Wednesday, November 24, 2004

When he had gotten on the plane to come to Chicago, he had been sweating profusely until the plane took off. As soon as the plane's front wheels began to leave the ground, he let his body be absorbed by his first class airline seat. New York City, much like Paris, London, Barcelona and Toronto before it, would now be a memory.
Had he remained in New York for just a few more hours, and there's no telling what might have happened. His intelligence and his senses, sharpened by years of confidence work on two continents, told him that the walls were beginning to close in again. As much as he had enjoyed the previous eight months in New York City, it was most definitely time for him to leave. The contacts he had cultivated, both charmed and fleeced, were on to him. Armed with a credit card from his final victim from the Big Apple and a masterfully faked driver's license bearing the same name that was on the credit card, Willie Cooper, now temporarily known as Jason McCormick, boarded an early morning flight to Chicago.
The martini he now began to consume had never tasted sweeter. He twisted the vent above him to let in some cool air to help him relax. The flight attendant was currently making his entree for the morning. He had ordered Eggs Benedict. He had never quite shaken his taste for breakfast cereal, but he simply couldn't be spotted eating something so plain in public. When he was working a con, he tried to shy away from such a middle-of-the-road dish, the better to impress those who surrounded him. To this day, it was the hardest part of maintaining the many fronts he had created. It was sometimes difficult to pretend he had eaten a lifetime of upscale foods which weren't really his taste, but he persevered.
He hadn't shaved since he left New York, and he had no plans to for the immediate future. He had always been amazed by how easily it was to transform his facial features by either shaving, growing a beard or purchasing a new set of eyeglass frames. The beard was coming back on. Or maybe this time, he would just try a nice thick mustache to blend in with some of the men in Chicago. He had about a week to decide between the two.
He decided that he would put on some weight to go with it. When he circulated within the young cliques of New York, he had to be careful to maintain his thin waistline, A little weight gain would be noted by his marks, making his job that much easier.
He was still trying to figure out what went wrong in his final days in New York to blow his cover. He prided himself on being meticulous in detail when working his cons. He had learned at a very early age that a systematic lie was nothing more than a collection of interwoven truths and half-truths, melded together to produce one large legend. It wasn't enough to speak Spanish; he would have to describe, in minute detail, an Andalusian village that tourists usually missed, from the size and shape of the buildings to the names and faces of people. He had to know the location of every crack in the sidewalk in New York City. A British accent was nothing without the sardonic wit of a lord and an encyclopedic knowledge of the royal family. His French accent could not be Quebecois in Paris, and vice versa. Somewhere in New York, his lastest story, and all its accompanying embellishments, fell apart, and it annoyed him. What really bothered him is that he had to leave New York so quickly. He was just beginning to enjoy the place.
As his plane floated over Lake Michigan towards its final descent into O'Hare, he began to formulate whose identity he would link himself to next. In New York, he had linked himself to the Carnegie family. "Like the Hall?" was always the first question. He had spun a tale of his journey to New York via the suburbs of Pittsburgh, where he had said he grew up. In truth, Willie had grown up in Aberdeen, Maryland, the son of a school teacher. In that environment, he couldn't help but learn a few things about the world and its people. He used his humble roots to his advantage, living the good life at other people's expense, as one person after another was relieved of their money, thinking that making a small loan to a millionaire- or even to a millionaire's distant cousin- would reap greater rewards later on. He left silence in his wake, his marks too embarassed to admit that they had been conned. New York was his first close call. People actually found out that he wasn't who he said he was.
He planned out the next two weeks in his head. He would get a cab to a less-traveled part of town and rent a room in a hotel. He usually started his research by reading the society pages of several newspapers. He had a copy of The New York Times in his carry-on luggage. His next identity would be gleaned by reading the section carefully. The next step would be research in a local free library, finding a place for himself in the well-healed family of his choice. He was never a direct descendent or relative. He was always a cousin or a nephew. It was always more believable than way, and much less easy to be discovered. The people who believed him would be skeptical at first, until his litany of facts from his week full of research convinced them. He would add his own touches later, inventing moments he had shared with more famous members of his newly selected families. First came the set-up, then came the embellishments.
He was always careful to make the family he belonged to not be a native of the place where he was going. In Paris, he was a Kennedy. In Barcelona, he was a Rothschild. In London, he was a nephew of the Spanish royal family. In Toronto, he was the cousin of a Scottish lord. In Chicago, the possibilities lay before him. Willie's next opportunity lay on the newspaper like a shiny bead buried on the beach discovered by a metal detector. Virtually everyone knew that something was there, but it took one patient person to dig it up to make it valuable.
The plane touched down in Chicago, and Willie was barely off the plane when he ehaded for a newspaper stand. He could invest in several local and national papers with which to read, learn and expand. He could even buy a Spanish language newspaper or, if one was available, a French language paper. This was probably not going to be found in Chicago, but he could at least give it a thought with a trilingual brain. His mother always wanted him to learn another language. Never being one to displease his mother, he learned two. It was shortly after he had entered his first year of college that his parents were killed by a member of a prominent Maryland family who was driving drunk. The killer got a few months in jail, while Willie got a grave stone to visit. Without his mother's prodding, college didn't interest him anymore. It was then that he took his knowledge, his wits and a small stipend from a trust fund that would come due when he turned thirty to fly to Paris. He was having fun at other people's expense. He didn't see it as ripping off the people who believed his stories. He saw it as ripping off the rich and powerful, his small taste of revenge on the wealthy for taking the lives of his parents. He would do this for two more years until his trust fund came due. Then he would retire from the vagabond life and point his life toward a more noble purpose. Until then, his world was an open book, or more appropriately, an open newspaper.
He stopped by a pay phone in the airport that had a telephone attached and wrote down the address of a cheap motel. He grabbed his bag, walked across the terminal and stepped through the automatic doors into a sunny April day. As a stiff Chicago wind tossled his hair, he hailed a cab and headed into another new morning.

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