They never called each other by name, although they knew one another like family. In the large, oak-paneled room, two of the three sat in leather armchairs by a draped window and spoke in whispers.
The third stood apart. As the youngest, in his mid-forties, he was assigned the task of showing the DVD. A monitor and playback machine rested on a silver cart. Neither had ever been used before. He thumbed through an operating manual, studied the remote control, and strained to catch snatches of his colleagues’ conversation.
Rain beating against the window obliterated not only the words but the language. At times he thought they were speaking German; at other times, French. Occasionally Arabic laced the phrases. The woman’s voice was higher pitched and more difficult to discern.
The man holding the remote read the manual’s instructions in Spanish, but only because it had opened to that section. A faint squeal of a dry hinge came from the single door to the room. The man looked up from the manual and saw a thin, stooped figure slip inside. Stronger light from the hallway haloed his gray hair, turning him into an ancient angel. He clutched a black leather briefcase in his right hand, closed the door behind him, and stepped slowly, steadily, and silently across the Persian carpet.
“Sorry I’m late,” he said in a voice surprisingly loud. “The weather delayed my landing and then the hassle with customs.”
The others laughed, knowing his private jet touched down at a private airstrip and no customs officials had a clue he had returned. He set the briefcase on a side table and thumbed its dual combination locks. “Is the TV hooked up?”
The man with the remote laid the manual on the DVD player. “Yes.” Evidently the meeting would be conducted in English, fitting since the topic focused on the pending elections in the United States.
“Good. Let’s get started. I need to be in a cabinet meeting in less than two hours.” He motioned them to four chairs set in a semicircle in front of the television. While the others sat, he passed out printed information collected in briefing packets. “The DVD is in the inside pocket of yours,” he told the man with the remote. “But I have a few things to say first.”
The others gave him their full attention, keeping the binders unopened in their laps.
His posture straightened as energy overcame age, fueled by the passion of his commitment to the task at hand. “As I told our full group last year, it is my belief that the Republican candidate for president will win the election in the fall, regardless of whether Senator Brighton or Governor Nelson secures the nomination. Given that likely scenario, I’m working to develop ties and assets with both. I’ve drawn up a list of potential problems either of the two might present to us and what we should do to apply the proper leverage.”
He paused, letting his audience of three absorb his prediction. Each of them glanced down at the briefing papers, anxious to see the data for themselves.
“Yes, you’ll find impact assessments with strategic and tactical modifications that must be considered in light of the coming political shift. But those will be minor in the immediate future and can be viewed as opportunities to be studied and exploited.”
A murmur of agreement affirmed his analysis.
“But the real challenge continues to be the domestic economy of the United States. No question the out-of-control real estate speculation and undisciplined greed of the financial sectors is headed over the top. Yes, we moved our money out, but a meltdown is coming and the American public’s confidence in their institutions will plummet. Those morons are bringing it on themselves, unaware or unconcerned they’re killing the geese laying golden eggs.”
“But we’ll ride it out,” the woman said. “Our European central banks will be safe havens.”
The old man shook his head. “Not without an infusion of American dollars. The economic collapse will generate internal unrest within the United States which, in turn, could encourage attacks by groups from without, some of which we barely know.” He cleared his throat. “But those are just problems to be addressed and turned to our advantage.” He nodded to the man with the remote. “There is something else festering that will gain momentum if the U.S. economy unravels. Something with far more serious consequences.”
The younger man pulled the DVD from the sleeve in his packet. He stood and walked to the machine, waiting for the cue to insert the disk.
The older man continued. “What you’re about to see happened last month at Vanderbilt University during a debate featuring the Republican primary hopefuls.”
The machine swallowed the DVD and then whirred softly. A picture glowed on the screen, unrecognizable at first as the camera struggled to focus in dim light. Somewhere offscreen a man’s garbled words echoed through a PA system.
“The students are outside of the packed auditorium, listening to the debate over loudspeakers. Watch the group of students in the upper right.”
The cameraman tilted up, evidently attracted by a small ball of fire. Then more flames erupted, flaring briefly before burning out. Some drifted upward, borne on a light breeze.
“What are they burning?” asked the man still standing beside the DVD player.
As if in answer to his question, the camera zoomed in. The circle of flames grew larger. A chant drowned out the PA, swelling like the roar of a wave rolling into shore. “Burn the Fed! Burn the Fed! Burn the Fed!”
“Mein Gott, they’re burning money.” The woman’s voice cracked in disbelief.
“Dollar bills.” The man who brought the video turned to the woman beside him. “Showing their contempt for the words Federal Reserve Note inscribed on the currency and for the institution they believe is leading them to ruin.”
“That’s madness,” said the man on the other side of the woman. “Those candidates have got to be stopped.”
The younger man standing by the television shook his head. “The candidates didn’t start it, did they? That’s the problem.”
The man running the meeting smiled coldly. “Exactly. You’re watching a spontaneous event, unorganized and unplanned. Not at Berkeley or NYU. These are students in Nashville, Tennessee, the home of the Grand Ole Opry, for God’s sake. Students not yet vested in the system. Students whose mothers and fathers effectively changed the course of the war in Vietnam and demonstrated how a groundswell could engulf a nation.”
“But no one’s getting killed,” the woman said. “Won’t they burn out just like the dollar bills?”
The man shrugged. “Where this goes, especially given the hard times on the horizon, is anybody’s guess. But, like I said, our European banks will need an infusion of U.S. dollars. Our source is the Fed. No one else has the power to increase the money supply.”
The woman grasped their dilemma. “You think the Fed will curtail foreign lending?”
“The Fed is likely to become the whipping boy for these students who will find no jobs when they graduate. The issue will move into mainstream politics within two years.” He paused a second. “Or the anger against the Fed could be picked up internationally by those groups always looking for any excuse to blame capitalism, international financiers, or the Jews. Either way, the Fed will come under increased pressure, and that will have consequences worldwide. At the very least, consequences of disclosure and transparency which will cripple the Fed’s lending policies. At the worst, the dismantling of the Federal Reserve System or violent attacks like the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995. All are consequences we cannot tolerate, or the world economy and our interests are at risk.” He looked at the man by the television. “You head the media interests. What’s the best way to control a story?”
The man holding the remote smiled. “Create the story.”
“Exactly. We don’t have much time. Between this election and the next, things could turn ugly.” He pointed a gnarled finger toward the younger man. “Show us you have what it takes to replace me. I suggest you begin constructing that story now. Just be damn sure it ends the way we want it to end.”
The four looked back at the monitor where burning bills danced like fireflies against the night sky.
• • • • •
• • • • •
Four years later—
“Rusty. Have you got any money on you?” Paul Luguire caught his driver’s eye in the rearview mirror.
“I’m not sure. Maybe forty dollars.” Russell Mullins looked ahead at the traffic clogging the 14th Street Bridge headed out of Washington, D.C. “I can check.”
Luguire laid the papers he’d been reading in the open briefcase on the seat beside him. “Don’t bother. I’d rather you keep your hands on the wheel. Swing through the BB&T off Washington Boulevard and I’ll use the ATM. I’m meeting the grandkids for ice cream and I believe it’s irresponsible to use a credit card for something that melts.”
Mullins laughed. “I wondered where the term economic meltdown came from.”
“Not funny, Rusty.”
Mullins laughed again, only this time silently. He knew Luguire liked his pun but the economy was a sore subject. It was also funny that the man most responsible for printing U.S. currency didn’t have any of his own. “Old Greenbacks” was the name Mullins called Luguire for the duty roster.
Having a code name for your charge was a habit he’d kept from his Secret Service days. He’d done a stint with “Rawhide” former President Reagan and “Timberwolf” former President George H. W. Bush. His active presidents had been “Eagle” Bill Clinton and “Trailblazer” George W. Bush. Then when his wife Laurie got sick, Mullins put in for a desk job in counterfeiting and settled for a schedule that gave him more time to care for her. That had been the toughest assignment of all. And he’d lost her. The worst thing that can happen to a Secret Service agent, lose the life you’re trying to protect.
Mullins shook his head, flinging off thoughts from the past. He glanced back in the mirror at his present charge. They’d been together almost a year. Mullins noticed how much the gray hairline had receded, the circles grown darker under the blue eyes. Luguire was about ten years older than him. Fifty-eight. But Mullins had watched the man age five years during the past eleven months. He felt sorry for Luguire. A decent man trying to navigate a floundering economy while under attack both literally and figuratively by forces opposing his efforts.
Mullins turned on his signal for the exit off I-395. He knew the bank branch Luguire meant and it would only be a slight delay to the high-rise in Clarendon where Luguire had a luxury apartment.
“You want me to hang with you during your ice cream outing?” Mullins asked.
“No. Margie’s bringing the twins by after T-ball practice. She can pick me up in the underground garage. And I doubt if anyone is staking out Ben and Jerry’s.”
“I don’t know. That Cherry Garcia’s a pretty radical flavor.”
“I was thinking of something stronger. Like Rusty Nails.”
Mullins shot a quick glance in the mirror. Luguire smiled, knowing he’d surprised his bodyguard.
“Who have you been talking to?”
For the first time since Luguire got in the black Mercedes, he relaxed. “Today a little bird who knows her history told me Rusty’s not your only nickname. Rusty Nails. How’d you get named after a damn drink?”
“The Secret Service. They thrive on nicknames. I already had Rusty for Russell. But that wasn’t good enough. So, I made the mistake of having a couple Rusty Nails one night when some of us were off-duty, and the name Nails stuck. At least within the presidential protection detail.”
“Well, you’re tough as nails in my book. Or maybe Tough-Ass Nails is even better.”
“Don’t go saying that. Somebody will latch onto it and I’ll be cursed with Tough-Ass the rest of my life.”
“Like Old Greenbacks?”
Again, Mullins’ eyes shot to the mirror. He felt his face redden.
Luguire laughed. “Don’t worry. I like it. Did you ever make up any nicknames for a president?”
“Actually code names come from the White House Communications Agency. Back in the day, they were supposed to be secret. Now everything’s so encrypted it doesn’t matter.”
“Do you know President Brighton’s?”
“Killer whale,” Luguire mused. “Good choice. How about the first lady?”
“Opal. The first family’s code names usually start with the same letter.”
“And code names were the only names you used?”
“Well, we did tend to generate our own off-the-record names as we got to know them.”
“Such as I’d sooner give up our nuclear launch codes.” Mullins swung the Mercedes into the drive-through lane for the ATM.
Luguire laughed. “Then I’ll definitely settle for Old Greenbacks.” He reached in his suit coat for his wallet and looked at the briefcase next to him. “I’m spread out back here. Would you do the transaction?”
Mullins rolled down his window and pulled the car close to the ATM. Luguire handed his debit card over the seat.
“How much do you want?” Mullins asked.
“Better get a hundred. You need the PIN?”
“Yeah. I make a point of forgetting it.”
“Liar. You don’t forget anything. Give it a shot.”
“The machine might eat your card.”
“If I’m trusting my life to your brain, I can certainly trust my card.”
Mullins punched in the four digits. The ATM screen presented withdrawal and deposit options. Mullins selected Fast-Cash for a hundred dollars. He passed the five new twenties and the card back to Luguire. “You must have ordered these this morning.”
Luguire separated the bills, crinkling them so they wouldn’t stick together. “You’re right. The ink’s still wet.”
Mullins laughed and eased the car back onto Washington Boulevard. It was nearly six and traffic thinned slightly. “How do the twins like T-ball?”
“Okay. They like the uniforms. Margie says Lenny spends most of his time drawing in the dirt in the outfield. Lanny wants to be pitcher because on TV the pitcher’s always shown in a close-up. He doesn’t understand why T-ball doesn’t need a pitcher.”
“Have you been to a game?”
“Not yet. They’ve only had a few practices. The first one’s this Saturday.”
“Let me know where and when,” Mullins said.
“Are you working?”
“No, I’m off-duty. But I’m babysitting Josh. Never too young to teach a boy the great American pastime.”
“I’d like that. I’d like to meet your grandson. The game’s at the field by William Ramsay Elementary. I’ll let you know the details tomorrow.”
When he reached the high-rise, Mullins drove into the underground garage, entered the security code, and dropped Luguire at the elevator. “Eight?” Mullins asked, as Luguire closed his briefcase and slid out of the backseat.
“Right. Have a good night, Nails.”
“You too, Old Greenbacks.”