Archive for the ‘confidence games’ Category

He tried the same trick again that had gotten him to the Orkneys: To wait amongst the cars before they boarded, find one to hide in when the occupants are taking a leak or stretching their legs, and sneak out on the ferry past the ticket check. He picked a station wagon with the rear seats flipped over and an antique rolltop desk wedged in. The desk was covered by several woollen blankest to protect it and he figured he could hide under the bunching blankets without being seen.
Again, he opened a door – this time on the passenger side – and kept it open just a crack when the driver got out and locked the car. He slipped inside and pulled the door shut from inside, locking himself in, and crawled under a blanket. The cord around his neck caught on something and he took off the pick and stuffed it into his pocket. The same excitement filled him as he had to lie under the blanket, blind, sounds muffled, and he had to wait whether it would work out or not.
He heard the driver return, the engine start again, the expected rumble up the ramp into the thrumming hold of the ship. He waited for the driver to get out, but he couldn’t hear or feel anything under the blanket and the incessant vibrations of the huge ship’s engines and the general din of all the other cars and passengers. He realised his mistake with the station waggon, the insides were too small and too well lit for him to have a chance of observing the driver without risk of discovery to himself.
He considered sleeping in the car, under the blankets, and to simply wait until the car had left the ferry again, but he was afraid he would struggle free of his cover in his dreams and be found still on board, with no place to flee to. So when he thought the driver must surely have left, he peaked out. The lights in the car were off and he tried to get to his knees quietly, but he bumped into something under the blanket and it made a hollow thump.
“What the…?”
The man’s voice was deep and throaty, and somehow sounded as if he’d been weeping.
The boy didn’t waste time looking, he scrambled to the passenger side rear door and tried to open it, but it was locked.
“Who are you?”
Shit, he thought. Fucking shit. And he turned around.
The only illumination in the car came from the fluorescent lights high up at the ceiling of the hold, and most where blocked by trucks and travel busses parked around them. The man was wearing large glasses that blinked in the little light and hid his eyes. He was gaunt and balding and wore a neat charcoal sweater under a light grey suit jacket and over a white shirt and a mauve tie. His face was twisted in what the boy assumed was intense anger.
“A blind passenger, I don’t believe it. A dirty little stowaway. Thought you get across without paying, did you, you rat?”
“Please don’t report me.” It was out before the boy could take it back.
“What?”
The boy took a deep breath. The second time was harder, he could feel his face begin to burn. “Please. Don’t report me. I… I can pay you.” And he took out the stolen money, offered a fistful of bills to the man.
I shouldn’t get caught, he thought, desperately. I shouldn’t have to see their faces. And he knew what he meant was, they shouldn’t get to see his. He hated the pleading in his voice. “Please… Sir.”
The man seemed taken aback for a moment, then considering.
“Come up here. Show yourself.” And he patted the passenger seat next to him.
The boy hesitated briefly, but he knew that the man only had to step out of the car and call for help, and he would be arrested and sent back. It was the thought of himself in handcuffs when his mother came to collect him – or his sister Nessa if his mother would refuse to – that made him comply. He shoved the money back into his jeans’ pocket. Then he climbed through the gap between the seats and sat down, hands in his lap, unconsciously already accommodating the cuffs.
The man had leaned back a little to give him more room, but watched him with an odd expression. When the boy was sitting, the man reached up and turned on the light. Everything about him was grey, and a little bit crumpled, in that tasteful British way that made him entirely inoffensive and almost impossible to remember if passed on the street. The boy was very conscious of his own dirtiness and smell.
“If you have so much money, why didn’t you pay for a ticket?”
The boy hesitated. He couldn’t come up with any useful lie.
“I’m not old enough,” he admitted, hesitatingly. “And no papers.”
Something in the man’s eyes changed, in his posture. He tensed slightly, Seemed to move at the same time closer and away. Something about him reminded the boy of the men he used to cheat in Edinburgh. Maybe he can do it here, seduce him and then get away. He remembered the moves.
“Also, I thought I might need the money. If… it doesn’t work out.”
“If what doesn’t work out?”
“The… the man… I’m meeting… my friend…”
“You…?” The man stopped. There was disgust on his face, the boy thought, but also need. Was he imagining it? But what did he have to lose? He gave himself a push, searched for tears inside. He thought of Bev, of how she would feel when she woke up. It didn’t work. He groped for something else, Nette’s death. No, that was buried too deep, frozen in a hundred centuries of polar night. He knew where he had to go, the one place he could tap for tears.
He thought of the night in the deer stalking cottage, the tentative touch, the kisses, the awakening hunger. The whispered words. And he felt the burning in his eyes, and the loathing for himself, for abusing the memory.
Quietly: “He said he would take care of me, but I don’t know if I can trust him. We only spoke on the web. I might need it to get away again. But…” He forced himself to look at the man next to him, to smile. It was easy to make the smile look faked and forced and shaky. “But I’ll pay you anything if you don’t send me back. You don’t know… I… I can’t go back… If my father…” – he managed to get a slight hitch into the word ‘father’ that added a perfect touch, he thought – “if he sees me again in handcuffs, he’ll…” He let the sentence trail away, let his still burning eyes dipping down in genuine shame for the charade.
“I’ll pay you… in money… or…” The hesitation was genuine as well. “Please, won’t you help me? I… I need some help.”
The man was silent. The boy didn’t dare to look at him. The man turned off the light in the car and said in his deep voice: “Well, I can’t leave you in the car.”
The boy looked up. The man was pale except for two bright red spots on his hollow cheeks. The glasses were opaque with reflection again.
Ponyboy was crawling around in the rain and the muck in the alley behind the pub. I helped him to his feet, put his left arm around my shoulders, and with some effort got him to tell me where he lived. Fortunately it wasn’t very far.
All the way I revelled in the warmth of his body as he leaned, shivering, on me, and the feeling of his rain-slick, greasy, clammy skin against my palms, and in brushing against the barbells piercing his nipples and only too visible under his wet My Little Pony tank top, and in the smell of puke, and sweat, and cigarettes, and pot, and some medical stink that I assumed was from his smack addiction.
I realized suddenly that it had been over a year that I had quit my own H addiction, and that I’d gone completely without since. Being a thief had completely replaced my libido. Sure, I had wanked, quite obsessively at times, but the last time I’d gotten any of the real stuff had been that time Hendrik had made me wear his girlfriend’s clothes and had then screwed me, calling me by her name all through, and demanding of me to answer in a ridiculous falsetto voice and pretending to be a horrible caricature version of her.
Amına kodum, was I ever in need of a good fuck.
But nothing of the sort happened that night: I finally got Ponyboy into his flat, a dank, one-room cellar affair that smelled as if it hadn’t been aired out ever, while for the last two years every weekend two unwashed teams of rugby players had had wild orgies in there, and in between the place had been used alternately as a meth kitchen and a field hospital. The gray sheets of his bed actually felt greasy. I dumped the near comatose boy onto it and lay down next to him.
Ponyboy said something that sounded like “I’ll be back in a moment” and started snoring. I lay next to him for a while. We were both still fully clothed (well, I was, he was still wearing his stage outfit), and soaking wet from the heavy rain. When I started to shiver, I took his bed covers that were lying – I swear, I’m not exaggerating here – in a heap on top of loads of unwashed underwear, an overflowing ashtray, and several half eaten, already partially mouldering, and mostly tipped over cups of instant noodles. Hence, it too was wet in several places, and just extremely nasty. I think the only way to ever get it clean again would have been to burn it. I think I have slept cleaner under bridges and supermarket loading docks.
That night it was the perfect cover for me. I put it over myself and Ponyboy, hugged him tight, and just lay there in all that grime, and wetness, and soaked in his presence. After a while I got too horny to bear, unbuttoned my jeans, and wanked until I blew a load into my boxers. For a brief while I fell asleep.
Very early that morning I stole out of Ponyboy’s cellar flat, and rang a very annoyed Charley out of his bed. I pestered him until he connected me with an ethically challenged locksmith who would make me a copy of Ponyboy’s front door key without asking any questions. (He did take a pretty hefty fee, but what was I really going to do with all the money Charley and I were making?)
That done, I sneaked back into Ponyboy’s place, crept under the cover with him, and woke him with a blow-job.
What can I tell you about Ponyboy? We didn’t really talk about much. He was somewhere in his early 20s and enrolled in something artsy and futureless at Edinburgh University. He was from Gretna, in the very South-East of Scotland, near the English border, and claimed he had been conceived in the shadow of the Lochmaben Stone. My favourite tattoo on his body was the phoenix rising from his crotch, and the three symbols on his back, one of each shoulder blade and one on the nape of his neck. I supposed they were the letters “G” (or perhaps “C”), “Z”, and “J” (or maybe “I”). Each was about the size of my palm and heavily ornamented in skulls, bones, blades, screaming faces, hangman’s nooses, and other symbols of death. At the time I sort of assumed they were his initials, though I never asked him for his name.
He asked me once. I was lying on his bed, on my side, hogtied, and trousers around my ankles. He had lit a fag and put it between my lips. I watched crumbs of still glowing ash fall and burn tiny holes into his rumpled, gray sheets. He was sitting next to me, naked, glowing in fresh, post-orgasm sweat, and folding little fighter jets from his huge stacks of sheet music – his rents had once made him learn the piano, but he had since sold his instrument to pay for H. He tried to knock the fag from my mouth with his paper planes, but all he could hit was my belly and shoulders and the top of my hat.
“Wha’ is yer naem, ma wee sluagh?”
“What does it matter to you?” I tried to growl around the cigarette, but it fell from my mouth. Fascinated we both watched it burn a big, smouldering hole into the sheets and mattress, but eventually it winked out and nothing really caught fire.
“No’in,” he admitted, and rolled me onto my stomach.
For the most part my routine that second week in Edinburgh was to be woken by nightmares and sneak out hours before Morpheus relinquished his hold on Ponyboy. If it was early enough that the city was still mostly asleep I’d go to walk to Holyrood Park, go for a run, and practice Aikido in the valley between Arthur’s Seat and the Salisbury Crags. Then I’d return to Curtis’s, Matt’s, and Marci’s flat for a shower and maybe a change of clothes, and go to a Laundromat nearby to wash what I’d worn the day before. Around noon I’d meet with Charley, who’d usually make me eat something, and we’d decide what games to play that day.
Eventually we’d end up in some pub, get pissed, and I’d bid him good night. Then I’d walk over to Ponyboy’s and peek through the window. When he wasn’t home, I’d just let myself in and nap on his bed till he arrived. When he was there, I’d watch him through his window until there was a good moment to sneak in and sort of just materialize out of thin air next to him. He must have figured out that I had a copy of is key early on, but I think I managed to startle him at least a bit every day.
I really liked my time there, and in a way Charley and Ponyboy became very close friends, probably the closest I ever had aside from Leon. But after two weeks – two weeks of increasingly unbearable nightmares at that, I started to suffocate.
So I invested some money in new equipment like waterproof clothes and lovely 10 eye oxblood Doc Marten’s boots to replace the Chucks I had worn to tatters. And sometime in the afternoon of Thursday, 21 August 2008, without ever saying good-bye to either Charley or Ponyboy I walked to where Telford Road becomes the A90 and struck out my thumb.
And that was my Edinburgh episode. I’ve never been back, and I left nothing but a long line of hurt marks and two blokes who didn’t know anything about me. I thought that with leaving Charley I had finally turned my back on Leeds for good, too. Never in a million years had I thought that Edinburgh could ever come to haunt me. It would be half a year before I would figure out how wrong I was.
Charley’s heart was in the art of the confidence game, but he got his regular income from peddling drugs. I only saw him push dope, but I know he also sold smack, and I’m certain he did other stuff as well.
Don’t ask me if or how that is connected to Bryan and Leeds, but, well, it’s hard to avoid that conclusion, innit? On the other hand, jumping to conclusions can be a dangerous thing. As I later figured out, Charley probably was involved in other  rackets as well, corruption, blackmail, and who knows what. Back then I thought that none of that mattered to me. I had nothing to do with his side jobs, all we had in common was the games we played and the marks we shook down.
But sometimes, when we were together, he met some peeps on some corner, in some park or some pub for a quick sell. That was what he did in that bar in Leith, near the port, that one night at the end of my first week in Edinburgh.
Outside it was pouring cats and dogs, and so I went inside as well. The bar – I have forgotten the name – was narrow, dark, and crowded, and smelled of wet wool and spilt beer. Charley was making his round, having a gab here and there, shaking hands, handing out little folded pieces of paper and palming equally folded bills in return.
I trailed behind him and passed the time studying his techniques. He had some sweet moves, and I thought I ought to trade a couple of handshakes with him, and practice that passing off routine, but on the whole I decided I was the better sleight-of-hand artist. Of course, I would never be able to charm peeps as easily and effectively as he could. Deceive them, yes. Manipulate them, sometimes. Charm – not a chance.
Usually Charley got out of these places as soon as he was done. That night, though, he bought a pint of stout for each of us instead.
“Here you go, Bobby,” he shouted over the general din.
“Ta!” I shouted back. “We’re not leaving?”
“Nah. You don’t want to miss this.”
“What?”
“Give’em a minute. They’ll be on soon.”
He pointed to a set of drums a heavily tattooed bloke was setting up in one corner. Two others in torn jeans, faded t-shirts and wearing studded black leather belts, bracelets, and dog collars were messing around with dodgy looking cables and an old set of amps and loudspeakers.
“Who are they?”
“Ah, the finest crappy band you’ll ever hear.”
“What do they play?”
At that Charley had to laugh. “Ponyboy is one of my regular customers. Fag like you.”
As far as I could tell Charley was pretty straight – blokes just didn’t rattle his kettle was how he put it – but he was about the least homophobic straight bloke I ever met. He had no problem embracing me, or walking around with an arm over my shoulder. He didn’t mind playing queer for our games, either, and when he did, he never camped it up. No floppy wrists or falsetto voice. When he played queer he was simply himself, only that he allowed the same possessive greed to creep into his eyes when checking out male butts that he usually reserved for his kind of ladies – the ones with a tramp stamp peeking out above low slung jeans, boobs straining against the top, and about a pound of war paint concealing their faces.
He played it well, too. The way his eyes undressed and nearly devoured me each time we played  the Teen Ticket – the way disdain mixed with raw, physical desire in his gaze – even after all that has happened since, even after Charley’s eventual monstrous betrayal and all it cost me, I still shiver thinking of it.
So when he called me a fag, in a fucked up way that was meant as a compliment. You know: “I’m so cool with you, I can use the bad word, cuz we’re brothers.”
The pub had no stage or anything. When the two blokes were done with the amps, they simply climbed onto the bar. One of them had a battered Ibanez electric guitar, the other held a mike in his hand. Their man at the drums started in with, well, I suppose it was a solo, or maybe just a noisy wake up call. The Ibanez followed, screeching scratchily, and finally the singer followed suit.
He was too drunk to be able to stand properly on the narrow bar, so for the most part he knelt on it, using his free hand to steady himself, while he screamed into the mike. It was absolutely atrocious. The crowd loved it and cheered them on in their drunken and stoned ineptness. And whenever the singer’s knees or palm slipped on the beer-slick bar and he crashed with his crotch or chin onto the hard, wooden top, everybody hooted and jeered.
“Aren’t they great?” Charley shouted when the singer accidentally tore the cable from the guitar and the guitarist kicked him hard into the shoulder with heavy combat boots, almost knocking the singer from the bar, and finally stomped hard on his hand.
“Which one is Ponyboy?”
I was hoping for the drummer – he was stocky, with a square forehead, a square jaw, and a fleshy face, but with intense, stormy eyes that blazed as he pounded away at his drums – as if he was chopping enemies to bits with a battle axe.
“Him.” Charley pointed at the singer. Just then the guitarist had plugged his instrument back in, and they continued, Ponyboy cradling his stomped on hand, and screaming through split and bleeding lips.
He was a tall, lanky bloke. He wore hi-top basketball boots, black patent leather with a neon green Nike arrow and neon pink laces, skin tight, black patent leather trousers, and a black tank top with a glittering picture of My Little Pony “riding” Hello Kitty. His arms, shoulders, and neck were heavily tattooed, and a half dozen piercings gleamed in his face. His hair was short, wet, and died a very artificial black. But the best was his eyes: laughing crazily while at the same time crying in quiet despair.
Just then, he threw up. Without warning he puked all over himself, the bar, the draft levers, and the patrons in the front row. And he didn’t stop singing, just continued with oatmeal coloured puke hanging in glistening strings from his chin.
But the pub owner started shouting at him. Ponyboy ignored it. Still screaming his profanities into the mike he just kicked backwards – like a pony – at the annoying voice behind him. The pub owner fended off his foot, grabbed him by the ankle, and dragged him from the bar. Ponyboy’s head thumped against the bar and the steel counter behind the bar. I had to think of Winnie-the-Pooh, and Christopher Robin dragging him down the stairs.
“No way, you sick pup!” Charley shouted at me, grinning wildly.
Ponyboy’s band-mates just went on playing as if nothing had happened.
“What?” I shouted back.
Instead of answering, Charley grabbed me between my legs, making me only too aware of my hard on.
“You really dug this sick shite, eh?”
I half started to bristle, but then instead simply grinned at Charley, half embarrassed, half defiant. Let me tell you: It felt great not to deny it.
“Go ahead,” Charley nodded towards the back door, through which the owner had dragged Ponyboy. “Go to him, then. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I hesitated for a moment. I hadn’t actually considered doing anything that daring, but now that Charley said it, I understood that I wanted to, very much. Well, it’s the confidence artist’s job to know his mark’s hidden desires better than the mark does himself, innit? And as I said, Charley was a confidence artist at heart.

Continued here

In the two weeks that followed, we played a lot of games – though for some reason we never played that Badger game he proposed. Once he learned of my chromosomal preference though, we developed a vicious house remix of the Spanish Prisoner. The Spanish Prisoner (and its modern famous variant, the Nigerian Mail Scam) is the basic free lunch that turns out to be anything but. In its classic form the mark is approached with a tale of woe and injustice. Somewhere some authorities are keeping the roper from access to his rightful wealth. Penniless as he is right now, he desperately needs some funds to pay the bribes necessary to get his treasure to safety – an investment he would pay the mark back a hundredfold, once successful, of course.
Everyone who hears of this game thinks he could never be lured, but the beauty of it is that in truth everyone can be lured – given the right lure. For some that lure may not be money.
The version we developed and that we called The Teen Ticket went roughly like this: The mark encounters me and Charley in some seedy queer watering hole, with me practically begging Charley to help me in return for (only shyly and obviously very reluctantly hinted at) sexual favours. Charley, although obviously lusting, remains cold-hearted and distant, pointing out that he couldn’t possibly take advantage of me, given my age, because of the legal risks too him – and implying that he couldn’t give tuppence for my fate otherwise. Eventually he shakes me off, and leaves me in some dark corner, quietly struggling with tears and ready to be approached by the mark.
My legend would always be some variation on this tune: Coming from some backwater European village with ultra-conservative sexual mores I had followed the internet invitation and promises of true love by some lecherous old poofter. Upon arrival here I found that he had been in contact with several young chaps, and that a rival had arrived at the same time. The best story to hook the mark turned out to be some lurid tale of how the old man had made my rival and me enter a perverted bidding war of what we would be willing to do in return for bed, board, and affection. As long as I blushed a lot, stumbled over my words, played up my continental accent – giving it a slightly eastern twist – and obviously almost choked on trying to repeat the offers I had been forced to make and those that had trumped mine, it almost invariably assured the success of the game. I’m not quite certain why, but I think it was the combination of fanning the mark’s hidden desires, and at the same time providing a way to  avoid the associated guilt by offering him the role of the good Samaritan.
Anyway, the conclusion of the tale would always be how the old man had kicked me out but not without buying me a ticket back to the continent. After all, once he had found the perfect loverboy, he wanted to get rid of the worthless runner up. But I had burned my bridges and had no place to go, and no money to stay. Being not even 16 I couldn’t easily return the ticket for cash – and that was what I needed help with.
I wouldn’t directly offer sex, and I wouldn’t ask for anything, not for money, nor for a place to stay. All I would ask for is for the help of a grown up to get a refund for the ticket (a ticket rightfully mine). But implied was of course, that once I had that, I would still be in need of a bed to sleep in and perhaps a companion to warm it.
The cruel genius of the game was that none of this mattered. The entire routine, the sob story, the process of going to the train station and getting a ticket refunded (a very time consuming process in Edinburgh at the height of the Festival), it all had only one point: To keep the mark occupied. Because as he kept me company in all this, I would relieve him of his flat- or hotel-keys and pass them on to Charley. Charley would then in all leisure loot the place, return the keys to me, and eventually I would ditch the mark under some pretence.
I wish I could tell you that the marks we suckered deserved it, that they were evil paedophiles who only helped to get into my breeches – though I do think most of them were paedophiles (or hebephiles, if you want to get technical) and did want to get into my breeches. But I am not certain many of them would have had I truly given them a chance. And, I suppose, with several of them I really wouldn’t have minded.
But the reality was that none of them deserved it. It was a rotten game, through and through, a cruel, calculating mindfuck, designed to play at once on the best and the worst that exists in every human, and to exploit it shamelessly.
And I loved it every single time. I loved the guarded, tentative way they approached me. I loved elaborating my story, fine tuning the details to the body language of the marks so to evoke the maximum mix of lust, horror, and compassion. I loved their attention. I loved that through all this I remained untouchable: I was a “child” and they were queer men. And they knew it. As far as I know none of them went to the rozzers.
I loved how I could make them dance on my strings, how I could make them hungry to give, only to then take behind their backs, how – using the subtle alchemy of the con – I turned their yearning and generosity into my profit, and their shame and fear into my armour.
I loved offering them the chance of something too good to be true (with the promise of a clear conscience to boot) only to snatch it away just when they reached for it, and leaving them blue-balled and bleeding.
And a few, precious times I got to see that crazy, anguished flicker of hope for something long given up on in their eyes. And I knew that was the real reward I was playing for.

Continued here

On our way to Leith I was burning to ask him how he had found me. I didn’t. But as we walked and he told me a bit about the city, the festival, the friends he was going to ask to let me crash, and himself (the last bit all lies, I was convinced), I gave it some thought. The night I had spent in Newcastle I had thoroughly checked my clothes for any more bugs, but I hadn’t opened the package, so I assumed that Bryan had placed another device inside that. And that one probably had been one GPS capability, allowing him (and Charley) to locate me anywhere at least in  the UK, probably Europe or the world. Still, for Charley to be there so quickly, there had to be more to it. After all, I had at best spent maybe 10 minutes on Waverley Bridge.
Charley probably had tracked my approach. He had probably noted my arrival via Maybury and Glasgow Road. He had probably guessed that I was on that bus. There had been other stops I could have gotten off, but the end of the line in the city centre was a logical choice. Perhaps he had been there anyway, on some other business. Had he seen the T-shirt on display somewhere and just decided on a whim that it would make for a great joke, or had he been prepared? Had he meant to check me out before I got to a phone, to see if I was with anyone, posed some sort of danger? Or was it just a laugh?
There was no way for me to truly know, but like him I could make some good guesses. The fact alone that he was the recipient of the mystery package meant he was some sort of player. And the way he had gone about receiving me smacked of the mind of a confidence artists.
I had learned about the art of confidence games and the frame of mind necessary to play them from Uncle Valya. Of course Uncle Valya wasn’t any uncle of mine, and his name isn’t Valya – or Valentin – and he is not really from Bulgaria as I will claim henceforth. But that is what I called him whenever I told this part of the story, so I will stick to my old lies. They are comfortable enough and they serve to protect his real identity.
He was really the uncle of another bloke in Plötzensee. You see, visiting inmates there isn’t like the stuff you see on the telly. No bullet-proof glass, no telephone to speak through, not even any bloody no-touching the prisoners rules or any of the Hollywood stuff. Maybe they do that in real prisons, but where I went it was just a big room with all the false cheer of a hospital cafeteria, and with little square tables, four chairs to each. Twice a month, in the afternoon, you could get a visitor. When they had signed in, you were called from your room, and then you could meet them there. They could bring money (an arbitrary maximum of 13 Euros per visitor, but only in coins) and there were overpriced vending machines where you could then get sweets or coffee.
One week it so happened that my friend Leo came to visit. They sent me to the visitors’s lounge, but he forgot to turn in his mobile phone. It rang in the hallway, they tried to confiscate it, he got into an argument, the warden on duty was an arsehole, and Leo was sent away. At the same time Uncle Valya was there, waiting for his real nephew, who also didn’t turn up – when they went to collect him from his room, he had smoked a bit too much weed, too much even for them to turn a blind eye (hey, a stoned inmate is a peaceful inmate), so he took a trip to the infirmary and then to the head warden’s office.
For about ten minutes Uncle Valya and I were sitting there, waiting for our respective company. When it became apparent that something had gone wrong, Uncle Valya asked me to pass on a message to his nephew. He wrote it on a small piece of paper, and just when he was done a warden came in to fetch  me back to my room. More out of reflex than any real necessity I palmed the paper. And Valya, probably similarly anxious to see his note not in the hands of wardens, watched me make it disappear.
Two weeks later he was back, but this time he asked to see me. Life inside was too boring for me to decline. When I sat down next to him, he told me that he liked my technique. Not just the skill, but the style.
“Still rough,” he said. “You have a lot to learn. But you show more promise than my nephew ever had.”
I blushed at the compliment, the first I ever got for being a thief. Let me tell you, it was the best compliment I had gotten in my life so far.
“You don’t do it to get rich, do you?” he asked, peering intently at me. “You do it of love for the art.”
I bushed even more, and he nodded and asked me if I wanted to be his apprentice.
“I will make you work hard, boy,” he said. “And you will not make money. You work for me. Am I exploiting you? Of course I am. I am a crook. But I will pay you back. Not in money, but in knowledge. You decide.”
And he offered me his hand, gob of spittle in the palm and all. He was the one who taught me that sometimes you have to live the cliché. There is purity in clichés.
I shook his hand.
And from February to July 2008 I learned from Uncle Valya. I learned a lot, but the most important lesson he had already given me, directing my awareness to something I had secretly known all along: You don’t do it for the money. You do it for the love of the art.
Charley was like that. I think his magic trick out there, on the ugly, 1980s concrete terraces of Waverley Station, amidst the oppressive beauty of Edinburgh, that was his love of the art. He did it because he could, and because he couldn’t pass up the chance to play me.
All of that went through my mind as we made superficial chit chat and I did my best not to tell him anything about myself that was real. But I waited for a chance to pick his pocket.
At a busy crossing I got my chance and peeked into his wallet. The Australian drivers licence bore his picture and the name Steven Randle.
When we reached the run-down Leith tenement building were his mates lived, he rang the bell.
Casually I said: “I just wanted to thank you for all the bother and hospitality and stuff, Steve.”
I grinned, as insolently as he had done when I first met him. For a moment he was dumbfounded. I handed him the wallet.
“Oh, I believe this is yours.”
He took the wallet, anger darkening his face for a second. Then the buzzer sounded and he pushed into the gloomy staircase.
He introduced me to Curtis, Matthew, and Marcia, who welcomed me easily enough, and assigning me to the stained, sagging couch in the living room. We shared some tea and a joint. They didn’t ask much and what little they did, I made up answers for. Eventually Charley got up to leave.
He gestured for me to follow him into the hallway, and there he asked me: “You looking for work?”
“Depends,” I said carefully. “I don’t plan on growing roots here.”
“Just for the festival, perhaps?” And when I hesitated, he smiled his sunny smile. “Think about it, half a million suckers waiting to be bilked. I watched you lie in there.” He nodded towards the room and his mates. “You’re not half bad at it.”
“What do you have in mind?”
“Straight short cons. Pigeon drop, Murphy, maybe a Badger game.”
He flashed the gold filling on one of his teeth, and raised an eye-brow. A Badger game is where you seduce a married person and later exhort hush money. It wasn’t hard to see that he would be pretty good at the first part.
“What would my role be?” I asked.
“Oh, you’ll be the red-haired, irascible Irish kid brother of my wife, who demands I pay you off, so that you can get the marriage annulled. But I don’t have that kind of money, and you threaten to kill me right there and then, and we’ll convince her that she’ll end up in the papers if not worse if she doesn’t help me out.”
In Berlin, with Uncle Valya, I’d mostly played a variation of the fiddle game, where I left a (worthless) old book somewhere, like in a café, and Valya came in, discovered it, claimed to be a antiquarian and that the book was worth oodles of money. He’d leave his card and the promise to buy it for hundreds or thousands of Euros. When I returned to get my book, the waiter or whoever had been in contact with Valya would usually offer to buy the book from me for far less than Valya had offered him – but far more than it was actually worth. The fiddle game is so useful, because you need hardly any props, it incurs no expenses to speak of, and carries next to no risk. At worst, an honest waiter will simply pass on Valya’s card and tell me of my chance to get rich. But believe me, if played right, those are few and far between.
“I don’t have the right accent,” I said. Or rather, hamming it up: “I donnt haff ze Rrrait Ak-zent.”
“Oh, I’ll teach you, mate,” Charley said. “I’ll teach you.”
So, thinking of Uncle Valya, I spat into my palm and offered it to Charley. He grinned broadly – I think he knew exactly what I was trying to say – spit into his own and shook on it.

Continued here