Last month a young man claiming to be disco singer Sylvester James bought $30,000 worth of silver coins at a Manhattan coin shop. He signed his check "Michael T. Henson," which the coin dealer took to be James' real name.

The check bounced and singer James was arrested. But the case may be more complicated. James denies buying the coins and claims someone calling himself Michael Henson has been impersonating him, writing bad checks recently in New York and, last October, to the Watergate Hotel in Washington. Free on $3,000 bail, the singer hired a private eye to prove his claim.

Fraud squads outside Manhattan know a ninth-grade dropout from Baltimore's Mergenthaler Vocational High School named Michael T. Henson. He's an accomplished and self-confessed con artist who, now in his mid-20s, was released from a correctional institution last February after serving time on mail fraud charges. Henson boasted he used others' money to finance a $500,000 around-the-world spending spree.

Several years ago Henson detailed his youth as a scam artist to Gordon Chaplin, a writer with this magazine. Hensen told Chaplin he would write about his swindles in a book.

"It's about this person who has a great feeling for life, who likes to grab everything around him -- how he didn't get along with his father, how he became gay, how be broke away into the New York life," said Henseon. "The whole thing reminds me of a person telling a story about another person. It's all about me, but it seems like another person did all that."

James, for one, is certain another person committed the fraud he is accused of. And it may turn out that Henson is still researching his book.