Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Distance, Chapter 28


Monday night
April Third,
Madison, Wisconsin

Doug had followed one of the Regent trucks and their security escort into a guarded truck stop on the outskirts of Madison. A parking lot had been carved out of the adjacent farmland to accommodate additional vehicles.  After a brief conversation through protective masks with one of the fuel attendants, Doug was motioned to the end of the dark lot.  A makeshift campground and RV park had sprung up, with all sorts of non-commercial traffic cramming into the lot. Fortunately the kid running the gas pump in the lot hadn’t noticed that Doug was ill. One hundred sixty-six dollars later, the Explorer’s tank was full. Truck stops charged for their security at the pump—in this case, a three-dollar-per-gallon surcharge.

He parked on the end of a row, nearer to the semi park than to the RV’s, and noticed that most or all of the other cars, trucks, and RV’s were occupied, their dome lights on or some other light source inside.  Two fairly large camp tents were set up behind a couple of the cars, dimly lit.

He just sat there for a few minutes, reclining his seat, feeling miserable. The emergency kit supplied by his employer did contain a small ‘three man’ tent (really big enough for one adult and a backpack, maybe two in a pinch), a highly compressed sleeping bag, dehydrated food and other emergency essentials. Doug had taken the time, weeks before, to look over the kit, set up the tent, and add some items he felt important.  With the kit and his boxed-up supplies, he had plenty of food, water and other liquids. He forced himself to get out of the car, get into the supplies in the back and round up something that would pass for dinner, more pills, and the sleeping bag.

It had been years since Doug spent the night in a car. During the early days of his sales career, he’d made his mark by covering twice the territory as his peer’s…part of that was accomplished by ‘driving through’ when others spent the night in some motel.  He’d clean up at truck stops, shower, shave and get back to the sales route.  This experience wasn’t remotely the same. 

What concerned him more than anything was that he didn’t have the ability to know what bug he’d caught. Doug didn’t quite know how to deal with the possibility that he could be dead in a day or two. Endless questions rolled through his head as he ate a cold cup of soup, some vegetable-flavored crackers and water. 
He drifted off to fitful sleep as the rain began.

Sometime during the night, Doug woke with a start, completely disoriented and coughing fiercely; feeling as if he were drowning. He moved the drivers’ seat to vertical and coughed enough to clear his throat, for the first time feeling afraid that he did in fact have ‘the flu’.  Doug struggled to get out of the sleeping bag and get dressed. He stepped out of the Explorer to visit the portable toilets and was greeted by six inches of fresh snow, more coming down.    Other than a few idling trucks on the far end of the lot, there wasn’t a sound.  Most of the lights in the area were off. The passenger side of his Ford was a solid mass of white.

The toilet was less than pleasant, as Doug only had a tiny LED flashlight attached to his coat to light up the fiberglass box as he tried to create a clean place to sit down.  Somewhere two cars started their engines and idled.

Back at his car, Doug used multiple disinfecting wipes on himself, not all on his hands.  He then went through the gymnastics of getting out of his wet coat and boots and back in the sleeping bag.

He flipped on the ignition, quickly switching off the automatic headlights.  The outside temperature read twenty-two degrees.  It was cold inside as well, but not cold enough—yet—to freeze his bottle of sports drink.  He took another batch of pills, ate an energy bar and started the engine, waiting for it to warm up to the point where he could turn on the heater.  The radio kept him company.

“We can’t get money to plant.  The banks won’t loan us money, ag diesel’s so expensive that it’d be a third mortgage on the place just to fuel up for spring planting.”

“How much for diesel out your way, Edward?” the host asked.

“Fifteen fifty a gallon. Ag.  Road diesel is worse, assuming you can get it.”

“Yeah, those Federal price controls are really holding the line, aren’t they?”

The caller was bleeped out. “Sorry.  There’s a massive shortage of fuel at nine dollars a gallon Federal rate.  There’s plenty of fuel available north of fifteen dollars a gallon.”

“Just like everything else since the dollar went down,” said the host. “Everyone jockeying to create a new reserve currency out of thin air, blow up another bubble for the suckers to invest in, nothing ever changes.”

“You know, wars start over stuff like this.  This whole currency mess.”

“They do in fact, Edward.  We’ll just see if calmer heads prevail this time.”

“It’s been damned near three months and no one’s fixed a thing. Nothing. Things are getting way worse, Ray. People are gonna starve in this country this year.”

“This is Late Night with Ray Michaels,” the host said as the show went to a commercial break.  The radio however, remained silent where commercials should have been.

“And we’re back. Open lines tonight. Our scheduled guest was a no show, an anonymous voice from the current iteration of the Treasury Department. We were hoping to have a discussion on the proposed re-valuation of the dollar, which has been rumored for more than two months. The guest however didn’t call in, was not able to be reached at the number that we had on file…so we have no idea what happened,” the host said.

“We’re obviously in the midst of a global shift in the way that the world works, and we’re probably so late and recognizing it that there’s no hope of meaningful response.  Springbrook, North Dakota, you’re next up.”

“Ray, thanks for letting me on tonight,” the caller stated.  Doug wondered where ‘Springbrook’ was, and fished out a map. It wasn’t far from where his friend Hal Downing had been headed. He wondered if Hal was part of the oil economy these days. He’d tried to call Hal’s cell phone several times over the past several months, but only reached voicemail.

Vandy. How’s it going out there? For those that may not know Vanderbilt, he’s a regular caller, and happens to be involved in the oil biz out there. Van is not his real name, by the way.”

“It’s busier than Hell, but getting in here to work is for the favored few.  If you’re not paying off the inspectors, like daily, you’re not on the job for whatever reason they can find.”

“Housing improve?”

“Sure, if you keep up your payments to the landlord and the Feds…who both want more money to keep us ‘safe.’ It’s extortion.”

“How’s production? Things coming on line?”

“Sure. Right under the watchful eye of Big Brother. Don’t expect any of this to end up in your local pump.  It’s all going to the mil.”

“Hmm. Three speeches about the wondrous resources within our own borders and the Secretary of the Interior on site with a pumping well behind him and it’s all being kept for the government.”

“Yes. And not a damned thing we can do about it. They’ve got all the guns around here---literally.”

“How are you guys getting paid these days?”

“Depends who you know.  Grunts out there—the worms—they get fed and housed and some down time in town once a month. Skilled folk get better food and I kid you not, silver coins in a bag, every week. The drillers are best off, but it’s a backstabbing business.  Everyone’s out for each other’s job. And Brother gets his cut over everything.”

“You’re not living in one of those camps, are you?”

“Nope, got out of there a while ago.  Off the grid, not far from where I have to work…and I like it that way. It’s been an interesting couple of…”

The line went dead in mid sentence, straight to dial tone.

“Vandy? You there?” the host asked. “Huh. Not the first time that’s happened on this program.  Vandy, hope you’ll be safe out there.”

Doug listened for another fifteen minutes as the heater shook off any semblance of the winter weather outside.  All of the calls spoke of either the crashed economy or of heavy-handed governments or the difficulty that people were having in adjusting to a dramatically different America.  Finally he shut off the engine and drifted off to sleep as one of the sleep-inducing cold remedies kicked in.

Tuesday Morning
April Fourth,
Madison, Wisconsin

Doug woke to someone pounding on the drivers’ side window, startling him out of the medicinal sleep.

“You OK, Mac? Someone thought you might have kicked off overnight,” the truck stop worker said.  Doug finally got his eyes to focus and noted the heavy overalls with the logo of the truck stop. The man didn’t have a mask on. There had to be a foot of snow out there.

“Yeah. Took a sleeping pill. I’m fine,” Doug said. He wondered about the people sleeping in tents. He fished out his watch. It was nearly eight a.m.

“Breakfast and showers are available for a price.  You interested? I can get you on the list.”

Doug didn’t even think about asking the price.  It would’ve been far less than any hotel. “Sure. Set me up.”

“You got money? Or credits?”

“Yeah,” Doug said. 

The man stood up and radioed to someone at the truck stop.

“Fifteen minutes. You’re number Thirty-Eight. Wear your mask, talk to Beth at the window.  You’ll pay for your shower there, order your breakfast.  When you’re out of the shower room, you can pick up your breakfast to go.  Dining inside is reserved for truckers.  Got it?”

“Yes, sir. Many thanks,” Doug said, finally almost fully awake. The man moved to another car, wiped the snow off the window, and started his pitch again. He was rebuffed and moved on.

Doug fought his way out of the sleeping bag, put on his boots again, and found his still-wet coat.  He had no idea what might pass for ‘breakfast to go’ these days, it’s not like there were many fast-food places open anymore—Regent’s sales figures had seen a dramatic fall off in all of the prepared restaurant-ready products. He then got out of the SUV and was greeted by the cold. He thought it couldn’t have been more than fifteen degrees outside as he swept off the snow and scraped the windows clear. On the upside, he felt much better.  Doug rounded up a change of clothes, his shaving kit, and a box of Regent retail-grade energy bars.  He thought he might be able to do a little bartering….if not, no loss. 

He started up the Explorer and warmed it a little before it was his turn for the showers. Two cars were trying to maneuver out of the snowy parking lot. Neither had snow tires or four-wheel drive, and appeared to be caravanning. Doug saw Pennsylvania plates on both.
The cost of a shower was thirty dollars flat, for fifteen minutes of hot water. No soap or shampoo provided, although towels were. Doug shaved in the shower, enjoying every minute of the experience.  As promised his breakfast order was ready in a Styrofoam container when Doug was finished—another thirty dollars on his Regent card. They had a surprisingly good menu available to-go. Doug ordered pork sausage and gravy over biscuits, two fried eggs and a large coffee.  The truck stop was uninterested in bartering for Doug’s goods.
He made his way back to the car, his small backpack slung over a shoulder, breakfast balanced on top of the case of energy bars.  He noticed a number of other people were looking at his bundle with something regarding envy.

‘What the hell,’ he thought. ‘Maybe they can use them.’

After finishing breakfast in the front seat of his car, Doug opened up the case of energy bars.  He made his way back to the cars that contained the envious faces.

“You interested?” Doug asked, holding up four. There were two adults in the front seat of the Chevy van, at least a couple of kids. A beat up trailer was hitched up, covered with tarps.

“We don’t have any money,” the woman replied as she rolled down the window. She used a cloth for a mask.  The man was just staring at Doug. The van was from Indiana.

“Not asking for any. Here,” Doug said, handing her the first four and another large handful. “Tried to barter with the folks inside. They weren’t interested.”

“Thanks. We appreciate this,” the woman said. Three small kids appeared between the woman and the driver.  She quickly passed one to each of the children.

“No problem,” Doug said. “Glad to help.”

A half dozen other cars also accepted the food, and Doug then made it to the tents down on the far end of the lot.  He had a lump in his throat. 

“Whatcha got, Mister?” a young boy asked Doug. He looked to be about eight, and was wearing a ratty, dirty sweatshirt, jeans and some once-expensive running shoes.  

“Well, some energy bars.  Are your folks here?”

“Michael, get in here!  You know you need to wear your mask!” a thirty-something woman yelled at the boy.  “And where’s your coat?”

“Inside,” the boy replied, looking at the ground.

“Ma’am, would you like some of these? Free,” Doug said.

“We don’t have money. I’m not trading anything—including favors.”

“Free. No obligation,” Doug said, realizing too late that she thought he was propositioning her.

“What are they?” she asked, voice muffled through a well-worn and soiled facemask.

“Energy bars. My company supplies them. These are extra,” Doug said.

The woman took a dozen, thanking him, and the neighboring tent—holding six children, and a man and two women, took the remainder.  None of them looked like they’d eaten much in a while. Doug noted that there was a fire circle beyond the tents, a pile of firewood and some broken-down chairs.

“Where you from?” Doug asked.

“Milwaukee.  We hoped to get out to Sioux Falls. Trying to get gas money.”

“You’re all one family?”

“We are now,” a young man said.  He looked about twenty-four, and moved as if he had authority…although he was trying too hard. “Three of the kids are orphans. Lived in our neighborhood. Lost both parents to the flu. No other relatives.”

“How long have you been here?” Doug asked.

“A week,” the man said. “We’ll get out soon. Soon as the snow melts,” he said with a note of false bravado.

“Andrews, I told you to leave the travelers alone,” a booming voice said from behind Doug.

“He came to us. We didn’t do nothing wrong.”

“It’s fine,” Doug said.  “We were just talking.”

“I need a word,” the lot agent said, looking at Doug. 

“Sure,” he said. He walked over to the agent and both walked back toward Doug’s car.

“You don’t need to be messin’ with them. They’re bad news.”

“Seemed OK to me,” Doug replied.

“That tent on the right’s a whorehouse. Andrews tried pimpin’ out one of the kids a few nights back and the John cleaned his clock. You’ll notice he didn’t smile...he’s missin’ some teeth. Management had to have a word with him and them women. You might say if we had decent lawmen ‘round here, the kids would be in some sort of foster care and that ‘un would be underground,” he said, motioning to the watchful ‘Andrews.’  “We watch ‘em all close.”

Doug didn’t know what to say. “Jesus….can’t you get the kids away from that?”

“Maybe the orphans, but they trust the women. The other kids are theirs by birth we figure. We don’t know what goes on with them, if they’re messin’ or not, but we’re not about to let anyone else mess around. Got it?”

“Got it. I’m sorry, I had no idea.” Doug felt like an idiot.

“Just watchin’ out. Things aren’t always what they seem.”

“I think they’re seldom what they seem,” Doug said.

“Fair ‘nuff. You have a good day. Watch yourself on that highway. No crews clearing it anymore this year.”

“Any convoys heading out?”

“Sure…an hour ago. Nothing organized is scheduled the rest of the day,” the man said as he walked away.

Doug got back to the Explorer, took off his mask, coat and gloves and climbed in. A minute later the truck stop was behind him.
Three miles down the deserted road, he took the exit towards his client’s plant and passed by three recently burned out cars. He pulled over into an empty parking lot, kept the engine running, and called his first appointment.

“Good morning.  This is Doug Peterson, calling for James Abernathy in R and D.”

“Thank you, Mister Peterson, one moment,” the receptionist replied.

“Doug—good to hear from you.  I heard from your corporate office….said you were ill? That right?”

“I did pick up a cold. I’m here in Madison but it’s best that I don’t meet at your office, just in case.” He was surprised that corporate had called ahead of him….

“I understand.  For your information, trial runs were a great success. Full roll out on the first of the month if you can fill the order.”

“Done!” Doug replied.  “I’ll contact my team and make the arrangements.  Will there be any issue with the terms?”

“Payment will be made within the hour on the deposit; by next Monday on the balance.”

“That’ll be great.  We can expedite pack and ship and be ready to go as soon as the balance is credited,” Doug said.  “Is there anything else I can help with at this time?”

“No, I think we’re in good shape.  Are you guys still on track for the upgrade?”

“Yes—Should be ready to ship mid-May,” Doug said, remembering that his own team said that it would be wildly optimistic to plan on any shipment of the third generation RNEW formula before the first of June.

“That’s great. Hope we’re ready. We have a Helluva backlog.”

“Good to hear.  Thanks, Jim,” Doug said as he wrapped up the call. Doug again was starting to feel the aches and pains he’d had the day before.   It was too soon to take another batch of meds.

The second and the third calls of his day—essentially his whole schedule were washouts.  One plant had unexpectedly closed, gates locked, phones dead.  The second contact, another major distributor of pre-packaged, shelf-stable foods, was out due to an illness in his family.  Doug was ready to scrub the sales pitch, but before he was able to do so, his call was transferred.

“This Mister Peterson?”  The male voice asked.

“It is,” Doug responded.

“This is Charlie Clegg. Mister Blackham asked that I have a shipment ready for you. I understand you had a batch of some of that last production run for him?”

“I do indeed, but I’m fighting a cold…” he replied.

“No problem with me. Just pull into the warehouse load yard, go to gate E. You can drop your product for Mister Blackham there.  I’ll have your stuff ready. How far you out?”

“Ten minutes or so. That work?”

“That’ll be fine. I’ll let Mister Blackham know. I know that there’s a packet on top of the cases. Looked like forms of some kind.”

“Perfect. Thanks, Mister Clegg,” Doug replied. The forms were the contract for Regent Performance to be the exclusive supplier for Fairland…and for Regents’ distribution network to take over for Fairland’s failing distributor.

“Mister Clegg’s my Dad. Call me Roy.”

Chuck Blackham had been with Leinhardt National when Doug had started—and had trained Doug in the sales route for the Upper Midwest. Chuck was moving up the Leinhardt ladder quickly, but had resigned after a subordinate made some sort of complaint. The woman left the company not long after, but Leinhardt wasn’t going to put Blackham into another position where he was in a supervisory position.  He’d then moved to the other side of the table with Fairland Homestyle, running their purchasing division at first, and moving up the corporate ladder for the past ten years.   Doug thought the whole business was just a giant misunderstanding.  Leinhardt’s lawyers thought otherwise of course.

Doug had offered to swap Chuck some of the Preferred output for some of Fairland’s product line.  They’d been pioneers in shelf-stable foods that actually tasted like real food. He’d tried it on a previous trip and was very impressed.  He’d give some—or all—of this batch to Brenda.  Doug’s basement was full enough, he thought.

As promised, the shipment was at loading gate ‘E’, and might pose a problem—it looked larger than he’d planned for. Doug backed the Explorer in, donned his mask and got out and was promptly greeted by the bitter wind.   Roy Clegg looked on from inside the dock loadmaster’s office.

His batch of product was in the back of the Explorer and would fill a half a pallet, packed properly.  There had to be a full pallet of Fairland food on the dock. It took a half-hour to remove Chuck’s product, wrap it up in shrink-wrap, and break down the pallet into manageable pieces.  He left a loose package for Clegg, motioning to him through the window, receiving an informal salute in return.  Doug pulled out of the loading yard, the entire passenger side of the front seat filled with bright foil pouches, haphazardly covered by his jacket.

Ten minutes later, he was headed north out of town. He had a hundred and fifty miles to Wausau, without a convoy.  

The patched up Suburban followed at a distance, hidden mostly in the flying snow behind Doug’s Ford. 

Friday, October 7, 2011

Distance, Chapter 27


April Third,
10:45 a.m.
Eden Prairie, Minnesota

“I understand your point, but either you’re in or out,” Doug said to the image on the flat-panel display.  The first forty-five minutes of the meeting had passed with a back-and-forth negotiation session, the last ten minutes was hardball. He’d done this before.  “Corporate is telling me to either have this deal finalized by close of business today or support ends on April Fifteenth. They’ve got two other offers on the table and three letters of commitment waiting for signatures.  We’re in a bind too,” Doug lied, “we only have so much supply of RNEW to go around. You’ve been a good client for years.  We’d like to see that you succeed.”  Saying of course, that without RNEW, they’d fail. Indeed that might be the outcome, Doug’s tone said without words.

“I’ll have a definitive answer by one-thirty.  Good enough?”  the vice-president replied, clearly uncomfortable.

“Absolutely!” Doug said reassuringly. “With the agreement we can ensure meeting your proposed integration schedule and your production line can meet or even exceed your sales goals.”

“Can I reach you at the hotel later?” the Carlyle V.P. asked.

“I’ll be on the road. Have a couple more meetings on this trip over in Wisconsin,” Doug said.  One of Carlyle’s more aggressive competitors had research and development operations in Madison.  Doug was telegraphing of course, that should Carlyle be unable to commit to RNEW, their competition would.  “I’ll be on the cell of course though, assuming there’s service over that way.”

“I’ll be in touch, Doug.  And thank your team for us on the samples.”

“No problem. Glad to be of service,” Doug said as the screen image morphed into the Carlyle logo.  

He rose, donned his raincoat and put his facemask back on. The Carlyle offices had been ‘adapted’ for the influenza protocol, like many of Doug’s other stops. ‘Public’ side and ‘protected’ side.   He made his way back out through the security checkpoint and back to the parking lot.  It was pouring again.

The Explorer had well under ten thousand miles on the odometer, and had been washed exactly once under his use.  Doug was careful not to brush against the grime as he loaded up his laptop in the seatback pocket of the drivers’ seat. He hoped that the laptop would provide some additional mass between him and anyone shooting at him from behind.  The front passenger seat had three cases of canned goods stacked in it; the footwell was piled full of loose cans. There wasn’t anything Doug could improvise between the door and his left side, and was wide open to the front, of course.  He made the trip back to the hotel to complete his checkout, and to use the hotel phone, which hopefully, was not part of the Regent Performance Group network. He left his phone and Regent I.D. in the SUV, along with the keys. He’d just use the numeric keypad on the drivers’ door for entry.  Doug just didn’t know which items belonging to Regent might be listening or watching.
Inside the spacious lobby, Doug nodded at the desk clerk behind her protective glass enclosure and swiped his room card for access to one of the small ‘house phone’ enclosures.  Unless Regent was monitoring all calls going out, he was reasonably assured that calls would be relatively private.  He never inquired of the staff of course, not knowing if the concierge or staff was monitoring any of the business travelers on behalf of either the hotel or the employer.  First, he dialed the Farm, hoping to get through on the first try.

“Hello?” Julie answered.

“Yours is a voice I have been longing to hear for a long, long time,” Doug said.

“Oh my,” Julie said. “Is it really you?”

“It is. How are you?” Doug asked.  He realized he had a lump in his throat.

“Unprepared for this,” Julie said. It sounded as if she were about to cry. “Where are you? Are you sure you can talk?”

“Twin Cities. I’m on a hotel phone, hopefully safe enough. You OK?”

“Crying, but yes. I’ve missed you. We haven’t talked in weeks.”

“I know. I’ve missed you, too but there aren’t many places with phones like this.  Your letters aren’t quite the same as hearing you of course.  I’m counting the days until I’m done with this,” Doug said.

“Me too,” she said. “How did you get to Minneapolis this time? Are they flying you yet?”

“Not yet.  Too many stops. Road trip again,” he replied. He’d written her quite frequently, so she knew that he’d been traveling far more than most Americans these days.  “I’m going to head over to Wisconsin pretty soon. I…thought I’d stop by and see my ex and the kids. I’ve got a bunch of samples from the company that I think they could use.”

“You checked the labels and the boxes, right? Like Peter said?” Julie asked. 

“I did. These came off the line before they went into inventory control. No chips in the packaging.”

“But your other ones…those had them?”

“They did, as he suspected. Thank him for letting me know,” Doug said. 

The Regent packaging—all of it for commercial distribution, and occasionally some of the Preferred line—had RFID chips integrated into the packaging.  First-generation chips were originally marketed for anti-theft protection but had evolved into shopper-habit research.  Their range was limited to ten or fifteen feet away from a fixed reading device. Second gen chips were thinner, less-obtrusive, and were able to be tracked from a greater distance. Mobile RFID readers could read either.  Regent had a proprietary technology that no one outside of a handful of people knew much about.  Doug had a team member within that circle, and without divulging anything super secret, that contact had arranged for a certain percentage of Preferred product to be made available without the holographic bar code that was part of the ‘inventory’ technology. His company phone and company car were the other part of the technology—both were very likely to be equipped as mobile and autonomous RFID readers themselves.  Regent product could be tracked in proximity to the vehicle by the on-board system, or his phone, or probably any number of devices in his house. The data would then be quietly uploaded to the Columbus Data Center.

“When will you be heading home?” Julie asked.

“I have to hit Madison and then a couple of clients north of there.  Matt and Brenda live northeast of Wausau, sixty or eighty miles. I’d guess I’ll be there a day or two.  Then down to Rockford. Figure a couple days there anyway, depending on what deals evolve in the next three or four days. After all of that, back home. Week maybe,” Doug said. “How’re the new parents doing? Is Ian doing better?”

Ian James Forsythe had been born to Molly and Peter on February Twentieth at home, healthy, round and squalling.  Within his first month though, he picked up a series of fevers for no apparent reason.  Julie’s letter to Doug, written more than a week before, told of the local doctors third visit in as many days.

“For now, yes…” Julie hesitated. “Doctor Wyeth thought that it was a mild flu strain.  He didn’t develop the lung problems that the others had though. He’s a tough little boy.”

“Did that pediatric shipment help?” Doug asked.

“Absolutely. Molly was able to use some of it with Ian.  One of the neighbor girls was really sick. Intestinal bug. You probably helped save her life.”

He’d drop-shipped a case of rehydration solution along with two cases of formula…all Regent Preferred, in a fairly complex roadside maneuver. He’d stripped off the RFID components from the cases and left them in his basement storage area.  The individual containers weren’t marked.  As far as anyone would have seen of the exchange, two vehicles dropped into a low spot where the road crossed a low bridge, and took a few moments longer to reappear out of the low area than they might have normally. Doug had set it up with Julie in another phone conversation from another hotel.  The actual exchange had been full-motion. Doug moving in one direction, Arie from another. They switched sides of the road, Doug opened the passenger door of the Explorer, kicked out the two boxes, as Arie’s truck slowed, Roel jumped out, picked them up and tossed them in the bed, and the exchange was complete.  They didn’t even have time to acknowledge each other.

“Anything else I can help with?”

“Sure. Resign from your contract and come see me.”

“You know I’d like to do that,” he said.

“I know. And I know that you can’t.”

“Not yet,” Doug said. “Seriously. Is there anything I can pick up for you? I’m hitting a half-dozen plants in the next week. I seriously doubt that they’re chipping their product.”

“I don’t think I can answer that accurately. Short answer is yes.”

“OK, tell you what. I need to check out, get my stuff and load up, and a couple more calls to make. Can you get a list together in fifteen or twenty minutes? I can call you back.”

“Two calls in one day? That’ll be a record,” Julie said.

Doug could hear her smile.  “Yes. Can you bear it?”

“I’ll make do,” she replied.

“I’ll call soon,” he said and paused. “And Julie?”


“I miss you.”
“You, too.”

Up in the room, Doug made a quick check, making sure he’d remembered everything. The television told of a spring storm that was moving in from the west, and road closures due to ‘security concerns’ around the Cities.

At the concierge desk, Doug arranged for a cash advance against his corporate account, which would take a few minutes to process. One thing about Regent and this particular hotel: They were well prepared for the business traveler.   He requested fifteen hundred dollars, which would buy gasoline and incidentals for a few days.  Prices were continuing to climb, but not at the meteoric rate that they had earlier in the year.

Doug casually picked a different house phone enclosure, sat down, and pulled out a small notepad and pen.  He didn’t trust the electronic notepad on his cell phone not to report the notes he’d take from Julie. First though, to give Julie more time, he called his ex-wife.
He looked up the page in the battered notepad with her phone number and address, and dialed.  The phone quickly chimed back with three audio tones and a computer voice.

“The number you have dialed is disconnected or is no longer in service. If you believe that this is in error, please hang up and try again.”

Doug knew that he had dialed correctly, and didn’t bother to try again. He hung up the phone and looked at it for a moment, wondering what had happened to cause that message.  He called Julie back.

“Morning, beautiful,” he said as she answered.

“Thank you, but its afternoon,” she said. He could hear her smile.

“Hadn’t noticed.  Thoughts of you distracted me from space and time.”

“That won’t do if you’re driving,” she said with a giggle.

“Certainly true. I’ll have to adapt.  Do you have your list?”

“Yes. Ready? These aren’t in order.”

“Fire away,” Doug said, picking up his pen, noticing the desk clerk looking at him, without trying to be obvious.  Doug did his best to look intensely businesslike.

“Cooking oil. Sugar. Sea salt. Spices. Ibuprofen. Aspirin. Acetaminophen. Multivitamins. Toothpaste. Toothbrushes. Ceramic water filters. Bandages—all sizes and types.  Gauze. Medical disinfectants. Canning lids—all sizes, any quantity. Mantles for white-gas lanterns. Shampoo. Paraffin. Aluminum foil. Sanitary pads. Medical-grade saline solution. Zippers for jeans and coats. Reading glasses….”

Three pages of the notepad were filled before she stopped.  He then asked her to prioritize the top twenty items, which he then marked with a star.

“Are you sure about all this?” Julie asked. “Can you really get some of these things?”

“Pretty sure I can. Not all of it by any stretch, but some of it. A pump seal kit for that water pump on that John Deere, probably not.”

“There are a dozen other things like that, I just don’t have a list.”

“Write them down, keep them by the phone. I might be able to call later today,” Doug said.  “I better go. The hotel staff seems to be paying more attention to me than I’d like.”

“Be careful. I love you,” Julie said.

“I love you, too. Don’t forget me,” Doug said.

“Never,” she whispered as she clicked off.

Out in the lobby, Doug tucked the notepad into his jacket as he headed to the front desk to check out. The clerk met him at the little window. “Damned cell phone battery will not keep a charge,” he said.  “Had to remember how to take notes on paper!”

“Understood, Mr. Peterson, quite inconvenient I’m sure.  Ready to check out now?” Wallace, the young man behind the counter asked.

“Yes. Was that advance cleared?”

“Certainly, sir.  There is a confidential message included with the notes in the envelope sir.  You may have confidence that none of the staff have read it.”

“Thank you, Wallace. I appreciate that,” Doug said as the envelope was slipped under the glass.  The young man wore gloves, the paper envelope was thermally sealed in a plastic bag.

“Your receipt sir, has been emailed to your corporate account and to your office.”

“Perfect.  Any transports or convoys heading east?” Doug asked. Better to travel in numbers.

“I believe so sir.  Should be a queue on the Four Ninety Four on-ramp at one thirty.  You should have time to make that. Do you need an escort?”

“No, I’ll be fine. Thanks again.”

“Always a pleasure, Mister Peterson.”

Doug headed out of the lobby to the Explorer, nodding at the two security men outside.  A few minutes later, he sat on the highway on-ramp, a dozen smaller vehicles tucked into a line of a half-dozen semi trucks. At least one of them was a Regent transport—Doug recognized the light blue window tag, indicating it was part of the Midwest distribution system.  He checked his mirrors, and thought he spotted one security van, also Regent.  There wasn’t a protocol to let them know that he was also part of the company—transport and distribution drivers didn’t associate with sales. Doug suspected it was a carryover from the old days of ‘labor versus management.’

He checked his cell phone, noting that he had a text message from Carlyle. They’d taken the deal, the message arriving at twenty minutes past one p.m.

Doug saw the convoy coordinator drove against the flow of normal traffic up the line of cars, with a placard reading ’88.5’, the FM frequency that the convoy would use to communicate to cars or trucks without two-way radios.  He realized that his Regent two-way might be of use in listening in to the truck traffic—he’d never tried that before. He dug it out of the console and put on the little headset, careful to keep the ‘transmit’ function on the radio locked out. He realized the battery was almost dead, and plugged in the charger.  The FM radio came to life a few moments later.

“All right, everyone.  This convoy is eastbound on Four Ninety Four, intersecting Ninety Four East.  It is advised that should you exit the convoy, that you reach your destination during daylight hours.   None of the heavies or security in this convoy will travel past seven p.m. tonight. We will not broadcast the destination of the heavies.  Should we learn of any trouble on the segment ahead of us, we will let the convoy know immediately, and we will stop at the closest safe location immediately. Should we come under any form of attack, security members will respond to defend themselves and their loads. They are not here to defend individual vehicles.  You are solely responsible for your own security. Should any vehicle in the convoy exhibit threatening behavior toward another vehicle, that vehicle will be removed from the convoy.”   The voice did not state how the vehicle would be removed….

Without further conversation, the lead vehicle pulled out, quickly followed by the others.  The lead vehicle was either security or a scout, pulling out  a country mile ahead of the rest of the pack.   Doug’s headset crackled, the voices garbled…an encrypted frequency apparently.   He kept the headset on, more to listen in on the tone of voice than trying to make out words.  Soon, there was no chatter at all.

The vehicles spread out, a few seconds between each, quickly passing through the empty freeways around the Twin Cities.  Doug noticed the burned out shells of buildings not far from the highway. At least half of the off-ramps were closed with heavy concrete barriers.
The pace of the convoy varied for no known reason, but never did it exceed the speed limit.  During one maddeningly slow stretch, Doug looked over the farm fields near Menomonee, and noticed that none of the soil had been disturbed.  He realized that he hadn’t seen a single piece of farm equipment in the fields during this entire trip…replaying in his mind prior trips. His memory was fuzzy, but he didn’t recall seeing any equipment of any size in the fields…this whole spring.

‘Could that be right?’ he thought.

Two hours out of the Twin Cities, the convoy left the Interstate at Eau Claire for a rest stop.  Doug donned his mask before getting out of the Explorer, and relieved himself in one of the dozen portable toilets outside of the main building. He used two disinfecting cloths afterwards, not knowing who had touched the door handles.

On the way back to the Ford, he realized that he didn’t feel well—a mild ache behind his jaw, in his ears; a feeling of aches in his back and neck.  His throat was feeling a little sore…it seemed much colder outside than the on-board temperature display stated.

“Dammit, I cannot afford to get sick,” he said to himself as he reached the car.  The back seat held some of his trip provisions, and he dug through them to find several bottles of an unlabeled sports drink—and three different cold remedies.  One, zinc-based; a second, mostly vitamins and trace minerals; the third, a fever-reducer.

Only half of the convoy headed back onto the eastbound Interstate—the others continued east, into Eau Claire.  Doug found himself five vehicles back from the lead security car, just behind a large step van.

Many miles later, the convoy neared Wisconsin Dells, and Doug realized that he had a real problem.  The fever-reducer hadn’t worked, he was now in a cold sweat and ached in every joint.  The convoy pulled off Ninety-Four again, stopping at a rest area created specifically for the truck industry.  They passed two armed guards at the entry to a fenced enclosure, and were directed where to park. 

“Ten minutes, we pull out,” the radio stated flatly.

Doug put his mask on and pulled on some disposable gloves.  Once again to the row of toilets, where a dozen other people waited, keeping their distance from each other.  When he was done, he collapsed into the drivers’ seat, exhausted.   Just as the lead car headed back onto the on-ramp, Doug swallowed two more pills, drinking half of the citrus water as a chaser.

He hadn’t been ill with anything—even a cold—in almost a year.  If this was Guangdong Flu, it could kill him. His symptoms could be just a cold, or ‘normal’ flu, or something much worse.  Either way, the chances of him being able to stay at The Oaks were zero. 

Like all of the hotels Doug stayed at The Oaks focused on the safety, security and comfort of their guests, in that order.  If he had anything looking like a fever he’d be strongly invited to stay elsewhere.  He’d seen it happen once earlier in the year to another prospective guest in Kansas City, at an upscale hotel in the Country Club district. The man in question, attired in a tailored Italian suit, was turned out without ceremony…out of the hotel and off the property. Doug had no idea what became of him. 

He punched up the stored number for The Oaks on his phone. ‘Might as well be proactive and volunteer to stay somewhere else,’ he thought as he waited for the phone.

“The Oaks Madison. May I help you?” a friendly female voice answered.

“Yes.  This is Doug Peterson. I have reservations for Regent Performance.”

“Yes, Mister Peterson.  Glad you’ll be staying with us this evening. What can I do for you?”

“I’m afraid I will not be able to stay there this evening,” Doug said. “I have picked up a cold and will need to make other arrangements.”  ‘Cold’ might as well be ‘plague’, Doug thought.

“Oh…” the agent paused. “Mister Peterson I’m sorry but we have no provisions at The Oaks at this time for anyone with an illness.”

“Understood.  Are there any other facilities available?” he asked.

“Sir, I’m afraid not.”

“Is it possible to stay in my vehicle on site?”

“No, sir. I’m sorry.”

Doug exhaled.  “I don’t have a Plan B for this,” he said and ended the call.

He called the Regent travel liaison next and explained his situation. They couldn’t do anything, either.

Madison and nightfall were approaching quickly.  Neither were appealing.