For my darling Emma, always and forever.
For my husband, who knows that when I say I want a date night, it means I've written myself into a corner and need him to bail me out...and does it anyway.
For the authors and readers I've met along the way who have become dear friends, especially Jordan and Joanna. I can't possibly express my gratitude for your support...and your willingness to tell me like it is.
For Sabrina’s Sirens. You are the best and I am so thankful for your tireless efforts!
And, of course, for all of my readers. When I wrote my first novel, I had no idea anyone would read it, let alone that I would write five novels! It's because of your support and kindness that I'm blessed to be able to continue writing.
And, after all, what is a lie? Tis but
The truth in masquerade.
~ Lord Byron, Don Juan, Canto XI
Tonight, I'm going to steal half a million dollars.
Well, let me qualify that. I won't take possession of the money tonight - but tonight is when the magic happens. It's when I seal the deal. And steal isn't really the right word for it. The man standing beside me, the one who's trying to impress me with every fiber of his scummy little being, is going to give it to me. He's going to insist I take it from him.
He's going to thank me for the privilege of taking his money.
And then I'm going to walk away.
My crew will take a cut from the proceeds - split four ways - and the rest goes to the person who actually deserves it - this scumbag's victim. Then we'll get the hell out of Vegas - separately, of course. I've been here for a month anyway. That's long enough, in my book. I get restless. I've always been a wanderer.
You have to be when you do what I do, when you were raised the way I was raised.
I'm a grifter. A con artist.
A hustler. A thief.
It sounds worse than it is.
People think they know what being a grifter means. They think that grifters con little old ladies out of their life savings and take hard-working folks' retirements away from them. They think I'm some kind of gold digger or black widow, marrying rich men for money and then waiting until they die to collect.
People couldn't be more wrong about me.
They don't know my story. Not at all.
I'm not the bad guy here. Or bad girl, rather. The real bad guys - the actual cons - are the bankers, the dirty hedge fund managers, the fat cat CEOs who play with their employees like they're chess pieces. Don't even get me started on the politicians, the leaders of countries, the ones who make decisions that affect good people based on whose lobby has the most money and the greatest influence.
They make what I do look like child's play.
Me? I'm one of the good girls.
I'm like Robin Hood. I take from the assholes, the people who deserve to be cheated - and I redistribute to the people who deserve it, the ones who have been victimized.
I believe in karma - retribution for past misdeeds.
But, sometimes, karma needs an extra nudge in the right direction.
I give it that nudge.
And nudging karma is exactly why I'm standing here now.
Sometimes time itself slows down, comes to a standstill, like someone pushed a giant pause button on the entire universe. It usually happens at the important times: births, deaths, things like that.
And times like now.
I sat in the back room, on a half-rusted metal chair, staring at the concrete floor splotched with who knows how many years' worth of grime, the surface wearing away in irregularly shaped patches. Everything faded into the background - the men in the room talking around me, the noise from the gathering crowd outside, the ones who were bloodthirsty, waiting for a fight.
I'd always been good at blocking shit out, detaching myself from everything around me and just zoning.
It's how I survived my childhood.
That, and I fought. Even when I was a kid. It's in your nature, my mother used to say. You kicked your way out of the womb.
This fight, though...this was different. This was fucking personal.
"Yo, Saint." The voice shook me out of my thoughts. "Saint. Are you listening?"
Trigg squatted down in front of me, his expression dark. He was one of the fighters I'd known when I was on the circuit here in Vegas, before I'd gone back to West Bend. "Where's your fucking head?" he asked.
Trigg thought I was distracted by what had happened with Abel. But that’s not what was on my mind.
I wasn't supposed to fight tonight. Abel was. He'd called me when I was out in Hollywood with Elias and River, and asked a favor. It was an easy favor; it should have been no big deal. He wanted me to come down and be in his corner at his fight. I had been outside the circuit for the past few months and he trusted me. After the stuff that had gone down with me and Coker, the shit that sent me back to West Bend a few months back, he knew I'd be there in a heartbeat.
I was supposed to be in Abel’s position tonight, in his corner, supporting him. Instead, Abel was in the hospital, after being mowed down in a hit and run.
The bullshit part of it was that I knew who had done it. Hell, we all knew who was responsible. We might not know who the driver himself was, but we damn well knew who had hired him. It was Roy Coker, my ex-promoter. Everyone knew what kind of guy he was, the lengths he would go to in order to make sure his fighters won.
Or lost, depending on what bets were being run and what the odds were.
Coker had tried to get me to take a dive before, so I knew firsthand what would happen when you were in his way, when you didn’t do what you were told.
In my case, the outcome hadn’t been great.
Of course, I’d never been good at doing what I was told, either.
"Yeah, man," I said. "My head is right where it needs to be."
Trigg squatted down low and made eye contact with me, his gaze intense. "You’ve got this," he said. "Rush is a fucking beast. But you're better."
I was better, I almost said. Then I put that thought out of my head. I hadn't fought, not in a real fight anyway, since Coker sabotaged me months ago.
When I'd gotten beaten so badly I nearly died.
I wasn't in good shape when I went back to West Bend, even though by then I was out of the hospital and relatively healed, at least on the outside. My mother had assumed I was drinking, but it was just the fact that I was still recovering from the beating I'd taken. I'd told Elias I'd come back to West Bend because I'd torn my ACL - he didn't need to be involved in the clusterfuck that was my life. Especially not when there was so much stuff going on in West Bend already. I was going to take care of everything myself.
But after I'd recovered, I'd gone back to training.
The problem was that I knew enough to know that all the training in the world didn't matter if you weren't fighting. And the last fight I'd been in had been a bloodbath - mine.
So I'd had the nagging fear that I'd lost my mojo.
Then there was the small matter of the fact that the doctor had told me specifically, no more fighting. He’d warned me that another good blow to the head could kill me.
I nodded at Trigg. “Yeah,” I said. “I’m better than Rush.”
But the words rang hollow, especially to me.
I scrolled through text messages on my cell phone, maintaining a blank, disinterested expression as Coker introduced me to his prize fighter.
Coker thought he was setting up a deal. But he was the one being set up.
Coker was the mark.
"This is Rush," he said, gesturing toward the large man, clad only in shorts, a towel draped over his shoulders. Rush stood and walked toward us.
I looked the fighter up and down, only barely ta
king my eyes off my phone as I nodded curtly. "I see."
"He’s got dominating ground and pound skills,” Coker said. “A beast.”
I had no idea what the hell he meant. I turned to leave, displaying how unimpressed I was with Coker's fighter, and Coker followed.
Like a puppy dog, I thought.
"He's certainly good-looking," I acknowledged. "That never hurts with the female demographic."
"I've got a whole stable of fighters. Ten more just like him, all prime product," Coker said. I could hear the twinge of desperation in his voice. Coker was like an awkward teenager, trying desperately to get into the cool crowd.
For a second, I almost felt badly about what we were going to do to him. Only for a second, though. That feeling passed when I remembered exactly why we were doing this.
"Settle down, cowboy," I said, holding up my hand. "I never said anything about needing more than one fighter. You've not even begun to impress me with the one you have. Let's not put the cart before the horse, here, okay?"
Coker smiled. "Rush is going to impress you," he said. "That's for damn sure. And when he does, I'm ready to talk about a deal."
I laughed, but not for the reason he thought.
Sometimes, a con was just too easy. People think that conning someone requires a huge amount of deception or sleight of hand, but in reality, most of the time it requires very little actual trickery. You just have to pick the right mark - the greedy kind, the kind who's more than happy to break the rules. That kind of mark is all too ready to believe that you'll give him an exponential return on his investment, a once in a lifetime deal.
And the greater the return, the more willing the mark is to believe that it’s possible.
People are surprisingly willing to deceive themselves.
Everyone wants to believe in happy endings. The problem is that in the real world, they're manufactured by people like me, people who are trying to sell you something that doesn't exist.
"Deal, Mr. Coker?" I asked. "You don't even understand the project."
Coker gestured to the seats reserved for us in a cordoned-off area ring-side, and I sat, crossing my legs and smoothing my skirt. I was out of place here, in my black skirt and designer stilettos, my expensive handbag and earrings.
The outfit wasn't entirely conservative - I was playing an international television producer, so I'd streaked a bit of purple through my hair and gone heavy-handed on the makeup, black eyeliner and red lips. More rocker chick than boardroom executive. It was eye-catching in a place like this, and that's exactly the effect I was going for.
It was a fuck-you-I-do-what-I-want vibe that I was putting off. At least, that was my intent.
Coker sat beside me, leaning forward, his elbows on his knees. With his balding head and his paunch and his drawl, his entire presence screamed oil tycoon, not fight promoter. "I wouldn't have requested to meet with you if I didn't have an idea of what you were here for," he said. "Carl over at Burning Sands MMA told me what you're doing, that you’re not just scouting one fighter here. He said you’re starting a new fight channel – bringing fights to an international audience. That guy can't keep his fucking mouth shut. He thinks we're friends instead of rivals. He doesn't understand how business works. Not the way you and I do."
Coker laughed, and I smiled, the corners of my mouth drawn tight.
"He told you why I was here, did he?" I asked. "He assured me he would be discreet. Well then, I'm afraid I'll no longer be interested in his talent." The truth was, my crew had been setting this up, spreading word that I was scouting for local talent within Roy Coker’s circuit. Coker needed to know what I was doing here in Vegas, but he couldn't know it from me.
The mark should always think the con is his idea.
"Well," Coker said. "It’s his loss. And my gain."
"I do hope you understand that discretion is extremely important to me, and to the people I work for," I said. "Lack of discretion is simply...unacceptable."
Roy Coker made a fake zipping motion with his fat hand on his fat lips. "Mum's the word," he said. "I am as discrete as it gets. But I want you to know that I'm ready to do whatever it takes to get in on the deal."
I wrinkled my nose in an expression of disdain. "I’m here to see your fighter. Anything more than that would require greater capital than you could possibly have."
I was deliberately evasive, since I was counting on the fact that our cover story had gotten to Coker. Our cover story was that we were scouting talent for an international fight channel with a huge Middle Eastern and East Asian audience. One of the members of my crew, Emir - hacker and tech expert extraordinaire - had already uploaded videos, supposedly taken from our international fight channel, and posted them online, backdated through the past six months.
The key was that we'd hinted that there was a potential opportunity for a promoter who might want to invest in one of the shows. And that was the message we’d been spreading through whispers and rumors in the fight circuit. That was the message we wanted to get back to Coker.
"Try me," he said. "What kind of capital are you talking about?"
I waited a moment, listening to the sounds of the people gathering around, all of them waiting for the fight to begin. "Half a million dollars," I said, leaning toward him. "I'm here to see your fighter, because I'm curious, and I'm staying because I enjoy seeing an attractive man pummel another man. But I'm afraid investing like this is something better left to the big boys, Mr. Coker."
I kept my eyes straight ahead, but from the corner of my eye, I could see him shift uncomfortably in his chair. He took out a handkerchief and wiped his forehead.
The truth is, my team knew what he could afford. Half a million dollars wasn't a number I'd just pulled out of my ass.
He was silent for a moment.
This was my favorite part of a con - the part where we got to see if what we'd predicted about the mark's behavior was true.
Would he take the bait?
The truth was, they almost always took the bait. Greedy men couldn't resist an opportunity to act on their greed.
To me, a long con didn't get any more exciting than this moment right now.
I could feel the goose bumps on my arms. My pulse raced, the blood pumping loudly in my ears, adrenaline coursing through my veins.
This part of a con was like a high. I’d never been addicted to anything, like booze or drugs, thanks to my parents, who instilled in me the importance of situational awareness. But the high of running a con beat anything else in life I could imagine.
It was like an extended version of that moment right before the dice land on the table - the ultimate gamble, fate hanging in the balance.