by Alan Swyer
Brought in as a consultant because of his experience unmasking charlatans and debunking cons, the man known to the world as Roger the Remarkable – and to his friends simply as Roger Barnes – came up with rules and guidelines that were swiftly adopted by scores of corporations, then embraced by law enforcement agencies far and wide.
A compilation of old adages: If something seems too good to be true, it probably is; pearls of wisdom: When given a specific name at a company as a reference, check instead with someone else in that person’s department; and fresh takes: Cynicism is man’s foremost line of defense; it listed ten key points for fiscal survival. The most important? Haste not only makes waste, it also breeds disaster!
Having made his name as a magician – first thanks to stunning illusions, then with dazzling sleight of hand – Roger, as time went on, became, in show biz terms, a multiple hyphenate. Initially that meant writing an occasional article, sometimes to expose a con game or ruse, but more frequently to chronicle the evolution of magic across the ages. That led to the first of what became a series of books on magic’s historical ties to spirituality, pseudo-science, and even the art of war.
Concurrently, an out-of-the-blue request to serve as technical adviser on a film about a prestidigitator was the spark leading to a lucrative side business consulting on films dealing with magic and/or con games. Then an additional hyphen was added when Roger was asked to participate in a film not as a consultant or even as a performer of legerdemain, but instead as an actor, which opened the door for more and bigger parts.
Though extremely private not simply by temperament, but also because of the hush-hush, secretive nature of realms such as magic and cons, Roger’s burgeoning work load made it impossible for him to continue entirely on his own.
Relying upon his own set of rules and guidelines, Roger did his diligence in searching for someone who could organize his professional life and free him from the demands of what he derisively termed maintenance.
His quest yielded not just an aspiring screenwriter in need of a day job who quickly proved to be bright, responsible, and relentlessly affable, but also the realization that life itself would have been infinitely easier had he been wise enough to take on an assistant earlier. Though it was difficult for Roger to learn to delegate, and awkward at the outset to have another person present in the Santa Monica house that served as a combination home, office, and rehearsal space, he ultimately grew not just comfortable with the situation, but dependent upon it.
When George, the assistant who spent his nights toiling on screenplays, had the good fortune to sell an option on a spec script, enabling him at last to be able to work at his calling full-time, Roger was able to find a well-suited replacement. Into his life came a would-be stand-up comic named Diana who had once labored in a health food restaurant, which meant that in addition to her other skills, she even made great lunches for the two of them on days when her employer was not otherwise booked.
Often likened to the Amazing Randi, only younger; or to Ricky Jay, only beardless and not given to using cards as weapons; or to David Blaine, only less full of himself; Roger continued to explore new directions even as his assistants kept changing periodically.
There was Sergio, from Argentina, who was penning a novel in his off hours. Then Charlotte, who used the name Gypsy in her budding career as a singer. And Jason, a graffiti artist, whose breakthrough – and departure from Roger – came thanks to work on the X-Games. And Jessica, whose calling was dance.
Knowing full well that the young people he hired were not merely overqualified, but also blessed with a wonderful blend of dreams, talent, and determination, Roger was not the least bit daunted by the realization that few wound up staying longer than a year. In fact, while coming to understand that change meant diversity, he started relying less and less on the rules and guidelines he’d created, and more and more on his instincts. With subjectivity overshadowing objectivity, he wanted less about the applicant’s background, but more about his or her hopes and dreams.
The most striking display of initiative from an aspirant for the position came from someone who initially reached out to Roger via Facebook.
“I’m not trying to dislodge or unseat your assistant,” Colin Stacy wrote in his initial message. “But should the position ever come open, I would be grateful for an opportunity to interview.”
It was the first time Roger had ever been approached before spreading the word among friends or putting a notice on Craigslist. Though his response – “Duly noted.” – was muted, he was not displeased to find that the young man made an effort to touch base every month or so, which led to what eventually became an ongoing back-and-forth.
First came flattering notes about facets of Roger’s work – an article about conjuring in the Middle Ages, an appearance on TV, or a performance in a film – to which Roger always responded with words of gratitude. Then there were questions about Houdini, Chung Ling Soo, Slydini, and other great magicians from the past. Plus inquiries about cons, grifts, and contemporary hustles.
When, inevitably, the assistant position became open, the meeting between Roger and Colin proved to be a long awaited get-together rather than a conventional interview.
In no time at all, Colin was, in Roger’s term, wearing several hats. In addition to the maintenance – administrative duties, care of Roger’s Audi, scheduling appearances, and juggling the women who were part of Roger’s extracurricular life – the new assistant quickly became both an amanuensis and a confidant. It was he who served as Roger’s initial audience when it was time to try a new coin trick or tweak a piece of sleight-of-hand with cards. And he who got the first look at rough drafts of articles or book reviews.
More importantly, it was Colin who became the sounding board when Roger was commissioned to author a book called SCAMS, about contemporary bunko schemes, hustles, and ripoffs.
Whereas other assistants had ranged from very good to excellent, Colin, Roger took to telling people, created a standard all his own. Whether doing menial work like picking up dry cleaning, administrative work such as reconfirming flights, professional work that included listening to Roger’s ideas for the book-in-progress, or even copy-editing a draft of an article, Colin Stacy never faltered.
As Roger saw it, he had a perfect blend of tirelessness, diligence, resourcefulness, and loyalty. Or so it seemed.
The first hint Roger got that all was perhaps not quite what it appeared to be came when his book agent called from New York to mention that an online magazine was about to publish an article about the Nigerian email scheme – dubbed the 419 Scam after the section of the Nigerian criminal code that outlines fraud – which seemed uncomfortably close to one of the first chapters in Roger’s book-in-progress.
Despite dismissing the news as the kind of possibility that haunts every writer, Roger nonetheless asked the name of the author. He was informed that it was a pseudonymous character who went by The Whiz, which meant nothing to him whatsoever.
More troubling was a second call from Elliot, the book agent. Yet another online publication, it seemed, had recently acquired a piece about telemarketing fraud, while a third had announced the acquisition of something dealing with identity theft.
Since both topics represented additional chapters in Roger’s forthcoming opus, and each was authored by a writer, or perhaps writers using pen names, Roger took greater notice. As he often said in speaking engagements, one instance could pass as a fluke, and two as a coincidence. But three was clearly and almost certainly a pattern.
Troubled, Roger immediately went into action. Sending Colin Stacy on an errand that would eat up the rest of the afternoon, he sat down in front of his computer, then proceeded to work well into the night on a chapter about a reverse mortgage scheme that purportedly hit Las Vegas hard before spreading into Florida.
The next morning, asserting that the pages were a top priority, he gave them to Colin to proofread. Then, having fixed one ungainly sentence spotted by his assistant, and corrected a couple of typos not picked up by spell check, Roger had the new chapter emailed to Elliot.
A week later, having learned from his agent that an article about reverse mortgage hanky-panky had been accepted by yet another internet journal, Roger confronted Colin Stacy as he entered the house in Santa Monica.
“You didn’t tell me you were a writer,” Roger said.
“I beg your pardon.”
“And an expert, it seems, on cons and scams.”
“I-I think you’re jumping to c-conclusions,” Stacy muttered.
“And indeed taking action.”
“W-what does that mean?”
“Each of the publications has been served notice about plagiarism.”
“And here’s else something you should know: there is no reverse mortgage scheme.”
“I made it up.”
“I-I don’t know what to say.”
“Just tell me what else I need to know.”
Colin Stacy’s only response was a shrug.
“Then I suggest you hand me my keys and leave before I call the police,” Roger stated clearly.
A week later, Roger’s hope that an unpleasant learning experience would soon be gone and forgotten was shattered abruptly when his movie agent, a woman named Suzanne who prefaced every call with euphoric spiels about the healings that were constantly saving her life, called with bad news. A consulting position that Roger had been approached about on a new Houdini bio-pic had gone to someone else.
“Know who?” Roger asked.
“Some hot new up-and-comer.”
Roger’s heart sunk.
Roger’s agitation grew even more intense when a magician friend sent him an email with a one-line question – “Know this guy?” – to which was attached a flier showing a familiar young man holding a deck of cards, plus a schedule of dates for Colin The Conjurer.
Worst of all was a Youtube video another friend sent him of a cable TV interview with the magician who seemingly had burst upon the scene. Hearing his erstwhile assistant pontificate about his craft was difficult, but nowhere near as painful as what followed.
When asked about his time spent with his putative mentor, the one and only Remarkable Roger, Colin said, “Like many things in life, it was good up to a point.”
“And how did know it was time to leave?”
“When he started stealing my material,” stated Colin with an audacity that knocked the air out of Roger like a Mike Tyson right to the gut.
All too vividly aware that he, the debunker of cons and unmasker of hustles, had been both conned and hustled, Roger vowed never again to ignore his own set of rules and guidelines when interviewing anyone for any position at all.
Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, and boxing. His fiction has appeared in Ireland, England, and in several American publications.