The first challenge with magic is figuring out how an effect is performed.
“It wasn’t a spell,” Tam said, looking over the reports which detailed the loss of the drug shipment.
“How can you tell?” Val asked. She was reading the same reports but was looking for different markers in the data. In her world, things were stolen by people, not magic, so she was searching for a window in which a team of thieves could have lifted the pills while they were in transit.
“Because it happened the same way three times,” Tam said. “Spells aren’t great for repeating the same effect over and over.”
“What other kinds of magic could be in play?” Anna asked.
“We can check with James, he’s better read on the arcane than I am, but if I had to do something like that this, I’d use some of the same effects that I use in my stage show,” Tam said.
“You think someone switched the shipment out with sleight of hand?” Val asked, looking up from her screen.
“More or less, yeah,” Tam said. “The key with most illusions is to direct the audience’s attention away from what’s actually happening and into a narrative that follows a logical path until the moment when you reveal the trick and shatter their expectations.”
“Someone substituted a shipment of rocks for drugs in order to deceive the people transporting the crates,” Anna asked. “Why the deception?”
“Stealing is easier when people don’t know you’ve done it?” Val suggested.
“True, however this wasn’t a job where they took the easy route was it?” Anna said.
“Yeah, if they were looking for easy, then simply taking the shipment and leaving the empty crates behind would have been a lot simpler,” Tam said. “Going to the trouble to replace the crates that were filled with bottles of pills with ones that were filled with bottles of stones couldn’t have been quick or cheap to pull off.”
“Can you pull up the shipping manifests?” Val asked as a thought occurred to her. “I want to see both the departure scan and the arrival one.”
“You’re thinking there will be a discrepancy in weight recorded?” Anna asked.
“Yeah,” Val said. “The most likely candidates to pull this off would be people working for the shipping company. They have the most unsupervised access to the packages.”
“Bad news there,” Tam said as she clicked a pair of documents over to her compatriots. “It looks like the weight measures both outgoing and incoming are the same.”
“How about at the loading docks inbound into the shipping facility?” Val asked.
“That’ll take me a second,” Tam said. “They came in on a truck from the manufacturer along with a bunch of other medications.”
“Does the weight on the shipping manifest correspond to the value on the manufacturer’s invoice?” Anna asked.
“They didn’t weigh the packages individually on the inbound side,” Tam said, “Just the truck’s contents as a whole, and yeah, those match up, but the margin of error is big enough that it’s not conclusive for our packages being exactly the same.”
“We have one possible failure point in the delivery chain then,” Anna said.
“Can you pull up the profiles and credit histories for the people working at the shipping facility?” Val asked. Anna was usually the one who followed the money trail, but Val was a quick study.
“I didn’t see any significant purchases made by any of them recently,” Tam said.
“Look for anyone with considerable amounts of debt,” Anna said.
“That would be everyone there except the senior management,” Tam said.
“So if any of them were bought out, they’re too smart to flaunt it. That makes this a bit harder,” Val said.
“Not necessarily,” Anna said. “We can eliminate many of them from consideration because of the type of debt they are carrying.”
“How so?” Val asked, turning to listen to Anna with the same focused attention she used in listening to teachers whose classes engaged her imagination.
“For the wealthy, debt is something they can juggle and use as a tool,” Anna said. “For the poor, it is an inexorable crushing force which they can either stave off or be driven under by. The workers in the shipping center barely make enough money to afford food and lodging. One had a car breakdown this week. Without going further into debt, he wouldn’t have been able to fix it and without a working car he would have lost his job, beginning a downward spiral which is difficult to recover from. Another is paying for the medical bills for her spouse. If she runs out of money, her spouse will die. Neither they, nor anyone else in their sort of situation, has the luxury of sitting on a windfall.”
“I’ve seen that,” Val said. “But it doesn’t mean that they’re not smart enough to hide the money well. Just because they’re poor doesn’t mean they can’t be clever and smart. The car guy could have paid off the mechanic under the table, and the medical bills lady could have arranged financing which her new boss paid for instead.”
“That is true too,” Anna said. “But there is another reason to clear their names in this; they aren’t the weakest point for someone to work on. Tam could you describe the handling cycle the drugs go through?”
“They’re manufactured at Kleinwell Medical’s lab in Rhode Island,” Tam said. “Before packaging they’re run through a series of spot inspections to verify that the batch is viable.”
“That is one potential failure point,” Anna said.
“Once they’re packaged, they’re loaded onto a truck and shipped to the distribution center,” Tam said.
“Looks like they travel by air, so they’re sent up to Logan airport in Boston?” Val asked.
“Yep, though the distribution center is a few miles from the airport. It makes it easier to collect things I guess,” Tam said.
“That gives us two more points of failure then,” Anna said. “The numbers at the distribution center may be the same for incoming and departing packages because it’s the handlers at the airport who are responsible for the change.”
“There’s one problem with that,” Tam said. “These packages are bonded and sealed, and the ID labels aren’t easy to tamper with. Before the packages leave the distribution center they’re inspected by the FDA and then placed under an official seal which is only broken when they reach their destination.”
“So either someone is able to forge that seal, or the drugs are being replaced after they arrive?” Val asked.
“I wish it was that simple,” Tam said. “In all three cases, the people who reported the problem with the drugs were the inspectors on the arrival end. They were the first people to see the drugs once they were brought off the plane.”
“So the drugs are inspected, they’re placed in a sealed container, and then the next time they’re opened they’ve transformed into rocks,” Val said. “And this isn’t some mystical stuff? Just regular old boring theft.”
“Maybe not all that regular,” Anna said. “Tam, if you had to pull off this effect for a magic show, how would you do it?”
“Do I get to bribe people?” Tam asked. “A lot of effects are easier to do with an assistant.”
“Let’s say no,” Anna suggested. “The more people involved in a crime, the less likely it is to be carried out in secret.”
“Ok, let’s see then,” Tam said. “I’d start with a crew to replace the drugs. Probably three people total. Two for lugging the rocks around, and one, probably me, to run interference if need be.”
“Where would you strike?”
“The easiest spot would be the receiving end,” Tam said. “All the hard work has been done by that point, I’d just need to step in, grab the drugs, and get out of there. Except if I did that, I wouldn’t bother leaving the rocks behind.”
She was silent for a moment before her eyes lit up.
“Oh! That’s very clever! Good job guys, or, I mean, bad job, they’re definitely evil those scumbags. Clever, but evil.”
“What did they do?” Val asked.
“The far end of the delivery chain is the easy spot to snatch the drugs from,” Tam said. “But that’s where everyone is going to be looking. By having the missing drugs turn up there, our magician thieves are directing the audience’s attention as far away from where they’re making the switch as they can.”
“The earliest they can be switching them out is after the inspection though,” Val said. “And you said the drugs are sealed right after that.”
“Right, which is why you switch them out even before then,” Tam said. “A principal with a magic trick is that when you show the audience the cards to prove that the deck isn’t stacked, you do it after the deck has been well and truly stacked.”
“How would they pass the initial inspection though?” Anna asked.
“Let me confirm something,” Tam said and dove into a few more reports on her laptop. “Oh and can you tell Darya that I am in love with the people who wrote these reports. They were so good about including exact details.”
“What sort of details do you need?” Val asked, looking through her own copies of the reports.
“Here we go,” Tam said. “Check out the size of the stones found in the vials.”
“They’re 4.8 millimeters tall and 9.7 millimeters in diameter beads?” Val said. “That’s fairly tiny.”
“Tiny, and very regular,” Tam said.
“Which means they were manufactured,” Anna said.
“Yes, and now look at the dimensions of the original tablets,” Tam said.
“It says they were 5 millimeters tall with a diameter of 10 millimeters,” Val said.
“The rocks fit inside the pills?” Anna said.
“The rocks were the pills,” Tam said. “Someone painted them with a degradable covering – maybe sugar or or cornstarch, something that could be bleached white if need be to match the original pill. I bet if something does a chemical analysis of the vials there will be an agent which devours the covering, a bacteria or something maybe, and thin film of waste product at the bottom of the vials.”
“How would that pass inspection though?” Val asked.
“The FDA is tremendously underfunded,” Tam said. “Inspections, when they even happen, are almost always limited to visual confirmation. Full chemical analysis is too costly and time consuming to use except in instances where fatalities have occurred.”
“Which didn’t happen in this case because the true nature of the pills was discovered before anyone took one. Ok, so is Kleinwell behind this? They were the ones who made the pills right?” Val asked.
“It is unlikely this was their doing,” Anna said. “Regardless of how or when the pills were tampered with, the losses will go back to Kleinwell, as will the responsibility. They have nothing to gain by destroying their own products. At least not in this manner.”
“Yeah, and with PrimaLux as one of their competitors we have a much better candidate for who’s at fault,” Tam said. “My guess is that Prima is swapping out the shipment during its delivery to the distribution center. That’s the moment I would target. Pick up the real drugs in one truck, arrive at the shipping warehouse with another truck with the fake pills already loaded.”
“Nice. Remind me if I ever need to do a crime to have you plan the caper,” Val said.
“That seems to fit,” Anna said. “The replacement allows the theft to go unnoticed for as long as possible, and obscures the moment when it occurred. The next question is, why steal these drugs in the first place?”
“Are they worth much?” Val asked.
“Antiretrovirals are literally life saving drugs,” Tam said. “Their distribution is complicated, but, yeah, they could be worth a lot.”
“Maybe it’s not about the value of the drugs,” Anna said, her voice growing distant. “Look at the agencies which the drugs were being sold to.”
Tam and Val both perused the documents that Anna passed over to them.
“It looks like they’ve had to place new orders,” Val said.
“And none of them reordered from Kleinwell,” Tam said.
“So they’re trying to drive Kleinwell out of business by getting all of the buyers to go elsewhere?” Val asked. “That sounds like Prima.”
“There’s more to it than that,” Anna said. “Look at how much the buyers are paying for their replacement orders.”
“Ok, that is weird,” Tam said.
“It’s less than what Kleinwell was charging?” Val said.
“It’s less than Kleinwell’s cost to produce the drugs,” Tam said.
“This isn’t about driving Kleinwell out of business,” Anna said. “This is about driving everyone out of the antiretroviral business.”
“Why would they do that?” Val asked. “It can’t just be about money.”
“It’s not,” Anna said. “They’re testing a strategy. They’re trying to establish a monopoly on essential pharmaceuticals.”
“Why?” Tam asked. “It would be crushingly expensive to sustain that, and people could break the monopoly as soon as the prices rose.”
“That’s what we need to find out,” Anna said. “Before they put their plan in motion.”