Thursday, January 27, 2011
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.
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.