Jack was a grifter. A con man. A thief. And a beggar - all at the ripe old age of fifteen, though he could look and sound as young as twelve or as old as eighteen. It was a skill he'd learned from his dad; that is, when he had a dad. His had been arrested two years earlier, and was serving eight to ten up at the state pen for racketeering, leaving Jack alone to fend for himself. To that end, Jack was managing just fine. He came up with the rent for their small flat, went to school, and stayed out of trouble - well, stayed out of jail, juvenile court, and youth detention camps, anyway. Trouble, after all, paid the bills, and then some. Though he did, of course, never stop missing his dad. Not for a second.
He bribed the woman who lived next door to pretend to be his aunt, when he needed an adult to vouch for him, like at school and such; and his dad had stashed enough money away to keep him well fed for several years, at least. More often than not, however, Jack got by without even breaking a sweat, or dipping into his so-called trust fund.
And though he could pickpocket and shoplift like a pro, most of his money came from a scam his dad had taught him just before the cops carted him away. Luckily, the powers that be didn't know he had a kid, seeing as he'd never legally adopted Jack after his mother ran off with an accountant from Jersey. They'd never heard from her since that day.
"Good riddance," his dad would say, though Jack always detected a sad tremor to his voice each time he said it.
Anyway, the scam was easy enough to pull off, and afforded Jack a reasonable amount of security from getting caught. After all, he was more of a middleman. And though the big guys saw most of the big cash, they were also a hundred times more likely to get nabbed by the authorities. Besides, he earned way more than enough money in the few hours a week he needed to work in order to stay afloat - supplemented, of course, by occasional begging and shoplifting, though that was more out of fun than necessity.
The scam worked something like this: Jack would go door to door in upscale neighborhoods a good several miles away from his downscale one, so as to lessen the chance of running into anyone that could recognize him; which, in truth, would have been hard to do, what with the wigs and glasses and fancy clothes he wore when he was working. He always tried his best to appear exceedingly preppy, somewhat nerdy, and, most importantly, trustworthy. After all, it wasn't a piece of cake to convince somebody to fork over his or her social security number. Addresses and phone numbers and even birthdays were a snap, but social security numbers were hard as hell to come by - and, therefore, his bread and butter.
"Good afternoon, ma'am," he'd begin, with an earnest smile and slight bow. "Pardon for the intrusion today, but I'm collecting signatures for a petition for." And here's where Jack used his wily intuition. He had to size people up in two seconds flat in order to close the deal; otherwise they'd just slam the door in his face, or worse yet, threaten to call the cops on him. Some people were just jerks that way.
So if the woman who answered the door had several children in tow, he'd say, ".keeping convicted child molesters out of the neighborhood and your kids safe from harm." They'd usually grab the pen in two seconds flat. And if the woman was old or infirmed, he'd say, ".keeping insurance costs down so everyone can have adequate medical care." And, again, they'd usually sign in a heartbeat. And if a man answered the door, which was, to his profound relief, a rarity, as men were harder to scam than women, he'd say, ".keeping the so and so local Democrat out of office." Most rich, suburban, white males, he found, were staunch Republicans, and many of them would take the pen, albeit apprehensively, and they too would sign the phony petition after giving him a hesitant once-over.
Of course, more often than not they'd ask, "What do you need the social security number for?" To which he'd reply, "The city won't count the signatures if we don't have it." He'd smile, innocently, and they, however reluctantly, would sign. Again, the scam was an easy one - easy for Jack, that is.
Now, what Jack would do with all this information was sell it to his dad's old connections. And what they would do with it was some sort of credit card fraud. Jack never did get the entire story, figuring it was in his best interest if he didn't know all the illegalities. Ignorance, after all, was his bliss - or, at least, his protection. Besides, being the middleman was simple enough and, unless he rang the door of a cop, which, he found, never lived in the sort of neighborhoods he scammed in, safe enough. Safe, that is, until that fateful day.
She answered the door in a cute pair of bunny pajamas and matching bunny slippers, looking perhaps seven or eight years old. "Is your mommy or daddy home?" Jack inquired.
"Nuh uh," she replied. "Just me and the maid."
Jack had encountered his fair share of household servants before. They never signed his petitions. Most of them probably didn't have social security numbers, seeing as they rarely spoke any English and were probably illegal aliens anyway. At least this is what Jack's dad had always told him. So he prepared to thank her and walk to the next mansion down the street.
Just as he turned to go, she asked, "What you got in your hand? Are you selling cookies or something? You look a little old to be a Boy Scout."
Jack smiled despite himself. "No, it's a petition for a.a.playground in the park down the street." He knew it was a lost cause, but old habits died hard.
The girl grinned and said, "A playground, huh? Sounds cool. This street is so boring. Can I sign?"
"Sorry," Jack said, which he really was, seeing as no one was ever that eager. "Adults only."
"I can sign my dad's name then."
Jack perked up upon hearing that. "Do you know his birthday and social security number?" he asked.
"Yep. I used to need it to buy stuff on the Internet, until we moved and Daddy told me to knock it off."
She nodded and reached for his clipboard. Signing it, she said, "Make sure they put in some swings."
"Will do," he replied, feeling guilty for pulling a scam on a little girl - just barely guilty, naturally. The house was easiest the biggest on the block. Her daddy could afford whatever he was about to lose in the very near future. He waived to her as he walked down the long path towards the sidewalk.
A limo pulled up just as he made his way down the street. He turned and watched the owner get out. The guy was big, six five at least, and well over two hundred pounds of rock-solid muscle. Jack gulped as he watched the guy enter the little girl's house. This was one man he didn't want to be in the bad side of.
He walked fast and, when he rounded a corner, ran. He made it home without being spotted, and then looked at what the girl had written. "Sam Lockheed," he read aloud. "Why does that name sound so familiar?" He stashed the phony petition under the bed and fixed himself some dinner. He forgot all about the behemoth as he watched TV, did his homework, and went to bed.
He even forgot about the guy the next day when he was going door to door a few blocks away from where he left off the day before. The guy, unfortunately, didn't forget about Jack. The limo pulled up just as he headed to the next victim's house.
"Get in," The limo driver said as he rolled the darkened window down a few inches.
"Can't. Not allowed to get in cars with strangers," he replied, the blood rushing from his face.
"Words to live by, kid," the driver said, with a sneering grin. "Still, get in, or else." The rear door popped open. Jack had little choice but to obey. There was nowhere to run to, not that he could outrun a car anyway. So he got in.
The giant of a man he'd seen the day before was waiting for him in the back seat. He smiled at Jack and nodded. "Howdy," he said. His wide mouth was filled with gold-capped teeth. Jack inwardly trembled at the sight of him. "I hear you met my daughter yesterday."
"Yesterday?" Jack said, nervously. "I met a lot of people yesterday, sir."
The smile instantly disappeared from the guy's face. "Cut the crap, kid. There's no playground going in anywhere near this neighborhood. I called the mayor's office and checked it out. Where's the phony petition? And remember, before you answer this, never scam a scammer. Especially one that's bigger than you are." He cracked his knuckles and waited for Jack to respond.
"Oh yeah, cute kid, bunny jammies. I remember. But that petition is at home. I swear. Here, have a look." He handed the petition he had on him to the man, who quickly scanned the pages and didn't find his name on any of them. A lone bead of sweat ran down Jack's cheek, even though the limo was well air-conditioned.
"Did you turn it in to your contacts yet?" he asked with a growl.
"No sir. It's beneath my bed."
"Get it. Bring it back to my house tomorrow. Don't copy it or try anything stupid. Trust me, kid, you don't want to mess with me."
"Yeah," Jack said. "I figured that out already."
The guy laughed. "Smart kid. I like you. You remind me of myself at your age. You'll go far in this world - after you bring me back that petition." The door popped open again and Jack was pushed back onto the sidewalk. He watched as the limo sped away.
"Well, obviously, Sam Lockheed doesn't want anyone to find him, which that petition definitely would have guaranteed to happen," Jack said, aloud, to himself.
"No, he doesn't," came a gravely voice from behind him. Jack jumped and nearly fell over. "Sorry," said the man. "Didn't mean to startle you."
"Too late," Jack said, and stepped a few feet back. He looked the stranger up and down. He couldn't outrun the limo, but this guy wouldn't be a challenge at all. That's what Jack thought anyway, at least until the guy flipped open a badge and said, "FBI, young man, and don't even think about running."
"The thought never even crossed my mind," Jack said with a forced grin.
"Yeah right, kid. We followed you yesterday after you left this neighborhood. We know who you are and what you're up to. And, to be quite honest, we have bigger fish to fry."
"A fish named Sam Lockheed?"
"Bingo," the agent said. "So you help us and we forget we ever came across you."
Jack rubbed his hairless chin with his thumb and index finger. "Sam Lockheed doesn't seem like the kind of person I'd want to cross," he finally said.
"Speaking of crossing Sams, Uncle Sam ain't somebody you should cross either."
"So that puts you between a rock and a hard place," Jack said.
The agent coughed and squinted down at the boy. "No, son, that puts you between one."
Jack's grin widened. He took his clipboard, flipped one of the petitions over, and began to write. When he was finished, he handed the paper and his pen to the agent. "No, sir, I'm not between anything. You need me. If you turn me in to the authorities, okay, I go to juvenile court and get put on probation. Meantime, Sam Lockheed runs off somewhere else and you're back to square one. So sign the paper and I'll do whatever you want, within reason."
The agent read what Jack had written. He shook his head and chortled. Then he said, "Smart kid. I like you. You remind me of myself at your age. You'll go far in this world."
"So I've been told. Now sign the paper and we have a deal."Again the agent laughed, and then he did indeed sign Jack's paper. "Fine, kid. Here you go. You get what you want and we get what we want. Everybody's a winner here."
"Except Sam Lockheed," Jack said, pocketing the signed paper.
"Except him. Yeah." The agent handed Jack his pen back. "Now, all you gotta do is get this here listening device put somewhere out of sight in Sam's house. Can you do that? Cause we sure as hell can't. He doesn't know we're on to him - not yet, anyway."
"Yep. I'm going over there tomorrow. Should be a piece of cake."
"Good, you stash this and when we confirm that you've succeeded, that paper in your pocket is as good as gold." The man turned, and Jack watched him get in a black sedan that was parked a block away.
"Asshole," Jack said as he walked in the opposite direction. Still, he was happy with how this was all working out. When he got back home, he Googled Sam Lockheed, who, he was quick to discover, was wanted in several states for a whole long list of crimes and who was currently on the FBI's most wanted list. "I thought that name sounded familiar," he said to himself. "And I see why he wouldn't want his name on that petition. The cops must be watching to see if his social security number pops up anywhere. Guess he doesn't realize that they're already on to him. Isn't that interesting?" He smiled and tucked the petition that had been under the bed inside his backpack.
The next day, after school, he headed straight for Sam Lockheed's house. The bug was wrapped in cellophane and rested in a hidden pocket in his underwear. It crinkled when he moved; which, he imagined, sounded just awful to anyone listening on the other end. Again he smiled as he made his way up the path to the massive house.
The door cracked open. The limo driver stared down at Jack. "You bring it?" he asked.
"Yep," Jack responded. The door opened some more and the driver motioned him in.
Sam was waiting for him in the living room. "You got the petition?" he asked. Jack opened his backpack and showed it to him. "Hand it over," Sam commanded.
"I will. In a minute," Jack said as he watched Sam sneer and move in a few feet closer. "But I think I have something else even more valuable for you." Sam stopped dead in his tracks.
"Valuable? You mean something that'll cost me?"
"Well," Jack said, still smiling, though his heart was racing a few thousand beats per minute. "I'm a reasonable man. And I reckon this is worth, say, five grand. That is, if you think it's worth it, of course, sir."
"Kid, you got balls as big as boulders. I like that. What are you selling me today?"
"Just some information I think you'll want to have." Jack handed him the petition first, in good faith. Sam found his name on the page and ripped the sheet to shreds. Jack winced but otherwise stood his ground.
"Fine, kid, tell me first and if I think it's worth five grand, you got yourself a deal." Sam reached out with his giant paw of a hand, and Jack firmly shook it.
Again Jack smiled and said, "Go peak out your window, sir." Sam quickly walked to the window and parted the curtain a few centimeters. "See the black sedan parked on the next corner?" Jack asked. "I think it's the cops. They stopped me after I left here the other day and asked what I was doing here. I told them and they let me go, but first I peeked inside their car. Looked to me like a cop car."
"Shit," Sam yelped, and closed the curtains. He glowered at his limo driver. "I thought you said it was safe here?" he said, with gnashed teeth. "How'd they find us so quickly?"
The driver started to speak, but Jack interrupted him. "Um, sir, I'd rather not get involved in your business, so, seeing as the information I provided appears to be of value to you, I'd like the money in as small as dominations as possible."
Sam stopped and stared, and then, much to Jack's delight, broke out in a fit of laughter. "Kid, you're a riot. You should be working for me. Then again, it looks like we'll be changing our base of operations soon, so maybe not." Again he glared at the driver, and then he walked out of the room for a few minutes, returning with a thick envelope in his hands. "Here you go, kid. Five grand, plus another five grand. A bonus for you."
Jack, as nonchalantly as possible, took the envelope and placed it inside his backpack. "Um, if you don't mind sir, do you have a restroom I could use? I nearly pissed my pants a few minutes ago."
Again Sam broke out in laughter, and then pointed to a bathroom down the hall. Jack nodded and quickly headed for it. He'd been hoping for just what he found inside. Rich people, he'd heard, had phones in their johns. Sam Lockheed was no exception. Jack reached inside his underwear and withdrew the bug. He unwrapped it, wiped off any incriminating fingerprints, and whispered, "Don't forget our deal," into it, just before he unscrewed the phone cap and placed the device inside.
He flushed the toilet for good measure and then hightailed it back to the living room. Sam showed him to the door. "Well, kid, I'd like to say it's been a pleasure, but."
"Yeah, I understand." He then leaned up and, hedging his bets that the bug would somehow be found, whispered into Sam's ear. "By the way, I'd watch that driver of yours if I was you."
"Don't worry about it, kid. I'm on top of things."
"No sir, I'm not worried at all. Not one bit." And with that, he left the house and walked down the street in the opposite direction form where the sedan was sitting. Thank goodness, he never saw Sam Lockheed or the FBI again.
Though the agent was good to his word.
Jack had prepared the apartment as soon as he got home. The following Saturday, there was a knock on the door. Jack jumped and ran to open it. "Surprise!" he yelled - which, naturally, caused his father to duck and cover.
"What the hell?" his dad yelled, when he'd regained his composure and looked inside the apartment and spotted the welcome home signs festooned on the walls. "How did you know I was getting out? I didn't even know."
Jack grinned a big, toothy grin and hugged his dad before finally saying, "Well, dad, you know that saying, never scam a scammer, especially one that's bigger than you?"
"Not exactly," he replied, walking inside his apartment with his arm flung over his son's shoulder. "But I get the drift. Go on."
"Well, it's okay, I figure, if they're bigger, just so long as you're smarter."
His dad laughed, then leaned down and gave his son a big kiss on the cheek. "You know something, Jack, you're gonna go far in this world."
Jack echoed the laugh and shut the door behind them. "So I've been told, dad. So I've been told."
Rob Rosen lives, loves, and works in San Francisco. He is the author of the critically acclaimed novel, "Sparkle", and short story collection, "Culture Pop". His work has appeared in numerous anthologies, magazines, journals, and literary sites. Please visit him at his website www.therobrosen.com or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2006 Rob RosenSend us your comments on this article