Saturday, December 19, 2009

Remnant, Chapter 5


October Twenty-First
10:00 a.m.

Packed into Alan’s truck, we made the familiar drive past our barter store, now christened Valley Metro Barter, over to the community center. The store was closed until noon on Saturdays, and only open until two p.m. Most of the time folks respected our need to do other things on Saturdays. Sundays, we were closed altogether. Our regular traders knew that they could reach us if they needed to on either CB or through law enforcement, if there was some sort of emergency.

“Alan, do you mind turning on the news?” I asked.

“Nope, not a bit,” he said as he turned on the stereo.

“Thanks,” I said. CBS was just coming on. Karen and Libby were talking about some dessert or other, while Kelly, seated between Alan and I, and Marie, in the back seat with ‘the Mom’s’, were both reading paperbacks.

“CBS correspondent Drew Michaelson reporting from the Gulf Coast, where Hurricane Susan is expected to make landfall later this evening.  Virtually the entire local population along the Coast, from about a hundred miles on either side of Mobile, have evacuated north in the face of this storm, which may be upgraded to Category Five by this evening.”

“Landfall is expected around nine p.m., with the storm surge hitting the coast well in advance of that. FEMA evacuation centers up to five hundred miles away, still strained from Hurricane Nellie four weeks ago are once again bursting at the seams.”

“They just can’t get a break down there,” Karen said.

“Nope,” I agreed.

“….salvage operation was expected to be suspended in anticipation of effects from this storm. Military authorities report that the population of New Orleans in the wake of Nellie is less than ten thousand, virtually all of who are without safe drinking water or electricity. Most, upon orders of evacuation, fired upon authorities, demanding to be left alone.”

“The President announced that as of November first, recovery operations in New Orleans, will cease permanently—the city will be abandoned except for those that refuse to leave.”

“Saw that coming after Katrina,” I said as the broadcast continued.

“Why?” Kelly asked.

“Big chunks of it—like, half--are below sea level. Without pumps and electricity, the place goes under. Toss a few hurricanes at the place and you have a big mud flat with some human-built artifacts sticking out of it.”

“Why’d they build there in the first place?” she asked.

“Well parts were above sea level. Those parts don’t usually flood too badly. Flood, sure, but a foot or five. Not like the low-lying areas. Somebody figured out if they build dikes around the place and pump the water out, people would buy the former swamp flats and build houses there.”

“Greed over common sense,” Alan interjected.


“…last of sixteen platforms intended for the California offshore complex is expected to come on line by June of next year, quadrupling offshore oil production over the first quarter of this year in the Santa Barbara Field.”

“Well that’s some good news,” I said. “Domestic oil reserves. Who’da thunk it.”

“Drop in a bucket,” Alan said as we pulled into the unplowed, unshoveled parking lot. “Won’t make a dang bit of difference up here.”

“Probably right,” I said. “Might allow some of that Wyoming gas back up here on a regular basis though, instead of the hit and miss we’ve had all year. I noted that all three of the vehicles in the parking lot, with the exception of the little Escape, had spent the night. The snow was untouched.

“Thought that the centers were on the plow list,” Alan said as we got out of the truck.

“They are. But there’s only four plows running right now in the Valley, four in the city limits, two up north. I’m sure they’re working on the roads to the Central Line now. We’ll get it eventually.”

The Central Line—Red in the Valley, Blue from the north side to what used to be ‘downtown’, Green from the west plains by the Airport and Fairchild Air Force Base, were our commuter and cargo train lines. Red and Blue were built just this year, based on my recommendations that without them, most of us would be ‘a-foot’ as my late Dad used to say. Without gas to run our cars and trucks, we were walking. Train tracks, built on or in our former wide arterials, took months to lay. The Green line at least, operated on pre-Domino trackage. The Burlington Northern Santa Fe lines, the Union Pacific Lines that weren’t wrecked, still operated when freight lines or passenger cars made it through, which was, infrequent at best.

“So long as they don’t plow me in.”

“You? You could climb a tree with this. That Escape can hardly get out of it’s own way,” I said, only half-kidding, as I took a load of books inside. Carl was there to meet us.

“Hey, Dad.”

“Hey. How’d breakfast go?” I said as I set the box down on the counter.

“OK. Changed plans on us. I thought we were making pancakes. French toast instead.”

“Easy enough.”

“Sure, until you have to cut it all for the little ones. They can pick up a pancake. They don’t quite manage with French toast.”

“Why the change of plans?”

“Not enough flour.”

“Since when?” I asked. This should not have been a problem. We had plenty of wheat, and the commercial mills were up and running.

“Since somebody swiped two hundred pounds,” Kevin Miller, the manager of the center replied for Carl.

“From where?”

“From the delivery truck yesterday. We were unloading right here. Brought the hand truck inside with one load, left the step van door open, came back, gone.”

“Report it?” I asked.

“Sure. Like it’ll matter.”

“It matters to me,” I said as we went into Kevin’s office. “You think staff?”

“No way. No one here would do something like this. I’m certain of it.”

“Which leaves somebody in the neighborhood. I assume you didn’t see any cars or trucks or anything.”

“Nope, and we didn’t hear anything either.”

“We’ll have to be a little more careful obviously.”

“Remember, they had all of three minutes to do it. No way somebody did it on foot.”

“I’ll get some more flour down here today from the store. Or, maybe Alan will. Bucking flour bags might be pushing it a bit for me. Ron should be at the store at noon.”

“Thanks. That’d be great.”

“So how’s the new BAR?” I asked, referring to his cloned Browning.

“Unbelievable,” he said with a wide smile. “When you’re all healed up, we’ll have to try them out. It’s like the difference between a stock V-8 and one that’s balanced and blueprinted.”

“Really….” I asked, wondering exactly how much better a rifle modeled after my original could get.  I didn’t have that much experience with mine, really, but mine was superb. In my opinion of course.

“As accurate as a .308 at a thousand yards.”

“This isn’t a one-off fluke?”

“First six in production, almost identical performance.”

“Who was the shooter?”

“Two, Army marksmen. Two Air Force, two Marines.”

“Bet that was something to see.”

“It was at that. Yours will be ready in the next two weeks.”


“Couldn’t have machined the trigger assemblies without your original. Tightened them up considerably with our better machining and better metal. I can rework your original trigger too, if you like.”

“That’s OK. I prefer to keep it the way it is.”

“As it should be, I suppose. What brings you in today?”

“Thought I’d read some stories to the kids.”

“Good for you. Practicing for grandfatherhood?”

“Don’t put me in that category yet, Kev. Kids are a little young for that yet. Like, years and years. If I have anything to say about it that is….”

“Young John will probably get a head start on that.”

“Could be. Sarah’s a good egg though.”

“She’s all that. She’d be a first rate doc with a degree and med school.”

“That’s probably not going to happen, but she is a first rate EMT, or so the guys at Station One say.”

“Hon, you coming? We have a full house,” Karen said around the doorjamb. “Sammy wants you to read to him.”

“Be right there, hon,” I said. “Kevin, duty calls.”

“Enjoy. Watch out for little Ina. She’ll steal your heart.”

“We’ll be fine, see you before we head out.”

“Thanks again for the flour, Rick.”

“No problem.”

After reading to little Ina, and changing diapers with Karen and Libby on six little ones, Carl and John bundled up the older kids for a trip out to the playground, where the snow was just about right to build a snowman. I watched from the lone surviving original window on the east end of the center, and wandered down to the maintenance room to check on the heating plant that one of the mechanical engineers on Metro staff had cobbled up.
The original heating system was a relatively small natural gas fired boiler, which in turn fed radiant heat loops embedded in the floors. Without natural gas though, systems like this were dead. Thanks to Dale Rieger though, a workaround was created that consisted of a wood fired boiler.  Either hand-feeding wood into the firebox, or the much more sophisticated auto-feeding ‘pellet’ system of wood burning would work…the key was not oversizing the boiler in the first place. In his former life, Dale worked for a mechanical engineering and contracting firm. So far, I’d discovered that what Dale wasn’t able to figure out or fix, probably wasn’t worth doing anyway. His first big repair and adaptation job was the heating plant for the Public Works Building that held the Metro offices. That took him, I understood, all of three weeks to repair and retrofit, pretty much all by himself.
This system had been on line for four weeks so far, with twice daily feedings of the hopper for the firebox. Kevin’s staff loved the thing. Heat this year was not something to do without.  The fire department safety engineers were far more skeptical, until Rieger built a system for Station One, and the department granted conditional approval…still, one accident was all it would take.

I heard my name being called from down the hall.  “Down here,” I replied.

“Mr. Drummond? You have a call on the radio,” Lisa, Kevin’s assistant called to me.

“Be right there,” I said as I made my way back to the office. I heard John’s voice, in an imitation of The Grinch, coming from the kindergarten room. I heard Karen, Libby and the girls try to herd the kids into the mud-room where I’m sure lots of soaked coats, boots and gloves would be residing.

Kevin’s office held a county radio, much more elaborate than mine. I grabbed the plastic-wrapped headset and put it on.

“One thirty-seven to Spokane.”

“One thirty-seven, be advised of shipment of four parcels to Fort Walla Walla. Sending party asked to provide you this notice.”

“Understood. Anything else?”

“Unit one oh-seven is en-route to location ‘Granite.’”

“Understood, one thirty-seven out,” I replied. Karen was peeking around the corner, with ‘that look’ in her eye.

“One thirty-seven,” the pleasant female voice replied. ‘Not one I recognized,’ I thought.

“Location ‘granite?’” Karen asked.


“Why’s it called that?”

“Because that’s where I am. That’s my location code today. Security forces’ idea to change a codeword daily, in case somebody’s still looking for me.”

“I hoped this was over now.”

“It might be. I don’t know, nobody does.”

“What’s Mike need?”

“Nary a clue. We’ll wait and see.”


“Hon, no idea. I expect so. Need help with nap time?”

“Pretty quick. C’mon. Little Ina wants another story.”

“K. I think ‘Dinner at the Panda Palace’ this time.”

“Good. I thought you pretty much wore out ‘If you Give a Mouse a Cookie.’

“I like it—always have,” I said as I took her hand and walked back down the hall.

“Softie,” Karen said as she gave me a squeeze.

Once the kids were down for naps, the afternoon shift took over and Carl, John and the girls headed home for their afternoon of chores and precious little free time. Karen, Libby and Alan had headed down to the store, while I awaited Mike at the center. I’d hoped to have a few minutes to talk with Sarah, John’s girlfriend, but she was in a class with two senior doctors on rotation from Valley General. Finally at two-thirty, a Humvee truck pulled into the parking lot. A light snow was beginning to fall.  I met Mike and two camouflage clad Army guardsmen at the door. Both guardsmen had their M-16’s at the ready, and were actively scanning the area.

“Mike, what’s going on?”

“Inside, Rick. I’ve got some bad news.”



Kevin was packing up his papers and getting ready to leave for the day. “Kevin, mind if we use your office for a minute?”

“Sure, Sheriff. No problem,” he said as he grabbed his suitcase and backpack and headed out. “I’m done here anyway.”

“Thanks,” Mike said as Kevin headed out. I took a seat.

“OK, enough of the secrecy. What’s going on?”

“Pete Wolfson’s dead.”

“My God. What happened.”

“Honestly, it looks like a suicide. We’re investigating.”

I was quiet for a few moments. “I don’t understand this at all…”

“I don’t either. That’s why we’re looking into it.”

“His family…does he have...”

“Died in the flu. Wife, two daughters, one son. Lost his inlaws, too.”

“I didn’t know any of that.”

“He preferred to deal with it privately.”

“He was what, thirty-five?”

“Thirty-three two weeks ago.”

I took a long pause, got up and looked out at the snow.

“I cannot imagine what it must have been like, losing them all like that.”


I stood there for a good couple of minutes, remembering the last conversation I had with Pete, him telling me that he’d ‘keep things straight until you’re back on your feet.’

“How are you going to break the news?”

“There’ll be an announcement on the five p.m. news. That, ‘he passed away while on duty.’”

“How’s staff dealing with it?”

“Not well. Emma saw him just before it happened. She’s under sedation at the triage center.”

“Sh*t,” I said. Emma was the second administrative assistant to fill that post since Kamela Gardner passed on.

“Rick, we could use you if you’re up to it.”

“I’ll be there. Once you clear it with Karen. She’d likely have my head if I were to just ‘tell’ her that I’m going back to work.”

“I can do that. Let’s get you home,” Mike said.

“Store, actually. We’re moving some stuff about this afternoon. Or, more correctly, everyone else is. I get to watch.”

“O.K. Let’s go.”

The conversation with Karen went about as well as could be expected, which was to say, she was disapproving with both ‘the look’ and her body language, seeing in the end that Mike wouldn’t be asking her unless it was really his last, best option. Still, I knew that it would be a tough adjustment for both of us. I’d become accustomed to being taken care of at home, working when I felt up to it, as long as I remembered to stay out of Karen’s way…

By five p.m., I was back home for a dinner of stew and some time with Karen and the family. I also had a lot of catching up to do, with some status reports that Mike had brought out. Most of the reading would wait until after everyone headed back to their respective homes, after dinner. There was one report, marked ‘Sensitive but Unclassified’ that piqued my interest. I excused myself from the pre-dinner bustle of the main floor, and headed upstairs to our bedroom to find a quiet place to read.

The report, about a half-inch thick, was one of the last things that Pete Wolfson had been reading. ‘Was this a trigger?’ I thought as I took it out of the manila envelope. I was still dumbfounded about Pete.

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