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Excerpt #1 from The Last Con


 

Six Years Ago

Those last few hours of freedom are only precious in retrospect. Fletcher spent his at the Olympic Diner, shoveling down that barely-edible breakfast food.

It was their ritual; they ordered “hippy hash” and black coffee and talked through the plan. Then they talked through it again, careful to touch on every contingency. There had been a time when Fletcher complained about the greasy food and dive setting. But Andrew had insisted they stick with the ritual, and before long the round corner booth became a source of comfort for Fletcher. If nothing else, the lard-encrusted eggs proved a convenient justification for the disquiet in his guts as the job drew near. After all, real grifters didn’t get nervous—everyone knew that. There was no rule, however, against indigestion.

Andrew pushed his half-empty plate away firmly, as if to make sure the remaining food got the message. He patted a napkin against his mouth a few times and leaned back in the booth, the fabric of his fine Italian suit seeming to recoil from the cracking red vinyl of the seat.

“Let’s go through it one more time,” he said, running a hand delicately along his carefully-quaffed hair, pushing a few errant strands back into place. Andrew had turned forty a month earlier, but Fletcher knew he could still pass for a college student if the job called for it, as easily as he could embody a tenured professor.

“I think we’ve talked it to death,” Fletcher said. “Simplest job of the year, man. Let’s just go.”

“Well, I’d like to talk about it some more,” Happy said. He was sprawled in the booth, red hair disheveled, wearing cargo pants and an old flannel shirt, not caring what passersby might assume about two clean-cut men in suits keeping such unkempt and uncouth company. He leaned onto the table toward his two associates. “It’s a church, you guys,” he whispered. “This is the line we weren’t going to cross, remember?”

“It’s not a church,” Andrew said.

“Right. Remind me what it’s called again?”

Fletcher sighed. “It’s called St. Bernadette’s Church, but it was deconsecrated ten years ago. That means it’s not really a church anymore. They rent the place out to groups like this Civic Pride thing tonight. That’s it.”

“Just seems messed up.”

“You don’t have to come,” Fletcher said. “I already told you that.”

“Whatever. I’m in.” Happy slumped back in his seat. “So what am I doing?”

Fletcher shrugged. “Driving us there, waiting in the van, picking us up.”

“Right, right. But what am I doing?”

“Nothing,” Andrew answered. “It’s the annual meeting of the Knights of Civic Pride. There’s no retinal scan equipment, no motion sensors, and probably no spy satellites locked in on a gathering of the world’s dullest crowd eating a rubber chicken dinner. If the word church is a deal breaker, head on home. Like Fletcher said, we don’t need you tonight.”

Happy grinned. “You said that last month in Royal Oak, and I seem to recall saving both of your butts.”

Fletcher’s phone rang in his pocket. He extracted himself from the booth and answered it. “Hello?”

“Am I interrupting something terribly exciting?”

Fletcher smiled involuntarily and walked out into the cool night, leaving Andrew to pick up the check.

“No, it’s Yawnsville here,” he said, looking backing into the neon glow of the diner. “This anthropologist from Chicago is doing a slideshow. Like, with an actual slide projector—the kind with the carousel.”

His wife laughed that cute little laugh. Inside, Andrew was paying the cashier and Happy was fiddling with his own phone.

“Yeah, and he’s standing two feet away from the projector, but instead of just pushing the button, he keeps saying sliiiide, and Andrew was sitting behind the machine so he’s been reduced to slide master.”

“I bet he hates that,” Meg said.

“Oh, it’s a gong show. I was happy for the excuse to duck out. So what’s up?”

Andrew and Happy came walking out of the diner. Fletcher pointed at his phone and mouthed Meg. They nodded, and the three quietly climbed into Happy’s old van.

“I wanted to get your opinion on something,” she said. “But first I have to tell you what Ivy said today.”

“Hit me.” Fletcher muted the phone while Happy turned the old van’s ignition.

“Well, at school they’re doing this project of free-associating in visual media.”

“That sounds like a college class, not first grade.” The van scraped the concrete below as they pulled out onto the street.

“It’s just, like, making collages and drawings and things,” Meg said. “Anyway, she was making a picture of her family and she cut out a glossy of Charlize Theron on the red carpet for me and a picture of that old man from Jurassic Park for you.”

“Old man? I’m thirty-two.”

Meg laughed.

“Are they going to teach her to read at some point?” Fletcher asked. He’d been smarting at the hefty tuition payments being auto-drafted from his bank account, while the children were allowed to do whatever they pleased most of the day.

“It’s self-directed. When she’s ready, she’ll be reading. Anyway, I really called to ask what you’d think of putting a claw-foot tub where the vanity is now and then kind of switching the toilet to the opposite corner? It’s just more balanced that way.”

Meg had been knee-deep in bathroom renovation plans since finishing their kitchen overhaul a year earlier. The expenses were noisily tallying in Fletcher’s mind, adding themselves to the tuition and the mortgage payments and drowning out any of his own reservations about robbing St. Bernadette’s Deconsecrated Church.

“Hmmm. Let me mull that over. I better get back in there now. Andrew’s going to wonder what’s up.”

“Tell him I said hi. I’ll probably be asleep when you get home. I’ve got a callback in the morning.”

“Okay. I love you.”

“Love you more,” Meg purred. “Night.”

“Look at that stupid grin,” Happy said from the driver’s seat. “You been married for the better part of a decade. How are you still twitterpated?”

“I’m what?”

“Twitterpated. Like Thumper.” He turned to Andrew. “Is she really that hot?”

Andrew gave a slight, knowing nod.

“Guys,” Fletcher called. “I’m still here!”

Andrew laughed. “It’s not just that she’s beautiful. She’s smart, fun, the whole package. And that little girl is something else. Who knows what they’re doing with a lousy grifter like Fletcher. Makes no sense.”

The stupid grin evaporated. “If she knew what we really did, things would probably make a whole lot more sense, real quick.”

The auditorium of the deconsecrated church had been cleared of pews and filled with standard-issue banquet hall chairs, save for the back of the hall, where a long table had been meticulously arranged with all manner of crackers, cheeses, and deli meats.

Andrew and Fletcher entered separately, a few minutes apart. Their target was locked up in what had been the sacristy, where the vessels and vestments of the church were kept. The two men mingled pleasantly, repeating the same contrived niceties as the rest of the crowd. Andrew made his way to the dais at the front of the hall, where he answered a phone call from no one and stepped into the north transept for some privacy. From there he slipped unseen into the sacristy.

Fletcher leaned against the wall and perused the program he’d been handed on the way in. If all was going according to plan, Andrew was even now cracking the safe—a cheap and outdated Gurnell Gun Safe that, according to tax records, had been donated to the church by a parishioner fifteen years earlier. It would take him all of three minutes to access what lay within.

Feeling that rumble in his stomach again, Fletcher refocused on the program. The Knights of Civic Pride would begin their meeting in approximately fifteen minutes, if they were on schedule. After some introductory comments from the chairman, the first order of business would be giving out the year’s Civic Pride Award, which would be bestowed upon—

Suddenly stiffening, Fletcher let his eyes drift around the crowded room, searching for a tall black man in dress blues. Instead he saw Andrew, smiling and nodding, making his way through the crowd toward Fletcher. He held out a hand. “Cyrus Turk,” he said. “And you are?”

Fletcher gave his hand a friendly pump. “I am . . . really looking forward to the award the chief of police will be receiving here in a few minutes.” He held up the program with a panicked smile.

Andrew nodded again. “Well, so far everything is exactly as I expected here. They have my favorite cookies, and the package is open. In fact, there are four different kinds and I can’t make up my mind.”

Fletcher bit his lip. “I can probably help you choose,” he said, “but again, I’m thinking about the chief of police and his big award. Maybe we should get together for cookies another day?”

“No, tonight’s good,” Andrew said. His voice dropped to a near whisper, as he leaned in and gave the kind of half hug one gives an acquaintance at a social function. “I propped the back door,” he said. “Happy and I will bring the van around. You just slip in and get what we came for.”

“All right.” Breaking the embrace, Fletcher moved quickly and quietly out of the building, down the stone steps, and around to the back of the church. He entered through the propped door, which bore the stenciled words EMERGENCY EXIT ONLY.

Once inside, he clicked on a pen light and swept the room, quickly locating the open safe. As Andrew had indicated, there were four monstrances lined up inside—ornate gold vessels used to display the Host for adoration. Each was about eighteen inches tall, culminating with a round sunburst pattern with a circular void at its center where the consecrated bread of the Eucharist would be placed.

He felt a little tingle of excitement, which he assumed was not too different from the Presence of the Divine experienced by those who had worshiped an invisible God with the aid of these golden objects and a little wafer of bread. For Fletcher, it was about the history, the culture. He’d studied religion and philosophy as an outsider, motivated by his curiosity about what drove humans to be so . . . human . . . . The same curiosity that now motivated him as a grifter.

Fletcher rubbed his whiskered cheeks and gazed into the safe. He had never heard of a church having more than one monstrance—let alone four—and to the untrained eye these were virtually identical. But that’s why Andrew had brought him along.

He leaned in close and studied each of the gold stands in turn. The second one from the left. That was the Valletta Monstrance—the one they were after. Reaching up under his jacket, he pulled out a large, collapsible nylon bag and carefully slid the holy vessel in, hefting it onto his shoulder. It slipped off the first time, causing him to curse. He was feeling rushed, which he didn’t like. Haste led to sloppiness, Andrew had emphasized again and again, and sloppiness gets you caught. That’s why they weren’t here in the dead of the night, breaking in as cat burglars. Instead, they were grifting, expertly working their marks, hiding in the midst of the crowd.

Before zipping the bag shut, Fletcher paused and shined the light around the inside of the large safe, illuminating a variety of smaller items. If there was anything else of value here, he might as well take it. No one would know, after all. And none of this stuff was doing anyone a bit of good locked away in the back of this no-longer-a-church.

That’s when the door opened and the light came on overhead. Fletcher’s eyes met the chief’s, both men speechless and open-mouthed. The tall, muscular man wore a crisp dress uniform and held a small yellow notepad in his left hand, scribbled with notes for an acceptance speech. And then he had his sidearm in his right. Fletcher thought about grifting, talking, charming—but he could see in the chief’s eyes that it would be pointless.

Thus ended his freedom for the better part of a decade. And, while he knew it made no sense, whenever Fletcher remembered that moment, he could see the vague flashing of police lights and hear the slamming of a cell door.