Thursday, September 15, 2011

Distance, Chapter 26


April Second
Eden Prairie, Minnesota

The restaurant had eleven patrons, all eating alone, separated by at least twelve feet on all sides.  The limited wait staff was masked, gloved, and utterly professional in their pressed shirts and slacks, working with quiet efficiency and superb presentation of the limited menu.  Doug had no idea who any of the other diners were, what they did, where they were from. The entire setting, from the background music to the sixteen-ounce Porterhouse was so out of touch with reality that Doug had to remind himself that he was actually there and not dreaming.

Now in the fifth day of this particular road trip, Doug had hit three Regent and allied facilities from Des Moines to Minneapolis, and had directed other corporate resources into the mix to meet the Regent Delta production schedules. The fourth road trip in the past thirty days, Doug barely had time to sleep.  Tomorrow would be a brief meeting with one of the Regent Delta targets, Carlyle.

Kliest was right about one thing: he was busy. The time behind the wheel of the company car though, left him plenty of time to think, when he wasn’t on the phone. The separation from Julie, the time alone, the lack of contact, didn’t lessen his feelings for her one iota.

After Kliest’s ‘visit’ in February, Doug thought long and hard about their conversation, replaying it in his head several times.  He then called Julie late that evening, and asked if he might visit the following day.

He rose early that day, knocking out four hours worth of work in two, and left his email and chat off-line for the entire time.  The weather was decent, and he made good time down to the Segher’s.  Doug made it a point to not make any additional phone calls to Julie on the Regent phone, nor did he send her his customary morning email from the company computer.  He wove through the barricades at the farm, and parked some distance from the house.  The phone stayed in the car.

“Good morning, Douglas,” Arie said, greeting him from the barn.

“Good morning, Arie.  I’d like to speak with all of you if I may,” Doug said. Arie’s expression changed immediately.

“Certainly. Maria and Julie are in the kitchen I believe, working on the noonday meal,” Arie said with his clipped accent.  Doug noticed he seemed to be limping.

“Are you hurt?”

“Bad knee from a long time ago. It catches me more often these latter days,” he said as they reached the porch.  Julie opened the door for them.

“Good morning,” Doug said.

“Morning,” Julie said with a wary smile. “Everything OK?”

“No. Not remotely, and that’s why I’m here.”

“Sit,” Maria said, pushing an enormous mug of coffee toward him, quickly followed by cream and honey.  A plate of butter cookies followed.

“Thanks,” Doug said, removing his parka. He sat, staring at the coffee for a minute before he spoke.  “I had a visitor last night from the corporation I work for. It wasn’t pleasant.”

“What happened?”

“Essentially, I’m being spied on. I would expect that they’re reading all of my emails, listening to all my calls.  They are obviously tracking my whereabouts and the people I meet and associate with. Which comes to you,” he said, raising his eyes to Julie, Arie and Maria. “They claim to know things about you as well. Your business dealings. Your political beliefs.”

Arie moved back in his chair, face stoic.

“They believe that my association with you, Julie included, represents a risk to the corporation.  I am involved with Julie. Julie’s brother is married to Molly Segher. The Segher’s are, and I quote, ‘unpredictable.’  They believe that there is information that I may provide you that will be used against me, or against them.  It seemed very threatening in tone.”

“What did you tell them?” Julie asked, unfazed.

“That I didn’t believe that you were anything of the kind.  The man did not seem impressed,” Doug said finally taking a drink of coffee, unaltered.  “I believe that my relationship with you could put you at risk. It felt like, ‘substantial’ risk. I’m sure they know I’m here now.”

“GPS in your car,” Julie said. “And your phone.”

“Yes. It’s not a stretch to see that they’re keeping a close eye on their ‘assets.’  I have that nice security system in the house.  I never thought that it might be watching me as much as it’s watching the property. I never thought that the phone might be used to listen to what was going on when I wasn’t even using it.”

Arie and Maria had been silent through his comments. “Do you plan to continue with this company?” Arie said.

“It’s all I have going for work. I’m good at it, but it seems to be going directions that I’m uncomfortable with.”

“Where it takes you is limited by where you allow it to go,” Maria replied. “That seems clear to me.”

“I have an employment agreement with them that is pretty much ironclad,” Doug said. “I spent a fair amount of time re-reading it.”

“Slavery is illegal, the last time I looked it up,” Julie said.

“It’s a contract.”

“So where do we go from here?” Julie asked, bringing the conversation to just the two of them.

“If I continue to associate with you, I put you at risk.  Those words weren’t spoken, but they were conveyed clear enough.  I can’t allow that to happen.”

“So you choose the company over me?” Julie asked.

“No, I choose to keep you safe,” Doug said.  “I have an nine month contract.”

“An odd length for a contract, nine months, yes?” Arie said.

“It expires at the end of their fiscal year,” Doug said. “It’s fairly common in the industry. As for you and I,” Doug said to Julie, “I love you. I don’t want that to end.”

“You will have to learn a new way to communicate.  Do you remember how to write letters?” Maria asked Julie. “Or do they read those too?”

Doug’s letters to Julie were hand-written, nothing in them related to Regent, the postage was paid for with scarce cash, and their relationship was maintained on the twice-weekly mail deliveries now provided to most of the nation. Doug’s mail was delivered to a post office box in town, which also happened to be the post office overseen by a distant cousin of the Seghers.  The mail went untampered. Doug also wrote his ex-wife in a similar manner, to keep her and her family off of the company radar. 

Doug sipped his glass of red wine, watching the staff clear a table and re-set it, quickly wiping down the chairs with an unknown cleaner.  At the entry, a line of other business-types waited, spaced several feet apart, each wearing gloves and their facemasks. The security guards were quite subdued, clad in black, and residing in the shadows just outside the building. One of the staff dicreetly checked the waiting customers for any sign of illness or fever with a small hand-held laser thermometer. Those in line just waited, some talking on their phones, others text-messaging, seemingly ignoring the procedure that might identify them as having the Guangdong Flu.

Restaurants and buffets still in business were doing so on financial reserves or on corporate subsidy, just to keep the doors open until a ‘recovery’ could take place.  When the outbreak became widespread, most people stayed away from crowds.  Restaurants were hit hard.  Four of Regents primary fast-food clients closed a full eighty-percent of their restaurants for the entire month of March, and were only now starting to talk about opening up sometime in April.  Of course, schools and universities had also effectively shut down, movie theaters, shopping malls….all were nearly out of business. The economy fell further as a result.

Kliest’s prediction of the peak of the influenza outbreak occurred more or less as he’d predicted, which disturbed Doug in its accuracy. It did not seem normal that someone from Bluestone should know of such things, but of course Doug obviously was lacking in the breadth and depth of the creature that was Regent Performance.

Since mid-February, Doug had been required to make twice-weekly video conferences at the Des Moines facility, meeting his virtual team, now numbering around a hundred-fifty, and scattered across the United States and eastern Canada.   He had been promoted to team leader, delegating much of the mechanics of integrating the RNEW line into the products of the new clientele.   His Western U.S. sales team didn’t have anywhere near the success of the two teams in the East, who’d achieved more than the target market penetration.  The Western team had been met with resistance almost from the start, and only fifteen percent of their goals had been met.  Each meeting therefore, had included a review of what had worked in the East, as a cheerleading effort for the West team.  It still didn’t really matter—the tactics from the East just weren’t effective in California.  Corporate effectively gave up on the effort at the end of March, releasing the West team for support of the East. The pre-occupation with the War, the troubles in the Pacific Northwest and the slow-motion collapse of the economy were the three strikes that finally convinced the leadership in Columbus that there were fertile grounds elsewhere.

Each trip to Des Moines allowed Doug to stock up at the Regent Preferred store; the in-house ‘elite’ brands of the Regent Performance Group grocery line. Doug purchased discounted products, of better quality than the normal retail product line.  He was still ‘banking money’ in his checking and saving accounts at the local bank, even with the substantial purchases that he often made in Des Moines.   The rent payment for the house was automatically deducted, as were utilities. His employment and purchases of basic needs directly through the Regent lines allowed him to avoid most of the ‘in-your-face’ financial chaos that the rest of the nation endured. He’d made a few purchases at the local hardware store, in cash, usually in hundred dollar bills.  More ammunition for his shotgun, some duplicates of items he’d bought in Chicago, often items that were on the ‘Sarajevo list’.  He’d never had to stand in line at the grocery store, waiting to be one of a handful of people allowed in at a time, having to go through the whole store to find it half-empty. 
At the end of this job, he’d have much more to move, and he considered it fair compensation. His basement was quite full.

The previous meetings with Agnew Middleton in Des Moines and with Carlyle in Minneapolis were moderately successful; their representatives ‘cautiously optimistic’ about the test runs of military-grade shelf-stable food and nutritional supplements.  No one could just straight out say, ‘Hell yes, this is great’. That just wasn’t done anymore. Doug would drop in on them tomorrow, ‘meet’ with them via video conference with him on one side of a wall, the Carlyle vice-president for product development ten feet away in their secured conference room. Doug would then wait another ten days or so, make another secure video conference call or God forbid, another road trip.  During that ten-day period though, the suits above Doug’s level would see to it that both Agnew and Carlyle would experience ‘volatility’ in their commodity supply lines and pricing.

It was just the way business worked these days. They’d play ball, it just would take a little more time. Regent held the best cards in the game.

The hotel adjacent to the restaurant was only two months before a four-star facility geared toward business travelers. The complex now sported substantially enhanced perimeter controls, hotel-provided armed security teams, and a minimal number of nightly residents per floor.  CDC-approved decontamination methods were used throughout, and all staff were completely screened and trained to deal with any aspect of the influenza outbreak.  
Doug had a suite reserved for him that was used by no other, even when he was away.  The entire seventh floor was reserved for Regent Performance.  The eighth floor was similarly held by an avionics company; sixth was held by one of the automotive companies…Doug guessed Ford. Room service was available, but human contact was appreciated, even if it was just seeing people and not actually engaging in conversation.

He’d completed everything that he really needed to have done for the day, and spending another hour or three on the computer wasn’t to his liking.  He flipped on the television, a giant flat-panel on the ‘living room’ wall. All of the hotel sets had the ‘home’ station of the hotel itself. In the old days, they’d spout off about the hotel restaurants, fitness centers, or tourist stuff.  The home station now reminded travelers of security protocols, health and infection prevention, schedules for shuttle services to key destinations, and unvarnished local news as it might relate to the security of the guests. Doug noted that some of the ‘canned’ messages had been updated.

“Concierge services for any need that you may have as a guest here at Millennia Place are complimentary, including personal shopping on your behalf.  We’ve made this available to better provide for your security, given an increasing level of criminal activity within the region.  Please, on a daily basis, review the security memo posted here on Millennia Channel One, which will provide you an overview of potential problem areas within the Twin Cities and on highways from the Cities….”

It wasn’t any secret that literal highway robberies had come back with a vengeance in the East, a cancer that was spreading south and west.  Regent’s own trucking network had been hit hard in New Jersey, New York and around Philadelphia.  Regent had responded by creating caravans of semi trucks accompanied by flat-black Chevy Suburbans. The Suburbans had a half-dozen armed men each.  Once word got out that this tactic was in the field, it had been adopted by nearly all other commercial lines. Individual trucks, those few still on the road, usually had at least two armed men, aside from the armed driver. In more isolated areas though, drivers had been killed with shots through the windshield, usually wrecking the truck in the process. Any survivors from the crash were also killed, and the truck looted for whatever was aboard, including the fuel. Anything left was burned.

Night travel was for anyone wishing to be killed for the attempt, especially within fifty miles or so of any major city.  Regent and some of their competitors had lost staff who ‘pushed through’ to try to extend their travels a little too far.  Some had never been found.  Those that had were usually unrecognizable.

Doug flipped over to the local news channel for the evening update.

“…driver shot back, hitting at least two of the robbers. Several passerby held the wounded men until police could arrive.  The attack, taking place on Thirty-Five East in Mendota, is the fifth reported day time carjacking in six days.  Neither of the two men held by police have been identified, and are in quarantine in Shakopee.” 

“Commercial flights into Minneapolis are projected to pick up as soon as the approval of the Commercial Airline Nationalization Act, expected to be on the President’s desk within the next few days.  Bankruptcy court findings for the ‘big four’ airlines, with the associated demands from creditors, have been set aside in a controversial move by the courts, citing the need to expedite national recovery efforts. Both Union representatives and shareholders are outraged by the findings, which strip Union pensions, benefits and job security contracts, as well as eliminate good-faith offers to shareholders put in place in early February.”

Doug thought pleasantly how nice it would to fly again, rather than rack up thousands of miles behind a steering wheel.

“Congress again today remained in a deadlock on the proposed currency re-valuation.  The House proposal, crafted by freshman Representatives, was resoundingly condemned by the Senate in a vitriol-filled press conference. Banking concerns, loudly demanding immediate action on the ongoing financial crisis, had to be escorted from the Capitol grounds after a New York lobbyist reportedly assaulted a Congressional staffer.”

“I’d have liked to have seen that,” Doug said as he opened the mini-fridge and took out a diet Coke.

“Hit and run attacks in northern Mexico continued today, claiming the lives of six American troops. Eighth Army commanders stated that ‘clean sweep’ operations would continue until all threats to American troops were eliminated.   It is reported that the soldiers lost today belonged to the Forty-First Division, from the Pacific Northwest. Enemy dead numbered more than a hundred.”

“Unlucky bastards,” Doug said to the television, not quite realizing what he had said.

Like most everyone still able to travel, Doug had become used to the obvious security in public places; the handfuls of National Guardsmen in ill-fitting uniforms here and there; and the changes in the way things looked and worked in every day life.

Doug’s first trip beyond the Des Moines plant showed some lasting modifications to the Iowa landscape in the form of the many roads that had been blocked off permanently from the main highways.  The trip had taken him north to Minneapolis, and then back on Interstate Thirty-Five.  North of Des Moines, in decreasing quantities as he headed north, were dozens of abandoned cars, trucks and RV’s.  Near Clear Lake, up to the junction with Interstate Ninety, no cars at all.  North of Ninety, hundreds of cars on the sides of the road.  Most had been there long enough to be filthy from splashed road grime or buried in the snow. Subsequent trips had fewer abandoned cars.  Doug didn’t think much about it.

One trip, with Eau Claire as his destination, had a mid-way stop in Albert Lea, Minnesota, with the SUV overheating. He wasn’t about to stop on the open road, even during daylight.
Doug had only been “in” a few small towns since he’d resumed traveling, none had involved anything other than driving through.  Albert Lea shocked him, though:  The AmeriMart was a burned out wreck. The three or four auto parts stores were boarded up or gutted. There wasn’t a functioning gas station that he noticed.  The sole grocery store he found had a long line of people waiting to enter…spaced out by a dozen feet each.  Doug noticed a half-dozen or more armed men guarding the place. He finally stopped at a farm supply store, hoping to find a safe haven to look at the engine and maybe find radiator coolant.

He’d parked well away from the guarded store, gaining the attention of the two men flanking the doorway. They were standing behind heavy steel panels, rifles out. He put on his flu mask, was careful to get out of the Ford and show his empty hands, and waved at the men.  He opened the hood and found the radiator cap mangled and a hole in the hose from the radiator to the coolant tank. And a hole in the fender, inner fender liner, and air intake. 

The car had been hit with a bullet from the passenger side.

Doug stood there, staring at the damage for a minute, realizing that if the bullet had hit a few feet further back, he’d have been struck. 

He was able to repair the hose and patch the rest of the damage with supplies from the store, paid for with his Regent card, which again was verified prior to being allowed into the shopping area of the store. As a traveler with adequate gasoline, he was viewed with substantial suspicion by the store people.  He explained that he was a sales rep for a food distributor, and he was then suddenly escorted around the store by a manager, who was pumping him for information on how to “get in” with Doug’s company. Doug paid for the parts with a case of Regent Preferred samples, products that he’d received for free but were approaching their expiration date.  He put the parts and patches on the Explorer while the guards watched out for him. In exchange, he gave them a case of the Preferred samples, as well as his thanks.  He did pick up the business card for the store manager, in case they could work something out in the future.

His mind the rest of that trip, when he wasn’t in meetings, was on that bullet hole. On the way back home, he made sure that he had as much mass around him as possible, in the hopes that it would at least slow down a bullet if it happened again.