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Chasing the Ace

“A sparkling debut…both entertaining and insightful.” – The Age

“It will fool you and you will love it!” – Lawrence Leung

“Johnson, has certainly dealt us an excellent hand, at once exciting and intriguing, along with a nice sprinkling of wry humour.” – Sydney Morning Herald

Joel Fitch has watched every twist-happy movie there is about con men, and he thinks he knows it all. Now, the teenager is going to take everything he’s learned from the screen and finally get his. He’s going to be a master con artist.

Richard Mordecai is a real-life swindler. But, at the end of a long career of lies and betrayal, Richard is tired and jaded. He’s ready to retire.

Until he meets Joel.

They form an uneasy partnership and Joel soon finds himself thrust into a world of bottom dealers and fraudsters. And when the pair accidentally scam the wrong mark, they have to draw on every last trick to get themselves free and walk away with the money … and hopefully their dignity.

Read the First Chapter

A con artist for christmas!

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Chasing the Ace

Richard

Regardless of what others might tell you, I am not obsessed with money. I do not particularly take pleasure in spending it nor do I especially enjoy receiving it. In fact, I find hard currency a little distasteful, a little grubby.

Money is thrust into the undergarments of gyrating strippers. It is poked between the breasts of cheap prostitutes. It is rolled up and used to snort cocaine by sleazy nightclub owners, their gold necklaces rapping on their glass coffee tables as they lean over to inhale.

At best, money is a necessary evil.

I suppose this might suggest that I prefer to live like some kind of monk, casting off my material possessions in favour of a more ascetic existence. A simple life of self-subsistence, barter and quiet reflection. Perhaps in a cave somewhere remote.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I am a firm believer in the free market. Like all good capitalists I know the value of an honest day’s work and the importance of avoiding doing one whenever possible.

But more importantly, I know the value of amassing beautiful and expensive possessions. A man is not judged by the company he keeps or the substance of his character but by the things he owns. I can tell you more about a man from knowing he owns a walnut Davenport writing desk circa 1860 then I can from a lifetime of psychoanalysis.

And while I may not always have the wealth to justify my extravagances, I am always able to ensure that I can obtain all that I need and desire.

As a great man once said, ‘I’d rather live like a millionaire than be one.’

My suits are the finest bespoke, though no money has ever changed hands for them. Had I paid for my watch it would be valued in five figures. I am not sure what my shoes cost. I saw them on the feet of an extremely well-to-do obnoxious businessman in a store in town. He had clearly spent a considerable amount of time trying on shoes in the shop before I caught sight of him through the window; a pile of rejected shoeboxes sat in the corner and an exasperated look was spread across the shopkeeper’s face. The man finally settled on the slip-on Italian Moreschis with a perforated vamp that was more for fashion’s sake than any practical purpose. I slipped into the shop, my hat tipped low over my eyes, and watched as he paid with a platinum credit card, telling the man that he was late for a meeting and his assistant would return to fetch the shoes later that afternoon.

Upon handing over the footwear an hour later, the only detail the retailer might have thought odd was the expensive watch worn by the lowly assistant. I must admit that the shoes are half a size too small but a few blisters are a small price to pay for style.

The narrow minded might be quick to brand me with the label of ‘thief’. I am no more a thief than Don Juan De Marco was a rapist. I do not simply take what I want. I do not crack my target over the head and run off with their wallet. I do not creep into their room in the dead of night. My prey freely and willingly gives me whatever it is that I desire. What I do is more akin to seduction. Certainly, a mark may realise the error of their judgement at a later stage but I can hardly be held responsible for their failings.

I am, for want of a better term, a con artist.

And therein lies the rub.

Having established myself as a professional liar, clearly my thoughts and recollections are not to be trusted. No matter what testimony I give, one could be forgiven for being in a constant state of doubt, wondering how much of my story is true.

If I wanted to, I could provide all manner of evidence and verification of my identity and story. I could show you a birth certificate recording my birth in the mid 1940s in North London to Mr Donald Mordecai, a dentist, and Mrs Angela Mordecai, a housewife and part-time librarian. Yet I also have birth certificates showing me to be Scottish, Australian and a member of the Romanian royal family.

I might also present you with medical records detailing a congenital heart defect I have lived with since birth. At the same time, I have identical medical records that confirm an entirely fictional neck injury from an insurance swindle I participated in during the 1970s.

I could show you court documents that reveal that in my twenties I was arrested and fined for loitering – the judge noting that I was suspected of being involved with a gang of criminals playing illegal games of chance on the streets of Tottenham. But I also have similar documents illustrating I am a respected barrister, a high-court judge and the owner of a failed Venus Fly Trap farm.

Documents can be faked, just as the most convincing of proof can be doubted. Hard facts and evidence are all very well and good for courts of law, but the hearts and minds of men are not so easily won. The best protection against doubt is detail, layers of specifics that paint a picture so vivid that to doubt its veracity is to doubt one’s own mind.

Consider Richard III. History remembers him as a shrivelled and crippled villain. A proto-Hitler whose twisted arm and hunched back were no barrier to him slaughtering his nephews and seizing England’s crown in a bloody coup. But this unflattering portrait is one sketched by William Shakespeare and not based on the dull facts of the history. The genuine king is all but forgotten. Even his portrait in the Royal Collection has been altered to include the fictional hunch. The real man has been literally and figuratively painted over.

Therefore, allow me to paint my own portrait. Despite my age my hair is only just more salt than pepper. And while my fringe is receding, my moustache is full and thick, cascading over my lip, a mottled grey waterfall of hair. As well as giving my appearance a touch of class it also serves to cover the corners of my mouth, which have a regrettable habit of tightening upwards when I lie.

I have already established I am well dressed, my favourite suit being a double-breasted asphalt-grey Gieves & Hawkes. I know the double-breast has fallen from grace and I will concede that the jacket sags off the shoulders a little, but when the claim ticket you have forged for an upmarket drycleaner turns out to match one for a Savile Row suit, you do not do fate the disservice of questioning the fit.

I am a lifelong bachelor and I have the carriage of a well- educated homosexual. I am neither well educated nor homosex-ual. It has been noted that I speak with a thespian’s eloquence, but this is more a product of my clipped English accent, which I am not ashamed to admit I play up. My prolix ways come from a thorough reading of the classics and a perhaps unnecessary use of the thesaurus. Why use a short word when a long one will do? People are less inclined to argue with you if they are uncertain of what you have just said.

Despite early success at school I found further formal education to be of little use. Almost any profession in the world can be imitated with the right letterhead, a trip to the library and a bumptious attitude. If I can spend four months as one of the city’s leading proctologists without being uncovered or soiling my index finger in another man’s rectum, then it is clear that higher education is an overrated institution.

While we are on the subject, there is no denying that I fit certain stereotypes of the aging urban homosexual. I enjoy the theatre, I wear scarves and cravats, I smoke thin cigarettes and gesture with an action that can only be described as limp-wristed. However, I have always failed to understand how cleanliness, good taste and an epicene manner indicate a proclivity towards buggery. This is not to say that I lie straight in bed, that I prefer the fish course to the beef. I have the ability to play both roles equally well as required.

Of course, at my age this careful guise attracts only lonely middle-aged ladies and young calamites in search of a silver daddy to pay their bills. When I first started to work with Andrews, he worried that people would think he was precisely that; that upon seeing us out together the general public would assume he was a kept man, that my only interest in him was sexual.

I was quick to point out that seeing as he was in his forties and not exactly an oil painting, there was a little chance of anyone mistaking him for a gigolo.

But I am getting ahead of myself. First, there is the matter of Joel.

‘Excuse me, sir, did you drop this?’

I am strolling along the river’s edge at Southbank when I hear a voice behind me. As the first sign of life on the south side of the Yarra River, the Southbank promenade forms a grey area between the conspicuously hip, soy-sipping north and the banally fashion- able, latte-ordering south. It is a broad strip of concrete peppered with shops, restaurants and bad public art. A lone cellist busks, playing crowd-pleasing classical favourites that her listeners are only familiar with from BMW commercials.

In the river a skiff collects the rubbish as it floats downstream. A large water rat swims happily among the muck, showing that in Melbourne there is a place for everyone.

It is lunchtime and the riverside is packed with office workers and students taking harried lunch breaks. Tourists wander aimlessly looking for something, anything meaningful to photograph.

I turn to see a young man standing in front of me, a small card in his outstretched hand. He resides in that ill-at-ease halfway house between youth and adulthood. His unkempt oily blond hair clumps together in thick strands, covering his ears and brushing against his collar. A smattering of acne clings to his cheeks like stubborn barnacles refusing to let go of a ship’s bow. His metabolism has slowed so that, probably for the first time in his life, the standard steady diet of fast food that teenagers consume is starting to stick to his waist.

Far worse than his physical appearance is the fact that he seems to be attempting to swindle me. In his defence he has had incredibly bad luck in choosing his target. Of all the people swarming along the riverside, he has approached the one man who not only knows what he is doing, but what he is doing wrong.

‘Sir, did you drop this?’ he repeats.

Never say ‘sir’. Only people who want something from you say sir. Waiters and salespeople and beggars say sir. You can call me sir on the day I am awarded my knighthood.

And do not ask me if I have dropped something. I might say yes and take off with the object in question before you have had a chance to initiate the swindle. And then where would you be?

‘It looks like some sort of scratchie.’

Do not tell me what it is. Let me figure it out for myself. If you start to push me around and tell me what things are, you give me room to disagree. Make me feel like I am in charge. Do not point everything out like some cut-price tour guide.

‘Do you know how these work?’

Do not patronise me, young man. Everyone knows how scratch- and-win lottery tickets work. You scratch and then you win. There is a very fine line between innocence and stupidity.

‘Take a look at it. It looks like someone has already scratched it. I wonder whether this is a winner.’

Take a look at what? What is this thing? The front is supposed to have a gloss finish and the back is supposed to be matt. This is printed on a piece of standard card. These tickets should be 215gsm at least. This could not be more than 150. The ink has bled into the stock and I can barely read the serial number. And where are the perforations? Real tickets are sold in strips and torn off one by one. The top and bottom edges of the ticket should be rough, not smooth like you cut them with a pair of scissors. It is not even square. You should be ashamed of yourself.

‘Look. Five-hundred dollars appears three times. That means we won, doesn’t it?’

A five-hundred-dollar prize is hardly enough money to pique my interest. You need to blind me with excitement, dazzle me with greed. If you are going to go to all this effort, at least make it a thousand. When you take out expenses, you will be lucky to finish with a couple of hundred dollars from this travesty. That is hardly worth the trouble of printing it in the first place.

‘We should split the winnings fifty-fifty, it’s only fair. But look at the time. I have to go.’

You have to go where? Maybe you are meeting up with the rest of your church group to volunteer at the soup kitchen. Perhaps you are donating blood in your lunch break from teaching refugees to speak English. I would even accept a sick grandmother, at a pinch. Give me details, spin me a tale – make me believe.

‘Of course, I’m under eighteen, so I can’t cash the ticket. Maybe you should take it and we’ll split the difference.’

I have not sat through a performance this wooden and unconvincing since I saw Oscar Samson murder ‘The Seagull’ at her Majesty’s Theatre back in ’86. No conviction, weak delivery and completely lacking in clear sense of character. Two stars.

I must admit, there is a small part of me that wants to take the boy under my wing, show him the error of his ways and teach him how to run the swindle properly. It has been a long time since Andrews and I worked together and though I am loathe to admit it, I miss the companionship of a young mentee.

But before I have a chance to act, my natural instincts take over.

‘I am sorry, young man,’ I tell the would-be con artist, ‘I am not entirely sure what you are suggesting.’

Two parts confusion, two parts curiosity and one part antagonism. My character is multifaceted, believable, my motivations easily understood.

The young man’s face lights up.

‘Well, I’m not eighteen yet, and you can’t cash one of these tickets if you’re still a kid. So, maybe you should take it and cash it and then pay me the difference in cash.’

When it gets to nub of it, he garbles the proposition. He looks down, unable to meet my gaze.

‘Well … what I mean is … if you take the ticket, you can cash it but maybe you could give me the money for half?’

I pause for a second before allowing a sly look of realisation to slowly creep across my face. It is a subtle action, just enough to communicate my inner thoughts and propel events forward. Without saying a word, I suggest that I understand his proposition and that I am interested. I hope he is taking notes. Then, just as quickly, I allow the expression to fall away into one of disappointment.

‘That sounds like an attractive proposition but I fear I cannot help you. I do not have any money on me. I only have this.’

I will admit that phrases like ‘attractive proposition’ and ‘I fear’ are overly theatrical but they do help to depict me as a haplessly out of touch older gentleman. By way of further explanation, I remove my wallet from my pocket and take out a bank cheque. I prefer a longer-breast wallet to the popular men’s hip wallet. The former looks more sophisticated and has room for the various tools of my trade. The wallet contains seven different false IDs including driver’s licences, gym memberships and library cards. It also hosts several purloined credit cards, a doctored newspaper clipping depicting me as a leading Australian businessman and a single fake bank cheque.

The boy could learn a lot from my bank cheques. I use the finest stock, and stamp the watermark on each cheque myself. Each cheque is printed using the highest-quality printer on the domestic market, the ink embedded permanently on the paper. The details of the cheque I add later by hand, finishing the cheque with a replica hologram I had made by a company in China. The final product costs almost fifty dollars in materials. Each one is a work of art.

‘Let me see,’ I say, displaying the cheque under the boy’s nose. ‘I am afraid the cheque I have is for six-hundred dollars. It would be silly to give you six-hundred dollars for a five-hundred-dollar ticket …’

And then I wait. I stare at him, riding out the awkward silence that I know he will feel obliged to fill. I want the suggestion to be his.

‘Well,’ he says, thinking it through. ‘What if I give you the difference in cash?’

‘What do you mean?’ I ask.

‘I’ll give you the ticket and three-hundred-and-fifty, and you give me the cheque. It’s made out to cash, yeah?’

I want him to fight for the money.

‘I am not sure. After all, I still have to go and cash the ticket. There might be a waiting period. Perhaps it is not worth the fuss.’ ‘It’s no fuss! Why don’t you want the money? What’s wrong with you?’

Do not argue with me. No woman was ever argued into bed.

A fly cannot be reasoned into landing on one sugar cube over another. Do you know who won the Second World War? The Swiss, who had the good sense not to get involved in the conflict in the first place.

‘Four hundred,’ he counters. ‘I’ll give you four-hundred dollars and the ticket.’

If the cheque were real, he would have a two-hundred-dollar profit.

‘Very well,’ I sigh.

‘Wait here. I’ve got to go to the ATM.’ He sprints off towards the shopping arcade and the bank of automatic teller machines inside. I am surprised the young man has four-hundred dollars to give me. Dressed in baggy faded jeans, an oversized hooded jumper and dirty old sneakers with a visible crack down one side, he does not present as a financially secure individual.

While I wait, I wander over to the river’s edge, where the lunch crowd is slowly thinning. A group of tourists are busy trying to take pictures of the rat, which, having had its fill of rubbish, is now sunning itself on the rubbish skiff’s inflatable sides. The cello player has switched from the ‘Danse Macabre’ and Bach’s ‘Cello Suite’ to some lesser-known modern piece.

As I wait, my heart begins to palpitate, thumping twice on every beat. These incidences occur once or twice a week. Usually, it is the result of stress or excitement but often, like now, the attacks occur for no good reason. I feel giddy and my heart races for a few minutes before the sensation passes. After a lifetime of such symptoms I have learned to live with them.

The busker is just announcing that the next song shall be her last when the young man gallops back. He has a wad of fifty-dollar notes clutched in his hand. I take a deep, slow breath to steady my heart.

‘I got it,’ he gasps, out of breath. ‘I got the money.’

I smile politely and hand the bank cheque to him. He holds it in two hands and stares at it as if it is the last golden ticket to the chocolate factory.

‘It was a pleasure doing business with you,’ I say, slipping the cash and the worthless scratch-and-win ticket into my wallet.

‘Yeah, you too.’ And the boy is off, jogging up the riverbank towards Queen’s Bridge, no doubt looking for somewhere to cash the cheque. I wander back along the riverside, knowing I have plenty of time before he discovers he is out of pocket four- hundred dollars.

I sigh. It has been nearly three years since Andrews, and this young man is the first of our kind I have come across in all that time. I have missed my opportunity and I suppose I will never see him again.

And for the first time that day, I am mistaken.

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