The action begins in New York City with Peter Moldavyanni honing an exit strategy from his identity as “Marty Rosenblatt,” a personal assistant and lover to high-profile lawyer/philanthropist Hiram Feinstein. Peter has no sooner completed the illegal transfer of $440,000 of Hiram’s funds to secret offshore accounts when Hiram returns from London. He discovers the shocking fact that Peter has charged thousands on a credit card in Hiram’s name. Peter escapes to locate a new victim…
Main character Justin Walters is a graphic designer/painter living in the artistic community of New Hope, Pennsylvania. A typical creative personality, Justin is easily influenced, financially naïve, and tends to go into denial in the face of impending trouble. A designer of corporate trade show graphics and painter of popular male nudes, he finds himself needing some help to pay the rent and other expenses. He advertises online for a roommate and Peter, using his new identity as “Russ Peterson,” answers the ad. He tells Justin he is a magazine writer and broker for the sale of large coin collections. Russ quickly wins Justin’s confidence. Justin’s older lover Robert, a highly educated New York psychologist and TV producer, urges Justin to do a background check. Justin ignores the advice.
One day, Justin goes into Russ’s room to deliver a phone message from a guy named Whipper, and upon entering he discovers Russ with a huge amount of cash on his bed. Russ convinces Justin he has just sold a large coin collection and was paid in cash. He cons Justin into hiding the cash temporarily, but the arrangement continues for months. Justin is afraid to tell Robert, and also finds himself trying to resist Russ’s physical advances.
Although Robert suspects something is not quite right about Russ, when Russ offers to take care of both Justin’s and Robert’s cats while they’re away on a gay cruise to Alaska, they accede to the idea and have keys to both residences made for Russ. Robert and Justin proceed to make cruise excursion plans with their Long Island friends David, an actor, and Carl, a queen.
Russ admires Justin’s talent for graphic design, remarking that he would make a great forger. Justin rejects Russ’s suggestion that they become “partners,” but Russ tricks him into a sexual encounter that far exceeds Justin’s tolerance. Justin climaxes after an unexpected spanking and runs from the room, horrified that he has been unfaithful to Robert. He avoids a repeat encounter, but Russ now holds something over Justin’s head, and is as excited about the psychological control as the sex.
We come to know Russ as a brilliant con artist who employs mind games to control and manipulate his victims. He prefers a personal brand of identity game-play, and chooses gay, often wealthy victims he can easily conquer in bed while stealing their assets. He also employs such anonymous identity theft methods as Internet phishing and pharming scams and hotel key and credit card skimming. We learn that, for Russ, there is a strange and thrilling parallel between the control he gains over individual victims and the bedroom mind games. To Russ, all identity games are all about mind control.
Justin begins having hideously surreal nightmares, dreams rife with symbolism about the hidden cash and his sexual encounter with Russ. The dreams interfere with his creative work.
One evening while out to dinner with Robert and Justin, Russ helps Robert with his online Fidelity investment account. The restaurant’s piano player recognizes Russ, but addresses him as “Marty” and recalls a New York charitable event of Hiram’s at which he’d performed, but Russ manages to wiggle out of being discovered and discredited.
A new character is introduced when Justin runs into the elderly, and comically exasperating, neighborhood busybody Mrs. Berkenstein—an old lady with a fondness for the gay boys in the neighborhood—who fires a series of embarrassing questions at Justin about Russ, assuming they are involved in an affair.
Events take a sinister turn when the astonished Justin discovers a gun in Russ’s glove compartment. He confronts Russ about it but Russ defends his right to carry a weapon for protection. An argument ensues in which Justin voices concerns about the hidden money and various trust issues. Russ surprises Justin by removing the money from its hiding place in his studio. Trust restored, Justin and Robert accept Russ’s offer of a lift to the airport for their cruise.
On the plane to Seattle, Justin finally reveals the hidden cash story to Robert. Robert does a background check, but is unable to find anything on a “Russ Peterson.” When they arrive at the cruise ship terminal, they discover to their dismay that Justin has somehow lost their tickets and passports. Denied embarkation, they must return to New Hope, their much-anticipated vacation ruined.
Back home, Justin and Robert discover Russ has left the cats outside, although with food and water, and they find a cryptic note that initially leads Robert to suspect Russ has moved out. but his computer and clothes are still in his room. Surely he will return.
Justin gets a call from NYPD Detective Graziano, inquiring about someone named “Peter,” but Justin is still somewhat in denial. When Graziano presents irrefutable proof that Justin is in fact sharing his home with a dangerous identity thief, and reveals Russ/Peter’s scheming methods, Justin agrees to assist the police.
Graziano arranges for a routine walk-through of Justin’s townhouse by local police, who quickly turn it into a full-scale raid, with hostilities flaring and homophobia showing its ugly head. A furious Justin confronts Graziano about this outrage, but is placated by Graziano’s sincere apologies. The detective needs Justin and he knows it: He asks him to look into Russ/Peter’s e-mails in an attempt to learn his travel plans. Coincidentally, Carl and David call from Alaska to let Robert and Justin know that their cabin was given to a standby couple.
To make matters even worse, an upset “Mrs. B.” peppers Justin with questions about the raid, presuming the worst. She reveals that, while “bird watching” through her binoculars, she couldn’t help seeing disgusting photos of men on Peter’s computer.
Justin’s detective work for Graziano yields some interesting results: Snooping through Peter’s computer files, he discovers spanking photos of Peter (Internet alias “Whack-Whack”) and folders full of personal identity information—addresses, Social Security numbers, credit card data, even passwords—for dozens of Peter’s victims. Justin even discovers folders on himself and Robert and a strange file oddly-named “Skimmed” that’s filled with data taken from the magnetic strips on dozens of credit cards and hotel room keys. Justin discovers to his dismay that Peter used a key-logger program to record the Fidelity transaction that he supposedly “helped” Robert with. It even recorded Robert’s passwords.
At around the same time that Justin has received a bill for a credit card he never signed up for, Graziano calls to report that Peter charged dozens of purchases in New Hope throughout the summer using Hiram’s cards. He also tells Justin that Hiram has gone missing and hasn’t been seen in New York for several weeks. “Graz” and Justin devise a way to trap Peter when he returns.
Based on an e-mail from “Whack-Whack” to “Whipper” that Justin reads on Peter’s computer, he deduces that the “standby couple” using his and Robert’s Alaska cruise tickets and passports is none other than Peter and a “friend.”
Back in Manhattan, Hiram’s dead body—naked and strung up in a bizarre leather bondage outfit—is discovered by Graz and the case officially becomes a homicide investigation. Justin, totally panicked by this latest news, suggests enlisting his vacationing friends to confirm that Peter is aboard the cruise ship, but Graz warns him against it. Ignoring Graz’s order, Justin calls David and Carl who are sure they can be so helpful! Unfortunately, Peter overhears David and Carl’s plan to trap and subdue him and devises a plan of his own that consists of just the kind of mind game he loves.
Following a bitter fight between Justin and Robert over the danger Robert says Justin has placed them in, a very depressed Justin contemplates suicide.
Lt. Smythe comes to the townhouse to collect evidence from Peter’s computer. Justin tries to reach David and Carl by phone, but a Pacific storm has interrupted satellite phone transmissions. The genie is out of the bottle, and Peter realizes his ship ID with Justin’s name and Peter’s photo will no longer work. As the SS Oosterdam cruises Glacier Bay, Peter disguises himself as a crew member, using a stolen uniform and altered employee ID, easily passing through ship security.
Hiking up Ketchikan’s Deer Mountain with David and Carl, Peter foils their plan to drug him using the classic beverage switch. While resting at a scenic overlook, he substitutes their drink for an overdose mixture of Viagra and Ecstasy, or Sextacy, with a tragicomic outcome. As a result of an ensuing fight, David tumbles over the edge of the overlook and Carl fears he is dead. In a panic, he flees as Peter escapes along the Alaskan highway. Graz tells Justin of Peter’s getaway, exploding in anger at him for his interference. The search for Peter is confounded by his clever use of aliases and prior victims’ credit cards to make dozens of fake travel reservations. Law enforcement is now trying to track him to dozens of international airports.
Graz has Justin persuade Carl to return home without David. Carl blames Justin for what happened in Alaska and, after a terrible fight, throws Justin out.
Back on Deer Mountain, David regains consciousness after his fall and, struggling through fog and rain, takes refuge in a remote shack. The drug cocktail Peter gave him has affected a pre-existing heart condition and he temporarily lapses into unconsciousness. Will he make it?
Peter rendezvous with longtime pal Lefty, a gnarly renegade floatplane pilot. Lefty flies Peter over the Canadian Rockies to a remote gorge, where he provides him with contacts for the purchase of a gun and tells him where he can safely hide out near Banff, Alberta.
On Long Island, Carl awakes to a noise in the dark and attacks what appears to be an intruder breaking into his home, but it’s only David who has returned home minus his keys. Carl, overjoyed that David is alive listens as David relates how he survived. He fears he’ll be arrested for drugging and assaulting Peter, breaking into a house, and stealing clothes.
Justin and Robert have what seems like an irreconcilable confrontation. Justin is severely depressed that he has lost not only Robert, but also his two best friends, and placed them all in danger from Peter’s escapades.
A package from Peter arrives at Justin’s; it contains Justin’s card laminator, $100,000 in Treasury bonds, the title to his car, $2500 in cash, and a note telling Justin he can find more cash in the car, which is parked near the Trenton, New Jersey, train station.
Justin calls Robert to enlist his help in finding the car; there could be as much as $240,000 in it, money that the police have no idea exists. Has fate delivered a freebie? After searching all night, they locate the car in back of an abandoned store. Although the car has been vandalized, they are amazed to find the cash still tucked into the spare tire case.
Graz and Lieutenant Smythe arrive at Justin’s the next morning with stunning news: Peter has been found dead in a ski lodge near Banff. Even more alarming, Justin is implicated in his death because empty prescription bottles stolen from him were found by the body. The medical examiner is able to clear Justin because the cause of death was an aneurism.
Graz suspects something amiss and he and Smythe go searching for Peter’s Austin Healey. Justin can’t handle the pressure, and Robert refuses to participate any longer because of the risk to his reputation. He breaks up with Justin and returns to New York. David and Carl confront Justin and sever their friendship.
After locating the wrecked car, Graz returns, and, seeing the empty Austin Healey tire case at Justin’s, suspects him of collaborating with Peter. Smythe returns with a warrant to search Justin’s town house, but by now Justin has hidden the money in a vent in his studio. He entices Smythe with sexual innuendos and Smythe, distracted, doesn’t discover the cash.
Graz orders 24/7 surveillance of Justin’s house. New bills arrive in the mail for purchases made on credit cards illegally taken out in Justin and Robert’s names. Does Peter have a surviving accomplice? Justin’s whole world seems to be falling apart. He calls drag queen/drug dealer Candy to obtain drugs for his suicide. Candy tempts him with one last fling in bed before ending his life. Justin, feeling utterly depressed, angry, and abandoned, accepts Candy’s offer. After writing a suicide note to Robert, he goes to meet Candy.
Robert has second thoughts about dropping Justin, but Justin isn’t answering his phone. Robert drives to New Hope with a proposal to combine their assets and enter into a civil union, with a single caveat: Justin must turn the money over to the authorities. He arrives to find the house empty and trashed from the police search. He awaits Justin’s return.
Justin and Candy get high and drunk and have a sexual fling. Candy tries dissuading Justin from his suicide plan, but he is resolute. He wanders outside alone and, in a drugged stupor, teeters and falls into the canal.
David and Carl, having also reconsidered, try to call Justin on his cell phone, but a stranger picks up. He identifies himself as a passerby who has just pulled a nearly drowned Justin from the canal. David and Carl reach Robert and they all rush to meet the ambulance at the hospital.
In the emergency room, Justin has a hallucination involving horrible images of Peter, the money, the car, and the police. He survives the near-drowning and his friends gather around him to help nurse him back to health. Graz also visits, and Justin is afraid to ask what happened to the money but, with Peter dead, Graz seems to ready to give up the search and, due to a lack of evidence, cannot file charges against Justin.
When Justin returns home, he discovers the money has been removed from its hiding place in the vent in his studio. Who could have taken it? Smythe? Graz? Did Peter have an accomplice who returned for it? Robert takes Justin to his favorite spot in the New Hope woods and proposes marriage. Justin immediately accepts. His beloved cats have accompanied them, and one of them digs at something in the ground, uncovering a corner of the buried canvas moneybag. Robert confesses that he hid the money in the woods to protect Justin from arrest. Realizing the police have no idea the money exists, they re-bury it, and plan to donate all of it to charity. A happy ending seems to be unfolding but...
Weeks later, an incredulous Justin finds a very much alive Peter waiting for him in the house after eluding capture by paying off the medical examiner and faking his own death. Peter lays out his plan to blackmail Justin with a story that implicates him as his accomplice from the beginning: After all, Justin did help him hide the money. He also left his prints on the gun and the wrecked car. And didn’t Graz nearly discover Justin’s “complicity” when he found the empty tire case? Justin realizes Robert will never admit to hiding the money to protect him after he discovers Robert has left him. By far the worst piece of incriminating evidence, at least to Justin personally, is a video with Justin enjoying the spanking from Peter.
Justin’s choices are grim: Certain incarceration for abetting Peter’s crimes or freedom as Peter’s partner, a scenario that would have Justin providing expert graphic design for forgery and Peter carrying out the Internet fraud and banking crimes. After Peter shows Justin a letter he sent with the video to Graz and Robert, Justin is trapped. He has no choice but to join Peter in his escape to Venezuela, a safe haven with no extradition laws. His dream of an idyllic life with Robert seems over. Justin makes a daring break for the door to escape, and there is a scuffle between Justin and Peter, who is wounded as the police arrive at the last minute. Both Officer Smythe and Justin lay wounded on the floor as Peter escapes into the woods, but Justin is saved from abduction and a life of crime as Peter’s unwilling partner. The story ends poised for a sequel. Will Robert ever forgive him?
* * * * *
EPILOGUE: The true story behind Identity Games. In 1994, the author actually experienced similar dangers from an identity thief roommate and worked with an NYPD detective to capture him before he died a fugitive in a Tucson hotel. Although the identity theft methods are updated for the novel, a number of scenes are based on the author’s actual experiences: A roommate named “Gary,” the cash, the police raid, the car and the search for it in Trenton, Gary’s death in Tucson, and other scenes were converted from reality into fiction. Whack-Whack and Whipper were actually their online names, and there was no need to change them into fiction. Justin is, of course, a much younger and better-looking version of the author.
Jack Bell Stewart