The Summons - Page 19

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A week passed, a week without FBI or Treasury agents knocking on his door with badges and questions about bad money tracked down in Atlantic City, a week with no sign of Dolph or anyone else following him, a week of the normal routine of running five miles in the morning and being a law professor after that.

He flew the Bonanza three times, each a lesson with Fog at his right elbow, and each lesson paid for on the spot with cash. "Casino money," he said with a grin, and it wasn't a lie. Fog was anxious to return to Atlantic City to reclaim his lost assets. Ray had no interest, but it wasn't a bad idea. He could boast of another good day at the tables and keep paying cash for his flying lessons.

The money was now in 37F - 14B was still rented to Ray Atlee, and it still held the old clothes and the cheap furniture; 37F was rented to NDY Ventures, named in honor of the three flight instructors at Docker's. Ray's name was nowhere on the paperwork for 37F. He leased it for three months, in cash.

"I want this confidential," he'd said to Mrs. Chancy.

"Everything's confidential around here. We get all types." She gave him a conspiratorial look as if to say, "I don't care what you're hiding. Just pay me."

He'd moved it one box at a time, hauling it at night, under the cover of darkness, with a security guard watching from a distance. Storage space 37F was identical to 14B, and when the six boxes were safely tucked away he had vowed once again to leave it alone and not stop by every day. It had never occurred to him that hauling around three million bucks could be such a chore.

Harry Rex had not called. He'd sent another overnight package with more of the same letters of sympathy and such. Ray was compelled to read them all, or least scan them just in case there was a second cryptic note. There was not.

Exams came and went and after graduation the law school would be quiet for the summer. Ray said good-bye to his students, all but Kaley, who, after her last exam, informed Ray she had decided to stay in Charlottesville through the summer. She pressed him again for a pregraduation rendezvous of some sort. Just for the hell of it.

"We are waiting until you are no longer a student," Ray said, holding his ground but wanting to yield. They were in his office with the door open.

"That's a few days away," she said.

"Yes it is."

"Then let's pick a date."

"No, let's graduate first, then we'll pick a date."

She left him with the same lingering smile and look, and Ray knew that she was trouble. Carl Mirk caught him gazing down the hall as she walked away in very tight jeans. "Not bad," Carl said.

Ray was slightly embarrassed, but kept watching anyway. "She's after me," he said.

"You're not alone. Be careful."

They were standing in the hallway next to the door to Ray's office. Carl handed him an odd-looking envelope and said, "Thought you'd get a kick out of this."

"What is it?"

"It's an invitation to the Buzzard Ball."

"The what?" Ray was pulling out the invitation.

"The first ever Buzzard Ball, probably the last too. It's a black-tie gala to benefit the preservation of bird life in the Piedmont. Look at the hosts."

Ray read it slowly. "Vicki and Lew Rodowski cordially invite you to ..."

"The Liquidator is now saving our birds. Touching, huh?"

"Five thousand bucks a couple!"

"I think that's a record for Charlottesville. It was sent to the Dean. He's on the A list, we are not. Even his wife was shocked at the price."

"Suzie's shockproof, isn't she?"

"Or so we thought. They want two hundred couples. They'll raise a million or so and show everybody how it's done. That's the plan anyway. Suzie says they'll be lucky to get thirty couples."

"She's not going?"

"No, and the Dean is very relieved. He thinks it's the first black-tie shindig they'll miss in the last ten years."

"Music by the Drifters?" Ray said as he scanned the rest of the invitation.

"That'll cost him fifty grand."

"What a fool."

"That's Charlottesville. Some clown bails out from Wall Street, gets a new wife, buys a big horse farm, starts throwing money around, and wants to be the big man in a small town."

"Well, I'm not going."

"You're not invited. Keep it."

Carl was off, and Ray returned to his desk, invitation in hand. He put his feet on his desk, closed his eyes, and began daydreaming. He could see Kaley in a slinky black dress with no back at all, slits up past her thighs, very low V-neck, drop-dead gorgeous, thirteen years younger than Vicki, a helluva lot fitter, out there on the dance floor with Ray, who was not a bad dancer himself, bobbing and jerking to the Motown rhythms of the Drifters, while everybody watched and whispered, "Who's that?"

And in response Vicki would be forced to drag old Lew out onto the floor, Lew in his designer tux, which could not hide his dumpy little belly; Lew with shrubs of bright gray hair above his ears; Lew the old goat trying to buy respect by saving the birds; Lew with the arthritic back and slow feet who moves like a dump truck; Lew proud of his trophy wife in her million-dollar dress, which reveals too much of her magnificently starved bones.

Ray and Kaley would look much better, dance much better, and, well, what would all that prove?

A nice scene to visit, but give it up. Now that he had the money he wouldn't waste it on nonsense like that.

The drive to Washington was only two hours, and more than half of it was fairly scenic and enjoyable. But his preferred method of travel had changed. He and Fog flew the Bonanza for thirty-eight minutes to Reagan National, where they were reluctantly allowed to land, even with a preapproved slot. Ray jumped in a taxi and fifteen minutes later was at the Treasury Department on Pennsylvania Avenue.

A colleague at the law school had a brother-in-law with some clout in Treasury. Phone calls had been made, and Mr. Oliver Talbert welcomed Professor Atlee into his rather comfortable office in the BEP, Bureau of Engraving and Printing. The professor was doing research on a vaguely defined project and needed less than an hour of someone's time. Talbert was not the brother-in-law, but he was asked to fill in.

They began with the topic of counterfeiting, and in broad strokes Talbert laid out the current problems, almost all blamed on technology - primarily inkjet printers and computer-generated counterfeit currency. He had samples of some of the best imitations. With a magnifier, he pointed out the flaws - the lack of detail in Ben Franklin's forehead, the missing thin thread lines running through the design background, the bleeding ink in the serial numbers. "This is very good stuff," he said. "And counterfeiters are getting better."

"Where'd you find this?" Ray asked, though the question was completely irrelevant. Talbert looked at the tag on the back of the display board. "Mexico," he said, and that was all.

To outpace the counterfeiters, Treasury was investing heavily in its own technology. Printers that gave the bills an almost holographic effect, watermarks, color-shifting inks, fine line printing patterns, enlarged off-center portraits, and scanners that could spot a fake in less than a second. The most effective method so far was one that had not yet been used. Simply change the color of the money. Go from green to blue to yellow then to pink. Gather up the old, flood the banks with the new, and the counterfeiters could not catch up, at least not in Talbert's opinion. "But Congress won't allow it," he said, shaking his head.

Tracing real money was Ray's primary concern, and they eventually got around to it. Money is not actually marked, Talbert explained, for obvious reasons. If the crook could look at the bills and see markings, then the sting would fall apart. Marking simply meant recording serial numbers, once a very tedious task because it was done manually. He told a kidnapping and ransom story. The cash arrived just minutes before the drop was planned. Two dozen FBI agents worked furiously to write down the serial numbers of the hundred-dollar bills. "The ransom was a million bucks," he was saying, "and they simply ran out of time. Got about eighty thousand recorded, but it was enough. They caught the kidnappers a month later with some of the marked bills, and that broke the case."

But a new scanner had made the job much easier. It photographs ten bills at a time, one hundred in forty seconds.

"Once the serial numbers are recorded, how do you find the money?" Ray asked, taking notes on a yellow legal pad. Would Talbert have expected anything else?

"Two ways. First, if you find the crook with the money, you simply put two and two together and nail him. That's how the DEA and FBI catch drug dealers. Bust a street dealer, cut him a deal, give him twenty thousand in marked bills to buy coke from his supplier, then catch the bigger fish holding the government's money."

"What if you don't catch the crook?" Ray asked, and in doing so could not help but think of his departed father.

"That's the second way, and it's much more difficult. Once the money is lifted out of circulation by the Federal Reserve, a sample of it is routinely scanned. If a marked bill is found, it can be traced back to the bank that submitted it. By then it's too late. Occasionally, a person with marked money will use it in one general location over a period of time, and we've caught a few crooks that way."

"Sounds like a long shot."

"Very much so," Talbert admitted.

"I read a story a few years ago about some duck hunters who stumbled across a wrecked airplane, a small one," Ray said casually. The tale had been rehearsed. "There was some cash on board, seems like it was almost a million bucks. They figured it was drug money, so they kept it. Turns out it they were right, the money was marked, and it soon surfaced in their small town."

"I think I remember that," Talbert said.

I must be good, thought Ray. "My question is this: could they, or could anyone else who finds money, simply submit it to the FBI or DEA or Treasury and have it scanned to see if it was marked, and if so, where it came from?"

Talbert scratched his cheek with a bony finger and contemplated the question, then shrugged and said, "I don't see why they couldn't. The problem, though, is obvious. They would run the risk of losing the money."

"I'm sure it's not a common occurrence," Ray said, and they both laughed.

Talbert had a story about a judge in Chicago who was skimming from the lawyers, small sums, five hundred and a thousand bucks a pop, to get cases moved up the docket, and for friendly rulings. He'd done it for years before the FBI got a tip. They busted some of the lawyers and convinced them to play along. Serial numbers were taken from the bills, and during the two-year operation three hundred fifty thousand was sneaked across the bench into the judge's sticky fingers. When the raid happened, the money had vanished. Someone tipped the judge. The FBI eventually found the money in the judge's brother's garage in Arizona, and everybody went to jail.

Ray caught himself squirming. Was it a coincidence, or was Talbert trying to tell him something? But as the narrative unfolded he relaxed and tried to enjoy it, close as it was. Talbert knew nothing about Ray's father.

Riding in a cab back to the airport, Ray did the math on his legal pad. For a judge like the one in Chicago, it would take eighteen years, stealing at the rate of a hundred seventy-five thousand a year, to accumulate three million. And that was Chicago, with a hundred courts and thousands of wealthy lawyers handling cases worth much more than the ones in north Mississippi. The judicial system there was an industry where things could slip through, heads could be turned, wheels greased. In Judge Atlee's world a handful of people did everything, and if money was offered or taken folks would know about it. Three million dollars could not be taken from the 25th Chancery District because there wasn't that much in the system to begin with.

He decided that one more trip to Atlantic City was necessary. He would take even more cash and flush it through the system. A final test. He had to be certain the Judge's money wasn't marked.

Fog would be thrilled.

Tags: John Grisham Thriller