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A Con Game Turns Lucky

by Jack Bragen

John Burton, the dinner guest, who had not spoken much until now, said, “Anyone can afford a replicated antique. But can you offer people something more authentic and more one-of-a-kind?”

“We will be using copy protection,” interjected Dolly.

“You’re still getting something that’s computer-generated.” Burton took a forkful of cake and appeared pleased by the dessert.

I said, “At least some of the parts must come from a replicator, but the units will be essentially refurbished by hand and will be one-of-a-kind.”

Dolly said, “It will still have the look and sound of something authentic.” Dolly paused. “Old-style radio is making a comeback, and there are several hobbyists who own satellites transmitting recordings from the early and middle nineteen hundreds. This has a lot of potential.”

“And how much are you looking for to get this shop up, rebuilding radios, and reselling?”

I exchanged a look with Dolly. It looked to me like this gentleman was falling for our spiel. I said, “Twelve hundred K would put us in working order for six months. But we probably wouldn’t reach the break-even point by then. We’re looking at two payments of one-point-two, and the company ought to make a profit.”

Burton responded, “That seems like a lot.”

I replied with an outright lie, and I was good at that. “We need specialized equipment, and the space I’d like to rent wants space rental paid up for two years in advance,” I said. “Costs have gone up.”

Burton didn’t quite appear satisfied. I tried the bold approach: “We’re offering forty percent for that amount. We’re quite firm on that.”

Our electronics shop opened its doors on September 13. Space rental was month-to-month, and I had paid for two months. Dolly and I had set up shop to make it look like something was actually being repaired and refurbished. We were quite smug about snowing the elderly benefactor. We would soon be at the point of converting the money to Martian currency and of leaving Earth for the greener pastures of the formerly red planet.

On the first day that we were hypothetically opened for business, there were no customers, and it was just as well.

At four o’clock, a man walked in and handed me a resume printed on paper. He stood quietly and looked at the shop. I had some shelves with junk radios and televisions from the late 20th century, which I believed to be unrepairable. He remarked, “I am experienced in repair of all of the units I see here.”

I looked at the applicant and realized he must have reached age eighty before having a “fountain” treatment. He could have been old enough to have been in the repair business in the 20th century. But of course, since I wasn’t running a bona fide shop — I was just trying to improperly get money from my investor — I needed a way of getting distance from this applicant. He could really mess up my plan. All he needed to do was observe a little bit to realize that my company was phony.

“I’ll take your application and give you a call, but it might be a couple of months. We’ve had a number of applicants.” Within a month I ought to be headed for Mars, you fool.

The applicant seemed satisfied to leave the resume with me, and he gave a polite goodbye and walked out of the store.

By the second day of being opened for pseudo-business, there were several walk-ins. One of them had brought an antique radio that was close to two hundred years old.

“The wooden enclosure has clearly survived, but the working parts will doubtless have deteriorated and are probably not salvageable,” I explained. “We would have to give it entirely new guts, and those guts will not be authentic. I will have to install a chip, and it won’t sound or behave authentically.”

“I need authentic. Is there anyone you can refer me to who actually does the service you claim to do and don’t do?” the customer said, obviously not pleased.

I shook my head. “The radio you’re talking about isn’t even being broadcast anymore except by a few hobbyists.”

“You will get a bad review. My reviews get a lot of traffic.”

I felt a twinge of nervousness in my stomach. I couldn’t have my funding source reading about this and have him get suspicious.

I said, “Why don’t you leave it with me and I’ll see what I can do? But anything that resembles authenticity will cost you a lot.”

“I have a lot,” the customer replied. “Don’t worry about it.”

Toward the end of the day, I sat and stared at the antique radio, and was in a bit of a daze. I glanced up at my desk and my eyes fell upon the resume of the applicant who had walked in. Just on an impulse, I phoned the applicant. The next morning he was present and ready for work.

“Let’s see what you can do with this one,” I said, pointing at the radio that had been manufactured in the early twentieth century.

The new employee immediately went to work. He had brought a tool caddy, and deftly used the manual screwdriver in a manner I had never seen. He produced a flashlight and shone it into the backside of the radio.

“I can rebuild this. This radio must have been stored under dry conditions. The Bakelite sockets will have to be recast--they’re crumbling. You said this guy is willing to pay a lot?”

* * *

Three weeks passed, and the employee I had hired was working miracles on ancient electronics that would normally be considered impossible to revive. Word was spreading that my shop was very expensive but did some of the best work. For a moment, I forgot about my plan to abscond with the money and flee to Mars.

Dolly sat at an antique adding machine that she was using to add up the receipts for the day. It made a lot of noise and did nothing but simple arithmetic. I wondered at how people must have survived back then. The paper for it would ordinarily be impossible to acquire, except we had found a junk collector in Nevada who had a supply to send us. The adding machine was yet another repair performed by the miracle worker I had hired, whose name was Marcus.

“Sixty thou for the day,” Dolly made a whistle sound. And then she looked at me, and we both realized our phony company was a success and it would be a mistake to abscond with the money to Mars.

“Jay Jensen, the trafficker, is going to be mad if we don’t follow through,” I said.

“What if we bribe him? He only cares about the money, right?”

* * *

Jensen showed up unannounced at the shop at closing time, and he looked unhappy. As soon as I saw him, my stomach was down to my ankles. Marcus hadn’t left yet for the day, and my investor was expected to show up for an after-hours meeting. This was all the worst that could happen. Dolly stepped into the main room of the electronics shop; she had been in the restroom. When she saw the trafficker, she jumped practically three feet.

And Mr. Jensen was armed.

Jensen whispered to Dolly and me that we had better be quiet, and he divested us of all of our communications gear which included our earpiece phones, Thimbles and Miniscreens.

Marcus had been at his test bench, apparently doing some soldering in a 1970’s era television, and was oblivious to what had happened so far.

Mr. Jensen approached Marcus from behind, got him in a headlock and brandished the weapon in Marcus’s face while at the same time he kept tabs on Dolly and me. He divested Marcus of his communications units. He told Dolly and Marcus to get into the restroom and stay there, which they did.

“Don’t try any hero stuff,” said Jensen. “I won’t kill anyone unless I have a reason.”

I was standing in front of Mr. Jensen, I was terrified, and it appeared that he wanted a word with me.

But then the investor, John Burton, appeared out of nowhere and apparently had walked in the front door of the shop without making much noise. Jensen readied his weapon and I thought, Oh God, he is going to kill Mr. Burton. However, Mr. Burton instantly put his hands up at the sight of the weapon.

“I’m not a threat, I won’t try to call the cops,” said Mr. Burton. He was apparently under the impression that he had walked into an old-fashioned armed robbery. Jensen allowed him to continue thinking that.

Jensen divested Burton of all of his communication gear. The crook produced a scanner that showed Burton still had one communications device on him. I hoped very much that it wasn’t implanted in his finger or something.

“Don’t be a smartass,” said Mr. Jensen. He found the additional communicator pinned to the inside of Mr. Burton’s sleeve. “Get in the bathroom and don’t try anything stupid. I’m going to have a word with your business associate.” Mr. Burton obeyed his instructions.

Jensen melted the door latch to the restroom with his weapon. I could smell the odor produced by this, and I wondered how bad the smell was of a melted human being. I had once heard it was bad enough that it could never be forgotten.

“Sit down right here,” Jensen pointed at a chair at the lunch table and I sat. Jensen paused. “Do you know why I am disappointed and why I probably have to kill you?”

I replied, “I’ll do anything you say. How about I give you double the money?”

Mr. Jensen in an offended tone replied, “I’m not a mere extortionist. I take people to Mars. You can’t back out of this deal.” Jensen paused. “And besides, my associates on the Martian side are expecting you.”

I assumed I was going to die, so I was brave enough to ask, “What do they need us for?” I wondered at this point if the trafficked people were being sold into slavery or something.

“It’s nothing like that,” replied Jensen, who could easily guess what I was thinking. “It’s a matter of prestige.”

At that point, smoke began to issue from the junky old television that Marcus had been repairing. The smoke was filling the room. My eyes stung, and Mr. Jensen started coughing.

“Do you have a fire extinguisher? I’m allergic,” said Mr. Jensen, his words coming out between coughing fits.

“All we have is an antique model that Marcus refurbished and charged,” I said. I was enjoying seeing Jensen cough, and wondered if I would get some opportunity to get out of this situation.

“Use it.”

I stood from the chair and moved toward the bulky, red-painted cylinder fire extinguisher, which had been hung onto a hook attached to a ceiling support beam. I wondered why Jensen didn’t just shoot me and leave, and realized he probably had wanted to collect his fee before killing me.

I retrieved the fire extinguisher and pulled out the pin. Jensen’s cough was getting worse. I abruptly aimed the nozzle at Jensen’s face and squeezed the trigger. He gasped, staggered and tried to aim his weapon at me, but it was easy for me to slam him in the face with the bulky fire extinguisher. This stunned Jensen enough to knock him to the floor. I put a foot on his wrist, and grabbed his weapon. I had seen someone do this in a television program derived from a 150-year old DVD.

Jensen struggled to move. He struggled for air with a face full of fire extinguisher foam. I realized he was going to reach for a weapon under his pants leg. I stepped back and fired the gun, and Jensen quickly melted into a blob of liquid on the floor. That smell, combined with the smoke that now filled the room made me want to retch.

* * *

My heroic and brave actions made front page news. Business in the antique electronic repair shop was booming, my investor was pleased, and my employee was teaching me the basics of restoring old electronics.

One day Mr. Burton approached me with a question. “It’s not often you see armed robberies any more. Isn’t that a bit old-fashioned and risky?”

“Beats me,” I replied. “Sometimes strange things happen,” I said, not knowing what else to say.

From the expression on Burton’s face, it was clear that he had known for a while that originally I had intended to rip him off. I stood there in an awkward silence.

After a very long and uncomfortable pause, Mr. Burton said, “Make sure you keep your bookkeeping honest.” And then he gave me a knowing and nasty, bug-eyed look. “Don’t forget that I own forty percent. And don’t lie to me again. I am not as stupid as I look.”

Copyright © 2015 by Jack Bragen

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