Authors note: The below is the first chapter of my new novel, Death of a Nation. It is unedited, so please forgive mistakes. Also, formatting is block, without indents, which I hate. The finished product will have regular formatting. Release is expected in August or September.
CHAPTER 1: George and No Good Deed
George passed a Mobil station, glancing at the sign. Diesel at $2.32. That’s not bad. He drove down the four-lane highway to a strip mall. He took the turn wide, giving his tandem box trailer enough space. The woman in the opposite lane, gripped her steering wheel with her eyes wide. Relax, I’m not even close. He parked in the back of the Giant grocery store lot. Thankfully, there was space. His dually Ford pickup and fourteen-foot trailer took up two spots.
George cut the engine, and picked up his phone from the cradle mounted on the dash. He sent a text.
George: I’m here. Back of the Giant parking lot.
A few minutes later.
Caden: running late be there in 15
George stepped out of the Ford, and walked to the back of the trailer. He lowered the door that doubled as a ramp. Last one. He approached the black Ducati at the front of the trailer. Paperwork hung off the handlebars in a Ziploc bag. He undid the wheel locks, loosened the ratchet straps attached to the motorcycle, and removed them from the hooks built into the floor.
George walked the bike off the trailer and parked it next to his truck. Flecks of silver embedded in the black paint, glistened in the sun. George stepped back, admiring the Italian craftsmanship. Cross drilled rotors and Brembo brakes. Twelve hundred CCs from a liquid cooled engine pumping out a hundred and fifty horsepower. Or thirty more than a Honda Civic. And twenty-five hundred pounds lighter. I hope Caden can handle this beast.
He removed the rag from his pocket and gave the bike a once over. He checked the time on his phone. When they say fifteen, it usually means thirty. George sat behind the wheel of his truck and set his phone back in the cradle. He turned the ignition to the left, activating the electrical. He tapped his phone, and a man spoke through the speakers.
“This is Gary Cook of The Alt News Podcast, providing vital information in a changing world. It’s Monday, May seventh, 2018. It’s a beautiful spring day, renewal all around me, but something’s not quite right. There are big changes just over the horizon. It’s important that we’re alert and informed, so we can navigate whatever crisis comes our way. Today we have Jim Weaver, former dean of admissions at Albright College. He’s here to talk to us about the college loan bubble. Welcome Jim.”
“Thanks for having me on, Gary,” Jim replied. “I’m a big fan of the show. What you do is invaluable.”
“Thanks Jim. I appreciate that. Could you tell the listeners a little about yourself?”
“I worked in college admissions for forty-two years, the last fifteen of those years as the Dean of Admissions at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania. I’m retired now, and like your listeners, very concerned about my investments lasting until, well … death.” Jim chuckled.
Gary laughed. “You’ve been talking and writing about the college loan bubble for a decade now. What evidence led you believe that we indeed have a college load bubble?”
“If you look at college tuition and room and board over the last thirty years, prices for private schools are up 247%. Public universities are up 362%. But, if you look at median household income growth over that same time, it’s barely twenty percent. It’s simple math really. The scary part is that we’ve let this go on for so long that there is no way to unwind this without a lot of pain.”
“Wow, those are staggering numbers. Without the income to absorb these price increases, how have parents been able to send their kids to college?”
“Well, as I think you know Gary, it’s the debt. Kids have taken out massive loans, all guaranteed by the U.S. Government.”
“In 2011, we hit peak college enrollment, and it’s been trending down ever since. Granted it was a slow decline, but the past year has seen a collapse in college enrollments. What do you think is behind the change?”
“I think the kids finally figured out that it’s a raw deal they’ve been sold. We’ve told kids that if they go to college and work hard, they’ll get a degree, then a good job. That’s simply untrue. There are some professions that require college, like medicine or law, but by and large most of the degrees offered by colleges are worthless in this economy.”
“Businesses don’t care about your sociology degree,” Gary said.
“Exactly,” Jim replied.
“These kids that aren’t going to college, what are they doing?”
“Well, many of them are unemployed or underemployed and still living at home. Some bright ones are starting businesses, or going to trade school. There’s a reason why the marriage rate in this country is collapsing along with the economy. There’s no reason to marry if you can’t support a family.”
“The kids are wise to the rigged game.”
“And can you explain to the listeners how the debt, the decline of college enrollment, and the dreadful economy has converged to pop this bubble?”
“I’m not sure it’s a dramatic pop, given the government backing for the loans, but like I said earlier, it’s just math. It was unsustainable twenty years ago, but we kept growing enrollments, and raising prices. And the students borrowed more money. Then, as the economy worsened, opportunities, especially for young people have dried up. Now they can’t pay their loans because they can’t get jobs.”
“And those loans can’t be discharged in bankruptcy court,” Gary said.
“We’ve sold our children into debt slavery,” Jim said. “It sickens me.”
“And colleges are in bad shape financially as well.”
“They are. They’ve spent like drunken sailors trying to compete for students, with massive facilities and sports complexes. Now, with the decline in enrollment, colleges are facing bankruptcy. In ten years, I think we have half the colleges still in business.”
“Plus, a lot of education is going virtual at a fraction of the cost. They don’t need expensive infrastructure.”
“This is true.”
“Let’s not forget the government’s involvement in this,” Gary said. “They distorted the market with free money. Now we have way too many colleges with way too many facilities and tons of college educated kids, with worthless degrees and mountains of debt.”
“It’s a terrible situation,” Jim said.
“What do you think about Chairwoman Burnett’s announcement last week?” Gary asked.
“I’m assuming you’re talking about the purchase of the nonperforming student loans by the Fed?”
“To the tune of a hundred billion dollars a month.”
“I saw that. It’s not surprising. They’ll try to reflate this bubble the same way they reflated the stock market, the bond market, and the housing market—with printed money.”
“Do you think they’ll be successful?” Gary asked.
“I suppose that depends on your definition of success,” Jim replied. “I think they’ll keep the zombie alive for a quite a few years years, but the longer they do, the more pain that’ll ultimately be felt.”
“I’m surprised bond yields are still as low as they are.”
A Subaru STI with a throaty exhaust parked next to the motorcycle. George grabbed his phone and turned off the podcast. He stepped out of his truck. A lanky twenty-something with a patchy beard was fawning over the bike. As George approached, he looked up from the motorcycle.
“Are you George?”
“Yep.” George held out his hand. They shook hands. “Nice to meet you, Caden.”
“This is a nice bike,” Caden said, a grin plastered on his face.
A young woman stood by the Subaru, with her arms crossed.
“Alyssa, come check this out.”
Alyssa frowned, and trudged toward the bike, her arms still crossed. She was thin, with long legs and short shorts.
“This is a bad idea,” she said.
“It gets way better gas mileage than the Subaru,” Caden replied.
She shook her head. “You know this isn’t about gas mileage.”
She dropped her arms to her side and smirked. “Just be careful, okay.”
“I just need you to sign a couple of things,” George said, removing the paperwork from the handlebars.
Caden signed off on the condition of the bike and George’s delivery. Caden retrieved his helmet from the Subaru, and hopped on the Ducati.
“It has a lot of power,” George said. “You’ve ridden before, right?”
“I got this,” Caden replied.
The young man turned the key, and the motor roared to life. He squeezed the clutch with his left hand and tapped the gear into first with his foot. Caden smiled at Alyssa and shut the visor on his helmet. He cranked the throttle, let off the clutch and he was gone. There was a little wobble at first, but he looked okay. Alyssa hopped in the car and drove after him.
George placed the carbon copies in the back pocket of his jeans, and surveyed the shopping center. Three of the eight stores adjacent to the Giant were vacant. He locked his truck and walked across the parking lot toward the Starbucks. There was a campaign office next door. The sign read, Representative John Bradley.
He went into the Starbucks, used the restroom, and purchased a coffee. He added creamer and stepped outside. He started toward his truck. A young man with a shaved head and a long coat, was moving in the opposite direction. George craned his neck. The man hurried past with tunnel vision. A bit warm for a coat. George stopped and turned around, watching the man. He was headed for the campaign office. The front of the office was all glass. Inside were rows of desks. People were working on laptops and phones—no partitions.
When the man turned to open the glass door, George caught of glimpse of what was under his jacket. George dropped his coffee, and ran toward the danger. Inside, there was a well-dressed man standing with an equally well-dressed woman. The bald man entered the office, removed the AR-15 from behind his jacket, and leveled it at the well-dressed man. The office staff froze. Someone screamed.
George opened the door and barreled into the man’s back, tackling him to the floor. The rifle went off—a single round echoed through the room. People flinched and ducked at the deafening pop. Office workers hid underneath their desks. George was on top of the man’s back. The man let go of the rifle, and reached for his hip, his right arm out of his jacket sleeve. An agent in a dark suit kicked the rifle out of their reach, and pointed a handgun at George and the man.
“Put your hands up,” the dark-skinned agent said.
George rolled off the man. The man rolled on his side, his right hand concealed by his long coat. He fired through his jacket. Three quick pops to the agent’s chest. George lunged for the man, reaching for his right hand. The agent collapsed. The gunman was a small person—sinewy, but not very strong. George wrestled the handgun from the man’s grasp and scurried to his feet. George pointed the Glock at the gunman.
“Don’t move,” George said, glancing at the AR-15 on the floor. It was out of the man’s reach, but dangerously close.
There were at least a dozen people in the office with their hands up—mostly women. The others were under their desks. The well-dressed man was gone. The bald man pushed himself up on one knee. There were tattoos on his hands. One hand read, No Gods, the other, No Masters. He started to stand.
“Stay on your knees,” George said.
The man knelt in front of George. He was early twenties, maybe—fair skin.
“Put your hands up,” George said.
The campaign employees raised their sagging arms. The man glared at George and raised his hands over his head.
“Don’t move,” George said, still pointing the Glock at the man, but his finger was straight and off the trigger.
There were sirens in the distance.
“You fucked up,” the man said. “You think you saved someone. You just killed millions.”
The sirens were close—piercing. The lights whirled around the room. George’s back was to the action outside.
“Put the gun down and turn around with your hands up,” the bull horn said.
George’s heart pounded in his chest. They’re gonna shoot me. George slowly placed the handgun on the linoleum floor.
“Put your hands up, and turn around,” the bull horn said.
George put his hands up and slowly turned toward the parking lot. A handful of police cars and SUVs were parked in front of the building. Police officers pointed rifles at him over the hoods of their cars. More police vehicles raced toward the scene. That’s when the shots started. George crumpled to the floor, his shoulder and leg burning. Shots whizzed back and forth. Pops behind him, pops in front of him. George covered his head with his hands, and curled into a ball.
The door swung open. “Everybody down, everybody down,” several policemen said. Two more shots pierced the air. More screams. “He’s got a gun!”
Then there was pressure on top of George. He couldn’t breathe. His hands were wrenched behind his back.
“Stop resisting,” a heavyset policeman said.
George grimaced. The handcuffs were cinched tight around his wrists. He was forced on his stomach. His jeans and T-shirt felt wet. He stared at the floor.
“Help,” George said.
“Don’t move,” the heavyset policeman said.
“The shooter’s dead,” a police officer said.
“Cuff ‘em anyway,” another police officer said.
“We have an agent down. There’s no pulse.”
“This one’s been shot,” the heavyset policeman said. “There’s a lot of blood.”
“Let the paramedics deal with it.”
“Help him,” a female voice said.
“Stay down, ma’am.”
“Help him. He’s not the one,” she said, verging on hysterical. “He’s bleeding. Do something.”