Sunday, November 27, 2011

Distance, Chapter 31


Monday Morning
April Tenth,
Wausau, Wisconsin
5:10 a.m.

‘Monday, finally,’ Doug thought to himself as he waited for the alarm to go off.  He’d be able to get out of Wausau today, and out of the ‘zoo’, as he’d come to think of it.

There were a dozen Regent staff that trained alongside Doug, but none had exchanged any names or other information, on Martinez’s orders. They had numbers for names, each trained as directed by the Regent security trainers, for nine hours a day.  Doug was able to keep in touch with his business team sporadically, which seemed enough for the moment.
It took several days, but he’d worked through the shock of what the RNEW product was really all about, and read the internal files prepared by the creators of the ‘nutri-chemical’.  The creation of RNEW (named internally, ‘six six zeta’ on the executive summaries) had taken Regent almost thirty-five thousand man-hours over five years, an obscure footnote that led Doug into further analysis.  He ran the math on just the R&D and the return on investment needed to offset the research and development process. The math didn’t work.
Regent could not realistically expect to recover their investment within the timeframe of a complete market saturation. He didn’t share that information with anyone. ‘Something else had to be factored in, because there was no way that this amount of investment would be thrown at an objective without a guaranteed return,’ Doug knew.

The mental pressures that Doug endured with the knowledge of the RNEW product had been stressful, but less so than actually using training weapons inside a huge warehouse a mile or so from their quarters.  The training weapons fired blanks, but also registered ‘hits’ with a laser-like beam of light on and around the targets.  Martinez had warned all of them about the noise and the recoil on each of their weapons, and all had done fairly well in the controlled firing range.  Actually working with their firearms in an environment where someone was shooting back was a completely different experience.

Each of the Regent trainees had been pitted against one another, without knowing it at the time…they thought that they were up against their training instructors.  In preparation, each of the trainees was taken aside for all of five minutes of instruction in the scenario they were about to begin. In one case, the trainee was a ‘defender’, another, an ‘attacker’.  Several of the scenarios were ‘home invasions’ as described to the ‘defender’, but as ‘hostage recovery’ to the ‘attacker.’

Doug’s first experience in the mock-village had rendered him dead within five steps of his cover position.  He’d moved too slowly when traversing the uneven terrain, and the opposing shooter had easily taken him out with three hits to his chest from an M4 from fifty feet away.

His second effort, scant minutes later in another part of the building, had his heart pounding and he was sweating. None of the trainees had any sort of uniform on, just ‘street clothing’ with the reactive vest and headpiece.

He quickly located his objective, spotted the target through a ‘window’, and took out the trainee with a single shot to the head. She’d never seen him coming. Once he’d completed that mission, he realized he was quite calm.  ‘I can do this,’ he thought. 

After successfully completing the ‘individual’ missions, each trainee was thrown into scenarios where they were part of, or defending against, a larger force.  The lesson that only two trainees out of twelve learned, is that if there is a way out of the target area, they should take it.  Doug wasn’t one of those—he’d stood his ground and the three surviving members of the attacking team made him pay for it. The two trainees who’d picked up and moved let the attackers take the ‘objective’, and then had killed the entire attacking force single-handedly.   The lesson was that it was sometimes better to let the enemy win the battle so that you could win the war.

The trainee group was also thrashed in the automotive arena, with attempted car-jackings and learning behind the wheel in a day-long aggressively-defensive driving course. Doug had done far better than all of the other trainees, a legacy of his winter-driving experience and a half-million miles as a salesman on the road.

“Graduation” had taken place the night before for the dozen trainees, precisely at eleven twenty-eight p.m. Each of the trainees had turned in early, taking their training weapons with them as they had for the duration. Each night, they’d been instructed to place the weapons in a position in their rooms as they would to defend themselves in case of sudden attack, to ‘make it normal. Part of your routine from now on.’

Doug didn’t know if any of the other trainees knew what was coming--for certain, he didn’t. Doug had been sleeping, but he woke just before his door burst open.  He found his M9 trainer in his hand, safety lever in the ‘fire’ position as a darkened figure charged the room with an M4.  Doug fired three times into the chest.  Three of the twelve trainees had ‘survived’ the ‘attack.’ A half-hour debrief followed the exercise.

Now, Doug was functioning on a bare minimum of sleep, with an uncertain drive ahead of him, not to mention an undesired future.

Breakfast was delivered promptly at six a.m., Doug had already showered, dressed and packed.  By seven, he was in a different company vehicle, headed north.

Regent didn’t have a particular threat assessment for any point north of Wausau, nor did they have any traffic going north.  The only thing that he had going for him was that he’d be driving a three year old Ford Explorer that had once belonged to someone who thought they needed to have it upgraded with some bullet resistant features.  Martinez had seen to Doug getting this vehicle.

The Ford had about fifty thousand miles and looked it.  Martinez explained that the tires were all-season ‘run-flats’, meaning they could take small arms fire and he could still drive.  The battery area, oversize fuel tank, radiator and side panels of the engine compartment were all protected as well, and the cabin glass was all tinted ‘ballistic grade’ material.  None of the windows were operable as a result.   Within the doors and under the carpet, a blanket-like material that was also supposed to protect everyone inside.

Regent had also seen to it that the company vehicle had the standard emergency kit and a console-mounted citizens’ band radio. The contents of Doug’s former vehicle were re-sorted and packed up again neatly, and the Regent commissary in Wausau had filled an additional order for Doug, at Martinez’s direction. The vehicle was full to the ceiling. The company had also provided a rack in the front seat for his new rifle and shotgun.  The center console had a fitted holster for his handgun.   Most of the ammunition for the weapons was stored in the back.

Doug had headed east and then north, winding his way on two-lane county highways that would take him all the way to Crandon, hopefully without the roadblocks that were routinely encountered in Iowa.  The snow of the previous week had almost all melted, but the temperatures were still in the thirties and the sky was lowering. Again, no farm equipment in any of the fields, he noted.   He’d had the CB radio on ‘scan’ mode, and picked up a few spotty transmissions.  He then switched over to the car radio for background noise.
“…evacuations.  The ashfall is relatively light, but after the surprise that Mount Rainier gave the nation, no one is taking any chances with either Mount Shasta or the uptick in activity in the Mammoth area. The good news is that the mudflows as of the moment have not taken any lives,” the reporter said. Doug hadn’t heard anything about an eruption at Shasta. It took him a minute to realize he hadn’t heard any news at all in five days.  The radios at Regent’s facility hadn’t picked up any broadcasts. ‘Perhaps that was by design,’ he thought.

“In Occupied Mexico yesterday, the Southern Marine Expeditionary Force finally quelled the attack at the KMZ Cantarell oil complex, while the Northern Force completed the clearing of the demilitarized zone, a hundred-mile-wide area just south of the current occupied area.  Administration spokesmen had no comment on the evacuation of wounded American troops from the area, or an accounting of those killed in action.  Numerous helicopters could be seen however, landing in an area known to be used for offloading those lost in battle.”

“In the Republic of China today, the naval base at Suao readied U.S.S. Antietam for transit to Pearl Harbor.  Chief of Naval Operations Terrence Adams and numerous members of the Pacific Command were present as surviving crew members hoisted the colors, resting them at half-staff in the memorial service.  Antietam may be at sea for another two to three weeks before arriving at Pearl.  It is not known at this time if the guided missile cruiser will be rebuilt or salvaged. Hundreds of citizens of the island nation have kept constant vigil over Antietam since her arrival.”

“Also coming from our staff on the ground in the R.O.C., news reports are coming from the Mainland that former Communist Chinese Army leaders are in hiding and are trying to mount a takeover of the nation.  Basic services have collapsed across the nation, and millions of former military are reported to be stealing from the population at gunpoint.”
“In Washington, the Acting Congress has again taken up the task of the currency re-valuation, while widespread criticism flares around the President and Homeland Security on the ‘containment’ of rioting in urban areas.  Many major cities afflicted by relatively minor unrest have seen dramatic increases in violence as residents are quarantined and prevented from leaving the cities. Air National Guard units have completed numerous humanitarian missions in several of the areas under quarantine.  As of today, seven major cities are in ‘lockdown’, including Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Baltimore,  Atlanta and Chicago.”

“In downtown Chicago today, hundreds of police officers manned barricades to prevent further looting.  The fire at the Chicago Board of Trade continued to smolder, a full thirty-six hours after arsonists torched the six-hundred-foot tall building and dozens of other buildings along Michigan Avenue.  Local officials estimate the number of dead at more than three hundred, while emergency workers, speaking on conditions of anonymity, said that the number is many times higher.  The Mayor had no comment on reports that Chicago Police had been ordered to fire on unarmed civilians along Michigan Avenue.  The entire area east of the Kennedy Expressway, from Lincoln Park to the Stevenson Expressway has been ordered evacuated by the Office of Emergency Management.”

Doug couldn’t believe what he’d just heard.  His adopted hometown was tearing itself apart. ‘The Board of Trade? They burned the Board of Trade? How did things get THAT out of control?’ He drove a dozen or more miles, not really seeing the road as he imagined what Chicago must now be like.  The fat drops of rain roused him from his trance.  Crandon was only a few miles ahead.

He’d never been through the little town, which was sort of sandwiched between two small lakes. It looked like a pleasant place to live, he thought as he drove down what passed for the main street.  Doug noted there weren’t any roadblocks.  Neither were there any cars on the street, but given the price of fuel, that wasn’t exactly a surprise. A few people, trying to shelter themselves from the sudden rainstorm, looked at him with some interest as he drove slowly through the town.

Brenda had provided Doug the street address, which he’d mapped on his GPS before leaving the Regent complex in Wausau. He wound his way out of town along the poorly maintained roads, finally passing the driveway.   Their home was indeed tucked away, about ten miles out of Crandon, near a series of small lakes.  The GPS showed that the border between the Nicolet National Forest was probably abutting the Bowman property. Doug backed the Explorer up and pulled into the driveway.

The home wasn’t visible from the road, and Doug imagined that the hundreds of feet of driveway must have been a real challenge in the snow.  He rounded a large group of trees, and finally spotted the house.  A huge, dark green pickup truck was parked just off the driveway, with a police light bar on the roof.   Doug parked and got out of the Explorer, not seeing any signs of life from the house.

“Doug? Is that you?” Brenda’s familiar voice called from the right side of the driveway.  She’d been hidden in the brush.

“In the flesh, Bren. Everything OK?”

“I was over in the barn. Heard a car and found a hiding place.  I can’t believe you made it,” she said. Awkwardly, they gave each other a brief hug.  She waved off to the north; Doug looked and saw nothing.

“How’re the kids?” he asked.  The kids had ‘adjusted’ to Doug during their marriage. They’d never really been as close as they should have been, he thought in retrospect. He wondered what they thought of him.

“They’re over at one of the neighbors for afternoon classes. We split duties so that we can all get some things done,” she said.  Doug thought she looked thin…too thin, and tired. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail. He’d never seen her hair that way before.

“It’s good to see you. I’m…sorry for everything, Brenda. I was a real shit.”

“No argument. You’re forgiven though. Let’s get under cover.”

“Where’s Matt?” Doug asked.

“He’ll be here in a sec. He was keeping an eye on you as you drove in,” she nodded over to the north again, and this time Doug saw Brenda’s husband Matt appear from the thicket that Doug had driven around.  Matt carried a scoped rifle.

“So things are interesting up here, too,” Doug said.

“You have no idea,” Brenda replied.

“I’m sure we all have stories,” he said as Matt drew closer—he was wearing an earbud, connected to a small radio in his vest.  Doug reached out and shook his hand firmly, looking him in the eye. “Good to see you, Matt.”

“Doug,” the other man said.  Their last meeting wasn’t pleasant, Doug remembered.

“Apologies for our last meeting, Matt. I had no business…”

“Ancient history,” Matt replied.  “Let’s not be idiots and stand out in the rain. There’s hot tea inside.”

“Sure there is,” Brenda said. “Once I make it.”

They made their way up the front steps and inside.  Doug noticed that the walls seemed much thicker than a regular house.  Matt saw him looking at the construction.

“Superinsulated.  Eighteen inches thick.”

“How is it for bullet resistance?” Doug asked, not really expecting an answer.

“Not great.  We’ve other options.”

“Did you build it? It’s great,” Doug said, meaning it.

“Yeah.  Took five years, off and on.”

“When you weren’t helping with the other two,” Brenda said from the kitchen.

“My partners are on adjacent parcels,” Matt replied, anticipating Doug’s next question.  “We built them all about the same time.”

“Good to have backup,” Doug said, not quite realizing he was quite accurate in his statement.

Brenda put a teakettle on the wood-fired stove. They all took a seat around the heavy, obviously hand-made kitchen table.

“I’ve got a stack of supplies in the car…thought you could use them,” Doug began. “Probably stuff you can’t get too easily.”

“We can’t get anything easily.  You drove through town, didn’t you?” Brenda said.

“Yeah,” Doug said.

“See any cars?” Matt asked.


“Stores open?”

“Uh, no.”

“No fuel. No money. Whatever’s left in the one remaining store isn’t worth buying,” Brenda stated.

“When was the last time you were able to buy what you needed?” Doug asked her.

“Five weeks ago, today,” she replied. “People stripped Margie’s One Stop.  Then they moved over to Farm Fresh.  By the time Matt and the other duty officers got there, it was all the could do to keep Nelson’s intact.” 

“What triggered it?” Doug asked.  He couldn’t recall anything that might have happened during that time period, but he’d been busy himself.

“No idea. Rumors, probably.  It’s been dicey ever since.  Not a lot of trust between anyone in Crandon right now, or the area right around it,” Matt said.  The water was coming to a boil, and Brenda got up to make tea.

“You work in other towns though too, right?” Doug asked.

“Yeah. Four. And I had been helping out the county when they needed it.  The sheriff though seemed to think that he could keep my paycheck for his own, so I told him to shove it. Things haven’t improved obviously since then.”

“And won’t in the near future,” Doug replied, and paused.  “I need to have a long talk with you both.”

Matt and Brenda exchanged looks, but didn’t say anything.

“I’m still trying to figure things out. What’s going on is much bigger than nearly anyone realizes,” Doug said.

“Global depressions are like that,” Matt said.

“It’s bigger than that. I’m coming to believe that it’s engineered. Not just the financial stuff. Bigger.  They’re trying to enslave people.”

“Of course they are.  They have control of the money, the politicians, the courts….” Matt said in a matter-of-fact tone.

“Not what I’m talking about,” Doug said, cutting Matt off. “Those are part of the puzzle.  They have control of the food. Who gets it, when, where, but most importantly, what’s in it.”

IN food? What are you talking about?” Brenda asked, brow furrowed.

“The company I work for, Regent, is engineering many everyday food products to work in ways no one ever dreamed was possible. Not in a favorable way. Brands you know. Stuff you probably use without thinking twice about.”

“What on Earth are you talking about?” Brenda asked dismissively. 

“Food products that have been in the Regent production line for months, when combined with other food or beverage products that are either in early distribution or about to become widely distributed, work to create a psychoactive reaction on the consuming population. The consumers of those foods…the longer they consume them, the more…docile they become,” Doug said, before correcting himself. “No, that’s not quite right.  It’s like they cannot understand anything that they do could be wrong…so there are no consequences to their actions or the actions of their superiors,” he said.

“That can’t be possible,” Brenda said flatly.

“It is possible.  I’ve seen the results. I’ve read the clinical study. It’s real.”

“You’ve got to get out,” Brenda said. “If this is true, you’re part of it.”

“I can’t get out…I don’t think I can, anyway, certainly not easily. I’ve seen too much….know too much,” Doug said, looking down at the empty mug he was cradling.  “I think for the moment I’m safer on the inside.”

Matt sat back in his chair as Brenda poured the tea.  His hands were folded across his chest, head tilted slightly, considering what Doug had just said.

“What do you think their end game is?” Matt asked.

“I’m not a geopolitical consultant.” 

“You suspect something. I see it in your eyes.”

“The company has successfully marketed….no. Not the company. I, on behalf of Regent, have successfully marketed the products to major food manufacturers of all kinds.  Primary targets though—the first in the priority list—were manufacturers of institutional food products and military food products.”


“Yeah,” Doug said, seeing that Matt was beginning to understand the implications. “The institutional food products though…their end users might be anyone from people in prison to people on the receiving end of a Federal handout.  Some emergency or disaster or…”

“War,” Matt said.

“Right,” Doug replied. “So when you think about tens of thousands…or hundreds of thousands or millions of people who will do whatever they’re told to do essentially without question….you can see my reason for concern.”

“Concern?” Matt said incredulously.  “That’s what you call it?!”

“I could call it ‘panic’, but given the week that I’ve just spent, it was best to play my cards closely,” Doug said, understanding Matt’s reaction completely. “Had I reacted differently, I suspect they’d have just taken me out back of the building and shot me.” 

“Where are these people from? Which country?” Matt asked.

“They’re from here.  The company is based in Columbus. Big presence in Denver, some smaller units scattered around the country,” Doug replied.

“That doesn’t make it better,” Matt said, taking a mug of tea in his hand. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Distance, Chapter 30


Wednesday Morning
April Fifth,
Wausau, Wisconsin

Doug finished breakfast, poured another cup of coffee and dressed it with cream and sugar. He struggled to maintain an outward appearance of calm while inside he was a screaming for answers.

Off of the main gathering space, a plain steel door was labeled ‘Security’.  Doug knocked and was beckoned inside.

“Peterson, right?” the man behind the desk asked.

“Yes. You Martinez?” Doug replied, taking a seat across from the desk, putting himself in ‘confident sales rep’ mode.

“Call me Kevin,” the man said, reaching across the desk to shake hands. It was only then that Doug noticed that the man was in a wheelchair.

“Sorry, I didn’t realize you were on wheels.”

“Courtesy of the Taliban. I’d be fighting distant relatives now, if I hand my choice, down in old Mexico. For now though, I’m here. I understand you had some dealings with the great unwashed down in Madison.”

“I did. Not pleasant.”

“There will be more of those types of actions taken against perceived opportunities. I’m going to try to give you some advice and direct you toward some training that will hopefully keep you out of that kind of situation, at least until we reach the next level.”

“Next level?”

Martinez leaned back in his chair, assessing Doug before speaking. “Your immediate superior stated awhile ago on the phone that Regent teams would take care of those individuals in Madison that were responsible for your detainment, did he not?”

“He did,” Doug said, wondering just how many people were listening in on that call. 

“That doesn’t exactly happen autonomously. The Company and its allied relations can’t just decide to go out and off people like that.”

“So who’s approving it?” Doug asked, straining to maintain an interested, professional demeanor.

“I’m telling you this because you’re in the middle of it, and by the looks of you, you have no idea exactly what you’re in the middle of,” Martinez said. A perfect assessment.

Doug didn’t reply. He did notice that his question was left unanswered.

“Your product—RNEW—is key to the success of Regent and their plans for the next five years.  Sometimes those plans are at cross purposes with what certain Federal agencies would allow in normal times, but these aren’t normal times.”

“The FDA,” Doug said.

“Among others, yes.  RNEW testing was dramatically accelerated, fielded in trials and released to the public.  The next level is an upgrade to the product. The Feds are looking to the States to now regulate that which the Feds are no longer able. The States are therefore restricting things that they do not understand, slowing things down through taxes and permits and inspections. Regent teams are going to help smooth the transition through encouragement or direct action.”

“Encouragement?” Doug asked.

“The teams will threaten those that get in their way,” Martinez said. “Saying it plainly, because that’s what is done. Direct action means that we take out those that threaten our people.”

“Or the process,” Doug said.

“Or the process. Correct,” Martinez replied. “You’re not consuming anything with RNEW, are you?”

“Well, uh,” Doug was caught off guard.

“Don’t bother. I know you’re not. Your boss is, same as those team members who will be visiting the folks down in Madison. Bollard was kind of flip about the upcoming task over in Madison, don’t you think?”

“Uh, yeah. He was,” Doug said.

“Bothered you. Bothered you a lot.”

“Yes, it did. Still does.”

“He’s taking the product, along with the upgrade. Figure that about twenty percent of Regent Performance is on the full program. The team members in the field, well, naturally they’re on RNEW.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Figure you ought to know what you’re in the middle of. Also figure that you should think about your future with the Corporation.”

“That cannot be the only reason.”

“On Company orders, I’ve run background on you as far back as  possible, which is pretty much your whole life. You’re being vetted for your next assignment. Think of it as a liaison between Regent and a second party.”

“OK,” Doug said. ‘Jesus Christ,’ he thought to himself. ‘What is he talking about?’

“You’re not taking RNEW because you were told to avoid it, correct?”

“Yes, although I didn’t think much about it.”

“RNEW consumers…think of them as malleable.  They can effectively do things quickly, efficiently and repeatedly without being bothered by the ramifications of their actions.”

“How in the Hell is that even possible? RNEW was just a…”

“…Nutritional Enhancement. Yeah. It is that of course, depending on your perspective. It does allow several things, in addition to a little useful mental de-programming.  It allows more efficient processing of less-than-optimal food products in the human body; increases apparent energy; instills other feelings.”

Doug sat there, taking in what he’d just heard, holding his cup of coffee with both hands.

“Now you’re wondering what you do with what I just told you,” Martinez said. “You’re not the first one I’ve had this conversation with.”


“You’re not on RNEW because the higher ups have plans for you. Pete Bollard wasn’t deemed adequate for the task. Corporate needs a certain percentage of their staff to be able to think quickly, clearly, analyze, strategize, plan and react.  RNEW consumers are producers. They really aren’t all that great at strategy.  Give them an assignment and they’ll beat it all to Hell and gone and not give it a second thought, especially if they’ve been on the program a while. Don’t ask them to come up with an assignment on their own, though. Just doesn’t work. Bollard, your boss, is assigned things.  He’s been on the product for about six weeks.  Dramatic increase in production on your whole team.  Only a handful of them aren’t in the system, mostly because the Company needs them to be the creative juices to lube the rest of your team. As of today, they are being informed by my people of their positions in the big picture.”

Doug felt both lucky and sick at the same time.

“You’ve got a bunch of effing drones,” Doug said.

“More correctly, you do,” Martinez replied. 

“This is a helluva thing to hear from a security person,” Doug said, thinking that ‘security’ meant a guy who guarded the parking lot.

“Think of my department as ‘intelligence,’” Martinez said, leaning forward on the desk.

Doug sat for a moment before responding. “OK. That makes a little more sense. Are you with Bluestone?” ‘Tied in with Kliest?’ Doug thought.

“No. Bluestone is…a little more provincial,” Martinez replied, a slight smirk on his face.   “Julie Forsythe. Her family. Let’s talk.”

‘Provincial?’ What the Hell does that mean?’ he thought before replying. “Julie and I had…”

“Have,” Martinez interrupted. “Don’t bullshit me. Seriously,” he said, unblinking. “My legs might be gone, but I still understand the need to get laid on occasion.”

“We have a relationship. We write letters, talk on non-company phones, very rarely.”

“And you help them out with supplies on occasion.”

“I have done that, yes. Medical mostly.”

“OK. Not a problem with me. None if it. Others would have a big-ass problem, because they like to control everything in everyone’s pond, including their own.  Miss Forsythe, her brother and his wife and his wife’s family don’t pose a real threat to Regent. They do pose a perceived threat, and that’s enough for some in the higher echelons of the Company.”

“What do I do next?”

“My guys found this stuff out about you, ran your history, ran the check on the whole Segher family. They have some quaint beliefs but are non-militant.  From where I sit they just want to be left alone.”

“That is accurate, I believe.”

“If you can stand it, keep it quiet.  Everyone needs family, although there are higher ups that don’t fully agree.”

“How long are we supposed to do that?”

“You’ll know when,” Martinez said. “Questions?”

“I’m sure I will have many. To be honest I don’t quite know where to start.”

“Yeah. You’re down the rabbit hole, Alice,” Martinez said, backing away from the desk and reaching down to a small refrigerator on his left.  He pulled out two identical bottles of orange juice.   “Look these over. Tell me what you see.”

Doug took a drink of his coffee and picked up one of the bottles. Both were produced by Regent for a national brand. Both had intact and identical bar codes. Doug couldn’t see a difference.

“Look closer,” Martinez said.

The bottles were slightly different. That was all Doug could find…just a small indentation on the bottom of the plastic bottle. Typically, the indentations were part of the molding process to allow for alignment of the bottles on the filling and sealing lines at the plant that filled the bottles with whatever product was being sold. These didn’t look any different.

“Different manufacturing plants. Plastic mold is different. Probably a different fill machine.”

“Good for you. Look for that triangular indentation on any plastic container at the ten-o-clock position from the mold seam. That’s a RNEW activator container. Other one is not.”

“Activator? I don’t understand.”

“Every single product produced for commercial distribution by Regent, with the exception of the Preferred line, contains the genetically modified building blocks needed to implement RNEW, as of mid-February. The activator products build the adjustment system. Without the Activator line, the products just taste better. With, well, it’s a different game.”

Martinez provided Doug a thumb-drive with the identification on all products with RNEW integration, the various activator products, and the means to spot them.

“That info will help keep your brain from getting addled,” Martinez said. “Memorize as much as you can. It’s not that tough.  Now, on to a subject near and dear to my heart: Firearms. You don’t strike me as all that proficient. Correct?”

“Uh, yeah. Not something I’ve trained in,” Doug said. He thought he sounded numb.

“You do have a shotgun at your home in Iowa, however.”

“Yeah, I’ve practiced with it a little, mostly to get used to the recoil,” he said. ‘They know everything,’ he thought.

“For the next week, you will be receiving training in some additional weapons that are being issued to select Regent personnel,” Martinez said, reaching into a desk drawer. “First, the Beretta M9, favored by a lot of people wearing digital camouflage these days.  Next, you’ll get defensive training with your Mossberg shotgun, although you’ll be provided a modified version.  You’ll then receive training on a military-style rifle. I understand that you’d like to take a few days off. Depending on how things go, you should be able to hit some vacation time come next Monday. Fair enough?” 

“Sure,” Doug said, trying to sound believable. “I’m supposed to be carrying these with me when I travel?” Doug asked skeptically. 

“You may have the need to defend yourself. The Company would prefer you alive,” Martinez said. “Weapons are your last resort.”

“My first resort then?” Doug asked.

“Your first, best option is threefold: Avoid trouble, use deterrence and de-escalate the situation. It’s harder than it sounds.”   

Doug tried to stay focused through the blizzard of information provided by Martinez, who was going through various scenarios where he might be faced with unpleasant outcomes.

“You’ve had enough for this morning,” Martinez said, observing that Doug was glazing over.   “Be back in here at two o’clock. I know you have work to do with your team in the meantime.”

“Sorry. There is just so much you’ve thrown at me. I just wasn’t quite ready for the kind of day you’ve put in front of me.”

“Could be worse. You could be a RNEW consumer. You’d have a shitty day and not think a single thing about it.”

“Yeah, I suppose there is an upside,” Doug said as he stood.

“I want you to remember the first thing I told you about your first best option: Avoid trouble. Distance is your friend. Get out, go left, right, wherever. Get away from trouble, first.”

Doug nodded. The irony of what Martinez had just told him nearly made him sick.

The laptop was waiting in his room, along with a lunch menu, should he care to order.   The laptop was powered up, and the desktop was identical to his missing machine.

‘How in the Hell am I supposed to get any work done after that?’ he thought to himself, nearly saying it aloud. He caught himself though, figuring that he was being listened to, probably watched as well.  ‘Play it cool. Normal. Order lunch and get to business.’

For three hours and change, Doug emailed his team leaders, reviewed strategic plans, production figures, and further marketing efforts…all while tumbling down the well of a black hole, courtesy of Kevin Martinez.

2:25 p.m.

“Which branch did you serve?” Doug asked Martinez, who’d just provided Doug an overview of the M9, including a very fast demonstration of field stripping and reassembly. He doubted that he would ever be able to complete it so quickly…or that he should need to, for that matter.

“Contractor. We were a security detachment working to provide safe transport for American government workers. CIA, State Department, others.”

“Sorry. I figured you were in the service.”

“Pay was better outside.  Fewer obstacles as well,” Martinez said.  What Doug ‘heard’ was ‘fewer rules to obey.’

“All right, Mister Peterson, into the firing range for step two,” Martinez ordered.

For two hours, Doug was instructed on the finer points of reaching out and touching someone with a nine-millimeter handgun. By the time Martinez called it quits for the M9, Doug’s hand hurt from gripping the weapon.

Another forty-five minutes in the range, this time with the twelve-gauge Mossberg, a similarly configured Remington, and a few minutes with an “M4”. Doug thought it looked like an M16, asked about the difference, and received a twenty-minute long lecture on the subject.  Most of it was over his head.  Martinez, Doug learned, liked to talk about weapons at length. 

A little after five p.m., Doug headed back to his room and immediately changed out of his clothing and showered.  He was surprised that his clothing was so dirty from the afternoon in the improvised shooting range.  He hadn’t noticed it from his own practice.  Perhaps it was the difference in ammunition.

He flipped on the television but found no outside channels.  Regent did have an ‘in house’ movie channel, a travel advisory crawler and that was about it. He switched to the radio as he packed up his dirty clothing for the laundry service.  He was pleasantly surprised to find all of his clothing laundered and pressed.

“Syria today condemned the Israeli action, the third strike in as many days.  Today’s reaction destroyed a missile base near Adra, located in a valley surrounded by high terrain.  The interim government in Damascus, newly created after the coup in February, reacted strongly, pushing for a new offensive against the Israeli Defense Forces in the Golan Heights and in southern Lebanon.

The European Union condemned the attack, with significant percentages of the E.U. representation demanding military intervention.  Riots within the E.U. spread for the sixth day, with foreign ‘guest workers’ demanding a greater voice in the governing of the E.U. Islamic clerics are blamed for instigating the riots, with the increased percentage of Muslim believers now outnumbering non-Muslims throughout southern and central Europe.

In related news, the Iran mobilized several divisions of Revolutionary Guards and appears to be moving to invade Iraq, although this cannot be confirmed.  The Iraqi government, shaky even when the U.S. was still in country, appears to be failing to recognize the threat at this time. Unconfirmed reports state that Iranian forces are moving into eastern Iraq unopposed.”

“So much for nation-building,” Doug said to himself as he logged into the corporate network.

“Federal troops are continuing to assist local authorities in Northeastern cities in the U.S. Urban youth in many locations have been blamed for widespread rioting, theft of food shipments and flash-mobs at medical facilities. Authorities in Philadelphia have pulled out of many of these neighborhoods, attempting to keep the riots from spreading.  Federal troops have been seen even further out, and appear to be preparing to seal all roads out of the region.  More on this as it develops.”

“In the Midwest today, food producing super giant Agnew Middleton is rumored to be unable to supply many producers with adequate agro-chemicals for the remainder of the planting season.  Spokesmen were not available for comment, but local growers state that fertilizer supplies were exhausted.” 

Doug’s ears perked up at that story, knowing both the implications on the market and the reason they were having a difficult time—he’d forecast it a month and a half ago, based on output from the fertilizer producers.  Their raw materials were largely based on petrochemicals, and with the collapse of the economy and disruptions in the energy sector, fertilizers and plastics were both in scarce supply.

The impact on the American farmer in a normal year would have been huge.  The impact in a year such as this would certainly spell huge shortages in food for domestic consumption; disruption in export markets (if there were any); many of the ‘wrong’ crops being planted (many were geared toward export, and the domestic market wasn’t geared toward them).  Many increases in production over the past decade had been aimed at the ethanol market—grow your own energy.  Those markets had displaced food crops from those fields, and couldn’t quickly be switched to food production.

Between Agnew Middleton and Carlyle, three quarters of the grain trade worldwide would be affected by the petrochemical shortage. The other three or four ‘major’ companies handled the rest.   A whole lot of people would be hungry this year.

Doug filtered through three-dozen emails from his team, hitting the oldest first.  A half-hour later, the computer chimed, and he found an email from his ex-wife, Brenda.

I don’t know if you’ve tried to call or email or write, but I finally have a chance to email you. Don’t bother emailing back—we’re in town at the library, and for the first time in a long while, they actually have Internet service. There’s a long line of people waiting so I’ll keep it short.

First off, everyone is doing OK, despite the circumstances.  Power has been undependable, phones have been down for weeks, cells haven’t worked for at least a month.  Someone’s been systematically harvesting the copper out of the cell towers and power lines closer to civilization, and all of us out in the boonies are paying the price for it.  The utility companies can’t do a thing of course. There aren’t replacements to be had for love or money (Money! Ha!)

We pulled the kids out of the government school you may remember, and I’ve been home schooling them with another Mom in the area.  They’re all doing well and are ahead of their grade levels and all growing like weeds.  The town school is barely hanging on. Most kids eat all three meals there, because there isn’t enough food at home.   A lot of folks have been lost to the flu…more every day.

I know you said you were down in Iowa, but are you sure that’s safe in the future?  Matt and his fellow officers are seeing more and more people try to get out of the cities and into the rural areas and it is becoming a real problem. We’re far enough out, just, but other folks have had home invasions and roadside robberies.

If by chance you happen up this way, you are welcome of course for a visit, but Matt and I wanted to warn you first.  Don’t travel by night at all, and if there’s a chance to caravan, be sure you know whom you’re caravanning with.

Take care of yourself Doug.  Despite everything in our past, I still remember you in my prayers.

Doug replied immediately, hoping she was still on line.

I have some work here in Wausau until Sunday.  Will plan on being up in Crandon on Monday.  I’m doing OK. Will try to bring you some supplies.
Thanks for the prayers. I could use them—

Doug didn’t really have a strong belief in God and was non-committal on an afterlife.  Faced though with recent events, he was beginning to doubt in his cavalier attitude.  He knew that his parting sentence would probably shock Brenda.  She’d tried to get him to attend church, talk about her faith and her beliefs.  He just wasn’t interested at the time.

He ordered dinner ‘in’, so that he could spend time alone and deal with the tumult in his head. The implications of what Martinez revealed could change the face of the business…no, the face of everything.  Anyone consuming the RNEW product long enough could be completely pliable to whoever was in control.  Bollard was a first hand example. No remorse, no sense of the wrong being done by Regent.    Of course that just meant that they could be happy slaves…or remorseless butchers.

Doug was inclined to believe he was helping create the latter. 

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Distance, Chapter 29


Tuesday Morning
April Fourth,
Madison, Wisconsin

Doug didn’t notice the Suburban behind him until it accelerated and moved into the passing lane.  He slowed, giving the Chevy room to pass. It pulled along side and the passenger flashed a badge, and directed him to pull over.  The Chevy then fell back behind Doug’s Ford, and Doug noticed the law-enforcement LED array behind the grille.

“Dammit,” Doug said. He’d only had one run-in with law enforcement all year, over a burned out taillight.  That had resulted in a full search of the Explorer with three cops.  He lowered the drivers’ window and then fished out his drivers’ license, registration and insurance card. His heart was pounding.   In the rear view mirror, Doug noticed that three officers had weapons drawn and were advancing up the sides of the Ford.  He put his hands on the steering wheel.  None of them wore facemasks.

“Out of the car, hands where we can see them, face the front of the vehicle at all times,” the lone officer on the driver’s side said.

“Will do,” Doug said, moving slowly.  He opened the door, placed both hands above his shoulders, and faced forward.

“Step away from the vehicle, to the side,” the voice commanded.  One officer was now in front of the car to the right, the other straight to Doug’s right.  The man on his right had a shotgun leveled at his head.

“Hands on the hood,” the voice behind him said flatly.  “Tony, cover him. Lance, check the back.”

“What is…” Doug started to say.

“Shut up,” the voice behind him said. “Do as your told. Period.”

“Packed full, Lieutenant. Front seat, too.”

“Load him up,” the voice behind him said.

“What the Hell is this?” Doug said.

“You’re going to the can, pal,” Shotgun said.

“For what?”  Doug asked.

“You’ll find out soon enough.”

Doug’s hands were bound behind him with a large white zip tie, and he was loaded in the rear of the Suburban, no seat, just roughly parked on the floor.  His Ford followed the Suburban back into Madison.  The Suburban headed into a large concrete building that appeared to be a converted warehouse.  The Explorer, with all of his supplies and the Regent products, headed somewhere else.

He was ‘processed’ by ‘officers’ at an ‘intake’ room, but no charges against him were presented. He was relieved of everything but his clothing before the zip tie was removed. No Miranda Rights statement, nothing.  For three hours Doug was parked in a six by eight chain link cage, bolted to the concrete, surrounded by several hundred other people also in cages, many of them obviously sick.  Doug finally recognized the cages as dog kennels.  There were no toilet provisions, and the place smelled of it, despite the freezing temperature. He sat on what might have been the cleanest area of the cell. Finally, a man in a badged jumpsuit came and unchained Doug’s door.  He struggled to reach his feet.

“Move it or I’ll break your arm,” the man growled.

“OK,” Doug said. He headed out of the cell to the right. Apparently not moving quickly enough for the guard, Doug received a jab just below the ribs with a baton.

“What was that for?”

“Because I felt like it. Get your ass moving!

The end of the aisle held a single painted door, chipped and dented.  Doug was directed inside, and then through the narrow hallway built of plywood to another room. Three men sat on one side of the folding table. He was shoved into the chair opposite them.

“Your name Peterson?” the man in the center asked.  He was a good ten years older than Doug, and quite fat.   The other two were boring holes through him with their eyes.

“Yes, sir.”

“You were apprehended at Ninety Four and Windsor?” the question came out as more of a statement.

“I was pulled over as I was headed north. I don’t know why,” Doug said.

“You had a vehicle full of food and supplies?” Again, more as a statement.

“My vehicle is full of product. I am a sales rep for Regent Performance Group.  We’re a national distributor of commercial food products. Those are samples.”

“You were observed loading unlabeled boxes from Fairland.”

“Yes, I traded some our product for some of Fairland’s.  We’re trying to help them with distribution of their line.  Their current distributor’s going under.”

“Neither Fairland’s packages nor the Regent boxes in your vehicle bear the Wisconsin tax stamp.  Taxes haven’t been paid on any of that product from what we can determine.  We’re seizing it as a result. Your firearm is also not licensed in this state and you don’t have a carry permit. It is also being seized.”

“What tax are you talking about? This is wholesale product. It’s taxed at the end consumer level.”

“Not anymore.”

“This is about taxes? Are you serious?”

“Dead serious, Peterson.  If we find that you’re smuggling, you will go to prison. Simple as that.”

“Call my company.  I’m sure they’ll be responsive in paying your tax.  The number is on my business card.”

“No one is answering at that number.  I think you’re lying,” the man on the right said.  Doug couldn’t really come up with a descriptor for the man, other than ‘greasy’, only partly due to the slicked down hairstyle.

“Are you dialing my number, or the number for Corporate, on the back of the card?”

“Listen sharp, asshole.  You’re about three minutes away from the darkest hole in the state.  Lip off one more time like that and you’re done,” said the suit on the left. “We’re not screwing around with runners. They’re costing the state too much money.”

“Sorry…not trying to be a smart ass. Most people don’t look at the back side of the card,” Doug replied apologetically.  He was playing along as best he could. He was also exhausted, and was getting chills and his fever back.

“Kreig, go call that number,” ‘Right’ said to ‘Greasy’. ‘Greasy’ sneered at Doug, pushed back from the wobbly table, and left the room.  Doug just sat there.

“If I may ask a question?” Doug asked.

“Depends,” said the Suit.

“Are all those people in there,” Doug motioned “here for stuff like this?”

“Not hardly.  Maybe ten percent are runners.  Best you don’t ask too many more questions,” the Suit replied, cocking his head.

The two of them looked over a pile of papers in front of them. Doug thought they appeared to be files of other prisoners.  Ten or fifteen minutes went by in silence.  Doug felt his physical condition getting worse by the minute.

Another man entered the room. Not ‘Greasy’, as Doug had labeled him.

“Assessors Office, sir,” He passed the cell phone to the Suit. 

The Suit took the phone, and didn’t speak.  Doug sat and watched his expressionless face. He ended the call.

“Your company has agreed to pay the fines and the back taxes.”

Doug feigned surprise. “Thanks. May I go?”

“Your firearm stays.  No permit.”

“I didn’t need one in Iowa.”

“You need one in Wisconsin, and you only get it if the Dane County Sheriff and the Madison P.D. approve it. I assure you will not happen. Ever.”

“That was given to me by my father,” Doug said.

“Tough shit. If you want out of here in one piece, I suggest you do so within the next two minutes,” said the Suit.  

Doug left the room, where another guard showed him the way back out.  He collected his things from another ‘guard’ in a cage.  Hundreds of fat envelopes and boxes held the possessions of the prisoners.  A guard walked him outside, cradling a shotgun, staring at the back of Doug’s neck.

The Explorer was parked in the back row of a mess of vehicles. Doug fished the keys out of the box that was given him, noting that his cell phone battery and SIM card had been removed from the phone, both tossed haphazardly in the box. The contents of the SUV had been completely emptied, boxes cut open and searched. He didn’t see his Regent-provided emergency bag, or most of his clothing.  It might have been buried in the back…he wasn’t going to go looking for it at this point.  A second guard appeared, also cradling a shotgun.
Doug started the Ford and was waved to an exit gate, through a maze of anti-vehicle barriers.  A minute later he looked down at the dash. His fuel tank had been nearly drained…the dash indicator said that he had less than fifty miles of range before empty.

“Bastards,” Doug said, before elaborating further.

The area that he’d been taken to wasn’t far from the airport, and didn’t look particularly dangerous…but did it look all that safe, either.  Doug pulled into a parking lot, stopping in the center.  He checked his wallet, found it light of all cash, but the credit cards were still there. He checked his ‘secret cash stash’ under the dashboard and found the envelope, held in place with a piece of Velcro, there but also empty. He then reassembled his cell phone, shaking his head and getting angrier as the seconds went by. The phone came to life at once, with Regent Corporate Security on the caller I.D.

“This is Doug,” he answered.

“Good God. They didn’t kill you after all,” the voice on the other end said.  “I’m Ron Gorton. Head of Regent Security. You all right?”

“Not bad,” Doug said. “Minus my handgun and God knows what else. My car’s a mess. And out of gas. And they’ve managed to take all my cash.”

“That’s not bad. Doug, there are no secure locations for Regent people in the Madison area. The upside is that you’re likely not out of cash.  The Explorer was prepped by our people before you took delivery.  Are you in a location where you can do a little work?”

“Middle of a parking lot. Deserted, no cars in sight on the road or anywhere, for that matter,” Doug said.

“Fine. Beneath your windshield washer reservoir you will find a hard-shell plastic box with a wire harness going into it. It’s glued to the bottom of the reservoir, which is bolted to the sidewall of the engine compartment. Tear that loose. It’ll come out with a little work—it’s just contact cement. You’ll find eight hundred dollars in small bills. That’s step one.  A second packet like that is beneath the cover to your air cleaner. It looks like a factory installation. Another five hundred.  Chances are you do not have much time, and you want to get out of Madison and Dane County as soon as you can. Do it now. Get both of them. Just put the phone down and I’ll stay on the line.”

“OK,” Doug said, baffled. He had no idea that Regent had a ‘Security Department’ that would be anywhere near as sophisticated as they seemed to be.  He popped the hood, got outside and quickly found the first box where it was supposed to be. The second though, would take tools to access. The air cleaner was held in place with screws.

“Got the first one. For the second I’ll need tools,” Doug said, setting up his phone as a speakerphone. He noticed his headset was missing.

“No matter. Get moving. You don’t have much time,” Gorton said.  “Good chance the local cops will be looking for you next.”

Doug started the Ford, put his seatbelt on and drove out of the lot.

“All right, any clues where I can get some gas?”

“Yes. Head west from your location,” a female voice replied.  Turn right on Stoughton. It’s a divided highway. Get in the right lane. First major street to the south is Anderson. There’s an open gas station at that location. Expect to pay at least twenty dollars a gallon. Do not quibble. Pay it and get moving,” the woman said.

“That’s my assistant Carol. She’s monitoring your location on GPS. The cops will be wondering where you came up with cash after taking all of yours, which will give them probable cause,” Gorton said.

“Jesus. What a mess,”  Doug said, spotting the intersection and the gas station across the way.

“Could be worse,” Gorton said. “Do not waste time.”

Doug pulled into the gas station, where two ‘attendants’ watched him, both armed.  He was becoming accustomed to having to flash some cash or a credit card.  This station was ‘all cash’.

“Filling it up,” he said after paying in advance.

“Check all your lights. Make sure they haven’t broken anything. They’ll pull you over for nothing,” the woman said.

“OK,” Doug said, straining to get out of the seat. He flipped on the headlights and emergency flashers and walked around the vehicle. Everything seemed to be working. “Checks out OK,” he said as he heard the pump ‘click’.  Four hundred and twenty-five dollars worth…one tank of gas.  

“Good. Get out of town as soon as you can.” Gorton said.  “You’re still headed to Wausau, correct?”

“Yeah, that’s the plan.  I’m not over this bug yet.”

“Trust us. You don’t want to try to stop somewhere outside of Wausau.  Don’t speed, just get there in one piece,” said Gorton’s assistant. “If you leave now you can just make it before curfew.”

Curfew?” Doug asked incredulously.

“Yeah. Effective today, courtesy of the new Governor.”

Doug muttered a few expletives and left the gas station.

“We will check with you when you hit Wausau. We have a facility there that you can stay in this evening.”

“Sounds fine,” Doug said through his own personal fog. He ended the call.

Sure enough, a Madison police cruiser was trailing him.  Doug headed north a five miles per hour under the speed limit.  When he hit the city limits, the Dane County deputy took over. He was happy to see the deputy turn around at the county line.

The snowy roads weren’t helping Doug’s travels.  The rushed nature of his departure from Madison hadn’t allowed him time to find any of his personal supplies, including those of the fever reducing kind…assuming that they hadn’t been stolen.  He drove as fast as was prudent, pushing through the snowy right lane.  The left lane hadn’t had any traffic.   Doug was ten miles south of Wausau when Regent called, giving him directions to head west, five or so miles west of the downtown area.

The warehouse yard was dimly lit, but a yard-worker spotted him and directed him to an abandoned-looking packaging plant.  He parked inside and shut the engine off, all but collapsing from fatigue.  Masked Regent staff helped him to his quarters for the night, following a visit to a very well equipped clinic.   His clothing was taken, and he was provided a stack of new clothes.
He was asleep almost as soon as he hit the bed.

Wednesday Morning
April Fifth,
Wausau, Wisconsin

A soft chime sounded in Doug’s darkened room, and the room lighting came on slowly.  He felt better, but still was obviously fighting a cold, not influenza. He needed some more downtime, and doubted that he’d get it.

The bedside clock read seven a.m. The chime rang again, and the lights were fully up. The bedside table held a telephone as well, and the message light was flashing. 

“This is Doug Peterson. Messages please?” he said to the receptionist.

“Certainly, Mister Peterson.  One moment please, I’ll put you through,” she said.

Doug looked around the room for the first time. He’d just gone straight to bed the night before.  The room could have passed for any of the thousands of hotels he’d stayed in, with the exception of the lack of windows. 

“Doug, this is Pete Bollard.  How’re you holding up?”  Pete was Doug’s immediate boss.

“Good morning, Pete. I’ve been better.”

“Medical said you’ve just got a cold. If it’d been the flu, we wouldn’t be talking, would we?”

“No sir. Rough couple days out there.  I wasn’t expecting the reception I received in Madison.”

“We’re seeing this happen in several states now. We expect it to get worse.  As a result we’re going to have to adapt to it.  You were lucky though.  Our southeast rep didn’t make out in one piece.”

“They killed him? For what?

“Call it a city-sanctioned murder.  We weren’t prepared to be negotiating with every city, big and small, for taxes, fees, permits and licenses. So we lost a man in Atlanta. Won’t happen again.”

“It’ll happen there again, with half a chance. I’m surprised I was able to leave with as much product as I had left. They did manage to take all of my cash, probably all of my personal effects. They got away with it.”

“No, Doug, it won’t happen again. Atlanta has been taken care of. Madison will be taken care of as well. Along with a dozen other problem areas.”

“How exactly?”

“We have teams in the field that are acting on our behalf to eliminate these threats to our organization and allied organizations.”

“What kind of team?” Doug asked cynically, envisioning a bunch of lawyers.

“The half-dozen or so ringleaders in the Madison Tax Authority who are running that particular extortion ring will be dead by the end of the week.  People that are improperly imprisoned will be set free. It will be called it an organized rebellion.”

“There are hundreds of people in there.  From what I saw, there wasn’t enough to eat, no water, nothing.” ‘Dead by the end of the week? Good God. How do I play THAT?’ Doug thought to himself. ‘Just be cool.’

“It will be taken care of,” Bollard said soothingly. “Doug, things have been going well on your end of the company. You’ve made remarkable progress and have met every single goal put in front of you. I want you to rest up, there in Wausau for a few days.”

“Thanks, Pete, but I’d actually like a couple days off up north. My ex and her kids are up there.  I’d hoped to be able to stop by on this run.”

“Take a week if you like. When you get back to civilization, we’ll need to go over the company’s plans for the next two quarters. We have some substantial opportunities in front of us, especially east of the Mississippi. We’re just about a week from nailing down the deal.”

“Elaborate!” Doug said, still feeling a sick feeling in his stomach.  While he’d made slow, steady progress with the RNEW product, his team was spread relatively thin, and was constantly plagued by the changing market place, the economic-political chaos.

“Can’t really go into it too much, but there will be a whole lot of people eager for Regent product, soon enough.”

“That’d make marketing easy,” Doug said.

“Free. Even better,” Pete replied. “Listen.  Get your team lined out today from your palatial Wausau location,” he said with a laugh. “They can run the ball for a week without you. Need anything from here?”

“Not sure what the Madison folks did to my gear.  I do know I’m minus my handgun.”

“Don’t worry about any of that. Wausau will get you resupplied.  Give me a shout when you’re back on the grid.”

“Thanks, Pete. Much appreciated,” Doug said.

Doug showered and shaved, and found when he left the bathroom, that his own clothing had been washed and stacked neatly on the bed.  

Breakfast was held in a central lounge area, where Doug and several other Regent employees were seated at well-spaced tables.  Doug enjoyed Eggs Benedict and orange juice, fresh coffee and fruit.  He hadn’t had any food of this quality in a long time…even at the corporate hotels.  This was just…better.

“Good morning, Mister Peterson.  I’m James, with Regent Information Systems.  Do you have a moment?”

“You bet,” Doug said. “Please, have a seat.”  The younger man sat across from Doug.

“Our security team swept your vehicle last evening after you arrived. Are you aware your laptop is missing?”

“Wouldn’t surprise me. Probably at a pawn shop in Madison,” he replied. “Along with a lot of my personal things.”

“Worse than that, actually. It’s in the hands of the Madison Tax Authority. They’re trying to leverage us for a payment for it,” the young man said. Doug guessed him for mid-twenties. Very well put together—he’d be at home in a boardroom, except for the thinness of years. 

“Again, not surprised.”

“You were using the Regent security protocols, were you not?” he asked. Regent had a serious encryption system for logging in to the computer.

“Of course.”

“And it wasn’t written down, anywhere? Just in your mind?”

“Of course.  Silly to write it down.”

“Good to know. We’ve already wiped the hard drive remotely, as well as disabling the computer from any use in the future, from here. You will be issued a new laptop, along with the latest in communications equipment for the network and will have your files restored to the new machine.”

“How are you able to do that? I had a bunch of stuff on that machine that I’d created after the last time I was logged into Regent.”

“Stored in the Cloud. The network servers and all workstations are automatically connected, whether you’re formally accessing the network or not. Columbus Data Center has everything. Redundant backup out West.”

Doug suspected as much, and as a result had not stored any personal information on the Regent system whatsoever.  “That’s great news.  I’d hate to lose a week’s worth of work.”  He hoped that his hand written notes were cryptic enough to be overlooked.  Those notes would expose his continuing relationship with Julie such as it was, not to mention a whole laundry list of supplies that weren’t Regent that he hoped to be able to trade for. He realized he was sweating.

“We should have your machine back in your hands in an hour or so,” ‘James’ said as he stood.  “Kevin Martinez would like to see you when you’re done with breakfast. He’s part of Security. Down that hall,” the young man pointed, “third door on the left. I believe he’ll want to be talking about your personal security.”

“Company buying me a bodyguard? Or a tank?” Doug said with a little smile.

“Nothing that elaborate, I’m sure. Don’t expect to be carrying a .32 though,” ‘James’ said as he turned and left.

‘How, exactly, did Regent know that my father’s handgun was a .32?’ Doug wondered, nodding at James with a slight smile, play-acting. ‘What am I into? Who the Hell are these people?’