Errol Hasking held the clear plastic sleeve up to the lighting self-satisfied, feet on desk. A near flawless nineteenth century one-pound note nestled inside its plastic sarcophagus, a token of one more chip in the walls of the black economy from a thankful counterpart. Errol moved to the electrostatic wall and surveyed his team’s brag patch. He took last years’ note from US President Flóres Del Pietro from beneath the team logo, placing this most recent bouquet there. One step back and the spreading pyramid was fully visible, and at its head ‘Royal Australian Mint – Integrity’ stood proud. He allowed himself a smile. Even with the direst predictions cash remained, used and abused, without which he would be out of a job, out of a career and out of his calling.
“Looking good boss.” Turning he could see Tanjya’s hologram sitting, smiling at him. Only mildly annoyed he lobbed a crumpled tissue the two meters away to the real Tanjya. Her hologram winced, then with a smile flickered out.
The real Tanjya dropped herself into the seat next to Errol.
“When are you lot going to stop playing with the toys?” rolling his eyes in mock disgust.
Tanjya grinned, Cheshire cat like. “When the next one comes around of course. Anyway, I’ve got something.” She leant across and added her virtual screen to Errol’s. “It’s part of the random check of BankNorth’s cash transfers to the Reserve Bank six months ago, one of the tranches for destruction.” Each quarter all banks would send cash holdings in for destruction, each time a sample was examined by Errol’s team for forgeries or irregularities. “Three notes were picked up, two tens and a twenty,” the three appearing on screen “all from the one sub-branch in Darwin. They didn’t show any apparent deviation except they were pristine.”
“Utterly. All the other notes were creased, varying degrees of visible use and dirt, the usual cross section of wear and tear. These three however are absolutely perfect, ‘mint’ condition if you pardon the pun.”
Errol reached into the screen and pulled out the nearest ten-dollar bill, enlarging it, rotating it, viewing it from all angles. In an act of utter futility he held the image up to the light before placing it back in the screen.
“It gets better. Watch at this.” Tanjya dropped the ten-dollar bills from the screen and pulled the twenty out. From the second screen she produced another twenty, pulling it out to hover next to the first. “Ok, BankNorth’s bill on the left, brand new mint on the right. Fabio,” addressing the AI “bottom left corner focus ten times please.”
The expanded bills now hovered above Errol’s desk, stretching to the ceiling. In front of him the bottom left corners stood in relief, blue-green plastic criss-crossed with clear channels bordered in emerald green and light gold.
“I had a close look at the clear optic window section which is always hard to get right. Fabio, fifty times focus centre edge please.” The scene shifted, two bright green lines bordering clear plastic now the only part of the notes visible. The other three team members now holo’d in behind Tanjya and Errol.
Errol leant forwards, examining the notes carefully. “Exact match I’d say.”
“Exactly, at the limit of our normal scans. How many perfect optic window reproductions do you recall?”
“Right. So that’s why I got Fabio involved, to use higher resolution scan-tech. You’re not going to like this. Fabio, centre optic window demarcation, five hundred times focus.”
She waited five seconds. “Fabio, five thousand times focus.”
She waited another five seconds, eyes fixed on Errol. Small beads of sweat were now forming on his moustache, a twitch developing below one eye.
“Fabio, zoom extents fifty thousand.” She waited for a few moments, the office silent, the first drops of Errol’s sweat falling languidly. She turned to face the notes, now bloated rectangles balanced on the desk. “Resolution is now one one-hundredth of a micrometre centred on the lower left optical window of the twenty-dollar bills. I’d remind you that the image on the left is the suspect note, the image on the right uncirculated official issue.”
Errol leant back in thought. In front of him one rectangle had a broad fuzzy white streak emblazoned down one side next to a ghostly grey field. The image on the left contained a crisp, razor sharp demarcation between perfectly opaque white half and perfectly transparent half. He shook his head, blinking as if to clear the images.
“Totally impossible, there’s no way, physically no way.”
“I know, yet it is, and yes I’ve checked. There’s no way known to get crisp ink or polymer demarcation below one hundredth of a micron. We’re talking clear separation at sizes approaching ultra-violet radiation wavelengths. It’s impossible, yet it is. Someone somewhere is printing money of better quality and resolution than we could dream of. But it gets worse.”
“How? How can it be worse than perfect imitation?”
“Remember how this was picked up? Pristine bills in a pile of worn and tattered? I had one of the ten dollars sent across for materials testing, the results came back this morning.” Tanjya moved her hands through the screen, dismissing notes and bringing up a neatly ordered spreadsheet. “This is the analysis. When you dig through the detail the summary is that the counterfeit note is as flexible and lightweight as the real thing but does not crease, tear, hold dirt, is as tough as magnesium-tungsten alloy, and melts at just under 3,000 degrees Celsius. In short —”
“In short we could be screwed, royally screwed.” Errol looked around to his team. “In a nutshell we’ve got counterfeit bills that are better than the real thing and can potentially stay in circulation forever. We don’t know how many are out there or if all denominations are affected. Potentially our whole currency stock could be debased, worthless. Need I remind you what happened in China?” The looks on their faces reassured him. “Good. This stays buttoned up, closed, no discussion outside ourselves. Tanjya, we’re going to BankNorth Darwin. The rest of you I want in the Reserve looking through all the currency disposals. Tell them it’s the ANAO, tell them I’m breaking your arses, whatever. I just want you to watch disposals, estimate the counterfeits and tie off any problems.”
Errol leant back staring straight at the ceiling. “Bloody Mondays!” he spat just as the secure email tone sounded. It scrolled through on his right, Errol swearing vehemently again under his breath. He stood and grabbed his jacket, stopping by Tanjya on the way out.
“Sorry to do this, you’ll have to get out to Darwin by yourself. I’ll join you later, just keep in touch.”
“Yeah, no worries on that.”
“I might be stuck for a while. Don’t do anything more than look and learn until I get there? And no more cheap hotels, I want a place with working a/c this time.”
Tanjya held her hands up in mock surrender. “Fine, fine, a girl screws up once and wears it forever. I won’t do anything, I promise.”
Errol walked in to the Director’s allocated floorspace, Karen greeting him with a brusque wave of her hand, raising the partitions and cutting them off from the rest of the floor. He sat, answering her questioning gaze with one of his own.
“Less than fifteen minutes ago, same scenario, same features. I’ve got Tanjya in the field to track source, the rest of my team trying to gauge scale, and no answers yet. How many others?”
“At least ten, probably double that given lags. The Chinese, Indians, Europeans and Japanese have been hit. Of the second-tier currencies America, California and, if we believe back channels, the United Republic of Korea. And now us. It’s not public yet but unfortunately the politicians know. You’ve seen it?”
“No, just Tanjya’s analysis and pix.”
“It’s as good as I’m led to believe?”
“Better. Tanjya’s had the ruler over them and they’re impossible to detect casually. If we find where they’re coming from maybe we can stop more coming in but with a dozen others can what we do actually matter? Have any others got any estimate of scale yet?”
“No to both. If the majors go forget it, we’ve always ridden on their backs. The only thing now is that no one knows either why or how big, and that’s a question they’re all trying to answer.”
“How much time do we have?”
“With the politicians in play three, maybe four days tops before one of them goes public. It could be sooner, the media has been trying our firewall a little harder than usual today so I’m thinking they have a sniff. We can’t go storming around in jackboots until we know we can get a result, so I’m afraid it’s just you and your team.”
“As usual. Four days isn’t much.”
“Actually for you it’s less. You’ve got a meeting with the Prime Minister’s Department in Sydney this afternoon so you’re one day behind her. Keep it discreet but once you have anything, a name, location, whatever, you call and then we’ll go in hard. Remember, four days tops.”
“And just say we don’t, or the Indians don’t, or none of us has anything by then?”
Karen looked over the top of her glasses at him. “Learn to pray and hide. I will.”
Errol wasn’t fond of Sydney, even less so after the meeting. Thankfully he was out of there first thing next morning on the Darwin shuttle but sleep at best was fitful and fleeting. He wasn’t a hotel person, he liked his own bed, his own partner, his own sheets.
Around 3:00am the chiming of his proximity alarm woke him. Sitting up he could make out a pink rabbit in the far side of the room. Tanjya’s avatar. He made sure the sheets covered his nakedness and signalled acceptance. The pink rabbit was replaced by Tanjya, as he knew somewhere a penguin with mirrored sunglasses was being replaced by him.
“Tanjya, you’ve got a lead?”
“Yes. More in fact. It’s good news or not so good news I guess. I dunno. Anyway, I found him.”
“You what? What did I tell you about caution, discretion! He probably knows we’re onto him.”
“Oh yes, he knows, he knows everything. But he’s not going, in fact he’s quite calm and open about it all.”
“What do you mean, open and calm?”
“Exactly that. Boss, I quit.”
“I quit. My job, chuck it in, walk away, whatever. I’m through as of now.”
“What? Where are you? Are you being threatened?”
“I’m safe, nothing’s happened, and as for where I am well, currently business class to Rio. As for threats, whatever, nothing like that. In fact he’s very calm, controlled. We talked.” She creased her brow, hands fidgeting. “Yeah, talked just once. Boss, you’ve got, I mean, we’ve all got about four days. It’ll be ok a couple of weeks after but not in four days.”
“What the hell are you going on about? Is this his threat, he’s going public? We know we’ve got that —”
“No, it’s no threat, it just is. As for public you can find him easily, it’s in the infopak I’m sending. He’s not hiding boss, he’s not scared, not aggressive, not anything. And neither am I, I’m just quitting and going.” She took a glass of oily liquid, draining it in one swallow. Her hands started to tremble, tears forming. “Errol. Errol, one last thing. Don’t talk, don’t talk to him, don’t find him, just send the infopak on and run and hide. Promise me Errol, do not talk to him.” and the link died.
He sat staring into the darkened room. She called me Errol. Ten years working together she’s never touched a drop, never shed a tear, never called me Errol never, only boss. What the hell could do this to her? He mulled it over briefly. The hell with Karen and the hell with this, he was going to eyeball this guy. He could get to Darwin, face this guy down and have him in cuffs and chains in less than a day.
Errol sat back, reflecting as the autocab glided towards Darwin’s western suburbs. Tanjya’s infopak had given him a name and a phone number. For all the resources he had all Errol found was a physical description and a name. No matching profile, data set or financial trace. It intrigued and bothered him. Errol had tracked the number, set the link and plugged through the local surveillance net. The subject of his attention was now sitting comfortably in a near deserted street café, relaxed and apparently at peace with the world. Impossibly he’d even looked up and winked at him although there was no way he could know he was being watched. Whatever, it wouldn’t matter in five minutes.
The autocab settled a few doors away from the café and, after retina scanning the fare, rose back to the city. Errol approached the café slowly, assuring himself that the subject was alone. When only a few meters away the subject relaxed his shoulders, placing both hands slowly and clearly on the glass tabletop.
“Good morning Mr Hasking, I have been expecting you. Punctual I see, a much undervalued trait in these times.” He swivelled slightly, blue-grey eyes searching Errol’s face. “Please, take a seat. I have taken the liberty of ordering you a coffee. Flat white, single origin, no sugar. Correct?” He turned away, facing the empty chair opposite. “Simple tastes for an ordered life, it is a pleasant, pleasant change.”
Errol slid slowly into the vacant seat. He’d obviously done his homework and had a good surveillance setup. He studied him in silence as the waiter set the coffee down. Totally unremarkable, an average man of indeterminate middle age dressed in tastefully out of date fashion. Except for the face, the vacant eyes and thin-lipped mouth which, when taken with the close cropped blonde hair, chilled Errol to the bone. Taking a small sip from the cup, once his palette sensors returned nothing of interest he swallowed. The brew was just right, as he liked it. He nodded across the table. “Thank you Mr Kr —”
“Please, call me Johann, and the pleasure is mine, yes indeed, a pleasure. I have been, ah, let us say, a student of your work for some time now and have been looking forward to meeting you.”
“To meeting me? You seem to have me at a disadvantage.”
“It is an ingrained habit, know yourself, know your enemies or, more correctly, those you deal with. In my speciality it is important and easy to do so although I must say both you and your Tanjya have a very tight circle drawn around you, very good considering. But I am sure you are not here to simply pass the time of day, so allow me to be blunt.” He lifted his cup taking a delicate sip, pinky extended as he placed cup carefully back onto saucer. “Let us talk about forgery yes? You are here to find me and to bring me in,” smiling to himself as if it were a private joke “FBI old school style?”
“In simplest terms yes. It’s not too hard, you haven’t exactly hidden yourself.”
“My location? Of course not, it is not necessary. But myself, I think you can attest I am hidden very well. I am playing my part by the rules, but you seem to have ignored Karen’s instructions totally. Not true to form for a boy scout, yes?”
“I do when I need to but in this case I’m intrigued, one about you —”
“And two about Tanjya? Again commitment on both planes, refreshing and unfortunately uncommon. Please, do not let me interrupt you.”
The question had barely formed on Errol’s lips when the proximity alert chimed and an orange knight appeared on the table. Priority two call from his people at the Reserve. Johann was leaning back, smiling, palms outspread. Errol signalled acceptance and the surroundings faded to light grey, the knight transforming to Sharne.
“Boss I’ve got preliminaries,” looking left and right as if checking “you need to hear this.”
“What have you got?”
“It’s point nine eight from the last two quarter’s tranche, give or take.”
“Ok, under one percent, that’s —”
“No boss, point nine eight as in from one, the number’s ninety-eight percent.”
Errol drew a shocked breath inwards. “On what base?”
“Thirty thousand notes, randomised, all collection centres, all denominations. Before you ask we’ve triple checked it.”
“What do the Reserve think?”
“They’ve no idea. They think we’re a bunch of drones with sticks up our arses wasting their time on useless random checks.”
“Ok, pack it up and get out of there. Log it through, copy Karen in then send the guys home. Keep it quiet ok, no leaks or chats over drinks.”
Sharne nodded. “Later boss.”
“Adios.” and the connection broke.
Errol looked up as the greyed shield dropped. “You’ve got a hell of a printing press Johann.”
“Not just here, it is all of them, every single currency, and for good measure all the cryptos as well. By now your counterparts across the world are getting similar details, having similar conversations.” He knitted his eyebrows, leaning forwards in earnest. “You must have some idea, speculation, about what this is for.”
“It only makes sense if you work for foreign — “
“Which I do not. What is foreign to the whole world anyway? Let us say I do not, I am simply and honestly a public servant, like you. So?”
“You’re printing out undetectable cash, flushing it through the system, no-ones the wiser until we catch on and you don’t hide? Nothing fits, except …”
“Except deliberate destabilisation, clear out effort to destroy the physical money base.”
“Correct, but not just the physical money base. So now you have the what.”
“You’re mad, do you know what that will do? Cash is barely a fifth of money stock but it’s mainly held by people, not business or government. They think it’s worthless there could be anarchy, riots, anything.”
“No could be, absolute certainty. And mad? Probably, maybe definitely.”
Errol had his hand on his ankle, on top of his crossed leg. He gently squeezed the top eyelet of his shoe. Should be one minute until they button this freak up.
“You have only half the story Mr Hasking. How is never enough, never. You want the why. Let me ask you a question. Why go after the cryptos if all we wanted was to destroy the physical money system?”
Forty-five seconds just to keep him talking, waiting until they come. “I don’t know, you’re the one doing it so how about you tell me?”
“Come on Mr Hasking, you yourself have lectured on this. The cashless society, the break from traceless accounting, closing another hole for corruption and vice. What do you think the cryptos are used for? You know as well as I do. Killing cash is fine but to do it properly the cryptos have to die.” He shook his head. “Decades earlier, decades later it could be done but now is the best, least hit, more connected space. Knock it all down, five weeks it is all done, the necessary conditions established. I thought you would remember your pap — oh, beg pardon, it is not written yet — you of all people should know.”
Johann caught Errol glancing fleetingly at the clock on the café wall. Again he laughed.
“They will not turn up Mr Hasking, wait another ten seconds or ten minutes either way they will not be here. Do you think us that careless? Not until we are ready, and not before. Besides which we have yet more to discuss, one servant of the people to another.”
“Servant of the people? How do you call yourself that? Think of the families, the poor, the —”
“Think of them? Think of them! What do you think I am doing? Have you any idea of the mess we inherit from you, the suffering? Untangling it all takes generations unless this tipping point goes. Where are your loyalties Mr Hasking, to the people or to a corrupted and compromised government? I know where I stand.”
“And just where” Errol spat “is that? What and who exactly are you?”
“I’ve told you, a servant of the public, you know the rest but you just don’t want to admit the possibility.”
Johann leant forwards leering, close enough for Errol to smell the stale breath from between his clenched teeth. “You know what. The technology. What I know. What we are doing. The invisibility. Counterfeits so outlandishly perfect we may as well have autographed them. It is all impossible for any person, legal, criminal, alternative whatever and you know it. It leaves you with only two possibilities, two options and you know it.”
“I can’t —”
“Come on man it is just logical, the residual. It is not that difficult to accept.” Johann sighed, placing three folders on the table next to him. “But it does not matter, it is not relevant. What matters is you, now, and eight hours from now. Ask me why we need you.”
Errol was distracted by the folders. The bottom ones, pale red and blue were normal meta-folders linked to remote data storage. He was sure the upper one was real manila cardboard, fibres showing through dog-eared corners and coffee stains, a rarity. He dragged his eyes up from the table. “You wanted to be found, but Tanjya found you and she’s gone so it’s me now? What exactly do you think you want from me?”
Johann pursed his lips, blue-grey eyes vacant, cold, a living death mask. “We need you to make a choice, to decide to either do your job and follow your conscience or do as you are asked. All we want out of you is to do your job, your real job, and remember it when you talk to her.”
Errol jumped as his audio warning broke in. Voice only contact from the office secure line meant only one person, Karen.
“Errol, can you talk?”
“Of course,” looking directly at Johann “I’m alone.”
“Have you made progress?”
‘Some, not a great deal but I’m optimistic.”
“Fine. Look, the Minister’s been in contact, there’s a different approach being adopted so a slight shift in plans is needed.”
“We’re moving from ‘watch and act’ to ‘watch and wait’. Once you’ve got a handle on what’s going on you’re to report back but there’s to be no pick up. Understand?”
“Not totally. You’re saying observe and then nothing? What about the four days until it breaks?”
“It won’t. We’re going to hang them out to dry, simply going to let it wash over. If we can’t pick up the counterfeits no-one can, so there’s no need to do anything.”
“What of the others, the other countries?”
“They’ll do exactly the same, don’t worry. Clear?”
“Clear.” with which he broke the link.
Errol stared at Johann who replied with lifted eyebrows. “Do you see now? It is not us that is doing the asking, but your own.” He shook his head slowly. “You have no idea of the reach and depth of the web and the way cash is the key, the oil that greases the gears. Eight hours from now one journalist and one politician here are going to break the story open and then others will follow around the world. Each time their governments will deny the truth unless, and only unless, the experts stand up to support them. And critically it must start here, with you. That is your choice. Do your job or do as you are asked.”
“Let us simply say reputation counts. Do you need more convincing, like Tanjya?”
“Tanjya? Just what did you do to her?”
“Do? Nothing, nothing at all.” Johann tapped his index finger on the manila folder. “All I did was let her read one of these then asked her if she would like some further information. We needed her in Rio, to make sure you came directly to us. Eventually she came around to our way of thinking.” He slowly slid the manila folder across the table. “You must understand, you do have a choice in all this. If you believe me then the choice is clear, if not, well, we do not think that will happen. What is in here are, in a manner of speaking, my bona fides. Have a look and please, take your time.”
Errol took the folder, slowly opening it. On each inside cover was line after line of neat, clipped handwriting. He read carefully, slowly, sweating, forgetting to breathe, stopping and starting again. His emotions went from anger, amazement, embarrassment, shame, mortification, guilt even hatred but always, growing and clawing away at him as he read, fear, abject ice-cold fear of what sat opposite him. The folder was all about him, nothing else, and not the publicly available openly gleaned intel that formed his stock in trade but the secrets, the dark inner world that never saw the light, thoughts from darkness and despair crushed and denied and hidden even from himself, the joys held closest and unspoken, the inner narrative of the still quiet voice within him that only he could hear. It was his soul stripped naked and exposed, nailed to the covers of the folder. He finished shaking, sweat stained and humbled, his universe collapsing to the folder, the table, Johann. He opened his mouth but for once nothing came out.
Johann fixed Errol with his cold death mask stare. “We know you as you truly are, as you were, as you will be. Everything, every nook, cranny, every place in your heart soul and mind where even you dare not go we read as an open book. Nothing is hidden from us, nothing about you, Tanjya, these people, your family, everyone. Everything, everyone is clear, open, transparent before us. If we say a thing is, it is. If we say a thing should be done, it should be. And if we ask you to believe us you should, do you not think?”
“Yes, yes I do.” he responded faintly, still shaking.
“Good.” Touching the manila folder it crumbled to ash, blown away by the faint breeze. “We have no more need of this.”
“What exactly do I do?”
“Just go back today, the next flight, contact these two people”. Johann’s infopak delivered to Errol immediately. “Support them fully and publicly. Include everything except this discussion.”
Errol started to stand, then sat back down. “Tanjya. You said you offered information to her after she read her, ah, her folder.”
“Tanjya was not convinced by what she read so, yes, we did make that offer. She chose not to accept it and came around to our way of thinking.” He spun the red and blue virtual meta-folders lazily on the table. “For her just one folder, for you two, two pieces of information, but all very similar. Mr Hasking do you really want to know what the offers are? You do not need more convincing, you know that.”
“I need to know, at least I think I do.”
“Very well. They contain no facts, information or anything from before this moment. As it is for you it was for Tanjya. For her the information was to go to her. For you, one piece is for you, one piece for your wife.”
“The information about nothing in her past changed Tanjya’s mind?”
“No, not quite. Just the possibility of knowing. She, like you, really did believe us, she just would not admit it to herself. You both know what we are even if you will not use the words, and you know what we tell you is the truth. You know the information in these folders is true.”
Johann stacked the folders and held them on his palm at arm’s length towards Errol. “I will make the same offer to you anyway, even if you do not need it. With Tanjya I promised to send it to her if she did not behave. For you it is a choice, but think carefully. Two folders. Two dates. One for you. One for your wife.”
“What” in a barely audible whisper “are the dates?”
For the first time Johann genuinely smiled. “Very good. For you the date your wife dies. To your wife the date your daughter dies.”
Errol shuddered, dry retched, clutched the table. “No, no, I don’t think I, I mean, please, just don’t.”
“A wise choice,” compressing the folders in his fist, deleting them “one of many today Mr Hasking.”
Thanks for reading my short story, I hope you enjoyed it.
I’m currently working on my first novel, due to be released in 2020. If you want to keep in touch and see how it’s progressing, or to know when my short stories are out, follow this blog or link to me in Twitter at @Ishmael_Soledad