JEREMY didn’t really know his last name. His father was a con man and his mother was history, and he went through so many different identities as a kid helping his dad on the grift, that all he knew of himself, really, was that he was a bad person. He had to be. His one skill set was relieving people of their money.
He was okay at it. When he was a kid, he simply sat by his father’s side and looked hungry (not hard to do) when his father was selling encyclopedias, bibles, or “free” ammo, depending on the area they were canvassing. As a blooming adolescent, he hit colleges and sold magazines, just like the legit kids doing the same thing. His specialty was selling to the chubby, lonely girls who looked like they had money but no attention. He paid attention to them, talked to them as they sat under the dappled leaves of a picturesque tree looking intellectual and dreamy, and walked away with checks ranging anywhere from ten to a hundred and ten dollars, without having to even give them a kiss. He stayed young looking well into his twenties, so that was pretty much his job, right up until he went to prison.
He and his father supplemented their income with the usual grifts—Three-Card-Monte, The Fiddle Game, The Good Samaritan, and The Embarrassing Check—and Jeremy was a decent student. When the other kids were graduating from high school, Jeremy and the old man were having “clear the apartment” drills—they could completely relocate their lives in less than five minutes. Once, when the cops were banging on the door and they were sneaking out the window of a walk-up in Chicago, they'd done it in two. Jeremy figured he and the old man could probably have continued to con the world as an unbeatable team pretty much forever, but two things happened.
The first was that the old man got shot when he conned the wrong guy. One minute, Jeremy had been waiting in the shadows of an old Vegas casino while Oscar had been signing over a phony deed to some property in Utah, and the next, the guy had pulled out a .45 and blown him away. Jeremy stood there, holding his breath, sinking into the curtains of the theater, and making sure nobody saw him. He stood there while Mario Carelli shot his father again in the head to stop him from twitching; he stood there while Mario had his goons haul away the body and wash the floor; he stood there while Mario started asking if anyone would actually miss some con man with shitty shoes and a cheap suit.
He stood there when Mario’s favorite goon, Gianni—who had gone down on Jeremy the night before, while Oscar and Mario had been hammering out the final deal—had shrugged and said, “I dunno, boss. He had muscle with him, but the guy was hired and not that bright. For all I know, he took a powder when he heard the shot.”
Gianni had known exactly where Jeremy had been standing, and he knew that Oscar was Jeremy’s father, and he knew that Jeremy was almost twenty-six years old and thinking about maybe going to college for real. Oscar had spent a long time building the pig-in-the-poke con, and Jeremy had a long time to spend with Gianni, telling him as much of the truth as he could, because you don’t tell a guy your old man is scamming his mob boss, even if you’re starting to feel a little bit bad about it. Jeremy had “sweetened the pot” with a lot of marks, both male and female, and Gianni’s mouth on his cock hadn’t been unexpected. The unexpected part was the sweetness of Gianni’s shy smile at the end, and the way he’d carefully done up Jeremy’s slacks and then kissed him passionately on the mouth. Jeremy had returned the kiss, a little bit frightened by how real it was, because until that exact moment, he’d thought sex was the biggest scam of all.
So Gianni took a big risk for Jeremy, and Jeremy repaid him by staying right in that exact spot—surrounded by stage curtains, trying really hard not to piss his pants—until his father’s brains were cleaned up off the floor and Mario Carelli had stalked off with his goons, chuckling about the look on the old man’s face. Even after they were gone, Jeremy stood there, swimming in his own sweat, feeling it drip from his calves to his ankles to the nylon socks inside his dress shoes.
He was thinking that his daddy had told him to hang back the night before because he had a grifter’s sense the con had gone bad. Oscar hadn’t been a Hallmark father, and Jeremy would eventually figure out that he’d been sort of screwed in the parenting department as a whole, but in this case, Oscar had done his son a solid and worried Jeremy might get hurt.
He was thinking that Gianni would be dead right now if Jeremy had breathed or whimpered or pissed his pants after that whopping lie Gianni told, but Gianni still told it, all because of a blow job and a kiss, two things Jeremy hadn’t thought much of at all.
He was thinking that for his whole life, he’d thought love might be the biggest con of all, and all of a sudden, it was the only real thing, and he was swimming in it, suffocated by it, just like he was suffocated by the wool curtains and swimming in his own sweat.
HE made it out of there eventually, but by the time he got to their shitty hotel room, it had been raided by Mario’s men, stripped of his and Oscar’s backup money, the mattress upended, and even his small cache of possessions trashed and stolen. He’d been out of hope when he went rooting in the dresser for their last-hope-stash tucked into a defiled bible, but he was suddenly rewarded.
There in the little cavern carved into the glued pages was not only the cash, but also his father’s wallet and ring—two things he knew had been in Oscar’s possession when Oscar had been shot.
He looked at them and swallowed. Gianni. Gianni had taken a hell of a risk for him, and there it was: his chance to walk away.
And he did, but walking away was harder than it sounded. Two months later, he was in Denver, trying to get a nice woman at a gas station to give him cash for a bad check. She’d been smiling at him tentatively, coyly, starting to blossom under his insistent charm, when he noticed the fading bruises around her mouth, and his heart sank. Yeah, the rich girls under the dreaming trees in the colleges used to look at him the same way; he’d known they were neglected, worried out of the confidence that would have kept them safe from a predator such as him. This woman hadn’t had her confidence neglected—she’d had it beaten out of her, and that didn’t really sit right with him. How was getting swindled out of fifty bucks going to make that situation any better? Then the child had walked in, a little boy, five at the most, saying, “Mommy, do we have to wait in the car?”
Jeremy's brain did some sort of horrible rise and dip then, like a roller coaster, only uglier, with more vertigo. His stomach heaved with a combination of hunger and self-revulsion. He shoved the cash back in her hand and hissed, “What’s the matter with you? Don’t ever give your cash to strangers.” Her eyes widened, and her mouth pinched narrowly, and he saw in that moment the ugliness that ugliness had made of her. Yeah, she’d known what he’d been selling, and she’d wanted it, desperately, needed to buy it, even for a moment, and he’d just ripped it out of her hands.
He turned around and walked out of the gas station and into the November cold, well aware that she was probably raising a ruckus behind him but not caring. His vision was dark and spotty, not just from the hunger, which was acute, but from the realization of what he was. He was a bad guy. A swindler, a con man, a thief, and a crook. The woman’s name had been Linda—how many Lindas had he taken money from over the years? How many Lindas had put their faith in his fast-talking pretty face and been betrayed and injured, yelled at or beaten, or simply just cheated, because he thought his right to eat was of more priority than theirs?
He was a bad guy. He was one step away from the guy who’d put a bullet in his father’s head and hosed his father's brains off the floor.
When the cops caught up to him, he was squatting in the dirty snow, dry heaving because he hadn’t eaten in three days.
His public defense attorney sucked. He should have gotten thirty days for fraud, maybe—but suddenly they were bringing in all the shit he’d done with his old man, even the stuff they couldn’t prove he’d done, and the woman (sporting fresh bruises from her husband) came in and said that Jeremy gave her a split lip to boot.
He ended up spending two years at Fort Lyon, a lovely place that let him out in the yard once a day and gave him many opportunities to take a dump in public.
It had been surprisingly peaceful, stuffed in that cell with his monosyllabic cellmate and his rapidly burgeoning conscience. Nothing to do but read, write, and think. He was maybe one of the very few people in that place actually to take the child’s advice to sit in a corner and think about what he’d done.
He wasn’t thrilled by the experience, really. It was hard. He would have been wrong to say he relived every con and every score, because he was a petty con man, and he’d made his life off small potatoes. One small potato looks very much like another one, and after they’d been boiled and peeled, the only thing left to do was mash them—and that’s just what Jeremy did. He boiled his experiences in his head, peeled them and mashed them, and decided that what was left in his head was not what he wanted to be living with for the rest of his life.
He got his GED at Fort Lyon, and started taking college courses. He managed to work too, in the laundry, and when he was discharged after two years, he thought he was well on his way to becoming an honest citizen.
He was so wrong.
Nobody would hire an ex-con. Nobody. He was discharged, not paroled—he had no resources, and even if there had been any, he wouldn’t have asked. There had been no bonding for him in prison. No brotherhood. His first cellmate had been in there for manslaughter after a DWI—a lifetime con man and a detoxing banker? Their best quality as a couple was that they were good at leaving each other the fuck alone.
Jeremy was released in December. For a month, he managed to live on soup kitchens, washing dishes, and the Christmas kindness of strangers. Later, he would wonder why he hadn’t taken to giving blow jobs for food money, and it took him some time to realize that it was because he’d never considered himself a victim. He’d always been looking for a way, an avenue, an alternative—that kind of optimism gave you confidence. It kept you from being meat. It made your shoulders swing in such a way that nobody would dream of asking you if your ass was for sale, because if they did, you might have a comeback that would shrivel a dick forever, and who wanted that from a cheap piece of ass?
But in spite of his continued optimism, his trolling of the Goodwill for clothes that made him look like he could hold down a job, his haunting of the YMCA to keep clean and groomed, and his insistence of hauling around his own sheets so he didn’t get lice at the shelters, by January, he was more than a little bit desperate.
He started haunting one particular street corner in Boulder, where little old ladies frequented a family style gym and a yarn store. If he stood there between the time they got out of the gym and swarmed the yarn store, he could almost always win some food for breakfast or lunch from them, and while panhandling lacked dignity, it was at least honest. Life didn’t get much more honest than “Please give me money because I’m hungry,” or at least it hadn’t for Jeremy at that point.
Then, after about a week, he saw a big guy, not too burly, with curly red hair on his head and growing out in what was probably an unintentional beard, fighting his way through the flood of little old ladies like a bear swimming against a salmon tide.
One nice woman, a regular with short white hair, kindly eyes, and a velveteen pantsuit, who always liked to talk to him about his day, had just finished pressing five dollars in his hand. “Okay, dear—now, don’t get this wrong, but I hope not to see you next week. You say you’re looking for work; I’d like to see you find it!”
Jeremy had nodded and smiled, but inside, he was dying a little for lack of hope. He’d used the library computer to fill out applications for everywhere—dry cleaners, pet stores, lumber mills, coffee shops, everywhere. There were jobs to be had, but you had to know someone first. The only person Jeremy had ever really known was probably rotting in a shallow grave.
Suddenly, the big guy with the red hair was right there, glaring at both Jeremy and the little old lady.
“Helen,” he said—and his voice rumbled too—“is this guy bothering you?”
The woman smiled up at him and patted his arm like he was some sort of tame giant-frickin’ afghan dog. “No, Craw—he’s a good boy. Did you bring in new stock today? You know I love your stuff.”
The guy grunted. “Ariadne’s dyed up some Sweeps. You’d better hurry—there’s a swarm.”
The little woman looked up in honest alarm, and, without another word to Jeremy or the big-furry-bear man, darted into the store to go at it in some serious elbow-to-midriff competition for what appeared to be a big bucket of brightly colored yarn that didn’t seem to follow a rhyme or a reason in terms of color or size or anything.
Jeremy watched her do battle through the big plate glass window and then sighed. “Helen” had given him lunch money, and now he got to go search the want ads fruitlessly over some food at Denny’s. Well, some days it had just been over coffee, and some days, it had been a full-out meal. Some days he’d even been able to find work too—stacking pallets, loading shit onto a truck—but the fact was, although he wasn’t weak, he didn’t have a powerhouse physique. There were guys with more powerful bodies and harder hands who could do a better, faster job of it, and he was often passed over at the train yard when people were looking for spare hands.
And nobody gardened in January in Colorado.
So when he noticed the big guy was just watching him through narrowed eyes, Jeremy had a moment to think that he’d been getting off easy. He’d made it through two years of prison by trading cigarettes and helping to smuggle in luxuries, and thus had not had his pretty little body violated in any way he didn’t want it to be. (He hadn’t wanted it to be. Once you started having sex in prison, that sort of thing got around, and pretty soon, you were the prettiest girl at the prom. He’d kept his sexuality to himself, and people had left him alone.) For just a second, he thought he might have to actually whore himself out to do honest work.
Then the guy had wrinkled his nose and said, “Five bucks? You’re gonna get lunch for five bucks?”
Jeremy smiled greenly. “Denny’s—they serve cheap breakfast all day, unless you’re gonna hand me a ten!”
The guy laughed shortly. “It’s gonna take more than a ten to fix those shoes.”
Jeremy looked mournfully at his feet. They were the same shoes he’d worn into prison, and they’d started out pretty good quality, but now the leather was cracked and the sole was worn thin enough to let in the dirty, melted snow. “Yeah, there’s nothing like a good pair of shoes, you know? First thing I’m going to buy when I get back on my feet is a new pair of shoes.”
“Got any plans to get back on your feet?”
Now that Jeremy felt his person wasn’t in imminent danger, he could patter like the pro he had been. “I’m gonna get me a sales job, right? ’Cause I’m good with people. But first I’m gonna work under the table for a bar, right? ’Cause I’m good with people, and then I’m gonna get me some new threads. But before I find that bartender job, I need me some breakfast—and the bigger the breakfast, the better. So, can you spare a ten?”
The guy laughed and stuck out his hand. “I’m Crawford, and I’ll buy you some lunch, how’s that?”
Wow—lunch and a five in his pocket, and he didn’t even have to put out. (The guy was over six feet tall, and Jeremy didn’t even want to speculate on the hole Crawford would rip if he decided that wasn’t the case. Jeremy was just as happy not to have to break his record for not bending over to eat, thank you very much!)
It was lunchtime, but Jeremy ordered breakfast, because he loved eggs and toast, and he was ebullient over the first meal. He bolted it down in an all-fired hurry, because his stomach was doing all the talking in his body, and it needed some frickin’ chow. Of course, he could talk and eat, so he started spinning all sorts of pie in the sky, about being a salesman and owning his own store and then going to college and getting a law degree. “Because the way I see it, being a salesman is just a legit way of being a con man, right? So I’ve already got the groundwork, and I know how to talk, and I’m pretty sure I could sell water to a duck, right?” (That’s one of the key things the old man had taught him—people would do almost anything to avoid being rude.) “So I figured you’d—”
“You’d sell people shit they don’t need, and your only claim to honesty would be not ending up in prison?” Crawford asked, and Jeremy blushed and mopped up the eggs on his plate with toast, and then started using his finger for the last of the egg. A heavy silence might have fallen then, but Crawford signaled the waitress with two fingers and a point to Jeremy’s plate. Jeremy opened his mouth and then closed it, and Crawford took a swallow of coffee and then looked at him like he expected an answer.
“Well, how am I going to pay for the law degree?” he asked, but he was watching with wide eyes, realizing that all that beautiful food was going to be for him as the waitress walked back to the kitchen and called a double of his exact order. For no reason he could think of, his voice cracked as he said it, showing the cold winter sunshine peeking through his thin fictions, like the snow saw through the holes in his shoes.
He swallowed, and Crawford took another swallow of coffee. “You’d make a great lawyer,” he said meditatively. “Those fuckers’ll suck the life outta you with words too.”
Jeremy didn’t have a comeback for that. He was too filled with visions of food, real food, not just enough to keep him on his feet, but enough to gorge on, to make himself sick. He swallowed, his mouth suddenly watering like it hadn’t when they’d walked into the diner, and he felt like he had to work for his money. He had to talk, had to, because that was all he had to pay Crawford back for the second and third helpings of food coming his way.
“Yeah,” he said, swallowing again. “Yeah, they’ll suck the life outta you, but you know, you get a good one, and good things’ll come your way, right? So, you wanna be that person, the person who can make the rain come. My daddy, he talked all the time about the rain comin’ down, and how that’s all a man can want is to make the rain come, and I figure a lawyer, he’ll be all about makin’ it happen, but only a good one, right? I wouldn’t want to be a bad one, because the bad ones, they get you put away for….” He swallowed again, and the waitress brought him the two servings of toast that went with Crawford’s order and he just looked at them, suddenly just touched beyond words. The first meal, that could have been a fluke, but this was… God, this was the rain coming down, wasn’t it?
“How long?” Craw asked, his voice gruff, and Jeremy didn’t even think to lie or evade.
“Two years,” he said, watching numbly as Craw picked up the little jar of jam he’d seen Jeremy use and started preparing the toast. Craw handed him the plate and Jeremy ate automatically.
“How old are you, son?” Craw asked softly, and Jeremy swallowed toast down so he could answer.
“I’ll be twenty-eight next month,” he said, and Craw nodded, like Jeremy had looked that old, which he hadn’t used to, and Jeremy’s pride flared. “Yeah, I know I look young, but I coulda picked your pocket a dozen times if I’d tried, and if I hadn’t been going straight, you’d be signing me your first born by now, so don’t worry about me being young. I can take care of myself, but thank you much for the breakfast just the same.”
“Kid, have you done an honest day’s work in your life?”
The waitress took that moment to drop off his first second breakfast, and Jeremy looked at it longingly. It was like suddenly he realized he’d been caught in a long con, and if he took a bite of those eggs, he wasn’t going to be able to wriggle his way out.
He really wanted those eggs.
“No,” he said simply, picking up his fork and shoveling them on a second piece of toast. “I don’t even know how. You’re the first honest man I’ve ever known in my life.”
“You think I’m honest?” Craw asked curiously, and Jeremy’s shoulders shook.
“I think if you weren’t such an ass sometimes, a decent con man would have screwed you six ways to Sunday,” Jeremy replied frankly, because Craw had been an ass—he’d broken every law of conversation Oscar had ever taught him. If Jeremy had been on the grift, he would have walked away from this one—guys like Craw would call you on your bullshit because they just didn’t give a fuck.
Craw nodded, a faint smile on his mouth under the unintentional beard. “Good. Then come work for me. I’ve got a full-time employee and a kid coming by after school, but it’s getting too big for us. I’ll teach you honesty.”
Jeremy blinked and ate another bit on automatic. “You’ll teach me honesty?” he said numbly. Oh God. Suddenly that sounded harder to learn than lawyer shit. “How’s that going to feed me?”
Craw shrugged. “I can put you up in a tack room until you get enough to rent an apartment,” he said, obviously having thought this out. “I can feed you until then too.” Craw’s eyes swept the bustling streets of Boulder, full of human sheep and pigeons, all ready to be fleeced and plucked, if only Jeremy hadn’t sworn off fresh game. “The only catch is you’ll have to leave this shit behind. I live in Granby.”
Jeremy shivered, just hearing the name. It was the last stop before the Rocky Mountains—Jesus, he didn’t even know the road to Granby was open this time of year!
“This is the only jacket and shoes I got,” he said, his heart sinking.
“Will you work for me?” Craw asked.
“Yeah,” Jeremy said, not even bargaining for clothes and shoes. It was a job. It was a job, and a place to stay, and food. Jeremy hadn’t realized how desperate he was until he was offered all three of the things he wanted most, when he’d just gotten used to a full stomach in the warm diner.
“Then I’ll get you what you need,” Crawford told him, and Jeremy looked at him with gleaming eyes.
“Why?” he asked, wanting to hear something, anything, that would make sense.
All he got was a shrug. “Aiden needs your help.”
Jeremy took one more bite of the second plate of eggs and then started mopping up the yolk again. “Who in the hell is Aiden?”
And Crawford just laughed.