A true story from the wild wild West
by Yves Jaques
"Tell ya what," Foraker says, already shifting gears, "Lets head up into the hills, visit a miner friend of mine."
And so were off again, down the state highway and up into the uninviting Arizona hills. The dirt road climbs and climbs, finally giving way to a plain hemmed by forbidding cliffs.
Like some lunar outpost, a fifth-wheel camper hunkers by the cliff walls, its aluminum sides pocked by the unceasing wind. The dusty plain is littered with the wreckage of decaying machinery. Rusted bulldozers, conveyor belts, huge gears all lay in random piles, their teeth and treads chunking into the earth.
We step out into the wind and survey the scene. The equipment is utterly forlorn, as if it long ago lost the reason for its existence. Foraker shakes his head, a Solomonic expression of probity stalking his face. My uncle begins to shoot photographs excitedly, pressing buttons and smiling in a childlike way.
"I want you to see what gold fever can do to a man," shouts Foraker over the wind. "It can be a terrible thing."
We walk over to the camper and Foraker knocks loudly. We stand around waiting. He knocks again. Finally a barefoot bleary-eyed man pushes open the door and greets us, his voice rough with disuse. He recognizes Foraker and closes the door. Foraker knocks some more, and we wait, and after a spell the door swings open another time, the man ushering us into the cramped quarters of the fifth-wheel.
Foraker asks him how the mining is going, and introduces us as his business partners in a refining venture. "Show us some samples," he says.
The man pulls a microscope off a shelf and grabs a box. It's full of pebble-sized ore shot through with metallic colors and crystalline formations. He selects one and puts it under the scope. After focusing the image, he slides it over to Foraker who peers into the barrel.
"Look at that," he says, passing it on to my Uncle, who presses an eye to the lens. "You see that whitish-silvery gleam off to the left?" I translate, and Foraker continues, "Thats platinum."
"Du platine?" my uncle says to me, grinning broadly.
Then the man brings us out an ice-cube tray, each mold containing a shiny bit of something. We pass it around mutely, like bushmen contemplating the mysterious products of the Industrial Age. "I do some assaying here in my trailer," he says, his gravelly voice melding with the battering wind. "All these metals come off this hill. If I just had the men and the money to keep drilling test holes...its a damn shame."
He shifts his gaze from the tray to the lunar plain, with its swirling dust and rotted machinery. Foraker gives him a long and penetrating stare, full of concern and understanding. And then he gets up to leave.
As we tread back down the road Foraker starts talking. "You see what I mean," he says. "What gold fever can do to a man. Lost his house, his wife, his children. Digging on his claim with no rhyme or reason, and no money to do it right. Crazy."
We all shake our heads in grave sympathy. Forakers meaning is clear; we are beyond this kind of thing. We are intelligent, rational men, engaging in a sound business enterprise.
As we head back down the Arizona highway I stare out at the tangleweeds and remember the long-distance call that brought me to this god-forsaken desert. It was from the guy sitting next to me, my favorite relative, Uncle Pierrot. What a shock it had been to hear his voice on the phone; my Swiss-French uncle, who lived with his family in a farmhouse on the steppes of the Alps. Through the satellite echo, he was chattering excitedly. He had a deal in the works. He was going to make it big. Real big. And moreover, it was all going to happen in Vegas.
With the short grift, the mark gets taken over a period of minutes, hours, or days. But with the long grift and its play-out of weeks or months, the development of a relationship between the mark and the con man is a requirement. A gradual escalation of warmth, a kind of business friendship based on mutual respect and need is the primary factor in the con man's success. There are various ways in which he can speed the cementing of this crucial bond of trust.
As Arthur Leff notes in Swindling and Selling, his erudite treatment of fraud as a dramatic form, "One of the most powerful selling techniques involves giving the customer a role...thereby hiding from him the fact that he never gets out of the audience."
A simple example of this psychology is the classic gold ingot con. A two actor, short grift, it was played to great success in the California and Alaska gold fields. A man comes into a mining boomtown posing as a sober businessman looking for investment opportunities. He nurses a drink each night in a miners bar, quickly earning a reputation for conservatism. One night, a man walks in looking to sell an ingot for a cut-rate price. The miners laugh, but the businessman looks interested.
This is the crucial point in the con. The miners warn the businessman that the ingot is assuredly lead with a thin gold coating, or gold mixed with a semi-precious metal - that these are common cons. By warning the businessman the miners have moved into the cast . They are now a part of the play.
The businessman is indignant, and buys the bar, saying he knows damn well a real gold bar from a fake gold bar. The seller hightails it out the door, just as the miners expect he would. The arguments continue, the businessman insisting on the ingot's purity. He starts taking bets. A quick trip to the assayers with a barroom full of miners in tow, and the businessman walks away with a stack of bills - the bar was pure gold, and the seller was the other actor in the two-party con.
What is interesting in this con is the way in which the audiences viewpoint is manipulated. Again, in Arthur Leffs words, "The general dramatic method employed by the con men, who after all, are writing the scripts, is perfectly lucid, and analytically transparent: the mark is moved in successive steps, from the audience of each particular playlet, into its cast."
The flight I took from my hometown of Denver was one of those hopping flights where the plane rests at a horizontal cruising altitude for all of fifteen minutes. The sense of dislocation was extreme. As my uncle and his business partner greeted me at the gate in Las Vegas my soul was still somewhere above the tarmac at Denver International. His business partner was the reason I'd came. He didn't speak French. My uncle didn't speak English. Just think of me as an interpreter.
Pierrot hugged me effusively, and we kissed the curious Swiss-French three-cheek kiss, right-left-right. That same crazy friendly smile I loved was there on Pierrots face, accentuated by his aging hangdog eyes. He looked in his casual suit like just one more starry-eyed gambler, waiting for the city to swallow him.
Pierrots Vegas business partner introduced himself as Billy Jerry Foraker. He gripped my hand with a practiced shake, the scent of musky cologne wafting up my arm. He looked like Jimmy the Greek. I didnt even know what Jimmy the Greek looked like, but he fit the mold of a polished, confident gambler. A portly, grinning man, his bulk rode easily on his large frame. His gray hair matched his reference-standard businessman suit, and following the prevailing fashion of Southwest business attire, he wore a pair of expensive lizardskin boots.
I had no checked baggage, and so we got out of the airport quickly and headed for the hotel. The Excalibur was where we'd be rooming. From the outside, it looked like any overgrown office building, but with banners and parapets tacked-on like after-market parts.
The front desk sat at one end of a vast gaming floor, packed with the fierce expressions of people winning and losing money. Though I'd often bet at the track, the scene at The Excalibur filled me with a presaging sense of dread and horror. I looked over at my uncle. He was grinning, obviously impressed with the place.
"Isnt this grand?" said Foraker, with an impresarios wave. "The biggest hotel and casino in the world. Have you ever seen anything like it?"
We get our keys and Foraker asked us if we wanted any help getting up to our rooms. I said no, a little too quickly. I needed to be alone with my uncle, take his temperature. So Foraker bade us good night. Hed be by in the morning to talk business.
When I got my Uncle into a room and we started talking, I could see that he was in deep. He had gold fever. For me this fever had always been an abstraction, something you read about in accounts of the Nineteenth-century gold rushes of California and Alaska; men hollow-eyed and half-starved, clenching nuggets of ore in their dirty teeth. I saw the same vacant, glittery look in my uncles eyes as he explained the scheme to me.
On the surface it sounded pretty good. Bill Foraker used to work for DuPont as a chemist. He'd left that position some years ago when he'd devised his own gold-extraction method. Using proprietary techniques he could profitably remove gold from ore that would otherwise have too low of a gold content to be commercially viable. The costs of extraction with this grade ore normally outweighed the value of the gold extracted. But Forakers revolutionary method reversed this assumption.
According to my Uncle, almost everything was in place. A source for the ore had been arranged in North Carolina; rock from a played-out river. Near the Nevada-Arizona border awaited a warehouse with a half set-up laboratory. All Foraker needed was more seed money to buy and ship the ore, and pick up a bit more equipment and chemicals.
Sounded pretty good in principle. I found myself almost convinced. "Why doesnt Foraker just patent and license his method?" I asked. "The royalties would be huge."
My uncle wagged a finger at me. "Its a matter of pride. He wants to do it himself. Take the glory. Not sit in the shadows."
Okay, fair enough. An iconoclast, a crazed inventor with a brilliant idea who was leery of sharing it with the world. I could buy that.
It was when my uncle kept going that my crap-detector went off another time. His eyes sparkling, Pierrot launched into the second half of his business partnership with Bill Foraker. According to Foraker there was in Singapore a warehouse full of gold, the property of Ferdinand Marcos, deceased former dictator of the Philippines. The ingots were larger than the current international standard, making them unmarketable. Foraker planned to buy this warehouse full of gold at a cut rate, melt it down, and re-cast it into proper-sized ingots. He claimed that the sale of these new ingots would earn them a profit of millions. He even had my uncle casting about the Geneva area for a suitable building in which to install a smelter.
I told my Uncle that I couldn't imagine a wrong-sized ingot making such a difference to the selling price of pure gold. But what did I know?
This launched him into a new topic for which I found myself completely unprepared. He began to speak of a Chinese woman named Suzy Wang. "Suzy Wang," I said, "Wasnt that the name of a character in some movie?" He ignored me, and started going into the details of how precious-metals brokers tack a fraction of a percentage point onto huge transactions, thus earning themselves large commissions. But these brokers were practically a cabal. Suzy Wang had been trying to enter their ranks.
It turned out shed been living with my uncle and his family, taking a corner of his office, and faxing around the world at a cost of over a thousand Swiss Francs a month. She planned to pay him back for his hospitality just as soon as she made her first deal. He'd apparently met her on one of his many road trips delivering furniture, his livelihood back in Switzerland. On the point of their first meeting he was vague, saying only that she'd needed an office from which to conduct business, and that as a Taiwanese national shed had some troubles with Swiss Immigration. Hed felt sorry for her, and had taken her in. Why was he mentioning her? She was the one who had introduced him to Foraker.
Seeing that Pierrot was intrigued with precious metals and the possibility they offered for large financial reward, Suzy had graciously invited Pierrot to a meeting with a gold refiner looking for venture capital. My Uncle had jumped on the opportunity, and within a week was meeting Foraker in a Geneva hotel suite, where he and three other men spent their days furiously faxing from laptops.
Pierrot told me that they'd gotten along famously, and following an afternoon of discussion he'd agreed in principle to invest $75,000 into Forakers revolutionary refining technique. My uncle, who is generally a sensible man, brought Foraker over to a geological institute to test his knowledge. Foraker discussed mining with a group of geologists for quite some time, and as my uncle said of the encounter, "He seemed to come out of it pretty well."
And yet, my uncle didnt like the idea of simply handing over the money. He and Foraker had talked it over, and it was agreed that Pierrot would fly to Las Vegas to visit the refinery.
King of the Grifters, Part 2: