It was the tail end of July when Doug Rance dropped around to see me. I didn’t even recognize him at first. It had been a good eight or nine years since we had seen each other, and we were never close, never worked together. Now he was about thirty-three to my forty-two. Before, when I’d known him, he was just a raw kid and I was an old hand.
It was a Wednesday night, around twelve-thirty. I was working the four-to-midnight swing at the Boulder Bowl, and the night had been a slow one. The bowling leagues ease off during the summer months and open bowling only gets a heavy play on the weekends. By eleven-thirty the place was just about empty. I rolled a pair of unimpressive games, helped the kid with the mop-up, and made a note for Harry to call AMF in the morning and tell them one of their automatic pin-spotters had died on us. I locked up a few minutes after twelve, had a short beer around the corner, and walked the rest of the way to my room on Merrimac.
When I got there, Rance was waiting for me. He was sitting on a chair with his legs crossed, smoking a cigarette. He got up when I walked in and gave me a large grin.
"The door was open," he said.
"I don’t lock it."
I was trying to place him. He was about my height with a lot of curly black hair and a smile that came easy. A very good-looking guy. Ladies’-man looks. He crossed the room and stuck out his hand and I took it.
"You don’t make me, do you? It’s been a while."
And then I did. The first image that jumped into my mind was of a young, good-looking guy standing up straight and listening pop-eyed while Ray Warren and Pappy Lee bragged about a sweet chickie-bladder con they had pulled off in Spokane. He wasn’t that young now, or that fresh. Well, neither was I.
"You’re looking good," he said.
We stood around looking at each other for a few seconds. Then he said, "Say, I picked up a bottle around the corner. I didn’t know what you’re drinking these days but I got Scotch. Is that okay?"
"If you’ve got a couple glasses—"
I found two water glasses and went down the hall to the john and rinsed them out. He poured a few fingers of Cutty Sark into them and we sat down. He took the chair, I stretched out on the bed and put my feet up. It was good Scotch.
I asked him how he’d found me.
"Well, I was in Vegas, Johnny. I asked around, and somebody said you were here in Boulder. Something about your working at a bowling alley. I went over to the place but I didn’t want to bother you. One of the kids told me where you were living and I came on over."
"Why did you come?"
"To see you."
"Just to talk over old times?"
He laughed. "Is that a bad idea?"
"It’s a funny reason to come this far."
"I guess it is. No, I’ve got business with you, Johnny, but let’s let it wait for now. I was surprised as hell when they told me you were here. I’ve never been to Colorado before. You like it here?"
"How’d you happen to pick it?"
I told him I’d grown up not far from here, just across the border in New Mexico, a smallish town called Springer. "Like elephants, I guess. Going home to die."
"Nothing wrong with you, is there?"
"No, I was just talking." I worked on the Scotch. "I would have gone to New Mexico, maybe, but I’ve got a record there and it didn’t seem like a good idea. This is about the same kind of country."
"A hell of a lot of mountains. I flew to Denver and drove up in a Hertz car. Mountains and open spaces."
"You can get pretty hungry for open spaces."
"Yes, I guess you can. Was it very bad, Johnny?"
"Yes, it was very bad." He offered me a cigarette. I took it and lit it. "It was very bad," I said.
"I can imagine."
"Have you ever been inside?"
"Three times. Twice for thirty days, once for ninety."
"Then you can’t imagine," I said. "Then you can’t have the vaguest goddamned idea about it."
He didn’t say anything. I reached for the bottle and he gave it to me. I poured a lot of Scotch in my glass and looked at it for a few seconds before drinking it. I felt like talking now. I’d been out for eight months, and ever since I got out of California I hadn’t run across anybody who was with it. Conversation with straight people is limited—you can’t talk about the library at San Quentin, or about the first long con you worked, or about any of the things that made up your life for so many years. You can drink with them and gab with them, but you have to keep a lid on the major portion of yourself.
"I was in Q," I said. "I did seven years. You couldn’t know what it was like. I didn’t know, not until I was in. San Quentin’s a model prison, you know. Recreational facilities, a good library, and the guards don’t beat you up at night. There’s only one thing wrong with the place. There’s this cell, and there are these iron bars, and they lock that door and you have to stay inside. That’s all. You have to stay inside.
"I drew ten-to-twenty. It was a sort of variation on the badger game and there was long green in it. The girl fakes a pregnancy and then there’s a fake abortion and a fake death, and the mooch winds up with the hook in him all the way up to his liver. Only this time the whole play turned sour and we bought it, but good. I drew ten-to-twenty for grand larceny and extortion and a half a dozen other counts I don’t remember."
"And got out in seven."
I finished the Scotch. "Seven years and three months. I could have made it a year earlier if I’d put in for parole."
"I didn’t want it. Parole is a leash—you get out a little sooner but you have to stay on that leash, you have to report to some son of a bitch once a month, you have to stay in the state, you have to live like a mouse. I stayed very straight inside. I made every day’s worth of good time I could make. I never got in trouble. But I didn’t want parole. I didn’t want any leash on me that could yank me back any time somebody decided I belonged inside again. I’m out now and I’m staying out. Nothing gets me back in again."
He didn’t say anything. He filled our glasses. I put out my cigarette and got up from the bed and walked over to the window. There were a lot of stars out. I watched them and said, "I guess you made a trip for nothing, Doug."
"Because I’m not interested."
He got up and came over and stood beside me. "You didn’t even wait for the pitch."
"That’s because I know I’m not swinging."
"It’s a beautiful set-up, Johnny."
"They always are."
"This one’s gilt-edged. All triple-A, front to back. The least you ought to do is hear about it."
"I don’t think I want to."
He didn’t say anything for a few minutes. We both worked on our drinks. He sat down on the chair again and I got back on the bed. When he started in again he came through from a new direction.
"You’re some kind of manager at the bowling alley, Johnny?"
"Sounds pretty good."
"The pay pretty decent?"
"Eighty-five a week. I should get raised to a hundred by the end of the year, and then it levels off."
"Well, that’s not too bad."
I didn’t say anything. He looked around at the room, which was not very impressive. I paid eight a week for it and the price fit the accommodations. I said, "But there’s no bars on the windows, and nobody locks me in at night."
He grinned. "Sorry," he said. "Listen, I didn’t mean to pry, but I couldn’t help catching the stuff on your dresser. What’s doing, some kind of a course?"
"I’m taking a correspondence course in hotel management."
"Yeah?" He looked genuinely interested. He was pretty good at it. "Are those things any good?"
"This one isn’t. I did a little studying at Q, hotel management and restaurant operation. I figured I’d follow it up now. The gaff on this deal is only fifty bucks, so I can’t really get burned too badly."
"You’re interested in that, huh?"
I nodded. "It’s a good life, with the right set-up."
"You got any plans?"
"Nothing definite. There’s a place west of the city that I like. A roadhouse with rooms upstairs and a couple of cabins in back. The location is perfect, it’s right on a road that gets a lot of traffic and there’s not much competition around. The owner doesn’t know what to do with the place. He’s a lush and he just knows how to sell drinks and how to build himself a case of cirrhosis. With the right kind of operation the place would be a gold mine."
"You sound as though you’ve thought about it. What would you want to do, manage the place?"
"I’d want to own it"
"Is it for sale?"
"It would be, if anybody wanted it. Right now it looks like a losing proposition, because it’s not being run the way it should be. A person could swing the deal with ten thou in cash and good terms for the rest. Then you would need another ten to put into the place, and a contingency fund of at least five more. Say twenty-five thousand, thirty at the outside, and a man could have a place that would go like a rocket."
"Is this place far from here?"
"A few miles. Why?"
"I’d like to have a look at it."
I looked at him and started to laugh. "Now what the hell," I said. "You’re hustling me pretty hard, aren’t you, fella?"
"Maybe. Is the place open now? We could take a run over there and grab a drink. My car’s right outside."
He had a rented Corvair parked two doors down the block on the other side of the street. Bannion’s was about three miles south and west of the town. There were half a dozen cars in the lot when we got there, eight or ten customers inside, all but two of them at the bar. Bannion didn’t have a waitress working. We got our drinks at the bar and took them to a table in the back. We stayed there for about fifteen or twenty minutes. Three of the customers left while we were there. Nobody else came in.
I did most of the talking. The place had tremendous possibilities. Bannion had completely ignored the tourist business, and the only people who rented his rooms were couples looking for a quick roll in the hay. Hot pillow trade was always worthwhile for a place like that, but tourist trade was good, too, especially with all the skiers in the winter and all the vacationers in the summer.
The food potential was good, too. The place needed extensive renovation and remodeling, but the physical plant itself was ideal. I talked a blue streak. Rance couldn’t have cared less, but he knew enough to seem interested and I was interested enough myself to go on talking whether he gave a damn or not.
On the way back to my place he said, "Well, you sold me. You could make a go of it there."
"More than a go. I could do damned well."
"And you need how much bread? Twenty-five thousand?"
"Thirty would be better. I could probably do it on twenty-five, but that’s squeezing."
"Got anything saved?"
"Not much." I lit a cigarette. "I’m saving money. You saw the room I live in. I make eighty-five a week and take home a little better than seventy after deductions. I live cheap. No car, low rent. I can save half my pay with no trouble at all."
"And you need twenty-five or thirty."
I let it go at that. If I saved twenty-five hundred a year, it would take me almost nine years, counting interest, to save twenty-five thousand dollars. He could manage that kind of arithmetic as well as I could, and I didn’t like to spend too much time thinking about those figures. They didn’t do much for my enthusiasm. They transformed all the plans to the approximate level of prison dreams. When I’m outside I’m going to own eight liquor stores and ten whorehouses and sleep all day. That kind of scene.
He parked the car and came back up to the room with me. He said, "I’d like to outline this grift for you."
"But I’m not on the grift any more. Why draw me pretty pictures?"
"I looked at your dream. Why not listen to mine?"
"We’d be wasting time. You won’t even tempt me."
"Can’t I try?"
"I hate like hell to be hustled, Doug."
"Who doesn’t?" His face relaxed in that easy smile again. "Look at it this way—I made a trip for nothing. That was the chance I took, right? I came unannounced because I wanted to see you. I have this thing hanging fire and I wanted you in it with me."
"Because you’d be only perfect for it. But the hell with that for the time being. The point is that I’m here, I made the trip, and if I can’t get you in it with me I could at least get you to give the thing a listen and tell me how you think it would play. You’ve been a lot of years on the long con, Johnny."
"Too many years."
"Well, a long time. You were an old hand when I was still heating up zircons and selling them as diamonds to jewelers who didn’t know better. I’m just getting into the big play."
"Who’ve you worked with?"
"I was up in Oregon. Portland. I was with Red Jamison and Phil Fayre and some other guys. I don’t know if you know them." I knew Red and Phil. "We had this wire, it was the first job I worked with an elaborate store arrangement. The first one where I had a big piece of the action."
"What did you do?"
"I was inside. Red did the roping, Phil and I and half the people on the Coast were inside the store. We took this wholesale druggist for seventy-five thou and a few other mooches for ten or twenty apiece. It was beautiful the way it worked. The whole thing, the bit about a man at the track with a transistor set-up that got the results before the store did. It all worked like a beautiful piece of machinery. It was sweet."
He told me all about it. The wire con is one of the three standard long cons, and as old as you can get. You keep being surprised when it still works after all those years. He told me all the cute little details and I could tell just how much of a kick it was for him, a kick to pull it off, a kick to remember it and talk about it. In a lot of ways he was the same kid I’d known before, in love with the whole pattern of the life, in love with the whole idea of being with it. I tried to remember if I had been like that once, all enthusiasm and excitement. It didn’t seem possible.
"But that’s history," he said. "Let me tell you what I’ve got on the stove now. You know the Canadian moose pasture bit, don’t you?"
"I worked it once."
"That’s what I heard. How did you work it? Stock?"
"You’ve heard it worked with land?"
"I know somebody was doing it that way somewhere in the East. It’s the same thing, isn’t it?"
"Just about," he said. "It’s also just about played out, although there are still a few boiler rooms going in Toronto. I was inside of one with half a dozen phones going full-time."
"Is that what you want to set up?"
He laughed. "No, this is nothing like that. This is quicker and neater and easier and the score is a lot bigger. This, is a fresh wrinkle on the whole thing. I’ll tell you, Johnny, this is one I dreamed up all by myself. I heard this girl’s story—"
"A girl I met in Vegas. I’ll get to that. I heard her story, and I got a picture of this mooch in my mind, and I just let it lay around there. I wasn’t in Vegas to line up a con and I wasn’t there for a woman, either. I never pull a job in Vegas, or anywhere else in the state. That place is strictly for gambling for me."
"You gamble a lot?"
"I’m a high roller when I’m not working. Everybody has a weakness, Johnny. On the con or off it, everybody has one thing that gets to him. Women or liquor or gambling or something. The trouble is when you’ve got more than one vice. You know, I’m getting way off the track here. Let me just give you a fast picture. It’s getting late and all, and you must be pretty beat, and I’m not so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed myself. I’ll just sketch it in for you."
He gave me just the outline. He ran through it very quickly, very sketchily. He knew what he was doing. He was working me the same way you work a mark at the beginning, the same way a fisherman works a trout. Just teasing, poking the bait around, giving a flash of it and then jerking it away before you can even make up your mind whether or not to bite. I knew I was being hustled. It didn’t bother me.
For one thing, it was impossible to dislike Doug Rance. He was too genuinely charming. A confidence man has to have one of two things going for him. He can be so tremendously charming that the mark likes him at first meeting, or he can be so obviously honest and sincere that the mark trusts him from the opening whistle. If the mooch likes you, or if he trusts you, you are halfway home; the rest is just mechanics.
Doug made it on charm. I was the other way, I was a man people were likely to trust. I don’t know why this is so, but it is. I’ve always played things that way, pushing the honest-and-sincere bit, but you can’t make it on acting talent alone.
Charm and sincerity. The best two-handed cons feature a pair of men who compliment one another in this respect, one of them charming and one of them sincere. Doug wanted me in this one, and he probably knew what he was doing in picking me. The odds were that we would work well together.
I let him get all the way through the pitch and I listened to him all the way. He skipped most of the details, so it was hard to tell if the thing was as good as it sounded right off the bat. There could be snags he hadn’t thought of, rough spots he’d glossed over. On the surface, though, the thing looked beautiful.
"It’s a new one," I told him.
"I thought it was."
"Of course, I’ve been out of circulation for seven years. But I think you found something new."
"Do you like it?"
"Yes," I said. And lit a cigarette and added, "But I’m afraid it’s not for me. I’m just not buying."
"Oh, I know," he said easily. "I just wanted your opinion. I wish I could have you in on it, but you can’t win them all." He got to his feet. "I’m going to split, Johnny. I’m halfway dead. I’ve got a room over at the Mountain Lodge."
"Where do you go from here?"
"I’m not sure. I figure I’ll be in town until tomorrow night, anyway. Maybe we’ll get together, huh?"
What a sweet soft hustler he was. I stood up. "Drop around. We’ll have lunch."
When he had his hand on the knob I gave him the first nibble. The words just came out by themselves. What I said was, "Just for curiosity, how big do you think you’d score on this one?"
He pretended to think. "Hard to say. I know what I figured your end at."
"About thirty thou," he said.
Copyright © 1965 by Fawcett Publications, Inc.