Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Distance, Chapter 19


January Twenty-sixth
7:30 p.m.

Doug finished the methodical cleaning of his new shotgun and the old revolver, frequently referring to the manual that came with the new weapon, and figuring out the revolver as he went.  After the weapons were cleaned and reassembled, he reloaded each. He took the salesman’s advice on the shotgun loads, with progressively heavier loads with each round.  
The first was essentially for noise, or waterfowl.  After that, should anyone continue to come toward Doug, they’d meet double-ought buckshot, and then the heavy ‘defense’ loads. 

He’d made a number of rookie shooting mistakes during his practice in the late afternoon, not the least of which resulted in a very sore shoulder. He didn’t quite have the buttstock firmly against his shoulder when he fired the first shell, and the recoil made him pay for it.
His practice consisted of loading, unloading, firing from various positions, and firing from different ranges to understand the pattern of the shot and the damage he could expect.  He fired only two of the ‘home defense’ shells, as they were expensive and the effect was dramatic enough on the few hunks of old lumber that he was using for target practice.  As he wrapped up his work with the shotgun, his neighbor August Kliest pulled into the driveway, saw that Doug was just practicing, waved and smiled, and pulled out again without any words exchanged.  Doug didn’t think anything of the noise he was making and any potential signals that he might be sending as a result.  ‘Probably not too smart on my part,’ he thought as he watched his neighbors’ car pull away. He went behind the barn, which was more sheltered from the rest of the property, and practiced with the revolver, going through fifty rounds.

Dinner had been heavy on rice and sauce, a few handfuls of corn and peas, and a little pork.  This meal could evolve into breakfast with some eggs on top, and was as good cold as it was hot, especially with a spicy sauce. 

The ‘office’ was now set up as a bedroom, with the bed now assembled, dresser and nightstands set up across from the desk.  As soon as the bed was finished, he ‘tried it out’ and smiled broadly at the comfort.  He wasn’t surprised that it was so soft, but surprised a little at how soft he was to think that this was sheer luxury.

He’d wrestled in his mind for a couple of hours, how to tell Julie about the upcoming business trip.  He’d thought of her frequently during the day, and had come to realize that while she was a large part of his thinking, that she might not think the same of him. That realization bothered him, because as he looked back over his life, he’d never really had feelings toward any woman as he had for Julie.  His previous attachments had been just that: Attachments.  Admittedly great sex and a lot of it; sometimes ending badly, sometimes just…ending.  Before Julie, there was Cammie; before Cammie there was Sharon; before that, Brenda. Prior to Brenda, a whole string of women…None meant to Doug what Julie now did, and he didn’t really even know her all that well. 

His heart beat faster as he called her number at the Segher’s, pacing back and forth in the ‘living room.’ He felt like he was about fourteen again, calling Lisa Banks out for his first real date…

“Hello?” a male voice answered.

“Hi,” Doug said, a little off-balance.  “This is Doug Peterson.”

“Doug, this is Roeland.  How’s it going?”

“New adventures every day. How about you?” Doug replied.

“More fun than I can handle,” he said unconvincingly. “Looking for Julie?”

“If she’s available, sure.”

“Hang on just a moment.  She’s coming in from one of the barns. She just watched Dad help deliver a calf.” Roeland replied.

“Wow,” Doug said.

“Yeah, I don’t think she was quite ready for that.  Here she is,” Roeland said as he heard Julie ask, ‘who is it?’ in the background.

“Hello?” Julie said.

“How’s the calving?”

“It was AWESOME!” Julie said, giggling. “I’ve never seen anything like that before!  How are you?” she asked, sounding eager.

“Frankly, I’m much better now that I hear your voice,” he said without thinking about it. He was met with a longer silence than he thought was a good sign.

“That’s the nicest thing I’ve heard in days,” she replied, sounding as if she were smiling.

“I mean it,” Doug said. “I really didn’t mean to blurt it out like that, smooth operator that I am.”

“It’s very sweet. Thanks.”

“Are things going OK down there? Settling in and not working too hard?”

“Yes, things are going better. I have my self-pity moments but Maria smacks me back out of them.  I’ve been keeping the veterinarian busy with progress reports on a few of the heifers.  One calf a little while ago here, and three more in the next day or two on one of the other farms.  Got the books all balanced, taxes paid and I’m in the middle of a financial plan.”

“Busy lady,” Doug said, having no idea what delivering a calf entailed, but envisioned some fairly graphic images, all….messy.

“How about you? Getting anything done?” she said, sounding as if she were settling in, or sitting down carefully. Her ribs had to still be giving her trouble.

“I had a delivery today—most of my stuff from Chicago made it more or less intact, so I’ll be able to sleep in a bed which will be great.  Work-wise, I’m getting some stuff done. Most of my team has been on the run, literally.”

“Meaning? I don’t get it.”

“Meaning getting out of the L.A. or San Diego area and getting away from the Mexicans and the Chinese.”

“Oh. Sorry. I should’ve assumed that. Is everyone safe? I saw some of that video out of Sacramento. Awful.”

“I’m not sure.  I’ve only heard from one of them. Another was drafted back into active duty with the National Guard in Texas. My immediate boss has been out sick for a couple of days, so I’m doing what I can.  I’d planned on being on airplanes for the next ten days….”

“Don’t!” Julie said, interrupting him.

“I’m not,” he said, a little shocked at her forcefulness. “The company sent me this huge email with all kinds of travel restrictions. No airline travel, period. Avoid large crowds. Wear masks,” he said a little dismissively, wondering what she knew about the flu bug.  “It sounds like you know something,” he asked.

“We’re hearing rumors that flu came from China,” she replied.

Doug didn’t quite know what to say. “What did you say?”

“Timing. We find ourselves in a war and a big percentage of the population gets sick. Does that sound coincidental?”

“It sounds like a right-field conspiracy theory,” he replied before considering it too deeply.

“People on the West Coast got sick first. They’re getting sick in major cities served by major airports.  The flu has spread from there to other major cities served by other major airports.  In a few days the entire nation is exposed to it. We probably saw it in Chicago when I was in the hospital.  I heard the doctor tell you to get me out of the hospital as soon as you could, but you probably didn’t know that I heard you.  Do you wonder why that is? Is it adding up now?”

She had some good points. It sounded too far-fetched though. “People will get shots for it. They’ll get it under control.”

“Doug, I’m hearing on the radio that people are dying a day after they show symptoms…otherwise healthy people. Does that sound like it’s controlled?”

“Where are you hearing this?” Doug asked. 

“A few sources. Shortwave. Most in the Southwest. One in New York, One in D.C.”

“But not network news.”

“No, not network news,” she conceded. “Do you think they’d report it anyway?”

“No, probably not….until it was too big to hide. People’d freak,” he said.

“Right. As if there’s not enough to freak out about as-is. War. Economy in a mess. And now there’s some super-bug out there, too.”

“You believe this,” Doug said as a statement more than question.

“I’m strongly inclined to believe it. I’m hearing too much for me not to. They won’t be able to keep this under wraps much longer. There’ll be too many people exposed and if it’s real, too many people might be dying of it to blame it on something else,” she said.

“You heard about the Vice President?”

“I heard. How difficult do you think it would be to find some way to infect the enemy nations’ leadership with a bug like this, that just might kill them?”

“Sounds like Hollywood.”

“Or very good tactics toward a larger strategic goal,” Julie said.

“OK. Starting to see your point. I don’t mean to be dense.”

“You’re not being dense,” she said.

“Well, I feel like it.”

“Nobody is looking for a boogieman in the dark coming to get you, especially when the boogieman is really in clear daylight and has a smile on his face. All the parts add up.”

“Even wrong parts can be made to work sometimes,” Doug said.

“Granted,” she said.

“Julie, I need to do this business trip.  I feel my job depends on it. They want me to drive it.”

“It doesn’t sound wise to me, Doug. Remember what Chicago was like?”

“Of course.”

“How do you know you’ll be able to get gas? You can’t take enough gas with you for ten days. And food? A safe place to stay? You can’t stand watch twenty-four seven. We’re having a tough enough time here on the farm, even sharing duties with the other folks down here.”

“How did they make it before all this came down?” Doug asked.

“They didn’t have to worry about night watches every single night.”

“Who’s going to steal from a farm?”

“People that want food and fuel,” Julie said stating the obvious.

“Duh. Sorry. Have they had any problems?”

“Not yet, but they’re pretty sure they’re going to eventually.”

“Wouldn’t it just make sense to centralize the storage? It’d be easier to secure.”

“Can’t for a lot of reasons. Each farm has its own,” Julie said.

Doug thought about it for a moment. Of course she was right, you couldn’t have a central fuel location because they probably had fixed tanks for each farm.  Bulk goods, like grain, probably couldn’t move because the volumes were too great.

“Well, you’re at least miles from a major population center.  That might help some.”

“One thing I’ve learned in the past few days is that rural areas can have a lot of people that are on all kinds of public assistance. Welfare, food subsidies, all that. Those programs are gone. There is no safety net.  They probably don’t have anything in reserve. Nothing in their cupboards.”

“So you’ve got problems…or potential problems all around.”

“We sure might,” she said. 

“So where’s the County government? Or the state?” Doug asked.

“No one thinks the state or the counties can respond.”

“It should be their key function.  Who’s talked with them directly? This is why we have government.”

“It’s been attempted. Believe me.  They don’t see it the way we do. So we’re hunkering down.” 

“Well that’s probably smart,” Doug said, imagining what it must be like to secure a whole farm from mythic marauders. “I’ll have to see if this road trip is even possible.  There are some big things at stake.”

“Worth your life?” Julie asked curtly.

“No, but looking from the company’s perspective, we have an opportunity that will only come around once.”

“Not worth your life. Not worth anyone’s life,” Julie said.

“I agree. But flu outbreak or not, people have to eat. The processing plants need to operate. Trucks and trains need to move. If they don’t stores and warehouses don’t get supplied. People can’t buy what isn’t made and isn’t delivered. People starve. Then, they go looking for food. On farms, for instance.”

“So you think that through a business trip you can stop that from happening?”

“I think I can make a difference, that’s all.  There are a dozen or so major corporations that are on my call list.  They make almost every major brand name food, soft drink, ready-to-eat meal…you name it. Our product can help them.”


“I’ll leave out the boring details. Proprietary stuff. Short story is that one of the new products essentially enhances the flavor of foods that it combines with.  They taste better,” Doug said.

“So what difference will that make now? I don’t understand.”

“In terms of new food lines, this can allow new products to enter the market with less expensive ingredients—domestic instead of imported. Existing products can be reformulated to cut back on input cost…”

“So you make them cheaper with this stuff and add fillers,” Julie said, cutting to the chase.

“That is a possibility, but that’s not really the intention. It’s intended to make existing lines taste better than they do with what they have,” Doug said.

“Still not seeing how this helps.”

“OK. Picture this:  Capital to operate marginal businesses becomes unavailable. Production ceases as credit vanishes. Those factories close and quickly, because the banks essentially own them.  Those companies that supply or receive product from those factories close or have to compete for their own business survival….more likely, they layoff first, then close when they can’t secure new clients or customers.  People that depend on products produced by the marginal businesses scramble for alternative sources….prices skyrocket, supplies dwindle. Got it?”

“Continue,” Julie said with a cautious tone.

“Non-marginal companies meanwhile, maybe they’re entirely debt-free or have outside sources of capital, ramp up to fill the void as the smaller companies collapse.  Problem is, they can’t. The supply chains take too long to establish, contracts to negotiate, factories too long to ramp up and get into an expanded production, or are already at capacity running three shifts and there’s no extra capacity, period. Prices continue to go up, supplies continue to fall. This scenario disregards a financial collapse that we seem to be in, by the way, as well as disruptions in global trade.”

“OK, got it.”

“There are a dozen or so multinational corporations that literally own food production in the North America and Europe. Relatively speaking, it’s a handful, because half of them will be gone inside of a month because they were truly marginal—limited market, limited product, specialty producer, whatever.  Most of the survivors exist solely on revolving lines of credit.  They have no financial reserves available because they historically have not needed them. Perpetual sales of long established product lines have allowed them to skinny down their operations to the bare minimum, which reaps all kinds of rewards for the CEO’s and corporate officers and to a much lesser degree, the shareholders.”

Doug went on.  “So you’ve got a massive collapse in production due to financial failure…that telescopes throughout the entire food production system. Farmers, rail companies, truck companies, the actual production plant workers, warehouses, grocery stores.  All are suddenly scrambling to meet demand. Demand, by the way, that increases in very real terms as people get nervous about whatever world crisis happens to be raging at the moment,” he said. “Still with me?”

“Yes.  You sound like this is predictable.”

“It is, to a degree, things like it have happened for decades, if people would care to look. Multinationals capitalize on stuff like this.”

“All right, next?” Julie asked.

“The main point: Collapse in production in this case is not caused by a collapse in consumption. It’s caused by outside forces. In this case, I called it ‘money’ or ‘credit’. The consumers still want to consume—need to consume, because we’re talking food here….and prices of remaining supplies of whatever food companies are producing skyrockets. People riot when they can’t get enough food.  Then they take measures into their own hands.”

Doug continued. “Regent is trying to short-circuit this.  If Regent can get facility and supply contracts secured, the enhancements that I’m helping with can help change the outcome. We can use currently available materials yes, thin them down but allow much more to be produced, without losing the appeal of the original product.  We do more within the existing framework. With a bigger framework, we can do even more. It’s still early enough to make a difference.”

“I understand,” Julie said quietly. “But I don’t like it.”

“I know. I’m more than a little apprehensive myself. It’s a very big deal and time is short. One other component that I didn’t mention is supply. Historically, when there’s a country or region that is having a production issue due to weather, or crop failure or a surge in demand, other regions in the globe are more than happy to alleviate the shortfall. Problem now again, goes back to credit.  Ships aren’t ever unloaded until the goods aboard are paid for. They don’t even sail on the fore end of the voyage until their rep on the receiving end can assure them that the deal is real and that funds will be exchanged.  That now, isn’t happening.”

“Ships aren’t moving?” she asked. 

“Ships aren’t moving. Product isn’t getting shipped…or it won’t be very shortly. Confidence in the U.S. Dollar is evaporating just as fast as prices increase. No one will trade with us until we get our financial act together. In the next few days, the lockup that we’re seeing with international shipping will hit here, I’d bet.  That means that anything that is not cold, hard cash or a confirmed instant bank transfer will not be accepted for wholesale transactions…and not long after that for all transactions.”

“How does your company propose to get ‘contracts secured’ when there’s no credit?” Julie asked.

“Easy. Our corporate reps go to the guys that are holding the properties as it all comes apart and the only ones that can make a smooth transition. The Banks.” 

Monday, March 21, 2011

Distance, Chapter 18


January Twenty-sixth
9:04 a.m.

“Ten days, I’d guess,” Doug said, speaking with Regent’s ‘traffic controller’ in Ohio, who’d be setting up his first major business trip. The ‘Controller’ was essentially their in-house travel agent, who’d use the corporate resource base to get Doug from ‘A’ to ‘B’. In this case, from ‘A’ to ‘F’, from Iowa to the upper Midwest, New York and Atlanta.

“This will depend of course on commercial travel restrictions and our internal security review, Mister Peterson.  We’re having to work this backwards—finding which airline is flying and where, and then you’ll be able to set up meetings in your target cities. We at least have rental cars reserved throughout the system, so that won’t be a problem. Des Moines is currently showing no restrictions that would impact your planned itinerary.”

“OK.  Can you let me know later today?”

“Oh, certainly. Within the hour I would expect,” the pleasant voice replied.

“Excellent.  Assuming that cell service stays active, you can reach me at this number.  If not, just email me at the Regent address and I’ll get it eventually.”

“Things rough out there?” the agent asked.

“Much quieter than Chicago,” Doug said.

“Yes,” the agent replied quietly. “We’ve got restrictions in place for Chicago, Philadelphia and Atlanta right now, although they say that Atlanta might be lifted sometime tomorrow.”
“That’d be good news if true.”

“It sure would,” the agent said before signing off.

Doug’s morning had been a flurry.  He’d been up early to the sound of someone’s barking dog, and decided to get up and to work. The clear night led to a brilliant cloudless sunrise. The power was up and going, the furnace kept the place warm, which figured, since he now had a pile of split firewood in the basement and water stored in the storage room….

The request (demand?) for Doug to schedule face-to-face meetings with his primary targets came from David William’s office, but the email was sent by one of his assistants.  David had left the office early on Wednesday, feeling ill, the email explained, but they expected him to be back in the Denver office by Friday.

Doug would have some serious time in airports with this trip, from the Des Moines origin, covering Akron, Minneapolis, Battle Creek, New York and Atlanta, for starters. He’d spent an hour on the line with the ‘traffic controller’, getting his identification established, internal client invoicing assigned, and listing his needed cities of destination.

A later email from Williams’ statistics officer (Doug had never heard of such a position) informed Doug that there was an eighty-one percent favorable rating with Doug’s initial presentation of the RNEW product, followed up by a fifty-six percent immediate request for additional information up to and including sampling of the RNEW system into major food product lines. For a hastily written, haphazardly implemented (Doug’s impression of his own work) marketing effort, the results had been spectacular.

He would meet with a dozen representatives from major food producers on this trip, more if he could schedule it.  These companies made everything from breakfast foods to candy; prepackaged foods to gourmet goods; bulk products like flour, sugar, and spices to sports drinks, bottled water, canned coffee-drinks and soft drinks…in short, nearly everything consumed by the Western world as ‘food.’

Doug had worked for years for Leinhardt, and had never had anything nearly as large as this agenda in front of him, and had only met with one company with the scale of these: Agnew Middleton. He’d been received well by A.M., and generated some business from them but nothing like an exclusive in any of the product lines he rep’d. They were now ‘eager’ to meet with Regent Delta to explore ‘exclusive partnering on several product lines.’ It really didn’t get much better than that, Doug thought….

The cell phone buzzed on the desk, bringing up an unfamiliar phone number.

“This is Doug,” he answered.

“Mister Peterson, this is BlueStar Transport.  We would like to schedule our team to deliver your property today. Is that convenient?”

“Absolutely!” Doug said with surprise. “I’m tired of sleeping on the floor.”  Doug heard the man on the other end chuckle at that.

“I can understand that, sir,” he said, before asking for directions and providing an estimated time of delivery.

“The truck is between Dubuque and Cedar Rapids right now, so barring anything unforeseen, today should not be a problem with delivery. I do have a question for you though, sir?”


“How’s the diesel availability down your way?”

“It was available yesterday, price is going through the roof though. Haven’t checked today.”

“Fair enough. Thanks for that.  If you wouldn’t mind, give us a call when the team has left your location.”

“No problem,” Doug said as the call ended. ‘Why do you want me to report on your employees?’ he said to himself.

He looked around the house, and decided it was probably a good idea to stow the new Mossberg shotgun and the boxes of shells.  The salesman had walked him through the several remaining shotguns for sale at the store, and he had settled the an adjustable stock six-shot Mossberg twelve gauge.  It seemed to Doug that it would be easier maneuvering it around the house should it come to that.  The other options were longer and a little more bulky.  The salesman recommended at least five hundred shells, which Doug bought without question. A thousand rounds of .32 caliber for his ‘antique’ revolver, as Julie had called it, and a shoulder holster joined the shotgun and shells. By the time he was done shopping, he’d gone through a thousand dollars on his credit card with two shopping carts to show for it. They’d sold out of shotguns by the time he’d finished, and shells were going fast.

On Doug’s list today, at some point, would be practice firing both.  He’d bought several boxes of shells recommended to him for practice, which were quite a bit less expensive than the boxes of ‘home defense loads’.

A few minutes after noon, the BlueStar moving van arrived in Doug’s driveway, efficiently turning around and backing up toward the front door of the house before anyone left the cab. Doug was outside as the truck shut down.

“Good afternoon,” Doug said as the driver and another man climbed out of the truck.

“Afternoon, sir.  Could I get your name and the address of the property that we picked up from?” the man asked. 
“Sure,” Doug replied, giving his name and his former Chicago address.

“Correct.  Thanks, Mister Peterson.  That’s part of our security protocol.  Hope you don’t mind.”

“Not at all.  I hope there was still some stuff left worth moving,” he replied, not knowing quite what had happened after he’d left.

“It was an interesting couple of hours,” the second man said.  He was in his early thirties, Doug guessed, and probably weighed a good hundred pounds more than he ought to have. “We had two security men with us, plus the guy keeping an eye on the property. Almost wasn’t enough.”

“Mister Peterson, we really need to get moving on this stuff,” the first man said, showing some impatience at the small talk.  He was in his fifties, and thin, but athletic.  Doug noted that he had what looked like a similar shoulder holster under his coveralls.

“Sure. No problem. Most of the stuff can go straight into the living room and main floor and I’ll take care of it from there.” Doug signed for the delivery and they immediately went to work.

In a fast twenty minutes, Doug’s belongings were unloaded and generally placed in the main floor. He was surprised at the boxes that came inside. Virtually everything that he could remember in the townhouse arrived safe and sound, with the exception of the big television. The driver showed him a photograph of the flat screen, sporting four bullet holes in it—they’d come through the outside wall.   As the first load came into the house and the movers saw the staircase, he’d decided to make the main floor office his bedroom, thinking correctly that he could cut down the heat requirement by keeping the upstairs rooms closed off.

After the truck pulled out of the driveway, he called the number provided by BlueStar, and gave them the time that the truck left. In the background, he heard that the stock market had declined another four hundred points in a session broken by automated trading curbs. He wondered again, if Hal Downing’s strategy for Doug’s money was working, or if it had failed…there wasn’t any way to easily find out. He wrote himself a note to call Hal.

Doug got back to work, leaving the boxes where they sat. He wanted to get ahead on background research for the list of companies he’d meet with and think about the integration strategy.  He’d only heard from Rob Dowling, who’d left L.A. for anywhere he could catch a plane east. He’d planned on rejoining the Columbus office where he’d worked before moving to California. Working around his team, he outlined his plans for each meeting, figuring that either he’d integrate their thoughts later, or wing it on his own. He’d have liked to have someone on the inside to bounce around ideas.

He’d still not received a call from Regent’s traffic office, and it was now nearly two o’clock.  He called their number three times, and repeatedly received the too-familiar ‘all circuits busy’ message.

“Fine. Time for a break anyway,” Doug said, pushing away from his computer. He started digging into the boxes, and interestingly enough they were color-coded by room. ‘Kitchen’ boxes first, with a big red ‘K’ on each face.

“….markets in New York today, as the Dow Jones dipped to twelve-twenty, the S&P hit one-ninety-one point twenty, and the NASDAQ fell to three twenty-one point ten.”
‘Wow,’ Doug thought. ‘This keeps up and they’ll all be in double digits in days.’ He cut open the last of the boxes from the kitchen as the news continued.

“Fighting in the southwest and the former states of northern Mexico continued throughout the day, with consolidation of captured territory being completed as far as three hundred miles south of the former U.S. border. Senator Mardigan of New Mexico called for the immediate annexation of all captured territories, with expulsion of armed combatants south of the new border, which is still in dispute.   Comments made on Capitol Hill this afternoon centered on the status of the border zone, and when—not if—the captured territory would be formally annexed by the U.S. as a protectorate or U.S. Territory. Very few dissenting voices could be heard as the statement was made on the steps of the Capitol.”

‘Can’t take care of what we have now and they want more? Get real,’ Doug thought as he stacked up the stoneware plates in the cupboard.

“….. protest against the federal reorganization planned by the Administration is continuing at this hour on the Mall, with a significant response by the National Guard and regular Army units around the protest.  We go now to Curt Wilson on the Mall. Curt?”

“Thank you, David.  The Mall is under siege this hour from an unexpected quarter.  Well over a hundred thousand people are here, and have been here throughout the day, demanding that the government reconstitute the departments that the Reorganization has eliminated. Employees from hundreds of departments of the government turned out en masse this morning after night curfew ended, and attempted to march on the White House and Capitol buildings. Several Democrat senators spoke at ten this morning, as did several Republicans in the afternoon. Both groups are focused on urging the President and the Cabinet to reconstitute the thousands of well-paying public jobs that until two weeks ago were often held for life. That is certainly no longer the case, with the abolition of dozens of major departments, hundreds of smaller agencies, and even some Cabinet positions in the largest reorganization—and some say rollback—of the power of the federal government ever imagined.  This is plainly a gain for the states and the restoration of the primacy of State’s Rights, and a re-focusing of the entire federal Administration on the concept of government as the Founding Fathers originally intended. For many this is a second Revolution. For others, the end of their careers.”

“Now that’s just stupid,” Doug said aloud. “Stronger government does not come from fewer employees.”  He next opened up the yellow boxes from the living room, finding that none of his many DVD’s had made the trip, figuring that they were stolen from the townhouse or by the movers. He’d ordinarily be upset by this theft. Today he was just happy to have anything from the Chicago house.

“….the more violent the sentiment is. There are many voices in that crowd calling for the forcible removal of the President and the Cabinet, and their replacement with an interim President—elected by the Congress.” 

Doug stopped and listened intently, wondering what Julie would think of the news.

“No comment from the Administration was made following the speeches by the congressmen on the Mall today, other than a printed statement regarding the refocusing of National priorities within a framework that the States could afford.  That, in and of itself, drew comment from around the world, including from the European Union, who stated that the United States was systematically being Balkanized in order to avoid the repayment of debts garnered over generations of good faith by the countries of the world.”

“And they’d be right,” Doug said, arms folded across his chest, looking at the radio. “The President’s an idiot. People paid into Social Security and Medicare and they have a right to them…’

  “Senator Mitch Andrews, senior senator from Missouri and one of the oldest serving senators in U.S. history, stated that his debt to all countries was paid in full, thanks to his service, and the service of thousands of Americans in Europe and Asia in the early years of World War Two, and his three years spent in prison camps in France, and later Germany. The remainder of his statement could not be printed or broadcast, due to the rather coarse nature of his additional comments.”  

“Wheel out the antiques to wave a tired flag of nationalism,” Doug said.  “Not a real creative rebuttal,” he said aloud as he heard the chime of an incoming email.

“Mr. Peterson—
Due to health and security concerns, we are unable to complete your request for travel on commercial airline carriers. Regent’s Employee Care and Wellness analysts have recommended that no Regent employees travel via commercial airliner for the foreseeable future due to concerns of influenza infection. We believe that a formal declaration by the Centers for Disease Control of a pandemic emergency will be forthcoming in the next several days.

Currently, all corporate air travel is restricted to Regent-owned aircraft for senior executive travel.  Your position in Regent Delta unfortunately, does not place you in a position to qualify for this travel option. Obviously this is a massive disruption in the business of Regent, but given the risks we believe that these restrictions are prudent.
In the meantime, we believe that you should consider business travel by either Regent-provided vehicle or private vehicle, which will be reimbursed at rates to be negotiated. We would also state that travel should be made only as the highest priority as determined by you in concert with you and your Division Manager. Additionally, the following health-care and security recommendations are in place for all travel:

-Personal protection equipment (PPE) should be worn at all times in public. If you do not have anti-bacterial or anti-viral masks, do not travel. For further information on this, please refer to Appendix D of your employee manual.
-Face-to-face meetings should be conducted where there is exceptional air-exchange or even outside, to minimize the possibility of transmitting disease. At least six feet of separation is recommended between individuals due to the nature of the airborne transmission. Infection may occur through inhalation or contact of airborne particles with eyes.
-Frequent hand washing and sanitation practices on frequently-touched surfaces such as faucets, door handles, elevator buttons, telephones and other surfaces should be employed in all cases.
-Exercise cough- and sneeze etiquette in all cases.
-Avoid any crowds in public places, including elevators or facilities where you are less than six feet away from other people (airborne viruses typically are transmitted within a six-foot radius.)
-Do not ride-share under any circumstances.
-Avoid rental vehicles that have not been completely sanitized, including replacement of cabin air filters.
-Hotel stays should be in Regent-approved facilities.  The approved facilities have sanitation standards that are significantly more stringent than non-approved facilities. 
-Should you feel that you are becoming ill (cough, fever, sneezing, general body aches, weakness and or fatigue, etc.) immediately seek professional medical care….”

The email had three attachments, covering the aspects of travel in more detail; a list of ‘approved hotels’ covering the eastern U.S.; and further travel restrictions in the southern states and in other ‘volatile’ cities.

“Seriously. They want me to drive this?” he asked no one. “Damn,” he said, now not looking forward to this proposed trip in any way. The news continued on the radio, as he punched up a map on the computer, and started putting a route together.

“…..in Atlanta, officials of the CDC are at this hour preparing a statement regarding quarantines that have been issued in many U.S. cities. International air traffic has all but ceased due to the economic crisis, which appears to be slowing the spread of the disease.  The disease—preliminary identified as an aggressive influenza—has in rare cases killed its victims within twenty-four hours of the onset of symptoms.”

“The Vice President remains in Bethesda Naval Hospital, and word has come that his wife as taken ill as well. No comment has been made by the Administration, although rumors are—and have been—rampant throughout the day.”

Doug stopped looking at the map, and again looked at the radio. ‘If the V.P.’s got it and they can’t cure him…who’s the next in line? And it’s spread to his family?’

“Fox News is reporting that National Guard, Army and Marine units continue to engage in street fighting with rebels and terrorists in the Los Angeles, Tucson, Phoenix and Southern California regions.  While the Department of Defense has not released casualty information, Fox has learned that over seven thousand enemy have been killed in these urban battles, with losses of U.S. troops topping six hundred.  One hundred sixteen of these were killed when a KC-135—a refueling plane transporting troops—was shot down by a surface to air missile during a brazen, daylight attack, while on final approach to Mather Air Force Base east of Sacramento.  A small cell of terrorists operating the launcher were beaten to death by civilians before law enforcement officers could respond.”

“Damn,” Doug said, wishing Julie was here. He’d plan out his route map, and give her a call this evening…..

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Distance, Chapter 17


January Twenty-fourth
9:50 p.m.

Doug was thinking about turning in after working through the evening when his phone signaled that he had a text message.  The last of his team members, Janine Wendt, had finally replied.

“Mr. Peterson—
Sorry I haven’t been able to contact you today. I’ve been recalled to Active Duty with my former reserve unit in the Texas National Guard, effective immediately. My files are intact in the Dallas office, and my assistant Ian Baker has the password protocol.
I’ve completed a fair amount of the work needed for the first product launch across all the market sectors, and outlined the second and third product lines that Delta has planned for later in the year. Given the state of things, I’m fairly confident that I’ll be in this for the ‘duration’ so to speak.
I wish you and all of the Regent team the best in the future. 

1SG Janine Wendt
Texas National Guard”

Doug had no idea what the title ‘1SG’ meant, but appreciated the text message anyway.   His head hurt from eyestrain, reading the computer screen and writing up the next drafts of correspondence to his sales targets.

The message had two surprises for Doug: a second and a third product launch.  He’d read through all of the correspondence that’d been provided; nothing talked about follow-on launches. He questioned of course, if he was still to be with Delta for that work, or if they had other plans for him….like, cutting him loose should the RNEW launch fail to meet expectations or priorities change.

He punched up some streaming video on his computer as he got ready for bed.

“…..Car and truck-bombs have been used repeatedly, with some set off by remote control. Snipers are also active in targeting police and fire units, with two governors killed in the last six hours by sniper fire.”

“From Los Angeles and other cities, reports have come in to ABC that terrorists posing as illegal immigrants have been attacked and killed by legal immigrants and American citizens, and that police and military units have stood by while such actions are being taken, whether the victims are innocent or not. In these neighborhoods, rioting is virtually non-existent, while in more affluent neighborhoods, unrest is being blamed on looters from poor neighborhoods, with more aggressive attacks blamed on terrorists.”

“Journalists currently embedded with U.S. military units in Northern Mexico report that all civilians are being disarmed as the military invasion takes place, and that anyone firing on U.S. military units is being literally, wiped off the map. After the U.S. incursion began, large numbers of unidentified combatants began attacking the U.S. units from the rear—from U.S. soil. Arthur Jennick, our embedded reporter, filed a report earlier today that U.S. Army Airborne units were heavily engaged in Brownsville, Texas, and that the enemy troops were systematically being wiped out within the battle zone. A report of enemy troops trying to surrender, and then detonating suicide bombs was captured by a CBS camera crew. The resulting explosion killed the crew and the reporter, but the tape survived intact and was being broadcast on all major networks all afternoon and into the evening. Because of this tactic, the United States military is no longer accepting the surrender of Mexican troops. For now, it is literally,  ‘take no prisoners.’”

“Who’d blame ‘em?” Doug said to the radio after brushing his teeth.

“…ssions are being held at this hour in New York, to discuss postponing the opening of the Stock Market on Wednesday.  The President announced that by Executive Order, the Federal Reserve has been disbanded effective immediately, and that the currency of the United States will be backed directly by the Treasury, as was the case until the Fed was created in Nineteen Thirteen. Beginning within thirty days, a new currency standard will begin to be put in place, and a transition between the former Federal Reserve Dollar and the un-named currency will begin.  Many questions are being raised regarding this transition, especially related to debts, the value of the Federal Reserve Dollar to the new currency, and a rate of exchange.  Diana Markham will report further on this developing situation beginning at eight a.m. Wednesday morning, but did tell me earlier that it is interesting to note that since the Fed was created, the dollar has lost more than ninety-five percent of its purchasing power.”

Doug stood there, not quite believing what he’d just heard.  ‘New currency? What the Hell would happen to people who held dollars? What would happen to his accounts? Even if Hal Downing’s strategy worked, whatever that strategy might really be, wouldn’t it be lost if there was a new currency? What was left of the stock market would be gone in the morning….wouldn’t it? When was the government going to pull their heads out and fix this?’

“In yet another major story today in a day filled with them, the Vice President has been taken to Bethesda Naval Hospital for unknown reasons.  Local contacts at the hospital tell ABC that the Vice President was admitted at four-fifteen p.m. and secured in a respiratory ward in the hospital.  The White House has not commented on the Vice President’s health.”

‘Humph,’ Doug thought.  ‘I wonder what that’s all about. Heart problems again?’

“Technicians at all major internet service providers are working tirelessly to stop the internet attack set in place just prior to the Chinese military attack on Taiwan and on U.S. forces in the Far East. Internet services world wide have been systematically attacked by a self-propagating and seemingly self-mutating worm that has affected major server farms and all major internet browsers.  The attack seems to be multi-faceted, with computer information—especially with regards to financial transactions—corrupted in transit with records of accounts and account owners sent back to mainland China. The new Chinese government is powerless to stop the attack, and in fact has been attacked itself by the computer virus which has been traced back to a Communist Chinese-controlled internet service portal.”

Doug looked at his computer screen as the newsreader coolly read words that had far more weight than the reader conveyed. Doug realized that every aspect of food production was inextricably dependent on a reliable computer network.  Loss of confidence or data corruption of the finance side made the buyers and sellers both nervous, but that was workable—pick up the phone, call the client and call the bank.  An attack on the Internet though, could trash the financial side, blow up the whole just-in-time end product delivery system, screw up materials deliveries…and if tampered with enough, could deliver the wrong products or even toxic products to the manufacturing or processing plants.  This could be a disaster for Regent….

“…Airlines are expected to declare bankruptcy on Wednesday, citing the dramatic fall-off in international travel since last week, and continued hostility towards the U.S. by foreign nations. U.S. citizens held in these countries boarded what may be the last flights out of those countries by U.S. carriers.”

“Like that’s a big shock,” Doug said.  Air travel had been a nightmare since the past October, when TSA had stepped up security screening for the fourth year in a row.  People had had enough and were voting with their wallets.

“It appears that for several reasons, including escalating fuel prices and declining travel plans, these partnerships are unraveling by the hour. U.S. carriers have noted a ninety-five percent decrease in immediate and long-term travel plans to Europe and non-North American locations.”

‘If the government would step in, this wouldn’t be such a death spiral,’ he thought. The government really should have more power over the economy, and use all the resources of the nation—public and private—to do what was best.  They could do that, of course, if they had the political will.  They’d taken a shot at bits and pieces of standardization of social services. They needed to do more. 

January Twenty-fifth
Doug had spent the night between dreams and nightmares, Julie Forsythe prominent in both. 

The two that he’d been able to remember included walking with Julie, somewhere on a dirt road on a warm spring day. It was perfect….so perfect that he awoke from the dream, smiling. He’d made a visit to the bathroom, turned the late night radio talk show on, and drifted off eventually, after hearing of reports from Arizona about the War.
The second remembrance was a nightmare through and through. He was running through the rain to get to Julie, she was trying to escape from people chasing her and Doug couldn’t catch up.  He woke in a sweat, yelling her name. He could feel heat from a fire behind him, and heard gunfire.  They were going to kill her…

A long time later, he got back to sleep.

Doug woke to a cold house bathed the morning light, and quickly realized that the power was out again. His watch read almost eight a.m.  His back was beginning to give him trouble; sleeping on the floor was catching up with him. He wondered if he had any furniture left at his townhouse for the movers to haul to Iowa.

He switched on the portable radio, hitting the ‘scan’ button to find the strongest frequency, and then pulled on some cold-weather clothes.

“The power outage is covering five states that we know of, and appears to have been caused by damage to major transmission lines, causing a cascade of shutdowns in smaller networks.  Private utility workers are working on the problem and are expected to have power restored within the next three to six hours.”

 ‘Three to six hours? Sounds like a cable guy schedule,’ he thought, lacing up his boots. ‘And damage caused by what?’

“…schools are closed for the remainder of the week due to the national emergency and reports in the state of a serious influenza outbreak.  All after school events are cancelled, including basketball playoffs throughout the entire state.”

“Other Iowa news includes reports that several businesses, starting in Davenport, then continuing to Iowa City and Des Moines, were robbed yesterday when large, seemingly coordinated groups of young adults swarmed into the stores, stealing whatever they could while store personnel were held at gunpoint.  Store security was not present in the affected stores at that time.  Citizens are advised that the suspects are traveling in several dark blue or black fifteen-passenger vans with Missouri plates.  The suspects are described as male and female, athletic, and include whites, blacks and Hispanics.” 

“The state legislature today suspended negotiations with public employee unions after the Governor threatened the public employees with termination if they did not return in full strength within twenty four hours. The union leadership had no comment on the matter, but  large gatherings of unemployed were observed at state offices, holding signs and chanting for the chance to replace those that would not work. The wildcat strike began at midnight, leaving all state provided public services in limbo. By eight o’clock this morning the legislature, in negotiations since last November, voted along party lines to suspend negotiations. Senate minority leader Chisholm stormed out after the session, calling the Governor and the majority leadership several names that cannot be repeated on this broadcast.”

“Fireworks in the statehouse.  Nothing ever changes,” Doug said, pulling on a hooded sweatshirt. “Doesn’t even matter what state.”

“Commodity futures continued to skyrocket, despite the stock market closure. Ag suppliers in Iowa and Missouri report shortages of certified seed for both major and minor crops for this years spring planting. Coming after a the announcement that fertilizer shipments to the Midwest have been delayed, farmers are scrambling to find alternate sources.”

Doug stopped in his tracks at that, looking over his shoulder at the radio.

Shortage of seed for major and minor crops equated to high drama and massive stress in the food processing industry. Unchecked, it meant worldwide competition for raw product that would eventually end up on American dinner plates.  For the United States, this had never really been much of an issue because crop failures really hadn’t happened in decades, and when minor problems arose, it was simply a matter of opening up a checkbook and importing whatever was needed. Adding in a fertilizer shortage, and companies like his old employer, Leinhardt, would be in a foaming and spittingd panic over news like this.  He wondered if Regent was positioned for something like this. It seemed remote that they would have anticipated something like this and actually had the ability to bulk-store enough of the basic product to weather this type of scenario.

The volumes of food storage processed by a Regent-type multinational corporation were simply beyond the comprehension of the average person.  Tens of thousands of tons of product daily were produced from the raw materials, every single day.  Shortages in raw materials equated to first, higher prices to be paid by the manufacturers, then higher prices for the end user.   Continued shortfalls in raw materials would soon mean shortages in staple products across the country. Unheard of in the United States, as what food goods were put on the shelves would be hoarded for fear of even tighter supplies.  While it was unfamiliar in the U.S., it was an all-too-familiar pattern in much of the world, and every major food supplier knew it.  Most tried to position themselves to smooth out the peaks and valleys of uneven supply through imports and exports. No one wanted to be branded as the company that couldn’t deliver.  The buying public had a very long institutional memory for failure.

Downstairs, Doug followed the instructions for the generator.  He’d use the generator during the day, and the woodstove at night, and wondered how things were at the Seghers, and if Julie thought of him as often as he did of her.

By nine, he had a decent fire going in the woodstove, more to figure it out than to use it for warmth, and the chill was off with the furnace running for twenty minutes solid. He ate some leftover oatmeal with some fruit tossed in, and figured that he should figure out a way to store some water. Of course he didn’t have any containers of size. Nor did he have an axe, a splitting maul, sledge or wedge for firewood.  He started a list for his next trip into Fairfield, using the back side of the list he’d used in Chicago.

Doug was getting used to the ‘no service’ screen on his phone, and the frequent power and internet interruptions. He would need to continue to work ‘off line’ while he could, continuing to hammer out tasks along the Regent business development path.  When power and internet were available, he’d have to make the best of the opportunity to communicate.  He was feeling out of touch though, and wondered how that would reflect on him by his superiors. Hopefully, they were in the same boat he thought, realizing that no, he hoped that someone was actually able to work despite the chaos.
The dreams he had of Julie remained in the back of his mind despite his attempts to work through them.

By noon, he’d made good progress on his business tasks, and decided to make the run into town for a break.  Twenty minutes later, he was at the hardware store, which now reminded him of AmeriMart more than he’d like.  A young man, clad in duck coveralls, cradled a shotgun at the front of the store.  Three more were inside. The crowd inside was quiet and respectful. Only one parking lot entry was open, the others were blocked with flat-bed farm trucks, a tractor and a road grader.

The store, a locally owned franchise of a national chain, was still accepting credit cards and local checks with proper identification.  Doug realized he owed Julie another debt. Without her reminding him, he wouldn’t have local I.D. That would have been a problem, starting today.

Doug took one of the few remaining carts and looked for the tool section, seeing many relatively elderly people in the aisles, filling their carts with all kinds of stuff…half of which he couldn’t even identify.

In the far corner of the store, he found the splitting wedges, sledges, axes and hatchets, and picked out one of each and spare handles.  He found four five-gallon collapsible water jugs, and then noticed the hunting section.  Four men were at the counter, waiting their turn for the two salesmen.  Doug then did something completely out of his depth of experience, and joined them in line to buy a shotgun and shells.

While he waited, he alternated between listening to the salesmen and customers, and scanning over the Chicago list. There were probably things here in Fairfield that he should pick up to add to his supplies. The men in front of him were talking about ‘penetrating power,’ and fairly quickly handed over several hundred dollars for a black shotgun and a case of ‘home defense’ shells…whatever those were. Doug noticed there was no paperwork to fill out.

“Sir? What can I do for you?” the salesman asked, a man in his early sixties, grandfatherly, Doug thought.

“In the market for a shotgun. And I’m the first to admit I don’t know much about them.”

“No time to learn like the present,” the man said, not questioning Doug’s inexperience.  “Am I correct in assuming you’d like a firearm for home defense?”

“Yes,” Doug said.

“No problem. Let me walk you through a couple options,” the man said. “Inventory’s getting thin, so our choices are getting limited. Probably a good thing you’re here today. No telling what tomorrow brings.”

“That is a fact.”