Mae would have preferred a better hotel, but the Airport Hyatt was boarded up. She couldn’t bring herself to go back to the DIA bunker, but she hadn’t quite convinced herself to impose upon the only person she could in the whole of the greater Denver area. So she stalled, passing the dull nights with her security detail, turning them into lounge drinking buddies and ultimately one drunken and regrettable three-way.
Mae spent two weeks at the airport Red Roof Inn, waffling over what to do. She finally received the dreaded phone call. The voice was unfamiliar and nasal. Some low-level Secret Service nobody, she guessed. The voice informed her that her time at the hotel purgatory was up. She either had to go to the DIA bunker or find her own arrangements. She requested a driver and within the hour, a solitary black SUV limo picked her up.
“People will think I’m a senator or something, riding around in this thing,” she joked as the limo rolled down the sparsely developed airport superhighway.
“Sorry, Ma’am. It’s the only car we had with bulletproof glass,” explained the driver.
They rolled down the pristine highway, which traversed property owned by one of the cronies who had secured the airport’s funding and ensured Denver International Airport’s terribly inconvenient location. Pena Boulevard spanned fifteen miles of bleak, windswept steppe, linking Interstate 70 to the gleaming, canvas spires of the most expensive airport ever built. Those spires rose up from the flaxen plain much like the pyramids, but the design was probably inspired more by that goofy artist Christo than by any ancient Egyptian stimulus project. Christo’s prior art included hanging a humungous white curtain across a Colorado canyon in the 1970s.
Mae was relieved when they passed Bluecifer, a giant, blue, demonic horse sculpture with orange glowing eyes and the grim karma of having fallen over and killing its sculptor during its creation. Bluecifer was the symbolic gatekeeper for Denver International, and once past it, Mae hoped to have nothing more to do with that place. The entire complex felt sinister to her with its cryptic Masonic symbols and creepy murals of Armageddon. She also hoped to never see the two young men of her security detail again. She was making her getaway from all of it. She could not be persuaded to go back and pass through the red door and enter the airport bunker.
Traffic on I70 was very light that morning, as it had been for several days. The big economic crash was like a concussion bomb that scattered all the civilian agents of commerce. To make matters worse, the reeling banks had closed a half dozen times since that black Friday. On any given trading day, the slightest rumor triggered panic redemptions and movement into commodities. This didn’t sit too well with the bankers, so they leaned on the Fed Chairman, who in turn leaned on Congress, to make the new alternative currencies less attractive than their dying dollar. The Currency Stabilization Act, drafted by the bankers themselves, rammed through by Speaker Leatherface, and hastily passed by Congress who had not been given time to read it, slapped a ninety percent windfall gains tax on the sale of twenty-five different commodities. But this didn’t accomplish anything other than to drive the commodity markets out from the light of the exchanges and into the dark alleys of the black market. The SEC and IRS couldn’t do much to enforce the new regulation, but at least government could say it was doing something. Government always has to do something. Things never change in that regard.
The first bank holiday was the longest at five business days and a weekend. By business day three, tens of millions of Americans had exhausted their emergency stores of frozen pizzas and soft drinks. Their diapers had all run out and so had their baby formula and then the graham crackers and the egg noodles and eventually even the olives and mustard.
In order to save everyone, FEMA set up egg noodle and baby formula distribution centers at all the nation’s football stadiums. They were quickly inundated by angry, hungry, desperate mobs. The cops drove them back with their megaphones. The mobs regrouped. They were driven back again by water cannon and sound blasters. They re-formed. Out came the batons and the pepper spray. They finally dispersed for good.
Batons and pepper spray worked well for subduing the desperate mobs at the FEMA centers, but not so well at the banks where the throng had justice and retribution on their mind rather than hunger. Many banking institutions were set ablaze, often with their pitiable, essentially blameless, minimum-wage-earning clerks still holed up inside.
By the fourth business day of the holiday, many cops had been on duty for stretches of twenty-four straight hours. Their nerves and sanity were pushed beyond mortal limits. They had become, to borrow a Roger Waters analogy, the “rusty wire holding the cork that keeps the anger in”. Not all of them held it in. Rumors of mass shootings both by and of cops swirled around on what was left of the internet. Television and the papers reported nothing of it. They didn’t want to foment panic in Mainstream America.
Fearing an inability to prevent the cauldron of civil unrest from boiling over, the president took decisive action. He held a press conference flanked on either side by the Fed Chairman and T, the Treasury secretary—whose own red hair, small stature, and pointy nose gave him a leprechaun-like aura. So together The Gnome, The Leprechaun, and Prince Charming declared that the crisis was over and the banks would open and stay open for good the next morning. The fairy tale was to take place on a Friday, and the triumvirate clung to hope that they would only have to make it through one anxious day of holy-shit-this-might-be-our-last-chance-to-get-our-money-out mania. Then the establishment would be saved by the weekend.
Truckloads upon truckloads of paper money emerged from the garages of Federal Reserve regional banks. New bills were printed with bigger denominations of one thousand and five thousand dollars dubbed “Reagans” and “Roosevelts.” To hell with catching the money-laundering drug dealers! America needed cash. The Fed stuffed the new bills into the vaults of every bank of any significance, nationwide.
The Fed chairman, the Treasury secretary and the president crossed their fingers and held their breath. Futures trading revealed nothing as the Plunge Protection Team was key-stroking money and buying everything in sight trying to tame the animal spirits once again.
Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!
Their mouths dropped. In less than thirty minutes the market reached its limit down again.
“Fuck!” exclaimed the president, flanked by his sidekicks in the Oval Office. He lit himself a Marlboro.
The trio somberly ordered the foreign currency trading desks closed again. No dollars were allowed to be dumped until the rulers could come up with some other scheme to halt the slide. The domestic banks, however, remained open. They had to. The entire economy had nearly seized with rigor mortis during a week without money.
As an emergency remediation, all the New York banks were given access to special lending facilities. In other words, every bank that the Fed chairman had deemed too big to fail gained access to an unlimited line of credit, at zero percent interest, with principal that was never to come due, all in hopes that the big banks might churn enough digital dollars to survive the bank run.
The move to shutter the banks the week before proved disastrous. Keeping them open might have been even worse, but closing them definitely fomented a panic—giving it legs, as they say. The lesson of being caught without the ability to buy toilet paper because debit card transactions were shut off was not lost on Americans. Americans could be accused of sheep-like idiocy in times of plenty, but they were quick learners. They were not going to get devoured by the wolf again.
When word got out in the middle of the night that the banks were reopening, the lines quickly accumulated. When the doors opened, a swarm inundated the terrified bank tellers. The truckloads of cash were quickly exhausted despite personal withdrawal limits of ten “Reagans” per customer. Customers were turned away cursing. Some turned over the signs. Some banks reported assaults. Some were set on fire, again.
With their debit cards turned back on, there was a mad rush to the grocery stores and gas stations. People weren’t buying potato chips and pepsi, this time. Now they were buying fuel and canned goods and dried goods and paper products and batteries and medicine. The pumps and shelves were cleaned out in minutes. Americans indeed learned quickly.
The supply chain, a super complex machine greased by millions upon millions of credit transactions, began sputtering within hours of the initial collapse. Parts of it blew apart as unsound trucking companies ran out of gas and could not do anything about it other than have their drivers pull their trucks onto the shoulder and walk away. Despite the gaping holes, sound businesses endured by the wits of their brilliant, industrious managers who hustled fuel with collateralized IOUs to keep their fleets rolling. The goods that were moving were moving based on million dollar deals sealed with handshakes and emails. There were crafty, resourceful men and women, millions of them, dealing in millions of products, making billions of decisions, holding what was left of the sputtering economic order together. They were adjusting to the extraordinary situation. They were surviving.
Then the government just had to do something again.
The government busybody administrators could not resist their pervasive and pathological urge to save the day and be heroes. So, like a monkey wrench—or more aptly a hand grenade—tossed into the machine-works, the busybodies went about meddling and destroying the fragile arrangements created by the resourceful business managers.
“How dare anyone profit in these extreme times!” the politicians declared. First, the evil price gougers were to be cited, then arrested. Then their assets were to be seized. This started with the gas stations and progressed to the sellers of produce, and then the merchants of diapers. The possibility of high profits, which could be made if one could get a truckload of diapers from New Jersey to Flagstaff, for example, was quickly doused by the government busybodies who made it illegal to make any exploitative windfall profits. The exploiters, who were on their way to Flagstaff to fulfill the desperate diaper demand, and make a buck in the process, caught wind of the new regulations that would result in landing them in prison for five years. They turned their trucks around and went back home. The Arizonian babies were saved from those greedy capitalists! They would just have to do without diapers and the other things they needed, regardless of what their parents were willing to pay.
The government busybodies, through passage of the Commercial Goods Transportation Prioity Act, determined that certain goods had to have priority when being transported on the king’s roads. Priority was largely determined by political connection. The handlers of those goods were moved to the front of the growing fuel lines. This destroyed the complex procurement and hauling matrix of pickup, delivery and backhaul. Within hours of the regulation, trucks were rolling empty. Gluts and shortages of goods exploded everywhere. A mountain of tires accumulated in Toledo while trucks across the country were idled by flats.
Mae, of course, cared not one whit about any of it. She only studied econometrics and concepts like aggregate demand in her PhD program. She, like most quantitative economists, was incapable of comprehending the interdependent, infinite locus of goods and services and time preferences and personal choices that form the complex matrix of an economy. To her, like most modern PhDs, economics was just two intersecting curves on a graph and a bunch of equations containing Greek letters. Besides, she was still getting paid. Her investments were being adjusted in value by keystroke entry so as to keep her whole.
Her job function as an assistant Treasury secretary was, for the moment, obsolete. The Asian countries were her clients and they were not speaking to anyone in the U.S. She had nothing to do except reach her hideout and wait until the whole thing blew over.
She gazed out the window from behind her Jackie-O sunglasses as her bulletproof limo flew down I70. The outside world had changed during the two weeks she spent inside the Red Roof Inn. She observed dozens of semi-trailers parked along the sides of the highway, their tires removed, their doors pried open, and their contents looted. Many were burned.
Several abandoned cars lined the interstate as well, mostly older models, beaten down by years of abuse, they finally gave out. They were the cars of poor people, older models, dented, and rusted. Their destitute owners lacked the wherewithal to get them home. All of these abandoned cars had their windows smashed, tires removed, and gas siphoned out. Whatever was of value on the inside was taken as well.
Mae sipped from a martini glass as they whizzed past the wreckage.
The interstates, the arteries of commerce spanning coast to coast, were becoming the repository of the plaque of economic collapse. Wasted vehicles on the roadside nearly outnumbered the vehicles still being driven on the road.
Mae’s limo made good time until they hit a traffic jam.
“What’s going on?” she asked, as she checked her lipstick in her compact. It had gotten smudged by her drink.
“Got a call out. Should hear any second,” replied the driver.
“Well, I don’t want to be stuck out here in Road Warrior land for long.”
“Don’t worry, ma’am. We’re bulletproof. And I can always call in air support, if necessary.”
They sat there staring into the back end of a rusted out Sierra pickup, mud flaps emblazoned with chrome nude silhouettes. Its expired tag was from Guadalajara.
“Almighty says there was an explosion up ahead. DHS and FBI are on scene investigating. They think it was a roadside bomb. Can you believe that? An IED in Denver.”
“How long is the wait?” Mae asked, impatiently.
“It could be a while, ma’am.”
“Any way we can take a detour?”
“Not from here. We’re a half mile or so from the next exit.”
Mae swallowed the last of her martini and dozed off in the air conditioned, leather seat.
Mae awoke to a forward lurch of the limo. She checked her watch. She’d been asleep for over an hour. They were still on I70 but at least they were moving. Mae poured another martini. After about twenty minutes of creeping along, the roadside carnage finally came into view. Two fire trucks, one facing the wrong direction, flanked the smoldering, burned-out car on the right lane of the elevated interstate. Its tires had completely burned away and the twisted, blackened heap of metal rested on its axles in a puddle of grease and fire retardant foam. A group of policemen were huddled on the shoulder. On the ground before them was a white sheet covering a bundle with two stumps of charcoal poking out one end. Mae took a giant gulp and sucked the olive off the plastic skewer.
“Never thought I’d see anything like that in America,” remarked the driver who chomped away at his chewing gum as they passed the carnage.
“Surreal. It looks like a war zone.”
“I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news, ma’am.”
“We need to get some gas.”
“Oh no, you’re not stopping!” Mae ordered, now terrified at the prospect of pulling off the highway into some proletarian ghetto in a government limo.
“We’re stopping one way or another, ma’am.”
“Then turn back,” she ordered.
“Can’t do it. We wouldn’t make it half way back to DIA. Just relax. We’ll be fine. Did I tell you we’re bulletproof?”
They pulled off the interstate onto an arterial and found an open gas station not far from the highway. Ahead of the pump was a long line of cars waiting for the petrol that had tripled in price in just three weeks. Mae’s driver accelerated, bypassing them all, eventually angling the limo into the front of the line. The horns of the cars behind furiously let loose. Drivers started getting out of their cars and letting curses and gestures fly. “Who the hell are you?!” screamed a burly man with a mullet three cars back. He looked like he might stomp up and throw his hairy fist through the limo’s bulletproof windshield, yank the driver out through the hole, and strangle him with his bare hands. The driver calmly radioed in the situation to “Almighty.” Then, to Mae’s surprise, he opened the door.
“Where’re you going? Don’t get out!” she screamed.
Mae’s driver hopped out, spit out his gum and flashed his badge to the cursing mob. “Everyone just calm down!” The mob’s response was a barrage of four-letter curses and threats of violence. “I’m with the Federal Government,” the driver continued as he raised his badge higher, as though it would give him more prestige. “I apologize for cutting into line like this but we must not be delayed. We are on official government business.”
“Fuck you!” was the universal reply.
“The line starts back there,” shouted mullet-man.
One car lurched forward and bumped the limo, jolting Mae’s head back and spilling her new martini down her chest. She was afraid.
“Everyone just calm down,” the limo driver shouted. “It’ll only be a minute and then we’ll be on our way.”
“You can wait in line just like everyone else,” screamed a woman with a crying kid strapped into her beat-up minivan.
“Look,” the driver continued, “we are with the government. We are here to help you.”
“Haven’t you helped us enough?” asked the mullet-man. “Move that damn car to the back of the line!”
The car that had just bumped Mae’s limo backed up and revved its engine. Mae’s driver apparently decided that the mob was neither impressed with his government status nor amenable to his reasoning, because he got back in and locked the door. Mae caught a glimpse of his concerned face in the rearview mirror. Images of the roasted car and the two charred stumps on the highway flashed through her mind. Her limo was bulletproof but it wasn’t fireproof.
“Where are they?” shouted the driver into his radio.
“What’s wrong with these idiots?” Mae interrupted. “Don’t they know who we are?” Feeling the effects of the martini, she rolled down her window a few inches and screamed out at the mob, “Don’t you imbeciles know who we are?”
One responded by tossing a bottle at her window which shattered into foamy shards on impact. Mae rolled the thick glass back up. “Let’s get the hell out of here,” she pleaded.
“Hang on. We’ve got air support coming.”
“Then where the hell are they?”
Looking back, Mae noticed the mullet-man had produced an aluminum softball bat and was making his way to the limo. He stopped at each car along the way, cajoling the occupants to get out and join him. Many did. A gang of angry proles formed behind him as he approached.
“I hope they don’t have anything flammable,” said the limo driver.
“Let’s go! Let’s go now!” Mae shouted.
“Hang on. I hear them. They’re coming.”
“You’re damn right they’re coming. Get us out of here.”
“No. The choppers. Listen.”
The mullet-man reached the back of the limo with a posse of about a dozen behind him. To Mae’s surprise, her driver got out again.
“Don’t be stupid!” he ordered the mullet-man. “Hear those choppers? Yeah. I called them. There coming here.”
“Fuck you, fed,” the mullet-man man barked.
“I’m armed,” the driver advised. “Don’t make me use it.”
“You can’t shoot all of us.”
“Yeah, that’s true,” the driver answered. “But I can shoot you. Then I can get back in this car and wait another two minutes for the cavalry to arrive and take out your posse. So I suggest you just calm yourself down and back away and I’ll forget about how you threatened me with your deadly weapon. Threatening a government employee is a carries a mandatory twenty-year prison term, you know. We’ll just get our gas and be on our way.”
The mullet-man looked ready to make his move. But he turned his head to look behind him and found that the others had gone back to their cars.
“Your odds aren’t so good anymore,” said the limo driver.
“Who do you think you are?” asked the mullet-man as he lowered his bat.
“I’m with the government.”
“You feds think you’re royalty or something?”
“Do you want me to reply honestly?”
“No, I want you to lie to me some more,” he answered, sarcastically.
“More or less, we are royalty. We’re the government. Our job is to rule. And you’re job is to do what you’re told. It’s for your own good.”
“You’re all liars. You caused all this. You destroyed the country.”
“These are tough times, my friend. But we’re all in it together.”
“Yeah? Well some are ‘in it’ more than others.”
A thumping black helicopter appeared over the surrounding cottonwoods and rooftops. It hovered around and above the limo. Mae glimpsed the sniper on board, taking aim. One gentle squeeze and the bullet would explode through the target’s barrel chest, the energy of the .50 caliber round sending him flopping into the air like a tossed stuffed animal.
“Go back to your car,” ordered the limo driver in a calm voice.