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.