Monday, March 26, 2012

Distance, Chapter 38


Good Friday,
April Fourteenth,
Des Moines, Iowa

Doug had risen at six forty-five, tired, but ready to get the day behind him so that he could head back ‘home’ and to the Seghers.  He’d dreamt of Julie several times during the night; unpleasant dreams of darkness, fear, and war. He’d hoped that the day would move quickly, as he’d leave Des Moines around noon and head southeast.  He sent a lengthy list to the in-house supply, to re-provision his house and to pick up what he could for the Seghers, not really caring if anyone was checking on him.  He obviously hadn’t been able to complete his last road trip to his satisfaction.

The television seemed limited today to five channels, all news.  All other stations within the Regent closed network system were black screens.   A crawler on the bottom of the screen recapped a statement from the Secretary of the Department of Agriculture, ‘urging all Americans to plant food crops as soon as the weather permitted, to minimize hunger later in the year, and to see their County Extension Agent for instructions…’

“Fat lot of good that’ll do.  Eighty percent failure rate when people don’t know what they’re doing.  You’re providing false hope, boys,” Doug said to the television as he dressed. ‘I guess I can’t blame you for trying, though,’ he said to himself.

The President stated forty-five minutes ago that any action against Israel, or against any remaining US forces anywhere in the world, would have only the gravest repercussions against any aggressor, and that action would be taken immediately. Sources in the Department of Defense and Department of State confirm that this action can only mean retaliation with a nuclear response. Subsequent contacts with sources in the White House confirmed that this is in fact, the case.”

Doug stopped in his tracks, thinking about that statement, and the date.  Rob Dowling told him that Regent had a big deadline, which was this day. What deadline would the company have, on an arbitrary date like today, unless…they knew something, or unless this was just a coincidence. Not the end of the financial quarter, end of month, not an upcoming major holiday…nothing that a corporation like Regent would necessarily be concerned with, unless…

The television roused him back, with a switch between the reporter and the anchor.  The President was supposed to speak to the nation at nine a.m.

Doug headed off to breakfast, wondering if his dreams were a foretelling.

By ten, Doug had completed the first task of his day, a re-write of the old Leinhardt Kaizen proposal, formalizing the process for the Des Moines staff—not the ‘big picture’ stuff he’d sent to Corporate, but a narrative suited to the line workers and local management.  He’d been listening for the break in the news for the Presidential address, which never came. Furthermore, the network reported that they were reporting significant interruptions in communications for unknown reasons. Speculation immediately centered on a clampdown by the government on news networks, which Homeland Security immediately denied. 
Working in a temporary office arranged by Francine, Doug listened to one of the national talk shows, avoiding the distraction of the television.    An email came in from Columbus, demanding his attention by placing itself atop the work already on his computer screen—he’d never seen anything like that happen before.

Someone at Corporate had been busy, directing all senior management and their families to consume Preferred food products by coercing them to ‘participate in a marketing and research project,’ and ‘refrain from ‘standard’ Regent offerings during the duration.’ A financial reward would be made at the end of the six-month test period.  Doug downloaded the attachments and found a very convincing and lengthy ‘research survey’, to be completed monthly.  The financial incentive was generous indeed: Five percent of the employee’s salary.  Anyone who chose not to participate in the ‘project’ wouldn’t be punished of course, but neither would they receive the reward.  Buried in the text of the ‘offer’, was a statement that told the participants that they’d be subject to ‘random blood sampling and urine tests, all completely voluntary.’  The veiled threat of a blood or urine sample, taken from any of the participants, would almost certainly guarantee a high rate of participation by the ‘select members of the research project,’ and eliminate use of Regent ‘common’ products…those contaminated with RNEW.

“I guess that’s one way to do it…bribe and threaten them,” he said. 

“What was that, sir?”  One of the administrative staff asked.

“Nothing. Sorry. Talking to myself,” he said as something on the radio caught his ear.

“The fact remains though, is that first there is no capital to build new factories, there is little ability to manufacture, fabricate or mine materials critical to the Nation, there aren’t enough machine-tool manufacturers left in the States to build what we need! There aren’t enough steel mills! Surgical steel used to come from offshore.  Where are we supposed to get spare parts? Short answer is, we can’t!”

“The Administration…..”

“Is over their heads. This is beyond what the Government can do, even given broad emergency powers, than they fully realize. You cannot invent these things out of thin air. You cannot magically impart knowledge in manufacturing, mining and specialty engineering out of thin air. You cannot deprogram a generation of wards of the government—who do not know how to work, because they’ve never had to—and expect results. They want to be fed the same as always, by their food stamps and their welfare. They’re not workers, they’re eaters.”

“As the nation recovers….”

“Don’t use that word. Sorry, I don’t mean to interrupt here, but it’s not about recovery anymore, in my opinion. I would suggest that you phrase things like this: ‘As we progress into the Depression….’”

“Pretty pessimistic view.”

With some alarm, realizing he’d ignored a key part of any operation involving machinery, Doug immediately punched up the spare parts inventory for the Des Moines plant. Confirming his suspicion and hoping that he was wrong, he then logged into the corporate-wide server, and a sinking feeling hit him immediately.  No parts orders had been placed by Des Moines to corporate or to any of the many machinery vendors since the first week of January. Most plants like Des Moines were a composite of new and older equipment, a mishmash of manufacturers and systems, skillfully crafted by on-site engineers and machinists to meet the needs of product creation and delivery.  Doug noted that Des Moines had a lead machinist with no staff.  The plant had no mechanical engineer, or engineering division--the prior plant manager had eliminated their positions.  He picked up his phone and punched in Francine’s extension.

“Francine, I need you to get Nolan Schultz, former mechanical engineer for this plant. I need him back to work last Monday. Can you do that?”

“If he’s still around, sure,” she replied with her ever-seductive tone.

“I need his whole unit back. I also need Robert Barrett. He’s…”

“He’s my cousin. Give me a minute. I can have him in your office in ten,” she replied.  Doug could tell she was smirking.

Francine was good on her word.  Barrett was in Doug’s office in well less than ten minutes.  Doug spent a half-hour with him, discussing the plant’s machinery status and needs.  Barrett was sharp, Doug discovered almost immediately.  Without spares from the original equipment manufacturers, Barrett had used the plant machine shop to build almost every spare needed, or combined the components he’d had to build with local parts, without need of an engineer above him.    Doug told Barrett that he’d get more help as soon as possible, including giving Barrett the authority to pick his own help, as long as the machinists completed the standard Regent employment application. Barrett left the office quite happy.   Doug ordered lunch via email.  He then wrote up his concerns about spare parts, engineering support and machinists, and sent it off to Columbus, along with a note that he’d be leaving Des Moines for his residence shortly after noon.  Hopefully someone at Corporate would look at the other plants in some detail and make sure they weren’t heading for a breakdown.

Nolan Schultz was nowhere to be found. Francine couldn’t find any of the engineers or trainees who’d worked with Regent.  To a man, their home phones were disconnected; their cell phones inactive. Doug suspected that they went ‘off grid’ or ‘underground’, like his friend Hal Downing.  He couldn’t really blame them.   Doug asked Francine to get Personnel moving on hiring a new mechanical engineering lead and support staff, with a goal of having someone on board by the end of the following week.
Lunch arrived, and Doug ate quickly, telling Francine to contact him with any problems on his cell phone.  He picked up his bag from his apartment, and his repaired Explorer was waiting for him at the employee entrance, fully loaded.

“Mister Peterson?” a young man asked as he approached the car.


“Here’s your road report.  Sorry it didn’t make it into your inbox.”

“What’s this?” Doug asked, brow furrowed, flipping through the pages.

“A map out of town, along a known safe route, and a suggested route to your home.  There have been some impromptu roadblocks thrown up all over the past couple of weeks; it’s a little hard to stay ahead of it.  I’m with Regent Intel, by the way. Mark Rieger.”

“Thanks, Mark. Much appreciated. Anything serious I need to watch out for?”

“Given the two-dozen rounds you took on your way here,” he said, patting the Ford, “I think you’ll do OK.  Nothing major on the roads right now, at least not in the direction you’re headed.  Nothing in the way of organized highwaymen, at least during daylight hours.”

“What did they have to do to this to fix it?” Doug asked.

“The computer took a hit for one thing. Someone smacked you with an armor-piercing round or two. Went through the protection layers like a knife.  Another hit the transmission.  Right through the case, probably a ricochet of the pavement, dunno. And of course all the impact damage—so you’re running a primered fender and door. We left the bullet holes in the rest of it. Nothing we can do with them at the moment.”

“Adds character,” Doug said, as if he meant it. He hadn’t really looked at the damage when he arrived, and was shocked by the number of holes.  He studied the map Rieger provided for a minute.

The route that was mapped out was very similar to the type of driving he’d done coming back from Wisconsin—back roads all the way, circling the larger towns, even driving on what Doug assumed were dirt roads.

“A little circuitous, don’t you think?” Doug asked the intelligence department employee.

“Safe,” was the reply. “Figure the better part of three hours to get there. You should be good on fuel, and you’ll find you have a new addition on your property. This is courtesy of Columbus,” Rieger added as he handed Doug a folder.
The folder held photographs of a new fuel tank as it was being installed, near the wood shed. Regent had added power to the shed, provided a fuel pump, and camouflaged the work within a weathered metal shed.

“Only problem at the moment is your new vehicle. It’s not ready yet.  Might be a few days.”

“New vehicle?”

“That tank is diesel.  Your Explorer obviously isn’t.”

“What’s Corporate sending me?”

“Not sure, to be honest. Figure up-armored though, certainly not new. No point in standing out.”

Fifteen minutes before one, Doug cleared the suburbs, heading south toward Indianola.  Halfway to Indianola, Doug turned east, winding his way along farm roads, working south and east under the grey sky. The AM radio stations were all filled with speculation about the President and why he’d not spoken as scheduled earlier in the day.  Shortly before two p.m., the network reported rumors of Iran invading Iraq (again), this time, unopposed. Minutes later, a report relayed from Jordan described an attack upon a Jordanian Palace.  Members of the Royal Family were in residence at the time, and that the attack had happened before dawn.  Doug turned up the broadcast to hear more, and the station went to static.  He hit the ‘scan’ function, and found no radio stations broadcasting.  The plausibility of the Federal government shutting down communications was beginning to grow in Doug’s mind.

Turning on the CB radio, he was greeted with a high-pitched whine, and a ‘ticking’ that seemed to match the pitch of the engine. He hadn’t thought to check it before he left Des Moines; it could have been damaged when his car was shot up.
Doug drove, gripping the steering wheel, driving by empty unplowed fields.

“Cell phone,” he said and checked his phone for a signal.  He could see three cell towers on the horizon. His phone had no signal. “Dammit!” he said, shoving the phone back into the console.

Doug crossed the Des Moines River at Eldon, and found roadblocks that directed him to Libertyville, a very small town southwest of Fairfield.  The small town looked nearly deserted, and he passed through it without incident and without seeing a single person. Five miles later, he pulled into his driveway.
He’d been away from ‘home’ for only two weeks and three days, and it felt like a year.

The house was as he left it, with the exception of the shed for the diesel tank as the photos showed.  The shed was old, rusty, with a dented door. Inside, a locked fuel pump, labeled ‘Diesel’.

Before unloading much of anything, Doug checked the radio at the house, and his Internet connection.  The radio was dead; the Internet was working, sort of.  He tried an Internet radio feed, and another, and another. 

None worked.  The Regent corporate link seemed to connect, but was dial-up modem slow.  It took five minutes to load just the email window. He started some coffee.

Before heading down to the Seghers, Doug decided to unpack the rest of his supplies, and stacked them in the kitchen. He was almost finished when someone knocked on his door.

Doug recognized him through the peephole: August Kliest. ‘Great’, Doug thought as he opened the door.

“Mister Peterson, good to see you home,” Kliest said.

“Mister Kliest. What can I do for you?”

“I was just making sure you’re settling in all right,” he replied, studying Doug more than anything else. “Remember--call me Augie.”

“Haven’t been home long enough to know…except for the radio stations are all dead, and the Internet is dead slow.”

“Corporate said there might be some impacts like this,” Kliest said. “Things in Europe are the cause, I hear.”

“What?” Doug said.  “What do you mean?”

“War’s breaking out. It’s not on the airwaves yet, but its here,” Kliest said as Doug shut the door behind him. “It’ll be bad.”

Doug didn’t reply, still struggling to understand what he’d just heard.

“I understand you’ve been doing some house cleaning up in Des Moines.  Sent Jennings packing?” Kliest said, changing the subject.

“Inadvertently.  The place was a sty. I’m surprised that the FDA hadn’t shut them down.”

“Well, Regent owns the FDA inspectors up there, so there wasn’t much to worry about. Still, your work over the past few days has been most impressive,” Kliest said.

“Have a seat,” Doug said, motioning to the living room.  “I have some questions for you.”

“I’m certain of that,” Kliest said.  “You’ve made it up the ladder in fairly record time.  I would hope that you understand that my looking into your private affairs has been for the good of the company,” he said. Doug thought he was looking for understanding.

“It was a bit disconcerting, but I understand. FYI, I am heading down to the Seghers for dinner. I’m done hiding that relationship,” Doug said.  “Coffee?”

“Sure. Gonna be a long night, I think.”

“Whom do you work for, exactly?” Doug said.

“Regent Intel. Covers under Bluestone of course, and several other subs.”

“Why here? Why in Iowa?”

“Out of the way when it hits the fan,” Kliest replied.

“It hit the fan already,” Doug said.

“No, not really, but it is on the way.”

“God Dammit, you keep speaking in riddles. What the Hell is going on?”

“There are things I know, and things I can deduce.  What I know is that the Company has been for the past several years, positioning itself in ways that didn’t make a Helluva lot of sense to me. But in the past month or three, things started to add up, in one way or another,” Kliest said, taking a sip of the too-hot coffee.

“Corporate consolidations, bailouts, strategic partnerships, whatever you call it, there’s been a pattern of alignments between the government—or elements within the government—and some parts of the private and financial sector.  Companies that should have, for whatever reason, survived the financial collapse didn’t.  They weren’t the chosen ones. I don’t know ‘chosen by who’, but Regent was one of the favored.  Your former employer should have made it but it had credit denied it at the most critical time—they weren’t able to survive it.”

“How do you know all of this?”  Doug asked, flabbergasted.

“I’m in Iowa. I have lots of time,” he replied with a little chuckle.  “I was in Naval Intelligence for three tours, then went into the same line of work for several corporate clients. While I’m not occupied on keeping an ear on the ground here, I research areas that might have impact on the Company.  There are only so many ways that puzzles go together,” he said, taking another sip of coffee.

“Regent—the upper echelon—knew this was coming. They knew that this war was coming, damned near down to the day. It’s not possible to ‘know that’ unless you helped cause it.  I don’t know how deeply they are inserted into various governments, but I don’t like it.”

“Why are you telling me this?” Doug asked. “For all you know, I’m one of them.”

“No, you’re not. And no one seems to know the story on that batch of stitches there, either,” Kliest said, pointing to Doug’s scalp. “But I have a pretty good idea.”

“Enlighten me,” Doug said. He’d told the few people in Des Moines that he’d been hit by a branch while felling a tree.

“Firefight not far from your ex-wife’s location. Close?”

Doug sat down, a little harder than he intended.  “How in God’s name could you know that?”

“Word gets out. Shortwave broadcasts, news about troubles all over.  They get repeated, usually verbatim.  Hams don’t embellish reports like that. Northern Wisconsin.  Twenty-six dead, right?”

Doug nodded. “My ex-wife’s husband is a deputy.  They have kind of a militia up there. I was actually planning on leaving that day.  They had some trouble with people moving up, trying to take things. It wasn’t good.”

“Recognize that I heard two sides of the story. I heard a version similar to that, and a version where the people up there hunted down hungry people and shot them.”

“Absolutely not what happened,” Doug said, and then told Kliest the entire story, including the realization that those killed weren’t all that different than the killers.

“Fair enough,” Kliest said.  “Good to see you have some remorse.”

“I’d have more if they weren’t shooting at me.”

“Yeah, I can understand that,” Augie Kliest replied.

“Let me dress up that coffee. I have a bottle of Bourbon in here somewhere.”

Doug struggled with what he’d just heard, and wondered if he should tell Kliest what he knew about RNEW…what Kevin Martinez had told him, and what he’d seen first hand with actual ‘consumers’ and the documentation to back it up. He realized as he cracked the bottle open, that the whole conversation might have just been a way to get into Doug’s head—to solicit him into spilling what he knew about RNEW. Test his loyalty.

The consequences of doing that would probably be fatal.  


  1. Tom,

    Great Great Stuff!

    I new this RNEW stuff was gonna be . . . something!

    Steve In Bullhead

  2. YES More story. He has to realize that trust must be earned. He is not only risking HIS life but others lives as well.
    IF he tells, (and btw it was bad idea to talk about it on open phone) Or did I forget where they said it was secure lines? If he tells, they will assume he told his ex, and the locals...

  3. Wow Tom!! This is really turning into a serial thriller!!! Great writing! I really enjoy how you weave everything together!

    Keep up the great work!


  4. Excellent job, Tom. Now we have to wonder about
    Augie's motives...

    Definitely looking forward to the next installment. Thanks!

  5. Great but scary story. I check in every few days to see when the new installment is up. Keep up the great work.

  6. OH NO I've caught up! Now on the edge of my seat.

  7. Great job, Tom. I just hope that 'pink slime' we have been hearing about recently in the news, is really not a form of RENEW!

  8. MORE! I check this site every day, twice a day, I am really hooked. This is a great story Tom.


Comments are welcome!