Sunday, August 26, 2012

Another Excerpt from my Novel, "Perfect Money", Chapter 4

Sorry gang, but this is the last post until the novel is published. It gets better!
Wait 'til you see what the Secret Service, FBI, CIA, IRS, the Mafia and the KGB have in store for them.
 © 2012 Boyd Norton
            Before we could launch our scheme we had some work to do. First, Sam had to print more bills. We wanted to have a good supply on hand. But we also had to make sure that we could find a secure hiding place for all that money. In case we got caught and had our houses searched. You know, just to play it safe.
            For the latter problem we decided on safe deposit boxes. Not in the local bank, but in a bank in the Denver metro area. Sam opened one in a particular bank, and I did the same in another different bank. We figured that safe deposit boxes wouldn’t be traced easily, not like a bank account, and hiding a key to the boxes would be a lot easier than hiding bags of twenties.
            The printing went well and we spent an evening cutting the separate bills from the sheets. I had one of those rotary paper cutters I used for cutting photo prints. It was fast and precise. The only problem was, we ran out of paper. There were only 25 sheets in the box and we used two of those to get test prints. So with 23 sheets, at 18 bills to a sheet, we had a little over $8000 in twenties. Sam went online and ordered three more boxes of the paper. When he came back from the computer I was just finishing the cutting of the last few bills from a sheet.
            “Holy shit,” he said.
            “What? What’s wrong?
            “Do you know how much that paper costs? Thirty fucking dollars a sheet. A box of it goes for $750 bucks. I just spent $2100 bucks on my credit card, which is nearly maxed out, by the way. Fine art paper, it’s called. Christ, no wonder Epson does so well. They can give away their printers and make a ton of money on paper and ink. And, oh yeah, I just checked on it and a set of 12 ink cartridges, which is what this printer takes, is another six hundred bucks.”
            “That’s outrageous. Isn’t there anything cheaper?”
            He laughed. “Yeah, there is, but it’s not the quality of paper we need for this. This is one thing we can’t cut corners on, unfortunately.”
            I grabbed a pencil and paper and made some quick calculation. “Jeezuz, at that price each bill is costing us about a buck seventy for the paper alone.”
            “Don’t forget the ink. It’s probably close to two bucks it’s costing us to print a twenty dollar bill.”
            There went ten percent of our profit right there.
            “Maybe we ought to go for a bigger denomination. How about fifties?”
            “Are you outta your mind? Bigger bills get more scrutiny. Remember what Cat said. It would just increase the risk of getting caught. No, we gotta stay with twenties.”
            “Yeah, I guess you’re right.” This was not a good start and I began to have that awful feeling again about the whole scheme. Sam must have picked up on that.
            “Jake, we can still make this work. It’ll take a little more work on our part - maybe hitting a few extra stores.”
            I nodded but I still had a knot in my stomach.

            The next part of our preparation required some creative thinking. We needed to give the bills the look and feeling of having been in circulation. A crisp new bill attracts attention. I’ve noticed that whenever I’ve gotten one of those new bills. Even real ones cause you to think it’s gotta be phony so you look at it more closely.
            At first we tried just crumpling several of them repeatedly but that didn’t work. Most people don’t crumple their money. New bills eventually get folded and handled and passed around a multitude of times and eventually that newness is lost. But how do we duplicate that? Folding and refolding those bills was just too time consuming. Then I hit on an idea.
            “Hey Sam, you got any quarters? Like about twenty or so?”
            “Yeah, I’ve got a change jar where I toss odd coins from my pocket each night at bedtime. Why?”
             “I’ve got a way to age our money. We go to the laundromat and put a bunch of our bills in with some clothes and let them bounce around for a while. That should take away that crispness and make them look like they’ve been in circulation for a while. It’ll save us a lot of time and effort.”
            “You don’t mean washing them, do you?”
            “No no. Just put ‘em in a dryer and let them tumble around for a while.”
            “Well, okay. We can give it a try.”
            The only laundromat in Sprucehaven could, at certain times of day and certain days of the week, be a busy place. Weekends were especially crowded. Two guys stuffing money into a dryer might attract attention. So we chose a weeknight and very late in the evening. The place was supposed to close at midnight. We got there at eleven thirty.
            There was one older lady in there when we arrived. She seemed to be just finishing up, folding her clothing on one of the counters. We waited a little. She kept looking up at us, eyeing us with some suspicion. We had two garbage bags. One of them had half of our twenty dollar bills in it - about two hundred of them. We didn’t want to put all four hundred through this test until we were sure it would work. The other bag had some T shirts and underwear and a pair of Levis. I hadn’t intended to do a wash - I didn’t think there would be time and I usually do mine at home. All I wanted was some clothing to put in the dryer to cushion the bills and maybe help in the aging process by putting them in contact with clothing. I mean, a lot of paper money gets stuffed into and pulled out of pockets.
            To make it look like we were doing laundry, I went to one of the washers and opened the lid. It was full of clothes.
            “Those are mine.” The old lady came scurrying over and rescued her laundry from the presumed laundry robbers.
            “Sorry. I didn’t …”
            “This machine over here is empty,” she said pointing to another.
            Now I had to go through with it so I began piling some T shirts and underwear into the maw of the machine. She went back to folding. It was taking her forever. I was about to suggest to Sam, quietly, that we bail out and come back another evening, when the lady put all her clothing into a big basket and headed for the door. When she was gone, I turned to Sam.
            “Quick, let’s get this stuff into a dryer.”
            Three of the four dryers had “Out of Order” signs on them. I tossed the Levis into the working one and Sam began emptying the bills into it as well. A few went fluttering to the floor and I quickly rescued them and tossed them in with the pants.
            It took a few minutes before we closed the door, then we had to pull out enough quarters.
            “Let’s see. I think twenty minutes oughtta be enough. No, better yet, let’s try forty minutes. Let me have eight quarters.”
            “Uh Jake, we’ve only got about fifteen minutes.”
            “Oh yeah. Well let’s see. If we do it for that short a time, I’d better turn up the heat on this.”
            I turned a dial on the heat selection then dropped the coins into the slot one by one and pressed the start button. The pants and the twenties began whirling around inside. Through the glass door it looked bizarre, a storm of money and a pair of Levis in some kind of ballet. We went over and sat in one of the plastic chairs and grabbed some magazines.
            Just then the door opened and a cop walked in! He was one of the local sheriffs and he had a basket of damp laundry in his hands. He looked at us, then at the dryer.
            “Damn. They still haven’t fixed those other dryers.” Then he looked up at the clock. Quarter to twelve.
            “Guess you guys have got the only working dryer. Any chance you’re almost done?” He looked like he was going to walk over and look into that whirling dryer.
            “Uh, well, I think ours will run right up ‘til closing time.” My voice had suddenly gotten an octave higher in my fright.
            He shot me a quick glance and then headed for the door. “Guess I’ll have to try tomorrow night.” And he was gone.
            Talk about an adrenaline rush! As casually as I could I looked out the window and watched as he backed out and drove away.
            “Sam, I may need a pair of that underwear in the bag. The ones I’m wearing need changing.”
            Just then Sam looked up and said, “Hey, what’s that smell?”
            I laughed. “It’s not me, man. I was only kidding about shitting my pants.” And then I smelled it too. Something was burning!
            We both got to the dryer at the same time. I opened the door and we were hit by the smell of charred paper. The bills had turned a sickening brown color.
            “What the fuck.” And just then the front door opened and the little old lady returned.
            “Say, don’t you boys know how to run a dryer,” she said, sniffing the air. “You must have set the heat too high. What’s burning anyway?” She came closer. By now both Sam and I were scooping handfuls of crispy brown twenty dollar bills into the garbage bag.
            “Well no wonder. Didn’t you think to remove any money from your pockets before putting your pants in there? Say, you must carry around a lot of money.” That last was spoken when she stood in front of us, jaw agape as we piled those bills into the bag.
            “Uh, well, ma’am, we just got here from my store in Denver and the bank was closed so I couldn’t make a deposit before coming here to do laundry. When we put our clothes in the dryer I guess the bag with today’s take got tossed in accidentally. Sure is a mess. Hate to lose this money.” As Sam spoke he kept stuffing money into the black garbage bag.
            “Well, don’t you worry about it. My son works for the bank here. He’ll help you out. They can exchange that money for you. They do it all the time for folks when money gets burned or torn. Just so long as most of the bills are intact.” She turned and walked over to the countertop where she had left a batch of her folded laundry. She put it in her basket and then headed for the door. Just before leaving, she said, “You ask for my son at the bank. His name is Jason. I’ll tell him about your accident. I’m sure he can help you.”
            Then she was gone.

            Back at Sam’s house we were commiserating over a large bottle of Bombay gin. We sat at the bar in the rec room of his basement. I was on my third martini. My hands and clothes smelled of burnt paper. And my only pair of Levis had big scorches all over them.
            “Well, aside from burning up four thousand dollars and my best pair of Levis, I’d say things went pretty well today. On the bight side, we weren’t dumb enough to put the whole batch of money into that goddamned furnace.” I took another sip of martini.
            Sam sat with his chin cupped in his hands, elbows on the bar. When he spoke his head bobbed up and down. “Jake, I’ve been through a lot of ups and downs in my former business, but I gotta tell ya, today takes the prize for all time downers.” He actually smiled when he said it. “Someday we’ll look back on this and laugh.” He took another sip of his own martini. “But not today.”
            By my fourth martini I was not in any shape to drive. I called Cat. I knew she was a night owl, often staying up to read. She agreed to pick me up and was there in twenty minutes.
            “Whew, you been burning garbage or something?” she said when I got in the car.
            “I don’t wanna talk about it.”
            Later, at her place, and after I scrubbed for an hour in the shower to rid myself of the eau d’ burnt twenty dollar bills, I told her everything after I climbed into bed with her. She laughed. And, eventually, so did I.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Another Post, Chapter 3 From My Novel "Perfect Money"

© 2012 Boyd Norton

Chapter Three

             For the next few weeks things were pretty quiet - and morose. It seems that Cat had to lay off one or more people and she was not alone. Most of the businesses on main street were having problems. In fact, some were on the verge of going under. The little hardware store was having the worst of it, ever since the big chain, Home-Mart, built a big store several miles away. The hardware owner told me that things like paint at wholesale prices he had to pay were more expensive than Home-Mart’s retail prices. Naturally, in these times, when people needed paint, they wanted the cheapest price and the local hardware lost out.
            This little hardware was great. They stocked everything you might need for home repair jobs, from nuts and bolts and nails to a small assortment of lumber. And the people that worked there were so helpful. You go in with a problem and one of these old timers - women as well as men - would purse their lips and say something like, “Well, what I think would work is …” And bingo! You walked out of there with whatever piece of hardware you needed to get the job done. I remember one time I had a leaky toilet. I found one of the old timers there, a clerk I knew, and told him I wanted a certain toilet repair kit. He said, “Nah, you don’t want one of those Jake. I’ve been to your place at a party once and I know the toilet you have. Here, use this one. It’ll work better.”  By god, he was right. And I remembered that he had brought a bag of some really great pot to the party.        
            You would think that local people would at least try to help local businesses. But the problem is, most people who’ve moved here in the last couple of decades work in Denver, eat in Denver and shop in Denver. Sprucehaven became a town full of strangers, aliens. They only live here because it’s a prestigious place to live and their million dollar houses are great for entertaining and impressing their rich colleagues from Denver. But they are killing the town.
It was a Saturday morning. We sat in a corner booth in the back of the Cat House. It was quiet. Too quiet. Saturdays were usually good for her business, with people dropping in for a casual breakfast and lingering over coffee with friends. But the place was empty except for the three of us and Cat’s employee behind the register.
Cat especially seemed kind of pensive, almost morose. And Sam, well he was pretty quiet. The whole scene, the ambiance made me a little uneasy. It was like I was an unwilling participant in an unpleasant event.
            “Uh, ‘scuse me guys, are we having fun yet?” I was trying to lighten things up a bit. Mainly because I was having some serious problems of my own. Just the day before I learned that a photo shoot I was scheduled to do for a local business for promotion was cancelled. The business owner was one of those that were struggling to hang on and just couldn’t afford my work, even though I was charging a minimal amount. I was counting on that money - not a lot, mind you - to help pay my mortgage. I was a month behind and this would have gotten me caught up.
            Sam looked up. He’d hardly said a word since we got there.
            “You guys follow the stock market at all?” he asked.
            I kinda chuckled. “Sheeit, man. That’s for rich folks to play around with. If I wanna lose my money quick, I’ll go to Las Vegas.”
            “Yeah, well, I didn’t go to Las Vegas and in the last three days I’ve lost just about everything I had in investments. The market has tanked. When I finally sold, it was rock bottom and what I got is just enough to pay my mortgage for the next two months. My broker kept telling me to stay in, but if I had I wouldn’t have gotten anything.” Sam drained the last of his coffee.
            What a shock. I mean, I knew he got screwed over when his company got bought out, but I thought he had said he cashed in some earlier stock he held. “What about the cash reserves you had,” I asked.
            Now it was his turn to chuckle in that sardonic way he has. “Well, my broker convinced me that I ought to put that money to work. I thought about it long and hard and decided to gamble. Besides, he told me about this hot-shot hi tech company and I knew some of the guys who started it. So I put it all into the market shares. God, what a mistake.” He sat for a moment, pensive, staring at the wall.
            Cat set her coffee cup down and pushed her chair back to stand up. “Well, I’ve got to deal with some real world problems of my own. I have to lay off one of my employees and damn, I don’t know how to deal with this. They’re all friends.” She was almost in tears when she said it. I knew her business was struggling, but it didn’t really sink in until just then.
            Suddenly Sam stands up. “Say Cat, do you still have some of those cigars behind the counter?”
            “Yes, but I didn’t know you smoked.”
            “I just feel the need for some nicotine,” he said as he walked over to the counter. Cat and I stayed seated and watched Sam. In a few moments he was back, holding a couple of cellophane-wrapped cigars.
            “You gonna smoke those in here?” I asked.
            “Actually, I’m not gonna smoke them at all.” Both Cat and I shot him a puzzled look. He laughed.
            “Cat, you once told me your employees would be pretty good at spotting phony money. Well, I just paid for these with my own, genuine Sam Carter published twenty dollar bill.”
            I didn’t believe it. Cat, shaking her head, got up and went over to the girl behind the counter. She reached over and opened the cash register and took out a handful of bills, then came back to the booth. Now there weren’t any customers in the café and the twenty dollar bill that Sam had just spent should have been on the top of the pile of twenties that Cat brought back. We looked at that top one carefully. Then the next one and the next until we had the pile of them spread out on the table top. I’ll be damned if I could see any difference among them – they all felt and looked real.
            Ever notice something about the feel of money? It has a kind of a subtle greasy feeling to it, while regular paper feels like, well, paper. Someone once told me that people who handle money all the time, clerks, bank tellers and the like, can often detect a counterfeit bill just by the feel of it. All of these bills felt the same. We held them up to the light, looking for any telltale signs. Everything – watermarks, serial numbers, portraits – looked authentic. “Bullshit,” I said. “You’re pulling our legs.”
            Sam had, by now, unwrapped one of the cigars and was twirling it around in his hand. He laughed.
            “Thank you Mr. Epson,” he said. Then he reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of twenty dollar bills. He spread them on the table. “You see,” he continued, “When I was pres of my own company, the Epson folks – they’re the ones who make those great printers – learned I was a techno-geek and they began sending me complimentary versions of their latest and greatest printers and scanners and all. It was good for their business because my company would buy the newest stuff. Anyway, they are still sending me the latest and greatest and just a few weeks ago I got their newest scanner and printer. What you see here is the outcome of all that new technology.”
            “Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I said. “I’ve been reading about how good these new printers are for years now. In fact, every once in a while I read about some high school kids printing some bogus bills and getting caught. It isn’t because the printing isn’t good. It’s the paper. What about the paper? That’s the key to it all. How did you get the right paper? From what I’ve read, the company that makes the paper for the U.S. Treasury for their printing is a super secret place and no one gets close to getting any of that paper or its formula.” I was practically whispering when I finished, even though there were no other customers in the café at the time. It just seemed like a topic that demanded whispering.
            “What’s the difference, you guys? You’re not planning on spending this stuff, are you?” Cat lifted her cup and drank the last of her coffee. Sam and I looked at each other. It was a strange moment because, up until this time we had all been joking about this – you know, one of those delicious daydreams about doing something illegal and beating the system. As I looked at Sam I could tell that at this moment something had changed. We both realized that we not only could, but would try it.
            “Nah,” I said. “It’s just one of those challenging tech things that’s kind of fun to play around with.”
            Sam laughed to assuage Cat as well. But at that moment we both knew that things had changed.
            Cat got up and left to make her dreaded phone call. Sam and I sat in silence for a long while. Finally I broke the quiet.
            “What about the paper, Sam?”
            He leaned forward, looking first around the room as though searching for spies. The restaurant was still empty. I was beginning to feel like I was part of some CIA plot planning the overthrow of a government. Actually, when I thought about it later, I was probably right. But at the moment I tried for a little levity.
            “Bond,” I said in my best imitation of Sean Connery. “James Bond.”
            “Listen,” Sam said. He had become very serious.  “I can’t begin to tell you what a stroke of luck it was with the paper. You see, when Father Epson used to send me complimentary printers and scanners and such, they always included samples of their newest printer papers. Now some of these papers are not your basic copying and printing papers. Some are designed for photography and art prints and are specially formulated for that purpose. I guess they have a special look and feel and surfaces that lend themselves to viewing in art exhibitions. Hell, being a photographer, you oughta know about these things.”
            I shook my head. “Look, I haven’t been able to afford to keep up with all this new stuff. You know more about it than I do.”
            “One night, a few weeks ago, I had finished off the better part of a bottle of a really nice cabernet and, for the hell of it, decided to try an experiment. With the new printer and scanner.” He paused and looked around again. “I scanned a brand new twenty. At the highest resolution possible on the scanner. Then I laid it out in a program so that I could print eighteen of them on a sheet of 17 by 22 inch paper. That was the size of the printer and paper they sent me.”
            “So what was special about the paper,” I asked.
            “That’s what’s so funny. They had sent me three different kinds and I just grabbed one box at random. Turns out it was the special artsy fartsy paper and the printing looked sensational. But I didn’t really look closely at it until the next morning.”
            “Yeah, the printing may be great, but how do you deal with the watermarks?”
            “That took some sleuthing. I remembered asking my ex-con employee that same question. It was about the time that the treasury department was starting to use watermarks in bills. But I couldn’t remember what he had told me. So the next night, after another bottle of a good cabernet, I got on the phone and was finally able to track him down. Turns out he’s teaching sociology at UC Santa Cruz and has a PhD. Anyway, I had to play it kind of cagey, but he figured out what I was up to and laughed. And he gave me the information.”
            “It’s a special ink, overprinted separately. Look, the whole idea of a watermark is that it is invisible when looked at with reflected light, but it shows up when you shine light through the bill. When they print real money they actually embed a watermark in the paper so it only shows up when you hold it up to the light. Now, this special ink has some really weird optical properties that I don’t fully understand. The result is, you print it on the surface and it doesn’t show unless you hold the bill up to the light. Instant watermark.”
            I sat there for a while, not saying anything but trying to absorb all this information. This was too good to be true. How come someone else hasn’t discovered this? What about his ex-con employee? And his cellmate that did the counterfeiting? If this was all true, there’s gotta be a shitpot full of bogus money floating around. I posed the question to Sam.
            “Yeah, I thought about that too. Makes you wonder if there’s any real money in circulation anymore. But I don’t think this is a well known secret. At least my friend didn’t think so.”
            “Okay, so what’s next?” I asked.
            “Well, in science you test the hypothesis. In this case, we try spending some.”
            “Yeah, and end up in jail,” I said.
            “Well, I’ve given this a lot of thought. Suppose - just suppose - you get caught. Who’s to say you didn’t get this bill from some other source - change from a grocery store, for example. You’re innocent and no one is going to prosecute you for innocently passing a bogus bill you got from somewhere else. Especially if you’re not carrying around more than one of those bills. And as long as you keep the original stash well hidden in case they search your house. Of course, you gotta make sure to never pass anymore of it. But in the meantime, before you actually get caught you could be spending shit loads of the money. My feeling is, with care and caution, you’d never get caught.”
            It made sense. But I still had an uneasy feeling about the scheme.
            “I’m not clear on how we can actually benefit by this. I mean, using twenty dollar bills, wouldn’t we have to pass a lot of it to get any real benefit? How would I buy a car, for example? I couldn’t just waltz into an auto agency with a suitcase full of twenties. And I sure as hell couldn’t deposit that in my checking account. Someone at the bank would wonder how I got all that cash and probably scrutinize it pretty carefully.”
            “No, no, no. It has to be laundered. Look, you go into a store like Walmart and buy something for $5. Give them one of our twenties and you get $15 back in real money. That’s our profit. Do that ten times a day in different stores and you get $150 profit in real money. With two of us - I don’t think Cat would go along with this - we net $300 a day. Do that five days a week - we shouldn’t work weekends - and the total is $1500 a week. That’s $6000 a month. Split two ways, I can handle my mortgage and buy groceries and have enough for a good bottle of wine from time to time. And so can you.”
            I mulled this over. Three thousand a month seemed like a fortune. And maybe some of the stuff bought could be useful - like food or beer. Five bucks would be about right for a six pack of good beer.
            “Yeah, but when some of those phony bills get spotted, this town will be crawling with feds. Then we’re out of business.” I didn’t want to keep coming on so negative, but I was still uneasy.
            “Hold on, we would not spend any of that money here in town. First, we can’t jeopardize some of our friends here with small businesses. We don’t want any of them to get caught with bogus money. And you’re right, it would be too concentrated an area and would draw suspicion when a lot of those bills showed up in this small an area. No, what we do is spread out across the greater Denver area. God, there must be a thousands of shopping malls down there with clerks making minimum wage and hassled and not caring about money passing through their hands. I think it’ll work. Especially with this good a printing job. It would be months, maybe years before any of these bills get spotted.” He paused for a moment. “Just think,” he said. “How many twenty dollar bills are passed in any given day in all the stores in the Denver area?  Ten thousand? A hundred thousand? A million? It boggles the mind. And our meager spending wouldn’t draw any attention.”
            It did make sense. “Yeah,” I said, chuckling. “And in our own small way we’d be helping the economy.”
            I wish now I hadn’t said that. That concept would come back to haunt us.        

Monday, August 20, 2012

Another Post From My Novel, "Perfect Money"

© 2012 Boyd Norton
During the next two weeks Sam and I met for breakfast three or four times at the Cat House. Cat wasn’t there – as I said, she pretty much let the employees run things. It didn’t matter, though, because Cat and I had gotten together a few more times for some serious lovemaking.
            Since both Sam and I were freelancing, meaning unemployed, we lingered long after breakfast and, over numerous cups of coffee, talked about publishing books. Sam showed me some pictures and some writing he had done and they were damned good. I showed him some of my stuff and we brainstormed ideas. As usual, the big problem was financing. Sam said he had contacts, but that money was really tight these days.
            Then, on a Friday morning, we met again, this time in Elk Park for a hike to the top of Sprucehaven Mountain – not a major trek, but a nice walk of about three hours round trip. And Cat joined us.
            At first we walked pretty much in silence. It was one of those gorgeous days in late August, crystal clear and hot. Under that brilliant blue sky everything seemed as though you were looking through a magnifying glass – sharp edged and bright. The pines were deep green and the grasses were losing their summer green to a tinge of autumn yellow. After a few miles, we stopped to rest on some smooth, sun warmed rock outcroppings. Cat broke the silence.
            “So, I guess you guys heard about the big excitement in Sprucehaven?”
            “Excitement?” I said. “You mean there’s excitement in our fair city?”
            “Yes, it seems our illustrious sheriff’s department finally caught a crook, after all these years. Happened Monday.”
            “What, some kid stealing candy bars in the Safeway?” I asked.
            “Oh no, this was a biggie. A counterfeiter. Big time stuff.”
            “So tell us.”
            “You know that new upscale shop on main street, kitty-corner across the street from my place? The one started by that snooty California bitch …”
            “Careful,” I interrupted, “Sam is one of those hated Californians. I told him he was still on probation here until he proved himself a good guy.”
            In response, Sam raised his hand and extended his middle finger skyward, smiling as he did it. “Jeez, you guys. I thought being black brought out prejudice in people. Now I’ve got California discrimination to deal with.”
            “Alright, you guys, do you want to hear the story or not?” Cat was getting a little annoyed. I could tell because she has this way of brushing her long hair back over her shoulders when she’s impatient or irritated about something.
            “Yes ma’am,” I said.
            “Well, this guy goes into the snotty Calif… ‘scuse me Sam, the bitch’s store and looks around for a long while and finally picks out something relatively cheap, and cheap for that place is anything under five hundred bucks. He finds something for a little over a hundred bucks. When she rings it up, he opens this attaché case and pulls out two one hundred dollar bills to pay for it.”
            “Pretty phony looking?” I asked.
            “No, apparently they were pretty good. But the thing that got her suspicious is the fact that they were the old kind, you know, before they started printing the new bills with Ben Franklin’s picture bigger and with all the watermarks and stuff. The thing that really got her was that they were crisp, like they hadn’t been circulated. Now, all the older bills are being phased out, so any floating around should look pretty used.”
            “So what happened?”
            “Well, according to the story she rang up his purchase, then waited until he left to call the sheriff. She watched him from her store window and got his car license number. Apparently he was hitting most the stores on main street, although he didn’t come into my place. And then, boy this took some balls, he drives up to the bank drive-in window and asks if they could change $400 in hundred dollars bills for smaller denominations.”
            “So that’s when they got him?”
            “No,” she laughed. “The clerk gave him the change in $20 bills and apparently never gave a second look at the phonies. By then the sheriff and deputy had found their way out of the coffee shop and they stopped the guy at the bank exit. When they searched his car they found suitcases full of phony bills – four million dollars worth.”
            “Wow,” I said. “That guy was pretty dumb.”
            Sam laughed. “The really smart crooks these days are in corporate boardrooms.”          “What I don’t understand,” Cat said, “is why counterfeiters print large denomination bills. I’ve taught my employees to give careful scrutiny to fifty and hundred dollars bills. But twenties and tens, no one really looks at. Still, I try to teach them to at least give a little examination to any bill larger than a five.”
            “It’s true,” Sam said. “I rarely have anything larger than a twenty in my wallet. Especially these days.” He laughed that sardonic laugh.
            “My theory is,” I said, “that crooks are too impatient these days. They feel they gotta make it big right away. But like you say, why print big bills that might attract attention? Might take you longer to pass smaller bills, but you could probably get away with it forever. ‘Course, you’d still have to do a damned good printing job.”
            “That’s easier than you think,” Sam said.
            “Uh, oh, now we’re going to learn how he really made his money.” I took off my pack because both Cat and Sam were stretched out on the rocks and showed no signs of being ready to move on. Cat rested her head on her pack and had her eyes closed. She was wearing shorts and a T-shirt and, oh my, did she look yummy.
            Without opening her eyes Cat said, “What do you mean, Sam? You sound like an expert.” She laughed that laugh.
            “No, but I had this employee who was. Back when the company was mine, I often interviewed job applicants myself. One day this black brother came in. He was an ex-con and having a tough time finding work. I gave him a good grilling to make sure he wouldn’t be a risk. It appeared that he had gotten a bum rap – a cop pulled him over for speeding and found a small bag of marijuana in the car. The judge threw the book at him, giving him two to five in the state pen. I had my company lawyers check all this out. He got out after eighteen months, but no one would hire him. So I gave him a chance.” Sam paused to pluck a long piece of grass nearby and put it in his mouth. It waved up and down as he talked.
            “As time went by,” he continued, “I got to know the guy pretty well. He was a computer whiz and a damned good worker. Then one day he tells me this incredible story about his prison experience. It turns out his cellmate had a counterfeiting scam going on, right there in the state prison.”
            “How the heck could he do that?” asked Cat. She had one eye open now. “I mean, you need printing presses and all that.”
            Sam was enjoying the telling of this, you could tell. It was one of those deliciously illegal things that everyone thinks about from time to time. Screwing the establishment. I loved it.
            “Actually, you don’t need a printing press if you have the right computer equipment. And this prison had the right stuff. It seems they had this job training program, you know for rehabilitation, with all the latest computers, scanners and high end color printers. Some of these color printers are so good, it’s unbelievable what they can do.”
            “So how did this guy spend his phony money?” I asked.
            Sam laughed. “He found a way to smuggle uncut sheets of bills out of the prison. I guess they check everything coming in, but don’t bother much with stuff being sent out. Anyway, here’s the really interesting part. He didn’t spend it. He gave it all away – a couple of million dollars – to his friends. It turns out the guy was a bank robber, doing ten to twenty for armed robbery, and he had a stash of nearly one million real dollars waiting for him when he got out. His retirement fund. The counterfeiting was a hobby. A high tech Robin Hood.”
            “Hey, Sam, maybe we should publish money instead of books.” Shit, I wish now that I hadn’t said that. Sam and Cat laughed, but then Sam said something that changed everything.
            “My employee who was cellmate with the counterfeiter made an interesting comment when I asked him how he felt about the scam. He said, ‘Haven’t you ever wanted to get even with the people screwing us? Our past president gave tax credits to the rich. Think of my cellmate’s counterfeiting as tax credits for the poor.’”
            “Now I’ve thought about this,” said Sam. “I don’t pretend to be an economist, but the Republicans claim that those fat cat tax credits are good for the economy by stimulating spending. If that’s true, just think how great for the economy it was when the con’s friends bought stuff with all that phony money. Millions of dollars pumped into the local economy.”
            I laughed. What irony. This was great stuff. But when I looked over at Cat, instead of laughing she had this funny smile on her face. And Sam, well, he didn’t even smile. Instead he had kind of a dreamy look on his face, almost as though he was envisioning the delicious pleasure of spending that bogus money. I have to admit, I had that vicarious feeling myself. Wouldn’t it be great to fuck the system?
            I was about to suggest that we continue our hike when some faint rumblings came from over the hills. One of those mountain thunderstorms was heading our way.
            Cat sat up. “Okay, sports fans, time to head back,” she said.
            “What, we giving up because of some rain?” asked Sam.
            Both Cat and I laughed. I explained first. “Uh, Sam, you gotta understand, this isn’t just some rain. We get thunderstorms here in the Rockies that are pretty potent. You don’t want to be on top of some hill or mountain or under a tree. Every year we fry a few people here in Colorado from lightning. Mostly flatlanders who don’t know any better. Safest place to be is in a bar,” I added.
            Everyone grabbed their packs and we headed back down the trail at a pretty good pace. The rumblings got louder. It took about an hour and by the time we reached the car it started pouring. The lightning was dancing on the hills where we had been. Sam was impressed. “Sheeeit, I see what you mean. That’s some mean electrons up there.”
            We headed back to town and had dinner at the Cat House.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

An Excerpt From My New Novel, "Perfect Money"

© 2012 Boyd Norton

Chapter One.

Timing is everything. When you think about events in your life, imagine how different things might have been if you had been delayed by a minute or so when an important event took place for you. You could have missed that chance meeting of an old friend who changed the direction of your life – maybe a stock tip, for example. Well, maybe that’s not a good example in my case, since I don’t own any stock. At least, not any more. Anyway, maybe he introduced you to someone who would have a profound influence – like that incredible woman that forever changed your sex life.
Or instead of being late, how about if you had been early by a minute or even ten seconds. The guy that ran the red light might have creamed you at the intersection. Minutes, sometimes seconds, make all the difference in our lives.
            If I had been a minute or two earlier I would have reached the trail junction and gone off in a different direction. I think about this a lot, now that I have a lot of time to think. We all have lots of if onlys in our lives, but in my case one minute did make a difference. If only I had turned off the trail. If I had, it is most certain that the Secret Service, FBI, IRS, Treasury Department, mafia, the CIA and maybe even the KGB would never have entered my life. And I would have missed the dog shit.
            I hate mountain bikers and this guy gave me reason to hate them even more. You see, I walk a lot in the mountain parks here in Sprucehaven. I do this two, three times a week – been doing it ever since I moved here 30 years ago. But nowadays the mountain bikers are totally out of control. Hells Angels in Spandex. And this guy came screaming down the trail straight toward me. I had no choice but to jump out of the way and that’s when I stepped into the big pile of dog shit.
            Sonofabitch. Man, I was pissed. I stood there scraping my foot in the grass, trying to get the stuff off.  These were a brand new pair of REI hiking shoes, the kind with vibram soles and Gor-Tex top to make them waterproof but breathable. They were breathing, all right, and right now they were gasping over some really foul dog-do. A few minutes later, when I looked up, I see the guy coming back. Only this time he’s walking, pushing the bike and holding his hand out in supplication. He’s out of breath and I can’t make out what he’s saying until he gets closer.
            “Listen, I’m really sorry,” he said between gasps. He stopped about ten feet away, maybe afraid that if he got closer I might beat the shit out of him. The thought crossed my mind, but, being basically a non-violent person, I dismissed it. Besides, he was pretty big. In fact, he was built like a Broncos linebacker – lean, mean and powerful looking. Before responding, I looked him over carefully, trying to determine if I had seen him before around town. I mean, we don’t have very many African-Americans living in Sprucehaven – almost none, in fact. Sprucehaven is a community made up of wealthy white collar rednecks, an hour’s commute from Denver, and most of those folks work in Denver at high paying jobs. But this guy didn’t look like one of those yuppie rednecks. So I figured he was one of those flatlanders from Denver that come up here to use our mountain parks.
            “I’m giving it up,” he said suddenly. “I mean, I gave it a try and I just don’t like it.”
            “What are you talking about?” I asked.
            “Mountain bikes. When I moved here my friends said if I wanted to enjoy the mountains, I had to get a mountain bike. Trouble is, I spend all my time looking down at the trail, trying to keep this thing under control, and I haven’t had a chance to enjoy the scenery.” He was still a little out of breath.
            I was beginning to like this guy. While he was talking I was moving around, scraping my foot in the tall grass, and that’s when he noticed what had happened. He starting giggling.
            “I really do apologize,” he said between giggles. “Listen, I’d be happy to buy you a new pair of shoes. I mean, those look like some really good hiking boots and I’m going to invest in a pair myself and I’d like to …”
            “Forget it,” I said. “These’ll clean up okay. I’ll hose ‘em down when I get home.” I was still a bit miffed.
            “Okay, at least let me buy you a beer.” He looked at his watch. I looked at mine. Four thirty. I had already been walking for an hour. A cold one sounded good to me.
            “Yeah, okay, I’ll take you up on that.”
            “Good, and maybe you can help me figure out how I can unload this damned bike. I’m Sam, by the way, Sam Carter.”
            “No shit?” I said.
            “Do you mean that literally or figuratively,” he said, looking down at my shoe.
            I laughed. “You’re not gonna believe this, but my name’s Carter too. Jake Carter. We must be related, somewhere back in the family tree, right?”
            “You really think so?” he laughed in response.
            “Ya never know. I hear my great grandfather really got around.”
            “Mine too.”

            The Cat House serves Fat Tire and Breckenridge ales on tap, offered up in pint glasses shaped just like the ones in English pubs. That’s one of the reasons I like it. Another is that it’s quiet, unlike that goddamned sports bar with all the cretins yelling over some stupid basketball or football game on those big TV screens. And it’s certainly quieter than Jugs, the sleazy biker bar on Main street that has loud rock bands every weekend. Both of those places attracted all the newcomers here, the rich yuppies just in from California or Texas and bored to death over living in the mountains. So far, the Cat House, actually Catherine’s Café, hadn’t been discovered and a small steady clientele consisting of some of us old timers enjoyed quiet evenings here, free from all the smoke and noise. Problem is, it’s also free of the loose women that just moved here. But you can’t have everything and the beer is good.
            “So what do you do, Sam?” We were slowly savoring our second round of ale, making small talk and nibbling on peanuts and chips from the big bowls Cat had placed on the table. Cat, the owner, is this really good looking forty eight year old woman that puts most twenty year olds to shame. She has what you would call great groceries and today was wearing very tight Levi’s with an open top blouse that, when she bent over to serve the beers, showed off a pair of the greatest tits this side of the Continental Divide. Not big tits, mind you, really big ones are gross. But, these are, you know, just right. Aesthetically perfect. Cat had moved here in the early 80s from Chicago, just after the peak of Sprucehaven’s hippie years, and just after the time I got here. We consider ourselves among the old timers now. We dated for a while – actually, screwed our brains out every chance we got – but eventually found other partners. We’ve remained good friends ever since, though I rarely see her anymore, even here. Her little café was run by a few employees and she showed up only on occasion.
            “Actually, I was a partner in a startup company, and suddenly became unemployed,” Sam said. He made a chuckling sound, but not one that indicated he was happy. It was one of those bitterly sardonic snorts that people make when they are really pissed at something.
            “You owned the company and you got laid off?”
            “Yeah, something like that. Actually, I was forced out. And before that really happened, I quit.”
            “So what’s the deal?”
            Before answering he took a long pull on his glass of ale, nearly finishing it. I got Cat’s eye and motioned for another round. This was getting interesting. Also, I wanted to check out Cat’s blouse full of goodies again. Been a long time.
            “A few years ago a friend and I started this company in Silicon Valley. I’ve got a degree in electrical engineering and a master’s in physics.” He paused to see if I registered surprise. I tried not to.
            “We came up with a solid state process,” he continued, “for certain high speed switching in telecommunication systems. Allows for millions of communication channels to operate simultaneously on existing fiber optic phone lines. My partner was a genius at raising money, so we started the company. Went public. Made a fortune the first year. Then my partner talked me into a deal. Seems a big company wanted to buy us out. So we sold. Made another fortune. And they kept us on to run the company as one of their divisions.” He stopped to take a sip from the full glass placed in front of him.
            “So, who’s the company?”
            “Your telephone company,” he laughed.
            “You mean . . .”
            “Yup, none other.”
            “So what happened?”
            He took another sip of the dark ale.
            “Same thing as happened elsewhere, same thing as Enron, Goldman, all the fuckers. Big boys lied about earnings, inflated the stock, quietly sold theirs, then ran off with big bucks while leaving the rest of us screwed. All my profits were on paper, worthless paper now.”
            “You lost everything?”
            “Almost. Fortunately, I sold some of the stock when the company was still mine. Salted it away. Not much, but enough to get by for a while. Problem is, I bought this big damned house here in Sprucehaven and payments are killing me. My savings aren’t going to last long at that rate.”
            “So, what do you plan to do?” I asked.
            “Don’t know. I’m mulling over some projects I’d like to do. I’d also like to get even with the bastards. It’s not bad enough they screwed me, but do you know what they did? Right after they bought my company, they started laying people off. Good people, people I had hired myself and knew personally. Downsizing. Popular term these days. You know, I’m a capitalist but I hate capitalism. They’re all greedy bastards and don’t give a shit about people. It all started when they had that shrub in the White House with the same philosophy”
            I nodded in agreement. I didn’t quite know what to say. Suddenly he changed the subject.
            “What about you?” he said.
            He caught me by surprise. I was getting a bit mellow from the beer and was fascinated by his story. It took me a moment to collect my thoughts.
            “Uh, well, I guess you could call me a freelancer, meaning unemployed. I used to work as a graphic designer for a big Denver company. They got bought out by a Fortune 500 company. Kept me on. In fact, made me head of the graphics department, but it was pure hell. The company was run by bean counters and no one had any imagination. I used to come up with these great graphics ideas for advertising and promotion and the first thing they wanted to know was how much it would cost. Shot down most of my ideas.” I took another sip of ale to lubricate my voice.
            “I stayed on long enough to get a great retirement package, then I took early retirement about five years ago. I lucked out, because they were downsizing too and to get rid of some of us high salaried folks, gave us a good retirement deal. But just last year they fucked me over.”
            “Another of those big corporate scams – almost like yours. Company started going down the tubes, began selling off assets, finally filed chapter 11. And guess what? They had been dipping into the employee retirement fund. There was almost nothing left and nothing any of us could do about it because they were in bankruptcy. Of course, the big execs made out like bandits – literally – with multimillion dollar bonuses and retirement packages. The rest of us got screwed.”
            “So what do you do now?”
            “Like I said, I freelance. Graphic design, web sites. Also, I’ve been a closet writer and photographer for years. I sell an occasional article to small magazines. Travel and adventure stuff here in the Rockies. But my real dream is to start my own publishing company to do guide books and travel books and stuff like that. I know, I know, the publishing business is going down the tubes these days. But you know what, small publishers that have a niche market seem to be doing okay.”
            My monologue really caught his attention. He leaned forward excitedly, almost spilling his beer.
            “Incredible,” he said. “That’s something I’ve always wanted to do too - publishing. After a while science and engineering got to be too – I don’t know. Too sterile, I guess. Uncreative. So I started writing. I began a novel, but never finished it. And I got into photography too. Bought a whole big Leica outfit. This was in the days when I could afford it.”
            “Well, I’d be happy to take you on as a partner, but I don’t see much of a future for our publishing empire, what with the two of us being broke. Or almost broke.”
            Just then Cat came to the table with another round of beers for us.
            “This one’s on me, guys,” she said, setting down the ales in front of us.
            “Hey, Cat, I haven’t seen much of you since you got employees running the place.”
            “Yeah, it’s been nice having time to myself. But I’m not sure I can keep my staff on, what with the economy tanking these days. It’s a struggle. Anyhow, Nancy called in sick today, so I had to fill in.”
            “Cat, I’d like you to meet a new friend, Sam. Sam, this is Cat – Catherine, owner and CEO of the place.” While they shook hands, I continued. “Guess what? Sam is a Carter too. We’ve decided we must be long lost brothers – my African-American side of the family.”
            She laughed. Cat has this sensuous, melodic laugh. I mean, it’s a genuine laugh, not the phony kind that so many affect these days. Hers is so beautiful and musical, with a real sexy naughtiness to it. When she laughs there isn’t a limp dick in the room.
            “That is one dynamite woman,” Sam said after Cat had left the table. “Are you two, uh, you know …”
            “Used to be, but, well, we drifted apart years ago. I just broke up with a woman and haven’t seen Cat in a while. Actually, I’m kinda thinking …”
            “Well, if you don’t, I will,” he said, laughing.
            The whole rest of the evening became something of a blur. There were more beers – too many more. We ordered a big pizza – Cat’s chef makes the best in town - washed down with still more beer. Sometime after midnight Cat drove us home – she had to because neither of us could walk very well, let alone drive, dropping Sam off first at his place, then taking me to mine. She stayed for a while and had a drink. I learned that she, too, had broken up recently from a very long relationship. I won’t go into details about the rest of the night, but those goodies were as good as I remembered.