Marjorie’s Last Run

The bills weren’t legitimate, but they weren’t exactly counterfeit either.


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I’m a Secret Service agent, but not the kind with the sunglasses who protect politicians. The Service also chases counterfeiters, and that’s been my job for almost 20 years. I’ve caught some big-time forgers and foiled some crafty schemes, but my favorite case still doesn’t feel like a crime to me.

It ended in a hospital room, where I met the culprit for the first time. She was a 90-year-old painter, and so famous that I’ll just call her Marjorie, though that’s not her name. My name’s been changed too.

“I think I know why you’re here,” she said from her hospital bed after I’d shown my credentials.

“That’s refreshing.” I pulled up a chair. “Most people pretend they don’t have a clue.”

“Let me guess. When the police found me keeled over in my workshop, they noticed a few things.”

“If it helps, they didn’t want to report it. You’re popular in your town. That’s why your neighbor asked them to do that welfare check. But the equipment they saw, as well as the bills you were working on, didn’t leave them much choice.”

Marjorie set aside the book she’d been reading, along with a pair of plastic glasses. She was tall and slim, with gray hair almost to her shoulders. Over her pajamas she wore a light pink robe with thin blue pinstripes. The lines in her face were pronounced, from decades of studying minor detail. She smiled and shook her head.

“So if I’d collapsed in my kitchen, you’d be none the wiser.”

“I certainly wouldn’t be here, but I actually know a lot about what you’ve been doing. I was given the first evidence of your activities ten years ago.”

“And I’ve only been doing it for 15.” She lowered her chin in playful rebuke. “You’ve been on this for ten years? Not very energetic, Agent Horrigan.”

“It’s never been an official case, and for good reason. Near as we can tell, you only work on low-denomination bills. Don’t get me wrong; technically you’ve violated the law. But you couldn’t have been making any money doing it.”

“Oh, I don’t need more money,” she fairly tittered. “I’ve been in this room for three days, so you must have done some research on me.”

“I have. You’re highly regarded in your field, and not just as a painter. You’ve helped with some serious art restoration, in every painted medium. That’s talent.”

“That’s painstaking work, actually. It all was.” She leaned forward. “I’ve found that if you look at anything long enough and hard enough, you will figure it out.”

“You certainly did that with the nation’s currency.” I spread my hands palms-up. “Listen. I haven’t read you your rights, and I promise none of this is being recorded. What you’ve been doing isn’t easy, and some of it we can’t even explain. I’d like to understand it.”

“Fair enough. Besides, at my age I’m not terribly worried about jail. Why don’t you tell me what you know, and I’ll fill in the rest?”

“Thank you. I was pretty junior when we first spotted your handiwork. Notes in circulation are routinely examined for wear and tear. The folks checking those bills noticed that someone was giving a very thorough cleaning to old singles, fives, and tens.”

“I developed my own stain removers. It’s a slow process, washing off the oil left by all those hands and the ink from all the graffiti. The real chore was lifting the pieces of tape on the torn parts without doing more damage.”

“It probably wouldn’t make much difference if you did. On your most recent work, you’ve been sealing those rips with a compound that almost exactly matches the original material.”

“That was a product of trial and error. I don’t sleep very much anymore, so there was plenty of time to experiment. I knew I got the formula right when scanners started accepting the bills I’d repaired.”

“Your processes improved over the years. As the Service’s point of contact for these notes, I get to see the ones you’ve altered.”

“I prefer to say I restored them.”

“That’s accurate enough. Your technique took a big jump when you started filling in the colors and lines on the repaired parts. The people at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing say it’s almost impossible to detect. They’ve framed and hung some of your more complete restoration jobs. After getting official approval, of course.”

“Approval. If I’d ever sought that in life, I never would have succeeded at anything.”

“There’s one question the Bureau folks keep asking. When a note’s worn down enough, they destroy it. So why do all this work, when sooner or later every printing run eventually gets replaced with clean new money?”

“The same reason I got into restoring old paintings. Respect for the art.”

“I’m not sure I understand. Art?”

“Ever hand a dollar bill to a toddler? Children have no idea what money is, and yet their eyes light up instantly. They see the imagery, the colors, the composition. That excitement they show? That’s the human reaction to art. Printed money is art, and your system leaves too much of it in a degraded condition for too long.”

“I’ve always seen it as a tool for commerce. A medium of exchange.”

“Exactly.” Her eyes shone as she pointed a finger at me.

“What did I say that was so exact?” We both laughed, but I was honestly lost.

“Exchange, Agent Horrigan. Everyone handles money. Especially the small bills. That’s why they wear out so fast. They’re passed from hand to hand, dropped in collection plates, put inside greeting cards. They’re the most accessible form of art, because anyone can hold them.”

“Don’t have to go a museum or a studio.”

“And even there, you can only look. Money is art that you hold in your hand, put in your pocket, carry around with you.”

“That explains the cleaning. But you started replacing some of them.”

“Oh, not completely. I used as much of the existing note as I could.” Marjorie shrugged. “Granted, some of them didn’t leave me much to work with.”

“They still don’t know how you managed to reuse the security strips. But I’m more interested in knowing why you put in all that time on bills that were so damaged.”

“It’s a tribute to the artists. Every time an old bill is destroyed, someone’s creation is removed from the world. We don’t do that with famous paintings and murals that get dirty and faded, do we? No, we restore them. Every bill that’s printed is a collaboration from engravers, designers, printers, dye makers, and many others. They work so hard to put their art out there, why shouldn’t I work hard to preserve it?”

“Eventually, every note from an old run leaves circulation.”

“But what if that was the last run one of those artists ever worked on? I’m keeping their final creations alive—and universally accessible—that much longer.” Her eyes roamed around the room and then back to mine. “You view time differently when there’s not a lot of it left.”

We chatted for another hour, but most of that was too technical (or confidential) to repeat here. The knowledge she’d gleaned from studying our money was staggering, but I didn’t have the heart to ask her to stop. My superiors didn’t know I had a suspect and didn’t officially consider this a case. I decided it was enough to quietly confiscate the more specialized equipment from her workshop, and went back to headquarters.

Marjorie passed away that night. She’d known the end was near when we spoke, but didn’t tell me. Her funeral in that small town was standing room only.

Several years have gone by, but every now and then one of her old restored bills gets forwarded to me. It’s comforting to see that Marjorie’s last run hasn’t ended quite yet. But even when that happens, and they stop sending me those lovingly repaired notes, I’ll still have something she gave me.

Now, when I’m examining a bill, I see more than a tool for buying and selling. I recognize the fine lines and the watermarks not just as protection against forgery, but as delicate and caring creations. I appreciate the colors and the imagery the way Marjorie’s toddler would. I recognize the intense effort and personal expression.

I see the art that I hold in my hand.

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  1. [Responding to Paul Nasi’s comment]

    Thanks for commenting, Paul! I can always count on my West Point classmates for support. I’m so pleased you liked the story.


  2. Vince , I love this story . It says allot. It had laughing to knowledge . You are so great @ what you do. The Agent became the next Majorie. I Love it !

  3. [Replying to Bob McGowan Jr.’s comment]

    Thank you so much for the kind words, Bob. I’m so pleased you enjoyed the story.

    Like you, I put tape on bills that are coming apart. As for the fantastic image that accompanies my story, I can’t take credit for that. The fine folks at The Post put that together, and I think it really works.

    Thanks again.

  4. Great little story here, Vincent. I really enjoyed the conversation between Agent Horrigan and Marjorie. He knew all about her ‘work’, but basically wanted to meet her to get her side of the story on the currency adjustments/repairs. It was pretty interesting, and excellent timing on the agent’s part.

    I personally repair torn currency I occasionally come across with tape. It’s the perfectionist and arts & crafts creationist in me that just HAS to make it right! The opening picture here is incredible. Very pop art, with (perhaps) an LSD influence? Ben Franklin’s mouth is off in the picture. His Mona Lisa type smile isn’t here. Maybe I should try something artful with a $100 bill myself. Just the front also, color Xeroxed.


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