Monday, October 26, 2020

When Does a Gambler Stop? by Gary Ives

A harmless prank on a work colleague sets inveterate gambler Ray Carter on a rewarding path of criminality; by Gary Ives.

Luck, like the weather, always changes. It's inevitable, a fact. Ask any gambler. Me for instance. Much of this story is true, however names and places are changed as well as descriptions of various documents. You'll see why.

It started six years ago as a prank. Quite harmless in intent. Yancy Oats, supervisor in accounting, was retiring after 34 years of service with the super large company which will remain unnamed. Yancy, universally liked, was an ace accountant and manager with a kind heart and a sense of humor, unusual among generally dour accounting professionals. The company's retirement gift was a Mediterranean cruise for Yancy and his wife Roberta. Our department chipped in on a flat screen television, while in Ads and Graphics, my section of draftsmen decided to add a gag gift. You see, Yancy is a huge fan of old westerns, especially those of his favorite childhood star, Roy Rogers. To many of the department's under-thirties Roy Rogers and the whole genre of western movies and tv shows are as unfamiliar as rotary dial telephones and milkmen. However, it became kind of a joke for someone to purposefully distract Yancy by asking a preposterous question about Roy or an old western movie They would catch him in the break room topping off his Roy Rogers coffee mug.

"Hey Yancy, is it true that Roy's sidekick, Gabby Hayes, was really his dad, or was he Dale Evans' dad?"

"Oh no, no, no." He'd throw his head back and launch into a biography of George Francis (Gabby) Hayes or whatever nonsense had been addressed, and his knowledge of anything associated with Roy was wide and deep.

So, when I read of the auction of many Roy Rogers artifacts subsequent to the closing of the Roy Rogers Museum, the idea came to me. That auction proved, if anything, that there were other serious fans who undoubtedly loved Roy. Fans with very deep pockets.

Roy's 1964 Bonneville went for over a quarter of a million dollars. His horse Trigger's saddle and bridle fetched just under $400,000, and Trigger (stuffed) over another quarter million. Some of Roy's shirts were sold for $16,000 apiece. His Bible, boots, hats, guitars all went for big bucks. Yep, there were real serious Roy Rogers fans out there.

The same morning I read about this auction, my wife asked me to pick up a new spatula at the store. So later I gift-wrapped our old spatula, with its bent metal blade and scorched wooden handle with peeling red paint. After a couple of hours on the internet I gleaned enough information to doctor up a Certificate of Authenticity signed by a bogus museum curator and a bogus authenticator working for a bogus auction firm. This retirement gift, as intended, evoked a jolly round of laughter at Yancy's retirement party. But to Yancy, this landed close to the heart; this was something special. A few beers later, he came to our table full of thanks for the spatula. "To think, this is the very thing Dale Evans used to turn Roy Roger's eggs, to flip The King of the Cowboys' pancakes and hamburgers! Thank you fellas, I mean it. This is going on the fireplace mantel with the framed Certificate of Authenticity." Was that a tear?

Many moons later I guess the success of this practical joke misled me, or maybe it was the divorce which wiped out house, savings, or maybe the gambling debt I'd run up trying to recoup losses. "A combination of all these things," my lawyer explained to the jury during the closing argument of my trial. Later, at my sentencing hearing, he pitched the fact that at seven years old my parents had dropped me off at a truck stop on Highway 90, abandoning me to be raised in a series of shitty foster homes.

My name is Ray Carter. I'm 34 years old and stand 5'5" tall. For a long time, I was fat, but no longer. I am a compulsive gambler. A lot of gamblers are short shits. I think it's a way for us to appear bigger. Seems like at a high stakes table there's often some guy called Shorty. My gambling fucked up a beautiful marriage to a wonderful, loving woman. After the divorce, brought on by my habit, my life took a crap. Because I could not control my impulse to gamble I lost everything: Peggy, my good wife of 10 years whom I dearly love, my Ford 150, and the dwindling savings I had left. How many times had I promised Peggy, "No more, I'll quit gambling for good this time?" Week after week our bills fell further and further behind while I waited to hit the big ticket. It all came to a head when the power company cut our electricity. That was the last straw. Peggy had had enough of fighting my demons, and I cannot blame her for leaving. It was all my fault. You see, sports betting had me by the throat. Every payday found me pissing away my check and my future on hundred-dollar bets. A psychologist told me that all addicts subconsciously wanted to be hurt and would never feel free until they've hit rock bottom and begun the climb upward. I told her I was no addict; I was a gambler. She chuckled and said, "Oh yeah?" She also said that my gambling addiction could be a reaction to an inner rage for having been raised by wolves. Growing up without a mom or dad can be a mind-fuck, but that's a lame excuse. My problem was self-discipline.

For extra income I took on the management of an AirBnB, not as easy as you may think. Goodbye free time. The divorce had been an awakening to the absolute fact that I had to stop gambling. So, I began attending Gamblers Anon once a week at Fellowship Hall in the basement of the Methodist church.

One weekend the AirBnB hosted a friendly antique dealer in the city for an antiquarian dealers' convention. Over beers late one night the Roy Rogers spatula prank came up in conversation, and he revealed that there actually was an ongoing well-developed underground of phony antiques, relics, documents, maps and especially letters market.

"Seems like a niche market has developed for any halfway decent forged letter from some long dead luminary. This phony shit is fetching real money on this ugly black market," he said. "Just last year a buyer in Japan paid upwards of $120,000 for a forged Abraham Lincoln note to a pharmacist requesting Blue Ointment, a laxative."

"That's amazing!"

The dealer continued, "And in truth the forgery wasn't even credible. See, the forger pumps the value by telling the prospective buyer a bogus history, say, that originally the note may have been sold from a private collection or small library. This scammer told the Japanese collector that the note had been through three owners and that each sale had been authenticated." I told the dealer I was a writer and was thinking about a magazine article on this subject. Later the antique dealer sent me some back issues of the dealers' trade journal in which other scams were detailed.

See where this is going? I was fascinated; I read everything I could on the subject of forged collectibles. I studied listings for documents and letters offered by the big auction houses. and I quizzed antique dealers and pawn brokers in the city on how to spot a phony product.

After four months attending Gamblers Anonymous meetings I had made real progress. It was working, at last I had a handle on this: no sports betting, no video poker, not a single lottery ticket purchase. I felt better about myself and believed my luck had finally changed. After all, I was overcoming a powerful addiction. I could and would get back on my feet. I calculated that a hundred grand would set me straight, and I knew a shortcut. Once on my feet, perhaps Peggy and I could reconcile. I missed her terribly and wanted her back more than anything in the world, but I knew I had to regain my self and financial solvency for that to happen. I was willing to take a risk.

By now I had a good feel for how the system worked and a sense of value. Through the Washington and Lee University I explored over a hundred Robert E. Lee documents. I practiced the general's precise elegant handwriting and nineteenth century flowery etiquette. At a used bookstore I bought obscure 19th century texts with blank pages for fly sheets and notes for authentic old paper stock. In high school I had become an excellent calligrapher in my drafting class. My entry at the state fair won a blue ribbon and a professional calligrapher pen set. Since then I've used every kind of nib from wide brush watercolor points to tiny crow quills. I had the skill to duplicate any signature. In my community college drafting class, I reproduced an exact copy of the preamble to the Declaration of Independence. I had the skill and now I had the determination. I penned the following short note from General Robert E. Lee to Mr. Asa Pembroke, Manager, Hotel Richmond.

Washington University
Lexington

11 December 1867 

Dear Mr. Pembroke,

I thank you for the return of my hat purloined the night I lodged at your establishment. You, sir, are complimented on your honesty. You are correct to have discharged the thief.

R. E. Lee

I decided to float the Robert E. Lee note as a trial balloon. A post office box, a short, classified ad in a collector's magazine, and an exchange of letters with photos quickly yielded an astounding $6,500.

The thrill of this success led me on. Rather than one big score, perhaps just few of these short notes would be more practical and less likely to attract unwanted attention. Just a few and my life would be out of debt and back on track and closer to Peggy. The buyer of the Lee note, owner of a chain of men's clothing, wrote requesting to be notified of any future civil war era artifacts. It turned out there was a large market for 19th Century stuff.

So followed the Jefferson Davis note complaining about a bad barrel of pickled pork, a bill of sale for four mules to J. E. B. Stuart, an IOU for $3.00 signed by Stephen Foster, and the receipt for two boxes of carbolic soap signed by Clara Barton.

Yes, the money rolled in. Only in my subconscious did I realize that I had not overcome the gambling addiction. Each of these forgeries was a gamble, wasn't it? A lucky streak to be sure, but in retrospect really no different than placing $500 on the point spread of a Lakers game. Every gambler knows that all lucky streaks come to an end. Mine ended with an 1860 dance card autographed by General George McClellan, which became the centerpiece of a sting operation. Because I'd made the deal on a bugged phone, I was charged with conspiracy as well as forgery.

At sentencing the judge opined that time in prison and a turn toward God might remedy my bad gambling habit and my unhealthy interest in crime. "Twenty-two months!" Although my heart sunk, I had no remorse. Had I hurt anyone? My clients got what they wanted. As the bailiff marched me out of the court room my heart broke to see Peggy leaving the courtroom in tears. The last words I heard from her were, "Goodbye, this time it's forever."

So, with four months reduced for good behavior I served 18 months at the Stonebridge Minimum Security Facility. Serving time among men convicted of non-violent crimes was not quite what you see in prison movies. Oh sure, there were assholes, even a couple of psychos, but in general I found a population of men much like myself: clever risk takers not afraid to think big. I realized that these men represented a tribe of which I was a bona fide member, adventurers unafraid to take a big risk, willing to go for the big ticket.

During indoctrination week I was hospitalized with appendicitis. In the hospital ward I met Gudron W. Johnson, 68, once a cartographer with the National Geodesic Survey, now serving a 30 months stretch for attempting to sell a forged 1713 Spanish map of Santa Fe. Gudron's hand had been severely injured in an industrial sewing machine accident in the prison industries' uniform plant, rendering his forging days over. How fortuitous that when released from the hospital ward we ended up in the same dorm. This fine old man would change my life.

Gudron became my mentor. He liked the imaginative qualities of my forgeries and the quality of my penmanship, but said my marketing was 100% amateur and exposed. From him I learned so much about fences, identity shifts, sources of authentic paper, stock, inks, as well as police methods of entrapment. There is no better place than prison to refine one's shadier skills and artistry. He emphasized the importance things like salesmanship, and appearance: dress, speech, and manners. GQ, The Condé Nast Traveler, and Gourmet became textbooks. Lamenting the injury to his hand, he floated the idea that with my talents we could partner. In his salad days Gudron had run various cons until learning forgery from a master while serving time at the Federal Penitentiary in Atlanta while still in his 30s. Much later I would later learn that over the years he had amassed some money and a house which he successfully shielded from seizure.

We discussed dozens of schemes. Gudron's specialty was antique maps, forged or stolen. Attempting to sell a forged 17th Century map of Santa Fe to legitimate buyers had landed him in prison. He told me that once released he would jump back in the game. He had a stash of stolen bonafide Revolutionary War maps that he planned to market to what he called indiscriminate buyers, collectors who were callous about provenance. "They're rich greedy fucks who don't give a shit if the piece is hot. They're infected with acquiring anything they fancy. Legitimate buyers like universities or museums fetch the highest prices but present the highest risk too. Fences are a lower risk. The trick is to find a greedy collector with money and larceny in his heart. Believe me, there are plenty. The skill lies in rooting them out safely." He said that sometimes he had foisted a forged map as stolen, a romantic cachet that actually appealed to a certain type of collector. The ruined hand however, had ended his forgery, but not mine. I would in so many ways become his right-hand man.

It seemed ludicrous to remember my thoughts on the sheriff's bus carrying me from my trial to prison. I told myself I would straighten out my fucked-up life, to eschew gambling and any hint of crime. to quit smoking, and to lose weight. However, not long after I met Gudron, I was champing at the bit to jump back into the game. I did however quit smoking and drop 30 lbs. Gudron's release occurred three months before mine. Each week I received an unsigned post card from Baltimore. The last card included the phone number.

Gudron met me at the Greyhound Station in Baltimore. Over crab cakes and beers, we celebrated my release. "Bunk at my place, Ray. I've plenty of room. You can get your own digs once you're on your feet."

He had a beautiful brick two story in the suburbs. An old girlfriend had occupied and cared for the place while Gudron was in stir. Upon his release she had left to live with a son in Canada.

A large upstairs bedroom held two beautiful eight-foot long work benches with inks, engraving tools, blank plates, pens, drafter's equipment, computers and a commercial grade ink jet printer, lenses, a small manual letter press, and a copier machine in a corner. He even had a 3-D printer and sophisticated equipment that could print holographic images. In the basement next to the washer and dryer were high intensity incandescent dryers, a small hydraulic press, and a bleaching tank: equipment to age paper and for removing identification from stolen documents. Although the accident to Gudron's hand had ended his forging days, he knew the ropes, the contacts, and the traps. "With you and me together we can have the world by the balls as long as we're careful," he told me.

Back at Stonebridge he had been teased about his subscription to Gourmet magazine, until the Silence of the Lambs movie featured Dr. Lecter reading Bon Appetite. He loved to lay out a beautiful meal and I appreciated his talent and congeniality. He'd never married but had had several long relationships with good women. He always had money and pressed me to borrow whatever I needed until we began to score. He was a kind and generous soul whom I had grown close to. "You feel better and work better when you're comfortable."

Soon I set to work. My first task was to forge tiny red and yellow official seals: Withdrawn from Library, Withdrawn from Special Collections, Withdrawn by Reason of Sale. These tiny stamps and seals were appended to documents to override the book plates and embossed perforations that librarians and museum curators marked valuable documents. Once they are permanently attached (super-glued) any transfer of ownership appears legitimate. It took me a week to refine my product into perfect replicas of the real stamps Gudron had cobbed for me. Gudron had a buyer even before I'd finished the seals. Two of the Revolutionary War Maps brought in $22,000.

Happily, I agreed to a 70/30 split. Gudron was funny about the money, secretive but very generous. He said that his age he didn't give a shit about the money, it was the game. "For me, the game is everything, Ray." At Johnny Unitas' Golden Arm Restaurant we celebrated the sale with Maine lobster, filet mignon, and pinot noir. Gudron reached across the table to pinch the label of the suit I had bought at Goodwill the day of my release. "Tomorrow Ray, we're going to Brooks Brothers."

I dropped $2,600 at Brooks Brothers then another bundle for shirts at J. Press, Bruno Magli loafers, a Tag Heuer wristwatch, hair styling, and a tanning session. On the outside I was a new man, but inside one thing constantly ate at me. Peggy. I wanted her to love me again as much as I still loved her. Still, I couldn't bring myself to call her. I was a loser in her book and feared her biting words.

Immediately after the sale of the Revolutionary War maps, Gudron set about teaching me how to forge Maltese passports. "A perfect passport is the gold standard of IDs, Ray. We can offload one for $2,000."

"Why the Maltese passport?" I asked.

"Because Malta's government essentially sells citizenship as a revenue stream. It's the same as shipping companies registering their ships in Panama or Liberia. These countries will register and certify as safe for a price far below the cost of meeting first world safety and labor restrictions. More importantly, a Maltese is an easy copy. At least for now."

In a 3x5 index card box Gudron kept drivers' licenses from about 20 states. I was to spend two weeks forging two new driver's licenses for myself from obits listed in the Omaha, Nebraska and Helena, Montana newspapers. My name, Ray Carter, was retired. I became Frederick White or Bill Kelly. By then I figured a VOP warrant had been issued for Ray Carter. Ray who? Also, my name and photo were quite possibly on file with organizations like the American Antiquities Society. My appearance however had changed enough, my having dropped 30 pounds during incarceration and now with styled hair and glasses. Gudron said that the most convincing part of a new identity wasn't the face, it was how a person carried himself, how he dressed, and most importantly how he spoke. Dress, speech, and manners are even more convincing than facial appearance.

If a Civil War Reenactment occurred within a hundred miles we attended, schmoozing and handing out our business cards. We also cruised gun shows where it's not uncommon to come across an old document or map. Most of the hits from these ventures were from sellers of whom we kept a file. Gudron had a knack for spotting a dealer who might have no trouble fronting a product with shady provenance. He said, "It takes one to know one." We dressed down for these largely redneck convocations. The ATF assholes haunt the gun shows and we did not wish to stand out. A book fair or antiquarian event always found us dressed to the nines as well-heeled as any editor or publisher from one of the better houses.

Having new identities, real money, good clothes, and the excitement of the game thrilled me. I think it thrilled Gudron too in a sort of Pygmalion way. I knew he liked me, and I suppose I had come to look up to him as a sort of father figure. I told Gudron my next move was to acquire wheels and find an apartment. "Ray, you know you're welcome to stay here. There's plenty of room. I like you, you're a good guy. You're neat and clean, and you help with the chores. The truth is I'd prefer you stay. That is if living here is to your liking. I hate cooking for one and I've got no lady prospects. And look, it's rent free. Stick around for a while, son. I like your company."

And, truth be told, I was more comfortable in his spacious house than I could have been in an apartment. Gudron advised me to buy a high end four-door , a Lincoln or Chrysler, but not a Caddy. "Something with class but not flashy; you want to project an image of conservative success. The people we deal with look at our cars first, then our dress. Car rental sales are a good place. Pay cash, I'll help you, you'll pay me back of course." He drove a beautiful older Mercedes that radiated class.

The big book fairs occur in autumn. In September we attended the midland book fair in St. Louis. "Watch and learn, Grasshopper," Gudron said. We carried fancy embossed business cards identifying us as Chambers and Dickson, Booksellers and Purveyors of Rare Documents. The trick was to cruise the multitude of stalls chatting up reps, particularly those of smaller specialized book vendors. In this we garnered prospects and learned the tides and currents of what buyers were looking for. After St. Louis we did the Southern book fair in Macon, Georgia. Watching Gudron chatting up a dealer was an education in itself. He came across as affable, knowledgeable, approachable and as a class act. After Macon I returned to Baltimore to research and answer inquiries and then began forging an inventory of 19th Century documents. We knew that the period 1850 until 1900 was hot. While I returned to Baltimore, Gudron flew to Frankfurt for the largest European book fair, returning in late October.

I dove into a project we had discussed at a gun show:
  • Letters bemoaning Indian attacks from Nebraskan and Kansan homesteaders
  • A June 1875 Arms and Ammunition Inventory list signed by Lt. Col. G.A. Custer
  • A June 1875 Victuals Received Account signed by Lt. Col. G.A. Custer
  • Wisconsin governor's warrant to hang two captured Sioux
  • 1849 Bill of Sale for three Negro slaves
  • 1859 Handbills advertising the sale of Negro slaves
  • Confederate bank notes from various states
  • A request from President Ulysses S. Grant to the Sanchez y Haya cigar company, Tampa, Florida for three boxes of Orgullo de Cortez cigars
Gudron called these "smalls," documents of little interest to scholars or serious collectors. These would be offered to dealers Gudron marked as potential fences for more lucrative future items.

"It's bait, it's chum, like salting the mine."

"What about the law?"

"Just ATF and they're not looking at our kind of junk."

The southern gun shows were a ripe and ready market for the smalls, many buyers asking to see anything we might have in the future. In the four months I produced nearly 200 documents, we averaged $20,000 a month on the sale of smalls in Maryland, Virginia, Tennessee, and N. Carolina. Gudron was a prime salesman.

Gudron still had a few maps he'd drawn before he'd been popped on the Santa Fe map. But we set about drawing several new pieces. I would draw a draft that his practiced eye would annotate with corrections. Usually by the third draft the map would be ready to draw on valuable stock. Papers and ink presented the most difficult part in producing an antique map. We even trekked into Green Ridge State Forest to collect oak gall to brew authentic 18th and 19th Century inks. Paper aging is an art unto itself. Gudron had years of experience to pass on to me. Meticulous application of light, pressure, and chemicals on linen, rag, and even papyrus stock is required. I became an avid student. I loved acquiring these skills and Gudron was a superlative teacher with deep knowledge and patience. He would explain each step to me until he was sure I understood the dynamics, then show me, and finally make me execute the step alone. If I goofed and messed up a piece of valuable stock, he never yelled or fretted. A well-executed step won praise.

Antiquarian conventions and especially book fairs attracted a higher class of buyers. We would not buy our own booth to display forged maps and documents as there were many expert eyes including police and even federal agents on the prowl for stolen art and antiquities. But Gudron's sixth sense for a dealer tinged with even a soupçon of larceny would find them and later chat them up at the hotel bar.

We had reproduced a series Civil War maps Gudron had photographed from museums, the U. of Virginia library, and very old copies of Harper's Magazine. I would size the photos, then using a prism opaque projector reproduce the image several times to fine tune the map's lines and notes. Each copy would be inspected by Gudron's practiced cartographer's eye until he was satisfied. The final copy would then be carefully executed on our best linen stock and stepped through the aging process We were able to offload these rapidly.

Gudron said that the really big tickets were early Spanish, French and English maps of the New World, however, every single one was well cataloged. The trick, he said, was to identify the few that had been reported as stolen, then choose one of them to forge then offload to an indiscriminate buyer. Such a piece should net something in the upper six digits. "One day, Grasshopper, maybe we'll shoot for the big ticket," he said to me, meaning such a 17th Century piece. In the meantime, he continued teaching me cartography. I liked this and on my own executed a set of bogus rough maps for J. R. Tolkein's Lord of the Rings, to be pitched as unrecorded rough drafts done by Tolkien. Gudron had a line on some authentic early 17th Century linen. A one-man art restoration business owner had died, leaving a widow keen on liquidating his inventory. Gudron had bought old stock from him in the past. A surprising number of old paintings turned up in the big flea markets in Paris, Amsterdam, Antwerp, and Brussels. The chance that an old master would turn up was nil. Most of the art had little value but restorers valued the canvas, linen, and particularly the oils, which could sometimes be reconstituted and employed in using authentic contemporary pigments in restoring a valuable piece. Gudron planned to use the best of this stock for a copy of the 1507 Waldseemüller World Map, a project with enormous potential that would be his biggest ever score. Of the known existing 1507 Waldseemüllers, two are listed as having been stolen, one from the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, the other from the Vatican's Library. The skills required were demanding but the stolen maps meant that the market was open.

One afternoon Gudron told me about a gallery in Soho that had knowingly or perhaps unwittingly sold a forged map of early Manhattan for him, then later a 1790 map of The Wilderness Trail. The large commissions had piqued the gallery's owner to query Gudron for any rare finds. Gudron asked me to make the trip to New York to negotiate the sale of my J. R. Tolkien maps. "Book yourself into The Plaza. You'll call on Mr. Salazar at the Serpentia Gallery. You'll say that you are my son-in-law and business partner. Wear the Brooks Brothers with the green silk tie. Of course, he'll need to see the maps. Invite him to view the maps at The Plaza. Place these so they're visible to him." Gudron had brochures from three other tony galleries. "It's all yours from there," he said.

This was my solo debut on the business end of our partnership. Gudron, acting as Salazar, role played me through the meeting several times. I felt nervous but confident, armed with the clothes, business cards, an expensive brief case with two pairs of white cotton gloves to handle the bogus maps.

At the Serpentia my appointment with Augusto Salazar went smoothly. Salazar, in his sixties, with a grey-flecked goatee and a full head of hair bore all the trappings of wealth: the clothes, manners, and speech.

"Yes, your maps sound most interesting. Of course, we would need to see them and submit them for a proper appraisal. When could you bring them in?"

"I'm sorry to say I'm on a tight time schedule. I'm flying to Brussels tomorrow. Come by my hotel; I will be happy to show them; do you think you could do that, Mr. Salazar? I'll be in after four this afternoon."

He showed up a little after six. I had bottle of Remy-Martin with two snifters brought up from room service. Before producing the maps, I said I needed to offer a little background on provenance.

"These have come to us through a Tolkien relative. Let us say, umm, a relative perhaps a little on the outs with the nuclear family. But we have verified blood ties. This relative initially approached Oxford University where the Tolkien collection is maintained but was offered no recompense. On the contrary, a curator there insinuated a possible lawsuit to acquire the documents. Hence the seller came to us. We are brokering this cash only sale of the maps with the understanding that a private buyer would buy with full understanding of potential conflict, albeit extremely remote. There is no reason to expect such a thing in the hands of a responsible private collector. The popularity of the books and now the increased interest from the films have moved the current owner to move now."

"But, of course," Salazar said. "Let's have a look, then."

I slowly opened the briefcase and passed a pair white cotton gloves to Salazar, putting on a pair myself at the same time. From the briefcase's pocket I removed an acetate folder and gently removed the two India ink and watercolor maps. I had researched every illustration in the Tolkien novels and had found the style very easy to replicate. A bottom corner of one of the maps bore a slight circular carmine stain perhaps from a wine glass. Salazar placed the maps beneath a desk lamp and examined them minutely with a nacre handled magnifying glass for a full ten minutes, then photographed them. I noticed an ever so slight tremble and a facial tic

"And the asking price?"

"This Tolkien relative floated a $1,000,000 asking price. Needless to say, we dismissed this out of hand. His hesitance to place the maps at auction, his stipulation of a cash sale, and the unusual provenance made his offer, in our opinion, absurd. My father-in-law sensed some urgency with the seller which, of course, gives us leverage to recommend something more reasonable. We believe $45,000 will work and recommend no more than $50,000. If indeed, you are interested we can confirm an acceptance by phone within minutes and provide routing numbers for an account in the Caymans. Seller will pay our commission, but we shall ask the buyer a five percent finder's fee. And it's only fair to advise you we have two prospects who have expressed some interest. We come to you because my father-in-law has done good business with you in the past. I'll be here at the hotel until eleven tomorrow morning. Call if you have any questions. I'll see you out, Mr. Salazar."

The deal concluded at 8:30 that night. Soon after Mr. Salazar left with his maps, I checked out of The Plaza, called for my car and headed home. On the way to Baltimore I delighted at the thought that the five percent finder's fee paid the expenses for the endeavor - my room at The Plaza, and a couple of sumptuous meals. I knew Gudron would be proud. Home by three in the morning, $45,000 richer, I was indeed proud.

The next afternoon Gudron grilled me on every phase of the con. "You've done splendid, son, splendid. Yes, I am proud of you, but listen carefully. Don't be fooled by how smoothly or how easily this transpired. We are lucky. You spent less than a week drawing and prepping those maps. Now tell me Ray, what sold them? What convinced the art dealer to part with $45,000?"

"Well the maps looked authentic and the back story was pretty good."

"Ray, what sold them was Salazar's greed and a strong element of larceny, that the back story implied. Of course, there was support from The Plaza, Brooks Brothers, and to be sure, your performance. But son, that story, particularly the pay off, would not have floated with any legitimate dealer. I know Salazar has fenced hot shit for years. He's smart with art, but doesn't know maps, and he doesn't give a shit if a piece is legit or not. Will it sell fast, that's what counts. He probably grew up selling used cars or aluminum siding. With the information instantly available on the internet nowadays, it's going to be nearly impossible to push anything big through legitimate dealers. We'll concentrate on smaller projects like your easy maps passed on through shady dealers, and always under a different identity. Maybe the old idea of The Big Score is too risky. So, let's not start the Waldseemüller map yet. You getting this, Ray?"

And I did get it. I had come to idolize the man; I knew he was right. Too, I was honored that he respected my work. Later we composed a list of potential projects. I would execute more work, Gudron would continue to develop a stable of reliable fences.

For the first time in my life I felt like a big winner. I still held on to the tiniest hope that Peggy would come back into my life. With my new confidence and real money too, I bolstered my courage and called Peggy's cell phone number. The last time I'd talked to her was the day I got out of stir. She had hung up on me. Even before I could voice my suggestion that we get together for one more try, she tersely informed me that she was about to remarry, that the police had been around asking my whereabouts, and that she wished never to hear from me again. I resigned myself to the fact that it was, at last, over, and threw myself into my work.

During the next months I worked on a dozen framed forged Charlie Brown comic originals signed by Charles Schultz, with a bogus certificate of authenticity, an 1859 von Egloffstein map of the Colorado River, and a receipt for payment of a bar tab from Sloppy Joe's, Key West signed by Ernest Hemingway. All smalls, all easily disposable at gun shows or book fairs.

On the one-year anniversary of my release from prison Gudron treated me to a wonderful meal at Le Grand Bateau French restaurant. After dinner he handed me an envelope containing $1,000 and informed me that from now on the split would be 50/50. We were equal partners. He was the most generous person I ever knew. And I had noticed that he had begun addressing me as son.

Shortly after our second Christmas together Gudron suffered a stroke. He came home from the hospital frail and thin with partial paralysis of the left side. Saddest of all was his mindset. It was clear he had very little hope for a decent future. I all but stopped work to attend him, preparing meals, help with bathing, dressing, and grooming. I leased a wheelchair accessible van to take him on drives to the Maryland shore, which pleased him greatly. After his afternoon nap I read Dickens, Jack London, and Hemingway to him. In the spring he began losing weight. One afternoon he asked me to send for his attorney. I was not privy to their two-hour conference, and Gudron chose not to share any information. On Father's Day I baked a cake and presented him with an authentic first edition of The Call of the Wild. This brought both of us to tears. That evening as I put him to bed he presented me with a sealed envelope. "Open this after I croak, Ray." He died that night.

The letter was short.

Ray,

Thanks for such true companionship. Loyalty in our game is so rare. We've had good times, even in the joint. You're solid. I'm not worried about you, you know how to survive, but one word of caution, forget the Waldseemüller map: it's too big for you. The attorney will hand you the keys to the wall safe, what's in there is yours.

Your pal,
Gudron

He had no relatives that I knew of and certainly none who cared about Gudron. I saw to his cremation and carried out his last wishes. His will on file with his attorney declared that his extensive library was to be donated and transported to the Stonebridge Correctional Facility, and that all other possessions were to pass to me: house, car, furniture, and the contents of the wall safe. In the safe was a single envelope with the number of a Cayman Island $750,000 account.

I was set. With wealth, there was no need to stay in the game besides, don't all winning streaks eventually crash and burn?

With my talent and the tools that I had acquired I began a new online business reproducing legitimate hand executed copies of famous documents suitable for display. You'd be surprised at the demand for an authentic hand-drawn replica of the Declaration of Independence, The Magna Carta, or Japanese Surrender meticulously executed by hand on authentic stock. This and a new lady friend have kept me busy and away from the bookies and the racetrack.

Nevertheless, despite Gudron's advice, I confess that I am compelled to continue work on the Waldseemüller map. I can't stop. The many hours of meticulous sometimes microscopic work are driven by a chance at the big casino, the lollapalooza, the granddaddy of all scores. The lure of the big score never leaves a gambler.

5 comments:

  1. I really liked the research and all the specifics that went into this. I'd almost consider it a piece of historical, or historically oriented, fiction. The criminal element seems incidental to his love of the craft. An unusual, somewhat meandering plot arc seemed to leave some elements abandoned, but not necessarily missed.

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  2. I would agree with Chris M on this one. Fascinating details about the nature of the forgery business. The con man's nature and the relationship with his mark also well crafted and written.

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  3. Fascinating story, which held my complete attention throughout despite being very long. The high level of detail made it more real. I was egging on mc all the time. Well developed relationships. Forgery business well understood.

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  4. I'd describe this work as "meticulous," much like the work produced by the MC in the story. Loved learning about the forgery craft, incredible to think how many markets exist for such work, limited really only by the imagination and creativity of the (con) artist. Very deep, very enjoyable.

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  5. Was really drawn into this story and felt that I was in the hands of an accomplished forger. Great detail!

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