© 2012 Boyd Norton
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.