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It is a truth universally acknowledged that to trick a rich man out of a large sum of money, one must be very clever and very patient.
In the hotel coffee shop, I stopped drumming my fingers on the table and with great effort stilled my twitching foot. I’d been born clever, but the whole patience thing was taking a lot longer.
Across the room, Heather sat serenely, her rolling suitcase beside her, nose buried in a book on the politics of Silicon Valley. Her thick, dark hair was pulled into a high ponytail and the tortoiseshell glasses perched on the edge of her tiny nose gave her a studious air. She wore a tattered gray Boston Red Sox T-shirt that dwarfed her in an adorable way.
She looked perfect. It had taken me forever to come up with the character’s exact look, but it was going to work. I just knew it. The team had made solid progress with our new San Francisco targets; I estimated we’d hear from half of them within the next week, which was pretty typical. But nabbing this one would make the road trip an unqualified success.
“How’s the book?” I murmured. The minuscule mic, invisible below my dress’s collar, transmitted to an equally covert bud in Heather’s ear.
“Incomprehensible,” Heather muttered without moving her lips. “Did you actually read this?”
Blech. I grimaced. “Every word, unfortunately. He’s babbled about it nonstop on LinkedIn.”
I looked between the shop’s door to the lobby and its door to the street. Since he lived in a building around the corner, he’d most likely enter from the street. Glancing down at my watch, I sat up straighter. It was 8:45 a.m. In the past year, Linc Townsend had posted three times before 9:00 a.m. on his Twitter page that the only proper way to start a Friday morning was with a flat white from this particular coffee locale.
There! The door to the street swung open, revealing a tall man in his late thirties. His trademark white-blond hair was cropped close to his head. “Showtime,” I whispered to Heather. “Turn slightly so that the book is more obvious and he can see your shirt.”
Heather took a sip from the cup on her table and angled herself to face the counter directly. She raised the book so that it rested on the table, the front cover obvious. Then she pushed back her shoulders; the logo on her shirt floated above the book.
Townsend strode to the register and smiled at the barista. “My usual.” After paying, he walked to the edge of the counter to wait for his drink. Damn it, he was pulling out his phone. If he got immersed in scrolling, he might not look up. He might not see her at all.
My gaze lit on the tray of lids, pitchers, and sugars at the edge of the counter. “Get up and get some milk for your drink,” I whispered. “Bring the book.”
Heather stood, her eyes still looking down at the pages. Then she transferred the book to one hand, keeping her finger inserted halfway, the picture of someone who couldn’t bear to lose her place. She picked up the coffee cup with the other and glided across the shop, looking very much the intense grad student she was pretending to be.
“Excuse me,” she said softly to Townsend without looking at him. She put her cup on the counter and poured milk with the same hand, propping the book on the counter with the other.
As he moved a foot away to allow her some space, he gave a fleeting look at her face and at the book on the counter.
I grinned. Five, four, three, two…
“What do you think of this book?” he asked Heather, tapping the hardcover. “I’m very familiar with it.” I bit my smile under control and waited for Heather’s opening line. I’d worked hard on it.
Heather looked up at Townsend, hazel eyes wide as if he’d startled her. Then she let her brow furrow and her mouth fold into a cute purse, as if she were seriously considering the question. “It’s uneven,” she finally said, meeting his gaze directly. “Some chapters are engaging and thought-provoking. But others are much less impressive.”
Nodding to herself as though her opinion was the final word on the matter, she gave him a small dismissive smile and took her coffee and book back to her table. I suppressed a laugh. Heather was such a pro. I might write the lines, but Heather always nailed the delivery.
Townsend gaped at her, his mouth slightly parted. His gaze traveled from the beat-up sneakers on her feet, up the length of her faded jeans, and rested on the Red Sox T-shirt. Then he looked at Heather’s face, once again absorbed in the book. His gaze softened on the glasses and ponytail.
Gotcha. I had agreed with one of Andie’s key assessments from her deep dive into Linc Townsend’s life: even though high school was twenty years in Townsend’s past, he was still nostalgic about the bespectacled brunette beauty he’d dated his senior year. Before she dumped him on her way to Harvard.
He was so distracted that the barista had to say “Linc” twice when his flat white was ready.
Here we go. Adrenaline pulsed through my veins. I cleared my throat, ready. Townsend hesitated for only a moment before crossing the room and sitting, uninvited, in the other chair at Heather’s table. She looked up, annoyance clear on her face. “Wh—ah, can I help you?”
His words transmitted clearly through the mic clipped to Heather’s bra. “You’ve intrigued me. I want to know which chapters you found worthwhile and which were lacking.”
Taking a deep breath, I spoke as quickly and clearly as I could. Heather was used to the ventriloquist act, but if I flubbed a word, she would sound unnatural. “I enjoyed the chapters about how Silicon Valley types are extreme idealists. How life is just a matter of discovering great ideas through conversation, innovation, and education.” I paused so Heather could catch up. As soon as Heather spouted “education,” I started again. “But I think the book’s conclusion that Silicon Valley is a libertarian-like ideology within the Democrat Party—well, that’s a bit of a stretch.”
Heather delivered the last sentence flawlessly and raised her eyebrows. “Satisfied?”
Linc Townsend set his flat white on the table and leaned forward. I waited for a quick lecture of approval, especially since, as the creator of a successful tech start-up, he’d been quoted at length in the parts of the book that Heather said she liked.
But he asked her an important question before mansplaining. “What is your name?” He offered a manicured hand across the table.
We’d hooked him already.
Heather awkwardly shook it, a blush staining her cheeks. I always marveled at Heather’s ability to blush on command. “L-lauren,” she stuttered. “I’m Lauren.”
Thirty minutes later, Townsend finally pushed back his chair and stood, looking at his watch with obvious reluctance. “I’ll miss a meeting if I don’t get to the office.”
Heather knew what to do here. I didn’t even need to speak. She just shrugged. “No worries. My flight home is in less than two hours. I need to get to the airport anyway.” She smiled up at him, revealing a deep dimple in her right cheek. “It was very…stimulating…to meet you.”
“Stimulating,” he repeated. “Indeed.” He pushed in the chair and walked to the door.
I held my breath, unnecessarily. Because after a moment’s pause, he came right back to the table. Heather looked up in false surprise.
“Could I call you?” he asked, suddenly sounding nervous and a lot younger. “To talk more?”
Heather looked down at the table, color once again brightening her cheeks. “I don’t really give out my phone number,” she said. His face fell.
“But maybe e-email?” she suggested. “Maybe we could email? Or online chat?”
He nodded. “I’ll take that. To start.” Heather recited the email address of a brand-new gmail account I’d created this morning, and he typed it into his phone, checking twice that he’d entered it correctly. Then he finally left, but not without a lingering glance at the back of Heather’s head as he exited.
Whew. I rolled my shoulders and chugged half a bottle of water before leaving the coffee shop. I walked three hilly blocks to a small park and settled myself on a bench, grateful it wasn’t raining again. I bet the weather was better in Chicago. You couldn’t say that often about Chicago, but the summers were magic. I was so ready to get home tomorrow. These road trips were absolutely the key to my successful business, but they were exhausting.
This trip had been particularly draining because we’d been in the Bay Area for a full week. Normally, I didn’t like the team to stay in a city longer than three days, but the enormous tech conference in town this week had attracted too many good targets to ignore.
I sent a text to Leah, making sure she was ready for the afternoon. Her scenario would necessitate a happy hour situation around 5:30, and I was a little concerned about the ambient noise in the bar overpowering our mics. We’d have to get there extra early to check. Sloan had the day off, but I called to check in with her anyway. She didn’t answer her phone, and I frowned. She’d been unusually MIA all week, and it was making me uneasy.
The sound of a rolling bag on pavement made me look up. I stood and did a little bow to Heather. “Excellent work. Like always.”
“Thanks, but he was easy.” Heather laughed. “He was sort of refreshing, don’t you think? I doubted you and Andie on the nerdy-girl approach, but you guys were right as always. He was tripping over himself to impress Lauren and her big brain.” She cocked her head and fluttered her thick eyelashes. “It’s really kind of sweet.”
I rolled my eyes. “Yes, I’m sure his wife finds him very sweet too.” Linc Townsend had been married for five years. I doubted that Mrs. Townsend would appreciate her husband fawning over a beautiful young woman, no matter how smart.
With a snort, Heather took off the glasses and put them in her purse. She twisted the ponytail into a sleek bun at the nape of her neck and pulled a black cashmere sweater out of her oversized purse and put it on over the T-shirt. She stepped out of the loose jeans, revealing black leggings. The sneakers went into the suitcase, replaced by delicate black flats. A string of pearls circled her neck.
“What do you think?” She twirled in a slow circle. “This is the look for the next one, right?”
I eyed her critically. Very Audrey Hepburn, yes. “Makeup. Smoky eyes, but suitable for daylight. Stay pale-ish, but cover those freckles. Bright red lipstick. I want every man in the gallery sneaking looks at your mouth.”
“Got it.” Heather pulled out her bag of cosmetics and got to work.
I dialed Andie, who picked up on the first ring. “Yo, yo. Hey, boss!” I could picture her in our converted loft office space, her pixie face smiling behind her veritable wall of computer monitors. Since the park was empty except for me and Heather, I put the phone on speaker.
“Just checking in to make sure that the public profiles are done for the new characters.” I pictured the way Linc Townsend had stared at “Lauren” on his way out of the coffee shop. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we had some eager Googlers today.”
I could hear the squeaks from Andie bouncing on the expensive ergonomic office chair and winced. Andie was an absolute marvel at her job as our research and social media guru, but she was hell on furniture. “Of course!” she piped. “Everything is done, just as we designed. Test it out! Do some searching for our new ladies yourself. You’ll find Facebook and Insta for everyone, a Twitter persona for Sloan’s mark, a LinkedIn profile for Heather’s Lauren, TikTok and a fashion blog for Leah’s character.”
“I trust you,” I said. “I’ll have a few hours back at the hotel this afternoon. Can you do a quick assessment of all the open cases right now and see who needs the most attention?”
“Working on that now,” Andie answered. “It’s a good thing you have time today. We’ve got lots of gentlemen who are missing their secret loves.”
I sighed. We always fell behind on road trips. “Understood. Thanks. Send me the top priorities and then get to work on the personality profiles of the New Orleans targets for next month’s trip. I’ll call you later.”
Heather closed her mirror with a loud snap. “How’s this?”
I nodded appreciatively. “Nice.” Heather looked gorgeous, and almost nothing like “Lauren.” Linc Townsend could cross her in the street and not recognize her. The professional makeup lessons for the team was a hefty expense and it took a lot of on-the-clock time to practice, but they were absolutely invaluable.
“Do you want some help this afternoon?” Heather asked, bending down to put her cosmetics away. “I can put in a few extra hours.”
I yawned. “Nah. You’ve had a full couple of days. You deserve the afternoon off.”
Heather looked up at me over one shoulder. “When was the last time you took an afternoon off?”
Hmm. Good question. An afternoon fully to myself? Maybe two years ago. No, longer than that. “It’s been a while,” I admitted. But hell, when you were running a lucrative business with only yourself and four employees, you didn’t have a lot of free time.
I pushed myself off the bench and swiveled the handle of the rolling bag toward Heather. “Take your suitcase and drop it at the hotel. Grab some lunch, and I’ll see you at the gallery in an hour or so, OK ‘Molly’?”
Heather winked and sashayed out of the park. “Ta-ta.”
I was about to follow her out, but my phone buzzed with a text from Andie. News article!!!! Andie was incapable of sending a text without at least four exclamation points.
I clicked on the link to the new Trib piece immediately. I read everything published on romance scams. Had to stay knowledgeable on my industry and ahead of the curve, after all.
This one was heavy on figures. Blah, blah, blah, Americans lost $143 million in online relationship scams last year. Yep, already knew that. My lips curved as I read that $2,600 was the median reported loss. Ha. Our marks lost a lot more than that.
Of course, my business did not follow the usual online romance scam model. My team didn’t catfish indiscriminately. We didn’t sit on Facebook or Match.com and cast a wide net, trolling for innocent, lonely people who didn’t have money to spare. Those romance scammers were unskilled predatory assholes. My team and I were different. Obviously. If normal romance scammers were oafish thugs using sledgehammers, my team were skilled surgeons, deftly and painlessly cutting away at a man’s weakness.
I still remembered Andie looking up at me with trepidation when I first explained how the business worked. “But what happens when one of these rich guys reports you? Normal victims of these kinds of scams lose small dollars, hardly worth an investigator’s time. But you get big cash out of important people.”
I had raised an eyebrow. “No one has ever reported us.”
Andie’s mouth dropped open as she scrolled through the hundreds of case files. “Jo, how is that possible? Some percentage of victims of every online scam report the loss. There’s no way you could be immune.”
I just shrugged. “First of all, we never take more than they can afford to lose. Ever. Second, we only go after married men, known cheaters who have nothing to gain and a lot to lose by turning us in. Those are my personal, unbreakable rules.” I never considered myself a sort of avenging angel, but so many of these men had treated the women in their life poorly. I knew their bad behavior didn’t exactly justify putting them on our target list, but it sure helped.
To Andie, I continued. “But the real reason we don’t get caught is that the men never even know it’s an online scam. To them, it’s just a secret love affair that eventually ends.”
Andie looked bewildered. “But they have a relationship with a woman entirely online. And at a point, they send money for some reason. These are smart, successful men. How can they not know?”
“Because it doesn’t start online,” I explained smugly. “It starts in person. They meet the woman in person. A very memorable meeting. One meeting. After that, it’s all online until it ends. Like many things, the beginning makes all the difference.”
If my business had a slogan, it would be “The beginning makes all the difference.”
With me behind the scenes, Heather, Leah, and Sloan hooked men on these road trips, but the rest of the affair was carried out online. In long, loving emails, witty IMs and sexy texts. If they were really lucky, the men might get a few phone calls or FaceTime sessions. But that was it. Linc Townsend was about to become obsessed with Lauren, but he would never see her in person again.
As for the impending correspondence between Linc and Lauren, he wouldn’t be communicating with just one woman. Each character that was created had at least two women—plus me, always me—assigned to it.
So, in the coming weeks, Linc would assume that he and Lauren were exchanging four messages in a day, but I would probably write the two longer ones and Heather or Leah might do the shorter, maintenance-y ones. Something like: “Thinking of you. Saw the San Fran weather is even colder than where I am tonight. Hope you’re staying warm.”
To which, if Linc was like any of the other hundreds of men we communicated with, he’d respond with something like: “It’s thoughts of you that are keeping me warm.” Since Lauren was supposed to be brilliant but inexperienced, her short response would be adorably awkward in some way.
Different “couples” would exchange more intimate messages or dirtier ones. That was just part of the game. The men were lured for a variety of reasons: lust, romance, intellectual or emotional connection. Andie and I spent significant time researching our targets and determining which angle would be most alluring before designing the first encounter that set the tone for everything that followed.
It wasn’t quite the career I’d expected when I began my first psychology degree, but a lot of things happened that one never expected. Six years ago, I didn’t expect the devastating breakup and financial fallout that forced me to give up on my dissertation before earning my full PhD. I’d never expected having to take four adjunct teaching positions and to bartend and drive Uber on the side just to make rent and my student loan payments. And I’d certainly never expected the injury with complications that put me in the hospital for weeks—or that I wouldn’t have the insurance to cover the treatment.
So, I’d pivoted. Maybe some would say I’d taken my skills and gone to the dark side. Maybe they’d be right. But it was the people who were able to pivot who survived.
If sometimes I felt a little guilty about the deceit, the guilt was easy enough to assuage. I never forced any of the men to become involved. Even though all of them had cheated on their wives in the past, many of our targets didn’t bite—and good for them. I wasn’t going to lie awake at night feeling bad about the ones who did.
Besides, if one weighed the scales of good and bad, my little business had also done its fair share of good. Who knows where Heather or Leah would be by now if I hadn’t intervened in their lives when I did? Sloan and Andie would have been even worse off. So there. And hey, how many people could say they started a successful business with just a beat-up laptop and their wits? I was damn good at this. Why waste time feeling guilty about being so good at something?
Squaring my shoulders, I pulled the suitcase out of the park and ruthlessly organized my schedule by minute for the rest of the day. 1) Art gallery. Heather, reel in Rhys Bowser. 2) Several hours at the hotel for catch-up. 3) Happy hour. Leah, reel in Travis Hall. On my own, I’d attend the big closing party of the conference. There were a few new tech millionaires I wanted to scout for future trips. To finish the trip, the team’s traditional wine and movie night in the hotel. It was Sloan’s turn to pick the movie, so we were definitely going to be watching Casablanca. Leah’s turn to pick the food, so it was going to be spicy.
Oh shoot! I’d meant to buy our customary “last night of road trip” bubbly. A weakness for champagne was a shared team trait. I sent a quick text to the team, asking if Sloan could pick up the sparkling, since she had the day off.
Sorry Charlie, can’t! 2 busy rn! ttyl! she responded. My left eyelid twitched.
Sloan had been assigned to only two targets this trip. Saturday afternoon, we hooked an insurance executive in Oakland. On Sunday night at a wine tasting in Napa, she had been assigned a British financier in town for the conference. Sloan was so distinctive that I had to use her in a much more limited fashion than the rest of the team. Heather and Leah were like me, chameleons who could become any character Andie and I designed. Not Sloan. Her impossible beauty made her much too memorable.
Her last performance was five days ago and she was supposed to lie low for the rest of the trip. So what the hell was she so busy doing?
Leah, the oldest and most responsible, responded immediately after Sloan’s dismissal. I got it, Charlie.
Suddenly weary, I flicked my eyes to the sky and put my phone away. The team loved comparing themselves to Charlie’s Angels, with me as their fearless leader. Fair enough. There were certainly worse comparisons to be made. But God, some days they made me feel about a hundred years old. In my mind, I always thought of them as “the girls,” which would probably annoy them. Leah was twenty-seven, and Heather and Sloan were twenty-four. I was thirty-four. Should I feel the decade age gap as acutely as I did?
Focus, Jo. Work. I shook off the fatigue and strode in the direction of a high-class gallery that was hosting a luncheon for some of the tech conference VIPs. A little reconnaissance was in order.
End of Excerpt