“Don’t look like a Snicker’s bar if you don’t want to get eaten.”
—Clint Smith, founder of the Thunder Ranch shooting school
June, Four Years Before the Crunch
They came into the store so quickly that Janelle Altmiller didn’t have time to react. There were three of them, all men in their early twenties wearing hoodie sweatshirts. As they ran up to the counter, two of them pulled out handguns. Janelle was petrified. In a flash, she realized that she was unarmed, and that her husband, Jacob— who was armed—was out of sight in the back of the store, running the panel saw. He was cutting up a piece of plywood for a customer. The noise of the saw would drown out her voice, even if she were to shout for help.
The shortest of the three men tossed a pillowcase to Janelle and ordered, “Fill it! Dump the cash tray and the cash under the tray in, too.” She quickly opened the cash register and complied. As she handed the sack back to the man, one of the others, with an acne-scarred complexion, hissed, “You pick up the phone in less than five minutes and I’ll come back here next week and empty this gun into you.”
The three men fled just as Janelle heard the sound of the vertically mounted Skilsaw winding down. She ran toward her husband in a panicked dash. “We’ve just been robbed,” she shouted over the noise. Jake hesitated only for a moment before unholstering his SIG pistol. He started walking toward the front of the store, cautiously. Behind him, Janelle said, “Three young black guys, all wearing hoodies. Two of them have guns.” Jake glanced at the open cash register and the register’s empty cash tray sitting at an odd angle.
They heard tires screeching outside the store. Jake picked up his pace and jogged to the hardware store’s front entrance. As he ran out the door, he caught just a glimpse of an older Ford Taurus racing down the street. He stopped and lowered his pistol. Then he noticed that his hands were shaking.
“Call 911! Black Ford Taurus sedan. Tell ’em they’re headed south on State Road 19!” he shouted to Janelle. Then muttering to himself, he added, “And they’ll be lost in the traffic and down in Orlando before the cops even get out of the donut shop.”
Their store had been burglarized the year before, so they’d added bars to the windows and beefed up the back door. But they hadn’t expected an armed robbery during the day. To Janelle, robberies had seemed like something that happened only to jewelry shops, liquor stores, and gas stations—and then mainly in Jacksonville or Orlando.
The robbery made the Altmillers seriously reconsider security for their small hardware store. The store had been established by Jake’s grandfather, who had bought the 2.5-acre lot for just twelve hundred dollars during World War II. Situated south of the Dora Canal, it had been in continuous operation since 1946. It was also the last family-owned, independent hardware store in Lake County. All of the others had long since been affiliated with chains like Ace or True Value, or run out of business by the big-box giants like Home Depot and Lowe’s. And while they’d suffered their share of shoplifting, this was the first time they’d ever been robbed at gunpoint.
A few days after the robbery, the Altmillers added four miniature security cameras that recorded directly to their PC’s hard drive. One of these cameras was deliberately set up at a low angle to avoid the classic “view of the top of the perp’s baseball cap.” Another camera was aimed at the front entrance, and contrasting strips of colored tape were added at one-foot intervals running up both sides of the door frame. When seen in surveillance footage, these markings would allow them to approximate the height of a suspect after a robbery.
Most importantly, Janelle and Jake began to carry their pistols daily. They both took the three-day fighting pistol immersion course taught by Florida Firearms Training in Okeechobee. This was Janelle’s first formal firearms instruction. For Jake, who had taken two previous classes by other instructors, the comprehensive course made him realize how much he still had to learn. They both made a point of doing monthly practice shooting sessions at the local range on Sunday afternoons when the store was closed.
Janelle stood just five feet two inches tall—eight inches shorter than her husband. Her rounded hips and short trunk made most hip holsters uncomfortable for her. Drawing her pistol from a hip holster was ungainly because of the short distance between the top of the holster and her armpit. She tried several types of right-handed holsters before settling on a modified Kydex cross-draw holster made by Multi Holsters. She concealed it with the blue Altmiller’s Hardware logo canvas vests that they wore to identify store employees. By wearing the vest unbuttoned, she could draw the pistol quickly if needed. On the few occasions when a customer caught a glimpse of the holstered pistol, it usually triggered compliments rather than ridicule. Florida, after all, had one million concealed carry pistol permits—the most of any state. There was a reason it was nicknamed the Gunshine State.
“Ever since the religion of Islam appeared in the world, the espousers of it . . . have been as wolves and tigers to all other nations, rending and tearing all that fell into their merciless paws, and grinding them with their iron teeth; that numberless cities are raised from the foundation, and only their name remaining; that many countries, which were once as the garden of God, are now a desolate wilderness; and that so many once numerous and powerful nations are vanished from the earth! Such was, and is at this day, the rage, the fury, the revenge, of these destroyers of human kind.”
—John Wesley (1703–1791)
May, Two Years Before the Crunch
Adhi Wulandari was an ambitious perantara insinyur, an intermediate engineer, with a midsize electronics company in Jakarta. He had just survived a big layoff. This had been the first time the company had let go more than just assemblers. Two friends from his department—one from New Zealand and one from Singapore—were the company’s only foreign-born employees. Without warning, they had been told to pack up the personal contents of their cubicles and were escorted out the door. It soon became apparent that all of the others singled out in the layoff were non-Muslims, leaving the with a one hundred percent Muslim staff. The circumstances of the layoff troubled Wulandari.
The next day, word came of a lucrative new video camera assembly contract. Why would the company need to lay off anyone when they’ve just received a new contract? Wulandari wondered. Everyone else seemed happy to still have their jobs, so they didn’t ask many questions.
While reviewing the drawing specifications for the new assembly contract, Wulandari noticed that the drawings were incomplete. The diagrams showed only one half of a clamshell housing marked camera case, a battery, and a digital timer. The large round center section of the housing was a blank spot in the drawings, marked simply as camera position (tbd). The empty space also seemed unusually large for a digital camera, given their recent miniaturization. Even stranger, there were no molded projections in the plastic to hold a camera in place.
All of the parts for the assembly project came in from several other subcontractors: 252 unmarked gray plastic cases from an injection molding company in Tasikmalaya, boxes of aluminum screws from a fastener supply company in Banjarsari, 252 five-year-life 48-volt lithium manganese dioxide batteries sourced from China, bundles of green LEDs from a parts vendor in Jakarta Tangerang, and 252 generic programmable digital timers made by Omron.
The battery specification also struck Wulandari as unusual. Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries would have been a better choice for a camera system. Why would they specify a 48 volt disposable battery, and why did they need one with such a high voltage and amp hour rating? He surmised that they wanted to emplace “set and forget” espionage cameras for several years, but the specifications still seemed incongruous.
When the 252 timers arrived, he grew even more suspicious. They were packed in cardboard boxes labeled omron automation—a major electronics company in Jakarta Selatan—but the timers themselves were completely unmarked. Every other electronics subassembly he’d ever worked with had carried at least a maker’s name and part number. The lack of any markings further piqued his curiosity.
The camera boxes had only a pair of 48-volt DC power input wires, a mini-USB controller port, two pairs of 20-centimeter-long 48-volt output wires, and another 40-centimeter pair of thinner leads in a contrasting color, with smaller connectors that were attached to the low-current, low-voltage green status light LEDs. These were left dangling for later assembly, which was not common practice.
Wulandari asked his supervisor why they were doing only part of the assembly, but the senior engineer offered no explanation. “I don’t know. We are just the subcontractor.” And when Wulandari asked about the customer, his boss said, “They tell me it is a secret project for the BIN. I think it must be some kind of spy camera.” The Indonesian Badan Intelijen Negara—the Indonesian equivalent of the CIA—was notoriously secretive. Another employee, however, was told that it was a project for the National Institute of Aeronautics and Space or Lembaga Penerbangan dan Antariksa Nasional (LAPAN). Wulandari didn’t know who to believe.
Wulandari also raised concerns about the flimsy aluminum screws that were specified for mounting the camera’s timer and battery, as they would be easily deformed when the cameras were eventually serviced. Once again, his concerns were brushed aside. “I have no idea why aluminum. That is just what they ordered.”
After all of the parts had arrived, the assembly of the cameras was completed in just one week and resulted in a very profitable contract for the company. The 252 camera housings—with batteries and timers installed and LEDs attached—were then packaged and sent by truck to another small company farther south in Banten Province, ostensibly for installation of the cameras.
The camera case contract was soon forgotten by most of the company’s employees. But Wulandari’s doubts about it persisted until almost three years later, when the camera cases made news headlines, erasing all doubt about their true purpose.
Life In Oz
“A society that does not defend itself is doomed. A system that remains passive in the face of attack deserves to go under. Those unwilling to defend freedom will become unfree. To stand idly by is to commit suicide.”
—The late Brian Crozier, Strategy of Survival
Fifteen Miles Northeast of Bulman, Northern Territory,
Australia—November, One Year Before the Crunch
It was late in the afternoon, and the three men were tired. They had already lowered ten of the high-explosive seismic charges down the previously drilled shot holes, and this would be the eleventh of the day. Sweat was dripping off the end of Chuck Nolan’s nose. Randall “Rabbit” Burroughs, one of Chuck’s “jug hustler” assistants, lifted the thirty-four-pound yellow plastic tube of Geoprime dBX explosives to the mouth of the hole. The thousands of feet of cables and geophones, or jugs, laid out by the team over the rough, dry terrain would capture the reflected acoustic energy released from these explosive charges and provide an image of the underlying geologic strata.
Looking up from the reel of thin two-strand electrical wire that was resting in the payout stand, his other assistant, Bruce Drake, said, “Hey, mate, you forgot the suspension cord.”
“What?” Burroughs asked.
Just then, the tube slipped from Randall’s sweaty fingers. The five-inch-diameter plastic canister briefly lodged at a slight angle in the top of the bore, but then straightened itself and continued its fall before Burroughs could grasp it again. The wire payout wheel spun rapidly with a loud whirring sound.
Chuck yelled, “Run!” at the top of his lungs.
Run they did, in three different directions. They were still sprinting and just ten yards from the bore when the explosives tube hit the bottom of the hole. The sharp jolt of bottoming in the bore set off the blasting caps. Instantly, the main charge detonated. An enormous cloud of red dust loomed up from the bore and from the soil near it. The ground lurched beneath their feet as dirt and rocks came raining down around them. Chuck felt at least two clods or small rocks hit his yellow plastic bump cap, and one glanced off his shoulder. Another hit the side of Chuck’s Jeep.
After running a few more yards, Chuck stopped and looked back. As the cloud of red dust started to dissipate, he could see that his assistants were still in one piece and running. Even though his ears were ringing, Chuck started laughing uproariously, greatly relieved that they had escaped the blast unscathed.
Drake stopped and yelled at Burroughs. “You mongrel! You’re a few sandwiches short of a picnic!”
After catching his breath, Drake added, “You better keep running, Rabbit!”
Still laughing, Chuck muttered to himself, “Just another day of oil fossicking in the Merry Old Land of Oz.”
Despite their proximity to the blast, there was no damage to the trucks, other than a shattered passenger-side rearview mirror on Chuck’s Jeep. Rabbit Burroughs had been complaining of a headache all day, and had twice mentioned that he thought he was coming down with the flu. That was his explanation for failing to attach the nylon parachute cord that was normally used to slowly lower the seismic testing charges. They laughed off the incident on their drive back to Darwin, although Rabbit Burroughs spent the next three days sick in bed with the flu.
Two weeks later, the replacement side-mirror assembly Chuck had ordered arrived. He bolted it on without the assistance of the dealership, but when he’d finished, he was confronted with a strange sight: His perennially filthy Jeep had one clean mirror housing. It was enough to compel Chuck to take his truck to the car wash for a long-overdue cleaning.
The self-service car wash on Vanderlin Drive was run by a genial man in his thirties. By his looks, Chuck assumed the man was half Aborigine. Instead of being coin-operated like the car wash in his small hometown in Texas, this one used credit cards for payment. Washing the accumulated red dirt from the truck took three full cycles.
Chuck wore his cowboy hat as protection from the glaring sun. As he worked, he hummed the tune to the song “I’m So Ronery” from a political parody movie featuring puppets, which he had seen many years before. Just as he was finishing up the last cycle, he heard a woman’s voice from behind him. “What’s T-T?” she asked.
He turned to see a tall young woman with curly, sandy-brown hair, wearing short pants and a simple blouse. Her index finger was pointing to the large red decal on his truck’s back window, with overlapping capital Ts.
Momentarily flummoxed at the unexpected sight of the woman, Chuck answered haltingly, “That’s, uh, Texas Tech, ma’am.” Mimicking his Texan accent, she asked, “Are you new in these parts?” Chuck laughed. “No, I’ve been here about eight months. I’m in the oil business.”
Dropping the accent, the young woman said, “A genuine Texas oilman. You’re practically a walking cliché with the left-hand drive steering wheel, the Wranglers, and the Stetson hat. You’re quite the poser.”
She cocked her head and added, “But I would have thought we’d meet here long before this. I’m usually here two or three Saturdays a month, especially in the summer.”
“That’s because I only give my truck a bath about once a year.”
She laughed, the warm sound causing Chuck to smile.
Chuck shoved the dribbling sprayer rod into the holder mounted on the masonry-block wall. He turned to face the young woman, saying, “My name’s Chuck Nolan. Pleased to meet you.”
“I’m Ava . . . Ava Palmer.”
Chuck tipped the brim of his hat and nodded to her in response, and Ava burst out laughing. “I’ve met some posers, but you take the prize,” she exclaimed.
“I’m just being me, ma’am.” He cleared his throat and asked, “Assuming that you’re single, can I buy you lunch?”
“You Texans do start off at a gallop, don’t you?” Ava replied.
“When I meet a lovely single lady, I don’t waste any time.”
She paused for a moment and then said, “Lunch . . . Why not? I was just about done using the chamois on my car. Give me a sec, and then follow me over to Fasta Pasta—the takeaway. Do you know it?”
“The one in the shopping mall on Trower Road?”
Chuck grinned. “I’ll be right behind you.”
It was just a short drive to the takeaway restaurant. Ava was driving a Toyota RAV4 that was several years old but well cared for. They ordered pasta salads and took their plates to some outdoor tables in the shade of a casuarina tree—the tree species for which the town was named. Chuck had also bought them each a can of Passiona—a passion fruit soft drink—to have with their meals. He missed the larger soda fountain drinks that he was accustomed to in the States. Australia, he had learned, was “the land of no free refills.”
After some pleasantries about the weather and a discussion on the relative merits of clean vehicles versus truly utilitarian vehicles, Ava asked, “So, Chuck, Texas Oilman, what’s your story?”
“I’m an oil fossicker. I shoot reflection seismic surveys for oil and gas exploration. You know what they say: ‘Little boys who play with rocks either end up in jail or become geologists.’”
Ava cocked her head and commented, “I thought there were plenty of Aussies available to do that work. No offense, but why would they hire someone from the back side of the planet for that?”
“Well, I have bachelor of science and masters degrees in geology with a specialty in geophysics. I liked Red Raiders football so much I just had to stick around those extra two years and earn that second degree. I’m glad that I did since the market is really hot now for folks with a specialty in geophysics.”
Ava looked taken aback by his credentials. “I see. So how did you get your start, after Texas Tech?”
“After I finished my masters, I went to work for Vecta Oil and Gas, in the States. I started out in the office, but I eventually found my niche in leading a seismic acquisition team for oil and gas exploration. I liked working outdoors and traveling much more than I did any five-day-a-week job at the corporate office. In my first three years, I worked with the company’s seismic crews in Texas, Colorado, Montana, and North Dakota. Eventually, my manager asked me to move to North Dakota full-time, where the company was making a major investment in a geologic play known as the Bakken oil shale—sorry, am I boring you with all this?” asked Chuck.
“Not at all,” Ava assured him.
“Okay, we were shooting a large 3-D seismic survey with follow-up plans for an aggressive drilling program. The Bakken shale play is really booming. But I very quickly got tired of the winters in North Dakota. They’re really brutal. I knew that I wanted something different, or at least someplace more habitable and warm. So I started searching for other oil and gas opportunities . . . especially jobs outside the United States.”
“So why Australia?” asked Ava.
“Well, one evening I was doing some web wandering, and I stumbled upon Australian Oil and Gas Corporation headquartered in Darwin. One of my lab instructors in college was an Aussie and told great stories about the country. More or less on a lark, I updated my resume and e-mailed it. I was pleasantly surprised when I got a quick response. Eleven days later, I was on a Qantas jet bound for Sydney, reading the old novel In The Wet, by Nevil Shute. I took a Virgin flight up to Darwin, and by the time I got there I was already onto my second Shute novel, The Far Country. Those books were a pretty good crash course on Australian culture.”
“More than a bit dated,” Ava interjected. “But yes, his books did capture the culture, back in the 1950s. People in this part of Australia have changed a lot less than they have down in the big cities.”
“I was surprised that the company gave me a job offer right on the spot, at the end of my second interview,” Chuck continued. “Turns out they were looking for a person that had a strong background in both seismic acquisition and seismic prospecting, and I fit the bill. They said that they’d expedite my work visa, pay all of my moving expenses, yadayada-yada. So here I am. I like the climate here. It is a lot more conducive to my hobbies—especially shooting, hiking, and mountain bike riding—than living in the Dakotas ever was.”
Ava nodded in agreement and forked up more of her pasta.
After a pause to take a sip of soda, Nolan asked, “And you, Ava?”
“I’m just a year out of high school, and saving up the money to attend the ANU, starting in the upcoming first term this January. I’ll be studying computer science. Right now I’m just a GIS technician, plotting and confirming map coordinates, using ArcMap. It’s all very boring, repetitive work, but I want to expand on my current rudimentary programming skills to learn how to actually write programs, not just use them like a worker bee for the rest of my life.”
“That’s great. And so you’re single, not engaged or . . .”
Ava laughed. “Back to the full gallop, are we?”
Chuck grinned sheepishly.
“Before we delve off into potential, or shall we say hypothetical, matrimonial topics, Mr. Chuck Nolan, I have a big fat question for you.”
“Are you a Christian?”
“Well, yeah. I went to church when I was a kid. I went to Sunday school and all the usual—”
Ava cocked her head and interrupted, “Yes, but do you know Jesus the Christ as your personal savior?”
“I’ve never thought in those terms,” Chuck admitted. “I mean, I’ve never studied the Bible as an adult, you see. I really wouldn’t know where to start.”
Ava pushed the remains of her plate aside and said, “Do you have a Bible, a King James?”
“Since you understand shooting, then you will understand ‘missing the mark.’ This is man’s biggest problem. I suggest you start by reading the Gospel of John—he depicts Jesus’ work to solve man’s biggest problem very plainly. See if that speaks to you. And if it does, then ask Jesus into your heart.”
Ava stood up from the table and gave a little wave.
“Wait! I need your phone number,” Chuck protested.
Ava pulled out a pen and wrote on the back of their lunch receipt. “Here’s my mobile number. I would like you to ring me up, Chuck. But before you do, I’d really like you to be able to tell me, with sincerity, where you stand with God.”