A True Grifter’s Song by Jim Wilsky

I have a little story to share further below. It’s missing some details for good reasons.

First though, a little setup.

In 2018, my good friend and all-around great guy Frank Zafiro asked me if I was interested in contributing to a new book series that he created about two grifters. Sounded great of course, but I really had to think about it.

It wasn’t exactly in my wheelhouse. If I even have a wheelhouse. I mean sure, I write crime fiction, or attempt to at least, but this would have to be an entirely different story of criminal enterprise. In my stories, more times than not, there’s always a healthy dose of all sorts of nasty intimidation, blood-letting, murder and mayhem taking place. Not real subtle stuff.

Grifters, as everybody knows are smoother, a little more sophisticated. They play a game that isn’t won by force but by deception. The protagonist doesn’t use an axe handle to beat someone to a bloody pulp in an old farmhouse or use a Mossberg to blow a hole through a guy in a dark, big city alley. So, I worried about my ability (nothing new there) to write that type of story well.

Then again, the season one writers would include Frank, JD Rhoades, Lawrence Kelter, Gary Phillips and Colin Conway. All being far more talented writers than myself, which is always a good thing. It would be published by Down & Out Books too, also a huge plus in my book.

So, I really did have to think about it but only for a New York minute. Then I jumped at the chance.

Bottom line, I believe we can all relate in some way to being on either end of a grift. Small stuff, not breaking laws or committing crimes but also not something to be especially proud of either. I know that when I read all the stories in Frank’s series, it made me think of something.

Grifting is everywhere if you think about it. Who hasn’t sold, convinced, charmed or persuaded someone in order to accomplish something that you want? Or possibly you regret gaining a person’s confidence one time, that maybe wasn’t entirely for sincere purposes? Be honest.

Now for that true story I mentioned and like I said its missing names and places, but it’s all true. I hope that it is at least mildly interesting to someone besides myself.

It was over twenty-five years ago when the phone on my desk rang one summer afternoon, and what a call it would turn out to be. I was an ambitious account manager for a brokerage company in the CPG industry, or Consumer Packaged Goods.

I was not a ninety-day manager trainee wonder, with a Business degree. I know it sounds cliché but I came up through the ranks from a very humble background in terms of family wealth and education. Evidently though, I had a few abilities that aren’t bought or taught.

My boss had always told me that I was a damned chameleon, being whoever I needed to be, based on who and what I was dealing with. He told me that I made people comfortable in meetings that were anything but that and that I could read people better than he could.

I just tried to obey one of the central (but seldom followed) rules of good selling. Know when to shut the hell up and listen. Most retail customers want you to listen them. They want to talk. Let them sell themselves. It happens sometimes. But listen and nod. Listen as if you’re hearing the most brilliant thoughts you’ve ever heard.

The call I answered that day almost went to voicemail, but I decided to pick it up. It turned out to be the kind of conversation that you only dream about. The guy was a business partner in a new business. Him and his partner had just bought out a manufacturing plant and they had a plan.

He said they had a great line of products and absolutely knew they were going to be successful but needed help from a Sales & Marketing company. They also needed an inroad with the major retailer our brokerage worked closely with. The caller said that I had been recommended to him.

So, the guy kept talking and I kept listening, but it wasn’t the product that was ringing the business opportunity bell. No, the opportunity was this guy’s business partner.

Even though I was only in my late thirties at the time, I’d already been lucky enough to have a few things drop in my lap. Out of the blue type of deals that were slam dunks. But this one, this one was on a completely different level. You could make a career on this type of thing.

The business partner of this man I had on the phone was a former professional athlete. A very famous pro. A man who still holds professional records as I write this. A legend of his time.

A second phase of the business plan was to sell their soon to be product line in a pro stadium. They had the stadium business pretty well locked up already because of who this pro was and his past relationships, but they would still need a sales agent to represent their business day to day.

“So, what do you think? I know this is quick but we’re ready to go on this and you were tops on the list I’m looking at. Would you consider working with us?” he asked.

I told him yes but first I’d like to discuss our brokerage rate and terms, the project timing, go over the multitude of necessary steps, procedures and hurdles that they would have to perform before we even presented the idea to the retailer.

He said they were actually in town for a meeting with the stadium folks, so how about lunch tomorrow? Then he says and hey, bring the Retailer along too. I’ll make sure John Smith is there. How about Lattoria’s? (An Italian restaurant where the cost of appetizers make you cry.)

The next day I had that lunch and both partners were there as promised. I’d always appreciated the phrase of someone being able to ‘hold a room’. This pro athlete had it, whatever that it is. He was in his fifties now and graying a little, but it didn’t matter.

His name or physical presence didn’t matter either. What did, was a smooth mixture of casual yet serious, affability and last but not least, just flat out charisma. He knew it, everybody at the table knew it, but no one cared.

Any player of almost any professional sport has large hands, doesn’t matter what the game is, that’s just the way it is. So, when I shook this guy’s hand it was big and strong like I knew it would be, but also very unassuming. It didn’t turn out to be that momentary and silent pissing contest of strength that men sometimes have during a simple handshake.

With me that day was my boss and a Senior VP (and huge fan) from the Retailer. We ate, we talked business, I filled in some answers and smoothed over some rough spots for my new supplier. Understandably they had some blind spots with the business they were about to enter.

The conversation gradually shifted (looking back, maybe it was gently led) to the playing days of the pro. One or two tentative questions at first, then a slow avalanche of them. He didn’t mind because he was in his world. My guys didn’t mind because we were listening to personal stories and events that happened to a damn legend of the sport.

In just a single story of many told during that lunch, he mentioned three or four other legends. He wasn’t name dropping either. He didn’t have to impress us or embellish anything. It was fascinating stuff we were listening to. Everyone was enjoying themselves.

Let’s put it this way, a one o’clock lunch went into the late afternoon and when the potential customer (the SVP retailer guy) ordered a drink, well, everybody else followed suit.

After that day, I had little trouble selling the idea to the grocery chain. Then it was a matter of walking the two manufacturing partners through the entire process and many steps of launching a line of products.

Along the way, several retailer execs and myself were treated to things I would have otherwise never been allowed to enjoy. Then or since. After touring and evaluating their plant one morning, we spent that afternoon and early evening at a certain professional teams training facility. Met some of their current players, sat in a private box for a game or two and attended an expensive dinner with the pro, an old teammate and a retired national network announcer.

Eventually, package designs were done, contracts were signed all around and the program was a month away from launching. Based on even conservative projections, my company’s piddly little four percentage brokerage stood to make well into seven figures the first year.

The first two purchase orders were fills. Then another order was placed for inventory. Keep in mind, these were multiple, full truckload orders. Forty-eight foot trailers filled with that product. I personally followed all three orders, from order placement, to ship date, to delivery.

A week later the product was literally jumping off the shelf. Reorders were placed. Sales were through the roof. It was the biggest deal I had ever been involved in.

Three weeks later, the consumer complaints started rolling in on product defects that began to show on the reorders. The specs weren’t being hit, inferior materials, you name it. The product from the second wave of orders wasn’t even close to the quality of the original samples.

I made phone call after phone call to my guys. Most went unanswered, the few that were answered consisted of stalls and excuses. I knew we were done but kept trying to fix it anyway. Then there was a full week of our two boys ‘traveling on business’ and ‘out of the country o business’. Before that week was over a full product recall was ordered.

The program was eventually cancelled. My company suffered no financial loss except the brokerage money we could have earned, but it still stung. Stung bad and I deserved it for being such a sap. Me, the great reader of people had been taken for a ride.

I’ll add that on a personal level I wanted a big old piece of his legendary ass, like some of the angry marks in the Grifter series. Some of that anger was my ego and embarrassment talking.

The full story wouldn’t come out until a year or so later. Our situation was actually just a small chapter of the book, a little sideshow for the main act. We had all been played. Me, the retailer execs and my bosses.

Sure, it had been a legitimate effort to conduct business with us, but they had wanted it to work only as a cover. Meanwhile, they were gutting their own company funds. There was a big trial and some charges dropped but it still ended with prison time and huge restitution payments.

Even though he had the advantage of not having to pretend who he was, the guy was still a grifter that got caught. He was a fraud but a real fraud, if that makes any sense at all.

There had been no fake involved with his playing talent, or his considerable gift of acting. He could have easily led a legitimate, comfortable life but he was a natural born confidence man.

Funny thing is, when I think about it now, I almost smile. Almost. It was a helluva ride till it all went south.

Sad thing is, if I caught his act for a while at some sports bar signing autographs, I’d maybe be tempted to buy him a beer. Then I’d ask him again, about that one time, about that one game. Maybe.

The good ones can almost take you twice.

JIM WILSKY is a crime fiction writer. He is the co-author of the four book Ania series: Blood on Blood, Queen of Diamonds, Closing the Circle and Harbinger. He also has a published short story collection that was recently released, titled Sort ’Em Out Later.

His short story work totals over fifty that have been published online and in print magazines. He has also contributed stories in several published anthologies, including A Grifter’s Song, All Due Respect, Kwik Krimes, Both Barrels and The Odds Are Against Us. Jim resides in the great state of Texas. He’s supported by a patient family and strengthened by many valued relationships in the writing community.