonable.” He felt like he was drowning in her gaze and the wetness of her lips. Everything had that faraway sheen normally reserved for nights of whiskey shots and boilermakers. He tried to get a handle on the dizzy distance of it all, but he couldn’t bring the world back into focus.
“Now I want you to take me to my place and I want you to help me celebrate this amazing day we just had. Do you think you can handle that?”
“No … problem, doll.” She shifted her eyes away, and Connor felt the gears in his mind turning in a rush. His heart was racing and his palms were sweating. He could feel the cool desire for her radiating from down beneath his skin. Why had he ever wanted to end things with her?
“Good. Take me back to my place.”
The incessant, hungry need for her drove him beyond reason. He had to have her now. Without even thinking he said, “My place is closer.”
Leyla was stretched out naked on his bed. Connor looked around dismayed at the state of his apartment. She had appreciatively commented about how orderly and neat his place was when they had first entered, but had proceeded to knock things over with reckless abandon as they stripped, scratched, and caressed over every inch of the tiny studio apartment he called home.
He considered getting out of bed to pick a few things up, but his will was sapped. Instead he contented himself with staring at Leyla, who was fingering the items on his end table with curiosity. It was mostly topped with things he would play with on occasion that didn’t have a particular place in the apartment. A few coins and cards for practicing sleight of hand, a bell for practicing smooth lifts, and even a small safe lock to practice cracking. Picking up a deck of cards from amidst the miscellany, she sat up and scooted over to Connor.
“Show me a card trick!”
“Card trick? What do I look like, a magician?”
Leyla pouted slightly, then leaned over and breathed into his ear, “Please?”
His insides went all mushy, so he sat up and pulled out the cards. The top three were bent slightly, and he arranged them neatly in a row in front of her. “Alright, it’s not so much a magic trick as a perception trick, but here it goes.” He revealed the three cards: two clubs and one Queen of diamonds. “You know this game?”
“I’ve seen it before, I think. It’s called Three-Card Monte, right?”
He flipped the cards over. “Yeah, that’s one name for it. Another one is Find the Lady.” He began to move the cards back and forth, shuffling them around. “There you go, doll, can you find the lady?”
She pointed to the center then beamed as he flipped it over to reveal the Queen. “Guess I’m pretty good at this game.”
“Alright, we’ll double the stakes then. You stay the night if you lose.” He began shuffling them again, in earnest this time. “Make your pick.”
She chose the far right one and was shocked when he turned over to reveal a club. “How’d you do that? I was sure I had it right.”
“That’s the trick to it. Look here.” He stopped mid-shuffle. Two of the cards were in one hand and one was in the other. “When I have the two cards together like this I can throw the top or the bottom one down and you won’t be able to tell which is which. You follow the top card, thinking it’s the bottom, and I got you all mixed up. You can make somebody mess up on this game nine times outta ten if they think they’re smart. The dumb ones actually do better, they got a two out of three chance of getting it right.”
She looked appreciatively at the him, “Pretty smart, Mr. Donnelly.”
“Well I do my best.”
“So why don’t we ever do anything like this? Seems like an easy enough game to make money at.”
“And it’s also easy enough for people to figure out you’re swindling them. There’s a lot of easy games out there, sweetheart, but they’re not all worth doing. It’s just like the haunted house scam.”
“Haunted house scam?”
“Yeah, it’s a form of real estate fraud. You convince people a house is haunted: bang doors, make spooky noises, whatever’s clever.”
“That sounds like fun too.”
“But it’s too easy to spot, doll. There’s no ghost, and, the second your mark realizes that, your game’s over.”
“So just get a real ghost to haunt it. Simple.”
He reached for her knee and found that she had a ticklish spot right above it. She writhed and wriggled until she finally squirmed out of his grip. When the laughing subsided, he spoke again, “Okay, you find a ghost, and we’ll start running the haunted house scam.”
She made a spooky ghost affectation. “Aaaand what wooould yoou dooooOOOoo with the ghoost aaaaftterrr?” She laughed and tried to find his ticklish spot.
“I’d find him a lady ghost, or a man ghost, if that’s what he preferred.”
“Oh and you think it’s that simple do you?”
“Hey, everyone wants something. That’s what makes every confidence game work. They want to be smart, or rich, or loved. If you can find what it is, then you can control them, ghosts included.”
“Then I’ll start looking around for one. We’ll be set with nothing but easy money when I get our phantom crewman.”
“You wish. Casper or no, there’s no such thing as an easy score.”
“I’m gonna remember you said that.”