Thursday, November 3, 2011
Doug didn’t notice the Suburban behind him until it accelerated and moved into the passing lane. He slowed, giving the Chevy room to pass. It pulled along side and the passenger flashed a badge, and directed him to pull over. The Chevy then fell back behind Doug’s Ford, and Doug noticed the law-enforcement LED array behind the grille.
“Dammit,” Doug said. He’d only had one run-in with law enforcement all year, over a burned out taillight. That had resulted in a full search of the Explorer with three cops. He lowered the drivers’ window and then fished out his drivers’ license, registration and insurance card. His heart was pounding. In the rear view mirror, Doug noticed that three officers had weapons drawn and were advancing up the sides of the Ford. He put his hands on the steering wheel. None of them wore facemasks.
“Out of the car, hands where we can see them, face the front of the vehicle at all times,” the lone officer on the driver’s side said.
“Will do,” Doug said, moving slowly. He opened the door, placed both hands above his shoulders, and faced forward.
“Step away from the vehicle, to the side,” the voice commanded. One officer was now in front of the car to the right, the other straight to Doug’s right. The man on his right had a shotgun leveled at his head.
“Hands on the hood,” the voice behind him said flatly. “Tony, cover him. Lance, check the back.”
“What is…” Doug started to say.
“Shut up,” the voice behind him said. “Do as your told. Period.”
“Packed full, Lieutenant. Front seat, too.”
“Load him up,” the voice behind him said.
“What the Hell is this?” Doug said.
“You’re going to the can, pal,” Shotgun said.
“For what?” Doug asked.
“You’ll find out soon enough.”
Doug’s hands were bound behind him with a large white zip tie, and he was loaded in the rear of the Suburban, no seat, just roughly parked on the floor. His Ford followed the Suburban back into Madison. The Suburban headed into a large concrete building that appeared to be a converted warehouse. The Explorer, with all of his supplies and the Regent products, headed somewhere else.
He was ‘processed’ by ‘officers’ at an ‘intake’ room, but no charges against him were presented. He was relieved of everything but his clothing before the zip tie was removed. No Miranda Rights statement, nothing. For three hours Doug was parked in a six by eight chain link cage, bolted to the concrete, surrounded by several hundred other people also in cages, many of them obviously sick. Doug finally recognized the cages as dog kennels. There were no toilet provisions, and the place smelled of it, despite the freezing temperature. He sat on what might have been the cleanest area of the cell. Finally, a man in a badged jumpsuit came and unchained Doug’s door. He struggled to reach his feet.
“Move it or I’ll break your arm,” the man growled.
“OK,” Doug said. He headed out of the cell to the right. Apparently not moving quickly enough for the guard, Doug received a jab just below the ribs with a baton.
“What was that for?”
“Because I felt like it. Get your ass moving!”
The end of the aisle held a single painted door, chipped and dented. Doug was directed inside, and then through the narrow hallway built of plywood to another room. Three men sat on one side of the folding table. He was shoved into the chair opposite them.
“Your name Peterson?” the man in the center asked. He was a good ten years older than Doug, and quite fat. The other two were boring holes through him with their eyes.
“You were apprehended at Ninety Four and Windsor?” the question came out as more of a statement.
“I was pulled over as I was headed north. I don’t know why,” Doug said.
“You had a vehicle full of food and supplies?” Again, more as a statement.
“My vehicle is full of product. I am a sales rep for Regent Performance Group. We’re a national distributor of commercial food products. Those are samples.”
“You were observed loading unlabeled boxes from Fairland.”
“Yes, I traded some our product for some of Fairland’s. We’re trying to help them with distribution of their line. Their current distributor’s going under.”
“Neither Fairland’s packages nor the Regent boxes in your vehicle bear the Wisconsin tax stamp. Taxes haven’t been paid on any of that product from what we can determine. We’re seizing it as a result. Your firearm is also not licensed in this state and you don’t have a carry permit. It is also being seized.”
“What tax are you talking about? This is wholesale product. It’s taxed at the end consumer level.”
“This is about taxes? Are you serious?”
“Dead serious, Peterson. If we find that you’re smuggling, you will go to prison. Simple as that.”
“Call my company. I’m sure they’ll be responsive in paying your tax. The number is on my business card.”
“No one is answering at that number. I think you’re lying,” the man on the right said. Doug couldn’t really come up with a descriptor for the man, other than ‘greasy’, only partly due to the slicked down hairstyle.
“Are you dialing my number, or the number for Corporate, on the back of the card?”
“Listen sharp, asshole. You’re about three minutes away from the darkest hole in the state. Lip off one more time like that and you’re done,” said the suit on the left. “We’re not screwing around with runners. They’re costing the state too much money.”
“Sorry…not trying to be a smart ass. Most people don’t look at the back side of the card,” Doug replied apologetically. He was playing along as best he could. He was also exhausted, and was getting chills and his fever back.
“Kreig, go call that number,” ‘Right’ said to ‘Greasy’. ‘Greasy’ sneered at Doug, pushed back from the wobbly table, and left the room. Doug just sat there.
“If I may ask a question?” Doug asked.
“Depends,” said the Suit.
“Are all those people in there,” Doug motioned “here for stuff like this?”
“Not hardly. Maybe ten percent are runners. Best you don’t ask too many more questions,” the Suit replied, cocking his head.
The two of them looked over a pile of papers in front of them. Doug thought they appeared to be files of other prisoners. Ten or fifteen minutes went by in silence. Doug felt his physical condition getting worse by the minute.
Another man entered the room. Not ‘Greasy’, as Doug had labeled him.
“Assessors Office, sir,” He passed the cell phone to the Suit.
The Suit took the phone, and didn’t speak. Doug sat and watched his expressionless face. He ended the call.
“Your company has agreed to pay the fines and the back taxes.”
Doug feigned surprise. “Thanks. May I go?”
“Your firearm stays. No permit.”
“I didn’t need one in Iowa.”
“You need one in Wisconsin, and you only get it if the Dane County Sheriff and the Madison P.D. approve it. I assure you will not happen. Ever.”
“That was given to me by my father,” Doug said.
“Tough shit. If you want out of here in one piece, I suggest you do so within the next two minutes,” said the Suit.
Doug left the room, where another guard showed him the way back out. He collected his things from another ‘guard’ in a cage. Hundreds of fat envelopes and boxes held the possessions of the prisoners. A guard walked him outside, cradling a shotgun, staring at the back of Doug’s neck.
The Explorer was parked in the back row of a mess of vehicles. Doug fished the keys out of the box that was given him, noting that his cell phone battery and SIM card had been removed from the phone, both tossed haphazardly in the box. The contents of the SUV had been completely emptied, boxes cut open and searched. He didn’t see his Regent-provided emergency bag, or most of his clothing. It might have been buried in the back…he wasn’t going to go looking for it at this point. A second guard appeared, also cradling a shotgun.
Doug started the Ford and was waved to an exit gate, through a maze of anti-vehicle barriers. A minute later he looked down at the dash. His fuel tank had been nearly drained…the dash indicator said that he had less than fifty miles of range before empty.
“Bastards,” Doug said, before elaborating further.
The area that he’d been taken to wasn’t far from the airport, and didn’t look particularly dangerous…but did it look all that safe, either. Doug pulled into a parking lot, stopping in the center. He checked his wallet, found it light of all cash, but the credit cards were still there. He checked his ‘secret cash stash’ under the dashboard and found the envelope, held in place with a piece of Velcro, there but also empty. He then reassembled his cell phone, shaking his head and getting angrier as the seconds went by. The phone came to life at once, with Regent Corporate Security on the caller I.D.
“This is Doug,” he answered.
“Good God. They didn’t kill you after all,” the voice on the other end said. “I’m Ron Gorton. Head of Regent Security. You all right?”
“Not bad,” Doug said. “Minus my handgun and God knows what else. My car’s a mess. And out of gas. And they’ve managed to take all my cash.”
“That’s not bad. Doug, there are no secure locations for Regent people in the Madison area. The upside is that you’re likely not out of cash. The Explorer was prepped by our people before you took delivery. Are you in a location where you can do a little work?”
“Middle of a parking lot. Deserted, no cars in sight on the road or anywhere, for that matter,” Doug said.
“Fine. Beneath your windshield washer reservoir you will find a hard-shell plastic box with a wire harness going into it. It’s glued to the bottom of the reservoir, which is bolted to the sidewall of the engine compartment. Tear that loose. It’ll come out with a little work—it’s just contact cement. You’ll find eight hundred dollars in small bills. That’s step one. A second packet like that is beneath the cover to your air cleaner. It looks like a factory installation. Another five hundred. Chances are you do not have much time, and you want to get out of Madison and Dane County as soon as you can. Do it now. Get both of them. Just put the phone down and I’ll stay on the line.”
“OK,” Doug said, baffled. He had no idea that Regent had a ‘Security Department’ that would be anywhere near as sophisticated as they seemed to be. He popped the hood, got outside and quickly found the first box where it was supposed to be. The second though, would take tools to access. The air cleaner was held in place with screws.
“Got the first one. For the second I’ll need tools,” Doug said, setting up his phone as a speakerphone. He noticed his headset was missing.
“No matter. Get moving. You don’t have much time,” Gorton said. “Good chance the local cops will be looking for you next.”
Doug started the Ford, put his seatbelt on and drove out of the lot.
“All right, any clues where I can get some gas?”
“Yes. Head west from your location,” a female voice replied. Turn right on Stoughton. It’s a divided highway. Get in the right lane. First major street to the south is Anderson. There’s an open gas station at that location. Expect to pay at least twenty dollars a gallon. Do not quibble. Pay it and get moving,” the woman said.
“That’s my assistant Carol. She’s monitoring your location on GPS. The cops will be wondering where you came up with cash after taking all of yours, which will give them probable cause,” Gorton said.
“Jesus. What a mess,” Doug said, spotting the intersection and the gas station across the way.
“Could be worse,” Gorton said. “Do not waste time.”
Doug pulled into the gas station, where two ‘attendants’ watched him, both armed. He was becoming accustomed to having to flash some cash or a credit card. This station was ‘all cash’.
“Filling it up,” he said after paying in advance.
“Check all your lights. Make sure they haven’t broken anything. They’ll pull you over for nothing,” the woman said.
“OK,” Doug said, straining to get out of the seat. He flipped on the headlights and emergency flashers and walked around the vehicle. Everything seemed to be working. “Checks out OK,” he said as he heard the pump ‘click’. Four hundred and twenty-five dollars worth…one tank of gas.
“Good. Get out of town as soon as you can.” Gorton said. “You’re still headed to Wausau, correct?”
“Yeah, that’s the plan. I’m not over this bug yet.”
“Trust us. You don’t want to try to stop somewhere outside of Wausau. Don’t speed, just get there in one piece,” said Gorton’s assistant. “If you leave now you can just make it before curfew.”
“Curfew?” Doug asked incredulously.
“Yeah. Effective today, courtesy of the new Governor.”
Doug muttered a few expletives and left the gas station.
“We will check with you when you hit Wausau. We have a facility there that you can stay in this evening.”
“Sounds fine,” Doug said through his own personal fog. He ended the call.
Sure enough, a Madison police cruiser was trailing him. Doug headed north a five miles per hour under the speed limit. When he hit the city limits, the Dane County deputy took over. He was happy to see the deputy turn around at the county line.
The snowy roads weren’t helping Doug’s travels. The rushed nature of his departure from Madison hadn’t allowed him time to find any of his personal supplies, including those of the fever reducing kind…assuming that they hadn’t been stolen. He drove as fast as was prudent, pushing through the snowy right lane. The left lane hadn’t had any traffic. Doug was ten miles south of Wausau when Regent called, giving him directions to head west, five or so miles west of the downtown area.
The warehouse yard was dimly lit, but a yard-worker spotted him and directed him to an abandoned-looking packaging plant. He parked inside and shut the engine off, all but collapsing from fatigue. Masked Regent staff helped him to his quarters for the night, following a visit to a very well equipped clinic. His clothing was taken, and he was provided a stack of new clothes.
He was asleep almost as soon as he hit the bed.
A soft chime sounded in Doug’s darkened room, and the room lighting came on slowly. He felt better, but still was obviously fighting a cold, not influenza. He needed some more downtime, and doubted that he’d get it.
The bedside clock read seven a.m. The chime rang again, and the lights were fully up. The bedside table held a telephone as well, and the message light was flashing.
“This is Doug Peterson. Messages please?” he said to the receptionist.
“Certainly, Mister Peterson. One moment please, I’ll put you through,” she said.
Doug looked around the room for the first time. He’d just gone straight to bed the night before. The room could have passed for any of the thousands of hotels he’d stayed in, with the exception of the lack of windows.
“Doug, this is Pete Bollard. How’re you holding up?” Pete was Doug’s immediate boss.
“Good morning, Pete. I’ve been better.”
“Medical said you’ve just got a cold. If it’d been the flu, we wouldn’t be talking, would we?”
“No sir. Rough couple days out there. I wasn’t expecting the reception I received in Madison.”
“We’re seeing this happen in several states now. We expect it to get worse. As a result we’re going to have to adapt to it. You were lucky though. Our southeast rep didn’t make out in one piece.”
“They killed him? For what?”
“Call it a city-sanctioned murder. We weren’t prepared to be negotiating with every city, big and small, for taxes, fees, permits and licenses. So we lost a man in Atlanta. Won’t happen again.”
“It’ll happen there again, with half a chance. I’m surprised I was able to leave with as much product as I had left. They did manage to take all of my cash, probably all of my personal effects. They got away with it.”
“No, Doug, it won’t happen again. Atlanta has been taken care of. Madison will be taken care of as well. Along with a dozen other problem areas.”
“We have teams in the field that are acting on our behalf to eliminate these threats to our organization and allied organizations.”
“What kind of team?” Doug asked cynically, envisioning a bunch of lawyers.
“The half-dozen or so ringleaders in the Madison Tax Authority who are running that particular extortion ring will be dead by the end of the week. People that are improperly imprisoned will be set free. It will be called it an organized rebellion.”
“There are hundreds of people in there. From what I saw, there wasn’t enough to eat, no water, nothing.” ‘Dead by the end of the week? Good God. How do I play THAT?’ Doug thought to himself. ‘Just be cool.’
“It will be taken care of,” Bollard said soothingly. “Doug, things have been going well on your end of the company. You’ve made remarkable progress and have met every single goal put in front of you. I want you to rest up, there in Wausau for a few days.”
“Thanks, Pete, but I’d actually like a couple days off up north. My ex and her kids are up there. I’d hoped to be able to stop by on this run.”
“Take a week if you like. When you get back to civilization, we’ll need to go over the company’s plans for the next two quarters. We have some substantial opportunities in front of us, especially east of the Mississippi. We’re just about a week from nailing down the deal.”
“Elaborate!” Doug said, still feeling a sick feeling in his stomach. While he’d made slow, steady progress with the RNEW product, his team was spread relatively thin, and was constantly plagued by the changing market place, the economic-political chaos.
“Can’t really go into it too much, but there will be a whole lot of people eager for Regent product, soon enough.”
“That’d make marketing easy,” Doug said.
“Free. Even better,” Pete replied. “Listen. Get your team lined out today from your palatial Wausau location,” he said with a laugh. “They can run the ball for a week without you. Need anything from here?”
“Not sure what the Madison folks did to my gear. I do know I’m minus my handgun.”
“Don’t worry about any of that. Wausau will get you resupplied. Give me a shout when you’re back on the grid.”
“Thanks, Pete. Much appreciated,” Doug said.
Doug showered and shaved, and found when he left the bathroom, that his own clothing had been washed and stacked neatly on the bed.
Breakfast was held in a central lounge area, where Doug and several other Regent employees were seated at well-spaced tables. Doug enjoyed Eggs Benedict and orange juice, fresh coffee and fruit. He hadn’t had any food of this quality in a long time…even at the corporate hotels. This was just…better.
“Good morning, Mister Peterson. I’m James, with Regent Information Systems. Do you have a moment?”
“You bet,” Doug said. “Please, have a seat.” The younger man sat across from Doug.
“Our security team swept your vehicle last evening after you arrived. Are you aware your laptop is missing?”
“Wouldn’t surprise me. Probably at a pawn shop in Madison,” he replied. “Along with a lot of my personal things.”
“Worse than that, actually. It’s in the hands of the Madison Tax Authority. They’re trying to leverage us for a payment for it,” the young man said. Doug guessed him for mid-twenties. Very well put together—he’d be at home in a boardroom, except for the thinness of years.
“Again, not surprised.”
“You were using the Regent security protocols, were you not?” he asked. Regent had a serious encryption system for logging in to the computer.
“And it wasn’t written down, anywhere? Just in your mind?”
“Of course. Silly to write it down.”
“Good to know. We’ve already wiped the hard drive remotely, as well as disabling the computer from any use in the future, from here. You will be issued a new laptop, along with the latest in communications equipment for the network and will have your files restored to the new machine.”
“How are you able to do that? I had a bunch of stuff on that machine that I’d created after the last time I was logged into Regent.”
“Stored in the Cloud. The network servers and all workstations are automatically connected, whether you’re formally accessing the network or not. Columbus Data Center has everything. Redundant backup out West.”
Doug suspected as much, and as a result had not stored any personal information on the Regent system whatsoever. “That’s great news. I’d hate to lose a week’s worth of work.” He hoped that his hand written notes were cryptic enough to be overlooked. Those notes would expose his continuing relationship with Julie such as it was, not to mention a whole laundry list of supplies that weren’t Regent that he hoped to be able to trade for. He realized he was sweating.
“We should have your machine back in your hands in an hour or so,” ‘James’ said as he stood. “Kevin Martinez would like to see you when you’re done with breakfast. He’s part of Security. Down that hall,” the young man pointed, “third door on the left. I believe he’ll want to be talking about your personal security.”
“Company buying me a bodyguard? Or a tank?” Doug said with a little smile.
“Nothing that elaborate, I’m sure. Don’t expect to be carrying a .32 though,” ‘James’ said as he turned and left.
‘How, exactly, did Regent know that my father’s handgun was a .32?’ Doug wondered, nodding at James with a slight smile, play-acting. ‘What am I into? Who the Hell are these people?’