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May 20, 2024

Geistmann Redux: John Robinson Investigates, Chapter Nine

By Ron Singer

Chapter Nine

Cape Town, Thursday, May 15 - Friday, May 16, 2025.

At the same time John Robinson was leaving his office in the UCT library (five p.m. on Thursday evening, May 15), four or five miles from campus, Iosub Ceban and Samir Gupta were in the midst of a meeting of their own. Iosub was a twenty-five-year-old who had inherited Samir, an Indian-Canadian technical wizard, from his father, Geistmann. In fact, one of the arch criminal/prankster's final commissions had been for Samir to make arrangements for relocating Iosub and his mother, Elica, to Asheville, North Carolina.

In the years since, the savant had remained so loyal to his idol that, when his services were solicited by Ceban for a cyber-bank- robbing project, he signed on at what might be called bargain rates. Since Samir claimed to have access to the world's most sophisticated hacking system, Israel's invaluable Pegasus/Phantom, he could have demanded far more than the 50% he and Iosub agreed upon when they decided to begin their cyber-heists.

Samir's claim to have access to Pegasus/P. was a bluff and a dream. Nevertheless, less than a year after they had shaken hands on the deal, by employing the conventional tools of robotic screen scanners, spoofing, etc., all purchased for peanuts, through "Crimeazon," from makers including Zeus Builder, Bugat, and Spy Eye, their take had surpassed U.S. $20 million.

"Small potatoes," Samir thought, when you compared it to Dread Pirate Roberts' —DPR's— use of The Onion Router, a fancy piece of encryption and obfuscation software, to steal U.S. $80 mill. Of course, DPR's timeframe had been thirty months, which made Samir and Iosub's take much less shabby.

In mid-April, Iosub had broached a second goal, which resonated with his partner: they should design a plan to murder Geistmann's American executioner, John Robinson. The first step, which they had taken two-and-a-half weeks ago, was to use a forged old manuscript to lure Robinson to South Africa. With the aid of one of his wonkish sub-contractors, Samir had created and transmitted the block book, which was intended as a shot fired over Robinson's bows. As such, he had reasoned, it need not be followed by any immediate attack. (He compared Putin's war against Ukraine, which was also unfolding in stages.)

From Geistmann's young virtuoso enabler, Samir Gupta had matured into an entrepreneur, whose mantra was "CBA," or cost-benefit analysis. CBA told Samir that attempting to kill John Robinson without a very well-conceived plan would be a very dangerous undertaking. But so was alienating his partner, who quickly seemed to have grown obsessed with the bad idea. So, when Ceban nudged him, Samir decided his best response would be delay. But, as the month passed, and he thought about it more, he came to share his partner's obsession with swift vengeance for Geistmann's murder. After all, five years had already passed.

Why try to kill Robinson in South Africa, of all places? "Because," Iosub had argued, "South Africa was where the roots of the betrayal had been planted, where the erstwhile foes had joined forces." Although Samir did not think much of this argument, he went along with it, for his own reason: away from his usual habitat, Robinson would be more vulnerable.

The location had recommended itself for several other reasons. Cape Town was a very pleasant place in which to live, at least for a while. Its racially mixed population offered him (Samir) excellent cover. Since the FBI's apparent success in breaking the Pan-African Cartel, the Bureau, the CIA, and Interpol were all thin on the African ground. (Democracies have notoriously short memories.)

A final recommendation was that CapeTown was a bastion of technical expertise: hundreds of firms, hordes of clever young employees, many of whom had already been acolytes of the dark net when Samir recruited them. Motivated by an astronomical unemployment rate, as well as by love of the game and a strong desire to learn (as he had been, as a youngster in Kolkata), techies came cheap in South Africa. Of the $U.S. 20 mill. he and Iosub had stolen so far, their "sub-contractors" had cost them a measly $385 K, or less than two percent.

On this particular evening, over an excellent bobotie (a Cape Malay moussaka-like mixture of curry, bread and fruit) at a favorite eatery in the Bo Kaap district, Ceban bruited the revenge issue for the nth time.

Although he was completely on board with the idea, Samir responded with a brief, stern warning: "Killing FBI Agents, or even their sub-contractors, Joe, is a dangerous business. Factoring in the potential blowback, it could cost us big bucks. We don't have that kind of money —yet. But don't worry, my friend, we're on our way."

Iosub's response was to suck from his beer bottle, and sulk. Once again, Samir worried that his pudgy dinner companion, dressed in one of the usual shiny suits, with a wide tie (red, tonight), and expensive orange and green running shoes, might sooner or later take out his frustrations on the perceived frustrater.

Paying the check, Samir called for an Uber. Iosub stated his intention of remaining in the neighborhood for the evening, to prowl the street looking for paid sex. Just in case, before entering the Uber, Samir activated a device that intercepted GPS spyware. It told him no one was trailing the vehicle, which carried him back to the office.

The partners' small, wired domain was located on Longmarket street, toward the south end of the City Bowl, Cape Town's Central Business District. Their office was on the second floor of a squat, nondescript building, above a crafts emporium that sold goods from all over Africa, to hordes of tourists with disposable income. The location was favored with an excellent cafe a short way up the block. Samir often ducked into this place for a cuppa and a quick bite and think. It also appealed to his partner, who was, among his other vices, a glutton with a sweet tooth.

Back in his windowed cubicle, Samir had a minor inspiration: a ploy that might lead the FBI and their ace sleuth, John Robinson, away from Iosub's and his trail. One of Samir's hirelings had presumably reported that Robinson had taken the initial bait of the block book, and was now in Cape Town. Assuming that he and Fred Neugeborn had already deduced that the book hoax might be the first step in a revenge plot, and that Iosub Ceban would be high on their list of suspects, Samir tried to conceive of a way to muddy the waters: was there any way he could provide evidence that Geistmann was not, in fact, Iosub's biological father? Of course, people other than sons can be avengers, but they are usually not bound by strict codes of blood revenge. The ploy might, at least, have the effect of dropping Iosub down the list of suspects.

As to how his scheme might work, Samir thought of ways to infiltrate the Bureau's files. Twelve or thirteen years before, he recalled, a group called Lulz Sec had hacked into police emails. By intercepting a careless one, they had gained access to a conference call among the FBI, Interpol, and several other law-enforcement agencies. The subject of discussion was cybercrime orgs, including Lulz Sec! The arrogant bastards had hacked the call and posted it on You Tube.

Having hatched a kindred plan, Samir immediately set it in motion. The objective was to substitute a random DNA sample for Geistmann's. Since he had not yet managed to gain access to the Pegasus/Phantom system, and since he dismissed, as too risky, the use of a P2P ("person-to-person") network (one of which had famously hacked military and securities secrets, as part of a "pump & dump" operation), Samir was in possession of the next best thing: human intel.

This came in the form of an old- fashioned mole. Samir had recently used a time-honored "honey trap" to corrupt a technician in the Bureau's Bio-Forensics Unit, in Quantico, Virginia. The man was a middle-aged GS-11 — middle-rank. Trapped in a childless marriage long gone stale, he was lured by an attractive young prostitute to a "hot" motel in Arlington, Virginia. Once the man's pants were down, the hidden camera had done the rest.

A few initial payments for harmless data put the hook in deeper. The operation was now three months old, and the DNA substitution would be Samir's first real "ask." Allowing for the six-hour time difference, the man would receive the request — demand — at a little after two p.m. local time. With luck, Samir should have a reply by six p.m. D.C. time, or midnight, in Cape Town.

De-encrypted, Samir's message read as follows:

Yebo, American partner. Please take a photograph of the DNA sample in your lab from the notorious serial killer known as "Geistmann," substitute the enclosed sample, and send the original to me, a.s.a.p.

Attached to the e-message was a photograph of a DNA sample from a cigarette butt Samir had picked out of the gutter near the office building. With a bit of Geistmann contagion, perhaps, the message was signed with the nom de guerre Samir had already used with the Pigeon: (signed) Arnold M. Weatherbee, II

The reply arrived at 11:38 p.m., in the form of a photograph of a slide of Geistmann's DNA, as viewed under a light-microscope. The image was accompanied by an unanticipated request for the sum of $232, "for services rendered." Samir guessed that this was the cost of a needed repair, such as front brake pad replacement, on Pigeon's low-end, eight-year old Japanese sedan. He immediately remitted the sum via his Liberty Reserve (i.e. "Pay-Pal") account, in the name of A.M. Weatherbee, Jr.

Geistmann's DNA sample turned out to be a shock. With a mixture of curiosity and repulsion, Samir put the Geistmann sample and one he had obtained from the mucus of Iosub Ceban (a disgusting nose picker), under his light-microscope. Samir was delighted to discover that the two were totally different, even though this meant that the substitution of random DNA for Geistmann's had been a waste of $232.

Whereas the average child receives 49% of their DNA from the father, in this case not a single locus, or marker, of Iosub Ceban's DNA matched any of Geistmann's. Nor did the two samples even have in common genes common to numerous European males (from any region). Neither were there any signs of father-to-son genetic mutation. The conclusion was inescapable: Armande Amrouche, aka Geistmann, was not Iosub Ceban's biological father.

Shortly before dawn, Samir's scheming took a further turn."DNA be damned!" he told himself. "Why not let the FBI think one thing, and let Iosub think the opposite? Let the fool go on believing Geistmann was his father! If that lit a fire under damp wood, so be it!"

The important thing was that Robinson must die. To Samir Gupta, Geistmann had been not only a generous master. His career had embodied the fantasies of the boy from Kolkata. Yes, John Robinson must die!

Article © Ron Singer. All rights reserved.
Published on 2023-01-02
Image(s) are public domain.
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