Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Distance, Chapter 32


April Tenth
Near Crandon, Wisconsin
4:40 p.m.

Doug pulled the SUV into a carport attached to the large, low barn and Matt rolled down a tarp to block any outside view of the carport.  He flicked on a series of small LED lights to lessen the gloom and Doug started to unload the shrink-wrapped boxes, passing them to Matt to load into the barn. The rain was pounding on the roof above them, making it all but impossible to carry on a conversation.
More than half of the load went to Brenda, Matt and the kids.  The rest would ride back to Iowa, hopefully supplemented along the way with Doug’s additional stops. 
Inside the barn, Doug found his eyes adjusting to the dim interior.  Shelves lined one wall, and seemed to be organized with hardware, lumber, and electrical supplies.  The middle of the barn held Brenda’s Landcruiser.  Another vehicle was on the other side; Doug couldn’t make it out.

“Help me with the hatch, if you would,” Matt asked Doug, as he reached under a workbench. 

“Sure,” Doug said, a little mystified. Matt swept some dirt out from under a workbench, pulled a lift-ring from the floor, and a floor hatch appeared.  There weren’t stairs or a ladder.  The hatch covered up what looked like a smooth metal chute.

“Let’s us move stuff in quickly,” Matt told Doug. 

“Move stuff where?”

“The basement.  You asked about how bulletproof the house was.  House isn’t. Basement’s a different story.”

“You have a basement. In your barn,” Doug stated.

“This is a chute that can be used to load up supplies, or provide an emergency exit.  The ‘basement’ as we call it, is between the house and the barn. We built it using shipping containers, waterproofed it and covered with low-density concrete. There is an access point in the house, this one obviously, and a third that we can use to get out if things get really dicey.”

“I’m not quite sure I know what to say. I know some people in Iowa that would appreciate this, though.”

Matt took an odd-looking ladder from the wall and slid it into the opening, and then climbed inside.  The ladder seemed to be angled at about forty-five degrees, down and under the barn wall. A light came on from inside the ‘basement’.  “Slide down a box,” Matt directed.

“Sure,” Doug said, moving one of the heavy boxes to the ladder.  The box slid down the ladder easily—the ladder had a central rail, just like the two normal side-rails.  The box was supported evenly all the way down.   A few minutes later, the barn had no evidence that there was any food in the joint.   Matt covered the hatch opening with some dirt and two old wooden boxes, filled with scrap iron.

“Matt, I’ve got to ask you something,” Doug said. 

“Sure,” Matt said, facing him.

“Why did you just show me all of that, given what I’ve just told you about the kind of people I work for?”

“Would you kill your ex-wife? Her kids?”

“Of course not,” Doug replied.

“What would you do to protect them?”

“I would tell them about what’s going on out there and try to keep them out of harms way.”

“Which is exactly what Brenda said you would do.  She said you once pulled Mike out of the way of an oncoming car, and nearly got clocked yourself by the guy.”

“Yeah,” Doug said, remembering.  Michael was about five.  His big, red playground ball bounced into the street as they were taking the kids on a walk around the block.  He’d almost forgotten the road-rash he’d received for his efforts, or the chokehold that Michael put on him, sobbing. “Anyone would have done it.”

“Would your employers do that? Would they do what you did?” Matt asked as he took another box, looking at him with piercing eyes, sounding like the police officer that he was.

Doug was not prepared to follow that through. Matt was right though, in asking.  The answer of course was, ‘doubtful.’

“I thought not,” Matt said.  “So what’s your plan? Exit strategy?”

“I don’t have one yet. To be honest, I’m not sure there can be one,” Doug said. He’d lost a lot of sleep over that question.

“You think they’ll ‘off’ you if you leave.”

“I do now. I didn’t ten days ago,” Doug said.

“Can you be part of an organization that is doing what they’re doing, even if you don’t know their end-game?”

“Can I leave an organization that will kill people I know and care about?” Doug countered.

“You need to answer both of those yourself,” Matt said.  “Kids should be home soon. Let’s go inside.”

“I have one more box in the Ford.  Stuff for you and Brenda, some stuff for the kids.” 

Dinner was fried chicken and scalloped potatoes, crafted by Brenda and daughter ‘Ronnie’, who Doug had known as Veronica.  During their marriage, Brenda had never allowed their given names to be shortened, no nicknames, nothing.  ‘Apparently, things change,’ Doug thought to himself.

It had been more than three years since the divorce, which was enough it seemed, to allow the kids to nearly forget him, so it seemed.  

All three of the kids had grown up so much that at first, Doug almost didn’t recognize them.  Veronica was now a gangly ten, Michael nine and James eight. They were all quite polite when they met again, and helped set the table and clear the dishes afterwards without prompting. Small talk around the table covered their home schooling, the local soccer season for the boys, and Ronnie’s new single-shot .22 rifle. The children wanted to know more about Iowa, and how things were ‘down south’, but Brenda thought it best they get after their math and…French lessons.  

The last box that Doug had given Matt and Brenda was filled with rarities, unobtainable on what passed for the open market. Doug checked to confirm that they were ‘clean’ of either the one of the ‘base’ or ‘catalyst’ RNEW products. The kids now had a stash of candy bars, hard candies and some bottled cider that he was sure that Brenda would ration. For Matt and Brenda, Doug brought a bottle of champagne.  A bottle of Kentucky Bourbon was included for ‘medicinal purposes.’  

“Where did you manage to find this stuff?” Brenda asked, before answering it herself. “Never mind. You’re connected,” she said, reconsidering the gifts.

“Company store.  The booze was put in the car without my knowledge.  I have a couple cases of the stuff.  Thought you might find it useful, one way or the other,” Doug said, smiling a little.

“Hon, you’re shift starts soon.  You should go get ready,” Brenda said to Matt.

“You’re on patrol? Tonight?”

“Yeah. Eagle River,” Matt said, rising from the table.  “C’mon along. You might find it enlightening,” he said.   Doug got the feeling that Matt was still assessing him. He couldn’t really blame him.

“Uh, OK. What do I need?”

“Warm clothes, boots, gloves, hat. And you need to know how to take orders and stay out of the way, just in case.”

“All right, let me get my things,” Doug said as Brenda headed to the kitchen.  “Matt? Do I need a weapon?” he asked quietly.

“No,” he said flatly. “I saw that you brought a couple padded cases into the house. I don’t know your level of training, Doug, and of course you’re not carrying a badge. That could be problematic.”

“Yeah. Didn’t think about that. I suppose your boss would frown on that.”

“Sure, if we had a boss. We don’t really have a department anymore. We’re…sort of freelance.”

Brenda packed both of them ‘lunch’ along with twin thermoses of black coffee.   Doug was near the ‘police truck’ as Matt left the house. He noticed that Matt was wearing a snowmobile-type coverall, with a sewn-on badge on the left chest.  He tried not to look as Brenda kissed him goodbye, and turned his attention to the drab green truck. The pickup, an extended-cab F-350, had a huge and heavy push-bumper on the front. The bumper was apparently a recent addition--it hadn’t even been painted and was rusting significantly.

“Passenger handle’s been disabled,” Matt said as Doug reached up for the handle.  The truck had been raised up a number of inches over its’ stock height. “I’ll have to let you in from the drivers’ side.”

In a few seconds, Matt opened the heavy passenger side door, and Doug climbed up, immediately finding a roll bar brace crossing through the door opening. He noticed that there was a sheet of clear plastic bolted to his window area, and another that covered the vast majority of the windshield.   Two M16 rifles were in the cab, in a dash-mounted rack.  A short shotgun was next to the rifles, next to it, a scoped rifle with a wood stock.  A satchel in the center back of the front seat held numerous magazines.  A black Kevlar helmet sat in the center of the front seat.

“This is quite a truck,” Doug said, trying to find room for his left knee.

“A lot of hours went into it. We have three of them, my partners and I.  We were receiving an allowance for our patrol vehicles.  We subsidized that somewhat to put these together.  Way safer than a stock cruiser,” he said as started the diesel.

“I saw that bumper. Must weigh a ton.”

“Had to add it after some unwelcome guests from Milwaukee decided to make themselves a nuisance.  Pushed them out of town—literally,” he said.  “We’ll rendezvous with another patrol unit, get their take on what’s going on up in Eagle River and surroundings. Hopefully not much.” They pulled out of the driveway and headed north.

“Tell me about this freelance police department,” Doug said.  “We still have a department down in Fairfield…or we did when I left.”

“You’re far enough away from major cities to not have been hit with people heading for the boonies when things started to get bad.  Problem is, that things got bad, have gotten worse, and there’s not really an end in sight.  So the first wave of refugees was probably the prudent people.  The ones that we’re getting now are more predator than prudent,” Matt said. “We’re not that lucky up here.”

Doug noticed that he slowed significantly for what seemed a gentle curve in the road.  The curve though, held several burned out vehicles, one lying on its’ side.  Matt waved at two armed men manning the barricade.

“We’ve a number of those out here. Not always manned.  Apparently there’s some trouble up here, so some of the locals have taken it upon themselves to keep an eye on things.”

“And you’re OK with that?”

“Beats having your door kicked in by some strung-out meth-head. We can’t be everywhere,” Matt said, before continuing on about the local police presence.

“Before it hit the fan, we had about sixty-five officers active duty, another twenty-five or so for support. Communications, resource officers, traffic, the whole works.  When it went up, the sheriff cut salaries of anyone not in his inner circle….in other words, anyone that he didn’t really like. Kinda went to Hell after that.”

“Yeah, I bet.”

“Then we started getting outlanders by the dozen, there wasn’t any meaningful response…couldn’t be without men on the roads.  Anyone who had been in law enforcement stayed home to protect their own, and no one would blame them.  It took a while for everyone to adjust to that of course.  Didn’t help that the phones only worked for about half the time; that power went out at the most inappropriate times; that copper weevils decided to strip the cell-towers of their copper. Communications went down across three counties.  All the decent communications gear that the department had disappeared in about three days. No cell phones, the radio repeaters were destroyed, anyone using CB or Ham listened and didn’t broadcast.  Some bastards from down in Chicago figured out a way to triangulate the broadcasters, and then they of course were targeted.”

“Targeted?” Doug asked. 

“Sorry, PC-speak for robbed and butchered.”

A chill ran down Doug’s spine. “We don’t have that kind of violence down in Iowa.”

“Correction—you don’t have that kind of violence, ‘yet.’ It’ll come, when everyone’s supplies run out and what is left of local government says ‘screw it.’ So we don’t use the radios, even car-to-car, unless there is really some shit hitting the fan.”

“So you do this on your own? I mean, you’re carrying a badge, but…”

“We are ‘paid’ with livestock, fuel, stuff like that, to maintain a law enforcement presence where we can.  For right now, that’s this area and sometimes on the far side of Crandon.  Nowhere in Crandon, nothing south of it,” Matt said.

“What’s up with the plastic?” Doug asked, tapping on the side window. “This stuff is really thick,” he said. ‘Has to be more than an inch thick.’

Matt smiled.  “One of our life-saving modifications. It’s an acrylic alloy called ‘Polycast.’ Inch and a quarter thick. It’ll stop most everything.”

“How’s it hold up to rifle fire?” Doug asked, wondering about his own windows.

“We try not to go there,” Matt replied. “Truth is, it’ll stop a lot of calibers. It won’t stop twelve-gauge slugs or a very large rifle round. Mid-sized rounds will damage it.  Hopefully by then though we’ve seen the threat and are not caught cold.   The doors, roof, cab, and some of the rest of the truck got a little welding.”

“What’d you use? My Explorer…well, it’s got bullet-resistant glass and some sort of fabric in the doors.” Doug said.

“You’ve got an armored vehicle?” Matt asked with great surprise. “Your company car?”

“Yeah.  They saw to it…the intelligence department saw to it that I got that vehicle.”

Matt drove without saying anything. “You must be pretty damned important to warrant that type of treatment.”

“Yeah. I guess so.” 

“The fabric in your doors is ballistic Kevlar or something like it. Damned expensive.”

“What’d you use?” Doug asked.

“Ballistic steel, quarter inch thick, two layers. Damned heavy though, which meant we had some extra suspension work to do on the trucks to make sure they behave when we’re driving them. It’ll stop small arms fire…or at least slow it down.  If anyone’s using big armor-piercing rounds though, it won’t matter anyway.”

They drove for a few more minutes before Doug spoke again.

“Do you have many problems with the city people out in the woods? I mean, are they, camping or squatters or anything like that?”

Matt replied, “Most of the ‘urban youth’ are actually afraid of the woods.  Seriously afraid….so not really a problem with anything more than a few hundred feet off of most of the roads.  They’re looking to score food, drugs, guns, fresh women.  Those are not associated with ‘woods’, so they hit the easy targets—houses, small towns, areas of opportunities,” he said.  Another big truck was up ahead at a crossroads, and flashed its parking lights.  Matt slowed down. “There’s  Jess,” he said. “He lives on the thirty acres just west of us.”

“He’s an officer too?” Doug asked.

“Yeah. Six years,” Matt replied as he pulled alongside the other truck. “We’ll be a couple minutes.”

Matt left the truck running.  Both men had opened their doors, and they’d parked close enough to create a space that used the doors of the trucks to shield them front-and-rear.

“Ride along? Seriously?” the other officer asked.

“Doug Peterson, Jess Mecklenburg,” Matt said as introduction.  “Doug is Brenda’s former husband.”

That drew an interesting look, with Jess involuntarily raising his eyebrows, before furrowing them.

“Just up here for a short visit,” Doug said, noting the reaction and wondering what had been said about him.   Mecklenburg’s truck was a few years older than Matt’s, and much more scarred up.  Doug noted that the young man wore a heavy snowmobile suit, similar to Matt’s uniform.

“Not the greatest time to vacation up here,” Jess said. “Good to meet you.”

“You as well. Not a great time to vacation anywhere, actually.”

“Fair enough,” the young man said.

“What’s the word tonight?”

“Jolly’s are on the run west of Eagle River.  Two aid calls. One from out on County ‘G’ and up near Hunter Lake. Locals fended off the problem.  Figure the Page brothers are to blame. Nothing to be found when I got on scene, other than a few shell casings.  Probably Ryan and his AK. No one got their ticket punched.”

“Didn’t show up back at home?”

“If he does, his momma’s gonna whup his ass. She wasn’t happy that I came calling.”

“Anyone hurt?”

“Not this time.  One of these days though, those folks up on G are just going to bait him and be done with it.”

“Where’s Justin?”

“His momma didn’t know…or wasn’t willing to say.”

“Typical. Anything else?”

“Usual. Got flagged down by Jensen, bitching that someone’s stealing firewood from his woodlot. Nothing serious.”

“Quiet would be nice for a change.  What frequency tonight?” Matt asked.

“Sixteen for general traffic.  Twelve for emergencies.”

“All right. See you tomorrow.”

“You got it,” Mecklenburg replied. Both men got back in their respective trucks and closed the doors simultaneously. Matt switched on two radios, and switched frequencies to match those that Jess had provided. 

“Who sets the frequencies? Do they change every day?”  Doug asked as they drove off.  Matt flipped on the high beams.

“The Eagle River folks set it. Random changes.  They have a different means to communicate with the people within their area..  We don’t know how they do it, nor do we care. They pay us for our skills; that’s enough. We can listen in on their general chatter if we want to, which is sometimes useful.  That other frequency is for real emergencies, no BS allowed.”

“One thing that your friend Jess said, I don’t understand. He said ‘Jolly’s on the run west of Eagle River.’ What does that mean?” Doug asked.

“’Jolly’ is a little term we use to identify ‘pirates’. ‘Jolly’, as in ‘Jolly Roger.’ Once in awhile, you’ll get someone that just decides that stuff that belongs to someone else ought to be theirs, and they hoist the Jolly Roger so to speak, and go pirate.”

“Hadn’t heard the phrase,” Doug said. “Saw lots of that behavior in Chicago though. We barely got out.”

“’We?’” Matt asked.  “Brenda didn’t mention that you were seeing anyone.”

It seemed a lifetime ago as Doug told Matt about his prior interest, Camille, and how he came to meet Julie, and their relationship.

“So, does she know the score with this Regent outfit?” Matt asked after Doug’s lengthy explanation.

“She knows the score for the first two innings. We’re now in the middle of the game….so, no. Not entirely.”

“You better find a way to warn her and her people,” Matt said, turning the truck down a narrow, two lane road.

“Yeah. I know. I’d like to find a way to do it without getting her killed.”