Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Distance, Chapter 22


January Twenty-eighth
2:50 p.m.

“Nope, I’m running this team solo right now Mitchell. Can you help me out?” Doug said to the Regent R&D manager, working in the Regent facility outside of Columbus.

“Shoot me your primary, secondary and tertiary targets and we’ll pull up the most favorable mix rates.  Good enough?”

“Almost,” Doug said. “Do you have actual samples of product on hand?”

“We have control samples. Can’t let those out into the wild though,” Mitchell Grayson replied.  “We can build some, but it’ll take time.  We had to reverse engineer each food product formula to generate the initial run, and then integrate the RNEW product into the production without degrading the quality of the initial product. Took two staff-years per product,” he said.  Doug didn’t know that—it had to be a huge expense for Regent to assign research and development assets for that length of time.

“How much time? Week? Two?” Doug asked.

“Week to ramp up and produce—depends on the line.  The simpler the line, the shorter the time to produce. Complex food products take a lot of internal assets to ramp up a sample run.  This quarantine throws everything off kilter too, of course.”

“Here’s the deal, Mitch.  Other than a trip up to Des Moines that I’m making this afternoon, I’m having to market the line either electronically or via secured shipment.  So the sooner the shipment goes…”

“…the sooner we ramp production for commercial sales,” Grayson finished.

“And the sooner corporate starts talking about performance bonuses,” Doug said, pushing the right button in the R&D department.  He’d suspected that R&D at Regent had a monetary incentive for the RNEW line to succeed.

“The much-promised pot at the end of the Rainbow. How soon can you get me your target lines?”

“Already started on it—figure ten minutes.  I’m going to aim for simpler products for every manufacturer as primary targets—since they’re usually bulk in nature and usually large-sellers.  That’ll allow me to provide at least a taste, no pun intended, to all of the first-line companies.  Secondary and tertiary follow along with more complex foods.  How does that sound?”

“Unconventional. I like it. Figure a week, if I can get staffing, to produce the primary,” Mitchell said.

“How is it up there? I mean the flu.”

“Solid fifteen percent of the company is out. Lots of speculation that half is just people staying home because they’re scared.  Stores are empty. Robberies and home invasions, you name it.”

“How are you getting by?” Doug asked, very curious.

“I live here.  Literally. Single, corporate has pretty good digs on the campus, the place is secured six ways from Sunday, and we have an on-campus commissary and clinic.  No need to leave the place unless I want to get laid,” Mitch said with a laugh.

“A man does have his needs,” Doug said laughing as well. “Nothing available locally, huh?”

“Not unless I want to get fired!”

Doug wrapped up the conversation and spent ­a few more minutes getting his ‘target’ products and manufacturers identified and emailed to Regent R&D. His inbox had two emails from his team members.

“Mr. Peterson—
Just got set up here in Northern Cali. Apologies for the delay in getting back on line. Please forward any appropriate research questions to me on any of the Delta line.  I have access to the Regent net through a link in Reno (of all places), and any of the Delta or Regent Gold resources that we need I can bring on line.


Jim McGillicuddy”

“Nice to have you back.  Maybe there’s still some work you can do…” Doug said to his computer.

The second email was from Ann DeMumber’s account. Her brief email told Doug that she wouldn’t be back…or possibly alive in a few days.  She’d been diagnosed with the flu, and her personal physician told her to stay at home and self-medicate.  Doug thought that sounded like a death sentence.

He pushed away from the desk, staring at the computer screen for a minute. The influenza was coming closer to him every moment. The last email of the day he sent out was to his new boss. It was a lengthy affair that summed up his conversations with R&D; included four attachments for draft communications to his target lists; and the copied emails from McGillicuddy and Ann DeMumber.  Once that was sent, he decided to check the weather, and found the National Weather Service web page and the real-time weather radar.

“This hazardous weather outlook is for portions of Central and Southern Iowa.
A blizzard warning is in effect for all of Iowa and portions of Illinois from eleven p.m. tonight-through Sunday evening…
Strengthening low pressure will remain over the Central U.S. through Sunday evening. Mixed precipitation will transition to all snow by sunrise Sunday morning. Northwest winds will increase to 50 MPH in western Iowa by Sunday morning.  The combination of heavy snowfall and strong winds will create near zero visibilities.
High winds and blizzard conditions are expected to move east into central Iowa by Sunday afternoon.  Travel will become increasingly hazardous from west to east, with many parts of the state impassable by mid-day tomorrow.  
Storm total snowfall amounts should range from twelve to twenty-four inches in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and the Quad Cities. Lesser amounts are expected in western Illinois as the storm moves east.
Please monitor future National Weather Service forecasts to stay informed about this winter storm.”

The radar showed an angry looking system moving to the southeast out of the Dakotas, ranging in color from light blue through pink and the white of heavy snow.  He realized that he didn’t have a snow shovel….

His work earlier in the day had been to outline for his potential clients the process that Regent would be taking during the quarantine period…none of which could be finalized until R&D could deliver a schedule on product samples. Another roadblock. 
He’d called Des Moines early in the day, and made arraignments to pick up the Regent-created emergency kit and enough food to fill his SUV. They’d have the kit assembled when he arrived—he’d need to follow Regent’s newly mandated health protocol at the main gate, and don masks and other gear from the gate on in to the plant.  Once inside, he’d essentially have no close human contact, and would be directed to various points in the compound to pick up his equipment, have the food loaded in the SUV, all the while communicating to facility personnel with a hand-held radio that he’d keep.  Regent intended that the radio would be used at any Regent facility that Doug would visit. He pondered all of that while he dressed for the trip, deciding to carry the old revolver in the new shoulder holster under a vest.
Just before heading out to the garage, Doug tried to call Julie but the call never went through.  Despite his intentionally busy day, he never stopped thinking of the night with Julie.

The drive to Des Moines was a little eerie.  He’d seen exactly two vehicles between Fairfield and Oskaloosa, both old farm trucks.  Oskaloosa had several highway detours in place, similar to construction detours…with no construction.  The detours shuttled traffic around town without allowing it to stop.   Several police cars….or cars appearing to be like police cars on a second look, made the detour more intimidating.
Light snow started just outside Pella and continued all the way through Monroe.  Each of the small towns he drove through had a similar philosophy on the barricades and detours…until he hit Prairie City, not far from Des Moines.  He could see that the highway north to Interstate Eighty had been bulldozed out of existence; a giant earthen mound blocked the road.
None of the stores in any of the towns were open. No gas stations, no restaurants, and very few lights. No one on the streets, either.
Only a handful of cars were on the road for the rest of the trip, which ended at an industrial park not far from the I-Eighty and I-Thirty-Five interchange.  A small, non-descript monument sign said ‘Regent Industrial Services.’ Doug followed the tall chain link fence to the entry, where he was directed to stop by a masked, parka-wearing security guard.  Three more appeared through the light snow, carrying shotguns, two had helmets.  The first appeared to check a clipboard, probably checking Doug’s license plate number.  He then directed Doug to pull ahead into a gated, covered enclosure with a keypad on the drivers’ side of the car….and a sliding gate behind him closed.   A laminated sign hung on the closely-woven chain link fence directed Doug to take out his Regent smart I.D. card, and swipe it in the magnetic reader. He noted that the keypad was just a glass panel, and was wrapped in plastic—he guessed that the cover was disposable to prevent transmission of the virus. He then noted that the ‘sign’ had a small camera mounted in one corner.  It was probably verifying his Regent identity and his physical self….he thought it was all overkill.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Peterson. Thank you for visiting us today. Please proceed to the green canopy as directed by the security team and do not deviate. Please retrieve the radio in the rack next to the keypad. Please stay in the vehicle until you are directed to do otherwise. Thank you again,” the voice from the keypad said.

“Thanks,” Doug replied, not knowing if there was anyone on the other end.  He took the portable radio out of a metal rack. It was fist-sized, in a plastic bag with a twelve-volt charger and he guessed extra batteries.  A small instruction manual appeared to be included. He didn’t have time to look it over.

The green canopy was some sort of translucent fabric that masked an over-engineered framework with motion-sensing lights, some sort of spray system, and God-knows what else.
He put the SUV in ‘park’ as he pulled under the canopy, facing a wall with a reader board screen in front of him. The screen directed him to shut the engine off.  Doug did so, and a spray wash of some kind was applied from all sides and under his car. He fished out the radio, the cigarette-lighter plug charger, and three spare battery packs. The instruction manual was printed by Regent, with the first few sentences explaining that the radio would only work on Regent frequencies. A few moments later, the sign in front told him to activate the hand-held radio, and proceed ahead as the wall in front of him lifted up and away.

“Unbelievable,” Doug said as he started the engine and pulled ahead. 

“Mister Peterson, please drive ahead to stall thirty-six. It’ll be ahead of you on the right, under the canopy just inside the loading dock,” a male voice said. “Please back your vehicle in if you would as directed. Over.”

“Got it. Thanks.” Doug said, feeling silly. Cloak and dagger stuff. A yard director motioned to Doug, directing him to his stall, and then ‘holding’ him as another message came over the radio.

“Mister Peterson, security and medical protocols in place at present do not allow us to meet face to face.  This is Jack Strang, transportation captain.  We’ve got your travel kit ready for you per Corporate’s direction as well as the order you placed on line.  Once you’re backed in, please step out of the vehicle. On the loading dock behind your vehicle you’ll find your face mask and gloves.  Please put those on, open up your rear hatch and fold down your rear seats, then get back in the drivers’ seat.  We’ve already calculated the size limitations of your vehicle and have built the packaging accordingly.  Your travel kit will be placed in a backpack and placed in the passenger seat. Our load team will have you filled up quite quickly. Remember for everyone’s safety, please keep your mask and gloves on at all times and do as directed. Any questions?”

“No sir, not a one.”

“Very good.  As a note, the order you placed is a little tight—not much wiggle room once this is loaded. Please proceed.”

Doug did as he was directed, parking the car with a warehouseman waving him to stop as he backed up. The warehouseman stepped back fifteen or twenty feet as Doug got out of the Explorer, found his mask and gloves in a thermally-sealed plastic bag, and put them on. The mask was a half-face affair, thick, with ‘N100’ stenciled on it. The gloves were medical grade, which seemed to be just a little less durable than commercial grade food processing gloves.
A few moments later, the seats stowed in the flat position, three workers efficiently loaded large, shrink-wrapped packages from the rear, sliding them up to the back of the front seats.  Another worker placed the backpack in the front seat, and he heard the doors and rear hatch close.

“All right, Mister Peterson, you’re loaded up.  Now, that backpack has its own instructions and contents lists. Front pocket, left side. Start there. That’ll also contain your corporate debit card.  Keep it safe. Any questions?”

“Mind if I look this over before I head out?”

“Sure. No problem. Just pull over to that holding area. Willie will direct you,” Strang said. “And don’t forget to top off your tank.”

Doug pulled ahead as the overall-clad yard worker directed him. Doug parked and shut off the engine as the snow and wind picked up.  The Explorer tanks were down by a quarter—and the pumps happily filled them up with no payment procedure whatsoever.
The backpack was about half-full; Doug assumed that he’d add his own clothes and personal things to the pack.  The pack manifest listed everything, down to the last ibuprofen, alcohol wipe, and waterproof match. As told, Doug found the Regent Corporate Platinum card in a metal case that was stamped and colored to look like leather.  A note with the card explained that the card was to be kept in the case to avoid compromising the security of the card. Each card had a debit limit that could be adjusted with a phone call to corporate….and if unused, the corporate card would expire within thirty days of the last use of the card.  Interesting. 
The weather was deteriorating, and Doug decided to make tracks, but had a couple questions before leaving.

“Mister Strang? A couple questions for you,” Doug asked on the radio.  It felt odd, like he was playing with a toy.

“Sure. Fire away.”

“Agnew Middleton.  How’s their operation these days?”

“Not much different than here from what management is telling us.  Maybe forty percent of full staff.  Output’s fallen off, but shipping has all but collapsed as well, so they’re running full production with what they can get and who they’ve got to get it done.”

“Thanks. That’s all I needed. I think I better get moving…this storm’s coming in fast.”

“Yeah, bad one. Safe travels,” Strang said. “Guards’ll direct you out.”

“Thanks again.”

One of the guards directed him to a non-descript exit in a different side of the yard.  The fences, Doug noted, were all of the same, heavy gauge, tight-weave chain link. He saw the razor wire on the top, just as he pulled out of the gate.  He hadn’t noticed it before.
Although strongly tempted to drive around Des Moines, it was plain to see--or not, through the increasing snow, that there wouldn’t be much if any activity worthy of note. He headed southwest again, putting the Ford into four-wheel drive just after he slewed around a corner.  It would be a long drive back home. He decided to try calling Julie again and put on his Bluetooth headset, then gave his cell phone the voice command to ‘Call Julie’.  Many seconds later, the call finally went through.

“Hello,” a flat, female voice answered.

“Hello. Is Julie available?” Doug asked, not knowing who might be on the other end.

“May I ask who is calling?”

“This is Doug Peterson.  To whom do I…”

“One moment,” the other voice said, cutting him off. ‘What the Hell?’ Doug thought.   He heard the phone ‘click’ and it rang again twice.

“Hello?” Julie’s familiar voice answered.

“Hi—how are you?”

“Frazzled. You?”

“Wondering what the heck is going on with your phones, first of all.”

“Main phone lines died.  The farm is back on the party line.”

“Party line? Seriously?”

“Yeah. One phone line on one of the farms was still working. Everything goes there first now. We had the phone company forward all the calls to there. Then one of the cousins rigged this up. Hardwired a couple miles of lines straight to each house. I’m not quite sure how they pulled it all off.”

“Who’s the switchboard operator? They could use some personality.”

“That’s another one of the cousins. They’re normally fine—part of the gruffness is to weed out people who are fishing for information.”

“Why would…”

“There were some things stolen from another farm not too far west of here.  Someone looked up an old auction on the internet, looked at a bunch of things in the pictures that weren’t even up for auction—you know, stuff in the background—and they were robbed.  We’ve had some calls too—they’re trying to figure out exactly where people are, when they’re home and when they’re not. Patterning their behavior through the phone.”

“Consistent times of calls. So if someone doesn’t ever answer at a specific time, that’s the time to hit the place,” Doug said.


“So were the phone lines taken out on purpose?” Doug asked.

“No. Some moron cut the cable over near Milton. Digging up the dirt next to the road…”

“Building a big mound over the roads to keep people out.  I’ve seen a lot of that today.”

“You’re out? In this weather?”

“Yeah. I tried to call earlier. Couldn’t get through. I’m on the way back from Des Moines. Roads are getting bad,” he said, checking his speed.  Thirty-five was too fast, he  was discovering.

“Company business?”

“Yes. It’s been an interesting day so far. I also picked up a bunch of supplies from the warehouse.  My Explorer is loaded to the gunnels.”


“A little maritime lingo. It means packed full.”

“What’d that cost? Had to be a fortune. Have you seen prices?”

“Well, no actually. It’s on my account. As for prices, there hasn’t been a single business in business today, from my place all the way to Des Moines. Nothing. A lot of gas stations with signs stating ‘No Gas’, and a lot of old plywood covering up windows.”

“Be careful.  I heard on the shortwave that there’s some trouble on the interstates. Semi trucks are getting hijacked.”

“Sooner than I thought that’d happen,” Doug said. 

“Did you hear about the airlines?” Julie asked.

“No, I haven’t had any news on. What happened?”

“The government chartered almost every overseas airliner for immediate duty. The rumor is that they’re bringing home our soldiers and dependents.”

“From where?” Doug asked, very surprised.

“From everywhere. I also heard that all foreign aid had been suspended indefinitely.”

“Wow,” Doug said. “So….what about the gear? The planes, the supplies, all that?”

“I don’t know. I would think that they’d bring it with them, wouldn’t they?”

“That would make the most sense, but it’s simply not possible in short order, and you don’t take your people out until the very end.”

“Very end of what?”

“Of whatever.  You need people on the ground to manage a facility.  If you’re open for business, you need people there first, then infrastructure, then product. When you close, you ship out excess product, close up the infrastructure, move out the people,” Doug said. It was a rule of commerce in his world.  “I wonder what the shipping traffic looks like.”

“To move stuff back home?” Julie asked.

“Sure. Tanks, bombs, guns, whatever. I’d imagine that most of that stuff was shipped on large transport ships, not by air.”

“Hmmm. Hadn’t thought about that. How far out are you?”

“Just outside of Monroe. Long ways to go,” Doug said.

“Call me when you get home?”

“Absolutely,” he replied and paused a moment. “I love you, Julie.”

“And I you. Don’t forget.” 

Monday, May 9, 2011

Life and Stuff

Spring appears to finally be here, as such, yours truly has been a very busy unit at work and at home.  Twelve hundred miles on the road last week; I'll actually be able to rototill the garden this week with the goal of getting it planted this coming weekend; and due to the exceptionally cold and wet spring, I have about two months of yard/garden/tree work to catch up on.....so the writing is going slowly just because there aren't enough hours in the day.   It being May 9th, it looks like a really pleasant second week of March outside.  (It's actually a little too close to the weather in 'Deep Winter' for my comfort). 

A couple of comments in response to questions from readers of the series and the blog: 

1) Yes, the 'bundle' deal is still 'good', that being the first three books for $80, including autograph and shipping anywhere in the lower 48 or to any APO (International rates vary on shipping). 

2) Distance will be available on Kindle, probably before I look at hardcopy publishing. I will probably not put Distance out in pieces on Kindle...just one chunk. 

3) A reader asked me what I thought of price increases we're seeing hit us all.  In addition to keeping up with the basics that are discussed heavily elsewhere (food, water, shelter, heat, ad nauseum), I'm seeing a significant lead time in getting stuff that used to be a trip to the parts store.  So, equipment spares are taking longer to get AND are of course more expensive. I'm adding to my stores for spares for the vehicles, power equipment, tractor, etc. 

I'm also seeing significant price advantages buying on line and not from my local chain retailer.  While I like to support the local businesses when I can, it makes zero economic sense to pay 200% or more for the time savings in ordering something from a store 15 minutes from my house and having to wait three days for the item to arrive,  versus an order placed ahead of time for some mechanical need, and having to wait maybe a week for it to be delivered to my door. Your mileage may vary....  

Where at all possible, analyze the savings potential in buying in bulk, especially with shelf lives that are very, very long.  While this is discussed for food, it's seldom discussed for other items, except in perhaps, 'The Alpha Strategy'. 

Other stuff that I'm buying and stocking (mostly) due to price increases and (partly) due to increasing time to obtain locally: 

Tractor parts: spark plugs, belts, oil, grease, filters, tune up kits, switches, etc. (My tractor is ancient, and therefore predictable in terms of maintenance and parts that will wear out).

Power equipment parts: (all of the above) plus spare blades, tines, etc. 

Vehicle stuff: Serpentine belts, fluids, spare lamps, spare filters. Sometimes, where you're running the same types of oil filters across a series of vehicles or similar engines, you can save significant money purchasing in bulk.  Where you have similar or identical vehicles, it makes sense to lay in some other spares that might not be easy or cheap to obtain new, even if the parts are used (spare headlight assemblies, spare alternator, etc. I buy stuff like this at a pull-it-yourself wrecking yard for cents on the hundred dollar new cost.). Parts like this are usually returnable if they are defective.....

Household stuff: Light bulbs, spare locks, caulking, all kinds of cleansers. 

Shop stuff: Nuts, bolts, washers, deck and drywall screws, sheet goods (plywood, OSB), lumber, chain, fencing repair materials, barbed wire, electrical wiring and supplies. 

Yard stuff: pesticides, if you use them, have **really** increased with the oil increases.  I use them sparingly, and haven't bought them in years. I have however, picked them up at the local Waste Management site where they are turned in as household hazardous waste, and put out for recycling to the public. Free. (I've also managed to get about ten gallons of Coleman fuel this way, and enough stain to coat my barn and outbuildings three times....again, free). 

Obviously, this applies differently to everyone.  Not everyone needs to stock up on all this stuff, or is able to complete the kinds of repairs that I take on (sometimes when I shouldn't). Food for thought though....

4) Commodities markets: Highly manipulated, and as we saw last week, the uninformed can get clobbered in getting into the market way too late, especially if they're buying on margin. Most of those who were thrashed last week were late-coming margin-operators, and paid for it with everything and then some.  If you're going to buy silver or gold, do not do so before you've researched it thoroughly, and do not do so until you're squared away in other areas. There are many good sources out there to assist you in research, unfortunately I'm not one of them.  

Some basics that I was taught as a young man: 
•Debt is always bad, and can be forever bad as well ('forever' meaning you may never get it paid off). 
•Cash is what you carry. 
•Savings are what you live on should everything else collapse, including your job or career.  •Investments are things you can afford to lose. 

Other things that I've learned, sometimes the hard way: 
•Successful investments are converted to savings on a regular basis. (take your profits and put  them into savings).  
•Never chase a poorly performing investment and expect it to do anything but lose more money. (time your exits properly and cut your losses) 
•A 'broker' makes money on both sides of the transaction involving your money. (so be your own broker)
•No one has any business investing in anything until they understand what they are investing in in every aspect, having done their own research and not depending on another to lead them to it. (This takes time. It's your time, it's your money.  Will someone you're paying have a greater commitment to you than you? No, they won't, ever.) 


What's next?  I like a cliffhanger as much as the next guy....Should have a new chapter up later this week, life allowing. 

Take care, gang.  Off to bed now! 

Tom S. 
1 Th. 4 11:12