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November 28, 2022

Geistmann Redux: John Robinson Investigates, Chapter Two

By Ron Singer

Chapter Two

CapeTown, South Africa, Thursday, May 8, 2025.

On Thursday, as he scanned the Arrivals Hall at CPT for Dr. Mzamene, whose face he expected to recognize from the photograph on the TMP Bulletin (to which Columbia Libraries subscribed), Robinson realized he had forgotten how long the flight to South Africa was. Or, perhaps, since he was now twelve years older, the flight had just seemed longer. By the time he had waited almost two hours for the connecting flight, at Oliver Tambo, in Johannesburg (aka "Jo'burg," aka "Joeys"), then made the short hop to Cape Town International (CPT), he felt as if he were sleepwalking. As he stepped out of the airlock into the modernistic Arrivals Hall of CPT, his phone confirmed that twenty hours had passed since he had kissed Judy and the kids goodbye, and flown off to Africa.

But where was Dr. M.? There seemed to be computer screens everywhere, big ones, small ones, medium, all blue, with aqua bands identifying them as belonging to CPT, and with interspersed giant banners, bearing advertisements for the company from which the computers had been leased or purchased. He could just as well have been in one of JFK's pair of recently completed, mega-expensive, state-of-the-art terminals, like the one from which he had departed New York the previous day.

Presumably, CPT was also equipped with a state-of-the-art paging system. Having recently read an alarming book about cybercrime, he wondered if paging systems could be spoofed, bugged, or infected with bloatware. Since the author did not mention paging systems, his paranoia must not have extended to them.

Then, he spotted not one, but two men, standing side by side, both bearing placards that read "J.R." in big, bold, printed letters. One of the men was Dr. Mzamene., a short, wiry older man with mostly gray hair, but definitely him: the same blue-framed plastic glasses as in the TMP Bulletin photograph, the same bemused expression that was not quite a smile, even the old black-and-white checkered scarf.

The other man, although unknown to Robinson, looked somehow familiar. He was tall and fit-looking, and wore lightweight khaki trousers and a blue Oxford shirt, both inadequate for Cape Town's chilly winter weather. The man's race, still important in South Africa, seemed indeterminate. He could have been a "Coloured" (i.e., mixed race), or ... my god! It was Fred Neugeborn! Like Dr. M. (and Robinson, himself), Dr. Fred was now a bit gray, but with fewer other signs of age than the librarian knew he had, himself, sprouted during the years since they had last seen each other. In fact, other than a horizontal furrow across his brow, Dr. N.'s face was unwrinkled.

Robinson's delayed recognition of Fred was presumably just the effect of fatigue. Even so, he hoped Neugeborn had not noticed, or there could be no end of jokes about invisibility and latent racism. Robinson blushed. He had still not forgotten the stupid gaffe about Fred's "African roots" that he had made at a meeting in Cape Town, in 2013. He also remembered that, although that meeting had taken place in late spring, the cold, wet wind from the nearby Atlantic had helped make the venue, the veranda of a posh restaurant, secure. Partly to cover up his embarrassment, and partly from real pleasure at the reunion, the traveler rushed forward and initiated a three-way hug.

"Fred, so glad to see you! Dr. Mzamene, sir, I hope you will forgive my familiarity, but ... "

"No need to stand on ceremony. Please call me 'RAM.' Everyone does." He augmented the hug with a soft handshake.

Robinson stepped back. "Gentlemen," he said, "a double pleasure! I can't wait to learn what's going on. From Dr. Mzamane's — RAM's— email ... "

Fred smiled, leaving RAM to reply. "Well, John, suppose I drive you over to your old digs first. Did you get any sleep on the flight last night?"

"Not much, but I want to stay awake until bedtime. Maybe, after I drop my bags, I can walk over to the library, and you can get me started on the fragment. Unless Fred's business is ... "

Neugeborn anticipated the end of Robinson's sentence. "Yes, it is urgent, John. So why don't you Uber over from the dorm and meet me at the same place as last time in, say, ninety minutes?" Ignoring the "Uber/over" macaronic pun, Robinson realized that the "same place" was the scene of the racial gaffe. Fred looked at his phone. "At, say, 1430 hours?" Understanding that strict security rules might already be in force, Robinson replied, "Will do," and left it at that.

Two hours later, he spotted Fred on the veranda of the Madagascar restaurant at the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Waterfront. This was where they had planned the demise of the Pan-African Cartel twelve years before. But he barely recognized the place, and was a bit surprised it was still open. The once-posh establishment had become badly frayed at the edges; it looked almost shabby.

There were so few patrons that Neugeborn and Robinson had a wide choice of tables, most of which would afford maximum privacy. Of course, the scarcity of custom might also facilitate eavesdropping. But by whom? In 2013, the Cartel had either planted bugs, used super-sensitive recording equipment, or pay-rolled servers with big ears. But the Cartel was, presumably, no more. Anyway, the dozen or so guests on the large veranda, singles and pairs of men, women, and couple-couples, sat at tables far apart, observing the strictest social distancing.

(Once, during a long evening at home, after the children were asleep, Judy had invented a lame little joke/riddle: "What is the official Covid restaurant theme song?" Before John could steal her thunder by guessing, she had divulged the answer: "Separate Tables.")

The other patrons were bundled up in overcoats, and only lowered their vari-colored masks to sip with straws from glasses that presumably contained "mocktails," since alcohol sales were still prohibited in South Africa, even though the sixth wave had receded the previous year. The occasional laughter that these patrons emitted sounded brittle and joyless.

Robinson was wearing the heavier of his two pairs of khaki travel pants and a lined, dark blue windbreaker. Fred, too, wore clothing more suitable for the season than what he had worn to the airport: thick-looking black cotton pants and a bulky gray windbreaker.

When the server, an older black African woman, had retreated into the restaurant with their disappointing order —"two seltzers, not hard, no ice, with lime"— Fred went straight to the point. "There's a copycat, John." Both men understood that there was no need to name the original. But Robinson's fertile imagination generated an instant equation: copycat=potential bugs and eavesdroppers. He remembered Geistmann's predilection for impersonating servers, often female, and wondered momentarily if their own server might be the copycat. His mental image of the c.c. as a young European male did not rule out the possibility. Telling himself not to bother with premature hypotheses, he tried to calm down.

They waited until the server (or impersonator) had returned, set down their drinks, and made a parting remark that sarcastically implied her disappointment with the meager order: "The ground nuts are on the house, gents." They had not bothered to ask to see a menu, but Robinson guessed that the check, which she had left on the table, would reflect Covid-era conditions, principally supply-chain fueled inflation, as well as the scarcity of customers. His guess was that the tariff would come to about 400 ZAR, South-African rand, or U.S.$25. From curiosity, he reached for the check, but Fred snatched it first.

"Don't worry, John," he said. "This is on Uncle's dime —or, maybe these days, his quarter." Knowing his companion, however, Fred held out the check so Robinson could read it: 403 ZAR. "I haven't been home for a while, John, but I imagine prices there are comparable."

"Yep. So. What's the copycat up to, Fred? And why is the Bureau interested?"

Neugeborn stalled by lowering his white N95 mark, crushing his lime sliver with an expert jab of the straw, and sipping. Robinson noted that the straw was the plastic kind that had been outlawed in the U.S. several years ago, but that had made a comeback in 2023, thanks to what everyone back home called "Covid Rules." He had no idea whether plastic straws were still legal in South Africa. It also occurred to him that he was already keenly interested in the depredations of the copycat. As Fred started to answer his question, Robinson's ears pricked up.

"Well, so far, he mostly seems to be knocking off banks —big heists."

"Which ones?"

Robinson had quickly guessed that the Geistmann reincarnation might have two motives for this activity: building up capital to bankroll other, future operations, and relieving the banks of their "obscene profits." Without trying to spear the lime, Robinson lowered his own M-95 and, realizing how dry the long trip had made him, took a big gulp, before flipping the mask back up.

"Different ones, including several multinationals HQ'd in the U.S.," Fred replied.

"Hmm, U.S. banks? That's why the Bureau is involved?"

"Correct. But we're also being proactive. These days, the way the world goes, it's hard to guess what else the copycat is doing, or what he may do next. I mean, we do know that one of the Original's heroes was Willie Sutton. We found that out in Florence when G. was raving in his sleep, after his car was bombed."

"He had many heroes, Fred: Beethoven, Jefferson, Sutton."

"I'm sure you know Sutton's famous answer, John, when he was asked why he robbed banks."

They quoted Willie the Actor in unison. "Because that's where the money is."

Robinson spoke again. "But the fact that the copycat robs banks may tell us something important: he's probably not the tool of one of those right-wing nuts with deep pockets. Oh, and does he rob the banks in person? How computer literate is he?"

Neugeborn laughed. "You're already pumped for the chase, aren't you, John. But why don't we leave it at that for now? Go get started with RAM, and I'll call you in a few days. At our next meeting, I may have a surprise."

" 'Call me,' Fred? Is your phone secure these days?"

Neugeborn presumably knew that Robinson was half-joking, and he replied in kind. "Not to worry. Last year, Uncle sprang for the new ones with the unbreakable cryptography." Fred held up his phone, an android model Robinson had not yet seen.

Inconsequentially, he remembered reading, in his cybercrimes book, the author's amusing account of how easy it would be to electronically spoof the then-POTUS (whom Robinson considered a spoof, in his own right). He also recalled the book's scary allusions to the hacking of the News Corps, the IRS, and other giants. But, assuming Fred knew all about such things, he kept his pedantry to himself.

After another minute, or two, Neugeborn stood up, dropped some Rand notes on the table, and used his (secure) phone to call an Uber for Robinson. They shook hands and, not waiting for the car, Fred strode off, southeast, toward the Central Business District. That must be where the Bureau had its offices, which Robinson had never visited during the 2013 operation. He was amused to recall that JOLETAF, Arnold Weatherbee's pretend-task force, had been housed in New York City Police Department offices. But perhaps, Fred & Co's offices were in the Consulate, down in Steenberg Estate, rather than in the CBD.

It was still only 4:30 or, in Bureau parlance, 1630 hours. Robinson knew that, if he went back to his room at the University, he would be unable to stay awake until bedtime. So he opted to play the tourist for a few hours.

Article © Ron Singer. All rights reserved.
Published on 2022-11-14
Image(s) are public domain.
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