The Fiddle Game
by Alex Shvartsman
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They say you can't con an honest man, but that isn't true. It is a self-deception ordinary people
invented to feel better about themselves. Conning an honest man is easy because he isn't devious
or suspicious by nature. What's nearly impossible is to con another grifter.
I recognized the scam the moment the kid who'd ordered scrambled eggs and hash finished his
food, walked up, and plopped a violin case on the service counter of my greasy spoon diner. He
was gangly, barely out of his teens, and had that look of being smug but trying to hide it.
"I'm terribly sorry," he said. "I seem to have left my wallet at home. I live on Tyson Street, so I'll
run and get it, and come back to pay my tab. Fifteen minutes, tops." The kid flashed me his best
smile. "Here, you can hang on to my violin as collateral." He opened the case, revealing the
I ignored the violin and looked the kid up and down instead. Aside from an ugly tattoo on his
arm that he'll probably live to regret in a decade, I found nothing of note. The kid was ordinary.
Mundane. None of the charms and talismans I'd painstakingly placed around the diner were set
off by his arrival. Ergo, he possessed no magic and was apparently attempting to challenge me
armed with his wits alone, a duel to which he arrived supremely underprepared.
The little punk was trying to run the Fiddle Game on me. That's the oldest scam in the book, but
still good enough to work on most people in this backwater town.
He could never have anticipated that the balding, overweight diner proprietor he pegged for an
easy mark was once known as Maurice the Ghost, the legendary art thief and confidence
trickster, wanted by an alphabet soup of law enforcement agencies around the world. Wanted, but
I was equal parts irritated and amused, but I didn't want to draw attention to my cover by
appearing too sharp. The locals knew me only as an amenable and somewhat dull restauranteur;
just another sheep among the flock. If I suddenly appeared to grow street smarts, people might
talk, and who knows who might overhear? Toward the end of my illustrious career, I had stolen
from Freddy the Mace. The law enforcement may have given up by now, but his people were still
looking for me after all these years, because there is no statute of limitations on ripping off
So I played the part of a rube. I kept my jaw slack and my gaze unfocused as I nodded. "Sure,
kid. Go get your wallet."
As he walked away, I scanned the diner for faces I didn't recognize, trying to figure out who his
accomplice would be. The man with a scar on his cheek drinking coffee in the corner booth? The
comely brunette who'd ordered a stack of pancakes and an orange juice? They were all ordinary
and boring. No magic user other than me would be caught dead in this flyover dump of a town
anyway, and that's just how I liked it.
I won't lie, after a short but glamorous career in liberating nice things from not-so-nice people,
living the life of a small-town diner owner sucked big time. But I didn't dare make any waves.
When I stole from Freddy, I believed him to be just another Brooklyn gangster with the life
expectancy of an incandescent light-bulb and an IQ to match. I couldn't have known that he was
a powerful wizard, not keen to advertise his magic or his intellect. He steamrolled the
competition, and eventually became one of the most powerful mobsters on the East Coast.
By now the amount of money I stole from him was a mere pittance to Freddy, but he was not the
forgiving type. So until some even deadlier rival took him out, I remained hidden in Midwestern
purgatory, unable to use my humble magic skills for fear of detection. And just in case he ever
found me, I spent a fortune on top-shelf arcane protections. It would be easier for an ordinary
burglar to break into Fort Knox than for another wizard to enter the diner and cause me harm.
I scanned the crowd, secure in the knowledge that the accomplice, just like the kid, was merely
mundane. My money was on the man with the scar, but he didn't so much as look up from his
coffee mug. Instead, it turned out to be a wrinkled old man, who shuffled up to the counter as
soon as the door shut behind his partner.
"I couldn't help overhearing your conversation," he said. "Would you mind if I took a closer look
at that violin? I'm an antique vendor, and when that young man opened the case, I thought his
violin might be worth a bit of money."
Neither of these jokers was going to win awards for their acting, but I had to give them points for
sticking to the script, and also for using an actual violin in the Fiddle Game. I kept a straight face
as I passed the case to the old geezer.
He made a show of examining the violin, clucking and muttering to himself. I let him be and
took a breakfast order from another customer. When I turned my attention back to the counter,
my would-be scammer held out a napkin with a phone number scrawled across it.
"Would you pass this along to the young man? I'll pay him five hundred for the violin, if he
wants to sell."
"You got it, bub." I shoved the napkin into my pocket. Amateur hour! The duo was too cheap to
print out fake business cards.
The old man paid his bill and split.
The Fiddle Game relies on greed. The grifters hope that the mark will be tempted to turn a profit
and offer to buy the fiddle - or whatever item they're hawking - from the original owner. The
negotiated price might only be a fraction of its supposed value, but it is still way more than the
cheap piece of junk is actually worth. It's only after the original grifter leaves with the money
that the mark is going to learn that the phone number on that napkin is fake.
It's a safe, reliable con. Even if the mark isn't tempted, the grifters are only out the price of
scrambled eggs and some coffee. Which is exactly how it was going to go down this time, until I
happened to take a closer look at the violin sitting in the still-open case on my counter.
The fiddle looked old. Really old. I took it out of the case and used a tiny bit of magic to probe
the instrument as my fingers caressed the seasoned wood of the garland. It felt good to use my
power again, even if it was only for a few seconds, and I felt confident my arcane protections
were sufficient to disguise such a minor spell. The ability to detect the true nature of objects was
perfect to supplement the skills of a world-class art thief, but it was never a very powerful magic
when compared to what someone like Freddy could do. I heard he once killed a man by boiling
all the blood in his body with a spell. I wish I had heard that before getting greedy when I pulled
off a job for him. My circumstances might have been much improved then.
The magic confirmed my estimate. The violin had been made in the late seventeenth century. It
wasn't a Stradivarius or anything, but it must have been worth at least five figures. Even if my
magic had somehow failed me, and it was a replica created by a forger brilliant enough to fool
someone like me, that would still make it worth far more than five Benjamins.
How the hell did this pair of jokers get their hands on a genuine antique? I was still examining it
when the punk-kid grifter returned with his wallet.
"Listen, kid, this is a pretty nice instrument. Where did you get it?"
"It was my grandfather's. It's old, but the sound's great."
Grandfather's my foot. The scammers probably picked it up for a couple of bucks at an estate
I didn't need the money or the trouble. But I was annoyed at being pegged for an easy mark, and
after twenty years of hiding from the authorities and from Freddy's goons, I was bored. Turning
the tables on these chums was probably going to be the most interesting thing that happened to
me that year.
"Wanna sell it? I'll give you a hundred bucks."
The kid licked his lips. "A hundred and fifty?"
"A hundred, and breakfast is on me."
We shook hands.
My plan was to reach out to a fence I knew of in Madison. He didn't know me from back in the
day, wasn't a wizard, had no apparent connections to Freddy and his people, and because he
mostly dealt with ill-gotten gains, I could expect him to be discreet. He would pay a fraction of
the violin's worth, of course, but it was well worth the extra security. I left him a voice message
and waited for the call back while preparing for the lunch rush.
The feds arrived only a few hours later. They came out of nowhere, swarming the diner and
scaring the bejeebers out of my customers. Tens of thousands of dollars worth of arcane
protections were useless against Glocks and Kevlar vests.
"How did you find me?" I asked, after they read me my rights.
"An anonymous tip," said the special agent in charge. He looked like he'd just eaten the canary
and was still burping up feathers. He'd get a promotion for finding me, and he knew it, even if he
couldn't make the charges stick.
"What exactly are you charging me with?" I asked. "I've lived here for over twenty years. The
statute of limitations on anything I could possibly be accused of has long expired."
The fed's smile widened. "You've had a good run, Maurice. The statute of limitations has indeed
run out on most of your crimes," he patted the nylon case, "but this violin was stolen from a
museum in Prague last week. And here we thought the Ghost had retired ages ago."
It's difficult to con a another grifter. But it's not impossible.
As they led me out of the diner and away from all of my protections in handcuffs, the man with
the scar who had been nursing his coffee at the corner booth all morning brushed up against me.
"Freddy the Mace sends his regards," he whispered.