Thursday, September 27, 2012
Three months away from home, Doug walked to the Regent corporate plane, waiting for takeoff. Attired in ‘business casual’ clothing, he was likely not to come back to Denver for at least a month. The FDA had directed him in a half-page memo to begin a Midwest tour of facilities that were failing to meet quotas—none were Regent operations. Doug suspected that information he had provided to Adam Krusen was having a favorable effect.
Julie would be surprised by his arrival, but he did tell her in a letter that he’d be back sometime in early September. The few days extra just happened to fit into an extended Labor Day holiday that the FDA staff was more than happy to create. Of five days in a typical work week, he could count on at least a quarter of the Federal staff missing one day and perhaps two, with a bare minimum of real work getting done in the meantime. Doug was stunned initially at the level of sloth in the administration—the few people that actually had the drive to work were quickly worn down or bought off with bonus pay…rewarding them for less actual productivity. As the summer wore on, it was apparent that less effort was being put into recovery. The effort was going toward reward and incentive pay, the scuttlebutt was all about how the President would be ‘strengthening the nation and taking care of those troublemakers in the East.’
Doug’s two immediate superiors were decent enough men and also completely out of their depth. Political appointees and friends of friends of Senators or some such, they were put in place after the qualified predecessors died in the first round of Guangdong flu. Doug had requested biographies of both the Director and Deputy Director in his first few days, just to gain some background on each. Neither had a background in food, industrial production or anything related to regulation. Both looked like they were doing their job, attending meetings, arranging for staff to handle assignments, and then reporting to their superiors.
Doug found the men easily manipulated, deferring to their staffs the heavy lifting, especially if the idea were presented for them to put forward as ‘theirs.’ Suspecting that neither knew the true nature of RNEW or Regent’s plans, he found it relatively easy to prevent incorporation of RNEW lines in non-affected plants in the West, and to limit shipments of the Regent-designed additives only to the already-affected Eastern United States. Regent, meanwhile, was struggling to find out why they were being shut down at every turn when trying to get ‘product’ to the Pacific Coast and to the troops in Mexico. He was quite thorough in making sure that the RNEW conversations didn’t identify him in any way, including electronic communication.
Doug wouldn’t miss what Denver now represented to him; the constant role-playing, masking any vestige of his true feelings and thoughts, working late in order to avoid being entrapped in the sex-fest at The Mile, where high priced prostitutes serviced any Federal worker they could wrap their legs around....his too-close-for-comfort proximity to what he now knew as an entrenched system in full collapse.
Drinks at The Mile were free, the food excellent, and the entertainment started at a thousand dollars, and went up from there. Doug’s one and only visit to the venue was eight days into his job, when one of the Deputy Directors’ senior staff invited him along. Doug attended out of courtesy and not knowing anything about the place, and was able to make a discrete exit after the man that invited him was shown to a private room, while Doug remained in the bar area. The bar was nothing more than a parade ground where the Federal invitees could select their entertainment for the evening, or their level of perversion, or both.
Denver International was much more shabby and crowded than his arrival visit in June. He had been escorted into a military security checkpoint, grilled for fifteen minutes, patted down and sent through a three-dimensional scanner. All of his luggage was searched as well, scanned, and left for him to re-pack. His Federal security badge was logged into the system, and he was cleared for travel to the Midwest.
None of that was unexpected, as he’d heard stories about outbound travel. Federal clearance didn’t guarantee travel approval, but no Federal I.D. was as good as trying to get there on foot. No one boarded any sort of airliner without proper I.D. within a hundred miles of a Federal Zone.
The troops lined up for departure looked more worn and drawn, than the men that Doug had seen in the terminal in June. Uniforms were mismatched; backpacks dirtier and worn, and the men themselves had an attitude that spoke of fatigue. His military escorts didn’t answer his casual question of where the men were coming from, or where they were going, just returning Doug’s question with a look that said, ‘don’t ask again.’ As he walked toward the Regent-supplied aircraft—another ‘effort to assist the Government in Recovery’—Doug noted that the aircraft being used by the Army were all in civilian livery. No military transports were visible anywhere. He also noted that the airport security detail, instead of driving the typical Humvee were using Toyota pickup trucks with mounted machine guns.
“Bloody Mary sir? Should be about five minutes or so to taxi,” the steward asked. “Also, sir, that envelope in the seat next to you is for you, regarding your connection in Des Moines I believe.”
“Uh, sure. That’d be great. And thanks for this,” he replied, holding up the large packet.
“You worked for Regent, sir?” the steward asked.
“Yes. Volunteered to help out the FDA until things get settled,” Doug replied. “Kind of a temporary detachment. Name’s Doug Peterson.”
“Michael Sandram, sir. Home base is Columbus.”
“How’re things back there? Been awhile since I’ve been.”
“Fine, sir,” the steward replied courteously, not giving away a thing as he poured Doug a tall drink and added a fresh celery stalk. Doug knew that fresh food like that wasn’t just a premium expense; it was all but impossible to find. “Should be right around an hour fifteen to Des Moines, once we’re airborne, and I’ve got a nice lunch once we’re at altitude.”
“Many thanks,” Doug replied, taking the drink.
The Pilatus single engine started up, idled for a minute or so, and the plane rolled onto the taxiway, pausing only a moment before the pilot went into his takeoff roll.
He hadn’t even noticed that the plane had leveled off at altitude, being deeply engrossed in the itinerary and his expected observations and the reasoning for the inspections.
The large securely sealed Tyvek envelope held Doug’s FDA assignment schedule, starting on Monday, September Eleventh. Until then, he was a free man, more or less. The paperwork included instructions on obtaining a Government Services Administration vehicle in Des Moines, locations of fueling stations, lodging, and of course the lengthy list of target facilities. He was directed to use his discretion on visiting targets on that list, none of which had been notified of his pending visit. He noted that every single fueling station, place of lodging, and cafeteria were either within Federal Zones or on military bases. Another envelope bore a Regent watermark, and Doug kept that free from the eyes of the steward. It was the first time in a month that he’d had a Regent packet arrive confidentially.
“Mister Peterson? I have a light lunch of baked brie and baguettes, with apricot preserves and a raspberry chipotle, accompanied by a nice Merlot, if you’re interested,” the steward inquired.
“Huh?” Doug replied. “Oh, sorry. Yes, that sounds great.”
“Very well, sir. I’ll have it right up.”
The lunch was quite good, in keeping with the entire system of Federal operations, but Doug didn’t know if this was more ‘Regent’ than ‘Federal.’ The lines seemed to blur, especially as he read through the single page Regent document marked ‘Confidential’.
Doug—it is imperative that you complete the entire itinerary provided herein by September 30, although there is no specific order for completion. All courtesies typically provided under Federal employment will be provided to you at each location of course. Additional information will be forthcoming at the Des Moines plant.
Your quarterly compensation has been doubled. The Chairman is most pleased with your performance.
Doug had correctly assumed that Regent had monitored not only his FDA communications, but also that of anyone else in the Denver location...so he often used hand-written notes on legal pads or better yet, sticky notes. He couldn’t figure out who authored this document, however, and what they were up to with this itinerary. Regent could be controlling the target plants’ operations without outright ownership, and could’ve set up a situation where his presence would be warranted on some sort of fact-finding mission, but he couldn’t figure out what could be so important. He was still wondering when the plane touched down in Des Moines.
“Mr. Peterson? Very nice to have you here, sir. I have your vehicle right over here,” a very pleasant young woman in the Security Service office said. The privatized Security Service handled transportation coordination for high-profile Federal staff as well as, Doug had discovered, serving as companion security to that of the long-established Federal Protective Service.
“Thanks. Been a long day,” he said offhandedly.
“It’ll be a long night too—tornado warnings up southwest of here,” the young woman said. “Here are your keys, you should be cleared at the gate. Do you need a map?”
“No thanks, I know where I’m headed,” he replied.
“Your vehicle is in the second row, third from the end,” she said. Doug noticed the very dusty first row of vehicles, obviously they’d not moved for quite some time.
“What’s up with those?” he asked.
“Oh. Those were hybrids. Haven’t worked since the war. Something to do with one of the onboard computers. The batteries won’t charge.”
“Huh. Can’t fix them?”
“With what?” the young woman laughed.
Doug drove off in a clean but weathered Grand Cherokee, and within fifteen minutes, arrived at the Regent plant.
He fished out his Regent Performance Group I.D. at the gate, surprised by the conciliatory but superior attitude of the guards, a cursory check of the government vehicle, and escort to the corporate conference room. He knew none of the employees along the way, and few of them spoke. There seemed to be an air of unease in the place.
His new position in the FDA didn’t allow him unrestricted plant access, even though he was “former” Regent. The plant manager barely acknowledged him, and none of the plant workers were people he’d known—which made him wonder where his trusted staff had been sent.
The office he formerly occupied now had a new nameplate on the door; the conference room appeared to be unmolested. An executive assistant showed Doug to his seat, brought him a chilled Pellegrino, and left. A moment later, the flat screen across from him came to life, and Regent Columbus logged on. Kevin Martinez was on the other end of the videoconference.
“Mister Peterson. Good to see you.”
“Kevin, you as well,” Doug lied. “Long time since training days.”
“And I seriously doubt that you’ve had any range time lately,” the man in the wheelchair replied from across the miles. “Wondering why you’re here, no doubt.”
“No doubt,” Doug replied, taking a drink from the bottled water. “I don’t recognize anyone here. Where’d they all go?”
“From what I understand, several were transferred to other Des Moines facilities. At least two of your associates have passed on,” Martinez replied.
“What? Which…” Doug started, before Martinez continued on.
“Dowling, Robert Arthur. Professional hit outside the wire at your plant. Unusual weapon…captive bolt gun at the base of the skull.” Having toured slaughterhouses during his career, Doug was all to familiar with the old fashioned tool they used to use to destroy the cerebrum of cattle, leaving the brain stem intact for bleeding during slaughter. Hitting the base of the skull in a human however, was instant death.
Doug felt sick to his stomach. Rob was a good man. “Jesus,” he said to himself, feeling himself go pale. “Who else?” he said almost in a whisper.
“Redmond. Francine Renee,” Martinez said quietly.
“What happened to her?” Doug asked flatly. Martinez didn’t answer.
“We need to debrief. That’s why we’re here. You won’t be going back to Denver any time soon. What you know, we need to know,” Martinez said, leaning forward. “A few of my people in Des Moines are looking after your vehicle at this time. You’ll find that your compensation for the past several months will be residing in your vehicle, along with an a weapons package similar to the one we provided previously—take these along with you on your fact-finding trip. Additionally, there are several packages that will be retrieved by other Regent personnel while you are on your tour. You don’t need to take any action on those items.”
“Well, I’m pleased to be paid,” Doug said sarcastically, trying to regain his destroyed composure. “What am I being paid with?”
“Kruggerands, I would suspect. Smaller denominations would be silver rounds.”
“I don’t quite know what to say, other than thanks,” Doug said quietly.
“You’re doing pretty well financially working for the Federal Government, but it’d be pretty tough to actually find a place to spend it. Regent’s a bit more practical with regards to portability, although again, you’ll probably find it difficult to spend at this time. Questions?”
“No, not really, but I would like to be home tonight,” Doug said, leaning back in the chair. He realized how tired he was.
“Debrief will probably delay you to a late departure—I’d advise traveling in daylight.”
“Fair enough,” Doug replied, almost hiding his irritation. “So, what do you know? I had assumed that Regent monitored all electronic communications and voice traffic in the Denver operation.”
Martinez smiled. “We do…and much more. It’s more the nuance, the impression, the feeling for those above you. How they’ll react, what their weak spots are.”
“Regent has behavioral scientists for that. Predictive psychologists. Any corporation worth their salt does,” Doug replied.
“We do, and ours are good. There are…anomalies in any intelligence gathering operation that need to be run to ground. That’s why we’re here.”
“What sort of anomalies?” Doug asked, brow furrowed.
“Decisions made by your superiors that go against the recommendations of their staff, for one.”
Doug chuckled. “You ever work for someone that came to the completely wrong conclusion after being handed all the right data?”
“The Director and Deputy Director don’t really have any idea of what the FDA does…what its’ responsibilities are. It’s not a stretch to think that they are being influenced by other Cabinet-level political appointees in a direction other than what might be predicted; or what might be logical based on data provided to them. They barely grasp the fact that our food production as a nation is a tiny fraction of what it was a year ago, because it doesn’t impact them directly in any way. You have any idea what kind of food we eat out there?” Doug asked, before realizing the answer. “Of course you do. Sorry. The FDA, and the vast majority of the departments out there, every single department head for certain, is completely out of touch with reality. You realize this, don’t you?” Doug asked.
“There are things that Regent can influence, and things that we cannot, at this time. You’re saying that you think that they’re being influenced by someone else, outside of their staff, and making the decisions they’re making?”
“That’s what I think. There’s only so much I can do within the framework I work in. I can’t exactly require the use of Regent product in certain parts of the country over the objections of my superiors, especially when they think that the East, being more populated than the West, needs it more.”
Doug and Martinez’ conference lasted the better part of three hours. Doug provided a handful of undocumented observations on his superiors as well as several other department heads and two Cabinet members. Regent would likely find a way to use the information as leverage. Doug learned inadvertently through the conversation that Regent was invested heavily in the revolts in the Northeast, when Martinez mentioned casually of Regent’s efforts to “distract and destabilize current leadership models.” Doug didn’t react to that statement outwardly, but was shocked to learn that Regent would do such a thing. A moment later, he realized that he shouldn’t have been surprised at all.
At the conclusion of the conference call, one of the Regent executive assistants directed Doug to a guest suite, not far from his old apartment, and provided him the concierge menu for room service, implying that he was to stay in his quarters. The armed security guards at the entry to the production area would prevent any informal tour of the working floor.
Plainly this was no longer ‘friendly territory.’
Des Moines, Iowa
Six a.m. came and Doug rose quickly, eager to get on the road to Julie. After a hot shower, he packed, stowed his computer, and one of the Regent staff delivered his breakfast to his room. He noted the exceptionally subservient attitude immediately, finally realizing that aside from the guards, the entire staff was probably co-opted by RNEW. He wondered just what kind of quality and production levels they were maintaining, with minds as sharp as butter knives.
By seven, Doug was ready to leave, but hoped to get a glimpse of the production workers on First Shift. He was surprised to learn that the plant manager had not yet arrived, and that the guards were not disposed to let Doug enter, despite Federal credentials. Rather than making an issue of it, he decided to simply enter it in his FDA report, which Regent would no doubt read before any of his superiors, and see what corrective action would be taken to put up the appearance of open and honest environments for inspection by Federal Regulators.
The Cherokee was freshly washed and vacuumed, and the cargo area held the standard FDA road kit and the rest of the area was filled with boxes with Regent logos. The lot attendant provided Doug recommended driving routes to his Regent-provided home, and a sealed, unmarked envelope. In the passenger foot well, a fairly large backpack was stowed, and an M-4 rifle in a slipcase. He didn’t bother to open the envelope until he had cleared the facility gates and found a quiet, abandoned Ameri-Mart parking lot.
“Doug—product in the boxes is Preferred. Noted that you’d not cashed any of your Regent pay. Payroll is in the satchel in your car. With the anticipated reval of the dollar, Regent pays E Branch in gold and silver at the rate of $20/oz gold, $1.40/oz of silver. You ought to be able to buy anything you want paying with metal. Prices vary widely across the region—you’ll need to negotiate. Prices in paper are ridiculous—you’d need a truck to carry this much cash.
There’s four months’ payroll here, one hundred and twelve ounces of gold and the remaining fractions in silver.
Stay sharp. Sorry about your friends.—K. Martinez.”
For the first time, Doug realized that Martinez might have been responsible for Rob and Francine’s death. ‘Professional hit,’ he’d said about Rob's death, and no details at all on Francine.
What did they know that got them killed?