Friday, November 12, 2010

Distance, Chapter 3


January Fifteenth
Five-thirty p.m.

The cell phone could at least get through to voice mail, but Hal wasn’t answering.  Doug didn’t know where to start really, but he wanted to at least talk with his bar buddy to see if there really was something going down.
Doug finished his message, and his phone buzzed him for stored voice mail.  Five voice mails were stored, where a moment ago, none had been present.   None of the calls though, had stored phone numbers or contacts. ‘That’s weird,’ he thought as he punched in his password.

“Hi, Doug.  Sorry I didn’t catch you, this is Julie. It’s about ten-thirty, and I just spoke with the charge nurse at the hospital.  It looks like they will be able to release Cammie late tonight, and we’ll try to get a train out tomorrow.  Call me back at this number when you get a chance. She’s….still not quite herself, but the hospital says they can’t keep her against her will.  Thanks,” Julie’s recorded voice said.

‘She sounded more tense than yesterday,” Doug thought.  He tried her phone number, and again received an ‘all circuits busy’ signal.

The next two calls were hang-ups, probably wrong numbers.  Whoever it was that called though, sounded scared. On to the next call.

“Doug, this is David Williams with Regent Performance. I was hoping to catch you, but this’ll do.  Please call the Palatine personnel office on Monday if you would.  I’m afraid I will not be in the Chicago area this week, but hope to have a video interview with you patched through to me.  The local office has my schedule, and you’ll meet Ronnie Halberstrom, the local personnel director.  Look forward to hearing from you.  Take care.”

“YES!” Doug said, tossing the phone onto the couch, celebrating the prospect of an interview, wishing he could share it with Cammie.  The final voice mail went unheard, as Doug turned his attention to the correct wardrobe for Monday, a bowl of popcorn and some summer sausage for ‘supper’, and a review of the Amtrak schedule for rail service from New York to Chicago. If the rail service schedule was to be believed, they’d leave New York at a quarter to eleven tomorrow morning, and arrive tomorrow night, before ten.

Around nine, he flipped on the television for some background noise as he ironed and starched his best dress shirt.  Again the TV coverage was dominated by the disaster in the West, and Doug didn’t even think to look for the sports scores.  The subject now was martial law, with four commentators debating the constitutionality of the order, put in place by the National Guard.  He tuned out the background noise, and finished up with his interview wear.
When he began paying attention again to the television, the video showed a clip of a 747 at Boeing Field, minus a wing, and what looked like the middle of a floating bridge in a lake, with cars stranded on it. ‘Jesus.  That’s the Five-Twenty bridge…’ Doug thought.  He’d traveled that bridge as part of his quarterly trip to Kirkland, back when he was covering the Leinhardt territory.

Doug heard his phone ring, and quickly answered it.

“Doug? For chrissakes, didn’t you get my message?” Hal Downing said. 

“No, Hal, I didn’t,” Doug said, remembering there was one last voice mail on the cell.

“Dammit. OK then.  Remember what I was talking about? About things rocking the markets tomorrow? Well it’s tomorrow in Asia, and the crap is hitting the fan. If you can get your broker to get you in a safe harbor, you better get on it right effin’ now. You need to get cash, all you can. Cash will be king.  The market is going to go berserk. It’s going to open like it fell off of a cliff tomorrow morning, and the trade curbs will kick in.  They’ll come off after a couple hours or whatever, and they’ll watch it drop again.  If you have money in the market, you’re going to lose it all if you leave it.  Understand?”

“Yeah, but,” Doug said, about to ask a series of questions.

“There are no ‘but’s’, Doug.  You do this or you lose your ass.  I can go to prison for just telling you this.  Got it?”

“Yeah, Hal. I just don’t know if it’s possible.  The banks in the neighborhood—well, the ATM’s anyway, are already out of cash.  The store is filled with people with overfilled shopping carts, like it was two days until Thanksgiving…”

“Word is out already.  DAMN!” Hal said. “Someone tells two people and fifteen minutes later the whole damned city knows.”

“And the banks don’t open until…” Doug said

“Banks might not open tomorrow, Doug. Seriously.  You go to Plan B right now.  I’m dead serious, got it?”

Doug would have thought that Hal was overreacting, had he not known him as long as he had. “Yeah. What’s ‘Plan B’?”

“Get food, get a gun and a lot of ammunition, and either plan to stay where you are until things are done or get the Hell out of the whole Chicago area, as in, tomorrow. And plan on not being in a major city for a really long time.”

“Jesus, Hal! I have a job interview in Palatine sometime either tomorrow or in the next couple days. I can’t just go play Boy Scout and leave!”

“If you don’t you may not be able to.”

“C’mon, Hal. That’s over the top,” Doug said, getting a little hot under the collar.

“No, Doug, it’s not. I’m making five calls like this one, and if I’m wrong, I’ll buy you a case of your favorite booze and dinner at Artizan. Dinner alone goes for five hundred bucks a head there, and Jack Daniels is what, two-fifty for a case? I’m that serious.”

“All right, Hal,” Doug said both surprised and defensive. “What are YOU going to do?”

“Not going into details, Doug, but I won’t be anywhere near civilization within twenty-four hours.”

“Pretty hard to do business in the boonies, Hal,” Doug said, a little more dismissively than was called for.

“You’re starting to get the point, after all,” Downing said.

“You’re just going to bail. Quit your job, head for the boonies, because the market is going down?”

“No, I’m saving the rest of my life and the lives of my kids and my ex-wife.”

“Your ex? I thought you couldn’t stand her…” Doug said, confused.

“No, I still have feelings for her.  She’s a good mother.  I was a lousy husband. I’d like to live long enough to be a better father. She and the kids are already gone,” Hal said. “Starting to take me seriously now?”

Doug paused before answering. “I guess I am.”

“Remember what I said, Doug. Cash. Food. A gun and ammunition. You’d be better off getting the Hell out.”

“Hal, I don’t have a lot of money on hand.  Most of what I have for assets are in the market. I wouldn’t know where to start to just up and leave.”

“Few people do, and fewer yet will. You need time you don’t have, and you need to put distance between you and what’s coming.  Doug, I wish you luck.  I’ve got to go now,” Hal Downing said. “Good travels.”

“Take care, Hal,” Doug said.  The phone clicked off.

Doug sat there on the couch, now beginning to read the crawler on the bottom of the big plasma television, about the Dollar falling dramatically against the Yen at the open in Asia…a six month low and continuing the decline.  The next line said something about the Group of Seven in an emergency meeting in London. Doug had no idea who the Group of Seven was.  It didn’t sound good.

Doug spent an hour going through his apartment and gathering up all of the food he had.  It was a pitifully small quantity. Coming from the restaurant supply business, he knew how much people ate and what; how long it lasted on the shelves; and where and when regionally-specific restaurant chains needed shipments. He found that he didn’t have three days worth of food within the walls of his apartment, or more properly, three days worth of ‘real’ food. His cash totaled two hundred fifty-one dollars and a half-gallon jar of change.
His options for shopping were very limited, due to the day of the week and the late hour.  Most grocery stores in the area were already probably picked over, and weren’t much bigger than the one in his own neighborhood.  The larger stores were the only option, and only two were open twenty-four-seven.  Doug changed into some old  jeans, dug out his old hiking boots, and put on a sweatshirt.

“AmeriMart, here I come.”

Doug’s apartment was located almost exactly between two of the stores, one in Northlake and one in Villa Park.   He’d first try the one in Northlake.
The Acura coupe started right up, same as always, and he backed it out of the garage, and headed east toward Northlake.  The normal FM radio station, instead of classic rock, was broadcasting some financial program, covering the same topics as the television crawler had running.

“People really don’t get it, Ray,” the caller said.  “This is financial Armageddon unless the government pulls their head out and deal with this debt.  But they’re not going to, and every other nation on the planet realizes it.”

“I can’t really disagree with you, San Diego. I’m really hoping that most of our callers have been paying attention for the past two years that this mess has been in the offing.  It’s damned late to be thinking about getting squared away now.”

“Well my wife and family are.  We’re few and far between though from what I see around us, and we’re not telling anyone.”

“Thanks, caller.  On to Tennessee. We’re not using any of our callers names tonight, for their own security. Caller, go ahead,” the host said.

“Al, thanks for this show tonight, and I agree that this really is it.”

“What have you done to get ready, caller?”

“Well, it’s a pretty long list, Al.”

“We’re commercial free, caller.  Indulge yourself.”

“We’ve got enough acres to keep us fed, watered, in firewood, in livestock, and have privacy, first of all.   It’s paid for, and we actually have proof of that in hand, unlike these poor suckers who don’t know who owns their mortgage.”

“Sound advice,” the national host, Al Devlin, said. Doug recognized the voice.  He usually ran an overnight show that had a bunch of whack-jobs as guests.  “Are you ready to hunker down?”

“Yes, sir. We have stored food for our place for a solid year, plus what we can grow and our livestock.  We can cook on electric, propane, and white gas with camp stoves. We’ve got a battery of solar panels and a wind-generating plant, even though we’re still on the grid.  Batteries and inverters will keep us in power as long as we’ve got light or wind. Won’t be an easy transition, but it’ll be OK.  We’ve got water here on our land, but also have stored water for quite a while…”

Doug realized that he didn’t have the ability to store water, beyond what would fit in a handful of small containers. He had a couple small flashlights, no ability to cook once the power went off, no ability to keep warm once the furnace shut down.

“…filters of course, too.  My wife is trained as an EMT, and we have more medical supplies here at the house than we have at the County clinic, including nuclear, biological and chemical suits and filters.  We’ve got a decontamination setup, in case there’s fallout of any kind, and air filtration for the living quarters….”

“What exactly are they expecting, the end of the world?” Doug said to the radio, pulling into the shopping center parking lot. The lot mercifully only had a few dozen cars, not unusual for this time of night.

“And Al, we don’t really have any cash left at all.  Over the past year, we’ve been socking away every dollar we aren’t going to spend right away into pre-Sixty-Four silver coins.”

“Hopefully, some from our sponsors,” the host added with a chuckle.

“Well, to be frank, no.  It’s been more secure for us to deal with dealers within our region, on a cash basis....not traceable by the Feds.”

Doug parked in a row about a hundred feet from the store, and saw a pair of armed guards at the building corners, toting shotguns. Another approached him from the parking lot. He’d apparently driven right by him.

“Good evening, sir.  Are you here to shop?”  the big, black security guard asked, cradling a short shotgun.

“Uh, yeah.  What’s going on?”

“Store security, sir.  There’ve been some problems at other stores.  We’re here to make sure there aren’t problems here,” the guard said, essentially warning Doug not to make any trouble.

“Just shopping, thanks.”

“Sir, this is a cash and debit card only store. No credit cards or checks allowed,” the guard said.  “Do you still wish to proceed?”

“Uh, yeah. I’m good,” Doug said, realizing that his plan to use his credit cards to preserve his cash just went out the window. He could though, transfer as much of his savings into checking at any ATM…assuming they were still working.  If they weren’t, the money would be automatically transferred on the next banking day, and he’d pay a fee for that.
Inside, Doug grabbed two of the large shopping carts and went at it, keeping track mentally how much he was spending. He quickly realized that the prices were much higher than he thought they should be….which was probably part of what Hal was warning him about. He’d risk the overcharge to his debit card, and the transfer from savings to checking.
Doug knew from his professional experience that the biggest bang for the buck was in basic staples that could be used in many different ways. He was wishing he’d bought bulk supplies at the company outlet store, as they went for pennies on the wholesale dollar. Other shoppers were filling their carts with canned goods. Prepared foods were all well and good, but were very expensive on a per-serving basis.
He loaded up on pastas, rice, dried beans, sugar, salt and herbs and spices that he knew he didn’t have at the apartment.  Most of his target list would be dehydrated, because of the better value: soup mixes, drink mixes, cocoa, gravy mixes, soy sauce, boullion cubes, dried and condensed milk, and dried fruit.  He stocked up on coffee and tea as well, much more than he’d ever likely use.  Liquid goods included peanut butter, honey, vegetable oil, mayo, Tabasco, ketchup and mustard.  Meat products included canned bacon and ham, canned tuna, and SPAM.  He picked up several packages of refrigerated bacon and then moved onto vitamins and cold remedies, and was about to head to the checkstands when another cart cut him off.

“Oh! Sorry!” the man behind the cart said, his eyes quickly scanning Doug’s front cart. 

“No problem,” Doug said.

“You need soap,” the man said, still looking over the carts.  “And toilet paper.”

“Huh?” Doug said.

“You need what’s on this list,” the man said as he handed Doug three sheets of old-fashioned dot-matrix printer paper.  Doug noticed the hint of a European or Russian accent. “You also need booze and tobacco and perfume, and chocolate and hard candies,” the man said.  “And that tuna fish. Get the kind in oil. There’s more nutritional value and you can cook something else with the oil.”

“What is this list?” Doug said, quickly scanning it and seeing many of the things he had on his list, but many more that he hadn’t though of.

“It’s from my parents. They lived outside Sarajevo during the war. You need these things,” he said and pushed off up the aisle. “Keep the list,” the man said.  “And get into the camping aisle. You need things there, too,” he said, and was gone.

Doug’s carts were already full, including the lower shelves.  He looked over the list and decided that he couldn’t likely fit anything else of size in the carts anyway, and headed for the checkout.  He’d come back for more immediately….if his debit card would work.
There were six cashiers, all with at least one person in line. Doug found the quickest moving cashier, rather than the shortest line, and was looking at the contents of other carts in front of him.  Disposable diapers.  Canned goods. Energy drinks. Frozen foods….

“Are you next sir?” The cashier asked, Doug now noticing several more security guards inside the store, near the doors, all armed, all in black.

“Yes, sorry,” he said as he started unloading items onto the belt.

“You have cash for this sir, or a debit card?”

“Absolutely,” Doug said, pulling out a money clip he’d had since his first job.  That garnered a nod to the closest guard, and the cashier began to ring him up.

Five minutes later, Doug was given the option to use his debit card or cash, and he chose the debit card.  The total was over six hundred dollars….or about thirty-percent more than he expected it to be.  The debit card worked fine.

“See you again in a few minutes,” Doug said as he smiled at the pleasant cashier, who looked over tired. 

“I’ll be here,” she said with a wry smile.

Outside, the parking lot hadn’t changed, although a few RV’s had showed up, lights inside blazing.   The security guards nodded at him as he pushed one cart and pulled the other over the icy parking lot, slipping several times.  In a few minutes, the Acura’s small trunk was packed full, as was the back seat.  Doug began to wish he had a larger car.

“We’ll keep an eye on that, sir,” the guard at the front door said.

“Much appreciated,” Doug said.  He pulled out a five-spot and handed it to the guard.

“Appreciated but not necessary, sir,” he guard said as he handed it back.  “The company pays us pretty well.”

“Thanks anyway,” Doug said, meaning it. “Keep it.”

He headed back inside with his carts, and started to review the list handed to him by the stranger.  He headed to the camping aisle, where he found it fairly well picked over. He picked up a zero-degree sleeping bag, the last one on the shelf; an old-fashioned Coleman lantern and a handful of the fabric mantles, and the last four cans of fuel.  Just seeing the logo brought back memories of camping with his dad, thirty years ago. He then noticed the white-gas catalytic heater, and loaded that up…but didn’t find any stoves left, just the empty space on the shelf.  Next, waterproof matches; four packages of refillable butane lighters and more butane; a bunch of battery powered LED flashlights, spare batteries, a hand can-opener, and two dozen other small items from the list.  He noticed on the second page--which was actually the first and was out of order—that the list was titled, ‘100 Things To Disappear First’. At the bottom of the page, were a number of suggestions from a survivor of Sarajevo.  Doug wondered if the author was the father of the man who’d handed him the list.
By the time the carts were again overfull, Doug had many more things to pack into the Acura. This load was less expensive, just. Doug drove home with his goods blocking the rear-view, as well as the right side.  The car was full to the ceiling, and drove horribly with the load and the ice, and he had to constantly keep his right hand holding up the pile of bags on that side of the car.   The radio program was still on, more callers talking about what they believed was coming, some of it sounded absolutely stupid…or would have, a week ago.
Nearing home, he noticed a mass of flashing red and blue lights of the police, both to the west of his street and pulling onto his own street, far to the north.  He had no idea what might be going on…the radio program was national, not local.
A minute later, he was in his garage, and pushed the button to close the garage door. He sat there for a moment, before pulling the key out of the ignition, the radio program still droning on.

“Doug, you may have just done insanely stupid, or smart. Time will tell,” he said to himself.  


  1. The story's going great so far Tom! It's kind of odd seeing all of this happen from a different persons point of view, after reading your first three books. lol I know what's happening, but then I'm wondering what will happen next. Can't wait for the next chapters!

  2. It's great you mentioned the '100 things to disappear first' and the Sarajevo survival guide. Those a re the first two items on my "TSHTF thumb drive" along with Ferfal's guide he's written a few years ago.

  3. This is an excellent that many people will be experiencing...Thank you, I own all your books. I look forward to reading more.

  4. Another compelling read, Tom. While I'm not in quite the mess your protagonist is, this one has a more desperate feeling to it.
    Looking forward to the next installment.
    Stay safe

  5. Great Job, Tom,....keep them coming.

    I like that you included the 100 things list and the Sarajevo info, same as Anonymous said.

    Flowing well, so far.


Comments are welcome!