United States Federal Reserve Board Room, Eccles Building, Washington, D.C. Sunday, July 28, 10:50 p.m.
The three men sat at the head of the conference table, graying lions hunched over a kill.
“If only half of what this damn thing claims is true, we’re in trouble,” whispered one.
“And if all of it is?” “We’re royally—”
The door opened and a Secret Service agent stepped inside. “Excuse me, sir,” he said. “We’re standing by when you need us.”
A domed chandelier hung above the long table, filling the cavernous room with a dim, funereal light.
“Give us a moment,” said Secretary of the Treasury Martin Gelman. “Shouldn’t be too much longer.” Gelman waited for the Secret Service agent to leave, then tapped a finger on the dossier. “How many people on your end know about this?”
“Just my assistant,” replied Edward Astor, chief executive of the New York Stock Exchange. “No one else?”
Astor shook his head, staring at the treasury secretary and the man seated beside him, Charles Hughes, chairman of the Federal Reserve. No two men exerted more power over the economy of the United States. “I had my suspicions when I commissioned the report,” said Astor.
“And who provided those?” demanded the chairman of the Federal Reserve.
“The firm that wrote it. It brought the matter to my attention in the first place.”
Martin Gelman pushed his glasses higher on the bridge of his nose as he studied the dossier’s cover. “Never heard of ’em. What the hell’s that name supposed to mean?”
“Illumination,” said Astor. “Apparently it’s a Sanskrit word.”
“Great,” said Charles Hughes, who at seventy years of age was the youngest present. “Leave it to a bunch of Indian mystics to tell the United States that we’re up a creek without a paddle.”
“I believe they’re American,” said Astor. “At least as American as any of us.”
“And who, or what, exactly are these folks?” inquired Gelman. “Spooks. Seers. Savants. I’m not sure what you’d call them.” “Private sector?” asked Hughes.
“Any more private and they’d be invisible,” said Astor. There was more, but he left it at that.
“If word gets out . . .”
“That’s why it’s just the three of us at eleven o’clock on a Sunday night,” said Astor.
Silence echoed through the chamber. Astor stared at the Great Seal of the United States high on the wall and thought about the decisions made at this very table, some responsible for rescuing the country from financial catastrophe, an equal number for precipitating catastrophe in the first place.
And now one more. Martin Gelman pulled his cell phone from his jacket. “I’ll have to tell the president.”
Astor clamped a hand on his arm. “Not with your phone.”
“What the hell, Ed!”
“What about the report didn’t you understand?” Astor relaxed his hold. “I suggest we inform the president personally.”
It was Hughes’s turn to protest. “At this time of night?” “I’m sure the president will forgive the intrusion.”
Hughes nodded unsurely. “It’s just that it all seems rather impossible.” “Quite the opposite,” stated Astor, with enough certainty for both of them. “Ask me, we practically begged them to do it. For ten years we’ve known or suspected. All those reports from the FBI, the CIA, even the Brits, telling us to be careful not to give away too much. In all that time, we’ve done nothing. We might as well have sent out an engraved invitation and put a welcome mat by the front door.”
Hughes shook his head. “How did we allow this to happen?”
“Greed. Naïveté. We’re all responsible.”
Hughes brought his fist down on the table. “I’m just so damned angry.”
“So am I, Charlie, but we still have time.” Astor opened the report to the conclusion. “‘. . . and though there is no question about the extent to which critical national systems have been penetrated, the aggressor cannot use TEP to trigger a modal system-wide default at his primary target until a source code is introduced.’”
“What does that mean in English?” interrupted Hughes.
“It means they’ve got the house wired top to bottom with C4, but they can’t set off the charges. At least, not yet.”
“Why the hell not? They’ve managed everything else.”
“They don’t have the fuse,” said Gelman. “Without that, the house can’t go bang.”
“There’s still one more step,” said Astor. “They need to find a way in.” “Any idea how?” demanded Hughes.
“A few,” said Astor.
“So how much time do we have?”
“Difficult to say. We have to assume that they have their eyes on an entry point and that their plan includes the probability of detection.”
“Meaning sooner rather than later,” said Hughes. Astor nodded. “That’s a safe assumption.”
“Well, then.” Gelman shot from his chair, scooping up the dossier and shoving it into his satchel. “It’s four blocks to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Time to roust the commander in chief out of bed.”
Minutes later, the three men were seated in the back of an armored Chevrolet Suburban speeding down Constitution Avenue. Given the time of night and the impromptu nature of the meeting, the security detail numbered two agents. Both rode in front. No car followed. Astor had been adamant that they not attract undue attention.
“Take the State entry,” said Gelman, referring to the security gate located at State Place, off 17th Street past the Ellipse. “We’ll park in the West Wing lot.”
Edward Astor glanced out the window. Ahead, the Washington Monument rose into the night sky. Beyond, bathed in light at the far end of the Mall, stood the Capitol. He was an immigrant’s son, and the sights stirred his love for his country. His father had come to America eighty years before with an unpronounceable name and little more than the clothes on his back. In the space of twenty years, he had advanced from skinning cowhides for women’s gloves to owning the glove factory itself. He worked tirelessly. He acquired a rich man’s name. He saved to send his son to the best schools, and later helped him secure a job as a ticket runner on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Edward Astor liked to think he had done the rest on his own, but he never forgot his debt to his father and to the country.
“Only in America,” his father used to say in the Czech accent he was never able to erase.
Astor looked at the report sitting on his lap. He’d be damned if he let someone steal what belonged to the country. His country.
The engine revved angrily, jarring Astor from his reverie. The vehicle surged, throwing him and his fellow passengers against their seats. Frightened, Astor grasped the armrest. The car swerved, then regained its lane. “Everything all right?” he asked.
As suddenly, the revving died and the engine slowed.
“I’m sorry, sir,” answered the driver. “I must have hit the pedal a little hard.”
Astor clutched the report to his chest. He said nothing, but his heart was racing.
The vehicle passed the Organization of American States and swung left onto 17th Street. Oak trees lined the road. Through branches swollen with summer leaves, he could make out the White House.
“Sir, I’d like to radio ahead,” said the Secret Service agent in charge of the detail. “We don’t like surprises.”
“Absolutely not,” said Astor, louder than he’d wanted.
“You heard him,” added Secretary Gelman. “Pull up nice and slow. They’ll know the car.”
Astor turned in his seat. “To make sure, did either of you tell anyone we were meeting?”
“Not a soul,” said Gelman. “The wife knows better than to ask.”
“Don’t have a wife,” said Charles Hughes. “May have said a word to the vice chairman, though.”
“Did you or didn’t you?” asked Astor.
“Guess I did. We work closely on all matters. I don’t hide anything from him.”
“Wasn’t he our ambassador out there prior to coming aboard?” asked Gelman.
“That was six years ago,” protested Hughes. “You have no reason not to trust him.”
“It’s not a question of trust,” retorted Astor. A terrible thought came to him. A shaking hand drew his phone from his jacket and scrolled through his address book. He stopped at a name he knew as well as his own. Years had passed since they had last spoken. Years filled with rancor and acrimony. Still, Astor did not hesitate. There was no one he trusted more.
In the dark, his thumbs struggled to find the correct keys. “P–A–L,” he began to text.
The Chevrolet slowed and turned into the State Place entrance. A guard belonging to the uniformed division of the Secret Service stepped from his booth. A Delta barrier blocked the road ahead.
Secretary Gelman rolled down his window. “Good evening, sergeant. You know who I am. The chairman of the Federal Reserve, Mr. Hughes, is with me, as is Mr. Astor, from the New York Stock Exchange.
We’re here to see the president.”
“I don’t have you on the list, sir.”
“It’s an emergency.”
The guard demanded their identification, then stepped into his booth.
Astor continued typing. “A–N–”
The guard handed back the pieces of identification. “The president asks that you go to the West Wing portico.”
The gates opened and the vehicle advanced slowly. In front of them, the Delta barrier lowered into the ground. The engine revved again and Astor braced himself but this time it was just the driver easing the car into drive. The Suburban advanced a few yards, then halted as a mirror was run beneath the chassis to check for explosives. The all clear was given and the car advanced to the next barrier. The blockade disappeared into the ground. The Chevrolet shuddered as it drove over the steel plate.
“Have you met the president?” Gelman asked.
“No,” said Astor. “Different political persuasion.” “He’s a good man, though he’ll be none too pleased.”
The car made a sharp left onto West Executive Avenue. The lane continued for 50 yards, passing the White House swimming pool on its right and widening into a parking lot for West Wing staffers.
“As long as he listens,” said Astor. “I’m sure he will. He’s a—”
The Chevrolet surged forward, forcing the passengers against their seats. The engine revved more loudly than before. The car quickly gathered speed and in seconds was barreling down the lane.
“What the hell?” said Gelman.
“Slow this thing down,” shouted Astor.
“My foot’s on the brake,” said the driver. “It’s not doing a thing.”
Directly ahead, a third Delta barrier blocked the way. “Watch it!” cried Charles Hughes.
The driver yanked the car to the right, hopping the curb and hurtling onto the lawn. Astor bounced in his seat, striking his head on the roof. The phone tumbled from his grasp and fell to the floor.
“Shift into neutral,” said the agent in charge, riding in the passenger seat.
The Chevrolet continued to gain speed, the needle on the speedometer passing 50 miles per hour, the car rocking over the uneven terrain. The driver steered between trees, as branches slapped the windshield, obscuring his view. Then the branches were gone and the vehicle was bounding across the South Lawn. Thirty yards of open grass separated them from the White House.
“Yankee Blue, this is Sierra Six,” radioed the agent in charge. “We have an emergency. Vehicle out of control.”
“Commo’s dead, skipper,” said the driver.
Ahead, the South Portico loomed. Astor grasped the seatback. “Stop this thing,” he shouted again.
“Sir, I do not have control of the vehicle,” answered the driver with unnerving calm.
And then Astor knew that everything in the dossier was true. The car was under someone else’s control. Not an individual, but something far more frightening. And the driver was powerless to stop it.
Secret Service agents emerged from the trees, taking up position on all sides of them. Astor counted four men standing on the terrace of the South Portico. All were holding machine guns and had their weapons raised.
A tire exploded and the car listed violently.
“God help us,” said the driver.
And then the night erupted. Orange and yellow blooms lit up the darkness. Bullets struck every section of the vehicle, a deafening, percussive rain. The windshield cracked, then splintered.
Seeing his phone, Astor dropped to his knees and grasped it. Hand shaking with fear, he entered the last few letters.
A second tire exploded. The car lifted into the air and landed on its side. Astor’s head slammed the window. He tumbled against the door, the phone falling from his grip again. Chairman Hughes landed on top of him, and Astor felt his shoulder pop. His arm went limp and he screamed.
For an endless moment the car skidded across the lawn. All gunfire ceased. The vehicle slowed and, in an act of capitulation, rolled onto its roof.
Hughes slid off him. The Fed chairman was unconscious. Gelman sprawled close by, eyes open in terror.
Astor lay on his back, trying to control his breathing. He was aware of the engine ticking down and of voices shouting instructions to remain inside the vehicle. He turned his head. The phone lay a few inches away. He read the letters typed on the screen. “P–A–L–A–N–T–I–”
One was missing.
Astor forced his good arm above and around his head until his fingers clutched the phone. With his thumb, he typed the final letter.
“You okay?” The driver was bleeding from his forehead. “Yes,” said Astor. “I’m fine. But my shoulder is—”
Edward Astor never finished the sentence. At that moment the fuel tank, filled to capacity with 25 gallons of gasoline, exploded. A blast of infernal heat lifted him, enveloping him, cauterizing his every sense and sensation.
And in the instant before he died, his fingers curled around the phone, as an infant clutches his mother’s hand, and whether on purpose or accidentally, he pressed Send.