Erwin K. Roberts
©2021 Robert E. Kennedy
Its amazing the tricks your body and mind can play on you. I needed to get up to meet a client at 7:00 in the morning. And I set my alarm. Almost all the time I wake up a couple of minutes before the blamed thing goes off.
Not this time. I stirred. I reached over and pushed the doohickey that turns on the light behind the dial. Twelve minutes before the hour. The alarm’s supposed to sound at ten till. So I got up. And showered. Didn’t shave because of the sort of meeting it was.
I drove to an all night gas station at a freeway off-ramp. The owner owes me. I left the car in an empty repair bay. Then I walked over half a mile to the designated spot. I really didn’t want to take my cane with me. Makes me stand out too much. But until the V.A. figures out how to keep my ankle from going out periodically, I’m sort of stuck. Oh, don’t think I mentioned it. I’m Jack Dare, fully licensed private investigator.
The little diner wasn’t open. Not even close to open. Not a light showed. Except the ones designed to keep people from breaking in. Rudy should be in the back, getting ready for the early round of customers.
Then I realized not a single car was parked on the street. There should be half a dozen in sight. Early birds getting the few free spaces for the day. Saves at least seventy-five cents a day here in 1978. Anyway, after making that astute observation, I pulled my wristwatch out of my pocket. I made the mistake of buying one of the fancy new LCD watches with a vial of radioactive Tritium behind the display. The thing glows twenty-four hours a day. Pretty bright, too. So I keep it in my pocket when the sun’s down.
Holy Missoula Montana! I exclaimed to myself. That’s what I get for not double checking. I planned to be here by six o’clock. Spend most of an hour watching for potential party crashers. My alarm said twelve minutes til. But not twelve until five. It had been until four o’clock! I’m here at five, not six.
The mama-san who taught me foul Vietnamese would have been proud at how much I remembered right then. After I calmed down I decided to make the best of the goofy situation. Start my recon early. So I began looking around.
Everything seemed fine. For all that the area is a bit rundown, its not a high crime area. Very little high dollar portable size gear to tempt the heister. Company vehicles locked up. Mostly inside, too. Nobody does much business in cash. Damn little on display to tempt a smash and grab.
Keeping to the shadows I walked around. Didn’t see a soul for nearly ten minutes. Then, in the distance, I noticed two guys walking. One of them carried a lunch bucket. Headed for work. Not three minutes later a car pulled up to the gate of a heating and cooling contractor. The driver unlocked the gate, then closed it behind his car. Soon he had a company truck backed up to the firm’s loading dock. As the truck headed in the direction of the highway on-ramp my eyes fell on the small building housing Red Griffin Printing. Just in time to see a bit of the dim light go out.
Checking my Colt Commander and gripping my cane in the center I scuttled to the edge of the building. The area of the front door seemed pretty well lit. I headed down the driveway between buildings. I stuck my head around the corner glad that I’d worn my fedora. Its shadow kept my face from showing in contrast to my dark sports-coat and dark blue shirt.
A moment later I felt more than heard movement inside the printshop. A pair of arms reached outside to place a copy paper box on the back step. Then I barely heard a door close and the deadbolt rasp home. A slender man in sort of baggy clothes picked up the box and headed for the gap between two buildings facing the next street.
That copy paper box could not have been full. The fellow practically glided along with it. Keeping to the shadows like I did, I realized I might not have detected him at all if I hadn’t been looking for something in that dimly lit alleyway.
For no real reason I followed him. Wasn’t quite sure why. Couldn’t accuse him of a crime. Heck, he might even own the printshop. Maybe he he tried not to be seen so as not to attract muggers. But I followed. Four long blocks over he cut through the tall weeds of a tiny neglected city park. He opened the box to drop something into a trash barrel. I mentally marked the location for a return visit.
Three blocks later I lost him. He slipped into the already busy area behind City Unification Mission. The operation, C.U. for short, dated back to before the Great Depression. Everything that can be done for the down and out part of the population C.U. does. And well. Even now they were setting up for the new day. I recognized the trucks that sought out the homeless. Supply trucks soon to head for the various shelters. And more.
The man I followed was known there. Had to be. Nobody could casually cut through the area. On any given day several homeless veterans would be taking care of security, in return for their breakfasts.
By that time my meeting was approaching faster than I liked. I hurried back to the diner, pausing only to examine that trashcan in the park. I usually have a waxed paper bag in my jacket pocket for items with fingerprints. I put the top layer from the trashcan in it.
The totally unrelated meeting went off without a hitch. Then I headed to my office.
I’m pretty much a one man shop. But at least I don’t live in my office. The waiting room gathers a lot of dust. Nobody seems to remember who was the tenant before me. The place sat vacant for years. An expanding insurance agency once cut the place more or less in half. Then they went under.
Betty’s Beauty College moved in to the agency’s space about ten years ago. And very successfully. We’ve got a symbiotic relationship going. I provide the occasional bit of security and chase bouncing checks. They take messages. Do some of my paperwork. And keep me well groomed.
Which brings me to the closets. In the renovation what became my space ended up with three of them. One’s in the waiting room. I keep that mostly empty and locked tight. The first one in the office has an ancient sign saying “Coats.” I marked the second one “221B.” That’s where I keep all my detective gear. Not that I use it much, but that day it did come in handy. (Oh, and before I forget, 221B also has a panel that lets me crawl into Betty’s area, that is, if there is an emergency for either one of us.
I dumped the waxed paper bag out on my desk. After I quickly dealt with a couple of crawling things and tossed a few desiccated fries away I got to work.
The empty container of wet wipes yielded no clues. That left a scattered bunch of rectangles that looked like ordinary seeming typing or photocopy paper. Two sizes of paper. I got out a small tape measure. The first piece measured exactly eight and one half inches wide. I measured some of the others where they lay scattered across my desk. I concluded the papers had once been eight and a half by eleven inch sheets with an oblong rectangle removed about halfway up. Then I picked one up.
And got a surprise. The things were thicker than typing paper. Twice as thick. Glued together so precisely that my eyes had not picked up on it. I went to the closet for my set of magnifying glasses. I try to get my ideas only from the best. Who better than the master himself.
I soon noticed the papers were not completely glued together. A slot exactly one eighth of an inch surrounded the missing part of the paper. I reassembled a full sheet. As I reached for the tape measure it hit me. Instead of the tape I pulled out my wallet. Extracting a fairly crisp ten dollar bill I placed it over the sheet.
A near perfect fit. I decided if I ironed the ten-spot there’d be no gap at all. My heart picked up a little speed as I began examining every slot in the lot.
I got lucky just once. One end piece of a piece of paper yielded a sliver of another kind of paper not two inches long and about one-sixty-forth of an inch wide. It took my jeweler’s loupe, but I finally found a couple of the red and blue threads contained in U.S. greenbacks.
What to do? Really, what to do? The book would have me go running to the Secret Service. Sure, I’ve got some suspicions. But, if I happen to sneeze, I could loose the one quite literal shred of evidence I have. For all I know this guy may be overprinting Elvis’ face over George Washington’s and selling the product for two dollars. At worst that’s a minor offense. Plus, assuming I got all the scraps left over from the night’s work, he could have made no more than three thousand dollars. What kind of counterfeiter does that?
In my early days as a P.I. I specialized as a skip-tracer. Of kids who ran off to live the hippie life. Or to become the next Bob Dillon. Or, ones in real trouble. More than once I’d discovered that the missing kid was on the run from some serious problem back at home. I’m sure you can guess what sort of problems.
C.U. Mission came to those kid’s aid any number of times. Both through the system, and occasionally circumventing it. I sure didn’t want their good name dragged through the mud. At least until I was sure of what kind of mud, if any, was involved.
So I put a few things on hold. First I checked in with my friends at the office of that paragon of the press, the Upheaval. The sheet started out as an anti-war, anti-establishment, free love, change the world type of thing. But it has evolved. Still very much the activist publication, the Upheaval now reports on local corruption and incompetence. And they’re used to me picking their brains for no apparent reason.
I left the paper’s Brady Street offices with all the facts, speculation, and street-talk about the Red Griffin Printing’s whole area. Then I got ready.
I got as much sleep as I could during the day. Because I spent every night for the next ten days watching for covert activity in and around that printing plant. I’d found out that Red Griffin did have equipment to do the intaglio kind of printing used on greenbacks. So maybe the man I’d seen was cleaning one dollar bills, then reprinting larger denominations. But why such a tiny operation?
I figured out how to slip in to a small vacant storefront. From there I got to the roof common to the whole block. And on the roof I sat, night after night. With only two things for company. A tiny AM/FM radio with earphones, plus my Rick Brant Special.
You never read Rick Brant? Best kids’ series of books I ever found. Rick and his pal Scotty used real life science to get the bad guys. When I got into the private investigator game there was one of Rick’s gadgets I just had to build for myself.
Just like Rick, I bought a World War Two Army surplus Sniperscope. Yes, I got to use those Starlight night vision scopes in ‘Nam. But either you flat couldn’t buy one as a civilian, or they cost thousands I didn’t have. So I went with the infrared Sniperscope, just like Rick. Rick mounted his above a movie camera. I chose a Ricoh 401 single-lens-reflex still camera, instead. And I laid in a stock of the fastest infrared film available.
Looking through the camera’s IR filter, or with special glasses, the Sniperscope acted like a fairly narrow searchlight. I’d used it a few times before, with good results. But, on that tenth night I was about to give up.
I used only one eye to look thru the camera viewfinder. Good thing I did. ‘Cause right before one o’clock the amount of light inside Red Griffin Printing increased a tiny bit. If I’d looked away for thirty seconds I wouldn’t have noticed the change. The beam from the Sniperscope showed me nothing different. So I shut it off and put on the IR glasses. Presently the corrugated metal wall blocking my view into the shop developed a very minor hotspot. Just enough change in temperature to show up on an area the size of my hand. Somebody was using a piece of equipment. I put the Sniperscope and camera back in it’s case and kept watch.
At just about the same time as when I’d come by before the light dimmed. Slinging the case on my back I let myself down the building’s side wall on a rope. The proper flip and tug untied the rope’s far end. I stuffed the thing in the pocket of my windbreaker as I crossed the road as far from the streetlight as possible.
With the camera fired up I peeked around the end of the printshop just as that copy paper box appeared on the back step. When the man picked up the box I risked taking a shot. Believe me I’ve muffled the noise of the camera.
Nothing happened. He took calmly off. And I followed wearing the IR glasses.
To anybody else using I.R. that night I’d be carrying a flare tipped arrow pointing right to my center of mass. I gambled, believing that more than ninety-eight per cent of the population would not understand the word “infrared” if it jumped off the dictionary page and bit their nose. I was right. Nobody detected the detective.
I got a picture of him dropping the paper scraps in the park’s trashcan. And another of the contents of the can. Then I hurried to catch up. I wanted to see how he got through the C.U. Mission area. Didn’t happen.
As my quarry passed under a street light two men stepped from behind a VW van to block his way. I couldn’t quite make out the words they used, but the tone clearly threatened. Then, in the second sentence, one word drifted in clearly, “plates.” In the IR light I recognized Jethro Collins, hired muscle for Honcho Bain, one of the biggest racketeers around. I didn’t recognize the other one by name, but the much battered face told me more than I needed to know. Then a third man closed in from behind.
I put the camera and scope on the ground pointing at the group. I engaged a widget of my own design that would trip the shutter every ten seconds. I circled around some high weeds as the three began to push my man around. I’d scouted the whole area as a possible place to talk to the guy, myself. Without the rough stuff, mind you. There was an old stone bench mostly hidden near the center of the clump. Not all that far from where the trio had emerged. I unstrapped the cane from my back, drew my Commander, sprang to the top of the bench, and jumped for all I was worth.
I must have seemed to fly over that brush. Meanwhile I prayed that my ankle wouldn’t give out on the landing. It didn’t. I landed almost halfway between the thug at the rear and the well used face. Collins held the mystery man by the collar.
Before anybody could move I struck. As I sprang out of my landing crouch I jammed the three inch round hardwood head of the cane up between the rear thug’s legs. My arm shuddered at the impact with his family jewels. The face reached inside his jacket as I glided his way. The barrel of the Commander rebounded from the side of his head.
Collins, meanwhile brought his arm from behind him. In the IR spotlight I could clearly see the knife slash brass knuckles slash sap come into view. I real darkness I’d have to shoot him and hope not to hit the other man. But I saw enough, and soon enough, to break his wrist with my cane before he could threaten either of us with the Rube Goldberg weapon. Then I used the top of his head to make sure the magazine of the Colt Commander was firmly seated. I did the same for the gasping rear man as he tried to unfold himself.
“Now,” I said to the rescued man, “I think we need to talk. About the same subject as these three, I believe. I’ve got just barely enough evidence to call the Secret Service. I’ll give you one chance to talk me out of it. Where can we go?”
Two minutes later we both picked up our gear and headed for the City Unification Mission back lot.
“He’s with me,” said my companion to the big fellow in the well worn field jacket and boonie hat. Immediately we got waived through. A moment later, Mike Kozak, my new pal, closed his office door behind us. Seems Mike’s the Mission’s bookkeeper.
I began quietly, “Now don’t tell me you’re trying to keep the Mission’s financial head above water by printing funny money.”
He chuckled, in a sort of embarrassed way. “Nothing like that. Just trying to pay a family debt. My sister’s been at the Claiborne Care Center. Most people don’t realize the place amounts to a hospice. The Mission picks up most of the difference to what Medicaid covers. Anna loved the people there. Didn’t want to go to another place. So, six months ago, I started making up the difference. She died peacefully three weeks ago.”
“I tumbled on to you by accident. But how did Honcho Bain get involved? And where did you get the plates?”
He pulled a padded case out of the copy paper box. “These,” he said, “represent the stupidity of my youth. And an incredible break.”
“Twelve years ago I got really down on my luck. I fell in with some guys who knew an engraver. They decided to build a counterfeiting business slowly. So, instead of fifties, or even hundreds, they began with the ten dollar bill. Since I had no record I served as their gofer. That way I learned about the whole racket. Making the ink. Scrubbing the one dollar bills for the proof-runs. Adding serial numbers. Everything.
“Then, just before the first test printing was about to get started, the city cops busted in. I was standing next to the press. And close to a tunnel out. I grabbed the plates, the ink, the paper and ran like hell. Got clean away. What I took kept the Feds out of it. Everything in the place, including the press, was stolen. So everybody but me got sent up. That included Honcho Bain’s nephew. Recently the gang started getting out. One of them came through the Mission’s half-way house. He must have seen me.”
I left a half hour later with the copy paper box and a dilemma. Destroy the plates, or turn them in. Then explain where I got them, or else. But a third alternative hit me. For the last few years there’s been a mysterious guy in town. He’s been helping turn all kinds of bad guys, and especially drug wholesalers, into license plate makers at various state and federal institutions. And, so says the street talk, he just got into the very good graces of the Secret Service. Plus the bad guys have no idea who attacked Jethro Collins’ team.
So I went to the Half-A-Cup Coffee House. There I ordered Turkish rocket fuel… that is, coffee, and an organic Ruben. With my money I slipped Sandy, the owner, a note to be quietly posted on the neighborhood bulletin-board. Sooner or later the guy see it. In fact three days later he called me.
Then I began stalking Jethro Collins. A few days later I seized both opportunity and Collins. Wearing black clothing and a ski mask I yanked Collins into the alley next to his favorite bar at closing time.
“If you’re looking for those ten dollar plates,” I hissed, “talk to the Voice.”
That was six months ago. Jethro Collins is in jail. Mike Kozak’s heard from neither cops or bad guys about those plates. Plus, the Voice is still hard at work.