Monday, December 9, 2013
North Platte, Nebraska
Doug was rudely awakened by a security agent pounding on the cab of the semi. The rain and wind continued through the night, making rest for Doug, crashed out in the passenger seat difficult, although Hempstead slept soundly in the sleeper compartment.
“Thirty-minute warning!” The security agent yelled.
“Bright and early,” Ezra said, pulling back the black curtain. “Best get ready for the road. Breakfast will be first-come, first served. We need to get movin’.”
“This normal?” Doug asked, pulling on his boots.
“No such thin’ as normal anymore.”
The temperatures outside the truck were bitterly cold, more typical of early December in the Great Plains than mid-September.
“This’ll be a real long, shitty day,” Ezra said, pulling his cap low over his eyes. “Bastards want us to drive on ice. Stupidity of the fifth power.”
“The fifth power? I don’t understand.” Doug replied as they walked to the truck stop. Hempstead stopped for a moment, and looked at him with a little smile before answering.
“Baron de Montesquieu. French philosopher, died in seventeen seventy-five. Defined the first three powers: legislative, executive and judic’ry. Ramonet expanded them: the fourth is the mass media. The fifth could be defined as the economy. Allegiance to the god of the fifth power—the economy—puts us at risk. Stupidity.”
Ezra continued towards the diner, leaving Doug stopped in his tracks. “Who are you?”
“I’ve only been a driver for six years,” Hempstead replied with a smile, looking at Doug over his shoulder as he continued to walk.
“What did you do prior to that time, if I may ask?”
“Chief operating officer of Price Pacific Technology. Before that, chief technology officer. Built it from a startup thirty-four years ago,” Ezra said as they reached the door. They got in line for breakfast.
“How…why are you…” Doug asked before Ezra cut him off.
“Ever read ‘Atlas Shrugged?’”
“Well, yeah. In high school, maybe the first year out.”
“Our company was being killed by the Federal Government. We didn’t cooperate with certain agencies that wanted access to our products, pre-release. They wanted us to build in back doors for their security snoops to spy on people. We turned ‘em down. They attacked us on the IRS side. Then they denied us other things…like medical insurance. Then our ‘environmental audits’ came up dirty. Then liens on our intellectual property. Seizure of working capital—in lieu of money claimed owin’ on unemployment accounts. All of that, they said could be wiped clean, if we cooperated. We’d seen it comin’, a long time ahead. In the space of eight hours, we erased all of the data that the Feds wanted to get their filthy mitts on, nuked the backups, hammered the hardware…let the entire staff go with a years’ severance. Then went all Galt on them. Off of their tax rolls, out of their networks. Only five of us knew enough to be useful to the Feds. Two have now passed on, the rest of us are out there in the ether.”
“So you went into trucking?” Doug asked.
“My dad ran a truckin’ business when I was a kid. Honest labor, lets me see the country,” Ezra said, picking up the breakfast tray. “Besides that, I get to meet some interestin’ people.”
Breakfast was served cafeteria style again, and consisted of reconstituted eggs, warmed over pre-cooked bacon, and some sort of canned bread and powdered butter. It was awful on all accounts, and Doug was unconcerned that any of it contained RNEW—it wasn’t up to Regent standards.
The ‘thirty-minute warning’ stretched into five and a half hours before the first truck took the road. The ice on the roads was still present, but temperatures seemed to be warming. The five or six hour trip from North Platte to Des Moines took thirteen hours, with a fueling stop in Omaha thrown in, and a complete search of the convoy for good measure.
Des Moines, Iowa
The Des Moines truck stop—this one on the far west side of the city—was in only slightly better shape than the North Platte location. The convoy arrived a little before midnight, and Doug thanked Ezra for the lift. Doug found it only moderately difficult to fall asleep—his future with Julie was now only hours away.
The truck stop had a separate wing with micro rooms to rent-generally a queen sized bed, a flat-panel television, a half-bath, small refrigerator and microwave. Doug rented one for a twelve-hour period, paying fifty dollars in gold coin, and a five-dollar tip. For five peaceful hours, Doug slept, being roused by a soft alarm he’d set on the alarm clock beside the bed. He rose and quickly showered and dressed, thinking about the day ahead.
He needed to find a way to get to the Farm without means of identification, assuming that Regent would be watching all conventional means of transport, all of which required I.D. and in many cases, governmental clearance. Being ‘afoot’ was an almost certain guarantee to be picked off or picked up, according to the now-departed Ezra Hempstead; bicycle travel—assuming he could even find one--just as risky. He’d need to find someone heading in the general direction of southeast Iowa and would have to go from there.
Dressing in more worn than serviceable clothes and a very old cap, Doug checked out of his room by six a.m. The ridiculously expensive ‘Continental Breakfast’ consisted of an English muffin with some tired peanut butter, reconstituted apple juice, and strong, black tea. He scouted out the restaurant for potential rides to the southeast.
The handful of people in the restaurant weren’t truck drivers, deliverymen or anyone that Doug thought might be a prospect for a ride. To the left, a husband, wife and three children, none of whom looked like they’d had clean clothes in a month; to the right, two solitary women dressed in heavy clothing, each holding their hot tea in both hands, trying to capture the warmth. He’d expected more people at this time of day—truckers, factory workers, farmers, starting the day off.
“You need anything else, pardner?” the cook/waiter asked Doug. The man, in his early forties, was dressed in typical short-order cook fashion, working the entire restaurant solo.
“Just lookin’ for a ride at this point,” Doug replied quietly. “Know of anyone heading out?”
The cook regarded Doug for a moment before answering. “Legit? Nope,” the man said quietly, filling Doug’s mug with more tea. “Bastard trips, yeah, for a price. Where you headin’?”
“Down south of Fairfield.”
“That’s what, damn near a hundred miles from here?” the cook asked with raised eyebrows.
“How’d ya get so far from home?”
“Coming from Denver,” Doug answered.
“Denver? Jesus Christ. You’re comin’ from the pit of evil? You a Fed?” the cook hissed. The other people in the restaurant heard clearly.
“Used to be. Long story.”
“Advice for you, pal. Lose anything that says ‘Fed’. Them’s the enemy. This place looks like it does because they’ve ‘jacked all the food trucks comin’ our way. Anyone finds out you’re a Fed, you might as well run for your life, cause they’ll just as soon kill ya as look at ya.”
“What about you?” Doug asked quietly. “Why the advice?”
“My son’s out there someplace, workin’ for the Department of Recovery. Told him two months ago to get the Hell out, but of course you can’t tell your kid what to do—they gotta figure it out for themselves. He’s thinkin’ he’s gonna be a big-shot.”
“Well, Denver’s a good place to be from. There’s a lot of bad stuff goin’ on there…most probably hasn’t made the news. I think a plane was shot down out there a couple days ago.”
“No shit. Saw the fireball and the smoke. I was supposed to fly out of there. Hitched a ride on a convoy,” Doug said. “So, any ideas on me catching a ride?”
The cook paused again for most of a minute before answering. “Yeah, I know someone. You got money, right? I mean, real money.”
“I’ve got some,” Doug replied.
“Gimme a little while,” the cook said, before heading back to the kitchen area and out of sight.
Doug fished out his Palm device, and again beat the program on the first level, lost the second and was two moves from beating the third level, when the cook came by again.
“Hundred bucks. Can you do that?”
“Yeah, barely,” Doug replied.
“Ten minutes, out that door,” the cook said pointing to the south.
“Seriously,” Doug replied.
“Yeah. A chunk of that money goes to me, by the way. So yeah, dead serious.”
Doug finished the ‘game’ again enabling the RFID tracking program, almost out of boredom, as the minutes passed. He finished his tea, took a few minutes to visit the men’s room, and then headed out the south door. A white box van emblazoned with ‘Iowa Organic’ waited, idling. The cold rain poured down beyond the overhead canopy.
“That’s the one,” the cook said, looking over Doug’s shoulder. “You don’t have the cash when they make the transfer, you’ll get busted up, though. So be damned sure you’re ready to get in that van.”
“Thanks. For everything,” Doug said, getting in the van.
“Don’t sit there, just get in the back,” the driver said, pulling away from the curb as soon as Doug closed the door. He found a seat in the back of the van, on a bench normally used for cargo. “Five minutes we go into a warehouse. You’ll pay the guys inside. You’ll then meet the driver heading wherever the Hell it is you want to go. Got it?”
Several blocks away, Doug couldn’t tell exactly where or how far they’d traveled, they pulled into a darkened door of a warehouse. The driver killed the lights and shut off the truck. Doug heard the overhead door of the warehouse close, and the warehouse lights flickered on. The rear door of the van opened from the outside.
“Good morning, Mister Peterson,” a voice said, startling Doug. Kevin Martinez, in his wheelchair, sat opposite the open door. “Welcome to Iowa.”
Doug’s heart sank, and he slumped back into his seat. ‘Regent,’ he thought. ‘They’re going to kill me.’
“Out of the van, if you would,” Martinez said. “Grab your gear.”
He did as he was told, climbing out of the van as the other men in the room went about their business.
“Come over to the office,” Martinez said. Doug was surprised that there weren’t weapons trained on him. They entered a small ‘manager’s office’ and Martinez closed the door.
“Finally getting the Hell out, huh?” Martinez asked. “Welcome back to the world,” offering his hand. Kevin Martinez was now working on a beard and had a freshly shaved head, with several tattoos on his neck and arms he’d not seen before.
Doug shook it, not quite knowing what was going on.
“You’re the last one that I figured could make it out. I’ve been wondering when you’d bail.”
“I don’t understand,” Doug said.
“Eight of us died in a plane crash two days ago, as far as the Company knows. No survivors. Went down in the storm the other night in Lake Superior, the story goes. Eventually they’ll find some wreckage.”
“I figured you were…” Doug started. “You’re not with Regent? I thought I was a dead man.”
“Regent killed my brother. Saturday morning. Captive bolt-gun to the back of the head. They don’t know I found that out. He was in Chicago at the time.”
Doug didn’t speak for a moment. “Same as Francine and Rob Dowling,” Doug said.
“Yeah. Probably the Kliests as well. Now I know who did it.”
“I’m sorry about…”
“Don’t be. He was an asshole. Still, he died only because he’s related to me. Corporate has a loose cannon and they’re cleaning things up, or so they think. I have enough on them to end it.”
“You’re…Aren’t you just as guilty?” Doug asked quietly.
“I would be in a court of law, yeah. I know too much. But what I know won’t end up in court. Some of my teams have lost family recently, dead, disappeared, whatever. Several of us were on that plane that ‘went down in the lake’. My guys are getting outfitted to hunt and kill. They’ll be starting soon,” Martinez said.
“How did you find me?”
“Damned few people heading east from Denver these days. You weren’t hard to spot on the Regent surveillance network, especially with continuous facial recognition. You disappeared though for awhile in Omaha, or so thinks Regent. You will be spotted headed to Sioux Falls, and then your electronic I.D. will go off line when the truck hits Williston, North Dakota, all according to the Regent intelligence network.”
“What?” Doug asked stupidly.
“Your escape east has been covered--by me. Regent doesn’t know that I have a slew of tunnels into their network, and that it’s pretty damned easy to manipulate their system.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“Good. Then shut up and listen. If you have anything Regent, get rid of it immediately. Throw it in the microwave over there, for instance,” Martinez said, pointing to the dirty microwave on the opposite wall. “Once the lid blows from the pressure cooker, that whole company and anyone associated with it is dead. You understand?”
“Yeah,” Doug replied “How did you know…”
“Your family has a pretty nice farm. With borrowed satellite imagery, it’s easy to see who’s there and when,” Kevin said. “Where else were you going to go? Your wife’s pregnant, still there on the farm. Logical that you’d head this way. Once the system spotted you on that truck, I logged into the system, figured out the truck manifest and destination. Coming through Des Moines. Your truck pinged every single receiver on the highway and just confirmed location and arrival time in Des Moines. Three truckstops left in the city, only one on the east side. It wasn’t difficult. The two ladies in the restaurant helped I.D. you for me. Twenty dollar gold piece and you can buy a lot of friendship.”
“Who are these people?” Doug said, pointing to the warehouse workers.
“Normal people, hoping to make a buck. They’re good at getting stuff where it needs to be and getting it there without legal interference.”
Doug sat in one of the worn office chairs, unable to think of what to do next.
“Bit much to take in one big bite, I think,” Kevin Martinez said, passing Doug a worn flask. “Take a shot of that.”
Doug did, without thinking too much about it. The liquor was absurdly smooth and unlike anything he’d ever consumed. Spiced with something. “What is that?” Doug said, passing it back to Martinez.
“Moonshine. From a little town in North Carolina.”
“Yeah. Tough to get unless you’ve got connections,” Martinez said, taking a drink himself.
“You’re in the ‘shine business now?” Doug said.
“Now? You mean ‘still’. We all need a little sideline. Provides me a certain layer of security, otherwise not available to me in my former employ. It’ll also conveniently provide you a ride not far from your farm.”
“I really don’t know what to say,” Doug said. “I have a million questions.”
“You’ve got about five minutes, and you’re on that outbound Freightliner. Make them good questions.”
Doug didn’t know whether he should completely trust Martinez or not. This could all be an elaborate ruse…there was no way to be sure either way.
“Who is your target? The people that killed my friends?” Doug asked, quickly coming to the correct conclusion that this was the most important thing he could ask.
“Class A dickhead in Columbus. Currently a V.P. by the name of Holdren.” The name triggered Doug’s memory.
“I’ve met him. Along with his boss…Slocum, and another V.P. by the name of…Salvatore,” Doug said.
“Orders came from that office. Only that office,” Martinez said.
“You’ve not met him, or the other two?” Doug asked.
“Only Slocum, and from a distance. He seemed to think I was less of a man because I’m in a chair, or that was my impression from a ten-second introduction.”
“No, that’s a perfectly accurate impression actually. I met the three of them here at the Regent plant, back in May. Slocum didn’t talk much, but when he did…he knew things he shouldn’t normally have known, and used words like weapons. Personal attack, I mean,” Doug illustrated. “The other two, well, they seemed afraid of him.”
“He’s my number one target. Problem is, he’s been off-grid for a week. I have no idea where he is….and that’s saying something,” Martinez said. “The other two, well, they’re easy.”
“What about after that?”
“Crawl in a hole and pull a rock over me until it’s over.”
“What is the ‘it’ you’re referring to?”
“Civil war of course. You’re seriously not that dense, Peterson. You know this has been coming.”
“It’s…comforting to hear someone else say it, actually,” Doug replied.
“Coming soon. Weeks, not much longer.”
“How do you know? Why are you so sure?”
“New Republic and the President are on the same side. Think about that for a minute,” Martinez said, looking at a clipboard on his desk. “President’s going to win, unless something dramatic happens fairly soon.”
“I don’t get it. The same side…how can that possibly be the truth?”
“President is talking nothing but central control from the get-go, from top to bottom to get rid of all the ‘problems’ that have been ‘standing in the way of progress’. New Republic is pointing out exactly the same things…just blaming the Federal Government for the problems. Exactly the same things. Same side. All those purges and resignations? He’s not shuffling the deck. He’s stacking it.”
“So you’re saying the Federal Government is going to start the next Civil War?” Doug asked, taking another swig from the flask.
“Not all of the Federal Government. Just maybe the top third of it. Or more correctly, ‘a third’ of it,” Martinez said, taking the flask back and taking a drink himself.
“Why? Why on God’s green earth would they do this?”
“You can only fool the people for so long. Once they start to figure it out, or once the whole thing is about to blow, you need to step in and make sure you stay on top of the heap. That’s all it is—maintaining power. Absolute, unquestioned power. Here and globally,” Martinez said. “You better get moving. That’s your driver,” he said, pointing to the window of the office, where a man was looking in, tapping his watch.
“Good luck, Doug. Hope you have a good life,” he said, shaking Doug’s hand again.
“Thank you, Kevin. I hope you do as well.”
Sunday, October 27, 2013
Doug stood before the window of his soon-to-be-empty apartment, looking out at the Front Range and thirteen columns of black smoke rising from many areas of the city and suburbs.
He’d risen early, unable to sleep, and packed the last of his few belongings in the low-priority baggage to be shipped to Regent Columbus. His highest priority items resided in a very business-like backpack, containing all of the elements an individual would need for three days to a week, including an M9 Beretta and magazines. On the company aircraft that Doug was expecting, the pack would travel with him unchecked. Travel on commercial airlines would see the bag emptied, the weapon secured in a locked enclosure and placed under constant supervision of an armed and uniformed air marshal. Doug would also have to pay a surcharge for the privilege of bringing a firearm aboard.
Doug had noted the fires, appearing to burn unchecked, not long after sunrise. The lone AM radio station did not mention them, only providing innocuous local news and weather forecasts, and some puff pieces on upcoming Federal appointees, followed by meaningless story about a high-end invitation only dinner and reception for several un-named foreign dignitaries, to be held in the Zone at an undisclosed location. He’d turned on the television, finding only black screens on all channels. FM radio stations seemed to be operating normally, until he noted there were no DJ’s announcing songs, filling the transitions with meaningless drivel, or news at the top and bottom of the hour. It seemed fully automated on all stations. Doug also noted that the little LED on the ‘cable box’, most likely the hub of the apartments’ surveillance system, was dark—it had never been ‘off’ in Doug’s memory.
Finally, at nearly seven-thirty, two men from ‘Preferred Shipping’ arrived at Doug’s door, quickly loading up a single hand-truck with Doug’s things. Both were in their late twenties or early thirties, wearing worn and not particularly clean coveralls with a company logo. Doug welcomed them further into the apartment.
“This is it? Seriously?” the larger of the two asked—he reminded Doug of a linebacker. “Thought there’d be more. You not taking any of this?” he said, waving at the furniture.
“Belongs to the company,” Doug said. “This was a temp job.”
“Pretty nice digs,” said the second man, a thin, wiry twenty-something with numerous tattoos. “Jeezus pleezus, lookit them fires,” he said, looking out over the city.
“Yeah. Saw them at sunrise. What’s going on? There’s nothing on the radio,” Doug said. Linebacker stopped his companion from replying.
“We gotta get moving. We got orders to get you to DIA as soon as we can. We gotta non-disclosure against talkin’. Can’t even give ya our names. Sorry.”
“You guys want some coffee before we go? Just going to waste otherwise,” Doug said, taking a different tack. “Or the maid’ll take it. Can’t take it with me.” He noted that the men exchanged quick glances.
“Well, we’re not supposed to,” the larger man said.
“I’m not telling,” Doug said. “Let me get a couple of mugs.”
Doug retrieved two Regent mugs from the kitchen, and filled them both with some of the Kona coffee provided to him.
“Cream and sugar?” Doug asked, getting both out from the kitchen.
“You serious? This is real coffee? And sugar?” Tattoo asked.
“Company provided it. Hard to get,” Doug replied.
“Impossible. Not hard,” Linebacker said, pouring an ample dose of cream into the mug, and two tablespoons of sugar.
“Yeah, I know. It’s getting pretty shitty out there,” Doug said, sitting down at the polished mahogany dining table. “Have a seat if you like.”
“We would so get our asses fired if our boss knew about this,” Tattoo said, pulling up a chair. “I haven’t had a coffee in months.”
Linebacker sat down across from Doug. “Uh, Mister Peterson, do you, uh, have any plans for your leftover stuff? I mean your leftover stuff in the kitchen?”
“No, not a one. Want it? There’s not much in there, but the Company will just toss it before someone new moves in,” Doug replied.
“It’d be a shame to waste it,” Linebacker said. “You mind if we take that along?”
“Not at all. There’s not much in the fridge, just that leftover cream and some stuff that oughta get tossed. I had the concierge send up the cream and the orange juice for breakfast, and that loaf of bread. Freezer’s got some stuff though. Bacon, a few steaks and chops,” Doug said offhandedly, seeing the reaction of the two men. “Split it if you like.”
“Uh, OK. We can take care of that for you,” Tattoo said.
“Now, could you give me a little news from the outside?” Doug asked quietly, having provided them payment in advance. They sat there for a few moments before either answered.
“You didn’t hear this from us, OK? We’d get canned if we tell anyone anything, and canned in this town is as good as being on the street, which is just this side of dead.”
“Didn’t hear a thing from you two,” Doug said, taking a drink of coffee.
“Riots all over the place. Feds tried a house-to-house search for guns or some-such, some kid fresh from that goat-screw down in Mexico took exception and they shot him dead. That was last night about eleven,” Tattoo told Doug. “That was over in Lakewood.”
Linebacker continued. “Word got out quick. Bunch of black-wearin’ thugs started showing up on other people’s doorsteps, just bang in the door with a big ol’ sledge and start looking for God knows what. Someone popped one of those Feds in the face with a twelve-gauge when they busted inta his place, and then the neighbors joined in. Them fires are the Feds’ tanks a-burnin’.”
“Tanks?” Doug asked.
“Might as well be, yeah. Some of them armored things left over from Afghanistan, sorta looks like a semi-tractor. Big ‘n black and a chain gun up in the roof. They burn real good, you get enough fuel on ‘em,” Linebacker said.
“That’s gotta have the Feds shittin’ bricks,” Doug said, in a more casual dialect.
“You got that right. Getting the Hell outta here’s about the smartest move out there.”
“What about you guys? This thing comes apart, you got a plan?”
They exchanged looks before Tatoo answered. “We got plans. We’re gonna be just fine. Question is, where you headin’?”
“Supposed to go to Columbus, finish up with the company, then a nice quiet corner of nowhere.”
“Bad shit comin’, Mister Peterson. Bad shit.”
“Yeah. If this is the way it looks in our temporary Capitol, what does the rest of the country look like?” Doug asked. Neither of the men answered.
They finished up the coffee, and Tattoo made a trip down to their truck to retrieve moving boxes. Within ten minutes, the kitchen was stripped of all remaining foodstuffs, soaps and detergents; everything packed in boxes and secured to a second hand truck. Both men were in considerably better moods as they left the apartment.
Doug rode in the back seat of the double-cab box van, showing his I.D. badge as the van was searched at the roadblock, finally getting the nod from the armed and armored security team. Linebacker radioed in to his dispatcher on the company radio, briefly stating they had ‘the package’ and were heading to DIA. The dispatcher acknowledged the pickup, with orders to report from DIA for their next assignment.
“Surprised they didn’t open up the boxes and search them, too,” Doug said.
“They’ve got our seals on them,” Tattoo replied. “We’re bonded shippers, so they don’t search our stuff once we seal it up. Penalty for not playing by their rules is wicked steep.”
“Good thing that we’re following the rules then,” Doug said with a chuckle.
“Yessir!” Linebacker said as he laughed. “Them porterhouses woulda been wasted in them boys.”
Interstate Seventy, heading east toward the Denver International interchange was virtually deserted. Doug noted numerous additional plumes of smoke on the eastern side of the metro area as well.
“Same thing over here? Feds?” Doug asked.
“Could be. Could be boys just gettin’ off on gettin’ even, too. Lotta that goes on outside the Zone,” Linebacker replied. “But usually only at nighttime. Fires mostly burn out by dawn.”
The van approached the airport, cruising along the empty Pena Boulevard. Doug contemplated the flight to Columbus, and what he’d do once he arrived. Linebacker suddenly slammed on the brakes, jarring Doug in the back seat and forcing him to grab whatever he could as the van slewed to a stop. A rapidly expanding cloud of fire and thick black smoke rose near the Airport.
“Jeezus,” Tattoo said as the van stopped in the middle of the road. “You think sum’n bagged a frickin’ plane?”
“Dunno,” Linebacker replied, “but no way in Hell am I drivin’ up to all that security in a van that looks like a truck bomb.” He turned the van around and headed west in the eastbound lanes, soon crossing over to the other side of the boulevard.
“Sorry, Mister Peterson. You’re not getting to the airport today,” Tattoo said as Linebacker radioed in to dispatch.
“Dispatch, this is Fourteen. Something bad just happened at the airport. We’re not going out there,” Linebacker said. No response from the dispatcher came through.
“We gotta get off this highway,” Tattoo said. “This ain’t a good place to be. Feds gonna come down like a hammer again.”
“Take the next exit,” Doug said. “Bunch of hotels to the south of here. What do you mean by ‘again?’”
“Some government people bit it last week at the airport. Any truck or car moving got shot all to Hell by helos. Friends of ours were running a cargo load. The never knew what hit ‘em.”
Linebacker took the next exit, quickly but legally, driving the posted limit. The flashing lights of a Colorado State Patrol car met them, speeding north toward the airport. It passed them without notice.
“Next one on the left,” Doug said. “Over there. There’s a few vans in the parking lot like this one.”
Tattoo was scanning the horizon toward the city. “Choppers coming. Jeez. Six of ‘em.”
The van slowed, pulled into the parking lot, and casually parked near three other box vans.
“Maybe it’s time for a late breakfast,” Doug said.
“We ain’t really dressed for a place like this,” Tattoo said.
“It’ll be OK. We’ll just tell ‘em the truth,” Doug replied. Linebacker took a smaller radio from the dash of the van.
“This’n links to the main radio,” he said to Doug. “Maybe dispatch’ll have an idea what’s goin’ on.”
The hotel restaurant had a dozen or so people inside, many looking to the northeast as the smoke plume towered into the sky. The waitress greeted Doug at the front desk.
“C…Can I help you?” she asked shakily.
“Well, we were heading to the airport when something happened…we figured we should maybe come here,” Doug said. “Can we stay here? Tom and Larry here are helping me ship some important materials,” he said quietly.
“Uh, sure. No one knows what happened. Take a seat anywhere. I’ll get you some menus and coffee,” she said, and then asking quietly, “Do you have money?”
“Yeah. We’re good,” Doug spoke confidently. “I’ve got this.”
The waitress went to get a carafe of coffee as they took their seats. Tattoo asked, “So which one of us is Larry?”
Two hours passed before ‘Tom’ and ‘Larry’ heard from their dispatcher, who ordered them back to the Metro area for their next assignment. While they were waiting, speculation ran wild in the hotel and the restaurant about what had happened at the airport, but no television coverage of it appeared, other than a simple statement ‘that at the present time, DIA had been closed due to an incident.’ The statement was not repeated.
Both of the men apologized to Doug for leaving him short of his destination, and suggested that he might be able to catch a ride on an Eastbound convoy of semis, which were on regular schedules departing every few hours.
Doug would be left to fend for himself, his two large suitcases, suit bag, a soft-side attaché and backpack in the restaurant of the Front Range Suites. Doug’s essentials were in the backpack and the attaché, which was actually a detached portion of the backpack.
“Hang on a second before you go,” he told ‘Tom’ and ‘Larry.’ He headed over to the desk of the concierge.
“May I be of service?” the well-groomed young man asked.
“Yes. It appears that my flight out today will not be taking off. Do you have rooms available?” Doug asked, fishing out his Regent credit card and sliding it into the hands of the concierge, who looked at it briefly and handed it back without entering into the computer. Months before, Doug had concealed the card in a very thin scan-proof sleeve in his backpack. In theory, the case prevented the embedded chip to be detected ‘on the fly’. In reality, Doug had no idea if the technology really worked.
“We are fully booked at this time, but we should have a large contingent of guests checking out within the next two hours, leaving on ground transport. Would that be of interest?”
“Yes. That would be fine. May I store those bags until that time?”
“But of course. I will reserve a suite for you, Mister Peterson. How many nights?”
“Well, I’m uncertain on that. Have you heard when the airport will reopen?”
“Unfortunately not, sir. I cannot hazard a guess.”
“Let’s call it three nights then, just in case.”
“Excellent, sir. Until your room is available, you are welcome to use our conference center at your convenience.”
“How is your communications service? Still intact? I’ve been working at the FDA downtown for quite a while.”
“Apologies, sir, there are some limited connections to the Federal network, but only with proper login and authorization. Unfortunately, telephones are a bit spotty as well.”
“No problem. I may just take a stroll around. Pretty day for a walk.”
“It is at that, sir,” the concierge said, signaling to a bellhop to retrieve Doug’s bags, tag and store them. Doug paid the bill for ‘brunch’ with his Regent card—deliberately—and then put it back into the metallic sleeve.
“Mind if I catch a ride with you two?” Doug asked ‘Tom’ and ‘Larry’, who both raised their eyebrows at the question. “Just drop me at that truck stop you mentioned.”
“What about your stuff?” ‘Larry’ asked.
“They’ll store it. They think I’m staying here tonight. With luck, I’ll be on a truck headed east by then.”
“Sure. Saddle up. Thanks for brunch, Mister Peterson. Can’t tell my girlfriend about this though. She’d kill me if she found out I had eggs benedic’,” ‘Larry’ replied.
Five miles south of the cluster of hotels, the van pulled into the truck stop, just off of Airport Boulevard. The parking lot was packed, with easily more than a hundred trucks parked.
“Weird to see this many mid-day,” ‘Tom’ said.
“Yeah. Should be on the road this time a-day,” Larry replied. “You might be in luck, Mister Peterson.”
“Maybe so,” Doug said as the van stopped near the far end of the fueling island. He grabbed is pack, thanked the men again, and closed the door. The van quickly turned around and left as Doug made his way up the fueling island, checking out the trucking companies along the way. He knew most of their coverage areas as well as they did, in his former life.
“Anyone heading east?” Doug asked two drivers conversing as their tanks filled.
“Damn near ever’ one. Needin’ a lift?” said a rotund, overall-clad man about Doug’s age.
“Yeah. Doesn’t look like flying’s an option,” Doug said.
“Got that right. Hell’a mess over there,” the second driver said. He looked to be too old to be driving. “Where ya headed?”
“I’m headed to Chicago,” the first man replied. “We leave in twenty minutes. You got some scratch?”
Doug looked the older man in the eye and asked, “What’s the goin’ rate?”
“Whatever the driver can get, a-course,” the younger driver replied with a wink.
“Twelve hour drive, probably a stop or three for security, maybe a few Federal searches along the way, I’d guess?” Doug said.
“Depends,” the older driver replied.
“This a Federal convoy, or private?” Doug asked.
“Depends,” the driver repeated. Doug was getting frustrated.
“OK. Let’s cut the bullshit then,” Doug said, taking out his Federal ID and FDA badge, which caused both men to step back involuntarily. “I have business in Des Moines. These can be used to make things easier, or more difficult. What’s your price?”
“How’s fifty bucks gold?” the man answered quickly.
“I don’t have any ten-coins. Call it good at sixty, and no one will see these for the duration,” Doug said, putting his obsolete Federal ID’s away. The younger driver laughed and shook his head.
“Money’s more than fine. And keep that ID handy. Might smooth things along the way. Ya never know,” the older driver said, shaking Doug’s hand. “Sorry about that.”
“Not to worry,” Doug answered.
They cleared the truck stop exit on schedule, part of a fifty-truck convoy protected by private security ahead, within, and behind the line of trucks. Lead and chase vehicles surrounded the convoy, jumping ahead to block off on-ramps, provide scouting of the highway ahead of the main convoy, and trailing units keeping an eye on any vehicles that might approach from the rear. There was no citizens’ band radio chatter on orders of the convoy commander. Without anything but Government approved radio within radio range of Denver, Doug and the driver, Ezra Hempstead, had little to listen to, other than the commands of the convoy commander to the security team, and some ancient Country Western music dating from the sixties.
Doug told Ezra that the business in Des Moines wasn’t related to official FDA business, which was correct of course—he was no longer employed there. As the miles ticked away, Ezra told Doug to ‘catch some Z’s while you can’. Just outside of Sterling, Colorado he took the advice, made himself comfortable, and dozed off.
Two hours later, the truck lurched to a sudden stop, waking Doug from a particularly nice dream. The weather had turned while he slept—he woke to steady rain and gusting wind from the north.
“You OK?” Ezra asked.
“Yeah. Surprised me that we stopped is all,” he said, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. “Where are we?”
“Five miles outta North Platte.”
“Looks like the road’s closed. Expect we’ll be here awhile,” Ezra replied.
“Did the convoy leader say that?” Doug asked.
“They never say that, but no one’s movin’, and there’s no reason to stop here unless there’s trouble up ahead. If there’s any trouble between here and Grand Island, I’d bet we’re here for the night.”
“Weather sure went downhill,” Doug said. “Do you make this run often?”
“Six days a week for three and a half months. Seen enough of this road to last a lifetime.”
“Exiting at Eighty Three South. Stay in queue and park as directed,” the convoy leader directed on the radio.
“And there you are,” Ezra said. “Hope you brought a book or two to read. We’re restricted to the truck stop area, or whatever they designate as a truck park. No one leaves their truck until we get the say-so.”
For twenty minutes, the convoy crawled along Interstate Eighty, barely moving toward the interchange. Finally, the hundred-truck convoy parked in a huge, graveled parking area a half-block from a local truck stop.
“One through twenty, clear to exit. Back in thirty, no exceptions,” the radio stated.
“That’s us. We’re nineteen, in case you didn’t know,” Ezra said.
“But we’re something like thirty-third in line, aren’t we?” Doug asked.
“Yep. Doesn’t matter where we are in line, though. Too much to keep track of in a convoy.”
Doug pulled a rain shell from his pack, along with a baseball cap, and climbed down from the cab, following Ezra in his ‘Hempstead Limited’ jacket. The convoy security teams had deployed and cordoned off the truck park. Doug casually noted five men with rifles, looking out through the grey rain at the small town of North Platte.
“This happen often?” Doug asked. “Sorry I ask so many questions, by the way. Trying to learn what it’s like out of the city.”
“Often enough. Haven’t had a clean run to the east in four weeks, maybe five. South’a here snipers are taking out solo drivers. Gets worse the farther from the big cities you go. So we convoy, those lead trucks usually are armored up. Glass, steel plate, run-flat tires. The security boys run up ahead, see if there are any traps on bridges or overpasses,” Hempstead explained as they crossed the street toward the truck stop restaurant.
“More trouble away from the cities? I don’t get it,” Doug said.
“Seems wrong, doesn’t it?” Ezra explained. “Used to be the other way around. Cities have been, well, I guess you’d call it ‘pacified.’ Anyone gettin’ near a convoy highway is pretty much fair game for security. Gangs and such that used to mob a convoy pretty much been killed off by now. But out here, I figure it’s the loners. They got nothin’ left, so they figure to score a truckload of food or somethin’. Small towns like this’n have some real problems. Can’t hardly feed themselves. You’ll see what I mean, inside,” Ezra said as he opened the door.
The restaurant was nearly deserted except for the truckers and a few security men, who were looking out the windows and manning the doors. Two men, obviously with the security detail, hauled in two locking trunks, popped the latches, and started handing out sandwiches and pouring coffee from a large, insulated container. A man and woman, Doug guessed they were the cook and a waitress, stood and watched from behind the lunch counter. The menu items, displayed above the counter on a backlit plastic panel, were nearly all crossed out with a black line. All of the prices had been removed, he noted.
“You oughta hit the can while you got time,” Ezra said. “One thing you should learn is to take every opportunity. Can’t stop on the road. I’ll get you a sandwich and some coffee.”
“OK,” Doug said.
“One more thing. No talkin’ to the locals,” Hempstead told Doug. “Doesn’t pay to stir the pot.”