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Secret Agent

I’m into delayed gratification. For example, if someone gives me a cookie, I’ll rarely eat it right away; instead, I’ll save it for a time when I’ll get maximum enjoyment from eating it (such as when I’m super hungry and near my espresso machine). Similarly, I try to hold on to interesting news, waiting for the moment that promises the best return on my delectable reveal.

Lately, I’ve been having a lot of fun with one particular golden nugget of news. When gathering with friends, colleagues, or family, I’ll wait until all of the usual “What’s going on with you?” updates are exhausted and then, when everyone has resorted to picking away at a mundane topic with the enthusiasm of a kid working through a plateful of veggies, I’ll bust out the sweetness.

“I’ve been working with the Secret Service.” At first, they think I’m joking. “No, seriously. I’ve met with them and everything.” They examine my face long enough to realize I’m not kidding. Then the questions begin: Why? When? How? Then I have everyone’s attention, and I like that.

As a freelancer, I can work wherever I want. Most of the time I’m at home because that’s where I keep my stuff. But when David is working on his photos in his version of a man-cave (his studio in East Village, which I guess is more like an art vault), it gets lonely in my one-person office. Sometimes I bring my laptop to coffee shops to get the sense of being around people, but other times I seek out a “coworker,” like my friend Nick, who lives in South Park. It was at Nick’s that I discovered my aptitude for uncovering nefarious activity. (Note: his name is not really Nick, and he doesn’t really live in South Park — these details have been changed to protect the innocent.)

Nick and I were working in his kitchen. It was a lovely day, so the sliding glass door that leads to his small backyard was open. As I tapped on my laptop, I heard a distinct, metallic-ish swooshing noise coming from outside. I asked Nick what he thought it was, but he just shrugged and said he didn’t know. “It’s like someone’s opening and closing a drawer, over and over,” I complained. Again, Nick shrugged. He wasn’t bothered, but the noise was driving me crazy, so I went to investigate.

I followed the repetitive sound to the tall wooden fence on one side of Nick’s yard and found a gap between the boards to peek through. There was a guy on his knees, hunched over a paper cutter — like the kind David has to trim small photos — slicing rhythmically. I was about to turn around and head back to the house when I realized what he was cutting.

I ran back to the kitchen and slid the glass door closed behind me. Nick lifted his head as I flailed my arms to get his attention (in case I didn’t already have it) and puckered my lips for an exaggerated “Shhhh!

When his confusion turned to irritation, I explained myself in the loudest whisper I could muster: “Your neighbor is making counterfeit money. Right now. He’s cutting up 20-dollar bills with a paper cutter, I swear. Go look.”

Nick gave me a skeptical glare, but then he stood and went outside. I could tell from how carefully and quietly he slid the door open that he believed me. When he came back, he said, “Yup, that’s what it looks like.”

“Shouldn’t we call the police?”

“Who are we, Big Brother? He could be making an art project,” Nick said, but I could tell from his face that he didn’t believe that. The paper was white, but laid beside the stack of uncut pages, there had been a very-real-looking greenish bill. “I’m the one who lives here, I’m the one who’d have to deal with the repercussions,” he said. “What if he finds out and he, like, attacks me or something?”

“Then we make sure he doesn’t find out,” I said. “Either way, I’m going back out there to get pictures.”

Later at home, I zoomed in on the photos on my computer to get a better look. “See, David?” He’s totally using that real bill to size the ones he’s cutting. If this were an art project, why would it have to be so exact?” David shrugged. For the moment, I let it go.

Weeks later, I was over at Nick’s again and we were taking a break from work to exchange gossip about mutual friends. Things had been quiet on the counterfeiting front. But on this day, I heard a different noise, one that I recognized right away. “Sounds like an aerosol spray can,” I said. “I’m gonna go have a look.” I knew to bring my camera. With the stealthy silence of my smartphone, I was able to capture both pictures and video.

This time, even Nick was curious. When I took breaks from holding my phone steady, he’d put his eye to the gap in the fence and watch as the guy sprayed sheets of uncut bills with whatever mist was coming from the can. But that was only part of it — all around the guy were stacks of cut, green 20-dollar bills.

A few days later, I found a fragment of a fake. By then, I’d already met with a pair of agents. My first inclination had been to call the local police department, but a quick online search revealed that the integrity of our money is the Secret Service’s thing — it was the whole reason they were established in 1865. It’s funny how everyone thinks the word “secret” means these guys are trying to hide. Far from it. is the first thing that comes up when you search the two words.

When I met with the agents in person, I handed over an “evidence folder,” complete with photos, video, license-plate numbers, and the fragment of the fake bill. After looking through the collected exhibits, the two men laughed. This was not the reaction I had expected. I was feeling a little humiliated when one of the agents said, “Sorry, it’s just that we’re not used to having this much evidence at the start of a case.”

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