"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Con Men Are Born, Not Made–The Story Of Sparky Fanta

Blink Fanta hesitated before the mailbox, looked around to see if anyone was looking, and satisfied that he was the only one on the block, dropped the letter in.  The address was “Director, FBI, Washington, DC”.
“Doogie  doesn’t know what’s what”, said his father.
“He’s just a boy”, replied his mother. “There’s plenty of time for him to learn.”
Blink’s  Fanta’s father, Sparky, knew more of what was what than most residents of New Brighton, Connecticut.  That was his job – not quite informer; certainly not enforcer; but somewhere in between.  He let his bosses know when something was going to happen, and let them deal with it. For example, he was playing golf at the Sylvan Meadows Country Club the other day, and he overheard Brad Lickett talk about an ‘investment’ in Grand Cayman.  “Not exactly kosher, if you know what I mean”, he said to his partner in the foursome, two-ball, best-ball, and winked; “but come on in with me and all your troubles will be solved.”

Two birds with one stone. Fanta learned of shady dealings in the Bahamas and Parker Burnish’s debt.  A little poking around on both counts and he found that the Cayman bank in question was a front for the Dubai Investment Corporation which was widely known as one of the Middle East’s biggest financiers of terrorism.  Investors would get 15 percent free and clear, and Sheik Abdul al Rahim would be able to purchase Ukrainian rocket launchers and mortars for ISIS.
Parker Burnish was not only in debt, but up to his neck in debt.  This might seem  surprising for the son of a well-to-do family whose members were descendants of the captains of industry who built the Northeast and who had left him with a substantial private income; but not if you knew him. He was a gambling addict who started at a very young age playing the slots at Harrah’s, Atlantic City, graduated to the tables at the Mohawk casino in Ledyard, and then got into derivatives, hedge funds, and oil futures.

The problem was that while the slots and roulette were games of pure chance, blackjack and poker required some skill; and Parker’s modest intellectual endowment, good enough for random numbers and a bag of quarters, was nowhere near enough to figure odds.  Not only that, his rigorous childhood upbringing – a blend of Puritan rectitude and English boarding school virtue – made it impossible for him to lie, posture, deceive, or bluff.  This combination of naïveté and a post office IQ not only got him into debt but into trouble.  Once he upped the ante and became interested in the new financial instruments on the street, he was a goner.  He was easy prey for the fast-talking get-rich-quick salesmen who knew he was a mark, sent him glossy Annual Reports and company spreadsheets which had been concocted in Jamaica, took his money, and then left town.
In any case Sparky Fanta knew that although Parker Burnish was cash-poor, he knew that the value of the family fortune was in the very high nine figures.  By threating to expose the well-heeled grandson of a scion of industry, son of a winner of the White House Freedom medal, and close relative of the Bush family, he could certainly shake loose a few million from their offshore bank accounts.  Using the same threats of exposure to universal censure, Fanta could extract the names and coordinates of the scammers who busted him and get in on their action.

As I have mentioned, Sparky Fanta was not the one to take Parker Burnish out for lunch at the Four Seasons and show him photocopies of his illicit transactions, and shady coconut dealings.  Someone else who was a far more threatening and intimidating character would take care of that end.  He would only add to his Aruban bank account.
It was Fanta’s job to know which doctors at New Brighton General Hospital were becoming drug dependent; which West End matrons were shagging the fire department; which priests at St. Mary’s were buggering the altar boys; and how much money Peter D’Amato, union boss of Machinists Local 151, was skimming off the pension fund.

He couldn’t think of a better job.  He was insulated from the worst of the company’s enterprises. “We live in an information economy”, he told his friends, “and I for one am taking advantage of it.” Other than the occasional self-congratulatory remark like this one, Fanta kept his own counsel. Everyone in New Brighton suspected that he was not exactly a model of professional propriety, but since he contributed thousands to local churches, orphanages, civic improvement funds, and political campaigns, no one asked any questions.
There were not a few arched eyebrows when he was admitted to the Sylvan Meadows Country Club, the redoubt of Old Money and New England bluebloods because Fanta was an ethnic mongrel, half hunky, half guinea.  This calumnious chatter stopped, however, when people got to know Sparky Fanta.  He was a regular guy, interested in golf and football.  He summered on the Vineyard, was an excellent skier who owned a chalet in Gstaad, dressed impeccably, and was well-spoken and articulate.
He was a very good imitation of Jay Gatsby who kept his shady connections to himself, deflected inquiries about his past, lavished millions on friends and sycophants alike, and finally was accepted into the society of the Hamptons.  Sparky Fanta, however, was far more adept at concealing who he really was than the fictional Gatsby ever did.  Fanta was brilliant at deconstructing the character, personality, and behavior of the WASP, and even more brilliant at his charade of mimicry.  He conned the First Families of New England as thoroughly as Bernie Madoff ever did his Jewish friends in Los Angeles.  Sparky was the most consummate showman, pitchman, and impressionist Southern New England had ever known.

Thanks to his imaginative genius, the swells at Sylvan Country Club trusted him implicitly, gave him information that no one in their right mind would give out, and indirectly enriched him beyond even his wildest dreams.
Perhaps the best of Sparky Fanta’s genius was his ability to stay clean.  He only listened to, remembered, and passed on information.  No one suspected that it was he who had cut their timber.
Sparky was very clear about one thing.  There were so many marks in New Brighton, so many naïve and profoundly gullible people, that the company had to be prudent, and have patience. If they muscled everyone who was a john, somebody would figure things out.  Even WASPs whose gene pool had been badly drained and polluted over the years through inbreeding and illicit intercourse would know who was setting up early hunting season.
So the company bosses did what good managers the world over do – developed an operational strategy designed to maximize profits while minimizing risk and exposure. They made millions for everyone including and even especially Sparky Fanta.
The problem was Blink Fanta, Sparky and Irma’s son.  Every so often genes cross so unpredictably that husbands accuse their wives of infidelity. “There is no way that he is a son of mine”, shout a thousand incensed and perplexed fathers whose offspring turn out weird and complicated.
SparkyFanta, to be the success that he was, had to have been born with intelligence, acute powers of observation, an almost preternatural understanding of human behavior, a willing suspension of prevailing moral codes, and a silver tongue.  Snake-oil salesmen are born, not made.

While there is no doubt that Sparky Fanta had ambition, partly derived from his peasant, immigrant roots, and fueled by an eyes-on-the-prize amoral American capitalism; he was who he was because of the strands of DNA inherited partially from his parents, but also from Uncle Bronislaw, a powerful apparatchik of the Warsaw Communist Party, who, according to family legend, bilked millions out of the Politburo, bedded the discredited and needy Grandes Dames of Polish society, and secreted a fortune in Swiss banks.  He got stray bits from Great Grandfather Guido who was the primus inter pares in the Carlucci family of Palermo, as feared by the carabinieri as anyone in Italy; and recently-found scraps from Pope Aloysius IV who was in bed with the Medicis, extorted money from English monasteries for years before Henry VIII began to assert his anti-Papist influence.

So Sparky Fanta was flabbergasted when his son Blink (Blake Edward Fanta) turned out the way he did – prim, devout, punctilious, and intolerant. “Where did the kid come from?”, Sparky asked his wife accusingly. He of all people knew of the hundreds of affairs that were consummated in the town every week.  There was Mildred Fanning who for some reason found the Macedonian milkman irresistible and rattled around in the back of his truck after he made his delivery.  Or Doctor Bickers and Nurse Kovacs who upset the Petri dishes and test tubes every Thursday. Or Franchot Twill, the Senior Vice President of the New Brighton Savings and Loan on Main Street, who locked himself in the vault with a different cashier every month.

Blink Fanta wasn’t just different, he was a royal pain in the ass.  He reprimanded his parents for their behavior and not the other way around.  He didn’t offer welcomed advice, but picky, gnarly commentary more appropriate for a young adult than a boy of ten. The boy was like some Puritanical sentinel sent by Cotton Mather to judge them. “Father Brophy says”, he would always begin, and then reconstruct the old priest’s homily about Christian charity or moral probity.  He was insufferable.  He was disliked by his classmates for his sniffiness and piety.  Girls never gave him a second glance, figuring quite rightly, even from their pre-pubescent perspective, that he would be an on-and-off judgmental lover.
“What are we going to do with him?”, Sparky said to his wife. “I can’t stand the little bugger”, a comment like many other similar remarks which elicited the most maternal feelings in Irma.  She loved her son, and although she admitted it was like raising a chicken in a gaggle of geese, it was God’s decision to give Sparky to her and her husband.
The Catholic Church is not big on social ills, preferring to harangue its faithful about sexual dalliance and immorality; but Blink, being of a different ilk, interpreted Father Brophy’s sermons differently than the old priest had intended them. “Fathers who stray into the hands of the Devil” was meant for the fornicators in the congregation, not the embezzlers. “Women who are tempted by sin” was meant for the Jezebels of the church, not Miami Fetters who with her husband had bilked half of Providence, Rhode Island in a pyramid scheme that matched any in post-Enver Hoxha’s Albania. 

Blink had none of his father’s charm and warmth or his mother’s grace and sociality. He had none of their intelligence, wit, or insight.  For all intents and purposes, he was a child of wacko fundamentalists who had left him on their doorstep. He was far more of a disappointment to the Fantas than Clyde Griffiths was to his parents. Having been brought up to honor and serve the Lord and to love and respect his parents who were honest and moral Christians, Clyde murders his pregnant girlfriend to clear the way for a marriage to a girl of high society Missouri. “Where did he come from?”, the Griffiths must have thought; and the Fantas were forced to ask the very same question.

For all his otherness and similarity to disliked cousins and second-aunts, Blink was still loved by his parents.  They admitted they had brought the boy into the world, and had to live by God’s choice. Sparky Fanta was never an abusive father, although heaven knows he was tried to the limit by the boys insufferable sanctimony; and  Irma Fanta gave him all the motherly love she could.  Yet, whenever they looked at him, sitting there on the divan with his accusatory stare, they wanted to give him back to the Indians, sell him down the river, get rid of the little blighter.
I guess Blink figured it was time to take decisive action; and although Father Brophy had at times preached a sermon of love for those fallen and he hated to damn his own parents, he knew that he must follow his conscience; and so he sent the letter to the FBI. Blink, who had learned a bit of the con game from his father, did a good job of disguising his young age; and knew enough send just enough tantalizing information to interest Washington.  “You are aware, of course”, he wrote, “of J. Millington Farnsworth with whom my father has had extensive dealings”; and indeed Hoover’s G-men had been tracking Farnsworth and his Bahamian dealings for years. 
When the FBI found out that they were dealing with a minor, they were more circumspect – no witness protection program offerings, no threats or intimidations.  Blink was a goldmine of information, however, an open spigot on all he knew about his father’s dealings.
Thanks to – or rather because of – Blink’s insider information, his father was sent to Manchester Federal Prison for ten years.
What makes a child turn against his parents? What makes well-bred WASPs fall off the rails? What makes a first generation immigrant like Sparky Fanta get involved in such smarmy dealings when with his intelligence and enterprise he could have been Bill Gates?  Who knows, but Sparky’s incarceration shook up New Brighton from Jimmy’s Smoke Shop to the board rooms of Perkins& Faul.
Take a guess.  Did Blink end up a Catholic priest? An abbot in a monastery? An acolyte in the Movement for World Truth? None of the above.  It turns out that an apple doesn’t fall far from the tree after all, and Blink went on to a very successful career on Wall Street, specializing in arcane derivatives.

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