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Chasing Grifters

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She was a friend of Billie’s. A brunette named Betty. A top dame with a sweet smile and sharp eyes. They had needed someone to play wife to Hooker’s inside man and Betty was in town. She was a hell of a good grifter and pretty as pie. Henry didn’t have a bad word to say about her - except, Hooker liked her.

Hooker liked her and Henry just about hated her.

And wasn’t that the kicker? He should be teasing Hooker like the others. Keeping him on the job, but letting him know when the play was finished, he could see to her good and proper.

Because a man could only wish to find a dame like that. Smart, attractive and a natural charmer. Hooker wasn’t the only man in the crew trailing after her. He was just the lucky one taking her to dinner and kissing her like any loving husband might.

Henry wanted to tell him to knock it off, but he couldn’t speak a word. She was part of the crew and integral to the job. Hooker could kiss her hand and flash her a smile as much as he wanted. He could do it on the off hours and get more than a few wistful, jealous looks.

Hooker had no idea that Henry’s few looks weren’t jealous of him.

When he could, Henry pretended she didn’t exist and only acknowledged her when it was part of the job. They didn’t talk about her when they were alone, but they’d never spoken about women much before. Henry always had too little to tell.

He doubted anyone but Twist noticed his coldness, but Twist knew him almost as well as Billie. He wouldn’t be surprised about Hooker. Just like he’d know Henry wouldn’t let it affect the job. He was a sucker for the kid, but he wasn’t so stupid a fool as to ruin what he had because of a bit of worthless longing.

He knew better than that.

It didn’t mean he was ready to handle her when she came to see him. He was running the job and his door was always open. Henry had always been like that. Con couldn’t work if you didn’t have everyone in position. One shaking hand could be enough to spook the mark.

Normally, a couple of drinks, a run through and a clap on the back was all they ever needed.

Henry had been keeping away from the main room. Hooker and her had been getting close. It was easy to see it wasn’t the job sticking them together. She was a knockout and Hooker was… Hooker. Henry would never be surprised if a dame fell for him. He made it easy to fall. Henry knew that too damn well.

He was sitting in his room, feet on the desk and shuffling cards. The job didn’t call for his hand at poker, but he liked the feel of the deck. When he saw her silhouette in the doorway, his hands paused. He watched her warily, a feeling that grew when she shut the door behind her.

She took a seat and arranged her dress. A deliberate stall that they were both aware of. The silence was heavy and Henry started playing with the cards again. He tried for ease, but he knew better. This wasn’t a simple run through.

Hooker might not have noticed his coldness, but Betty wasn’t so ignorant.

“Problem?” He asked.

“Thought I’d be asking that,” she said. “Unhappy with my work?”

“Nothing wrong with your work,” Henry answered. “Can’t fault it. The mark’s sitting pretty.”

She nodded. “Unhappy with me and Johnny?

If he weren’t waiting for it, he would have flinched.

“No reason to be unhappy with a good partnership.”

She tilted her head, sizing him up. Betty might be working him out, but maybe he was working her out too. Maybe, he wanted to know now if this was his last job with the kid. They’d walked out of every con side by side, already planning the next swindle – but, that was before Hooker had met such a perfect dame.

She seemed to catch his angle. A small lift of her eyebrows the only indication of surprise. “You think I’ll make a play?”

Straight for the money, no time for the build-up. She’ll match Hooker well. Henry didn’t grimace through years of practice. He also saw no reason to bluff. He shrugged instead.

“It’s a good prize.” He couldn’t hold her gaze. “You’d be a fool not to take it.”

“Not a prize I want,” she replied.

The words sparked a guilty thread of hope and relief in his chest – but then, she spoke again, “And I don’t steal from a grifter.”

Henry paused his shuffle. A damning tell, but he picked it up again quickly. “Didn’t realise you’d be stealing.”

“Wouldn’t I?” she asked.

Henry caught her gaze. Too sharp and too knowing. She’d seen right through him. It was little surprise. She was a damn good conartist and Billie had recommended her. Billie had seen right through him too.

“Can’t steal what isn’t owned,” Henry admitted.

He tried to keep his voice free of inflection, but a trace of resignation slipped through. He’d been holding his cards close too long, it wouldn’t take much for them to slip through his fingers for anyone to see.

A touch of pity entered her eyes and it was better than disgust. Henry knew that look far too well. She stood and Henry shifted, unable to help the instinctive panic that clawed in his chest. Betty paused and looked back at him. Cataloguing him and reading everything he hadn’t bothered to hide.

Her expression softened. “If there’s nothing to steal then there’s nothing to tell.”

Henry didn’t hide the soft, relieved breath he released. He gave a small nod of gratitude and she acknowledged it by offering one back. She left the room and Henry slumped back against his chair.

He didn’t pick up his cards again. He knew he’d only spill them if he tried.

He hated Betty a little less, after that. She didn’t want Hooker and she wouldn’t rat him out. It wasn’t every day he got so lucky.

Henry still didn’t talk to her, but it wasn’t because of a cold shoulder. It was because there was nothing else to say. Betty knew his hand and didn’t need to worry about her place in the job. Everything was ticking over nicely and Henry’s heart didn’t twist quite so hard when Hooker smiled at her. He knew it wouldn’t come to anything now.

The thing was, he should have anticipated Hooker.

He’d been surprising Henry from the start. He thought on his feet and acted spontaneously. Pinning down a man like that was near impossible. Despite that, Henry should have anticipated Hooker.

They often got together at night in Henry’s room. Normally, they played a game or two over a drink. Sometimes, Henry told stories of old cons. Didn’t matter if they were his or someone else’s, Hooker was always keen to listen and learn.

Tonight, Hooker showed up agitated. His motions impatient and frustrated even as he sat down opposite Henry. Hooker could hide his emotions better than most conmen Henry had met – but, when he wasn’t on a job, he wore his heart on his sleeve.

“What’s the matter, kid?” Henry asked. “Something wrong on the job?”

“Nah. Dead easy.” Hooker’s eyes shifted from the table to pin Henry in place. “Betty makes it easy. How come I never worked with her before?”

Henry’s mouth felt dry. “Plenty of people you haven’t worked with. No shortage of people like us.”

“So, it had nothing to do with not wanting her around?”

Clearly, Hooker hadn’t missed Henry’s attitude towards her. A cold sweat broke out, but Henry ignored it. Hooker wouldn’t be this calm if he knew. So, Henry called the bluff.

“You got something to say, kid. Say it.”

Hooker rolled back his shoulders; stubborn to the last. “You got a problem with the way we act. You ain’t gotta hide it. You tell me, and I’ll cool off.”

Henry blinked, feeling confused. It took him a few seconds to even realise what Hooker meant. A bitter laugh bubbled up in his throat. It hurt to swallow it down.

“Christ, kid. She’s a fine dame, but I’m not chasing her.”

It was Hooker’s turn to blink. Three times, in rapid succession. He followed it by a heavy frown. He was turning the last few weeks over in his mind like a puzzle. Henry felt a sense of foreboding. The time-honed tingle of when a con was about to go bad.

The pieces were all there and he saw the moment realisation crested Hooker’s eyes. Henry looked away. Hooker had finally caught his play. Or rather, his lack of a play. Hooker had never been his for the taking.

“Con’s almost over kid,” Henry said quietly. “Not much longer you have to stick around.”

He picked up a cigarette and for a moment, his hand trembled. He stilled it, but Hooker was still watching him. That shake had stripped even more of him away. Henry struck a match and lit the tip before shaking away the flame. He pulled in a deep breath before daring to look at Hooker.

No disgust.

Henry didn’t know what to make of that. Hooker was shocked, that was obvious. But anger and revulsion weren’t there. Not yet, at least.

“You…” Hooker whispered. “Me?

Henry sighed and with nowhere else to go, he gave up hiding.

“I’m not chasing you either,” he said quietly. “I know when I ain’t got a chance, Johnny.”

Hooker’s lips parted, his eyes widening further. All of a sudden, he was out of the chair. The motion was so fast the chair hit the floor with a bang. Henry flinched. When Hooker came around the table, he let his body go limp and dropped the cigarette in the ashtray.

The less he looked like a threat, the quicker this would be over.

Hooker grabbed him by the shirt and hauled him out of his chair and against the wall. He hit it with a grunt and waited for the punch, already concocting ways to explain the bruise. He did not expect Hooker to kiss him.

Henry sucked in a breath. His eyes were wide while Hooker’s were closed. When Henry didn’t respond, Hooker pressed harder and his tongue came out to touch Henry’s mouth. Henry’s hands moved instinctively, burying in the golden locks he’d dreamed of caressing.

He met Hooker with a passion the man didn’t expect. He made a soft, startled noise, but Henry had never let an opportunity go to waste. Hooker was unbalanced and he spun them around and pressed Hooker against the wall without breaking the kiss.

His passion poured out of him like a broken dam. Henry kissed Hooker with everything he had; all his longing, lust and affection. Hooker took it. He cupped Henry’s cheeks with a touch that was part comforting and accepting. It was the sweetest benediction.

When Henry broke away, it was to suck in a rough breath. Hooker panted and Henry rested his forehead against the wall, his cheek barely grazing Hooker’s. Henry’s heart was in his throat. He felt torn between hope and fear.

“Johnny,” his voice was a wrecked rasp. “Don’t play me.”

“Henry,” Hooker replied softly. “I ain’t playing you.” Tender fingers slipped into his hair, stroking through the strands. “I’ve been chasing you.” He gave a soft, disbelieving chuckle. “You caught me in Chicago. Just didn’t think you wanted me.”

Henry lifted his head. He met Hooker’s eyes. They were filled with happiness and his smile was his wide-carefree kind. Hooker never brought that smile out with his marks or even the other grifters. It was only with Henry.

Johnny had been waiting for him all along.

Slowly, Henry smiled back and for the first time, he let it match Johnny's and reach all the way to his eyes.