Continued from last week …
Synopsis: Special Agent Joshua Weidemeyer has just been confronted with the Secret Service's worst nightmare. Someone is passing perfect counterfeit $100 bills using the Internet for a distribution channel. He must act quickly to locate and destroy this ring before knowledge of the threat becomes widespread enough to hurt international confidence in the currency.
The State Strikes Back
The counterfeiting business, like any other, has fundamental economic constraints. At one end, operators must produce a product. That, in turn requires very specialized equipment and supplies, all of which cost money. The better the product is to be, the more it will cost to produce. In the case of the bills sitting in front of Weidemeyer, someone had invested enough to dent the budget of a small country.
Assuming the objective is to make money, there is only one way to do it: Profitable sales. And lots of them.
So the second fundamental problem facing anyone trying to run a counterfeiting business is how to run a sales force in the face of violent competition. Until now, distribution had been as daunting a task as making undetectable bills. Hitler printed large amounts of almost-perfect British banknotes, but was unable to do anything with them because wartime security stopped him from setting up a distribution network in the UK.
The problem is more than just the actual distribution of the product, though, since small stacks of bills can be sent by mail rather easily. Someone has to recruit and communicate with the individuals who want to pass these bills, as well as collect something of value back from them to pay for the sales. Until now, this problem had been insurmountable.
Joshua Weidemeyer* saw how the Internet changed that. If the Secret Service didn't catch all the rot, stamp out everyone who was involved anywhere in this ring, they risked having the survivors start over with improved ideas. They had to make an example for the underworld by eliminating the entire counterfeiting ring in some very public manner.
Now, once again, he sat in the large office alone with his new boss. For the past hour, they had been working on ideas for how to solve this new problem.
"So we know where they are?" asked the older man.
Weidemeyer nodded slightly, though without a smile to confirm the gesture.
"How'd you find them?"
"We asked Mitsubishi to forward all invalid VPN requests to us. Each one had a return IP address. NSA logged all traffic in or out of those addresses. In about one percent of the cases, a VPN connection was received from a foreign server shortly after Mitsubishi got the bogus request. The encryption stopped us from monitoring what was said, but we could still trace the link back to where it came from."
"And?" prompted the older man.
"The ones that mattered all came from foreign proxy servers."
"Can't we force the owners of those computers to tell where the original messages came from?"
"Sure. If the servers were located in civilized countries, it'd be easy. But they're in Cuba, Iran, Somalia, and North Korea. We could file diplomatic requests forever and never get a trace back from any of them."
"So that's a dead end?" asked the older man.
"No, fortunately not. We asked the CIA to help and they were able to break into two of the servers. Both showed that the connections came from the same IP address in Coro, Venezuela."
"Our friends at the agency have contacts inside the Venezuela telephone system. They gave us a physical address to match the Internet one. Unfortunately, it only gets us as close as their last local switch. To get closer than that, we'll have to manually trace the wiring."
"How big's the area of uncertainty?"
"Not good enough."
"No, its not. We also have the physical address they give when they applied for the service, but I doubt it's very accurate."
"Can we manually trace the wiring?"
"Not without the perps knowing. That would scare them off before we could spring the trap."
Both men thought in silence for several seconds. Weidemeyer's boss spoke first.
"They must buy a fair amount of special paper and ink. I wonder who delivers it to them."
One week later, they had a year's worth of connection logs for the Coro IP address courtesy of the CIA. Most went to public access points in the United States, but two with large volumes of traffic did not. One was to an export company in Manila, the other to an IP address in Toledo, Ohio.
For a small discreet fee, a nice man in the DHL office in the Philippines supplied a list of all the ship-to addresses that received packages from the Manila company. One was in the ten square blocks in Coro.
"How many distributors you think there are?" asked Weidemeyer's boss.
"Guys passing the stuff?"
His boss nodded.
"The logs show hundreds of independent contacts."
"A big operation."
"One of the advantages of modern technology."
"So, what's the plan?" the older man asked.
"Since we think their distribution control runs through the Internet, we're going to set up a fake web page to look like the one in Venezuela. Switch all traffic to it after we shut down the real one. That should keep the field perps stupid for a while."
"Only if they don't get warned when we shut down the real one."
"Right," agreed Weidemeyer.
"We bring all the counterfeiters back here and keep them under wraps?" asked his boss.
The younger man shook his head. "Operations says they can't keep it quiet with that many prisoners."
"We'll just have to make sure no one can talk."
"And after that? We can't keep a fake server going forever."
"Bring the Coro computers back here. NSA should be able to break into at least one of them in a week or two. With luck, they'll have good physical addresses for most of the passers in their files."
"That's too much to hope for. We think the smarter ones use anonymous mail drops."
"How do you plan on catching them?"
"Wait until they go online for their next shipment. When they log on, we'll have their return IP. A quick trace, a raid, and we're done."
"OK. What about the Toledo site?"
"Extra postal inspectors are hammering all incoming packages. We find one with bogus, we got an address."
* * *
Joshua Weidemeyer lived a neat, simple life defined by disposable furniture. Other than his coin collection, he considered little in his small apartment to be of value. All else was expedient.
This evening he sat alone in a folding chair under a single overhead light, leaning forward to examine a small bit of worn silver. Spread out on the card table in front of him, arranged precisely by date, was an assortment of Roman coins similar to the one he held in his hand.
His hard face showed no expression as he inspected his prize. An observer unfamiliar with his character might have considered it cruel, but that analysis would be wrong. He displayed intensity of concentration, not emotional indifference to the fate of others. Joshua Weidemeyer was not unfeeling, just disciplined and focused. This truth could be seen in his eyes, now locked on the lump of metal he held, intense and unwavering.
The rest of his demeanor was unremarkable. His frame was short and wiry, his head crowned with a ring of short-cropped dark hair circling a large bald spot. On his nose sat heavy glasses more appropriate to an accountant than a member of one of the world's best-known police agencies. Perhaps, if he had been a little vain, he would have gotten contacts, but glasses were more practical.
The object of his scrutiny was one of an eclectic mix of coins that were all once used for money in ancient Rome. To Weidemeyer, his collection was a physical record of a civilization's climb to greatness and then its fall back to an ignoble end. Written in it was his confirmation that stable money was one of mankind's greatest inventions. Like language, he believed civilization could never have come into existence without it.
The earliest examples in his collection were little more than lumps of silver, but the quality improved as the dates advanced. The best, those from the late Republic and early Empire periods, would qualify as good art anywhere. Then, gradually, along with the rest of Roman society, they slipped. From fine jewelry, they became silver-washed slugs of bronze which, like aged whores under thick makeup, were covered with a layer of illusion to hide the reality of their baser natures.
Which caused the death of the other, he had often wondered, the civilization or its money?
* * *
Pug Ringgold sat hunched in the back of a dark panel van with six other men, trying to make his large frame fit the limited space. There were no windows for him to look out of, but even if there had been, he would have seen little. Dawn in the Venezuelan city of Coro was still three hours away and there were few streetlights in this section of the city to push back the night. Only the skyglow from wealthier neighborhoods far away provided any illumination.
In front of Pug, in the quiet of the unlit van, glowed a laptop. Its screen showed the inside of a warehouse as seen from a pallet containing hidden cameras and microphones. Everything within view of the pallet showed on the screen. Like an invisible god, Pug could see without being seen.
For the past twelve hours, he had watched a print shop in action. Six men worked to feed a press with paper and ink. Four more ran the machine, while nine women removed the large colored sheets that it produced and cut them into individual United States hundred dollar bills. He saw no children, though he had expected some. In Venezuela, at least, counterfeiting was a family operation.
A printing operation of this sophistication was not easy to set up. First and foremost, it required a good press. The one visible on Pug's laptop was over thirty feet long and weighed ten tons. Bolted to the floor to stop it from walking during operation, it had required heavy equipment just to get it inside. Now it provided a significant barrier to Pug's vision, blocking his view of half the building interior.
An hour ago, the printing had stopped. The day's work was finished. Slowly, like an animal stretching before sleep, the operation had gone quiet. The press was cleaned, the produce of the day's efforts was packed, and then the counterfeiters settled down for the night. Now they lay on any level surface that would serve, sleeping the sleep due working men and women after a hard day's labor. The lights were dim and the room was quiet. A single worker kept watch, a lone woman seated on an elevated platform, cooled by the room's only fan. She rocked quietly, an automatic weapon across her lap, keeping a protective eye over her comrades. Outside, on the loading dock, two men also kept guard. They sat in the shadows, watching the only approach to the warehouse, squeezed as it was into a crowded industrial neighborhood.
The pallet that transmitted these pictures had arrived late that afternoon. It was accepted as a normal shipment from Manila, more paper and ink to feed the presses. In fact, it contained only a small amount of paper, distributed to hide its real contents from any cursory examination. Beneath this camouflaging layer were cameras, microphones, and transmitters. And explosives. Mostly explosives, for this package was more than the gatherer of information. It was also to be the dispenser of death.
The long vigil, held quietly until the opposition was asleep, was not a new experience for Pug. A career military man, he had gone from high school directly into the infantry, then the Rangers, Special Forces, and now the CIA. During that time, he had, on many occasions, experienced the dull tension of the stalk, the boredom of the quiet wait. He was used to it, ready for the moment when he would uncoil like a compressed spring to become the messenger of death that his country had trained him to be.
The night before, small cameras were hidden across the street from the warehouse parking area. They allowed him to watch the dock, to pinpoint the location of the two guards who occupied it. From their positions, he knew which sections of the street could be seen and which were hidden. It was time to take advantage of this information. He gave the signal.
Seven men slipped quietly out of the van and walked down the dark street. All wore body armor hidden under worn clothes that were the livery of working men everywhere. If seen in the dim light, they would pass for laborers on their way to early morning jobs. They were (with the exception of Pug) all local men, members of a gang that had contracted with the CIA to do this particular job. Each carried, hidden under his clothing, an AK-47 carbine. All were well trained in the use of that weapon. In the lead, speaking fluent Spanish, walked Pug. He would make sure these mad dogs got to the blind spot nearest the dock, quietly and without being seen. After that, it would be up to them.
When they reached their assault position, Pug spoke softly into the darkness. From down the street, an engine started. Headlights appeared, attached to a small pick-up. It moved slowly, as befitted an old vehicle whose driver made his living collecting scrap. Its bed was filled with samples of that class of metal: Coils of used cable, bed-springs, and old cabinets. Hidden under this refuse, lying on their stomachs under a false bed, were two local specialists. Each lay in front of a small irregular hole cut through the left side of the vehicle. Each held a sniping carbine loaded with .45 ammunition to keep bullet velocities below the speed of sound. That, along with large silencers, sound-proofing inside the truck bed, and the special dampeners in their actions would assure that little noise would be produced when they fired.
The disadvantages of subsonic bullets are two. First, they transmit little energy to the target. This was the reason for choosing the larger round rather than the more conventional 9 mm. Even at low velocities, a .45 would tear a large hole in its target. Each carbine would also discharge a three-round burst when fired to maximize target impact.
The second disadvantage was range. Slow bullets do not fly straight but instead arc as gravity pulls them downward. To compensate, a shooter must elevate his aiming point higher than he might otherwise need to for faster rounds such as those used by Pug's assault team.
The accuracy problem was made more difficult because subsonic .45 slugs, even ones that had tungsten cores and Teflon coatings as these did, couldn't reliably penetrate body armor. Since the guards might be wearing some, torso hits wouldn't guarantee a kill. Only a head-shot would do, making the target much smaller.
Fortunately, both men had been well trained by Pug for just this task. They would be firing from the nearest street, less than seventy-five feet across the parking lot to the dock. As long as both they and their targets were stationary, they were unlikely to miss.
The truck came to a stop as it pulled in front of the gateless entrance to the parking lot. Pug watched it intently, waiting for the snipers to fire. Nothing happened. The dim silence remained unbroken. Then his earphone cracked to life, issuing a single Spanish word, repeated three times so he could not miss it, confirming that both guards were down. Pug hadn't even noticed the shots.
With a quick wave, he sent in the contractors. They ran hunched over, as quickly and quietly as they could, across the exposed space of the dirt parking area towards the protection of the loading dock wall. Most, but not all, reached its shelter before a small door opened in the back of the dock. A large Hispanic man in body armor stepped out, weapon at the ready, a wary look on his face. Perhaps he heard one of the guards fall, or perhaps the sound of an overshot striking the common wall. Whatever the reason, he was now a serious threat to the assault. As nearly as Pug knew, there were twenty-two armed counterfeiters in that building, far more than his meager force could tackle without the advantage of surprise.
The snipers on the bed of the pickup also saw the door open. Pug had trained them well, for they acted quickly. Both fired as the interloper stepped out of the dim warehouse light into the darkness of the dock. Pug never heard these shots, either, but the big Hispanic felt them. Spinning back into the building, he yelled at the top of his lungs. Whether it was because the snipers had not had time to aim properly or because the man was moving, they had failed to make an instant kill. The element of surprise was about to be lost.
Pug held a radio detonator in his right hand. Acting instinctively, he flicked up the safety cover and pushed down the button underneath it. This time, he didn't miss the result.
Even when contained by cinder block walls, the sound of twelve Claymore mines detonating was unmistakable. The blast sent thousands of small steel BBs across the shop in every horizontal direction, shredding anything that stood (or in this case, lay) in its path. The dock protected his contractors, even the two that had not yet reached the shelter of its lip, because they had dropped to the asphalt when the big Hispanic had opened the door. But the small pickup truck across the parking lot was not so lucky. Pellets from at least one of the mines punched through a closed overhead loading door and stuck the vehicle, injuring the driver and one sniper. Only the distance and the door slowed the pellets enough to prevent fatalities.
Before the last of the debris came to a stop, his contractors vaulted over the dock lip and ran into the warehouse. They took advantage of the confusion caused by the blast and the grogginess of the counterfeiters to kill before anyone could shoot back. It helped that his contractors wore body armor. It also helped that the Tungsten-core ammunition their carbines used cut through their opposition's body armor like a shotgun blast through a dirty t-shirt.
Pug waited until the shooting died down, no more than thirty seconds, before he moved in. He walked into the warehouse just as the second van, the one with the clean-up gear, backed up to the dock. As he moved through the building, marking equipment for destruction, one of his contractors ambled ahead of him and placed two shots in the head of each counterfeiter. Only the woman by the fan had put up any resistance. Stunned by the Claymore's blast, but alive, she was shot before she was able to raise her rifle into a firing position.
Pug directed the final disposition of the facility. Behind him, thermite charges were strapped to the printing press. Each would produce a flow of molten iron when it went off, fusing delicate parts together and irrevocably defacing all the plates. Satchel charges went under each pile of printing paper and all inventories of finished counterfeit. Their explosives wouldn't destroy the paper or scrip, but would scatter it around the warehouse like loose confetti so it could be consumed by the fire.
Two web servers were located in a closet near the back of the warehouse. Both had been damaged by gunfire, but one hard drive was intact. Both drives, along with samples of the counterfeit bills, would go back to Washington in the next diplomatic pouch. Within a week, the supercomputers at NSA would find the password and the counterfeiter's site would be up again, only this time under new management.
Ten minutes later, as he supervised the installation of the last of the incendiary charges, one of his contractors yelled for him from a side room. Going to the door, he walked in to see three small children, eyes wide with fear, huddled together in a corner. They had been found hiding behind a pallet of printing paper, missed during the initial attack.
"What do you want me to do about it?" asked Pug in almost-perfect Spanish, the frustration clear in his voice even through his slight accent. Then, after waiting a long heartbeat for the point to sink in, he turned and left. Seconds later, as he walked towards the dock to set the final incendiaries, he heard shots from the room. As agreed, there would be no witnesses.
Minutes later, before the local police were even sure something had happened, the raiders left. The warehouse grew as silent as the tomb it had become. Then the thermite ignited, followed by satchel charge explosions. Three seconds later, the incendiaries created a wall of flame that filled the building. It burned for hours, leaving little behind except traces of cocaine left by the raiders. These drugs would give the Venezuelan government a cover story, a way to save face. Officially, they could claim a local drug gang made the attack to settle a dispute. The alternative was a diplomatic confrontation they knew they could not win.
But the mangled printing press put the lie to that explanation for anyone who had eyes to see. For them, the message was clear: The U.S. dollar's status as the world's reserve currency existed because the American Government did whatever was necessary to prevent its debasement. Mass counterfeiting by any power would be considered an act of war and would be dealt with accordingly.
*See Appendix for a list of characters and a glossary.
* * *
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.