Continued from last week …
Synopsis: A young mother in desperate financial straights is invited into a hidden area of the Internet to make her fortune. Before we follow her in her adventures there, we must step back into the past to a different thread, one that will help us to understand the dark world she is about to enter.
Seven years before Dancing Fawn made her first crossing, two men sat in a large, well-appointed Federal Government office. One, the older, leaned over his heavy desk with the air of patient expectation. The other, the younger of the two, sat at a table in the middle of the room. In front of him were two clear plastic envelopes. Each contained a single $100 bill. One was crisp, new and uncirculated. The other showed slight wear. The younger man wore a jeweler's loupe and was slowly examining the two bills.
After a full minute of going back and forth between them, Secret Service Agent Joshua Weidemeyer* put down both bills and, with a twitch of his eyebrow, dropped the loupe into his open palm.
"OK, how did we screw this one up?" he asked.
"We didn't," said the older man who was, as of a day ago, the younger one's new boss.
"Except for wear, these bills are identical," said Weidemeyer, "including the serial numbers. That's not supposed to happen. So, how did we screw up?"
The old man sat in silence, waiting to see how quickly the younger one picked up on the problem. It didn't take long.
"That's not possible. They're both perfect bills."
The older man smiled and shook his head.
"Which one?" asked Weidemeyer.
"The worn one."
Again, picking up his jewelers loupe, Weidemeyer began a close inspection of the worn bill. It was a work of love, for he loved money. Not the value of it, or the accumulation of it, or even its numerical representation in a balance sheet. No, Joshua loved the physical item, be it paper or coin. He loved the art, the embodied history, and the way it had transformed mankind.
His second exam lasted a full two minutes. Finally, with a sigh, he set down the loupe and said, "You can't prove it by me."
"Nor by anyone else."
"Then how do you know it's not ours?"
The older man nodded. Weidemeyer muttered a mild vulgarity under his breath.
No two mechanical systems can ever be the same. They vary by machining tolerances when they are made, then by wear differences as they are used and repaired. This is as true for printing presses as for car engines. The Bureau Of Engraving And Printing, which runs the presses that print all the United States currency, know this. They use it to their advantage by taking and filing samples of their press's outputs on an hourly basis. When those samples go out of tolerance, the press is stopped, brought back to spec, and then restarted. The result is that all US $100 bills look the same, even though every one is microscopically different from the others. It would take a precision optical instrument to see the variations, but they are measurable.
This worn bill, like all others, was a little different from the ideal. By going back through the sample files, the Treasury should be able to determine exactly when this one was printed even if its serial number and date were wrong. All they had to do was match the production irregularities to one of the historical samples.
But, for this worn bill, no match. Not to any run. Ever. Someone else printed this bill. In other words, it was counterfeit. But good. So good that no normal method of detection, nothing used by any bank or merchant, could pick up the fraud.
"Paper, too? Watermark and all?" asked Weidemeyer.
"There are differences, but you'd need a lab to find them," the older man said.
"How'd we get this one?"
"Postal inspector. Random drug search. He found a hundred of them. We found the match to that uncirculated bill when the DEA ran a check on the serial numbers."
"Are they all this good?"
The old man nodded.
"All from the same run?"
"No. All from the same press, but the wear patterns show they were printed at different times."
Damn. Not only was someone producing quality counterfeit, but they'd been doing it for long enough to build up an inventory somewhere.
Again a nod.
"No, simulated. But so good no one would notice the difference."
This time out loud: "Crap." Random serial numbers, perfect originals, and worn. The Secret Service's worst nightmare. These bills would be almost impossible to find.
"Did you get the guy they were going to?"
Finally, a smile and a nod.
"Like the proverbial bird."
"Where are they coming from?"
"He doesn't know."
"How does he know when to pick them up?"
Now it was Weidemeyer's turn to smile. Ten years ago, they had a ring that tried to organize distribution through the same outlet. Wi-Fi didn't exist then, of course, so all the Secret Service had to do was trace back through the phone company connections. Some of the perps got away, those that were smart enough to use portable computers and connect through a public phone booth. But not many. It was easy.
"So all we have to do is work back through the server address logs."
"If it were that simple, you wouldn't be working for me now."
"The trace goes to a Mitsubishi computer in Tokyo."
"And from there?"
"Nowhere. Dead end."
"So there's someone at Mitsubishi."
Weidemeyer's boss shook his head. "Tokyo's finest have been over the logs. No one gets the messages. They don't even get through the firewall."
"I don't understand."
"The Tokyo computer never accepts them."
"They're messages addressed to nowhere. Dead letters. They just go in the trash."
"No one gets them?"
"I didn't say that."
"I've set up a meeting so you can hear the answer."
* * *
Larry, Moe, and Curly.
That was all Weidemeyer could think of as he sat with the three network engineers. The vision was unprofessional, but he couldn't get it out of his mind. The resemblance was too striking.
When they had first been introduced, the three engineers had fought a silent combat to decide who would be his teacher. Moe lost. Now he struggled with his burden.
"The counterfeiter you caught gave us a static IP address for a known VPN server – "
Weidemeyer held up his hand. "What's a 'static IP address'?" he asked.
Moe looked at the others, but got no help, so began again.
"Every server -"
"Server?" interrupted Weidemeyer.
"A 'server' is a computer that performs a service without any human assistance. That's why they call it a 'server.' Get it?"
Ignoring the jab, Weidemeyer asked, "And a 'static IP address'?"
"An Internet address that doesn't change. Like 126.96.36.199."
"I thought they looked like 'www.google.com'."
Again, Moe looked at his two associates. Neither volunteered, so he continued.
"No, no. That's just a name. A stupid marketing trick. To make it easy for people to remember. If you type 'www.google.com' into your browser, it looks up the real address and uses that to contact Google."
Weidemeyer nodded and waited for more.
"Anyway, the doorbell address your prisoner gave-"
"The Internet address they use to initiate communications. Like a doorbell button. That's why they call it a 'doorbell address.' Get it?"
Again, Weidemeyer turned the other cheek. "Go on," he said.
"Anyway, it belongs to a VPN server, oper-"
Again, Moe looked at his two associates. This time, he must have won, because Curly spoke up.
"A VPN server is a server that sets up encrypted communications with other VPN servers. Never mind why it's called 'VPN,' it just is."
"This doorbell address belongs to a Mitsubishi VPN server in Tokyo. It encodes all communications between their home office and other Mitsubishi and vendor VPN servers anywhere in the world. There must be thousands of them."
"OK, I'm still with you."
That got smiles. Except from Curly, who seemed to be in pain. But he continued anyway.
"Now, this master VPN server knows who is authorized to use it, sort of like having a company phone directory in its memory. So, as long as you're in its book, when you ask for a private connection, it sets one up. See?"
"So, if one of your bad guys wants to buy more counterfeit, he just sends a message to the doorbell address."
"And we can't understand what they say to each other because the connection he uses is encrypted, right?" asked Weidemeyer. He was beginning to understand.
"No," Curly said, frustration obvious in his voice.
"I mean yes, we couldn't understand anything they said if they got connected, because it would all be encrypted. That's what VPN servers do. But no, because your prisoner is not authorized to establish a link. So they don't get connected."
"He's not in the phone book!"
"So the server ignores his message!"
Silence descended on the room. After a tense pause, during which Curly calmed down a bit, he asked, "See how it works?"
"No. I don't see how having a message ignored will get a connection."
Curly sighed, audibly. Looking back at his compadres, he gave each a long, pleading stare. For some reason, Larry took pity on him and spoke up.
"OK, think of it this way. Suppose you send an old girlfriend a letter. But she sees it's from you, so she throws it in the trash."
"But lots of people in the post office see your letter before she gets it, right?"
Weidemeyer nodded again.
"What if one of them copies the return address from the outside of the envelope? Then he'd know where it came from, right?"
"So, if he gave that address to someone else, and that person wrote you back, without using a real return address, you wouldn't know who answered your letter, would you?
"That's why we have a problem. We can't find out who got your perp's message. It wasn't Mitsubishi. Their computer ignored it. The return address on the message your counterfeiter gets back won't be the doorbell server's, either, because that computer didn't reply back to him directly."
"The one that copied the return address of the message that was sent to Mitsubishi. The doorbell message. That's why they call-"
"I know, that's why they call it a doorbell server. But we can find that other one, right?"
"The one that finally replied to the doorbell message. That message's got a return address on it, too, right?"
"Then we just trace that address back?"
"Not if he uses a proxy server," he said.
"A server that's like a mail forwarder. Substitutes its address for the original in an Internet message before forwarding it on. Try a trace-back, all you get is the address of the proxy."
"Can't we trace through that – what did you call it?"
"Right. Can't we trace back through that 'proxy server' to the original source of the message?"
Moe said, "Yes."
Curly said, "No."
Larry said, "Maybe."
"I need a straight answer here."
A long three-way discussion occurred between the technical staff, followed by silence. They just looked back at him, perhaps hoping he was satisfied enough to go away.
Larry must have decided it was still his turn. "We have to give you a firm 'sometimes' on that," he said.
The other two just nodded.
And with that, the meeting came to a close.
* * *
If there were an official King Of The Civs, the current incumbent would be Arnold Wilson Parker. He didn't have many official titles and, according to the IRS, owned little property, but kingship is not about property or titles. It's about control. And Arnold Wilson Parker had that. In spades.
He, and several associates who were, for various reasons, obliged to follow his suggestions, constituted the controlling trustees of a number of very large private foundations. Collectively, these financial entities owned enough assets to buy ten percent of all the shares listed in the Dow Jones Industrial Average. That kind of money bought influence.
From his estate high in the mountains of Colorado, he spent most of his time seeing that the investments and donations made by these foundations supported policies that he felt were important, policies that might collectively be referred to as the Globalist Agenda.
Late the night before, in spite of his hectic schedule, Maxwell Stein, governor of the Chicago Federal Reserve Bank, had flown to Parker's estate by private jet. The trip was necessary because Stein's re-appointment to his first full term was just around the corner.
Now Stein sat alone with Parker in a large study. Bright summer sun streamed in through the open French doors. Aspens sparkled just beyond the veranda, framed by a stunning view across Parker's valley that ended at the gray guardians of the Rockies.
"Confidence is still quite good," said Stein with an obvious sense of relief.
"I don't see any risk of inflation in the near future."
"Unemployment? Can you fix it?"
"I doubt it. That's structural."
The conversation lapsed into silence while Parker considered how to ask the most difficult question while Stein, knowing the question was coming, thought about how he would answer it.
Stein broke the silence. "You better plan on more federal busywork because the private sector is not going to recover anytime soon," he said, leaving a broad hint. He hoped it would be sufficient, would allow him to skirt the issue without actually breaking the law.
And that last comment did almost clinch it. But there was quite a bit of money at stake, so Parker was not going to be satisfied with hints. He needed to be sure.
"Next FOMC?" he probed. The Federal Open Market Committee was the body that set short-term interest rates. As one of the Federal Reserve governors, Stein was a participating member. Thanks to Parker's influence, he was a first among equals.
"Where will it go?"
That was the question that Parker was never allowed to ask or Stein ever to answer. If they were sitting anywhere but Parker's den, surrounded by thousands of acres of his Colorado estate, he would not have dared to speak it, as the words drifting in the air, even unanswered, broke dozens of laws. Here, just between the two of them, it was worth the risk.
But Stein had already decided to take the plunge. Without a trace of uneasiness, he answered. "Not much choice, as I see it. Unless we want the next depression to start tomorrow, we had better increase the money supply tonight."
"We won't call it that, but the result will be the same. We'll-"
"Thanks," Parker said, holding up his hand. He didn't need any more. Knowing which way the money supply would go would be enough.
Tomorrow, Parker would make a few encrypted phone calls to some associates in several of his foundations. They, in turn, would speak with some bankers with whom they had invested considerable funds. And those august individuals, when the time came, would know how to vote when the next election for the governor of the Chicago Fed was held.
The managers of those foundations would also know how to make investments that would return a very handsome profit when a looser Fed policy drove interest rates down further. It's easier to play roulette if you know where the ball is going to stop before they spin the wheel.
Five hours later, Maxwell Stein was back in the air, secure in the knowledge that he would have no problem getting reappointed.
*See the appendix for a list of characters.
* * *
Thieves Emporium is available from Amazon in both paperback and Kindle and in epub format from Smashwords or Nook. Max Hernandez welcomes comments and feedback and can be reached at MaxHernandez@protonmail.ch.
© 2012-2015 Max Hernandez. Reprinted with permission.