Friday, November 19, 2010

Distance, Chapter 4


January Fifteenth
11:50 p.m.

It was nearly midnight by the time he finished unloading the car and getting everything put away or at least, piled away. He turned on the Al Devlin Show as he unloaded, knowing that the two empty townhouse apartments on either side of him wouldn’t mind the noise.
There were still a number of things that he didn’t get that were on the list. Doug had his late father’s .32 handgun, and a half-box of ammo, but there was no new ammunition for sale; no generator, no spare gasoline, no cigarettes, no livestock (!). With the money he’d already spent, he wondered if he should make another trip to the AmeriMart to the south….he could keep enough money in his accounts to pay for a couple months’ worth of rent and utilities, and still probably make one more six or seven hundred dollar trip.  He decided to risk it.

Doug really didn’t drive the Acura all that much in the snow—the bus and the train took him most places he needed to go in foul weather, and in fair weather, it was a joy to drive.  In heavy snow though, with the ice underneath, it was a handful.   His late dad had owned an old Chevy half-ton four-wheel-drive with a beat up camper on the back.  Doug was beginning to wish he’d kept it after his dad had passed away, but he didn’t make room to keep it. The Acura lived in the garage, and the truck would’ve been in the driveway, blocking the Acura. It was just too much to bother with….until now.

AmeriMart at Villa Park was similarly guarded with tall, imposing men with guns. There were around a hundred cars in the parking lot, including a number of Cook County police and sheriff vehicles, and a fire truck. Over to the east side of the lot, a row of RV’s, not unlike the Northlake store, were huddled around light poles.  A road grader was plowing the snow from the lot, shoving it to the north end.
Inside, there were far more uniformed officers--who were not shopping—than he’d ever seen in any store.  He made it three steps into the store proper, before he was confronted.

“Sir, this way, please,” a shotgun-toting security guard said.

“Sure,” Doug said, many eyes on him.  The lines at the checkouts were short, but many clerks were on hand, and busy. Doug was escorted by two guards, flanking him, from behind.

“Sir, you need to show your funds or fund balance on a valid debit card before entering,” a seated guard said, his unblinking focus on Doug, obviously looking for any doubt in Doug’s eyes.

“No problem.  I’d like to use a debit card, if that’s OK.”

“Swipe and enter your pin code on the keypad, and a favorable account balance will be sufficient for entry.  You will be required of course to pay for your purchases from that account balance.”

“No problem,” Doug said.  “I don’t use a pin code anymore though, I use a thumbprint.” 

“Pin codes only, sir.”

“I think I have that, one moment,” Doug said, flustered.  He’d memorized his pin code years before, but looked at his simple clue sheet to confirm the code.  The clue was in his wallet, on the back side of a family picture.  The code required adding and deducting a series of numbers—Doug’s birthday—from the written number on the picture, to arrive at the pin number. “Here it is,” he said, entering the pin.  In a moment, the approval came through.

“Very well, Mister Peterson.  You are approved, and thank you for your cooperation.”

“No problem,” Doug said, realizing with a chill that they knew his name, and he hadn’t given it to them. He moved into the store a few feet, grabbed a couple of carts, and turned to see the next person in line. Doug’s photograph and at least two paragraphs of text were on the video display in front of the seated guard, and disappeared when the next man in line swiped his card.

Doug refocused and reviewed his list. There wasn’t anything he could do about the guards knowing his identity. What bothered him was that they’d also know what he was buying and would also know his address…which meant they could come and get it.  That thought remained in his mind as he shopped, festering.

Doug started with the camping aisle, and found the last camp stove, putting it in his cart before the man behind him got it; four tan and green vinyl ponchos; several packs of fire-starting strikers, and then some waterproof matches; a huge first aid kit; a small, camp-style water filter and four matching quart-sized water bottles. In the kitchen aisle, Doug found half-gallon and gallon-sized plastic jugs that could be used for dry food storage or liquids, then a number of paring and kitchen knives, a few sharpeners and scissors.   Then, on to toiletries, where he found a very picked over aisle.  He found a six-pack of stick deodorant (not his brand), and threw in a handful of disposable razors, and then replacement blades for his own. Bar soap was still plentiful, and he put in twenty bars.  No anti-bacterial soap or soft soaps of any kind, though.

The laundry aisle still had bleach (three gallons, all went into the carts) and granulated laundry soap.  Doug took four large boxes. He heard raised voices, obviously arguing over something, before being shouted down by a guard.
The food aisles were even more picked over than the toiletries, with bare shelves being the dominant feature.  No bottled water, no canned goods of any kind, no boxed food, no bags of sugar or salt.  No spices, coffee, tea, tobacco or cigarettes. Doug hurried on.
He went over to Hardware, where he picked up some duct tape, a large roll of garbage bags, and four pairs of heavy work gloves. More people were in the store.  Doug felt he didn’t have long. He had a fair amount of “repair” stuff at home, enough to fix things around the apartment, and moved on.

In Men’s Shoes, Doug found a good pair of hiking boots, better than the pair he had on, and they were waterproof. He found another pair, and put them in the cart.  In Men’s Outerwear, heavy coats were still there, but in garish colors.  He found one in black and electric blue, with orange trim.  Chicago Bears colors, but not Doug’s.

‘Notice to all shoppers, access is now being restricted to the store, to maintain security inside and outside of the store.  Security advises that all shoppers will be escorted to their vehicles, but your security cannot be ensured beyond Amerimart property.’

‘That’s it then, I’m out of here,’ Doug said to himself, moving toward the front of the store.   It was ten minutes to one a.m., Monday, January Sixteenth.
Ten minutes of relative peace and order ended just as Doug unloaded his second cart onto the conveyor.  The shouting started from three aisles to Doug’s left.

“I’m sorry, sir, but your card has been declined…”

“It can’t possibly be!  It’s Chicago Security Federal!  I have twenty thousand dollars in that account, dammit! I have the bank statement right here!”   All of the other shoppers were staring, most were probably wondering if their cards would be declined as well.

“Sir, you will need to leave the store if you are not able to complete this transaction,” one of the armed guards said, two others taking up positions around the man, who was around thirty-five or so, well dressed.   Doug hurriedly loaded up the conveyor and the checker just as quickly processed the goods.

“Try this one, then,” the man said.  It too, was declined.

The yelling began again, and the guards wasted no time in removing the man from the store, one arm twisted behind his back, another hand on his neck.
Shoppers returned to their business, moving quickly and efficiently in an air of urgency that hadn’t been there a few minutes before.

“Eight-hundred twelve and forty-two, sir,” the overweight, overtired cashier said to Doug.

“Here we go,” Doug said as he swiped his card. Fifteen seconds—an eternity in transaction time.  Finally it was approved.

“Your receipt, Mr. Peterson,” the cashier said.

“Thanks,” Doug said.

“Sir, we’ll escort you out to your vehicle,” one of the guards said.

“Uh, OK,” Doug said.

“There’s a fair crowd out there, sir.  You might need the protection.”

“I’m not arguing.  Thanks.”

Doug pulled one cart, pushed the other, with one guard in front, the second behind, with a short-barreled shotgun in hand.

Outside, there was a line of prospective shoppers near the front store wall, under the awning.  The snow was back, but the wind was gone.  The flakes fell silently on the crowd.  Three hundred feet to the west, the parking lot guards were containing a growing crowd of people trying to enter the lot.  From somewhere, the store had obtained pre-fab chain link construction fence, panelized, and had installed it around the store.  Doug didn’t remember seeing it when he drove in, but might have missed it.

The lead guard moved away from Doug’s car, and spoke into a small, hand-held radio, as the second continued watch over the parking lot.  As he loaded the car, Doug looked around, and saw five other guards standing watch as other people loaded up.  Most of the vehicles were trucks or SUV’s, he saw.

“Thanks, guys,” Doug said.  “Here’s a twenty for the favor. Sorry I don’t have more.”

“Glad to help, sir,” the trailing guard said, not making a move to refuse Doug’s payment, pocketing the bill in his vest.

The Acura was again full to the gunnels, and Doug hurriedly drove across the icy parking lot, and through the cleared gateway northbound. His car was hit by a rock or bottle on the passenger side, a sharp ‘thud’ coming from the rear.  He sped north on the frontage road, and saw that the adjacent highway had no traffic whatsoever.  He didn’t normally go out this late, but to have no cars at all, was odd.

Back home in his garage, he spent another half-hour unloading the car and getting the supplies put into the spare bedroom. He’d sort it out tomorrow.

Doug spent a restless night, thinking about his upcoming interview, a possibility that someone might have followed him home for his goods, or that someone would be tracking his purchases and come after him at their convenience.   The Art Devlin Show, droning on at a low volume, didn’t help put him to sleep.

January Sixteenth
Seven-ten a.m.

Doug’s seven o’clock alarm had gone off, and he’d promptly hit the snooze button in his sleep, drifting back off to sleep.  The second alarm was a buzzer. There wasn’t any sleeping through that one.  Doug slammed it off and twisted himself upright and was awake finally, seated on the side of the bed. He then remembered the previous night, and the need to call Regent Performance after the start of the business day.

With some trepidation, he looked outside, and saw a typical winter Monday morning; single vehicle tracks down the middle of the snowy street, grey sky.  No end of the world. Doug started to feel like he was an idiot, after staying up half the night buying ‘supplies.’ He showered, shaved and dressed in ‘business casual,’ before turning on the coffeemaker and then the TV.

“Serious declines in the confidence of the U.S. dollar is rocking the markets this morning, including the debt restructuring plan put forth by the Federal Reserve. The Administration has seen what can only be called a record turnover in their economic team.  Only one member of the President’s economic advisors remains from the original appointments, and all of them have been widely criticized for their lack of private-sector experience. 
Secretary of the Treasury Carlton came from Viceroy Alliance Group, never having any business experience, for example outside of college-level summer internships, and then into graduate school and into the financial services industry.  Despite this lack of experience, the President tapped him as the ‘only man for the job’ and he was confirmed with little comment during Congressional hearings. Secretary Carlson had no comment, nor did any of the members of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, on the Chinese move to distance the Dollar from the Yuan.
We’re expecting a rocky day on the Street, Dan.  We’ll get back to you with any breaking news….”

Doug flipped over to the financial news channel, where the futures markets were all in the red, along with the Asian and European indexes.  It was still over an hour before trading began in New York, but Doug decided to call his broker in any regard.  He fished out the business card from the file folder in his desk, and punched it into the cell phone, and waited.
The brokerage line rang twice and went straight to a message, stating that due to abnormally high traffic, wait times on line were in excess of sixty minutes, and prompted the callers to use the automated services available on the internet.  Doug put the phone down, switched it to ‘speaker phone’, and logged into the Raleigh Investment Group website, and accessed his account.

The Peterson family estate landed in Doug’s hands after his mother, and a year later his father, passed on.  Arnold, ‘Al’ Peterson had died onboard his boat, the thousand-foot Great Lakes bulk freighter SS American Destiny, where he’d served twenty-six years as Chief Engineer. Al had worked his entire life on the lake, like his father and grandfather before him.  Doug’s mother Eleanor, or Ellie as she preferred to be called, taught first grade for her entire teaching career. Both died relatively young, neither reaching sixty years.  Doug’s mom of lung cancer in a matter of weeks; his father of a massive heart attack during a rough late October storm, in the engine room of the Destiny.

The ancient Peterson family house and acreage outside of Duluth had been sold along with almost all of the contents, save a few photo albums, the Destiny ship’s flag, and a few things that had belonged to his mother. His parents both requested cremation and scattering along the downbound run to the Atlantic from the deck of the Destiny.
Doug logged in with his user name and password, which happened to be the marine radio call sign of his fathers’ ship, and according to Hal’s instructions he attempted to contact either an online representative or handle the transaction himself.  Doug and Hal Downing had talked in the past about what ‘safe harbor’ really meant in terms of the market, and in the present context, it meant a cash account.   His total investment portfolio at Raleigh was just over two hundred fifteen thousand dollars.

Each time Doug tried to place an order that would transfer his funds from one of the high-performance funds to cash, the transaction would be denied.  Five accounts and five access failures.  His phone was still playing the ‘wait time is…’ countdown, on the tinny speakerphone. This was making him mad. After repeating the computer login for the fifteenth time, the website refreshed to a ‘404 Page Not Found’ page, probably indicating that it had crashed, Doug thought.

The speakerphone continued to drone on. After five more minutes of attempting to log in, Doug realized that the phone ‘countdown’ had not changed.  He finally gave up, realizing that his cellphone battery was almost dead.  He ended the call and plugged the phone into the charger for a quick few minutes before the call to Regent.   Doug’s heart rate was elevated with his anxiety. He gave in, picked up the phone out of the charger, and called.

“Regent Performance Group. May I direct your call?” the pleasant voice answered.

“Good morning.  This is Doug Peterson, and I’m looking for Personnel.”

“Good morning, Mister Peterson. I’ll connect you to Paula Cruz, she’s assistant department head.”

“Thanks,” Doug said, taking a deep breath, as he stayed on hold.

“Mr. Peterson? This is Paula Cruz.  Thank you for calling,” she said, a hint of Latino accent in her voice.

“Good morning, Paula.  David Williams asked that I contact the Palatine office and set up a meeting with Ronnie Halberstrom for a video interview.  I’m calling to check his schedule?”

“One moment, Mister Peterson. I’ll be happy to set that up,” she said, putting him on hold for a minute. “All right, Mister Peterson, I’ve an opening with Mister Williams for this Thursday, the Nineteenth at one p.m.  Will that work for you, sir?”

“That’s just fine. Thanks,” Doug said.

“Perfect, sir. I’ll confirm that on the schedule, and make arrangements with the San Diego office. Mister Williams will be there later this afternoon, but won’t be available until Thursday.”

“Busy man,” Doug said.

“Yes, sir,” she said.  “Do you need directions to our office?”

“No, thank you very much though.  I’ll hope to meet you on Thursday, Paula,” Doug said in his smooth, salesman voice.

“Looking forward to it, Mister Peterson.  We’ll see you then!”

Doug was happier, he realized, than he’d been in months. He’d already begun in his mind the interview process, realizing that he’d have to research the Regent operations in great detail to demonstrate his knowledge of their operations and illustrate how he could be part of their team. His mental to do list was already well underway as he headed from his office to the living room.  He had a ton of work to do.

1 comment:

  1. Great story. Glad to have more of your writing to read. Keeps me going some nights.


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