Query Quest

One writer's journey to getting published

Sarah Fister Gale

Sarah Fister Gale
Chicago, Illinois, USA
August 07
Sarah Fister Gale is a freelance journalist, novelist and wine-drinker based in Chicago. She is agented by the fabulous Jacquie Flynn of Joelle Delbourgo Associates who is currently seeking a good home for her novel, Losing Jenni, a story of a little girl who drowns in the Chicago River, and the amazing choice her mother makes to cope with her loss. Follow her on Twitter @SarahGale.

Editor’s Pick
DECEMBER 8, 2010 2:37PM

I’m With the Band

Rate: 14 Flag

I was 26-years-old and it was the first time I had ever traveled for business. A mere two months into my first real job as a trade magazine writer, I was flying to Dallas to cover an annual conference of mechanical engineers. I had a shiny new American Express corporate card in my wallet, $100 in cash along with my plane ticket in an envelope in my purse, and a yellow legal pad and pen in my shoulder bag.

 I was a journalist and I was ready to take on the world.

Decked out in a new black suit from Limited Express, with my hair tied back in what I imagined was a sophisticated low pony tail, I muscled my way to the back of the plane and settled into my middle seat for the three hour journey. The plane filled quickly, and I was relieved to see that no-one was going to sit in the aisle seat next to me.

Nerves battled excitement as I tried to imagine the days ahead of me, networking, interviewing and socializing with other professionals at my first business conference.

The passengers were all in their seats and we were just getting ready for takeoff when one last passenger came hurrying down the aisle. He was big and burly, with a greasy mop of black hair, a stubbly five o-clock shadow, and a blue teardrop tattooed on his cheekbone.

“Dear god,” I thought in alarm. “Please don’t let him sit next to me.”

But I watched in horror as he eyed the overhead seat numbers, jumping from row-to-row, then stopping on the number over my head. He glanced down at me, smiled, and slid into the seat beside me, stuffing a scuffed leather bag under his feet.

I looked away, reaching  into my own bag  to pull out a novel or magazine, anything to help me avoid talking to this man.

“Hi there,” he grinned, nudging me with his shoulder. I slid further toward the man in the window seat who was aggressively ignoring us both. I tossed a cool smile over my shoulder at the newcomer, then opened my book.

He was undeterred by my Midwestern sign language for ‘leave me alone.’

As the flight attendants began preparing the plane for takeoff, he turned and louldy greeted the passengers on all sides of us, each of whom responded in appropriate states of confusion or alarm.

“People don’t chat on flights,” their furrowed brows seemed to say. “Leave us alone.”

I assumed this response would finally shut him up, but then  something funny happened. The pilot and co-pilot came down the aisle, and stopped at our row of seats.

“Mr. Santana,” they gushed. “It’s so nice to have you on the flight.”

He shook their hands, and grinned. “Sorry to hold you all up,” he said. “I overslept and the boys left without me, but I gotta get to Dallas tonight.”

“Dont' worry," they assured him.  "We’ll get you there."

Then, a flight attendant edged her way into our little group and offered the man a glass of champagne. “I’m so sorry we couldn’t find you a seat in first class,” she purred, touching his shoulder briefly before she stepped back.

“No problem,” he laughed, clearly used to receiving such attention. “It’s my own damn fault for being late.”

I admit it, at this point my curiosity was peaked. He had the look of a crazy person, but the attention he was receiving meant he was clearly someone important. I was intrigued, but in my defense, so was everyone else within earshot.

Then it occurred to me.  I was the girl sitting next to the mysterious stranger.  They were jealous, and I let down my guard.

“You want a drink?” he asked nudging my shoulder again.

I shook my head, but smiled more warmly this time. “No, I’m good," I said slipping my book into the seat pocket in front of me.

“I’m Malo.”

“Sarah,” I offered, smiling up into his dark eyes, and accepting his outstretched hand. He smiled back at me, and we both settled back in our chairs.

Thus I started a budding new friendship with Malo Santana, who I would soon learn was one of the many Santana brothers who make up the band Santana.

For three hours we talked and drank champagne, while the stewardesses fawned over us. He told me about his life on the road, and the tattoo, which he explained was in honor of a friend who’d been murdered. My 26-year-old heart fluttered at that .  This greasy intruder was quickly transforming into an exotic stranger warranting my full attention.

He had performed the night before, he explained to the enraptured passengers around us, who were all now listening openly to our conversation and trying to find opportunities to join in. After partying till dawn he’d passed out cold in his hotel room and hadn’t woken up in time to catch the bus with the rest of the band.

His brothers were pissed, he informed us all, admitting sheepishly that this was not the first it had happened. We all nodded and laughed along with him, as though such things happened to us all the time and we understood the trials of being a famous musician. 

When we landed, the pilots came back to our seats and invited Mr. Santana out for a drink at a nearby bar. He accepted, and invited me to come along. I was all in. My first work trip was turning into an once in a lifetime adventure and I was beginning to suspect that I would love business travel.

As soon as we got off the plane we were driven by an indoor taxi to a shuttle, which took Malo, the pilots and me to a divey airport bar a few minutes from the terminal. Malo pulled out a wad of cash and bought drinks for the house.

I was thrilled to be a part of this crowd. With my carry-on bag parked on one side of me, and Malo Santana on the other, I laughed, and flirted, and drank cheap champagne till I was tipsy.

When the pilots had to go, Malo and I hopped in a cab. I too had to return to my hotel, I insisted, but he begged me to come out and party a little while longer. Finally, I agreed – after all how often does a girl get to party with a rock star. So we went to my hotel, where I checked in and left my bag with the concierge.

When I found Malo in the lobby a few minutes later, he had befriended a limo driver, and a young woman who was sitting alone by the hotel fireplace looking blue. It turned out her ex-husband had taken off with her kids for the weekend and she was at a loss as to what to do with herself.

“Come with us,” I told her. “We’re going out.”

The four of us piled into the limo and took off. We stopped first at a bar and had a few drinks, then went looking for a club. On the way, we were lamenting our lack of good music and ended up pulling into a late night mall with a record store to  buy a Santana tape. Three boys followed Malo out and asked for his autograph.

“Where is your name on the cover?” I asked scanning the credits on the cassette cover as he signed their t-shirts and our driver popped the cassette into the tape player.

“It’s bad luck to read the cover when you are listening to an album,” he responded, grabbing the empty case and slipping it into his pocket.

A few minutes later we arrived at a crowded night club. Beautiful people spilled out the front door and lounged in a long line waiting to get in. Malo ignored the line. He walked us all straight up to the bouncer and introduced himself. We were escorted immediately inside. The manager was alerted to our presence and a table was emptied near the front of the stage for us to use.

People began whispering and pointing at us. Some came up and introduced themselves, hoping to secure a seat at the table.I smiled graciously and made extra room.  I told them I was a journalist on the road with the band. Malo wrapped his arm tightly around me and smiled when I said this.

We ordered more champagne, and the manager asked Malo if he would please  perform. After a few half-hearted rejections, he agreed.

We were all excited to see him on stage -- but I was also getting dizzy, and realizing that it was quite late. In a moment of clarity it dawned on me that I was expected to cover the opening session at the conference in the morning and I wasn't about to screw that up.

“I’ve gotta go,” I shouted to Malo over the music. “It’s late.”

“You can’t go,” he said grabbing my arm. “I’m going to perform.”

I nodded sadly.  “I know, but I really do have to go.”

He looked sad, but he understood. He escorted me out to the front of the club, kissed me on the mouth, and asked our limo driver to take me to my hotel, then come back for him.

I waved sloppily from the backseat of the car as he went back inside wondering if I'd ever see Malo Santana again,  then I tried hard to stay awake till we got to the hotel.

It was 3 am by the time I got to my room. I set the alarm, drank three glasses of water, and passed out cold, wrapped in the scratchy polyester bedspread because I was too drunk to pry the covers loose  from the mattress.

When my alarm went off at 7:30 I was still a little drunk. Dazed and nauseous, I showered , drank more water, and raced downstairs to the conference room, grabbing a banana and a cup of coffee from the complimentary buffet before I slipped into a seat at the back of the room. The keynote speaker had already begun, and I turned on my mini tape recorder, certain that I would not be able to take proper notes.

I sat sipping my coffee, trying to stay awake and not vomit, while the speaker droned on about how to expand your business in the new millennium. As I sat listening, slices of the evening bounced into my head.

As sobriety cleared the fog in my head, a shock of suspicion crept over me. “It’s not bad luck to look at an album cover,” I thought nervously. Things were not adding up.

 Quietly, I reached down to the floor, picked up my purse, and clutched it in my lap. As the next speaker was introduced, I pulled it open an looked inside. My stomach lurched.

My credit card was gone. The envelope with $100 cash and my return ticket home was gone. And inexplicably, my brand new Mac lip gloss was also gone.

The whole night had been a con, and I had played along like a fool.

Beads of sweat prickled my skin and my hands began to tremble. I was in Dallas, alone, with the change in my coin purse and no plane ticket home. Panic clawed at my throat and I thought I might vomit right there on the table.

Instead, as calmly as I could, I asked the gentleman sitting next to me to please flip the tape on my recorder if it ran out, then I closed my purse, slipped out the back door and ran back to my room.

Sitting on the still half made-up bed, I felt hopeless, and had no idea what to do next. I couldn’t call my editor and explain that, while partying till dawn with a fake Santana brother, I had been robbed but was too drunk to notice. But if I didn’t do something soon I wouldn’t be able to get home, much less pay for my meals or hotel room.

Sifting through my suit coat hoping to find my credit card or clue as to what happened to it, I came across the limo driver’s card tucked in my pocket. I remembered that he had given it to me when he dropped me at the hotel.

I called him, hoping this might still all be just a big misunderstanding an that all my worldly possessions were in the back of his car. I was wrong.

After explaining who I was he told me that he too had been conned. He had driven Malo around for hours  with the promise of $500 at the end of the night, but Malo had disappeared before paying him.

I felt terrible. After all I brought Malo to the hotel, and I gave him credibility by simply hanging around with him. In a way, I was his accomplice.

I apologized profusely, then hung up and called the front desk to find out where the nearest American Express office was. In a stroke of good fortune, there was an office in the Galleria that was attached to the hotel.

I headed over, where I explained in the briefest possible detail, that I had had a drink the night before with a man I met on the plane, and that I believe he stolen my money, card and plane ticket. 

They felt terrible for me, poor little Midwestern girl taken in by some evil con artist. They promptly issued me a new card, and secured me a new plane ticket. They couldn’t do anything about the cash, they said, but at that point I didn’t care. I was just happy to be able to cover my hotel bill.

They also said they would alert the police immediately, and keep me posted on the situation.

Less than two hours later I returned to the session, where the man I was sitting with proudly showed me that he had switched the tape, and offered to take me to lunch.

I agreed, and told him the whole story over our meal, thinking maybe if I said it out loud it wouldn’t be as horrifying as it seemed. It was still horrifying, but he helped me see the humor in it all, and even offered to give me some cash to get me through the rest of the trip. I declined, certain that I wouldn’t be leaving the hotel till it was time for me  to go home.

That evening I got a call from American Express. The police had captured Malo that afternoon.

After tipping the waitress at the nightclub $100 on my AmEx card, and taking 10 people to dinner at an all-night diner – also on my AmEx card – he checked himself into a local hospital. Apparently, Malo was suffering from phlebitis, a disease involving blood clots. He’d had a breakdown after the meal, and took a cab to the nearest  hospital where he secured himself a private room with – you guessed it – my AmEx card. The police arrested him there.

When I returned to the office three days later, I told my editor that I’d been pick pocketed in the airport.

“Oh you poor thing,” she said, bringing me a cup of coffee. “How scary for you.”

“I know,” I nodded sagely. “I felt so violated.”

She patted my shoulder, her eyes filled with motherly concern.

“But don’t worry,” I assured her bravely. “I’ll be fine.”

Malo spent more than $3,000 on my credit card before getting arrested. I wasn’t held responsible for any of it, and my editor never learned the true story of what really happened that night.



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What a well-written piece! You had me absolutely enthralled-nice work!
Oh to be young and naive. You are a great story teller! Rated!
Excellent write up of what happened. Sorry it happened to you.
I wonder what happened to him after that.
Captivating read. Business travel is thought by many to be a luxury, when it really can be a real pain in the ass. Nothing like a ditz connecting you through O'hare in the winter and then getting to where you need to go late, getting one of the last rooms between the ice machine and the elevator on a floor housing attendees at a Shriner's or Aluminum siding salesmen convention, and having to get up at the crack of dawn for a client appointment.

You got it all in spades the first time out. Yipes. Books and an exercise regimen to forestall road food weight gain is the way to go. It ain't the way George Clooney depicted it in that movie about road warriors...
Ha! I travelled for a few years on business and you just never knew what could happen.. sounds like all in all you had a fun night and learned a few things too.
Well told...
Fascinating. There was/is a band called Malo headed by Jorge Santana, who is brother to Carlos. I don't think Carlos has a brother named Malo though. Any idea why the Airline people all thought he was who he said he was?
Probably for the same reason I did. Once one person believes a con, it makes everyone else believe too.
Thanks for all the nice comments. It was a humbling experience, but it makes for good cocktail party stories.
As someone who ended up dating a con man, you were fooled the way we all are -- charm and bluff and, key, your naivete and vulnerability.
Awesome story and thanks for sharing. I know about the heady feeling that first-time business travel can give you. Eventually, as others note, it gets to be a chore, but you really communicated the experience well here.
A well-told tale of a creepy sociopath--have had my own experience with that....
Great story. I wonder how he pre-conned the whole flight crew? And I wonder if the tear drop meant what it usually means, or if that was another relic of an older con?
So, you lost a hundred bucks and gained a great story. All in all, totally worth it!
Fascinating. At the risk of sounding like Eeyore, I am glad you kept your wits about you and that it was no worse.