The scams begin AUGUST 3

Boone McReedy: high school conman, smooth-talking charmer, and the idiot who just got scammed out of $15,000 of his mom's money.

Darby West: ass-kicker, straight-shooter, and Boone's ex-girlfriend.

Now, they must team up to save their parents' business, one con at a time.

 

That is if they don't kill each other first.

Chapter 1: The Shakedown Switcheroo

It’s how I persuade brainiacs that doing my homework would benefit humankind.

Or convince poor suckers to donate money to my beer fund.

Or smile and silver-tongue my way out of speeding tickets.

Lying’s in my DNA, transferred to me from my dad, who got it from his dad, and so on down the line. Call it my bullshit birthright. It’s a talent that comes naturally, and who am I to fight genetics?

But natural ability can only get you so far. To be a successful conman, you can’t just speak the lie, you have to sellthe lie. Not only does whoever is listening have to believe what you’re saying, but you have to believe it too. How else could used-car salesmen earn a living? Or the booth owners here at Garbage Mountain convince you to buy shit you don’t need? It’s all in the sell.

I, Boone McReedy, am an Olympic-level bullshit artist.

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But natural ability can only get you so far. To be a successful conman, you can’t just speak the lie, you have to sellthe lie. Not only does whoever is listening have to believe what you’re saying, but you have to believe it too. How else could used-car salesmen earn a living? Or the booth owners here at Garbage Mountain convince you to buy shit you don’t need? It’s all in the sell.

I had a lot of time to think about this back in August while I sat in Dad’s hospital room. The goddamn hospice nurse kept talking in this soft, calm voice that made me want to commit murder. When your dad’s about to die, the last thing you want is a stranger telling you how peaceful he looks and how he knows you’re here with him and how he doesn’t have much time left. No, what you want at that moment is an audience with God so you can kick him in the balls for doing to this to your dad.

If you don’t know anything about pancreatic cancer, it’s pretty much a death sentence with no last-second call from the governor coming to save your ass. In just over three months, Dad went from being a forty-six-year-old guy with a full-on dad bod to a withered, living skeleton. On the day he died, Dad used what little strength he had remaining to wiggle a finger at me. He could barely speak then, and I had to put my ear right by his chapped lips to hear him. His breath was so rank and stale I had to fight not to gag, something I still feel guilty about. I leaned in, and in one of his final moments of life, Dad said…

Nothing.

            

Because none of that happened. I made it all up, and you believed me because I sold it. See how it works? I’d feel bad for lying to you, but you should have seen it coming. I mean, what were we just talking about? But I promise not to lie to you again. Unless I do. We’ll see. It’s situational.

            

So anyway, no, Dad’s not dead. He is in prison, though, which is about the same thing. Mom’s written him off, that’s for sure, but I won’t let him off the hook that easily. I’m too pissed. He’s been in prison nine months, almost two years to the day Mom made our family the proud owners of the biggest local embarrassment.

 

The sign out front of this twenty-acre flea market may read “Golden Mountain,” but no one calls it that. To the citizens of Batesville, Ohio, the 120 sales booths crammed into one long building is better known as “Garbage Mountain,” and for good reason—you name it, we sell it: two-dollar t-shirts that disintegrate on first wash, throwing stars and nunchucks for the budding ninja, velvet paintings of the baby Jesus swaddled in an American flag, six-dollar knockoff Air Jordans…you get the idea. And believe me, if you’re going to make your livelihood selling crap, your bullshit gene has to be a dominant one.

            

So Tuesday afternoon, I’m in the back bathroom at Garbage Mountain plunging away at a clogged toilet and wondering why some people wait an entire year before evacuating their bowels when the door slams open. I lean out of the stall in time to see Billy Gompers trying to shove this scrawny freshman, Andy Alexander, through the tiled wall. We do a little eye dance, Andy’s eyes pleading and Gompers’ eyes menacing, until Gompers says, “Mind your goddamn business, McReedy.”

            

“No problem here, man.”

            

Billy Gompers has drum-tight, oily skin stretched over an unnaturally lumpy skull that would make even the Elephant Man cringe. Add a caveman’s IQ and a great white shark’s compassion, and Gompers has a bright future ahead of him. Flashforward twenty years and you’ll find him working the graveyard shift at a tow truck company and spending his days euthanizing dogs at the animal shelter for fun.

 

So I go back to CPR’ing the toilet like I’m trying to save its life and let the little drama play itself out a few feet away.

            

“I can’t get you anymore,” Andy says, all blubbery. “My mom actually watches me swallow the pills. I can’t palm them like I do at school.”

            

What follows is the loud, telltale umph of Andy taking a fist to the stomach.

            

“Then why the hell did you have me meet you here?” Gompers growls. “I want ten by tomorrow or you’re dead.”

            

“How am I supposed to do that?”

            

“Like I give a shit. Say you spilled them down the drain. Rob someone. Just figure it out.”

           

It’s vintage Gompers, not even taking the summer off from his goonery. You see this enough times and secretly hope the Andys of the world will do us all a favor by throwing a lucky punch that accidentally crushes the bully’s trachea, but this, unfortunately, isn’t the Andy to make that happen.

 

So in a situation like this, there’s only one thing to do: I leave the plunger behind and step out of the stall. Andy’s on the floor against the wall with Gompers hulking over him.

            

“Hey, Gompers,” I say, “some advice?”

 

Gompers snaps my way, looking surprised. Or maybe confused. Like I said, his face doesn’t lend itself to careful study.

 

“Stay out of this, Boone.”

           

I take a step toward them, and Gompers covers the space between us in three quick steps before shoving me hard. Then I’m pinned against the wall, staring at the smiling skull ring on Gompers’ middle finger that’s curled with the others into a boulder-sized fist.

            

“I said beat it,” Gompers says.

            

“Okay,” I say, “but taking pills from this kid’s a waste. It’s like robbing a bank and only pocketing the change instead of hitting the vault.”

 

Gompers blinks hard. I should have dumbed things down from the beginning.

            

“The kid’s family’s got money, Gompers. Lots of it. Enough for you to buy all the pills you want and have a lot left over. I just figured you’d want to know.”

            

Gompers puts his greasy face inches from mine and breathes on me hard. Now I’ll never be able to grow a decent beard.

            

“Why are you telling me this?” he says.

            

“Because who doesn’t love money? I figure I’m in for a small finder’s fee, but since you’re the muscle, you keep the bulk of it. If he has any money on him, that is.”

            

Gompers stares at me with dead eyes but lets go of my shirt.

            

“Or maybe I just keep it all for myself,” he says.

            

“Hey, your call, man. You’re the boss. Let’s at least see what he’s got before we make any decisions.”

            

Andy’s doing his best to disappear into the corner, but Gompers smells blood in the water and yanks Andy to his feet.

            

“You holding out on me?”

            

“I told you I don’t have any pills.”

            

“Not pills. You heard him. Money.”

            

Andy looks at me for help but knows he won’t be getting it. He turns his front pockets inside-out to show Gompers they’re empty, but Gompers isn’t dumb. Well, not completely dumb.

            

“Turn around,” Gompers says, and before Andy can respond, he’s face-first against the wall. Gompers shoves a hand into Andy’s back pocket, and a second later we’re all looking at a wallet with sixty dollars in it.

            

“That’s mine,” Andy says.

           

 “Not anymore,” Gompers says. Then the cash is out of Andy’s wallet and in his pocket. “And if you tell anyone about this, they’ll never find your body.”

            

“What about me?” I say. “I’m the one who told you about the money.”

           

“Tough shit.”

            

“No, look,” I say, “consider it a payoff. If the kid is dumb enough to tell his parents or the cops, I’ll back you up. It’ll be our words against his, two against one.”

            

“You’ll back me up anyway,” Gompers says.

            

“Why would I do that?”

            

“Because if you don’t, I’ll beat your ass.”

            

It’s impossible to argue with such sound Neanderthalian logic.

            

Gompers is on the way out when the bathroom door opens again. Standing in the doorway blocking Gompers’ path is a guy who looks like he uses professional wrestlers as toothpicks. He’s wearing black jeans and a black t-shirt reading “Kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out.”

            

“Andy?” the man says.

            

“Dad?” Andy says.

            

“Shit,” Gompers says.

            

The man steps into the bathroom, and Gompers backs way the hell up. He might be one of the biggest kids in school, but he looks like a toddler next to this behemoth.

            

“They robbed me,” Andy says, pushing past us and standing behind his dad.

            

“Whoa, wait a minute,” I say, holding both hands out. “That’s not true. I’m not a part of this. It was all him.” I hook a thumb at Gompers, who looks like he’s just taken a hammer to the forehead. Not that you could tell if he did.

            

“No, he tried to take money too,” Andy says.

            

“But only to give it back to you so you didn’t lose it all,” I say.

            

Andy’s dad takes a step forward, and now it’s Gompers and me who are pressing ourselves into the wall.

            

“Give it to me,” the man growls.

            

Gompers, in a shocking display of rational thinking, doesn’t hesitate in handing over the wad of cash. The man then looks at me, his hand out.

            

“I told you I didn’t take any of it,” I say.

            

“No, but you wanted to. So give me what you’ve got.”

            

“What?”

            

“Your money,” he says. “All of it. Now.”

            

Before I have time to comply, the man’s paw closes over my face and I’m shoved sideways along the wall. I slam into the metal garbage can and hit the ground, soggy paper towels and empty food wrappers raining on me.

            

“Now,” he says again.

            

I rush to give him what little money I have, and then he’s vulturing over Gompers. It’s a mirror image of Gompers standing over Andy five minutes ago, but this probably isn’t the best time for a discussion on irony. Gompers reaches into his front pocket and pulls out a sad five-dollar bill. He hands it to the man, who then gives it to Andy.

            

“And the rest?” Andy’s dad says.

           

 “There isn’t anymore,” Gompers says.

            

The man leans in, and it’s enough for even someone as dumb as Gompers to surrender. He may be a shark, but even sharks are afraid of one thing—bigger sharks. Gompers goes through all of his pockets, and when he’s finished, he’s handed over Andy’s money and at least a hundred dollars of his own. Who knew being a bullying asshole could be so lucrative?

            

“Apologize to my son,” the man says.

            

Gompers and I each whimper out a “sorry” while staring holes through the bathroom floor.

            

“Good,” he says, “and if Andy ever tells me that either one of you even looked at him—”

            

“It won’t happen,” Gompers says.

            

“I know people,” Andy’s dad says. “You will disappear.”

            

“We don’t doubt it, sir,” I say.

            

My eyes go wet, and I can almost smell the urine wanting to flood out of Gompers.

            

“Let’s go,” Andy’s dad says, and seconds later, Gompers and I are alone in the bathroom.

            

“We need to call the cops,” I say.

            

“No way. That guy’ll kill us.”

           

“But he robbed us,” I say. “And he assaulted me.”

            

“Jesus, McReedy, and what would you tell the cops? That we were shaking this kid down and then his dad came in and stole from us instead? Don’t be so goddamn stupid.”

            

Gompers leaves without another word, and I’m left with heart palpitations and a toilet to finish unclogging. It takes another five minutes of plunging before I’m finished, which is just enough time for the coast to clear. I find Andy and his dad sitting in the food court, risking their lives with fifty-cent corndogs from Brenda’s Hot Dog Emporium. They wave their fried sticks at me in salute.

            

“Did he split?” I say.

            

“He hauled ass as soon as he left the bathroom,” the man says. “I doubt he’ll be bothering the kid anytime soon.”

            

“You just saved me years of having to deal with that gorilla,” Andy says.

            

Roadie, the man who played the role of Andy’s dad, is a boother here. Among other things, he rides a Harley and is friends with counterfeiters, gun nuts, and master criminals. He’s definitely a handy guy to know and was more than willing to help us out with Gompers.

            

“Did you get hurt when I threw you down?” Roadie says. “It was a last-second improvisation.”

           

 “No,” I say, my ribs still aching, “I’ve learned how to take a fall. It’s a much-needed survival skill.”

            

“I hear that.”

            

We talk for a while longer, mostly laughing about pulling off a Shakedown Switcheroo and hearing way too many thank-yous from Andy. Eventually, Roadie pulls out the roll of bills he took from Gompers and hands it to me. I take my original twelve, give Andy back his sixty, then count Gompers’ donation. Once I take my agreed-upon forty-five percent, I hand Roadie the rest of the cash.

            

“Thanks for the help,” I say.

            

“Anytime,” Roadie says before pocketing the money and heading back to his booth.

            

“That’s one scary dude,” Andy says. “Do you know a lot of people like him?”

            

“More than is healthy,” I say.

            

Our business complete, there isn’t any reason for Andy to stick around. It’s been a good day. I got paid for doing what I do best, Andy has a meathead off his back, and Gompers will hopefully think twice before he messes with someone.

            

But I doubt he will.

            

People are stupid.

           

 It’s what makes being me so fun.

            

And profitable.

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