Posting a short story to my writers’ group this week, I’m exploring the art of the Long Con in Selling the King’s Bridge.
Book Three features nefarious side characters from the Coterie, my version of a thieves’ guild. The capitol city features an engineering marvel, a timber swing-bridge. Most of the city’s trade passes over or under this bridge, the largest and most expensive piece of infrastructure in the Empire.
Common to bridges in the real world, people try to buy and sell them. Blackfriars Bridge, London Bridge, Tower Bridge, Brooklyn Bridge, Golden Gate Bridge; at some point, scammers and con-artists have tried to sell all these bridges to rich, vain and stupid people.
Oil tycoon Robert P McCulloch bough the old London Bridge for real in 1968. Dismantled and shipped over Lake Havasu in Arizona, it still stands as a ‘tourist attraction’ and gateway to McCulloch’s retirement village. The price? A little shy of $2.5m ($25-35m now). Plus shipping. And assembly.
There are good, practical reasons for buying a major bridge linking a capitol city to its hinterland; trade and tolls. Persuade the buyer of the bridge’s long-term revenue potential, they’ll part with some seed-money just to be in with a chance of a fat profit.
It’s a ‘long-con,’ or a high-stakes heist, the stuff of Oceans Eleven, The Sting, Focus and others.
So what if my Coterie of thieves tried to sell the King’s Bridge?
I have a Coterie front-man and an out-of-town merchant as his mark. Hit the right combination of greed, gullibility and ignorance with the right amount of plausible secrecy and bravura mis-representation and what have you got?
The art of the Long Con.
The Problem of the Long Con
Why does anyone fall for the con?
The core setup of the long-con has to be:
- a time-limited offer
- robust in the face of immediate scrutiny, and
- too good for the mark to pass on
This kind of con has to appeal to a person with wealth and an over-inflated ego; someone who thinks they’re too smart to be fooled.
The opportunity has to be tempting and irresistible. It has to be wrapped in legitimacy and secrecy, so the mark thinks they have the inside track to a profit before anyone else.
The mark has to be bound by time and secrecy so they can’t pull at any loose threads and unravel the plot. The execution of the con has to happen fast and seamlessly.
How do you make this work in practice?
With some spoilers:
- Coterie con-man Effram, in the guise of a real Treasury official, lays out the opportunity to the merchant Satchell.
- Effram gains access to the Treasury building to consolidate his ‘official’ status.
- Effram returns to the merchant with bad news; there’s a rival bid. Satchell parts with a bribe for the notoriously grafting Chancellor to lubricate the deal.
- Job done, Effram hands over the cash to the Coterie’s head of operations. He doesn’t have to sell the bridge at all; a fat bribe is the object of the con. If you can pull it once, you can pull it twice; there’s another mark lined up for the same score.