Ed "Boilerroom" Tanner is a scoundrel, a scam artist who makes his living bilking the public. His last partner has in turn swindled him out of all of his money. It is the Christmas season, and as he is walking along the streets of downtown Houston, wondering where he is going to sleep the night, he tosses one of his last coins into a Salvation Army pot, just for luck. Violet, a young Salvation Army woman with the face, figure and voice of a veritable angel thanks him. Immediately, he decides to seek shelter that night at the Salvation Army mission where she works. And thus begins the most unlikely partnership in the most unlikely of endeavors this side of heaven: God's Fan club, where, for a fee, believers vie for the chance to write God and get an answer in the mail. When these two opposites fall in love it is anybody's guess at the outcome, but you will be laughing and crying until the end, rooting first for one and then the other as their affairs become inextricably entangled.
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Twilight Time Books
September 30, 2004
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Excerpt from Hotline to Heaven by Darrell Bain
It was the Christmas season, but Ed "Boilerroom" Tanner was having trouble getting into the spirit. His last trip to Las Vegas had a lot to do with that. It was hard for him to feel Christmassy when his bank account was as flat as an anemic tapeworm. He ambled slowly along the sidewalks of downtown Houston, shoulders slouched, with no particular destination in mind. He avoided bumping into the throngs of shoppers and lunch-hour pedestrians as he automatically scanned the passing faces, looking for that hint of innocence and gullibility that might be suborned into donating enough cash for another stake, or at least enough for a place to sleep tonight. He knew the look well, having made his living from it all his life, or at least since leaving home. It never occurred to him that perhaps he carried that same countenance on his own features when he was flush. He ascribed his losses in Vegas to pure bad luck, never supposing that the apparent accidental meeting with the bimbo there had been set up by his erstwhile partner after they'd concluded their last scheme.
Ed's thoughts drifted back to that operation as he walked, idly jingling the few quarters in his pockets against each other. It had gone well at first. Scrappie Brown had provided the new mailing lists they worked from and the up-front financing needed to get started, using his expertise to run the swindle and supervise the phone operators. Like most of his operations, it worked beautifully. There was something deep in human nature that always made a certain number of contacts respond favorably to the idea of a free lunch or low-cost aluminum siding where you never have to paint again. In this case, the free award had been title to plots of land in the piney woods of east Texas in return for title search fees. The awards were legitimate enough, though a little after the fact, something the operators never disclosed. The initial income from prize recipients was used to purchase a number of useless swampy acres with a small down payment. An itinerant out of work landsman was induced to cursorily survey and subdivide the land into ranchettes, then follow up letters were used to solicit more money in the form of joint attorney's fees. Those still responding were preyed on again for assessments supposedly going for maintenance, lawn and garden care. They really did hire a gardener, although he spent more time fishing in lower levels of the acreage than mowing it. It was only one form of a timeless scam. Once money was invested in the free prize, the recipients generally hung in there, thinking each new payment would be their last.
It had been a good operation, well thought out and almost legitimate. It was the letters that got them in trouble. Damn it, they should have stuck to phones. There were so many Boiler Rooms operating in the country that it might have been years before the feds got around to them if they had just stuck to that, but no, Scrappie had to get greedy.
Ed conveniently forgot that he had gone right along with Scrappie, hoping to parlay the scam into a big enough boodle to think of getting out of phone solicitation and back into more direct swindles. He missed the direct human contact of first gaining a sucker's confidence then abusing it, like coaxing a reluctant kitten into jumping at a twitching string then jerking it away.
Actually, the final payout from the bogus property scam hadn't been that bad. After the postal inspectors began nosing around, they conveniently declared bankruptcy, took the agreed upon kickback from the attorney to whom they had funneled most of the money, and headed for Las Vegas in high good humor, ready to play a little before starting over in some other city far removed from Tulsa. Houston had seemed like a good bet. It was thriving again, having recovered from the great oil bust of the eighties. He made his reservations and bought his airline ticket before beginning to play. Sometimes it paid to have an escape hatch ready, just in case he got caught slipping an extra ace or his own dice into a game, something he was loath to do unless absolutely necessary. He did maintain some standards.