They were four days into the con, running the rag on a high-powered freshman MP with more gambling blood than political sense, and Mickey Stone was nervous. He didn't hide it very well, either; Albert made a mental note to say something to him about that before he met up with the mark again. The kid was very good, convincing as hell when he put on a persona, but this kind of agitation could get into the blood, shake up even the best inside man, and Mickey was far from the best. Not yet.
He didn't trust them, that was the problem. And maybe there were better ways to get to know people than by playing cards at a table in the back of Eddie's Bar, but Albert didn't know of many. He surveyed his cards carefully, and then the two men at the table with him. Ash would cause him no problems -- nor would he be much help, either, Albert had to admit. Ash had helped him try out too many new kids who'd wanted to do the long con but hadn't had the grift sense to back it up. Mickey would be different, Albert was sure. He had it in his bones, in his blood, an instinct that ran as deep as the desire for it. Albert could always tell a natural.
"Are we playing, or what?" Ash muttered under his breath, the time-worn code for "I don't trust you when you think too hard."
Albert hmmed and studied his cards. "Sevens," he said thoughtfully.
"Nah." Ash fidgeted with an unlit cigarette and stuck it back behind his ear. "Go fish." Albert pulled the second card out of the deck without thinking. "Michael?" he said.
"I cannot believe we're doing this," Mickey muttered under his breath, reshuffling his cards in his hands. Fingers like a Vegas cardsharp, Albert thought, not for the first time.
Albert smiled a little. "There's nothing you can do right now. Once the mark has taken the convincer, if we've all done our jobs right, he'll be back on our doorstep begging for more. And when he does, we need to be prepared -- and relaxed. Nobody's going to hand over two hundred thousand pounds to a nervous stockbroker."
"I know, I know." Mickey's voice was calm, but his fingers twitched, and his eyes flicked back and forth across his cards. The fingers were just irritation -- Mickey liked to pretend that Albert didn't annoy him -- but the eyes were a tell, and really quite an obvious one. Albert figured he really ought to warn the kid about it. One of these days.
Mickey looked up and made eye contact with him. "Fours." Albert solemnly handed over a card, and Mickey plucked it out of his fingers and started reshuffling again.
It was, without a doubt, the solemnest con Albert had ever had the misfortune to be a part of.
Ash caught his eye across the table, raised an expressive eyebrow in a kind of code he and Albert had established over many years of working the long con together. This one said, if this is what it's going to be like, let's ditch the new kid and I'll go throw myself under a bus. Of course, for Ash, throwing himself under a bus was a viable means of making a living, but nevertheless.
"You know," Albert said casually, "I was in a situation very like this once before. My partner and I were on the Adriatic Express to Venice, on the hunt for some very impressive jewels in the possession of a very evil old woman. As a cover, we were posing as international spies -- it was the Cold War, that kind of thing worked back then -- and we had only until the train stopped at the border to pull the thing off, since -- no, wait, or was that just when her pretty young assistant was leaving our company? There was certainly some sort of deadline there --"
"And the mark took the convincer and left you sweating for two extra days while you wondered if you were ever going to see her again?" Mickey asked, his eyebrows raised in clear disbelief.
Albert grinned, leaning back in his chair with his thumbs stuck through his suspenders in an entirely stereotypical way. "Not exactly. She took the convincer and had us imprisoned in a baggage car with nothing but several cases of fine brandy and an inebriated Parisian model for company. But the principle is the same," he finished, wagging a finger in Mickey's direction.
The kid had finally stopped shuffling his cards and was staring at Albert with an expression of total incredulity. He wondered cheerfully if this was all it would take to knock the poor boy into showing some human emotion, or if that was just a side effect of the current situation. "And the moral of the story is...?" Mickey said in a slightly strangled voice.
"Why, that no matter how dire your situation, when there's nothing left to be done about it, you should be able to relax and enjoy yourself! Speaking of which, I think I require a drink. Can I get anything for you gentlemen?"
Ash didn't even look up from his cards. "Pint of lager, if you please. And the King of Spades." Albert tossed the card at him, making a face, as he got up to find Eddie. Mickey would take a scotch, the same as Albert had. He wasn't really sure that Mickey liked them, to be honest -- he hadn't been able to afford them for long, that much was certain -- but there was no harm in teaching him to have some good taste.
Never one to forego the chance to hear himself whispered about, Albert kept one ear and one eye out toward their table while Eddie poured drinks. It was true that a tendency for sound to fail to carry was one of the charms of Eddie's Bar, but Albert had, after all, a great deal of experience in overhearing conversations.
Back at the table, Mickey glanced at Ash out of the corner of his eye. "Do you think any of that story was true?" he asked quietly.
Ash shrugged. "I make it a point never to believe more than half the stories Albert tells." The corner of his mouth quirked in a smile. "Trouble is, I can never tell which half to believe." He caught Mickey's eye, and the kid broke out in a grin.
Over at the bar, Albert grinned too, causing Eddie to give him a suspicious look as he finished pulling Ash's pint. One day, Eddie was going to figure out that those nervous glances he always gave them were half the reason they liked his bar so much, but Albert certainly wasn't going to be the one to tell him.
Mickey appeared at his elbow, offering a hand for the third drink. "I've been thinking," he said quietly.
"Dangerous pastime," Albert commented, but he raised his eyebrow suggestively and Mickey cracked a smile before that serious expression took over his face once again.
"If Tolletson doesn't show..."
"But if he doesn't," Mickey persisted, "I don't think we've necessarily lost him. If I go back --"
Albert smiled, and let Mickey's backup plan wash over him. Backup plans. Really. For my con. But there it was, in his voice, that cool, easy confidence, the smooth transition between chaos and control. Albert knew he'd had it in him.
This was going to work out just fine.