Friday, December 31, 2010

Distance, Chapter 9


January Nineteenth
11:40 a.m.

Doug was looking at four long ballistic nylon bags nestled inside plywood-framed boxes, fitted between the floor joists.

“They slide out from that end,” Julie pointed.  “The first bag is roped to a second. Eight total,” she said. “They’re heavy.”

“Damned right they are,” Doug said as he lugged the first bag out. “What’s in these?”

“Let’s get them out of here and go. We’ll talk on the way,” Julie said.

“This isn’t drugs, is it?”

“Most certainly not!” Julie said. “I’ll go back downstairs.  Once you get those out of the floor, you can cut the tie rope with a knife in the front pocket of the first bag on the left,” she said. “Then get them loaded and we can go.”

It took Doug another few minutes to get the bags separated and then moved to the truck. Each bag was fully packed; two of them seemed to have hard-shell cases inside, three feet long or so, and a few inches thick. The remaining contents seemed to be in bags, and their contents could be moved around a little. After the last bag was loaded, Doug tossed some of the clothing over them and shut the tailgate, ineffective camouflage at best.  Julie was reclined again in the passenger seat, but was scanning the street, her brown eyes perfectly sharp.

“We need to go. There are people to the north coming this way. Not friendly looking,” she said.

Doug gunned the engine and took off, steering around some junk in the road as he headed south, then west. A full minute passed before he asked the question.

“Just what the Hell is all that stuff?”

“Food. Medical supplies. High-performance clothing. Two M-4 carbines and around sixty pounds of ammunition in loaded magazines. Four forty-five caliber Glocks and twenty pounds of ammo. One modified twelve-gauge shotgun and a hundred twenty shells. Some gold, some silver, some cash.”

Doug had an endless list of questions, but was interrupted by his cell phone. The caller I.D. said, ‘Regent Performance’.  He knew he still had two hours before the interview. He quickly put on his headset and took the call.

“This is Doug Peterson.”

“David Williams, Doug.  How’re you holding up in Chicago?”

“To be perfectly frank, not particularly well,” he said, seriously understating how he felt.

“So I’ve seen on television. We’ve completed a fairly thorough background check on you, just want you to know.  Everything was approved per Regents internal standards, which are significantly more stringent than anything the Government requires.  Doug, we’re going to hire you if you’re interested. I’ve informed personnel in Palatine that the job is yours if you want it. We’d like you aboard ASAP. How’s that sound?”

“I’m floored, Mr. Williams.  Speechless,” he said, quite honestly.

“Regent Delta is under some pressure from our parent interests.  Given the state of the economy, I’m sure you can understand.”

“Absolutely, sir.”

“Call me David, Doug. I’m in San Diego at the moment, and things are getting a little odd here as well. I’m leaving here by the end of the day. I should be in the Palatine office late next week.  I hope to have a face to face with you then.  In the meantime, get over to the Palatine office when you have a chance and as circumstances allow. Personnel will have an orientation packet for you, non-disclosure agreement, and an outline of initial assignments.”

“That sounds fine, David. I’m looking forward to it,” Doug said, trying to focus on the road.  His heart was pounding with the news.

“Do you plan to stay in Chicago, or…well, are you planning on relocating?”

“I’ve been considering relocating, David.  Not too far out of the way.”

“Probably not a bad idea.  I have a place not far from Denver, myself….Doug, I’ve got a priority call coming in.  We’ll speak soon.”

“Sounds fine, David.  And many thanks.”

“Quite welcome. Good day,” Williams said, then ended the call.

“Everything OK?” Julie asked, again reclining in the passenger seat.

“Yeah,” Doug said. “I just got hired.”

“Congratulations.  Hopefully there’s still a city for you to work in when this is all over.”

“Yeah. That’d be good,” he said as they approached a line of cars at a roadblock. 

“Don’t pull in,” Julie said. “Put your turn signal on like you’re planning to go left, and go left.”

“What?  We need to go west.”

“They’re searching cars. They’ll take my stuff. Do it,” she said, firmly but reasonably.

Doug did as Julie directed, driving ‘casually’ into the center turn lane, down a side street, and meandered west, bypassing all of the traffic stuck on the arterial.

“All right, we made it around that one.  Now, how about you come clean?  Why do you have all that stuff…assuming that what you said is in those duffels is in fact correct?” Doug said, looking for both her facial reaction and scanning the road for the unexpected. 

“The contents are as described,” Julie said, not really reacting to his comments negatively.  “Peter has a virtually identical basic setup. The kicker for Peter is that his house was broken into over the weekend; he defended it with a shotgun blast over the heads of the guys kicking in the door, decided that was enough. I didn’t tell you that before. We’d planned on leaving the city today or tomorrow at the latest. My delay getting back from New York bumped that back.”

“OK. Go on,” Doug said. “Why?”

“My grandfather served in the Eleventh Armored Division in World War Two.  They liberated the Mauthausen concentration camp.  The Germans did unspeakable things….but he told us what he saw when we were old enough.  My father, my brother and I were taught by him to never get caught like those the Nazis butchered. Be armed, know how to use your weapon, have real money, have an escape plan and know when to and how to use it.  He knew that it could happen here, given the right circumstances. It can still happen here. I was mugged because I let my guard down. Stupid. Shouldn’t have happened. I’m lucky to be alive.”

“So you bought guns and ammunition and silver and gold,” Doug said, a little more dismissively than he should have, and realized it right off.

“My investments are in my future. What are yours in, Mister Peterson?” she asked with some bite.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean…”

“The rifles are built by hand. My hands. I’m as good a shot as there is, including under stress. Better than my brother, almost as good as my father was.   Instead of three weeks vacation per year at any of the Club’s sister facilities, I sometimes spend time shooting, sometimes shooting with live rounds coming in at me, over my head. You might say it’s unconventional, especially given my outward persona.”

“Yeah. Unconventional might be the right word,” Doug said.

“My father and grandfather warned us that there would be times that we would need skills and abilities that aren’t found in the native population…native, being those who aren’t awake enough to see the cumulative effects of seemingly minor events over a long span of time. By not adding up all the small events, by not paying attention, they are soothed into changes to their society…to their civilization, things that go against everything they’d believe. If they’d take the time to wake up and see it for what it is,” she said.

“He taught history.  He studied the predictable cycles of societies and nations and civilizations and the rise and fall of each. Societies change; they then change nations; nations fall; the nations either change into something new and better, or regress for the worse. Civilizations follow,” she said. “We’re either in a permanent downward spiral, or we’re going to change and get better. No one knows which way it goes….yet.”

For days, Doug had not really believed that events around the country and around the world were anything but problems that would resolve themselves, and life would go on, more or less as it had before. Despite these feelings, he took Hal’s advice, jumped off the deep end, bought a bunch of stuff and taken an off-ramp from the freeway that was his routine life down an unfamiliar path. All the while he felt like an idiot, a nutcase, overreacting to normal ‘life.’

Others around him though, friends like Hal Downing and now people he barely knew…Julie Forsythe, believed that this was something much bigger. They believed that time was ‘up’….that this was ‘it’.

Doug was starting to believe.

Safe at Doug’s townhouse, he settled Julie into a recliner in the living room until he could get the second bedroom cleared out for her use.  By the time he’d made a third trip from the spare room to his bedroom with his recent purchases, she was soundly sleeping.
He started dinner, a crock pot affair that could evolve into other meals over a couple days….a staple from his early twenties…and then unloaded the bed of the truck. The black duffels were interesting, even without looking at their contents.  The design included padded shoulder straps, a cross-chest sling, and four handles. There wasn’t any way to carry more than two at a time due to their weight….but a larger more muscular type might get away with three.

Once the equipment and Julie’s clothing were inside and sorted out, Doug went into the master bedroom and called the Regent office per David Williams’ direction. He tried several extensions, finally connecting with Information Systems.  After Doug identified himself, they gave him his employee I.D. information, created an account login for the Regent and Regent Delta computer systems, and configured a laptop for him based on his projected job requirements…and would have it delivered to Doug’s home before the end of the day.  When Doug asked about the rest of the staff, the I.S. tech said that the building had lost power around noon, and they were running a generator to keep the Midwest region’s servers going.
Doug wrapped up the call, and realized it was about time for his call to Julie’s brother. He decided that he’d have Julie make the call, rather than describe the days events, and the days discoveries.

“Julie? Do you want to try to call Peter? He said he’d try to be in cell coverage about now,” Doug asked the sleepy Julie.

“Already? I just sat down,” she said.

“Most of two hours ago, Julie,” Doug said, handing her his cell.

“Oh. I guess I was tired.”

“Or the codeine is thinking for you.”

“Yeah, that is a distinct possibility.”

“I’ll give you some privacy—I’ll be in the master bedroom.”

“Thanks,” she said. “Thanks for everything, Doug.”

“Glad to help,” he said, excusing himself to the bedroom. He turned on the portable radio for background noise.

“…Expressway remains closed due to police action; drivers are encouraged to find alternate routes until further notice.  Emergency warming shelters will be open this evening again due to the expected extreme cold and wind chill, and security screenings will be required prior to entry into the warming shelters after last night’s South Side shootings.”

“Chicago health authorities are contemplating city wide school closures next week due to a major uptick in influenza cases that has sidelined thirty percent of teachers and staff and students. Many area businesses, as well as the Transit Authority and emergency services are also suffering from staff losses due to the flu.”
“In national news, price increases in virtually all commodities have been observed in all major markets across the country in the past three days. Some items have been observed in short supply, and disputes have broken out in several cities. Here in the Chicago area, radio personality Danny Wilson was fired today, after broadcasting locations of stores alleged to have ‘extra’ food supplies.  His comments resulted in listeners rioting at several stores, with three people killed by security teams inside an AmerMart store near Midway International. Riots at the stores spread to other adjacent business areas, resulting in millions of dollars of damage.  ARC Radio Networks, Wilson’s former employer called the talk-show hosts’ comments ‘unconscionable’ and ‘unforgivable.’  ARC was hit with a fifty-million dollar lawsuit this morning by the family of Shakina Monroe, an AmerMart customer service representative who was shot and killed by a rioter when he was asked to leave the store, one identified by Wilson has ‘holding food in the back for the rich folks.’ ARC had no immediate comment on the lawsuit.”

“Doug, I’m off the phone now,” Julie said from the living room.

“Be right there,” he said. The news continued on.

“…..governors were reported missing late this afternoon. The Fed is effectively ruled by a small group of private bankers, determining monetary policy in the United States and within the world banking community. It is unknown where the three members of the board of governors had gone, or if this was a planned vacation or if foul play may be suspected. FBI and National Security Agents were seen leaving the Fed offices in New York, San Francisco, and Washington, prior to the announcement that the members were not present for a scheduled conference call with the Fed Chairman. Unconfirmed reports of a private plane that left the United States without a flight plan late Tuesday lend credence to a rumor that at least one of the Fed Governors may have left the country. The plane later was observed landing in Brussels.”

“Huh,” Doug said to himself, remembering the earlier rumors about the leaders of the Federal Reserve.  He left the radio on and went in to talk with Julie.

“How’s your brother?”

“Concerned,” Julie said. “He’s about ready to come get me.”

“Not medically recommended, I hope you told him.”

“I did. He was…more concerned about me being here with you than being in Chicago.”

“Am I that much of a threat?” Doug asked with surprise.

“You’re an unknown to Peter. Unknowns need research to gain understanding.”

“And research comes with time, which we don't really have in abundance.”

“You said, yesterday was it? That you wanted to talk….about getting out of here I suspect. Am I right?” Julie said, looking around the apartment. “You weren’t kidding about buying a few things, were you?”

“A friend of mine bailed out of the city. He’s in North Dakota. He’s thinking the whole ball of wax is coming apart.”

“He’s probably right. I’m unfortunately an example of that unwinding.”

“So, if I understand it, you were going to leave this week with your brother?”

“And his wife, Molly. Her family has a farm in Iowa, way off the beaten path. I’ve vacationed there, well, a working vacation because there really isn’t any sitting about on the farm. I helped the family with some marketing of some of their products. Molly helped them with the bookkeeping and financial end of things, from here.”

“Now, those bags…” Doug started.

“The Last Resort bags,” Julie said. “The problem with relocating from ‘A’ to ‘B’ is that most people cannot possibly plan on what to take, when to take it, and how hard it is to just get up and go.  Those  bags, in addition to some of my personal belongings, were the last of my major supplies that needed to be relocated. Everything else of import is already in Iowa…and has been for quite some time.”

“How did you plan on getting it all moved?”

“My pickup. Half-ton Chevy four-wheel drive with a canopy, not too much different than your Dodge, just newer. I was going to take the eight bags, my clothes, and the food in the apartment, pictures, and that was it. No furniture, no electronics.”

“That’s still a lot to move,” Doug said.

“Once it was staged in the apartment, I figured about a half hour of loading. Planned on doing it around four in the morning. Not too many people up and about that time of day.”

“What about your job?”

“Planned on taking a leave of absence or resigning.  Half of the clubs sister facilities are in receivership, and our membership is down by thirty-five percent.  You saw the ads last fall in the papers for open membership, right?”

“Yeah, didn’t think much of it.”

“One of the most exclusive clubs in all of Chicago, opening the gates for open membership, no sponsoring member required? Thirty years ago, you could get in only through family.  Twenty years ago, still through family relations, or if your net worth was north of fifty-million dollars. Five years ago, family relations or a net of five million. See the trend?”


“Yes.  Clubs like Lakeshore have been trying to remake themselves to survive.  Most haven’t. Those that are still around are mostly sports clubs…glorified sports bars with a focus on fitness. Lakeshore’s in trouble. Nothing I can do to stop it.”

“So just up and quit?”

“Or wait until they let me go or go under.  It’s best to make decisions for yourself, rather than have them made for you, don’t you think?”

“Yeah, I do.  I’ve been on the other side of the equation too many times.  I’m starting to realize that.”

“Good for you. A lot of people never do,” Julie said.

“So, tell me about Iowa.”

“The farm? Pretty good-sized hunk of ground.  Molly’s family has had it for about thirty years.  Started out as a monoculture, now it’s back to self-sufficient, quite diverse operations.”

“How far from here?”

“Two hundred forty miles. It’s near Mount Sterling…far south end of the state.

“Never heard of it.  How big is Mount Sterling?”

“Oh, it’s maybe fifty people?  Probably less.”

“Pretty exclusive club.”

“It could be seen that way,” Julie said with a slight smile. 

Friday, December 24, 2010

Distance, Chapter 8


January Nineteenth
8:30 a.m.

Doug had stayed at the hospital until nearly midnight, when Julie was out of Recovery and settled into a room, sedated. He planned on heading back to the hospital before he headed to the Regent office for the video interview.

It took him a solid hour to wind down and get to sleep.  The slow drive home took him past two police checkpoints; he’d never seen anything like it before, aside from news footage from some Third World backwater.  At each, he’d been required to show his drivers’ license and registration.  The first checkpoint had been a bit of a problem—the registration was written by the dealership—and the cop seemed to think that the truck was stolen with faked paperwork.  Eventually, he let Doug get on his way, but only after the cop got a radio call for something or other.

After rising with the alarm clock, Doug showered and dressed in ‘business casual’ clothes, and headed into the living room.  With the force of long habit, Doug turned on the television absentmindedly, but then just as quickly expected no signal.  He was surprised though to find it working normally and stopped dead in his tracks.  The broadcast had three ‘crawlers’ on the screen, each streaming different bad news.  The anchor at the moment was talking about military control in the Pacific Northwest, and relief efforts focusing on evacuating the newly homeless to dozens of cities in the warmer south.

The crawlers included one with bright yellow text on black, all but shouting the collapse of the United States dollar as reserve currency…with the implications that skyrocketing prices would be the immediate and permanent result. The second crawler, one of two stacked on the bottom of the screen, moved more slowly that the top; covering the New York stock futures, commodities and precious metals. Stocks appeared headed for another bloodbath while metals were going to soar. The third was a local crawler, listing road closures and emergency information.

“It’s all coming unwound,” Doug said to himself. “It really is,” he said as his cell phone rang again, but nothing showed up on caller I.D.

“This is Doug,” he answered with a bit of a questioning tone.

“Good morning. This is Peter Forsythe—I’m Julie’s brother.”

“Oh. Good morning.  I’m afraid I have some unpleasant news about Julie.”

“I spoke with the hospital a few minutes ago. Are you nearby?”

“Not far, although traffic’s a nightmare.”

“We’re down in Iowa…and we won’t be able to get back up there right away…” Doug heard Peter say with regret in his voice.

“I understand,” he said. “Peter, I will do my best to keep an eye on her while she’s in the hospital, and help her as she recovers.”

“Doug, I’ve not met you, and don’t know a thing about you, and don’t quite know how to ask this, but are you and Julie seeing each other?”

“No.  I was dating a young lady, Camille, who worked with Julie.  That is apparently over. Julie was on a business trip to New York last weekend with Cammie when Cam went off her rocker…I guess is the best way to put it.  I’d met Julie a time or two is all.  We were going to talk yesterday, and she never called.  The hospital must’ve found my number in her cell phone or something.”

“Fair enough,” Peter said, sounding a little more at ease, before telling Doug what the hospital had told him regarding Julie’s improving condition. 

“I was planning on going over to the hospital shortly to see how she’s doing.  I’ve got an interview later today, though.”
“OK. Another uncomfortable question,” Peter said. “Are you planning on staying in Chicago?”

“A week ago I would have answered this ‘yes.’  Today I will answer this, probably not.”

“Julie and I spoke about her getting out of the city…this week. This’ll probably sound nuts to you but my wife and I just packed up and left when things started to get…weird.”

“I don’t think that sounds nuts at all, Peter. Not after what I’m starting to see around here.”

Peter paused for a moment before continuing. “We’re thinking this gets a lot worse, Doug.  A whole lot worse.”

“Yeah, it sure could. Can I call you back at this number later today? Maybe after I see how Julie’s doing?”

“Sure.  If coverage holds up. It’s pretty spotty out here,” Peter replied.

“OK then,” Doug said, looking at his watch. “I’ll head over there in a little while, then I’ve got to get to this job interview.  I’ll give you a call after that—maybe two-thirty or so, depending on how the interview goes.”

“All right—I’ll look for your call,” Peter said.  “Doug, I appreciate this. I really do.”

“I’d like to think someone would look out for me too, Peter,” Doug said, knowing he really didn’t have anyone that might do that. “I’ll talk to you soon.”

The Dodge started on the second try, and Doug pulled out of the garage and headed north.  Two blocks away he turned east, crossed the Tollway, and continued east on North Avenue. All along North, Doug saw broken storefront windows and the occasional smoldering car or truck. With occasional community patrol roadblocks or transit cops, it took nearly an hour to cross under the closed Kennedy Expressway. Grace Hospital wasn’t far now, near the Lincoln Park Zoo.

The parking lot he’d used the night before was packed, and a rent-a-cop directed him to an overflow lot a block away. Doug was dressed in his interview-wear, except for his new hiking boots, which didn’t look all that out of place given the weather.  He crossed the street, and found himself in a security screening line off the hospital loading dock, similar to the now-obsolete metal detector screening at airports of old. Ten minutes later, he was inside, and trying to find Julie’s room.  The place was a madhouse; much worse than the previous night.
Room Five-Fifteen was part of the post-op recovery area, sized for two patients. Today it held four, with Julie being the closest to the door.  Doug knocked, and peeked in to see her open her eyes.

“Good morning,” Doug said quietly.

“Hi,” Julie replied with a little smile on her bruised face. Doug moved into the draped enclosure, trying not to look at the other patients.

“How’re you feeling?”

“Like I’ve been mugged and stomped on,” she said weakly.  “I must look a mess,” she said, trying to brush her hair with her fingers.

“You look beautiful, actually,” Doug said honestly. “Even with the enhanced coloration,” he said with a little smile, taking her hand. “I’m glad to be here.  Did you ask the hospital to call, or did they get my number off of your phone?”

“Thugs took my phone, and purse and my backpack.  I think the hospital must’ve found your number in my jacket. I had a card of emergency numbers in there…and I wrote yours down when we were in New York,” she said.  “They must’ve called you first.”

“I spoke with your brother a while ago. I told him I’d help you however I can.  Do you know how long you’ll be here?”

“I think I can help answer that,” a voice responded from behind Doug. “Darin Weiss.  I’m the cutter that worked on you last night.”

“Cutter?” Doug asked.

“Surgeon. Sorry,” the doctor replied. “May I have a few minutes with Ms. Forsythe?” he asked.

“Sure—just a friend,” Doug said, stepping out of the room.

A few minutes later, Dr. Weiss came back out of the room. “You’re Doug, right?” he asked.

“Yes. Doug Peterson.  Thanks for everything you’ve done.”

“That’s why I pay the big money and long hours,” he said with a little smile. “In a normal situation, I’d recommend that Julie would remain here at Grace for at least a couple of days; longer if insurance would pay for it. We’re not in a normal situation though, Mister Peterson. We have record numbers of patients, our outpatient clinics are completely overloaded, and if she has a place to recuperate, she’ll be better off out of here. You should also know that we’re seeing some pretty dramatic increases in influenza, which with her rib and lung injury could rapidly turn into pneumonia.” 

“OK, uh, is staying at home good enough?”

“Yes, with some trained assistance…again, that wouldn’t be an issue normally…”

“How about…travel?”

“Not advisable. The healing process will be at least six weeks, probably longer. The lung damage was relatively minor, but the pain associated with a rib break isn’t. If she picks up an infection or a virus, it could get ugly.  Do you have a trip planned?”

“Well, yes. But by car, no flying.”

“I wouldn’t recommend it for at least a week.  After that, most of the risk should have passed.  And limited movement on a day to day basis….she’ll need time off from work…I assume she works?”


“See if you can arrange some time off.  Hopefully she has an understanding employer or even sick leave…she should see her regular doctor for a follow-up within a week, and if anything changes in her condition, she should be seen immediately.”

“OK. So how soon can she be released?”

“Frankly, I’d like to see her out of here this morning.”

Doug was surprised.  “Seriously?”

“Absolutely. Sooner the better.  If you can take her now, I’ll arrange for release papers, prescriptions and transport to the outpatient entry.”

“Uh, sure,” Doug said, scrambling. He didn’t even know where she lived….

“Great.  Charge nurse will be back with everything.  I’ll let you get back to visiting.”

“Thanks, Doc,” Doug said, a little stunned. ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ he thought before going back into Julie’s room.

“Sounds like I’m taking you out of here….very soon.”

“I heard….Doug, you really don’t have to do this. I can call the Club and they can….”

“It’ll be hours before they get here. Believe me,” Doug said, putting up a good front. “Where do you live? Do you think you can stay by yourself?”

“I think so,” she said, “I’m just two blocks from Lakeshore Club, on Lakeside.”

“OK. That’s not too far away,” Doug said almost to himself, thinking about how long it would take him to get her settled in, then to his interview in Palatine.  That drive could be long, if traffic wasn’t good…

Fifteen minutes later, Julie was uncomfortably seated in the front seat of the Dodge, reclined a little bit to make her more comfortable. She gave Doug the address to her townhouse, and closed her eyes as he drove.
Two gas stations were open as Doug drove past, lines long for both sets of pumps….at eight thirty-seven per gallon for unleaded regular.
Doug turned up the radio for any news.

“…outage has temporary delayed trading on Wall Street, after a rocky morning that saw precipitous drops on the S&P Five Hundred and the Dow Industrials.”

“Rumors are rampant in New York, centered on a number of Governors of the Federal Reserve that failed to attend the morning emergency meeting of the Fed, and that they are rumored to be bound for Brussels on several private aircraft. The Administration had no immediate comment despite repeated attempts to contact either the Treasury Secretary or the President’s press secretary.”

“Rats leaving the sinking ship,” Doug said under his breath.  He looked over at Julie, and she appeared to be sleeping.  They were still a half-mile away from her townhouse.

“The Federal Reserve has issued a statement assuring America that the dollar is sound and will remain the flagship currency of the world. This statement was made after China, quickly followed by other countries holding large amounts of US debt obligations, effectively dumped the US Dollar as an investment instrument and terminated agreements with United States corporations nation-wide. It is unknown at this time the status of Americans in the country, but it is known from radio broadcasts that two major US manufacturing plants have been occupied by Chinese Army soldiers and the American representatives removed from the premises.”

“What are you people smoking?” Doug said to the radio as they approached Julie’s building.  He was a half a block away and didn’t like what he saw….the building appeared to have been sacked, and cars in the parking lot burned where they sat.

“Hey, Julie? Is this your building?” he asked, rousing her from her uncomfortable nap.

“Huh?” she said, opening her eyes. “Oh my God.  That’s my townhouse.  They’re all….wrecked,” she said as Doug stopped in the middle of the street, suddenly feeling that they were targets.  “And my truck is gone.”

“You have a truck?” he said, quite surprised.

“Well, yeah.  It was only a year old,” she said as her voice trailed off. A police car pulled in behind them, and briefly sounded it’s siren, signaling Doug to pull over.

He pulled into the parking area in front of the townhouses, and watched as one officer approached on his side, hand on his sidearm.  Doug could see a second cop in the right-side mirror, both hands holding his weapon.

“Step out of the vehicle please, sir,” the cop on the left said. “Hands where we can see them.”

“Understood,” Doug said as he carefully opened the door and stood next to the truck.

“The passenger as well, right side.”

“She’s just out of the hospital,” Doug said.  “This is her townhouse.  She was mugged here yesterday,” he said as the cop moved forward and looked inside, making sure that the passenger was indeed, unable to get out of the truck.

“License please, sir.”

“Sure,” Doug said. “It’s in my back pocket, right.”

“Slowly, if you don’t mind.”

“No problem,” Doug said, pulling his wallet out of the pocket and retrieving his drivers license and insurance card.

The officer took Doug’s information and called it in, and Julie told them what she could; the second officer holstered his sidearm and was now carrying a shotgun.  Doug noticed that both appeared to be wearing bullet-proof vests.

“OK, which unit is yours, Miss Forsythe?”

“Twenty-two oh-four. On the end.”

“All right. Here’s the deal.  You’re not staying here—you’ve got about fifteen minutes to get what you can and leave.  There’ve been three murders within a half-mile of here in the last six hours, and two officers shot. Mister Peterson, get this truck up to the door, as close as you can, get the back opened up, and toss in whatever you can. You then need to get the Hell out of here.  Sanchez and I will keep an eye out as long as we can, but not more than fifteen or twenty minutes. Got it?”

“OK,” Doug said.  Julie was looking scared.

He backed the Dodge up to the door of her apartment…which was broken in and hanging only by the lower hinge.  Doug helped Julie out of the truck and into the apartment, where she went to tears almost immediately. Doug found a dining room chair for her—broken—and she sat on it as he quickly moved through the apartment, gathering things that looked like they’d matter. Julie was in no condition to help.

The first few minutes was spent in the combination dining/living room, gathering framed photos and albums, some books and personal things for Julie to look over as he continued to collect. The power was out, all the windows were broken, and most of the walls had holes in them.

The kitchen was all but destroyed.  All the drawers were pulled out of the cabinets, dumped and smashed.  The contents of the cupboards were strewn everywhere and mostly smashed, cabinet doors thrown everywhere…one ripped off the hinges and embedded in a wall. There was no food in any of the piles on the floor. Doug did manage to collect Julie’s set of high-end pots and pans; a very good set of kitchen knives, and most of the stainless silverware.  The rest of the contents weren’t worth salvaging. He gathered up what he could in a tablecloth and placed it near the door for Julie to look over. She told Doug about several other items she really wanted to have—things that had belonged to her Mom—and he made a quick trip back through the kitchen mess and found them.

Next, into the bedrooms, where the beds had been overturned and the mattresses deliberately soiled.  Doug stopped for a moment, looking at the urine and feces on the beds, wondering what type of person would do that. 

Several of the blankets and comforters were relatively clean, and Doug scooped up the piles of clothing and more pictures from the Julie’s bedroom and piled them into a blanket, quickly making a trip to the truck and tossing it in the back. He then loaded up the photos and kitchen stuff, and made two more trips to get more clothing and anything he could from the bathroom, and tossed it in a couple of pillow cases—which had been cut—and threw them in the truck as well.

“Three minutes,” came the call from Officer Pollard, egging Doug on.

“Doug, I need to get upstairs for a minute,” Julie said.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. There are some things I need to get.”

“There’s not much left up here, Julie.”

“It’s hidden. Doubt they’d have found it.”

“OK,” Doug said skeptically. “Take my arm, and grab that stair rail. Nice and easy,” he said as they made their way upstairs.”

“Gotta go, Mr. Peterson! We have a call,” Pollard called inside. “You best get moving!”

“Pretty quick, Officer,” Doug said as the entered the bedroom.

“Move the box spring and bedframe,” Julie said, and Doug immediately flipped both out of the way.  “OK—in that corner, there’s a slim rope tucked between the edge of the carpet and the wall.  Pull the rope up, straight, nice and steady,” she said. “What a mess.”

Doug found the rope, not having any idea what it was supposed to do.  Pulling the rope up had the effect of unzipping the wall to wall carpeting from the tack strip.  The rope continued around the east side of the room. 

“All right, now fold the carpet back to about here,” Julie said. Doug quickly rolled the carpet back, and found a plywood panel in under the carpet padding.

“Two holes, that end, under the duct tape. Peel that back and you can lift out the panel. It’s held down with Velcro.”

“What is this?” Doug asked.

“My stash,” Julie said, dead serious, with a pained grimace. She was holding her side. 

“Your what?” Doug said incredulously.

"My stash." 

Friday, December 17, 2010

Distance, Chapter 7


Tuesday evening
January Seventeenth
8:05 p.m.

Doug heard keys in the front door, startling him.  He realized first that he had no way to defend himself—the little .32 was in the bedroom, and then that only one other person had keys to his apartment: Cammie.

He turned the hallway light on as the door opened. He was caught without anything to say, so he improvised.

“Well, about time you made it back!” he said with some humor as she came into the hallway.

“We were late,” Camille said.  “I came to pick up a few things, if that’s OK,” she said vacantly.

“Sure.  Can I get you anything?”

“No, thank you.  I have an early meeting tomorrow and need to get some sleep,” she said as she made a beeline to the bedroom. Doug noticed that she had an empty overnight bag slung over her shoulder as he followed her in.  

“Everything OK?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said.  Doug knew that she never said ‘yes.’ It was always, ‘yeah,’ followed by a long description on why things were not OK, and it always included a glass of chardonnay. Doug had learned to just listen and pour a refill.  She opened the two drawers she had devoted to her things, emptied both into the bag, and zipped it closed without a word.

“Cam, what’s going on?” Doug said.  “What’s wrong? Did I do something?”

“No. I’m fine,” she said, walking past him back into the hallway. Doug noticed that her eyes seemed slightly more dilated than normal…almost, vacant. 

“Can I call you tomorrow?” he asked as she opened the door.

“Sure,” she said, walking outside to her older Mercedes SLK roadster, another part of her belief in signature-possession-as-lifestyle.

‘She didn’t even look back,’ Doug thought to himself, feeling both a little brokenhearted and baffled at what had just happened.
He went into the bedroom to shut off the light, and noticed she’d left the key to the townhouse on the dresser.

“Well, just damn,” he said, looking at the key and the fancy little key-fob he’d given her.  He remembered the day he picked it up on Jeweler’s Row on Wabash, just off of State Street.  He remembered how he thought that it suited her perfectly the moment he saw it.

Doug finished a cup of now-cool tea, and picked up the phone.

“Julie Forsythe,” she answered.

“Hi, Julie. Doug Peterson.”

She paused a moment before responding. “Uh, hi Doug.”

“Cammie was here a few minutes ago.”

“Seriously? I thought she was headed straight to bed.”

“Well, maybe that’s what she said.  She showed up in her Mercedes, unlocked the door, said about three words, cleaned out her things, left the key, and left.”

“You OK?”

“No, but I suspect I will be,” he said. “I didn’t recognize that person.  I don’t understand.”

“I don’t either,” Julie said.

“She made some excuse about a big meeting tomorrow, and said she couldn’t stay. It seemed she was making an excuse to not stay.”

“There is a meeting, but she’s not in it.  I cleared her schedule for the week and gave her the rest of the week off,” Julie said. “Doug, if she doesn’t return to her, uh, normal self, the club will let her go for certain. I’ll have to fire her.”

“I understand. Not sure how she’ll deal with that, but I guess that’s not something that I’ll be involved with.” 

“Doug, I’m really sorry about all of this,” Julie said, obviously being honest and sympathetic.

“Thanks. I appreciate it. Are you doing OK with all this mess? I don’t mean Cammie—the financial thing.”

“Plenty of uncertainty to go around,” she said, not really answering the question.

“If you need anything, give me a call, OK?” Doug said. “I kinda stocked up on some things,” he explained. “Even sold my Acura and bought a pickup.”

“Doug, where do you plan on going when it’s time to go?” Julie asked matter-of-factly.

He didn’t know what to say. ‘She said, ‘when’ it’s time to go.’  Doug just said what came to mind. “Julie, I have no idea to be honest.  A friend of mine has already left the city, and warned me that I ought to go too; along with anybody that had any common sense. He’s on the west end of North Dakota now, with his ex-wife and kids.”

“Can I call you tomorrow, Doug?” Julie replied.

“Sure.  I’ll be here.”

“We’ll talk then.  I have a meeting at ten.  I’ll call after that’s over. OK?”

“Sure, Julie.  Talk to you then. Goodnight,” he said.

“’Night, Doug,” she said and then ended the call. Doug thought she was smiling.

“Huh,” he said to the furniture. “Wonder what that was all about?”

January Eighteenth

Doug was up without an alarm, a rare event.  He’d reviewed his background information on Regent before fading off to sleep, and managed to dream about it most of the night. This morning thankfully, there was no smoke or foul odor present.

He’d spent a fair amount of the morning on the computer, using stored files on the hard drive to map out potential areas for his relocation.  Without internet-based maps and satellite imagery, he quickly found himself greatly hindered. The cable Internet was still out; television with it.  For a few minutes, he was able to connect to an open network a block away, and he downloaded his email for later reading. He had more than thirty emails to finish, after the junk was tossed. The few that he’d read included a couple from former co-workers at Leinhardt that had written him; a series of emails from Raleigh that had a pleading tone regarding his decision to remove his funds from their oversight; and one from Regent Performance. 

The Regent email included a non-disclosure agreement that needed to be completed and submitted before the rest of the email could be read, complete with code-key. Doug had never seen anything like it at this stage of the process.

He completed the non-disclosure, and then tried a half-dozen times to connect to the wireless network before finally succeeding. The authorization key was submitted back, and Doug could then finish reading the Regent email.

Mr. Peterson: Regent Delta—a task force within Regent Performance Group--is currently working on confidential and classified assignments for high-value clientele.  Regent Delta’s Nutritional Enhancement Workgroup is considering you for heading up the integration of current and proposed nutritional supplements into existing regional and national distribution networks. 

These introductions will require end-user testing on a fairly widespread basis. Other Regent teams will be conducting market reaction to the various Regent products, with necessary refinements and re-introduction of the final products to the end-users.

This position requires travel throughout Regent territory and direct reporting to Regent upper management, outside the traditional Regent chain of command. Given the nature of the assignment, the position will not have an assigned fixed base location.  Equipment and accounts for a home-office location will be provided. Your current location in Chicago, as an airline hub city fits the requirements of Regent, although alternate arrangements can be considered. Compensation is negotiable of course.   I look forward to discussing this opportunity this coming Thursday---

Best Regards,

David Williams
Regent Delta

Doug was quite intrigued by the email and the proposed assignment.  His former job was generally predictable, with established distribution contacts, routes, and suppliers.  He knew which restaurant or grocery store chain would need what and when; where to get it; how to get it there; and how to make enough money for the corporation to make it work. He’d worked with every major food producing corporation in North America, which these days included nothing but multi-national corps. None based in the States, although their brands sounded American enough.  It could get boring though, working with equipment suppliers and meat and produce brokers; specialty suppliers always trying to foist their latest pre-made food creation on the restaurant market.   The corporations were the worst though; they didn’t negotiate, they didn’t need to.

This opportunity sounded interesting on all levels. Living through the long economic slide that eventually cost him his pre-planned career, Doug realized that this opportunity was really a future-changer. ‘Delta’ sounded like a tactical team that Regent used to explore future opportunities, and if this worked out, he might be on a path to corporate, rather than sales. A whole different universe…..

Doug was brought out of the possible future as the lights flickered and then went out.  The mid-day light was instantly inadequate in the townhouse.  His laptop kicked over to battery power, keeping the email up on the screen.  Doug saved the document to the drive and put the computer to sleep. Almost as an afterthought, he disconnected the power cord—if there were a power surge when the power came back on, it could fry the computer.

Without power, Doug’s news-source was gone with the shutdown home theater receiver and the cheap radio plugged into it. He disconnected the radio lead into the theater receiver, added batteries, and it came back to life.  As the townhouse grew colder, Doug layered up with a sweatshirt, and quickly added thermal long johns and heavier socks. 

Two hours later, the power came back on, and the furnace ran for an hour to warm the place. No explanation on the radio of the blackout at all. Doug tried calling Julie’s cell phone, but it went straight to voicemail.  Her meeting should have been long over; maybe she just didn’t want to talk to him.

When the power came back on, Doug plugged the radio back into the home theater, and was greeted with an announcement from the public safety department, strongly ‘encouraging residents to stay indoors after dark due to increased criminal activity.

With the budget cuts that all of the local agencies had seen as a way to deal with the economic slump, police, fire and emergency services were stretched thin on good days. Oddly enough, other departments never seemed to see cuts anywhere near as big as the cops and firemen, and the union leaders always seemed to stay the same, and were always employed.

When extended unemployment benefits began to run out months before, property crimes began to increase, and then skyrocket. People who were once law-abiding citizens, more or less, grew desperate enough put those civilized boundaries behind them. The police ceased to respond to property crimes, except in the cases of home invasions or when witnesses could reasonably identify the perps. 

Violent crime began to really increase just a month before, just weeks after the last of the Federally funded unemployment checks arrived.  People that had been out of work for more than a year weren’t regarded by prospective employers as good risks, in spite of good employment histories before their current misfortune. Their options were exhausted; in many cases their former lives taken from them; they were now reduced to predatory behavior.

The patterns of crime were well known by police and emergency services; generally radiating outward from the residences of those committing the crimes.  In lower crime areas, the targets could be much closer, as the criminals didn’t care if they preyed on their neighbors or not, or perhaps weren’t even aware of their location due to drugs or whatever.  Mostly though, the criminals worked ‘outside’ of their home neighborhoods, stealing from those a little further away, usually in circular patterns around their homes. Chances were, many reasoned, they wouldn’t be recognized just out of their own neighborhood, and their home turf was close by, where they could blend in and alibis were easy to come by. With enough time and resources, the police could have generally pinpointed the likely ‘home ground’ of the people committing the crimes.  Without time or resources, the police could only react.  With too many crimes to react to, the police could only react to the most violent or ‘important’ according to their superiors.

In the lower income or lowest income areas, the story was completely different.  Human trafficking, extremely violent crimes and open criminal activity were everyday and routine occurrences, and almost always beyond the ability of the local police to respond in a meaningful way. As the easy money of unemployment, based on legit or forged claim forms, dried up, the predators went further afield as opportunities allowed and targets appeared. 

The malignancy of violent crime was growing quickly. People that thought themselves ‘safe’ because of where they lived were now learning otherwise.

January Eighteenth
5:40 p.m.

Doug was making dinner, with the radio news providing unwanted background noise…unwanted in content.   He’d been thinking about trying again to call Julie, but decided against it.

Prices were climbing constantly, with the local talk show host inadvertently fueling the fire by telling Chicagoland of basic staples costing double what they might have a few days before. Coffee was unavailable in many stores, and callers were told where items of many kinds could be found for sale….creating a run on that store. Both gasoline and milk topped six dollars a gallon; steak was pushing twelve dollars a pound. Bread was five dollars a loaf; potatoes three dollars a pound; eggs almost seven dollars a dozen. Canned food was long gone.  Doug was now better off than he was a few days before, but with no one to ‘watch his back’, he was wondering how long he could stay in Elmhurst with the rising crime.  Three murders within six blocks in the past two days; daylight armed robberies….he stared into the thick soup warming on the stove, wondering how he got to this point in life. How Chicago was coming to this…

He heard his cell phone ring in the next room, and left the soup to warm.  The caller I.D. read ‘Grace Hospital.’ He answered immediately.

“Doug Peterson.”

“Mister Peterson, this is Cindy Wright at Grace Hospital.  I’m calling on behalf of Julie Forsythe.”

“Has something happened? Is she OK?”

“She’s in surgery at the moment, Mr. Peterson.  She was admitted about forty-five minutes ago.  She was assaulted. I have your number on a contact list. We were not able to get in touch with any immediate family members who are also on the list though.”

“Good God. I’ll be there as soon as I can. Is she going to be OK?”

“I’m sorry sir, I don’t know the answer to that.”

“I’m on my way,” Doug said.

“Thank you, sir.  Please go to the Patient Information desk on the first floor of the surgical wing.”

“Thanks,” Doug said, ended the call, shut off the stove and headed to the garage.

At twenty after seven, Doug pulled into the parking lot at Grace Hospital, two security guards standing watch at the parking lot entry; one carrying a shotgun.   Traffic and roadblocks had cost him a solid hour of extra drive time.

“Jesus. Here too,” Doug said to himself as another guard directed to a parking stall, far away from the building.  Doug shut the truck off and climbed out. 

“Sir, may we look in your pickup?” a fourth guard asked.  Doug saw he was carrying a huge flashlight.

“Sure.  It’s empty. Let me get the canopy open.”

“Please step away from the truck if you would sir.  We can see in through the windows.”

“What the Hell is going on?” Doug said as the monster flashlight temporarily blinded him.  ‘It had to be one of those two million candlepower lights,’ he thought.  ‘So much for my night vision.’

“One of the hospitals was robbed by a gang that came into the parking lot in a pickup with a camper. Cleaned out the pharmacy, killed two guards, two nurses and three civilians,” one of the older guards said, not taking his eyes off of Doug.

“Go for it.  I have a friend inside in surgery. That’s the only reason I’m here.”

“He’s clear, Sarge.”

“Thanks,” Doug said.  “You guys know which way to the surgical wing?”

“To the left there, about a hundred feet,” the older guard said.

“Thanks,” Doug replied, walking as quickly as he could on the ice.

Inside, the patient counselor talked with Doug for a few minutes, giving him an overview of her injuries.  She had a pneumothorax—punctured lung—and a broken rib, a concussion, numerous contusions, and was suffering from hypothermia.   She had apparently been attacked in the morning on the way to her car.  It was luck that she’d been found by a neighbor, who found her in a snowbank where she’d been dragged.  To the police, the motive appeared to have started at simple robbery, but her apartment had been ransacked as well.

Doug provided the counselor his contact information, and he in exchange, was given the contact numbers for Julie’s brother, Peter and his wife Molly.  He remembered that if her brother had done as he said he would, the ‘home’ number would go unanswered—they were on the way to his spouse’s family farm in Iowa.  The other number was her brother’s cell number.  The hospital had tried it twice and left voice mail.   Doug left a message as well.

The surgical waiting room was full of people, probably families and friends of patients, speaking in hushed voices, stress thick in the air.  Extra chairs in the hallway outside were clustered together, where other small groups sat, some praying, some in tears. He’d never seen anything like this.

Doug busied himself by making a fresh pot of coffee, making small talk with some of the other people waiting, and wondering what to do next. His interview was less than twenty-four hours away; he’d hoped for a good nights’ sleep, but that probably wouldn’t happen. More curves thrown his way….