Friday, October 7, 2011
Eden Prairie, Minnesota
“I understand your point, but either you’re in or out,” Doug said to the image on the flat-panel display. The first forty-five minutes of the meeting had passed with a back-and-forth negotiation session, the last ten minutes was hardball. He’d done this before. “Corporate is telling me to either have this deal finalized by close of business today or support ends on April Fifteenth. They’ve got two other offers on the table and three letters of commitment waiting for signatures. We’re in a bind too,” Doug lied, “we only have so much supply of RNEW to go around. You’ve been a good client for years. We’d like to see that you succeed.” Saying of course, that without RNEW, they’d fail. Indeed that might be the outcome, Doug’s tone said without words.
“I’ll have a definitive answer by one-thirty. Good enough?” the vice-president replied, clearly uncomfortable.
“Absolutely!” Doug said reassuringly. “With the agreement we can ensure meeting your proposed integration schedule and your production line can meet or even exceed your sales goals.”
“Can I reach you at the hotel later?” the Carlyle V.P. asked.
“I’ll be on the road. Have a couple more meetings on this trip over in Wisconsin,” Doug said. One of Carlyle’s more aggressive competitors had research and development operations in Madison. Doug was telegraphing of course, that should Carlyle be unable to commit to RNEW, their competition would. “I’ll be on the cell of course though, assuming there’s service over that way.”
“I’ll be in touch, Doug. And thank your team for us on the samples.”
“No problem. Glad to be of service,” Doug said as the screen image morphed into the Carlyle logo.
He rose, donned his raincoat and put his facemask back on. The Carlyle offices had been ‘adapted’ for the influenza protocol, like many of Doug’s other stops. ‘Public’ side and ‘protected’ side. He made his way back out through the security checkpoint and back to the parking lot. It was pouring again.
The Explorer had well under ten thousand miles on the odometer, and had been washed exactly once under his use. Doug was careful not to brush against the grime as he loaded up his laptop in the seatback pocket of the drivers’ seat. He hoped that the laptop would provide some additional mass between him and anyone shooting at him from behind. The front passenger seat had three cases of canned goods stacked in it; the footwell was piled full of loose cans. There wasn’t anything Doug could improvise between the door and his left side, and was wide open to the front, of course. He made the trip back to the hotel to complete his checkout, and to use the hotel phone, which hopefully, was not part of the Regent Performance Group network. He left his phone and Regent I.D. in the SUV, along with the keys. He’d just use the numeric keypad on the drivers’ door for entry. Doug just didn’t know which items belonging to Regent might be listening or watching.
Inside the spacious lobby, Doug nodded at the desk clerk behind her protective glass enclosure and swiped his room card for access to one of the small ‘house phone’ enclosures. Unless Regent was monitoring all calls going out, he was reasonably assured that calls would be relatively private. He never inquired of the staff of course, not knowing if the concierge or staff was monitoring any of the business travelers on behalf of either the hotel or the employer. First, he dialed the Farm, hoping to get through on the first try.
“Hello?” Julie answered.
“Yours is a voice I have been longing to hear for a long, long time,” Doug said.
“Oh my,” Julie said. “Is it really you?”
“It is. How are you?” Doug asked. He realized he had a lump in his throat.
“Unprepared for this,” Julie said. It sounded as if she were about to cry. “Where are you? Are you sure you can talk?”
“Twin Cities. I’m on a hotel phone, hopefully safe enough. You OK?”
“Crying, but yes. I’ve missed you. We haven’t talked in weeks.”
“I know. I’ve missed you, too but there aren’t many places with phones like this. Your letters aren’t quite the same as hearing you of course. I’m counting the days until I’m done with this,” Doug said.
“Me too,” she said. “How did you get to Minneapolis this time? Are they flying you yet?”
“Not yet. Too many stops. Road trip again,” he replied. He’d written her quite frequently, so she knew that he’d been traveling far more than most Americans these days. “I’m going to head over to Wisconsin pretty soon. I…thought I’d stop by and see my ex and the kids. I’ve got a bunch of samples from the company that I think they could use.”
“You checked the labels and the boxes, right? Like Peter said?” Julie asked.
“I did. These came off the line before they went into inventory control. No chips in the packaging.”
“But your other ones…those had them?”
“They did, as he suspected. Thank him for letting me know,” Doug said.
The Regent packaging—all of it for commercial distribution, and occasionally some of the Preferred line—had RFID chips integrated into the packaging. First-generation chips were originally marketed for anti-theft protection but had evolved into shopper-habit research. Their range was limited to ten or fifteen feet away from a fixed reading device. Second gen chips were thinner, less-obtrusive, and were able to be tracked from a greater distance. Mobile RFID readers could read either. Regent had a proprietary technology that no one outside of a handful of people knew much about. Doug had a team member within that circle, and without divulging anything super secret, that contact had arranged for a certain percentage of Preferred product to be made available without the holographic bar code that was part of the ‘inventory’ technology. His company phone and company car were the other part of the technology—both were very likely to be equipped as mobile and autonomous RFID readers themselves. Regent product could be tracked in proximity to the vehicle by the on-board system, or his phone, or probably any number of devices in his house. The data would then be quietly uploaded to the Columbus Data Center.
“When will you be heading home?” Julie asked.
“I have to hit Madison and then a couple of clients north of there. Matt and Brenda live northeast of Wausau, sixty or eighty miles. I’d guess I’ll be there a day or two. Then down to Rockford. Figure a couple days there anyway, depending on what deals evolve in the next three or four days. After all of that, back home. Week maybe,” Doug said. “How’re the new parents doing? Is Ian doing better?”
Ian James Forsythe had been born to Molly and Peter on February Twentieth at home, healthy, round and squalling. Within his first month though, he picked up a series of fevers for no apparent reason. Julie’s letter to Doug, written more than a week before, told of the local doctors third visit in as many days.
“For now, yes…” Julie hesitated. “Doctor Wyeth thought that it was a mild flu strain. He didn’t develop the lung problems that the others had though. He’s a tough little boy.”
“Did that pediatric shipment help?” Doug asked.
“Absolutely. Molly was able to use some of it with Ian. One of the neighbor girls was really sick. Intestinal bug. You probably helped save her life.”
He’d drop-shipped a case of rehydration solution along with two cases of formula…all Regent Preferred, in a fairly complex roadside maneuver. He’d stripped off the RFID components from the cases and left them in his basement storage area. The individual containers weren’t marked. As far as anyone would have seen of the exchange, two vehicles dropped into a low spot where the road crossed a low bridge, and took a few moments longer to reappear out of the low area than they might have normally. Doug had set it up with Julie in another phone conversation from another hotel. The actual exchange had been full-motion. Doug moving in one direction, Arie from another. They switched sides of the road, Doug opened the passenger door of the Explorer, kicked out the two boxes, as Arie’s truck slowed, Roel jumped out, picked them up and tossed them in the bed, and the exchange was complete. They didn’t even have time to acknowledge each other.
“Anything else I can help with?”
“Sure. Resign from your contract and come see me.”
“You know I’d like to do that,” he said.
“I know. And I know that you can’t.”
“Not yet,” Doug said. “Seriously. Is there anything I can pick up for you? I’m hitting a half-dozen plants in the next week. I seriously doubt that they’re chipping their product.”
“I don’t think I can answer that accurately. Short answer is yes.”
“OK, tell you what. I need to check out, get my stuff and load up, and a couple more calls to make. Can you get a list together in fifteen or twenty minutes? I can call you back.”
“Two calls in one day? That’ll be a record,” Julie said.
Doug could hear her smile. “Yes. Can you bear it?”
“I’ll make do,” she replied.
“I’ll call soon,” he said and paused. “And Julie?”
“I miss you.”
Up in the room, Doug made a quick check, making sure he’d remembered everything. The television told of a spring storm that was moving in from the west, and road closures due to ‘security concerns’ around the Cities.
At the concierge desk, Doug arranged for a cash advance against his corporate account, which would take a few minutes to process. One thing about Regent and this particular hotel: They were well prepared for the business traveler. He requested fifteen hundred dollars, which would buy gasoline and incidentals for a few days. Prices were continuing to climb, but not at the meteoric rate that they had earlier in the year.
Doug casually picked a different house phone enclosure, sat down, and pulled out a small notepad and pen. He didn’t trust the electronic notepad on his cell phone not to report the notes he’d take from Julie. First though, to give Julie more time, he called his ex-wife.
He looked up the page in the battered notepad with her phone number and address, and dialed. The phone quickly chimed back with three audio tones and a computer voice.
“The number you have dialed is disconnected or is no longer in service. If you believe that this is in error, please hang up and try again.”
Doug knew that he had dialed correctly, and didn’t bother to try again. He hung up the phone and looked at it for a moment, wondering what had happened to cause that message. He called Julie back.
“Morning, beautiful,” he said as she answered.
“Thank you, but its afternoon,” she said. He could hear her smile.
“Hadn’t noticed. Thoughts of you distracted me from space and time.”
“That won’t do if you’re driving,” she said with a giggle.
“Certainly true. I’ll have to adapt. Do you have your list?”
“Yes. Ready? These aren’t in order.”
“Fire away,” Doug said, picking up his pen, noticing the desk clerk looking at him, without trying to be obvious. Doug did his best to look intensely businesslike.
“Cooking oil. Sugar. Sea salt. Spices. Ibuprofen. Aspirin. Acetaminophen. Multivitamins. Toothpaste. Toothbrushes. Ceramic water filters. Bandages—all sizes and types. Gauze. Medical disinfectants. Canning lids—all sizes, any quantity. Mantles for white-gas lanterns. Shampoo. Paraffin. Aluminum foil. Sanitary pads. Medical-grade saline solution. Zippers for jeans and coats. Reading glasses….”
Three pages of the notepad were filled before she stopped. He then asked her to prioritize the top twenty items, which he then marked with a star.
“Are you sure about all this?” Julie asked. “Can you really get some of these things?”
“Pretty sure I can. Not all of it by any stretch, but some of it. A pump seal kit for that water pump on that John Deere, probably not.”
“There are a dozen other things like that, I just don’t have a list.”
“Write them down, keep them by the phone. I might be able to call later today,” Doug said. “I better go. The hotel staff seems to be paying more attention to me than I’d like.”
“Be careful. I love you,” Julie said.
“I love you, too. Don’t forget me,” Doug said.
“Never,” she whispered as she clicked off.
Out in the lobby, Doug tucked the notepad into his jacket as he headed to the front desk to check out. The clerk met him at the little window. “Damned cell phone battery will not keep a charge,” he said. “Had to remember how to take notes on paper!”
“Understood, Mr. Peterson, quite inconvenient I’m sure. Ready to check out now?” Wallace, the young man behind the counter asked.
“Yes. Was that advance cleared?”
“Certainly, sir. There is a confidential message included with the notes in the envelope sir. You may have confidence that none of the staff have read it.”
“Thank you, Wallace. I appreciate that,” Doug said as the envelope was slipped under the glass. The young man wore gloves, the paper envelope was thermally sealed in a plastic bag.
“Your receipt sir, has been emailed to your corporate account and to your office.”
“Perfect. Any transports or convoys heading east?” Doug asked. Better to travel in numbers.
“I believe so sir. Should be a queue on the Four Ninety Four on-ramp at one thirty. You should have time to make that. Do you need an escort?”
“No, I’ll be fine. Thanks again.”
“Always a pleasure, Mister Peterson.”
Doug headed out of the lobby to the Explorer, nodding at the two security men outside. A few minutes later, he sat on the highway on-ramp, a dozen smaller vehicles tucked into a line of a half-dozen semi trucks. At least one of them was a Regent transport—Doug recognized the light blue window tag, indicating it was part of the Midwest distribution system. He checked his mirrors, and thought he spotted one security van, also Regent. There wasn’t a protocol to let them know that he was also part of the company—transport and distribution drivers didn’t associate with sales. Doug suspected it was a carryover from the old days of ‘labor versus management.’
He checked his cell phone, noting that he had a text message from Carlyle. They’d taken the deal, the message arriving at twenty minutes past one p.m.
Doug saw the convoy coordinator drove against the flow of normal traffic up the line of cars, with a placard reading ’88.5’, the FM frequency that the convoy would use to communicate to cars or trucks without two-way radios. He realized that his Regent two-way might be of use in listening in to the truck traffic—he’d never tried that before. He dug it out of the console and put on the little headset, careful to keep the ‘transmit’ function on the radio locked out. He realized the battery was almost dead, and plugged in the charger. The FM radio came to life a few moments later.
“All right, everyone. This convoy is eastbound on Four Ninety Four, intersecting Ninety Four East. It is advised that should you exit the convoy, that you reach your destination during daylight hours. None of the heavies or security in this convoy will travel past seven p.m. tonight. We will not broadcast the destination of the heavies. Should we learn of any trouble on the segment ahead of us, we will let the convoy know immediately, and we will stop at the closest safe location immediately. Should we come under any form of attack, security members will respond to defend themselves and their loads. They are not here to defend individual vehicles. You are solely responsible for your own security. Should any vehicle in the convoy exhibit threatening behavior toward another vehicle, that vehicle will be removed from the convoy.” The voice did not state how the vehicle would be removed….
Without further conversation, the lead vehicle pulled out, quickly followed by the others. The lead vehicle was either security or a scout, pulling out a country mile ahead of the rest of the pack. Doug’s headset crackled, the voices garbled…an encrypted frequency apparently. He kept the headset on, more to listen in on the tone of voice than trying to make out words. Soon, there was no chatter at all.
The vehicles spread out, a few seconds between each, quickly passing through the empty freeways around the Twin Cities. Doug noticed the burned out shells of buildings not far from the highway. At least half of the off-ramps were closed with heavy concrete barriers.
The pace of the convoy varied for no known reason, but never did it exceed the speed limit. During one maddeningly slow stretch, Doug looked over the farm fields near Menomonee, and noticed that none of the soil had been disturbed. He realized that he hadn’t seen a single piece of farm equipment in the fields during this entire trip…replaying in his mind prior trips. His memory was fuzzy, but he didn’t recall seeing any equipment of any size in the fields…this whole spring.
‘Could that be right?’ he thought.
Two hours out of the Twin Cities, the convoy left the Interstate at Eau Claire for a rest stop. Doug donned his mask before getting out of the Explorer, and relieved himself in one of the dozen portable toilets outside of the main building. He used two disinfecting cloths afterwards, not knowing who had touched the door handles.
On the way back to the Ford, he realized that he didn’t feel well—a mild ache behind his jaw, in his ears; a feeling of aches in his back and neck. His throat was feeling a little sore…it seemed much colder outside than the on-board temperature display stated.
“Dammit, I cannot afford to get sick,” he said to himself as he reached the car. The back seat held some of his trip provisions, and he dug through them to find several bottles of an unlabeled sports drink—and three different cold remedies. One, zinc-based; a second, mostly vitamins and trace minerals; the third, a fever-reducer.
Only half of the convoy headed back onto the eastbound Interstate—the others continued east, into Eau Claire. Doug found himself five vehicles back from the lead security car, just behind a large step van.
Many miles later, the convoy neared Wisconsin Dells, and Doug realized that he had a real problem. The fever-reducer hadn’t worked, he was now in a cold sweat and ached in every joint. The convoy pulled off Ninety-Four again, stopping at a rest area created specifically for the truck industry. They passed two armed guards at the entry to a fenced enclosure, and were directed where to park.
“Ten minutes, we pull out,” the radio stated flatly.
Doug put his mask on and pulled on some disposable gloves. Once again to the row of toilets, where a dozen other people waited, keeping their distance from each other. When he was done, he collapsed into the drivers’ seat, exhausted. Just as the lead car headed back onto the on-ramp, Doug swallowed two more pills, drinking half of the citrus water as a chaser.
He hadn’t been ill with anything—even a cold—in almost a year. If this was Guangdong Flu, it could kill him. His symptoms could be just a cold, or ‘normal’ flu, or something much worse. Either way, the chances of him being able to stay at The Oaks were zero.
Like all of the hotels Doug stayed at The Oaks focused on the safety, security and comfort of their guests, in that order. If he had anything looking like a fever he’d be strongly invited to stay elsewhere. He’d seen it happen once earlier in the year to another prospective guest in Kansas City, at an upscale hotel in the Country Club district. The man in question, attired in a tailored Italian suit, was turned out without ceremony…out of the hotel and off the property. Doug had no idea what became of him.
He punched up the stored number for The Oaks on his phone. ‘Might as well be proactive and volunteer to stay somewhere else,’ he thought as he waited for the phone.
“The Oaks Madison. May I help you?” a friendly female voice answered.
“Yes. This is Doug Peterson. I have reservations for Regent Performance.”
“Yes, Mister Peterson. Glad you’ll be staying with us this evening. What can I do for you?”
“I’m afraid I will not be able to stay there this evening,” Doug said. “I have picked up a cold and will need to make other arrangements.” ‘Cold’ might as well be ‘plague’, Doug thought.
“Oh…” the agent paused. “Mister Peterson I’m sorry but we have no provisions at The Oaks at this time for anyone with an illness.”
“Understood. Are there any other facilities available?” he asked.
“Sir, I’m afraid not.”
“Is it possible to stay in my vehicle on site?”
“No, sir. I’m sorry.”
Doug exhaled. “I don’t have a Plan B for this,” he said and ended the call.
He called the Regent travel liaison next and explained his situation. They couldn’t do anything, either.
Madison and nightfall were approaching quickly. Neither were appealing.