When I started practicing law back in the Sixties, each case seemed like an exciting and glamorous challenge, a test, a puzzle to be solved. And the cases were exhilarating, even if my clients tended to be a sad lot, losers and louts with their half-truths and self-justifications, their missed court dates and broken-down cars. Fifteen years later, the shine of those early years had dulled. Sure, I had built up the practice and taken on a number of associates, and Dan Lincoln Attorney-at-Law was attracting a far more upscale clientele; but my success didn’t make my days any less tedious, my disposition any less morose. I was in my prime, with more knowledge, more experience, more money, and more opportunities than ever before—but what was the point? Why do anything? In the past, when lesser bouts of despair gripped me, I would distract myself with an affair or by engineering some complex real-estate deal. This time was different, the darkness much darker. Life had lost its color, its juice. My food tasted like watery oatmeal.
Then I met Anton Volpi. He presented himself at my firm looking for some legal help. A small man of twenty-five or thirty, wearing jeans and a work shirt and boots, he looked about as regular as a guy could. When he talked he did so slowly, like a man who spends a lot of time around horses. He sat down across the desk from me, and I asked what I could do for him. His fingers stroked his scraggly beard, and he started in on a meandering tale about how he had just arrived from Alaska, where he had an uncle, and the uncle was with the Bureau of Indian Affairs—a specialist in the Alaskan Native Claims Settlement Act passed by Congress in 1971.
“You happen to be familiar with that particular piece of legislation?” he asked.
Now, had I not been in the dumps, I would have told him to quit wasting my time and get to the point. But there was something amusing about this guy. I said I didn’t know the first thing about Indians or Alaska.
He told me that Congress had allocated $1 billion and 40 million acres of federal land to be distributed through two hundred village corporations. He held his eyeglasses up to the light, then fogged the lenses and polished them on his shirttail. “A real interesting fact is that according to the terms of the Act, a village is defined as just thirteen Natives.” The glasses went back on his face, and through them he looked at me with eyes that didn’t belong to the chatty hayseed I thought I was talking to. No, these eyes were offering me an invitation, telling me that if I wanted to get involved I was more than welcome.
I had that unsettled feeling you get when a conversation takes a strange and sudden turn, and I wanted to get it back on track. “I’m not in the market to buy a bridge—especially in Alaska. So maybe you should tell me how I can help you.”
He stared at me for a long time, squinting, really sizing me up. Then bang, he sat up straighter in his chair and said, “I’ve got a wife—we’re separated—and a four-year-old daughter. I need to take care of them in case…well, in case.”
So I agreed to prepare his will as directed, with itemized allocations of his assets, which included a villa and a cattle ranch in Mexico, an apartment building in Toronto, and an impressive portfolio of bearer bonds and precious metals. He said I should leave blank lines in the document where he could fill in the names of the two beneficiaries.
When Anton returned to my office a few days later to review the document I’d drafted, gone were the jeans and boots; they’d been replaced by slacks and a nicely cut sport coat. After we finalized the paperwork, I began making the gestures I use to let clients know it’s time to go—the straightening of items on my desk, the leaning forward in my chair as if about to rise.
But he didn’t move. Instead he asked, “Where did you grow up?”
This deviation from the usual exit dance caught me a little off guard. I’m scrupulous about keeping a high wall between business and my home life, but the way he asked, it just seemed like the natural thing to answer. “Right here in L.A.” I said. “Down by the railroad tracks—the other side of the tracks, to be precise.”
He pointed at the ring on my finger, and I passed him the framed photo I keep on my desk and told him about my wife, Micki, and our four kids. Next he wanted to know where I’d gone to law school, and on and on. Looking back, I can see it was an interrogation, but at the time it felt like chatting over lemonade on the front porch.
A few weeks later I was sitting at my desk when I heard a commotion in the outer office. I got to the door in time to see Anton, hands on his hips and obviously upset, staring a hole through one of the secretaries and barking about a thousand-dollar discrepancy in his bill.
“And no, the accounting department will not take care of me. I need to see Mr. Lincoln—now.”
With that he stepped around her desk, pushed past me into my office, and settled into the client chair, where he calmly adjusted how his little round spectacles rested on his nose.
I got back to my seat and braced myself to deal with an angry customer. “What’s the problem?”
“No problem,” he said impishly. He laid my invoice on the desk and counted out a small stack of $50 bills, enough to cover the cost of drawing up his will, rounded up generously.
“This is not the usual—”
“Neither am I.”
I expected him to say more, but he just stared at me like a shrewd poker player. Our eyes met and had a little conversation of their own; his were saying, Listen up.
“For instance, I find checking accounts and credit cards so needlessly full of”—he made a show of searching for the right phrase—“revealing information.” He leveled a stare at me. “Know what I mean?”
It was an exam. Pass or fail. And I suddenly liked him very much—everything about him, his look, his style, his confidence, his intelligence. I told him I understood about privacy, and then I backed up the words with the raise of an eyebrow, the knowingest of looks, the tiniest of nods.
He nodded back. Something had just happened. I didn’t know exactly what, but we now had an arrangement.
Over the next year or so I worked with him on a number of deals, mostly creating what were in effect offshore shell corporations within offshore shell corporations, the ownership structure of which, along with their deposit and withdrawal protocols, would be opaque even to the most diligent forensic accountant. He always paid in cash. I knew his business was shady, and he knew I knew it. That was part of the fun—and what a welcome diversion it was.
I was so charmed by the little man that I took to scheduling him as my last appointment of the day. After we concluded our business, we’d retire to a nearby bar or restaurant and talk and laugh late into the night, discussing history and art and books, politics, sports, world affairs, anything. I was surprised by how much he knew and how widely his knowledge ranged. He said that his line of work required him to be able to play any role and converse about any subject, to be, as he put it, a chameleon.
On one of these nights, after we’d had a few drinks, I told him I was curious about the Alaska story he’d laid out when we first met. He let out a little laugh and admitted it was a con job, the goal of which was to fleece me for $50,000. And not just me. He’d approached nine other well-heeled businessmen in Southern California and given each of them the same spiel, a can’t-miss plan using his uncle’s insider information at the Bureau of Indian Affairs to create fake Native villages and rip off the federal government for land and money.
“I gave up when I sensed you weren’t going to bite.”
“And your other targets?”
He grinned and held up two fingers.
Anton dropped by the office one day with a rather unusual request. He explained that he was just about to wrap up a very big deal with a high-end client, but there had been some sort of mix-up, a scheduling problem. The upshot was he needed a place to transact this business, and an office in my law firm would be ideal. Might I be able to help him out?
I looked him straight in the eye. “Anton, what you just told me does not have the advantage of being true.” He didn’t seem too happy that I had called his bluff, and I added, “I might be willing to help you out, but only if you let me in on what you’re up to.”
“You mean a cut?” he said, frowning.
“How much are you going to get?”
He thought for a moment. “Substantial.”
Clever—you can’t demand a percentage of substantial. But shaking him down was not what I had in mind. I told him I was just curious about his game and how he played it.
He shook his head. “I’ve been setting up this mark for three months. Everything is riding on this meeting. If you could be a fly on the wall, maybe, but—”
“I can be,” I interrupted.
With my hand on his back, I hustled him down the hallway and into the interview studio that my firm uses to conduct videotaped depositions. As he looked around the windowless room, furnished with an oak table and two chairs, I explained that people feel terribly nervous when being deposed—the camera aimed at them from a tripod, the intrusive microphone. They often get rattled to the point of becoming forgetful or offering contradictory testimony. To mitigate that problem, we’d recessed two cameras in the walls and hidden a parabolic microphone behind a fake vent in the ceiling.
Then I took him next door to the control room. It was crammed with taping gear: a state-of-the-art video-recording machine the size of a suitcase, a boxy CRT video monitor, and a small audio speaker. With one push of a button, the monitor’s screen lit up. I toggled a switch to change the view from a wide-angle shot that took in the table and both chairs to a close-up shot of a single chair.
“So what do you think?” I asked.
He stared at the image on the monitor with the intensity of a sculptor sizing up a block of raw marble. Then he ran his hand over his chin and said, “I can make this work.”
The day of the meeting came. Anton arrived looking very little like the guy I knew. The round glasses were gone, and his hair was now black and moussed and combed straight back. He had on a tailored shirt and a three-piece suit worthy of a Board of Directors meeting.
He said he wanted to look over the video gear. It seemed an odd request but also, judging by his no-nonsense demeanor, a serious one. Once we were squeezed into the tight control room, he produced a small screwdriver and went to work on the recording deck. In just seconds he’d removed a piece of plastic the shape and size of a spool of thread. He also detached the wire connecting the speaker to the recorder, looped it into a small coil, and slid it into his pocket.
“A little insurance policy,” he said with a wink. “You won’t hear the details, but you’ll see how it’s done.” He handed me a $100 bill “for repairs,” then said he needed to be alone to do some preparation and was gone.
Back in my office, I tried to get some work done, but I was restless. Every few moments I peeked out through my open doorway and down the hall to the elevator to see if anything was happening.
Once I got up to use the john and was just pushing its door open when I noticed something strange. Next to the restroom was a janitor’s utility closet—but the little plastic placard identifying it had been covered over with a fancy engraved brass plate, “Michael Framingham, Vice President of Finance.” A white string hung across the entryway, suspended from thumbtacks stuck into either side of the doorjamb. Taped to the string was a hand-lettered sign, “Painting — Do Not Enter.”
I imagined how Anton’s little performance might go: he’d escort his target to the door, look at the sign, shrug his shoulders, and say, Just our luck, they’re painting my office today. Oh well, we can use the small conference room. I felt a tingle, as if I were in on some CIA operation or Mission Impossible scheme—the false fronts, the play-acting, the subterfuge.
Heading back toward my office, I saw Anton ushering a man in a dark suit into the studio, a heavy-set figure clutching a briefcase.
Immediately I entered the control room and closed the door, being careful to stay quiet as I took a seat on the little stool and switched on the monitor. It flickered to life with a grainy black-and-white image. Anton sat across the table from the man, who was using a handkerchief to dab the sweat from his brow and the bald area above his forehead. Since Anton had disabled the speaker, I watched the video in silence, toggling back and forth between the wide shot of the two of them and a close-up framing only the profusely sweating fat man.
Anton did most of the talking. Not distracted by his words, I could pay attention to how he controlled his every movement, using his body language and hand gestures to reinforce and accent whatever tale he was spinning. When he listened, he nodded reassuringly and cocked his head, his eyebrows rising and falling in utter fascination. Finally, he flashed a smile and spread his hands wide, signaling that the time for talk was over.
The fat man reached to the floor and lifted up the briefcase. He laid it flat on the table, latches toward himself, his chubby hands resting on top. There was another short exchange—no doubt more soothing words from my slick friend—and then, after another dab at his brow, the man rotated the case. Anton snapped up the latches and opened the case to reveal bundled stacks of bills—more than ten, less than twenty.
As they were wrapping things up, I shut off the electronic gear and went back to my office. I peered out through the cracked door, and it wasn’t long before Anton, briefcase in one hand, the other draped around the shoulder of the fat man, came down the hallway, guiding his victim to the elevator.
I pushed the door open and called out, “Hey, Framingham.”
Anton tensed for a fraction of a second. Then, not missing a beat, he turned around and acknowledged me with a vice president’s corporate cool.
“When you’re done there,” I said casually, “I have a question about the Barrington account.”
“Sure, I’ll be right down,” he said.
The predator deposited his prey in the elevator with much head-nodding, hand-shaking, and amiable chuckling. When the doors finally slid together, Anton scanned the hallway in both directions, then jogged into my office. He pushed the door closed and leaned against it, breathing fast, clutching the briefcase to his chest.
“Bravo!” I clapped my hands. “You were brilliant.”
“I couldn’t help myself. It just looked like so much fun,” I explained. “How much did you get?”
It was no use. We couldn’t have been any more out of sync.
“I gotta go,” he said, opening the door. “I’ll call you in a few days.”
Something’s rotten in America—we all know it, we all feel it, we all smell it. And when the stench is high and the wind is right, writers start calling bullshit. That’s what Joseph Heller did with Catch-22, his blistering indictment of the Cold War, McCarthyism, and military madness. That’s what David Mamet did with the film script for Wag the Dog, a bare-knuckled attack on the spin-and-grin shenanigans in Clinton-era Washington. And it’s what I’ve tried to do in The iCon, a black satire I think of as a kind of zeitgeist thermometer for measuring the rising temperature of the water all us froggies are floating in.
The story follows Dan Lincoln, a lawyer and owner of a professional basketball team who feels he’s been screwed by the league for decades and wants revenge. Selling his team for twice its value would be the perfect middle-finger to give the league. He enlists world-class con man Anton Volpi to mastermind the $500 million caper. Volpi assembles a crew of con artists and casts them in a very public drama that involves Dan, his jilted mistress, and her vindictive release of an incriminating audiotape. On the tape, Dan utters a vile rant that Volpi has scripted to target the hottest of America’s hot-button issues: race.
Broadcast, print, and internet journalists can’t get enough of this scandal, which drips with sex, celebrity, and betrayal. Their obsessive coverage ignites a social-media firestorm and mobilizes angry fans in a nationwide “pickets not tickets” boycott. The basketball league scrambles to make the costly crisis go away—even as Dan resists their every effort to force him to sell his team and Volpi stokes the media frenzy with tantalizing new twists and ever more lurid revelations. It’s a game of high-stakes extortion: the longer Dan holds out, the greater the losses inflicted on the league’s thirty fat-cat team owners and the more the crooks stand to gain.
The novel combines third-person narrative chapters with Dan’s memoir and excerpts from Volpi’s journal. One of the journalists who has been hoodwinked by the subterfuge reflects on the story of Dan and the damning tape, describing it as “the perfect prism for diffracting the tangled complexities of race, privilege, and inequality chafing and grinding and doing their dirty business in America today.” The iCon is all about that chafing and grinding.
Ross West is a writer living in Eugene, Oregon. He has had a thirty-year career as a journalist and freelance writer, capped by serving for eleven years as senior managing editor at Oregon Quarterly magazine (circ. 95,000) and as text editor for the Atlas of Oregon and Atlas of Yellowstone. His work has been anthologized in Illness & Grace, Terror & Transformation; Dark Horse Presents; and Best Essays Northwest.
Embark, Issue 6, October 2018