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Kip Largo was once the world's greatest con man. Then he got busted. And spent eight years in jail. And lost his family. And lost everything except his crummy apartment and sense of humor. Now he spends his days working at a third-rate dry cleaner and maintaining a fourth-rate website. But hey, it's an honest living.
Then one day he meets Lauren Napier, beautiful wife of billionaire Ed Napier. Lauren's got a problem. She wants to leave Ed, but doesn't get squat in a divorce. She wants Kip to steal the money. She wants to pay him handsomely for his services. Kip's many things, but dumb isn't one of them. He knows that when a beautiful woman wants something from you, the only thing you're gonna get in return is trouble. So he makes the smart choice and walks away. But then things get complicated.
Kip comes home one day to find his son on his couch. Kip hasn't seen his son in years. Guess what' His son owes money to the Russian Mob. Kip can't say he saw that coming. And his son is short, well, the whole amount. Kip's monthly gross from the website generally tops out at twelve bucks. And suddenly Lauren's proposal isn't looking half bad.
This is Kip's chance to start over, to save his son, to afford a brand new life. But Kips knows that in any heist things never go as planned, and if you don't improvise you'll be caught faster than a one-legged bank robber. But suddenly Kip doesn't know who's conning who, and if he doesn't figure it out, his life could be the ultimate failed con.
For my father,
And for my son, Jackson:
I think now finally I understand.
The events in this book are fictional, except one.
On April 27, 1998, a publicly traded company that specialized in manufacturing meat casings and fish oil announced that it was going to change its name to Zap.com and become an "Internet portal" and "e-commerce business."
Because of this news, shares of the company on the New York Stock Exchange rose 98 percent.
Today, eight years later, the company is again a meat casing and fish protein company.
"It should be no reflection upon a man's intelligence to be swindled."
—DAVID W. MAURER, The Big Con
It's the world's most simple con, and any idiot can do it, even the one sitting next to me.
He's twenty-five years old, dressed in khakis and a pinpoint Oxford shirt. He has soft hands and wears glasses. I'm guessing a dot-commer, college-educated. Probably he read about this con in a book, or maybe on the Internet, so he wants to try it out. A story to tell his friends. Here in the Blowfish he has found the perfect place to give it a whirl: a friendly bar without obvious thugs who might break his fingers, but far enough from home that he'll never have to walk past the door again.
So here he goes. He's sitting at the bar, one stool over from me. He's talking to the guy on the other side of him, a beefy fellow in a badly fitting suit. The beefy guy has one solid eyebrow across his forehead and a big signet ring on his pinkie. I'm guessing that he has stamped that signet into the cheeks of one or two men that have tried to fuck with him. Maybe the Dot Com Kid doesn't have such good instincts after all.
Dot Com says to Monobrow, "You know what? I'm feeling lucky. You want to play a friendly game?"
Monobrow is holding a glass of JD near his mouth. His hand is so big that it wraps entirely around the glass and makes it seem like a trifle. He chews on an ice cube and looks at the kid. He measures him in about a second. "All right," he says.
Dot Com says, "It's called the Pot Game. We each put some money in a pot. Say, I dunno, twenty bucks." He takes a twenty from his pocket and drops it on the bar. "Then we both bet on the pot."
Monobrow thinks about it. He takes a money clip out of his jacket. A fat wad of cash. That's another bad sign. No one carries that much cash unless he's in a certain line of work. Work where checking accounts are frowned upon. Now I'm thinking that I ought to break in, stop the kid before he gets hurt. But before I can act, the big man peels a twenty off his roll and drops it on the bar. "I'm in," he says.
"Okay," the kid says. His face is a mixture of fear—will he be found out?—and excitement—that he's actually trying the con. He has probably thought about doing this for weeks, maybe months. What a great story he'll be able to tell his other dot-com friends. "It's simple. Each player gets to bid on the pot. Whoever bids the highest wins the pot. Got it?"
"Yeah, okay," the big guy says. From the look on his face, math was never his strong suit. But the rules are simple, and the kid doesn't seem very threatening . . .
The Dot Com Kid says, "All right. There are forty dollars in the pot. So I guess I'll start off the bidding by offering to buy the pot for twenty bucks."
Monobrow thinks about it. The pot's worth forty dollars. The kid's willing to pay twenty for it. Still room for a profit. Monobrow spits his ice cube into his glass of JD, rattles it around like a craps die. "Yeah?" the man says. "I'll give you twenty-five dollars for it."
This is where the kid should stop. He should wave his hand magnanimously, take twenty-five dollars from Monobrow's hand, slide him the pot, and then he should walk the fuck out of the bar with a five-dollar profit, and fast, before Monobrow warms up his synapses. But the kid's greedy. Not for money—he probably has more than enough of that, maybe millions of dollars of stock options in some company that sells something useless on the Internet. No, the kid wants a better story. He's already envisioning it: getting together with his friends tonight, at a SoMa bar, and telling them how he took this blue-collar guy—those are the words he'll use, blue-collar guy—for a wad of cash—enough to pay for a round of drinks, and so—hey?—why don't I treat tonight, gang?
So Dot Com says, "You're bidding twenty-five, huh?" He makes a show of rubbing his chin, thinking about it. "You're a tough one, mister. All right, I'll offer twenty-eight dollars."
Monobrow chuckles. He's already worked out the math, so he doesn't even need to think. Any bid under forty dollars means a profit. "Thirty bucks," he says to the kid.
The kid pretends to flinch. He sucks in his breath, as if he just ate something spicy. The kid says, "Ooh. Too rich for my blood. You win. I'll take your bid. You win the pot." He holds out his palm. Monobrow peels a twenty and a ten off his personal roll and hands it to the kid. The kid pockets it and graciously waves his hand over the forty-dollar pot. He says, "The forty dollars is yours."
Monobrow takes the pot, adds it to his roll. Did you catch what happened here? Monobrow put in twenty dollars in order to play the game. Then he paid the kid thirty dollars to "win" the pot. So in total, he paid out fifty dollars, in order to win a forty-dollar pot. The kid took him for ten bucks in two minutes. This is the old Change Game. There are a hundred variations on it.
Now, though, Dot Com Kid is making a big mistake. He's hanging around the bar. The first rule of cons is: Never let the victim know he's been had. The second rule is: If you break the first rule, then run like hell. But the Kid is sipping his beer, watching the Giants game on the bar TV. Finally, he gets up from his stool and settles his tab in a leisurely fashion, dropping a few singles, one at a time, on the bar. God, he's hopeless. Your tab should always be settled before you start. You need to be able to leave the moment the con is done.
I can see the wheels turning in the big guy's head. He's obviously a criminal; criminals can smell a swindle faster than straights. It's all the years of ripping everyone else off: If the big man had spent thirty years dancing ballet, chances are he'd know a good plié when he saw one, too. Meanwhile Dot Com is watching Barry Bonds on the television. Dot Com is standing behind his bar stool, gaping up at the television, without a care in the world. He's about to be disillusioned. Fast.
"Wait a second," Monobrow says. He's blinking, as if he's bothered by sweat. But the bar is cold as a meat locker. "That ain't right."
Dot Com looks down from the TV, realizes his mistake. If he had gone straight home, he could have watched Barry Bonds highlights on SportsCenter, and he would have kept his ten bucks and his pretty looks. But now, none of those things is certain.
Monobrow says, "You trying something funny, pal?" Monobrow rises from his stool. He's nine inches away from Dot Com. Dot Com grasps that, for a lousy ten bucks, he's about to get beaten up. Or worse.
"Sorry?" the kid says. Which is the right move. The three rules of running a con: deny, deny, deny.
Monobrow is in the kid's face. The kid probably smells scampi. The big man says, "I paid out fifty! You gave me forty. You think you're smart?"
The kid goes white. Now the story he will tell his friends won't be as charming as he thought. And it may be recounted not from a SoMa bar over a chardonnay, but from a hospital bed with an IV drip.
Too late. The big man sends a right hook up into the kid's jaw. The kid's arms windmill around as he goes flying and crashes into the bar. He arches his back and lies on the bar top, soft like a bartender's rag, with his feet on the floor. Monobrow reaches down and clutches the poor kid's throat. He pushes down, hard. The kid's eyeglasses are crazily askew, one earpiece off the face completely, and his eyes bulge behind the lenses. "You little fuck," Monobrow says. "You wanna fuck with me? You picked the wrong guy, pal." He reaches into his too-small jacket and pulls out a gun. He presses it against Dot Com's jaw. Surely this is not what the kid expected when he read about this Change Game on the Internet, or when he practiced it in the mirror last night.
A patron with a gun always attracts a bartender's interest. He was at the far side of the bar, twirling a swizzle stick in a glass, when the ruckus started. The bartender is a young man himself, early twenties. He calls out, but not too loudly, "Whoa there." It's clear from his tentativeness that he doesn't own the place—he's just a worker bee in the middle of a four-hour shift between classes at Santa Clara or Stanford. He'd prefer no trouble in the bar while he's in charge, but, then again, he'd also prefer not to be shot. If he has to choose, he'll take trouble over being shot. So he says, holding up both hands as if he's the one being stuck up, "Let's all just calm down." Yes, good idea. Let's all calm down—as if the kid lying on the bar and turning red, with his eyes bugging out of his head, is acting unruly. If only Dot Com would calm down, by not gurgling so loudly, then everything would be fine.
Now's a good time for me to step in. I'm only a few feet away from the kid who's choking, so I don't have to speak loudly. I say, "That's enough." This action sums me up perfectly: I wait too long for everything, and then it's too little, too late. Celia, my ex, would agree.
Monobrow turns to me without releasing the kid or lowering the gun. He has a you-gotta-be-kidding expression: He can't believe some fifty-four-year-old guy with salt-and-pepper hair, a paunch, and tired eyes is approaching him in a Sunnyvale bar while he's in the middle of killing someone. He gives me a one-second glance, then turns back to Dot Com. He says to Dot Com, "Now I'm going to teach you a lesson." He pulls back the trigger with his big thumb. It makes a click.
Dot Com's fingers scrabble feebly at the beefy hand clutching his throat. It is implacable. I can tell the kid is trying to say something, but he can't breathe and no sound comes out. I'm guessing the general idea of what he wants to say is, "I'm very sorry."
I stand up from my stool so that Monobrow can't ignore me. I say, quietly, without menace, "Come on, he's a just a kid. He didn't mean anything by it."
"Mind your own business, pal." And then, still staring at the kid: "The kid tried to rip me off."
"He learned his lesson. Look, he took you for ten dollars. I'll pay you twenty bucks to make it up to you." I reach into my back pocket, pull out my wallet. I look inside, hoping that I do indeed have twenty bucks. Unfortunately, I have only a ten and six sad-looking singles, wilted like day-old lettuce. Whoops. I say, "Here, take whatever I have. It's sixteen dollars. You still come out ahead. Plus the kid knows never to mess with you again. You taught him a good lesson."
The big man turns to me. He lowers the gun from the kid's jaw. It's not clear if he's standing down or repositioning to take a shot at me. He says, "What are you, a fucking guardian angel?"
"Just a busybody who doesn't know when to keep quiet," I admit. I take the bills from my wallet, hold them out to him. He releases the kid, who slides off the bar and falls to the floor. Monobrow swipes the money from my hand, counts it. He stuffs it in his pants pocket. He drops his gun into his coat, turns back to the kid. Dot Com is rubbing his neck. He has five purple bruises around his throat, one for each garlicky finger, like a well-worn page in a precinct fingerprint book.
"Your lucky day," Monobrow says to the kid. He's obviously a pro, because he knows the exact lesson the kid failed to grasp: Always walk away when you have a profit. He's not going to hang around the bar and wait for the police, who are surely on their way. Come to think of it, neither am I.
Monobrow smiles at the kid with a face that indicates absolutely nothing in the world is funny. He gives me a little nod and walks out of the bar. The kid's eyes follow him and then stare at the door for a good ten seconds, to see if Monobrow is going to change his mind and return. When it's clear he won't, the kid looks up at me. He whispers, "Thank you."
I kneel down beside him. His eyes are watering, maybe from choking, maybe from crying. I don't think he's going to join his South of Market friends tonight. I feel I should give him some advice about how to run a con. Teach him to get out before the mark figures it. But then I decide his conning days are over, and tomorrow he'll go back to writing performance reviews, or breaking bread with venture capitalists, or whatever it is he really is good at. Running Change Games isn't one of those things.
So I decide against giving advice. I have something else I want to say to the kid. I say it softly, so that no one else in the bar will hear. When he sees I'm about to speak, the kid turns his ear to me, as if he's ready to receive golden wisdom. But I'm thinking about my empty wallet, and the fact that I gave the mafia goon my last sixteen dollars. I say to the kid, "Hey, you mind reimbursing me sixteen bucks?"
By the time I leave the Blowfish, I have forty dollars in my wallet. That's all the kid had left, and he was happy to give me whatever he had. In fact he offered to write me a check for more—"I'm good for it," he assured me, as if I had any doubt—but I refused. Half because I'm a good guy, and half because I prefer not to leave a paper trail.
You may wonder if I helped the kid because I thought I'd make a profit. I entered the bar with twenty bucks (then spent four on beer), and I left with forty. But I walked up to a guy brandishing a gun. He was a guy who looked comfortable with guns, as if he had some practice with them. So ask yourself: Would you walk up to a guy with a gun and try to stop a fight for forty bucks? It would take a certain desperation for a man to do that, for forty bucks, wouldn't it? So just what kind of guy do you think I am?
But, okay, yes. The thought of a small profit did cross my mind. Briefly.
After I walk out of the bar, it's time to go home. It's six o'clock, and so I've timed peak rush hour perfectly. I will now spend the next hour driving eleven miles to my apartment in Palo Alto. Had I left Sunnyvale an hour earlier, or an hour later, I could have cut my commute in half. But that would indicate good common sense, something I lack.
I walk to my car and press the key-chain remote. The Honda chirps brightly. I hear footsteps running toward me. Without turning, I know they are women's heels.
I turn. She is half-walking, half-running. I remember her from the bar. She was at a table in the back, barely visible in the dark. The only reason I noticed her was her big Jackie O sunglasses. Not many people wear sunglasses in a dark bar.
She's blond, in her twenties, rail-thin, with big breasts that cannot possibly be real. She's wearing dark glen plaid pants—with loose cuffs but tight around the thighs and rear—and a beige ribbed sweater. She's obviously trying to dress down and look inconspicuous, but she's fashion-model gorgeous. It's impossible for a woman like her to be inconspicuous.
She says, by way of introduction, "That was nice of you, back there."
I guess she didn't see me take forty bucks from the kid. Or maybe she did, and she has low standards. I say, "Thanks."
"You ran out so fast. I nearly missed you."
I give her a little smile. Polite, but not too interested.
She says, "Can I buy you a drink?"
Here's another lesson for you men. Never in the history of the entire world has a woman offered to buy a strange man a drink. Unless she wants something. So don't flatter yourself. You're not that good-looking, or that rich, or that funny—or whatever you think you are. If a woman offers to buy you drink, you are only one thing: a sucker about to be fleeced.
"All right," I say. I can't help myself. She's pretty. A little too young for me, but what else do I have to do? Sit in traffic? Drink alone in my apartment? "But not at that bar."
"We can go somewhere else."
We walk down the block to another bar, McMurphy's Irish Pub. There's nothing Irish about it except for the "Mc" on the sign outside. Even that rings false—painted in a different color than the rest of the sign, an owner's bright afterthought—probably inspired by a last-minute discovery that there's another Murphy's on the east side of town. The pub is filled with young kids who just got off from work. They dress messy, in jeans and T-shirts. This being the center of the Internet Universe, at the height of the Internet Boom, I suspect these kids are programmers, and each one of them is worth more than I ever was—even at the height of the Kip Largo Boom. You don't remember the Kip Largo Boom? It was a brief glorious period in the life of Kip Largo—that's me—before I went to prison. I was worth maybe twenty million dollars. Now I'm not. You want to know the whole story? Have patience; I'll tell you soon.
Jackie O and I sit at a table in the back, far from the programmers. She goes to the bar and orders drinks. Soon she returns with my scotch on the rocks. For herself: a martini, dirty. She's still wearing her big dark sunglasses. I suspect that underneath them, I will discover two things. One: a pretty face. Two: purple bruises. Like I said: Most women don't wear sunglasses in a dark bar.
When she sits down she says, "So are you a cop?"
"Why are you laughing?"
"Because I'm the furthest thing from a cop you can be."
"What does that mean? Are you a criminal?"
"I was," I say. I've learned to get this part of the conversation out of the way as early as possible. The longer you wait, the more cheated the other person feels. You spring the fact that you're an ex-con on someone more than a day after meeting them, and they feel violated. It's better to set expectations low and then exceed them. "I was in prison for a little while. I've been out for a year."
"What'd you do? To go to prison?"
I can tell from her face that she's asking if I killed anyone. If I'm dangerous. "White-collar stuff," I say, vaguely. The way I say that, it sounds like I took a few boxes of paper clips from the supply closet at work. "Nothing too colorful." Which is not exactly true. I served five years in a federal penitentiary for securities and mail fraud. It was pretty colorful, by the time I was caught.
"I see," she says. She's trying to reconcile this new information with what happened in the Blowfish, where I was a Good Samaritan and saved a young kid from getting his face broken, or worse. How can I explain to her that I'm a con man? That I've always had a passion for cons? That if I see a badly run con going down, I always want to step in and give advice. It's like what would happen if Renoir went to one of those art schools advertised on the back of a matchbook. He'd see a kid painting a portrait of Dumbo the Elephant, and he'd be horrified. He'd throw up his hands and shout, "No, no! Zat is not how it's done!"
I say, "Those days are long gone. I'm just a plain guy now, trying to get on with my life."
She stares at me. Something is bothering her. "You seem so familiar."
Here it comes. This is when they try to place my face. It takes most people a few minutes. Then, after they give up, and I tell them, a look of relief washes over them. Of course, they say. I knew it. Then they stare at me a bit longer, comparing my current face to the one they remember. Inevitably, I see their expression change to one of sadness. I'm a poster child for the phrase Time Is Kind to No One. I used to be on TV hours every week, usually late at night, on infomercials touting a diet plan in the form of a deck of playing cards. It was called the Diet Deck. Maybe you remember it? You would deal yourself a card at random—say, with a picture of a steak—and then you got to eat a steak. If you dealt yourself a picture of steamed broccoli, you got to eat broccoli. There wasn't much science behind it. Except that there was only one steak in each fifty-two-card deck, and there were five broccolis and five apples. I suspect that when a fattie dealt herself a broccoli, she called a misdeal and dealt herself another card, again and again, until she got what they wanted: the Popcorn Card, or the Chocolate Card.
I say, to put her out of her misery, "I was on TV. The Diet Deck?"
"Oh," she says. "That was you?" Now the comparison begins. I was in the low-security part of Lompoc. But low-security is not what you think. It's not a country club. Not unless you belong to the kind of country club where the golf pros perform rectal searches regularly, where the tennis courts are locked down for head count twice a day, and where you get stabbed for accidentally taking someone's bar of soap. Five years of being out-of-control—of being on someone else's schedule, of being able to take a crap only when you're allowed to take a crap, of being visible to guards twenty-four hours a day, of being fed strange slices of meat with arterial cross-sections around the edges—five years of this have changed my face from B-Actor handsome to C-List has-been. You're never the same after you get out. Ask any ex-con. He'll tell you.
"My television days are behind me," I say. "Like I said, I'm just an honest man trying to earn an honest living."
"Really?" she says. "That's too bad."
I smile. The line is so perfect, so surprising, I have to bite. "And why is that?"
"I have a job for you."
"I'm not interested," I say.
"You don't know what it is."
"I don't need to. Look, lady, you wanted to buy me a drink. I never turn down a drink. I've enjoyed it." I hold up the glass of scotch, to show her how much I've enjoyed it, and also to see what's left. I'm surprised that a few gulps remain. I throw it back into my gullet and put down the glass. "But I already have a job. I'm very happy with it."
I work at Economy Cleaners—a dry-cleaning and laundry shop—in Sunnyvale. I get paid ten dollars per hour, plus tips. You ever leave a tip at a dry cleaners? That's what I thought. In a year of working there, I've gotten tipped three times. Twice was loose change that accidentally dropped from someone's slacks.
"I'll pay you a hundred," she says.
"That's tempting," I say. "But no."
"Don't you want to know what the job is?"
"Do you know who my husband is?"
As if to answer her own question, she takes off her sunglasses. As I suspected, she has a black eye the size of a crumpet. "His name is Edward Napier. Do you know who he is?"
I do. He's a Las Vegas magnate. What the media call an impresario. I guess that's because he impresses people. And why not? He owns The Clouds casino, on the Strip. He's tall and handsome. He's worth maybe a billion dollars. No exaggeration. He also has mob connections. Nothing has ever been proven, mind you. It's just that people who negotiate too hard with him tend to disappear. So deals get done.
Now that he has conquered Las Vegas, Ed Napier has come to Silicon Valley. Recently he has fancied himself a venture capitalist. He's been throwing money around, investing tens of millions of dollars in Internet companies. He was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying that, when the dust clears, he's going to own a small percentage of the New Economy. Not many people doubt him. Out loud.
"No," I say. "Who is he?"
She smiles. "It's a simple job."
There's no such thing as a simple job that pays one hundred grand. Unless you're a newscaster or a senator. "Like I said, no thanks." I stand.
"Because I don't believe you. I don't believe you just happened to run into me in a bar. I think you know who I am, and this is a setup."
"But I swear to you."
"Oh, you swear? Well, in that case . . ." I sit back down.
She looks surprised.
"Just kidding," I say. I stand up again. "Last chance. Who sent you?"
I turn to leave.
"Wait," she says. She tugs my pant leg. "Here."
She hands me a business card. It says, "Lauren Napier." Just a telephone number. No job title. No address. "That's my private cell phone," she says. "You can call the number anytime."
"Why would I do that?"
"Maybe you'll change your mind."
"Don't hold your breath," I say. "Thanks for the drink." I leave Ms. Lauren Napier sitting at the table, and I hurry out to my Honda. If I'm lucky, my trip home will consist of exactly one hour sitting on Highway 85 in the hot sun.
I get home at seven o'clock. It's summer, still plenty of daylight left.
I live in a four-plex apartment in downtown Palo Alto. It's not exactly run-down, but it's not up to neighborhood standards, either. On all four sides are beautiful gated condominium buildings where one-bedrooms go for half a million dollars. My place is old, cheap stucco, with an open carport in the front, like the neighborhood cold sore. My landlord—who lives in the apartment above mine—is ninety years old. He bought the building in 1958, long before the area was known as Silicon Valley. For the first ten years he owned the place, he kept a chicken coop in the backyard. Nowadays he charges me four hundred dollars to rent my one-bedroom, when the market would command twelve hundred per month. It's not clear if his policy is the result of stubborn decency or senility.
In return for the low rent, I help out. There's not much to do: clip hedges, bring the recycling out to the curb each Tuesday, call the Sears man when the communal washing machine conks out.
Today, Mr. Santullo meets me in the driveway. He's wearing a wife-beater undershirt and a terry-cloth bathrobe. He shuffles over to my car and says, "Kip, can you change the light bulb upstairs?" He's a little man, shrunken and worn like a well-chewed dog toy. He speaks with an Italian accent. I've heard his life story dozens of times: came over from Italy during the Depression, worked at the Swift meatpacking plant in San Francisco, made good union wages, started buying real estate while the rest of his family mocked him for paying too much for rural land in the middle of nowhere—Palo Alto. Now the land under the apartment where I live—downtown, at the epicenter of the biggest economic boom in the history of capitalism—will fetch a million dollars whenever he wants to sell. Chances are, he never will. So his heirs will get the money. In fact, they've already started to circle, visiting him more frequently now, as they sense impending death. Nothing like money to inspire love.
I say, "No problem, Delfino."
- On Sale
- Mar 13, 2007
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Grand Central Publishing