Big Momma’s Last Hustle
Sitting in her Brooklyn kitchen, Big Momma roars into her phone, “I found our mark, ya maggot, and you’ll play the hustle my way!”
Claude just stepped off a flight from Paris and into a filthy cab at JFK, and Big Momma is already ripping out his tonsils.
Claude’s the front man in Big Momma’s scheme to swindle Ruth Rockford, a widowed art benefactor, out of millions. “Big Momma has flimflammed five big money rubes without a trace,” her collaborator back in Paris warned Claude. “She calls the tune. You dance to it.” And so it shall be. After all, Claude’s cut of this, his first big swindle, will be a cool million bucks.
Claude is the perfect grifter for Big Momma’s latest con. He works the black market, selling art the Nazis looted from Jews during World War II. But after a few close calls with the Police Nationale, he’s taken up conning rich old ladies as a second career.
He checks into a hotel on Lexington Avenue, near the Waldorf Astoria where Mrs. Rockford lives. After a light splash of cologne, Claude takes a taxi to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There, he’ll meet his mark at a Monet exhibit.
His target’s signature blue hair attracts him like a beacon. “Bonsoir, madame,” Claude oozes nasally. He bows to kiss Mrs. Rockford’s powdered wrist.
Ruth lets her hand linger. She’s a pushover for dashing European gentlemen, after all, and Claude is a tall, lean and impeccably groomed specimen of his Gallic race. “Ah, you must be Monsieur Chevalier, of the House of Chevalier,” Ruth flutters. “I received several letters from the Paris art community, all recommending you highly.”
“Indeed, Mrs. Rockford.”
“Call me Ruth,” she blushes.
Handing her a glass of champagne, Claude steals Ruth away for a whirlwind tour of Monet’s art. From the water lilies of Giverny to the spires of the Rouen cathedral, Claude modulates his voice in harmony with Monet’s use of light and dark. Of course, he boned up on Monet back in Paris. Every inflection of his voice entangles Ruth, his prey, more tightly in his net.
Ruth is smitten as a schoolgirl. “Did all these Monets fly over with you from the d’Orsay?” she titters.
As Claude curates the last painting, Ruth notices the time. “Oh dear, it’s late. After ten o’clock!” she says. “Where are you staying here in New York, Mr. Chevalier?”
“The Waldorf Astoria,” he fibs.
“Heavens! I reside at the Waldorf!”
“Well then, may I offer you a ride home, madame?”
Outside the museum, Ruth and Claude settle into the limo Big Momma has waiting on 5th Avenue.
“You may know, Mr. Chevalier, about the Art Restoration Trust my late husband endowed,” Ruth says during the ride. “ART restores the works of all the great European masters, of course. But I prefer the French Impressionists.”
“And who might your favorite Impressionist be, Ruth?”
“I positively adore Renoir.”
“As do I! We simply must explore Renoir’s work together!” Claude suggests. “Would you join me tomorrow, say at ten?”
“It will be my pleasure, Mr. Chevalier,” Ruth says, as the Waldorf valet opens the limo door.
The next morning at ten, the limo returns Ruth and Claude to the Met, this time to study Renoir. Ruth insists Dance at Le Moulin is Renoir’s masterpiece, Mr. Chevalier prefers The Boat Party. Their playful debate spills over to finger sandwiches at the Russian Tea Room.
On the following morning, the ever-present limo whisks them off to the Guggenheim. And the next day? Why not crepes and tea for breakfast, and then a lazy stroll over to the Museum of Modern Art?
“You make me feel so alive again, Mr. Chevalier,” Ruth confesses on the walk back to the hotel.
Claude caresses the palm of her hand. This sucker’s mine.
“Would you like to take tea with me upstairs when we get back, Mr. Chevalier?”
Yes, of course Mr. Chevalier would like to take tea, especially upstairs.
Up in her apartment, Mrs. Rockford showcases her Park Avenue view. “I find the skyline breathtaking from here,” she says.
But Claude offers no opinion of the skyline, breathtaking or otherwise. He’s casing the apartment instead.
Ruth orders room service, and then she brings Claude into the living room. “Our tea will be here soon, Mr. Chevalier,” she says. “Allow me a few moments to change and freshen up from our walk.” She goes into the bedroom and closes the door behind her.
Claude slinks over to the mahogany writing desk and powers up the laptop he spied while Ruth was ordering tea. He inserts a thumb drive into the USB port. The drive uploads the keystroke logging malware that Big Momma coded just for this con. Now, when the money action starts, Big Momma can remotely track every keyboard entry. He pockets the drive and powers down the laptop.
When Ruth returns from the bedroom, she joins Claude, who’s now enjoying the view. “I’m sorry to say it, Ruth, but I must leave for Paris tonight,” Claude says.
“Oh dear, and so suddenly! I knew the time would come, Mr. Chevalier. I’ve had a wonderful time with you these last few days.”
“As have I with you.” Claude takes Ruth by her two hands. “Ruth, The House of Chevalier is always looking for worthy causes in the arts. I spoke to the Chevalier family board on my phone. We’d like to donate $100,000 to your Art Restoration Trust as a small philanthropic gift. Consider it a down payment.”
“Oh my! Thank you, Mr. Chevalier. The art world needs more men like you.”
The tea’s arrival interrupts their tender moment. Ruth sets the tray in the kitchen and pours two cups of tea. “Shall we take care of your generous donation while we’re together, Mr. Chevalier? My computer is right over there.” She leads Claude to the mahogany desk and powers up her laptop.
Claude logs into his bank account. On the money transfer page, he enters ‘$100,000’ in the ‘Transfer Amount’ box. “Voila!” he says. “And now for you, madame.”
Ruth enters ART’s bank routing and account numbers in the ‘Destination’ boxes. Black dots hide every keystroke, but she appreciates Claude’s added gesture of privacy when he turns his head away. “Done,” Ruth says. She returns to the kitchen to sweeten her tea.
With the account credentials captured, Claude aborts the money transfer. The malware erases the record of his browser session in the hard drive, and then it self-deletes. As an added measure, he dribbles tea onto the laptop until it sparks and grinds to a halt. With her computer toasted, Ruth won’t see Big Momma sucking her account dry until it’s too late.
Claude takes his empty teacup to the kitchen. “Finis!”
“One hundred thousand dollars! I can’t thank you enough, Mr. Chevalier.”
“A mutual feeling, you can be sure.” His work done, Claude bows, and then he makes for the door.
“Will our paths cross again, Mr. Chevalier?”
“Oh, indeed they will.”
“Mr. Chevalier, you never told me your first name.”
“All in good time, madame,” Claude says, already halfway to the elevator.
As he parades victoriously out of the Waldorf, Claude replays the sting in his mind, and his pace slows. “No goddamn password,” he mutters.
When Claude arrives at his hotel, he calls Big Momma on a burner phone. Big Momma had Claude leave his own cell phone and computer behind in his Paris apartment, so no one could track him. “The hustle went down smooth as silk,” he says, “maybe too smooth.”
‘We’re not done yet, shithead.”
“Hey, there’s one detail I can’t figure out,” Claude says. “Your malware recorded the old bag’s account number. But Rockford never had to enter her password, because she was the destination for my bogus money transfer.”
“You’ll need her password to break into her account, that’s what.”
“I’ve got her password. It’s ‘Renoir2010.’”
“Yeah, I guess that makes sense. She had ‘Renoir2010’ taped to her keyboard,” Claude says. “But how would you know that? I suppose your magic malware read it somehow?”
“Don’t crack wise, smart ass. Let me do the thinking. Your job is to look pretty.”
“What do I do now?”
“Lay low for a few days until I call you. Go nowhere. Talk to no one. I’ll drain her account into yours. We’ll meet at your hotel to split up the take.”
Big Momma’s next call is to her collaborator in Paris. “Claude smells something rotten. He picked up on the password, and Ruth acted too much a pushover,” she says. “Figure out what to do with the punk if he asks any more questions. I need four days to pull this off.”
Back at the Waldorf, Ruth Birnbaum yanks off the scratchy, blue-haired wig she’s had to endure for days. “Good riddance, Ruth Rockford. Welcome back, Ruth Birnbaum.” In the bathroom, Birnbaum scrapes off the layers of actress makeup she kept after her off-Broadway role in Golden Girls. “Up yours, Chevalier!” Birnbaum vents, as she crams the dowdy ‘Mrs. Rockford’ wardrobe into an oversized suitcase. Wearing blue jeans and a tank top, she leaves the apartment for good.
At the front desk, Ruth pays her bill. It’s a hefty number, but a prudent investment for the Birnbaum family’s twenty million dollar cause.
Ruth takes a taxi to the Brooklyn apartment where she lives with Sarah, her eighteen-year-old baby sister. Inside, she parks her suitcase in the hallway and then struts triumphantly into the kitchen. “Yes, Big Momma! This con is your absolute masterpiece!” Ruth says to Sarah. Whooping in celebration, Ruth dances around the kitchen table, high-fiving Sarah on every turn.
Sarah sweeps her long, auburn hair over the back of her wheelchair. “Call me Sarah at home, please, not Big Momma,” she says. “And besides, we still have to skin what we bagged.”
At the kitchen counter, Sarah spreads peanut butter on bread, while Ruth contritely pours milk. “Time matters here, Ruth,” Sarah instructs her elder sister. “Let’s eat while we work.” She wheels back to her computer at the kitchen table.
“See right there, Ruth? It’s the account number and password Claude keystroked for us at the Waldorf.” Sarah opens an untraceable Tor browser and clicks her way to Claude’s Swiss bank. Using the credentials she filched, Sarah breaks into his account. “Jackpot!”
Ruth watches the master skin her prey. “Wow! The prick has nearly five million dirty dollars sitting in there. I guess black marketers move a lot of cash around.”
“Yeah, and that’s why they find banks with high transfer limits,” Sarah says. “Now watch me devour the scum with his own greed.” From Claude’s account, she requests four interbank money transfers of $1,000,000 — his daily limit — into the ART account. The large transfers trigger the Swiss bank’s second-level security protocol. For verification, the bank sends Claude four unique codes via text message.
Back in Paris, Big Momma’s collaborator reads the four codes on the phone he lifted from Claude’s apartment. He emails the codes to Sarah back in Brooklyn, and she verifies the withdrawals.
“Now we wait four days for the money transfers to clean ‘im out.” To keep Claude in the dark if he gets curious, Sarah changes his challenge questions, contact info, and password. She decides on the password her collaborator always suggests: ‘BigMomma.’
Sarah’s Paris collaborator is her brother Benjamin, a legitimate art dealer. When he learned Claude was a trafficker of stolen art, Ben collared him for a Birnbaum shakedown. To hook Claude, Ben staged two phony stings in Paris that put some short money in Claude’s pocket and gained his trust. Ben’s setup work is about to pay off — if the Birnbaums can keep Claude in the dark for four more days.
After three days in boxer shorts, eating cold delivery pizza, Claude’s on edge in his hotel room. “This scam doesn’t add up,” Claude persuades himself in the mirror. “How’d Big Momma know the old coot’s password? And when the hell is Big Momma gonna call?” He sails a pizza box into the desk lamp. “We should be slicing up the goddamn pie by now!”
“Lay low, my ass!” Claude finally decides. He cleans himself up, pulls on his ‘Mr. Chevalier’ suit, and then hotfoots it over to the Waldorf. He rides the elevator up to Mrs. Rockford’s apartment and pounds his fist on the door. No one responds. Back down at the front desk, Claude huffs, “Take a message for Ruth Rockford. She lives in your apartment tower.”
“I’m sorry sir, but there is no one in residence here by that name.”
“Then who the hell’s been staying in suite 1943?”
“I’m very sorry sir, but we cannot divulge the names of our guests.”
Claude makes a beeline for the business center and powers up a computer. He tries to log into his bank account but finds his password is invalid. “Motherless Swiss bankers!” He slams the keyboard when the system locks him out.
He dials Big Momma to press for answers. “The nasty bitch answers every call!” Not this call. The nasty one ran out the minutes on her pre-paid burner phone.
Claude does reach his man in Paris, now his life support, and details his blitz through the Waldorf. “Something’s wrong, but I don’t know what,” he stammers.
“Let me make a few calls and see what I can find out, my friend. Stay right there.”
Ben video calls Sarah, who’s alone in her kitchen. “Our chump’s flailing around at the Waldorf. He’s looking for Rockford and asking the wrong questions,” Ben says.
“Oh Jesus, no! I haven’t finished him off yet!” Sarah says. “Get ‘im back to his hotel until the last million clears into our account.”
“No, that won’t work. He’s getting wise to us.”
“Then figure out some other way to ice the shit bag, before he shuts us down! I need more time, Ben.”
Ten minutes later, Ben calls Claude back. “Hello, Claude? I just learned you’re a person of interest with the FBI. That’s behind it all, I’m sure.”
“What the hell do they want?”
“They have questions about that last Cezanne you moved in New York.”
“Oh shit, I knew it! That deal didn’t feel right.” Claude’s eyes get big. “What do I do now?”
“You don’t have much time. I just booked you a flight on the redeye back to de Gaulle. It departs in two hours. Leave now.”
“Leave now? The old broad’s vanished! Big Momma’s gone radio silent! And someone might have their grimy fingers in my bank account! I’m calling Switzerland first to see if I should freeze it.”
“And then how would Big Momma shovel all that Rockford cash into your account? The last grifter who shut down a Big Momma con went swimming in Long Island Sound with cement shoes.”
Claude surveys his feet. “Fine, I’ll keep it open. But she’s pouring the entire take into my account. I need to stick around and split it up with Big Momma!”
“If the FBI nabs your ass in New York, they’ll order an immediate injunction on every cent going into that shady bank of yours. Big Momma would get nothing, and then she’d be really pissed off.”
“So how do I crawl out from under this dung heap?”
“It’s simple. Check out of your hotel and scram New York now. Settle up with Big Momma later. Keep in mind, my friend, her long arms reach all the way to Paris.”
Claude bolts out of the Waldorf. He recoils when a police siren wails, and then he ducks into a yellow cab. “Lexington at 48th,” Claude gasps, “and then JFK. Go!”
Ben video calls Sarah again. “I just chased Claude out of New York.”
“Talk to me. We’re playing with a million bucks here.”
“I bull-rushed him onto the Paris redeye. His flight goes through London tomorrow, too, with a long layover.”
”I see.” Sarah thinks it over. “Yeah, that’ll keep ‘im in the dark! The dog can’t sniff around New York anymore. And when he finally gets to Paris, he won’t figure us out until he can pry open his bank account.”
“To slow that down, I clipped his computer when I took his phone.”
“All around, Claude stays open for business as long as I need,” Sarah says.
“What if he sings once he gets wise?”
“A pirate never squawks about his missing plunder. Besides, I left him a balance he wouldn’t want to lose. That’ll keep him real quiet.”
“And what about our balance?”
“Let’s have a look.” Sarah checks the ART account on her computer. “Yup, courtesy of your fast thinking, brother, Claude’s last transfer will put the fund over twenty million. Way to go, Ben! It’s time for ART to buy some paintings.”
Sarah formed ART to honor her parents who, ten years ago, were killed in Paris while chasing two Renoirs. The paintings belonged to Sarah’s grandfather until the Nazis looted them during World War II. Now, with $20,000,000, Sarah wants ART to help buy previously looted paintings — and return them to their rightful owners.
“I’ll keep hunting for our grandfather’s Renoirs,” Ben says.
“Be careful Ben, but look hard. Last night, I dreamed about a Renoir donation ceremony at the Musée d’Orsay.”
“Then you must be ready for our next con, Big Momma!” Ben says. “I collared another rotten stooge.”
“Not me. Claude is Big Momma’s last hustle.”
“We set a goal of twenty million, remember? It’s time I go away to college.”
Last year, Sarah deferred her admission to Cornell University and launched a gap year project. That’s when she gave rise to ART and her redemptive alter ego, Big Momma. Despite its rather unorthodox funding scheme, Ruth and Benjamin realized her ART venture was the spark Sarah needed: the ninety-pound dynamo’s drive had lain dormant since her accident on the balance beam nine years ago.
Wearing the blue wig, Ruth prances out of her bedroom. She steeps tea and serves it to Sarah. “Shall we take tea in the kitchen, Monsieur Chevalier?” Ruth mugs.
Sarah flairs the wide smile that went missing so long ago. “Madame, you can return that blue hair to your theatre,” she says. “I’m a rising college freshman now.”
“Sounds like Big Momma has retired from the international con game,” Ben says. “But is it for good this time?”
“Yes, yes, it’s really for good.” Sarah takes a sip of tea. “But set up that next stooge anyway, Ben,” she says. “Just in case I change my mind.”