Chronicles of a Con Artist

Photo by Wei Zeng on Unsplash

Today we publish the last of our top five stories in the 10th annual Voorheesville Short Story Contest. Our first place finalist, Ilian Medarov’s “Chronicles of a Con Artist” is a thriller that approaches the theme of this year’s contest, “But There’s a Catch,” through the eyes of a con man. As our judge Laurin Jefferson commented, “The expositional details, the pace, the karmic ending all made this story very interesting to read. I particularly enjoyed the line: “The streets cooked my three-course meal of skills, lying being the main dish.” We hope you enjoy it!

My head hurts like hell, the only respite being the numbing rain dribbling on it. This sidewalk strangely feels more comfortable than any bed I’ve ever slept on. Chicago, the windy city, is known for its deep-dish pizza, architecture, and maybe even hot dogs, if you’re familiar with them. Nonetheless, the city is also known to its inhabitants as a thriving cesspool of crime and fraud. Don’t get me wrong, I love the place, but the nature of dense cities always prevails over the goodwill of the people. You either throw away some morals and act as the perpetrator or handle the beating as a victim. My mother was a victim of the city, my father was a victim, and even my brother was a victim. For too long, I’ve been a victim of its unforgiving embrace, watching helplessly as my family succumbed to its harsh realities. But not anymore. I refused to be another casualty of this concrete jungle. I’m an opportunist; I grab a bag if someone mistakenly steps away, ride off on an unattended bike, and even the occasional pickpocket if I’m confident. If there’s an opening to make a profit, I take it. I try not to touch the drug trade or anything like that with the high mortalities. In my battle, clawing to the top, slow and steady, wins the race.

Even so, sometimes, like now, I get caught up. Stealing a dealer’s wallet doesn’t end well. I’m lucky to be lying here with only a couple of cracked ribs and a missing tooth. As I drag myself up, I get a hold of myself and begin assessing my belongings. Unsurprisingly, the wallet I grabbed is gone, but so is my wallet. He took the time to unbuckle my watch and run off with it. I replace the new void in my mouth with an old fast food napkin and begin shuffling towards the bus stop. At least it’s just a molar, so my golden smile stays untouched.

The five blocks back to my apartment is a trek I’d rather not take in my condition. I take advantage of this free time to think. The streets cooked my three-course meal of skills, lying being the main dish. After some of my failed escapades, I’ve managed to play off being an employee or an off-duty cop. This scrap I got isn’t a deterrent but a wake-up call. If I’m to proceed, I have to step up my game. No more petty theft or small-time cons. It’s time to enter the big leagues and play the long game. With the bus rumbling to a stop before me, I rise with a new sense of resolve.

The rain washes the blood and grime off the street but fails to dampen the new-lit fire within me, burning hotter than ever. One day, the name Alex Rivers will echo throughout Chicago’s underworld. I grab a damp newspaper from under the seat ahead of me and scan the pages for any leads. Beloved bookstore, The Literary Haven, is going out of business. A bookstore exclusive to Chicago owned by one man, Marcus Thornhill, once renowned to the city’s readers, now suffering from the gentrification of the neighborhood. Who would believe a dying business crying theft?

Additionally, they’ll be desperate to save it. It’s certainly a start. As the bus stops near my apartment, I stuff the newspaper in my pocket. I enter the rickety glass door, taking the five flights of stairs to my floor. The pittering of rain on the windows soothes my head. The light on my floor is still out despite having been so for nearly three weeks. Entering my pigpen of an apartment, I begin to scavenge through the scattered papers and junk. The first piece of treasure shows itself as a business card. I am now Max Sterling, Business Development Manager of Horizon Heights Media. Their office is close to my apartment. I gathered a few other things, including a 15% off coupon for a suit rental place and an old magazine from when I visited family in Arizona.

With my toolkit arranged, I was ready to act. The first step is the suit. The next day, after the rain let up, I set out. Arriving at the suit rental store, I find a nice suit jacket and pants that exude confidence and status. After pocketing some hair gel and shoving a pair of dress shoes under my coat, I rent the jacket and pants. I don’t like spending money like this, but this is an investment that’ll pay off. The next step is Horizon Height Media, an advertising agency. Walking in with my slick back hair and new attire, I feel the power my words now possess. Walking up to the receptionist, I plaster my face with a smile and speak.

“Hello, my name is Ethan Brooks,” I said as I stepped up to the counter, taking note of a framed image of the lady with a dog. The receptionist looks up from her computer, her expression polite but guarded. “I’m here from Paws & Purrs Shelter. We’re a local animal rescue organization. I was wondering if you could help us out with something?” Her gaze softened slightly.

“And I’m Sophie; how can I assist you?” she inquired. 

“Well, you see, we’re in a bit of a bind here,” I started, leaning forward. “Our shelter’s struggling to get the word out about our furry friends needing homes. We’ve been considering advertising for a while now, but our budget is tight. We thought we could put together something ourselves if we could get our hands on some advertising templates. Just something simple, you know? We hope to spread the word and find these animals their forever homes.” Her brow furrowed as she listened to my plea. 

“I’m sorry, but I can’t just give those out,” she replied, apologetic. “If you would like, I could arrange a meeting…” I shook my head, feigning disappointment. 

“I understand,” I said, sounding resigned. “Well, I suppose we’ll just have to make do. It’s just that these poor animals—so full of love and hope—don’t understand why they’re still here, waiting for someone to take them home, and without advertising, people aren’t showing up.” Her face softened even more as she listened to my heartfelt plea. 

“I’m so sorry,” she said softly. “I have four dogs and two cats myself. I suppose I could give you some of our less used templates.” I felt a surge of hope as she offered her assistance. 

“Thank you,” I said gratefully, my voice laced with relief. “Actually, could I glance at one of your advertisement proposals?”

“Of course,” she replied, reaching for a folder on her desk. With practiced ease, she slid two templates over the counter alongside a proposal. “This is the standard package we give to most companies of your size. Please use this to help those animals.”

“Thank you,” I said, my heart racing as I grabbed the papers. “I’ll take a look and let you know if we decide to move forward.”

“Call us if you decide to work with us,” she called after me as I made my way out of the lobby, a triumphant smile tugging at my lips. My first genuine con, leading up to the real money maker. I don’t know a thing about business, but who needs to when I steal assets from others? Now, the last step before the festivities. I pull the magazine out of my pocket, focusing on an advertisement for a random family-owned bookstore in my uncle’s town. Nobody in Chicago has possibly heard of it, let alone would recognize the general look of the advertisement. Flashy, colorful, and professional, all the tenets that a sample ad an agency prepared would convey. Inkwell Printworks is a printing store for which I wrote the address door earlier.

Entering the store, I use a side room to begin my arts and crafts. Slicing the advertisement out of the magazine, I carefully remove the store’s logo and name with a box cutter, replacing it with The Literary Haven’s and securing it with small pieces of tape on the back. Using a photocopier to enlarge the final product and make it one homogenous piece of paper, the sample advertisement was complete. Now for the hard part. Time to make my way to The Literary Haven. On the walk, I get my bearings together. Generally, before a contract like this, companies will attempt to call the contractor to ensure authenticity. If that happens, my plans are foiled. The building functions on a standard landline, so I should be able to cut the phone lines before I enter the building. I have a small pocket saw that I could use to cut through it, but if I do so, I have to act fast. Then I have to meet with the owner. The business is privately owned, so he’ll likely be in at this time of day. Finally, I sold him the package, using the templates, the advertising proposal, and the fake sample ad I made. By the time I was done pondering, I had reached the building. Glancing around, I slide into the alley to the side of the bookstore, looking for the junction box. I find the white box affixed to the brick wall on the other side of some dumpsters. The problem was a giant padlock was keeping it shut. Cursing under my breath, I weighed my options. If only I had a couple of wrenches, I could break the padlock and be done with it. But I hadn’t anticipated the need for such tools. Stumped, I surveyed my surroundings, searching for any sign of a workaround. That’s when I noticed it – the metal of the junction box seemed thin, flimsy. Giving the panel a quick knock confirmed my suspicions. Fitting my saw underneath a crevice in the panel, I use it as a lever to pry the metal up, deforming it. There is just enough room to fit the entirety of the saw in the box. With the wiring inside exposed, I begin to saw at the wires near the telephone jacks, hoping I don’t clip something else. Once the pressure from the last wire gives, I quickly stash the saw back in my pocket. Straightening up, I make my way back to the front of the store, my mind already racing ahead to the task at hand. I had to act fast to pull off this con successfully. Walking up to a cashier, the fun finally starts.

“Excuse me,” I said, my voice steady and confident. “I’m here to speak with the owner about a potential advertising opportunity.” The cashier, a young man with a friendly smile, looked up from his book, his expression curious. “The owner’s in the back,” he replied, gesturing vaguely toward the back of the store.

“Thank you,” I said, flashing him a charming smile. With that, I make my way toward the back of the store, my eyes scanning the aisles for any sign of the owner. It didn’t take long for me to spot Marcus, hunched over a desk in a corner, engrossed in a pile of papers. Approaching him, I cleared my throat to announce my presence. “Excuse me, are you the owner of this establishment?” I asked. Marcus looked up, his gaze narrowing slightly as he took in my appearance. 

“That’s right,” he replied gruffly. “What can I do for you?”

“I’m here to discuss a wonderful advertising opportunity that could greatly benefit your business,” I said, standing as straight as possible. “My name is Max Sterling. I represent Horizon Heights Media, and I believe we have just the solution to help you increase foot traffic and boost sales.” Marcus raised an eyebrow, his interest piqued. 

“Ah yes, I have a daughter that works there. She’s a receptionist.”

“Oh, are you Sophie’s father? Did she get her love of animals from you?” I respond. The surprise in his eyes shows me how much more authentic I made this.

“Yes, yes. We had a couple of dogs when Sophie was younger, and she now takes care of them, alongside quite a few more pets, but we haven’t talked in a while. Well, back to what you were saying. We have been struggling with customers lately. Go on,” he said, gesturing for me to sit opposite him.

“Marcus,” I began, leaning forward slightly to emphasize my point, “imagine if you could precisely reach your ideal customers, capturing their attention and driving them straight to your bookstore. With our high-efficiency targeted advertising, that’s exactly what we can achieve.” Marcus raised an eyebrow, his interest piqued. 

“Go on,” he prompted, gesturing for me to continue. I nodded, my confidence building as I launched into my pitch. 

“First, let’s talk strategy,” I said, tapping my finger against the advertising proposal. We’ll start by identifying your target audience—avid readers, book enthusiasts, and Chicago residents looking for their next literary escape. Then, we’ll craft compelling ads, like these,” I pulled out the templates, “that speaks directly to their interests and desires, drawing them in with irresistible offers and promotions.”

Marcus listened intently, nodding along. Encouraged by his receptiveness, I reached for the fake sample ad I had prepared earlier, sliding it across the table for him to see. “As you can see,” I continued, pointing out key features of the ad, “this is just a taste of what we can do. With our expertise in design and distribution, we’ll create ads that grab attention and inspire action, driving customers to your door and, not to be blunt, filling those cash registers.” As I spoke, I couldn’t help but notice the skepticism in Marcus’s eyes. I knew I had to tread carefully to seal the deal.

“And how much is all this going to cost me?” Marcus asked, his tone cautious but intrigued. I hesitated for a moment, carefully gauging my response. 

“Well, Marcus,” I said, leaning in slightly to emphasize my point. “Our standard package typically runs for $3,000 per month, but for a limited time, we’re offering a special discount for you because the CEO is such a big fan of your bookstore. If you sign up today and pay for six months of the package in advance, we’ll knock 20% off the total price. That’ll total $14,400. We’ll have advertisements before the daily news, in newspapers and magazines, and we might even get some on billboards.” Marcus’s eyes widened at the figure, but before he could respond, I pressed on. “Of course, we understand that this is a significant investment, which is why we offer a money-back guarantee if you’re not completely satisfied with the results. And remember, Marcus, investing in advertising is an investment in the future of your business. With our expertise and your commitment, I know we can take The Literary Haven to new heights.” Marcus hesitated, clearly torn between the potential to save his business and its hefty price tag. “I’ll do it, but only on one condition. Do you accept cash?” he said finally, his tone guarded.

“Well…, we normally aren’t supposed to accept cash,” I feigned disappointment. “But I suppose we can make an exception. We are big fans, after all.” Marcus nodded, visibly relieved at my compromise. This is perfect. I thought I would have to go through the effort of cashing in a check under a fake identity or all that hassle, but this way, it will be effortless.

“Well, it seems we have a deal. Let me just call your office for some authentication, and then we can proceed,” he explains, reaching for the nearby landline. This is the moment of truth.

“Why, of course,” I say, hoping he doesn’t notice the nervous twitching at the corners of my mouth. As he lifts the phone to his ear, I hold my breath. 

“Huh, no dial tone. I think the phone’s dead. Can I take a look at your business card?” He requests. 

“Here you go,” I hand him the card I found on the street a few weeks ago, thankfully in good enough condition to pass off.

“Well, seems authentic. You never can be too sure, you know?” He chuckles. A white flag signals his surrender in seeing past my facade.

“Of course, of course,” I reassure, eyeing every stroke of his pen, getting me closer and closer to riches. 

“And there we go. Wait here, and I’ll be back with the cash.” I watch him walk away, the grin plastered on my face now wholly natural, satisfied at what I had just pulled off and the manipulation my words have the potential to carry. Returning with a briefcase, he opened it to show large stacks of $100 bills. “I’ve been accumulating cash from the store for a while now. My back has made it hard to go to the bank.”

“I understand,” I say while nodding blankly. I take my time counting the cash, making sure not to seem unprofessional. All seems in order. We’ll call you to sort out the details,” I hand Marcus the business card. “If you have any questions, just call. Hold onto the contract for now.” As I am leaving the building, I hear a voice behind me.

“Hey, the contract states that the paper is not to be used as an actual legally binding agreement. What does that mean?” Upon hearing those words, I sprint to the door, with fast-approaching footsteps and yelling behind me. Damn it, the contract was just an example, and it even stated it on the paper. I should’ve looked closer when the receptionist handed it to me. I rip open the doors and break down the street in a direction away from my apartment. I’ll swing around at the following block to ensure police look in the wrong direction. I have to get to my apartment and then out of the city. As soon as I turn the corner, I slow down to walk. Knowing the cops, It’ll take at least ten minutes until they start patrols. I can nearly make it to my apartment in that time. Having people witness a guy sprinting down the street will lead them to my apartment. I let out a few pants to catch my breath and stand tall. There’s nothing strange about a businessman carrying a briefcase. As I walk, I think. Catching a flight would be terrible; I must drive out of the city. I can take a series of cabs south, and once I’m at least out of Chicago, I can rent a car with a fake ID. Yeah, that’ll work. A block from my apartment, I hear sirens a few blocks behind me. I begin running, slipping into the alley beside the building.

Thankfully, I can use a side door that leads into a stairwell. Jogging up the stairs and to my room, I fumble with my keys to open the door. First, I slip out of my suit and get on a pair of old sweats and a ripped long-sleeve shirt, finishing off with a random green bandana I found on the street to cover my face. I ruffle up my slicked-back hair. I grab an old backpack, dump the briefcase’s contents, and stuff some clothes on top to hide it. I sling it onto my back and set out the way I came, now trying to walk casually and calm my nerves. A few dribbles on the window as I walk down the stairs tell me it’ll start raining soon. That’ll make it harder to recognize me.

When I left the alleyway, the rain had started pouring hard. Symbolic, just like the day I chose to pursue this path, it rained again the day I completed it. I push my bandana further, ensuring it covers as much of my face as possible. I see a patrol car parked outside by the Horizon Heights Media office building. Crap, they’re probably getting a testimonial from the receptionist now. The cops can get a sketch of me out of her. I knew I shouldn’t have talked to her for so long. I pick my pace up. My heart drops as a siren grows louder behind me and slows beside me. It might not be for me. 

“Hey, you! The kid in the green bandana. You a Verdant?” His words cut through the chaos of the street, sending a jolt of fear coursing through me. Without a moment’s hesitation, I break into a sprint, my heart pounding in my chest as I hear the urgent call of approaching sirens. The ground was a deep gray with the rain pattering on it, the orange brick walls around me like a labyrinth drawing me in. I can’t focus on anything, my heart beating out of my chest. I know there’s no way I can stop running; I glance backward but see nothing. Pain shoots through my body as I hit an obstacle with a loud clatter. A chain link fence. I try to stand up, but I can only heave. A metal door barely inside my peripheral swings open, and a guy in a green Bandana grabs my arm and pulls me into the building. My head throbs with each heartbeat, the stranger’s words a distant murmur as he walks me through a hallway.

“You’re the dude who robbed the Tigers! Good job, man. Jake’s gonna love it when he hears about it.” He ushers me into an apartment and leans me against a table where I sit. “Mi casa su casa,” he says while shaking water off his arms. “You good man?”

“What’s happening?” I manage to choke out, my head swimming with confusion.

“You robbed the Tigers, and I just saved you,” he explains, his tone tinged with admiration. “I’m always ready to help a fellow Verdant.”

“I robbed a Tiger?” I echo, disbelief coloring my voice.

“Yeah, the owner of that bookstore, Marcus. He’s the leader of the Tigers, man, don’t you know?” he replies, walking behind me. That certainly explains his abundance of cash.

“Also, what do you mean by a Verdant?”

“Are you stupid? Our family, man. The gang,” he scoffs. “You’re wearing our signature bandana?”

“This?” I laugh nervously, gesturing to the bandana. “I found it on the street. I appreciate the help, though.”

“Ah, so you’re not one of us,” he remarks casually. “Well then, I won’t feel bad doing this.” Before I can react, an explosive pain in the back of my head propels me forward onto my face. I groan in agony as he delivers a few more blows for good measure, the world spinning around me in a dizzying blur. Red and blue lights flood through the shades, and I can barely hear sirens over the ringing. I hear a string of curses from the stranger and feel him rip the backpack off me, watching as he flees out the door, leaving me battered and broken on the floor. I roll onto my back, in too much pain to get up. The white-speckled ceiling above me, bathed in warm light, spins and dances in dizzying patterns. I hear the stomping of feet and the yelling of cops outside the door, ready to barge in.

My beliefs hold. Chicago is a den of predators and prey. Yet, there’s another truth I’ve neglected to acknowledge – a reality that now looms over me with chilling clarity. The more you hunt and feed, the greater the likelihood you’ll grab the attention of a worse predator. That’s the catch with being a con artist. A catch that, if you don’t accept, will leave you bruised and broken in its wake. As the rain washes the grime and blood of fthe street, it also extinguishes something more profound – a flame that once burned bright is now reduced to mere embers. My name will undoubtedly echo throughout the city, just as I had hoped, even if only in tomorrow’s paper. But as I lie here, I’m forced to confront the harsh truth: there’s always a price to pay in a world of deceit and deception. And sometimes, that price is far higher than we could ever imagine.

About Ilian Medarov 452 Articles

Ilian Medarov is a senior at Clayton A. Bouton High School.