Sunday, December 5, 2010
Doug showered and shaved, his mind working overtime, struggling with what to do next. The smell from the fire was slightly better, but he could still make it out.
With the cable still out, Doug skipped breakfast and went to the garage, digging into a box of stuff he should have donated or tossed years ago. Inside, he found an ancient Sony Walkman, the cassette version, with AM/FM radio built in. It would run on double ‘A’ batteries. Digging deeper, he found two sets of headphones—not ear buds—for the Sony. He could at least listen to the radio if the power went out, as long as the batteries lasted.
In a second beat-up box, he found an almost equally ancient boom-box from the pre-compact disc era. It could be powered with either one-ten volt power, twelve-volt power with an adapter, or batteries. It also had a headphone jack, which Doug figured would probably save battery life. In the bottom of the box, he almost overlooked a small audio cable, and then realized that he could patch the boom box—or the Walkman, into his home audio system. Five minutes later, he was able to hear the local and national news, none of it good. ‘Two thousand dollar home theater system and I’m patching in a twenty-dollar boom box to make it work,’ he said to himself. While he listened, he realized that he could probably find a way to hook up a wire antenna to the digital receiver, and wrote that down on a legal pad….another item on a long list.
Breakfast was two eggs, bacon and a toasted bagel, one of six found in the back of the freezer unit. Doug made a half-pot of coffee, already mentally rationing himself. He rinsed the dishes, and heard his phone ring. ‘Early…’ Doug thought to himself as he looked at the number, seeing that it was ‘unavailable.’
“Doug Peterson,” he answered, in a questioning tone.
“Downing,” Hal Downing replied. “I hear it’s hitting the fan. And I’m betting you’re still in Elmhurst, and that you still have that Acura.”
“Good to hear from you, too,” Doug said with some surprise. “And yes, I’m standing in the kitchen. Still have the Acura for now. Going to see if I can get a four-wheel-drive today though.”
“Smart move. You’re better off with it. You take the rest of my advice?”
“I’m working on it,” he said. “Where are you, anyway? You sound like you’re in the bottom of a garbage can.”
“On the edge of cell service, a long way away from any city with a population of more than fifty thousand people. You should think about doing something similar.”
“Well, where exactly?”
“I’m currently in Williston, North Dakota, in the dark and cold. The place we’re going to is north of here. Won’t say just where, you’ll understand.”
“I have no idea where that is. I expect it’s damned cold, though.”
“Minus fifteen, as we speak before factoring the wind chill,” Hal said. “Now. How did you do on your portfolio? Did you get it banked?”
“Not really, but it’s not for lack of trying,” Doug said, and then explained what he had tried, the ‘confirmations’ of the transactions, and the lack of actual transactions.
“Not surprised one bit,” Hal said. “They believe that they’re going to pull it out, and they want your money to do it with. Want me to save what you have left?” he asked.
“Hell, yes!” Doug said. “You have any idea how much money I lost yesterday? And how much more I’ll lose today?”
“In the funds you were probably in? Yeah. I know exactly how much. North of thirty percent. By the end of business on Friday, assuming there is an end of business on Friday and not sooner, you’ll have lost more than sixty percent. I think you were in a high-performance fund, so it’s probably closer to seventy percent. Am I close?”
“Yeah, but how do you know this Hal?” Doug said, punching up his account information on his financial software.
“Simple math. An algorithm of collapse, with trading curbs put in place. It’s been a hobby of mine for a while now.”
“Listen. Raleigh is doing their best to screw me. This is my life savings and the inheritance of my parents. What can you do that I can’t do myself? I was going to go down to the Raleigh office in the Loop to see what I can do in person.”
“You won’t find anyone there. They’ve gone to ground.”
“They’re hiding,” Hal said. “Every trading office worth their salt has a remote location, very low profile, and significant ability to conduct business from those locations or from dispersed remote locations—think, industrial warehouses, near airports. Always, always near airports.”
Doug filed that away, not knowing what to make of it. “Is there really something you can do?”
“Yeah. I can hack the system, if you trust me to do so.”
“And do what?”
“Get you out of equities and anything that looks like it’s had any sort of decline over ten percent, for starters. Too late to get you into a position where you can be portable, but I can slow the bleeding.”
“I’m seeing gold and silver going through the roof. Can you get me some?”
“Not a chance in Hell. No one is interested at this point in changing toilet paper for metal.”
“So what is the strategy?”
“A little complicated. The main thing is that it gets out of where it is, and over the next few days, a portion of the money—maybe twenty percent--is spread across stocks that will almost certainly skyrocket before the final plunge. We rig it so you’re making money on the way up, with stop-loss orders before your funds drop more than a couple percent from a pre-selected high. We tier the trades to make it work in your favor.”
“Seriously? You think you can get into my account and do all that from North fricking Dakota?”
“Yeah. No doubt about it.”
“You said…twenty percent. What about the rest?”
“There’s going to be a lot of wreckage at the end of this. Doesn’t matter. When things come back, you’ll be positioned with what will be some of the best blue chips there are. Then, you make a few million as they go back up.”
Doug was silent for a moment. “What if they don’t go back up? What if they go bankrupt?”
“Doug, there are companies that are going to do that, and companies that won’t, even if everything goes down. Commerce always finds a way. Spread your risk across a couple dozen of the best of them, and chances are pretty good that in a few years, you’ll be sitting quite pretty,” Hal said. “Listen, Doug. I understand how you think this is a huge gamble. It is. You should know though, that I’m doing the same exact thing,” he said. Doug then ran through the list of companies that he was vested in, some common names, some quite obscure.
Doug provided Hal the account information, passwords, and his personal information, finally figuring that he could do nothing, and probably lose it all, or do this, and lose it all or gain some or gain much.
They talked for twenty minutes as Hal put the orders in place for Doug’s financial future. Hal was mildly surprised that the prices hadn’t increased more than they had, but that was probably more a function of time than supply. With more time the prices would have increased much more. The lack of supply meant though, that many items were gone before the prices really went ballistic.
Hal worked on his laptop as they talked, finally giving Doug a sixteen character alphanumeric code containing contact information for the transaction. If mail service still worked, he’d get a follow-up letter and electronic log-ins. Regardless, the transaction was a ‘permanent’ account similar to a trust, and would remain in place until Doug made directions otherwise, using the secure code. They finally wrapped up their conversation, as Hal’s ex-wife was egging him to ‘get moving.’
Doug sat for a few minutes after the call, doing nothing but thinking about that phone call. When his cup of coffee was gone, he refilled it, as the Emergency Broadcast Signal sounded on the radio. A test, this time, the third in the past day or so.
He walked around the townhouse as the morning gloom lessened slightly. He could still see smoke and steam rising to the west, but the wind had stopped. The plumes rose straight up, and for the first time, he noticed there were more in the distance.
‘What happens when it gets bad?’ Doug thought to himself. The fires were obviously from looted stores; he could tell the general locations and their neighborhoods. ‘Nicer stores, ‘safe’ neighborhoods,’ only they weren’t, not really. More attractive targets, that’s all. Not enough police to handle it by a long shot. ‘I can’t stay here,’ he realized. ‘Not if it gets bad.’
Leaving with no destination was a recipe for disaster. ‘Refugee on wheels,’ Doug thought, ‘and then on foot after the gas runs out.’ He fished out a roadmap of the nation from his desk. It’d been used once, when he first joined Leinhardt and was mapping out his first sales route. After that, his trips had been a function of airline hub cities and rental car lots as his territory expanded. Without the Internet and the all-too-convenient mapping software applications, a sizeable percentage of Americans couldn’t find their way across town, let alone across the state. Doug had realized over the past few years of technological dependency that smart phones generally equated to dumb people.
Hal Downing looked at his evacuation as putting a lot of miles between himself and any city over fifty thousand people. If Doug were to look at that scenario, he’d end up somewhere equally remote…and thought it was pretty extreme. Perhaps not unsound thinking though.
He looked at the map and the cities, showing their relative populations by color. Hal, if he was in fact in North Dakota, was about as remote as he could be. Most people in a worst case, Doug assumed, would yes, head for the sticks, but probably also head south where it was warmer. Any city or town along any Interstate would be crammed with people trying to get away.
That meant of course, that fuel in those locations would be at a premium or would be gone. Most cars probably didn’t have full tanks at any given time, which meant their driving distances would of course be cut short. If most cars could go three hundred miles on a tank, averaged of course, a hundred and fifty miles out from a major city, there was a good chance that more and more cars would be out of gas. ‘Figure a solid two hundred miles away from major cities’, Doug thought, ‘and things would get better, especially if traveling ninety degrees away from Interstates. He then scaled two hundred miles from all Interstates and ran into his first problem. From most interstates, there wasn’t two hundred miles of separation between them. Looking at an evacuation from Chicago along the interstates for example, quickly eliminated half of Illinois, and then overlapped into a two hundred mile zone from Indianapolis. It also overlapped a big hunk of Wisconsin. Iowa looked promising, but the further south, the more territory was part of the Kansas City and St. Louis ‘exclusion’ area….the same kind of radius around Minneapolis, Omaha, Louisville. After that, the next most promising area was in ‘flyover country’: Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota. He’d think about those areas. He was still struggling with the whole concept though. ‘Leaving to go where, exactly? And in what? The Acura?’
Doug’s nightmare centered around not being able to get anything into the Acura….it wouldn’t fit inside, whatever ‘it’ was that he was carrying. He needed something bigger.
By ten a.m. Doug had cleaned out the Acura, and made it presentable for a trade-in. Without the internet, he resorted to finding the never-opened local phone book, and made a list of the many car dealerships just off of the Eisenhower Expressway, and a few used car dealers a mile east or so. Within fifteen minutes, he had a list of dealers with four-wheel drive trucks and SUV’s. A couple were interested in his Acura as a trade.
Heading north to the Eisenhower, the news continued to discuss the markets and international events. Doug pulled over and listened to the bottom of the hour report.
“The investment market meltdown continued today, with trading curbs and circuit breakers in effect through most of the session. The Dow Jones thirty industrials closed at fifty-one fifty, and NASDAQ closed at just under eleven-fifty. The S&P five hundred at the close was nearly six hundred. Investor News will provide updates as deemed appropriate on the reactions of the world financial markets to the continuing slide.”
“The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank discussed sanctions against the United States for the continuing deferment on payments on the National Debt. Member nations and bond holders for six weeks have been competing for time before the IMF, demanding that the U.S. satisfy outstanding obligations.”
“In other financial news, both gold and silver had dramatic upturns today, with gold closing at nine-fifty three fifty, and silver at sixteen forty-one. Silver and gold stocks, however, languished with the rest of the market. Analysts have expected precious metals mining firms to profit generously in the current unstable market, but as of yet those predictions are unrealized.”
“Gasoline prices throughout the United States, outside of the Pacific Northwest where price controls have been imposed as part of Martial Law, have skyrocketed in the last forty-eight hours, with regular unleaded now averaging three-fifty a gallon. Diesel is even more expensive, at four-oh-one per gallon. The dramatic cost increases are blamed on the announcement that China had secured a controlling interest in seven major oil fields as well as a fifty-year contract with Iran to supply China with petroleum products. In exchange for the petroleum contract, China has pledged support in the development and enhancement of the Iranian military, with first-line attack aircraft, surface-to-air missile guidance systems, and new anti-satellite weapons on the shopping list. The announcement was condemned by the United States, and Israel pledged that any first strike by Iran on Israel would be met with unlimited release of nuclear weapons in defense of Israel.”
“Airline ticket prices have risen accordingly in response to the increase in aviation fuel…..”
He hadn’t even noticed the gas prices. The Acura had a quarter tank, which was usually good for days on end. The Patriot Convenience Store just across the street from where he was parked, showed regular unleaded at three ninety-one a gallon….a dollar more than it was a week ago. Doug realized that whatever vehicle he ended up with, he needed to get spare gas cans and get them filled, and then keep them safe….and he needed to do that today.
By noon, he’d seen a half-dozen wildly overpriced, well worn compact four-by-fours, a couple of smaller SUV’s, and the one promising candidate, which also happened to be newer than the others. He negotiated a straight-across trade, which took another hour and half to complete. The Dodge half-ton was two years older than his RSX, a short-box extended cab with a canopy; and it was fairly well optioned. Receipts were included for the new transmission and all-season tires. The downsides included thirty thousand more miles than on his Acura, and half the fuel economy, maybe worse. A good-sized dent in the right rear fender didn’t bother him, nor did the less than shiny forest-green paint.
If it came to leaving the city, he’d be a little better off with this than his coupe, he thought as he drove back toward home. Off to the west, he could see another intersection filled with emergency lights as daylight began to fade, and light snow started again. Another accident or a barricade, he couldn’t tell. Ten minutes later, he eased the Dodge into the garage, finding it a very tight fit.
Doug stirred the dinner, stewing slowly in a crock-pot, enjoying the aroma of vegetable beef stew. He called Cammie’s cell phone, and it transferred straight to voicemail. The phone was probably shut off, Doug figured. He then hesitated a moment, and then called Julie’s cell.
“Julie Forsythe,” she answered.
“Hi, Julie. This is Doug. How’s it going?” he said, rather quietly. He felt guilty about calling, as if he were sneaking around.
“Hi, David. Good to hear from you. How’re things in Minneapolis?” Julie said, once again camouflaging the conversation.
“Pretty rough here last night. Some riots, well, I don’t know about that, but there was a lot of looting. Stores burned—more than a few people dead. You sure you don’t want me to come down and pick you two up?”
“No, we’ll be fine. Lakeshore Club has house security coming to get us in one of their limousines. And they’re…bulletproof. We use them for our VIP guests. They’ll take us to our apartments.”
“I tried calling Cammie, and it went straight to voicemail,” Doug said.
“I’m sure that is true. I think there’s a problem in the software that they’ll never figure out.”
“She doesn’t want me to call? I texted earlier…”
“That’s right, I think the team knew that, too. I think we’re at an impasse on that front.”
“OK,” Doug said, realizing perhaps with some finality, that whatever relationship he had with the girl that left Chicago, wouldn’t come back when she returned. “How far out are you?”
“Maybe a half-hour out. We’re on schedule, after all the delays. I’ve already called for the ride home. Can I call you later Dave?”
“Uh, sure, Julie. I’d like that.”
“We’ll talk soon. Take care!”
“You, too. Thanks,” Doug said, still speaking in hushed tones.