Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Distance, Chapter 5


January Sixteenth
3:12 p.m.

Doug’s dual computer monitors were working overtime. The screen on the left had his portfolio breakdown, with the trade window active, and he’d successfully entered ‘sell’ orders on three of the five accounts, but not before they suffered significant losses.  He was trying to get the last two sold into his cash account through both the computer and his phone.  He resorted to fishing out the wired cellphone charger, rather than the cradle.  His battery failed twice during the long day on the phone.   The second monitor was filled with multiple windows on his research project for his upcoming interview.

The ‘call waiting’ signal rattled his ear as he listened to the monotonous message from Raleigh Investment Group.

“Doug Peterson,” he answered without checking the caller I.D.

“Good afternoon, Daniel. This is Julie. Have a few minutes to go over schedule?”

“Uh, yeah. Julie.  I take it things are not going well,” Doug said.

“No, I don’t think so either,” she replied.

“O.K.  Is she on meds?”

“Yes, but I don’t think that’ll work either. We’re planning on catching a train later this afternoon though, and should be back in the office late tomorrow morning.  I think we can prep for the takeover meeting, and then I think it’ll be time for a couple days off,” Julie said. “Right Cammie? I know that I’ll be ready for a day or two off, right?” Julie forced a laugh, it seemed.

Doug heard Camille in the background, in a voice not quite her own, agree.

“All right, Julie.  She’s not that much better.  Should I pick you both up at Union Station when you arrive?”

“No, Daniel. That won’t be necessary.  We’ll just have a car from the club pick us up and take us both home,” Julie said before pausing.  “Doug? Sorry about that.  Cam just went into the bathroom to shower. She’s an absolute wreck!

“I understand, Julie.  Is there anything I can do? Should I call her cell and talk?”

“I don’t know. Maybe text-message her and let her know that you’re thinking about her.  I don’t know how she’ll react to you on the phone.  She’s like a yo-yo.”

Doug hesitated for a long moment. “Julie, have you been watching the news? I mean, the financial markets and such?”

“Another down day, according to the television. Why do you ask?”

“One of my friends believes that the markets are in for a serious fall, or…..collapse.  He…” Doug paused, “Julie, I might sound like a nut for saying this, it sounds damned odd, but he thinks that there could be riots or an all-out financial collapse.  I cannot imagine that New York would be a pleasant place to be if that happens.”

“I can’t say I’m all that surprised. We’ve been on borrowed time for too long,” she said, matter-of-factly.  

Doug didn’t have anything to say. 

“Doug, are you there?”

“Yeah, sorry. There is a lot on my mind right now, including Cammie.  I don’t know if Cam told you, but I lost my job last week.”

“She didn’t mention it, actually.”

“I’m picking myself back up, and have an interview this week. Things’ll work out…..but I’ll tell you…I went shopping late last night and there were guards down at the Amerimart here…a couple stores to be honest.  The ATM’s have pretty much been cleaned out.  I’m at a bit of a loss to figure out where things are going with the world, let alone with my girlfriend.”

It was Julie that now paused. “Doug, I really think that there is no future for you and Camille.   Her personality is almost unrecognizable. Frankly, I cannot see how I can keep her employed unless she makes a complete one-eighty. I don’t like telling you this,” she said.

“Julie, to be honest, I love the woman, but we do have our differences.  This I think for both of us, has always been of convenience and fun and less of the long-term.” 

“I know that you were both, well, on the rebound. I just…Honestly, Doug, I just don’t understand what happened to her,” Julie said.  “Listen. Text her like everything is OK.  Maybe it’ll snap her back. I don’t know.  We should be in tomorrow morning if the train schedule is to be believed.  I’ll let you know when we’re back though.”

“Thanks, Julie.  I appreciate it.”

“Wish there was more I could do,” Julie said. Doug thought she was almost in tears.  “And Doug? What your friend said about a chance of…collapse? I think you need to take it seriously. My older brother emailed me last night about the same thing.  They’re leaving the city for his wife’s families’ farm, down in Iowa…and they’re leaving tomorrow.”

“Just…pack up and go?” Doug said, with some shock.  Leaving didn’t really occur to him, despite what Hal had told him. He wondered for a moment, where Hal would run to?

“He’s been out of steady work for more than a year, his last round of unemployment just ended, and Molly’s pregnant.  Her father said that they should high-tail it out of Chicago without delay.  Said, ‘he didn’t like the looks of what’s comin.’  Peter—that’s my brother—said that Molly’s parents have been expecting this. He said….that I should get out as well. He didn’t tell me much more, but Peter doesn’t say things like that without cause.” 

“They might be right. I don’t know,” Doug said.

“I’ll talk with you tomorrow. Maybe we’re all just stressed out over nothing,” Julie said, pulling herself together a bit.

“Talk to you then, Julie. Thanks,” Doug replied, hearing the phone click.

The television droned on in the background, as Doug sat and thought about what Cammie would be like when she and Julie returned home.   Doug spent a few minutes putting a text message together, erased most of it, started over, and finally came up with something he thought was suitable to send. 
Cammie usually responded quickly, being a ‘crackberry addict’. The TV droned on as Doug looked at his phone, waiting for her customary response. This one went unanswered.

“…closed early at seventy-seven fifty-one.  Gold has resumed the uptrend from last years lows, firing up and now passing seven hundred and thirty-three dollars per ounce.  Silver, likewise, is again beginning to turn from the yearly low, now at twelve oh-five an ounce, with extremely high demand for all precious metals, as well as virtually all commodities.   We’ve seen the price of wheat and corn double in three years, and we saw a thirty-one percent increase in four hours of trading today.”

“Much of the drive in today’s market action was triggered by international discussion of the solvency of the financial system of the United States today. Bankers in Brussels discussed the potential of a wholesale default of the United States on international obligations, and punitive measures that the international banking community would be forced to take should the U.S. renege on debt obligations.”

“Another major issue in the business climate is the bankruptcy of DeVeers Carnegie Limited and Business Ventures Surety, both headquartered in New York.  A Federal investigation was ordered today by the Attorney General, after the firms declared insolvency after the earthquake in the Pacific Northwest.  Both companies….and several others it should be noted….provided coverage to businesses in the region specifically for earthquake coverage, but both had large business units in the pension market.”

Doug switched to another financial news channel, hearing much the same.

“In the markets just before the close, trading circuit breakers kicked in this morning, halting trading after a significant decline in the thirty industrials.  At the close, the Dow was at seventy-seven-fifty-one, and the S&P five hundred declined to just over eight hundred, and the NASDAQ tested lows at fifteen-fifty.”

“In precious metals news, gold and silver both increased today on the decline of stocks and bonds, with gold rising in a dramatic one-day price increase of nearly twenty-eight percent, rising to seven hundred thirty-three dollars per ounce. Silver ended at twelve oh-five at the close.”

“The President and the Fed Chairman are in meetings at this hour to discuss the looming financial crisis and rampant price increases seen since Saturday.  In Chicago, less affluent areas of Los Angeles, Dallas-Fort Worth, Atlanta, and Philadelphia, minor civil unrest has been reported at grocery stores where food stamps have been refused by store operators. No reason has been given for the seemingly coordinated effort on the part of store owners to accept cash only.  Fuel price increases, too have resulted in minor problems at gasoline stations.”

The commentators on this channel went into great detail on what they believed would be an all-out collapse of the dollar.  One of their field reporters was at a burned out AmeriMart store in Atlanta.  Six people had been killed when looters overwhelmed the store, and security guards had reacted.  Doug didn’t know what a ‘rifled slug’ was, but the talking heads in the D.C. news bureau appeared to be mortified.

They next went to a series of stories about people who were fleeing the cities….similar to what Julie was saying about her brother and his wife. The long segment showed several groups of people, caravanning together, heading north out of Little Rock, while another was leaving Baltimore; a third leaving Phoenix.  The vehicles included big four-wheel-drive trucks, heavily modified RV’s, and SUV’s with rooftop carriers and trailers.  They called them ‘bug out vehicles.’  Only one of the people they were filming spoke to the reporter, if you could count telling the reporter to ‘kindly drop dead.’ the rest of them didn’t say a word.  Doug noted they wore pistols. 

Doug didn’t have a holster for the old .32 handgun that had belonged to his father, and he’d only fired a gun two or three times in his life. He thought he’d probably be more of a danger to himself than to anyone he tried to shoot, he realized, sitting in his living room, as the world outside began to tear itself apart.

Monday evening
January Sixteenth
7:30 p.m.

None of Doug’s trade orders had been confirmed, despite multiple orders, confirmation numbers, and receipts of the orders placed. His account balances remained the same as they had before he placed the sell orders; backchecks of his confirmation numbers stated, ‘no such transaction.’   None of the phone calls to his broker had been returned.   An email that he’d sent to the brokerage; copying a dozen different email addresses in an attempt to get any response, was answered only by one person…who he’d not copied on the email.

Doug had demanded that ‘action be taken on his accounts immediately, including liquidating all of his mutual funds and placing them in his cash brokerage account, at which time he would decide on a new course of action.’   The response was less than satisfactory, especially since the trading day had carved a full thirty percent from his portfolio.

Dear Mr. Peterson:

Rest assured that your accounts in Raleigh Investment Group are in safe hands. Our business analysts and brokers are working diligently to protect the accounts of all of our members, and striving to achieve outstanding growth potential as opportunities arise in the days and weeks ahead.  While at the moment, there is a flight to archaic industrial metals including platinum, gold, silver and palladium, we see these as exceptionally poor performers over time. None of them are truly investments, and the track record of them does not come close to the performance of equities over the long term.
There are a number of growth areas that Raleigh believes are on the verge of explosive growth.  We will be in touch with you as soon as possible to present these options to you.

With warmest regards,

Leonard Varney
Senior Broker
Raleigh Investment Group, LLC

Doug read and re-read the email a half dozen times, deciphering the meaning of it versus the facts of the situation.  They were encouraging him to stay the course, trust them, inferring that they would make him more money if he did so.

They also went out of their way to discourage him from investing in ‘archaic’ precious metals, which it had seemed to Doug, started a ramp up with no end in sight. 

He was also faced with the fact that he couldn’t get them to act on his orders…despite the ‘confirmation numbers’ that he’d been given on-line. Raleigh had a Chicago office though, and he quickly looked it up.  He’d be visiting it tomorrow morning at the start of the business day, to make sure his orders were followed.  He closed out the window on the computer; feeling as if what they’d sent him was a complete lie. Maybe it was…

Doug took a break, and put more of his purchased goods in a semblance of order.  There wasn’t room for all of the stuff in the kitchen, and he wondered after his talk with Hal, if it made sense to put it away at all…or where he’d go if he had to ‘leave.’ He shut off the lights in the rooms facing the street, double checked the door locks, and went back into the living room.

Unlike Hal, Doug didn’t have a ‘Site B’ that allowed him to pack up and bail out. The family place in Duluth was long gone; he didn’t have any other living relatives. He didn’t have ‘options.’ The townhouse apartment was ‘it.’

Doug lay down on the couch, television news still talking about the ‘volatility in the market’ when they weren’t following search and rescue teams in King County, Washington. He dozed off to the sounds of the helicopters.

Tuesday morning
January Seventeenth
5:15 a.m.

The promise of the spring day was shrouded by the noise and smoke.  The noise was increasing, and the smoke in the air made Doug cover his nose with a bandanna. He’d been struggling to put all of his supplies into the Acura, but no matter how he tried, he couldn’t get anything through the passenger door—his armload of stuff wouldn’t fit…and the Acura was the wrong color. As the noise grew louder, he sensed that he was out of time and he turned to face the crowd, now running at him. He had never been more afraid. He reached for the pistol….

Doug woke up, heart pounding and soaked with sweat, realizing that the smoke from his dream was real.   He leapt from the couch and checked the townhouse, but found no sign of fire.  Still, the smell was everywhere.  The smoke alarms did not sound, though.

The TV was still on, but the screen was nothing but ‘snow’…which was damned peculiar, since programming was full-time.  He pulled on some shoes and looked outside from his darkened apartment, before opening the door.

Out the front door, to the east, there was a glow in the sky that shouldn’t have been there.  It was at least a mile away, but even at this distance he could see the flames were at least fifty feet above the rooftops….but the smoke plume was blowing towards the east, and therefore not the source of the terrible smell in the apartment.

Doug turned off the television…noting that it only had ‘snow’ where the twenty-four hour news station was supposed to be, and then opened the back door to the second-floor deck, and looked out to the west.
Three large fires burned, one less than a mile away was the source of the smell. Doug finally realized as he nearly vomited, it was the smell of burning flesh. He’d smelled it before, after a fiery crash on the Dan Ryan Expressway.  He closed the door quickly, wondering if this were in fact, the nightmare.

‘What could have happened to cause this?’ Doug thought to himself as he turned on one of the small lights in the apartment, and sat for a moment.  He turned the television back on, and cycled through the channels.  The cable was out—nothing on any channel.

“Dammit. Helluva time for this to go out,” he said to the furniture, before realizing that perhaps it was all tied together.   His radio and internet connection were also cable-provided, he remembered, so if the TV was out, so was the radio and the ‘net. He went to the bathroom, and turned on the clock radio that he listened to each work-morning.

“…are requested to remain in their homes until further notice.  Chicago Police are instituting a lockdown of all neighborhoods until disturbances are quelled.  At this time we have three alarm fires in twenty-two locations within a ten-mile radius of downtown, and countless smaller fires. Looting overnight has resulted in at least thirty dead, with six police officers killed in various locations and many, many civilians. Governor Veldman, reached in Columbia, South Carolina where she is vacationing, has mobilized the National Guard to assist local emergency service personnel…”

The urge to vomit returned, and Doug couldn’t hold it back.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Distance, Chapter 4


January Fifteenth
11:50 p.m.

It was nearly midnight by the time he finished unloading the car and getting everything put away or at least, piled away. He turned on the Al Devlin Show as he unloaded, knowing that the two empty townhouse apartments on either side of him wouldn’t mind the noise.
There were still a number of things that he didn’t get that were on the list. Doug had his late father’s .32 handgun, and a half-box of ammo, but there was no new ammunition for sale; no generator, no spare gasoline, no cigarettes, no livestock (!). With the money he’d already spent, he wondered if he should make another trip to the AmeriMart to the south….he could keep enough money in his accounts to pay for a couple months’ worth of rent and utilities, and still probably make one more six or seven hundred dollar trip.  He decided to risk it.

Doug really didn’t drive the Acura all that much in the snow—the bus and the train took him most places he needed to go in foul weather, and in fair weather, it was a joy to drive.  In heavy snow though, with the ice underneath, it was a handful.   His late dad had owned an old Chevy half-ton four-wheel-drive with a beat up camper on the back.  Doug was beginning to wish he’d kept it after his dad had passed away, but he didn’t make room to keep it. The Acura lived in the garage, and the truck would’ve been in the driveway, blocking the Acura. It was just too much to bother with….until now.

AmeriMart at Villa Park was similarly guarded with tall, imposing men with guns. There were around a hundred cars in the parking lot, including a number of Cook County police and sheriff vehicles, and a fire truck. Over to the east side of the lot, a row of RV’s, not unlike the Northlake store, were huddled around light poles.  A road grader was plowing the snow from the lot, shoving it to the north end.
Inside, there were far more uniformed officers--who were not shopping—than he’d ever seen in any store.  He made it three steps into the store proper, before he was confronted.

“Sir, this way, please,” a shotgun-toting security guard said.

“Sure,” Doug said, many eyes on him.  The lines at the checkouts were short, but many clerks were on hand, and busy. Doug was escorted by two guards, flanking him, from behind.

“Sir, you need to show your funds or fund balance on a valid debit card before entering,” a seated guard said, his unblinking focus on Doug, obviously looking for any doubt in Doug’s eyes.

“No problem.  I’d like to use a debit card, if that’s OK.”

“Swipe and enter your pin code on the keypad, and a favorable account balance will be sufficient for entry.  You will be required of course to pay for your purchases from that account balance.”

“No problem,” Doug said.  “I don’t use a pin code anymore though, I use a thumbprint.” 

“Pin codes only, sir.”

“I think I have that, one moment,” Doug said, flustered.  He’d memorized his pin code years before, but looked at his simple clue sheet to confirm the code.  The clue was in his wallet, on the back side of a family picture.  The code required adding and deducting a series of numbers—Doug’s birthday—from the written number on the picture, to arrive at the pin number. “Here it is,” he said, entering the pin.  In a moment, the approval came through.

“Very well, Mister Peterson.  You are approved, and thank you for your cooperation.”

“No problem,” Doug said, realizing with a chill that they knew his name, and he hadn’t given it to them. He moved into the store a few feet, grabbed a couple of carts, and turned to see the next person in line. Doug’s photograph and at least two paragraphs of text were on the video display in front of the seated guard, and disappeared when the next man in line swiped his card.

Doug refocused and reviewed his list. There wasn’t anything he could do about the guards knowing his identity. What bothered him was that they’d also know what he was buying and would also know his address…which meant they could come and get it.  That thought remained in his mind as he shopped, festering.

Doug started with the camping aisle, and found the last camp stove, putting it in his cart before the man behind him got it; four tan and green vinyl ponchos; several packs of fire-starting strikers, and then some waterproof matches; a huge first aid kit; a small, camp-style water filter and four matching quart-sized water bottles. In the kitchen aisle, Doug found half-gallon and gallon-sized plastic jugs that could be used for dry food storage or liquids, then a number of paring and kitchen knives, a few sharpeners and scissors.   Then, on to toiletries, where he found a very picked over aisle.  He found a six-pack of stick deodorant (not his brand), and threw in a handful of disposable razors, and then replacement blades for his own. Bar soap was still plentiful, and he put in twenty bars.  No anti-bacterial soap or soft soaps of any kind, though.

The laundry aisle still had bleach (three gallons, all went into the carts) and granulated laundry soap.  Doug took four large boxes. He heard raised voices, obviously arguing over something, before being shouted down by a guard.
The food aisles were even more picked over than the toiletries, with bare shelves being the dominant feature.  No bottled water, no canned goods of any kind, no boxed food, no bags of sugar or salt.  No spices, coffee, tea, tobacco or cigarettes. Doug hurried on.
He went over to Hardware, where he picked up some duct tape, a large roll of garbage bags, and four pairs of heavy work gloves. More people were in the store.  Doug felt he didn’t have long. He had a fair amount of “repair” stuff at home, enough to fix things around the apartment, and moved on.

In Men’s Shoes, Doug found a good pair of hiking boots, better than the pair he had on, and they were waterproof. He found another pair, and put them in the cart.  In Men’s Outerwear, heavy coats were still there, but in garish colors.  He found one in black and electric blue, with orange trim.  Chicago Bears colors, but not Doug’s.

‘Notice to all shoppers, access is now being restricted to the store, to maintain security inside and outside of the store.  Security advises that all shoppers will be escorted to their vehicles, but your security cannot be ensured beyond Amerimart property.’

‘That’s it then, I’m out of here,’ Doug said to himself, moving toward the front of the store.   It was ten minutes to one a.m., Monday, January Sixteenth.
Ten minutes of relative peace and order ended just as Doug unloaded his second cart onto the conveyor.  The shouting started from three aisles to Doug’s left.

“I’m sorry, sir, but your card has been declined…”

“It can’t possibly be!  It’s Chicago Security Federal!  I have twenty thousand dollars in that account, dammit! I have the bank statement right here!”   All of the other shoppers were staring, most were probably wondering if their cards would be declined as well.

“Sir, you will need to leave the store if you are not able to complete this transaction,” one of the armed guards said, two others taking up positions around the man, who was around thirty-five or so, well dressed.   Doug hurriedly loaded up the conveyor and the checker just as quickly processed the goods.

“Try this one, then,” the man said.  It too, was declined.

The yelling began again, and the guards wasted no time in removing the man from the store, one arm twisted behind his back, another hand on his neck.
Shoppers returned to their business, moving quickly and efficiently in an air of urgency that hadn’t been there a few minutes before.

“Eight-hundred twelve and forty-two, sir,” the overweight, overtired cashier said to Doug.

“Here we go,” Doug said as he swiped his card. Fifteen seconds—an eternity in transaction time.  Finally it was approved.

“Your receipt, Mr. Peterson,” the cashier said.

“Thanks,” Doug said.

“Sir, we’ll escort you out to your vehicle,” one of the guards said.

“Uh, OK,” Doug said.

“There’s a fair crowd out there, sir.  You might need the protection.”

“I’m not arguing.  Thanks.”

Doug pulled one cart, pushed the other, with one guard in front, the second behind, with a short-barreled shotgun in hand.

Outside, there was a line of prospective shoppers near the front store wall, under the awning.  The snow was back, but the wind was gone.  The flakes fell silently on the crowd.  Three hundred feet to the west, the parking lot guards were containing a growing crowd of people trying to enter the lot.  From somewhere, the store had obtained pre-fab chain link construction fence, panelized, and had installed it around the store.  Doug didn’t remember seeing it when he drove in, but might have missed it.

The lead guard moved away from Doug’s car, and spoke into a small, hand-held radio, as the second continued watch over the parking lot.  As he loaded the car, Doug looked around, and saw five other guards standing watch as other people loaded up.  Most of the vehicles were trucks or SUV’s, he saw.

“Thanks, guys,” Doug said.  “Here’s a twenty for the favor. Sorry I don’t have more.”

“Glad to help, sir,” the trailing guard said, not making a move to refuse Doug’s payment, pocketing the bill in his vest.

The Acura was again full to the gunnels, and Doug hurriedly drove across the icy parking lot, and through the cleared gateway northbound. His car was hit by a rock or bottle on the passenger side, a sharp ‘thud’ coming from the rear.  He sped north on the frontage road, and saw that the adjacent highway had no traffic whatsoever.  He didn’t normally go out this late, but to have no cars at all, was odd.

Back home in his garage, he spent another half-hour unloading the car and getting the supplies put into the spare bedroom. He’d sort it out tomorrow.

Doug spent a restless night, thinking about his upcoming interview, a possibility that someone might have followed him home for his goods, or that someone would be tracking his purchases and come after him at their convenience.   The Art Devlin Show, droning on at a low volume, didn’t help put him to sleep.

January Sixteenth
Seven-ten a.m.

Doug’s seven o’clock alarm had gone off, and he’d promptly hit the snooze button in his sleep, drifting back off to sleep.  The second alarm was a buzzer. There wasn’t any sleeping through that one.  Doug slammed it off and twisted himself upright and was awake finally, seated on the side of the bed. He then remembered the previous night, and the need to call Regent Performance after the start of the business day.

With some trepidation, he looked outside, and saw a typical winter Monday morning; single vehicle tracks down the middle of the snowy street, grey sky.  No end of the world. Doug started to feel like he was an idiot, after staying up half the night buying ‘supplies.’ He showered, shaved and dressed in ‘business casual,’ before turning on the coffeemaker and then the TV.

“Serious declines in the confidence of the U.S. dollar is rocking the markets this morning, including the debt restructuring plan put forth by the Federal Reserve. The Administration has seen what can only be called a record turnover in their economic team.  Only one member of the President’s economic advisors remains from the original appointments, and all of them have been widely criticized for their lack of private-sector experience. 
Secretary of the Treasury Carlton came from Viceroy Alliance Group, never having any business experience, for example outside of college-level summer internships, and then into graduate school and into the financial services industry.  Despite this lack of experience, the President tapped him as the ‘only man for the job’ and he was confirmed with little comment during Congressional hearings. Secretary Carlson had no comment, nor did any of the members of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, on the Chinese move to distance the Dollar from the Yuan.
We’re expecting a rocky day on the Street, Dan.  We’ll get back to you with any breaking news….”

Doug flipped over to the financial news channel, where the futures markets were all in the red, along with the Asian and European indexes.  It was still over an hour before trading began in New York, but Doug decided to call his broker in any regard.  He fished out the business card from the file folder in his desk, and punched it into the cell phone, and waited.
The brokerage line rang twice and went straight to a message, stating that due to abnormally high traffic, wait times on line were in excess of sixty minutes, and prompted the callers to use the automated services available on the internet.  Doug put the phone down, switched it to ‘speaker phone’, and logged into the Raleigh Investment Group website, and accessed his account.

The Peterson family estate landed in Doug’s hands after his mother, and a year later his father, passed on.  Arnold, ‘Al’ Peterson had died onboard his boat, the thousand-foot Great Lakes bulk freighter SS American Destiny, where he’d served twenty-six years as Chief Engineer. Al had worked his entire life on the lake, like his father and grandfather before him.  Doug’s mother Eleanor, or Ellie as she preferred to be called, taught first grade for her entire teaching career. Both died relatively young, neither reaching sixty years.  Doug’s mom of lung cancer in a matter of weeks; his father of a massive heart attack during a rough late October storm, in the engine room of the Destiny.

The ancient Peterson family house and acreage outside of Duluth had been sold along with almost all of the contents, save a few photo albums, the Destiny ship’s flag, and a few things that had belonged to his mother. His parents both requested cremation and scattering along the downbound run to the Atlantic from the deck of the Destiny.
Doug logged in with his user name and password, which happened to be the marine radio call sign of his fathers’ ship, and according to Hal’s instructions he attempted to contact either an online representative or handle the transaction himself.  Doug and Hal Downing had talked in the past about what ‘safe harbor’ really meant in terms of the market, and in the present context, it meant a cash account.   His total investment portfolio at Raleigh was just over two hundred fifteen thousand dollars.

Each time Doug tried to place an order that would transfer his funds from one of the high-performance funds to cash, the transaction would be denied.  Five accounts and five access failures.  His phone was still playing the ‘wait time is…’ countdown, on the tinny speakerphone. This was making him mad. After repeating the computer login for the fifteenth time, the website refreshed to a ‘404 Page Not Found’ page, probably indicating that it had crashed, Doug thought.

The speakerphone continued to drone on. After five more minutes of attempting to log in, Doug realized that the phone ‘countdown’ had not changed.  He finally gave up, realizing that his cellphone battery was almost dead.  He ended the call and plugged the phone into the charger for a quick few minutes before the call to Regent.   Doug’s heart rate was elevated with his anxiety. He gave in, picked up the phone out of the charger, and called.

“Regent Performance Group. May I direct your call?” the pleasant voice answered.

“Good morning.  This is Doug Peterson, and I’m looking for Personnel.”

“Good morning, Mister Peterson. I’ll connect you to Paula Cruz, she’s assistant department head.”

“Thanks,” Doug said, taking a deep breath, as he stayed on hold.

“Mr. Peterson? This is Paula Cruz.  Thank you for calling,” she said, a hint of Latino accent in her voice.

“Good morning, Paula.  David Williams asked that I contact the Palatine office and set up a meeting with Ronnie Halberstrom for a video interview.  I’m calling to check his schedule?”

“One moment, Mister Peterson. I’ll be happy to set that up,” she said, putting him on hold for a minute. “All right, Mister Peterson, I’ve an opening with Mister Williams for this Thursday, the Nineteenth at one p.m.  Will that work for you, sir?”

“That’s just fine. Thanks,” Doug said.

“Perfect, sir. I’ll confirm that on the schedule, and make arrangements with the San Diego office. Mister Williams will be there later this afternoon, but won’t be available until Thursday.”

“Busy man,” Doug said.

“Yes, sir,” she said.  “Do you need directions to our office?”

“No, thank you very much though.  I’ll hope to meet you on Thursday, Paula,” Doug said in his smooth, salesman voice.

“Looking forward to it, Mister Peterson.  We’ll see you then!”

Doug was happier, he realized, than he’d been in months. He’d already begun in his mind the interview process, realizing that he’d have to research the Regent operations in great detail to demonstrate his knowledge of their operations and illustrate how he could be part of their team. His mental to do list was already well underway as he headed from his office to the living room.  He had a ton of work to do.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Distance, Chapter 3


January Fifteenth
Five-thirty p.m.

The cell phone could at least get through to voice mail, but Hal wasn’t answering.  Doug didn’t know where to start really, but he wanted to at least talk with his bar buddy to see if there really was something going down.
Doug finished his message, and his phone buzzed him for stored voice mail.  Five voice mails were stored, where a moment ago, none had been present.   None of the calls though, had stored phone numbers or contacts. ‘That’s weird,’ he thought as he punched in his password.

“Hi, Doug.  Sorry I didn’t catch you, this is Julie. It’s about ten-thirty, and I just spoke with the charge nurse at the hospital.  It looks like they will be able to release Cammie late tonight, and we’ll try to get a train out tomorrow.  Call me back at this number when you get a chance. She’s….still not quite herself, but the hospital says they can’t keep her against her will.  Thanks,” Julie’s recorded voice said.

‘She sounded more tense than yesterday,” Doug thought.  He tried her phone number, and again received an ‘all circuits busy’ signal.

The next two calls were hang-ups, probably wrong numbers.  Whoever it was that called though, sounded scared. On to the next call.

“Doug, this is David Williams with Regent Performance. I was hoping to catch you, but this’ll do.  Please call the Palatine personnel office on Monday if you would.  I’m afraid I will not be in the Chicago area this week, but hope to have a video interview with you patched through to me.  The local office has my schedule, and you’ll meet Ronnie Halberstrom, the local personnel director.  Look forward to hearing from you.  Take care.”

“YES!” Doug said, tossing the phone onto the couch, celebrating the prospect of an interview, wishing he could share it with Cammie.  The final voice mail went unheard, as Doug turned his attention to the correct wardrobe for Monday, a bowl of popcorn and some summer sausage for ‘supper’, and a review of the Amtrak schedule for rail service from New York to Chicago. If the rail service schedule was to be believed, they’d leave New York at a quarter to eleven tomorrow morning, and arrive tomorrow night, before ten.

Around nine, he flipped on the television for some background noise as he ironed and starched his best dress shirt.  Again the TV coverage was dominated by the disaster in the West, and Doug didn’t even think to look for the sports scores.  The subject now was martial law, with four commentators debating the constitutionality of the order, put in place by the National Guard.  He tuned out the background noise, and finished up with his interview wear.
When he began paying attention again to the television, the video showed a clip of a 747 at Boeing Field, minus a wing, and what looked like the middle of a floating bridge in a lake, with cars stranded on it. ‘Jesus.  That’s the Five-Twenty bridge…’ Doug thought.  He’d traveled that bridge as part of his quarterly trip to Kirkland, back when he was covering the Leinhardt territory.

Doug heard his phone ring, and quickly answered it.

“Doug? For chrissakes, didn’t you get my message?” Hal Downing said. 

“No, Hal, I didn’t,” Doug said, remembering there was one last voice mail on the cell.

“Dammit. OK then.  Remember what I was talking about? About things rocking the markets tomorrow? Well it’s tomorrow in Asia, and the crap is hitting the fan. If you can get your broker to get you in a safe harbor, you better get on it right effin’ now. You need to get cash, all you can. Cash will be king.  The market is going to go berserk. It’s going to open like it fell off of a cliff tomorrow morning, and the trade curbs will kick in.  They’ll come off after a couple hours or whatever, and they’ll watch it drop again.  If you have money in the market, you’re going to lose it all if you leave it.  Understand?”

“Yeah, but,” Doug said, about to ask a series of questions.

“There are no ‘but’s’, Doug.  You do this or you lose your ass.  I can go to prison for just telling you this.  Got it?”

“Yeah, Hal. I just don’t know if it’s possible.  The banks in the neighborhood—well, the ATM’s anyway, are already out of cash.  The store is filled with people with overfilled shopping carts, like it was two days until Thanksgiving…”

“Word is out already.  DAMN!” Hal said. “Someone tells two people and fifteen minutes later the whole damned city knows.”

“And the banks don’t open until…” Doug said

“Banks might not open tomorrow, Doug. Seriously.  You go to Plan B right now.  I’m dead serious, got it?”

Doug would have thought that Hal was overreacting, had he not known him as long as he had. “Yeah. What’s ‘Plan B’?”

“Get food, get a gun and a lot of ammunition, and either plan to stay where you are until things are done or get the Hell out of the whole Chicago area, as in, tomorrow. And plan on not being in a major city for a really long time.”

“Jesus, Hal! I have a job interview in Palatine sometime either tomorrow or in the next couple days. I can’t just go play Boy Scout and leave!”

“If you don’t you may not be able to.”

“C’mon, Hal. That’s over the top,” Doug said, getting a little hot under the collar.

“No, Doug, it’s not. I’m making five calls like this one, and if I’m wrong, I’ll buy you a case of your favorite booze and dinner at Artizan. Dinner alone goes for five hundred bucks a head there, and Jack Daniels is what, two-fifty for a case? I’m that serious.”

“All right, Hal,” Doug said both surprised and defensive. “What are YOU going to do?”

“Not going into details, Doug, but I won’t be anywhere near civilization within twenty-four hours.”

“Pretty hard to do business in the boonies, Hal,” Doug said, a little more dismissively than was called for.

“You’re starting to get the point, after all,” Downing said.

“You’re just going to bail. Quit your job, head for the boonies, because the market is going down?”

“No, I’m saving the rest of my life and the lives of my kids and my ex-wife.”

“Your ex? I thought you couldn’t stand her…” Doug said, confused.

“No, I still have feelings for her.  She’s a good mother.  I was a lousy husband. I’d like to live long enough to be a better father. She and the kids are already gone,” Hal said. “Starting to take me seriously now?”

Doug paused before answering. “I guess I am.”

“Remember what I said, Doug. Cash. Food. A gun and ammunition. You’d be better off getting the Hell out.”

“Hal, I don’t have a lot of money on hand.  Most of what I have for assets are in the market. I wouldn’t know where to start to just up and leave.”

“Few people do, and fewer yet will. You need time you don’t have, and you need to put distance between you and what’s coming.  Doug, I wish you luck.  I’ve got to go now,” Hal Downing said. “Good travels.”

“Take care, Hal,” Doug said.  The phone clicked off.

Doug sat there on the couch, now beginning to read the crawler on the bottom of the big plasma television, about the Dollar falling dramatically against the Yen at the open in Asia…a six month low and continuing the decline.  The next line said something about the Group of Seven in an emergency meeting in London. Doug had no idea who the Group of Seven was.  It didn’t sound good.

Doug spent an hour going through his apartment and gathering up all of the food he had.  It was a pitifully small quantity. Coming from the restaurant supply business, he knew how much people ate and what; how long it lasted on the shelves; and where and when regionally-specific restaurant chains needed shipments. He found that he didn’t have three days worth of food within the walls of his apartment, or more properly, three days worth of ‘real’ food. His cash totaled two hundred fifty-one dollars and a half-gallon jar of change.
His options for shopping were very limited, due to the day of the week and the late hour.  Most grocery stores in the area were already probably picked over, and weren’t much bigger than the one in his own neighborhood.  The larger stores were the only option, and only two were open twenty-four-seven.  Doug changed into some old  jeans, dug out his old hiking boots, and put on a sweatshirt.

“AmeriMart, here I come.”

Doug’s apartment was located almost exactly between two of the stores, one in Northlake and one in Villa Park.   He’d first try the one in Northlake.
The Acura coupe started right up, same as always, and he backed it out of the garage, and headed east toward Northlake.  The normal FM radio station, instead of classic rock, was broadcasting some financial program, covering the same topics as the television crawler had running.

“People really don’t get it, Ray,” the caller said.  “This is financial Armageddon unless the government pulls their head out and deal with this debt.  But they’re not going to, and every other nation on the planet realizes it.”

“I can’t really disagree with you, San Diego. I’m really hoping that most of our callers have been paying attention for the past two years that this mess has been in the offing.  It’s damned late to be thinking about getting squared away now.”

“Well my wife and family are.  We’re few and far between though from what I see around us, and we’re not telling anyone.”

“Thanks, caller.  On to Tennessee. We’re not using any of our callers names tonight, for their own security. Caller, go ahead,” the host said.

“Al, thanks for this show tonight, and I agree that this really is it.”

“What have you done to get ready, caller?”

“Well, it’s a pretty long list, Al.”

“We’re commercial free, caller.  Indulge yourself.”

“We’ve got enough acres to keep us fed, watered, in firewood, in livestock, and have privacy, first of all.   It’s paid for, and we actually have proof of that in hand, unlike these poor suckers who don’t know who owns their mortgage.”

“Sound advice,” the national host, Al Devlin, said. Doug recognized the voice.  He usually ran an overnight show that had a bunch of whack-jobs as guests.  “Are you ready to hunker down?”

“Yes, sir. We have stored food for our place for a solid year, plus what we can grow and our livestock.  We can cook on electric, propane, and white gas with camp stoves. We’ve got a battery of solar panels and a wind-generating plant, even though we’re still on the grid.  Batteries and inverters will keep us in power as long as we’ve got light or wind. Won’t be an easy transition, but it’ll be OK.  We’ve got water here on our land, but also have stored water for quite a while…”

Doug realized that he didn’t have the ability to store water, beyond what would fit in a handful of small containers. He had a couple small flashlights, no ability to cook once the power went off, no ability to keep warm once the furnace shut down.

“…filters of course, too.  My wife is trained as an EMT, and we have more medical supplies here at the house than we have at the County clinic, including nuclear, biological and chemical suits and filters.  We’ve got a decontamination setup, in case there’s fallout of any kind, and air filtration for the living quarters….”

“What exactly are they expecting, the end of the world?” Doug said to the radio, pulling into the shopping center parking lot. The lot mercifully only had a few dozen cars, not unusual for this time of night.

“And Al, we don’t really have any cash left at all.  Over the past year, we’ve been socking away every dollar we aren’t going to spend right away into pre-Sixty-Four silver coins.”

“Hopefully, some from our sponsors,” the host added with a chuckle.

“Well, to be frank, no.  It’s been more secure for us to deal with dealers within our region, on a cash basis....not traceable by the Feds.”

Doug parked in a row about a hundred feet from the store, and saw a pair of armed guards at the building corners, toting shotguns. Another approached him from the parking lot. He’d apparently driven right by him.

“Good evening, sir.  Are you here to shop?”  the big, black security guard asked, cradling a short shotgun.

“Uh, yeah.  What’s going on?”

“Store security, sir.  There’ve been some problems at other stores.  We’re here to make sure there aren’t problems here,” the guard said, essentially warning Doug not to make any trouble.

“Just shopping, thanks.”

“Sir, this is a cash and debit card only store. No credit cards or checks allowed,” the guard said.  “Do you still wish to proceed?”

“Uh, yeah. I’m good,” Doug said, realizing that his plan to use his credit cards to preserve his cash just went out the window. He could though, transfer as much of his savings into checking at any ATM…assuming they were still working.  If they weren’t, the money would be automatically transferred on the next banking day, and he’d pay a fee for that.
Inside, Doug grabbed two of the large shopping carts and went at it, keeping track mentally how much he was spending. He quickly realized that the prices were much higher than he thought they should be….which was probably part of what Hal was warning him about. He’d risk the overcharge to his debit card, and the transfer from savings to checking.
Doug knew from his professional experience that the biggest bang for the buck was in basic staples that could be used in many different ways. He was wishing he’d bought bulk supplies at the company outlet store, as they went for pennies on the wholesale dollar. Other shoppers were filling their carts with canned goods. Prepared foods were all well and good, but were very expensive on a per-serving basis.
He loaded up on pastas, rice, dried beans, sugar, salt and herbs and spices that he knew he didn’t have at the apartment.  Most of his target list would be dehydrated, because of the better value: soup mixes, drink mixes, cocoa, gravy mixes, soy sauce, boullion cubes, dried and condensed milk, and dried fruit.  He stocked up on coffee and tea as well, much more than he’d ever likely use.  Liquid goods included peanut butter, honey, vegetable oil, mayo, Tabasco, ketchup and mustard.  Meat products included canned bacon and ham, canned tuna, and SPAM.  He picked up several packages of refrigerated bacon and then moved onto vitamins and cold remedies, and was about to head to the checkstands when another cart cut him off.

“Oh! Sorry!” the man behind the cart said, his eyes quickly scanning Doug’s front cart. 

“No problem,” Doug said.

“You need soap,” the man said, still looking over the carts.  “And toilet paper.”

“Huh?” Doug said.

“You need what’s on this list,” the man said as he handed Doug three sheets of old-fashioned dot-matrix printer paper.  Doug noticed the hint of a European or Russian accent. “You also need booze and tobacco and perfume, and chocolate and hard candies,” the man said.  “And that tuna fish. Get the kind in oil. There’s more nutritional value and you can cook something else with the oil.”

“What is this list?” Doug said, quickly scanning it and seeing many of the things he had on his list, but many more that he hadn’t though of.

“It’s from my parents. They lived outside Sarajevo during the war. You need these things,” he said and pushed off up the aisle. “Keep the list,” the man said.  “And get into the camping aisle. You need things there, too,” he said, and was gone.

Doug’s carts were already full, including the lower shelves.  He looked over the list and decided that he couldn’t likely fit anything else of size in the carts anyway, and headed for the checkout.  He’d come back for more immediately….if his debit card would work.
There were six cashiers, all with at least one person in line. Doug found the quickest moving cashier, rather than the shortest line, and was looking at the contents of other carts in front of him.  Disposable diapers.  Canned goods. Energy drinks. Frozen foods….

“Are you next sir?” The cashier asked, Doug now noticing several more security guards inside the store, near the doors, all armed, all in black.

“Yes, sorry,” he said as he started unloading items onto the belt.

“You have cash for this sir, or a debit card?”

“Absolutely,” Doug said, pulling out a money clip he’d had since his first job.  That garnered a nod to the closest guard, and the cashier began to ring him up.

Five minutes later, Doug was given the option to use his debit card or cash, and he chose the debit card.  The total was over six hundred dollars….or about thirty-percent more than he expected it to be.  The debit card worked fine.

“See you again in a few minutes,” Doug said as he smiled at the pleasant cashier, who looked over tired. 

“I’ll be here,” she said with a wry smile.

Outside, the parking lot hadn’t changed, although a few RV’s had showed up, lights inside blazing.   The security guards nodded at him as he pushed one cart and pulled the other over the icy parking lot, slipping several times.  In a few minutes, the Acura’s small trunk was packed full, as was the back seat.  Doug began to wish he had a larger car.

“We’ll keep an eye on that, sir,” the guard at the front door said.

“Much appreciated,” Doug said.  He pulled out a five-spot and handed it to the guard.

“Appreciated but not necessary, sir,” he guard said as he handed it back.  “The company pays us pretty well.”

“Thanks anyway,” Doug said, meaning it. “Keep it.”

He headed back inside with his carts, and started to review the list handed to him by the stranger.  He headed to the camping aisle, where he found it fairly well picked over. He picked up a zero-degree sleeping bag, the last one on the shelf; an old-fashioned Coleman lantern and a handful of the fabric mantles, and the last four cans of fuel.  Just seeing the logo brought back memories of camping with his dad, thirty years ago. He then noticed the white-gas catalytic heater, and loaded that up…but didn’t find any stoves left, just the empty space on the shelf.  Next, waterproof matches; four packages of refillable butane lighters and more butane; a bunch of battery powered LED flashlights, spare batteries, a hand can-opener, and two dozen other small items from the list.  He noticed on the second page--which was actually the first and was out of order—that the list was titled, ‘100 Things To Disappear First’. At the bottom of the page, were a number of suggestions from a survivor of Sarajevo.  Doug wondered if the author was the father of the man who’d handed him the list.
By the time the carts were again overfull, Doug had many more things to pack into the Acura. This load was less expensive, just. Doug drove home with his goods blocking the rear-view, as well as the right side.  The car was full to the ceiling, and drove horribly with the load and the ice, and he had to constantly keep his right hand holding up the pile of bags on that side of the car.   The radio program was still on, more callers talking about what they believed was coming, some of it sounded absolutely stupid…or would have, a week ago.
Nearing home, he noticed a mass of flashing red and blue lights of the police, both to the west of his street and pulling onto his own street, far to the north.  He had no idea what might be going on…the radio program was national, not local.
A minute later, he was in his garage, and pushed the button to close the garage door. He sat there for a moment, before pulling the key out of the ignition, the radio program still droning on.

“Doug, you may have just done insanely stupid, or smart. Time will tell,” he said to himself.