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Friday, July 14, 2006


I’d seen fighting cocks rip each other to shreds in Manila. Drank the blood of a cobra in Patpong. Fended off ferocious frauleins in St Pauli. I’d seen some of the best gypmeisting there ever was.

I really thought I was something.

But these crooks. Their variant of the shell game. They were pretty damn good. They looked like fellow compatriots. Folks from Romeville to be exact, across the big puddle. Americans.

It all happened on the Ramblas. In front of the Champions grocery store.

I couldn’t figure out what the hell the gypmeister was saying.

Einzweidrei … weeeesvall?

He was a swart individual with a greased back hairdoo. About my height, half my width. Silver lycra sport jersey clung to him like cellophane.

A square red mat, frayed at the edges. Three little white cups. The kind you get with your machine-made coffee. And a small foam ball.

The operator laid a cup over the foam ball and began shuffling. His two mitts a blur. Concentric circles. Figure eights. Retraced the figure eight. Switched.

I followed the cup with the ball easily. A lot of superfluous moves. To trained eyes the con is obvious. Don’t follow the fancy shapes.

So I saw some shmuck place a bet. He was the typical tourist. Or so I thought. Yellow T-shirt with I ♥ California printed on it. Blue jeans. Fanny pack. White Reeboks. He went:

“How much?”

Of course, another American. I looked around me and there were at least four more of them. American tourists, I mean. I thought, their tour bus must have dropped ‘em off for a nice stroll down scam central. The Ramblas, that is.

“Tventee,” said the shuffler.

The tourist unzipped his fannypack. From a money clip he peeled off twenty pavos. Handed the bill over and the shuffler placed it on the mat.

The shuffler did his magic on the cups. Swiping circles, switching cups, back again… I could easily follow this clown.

Einzweidrei … weeesvall?

I edged in. For a better look. The guiri pointed to the cup on the right. So obvious. A brat could do this. For that matter, a monkey! If this tenderfoot tourist could do it, so could I!

I couldn’t help it. I laughed out loud.

The shuffler lifted the cup on the right. Sure enough, the ball was there. The shuffler handed over the tourist's twenty euros plus another twenty on top of that.

I stepped in.

“All right. How much?”

I figured I could use some extra scratch.

He said twenty. From my wallet I pulled out two tens. Like before, the shuffler placed the bills on the mat. The crowd was getting dense. Habia murmullo. He started shuffling.

I crouched down, closer to the mat. He slightly tipped one of the cups and I saw, in a flash, his middle finger dart under the cup. So, the gypmeister was trying to palm it. I didn’t realize it was a lose-lose kind of game. Heads he wins, tails I lose.

I grabbed his clammy wrist and wrenched it. The little foam ball bounced on the red mat.

The guy with the I ♥ California t-shirt bleated something. Only it wasn’t English. It was slavic sounding.

I realized then. The cup shuffler had some shills in on the con. Dressed American-tourist-style to reel in the genuine guiris.

I twisted the his wrist even more. His eyes got watery, bloodshot. I picked up his little foam ball.

“The breakfast of gypmeisters!

He was about to say something and I flicked the ball past his gold-capped teeth.

“Eat it!”

His fake American buddies-cum-shills scattered like spilled marbles. I roared:

“I’ve seen faster fingers than yours on a Todo a Cien cashier!”

His eyeballs were practically popping out. He swallowed the foam ball. Dry.

“You can tell your fake American ringers to go back to charm school. Now get out of here before I start shuffling your brains!”

He scurried off, direction Plaça Catalunya. I swiped my bills and pocketed them.

I heard a smattering of applause. General jubilation. Then I noticed a crowd of guiris and kids around me. Camcorders poised. Flash flash flash went their digital cameras.

A little girl in a pink summer dress minced towards me. Shy like. One of the gypmeister’s plastic cups was near my left foot. The little girl turned it upright. Put five euros in it. Someone in the crowd cried, “Bravo! Bravo!” Another lady took a fistful of change from her purse. Placed that on top of the fiver …

It was nice. The adulation. The tips. I genuflected. Tipped my hat.

They must have appreciated my expertise. A world class sleuth.

In all, I made about thirty-eight euros. I celebrated with a box of puros. Farias, to be exact. And a couple bottles of Mascaró. Ammunition. Kovaks’ style.