Sunday, June 22

Bob Bullard knew that nothing impressed the ladies like a visit to his yacht. The Eldorado was docked downtown on San Diego Bay, just a few blocks from the Federal Building and his high-rise penthouse condominium. The Department of Homeland Security's Southwest Regional Director had offices in a half dozen states, and his main office was in Los Angeles, but he spent as much time as possible in San Diego.

Who wouldn't? Los Angeles had become unlivable. It was practically a war zone, almost as bad as Tijuana or Juarez. That was no shock, because LA was virtually a part of Mexico today. Most Angelinos were dual citizens, and no Mexican election season was complete without campaign stops in LA by every serious Mexican candidate. You could drive for miles in any direction in Los Angeles (if you had a death wish) and not see a single word of English on a sign or billboard.

On the other hand, Bob Bullard knew that the federal government had drawn a bright red protective line around San Diego, because of the national security importance of the world's second largest concentration of naval power. The better parts of the city and county would not be allowed to collapse into a state of anarchy and gangsterism, like so much of the rest of urban California.

This was especially true of the narrow coastal strip west of Interstate 5, where most key government personnel and other influential persons lived and worked. Coastal San Diego County remained an oasis, a refuge from the Mad Max reality of California. Coastal San Diego was a hot ticket, the place where people wanted to live--if they could afford it. And an eighty-foot yacht tied up right on San Diego Bay? When it came to impressing the ladies, that combination could not be beat.

Wendy Larmouche and her girlfriend (Sandra somebody-or-other) were TSA airport screeners, babes who stared at x-ray machines and wanded passengers' crotches for a living. Bullard had met them at San Diego International on a public relations visit to the terminal, while showing the media the TSA's latest imaging technology. He had lucky timing in meeting the newly hired women. As a customary habitué of the Gulfstream, Citation and Learjet end of air operations, he rarely ventured over to the public side of any airport. He considered public terminals to be prime places to catch diseases like Cameroon Fever or the Bird Flu, and he avoided them like the plague.

Wendy had caught his eye immediately, and so on his instructions, his PR flacks selected her to serve as a model TSA representative for the media demonstrations. She was from Nashville, just past thirty and single. Best of all, she was natural blond with an impressive rack, which looked oh-so-inviting, straining the buttons apart on her tight white TSA uniform blouse. Everybody had a great laugh when she went through the new skin-revealing body imaging equipment. Bullard knew that he had found a live one when she laughed along with them, and gleefully sashayed through it several times to their obvious enjoyment.

He had 25 years on her, but that didn't matter much. Not when he was the Regional Director of the Department of Homeland Security. Besides, he kept in great shape lifting weights, and he still had most of his hair, even if it was kept black with men's hair dye. Lately, he was even winning the Battle of the Receding Hairline, now that his implants were taking hold and showing steady progress. (It was a mystery to him how a man so covered with thick black body hair could go bald precisely where he needed hair the most, but this problem was steadily being conquered through expensive applications of modern medical technology.)

The airport visit had taken place a month earlier. Through his underlings, Bullard let Wendy Larmouche know that he was personally responsible for her rapid promotion to assistant supervisor. After that, Wendy had needed little coaxing when she was invited out for a Sunday morning boat ride on San Diego Bay with the Regional Director.

If the chauffeured Lincoln Navigator bristling with antennas and radios had impressed the girls when it picked them up at their apartment, the sight of his eighty-foot yacht sent them almost into a swoon. The driver was waved through the security gates onto the government docks at the foot of Broadway, and he drove right out onto the hundred yard long concrete pier and parked by the Eldorado. Bullard met them there, casually leaning against the hood of his black BMW 745, wearing a sky-blue polo shirt, khaki slacks, and Docksiders boat shoes.

He had checked himself carefully in the mirror before leaving his penthouse condominium: his hair was combed straight back and he was closely shaved. Someone had once told him that he looked like "Robert De Niro in his prime," and he clung to this facade. Bullard was slightly self-conscious about his height (or lack thereof) of only five feet nine inches. His self-image as "De Niro in his prime" helped him to overcome that shortcoming, and he did what he could to affect the look and mannerisms of the great actor. Maybe he had a bit more nose than De Niro, but when seen directly from the front, he knew that he was almost a dead ringer.

A mile across the bay beyond his yacht laid the gigantic gray slab of the nuclear aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan, presenting a suitably awesome backdrop for the girls' visit. They stepped down from the Navigator, and looked over at the eighty foot converted power yacht with wide eyes. Wendy twanged, "This is your boat, Bob?" in her Tennessee drawl.

"Yeah, sort of, you might say. I mean, since I'm the regional director, yeah, I guess it is."

Wendy's red-painted mouth hung agape as she made for the aluminum ramp, which led from the cement quay down to the floating dock where the yacht was tied up. Brunette Sandra was right behind her, grinning. Today, instead of their usual white TSA uniform blouses and black slacks, both girls were wearing colorful Polynesian-style wraparound sarong skirts, skimpy halter-tops and sandals. Wendy had insisted on bringing a girlfriend--as if that would guarantee her pretended chastity. Bullard had to smile at her naivete. Broads always thought that bringing along a gal-pal would mean safety in numbers, but as a strategy, it rarely worked. Not after the girlfriend met Cesar, his boat captain! Bullard followed them down the metal ramp.

His captain was dressed in a white short-sleeved uniform shirt with black shoulder boards and white pants, affecting the look of a naval officer. He was a trim man, a young forty, with black hair and a thin black mustache. He stepped down from the yacht's stern boarding gate to greet them, and graciously helped them up the steps from the floating dock. "Good morning ladies! I am Captain Escoria, but please, just call me Cesar--we are all friends aboard the Eldorado." He extended his hand to help the women aboard, making direct and prolonged eye contact with each of them in turn.

Bullard boarded last, enjoying the shapely rear view of the two women as they climbed up onto the yacht. He noted that Cesar was already laying his Latin-lover shtick on Sandra. Antonio Banderas himself had nothing on Cesar Escoria, not when it came to romancing the Midwest farmer's daughters! He had perfected his wingman role; he had it down to a science. As usual, Cesar knew in advance that his boss was after the large-chested blond hottie. He would be more than satisfied with bedding her mousy brunette friend, if that was how the day played out.

Wendy couldn't stop smiling. "I still just cain't believe this is your boat! Bob, you are just so, so..."

"Well...I'll admit it's one of the nicer fringe benefits of the job."

"It sure is a pretty thang--that is sure enough true!" Wendy scampered through the open side bulwark and into the cockpit, gawking in all directions at the varnished teak rails, and the polished stainless steel fittings. Her brunette friend Sandra returned a lingering look at Captain Escoria, as he helped her aboard by her hand.

The sleek yacht had been seized by Customs three years ago while attempting to smuggle five thousand pounds of cocaine into San Diego Bay, concealed in auxiliary fuel tanks. The vessel had subsequently spent two years sealed shut and moldering away at a south bay boatyard, which was used by Customs to impound drug boats. After being appointed the regional DHS director, Bob Bullard had spotted the Eldorado during a routine facilities tour. Today, she was in better-than-new condition, after spending almost a year undergoing a bow to stern conversion to official government duty. On paper, Eldorado was now a DHS "Mobile Emergency Management Platform," an entirely new species of floating government asset that Bullard's sharp young assistants had invented at his "suggestion."

By no means was Eldorado the queen of the San Diego waterfront. At "only" eighty feet, the power yacht was less than one-half the length and a quarter of the tonnage of the serious megayachts, belonging to the international ultra-wealthy jet setters who frequently visited San Diego. On any given day, a helicopter tour of San Diego Bay might reveal fifty yachts larger than this one.

On the other hand, the Eldorado had excellent range for her size, and her twin Caterpillar diesels could take her across more than a thousand miles of open ocean on the three thousand gallons of fuel in her tanks. This was a critical factor, because when the time inevitably came to bug out, this would be sufficient range to carry him non-stop from San Diego to any point between Cabo San Lucas and Acapulco.

And this was why Bullard had selected a moderately sized vessel. While there was no way to hide the hundred-foot-plus megayachts, the eighty-foot Eldorado would easily blend in among the larger Bertram, Hatteras and Ocean sportfishers. Blending in was going to be essential, when the time came to disappear south of the border. Toward that end, her beautiful (but distinctive) original gleaming red hull had been repainted in plain vanilla, matching the deck and superstructure. An all-white powerboat with classic sportfisher lines was the ultimate in yacht harbor camouflage--and he would need all of the camouflage he could get, after he split from California.

Despite his high position, Bob Bullard had no illusions about the long-term viability of the federal government, or its ability to stave off the steadily deepening economic crisis. As a member of the Senior Executive Service within the DHS, he was now an insider, a member of the American nomenklatura, and he had access to the most highly classified reports. Even though it was never stated in plain English, for those who could interpret the bureaucrat-ese, it was obvious that total financial collapse was only a matter of months away, or a year at the outside. The conversion to blue dollars, the mandatory "gold repurchase" laws, the limits on bank withdrawals, the restrictions on currency exports and all of the other gimmicks were only Band-Aids, applied over terminal economic cancer. They were just temporary confidence-boosting measures, stopgaps designed to keep Joe Six-pack calm and buy a little more time.

Meanwhile, elite insiders with sufficient foresight were making their own private arrangements to ride out the gathering storm. All of the intelligent top-level players he was meeting recently were preparing their own parachutes, ratlines and escape tunnels. In fact, this was the number one subject of their private off-the-record conversations. For many, these preparations meant buying homes in exclusive walled and gated communities with plenty of private security, far from the urban megapolises. For others, there were retreats on remote islands, complete with their own generators and fuel supplies.

Some optimists believed that because the port and the naval bases were so important, the federal government would never let San Diego go down the toilet. Many of them had moved into high-rise condos near the key government buildings downtown. Bob Bullard currently lived atop just such a luxury condominium, but he thought of it as a temporary sanctuary at best. It was a standard perk of his office, it was convenient, and it cost him nothing, so why not? He could drive between the Federal Building, his condominium and the yacht in less than five minutes, or walk it in ten. All three were located in a high security zone that was regularly swept clear of homeless bums, junkies and petty street criminals. With a heavy police presence, the downtown office district was safe enough--for now--but a suffocating air of dread permeated the California landscape.

Bullard knew the truth: there was simply no federal operating budget left, and there were no more currency-propping tricks left in the bag. The federal government was out of gas, and running on sheer momentum. The wheels had begun to come off the wagon two years ago after the oil crisis, when the hedge funds and derivatives markets had imploded, a hundred trillion dollar supernova sucked into a black hole. Like most Americans, Bullard had only a hazy grasp of the meaning of the derivatives disaster, but the effect was crystal clear: trillions of dollars had somehow disappeared in less than one week, leading to the failures of several of the largest banks in America. Their doors had only been kept open through a massive intervention from the Federal Reserve's so-called "New Bank," pumping in brand new make-believe money created from thin air.

That had only been the beginning of the ongoing slide into national economic ruin. After a year of widespread corporate bankruptcies, factory closings, layoffs and massive pension defaults, bitterly angry (and often hungry) Americans had taken to the streets by the millions. Local and federal government buildings in every state capital and major city were surrounded by seas of demonstrators banging empty pots and pans, demanding that the government "fix the problem, and fix it now!" Leading politicians and senior bureaucrats were forced to sleep in their offices, or in some cases commute via rooftop helicopters. They were unwilling or literally afraid to run the pan-banging gantlets that had taken over the streets and sidewalks around their offices.

After two weeks of massive around the clock protests, the federal government had been panicked into action by the unending din of clanging pots and pans. For the policy makers, all that remained were the printing presses, both the paper and electronic money producing kinds. Their secret economic "cure" was printing endless truckloads of Federal Reserve Notes to stem the danger of bank runs and head off a deflationary spiral.

Since the Federal Reserve had ceased publishing their "M-3" money figures back in 2006, the exact amount of this new currency creation could be concealed from the American people. The runaway inflation it caused could not. As an insider with well-positioned friends at Treasury, Bullard knew that once the President and the Chairman of the Federal Reserve decided to inflate their way out of default, the money supply had been doubling every three months!

Hundreds of thousands of laid-off workers, as well as retirees suddenly without pension checks, continued to bang their empty pots together as they marched around the U.S. Capitol and White House. The penniless unemployed and the abandoned pensioners banged their pans and demanded their dollars...and lo and behold, they got them! Predictably, hyperinflation of the U.S. dollar had been ignited.

Foreign countries (beginning with China) holding US dollar-denominated assets began a mad rush to unload them for tangible goods, even as their value plummeted. The entire world was soon awash with unwanted and increasingly worthless dollars. The economic dominos continued to tumble, one after another. The Treasury Bond market collapsed next, and the United States was unable to borrow new money, even with interest rates soaring past 20%. There was simply no faith left in the enduring value of the dollar. The trust had been shattered; "full faith and credit" became a bitter joke.

The most recent ploy of converting the old greenbacks to "New Dollars" at ten to one to stem the runaway inflation had only bought a few more months reprieve at best. The switch to the new "blue bucks" was clearly not a one-time-only permanent solution, although that was the official government spin. The national leadership understood that the economy was gasping and choking on life support, even while they preached sermons of hope, courage and patience to the masses. The synthetic "plasma extender" of new thin-air money could not substitute for a solid currency. None of them knew the week or the month that the remaining economy of the USA would grind to a halt, but most of them felt in their bones that the final days of reckoning were fast approaching.

When that final reckoning occurred, Bob Bullard did not plan to be standing at attention on the deck of the American Titanic, singing the national anthem while the ship of state slipped beneath the waves. The regional DHS director was nothing if not a survivor, and he had his own eighty-foot lifeboat fueled up, stocked up and ready to go. He fully intended to run away, to live to fight another day...and not for the first time, either.

His thoughts returned to the notorious attack on his former boss's home, which had launched him onto his current ascending trajectory. Five years ago, Wally Malvone had been the leader of the covert "Special Training Unit" of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. They had both been at the STU leader's house on the Potomac River, just south of Washington, when it had been attacked by domestic terrorists. After Malvone's capture by the terrorist snatch team, Bullard had shot and killed his old superior. He had regrettably been forced to seal Malvone's lips forever, before he could be taken away and made to divulge the dark secrets of the Special Training Unit. Secrets that might have pinned numerous murder raps on Bob Bullard.

After shooting Malvone, Bullard had run away, and yet, incredibly, in the aftermath of the attack, he had been called a terrorist-battling hero, and he was promoted! This dramatic reversal of fortunes only confirmed to Bullard that it was his fate to rise inexorably upward, even as his colleagues sank all around him.

He had first felt this strange destiny within him on that ill-fated day in Waco Texas, when most of his ATF assault squad had been wiped out. Yet even that disaster had improbably led to him winning ATF valor awards, and a key early promotion. These two experiences had convinced him that even while America broke apart and sank, he would be able to skip across the burning wreckage, and somehow achieve an even higher station. This was his karma. He accepted it and he welcomed it.

His full-time boat captain Cesar Escoria knew the deal, and was an integral part of Bullard's escape plan. He had brought Cesar over to the DHS from the ATF's Special Training Unit, after that radical endeavor had gone up in flames at Malvone's house on the Potomac. Escoria's fluent Spanish and abundant Latin charm would be critical for enabling Bullard to make the transition to a comfortable life in Mañanaland. Bullard had the high-level police, military and governmental contacts that would make the transfer possible, but his Spanish was less than fully adequate to the task. With Cesar as his Capitan del Yate, melding the Eldorado into the luxury marina landscape of the Mexican Riviera was going to be no problema.

Just as it was going to be no problema coaxing Wendy down below into the Eldorado's luxurious master stateroom, after today's boat ride. When you had money, power and a yacht, broads were never a problem. It already promised to be a great day on the water. The sun was burning through the light morning overcast, and Bob wondered how long it would take Wendy to peel off her wraparound skirt and her halter-top to catch the rays. He gave her ten minutes, max.

Wendy's friend Sandra had scampered around the pilothouse up onto the forward deck, shedding her own halter top and wrap, revealing a skimpy red bikini. Cesar was giving her a personal tour of the yacht. All the way back in the cockpit, Bob could hear Sandra giggling and squealing at Cesar's familiar jokes.

Wendy asked, "Bob? Can I call you Bob?"

"Of course you can, doll face." Bullard had heard De Niro call broads "doll face" in a movie. If De Niro could pull it off, so could Bob Bullard. And why not? He was the regional director of the DHS! He could call broads whatever the hell he wanted to--and Wendy was just a hillbilly airhead anyway.

"Are we going to take this big ole' boat out for a ride today?"

"No, not today. It's a major hassle to get it underway. Instead, we're going to go out on one of my Homeland Security speedboats. It's a real screamer; it'll be a hoot. You'll just love it, I promise. They're going to swing by and pick us up right here in a little while."

"You mean like a race boat? One of those long skinny thangs, with the great big motors?"

"That's right, one of those. Just like NASCAR on the water, only better. It's a real Fountain racing boat--it was confiscated from the dope smugglers." Just like the Eldorado was, he thought, but didn't say.

"Oh Bob, you really are something, you are just full of tricks, aren't you?" Wendy unwrapped the gold sarong from around her waist and let if fall to the deck, revealing long tan legs, and a tattoo of a spread pair of wings above her round buttocks.

"I try to be, Wendy. I try to be." Bullard sat on the blue canvas upholstered bench seat with ran across the transom, leaned back and crossed his legs, and appraised her very promising curves. She was wearing only a thong bikini bottom under her wrap, another hopeful sign. When they returned to the Eldorado from their seventy mile-an-hour jaunt out past Point Loma on the Fountain, Bullard knew that the two ladies would be as excited as bitches in heat. They always were--it never failed. There was just something magical about the wind on their faces, the pounding waves, and the roar of the motors.

"Say Bob, what's a girl got to do to get a drink around here anyway?"

He smiled. "Name your poison, sugarplum. Just name your poison."