Short Fifty

Earlier this year, I met a very interesting man.  He looked normal, friendly, and smiling.  But below that, I suspect, lies something fascinating and dark.

I was hired to perform walkaround magic for two hours at a house in Bell Canyon.  For those who don’t know, Bell Canyon is an exclusive gated community in the west San Fernando Valley.  I’m not just talking about a condo complex with a remote-control gate on it, but a true gated community with a sentry station, guards, patrols, the whole thing.

Closeup Wonderground merge 2 smaller

When I walked up to the party at noon, the party was in full swing.  There was a jazz band on the front lawn, caterers in the dining room serving massive amounts of food, and a bounce on the lawn for the children. I performed for two hours for the guests.

When I told the client that my two hours was over, he went upstairs and fetched my payment.  Giving it to me, it was a bundle of twenties wrapped in a post-it note.  Then he walked away.  From experience, I know to count the money before leaving, so I went into a corner and did that.  I was dismayed to discover that it was $50 short.  I hate it when that happens.  First of all, since he didn’t count it out, the suspicion shifts to me, that perhaps I just pocketed the $50 and declared it short.  Second of all, I have to go back to him and put him in an embarrassing position.

But I wasn’t afraid to embarrass him.  It was my money.  He had sat back down with friends and was chatting amiably with them.  I tapped him on the shoulder, called him aside, and told him in private that the payment was short $50.

“Oh, didn’t I–let me count that,” he said, and started counting the money.  Then he stopped.  “Oh, I trust you.  I’ll be right back.”

Then he went back upstairs for a couple minutes.  When he returned, he shoved a fifty into my hand and walked away.

Everything was fine till five days later, when I tried to spend the fifty at a gas station.  The worker held it up to the light, made a mark on it with a counterfeit-detection pen, and scratched it a couple times before he called his supervisor over.  She looked at it, too.

“I’m sorry, but this is counterfeit,” she said.

“What?” I said.


It shocked me, because this had never happened to me.

So I took it to the manager of my bank, who ran it through a machine.

“It came up CF,” he said.  “Twice.”

Everyone declared it a very good counterfeit.  The paper felt like an old, worn-down bill.  It even had the strip embedded inside the bill.  But apparently the texture of the paper is wrong, as well as the serial number, which looks a little wrong.

So I went to The Google, where I typed in: “If you get a counterfeit bill.”  That referred me to the Secret Service.  I called the L.A. office and had a conversation with an agent.

“It’s doubtful that you’re going to get your money back,” he said.  “Counterfeit bills are like hot potatoes: You don’t want to be the last one holding it, because then you’re out the money.  Even if he knowingly passed it, the federal prosecutor won’t pursue it unless he passed more than $2500 in counterfeit bills.”

The first thing to do, he said, was to call back the customer and tell him the bill was counterfeit and ask him for another fifty.  Don’t be confrontational, he said, because these people can often be dangerous.  Just call and see if that works.

So the talent agent called him back and left a very nice message on his voicemail.

“I’m sure don’t know this,” she said, “but one of the bills you gave us was counterfeit.  Can you believe it?  As you may have seen from my Website, I book a lot of shows for the LAPD, and they’ve told me that they want to look at the bill to see if they can pursue it further.”

The agent received an immediate call back.

“I’m really shocked,” the man said.  “I got those bills from Wells Fargo Bank, and I would’ve thought they’d have checked them.  Listen, can you send the bill back to me so I can take it back to the bank?”

“Well, I’ll tell you what.  You send me a $50 check first, and then we’ll send you back the bill.  That’s how it works.”

“You know that if you go to the bank, they’ll give you a real fifty.”

“Well, I think the magician actually took it to the bank.”

The client said he’d send the fifty.  He never did.

Finally, I gave up on it.  I visited the sheriff’s station in the area and gave the bill to an officer.  I figured it might help in building a case against him.  A couple weeks later, the Secret Service gave me an excited call.

“Can you give us any more details on this guy?” he said.  “The serial numbers on this bill match 212 other bills that have been passed over the last year.  But this is the first one that’s been passed on the West Coast.”

The talent agent paid me the $50, which was actually her responsibility to begin with.  She was quite gracious about it.  Little did I know that this fortysomething singer had been struggling with cancer, and within two months, I was attending her funeral.

What’s fascinating is how slick this guy was.  He looked like any other wealthy family man.  He was celebrating his son’s first birthday with friends and family.  He was having a great time.  He had a great smile. His 4-year-old daughter was decked out in a lovely, puffy dress and took great delight in my strolling magic.  His thirtysomething wife was pretty, friendly, and elegant.  The home looked like a Southern plantation, and the backyard was incredibly well planted and manicured.

By the end of the party, when he had called to have the bounce picked up, his voice was very drunk over the phone, according to the agent.  As much trouble as he has caused me and the agent, I’m sure his wife and family endure much more extensive difficulties, and will for as long as they’re around him.


7 thoughts on “Short Fifty

  1. Very interesting. I have never had to deal with counterfeit money, I know a few people that have, I had no idea you would have to call the FBI on it. I wouldn’t have even known what to do. I probably would have just let it go which is probably what this guy expects most people to do.

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