Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Today's excerpt from The Interceptors Club and the Secret of the Black Manta


On the shelf in Pepper’s study was a shortwave receiver. It wasn’t some secret type of radio, just a typical multi-band receiver that one could buy at any electronics outlet.

On Monday, Tuesday or Friday nights, Pepper would tune the receiver to one of four frequencies, 7.527 MHz, 7.482 MHz, 7.787 MHz or 6.855 MHz. The frequency he tuned to depended on shortwave reception quality, which varied due to sunspot activity.

Sometimes the sun-generated noise was so bad that Pepper couldn’t hear the broadcast that was intended for him, but since it was repeated over ten days, there was always another chance to receive it on the next listening night. He hadn’t missed a message yet.

The coded messages were broadcast in the clear on powerful transmitters. Anyone with a decent shortwave radio could pick them up just as easily as Pepper did, in fact, the Interceptors had listened in on many occasions, but since they were coded and the code was unbreakable by anyone who didn’t have the key, anyone stumbling on them would just think they were one of those oddities found on the shortwave bands, tire of listening and after a while look somewhere else for entertainment up the bands.

These “Spy Numbers” broadcast consisted of an automated voice, reading off a series of numbers in Spanish.

A typical broadcast began with the date the code was good for, the only part of the message that could be decoded without a key. For example a message that was good on April 5th would be transmitted as “Quatro Cinco” repeated over and over for the first five minutes of each numbers broadcast.

The date was followed by a series of four numbers groups, such as “Uno, Tres Ocho Nueve, again repeated over and over also over a span of five minutes.
These four-number groups identified which covert operator the message was intended.

When Pepper heard “Uno, Uno Tres Ocho (1138) he knew the transmission was meant for him. Pepper noted that there seemed to be fifteen-separate identifier broadcasts. This either meant that there were fourteen more spies like him (in this or other countries) or his spymasters wanted other intelligence agency to think there was.

Once the identifier was established, the next transmission consisted of more numbers being read (again in Spanish) in groups consisting of five numbers each. For example, a typical message sounded like, “Ocho, Tres, Quatro, Cinco, Nueve, and then the next set of five numbers and the next and so on.

This was the body of the message itself. It was these numbers that Pepper would jot down on a pad made of flammable flash paper that would burn completely away in a millisecond if needed. All he had to do was touch the hot end of a cigarette to the paper and it would vanish instantly.

Sometimes the messages were long and tedious to copy down. If Pepper made a mistake, as he wrote the numbers down, the entire message would make no sense.

When that happened, Pepper would have to wait a half hour or more for the entire message to repeat, so Pepper took great pains to concentrate on getting the numbers right.

To make sure that any eavesdropping devices (possibly planted by agents on a spy hunt) would record him listening to the spy numbers transmissions, first Pepper would do an entire sweep of the premises with a bug detector, again a perfectly normal piece of electronic equipment any AFOSI agent would have in his possession.

Once he was convinced the room was secure, he would turn on his shortwave radio, plug in some headphones and then wait for the transmission to begin.

Once he wrote down the message he would open up that day’s edition of the Wall Street Journal, a national financial newspaper.

The key was hidden in the same place every day, in the third paragraph of the first story on page fifty one.

What the news story was about was not part of the message, but the third letter of the first word (that contained more than three letters) held the key to the transmission.

Sounds complicated but it isn’t. For example, if the third letter of the first word was “T” then the first Spanish number transmitted (such as the number eight (ocho) was assigned to the letter T.

Then it became just a simple substitution cipher with the next letter being assigned the next number in the alphabet, such as U being assigned the number eight and R being assigned the number nine extending through the entire 26 letter English alphabet.

When more complex instructions needed to be relayed to Pepper, Chin would do so by what was known in the spy-trade as a “Dead Drop.

Another unseen operative would leave coded instructions for Pepper in a predetermined public place.

If one of the radio messages Pepper decoded read: SEEK ALPHA, he was to look for instructions left in an envelope hidden, taped to the bottom of a certain park bench in the Alamogordo City Park.

To decode the message he would again look in the Washington Post but on page sixteen, article three, for the first letter in the second word (consisting of more than five letters) for the key to decode this message.

So far Pepper had only had to “clear the drop” seven times, something he never liked to do.

Because he knew from experience he knew that many spies were arrested as they attempted to clear a drop.

Once FBI spy hunters uncovered a spy catching an enemy agent red handed with evidence of his covert activities on their person was all the evidence they needed to put them away for a very long time.

Emptying a drop took hours. It would be foolish for a spy to drive straight to the drop and search for the hidden envelope.

It took time to make sure the covert operative wasn’t being followed. Sometimes disguises were used (which Pepper thought were quite hokey) and sometimes the operative would have to take elaborate procedures to shake anyone possibly tailing him.

Unexpectedly doubling back was one trick spies used to make sure no one was tailing, as was making fake drops of envelopes containing absolutely nothing of espionage value.

Going back to the fake drop sites later and seeing if the enveloped had been moved or tampered with gave away the presence of a tail.

Invisible registration marks on the glue flap or something as small and inconspicuous as a human hair (placed in a way that would reveal the envelope had been opened or moved) could reveal the presence of a shadow.

One of Pepper’s favorite tricks was to cover the envelope with dead leaves, take a digital photograph of the envelope (recording the exact position of the leaves) and then comparing them to another photo of the envelope taken the next day.

If it had been a still night (no wind) the photos should match with the same leaves in the same position in both photographs.

On one occasion Pepper was alarmed to find one of his fake drop envelopes looking like it had been disturbed, but when he retrieved the envelope and examined it closely he found rodent droppings and tiny chew marks on it on it. The culprit must have been a rat (the four legged variety) attracted to the mint-flavored adhesive on the envelope.

Such was the life of a spy, constantly on guard and quite logically paranoid. Pepper considered himself to be a master spy, suddenly facing the training and managing of his own little agency of amateur teenage spooks, known as the Interceptors.


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