Thursday, January 27, 2011

Distance, Chapter 12


January Twenty-second
1:20 p.m.

Julie was able to get a cell phone signal about five miles outside of Davenport, and almost immediately connected with her brother Peter.  She quickly made arrangements for Doug to spend a night or two at the farm.  He noticed a few instances of awkward silence on Julie’s end of the conversation, reminding Doug of his talks with Julie about Camille.
Doug wondered with the spotty cell coverage, if he should pull over, but with the heavy traffic and snow on the shoulders, he decided to keep moving. Julie put the phone on ‘speaker’, so Doug could hear as well.

 “Get off of the interstate at Iowa City, head south to Mount Pleasant. Gas up again if you can there.  Stay on Twenty-Seven south to Donnelson; then go east on State Route Two. Julie, you should be able to find it from there, remember?” Peter asked.

“County Route W Seventy, right?”


“How’s the traffic up there?” Peter asked.

“Bumper to bumper. Lotta wheels moving, loaded to the gunnels,” Doug said. “No real trouble though…gas is ten bucks a gallon.”

“No real surprise in that. We’re hearing on shortwave that there’s trouble west of Iowa City on the Interstate, and that on other highways, the locals are blocking traffic, keeping it on the Interstate.  The sooner you get off, the better. No later than Iowa City though, you’d overshoot us. And watch out for drifts.”

“OK, will do,” Doug said.  Before he could get another word out, the cell phone started beeping.  The signal was gone again.

“Thirty miles and then two lane roads,” Julie said.

“Or sooner.  Flip that map over.  Find an exit or two ahead of Iowa City. There should be another highway that’ll get us there off of the Interstate.”

“What’s the matter?” Julie asked, brow furrowed.

“There’s a truck behind us, two or three back.  Just a pickup, not loaded up, two guys in it.  They’ve been watching us…not just us, but looking around at the cars and trucks around us.  I think they’re going to pick someone off, given a chance.”

“Which one?” Julie said, looking in her rear-view mirror.

“They’re on my side now, three cars back. They’re bouncing between lanes, shifting around, slowing down, passing, circling. Not normal driving. I want them in the left hand lane when I exit so that they don’t have a chance to follow us.”

“You sound like you’ve seen this behavior before,” she said.

“I have. Years ago, in Florida.  All the rental cars had the same kind of stickers on their plates. Made it real easy to get carjacked. Once you come close to that, you see the behavior and you adapt,” Doug said, looking back at the beat up Ford. The passenger was looking intently at a Toyota SUV in the next lane.

“Lots of options,” Julie said. “Take any of them and we’ll make do.”

“Where’s the river?”

“Two miles or so, I think…how did you know there’s a river?”

“I’ve driven a lot of roads, this is one of them. I also like to spend some time with a map before I go anywhere.”

“You didn’t know we were coming on Eighty, though,” Julie said.

“Didn’t matter. I looked over all the routes from Chicago west and south.”

A few minutes later, Doug left the Interstate without a turn signal, keeping up speed until he was out of traffic. On the west side of the Iowa River, he turned south.  “OK—you’re the navigator.  I assume we’re going to head south south-west until we connect up with Peter’s instructed route?”

“This’ll take us to West Liberty.  We can head south from there, and yes, connect up to Two Eighteen near Ainsworth.  That’ll take us to Mount Pleasant,” Julie said, flipping the map over, and over again.

“Which is fifteen miles from Fairfield.”

“Straight south from there to Mount Sterling,” Julie said. “Are you thinking of taking a look at that house?”

“I am,” Doug said.  “I have the map to it in the folder in the console. Is that OK?”

“Sure, I guess. Seems fair that you take a look at it since you’re chauffeuring me out of harms’ way,” Julie said with a smirk.

It took two hours to get to Fairfield. The roads were very icy, and two detours routed them around Mount Pleasant.  They found Fairfield appearing almost normal, except for the gasoline prices and the lines at the grocery stores. They gassed up, again at ten dollars a gallon, cash only. The middle-aged gas station attendant had a large young man holding a short, double-barreled shotgun, near a display of canned goods.
Fifteen minutes south of Fairfield, Doug saw the Bluestone Mortgage sign on the left, and pulled onto the long driveway. The two-story house sat up on a little hill, below the crest but high enough to provide a fair view of the driveway and the surrounding terrain.

“It’s nice.  How much do they want for it?”

“Half of what my townhouse in Chicago rented for. Cheap.”

“This has ten acres, right?”

“Yeah. There should be a barn and some outbuildings to the southeast,” Doug said as he drove in.  The driveway snow was undisturbed, but not deep enough to present a problem. “There, down by the trees,” he said as he parked the truck. “I’ll take a walk around it. You OK here?”

“Yes. Just lock the doors in case,” Julie said, pulling a handgun into sight.

 Doug walked around the west side of the house, looking down a slight hill to a fenced pasture.  A patio was nestled into the hill just south of the house. A wide wrap around porch had a few inches of undisturbed snow.  The inside of the house appeared to be quite clean, with hardwood floors throughout.  Better yet, the kitchen had all the appliances.  On the east side of the house, Doug found what he assumed to be the well house and a storm cellar, sloping door partially covered with snow.  He heard a car coming up the driveway, and hurried back to the Dodge.  He got there just as the small SUV came to a stop next to the pickup.  An older man got out of the drivers’ side, an older woman stayed in the front.

“Afternoon! Are you folks interested in the place?”

“As a matter of fact, yes. Do you work for Bluestone?”

“Yes—I happen to live across the way, yonder. Saw you drive up. I’m August Kliest.”

“Doug Peterson,” he said, shaking the agents hand. “I work for Regent, actually. This was on a list of properties for me to consider.”

“Excellent!  This really is a great piece of ground here. Rent or buy?”

“Uh, rent to start.  We’ll see how it goes from there.”

“Do you want to look inside?”

“I actually need to get my friend down to her family south of here. This was a little detour, just to take advantage of the daylight.”

“Five minutes won’t hurt. C’mon in,” Kliest said as he fished out the keys, let himself in, and disarmed a security system.

“Security system? Out here?” Doug said.

“Absolutely. If you travel at all, you need this.  Local response is a private security firm, which happens to also be a Bluestone partner. We’ve got one too. There’s a driveway sensor, which is nice to have since you never know who might be paying you a visit; and this property has motion-activated cameras around the property. It’d be easy to know if someone’s approaching from any direction,” Kliest said, opening a closet just inside what looked to have been an office.  The closet contained a half-dozen flat panel displays and two fair sized black boxes. Doug assumed they were video controllers or recorders.

“Convenient,” Doug thought, wondering just how many more links…or tentacles, Regent had. “So, Mister Kliest, how long has this been vacant? And was this a repo?” Doug asked as they walked through the main floor. It was spotless.

“Call me Augie.  It’s been oh, eight or nine months now.  This was a job transfer actually, or started out that way. They did end up losing it unfortunately. I heard their job on the other end fell through, and couldn’t sell this one for what they were into it for.”

“Too bad. Hate to see that happen,” Doug said, wondering about the backstory he’d just been given. 

The kitchen as he had seen from the outside, had all the appliances, high-end foreign made equipment, as the agent rattled on with the various features of the home.

Ten minutes longer than he’d intended to spend looking over the house, Doug handed the agent the Regent-supplied authorization to lease.  Kliest reviewed it, found it in order, and handed Doug the keys to the house and a couple security-system key fobs.  Doug was also given a fair-sized three-ring binder from his car, comprising the ‘owners manual’ for the home. 

“Most painless transaction I’ve ever made,” Doug told Kliest. “I should be back up here in the next day or so to move in, more or less. Most of my stuff is still in Chicago.  Not sure how much if it will still be there to move,” he said.

“Yeah. I hear it’s bad there.  That right?”

“Yes it is.  A few bullets came through my townhouse last night. That was it for me.”

“You can get most everything you need without going too far. You a traveler for Regent? On the road sales?”

“Some of that. Fair amount of home-office work.”

“Good. It’ll let you fit into the area better than being gone all week and only home on the weekends.  Lotta them big-city folks did that—never really fit in.”

“I hope to be back here tomorrow to move in. I need to deliver my friend to her family’s place, and then I should be able to get settled in.”

“That sounds fine. I’ll get these papers moving with Bluestone.  The utility information is in that binder, so you can contact them for the accounts,” Kliest said.  “Here’s my card, and my cell number is on the back.”

“Much obliged. I’ll let you know when I’m back in the neighborhood,” Doug said, shaking hands before getting back in the pickup.

“So you rented it?” Julie asked.

“Leased, yeah.  What do you think?” he replied.

“Like it’s far too good to be true,” she said, Doug recognizing the skeptical look.

“You know, it might be OK,” Doug said.  “Sometimes appearances are as they seem.”

“Not in my experience. They are seldom so.”

A few minutes after five p.m., Doug’s pickup pulled into the narrow driveway of ‘the farm’.

“How big is this place?” Doug asked, still looking for the house that was somewhere down this road.

“I think this piece is three or four hundred acres,” Julie said.  “They’ve got this land—I understand it’s been in the family for generations—and a couple other farms nearby.”

“Must be quite a family,” Doug said.

“Three girls, two boys. Molly’s the oldest.”

“And Peter is your older brother?” Doug asked, finally seeing what had to be the ‘main house.’

“Two years—just turned thirty seven in December.”

“I would not have pegged you for thirty-five,” Doug said, meaning it.

“Flattery. I haven’t heard that in awhile,” Julie said with a smile. “Park over on the right there,” she pointed.

“Sure. Next to that…” Doug stopped, not knowing quite what it was.

“Combine. It’s a combine!” Julie said, trying not to laugh, not because it wasn’t funny, but because her ribs hurt.

The Segher family wasn’t large, it was huge.  Doug was welcomed into the home along with Julie, who was quickly told to rest in a comfortable chair.  Doug was finally able to meet her brother Peter and his very pregnant wife Molly, and the rest of Molly’s brothers, sisters and of course parents.   Doug gave up counting, and just tried to remember all the names of the adults.   Adriaan and Maria, Molly’s parents; Catharina and Elisabeth, her younger sisters; Cath was married with three kids and Beth was engaged to a soldier deployed in Afghanistan.  The Segher brothers included Hendrik, who was married and had an indeterminate number of kids; and Roeland, or ‘Role’ for short, the youngest.  Doug guessed he was in his mid-twenties.
Dinner conversation was more than Doug could keep up with…. constant banter between the adults, good humored and often bringing up old family jokes.  Doug noticed that the kids were extraordinarily well behaved, and were quiet and quite respectful. After dinner at the longest dinner table Doug had ever seen in a single-family house, he orchestrated the removal of Julie’s belongings from the back of the pickup, with most of his things being repacked.  Once Julie’s things were brought inside, Doug found his overnight bag, and Molly’s brother Hendrik showed him to his room.  His cell phone vibrated on his belt with a text message, telling him to be available for a conference call at noon Monday, and Doug added the call to his calendar.   By eight-thirty, the house had calmed down as some of the Seghers and their children headed to their own homes.

“You did well, keeping up with all of them, Douglas,” Molly’s father Adriaan said. 

“Please, call me Doug.”

“I will try to remember,” the older man said with a halting accent.  Doug guessed he was in his mid-fifties. “It is difficult to do that---we were raised very formally by our parents. Respect shown is first shown as the given name is spoken.”

“I can appreciate that,” Doug said.

“I’ve not heard exactly what you do for a profession, Douglas.  Would you mind telling me?”

“Not a bit, sir,” Doug said, sipping a very small, very strong cup of coffee, before going into a fair amount of detail on his former job, and potential new job.  Adriaan surprised him by making connections that were known to Doug quite well, but not to the average American.  He then explained that through a lifetime in farming, the success of the farm was the depth of understanding that the custodians—meaning the family—had of the entire system.  The Seghers had farmed for more than a hundred years on this land, Adriaan told Doug, later buying adjacent land as it became available, diversifying the farm.  Doug realized belatedly, that this was all but an interview.

“What do you know, other than your sales? Do you know work…I’m sorry, have you ever worked manually?”

“I’ve worked in sales more or less since college. Not quite twenty years.  Before that, well, from about the time I was fourteen or so through college, I worked on the Lakes on my father’s ship.  It’s been a while since I’ve done what you’d call serious physical labor.”

“And how are you set financially, if I may be so bold,” Adriann asked, leaning forward.

“I have…investments that comprise the balance of my net worth.  A few debts, nothing that was too big, before everything started coming apart.”

“Cash? Silver? Gold? Anything like that?” Adriaan asked in his clipped accent. “In hand I mean.”

“Very little cash, unfortunately, none of the other.  For quite awhile, I was told they were ‘arcane’,” Doug said, exhaling.

“Indeed. Most people believe that still. Gold and silver are real money. People without either, trade. People that cannot trade borrow or steal,” Adriaan said, obviously wondering how Doug would go on about his life.

“My new position with Regent pays very well. I’m confident that I’ll be fine. I will collect a signing bonus from my new employer, either in cash or in credit at company facilities.”

“Douglas, I hope that is the case, sincerely I do. We will talk more,” Adriaan said as he stood, signaling Doug that it was time to retire. “Farm hours begin early. Will you join us in the morning?”

“I may not be of much use, but I’d be happy to, yes. I’ll need to leave in mid morning though.”

“Any work is appreciated, Douglas. There are many things to do, many to learn. If you are willing, you will have many teachers.”

“That would be welcome,” Doug said, shaking Adriaan’s hand.

“Four o’clock comes early. I will see you in the morning, Douglas,” he said as he turned and headed upstairs.

“Indeed,” Doug said quietly.

January Twenty-third
6:45 a.m.

Promptly as expected, Doug was roused from a sound sleep at four a.m. by Adriaan, who greeted Doug with a cup of strong coffee and sweetened heavy cream, and not a word.
Doug didn’t have much in the way of ‘work clothing’ available, but made do with jeans, boots, and couple layers of shirts.  He was quickly directed to a large, low metal building, lights inside already blazing.
Inside the heated shop, Doug was given quick lessons on fetching tools by Roeland, who would be busy most of the day working on preventative maintenance on much of Segher Farm’s rolling stock.
‘Roel’ was all business and not much in the way of small talk for most of two hours.  Doug did learn he was twenty-six, divorced with no children, and along with his father, worked this farm and two large adjacent parcels.  He also managed two others, part time. The radio was set to regional farm reports, which were eagerly discussing massive rises in commodities futures with callers.

“Roeland, are you done out there? Breakfast is ready,” Maria Segher’s disembodied voice said from speakers in the walls. Doug was startled a little.

“Yes, for now. Clean up soon,” Roeland said, looking at Doug, and answering his unanswered question. “Voice activated intercom, when triggered from the house, or here if we flip a switch.  If we’re working alone in a building or out in the fields and need help, we can call quickly, without having to get to a radio.”

“Slick,” Doug said. “I’d never have guessed.”

“See this?” Roeland said, holding up a rather mangled right hand, covered in scar tissue. “That’s what happens when you get careless and can’t free yourself from a piece of equipment. That happened three years ago. I was two hours stuck in a piece of machinery out here before I managed to take apart enough of the guts of the thing to free myself.”

“Good grief,” Doug said, looking at the rows of scars.

“Three hundred six, if you’re wondering,” Roeland said as they walked back to the house.


“Yeah,” Roeland said as they reached the utility room in the house, shucked their boots, and put on felt house boots.  There didn’t seem to be any particular pair set aside for anyone special, just a wall unit with twenty pairs or so, smallest on the bottom, largest on top.

Doug could smell ham, cinnamon, and fresh coffee, and wondered what growing up in a place like this would have been like.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Distance, Chapter 11


Saturday evening
January Twenty-first

All four rounds from somewhere west of Doug’s townhouse ended up penetrating the siding, sheathing, insulation and sheetrock of the outer wall, and two penetrated an inner wall, ending up inside a kitchen cabinet, breaking a plate and several water glasses.
For ten minutes, Doug and Julie both hugged the floor, wondering if more were coming.  Doug then carefully moved throughout the townhouse, putting the additional bulk of cabinets and furniture between the outer walls and his body as he unplugged the lights that he had on timers, and kept his small flashlight shielded.

“We’re out of here come morning,” Doug said. “Screw this.”

“Curfew ends at seven.”

“All right. For now we have power, and that means hot water. I’ll cover over the bathroom window with a couple of blankets and make sure it’s light tight. You can get a hot shower and I’ll keep watch. Then I’ll get cleaned up, and you can get some sleep. Your room has brick veneer on both front and back walls.  Hopefully that’ll slow down any more bullets.”

“It’ll help. You’re going to stay up all night, load the truck and then we leave in the morning? Won’t work,” Julie said. “You’ll need some rest.”

“OK, fine. I’ll set an alarm for four o’clock, and get you up,” Doug said facetiously.

“Fine with me,” Julie said, completely at ease.

“I wasn’t being serious,” Doug said.

“Fair’s fair. I’m not going to have you drive on no sleep,” she said. “No arguments. It’s a long drive.”

Working by flashlight, Doug made good on securing heavy black towels over the glass block bathroom window, and then turned on the lights.  Although he was nervous about going outside to check for light leaks, he carefully opened the second floor balcony door, and quickly looked over at the window, which looked fine, and then looked off to the west.  A large part of the neighborhood four or five blocks away was dark, although the rest of the area appeared to have power restored. With the distant sound of rifle fire, he didn’t linger outside long.

“OK, you should be fine with the lights on in there,” Doug said.  Julie had already gathered up a change of clothing.

“Thanks.  The luxury of a hot shower…” she said going into the bathroom.

Doug next covered over all the remaining windows in the apartment with blankets, furniture or layers of paper to block light from the inside.  By the time Julie was done with her shower and headed to bed, the townhouse was fairly light tight.   He then turned on his computer and sent an email to his ex-wife Brenda.

Things are pretty dicey down here in Elmhurst, and I’m going to be relocating out of the Chicago area. The townhouse was shot up a bit tonight, and that was the last straw for me. The good news is that I’ve landed a new job, and a fair amount of it will be work-from-home.  I’m going to be heading out tomorrow morning to look at a couple of houses outside of the area.  I’ll let you know how things work out.
Give Matt my regards—I know that’s about the last thing you’d expect me to say, but I have a whole new respect for what he has to do on a daily basis. Please give the kids a hug for me and above all else, stay safe.

The scanner was monitoring local police and fire activity as Doug made numerous trips to the garage.  He planned on coming back to the townhouse of course to get the rest of his things, but this trip would take the stuff he really needed while he was away.
Doug turned on the radio for any local news that might impact their decision to leave early Sunday, and found the Al Devlin show again, talking with someone watching the unwinding first hand. 

“Listen. I’m telling you what I’m seeing, and what I’m seeing is not what I’m hearing about on TV or network news.”

“We’re hearing that a lot, caller. Where are you?”


“How are things there?”

“Ever see Gone With the Wind? Picture that fire going through the poor parts of town, and no one showing up to fight it.”

“Any idea what started it?”

“You mean other than the riots? No, I have no frickin’ idea. How stupid are you?”  

“Calm down, caller. I’m in Tennessee. We’re not getting anything from the TV news. You are our reporter there.”

“Well then get this through your thick heads, America. If you’re rich, you’re a target. If you have a business, you’re a target. If you have food next week, you’re a target. The food stamps and the welfare checks and the Social Security checks didn’t show up in the mail on Thursday and Friday, and it hit the fan. Those people are Sherman’s army reincarnated. If it hasn’t happened in your city, it’s gonna, and you better be ready.”

“Thank you caller. Keep the ammo dry.”

“Yeah. Right. Like that’s gonna stop a half-million hungry people…”

‘Damn,’ Doug thought.  He’d heard something on the radio about welfare checks being delayed but hadn’t thought any more of it.  He made another trip to the pickup, loading his least-needed stuff in the bed nearest the cab.   Devlin was still taking calls when Doug came back upstairs, talking about an order given by the President, regarding martial law.

“Caller? Philadelphia, are you there?”

“….if you are trying to make a call, please hang up and ….”

Doug shut off the radio and made a pot of tea as he packed up some of his kitchen utensils.  He then did a ‘bulk check’ of Julie’s stuff, his stuff, and the supplies that he’d bought.  About a third of the essentials weren’t going to fit in the bed and canopy of the pickup, and Doug figured that the back seat area would be packed full of essentials needed at hand…probably including a couple of Julie’s firearms and ammunition. 
Around two a.m., Doug finished packing up everything that he had boxes for or could expect to take with him in another load or two.  In the past, he’d hired movers to box up his stuff and do the heavy lifting.  
After packing, Doug weighed the various options for housing, realizing that he never had received a positive response from her on the opportunity to relocate in Iowa, rather than other options in Wisconsin.  Regent-owned properties east of Chicago were too close to other major cities, and he’d ruled them out. 
He narrowed the options down to three with further study: Each property had at least five acres; each could be heated with wood in addition to ‘regular’ utilities; none were located on major roads.  Each had drinking water wells, the only three that had this feature. One was of brick construction, the others wood frame.   He was still studying them when Julie came out of her bedroom; it was not quite four a.m.

“Good morning,” she said, looking around the darkened townhouse. “You’ve been busy.”

“Truck is pretty well loaded.  The back seat I figured we’d load up with our last minute stuff, and your rifle and such.”

“So you’re about ready to go then?”
“With some sleep, yeah,” Doug said. Julie was looking at his computer screen.

“Where’s this one?” she said, pointing to the brick house.

“Fairfield’s the closest town. It’s a ways out of town--south--off on a one-lane road by the looks of it. Water well; wood burning furnace and natural gas. Standing seam metal roof, built in Nineteen-Eighteen.”

“That’s the one you want,” Julie said.

“Why’s that?” he asked with some skepticism.

“Brick. Slows bullets down,” she said as she pointed over her shoulder to the taped-over holes in the walls.

January Twenty-second
6:41 a.m.

Doug awoke with a start, feeling that he’d missed his alarm.  The electric alarm clock was blank again, meaning the power was out. The room was cool, not exactly cold. It wasn’t enough to wake him up though. 

“No point in lazing around,” he said to himself.  He got up and dressed quickly, smelling breakfast and finding himself very hungry. Doug went into the very dark front half of the townhouse.

“Good morning,” he said to Julie, stirring some maple syrup smelling oatmeal cooking on the camp stove.

“How’d you sleep?”

“Like a log. I don’t think I moved at all once my head hit the pillow,” Doug said.

“Thought so. I could hear you snoring out here!” she said with a smile.  “Here—black tea,” she said, handing him a travel mug he’d forgot he even owned.
“Thanks—what’s the news? Anything good?”

“Not really. Europe seems to be in meltdown mode.  No pension checks or any entitlements or direct deposits have been made since Thursday. Credit cards aren’t working either in Europe or here, apparently.  Riots all around Parliament and stretching to Windsor Castle…students and retirees and regular people.  The Royals bugged out to Scotland.”

“Seriously,” Doug said, not as a question.


“And here?” he asked.

“Illinois National Guard is everywhere.  A big Army truck rattled by here about an hour ago.  I peeked out the window and there are troops in the street, down at the intersection.”

“Anything on the scanner?”

“The whole police band went dead about five-thirty. The AM band said that curfew is in effect until eight a.m., unless they state otherwise,” Julie said, looking at some notes she’d taken.

“Did you look over the truck? Do I have all the stuff you need?”

“Yes and yes.  Other than your last minute stuff, we should be good to go…when they let us,” Julie said. “Doug, how is this going to work? This house business I mean.”

“Regent has a number for me to call when I make a choice.  They’ll have a local real estate agent expedite the lease. Housing deposit, rent, first and last can all be handled through the company. I can show up and get the keys, get a walk-through on the property, done….”

“Simple as that,” she said, quite skeptically.

“So the paperwork says, yes,” Doug replied as the curfew notice repeated on the radio, followed by a general announcement that no banks in the United States would open under any circumstances on Sunday, and that waiting for banks to open on Monday would not be permitted until after curfews end…

8:05 a.m.
With the last minute packing complete, Doug locked up the house, looking around once more for anything forgotten. They’d waited a few minutes past eight, just to make sure the local curfew was over.
Doug punched the garage door opener, and realized the power was still out….no garage door opener. He disconnected the interlock, lifted the door, and then drove the truck out of the garage, just in time to catch the eye of a local Guard patrol. He pulled the door down and locked it with a key.

“Hold there,” said a soldier. Doug found himself looking down the wrong end of three rifles.

“Absolutely,” he said, raising his hands.

“This your place? You have I.D.?”

“Yeah—in my wallet.”

“Please retrieve it, sir, slowly. We’ve had some problems overnight,” the soldier said.  Doug didn’t know what rank he was, but he seemed to be in charge.  Doug did as he was asked, noticing the other soldiers were now facing out, weapons pointed away from him, scanning….

“Mister Peterson, can you tell me your address without looking at the building?”

“Sure,” he said, then giving them the address.

“Destination, sir?”

“The Hell out of Chicago for a while….sorry. West.”

“This your wife in the truck?” the soldier asked.

“No. A friend. I’m looking after her. She was mugged and is just out of the hospital.”

“Very well, Mister Peterson,” the soldier said.

Doug finally read the man’s name on his uniform, ‘Frye,’ as he called another soldier over. “Rodriguez, gimme one of those maps,” he said, as the younger, much fatter soldier handed his senior a piece of paper.

“Mister Peterson, this is your route out to the West—follow the red line, do not deviate from it. It’s clear as of oh six hundred. Interstate Ninety is closed—red means closed.  Eighty-Eight is open with no tolls, but do not exit anywhere within a hundred miles. Got it?”

“Yeah, but why?”

“Because you won’t make it back onto the Interstate. Good enough?” Frye said with hard, unblinking eyes.

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“I’d recommend you drive prudently, but as quickly as you can given the weather. Clear?”

“Yeah. I’m, thinking about coming back for more of my things,” Doug said.

“Sir, if this neighborhood is like most others, you’ll never see anything in that apartment again. Hope you got the important stuff.”

“Yeah, I did. Just hoping.”

“Prayin’ would be better,” Frye said as he shook Doug’s hand. “Good luck.”


Back in the truck, Doug noticed that Julie had a bundle across her lap.  The muzzle of a rifle protruded out near her right foot.  Doug didn’t know what to say, and chose not to say anything.
Fifteen minutes later, they’d passed by more wrecked real estate and were on the westbound lanes of the East-West tollway, now the ‘Reagan’. They began to find themselves traveling with more west-bound vehicles, all heavily loaded…and only then did Doug notice that the Eastbound lanes had Westbound traffic as well.  Many towed trailers, some almost thrown-together, along with pickup trucks and RV’s of every kind.  Once every mile or two, they’d see one broken down on the side or worse, wrecked and abandoned.  They didn’t see anyone walking or standing near the wrecks though—probably not recent.  Doug and Julie exchanged a little small talk, and Julie got Doug’s permission, and encouragement, to take a nap.  She looked quite tired as she reclined her seat the little she could with the stuff in the back seat, and tried to get comfortable.
Doug had his hands full, keeping up with traffic on the slick road. The low cloud deck served to enhance the sensation that they were driving into a fog. Miles west, there seemed to be a dark band always on the horizon, never reached. He turned the radio on for news.

“…influenza is having a dramatic impact on the population, with the elderly taking ill and in many cases dying of the quick moving illness within a day.  Officials from the Centers for Disease Control declined immediate comment, and appear to be taken by surprise.  Local health departments have recommended that all public schools be closed for the next ten days due to the infection, and many universities and colleges are already considering continuation of education through the Internet only….”

‘Hmmm,’ Doug murmured to himself. ‘When was the last time that the CDC declined comment on something like this?  They’re usually overstating the ‘don’t worry’, rather than shutting up….’

“In Richland, Washington, Department of Energy containment teams along with Army specialists are rumored to be struggling to contain radiation released in the Domino earthquake.  Officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, stated that while the Columbia Generating Station was heavily damaged in the earthquake, the reactor itself shut down as designed.  The leaking radiation is apparently from Cold War era buildings that were being studied for cleanup.  Rumors in the community include reports of numerous deaths of first-responders, but the DOE and Federal officials decline comment.”

“Relief efforts and fund-raising efforts for the disaster in the Pacific Northwest again came to the forefront today after last nights benefit concert in Los Angeles, with numerous survivors attending the concert. More than fifty million dollars has been pledged to help relief efforts and the victims of the earthquake. Survivors and evacuees are continuing to arrive in Utah, southern Idaho, Nevada, California, and Arizona, with many local communities setting up shelters and offering evacuees housing and financial aid.  Critics of the Federal Government are pointing out the late response of FEMA and ineffective implementation of emergency response plans.  Neither the director of FEMA nor White House Press Secretary Tompkins would comment.”

Four hours and a hundred-fifty or so miles later, they arrived in the Quad Cities. It took a little while to get past the airport with the heavy westbound traffic, and Doug found a gas station with a smaller-than-average line of vehicles waiting.  The first few were at least a block long.  Nearing the west end of ‘civilization’ though, the options were fewer, and most people probably stopped at the first few they found.

“Fill ‘er up, sir?”  the attendant asked.  Doug noticed the Guard troops fifteen or twenty yards away, keeping watch.

“How much per gallon?” Doug asked as Julie got out of the truck, carefully hiding her rifle, and made her way to the restroom.

“Ten, even.”

“Holy smokes,” Doug said.

“That’s the price. You want gas?”

“Fill it up,” he said, remembering how much cash he had.

“You taking plastic?”  Doug asked.

“If it’s wrapped in cash, sure…Sorry. Cash only. You got enough?”

“Yeah,” Doug said. He and Julie had pooled some cash for fuel expenses.  Julie’s bills were well-used, mostly small bills.

“All right then,” the attendant said. “I need to see your cash, bud.”

“Sure. No prob,” Doug said, fishing a handful—deliberately looking it like was all the money they had, wadded up—out of his jacket pocket. “I’ve got one-fifty here.”

“Jackie! Get over here!” the attendant said. “Put no more than fifteen even in this Dodge! Move it!”

“Done, Ray,” the pump jockey said as he efficiently started pumping.

Doug waited for the fuel to be pumped, noting the five National Guardsmen walking around the convenience store.  He saw then, a line of bullet holes in the safety glass of the storefront. Julie appeared from the ladies room inside the store, and picked up a something from one of the racks, paid for it quickly, and returned to the truck. 

“Your turn,” she said.

“Thanks—here’s the cash. Plan on a hundred-fifty. No more.”

“All right,” Julie said. 

Doug headed inside to relieve himself, noticing the prices on the few things that the store had left on the shelves.  Five dollars for a candy bar…

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Kindle Versions

FYI, gang. Kindle versions of all three books should be available on Amazon within the next day or so.  Hopefully there aren't too many formatting issues with these--the former conversion engines to get into Kindle format were buggy--the new version seeeeeems better.

Also, I should have another chapter of Distance up either tonight or tomorrow, life pending.



Friday, January 7, 2011

Distance, Chapter 10


January Twenty-first
6:30 a.m.

Saturday morning once had been a sleep-in day for Doug, no longer. The economic collapse was in full throttle, and he had no time to laze about it bed. There wouldn’t be another chance like Regent Delta had provided him, and despite current circumstance, he had work to do.   His ancient wind-up alarm clock roused him to the cold apartment.  He’d dig out the camp heater he bought and get it working.  It wouldn’t heat the entire place, but some heat would be better than non. Maybe figure out which room to heat and keep it closed, he thought, but he’d have to be careful about carbon monoxide…

Late Thursday, as promised, Doug was visited by a Regent Delta team, one clearly a security agent, the other a wary looking computer geek, who delivered Doug’s new laptop, complete with a USB thumb-scanner security device.  Without it, the laptop couldn’t be accessed. Doug signed for the computer and a bulky security envelope, and the two Delta workers promptly left, without a word of small talk.
Starting with the packet, Doug found a security badge inside, with a typical magnetic strip, but also a three-dimensional holographic Regent Delta logo, formed into the clear plastic badge.  On closer inspection, he thought he could make out some sort of electronic circuitry, but he couldn’t be sure.
His formal employment agreement was presented in thick paper contract, and although it was written in plain English, he spent a solid hour on it to get a decent understanding of it. The more he read, the deeper the non-disclosure and confidentiality requirements were.
The contract terms were more than generous, with a salary of nearly a hundred-thousand dollars per year (and interestingly, indexed in value to the purchasing power of the dollar, effective January first; a ten thousand dollar signing bonus, payable in either cash or through store credit at Regent facilities worldwide; two weeks vacation and a week of ‘personal leave’; full medical and dental coverage, again through Regent subsidiaries; the choice of either a company sedan or an SUV; and, with a note from David Williams, a list of Regent-owned residential properties for rent or sale within three hundred miles of Chicago. Doug merely had to log onto the laptop, e-sign the agreement, and confirm it with his thumbprint.   He never really thought about the thumbprint device, and how Regent could verify that it was in fact Doug that was using it.
Early on Friday, He discussed what he could with Julie, namely the company car and the possibility to relocate outside of Chicago, and the potential to use the Regent signing bonus.

“It sounds like you’re working for the Company Store….you know, that old Tennessee Ernie Ford song…”

Sixteen Tons?” Doug said, laughing a little bit.

“That’s the one.”

“It might sound like that, but the pay is pretty respectable. More than I was making in my old job, better benefits, and a company car, and this bonus and an ‘in’ on housing.”

“What does this ‘Regent’ outfit do, anyway?”

“They’re a multinational. I’d be working for a division of it, marketing some of their products to producers and manufacturers for end use.”

“You realize that you didn’t really say anything there, don’t you?”

“Confidentiality agreement. Can’t really talk about it much.”

“Fair enough. It still sounds, not right.”

“If I were to compare them to my former employer, in a head-to-head basis, in my former specialty, they’d be the up and comer.  My former employer would be the old-school leader, on the way down.”

“So you knew about this company before you left your previous employer?”

“A bit.  And I didn’t leave.  I was let go…they’re going bankrupt….probably are bankrupt by now, with all this,” Doug said, motioning to the television. All of the regular channels were filled with bad news, the cable went out again, and Doug and Julie were reduced to radio.
For a good portion of the day, Doug reviewed the files on the computer, his proposed assignments, overview of sales targets and a list of the ‘gatekeepers’ at the target companies. The Regent Delta product line was fairly concise, despite the massive breadth of the Regent umbrella. Julie, moving carefully, laundered her looted clothing, and sorted her remaining belongings.  Doug also noticed that she’d unpacked a rifle and at least one of the handguns from her bag, keeping them in sight and close at hand. Several times, Doug caught her holding her side in pain, and made her sit and rest. Once she nodded off to sleep, he went back to work.

Delta was currently focused on increasing the overall saturation of Regent Performance creations (that was the right word, as the products were highly engineered) into food producing, food preparation, and food delivery systems worldwide. 
The Regent Delta marketing goals included bulk manufacturers, prioritized around the Northeast United States first, with secondary objectives in the Southeast and Central U.S. On the top of Doug’s list for the Delta nutritional supplement program, were a series of firms that assembled M.R.E’s for the military, freeze-dried and shelf-stable foods for public and government use.  The ‘meal, ready to eat’ had a reputation that had clawed its way up from ‘meal, rejected by everyone’ to a decent variety of field expedient meals.  The Delta supplements promised to increase nutritional value of the meals; provide greater shelf stability of the lower-quality products; and best of all for the manufacturers, it wouldn’t increase production costs by a significant amount.  They didn’t provide a pro forma on the implementation of the supplement program, but for the effort that Doug was leading to be profitable, Delta would have to sell many tons of the supplements.
Stock market trading in New York ceased at noon, again with trading curbs in place.  Doug listened to the closing numbers for the day, with the Down at a little over twenty four hundred, the NASDAQ just under five hundred.
Doug and Julie were having a dinner of thin-sliced pork in a honey sauce with rice, when the announcement came through from D.C., essentially stating that the U.S. was giving the finger to any nation who’d been stupid enough to extend credit to the United States.  ‘Foreign obligations cannot be met, but domestic obligations in the form of bonds and treasury bills would be honored.’  Both Doug and Julie, listening to the radio, said nearly simultaneously, ‘Yeah, right.’  Before the hour was out, reports of rioting from Atlanta to California were coming in.  The electricity flickered twice, and went out, at five minutes before nine p.m.  The battery powered radio worked fine…but there wasn’t a clear signal they could pull in.

Now on Saturday morning, in a dark and cold apartment, Doug was putting fuel in the camp stove, realizing he needed another layer of socks on his feet. He’d get some coffee going, and then figure out breakfast, and after that, heat. He looked outside, and found he couldn’t see more than a couple hundred feet for the driving snow.

“Good morning,” Julie said, already dressed warmly, holding her side.

“Morning. How’d you sleep?” Doug asked.

“Better than I thought I would.  What’ve you in mind for breakfast?”

“Not sure, yet.”

“Make up some hot water and do a big batch of oatmeal. Easy and fast and it’ll keep if we don’t eat it all.”

“That works for me,” Doug said. “Already tried the radio. Nothing yet.”

“Do you have a scanner?”

“A what?”

“Radio scanner. You can monitor emergency frequencies with it, CB radio, ham radio frequencies…”

“Nope, sorry,” Doug said. “I’m new at this.”

“How’re you fixed for batteries?”

“I picked up what I could on…Sunday. God, is it less than a week?” Doug replied.

“What kinds? Be specific,” Julie asked.

“C, D, double and triple A, a handful of nine volt. Bought all I could get my hands on.”

“All right….and I’m betting they’re not rechargeable, right?”

“Uh, no.  Just alkalines.”

“They’ll work.  I’ll be back in a minute,” Julie said.

Doug heard Julie digging through one of her bags, and she returned with a large walkie-talkie looking radio, a loop of wire, and a battery pack.

“I need three double A’s,” she said. “Mine are all bagged up.”

Doug fished around in one of the AmeriMart bags, and retrieved a twenty-pack, and sliced it open.

“That’s quite setup,” he said, handing her the batteries, and noting the long antenna lead and an add-on antenna.

“A few hundred dollars worth,” she said, turning on the scanner. “This should be able to pick up most of the local stuff from my stored channels.  Any of the ham frequencies we’ll have to scan for,” she said, and then looked up at Doug. “What?”

“How do you know all this stuff?”

“I like to learn things, and I don’t like being in the dark or uninformed. I admit though, that I forgot I had this. Stupid of me,” she said. “Could’ve had this up last night. I should have trained more,” she said to herself.

With a flick of the switch, the unit scanned the pre-programmed frequencies and quickly locked onto a Chicago Police Department frequency, miles away.

“Can you program the Elmhurst police?” Doug asked.

“Sure. Just need to look up the frequency,” she said. “I need to find my reference cards.”

Doug got the coffee brewing, and put water on for breakfast. 

A half-hour later, they were enjoying breakfast, and the Elmhurst police department ‘tactical’ frequency was entertaining Doug and Julie.  Working with the Illinois National Guard, they were sweeping through a neighborhood west of Doug’s, hunting for a gang that had just ripped off a food truck near a major grocery store.

“I can’t believe I’m hearing this stuff,” Doug said.

“That it’s happening you mean?”

“No, that I can listen in on police frequencies.”

“Oftentimes you can’t. A lot of…maybe even most of the emergency services encrypt their transmissions. You can hear them talk; you can’t make out what they’re saying. Not the case here.”

“Hmm,” Doug said as the frequency went dead. “What happened?”

“Good question,” she said. She hit the ‘scan’ function key, and received static. “Could be that your police department’s off the air.”

“What about other frequencies?”

“I’ll try,” Julie said, unlocking the scanner from the preset, immediately finding another police action, east toward the Loop. “See? Everything’s still falling apart. Not to worry,” she said laughing at first, then grimacing.

“Watch that humor. It’s painful, in more ways than one.”

“I believe you,” she said. “Doug, what are your plans for staying in Chicago?”

“I found a number of options yesterday, courtesy of Regent’s corporate property portfolio. I need to be within a reasonable distance of a major airport, like Chicago, but a fair amount of my business can be done from my location, as long as I have decent Internet and cell coverage. I can’t see staying here, given what’s going on all around us. I’m a little surprised we haven’t had visitors here, like in your neighborhood.”

“Are you any good with a firearm?”

“Not particularly, no.  I have a little .32 pistol, belonged to my late father. I’m not exactly a sharpshooter.”

“How much ammunition?”

“Maybe twenty, twenty-five rounds.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it,” Doug replied.

“What kind of .32? Revolver? Semi-auto?”

“Revolver…It’s a Colt. I think my Dad called it a ‘Police Positive.’

“Oh. It’s…kind of an antique then,” Julie said almost apologetically.  “Have you fired it recently?”

“Not recently…not, well, in the past fifteen years as a matter of fact.”

“Have you ever had any classes? Firearm safety, hunter safety…”  Julie asked, looking doubtful.

“Nope. Just what my Dad taught me when I was a kid.  Used to shoot .22’s with the neighbor kids.”

“All right,” Julie said. “You really need to know how to use that revolver, I think Doug.”

“I believe you.  It just never occurred to me that I’d ever have need of it.”

“What do you have for options to relocate? Is anything jumping out at you?”

“That depends on what you might have to say to my next question,” Doug said, putting his coffee cup down, looking down at the table for a moment, and then at Julie.

“What might that be?” she said, turning her head slightly.

“Julie, I spent a considerable amount of time last night not sleeping. I listened to gunfire on three sides, wondering when someone was going to kick in the back door or break out a window. That little pistol is loaded, and in my nightstand. I’m going to have to get out of this city unless this stuff stops, and there is no sign of it stopping. You’re heading out to Iowa. There are a number of properties in Iowa. Would it be acceptable to you if I relocate to a town that’s not too far from where you’ll be? I have no one to cover my back if needed,” he said. “I have nowhere to run to. I cannot imagine that you will say yes to this. You hardly know me.”

Julie smiled a little. “No, I really don’t know you too well, but I think I know you well enough to say, ‘maybe.’  Doug, you need to realize that the farm isn’t some sort of fortress or anything, although it’s well stocked and can be well defended.”

“I realize that’s probably the case. But if things continue to spiral down, it would be good to have a ‘Plan B.’”

“I will need to talk to the family about any sort of Plan B,” she said. “To be brutally honest, the family might look at you in terms of assets and liabilities, skills and your ability to master new skills. You…don’t have a lot of skills that would be of interest.”

“I understand that,” Doug said. “Completely. My housing options are within two hundred and fifty miles of Chicago or Kansas City or St. Louis, and close to a number of regional airports. A number of them are in Iowa, not all that far from Mount Sterling.”

“What’s, ‘not far?’” Julie asked.

“Twenty miles or so, some a fair distance more. Mount Pleasant, West Burlington, Fairfield, and a couple of smaller towns. One over on the Mississippi. I think that one is called Fort Madison.”

“How is it that your company has these properties available?”

“One of their subsidiaries is a mortgage servicing firm. Called Bluestone Mortgage Servicing.”

“These are repos?” Julie asked, eyebrows raised.

“Yeah, I suppose so, given what’s been going on for the past few years. Why?”

“I would think that if the folks around those repo’d homes find out that you work for the company that took the house back, no matter what the circumstance?” she asked questioning, “you’d have a problem.”

“I hadn’t thought about that,” Doug said, furrowing his brow.

“And are they ready for you to move into? Are they stripped out or vandalized?”

“They’ve all been up for rent or sale for more than a year, and maintained by…”

“Don’t tell me,” Julie said, “Another subsidiary company.”

“Well, yeah,” Doug said. Julie rolled her eyes.


“They’re big. They own a lot of stuff.”

January Twenty-first
6:10 p.m.

 “Reports from Asia that U.S. factories have been seized in Taiwan, China, Indonesia, Korea, and other nations this afternoon and evening. Troops of these nations have apparently occupied factories and escorted Americans out of buildings and transported them off-site, and their whereabouts are unknown. Six executives from major American corporations have reportedly been executed, although the State Department is not releasing any information on this report, although anonymous sources report that the companies involved are Ford, Chrysler, and Delphi. Reports have just come in that protests around US military bases appearing within last hour in Europe, Korea and Japan….”

“There wasn’t one bit of that was anything approaching good news,” Julie said.

“Been like that all afternoon,” Doug said. “You slept through it.”

“Sometimes I’m thankful for that.  It was nice to be warm.  I shut off the heater, by the way,” Julie said. Doug had set it up in her bedroom prior to her taking a nap. “What’s for dinner?”

“Re-runs from the magic evolutionary crock pot.  I added some mild pork sausage to it….and we should clean it up tonight,” he said as he ladled a largish helping into each bowl. Unexpectedly, the power came back on.

“Well, that’s a surprise,” Doug said. “Thought we were down for the count,” he said as the furnace kicked on.

“You should get the lights off. Bright lights equates to a target,” Julie said. “Your curtains aren’t dark enough.”

“Hadn’t thought about that,” Doug said.

“How many units in this building?” Julie asked.

“Six. Empty on either side of us.”

“So you’ll stick out like a sore thumb if you’re all lit up.”

“Yeah,” Doug went around the apartment, making sure lights were off and the blinds closed.

“Oh it’s nice to have heat,” Julie said, holding her hands over the vent. “Without that heater you bought, I’d have turned into a popsicle.” 

“Good to know it works.  I’m not sure where it makes sense to use it.  This place isn’t exactly designed to close off big rooms and heat only part of it,” Doug said as he heard something odd, getting louder. A puff of sheetrock, then a second, blew down from the back wall of the apartment. Something whacked into the back wall of the kitchen.  “What the heck…”

“Get down!” Julie said, pulling him down to the floor, where she was already grimacing. “Someone’s shooting at the building!”