You’ve Got to Make a Profit
by H. E. Vogl
The lunchtime line wound around the counter of the 7-Eleven like an angry snake. Ted’s eyebrows arched when the reader rejected his ATM card.
“Sorry, to hold you up. Just give me a second.” he said to the man in back of him.
Ted reinserted the card. Again, it was rejected. He reached in his wallet and handed over a twenty to pay for his Coke. The clerk looked at the bill and ran a marker across its face. Then, she shoved it in the cash drawer and handed Ted his change. When Ted got back to his car, he smiled. It was an old trick, but it always worked. Wait until the store was busy then create a disturbance to pass off the counterfeit bill.
Ted set his drink in the cup holder and reached for the small notebook he kept on the passenger seat. He thumbed through the pages for clothing, restaurant, grocery, and stopped at convenience. Then he entered the date next to the name of the store as a reminder not to come back for at least a month. One needed to be careful passing bad money. Never hit the same place twice in a row, and always use small bills. No one remembers who gave you a twenty anymore.
Ted took pride in his work. His counterfeits were meticulously crafted, no inkjet prints or altered stage money. He printed each bill on a small press in his basement using copper plates he etched by hand. It was a skill Ted had honed through years of practice at the printing company he worked for.
Ted’s engraving was superb, but his crowning achievement was the paper. The twenties he made were printed on handmade linen stock, instead of the ground wood paper that security markers turned black. He even went as far as including a realistic security thread and sprinkling in a few red and blue fibers for good measure.
Ted didn’t make much in his left-handed endeavor. The work consumed too much time for the small amount of income he generated, but it provided him with the opportunity to practice a skill that his former employer considered obsolete.
His face tightened as he recalled the day the movers brought the computers into the shop and stacked the boxes high against the wall. And how the owner of the company stood in front of that wall of Babylon and told the team of engravers how sorry he was to let them go. But times were changing, and he needed to make a profit.
Ted slid an ink-stained finger down the page to locate the next stop. As he fished around the bottom of the cup to gurgle up the last of his soda, a dark blue LTD pulled up alongside and sat softly purring in the afternoon sun. Past the tinted side windows, Ted saw the silhouette of the driver along with two men in the backseat engaged in conversation. He watched the scene for a few moments. Suddenly, a live wire of fear touched him. He shifted into reverse, then slammed the stick back to park. If the authorities were on to him, running was useless.
The sedan’s motor died and a moment later the rear door lurched open. Beads of sweat ran down Ted’s face as a giant of a man edged his shoulders out of the back seat and came toward the car. The man rapped on the window, and Ted powered it down.
“Mind if we talk?” the stranger said.
The springs on the car groaned as the giant lowered himself into the passenger seat. “My name’s Otis,” he said. “The boss likes your work.”
“I said, the boss likes your work.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m not talking about the way you detail your car,” Otis said, crumpling an old sandwich wrapper sitting on the dash.
“Let me save you the trouble of asking a lot of stupid questions. We’ve been following you around for a while, watching you pass those bills. We even picked a couple up. It’s quality work, and the paper, it’s better than the real thing,” Otis said snapping a twenty between his fingers.
Ted started to mouth thanks but thought better of it and bit his lip.
“My boss wants you to do a little job for him,” Otis said as he took a small manilla envelope out of his jacket pocket and handed it to Ted.
“Go ahead, open it.”
Ted ran his fingers under the flap of the envelope like someone opening a present without spoiling the wrapping. He put his hand inside and withdrew a greeting card. On the front of the card was an intricate design of old village with skaters making their way across a frozen pond.
“Look inside,” Otis said.
Ted placed his thumb on the edge of the card and opened it like it was going to explode. But the only thing inside was a short verse in elaborate scroll wishing a happy holiday.
“I don’t get it,” Ted said.
“Turn the card over.”
“There’s nothing there.”
“At the bottom. Move your finger,” Otis said.
Ted took his hand away and read, “The Consolidated Greeting Card Company.”
“Six dollars and ninety-five cents.”
“You got it.”
“No, I don’t.”
“My boss is the kind of guy who doesn’t like when people take advantage of him. Don’t you think seven bucks for a card is taking advantage of someone?”
“It is kind of expensive.”
“Kind of,” Otis said pounding his fist on the dash. “It’s criminal.”
Ted winced then shrugged his shoulders. “So, what am I supposed to do?”
“The boss wants you to make a copy of the card. Best quality forgery, nice paper.”
“That’s it?” Ted said.
Otis reached into his pocket and pulled out three crisp one dollar bills.
“Here’s your payment, in advance.”
Ted stared at the bills.
“Fifty-fifty split. And if you do a good job, there’s more in it for you. The boss has lots of people he wants to send cards to.”
“It will cost me a lot to duplicate this card,” Ted stammered.
“If you can make money on the change from fake twenties, you can make money from fake greeting cards. And if you can’t, then those nice little fingers of yours will be bent in ways you can’t imagine.”
Ted sat openmouthed as Otis hauled himself up out of the car. Otis leaned into the window and said, “How long?”
“I need a week.”
“Let me see what the boss says. Stay here.”
When Otis came back he said, “The boss doesn’t like that.”
“But the etching takes time. You’ve got to understand.”
“Okay. Be in this spot one week from today, or else.”
Otis crawled into the back seat, and the LTD pulled away.
Ted opened the glove compartment and pulled out a paper napkin to blot the sweat from his forehead. Then he ran his fingers across the card feeling the delicate raised lines that adorned its face. His task, forge one greeting card for an unknown individual in return for a payment of three dollars.
Maybe they were testing him for some bigger project in the future. He’d refuse, of course. But as the thought of Otis snapping his fingers like dry twigs took hold, Ted’s breath shortened to panic laden gulps. For the better part of an hour Ted sat cradling the steering wheel until he gained the self-control to drive home.
* * *
The basement stairs creaked as Ted went down to his workshop. When he reached the bottom step, he pulled the chain for the overhead light. On a tabletop sat an ancient cast-iron hand press, its rollers covered in dark green ink. Bolted to the wall were wooden shelves holding neatly stacked piles of paper and tins of ink. And arranged on the workbench were several copper plates from the latest press run.
Ted placed the greeting card upright on the corner of the bench and sat down. Mindlessly, he picked up a rag to clean the ink off one of the copper plates on the bench. The job was easy, too easy to make sense. Ted threw the rag down and plodded up the stairs. He needed time to think.
For three nights. Ted went downstairs and stared at the card on the workbench. Finally, he came to a decision. The only way to discover what they wanted would be to duplicate the card. He opened a small drawer under his workbench and placed a fresh copper plate on the table. Ted brought the card closer to catch the light.
Then he slipped his magnifier over his head and started to work. Ted’s eyes darted back and forth between the greeting card and the copper plate as he faithfully etched each line. In two hours, he’d created a masterful forgery.
Ted held the finished etching next to the card. It was good, better than the original, he thought. Ted picked up the plate and fixed it to the bed of the press. Then, he mixed a small batch of ink to match the color of the card. When Ted peeled the proof off the press and held it to the light, he smiled. The forgery was perfect. He looked up at the calendar tacked to the far wall. Now, all he could do was wait.
Exactly the same time as the week before the LTD pulled up alongside him. Otis got out and leaned in the passenger window.
“Got it?” he said.
Ted handed the card to him, and Otis disappeared into the back seat. Ted’s nervous fingers rubbed the ignition key like a talisman, desperately wanting to end this madness. A few minutes later the sedan’s door squeaked open, and Otis leaned back into the window.
“He likes it.”
Ted’s shoulders collapsed, and he let out a long breath.
Otis reached into his pocket, pulled out an envelope. “He wants you to do another one.”
“Another. What’s going on?”
“Don’t ask if you know what’s good for you. We’ll meet you here next week, same time.”
Otis handed him three ones and got into the LTD. Ted watched as it pulled out of the lot, leaving a cloud of dust in its wake. He opened the envelope and took out another greeting card. This one depicted two lovers embracing on a park bench situated under a willow tree. This is crazy, he thought, but what choice do I have?
A week later, Ted sat in the lot waiting for the LTD to arrive. As before, Otis got out, took the card and disappeared into the back seat. A few minutes later he came out, card in hand. “The boss really likes this one.”
“Great,” Ted said. “Now, can I go?”
“He wants you to print a thousand.”
“Yep, and he wants them next week,” Otis said.
“I’ll need to stay up late every night to print that many.”
“Look on the bright side: at least you’ll be upright.”
Otis reached into his pocket and pulled out a stack of one dollar bills secured by a rubber band and tossed it through the window. Then he got into the LTD and it sped away.
It was the day before delivery, and Ted was drained. Cards were strewn everywhere across the basement workshop, but he’d made it. Ted was putting the last card on the rack to dry when the doorbell rang. He wiped the ink from his hands and went upstairs. When he opened the door, two men in dark suits filled the doorway. One of them flashed a badge.
“Mr. Theodore Robinson, I’m special agent Roland Parker from the Secret Service. We’re following up on an anonymous tip that you’ve been distributing counterfeit twenty-dollar bills in the area.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Ted said.
“Maybe so, but we intend to check it out,” the agent said.
He handed Ted a piece of paper and said, “We have a warrant to search your home for the existence of counterfeit money and the equipment to produce it.”
* * *
Sunlight filtered through the high windows of the courtroom. The judge put on his glasses and studied the decision. In the last row, hidden from view, two people sat waiting to hear the sentence.
“What do you think they’ll give him, boss?” Otis said.
“Not much, maybe even probation. Ted did pass a few bogus twenties, but when he told the Feds the story of how someone made him counterfeit greeting cards for three dollars apiece, they wrote him off as an old guy losing his marbles.”
“But I still can’t figure why you went to all this trouble,” Otis said.
“Ted was one of my favorite employees, and I couldn’t stand to see him put away. I always felt bad about letting him go but, in business, you’ve got to make a profit.”
Copyright © 2021 by H. E. Vogl