Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Distance, Chapter 21


January Twenty-seventh
3:30 p.m.

Maria dropped Julie off in the driveway, just as Doug was getting another load of firewood from the barn. Maria waved and pulled out of the driveway nearly as quickly as she’d arrived.  Julie picked her way across the icy driveway to the steps, carefully avoiding a fall.

“Hiya!” Doug said with a big smile, slightly off-balance due to the firewood carrier.

“Hi,” Julie said with a warm, coy smile.

“Let’s get inside.  This wind is brutal,” Doug said.

“Firewood? You?” she said looking at the heavy carrier.

“Blisters and all. I split about a half a cord.  Power can be a little flaky.”

“You have that nice big generator,” she said as she opened the side door of the house, letting Doug slip inside and downstairs to the wood furnace.

“Sure.  If gas pressure stays up, and if I make the switch over, and if I want to stick out like a sore thumb with lights on when no one else has them.”

“True point…sorry. I’ve been a bit farm-ified,” she said and then paused. “It’s good to see you twice in one day.”

“You too. And you beat me to it,” he said, stowing the wood carrier before he kissed her softly.

“Down, boy,” she said before she kissed him back.

“Let’s go upstairs. I have some hot tea on the stove.”

“Did you hear?” she said as they climbed the steps. “They swore in Senator McAllen as Vice President. Early this morning.  All this speculation about other candidates and he’s already been sworn in.”

“He’s probably already at the ‘undisclosed secure location,’” Doug said, pouring a cup of tea for Julie. The news was non-stop in the background from the living room.

“No doubt.”

“How was your trip?” he asked.

“The farm looks better all the time,” she said, taking a sip of tea.

“That good?”

“That good. When was the last time you were in town?” Julie asked.

“Couple days ago, why?”

“Gas stations are closed…well, for gas that is.  You were pretty accurate about the shipments into town, too. Not much on the shelves anywhere. Everyone’s wearing sidearms or carrying long guns.”

“Sooner than I thought,” Doug said, referring to the food and disregarding the weapons, pondering what the shortages meant so soon. “So your trip—probably a waste of time and gas.”

“No, we did pretty well, actually. We’ve got an order in for spare parts for a lot of the equipment from Southern Iowa Farm and Field; some steel fabrication we need in lieu of another debt; a fair amount of diesel; and some bulk supplies.  There’s only a few hundred dollars in outstanding debt owed, which is uncollectible.”

“You went to Mount Pleasant too?”

“After a fashion. We had to take a couple of back roads in. The main roads are barricaded.”

“What?!” Doug asked, shocked.

“They had too many citiots coming in. Blocked the roads so that you have to show identification to get in. We heard about it beforehand, so we found a way around.”


“City idiots,” Julie said.  “One of the cleaner derogatory terms used for them.”

“I was one of them not very long ago. Still regarded as one by many people, probably including the Segher’s,” Doug said honestly.

“One difference is timing. The other is that you’re not demanding that you be served.  A third is that you’re not armed, expecting to take what you want from simple farm folk.”

“The farm folk I know are anything but simple,” Doug said, motioning Julie to sit on the living room couch.  He sat on the matching loveseat….she took a seat next to him.

“But the city people don’t think so, and they are not interested in what people out here think. They are interested in what people out here have,” she said as she snuggled closer to Doug.

“How do they build these roadblocks?” he asked, putting his arm around her.

“There are all kinds of natural choke points if you look around. Overpasses, underpasses, natural terrain, road cuts, bridges…you just need to take some time to either make them impassable or slow traffic down to make a checkpoint of some kind.  Lots of obsolete farm equipment found a new use this week.”

“And they have to staff the barricades,” Doug said.

“Yes, that too.”

“Doesn’t that just move the problem though, to the roadblock? Isn’t it just dealing with a symptom and not the problem?”

“Time will tell.  Houses nearby…if there are any, have been secured too, it looked like.  One we saw had it’s ‘normal’ perimeter fence at the property line, and then layers of other fencing between the property line and the house.  No one was getting through that quickly…”

Doug thought about that in terms of his own place.  Anyone could drive right up to the house completely unimpeded. “Something to think about here,” he said.

Doug heard the Emergency Broadcast System alert on the radio.  Third time today, another test.  Julie stopped talking to listen as well.

“They’ve certainly proved that the tests work,” she said.

“Seems like there’s a danger of crying wolf though,” Doug said.  The top of the hour news came on, and he turned up the volume above background noise level.

“Protestors in Quebec today increased their level of violence against the government, with leaders of the reformed Quebec Liberation Front calling for a sixth day of work stoppages across all French-Canadian areas.  The Prime Minister was hit this afternoon with a vote of no confidence, and the third coalition government in two years was dissolved as a result.  Outspoken critics of the Conservative Prime Minister called for his immediate resignation.  Prime Minister LeClerc staunchly defended his economic policies and the continuing support of the United States trade agreements, despite obvious failures of the U.S. to fulfill their obligations. QLF activists have instituted acts of aggression against Americans in Canada, with several border incursions in the Northeast United States.  The U.S. Border Patrol as a result has attempted to seal the border from Minnesota to Maine. All urban area crossings at this hour are closed.”

“What station is this?” Julie asked.

“Not sure. Something out of Minneapolis, I think. I hit the ‘scan’ button on the receiver and this one popped up.  Not sure if it’s a public station or what,” Doug said, intrigued by the broadcast as well.

“An hour ago, the Centers for Disease Control reported that the growing respiratory outbreak originated in Guangdong Province, China, the original location of the SARS outbreak in two thousand-two. This province is also apparently the location of a primary Communist Chinese biowarfare lab.  The disease, originally noted in European bases of the United States military and the continental United States, now seems to be affecting a sizeable percentage of the population in China and the Asian continent and is now reported to be spreading unchecked throughout Europe and the Middle East. Common air travel between North America and the rest of the world has slowed, but not stopped the spread of the disease, which has an increasing mortality rate as the days pass. At this hour, the Centers for Disease Control estimate that in the Asian theater, the mortality rate could exceed thirty-five percent. No estimates have been released for potential deaths here in the United States, Europe or other regions.”

“If this is an engineered virus, we’re all dead,” Doug said, obviously not understanding the mortality rate.

“We’re all dead anyway. It’s just timing,” Julie replied.

“The interim head of the CDC has asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency to institute quarantines of all major cities effective immediately, including the cessation of all travel not essential to the war efforts on the southern border and within the continental United States. The mayors of Philadelphia, Washington and New York demanded a retraction of the statement, calling the quarantine unwarranted and unnecessary.” 

“So much for your business trip,” she said.

“Maybe so.”

“This outbreak appears to have been deliberately set by the Communist Chinese with a disease that appears to be created in the laboratory. We’ve been told that this is a weaponized version of the H1N1, or 1918-19 virus, modified into a more aggressive infectious strain. It is unknown at this time if further mutations are likely and what other long-term effects may be seen. It appears from all indications that either people will be infected, suffer common influenza symptoms and recover within seven days, or they will suffer much more serious effects of the disease and not recover. In the limited number of victims that the CDC has already autopsied, death appears to have come within thirty-six hours of initial infection in hospitalized cases, and twenty-four hours of infection in non-treated cases.”

“Just like the doc warned you in Chicago,” Julie said. Doug didn’t reply. He didn’t need to.

“Given the timing of the outbreaks, intelligence analysts assume that this was a deliberate attack upon non-Communist Chinese forces as part of an overall war strategy.  This does appear to have backfired however, as the virus appears to have mutated already and is aggressively tearing through both the Chinese military forces and the common Chinese people. It is not possible to determine factually if this is the case, as most former leaders of Communist China have either disappeared, or in some cases have been publicly executed. Video of the executions of eleven members of the Chinese financial cartel was broadcast three hours ago. One would assume that the Chinese bioweapon would have only been launched after inoculations of Chinese troops had been completed.  This does not appear to be the case however.”

“Does that strike you as odd?” Julie asked. “Wouldn’t they protect their own people?”

“If they wanted to preserve their population, maybe.  Didn’t I read once that they had far more males than females though?”  Doug replied. “Fairly ugly way to reduce the population. War…disease, all within a few days.”

“This just doesn’t pass the smell test,” Julie said, skeptical of the whole story. “It’s too convenient. Too well timed.”

“The White House had no comment on whether the Vice President may have been infected with the enemy virus...”

“Think about that one for a minute,” Doug said.  “The V.P. was wanting protectionist and even isolationist measures put in place a couple months ago, remember? Said the United States was at a strategic disadvantage for business.” Doug remembered it well.  He was hoping to get a piece of the action in China and help move Leinhardt National into Leinhardt International.  They didn’t have enough time though or enough vision…and now they were no more.

“And the President said that he’d been mis-interpreted. Then the story went dead…and they signed that new trade deal with the Chinese anyway,” Julie said.

“I don’t know. I can’t even speculate.  Did you catch any of the President’s address today? I missed most of it,” Doug said.

“We were in the truck when he was on. That’s another thing that just doesn’t square,” Julie said.

“Huh?” Doug said, tuning out the radio.

“Lambert has been all about government growth at all costs, and today he’s suddenly had some sort of transformation and is slashing the size of government? How does that make sense?”

“It doesn’t, except for the fact that we can’t pay for the government we have, and he wants to have the government we need, not the government he inherited.”

“The government he inherited he expanded.  He didn’t do anything any different than anyone else before him, until now. Taking out the cloak of righteous indignation after you’ve helped cause the problem just doesn’t wash.”

“Sure. I don’t disagree. But what choice does he have? We can’t afford to go on the way we had been.”

“We have known that for years. Why now? What’s different?”

“Economic collapse comes to mind,” Doug said. “They cut up the credit cards,” referring to the creditors of the U.S.

“So that’s the reason that they put on big-boy pants and decided to finally change? No way. There has to be more to it.”

“How about we shut off the outside world for awhile, and just be us?” Doug said as he punched the power button on the remote control.

“That’ll be OK, too,” Julie said with a smile. “So, where are we going, you and I?”

“Right to the point, aren’t we?” Doug said smiling, eyebrows raised in shock.

“I’m not much for dancing around the fire these days,” she said with a giggle.

Doug paused a moment before answering. “OK,” he said, about to spill it. He looked straight into her eyes.  “I’ve never felt about any other woman as I do about you. Ever. I don’t quite know what to think about that.  It’s…I’ve realized that I’ve essentially lived most of my adult life lying to myself on what makes me happy. What really makes me happy though, is…you.”

Julie blushed fiercely. “Oh my,” she said, very quietly, looking down at her knees, then back to Doug. “What I realized is this: I’ve never been in love before. I am now.”

The kiss was soft, the embrace gentle; both of them knowing a new life together would be like moving from cold shadow into warm sunlight.

Around eight p.m., she rose from his bed and dressed, knowing she’d have some explaining to do when she arrived back at the Seghers.

Doug slept until morning.

January Twenty-eighth

Doug rose early, almost with a start, realizing that Julie wasn’t there, and then realizing that everything was now different.  It was too early to call her, still not yet seven in the morning.  He looked outside into the grey light that passed for morning and saw the snow drifting around outside.  He showered, dressed, warmed up some oatmeal for breakfast and then tried to focus on work while he tried to figure out what would come next in the relationship.  In their quiet conversation in bed, he’d almost proposed, but thought it better done in a slightly less intimate moment.
Regent provided the distraction from his newly-happy personal life with a series of urgent overnight emails from five division managers screaming for progress on the RNEW product.  Corporate had secured ‘priority travel status’ for Doug, whatever that was supposed to mean.  A follow-up email explained that this status would essentially allow Doug to avoid probable mandatory quarantines as a matter of essential national recovery efforts. He would be required of course to comply with all Federal authorities, should they decide that his travel itinerary wasn’t in conformance with the conditions at the time.  The email also told him that he would be required to wear his personal protection equipment whenever traveling, even in his own vehicle.  It seemed Regent had an established protocol for everything.
Doug still had no news or contact from any of the other team members assigned to his project. It was becoming routine for him, and with the lack of contact and the need for the work to get done anyway, their assignments would be meaningless given the time crunch he was under. He just did the necessary work anyway, alone.
He was reading the third of ten dossiers provided by Delta’s Research Department on his ‘target’ clients.  ‘DRD’ as they were known internally, had extensive information on each of the executives in the target companies.  The files on each were many pages long, and Doug was sure that each would have a serious feeling of violation of personal space if they knew what Delta Research ‘had’ on them.  Sexual preferences, which churches they attended (if any), their creditors and associated debt balances, hobbies, addresses of home and vacation properties, children’s and pet’s names and much more.  DRD seemed to have an appetite for the salacious details. There was much more ‘dirt’ than there was ‘background.’ A low rumble stirred him from his computer, and he went outside to see if he could figure out what the noise was.
By the time he reached the ground in front of the porch, the noise was much louder, coming from the northeast from behind the trees. With no more warning than the rumble, a dozen big military helicopters passed overhead and were gone.  Doug ran around the house and watched them until they were specks. He thought it odd that the helicopters’ paint didn’t match.  Some of them were green, others tan, a couple were flat gray. He thought about that as he went back inside, hearing his phone ringing on the way in.  He rushed to answer it, hoping it might be Julie.

“Good morning, this is Doug,” he answered without looking at the caller I.D.

“Doug, this is Pete Bollard of Regent Delta. Do you have some time?”

“Certainly. Call me Doug. What can I do for you, Mister Bolland?”

“I have…unfortunate news. David Williams passed away early this morning of the Guangdong Flu.   The Board of Directors has forwarded my name to serve as interim President of Regent Delta.”

“My God.  I had no idea he was that ill.”

“He wasn’t.  I worked out with him at the gym on Monday. He bench-pressed twice what I did, and had been a competitive tri-athlete.  He was as healthy as a horse…until this infection.” 

“This is terrible news. Did he have family? I never had the chance to meet him—just met over the phone.”

“They’re…now deceased as well. Wife, two daughters and his son.”

“All of them? From the flu?”

“This is a biological agent.  Weaponized influenza, Doug.”

“I know, I guess I do anyway. I heard that on the radio yesterday.”

  “The CDC doesn’t know how to respond.   David was probably exposed to it on Tuesday. Half of our Board members were exposed during an emergency meeting.  Six of them are dead, five more are quite ill.  Two have no symptoms whatsoever, myself included.”

“Sir, I don’t know what to say.”

“Disregard everything you’ve been sent in the past twelve hours, Doug. I’m not sending anyone out in the field.  If it can’t be done electronically, it’s not going to happen,” Doug’s new boss said.  He sounded heartbroken, shell-shocked.   “I’ll have one of the admin assistants get you my contact information.  We can video conference on the Regent network….assuming we still have someone here that can handle that.

“Understood, sir….Should I find a way to inform my call list electronically and set up a sample run for their products? I mean, we can essentially forward them product; work through sample integration runs, get the mix ratios right.”

“Probably, yes. Frankly I’ve been trying to deal with far more critical issues than getting RNEW launched. Work something up.  Forward it to David’s email address and I’ll take a look at it. Later today would be outstanding.”

“I’ll get on it, sir.”

“Doug, we know that RNEW is important, even critical, to Regent’s success in the near-term.  The Directors know what kind of opportunity this presents and the time-critical nature of a successful launch. Despite our efforts, we’re going to be faced with gun-shy clients. It’s going to be a natural reaction, being skeptical of anything that might change their proprietary formulae….especially with this God-damned flu. Their priorities are going to be on themselves and their families, and not on keeping their business lines moving forward.”

“I’m sure that’s correct, sir. Faced though with just the economic problems, it’s not a stretch to see an uneven breakup of shipping and distribution lines..even the shipping companies, since they’re almost all credit-based.  That of course can cascade into chaos fairly quickly.  Now with the flu, and I heard the word ‘quarantine’ earlier, that could destroy shipping, production and distribution.”

“Yes it can. God help us if it goes that far.” 

Monday, April 11, 2011

Distance, Chapter 20


January Twenty-seventh
8:00 a.m.

Planning the first road trip was taking much longer than it should, as the Regent offices were constantly updating road closures, ‘security concerns’ and establishing ‘secure lodgings’ across the entire United States….all outside of the war zone of course.  Doug had been trying to connect with the Denver office, which was supposed to be staffed at all hours, but neither email nor phone calls would go through. The Internet radio station that he’d linked to—a shortwave station out of somewhere--picked up report after report of rioting in the larger cities.  Atlanta sounded bad. So did Cincinnati….
The first leg of the trip would take Doug to Des Moines, flagship offices of Agnew Middleton. AM had a huge corporate complex, with daughter offices handling regional centers across the continent. AM had been one of the first to respond to his email, copying Regent headquarters with a fairly urgent request to meet as soon as possible.
The corporate rep had emailed Doug with available meeting times, and outlined the protocol that ‘A Middie’ as they were known in the industry, created up to minimize the transmission of known communicable diseases.  Most industries took precautions.  Food and medical industries essentially set the bar for all others.
While Doug would be in the same building complex as those he would ‘meet’ with, the other attendees were essentially quarantined within the complex, along with their families.  They’d all attend the meeting in clean rooms; with each viewing the others on large screen secure video networks. The various department vice presidents and managers nationwide could also join in, ask pointed questions, all from the comfort…and safety…of their own secure facilities. Doug would need to sign a non-disclosure agreement that would cover all discussions, observations, identification of any of the attendees….everything.
After Des Moines, he’d head north to the Minneapolis area, and meet with one of AM’s competitors, Melker Limited. Melker was European in origin, but had exploded with success when the corporation began to gobble up American production and distribution facilities, rebrand them, and dovetail their products into ‘healthy lifestyle choices.’ Melker had sent an email to Doug as well, and he laughed a little that it was so eerily similar to their archrival.  The two corporations weren’t all that different, despite the constant distinctions their marketing departments blasted out.
The third leg of the trip would take him to Madison, Wisconsin to meet with a group of up to fifteen ‘insurance’ corporations, very quietly of course, to discuss the integration of Regent RNEW into product lines of twenty-two food product corporations. An initial introduction of the topic had already been made by one of David Williams associates.  The meeting would be the crown jewel of the mission.
The corporations were controlled by the investment arms of the ‘insurance’ companies, although that wasn’t at all public.  On the outside, they offered life, home, auto, disability and commercial insurance…but within their industry, they were just banks.  The war chest of money that each of the companies controlled was staggering, and kept flowing in like clockwork--until recently at least. The money was invested in all kinds of industries, to provide for the ‘investments of the shareholders, long-term’.  Many called themselves ‘financial services corporations’ but played off of the insurance branding.  Several of the directors of Regent Performance Group served on the boards of these ‘insurers’, and even though they’d recused themselves from the initial introduction of a potential Regent alliance, there were few other options to maintain the income that the corporations were accustomed to.
With the economy crumbling, the ‘insurers’ were looking for every bit of leverage to maintain their investment income, whether or not those investments ever made it to the people that originally trusted them with their money. 
Doug was having a difficult time keeping his mind on work, as his long conversation with Julie kept replaying in his head. He closed up the window on the computer holding the route maps and Regent’s housing locations and was instantly greeted with a BREAKING NEWS ALERT on the news window in the background.  The video was already playing with a shot of the White House.  Doug turned up the audio.

“…large crowds of media and citizens are gathered here at the White House after rumors that the President may have died overnight.  We have received assurances from the Secretary of State and the White House Press office that the President’s health isn’t in question. When asked about the health of the Vice President, however, spokesmen declined comment.  There is a sense in the air here Bill, that the influenza epidemic is much worse than the CDC is letting on.  As a result, where we have large numbers of people here near the White House; at least half of them are wearing facemasks of many kinds, including most of the camera crews and production people.  Off-camera, nearly all of the reporting teams—myself included—are wearing masks as well.”

Doug’s cell phone rang, with the Segher Farm number on caller I.D. He turned down the audio on the computer.

“Good morning, this is Doug.”

“You have the news on?” Julie asked. Doug’s heart beat faster, just hearing her voice.

“I do. Doesn’t sound good.”

“No it doesn’t.  Are you going to be around today?”

“Yep.  Planning a trip north?”

“Yes. Maria and I need to get into town, probably both Fairfield and Mount Pleasant.”

“Your company would be most welcome.  I might even put some clothes on for the occasion. Are feeling up to it? Your ribs and all?”

“I’m feeling fine if I don’t push myself too hard. Rough life you’ve got. Some of us can’t work in jammies,” Julie said with a laugh.

“I don’t work with livestock.  Side benefit.”

“And your boots smell better, too.”

“That is for certain. What are you looking to pick up in town?”

“We’ve a list of things that would be nice to pick up if we can, if not, no heartburn….and we have some other business.  We figured we should give it one more try while we can.”

“Julie, you know that I can probably use my connections to find things you might not be able to.”

“I know. We’ll try the stores first.  The main reason for the trip is that there are some open accounts owing the Seghers. We’re going to collect.”  Doug didn’t like the sound of that.

“Run that by me again?”

“Farms are owed money or product.  We’re going to collect.”

“You and what army?” Doug asked.

“Maria’s nickname is ‘Bulldog,’ but don’t ever say that to her face. These are people that know the Segher’s. It’ll be OK.”

“How much are they owed?”

“Oh, adding it all up we’re well into five figures….as measured in the dollars of a month ago.”

“Wow.  That’s a pile of money…but, if they pay you back with dollars measured from a month or two ago, instead of the current value, you effectively never recover the difference,” Doug said, pointing out the vaporization of the dollar.

“Except we’re dealing with a fairly shrewd family, here. Contract terms factored that in years ago when the debts were first initiated. The loans were indexed quarterly to avoid both inflation and deflation, so neither the lender nor the borrower take a bath—fair on both sides. So they can pay the Segher’s back at the rate of December Thirty-first or we can re-index based on the end of the this month—but the notes are called either way. Arie provided sixty days notice fifty-nine days ago. The outstanding is half of it was when I started this two years ago—that’s been one of my hobbies. These are the oldest and most problematic, because we’re pretty sure they don’t have the cash,” Julie said before pausing. “Oh, no.”


“They just announced it on TV.  It’s the Vice President. He’s gone.”

Doug heard it a moment later on the computer, and saw that the reporter seemed to be crying.  Oddly, it struck him as unprofessional.

“His wife, too,” Julie said. “Oh, this is terrible,” Julie said very quietly.

“Have they said anything about the President?” Doug asked.

“They say he’s fine,” Julie said. “That’s right. I forgot you don’t have TV.”

“Computer’s enough, anyway.”

“Probably right.  We should be by within the next hour or so, OK?”

“Absolutely, except it’s maybe fifty-nine minutes too long.”

“You’re very sweet,” Julie said. He could hear the smile in her voice.

“Being honest. I miss you.”

“You, too.  I’ll see you soon,” she said quietly as she ended the call.

Despite the news from Washington, Doug felt great. He then realized he should indeed, get dressed, tidy up the house, and get some tea or coffee brewing.  The house wasn’t at all put together. Suitable for him, not for company.

Doug was just finishing up the hurried cleanup as one of the Segher’s crew-cab farm trucks pulled up the driveway, with Maria behind the wheel.

“Good morning,” Doug said as he bounced down the front steps.

“You, too!” Julie said, giving him a hug, and a little kiss that Doug wasn’t quite ready for.

“Glad I’m here to chaperone,” Maria said. “Douglas, your intentions better be honorable,” she said with a raised eyebrow.

“Absolutely, Maria.  No other way,” he said, realizing that he was probably more serious in that statement than he’d been with the wedding vows between he and Brenda.

“The Eliason farm.  Very nice land here,” Maria said. 

“You know it?”

“Very well.  Jakob Eliason was the last of his line.  Passed on about twenty-five years ago.  How many acres?”

“Just ten,” Doug said. “Which is huge to me.”

“A fraction of what he had when he passed. You should get some stock going,” Maria said, appearing to be impressed by the condition of the home, barn and outbuildings.

“With my work schedule, I’m not sure how I could manage that. I’ll be traveling a fair bit…well, maybe.”

“You are renting?” Maria asked.

“Lease, actually. The home is owned by a company affiliated with my employer.”

Maria looked very skeptical. “Too many eggs, one basket, Douglas.”

“Perhaps, yes,” he said, not explaining that he didn’t exactly have many choices in the first place. “Now, please, come inside. It’s cold out here!”

“This?” Maria said looking up at the sky and toward the wind from the west. “Oh it’s not bad,” Maria said, climbing the front steps as if she were half her age.

“I’ve some coffee inside.  Unfortunately no coffeecake,” Doug said.

“You’re not Dutch. You’re forgiven,” Maria said appreciating the restored farmhouse. “They did a lovely job on this.”

“It has some hidden surprises,” Doug said, moving into the kitchen. “The manual provided by the realtor spelled them out. Security system for one, and natural gas that supplies the house and a backup generator.”

“Natural gas? Out here?” Julie asked, pouring a cup of coffee for each of them.

“I found out from the manual that one of the previous owners was connected to the utility company—regional manager or something. Used the house as a demonstration for expansion outside of the small cities and towns,” Doug said. “Everyone else is using propane, I guess.”

“Natural gas is too expensive,” Maria said.  “They gave us a big sales pitch, how it would pay for itself, how convenient it would be. A hundred dollars a foot they wanted to get the line down to the farm! Did they think we were stupid? Pay for itself, never…where’s the laundry? It used to be over there,” she said, pointing to the back porch.

“Downstairs. Two washers, two driers,” Doug said.

“Not for farm life anymore.  A few trips up and downstairs with a clothes basket will prove that,” Maria said.  Julie just let her go and was enjoying every minute of it.

“Probably right,” Doug said, correctly deciding that agreeing with her was best. “Julie tells me you’re heading into town for some last minute shopping.”

“And to settle some accounts, yes.”

“If there’s something that I can help with, I hope you will let me know.  Through the company that I work for, I can place orders directly through the company and have deliveries made here, or to your place…”

“Not good security, is it?” Maria said. “What I mean is that there will be a whole chain of people who know what you’ve ordered, where you had it delivered, everything. And of course, where you live.”

“I hadn’t thought about that,” Doug said.

“Most people don’t. Don’t worry about it now, nothing to be done. But anything you buy, especially if you’re not using cash, leaves a trail. Do you want your employer knowing that you’re ordering things and perhaps…selling it below market?”

“No,” Doug said, now feeling embarrassed. “Hadn’t thought of that either.”

“Doug’s fairly new at this, Maria,” Julie said, a welcome intervention.

“And I’ve a lot to learn,” he said. “I do have a favor to ask though. It is looking like I’ll be gone for a number of days on a business trip up north.  I’ll be driving my company car.  I’d like someone to keep an eye on the place if that’s OK. Not necessarily house-sit, but stop in once in awhile.”

“I’d be happy to,” Julie said.

“It’d give you a break from the farm, too.  The place can be very loud,” Maria said. “Especially those boys of mine.”

“You could take my truck, too. I won’t be needing it obviously, and the fuel tank is full.”

“When do you plan on leaving?” Julie asked.

“Early Monday, if everything comes together.”

“Good, then. You won’t miss dinner on Sunday,” Maria said.

Doug showed them both around the house and property, including the generator shed, the barn and what was probably once a workshop.  Maria was getting a little antsy, eager to get back about the day. 

“Can you stop back by later?” Doug asked of Julie. Julie glanced at Maria, who nodded.

“Sure. Maybe I’ll take you up on borrowing your truck,” she said with a smile.

“You’re welcome to it. It’ll just be sitting here.”

“We should get going, Julie. Busy day,” Maria said as she got in the truck.  “Douglas, you take care of yourself.  Stop by over the weekend if you’d like, OK?”

“Thank you, Maria.”

“Now kiss the girl so we can go,” she said.

“Happy to comply,” Doug said, gently taking Julie in his arms and kissing her…with Julie kissing back.

“I’ve been waiting all day for that,” she said. “Better go.”

“Yes, you better. Maria’s impatient.”

“Time is short, Doug. You know that.”

“I do.  See you later today,” he said, sneaking in another kiss.

“Yes you will,” Julie said as she got in the pickup, wincing a little as she climbed in.  A minute later, Doug stood alone in the driveway.

11:40 a.m.
Doug had been on the phone for the better part of an hour, confirming appointment windows for his trip and trying to get word about the rest of his team.  Nothing had been heard from any of them, nor had they logged on to any of the company accounts.

“The route map is fine, as long as I can get food and a decent place to stay.  Is security going to be an issue on the second leg?”

“No, Mister Peterson, not at all. No issues of course along the first portion, we have fueling available at the Regent warehouse off of Northeast Fifty-Fourth in Des Moines, should your local provider be unable to serve you. The facility there is the regional site, and serves Iowa, South Dakota and Nebraska. The warehouse manager has been made aware of your visit.  He will have a package and some additional supplies that Corporate is issuing to all field representatives.”

“Supplies? What kind of supplies?” Doug asked, brow furrowed.

“Road emergency kit, for one.  Dehydrated food for a week, an emergency shelter, spare fuel cans, that sort of thing.  Perhaps most important will be your Regent corporate debit card. This should allow you to avoid any issues with credit cards being rejected. Barring communications problems, you shouldn’t have any issue with payments.”

“Miss Warren, where exactly are you located?” Doug asked, knowing that communications were at best spotty.

“Why, Denver sir, and you can call me Danielle. Why do you ask?”

“Well, we’ve lost cell phone service and land-line service quite often here in the mid-west.  If I’m on the road and stuck without funds because the phones are down, I’m on my own.”

“Sir, there’s also cash and if that doesn’t work, there are some silver coins in the supplies that will be provided to you in Des Moines. If you have to negotiate, that may serve better than cash.”

“If I may inquire, are field reps being provided any Regent product that might be used in trade?”

“I’m sorry?” the administrative assistant asked.

“Regent food products might be much more useful than cash or coin.  Stores aren’t getting resupplied as they should. What is available in stores is very, very expensive.  Are you not seeing this in Denver?”

There was a pause before she answered. “Um, I only shop at the corporate store.  Prices there haven’t changed.”

“Carefully, you should make a visit to your neighborhood supermarket.  It would be best if you do that in daylight, and probably with friends.”

“I don’t understand. Why?”

“People are getting robbed for food. There are riots in some cities for it. You don’t know this?” Doug asked, incredulous.  “Do you not listen to the news?”

“Umm, not really, no,” the young woman said. “I don’t really care to.”

Doug didn’t quite know what to say. “Danielle, how old are you, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Twenty-two, sir,” she said with a little bit of defiance.

“If I may offer some advice, I’d strongly recommend that you start listening to the news and pay attention to what’s going on in your own neighborhood.  I lived in what I thought was a very safe neighborhood. Lots of restaurants, a few banks, nice grocery stores, a few nice coffee shops.  I saw it transformed into something like Beirut in a matter of days. It can happen in Denver the same as it happened in Chicago, in Atlanta, in Philadelphia.  It’s best you know when it’s coming.”

“Oh, we’re fine here. There’s been nothing like that in Denver. That can’t happen here.”

“Miss, you say that like you’re saying that the atrocities committed in Europe eight months ago happened on a different planet.”

“It didn’t happen here, after all. And there was plenty of warning.”

“It can happen here.  Hell, it DID happen here!  Do you think those people killed in the day care centers and the hospitals had warning?”

“I’m not worried, Mister Peterson.”

Doug gave up. “Just advice, is all.”

“Thank you, sir,” she said with a clinical tone, completely dismissing Doug’s advice.  “I’ll email the updated route map for your second leg on Monday, while you’re on your way to Des Moines. That email will contain your options for lodging, fuel, and any updates on meeting schedules.  Once you’re in Minneapolis, you should be able to log on to the corporate net and receive updates on the final leg of your trip.  Anything else sir?”

“No, thank you very much Danielle. Good luck,” Doug said.

“You too sir.  Have a nice day,” she said as she hung up.

Doug’s radio was playing in the background, just too softly to hear.  He turned it up enough to make out the breathy report.

 “….widespread speculation regarding a potential Vice Presidential candidate or candidates submitted for consideration this morning for Congressional review.  Potential candidates include:

Ryan Robert McAllen. Former Senator from Michigan, and viewed as a controversial choice at best in the international arena, especially after his confrontational stance against the United Nations, where three years ago he spoke before the General Assembly and demanded that the Assembly police the diplomatic community here in the United States after two Iranian representatives were accused of rape.  McAllen, a firm believer in Federal term limits also stated in his departure speech when he refused to run for another term, that the American people needed to take back their country while their was still time.

Colin Bernstein, Senior Representative from West Virginia, who has served four terms in the House, is currently the chair of the House Appropriations Committee.  Bernstein has been considered having an excellent chance to replace Senator Diane Lincoln, who is retiring for medical reasons at the end of March.

Darkhorse candidate Paul David Whistler has served as a United States Appellate Court judge for seven years, and is originally from Washburn, North Dakota.  Prior to his term on the bench, Whistler served in the United States Air Force as a missilier.

Secretary of Commerce Rebekah Hartson has been considered a leading candidate with substantial experience in the financial and international trade sectors, but the Secretary has not been seen in public for at least ten days.  It is rumored that Hartson may in fact be infected with the influenza virus as well….

“And not a one of you that I’ve ever heard of,” Doug said to the radio.