Decamot of the month

29 Dec 2017-Bit by Bit

Inspired by the following Decamot items:
Arthur’s Seat, beach, blogger, Bollywood, chair, mandarin, marrow, necklace, rollercoaster, Chelsea

Arthur’s seat was warm when he sat down which was most disconcerting. Apart from the obvious physical unpleasantness, it meant that the mole in the organisation was someone in his inner circle, and that thought chilled him to the marrow.

He had hoped that his instincts had been wrong. But he'd known from the beginning of this bloody business that he was in way over his head. With shaking hands he logged on to his computer, and had his worst fears confirmed. He had never really understood what he was getting into, but now he could see it beginning to unravel before his very eyes. Bit by bit.

In frustration, he hurled his mug towards the wall. It smashed as it hit a shelf, which in turn collapsed at one end sending several books and a ream of paper cascading to the floor. Arthur looked back at the screen. He could see what it was telling him, but didn't know why, nor what to do about it.

The whole thing had been suggested by his daughter Chelsea:

"What you don't understand, Sweety, is that I like to be more hands on than that. I like to see the fear in their eyes when they're strapped to a chair and I produce Arthur's little necklace," he'd said patiently, indulging his youngest daughter who was back home after her first term at college.

"But blue chip crime's the future, Daddy," she'd replied equally patiently. "Look, there's a blogger I met at college who ..."

"Blagger?" interrupted her father. "Now that's my kinda criminal."

"No! Not BLAGGER. BLOGGER. You really must change the battery in your hearing aid. Anyway, she ..."

"She?" said Arthur incredulously.

"Yes Daddy. A woman, like me! Kitty's the best in the business. She researches and writes about leading edge technology. She lives, eats and breathes IT. When she publishes, people take note. She's a game changer. I don't understand half of what she's going on about."

"So how do you know she really does know what she's talking about?"

"One guy she advised, he just quit his job with IBM and retired to a beach house in Peru."

"I'm sure lots of IBMers retire wealthy."

"He was 23."

"I see. Why Peru?"

"It's the Costa del Sol for Millennials."

"Computer crime, eh?" said Arthur doubtfully.

"Exactly. Computers are taking over the world. Bit by bit. You've got to move with the times."

He'd chuckled at her last line. He'd said exactly the same thing to his own dad when he'd encouraged him to move up from handling stolen goods to demanding money with menaces. When he'd sold the idea to the old man, he'd drawn a parallel to selling hoovers door-to-door. You offer the protection free for the first month, then show them what life's like without it. "They'll be falling over themselves to sign up. They'll be begging you to take their money. You've got to move with the times, Pop."

Up until then, he'd only been allowed to work a TV set scam, albeit one of his own devising.

It was 1972 and the early days of colour TVs with only three channels to watch. The cost of a colour set was five times what of a black and white set and also required a supplementary TV license. He would go door-to-door to the various flats on the estates in his father's manor offering to sell a filter that would turn a black and white set into colour. The filter (with fitting instructions) would cost a fraction of the price of a new colour set and wouldn't require a supplementary TV license.

The scam was that the filters didn't actually turn a black and white picture into a colour picture at all, they just produced a coloured shade of black and white, but two things were in his favour when he sold a colour filter on the estates: firstly, nobody yet knew what a full colour TV picture should look like; and secondly, nobody felt comfortable complaining when Arthur had George with him (such was George's imposing physique and reputation) and Arthur made sure that he always had George with him.

A few weeks after a sale, he would return to the hapless punter and ask them how they were getting on with the colour filter. If they suggested that the picture wasn't quite as good as they were expecting, he would offer them a half price colour set to replace it. More often than not, George's presence was sufficient to convince them that that wasn't a bad idea, and they would feel that they'd not actually done too badly: they had after all, got a half price colour TV set that they could boast about to their mates. It wasn't until George was leaving their flat with their old black and white set that they twigged that "replacing" didn't just refer to the colour filter, but to their old black and white set too; but very few punters questioned the burly George as he bid them farewell.

From Arthur's vantage point, he'd managed to offload one of the colour TV sets that the family had acquired illegally from a factory job and had also acquired a perfectly legitimate black and white set that they could sell through a second-hand store that they controlled.

Of course, the TV scam wouldn't last forever. A TV with three colour channels seemed so modern in 1972, but it wouldn't take long before everyone had one, or at least knew what a colour picture should look like. Who would have guessed that within 40 years you'd be able to scroll through page after page of channels on a super ultra-high definition TV set? Arthur had noticed the other night that, nestled among his multiple film channels, there were three channels devoted solely to showing Bollywood films. Not that he'd ever watched any of course.

You always had to move with the times. The family had moved from basic thefts, to handling stolen, to scams, and from there to protection rackets. Along the way, they started to acquire property, both commercial and private, and helped people acquire leases at enhanced rates, rates that included security that they couldn't afford to refuse. And it had all moved along smoothly until the Triads moved in. Now those were toes he really didn't want to step on. Their methods made even his eyes water. His own empire had been built largely on fear. With the help of the trusty George, he had an awesome, near mythical reputation. The merest mention of Arthur's name was generally sufficient to persuade. And yet he personally had performed very little actual bodily harm. The Triads were a different matter. They were fierce. They were brutal. Their threats came after the first fingertip had been lopped off. And would continue. Tip by tip.

Just as he was considering how best to handle the new interlopers, Kitty had turned up like manna from heaven and shown him how high tech money laundering with computers worked, and money laundering was something that the Triads adored.

"The secret is Bitcoins; they are the currency of choice for the modern money launderer," Kitty had informed him.

"Bitcoins?"

"It's a crypto currency that works on anonymous online trading."

"Which means what exactly?"

"You buy and sell it and no one asks who you are or where your money came from."

"Now that sounds like my kinda deal!"

"Bitcoins bypass the banking system, and in so doing, bypass banking regulations."

"Sounds like it was made for laundering."

"Oh it's so much better than laundering. You buy and sell Bitcoins. When you sell Bitcoins, you can get three or four times, or maybe more, what you paid for them. If you know what you're doing."

"And I take it you know what you're doing."

"That's why I'm here. I wouldn't waste the time of someone with your reputation if I didn't."

"Is this legal or illegal?"

"There are no laws about Bitcoin trading. Yet."

"So worth exploiting while the opportunity's there?"

"Exactly!"

All he'd had to do was to use the reputation he'd built over the last 45 years to add criminal clout to Kitty's presentation to the Triads. Perhaps an accommodation could be made whereby Arthur turned a blind eye to their prostitution and drugs trade on his manor in exchange for them using his newly acquired high end money laundering skills; he would take their dirty money and not only clean it, but make it grow fourfold, and take a sizable cut, naturally.

And amazingly, they had leapt at the chance. It turned out that they already understood the Bitcoin principle but had been unable to find a willing co-investor. And even more amazingly, the scheme worked! He had taken trivial sums from the Triads at first, just tens of thousands of pounds. Within weeks, they'd tripled in value. They had then increased the sums involved, and Arthur started to match their investments with equal amounts of his own. To date, over a million had been injected into the joint venture by both sides.

Yesterday, that investment was worth multiple millions. But now, here it was. On the screen in front of him. Dripping away. Bitcoin by bloody Bitcoin. And if he could logon and see their value plummeting, so could the Triads. All because someone had logged on to his computer this morning and ... and what? He didn't even know what they'd done. He felt impotent. All he knew for sure was who the potential candidates were. Only he and six other people had access to this room, and by extension, this computer:

There was Chelsea, the apple of his eye; there was Kitty, Chelsea's friend and now his PA of the past six months - she would stand to lose as much as him if this deal went belly up, the whole scam was her idea; there was his mother, obviously that was preposterous - she had a fearsome reputation in her own right and had temporarily run the family business after his father died, but their personal feud had long since passed (hadn't it?); there was Tony, his head of IT security - he'd set up the computer network in the first place so would hardly need to access Arthur's office computer to commit fraud; there was George, his personal bodyguard, who he'd grown up with on the estate - George the enforcer, with whom his reputation had been built, and who'd always been fiercely loyal - surely not George; and there was the handy man, Henry, who'd only been with them for a week or so - Chelsea had found him at the gym working on his biceps in front of a mirror, he got free membership to the gym in exchange for maintenance work and giving personal training tips - Henry was adequate at odd jobs, but didn't even seem bright enough to tie his own shoelaces.

As unlikely as it seemed, one of these six was a mole, but which one?

"You look like you've seen a ghost."

Arthur looked up startled. Chelsea was standing in front of his desk with Kitty alongside. He had not heard them come in, which was most disconcerting. It meant he was losing his touch. In the good old days, a blunder like that could have cost him his life: a bullet to the back of the head, or a cheese wire round the neck. Life had been so much simpler in the days before computers. He felt that his chosen profession had been demeaned by the relentless onward march of progress. It took skill, nerves of steel, years of practise, and a steady hand to defeat an alarm system, break into a high security vault, empty its contents and make good your escape all before the night guard returned from his rounds. Back then, crime had been a true rollercoaster ride: a thrill in and of itself. Now all you needed to commit s crime was a high end computer with internet access and a spotty teenager sitting in a darkened room in his underpants. "The criminal youth of today don't know they're born," he thought ruefully.

"Kitty, get Tony and George in here. Now. We've got urgent business."

Without a word, Kitty took out and started thumbing her mobile phone.

"Chelsea, where's that bloody handyman of yours?"

"Having a coffee."

"Get him in here will you," Arthur pointed at the stricken shelf behind him.

"Ah!"

Chelsea left the room. A few minutes later, she was replaced by Tony and George.

"Take a seat," ordered Arthur. "We'll get going in a few minutes."

Both men sat down without saying a word. They could tell the boss had something on his mind and knew him well enough to say nothing until he was ready. Arthur continued to stare at his computer screen. A few minutes later Chelsea returned with Henry in tow carrying a tool box. Henry took one look at the debris on the floor and hurried over to start making reparations.

There was an awkward silence as Arthur's gaze alternated between the computer screen on his desk and the four people gathered in front of him. They all jumped slightly as the door to the office opened again. Arthur's mother walked in. She sat down on the remaining vacant chair.

"So what's this all about, son?"

Before Arthur could reply, the phone started to ring on his desk. Arthur didn't move.

"Aren't you going to answer it?" asked Chelsea.

"The only people who know that number are in this room."

"So what?"

"So who's ringing it?"

"Maybe it's a wrong number. Here, I'll answer it."

Chelsea reached for the phone.

"No, leave it!" Arthur ordered.

Arthur looked around at everyone in the room. The phone continued to ring. Six pairs of eyes looked at it. Henry continued to fix the shelf oblivious to the ringing, the conversation and the tension that was rising in the room.

After several more rings, Arthur shouted: "Henry!"

Henry looked round startled.

"Yes boss?"

"Answer the phone."

"Me, boss?"

"Quickly, before they ring off."

Henry hurried over to the desk and picked up the receiver and held it to his ear.

"Hello?" he said nervously.

Arthur pressed the speaker phone button so that they could all hear the reply. The caller spoke rapidly in an oriental-sounding language for several minutes without taking a breath. The voice sounded angry. Six pairs of anxious eyes stared at the phone with incomprehension. Arthur started to sweat profusely.

And then, to everyone's surprise, Henry replied to the caller. At length. In fluent Mandarin.

After what felt like an eternity to Arthur, Henry finally finished speaking and put his hand over the receiver.

"The Triads have seen what's happening to the value of their investment. They're not pleased."

"No shit," growled Arthur.

"I told them there was a glitch in the software, and that the accounts weren't showing their true position."

"But what's really going on?"

"What's really going on is that this morning I activated a dormant worm on your computer, a worm that I emailed you last week. It hacks into your online trading software and offers your entire Bitcoin holding for a tenth of a penny on the pound. Not all at once, but Bitcoin by Bitcoin with a delay between each sale. Not surprisingly, the offer is too irresistible to be missed. What you can see on your screen are your holdings being snapped up as each offer is being accepted." Henry peered over Arthur's shoulder. "At the moment, it looks like you've sold about a tenth of your collection for one thousandth of their worth."

"So who's buying my fucking Bitcoins?" demanded Arthur.

"That's the beauty of Bitcoins, the trading is anonymous: No one asks who you are or where your money came from. I've no idea who's buying them."

"How do I stop this worm thing?"

"You can't. Now that it's been activated, it'll keep going until all the Bitcoins have been sold."

"You bastard."

"There is a way out of this, but you must act quickly. Your life's in danger." For emphasis, Henry waved the receiver that he was still cupping in his hand. "You sign over the freeholds of all the tower blocks and small businesses in your manor to the respective residents and shopkeepers, and in return, I'll make it look as though the transactions on your accounts have been reversed. The semblance of normality on the Chinese accounts will remain for 24 hours - giving you enough time to flee. After that, you're on your own. Lima's rather nice at this time of year I understand."

Arthur sat back in his chair. The irony wasn't lost on him. He started to laugh. "That sounds a lot like blackmail," he said.

"Well," replied Henry, after a slight pause. "You should know!"