We made a fake Facebook account at an internet café, one of the last ones downtown, full of Korean gamers and a weird smell of burnt electronics and sour milk. The owner sold liquor mixed into off-brand Gatorade to the kids, who were constantly getting up to piss with their headsets still on. Most of them were skipping their classes at the language factory across the street, where Cory and I had met as teachers. He’d convinced me to quit by the end of my first week.
“We just need a smartphone without a network. Use the wireless only, and only public wireless at big places. Download the app, set up a fake profile, accept every guy who looks like a likely—I don’t want to say target—”
“Sure, patsy, let’s pretend we’re in 1930. Fucking ‘patsy,’ fuck off. The marks. We go middle-aged, we probe for marriage data when we chat, make our fake profile girl one who’s looking for no-strings with an attached guy. Young but not too young, pretty but not supermodel, someone that’s not pure fantasy for these guys, but out of their real-life reach.”
Cory was more careful than he had to be. He got the Visa number and security code off the school’s corporate card, which he’d swiped for twenty minutes so he could set up the account we needed to download apps. And instead of taking pictures of some random woman from the internet, we went to a thrift store and looked through photo albums, eventually finding one that looked to be from the early 2000s. The girl who must have owned it and was featured in many of the shots seemed to have been going to college and playing in bands. She looked, bar a few formal dress shots, like a current college girl who played in bands. It was a packed album, about five years of her life in it. I thought I’d hold onto it and try to get it back to the woman at some point, maybe using the little notes on the back of some of the photos as clues. They were mostly too brief to be useful—“Michelle drunk Knott’s Berry”—but I thought I might be able to piece together her identity if I took enough time with it. Cory scanned five of the shots at a Kinko’s and loaded them directly from the machine into the old iPhone we were using. He cropped out anachronisms, and we had our girl.
We got the app and spent a whole day feeding on mall wireless, swiping through what seemed to be the entire male population of the city, 40 to 55. Our fictional girl, who we’d named Kirsty, was 22. Her tagline read “bored by relationships probably bored by you.” Cory thought it went well with the expression our accidental model had in the five pictures, a frown/distant gaze combo that stuck whether she was onstage or drinking a beer in an empty classroom. Potential matches bubbled onto the screen like the cards on an 8-ball, and Kirsty agreed to be interested in them before their features were even clear.
Cory took over when my thumb started to click in its socket. We got infinite confirmations and eventually stopped, eating hot dogs in the food court as Kirsty’s inbox flooded.
“Why didn’t you just do this alone?” I asked Cory. He’d only put relish on his dog, four packets, slicking the sugary green stuff over the length of it.
“You want out already?”
“No, that’s not it, I just don’t know what you need me for.”
“Right now I don’t need you at all. But in the next phase, I’ll need you real bad. Look at me,” he said. Cory had maybe been handsome once. He was just under six feet tall, chubby, cheeks puffed out like he was storing bees in them. About thirty-five, he was wearing fifteen years of drinking and bad food.
“I’m not exactly menacing,” Cory said, “This is the point I’m making. You’re big, and you have—no offense—kind of a dumb mean thing going, with that jaw. Underbite. You’ll be the face of this operation when guys turn up and Kirsty is nowhere to be seen.”
“Don’t get offended. I said ‘no offense.’ Factual discussion. I just called myself weak-looking, right?”
The first mark was named Deep. Short for Pardeep or Mandeep, something like that. He was 41, and most of his pictures were of him in a tux, the rest of the wedding party cropped out. The bride’s hand in one of them. His first message was “I’m so old,” and it went on from there, our Kirsty coming across friendlier than she was in the tagline and pictures. Cory was really good at this part. He found out Deep was married, made it clear that Kirsty didn’t care, and had four or five graphic exchanges (Deep was a foot man) all before ten minutes were up.
“So we set up a meeting now?”
“We ignore him for a couple hours first. Let it stew, or he’ll just finish himself off to the messages and send more, lose interest in meeting her.”
It worked like Cory said. After five hours and a few blasé messages from Kirsty that were countered by desperate ones from Deep, we had a meeting at a closed-for-the-season beach. Cory and I sat on a hill above the pillbox toilets that Deep would be arriving at. We sat on garbage bags behind a pine with low branches, accidentally catching a romantic sunset as we watched Deep park his Saturn and walk toward the men’s room. When he opened the door, Cory and I were up and running.
“You’re the guy who’s here to cheat on his wife? With a teenager?” Cory had decent wind, managed to run while calling those words without running out of breath. When we got to him, flanking him like Cory had planned, him on the grass and me crabwalking on the sand behind Deep, the guy looked fake-amused and real scared.
“I thought this was a prank,” he said, with an accent that he probably worried made him completely unattractive to the young white girls he was interested in. He was still wearing his wedding ring. A little guy, about five-foot-six, with a lot of hair but a bad haircut, poor posture bending the torso under his windbreaker and loose dress shirt. He started chewing on one of his knuckles.
“You didn’t think it was a prank,” Cory said. I didn’t say anything. I loomed, I guess. “You’re a pervert and a cheater, and we’re going to make sure everyone knows about it.”
I moved around so I was directly behind the guy, the way Cory had told me to. Deep kept looking over his shoulder at me.
“I told my wife, and everything,” he said. “I knew it was a prank. Just curious what it would be like.”
“How much money do you have in your wallet?” Cory said. Deep reached into his pocket and pulled out the hunk of leather, looking relieved to be robbed, that the experience was beginning to take on a definable shape. He had $320.00 on him, and offered to drive to an ATM to get more.
“No,” Cory said. He nodded at me, and I plucked the money out of Deep’s hand, pushing it into my jeans. “Take off your pants now.”
“Do it here, or we can move into the bathroom, there, but do it.” There was some shuffling, some unfinished sentences, but when I rested my hands on Deep’s shoulders, he went for the buckle and the pants dropped right away, as though they’d been several sizes too large. Cory gestured at the underwear, and in the last bit of sunlight, we had Deep with his pants down, Cory framing shots so I was headless and behind him, me posing my hand in a hovering way above and next to Deep’s gear while the iPhone snapped photos of us, of a woman’s husband and an anonymous white bulk.
“You drop yours for a couple shots,” Cory said. I did, without talking, dressing again when Cory put the phone away.
“Now get out of here. And don’t tell anyone about this, right? You know what happens if you do. Cops, your wife—nobody. You learned a lesson for three hundred bucks. Not bad.”
That was the general shape of the operation, and we did it that way three more times, in different locations. Swipe, chat, get the guy to turn up. To make sure he’d have a stuffed wallet, we started suggesting expensive restaurants and hotels that Kirsty wanted to be courted at, reminding the guys that credit equaled a paper trail, equaled trouble with the wife. Kirsty was a wise and considerate young woman who cared about these guys keeping it stable at home. Phil, Edison, Dan. We took their money, and we took their picture.
As the payouts got bigger, the photos Cory posed the marks and me in got more elaborate. I went with it, mechanically following the positioning that Cory asked for, and he never got to the point of putting me in anything more than hand-to-body contact with the guys.
“We don’t want any of them waffling. Fifteen hundred bucks is decent change, even to an oncologist,” Cory said, after Dr. Daniel Rutledge walked out from the stand of trees where we’d cornered him, a cluster of tall pines a hundred yards away from the hotel where he thought he’d be having a great time at that night. It was late afternoon, still warm, and I pulled my pants down again briefly to brush some dirt and pine needles off my skin. Cory snapped a picture of my ass and laughed.
“Sorry, I know that one was a little weird,” he said. “But we need him scared.”
“What do you mean, why? No reason for you to have it.”
“Yeah, yeah, sure. Anyways, sorry.”
“Is there an endgame here, or do we keep doing this?” I asked Cory. We walked back along the seawall, mingling with cyclists and young women staring at their phones while they walked luxury-model dogs.
“We should probably stop. At least for awhile. See if there’s any pushback, anyone reporting us anonymously.” None of the four men had flagged Kirsty’s profile within the app itself, even, proving that our hold of fear was fairly complete.
“I don’t get that. Why stop? Shouldn’t we just pick up the pace on this, hard, for another month, get as much as we can?”
“You have to be patient with these things,” Cory said, all paternal.
“Let me see the phone,” I said.
“Why the fuck not? I want to see if you erased that last picture of me.”
“I did.” Cory held up the phone and waggled its black screen at me. “Battery’s dead, anyway.” I stopped walking and he did too, each of us unsure if I was going to escalate things by grabbing it out of his hand. After a moment Cory put the phone back in his pocket.
“I still think we should do more, a lot, before we quit,” I said.
“We made plenty of cash off these four, and no one’s quitting anything. Find something to keep yourself busy for a couple of weeks, and we’ll be back on it, pal.”
Back in my basement suite, I stacked my half of the day’s cash in a lockbox with the rest of my takings, none of which I’d dipped into yet. I’d told Cory, when we’d first talked at the ESL school, that I didn’t really need the teaching cash, that I had a settlement from getting smacked in the ribs by the side mirror of a grocery truck driven by a drunk with a suspended license. He’d been using his twin brother’s ID to get jobs. The company, a small organic outfit, had paid me out about twenty-five grand, and I was whittling it down on rent and booze.
“So of all the ways to eat up time, you thought you’d work for a fucking rip-off ESL outfit for absolutely pathetic money?” Cory had asked. I played up the philanthropic angle in that talk, teaching as sacred, but neither of us bought it. I was just bored.
I stashed the lockbox and pulled out the Kirsty album from the thrift store. I’d already gone through about half of it, idly, usually while half-drunk in bed. No name clues for her, yet, but I thought of tracking down the bands on the t-shirts. The one that popped up most was a three-stripe logo, a little too close to the Black Flag one, with the name “Talkboard.” A shitty band name, and not a very good fit with what not-Kirsty and the other girls on stage seemed to be doing, but it was a start, something to type into Google.
I flipped my laptop on and watched my loading inbox roll over to display a new message, from Cory, with the little paperclip of an attachment on it. The attachment was predictable, but the message was shorter than I thought it would be.
“Ten thousand and I give you the phone and my word that I’ve wiped all other copies of the pictures. Meet outside the school, 2 PM tomorrow.”
He’d only attached three photos, but they were all winners. I hadn’t taken a look at the phone since we’d met the second mark, so seeing my face in all of these shots, next to pained, weeping, humiliated naked men in the outdoors was entirely new. The look on my face was businesslike, but it could easily be taken as entranced concentration. Sadistic. The fourth attachment was a composite of the other three in a PDF, along with my full name, age, address, and a scattering of other details that had come up in idle chat while we’d waited for our marks. My sister’s name, the location of her office. The elementary school my mother taught at.
I closed the inbox tab and searched for Talkboard. They’d been a Seattle-based band that had opened for a few other Seattle-based bands that had gone somewhere. Talkboard hadn’t. The press bios all had fake punk names: the vocalist called herself Emma Ragged. They had one professional press shot, our Kirsty doing the splits in black tights and a shredded polka-dot dress with the other three girls and a demolished drum kit behind her. I checked my bank account while I listened to a couple of their tracks from an old Sub Pop compilation. The school hadn’t checked on me when I’d gotten the job, just paying me in checks. Cory wouldn’t be on their books, either. And it was very unlikely that Cory’s name was Cory.
He was sitting on the steps of the school the next afternoon, talking to a couple of his former students, the three of them smoking together. He waved me over and the students split.
“You got the money?”
I passed him a thick envelope filled with what he wanted. He gave me the phone.
“Just erase that email I sent you, and there’s no record of any of this, pal. As soon as I get home and hit delete a few times, that is.”
“It’s not in my best interests to keep squeezing you, right? Not like you’re permanently rich. Anyway, you’ve seen my work. Sting, run. More interesting, and safer, that way.”
Cory took off before I could answer, hailing a cab over my shoulder and getting in right there. After losing the ten grand, I still had enough cash to last another six months without a job, but I knew now how quickly I could get bored. Plus, Cory hadn’t purely ripped me off. I still had the phone and the layout of the operation. Just needed to modify it to be a solo act. I walked over to the mall to start swiping.