Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Distance, Chapter 19


January Twenty-sixth
7:30 p.m.

Doug finished the methodical cleaning of his new shotgun and the old revolver, frequently referring to the manual that came with the new weapon, and figuring out the revolver as he went.  After the weapons were cleaned and reassembled, he reloaded each. He took the salesman’s advice on the shotgun loads, with progressively heavier loads with each round.  
The first was essentially for noise, or waterfowl.  After that, should anyone continue to come toward Doug, they’d meet double-ought buckshot, and then the heavy ‘defense’ loads. 

He’d made a number of rookie shooting mistakes during his practice in the late afternoon, not the least of which resulted in a very sore shoulder. He didn’t quite have the buttstock firmly against his shoulder when he fired the first shell, and the recoil made him pay for it.
His practice consisted of loading, unloading, firing from various positions, and firing from different ranges to understand the pattern of the shot and the damage he could expect.  He fired only two of the ‘home defense’ shells, as they were expensive and the effect was dramatic enough on the few hunks of old lumber that he was using for target practice.  As he wrapped up his work with the shotgun, his neighbor August Kliest pulled into the driveway, saw that Doug was just practicing, waved and smiled, and pulled out again without any words exchanged.  Doug didn’t think anything of the noise he was making and any potential signals that he might be sending as a result.  ‘Probably not too smart on my part,’ he thought as he watched his neighbors’ car pull away. He went behind the barn, which was more sheltered from the rest of the property, and practiced with the revolver, going through fifty rounds.

Dinner had been heavy on rice and sauce, a few handfuls of corn and peas, and a little pork.  This meal could evolve into breakfast with some eggs on top, and was as good cold as it was hot, especially with a spicy sauce. 

The ‘office’ was now set up as a bedroom, with the bed now assembled, dresser and nightstands set up across from the desk.  As soon as the bed was finished, he ‘tried it out’ and smiled broadly at the comfort.  He wasn’t surprised that it was so soft, but surprised a little at how soft he was to think that this was sheer luxury.

He’d wrestled in his mind for a couple of hours, how to tell Julie about the upcoming business trip.  He’d thought of her frequently during the day, and had come to realize that while she was a large part of his thinking, that she might not think the same of him. That realization bothered him, because as he looked back over his life, he’d never really had feelings toward any woman as he had for Julie.  His previous attachments had been just that: Attachments.  Admittedly great sex and a lot of it; sometimes ending badly, sometimes just…ending.  Before Julie, there was Cammie; before Cammie there was Sharon; before that, Brenda. Prior to Brenda, a whole string of women…None meant to Doug what Julie now did, and he didn’t really even know her all that well. 

His heart beat faster as he called her number at the Segher’s, pacing back and forth in the ‘living room.’ He felt like he was about fourteen again, calling Lisa Banks out for his first real date…

“Hello?” a male voice answered.

“Hi,” Doug said, a little off-balance.  “This is Doug Peterson.”

“Doug, this is Roeland.  How’s it going?”

“New adventures every day. How about you?” Doug replied.

“More fun than I can handle,” he said unconvincingly. “Looking for Julie?”

“If she’s available, sure.”

“Hang on just a moment.  She’s coming in from one of the barns. She just watched Dad help deliver a calf.” Roeland replied.

“Wow,” Doug said.

“Yeah, I don’t think she was quite ready for that.  Here she is,” Roeland said as he heard Julie ask, ‘who is it?’ in the background.

“Hello?” Julie said.

“How’s the calving?”

“It was AWESOME!” Julie said, giggling. “I’ve never seen anything like that before!  How are you?” she asked, sounding eager.

“Frankly, I’m much better now that I hear your voice,” he said without thinking about it. He was met with a longer silence than he thought was a good sign.

“That’s the nicest thing I’ve heard in days,” she replied, sounding as if she were smiling.

“I mean it,” Doug said. “I really didn’t mean to blurt it out like that, smooth operator that I am.”

“It’s very sweet. Thanks.”

“Are things going OK down there? Settling in and not working too hard?”

“Yes, things are going better. I have my self-pity moments but Maria smacks me back out of them.  I’ve been keeping the veterinarian busy with progress reports on a few of the heifers.  One calf a little while ago here, and three more in the next day or two on one of the other farms.  Got the books all balanced, taxes paid and I’m in the middle of a financial plan.”

“Busy lady,” Doug said, having no idea what delivering a calf entailed, but envisioned some fairly graphic images, all….messy.

“How about you? Getting anything done?” she said, sounding as if she were settling in, or sitting down carefully. Her ribs had to still be giving her trouble.

“I had a delivery today—most of my stuff from Chicago made it more or less intact, so I’ll be able to sleep in a bed which will be great.  Work-wise, I’m getting some stuff done. Most of my team has been on the run, literally.”

“Meaning? I don’t get it.”

“Meaning getting out of the L.A. or San Diego area and getting away from the Mexicans and the Chinese.”

“Oh. Sorry. I should’ve assumed that. Is everyone safe? I saw some of that video out of Sacramento. Awful.”

“I’m not sure.  I’ve only heard from one of them. Another was drafted back into active duty with the National Guard in Texas. My immediate boss has been out sick for a couple of days, so I’m doing what I can.  I’d planned on being on airplanes for the next ten days….”

“Don’t!” Julie said, interrupting him.

“I’m not,” he said, a little shocked at her forcefulness. “The company sent me this huge email with all kinds of travel restrictions. No airline travel, period. Avoid large crowds. Wear masks,” he said a little dismissively, wondering what she knew about the flu bug.  “It sounds like you know something,” he asked.

“We’re hearing rumors that flu came from China,” she replied.

Doug didn’t quite know what to say. “What did you say?”

“Timing. We find ourselves in a war and a big percentage of the population gets sick. Does that sound coincidental?”

“It sounds like a right-field conspiracy theory,” he replied before considering it too deeply.

“People on the West Coast got sick first. They’re getting sick in major cities served by major airports.  The flu has spread from there to other major cities served by other major airports.  In a few days the entire nation is exposed to it. We probably saw it in Chicago when I was in the hospital.  I heard the doctor tell you to get me out of the hospital as soon as you could, but you probably didn’t know that I heard you.  Do you wonder why that is? Is it adding up now?”

She had some good points. It sounded too far-fetched though. “People will get shots for it. They’ll get it under control.”

“Doug, I’m hearing on the radio that people are dying a day after they show symptoms…otherwise healthy people. Does that sound like it’s controlled?”

“Where are you hearing this?” Doug asked. 

“A few sources. Shortwave. Most in the Southwest. One in New York, One in D.C.”

“But not network news.”

“No, not network news,” she conceded. “Do you think they’d report it anyway?”

“No, probably not….until it was too big to hide. People’d freak,” he said.

“Right. As if there’s not enough to freak out about as-is. War. Economy in a mess. And now there’s some super-bug out there, too.”

“You believe this,” Doug said as a statement more than question.

“I’m strongly inclined to believe it. I’m hearing too much for me not to. They won’t be able to keep this under wraps much longer. There’ll be too many people exposed and if it’s real, too many people might be dying of it to blame it on something else,” she said.

“You heard about the Vice President?”

“I heard. How difficult do you think it would be to find some way to infect the enemy nations’ leadership with a bug like this, that just might kill them?”

“Sounds like Hollywood.”

“Or very good tactics toward a larger strategic goal,” Julie said.

“OK. Starting to see your point. I don’t mean to be dense.”

“You’re not being dense,” she said.

“Well, I feel like it.”

“Nobody is looking for a boogieman in the dark coming to get you, especially when the boogieman is really in clear daylight and has a smile on his face. All the parts add up.”

“Even wrong parts can be made to work sometimes,” Doug said.

“Granted,” she said.

“Julie, I need to do this business trip.  I feel my job depends on it. They want me to drive it.”

“It doesn’t sound wise to me, Doug. Remember what Chicago was like?”

“Of course.”

“How do you know you’ll be able to get gas? You can’t take enough gas with you for ten days. And food? A safe place to stay? You can’t stand watch twenty-four seven. We’re having a tough enough time here on the farm, even sharing duties with the other folks down here.”

“How did they make it before all this came down?” Doug asked.

“They didn’t have to worry about night watches every single night.”

“Who’s going to steal from a farm?”

“People that want food and fuel,” Julie said stating the obvious.

“Duh. Sorry. Have they had any problems?”

“Not yet, but they’re pretty sure they’re going to eventually.”

“Wouldn’t it just make sense to centralize the storage? It’d be easier to secure.”

“Can’t for a lot of reasons. Each farm has its own,” Julie said.

Doug thought about it for a moment. Of course she was right, you couldn’t have a central fuel location because they probably had fixed tanks for each farm.  Bulk goods, like grain, probably couldn’t move because the volumes were too great.

“Well, you’re at least miles from a major population center.  That might help some.”

“One thing I’ve learned in the past few days is that rural areas can have a lot of people that are on all kinds of public assistance. Welfare, food subsidies, all that. Those programs are gone. There is no safety net.  They probably don’t have anything in reserve. Nothing in their cupboards.”

“So you’ve got problems…or potential problems all around.”

“We sure might,” she said. 

“So where’s the County government? Or the state?” Doug asked.

“No one thinks the state or the counties can respond.”

“It should be their key function.  Who’s talked with them directly? This is why we have government.”

“It’s been attempted. Believe me.  They don’t see it the way we do. So we’re hunkering down.” 

“Well that’s probably smart,” Doug said, imagining what it must be like to secure a whole farm from mythic marauders. “I’ll have to see if this road trip is even possible.  There are some big things at stake.”

“Worth your life?” Julie asked curtly.

“No, but looking from the company’s perspective, we have an opportunity that will only come around once.”

“Not worth your life. Not worth anyone’s life,” Julie said.

“I agree. But flu outbreak or not, people have to eat. The processing plants need to operate. Trucks and trains need to move. If they don’t stores and warehouses don’t get supplied. People can’t buy what isn’t made and isn’t delivered. People starve. Then, they go looking for food. On farms, for instance.”

“So you think that through a business trip you can stop that from happening?”

“I think I can make a difference, that’s all.  There are a dozen or so major corporations that are on my call list.  They make almost every major brand name food, soft drink, ready-to-eat meal…you name it. Our product can help them.”


“I’ll leave out the boring details. Proprietary stuff. Short story is that one of the new products essentially enhances the flavor of foods that it combines with.  They taste better,” Doug said.

“So what difference will that make now? I don’t understand.”

“In terms of new food lines, this can allow new products to enter the market with less expensive ingredients—domestic instead of imported. Existing products can be reformulated to cut back on input cost…”

“So you make them cheaper with this stuff and add fillers,” Julie said, cutting to the chase.

“That is a possibility, but that’s not really the intention. It’s intended to make existing lines taste better than they do with what they have,” Doug said.

“Still not seeing how this helps.”

“OK. Picture this:  Capital to operate marginal businesses becomes unavailable. Production ceases as credit vanishes. Those factories close and quickly, because the banks essentially own them.  Those companies that supply or receive product from those factories close or have to compete for their own business survival….more likely, they layoff first, then close when they can’t secure new clients or customers.  People that depend on products produced by the marginal businesses scramble for alternative sources….prices skyrocket, supplies dwindle. Got it?”

“Continue,” Julie said with a cautious tone.

“Non-marginal companies meanwhile, maybe they’re entirely debt-free or have outside sources of capital, ramp up to fill the void as the smaller companies collapse.  Problem is, they can’t. The supply chains take too long to establish, contracts to negotiate, factories too long to ramp up and get into an expanded production, or are already at capacity running three shifts and there’s no extra capacity, period. Prices continue to go up, supplies continue to fall. This scenario disregards a financial collapse that we seem to be in, by the way, as well as disruptions in global trade.”

“OK, got it.”

“There are a dozen or so multinational corporations that literally own food production in the North America and Europe. Relatively speaking, it’s a handful, because half of them will be gone inside of a month because they were truly marginal—limited market, limited product, specialty producer, whatever.  Most of the survivors exist solely on revolving lines of credit.  They have no financial reserves available because they historically have not needed them. Perpetual sales of long established product lines have allowed them to skinny down their operations to the bare minimum, which reaps all kinds of rewards for the CEO’s and corporate officers and to a much lesser degree, the shareholders.”

Doug went on.  “So you’ve got a massive collapse in production due to financial failure…that telescopes throughout the entire food production system. Farmers, rail companies, truck companies, the actual production plant workers, warehouses, grocery stores.  All are suddenly scrambling to meet demand. Demand, by the way, that increases in very real terms as people get nervous about whatever world crisis happens to be raging at the moment,” he said. “Still with me?”

“Yes.  You sound like this is predictable.”

“It is, to a degree, things like it have happened for decades, if people would care to look. Multinationals capitalize on stuff like this.”

“All right, next?” Julie asked.

“The main point: Collapse in production in this case is not caused by a collapse in consumption. It’s caused by outside forces. In this case, I called it ‘money’ or ‘credit’. The consumers still want to consume—need to consume, because we’re talking food here….and prices of remaining supplies of whatever food companies are producing skyrockets. People riot when they can’t get enough food.  Then they take measures into their own hands.”

Doug continued. “Regent is trying to short-circuit this.  If Regent can get facility and supply contracts secured, the enhancements that I’m helping with can help change the outcome. We can use currently available materials yes, thin them down but allow much more to be produced, without losing the appeal of the original product.  We do more within the existing framework. With a bigger framework, we can do even more. It’s still early enough to make a difference.”

“I understand,” Julie said quietly. “But I don’t like it.”

“I know. I’m more than a little apprehensive myself. It’s a very big deal and time is short. One other component that I didn’t mention is supply. Historically, when there’s a country or region that is having a production issue due to weather, or crop failure or a surge in demand, other regions in the globe are more than happy to alleviate the shortfall. Problem now again, goes back to credit.  Ships aren’t ever unloaded until the goods aboard are paid for. They don’t even sail on the fore end of the voyage until their rep on the receiving end can assure them that the deal is real and that funds will be exchanged.  That now, isn’t happening.”

“Ships aren’t moving?” she asked. 

“Ships aren’t moving. Product isn’t getting shipped…or it won’t be very shortly. Confidence in the U.S. Dollar is evaporating just as fast as prices increase. No one will trade with us until we get our financial act together. In the next few days, the lockup that we’re seeing with international shipping will hit here, I’d bet.  That means that anything that is not cold, hard cash or a confirmed instant bank transfer will not be accepted for wholesale transactions…and not long after that for all transactions.”

“How does your company propose to get ‘contracts secured’ when there’s no credit?” Julie asked.

“Easy. Our corporate reps go to the guys that are holding the properties as it all comes apart and the only ones that can make a smooth transition. The Banks.” 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the Chapter! I have really been looking forward to it.

    It is a privilege and a pleasure experiencing your work!


Comments are welcome!