Thursday, February 23, 2012

Distance, Chapter 35


April Twelfth
Near Crandon, Wisconsin
6:00 a.m.

Doug woke before dawn, and once again packed his things for the trip south.  A stirring inside him urged to get moving early, despite having talked with Matt, Brenda and Nate until almost ten the night before. 

The ‘raiders’ as Matt called them, had arrived in a mix of vans, trucks, trailers and a converted RV.  Their first contacts in Crandon had been the grocery store and a machine shop across the street.  One group had attempted to buy food and prescription medicine with ‘cash’…meaning devalued Federal Reserve Notes.  After an argument that the ‘money’ still had ‘value’, an argument broke out.  A second group had tried to find a replacement wheel bearing for one of the trailers.  The ‘raiders’ money wasn’t accepted in Crandon, however.
With little food, and their vehicles beginning to fail and fuel low, the raiders apparently decided they had little choice but to take what they were unable to buy. 

The survivors included four women and five children under the age of ten.  The ‘enemy’ dead included sixteen men, ages ranging from fifteen to sixty-one; and ten women between the ages of twenty-two to forty-one.   The dead would be buried in the Crandon cemetery in a common grave. The survivors would not be welcomed to remain. Matt and his fellow officers allowed them to keep shotguns and shells, but rifles, pistols, and heavy weapons were kept by the victors.  Matt told Doug that at least a third of the weapons, including several heavy machine guns had been stolen from the Michigan National Guard.

Nate Delacroix summed up the evening in a few simple sentences: “They looked like us. They could’ve been from here. God help us all.” 

Matt made fried-egg sandwiches for the three of them, after collecting a dozen from their layers.  Brenda made new sandwiches for Doug, and added a bag of dried apples for lunch on the road.  The morning news was almost all universally bad, and all from Europe or the Middle East.  America’s problems were spreading, and the power vacuum would be filled.

“I checked the route south this morning—don’t head straight south. Go west through Rheinlander to Fifty-One. Then skirt Wausau,” Matt said.  “You want to avoid the larger cities from everything that I’m hearing.  Madison, anything in Illinois. I’d recommend taking a route like this one.” Matt handed a map with a highlighted route through rural Wisconsin, heading southwest to La Crosse and into Iowa.   “If you’re lucky, you can get there with the fuel you have in your tank.”

“You didn’t happen to hear anything about cell phone coverage down south, did you?” Doug asked.

“No. I listen—I don’t talk.  Broadcasts are made by folks that are moving around—trucks and such.”

“You aren’t planning on making any business stops are you?” Brenda asked.

“I think Des Moines, depending on how things look. I’ll bag the rest of it,” Doug replied, thinking of the things on Julie’s list that he’d likely be unable to provide. “Depends if corporate has other ideas.”

“You should get moving,” Brenda said.  “You might have a long day.”

“Yeah, I should,” Doug said as he looked outside.  The Wisconsin sky was clear and calm, quite different than the day before. “I want to thank you both for everything.”

“We want to thank you for what you brought us. Those things will be good as gold soon enough,” Matt replied. “And quite good for bribing the kids.”

Doug laughed a little at that.  “Sorry I wasn’t able to say goodbye to them. They look to be growing up to be great kids,” he said, not saying that he thought Matt was doing a better job as a father than he would’ve. 

“Come on back if you’re in the area,” Matt said.

Brenda and Matt walked Doug to his SUV, and within a few minutes he was headed home, following Matt’s map, tossed on the center console. 

East of Rhinelander, he headed south on a two-lane county road, and turned east and south as he could to avoid most of the small towns along the way.  The roads were quite obviously not being maintained as they had been in years past, and he had to pay attention to potholes and the occasional downed tree.   

On the long drive, Doug continued his mental exploration for an exit strategy from Regent. The shock of what RNEW was all about still hadn’t really jelled in his mind. That a group of people could create such a thing and put it into use was as foreign to Doug as breathing liquid metal.

Regent had him… hooks in deep.  They knew Doug’s history, probably all of his friends and acquaintances going back years.  They essentially had control of his finances, his house, everything tangible that he needed to live. As long as he was viewed with favor—meaning, he did the job they wanted him to do—he would continue to have all of those things. If…no, when he decided to leave Regent’s employ, certainly at the end of his nine-month contract, all of that would end.  The confidentiality agreement that he’d signed --and broken by telling Matt and Brenda all about RNEW--would remain in effect for twenty-four months after his contract ended. If Regent found out that he’d broken his agreement, the consequences might at one point have been just financial. He was certain now though, that they’d be quite a bit more unpleasant and certainly more permanent than just being sued.   He’d need to start fresh, come late September.

Doug’s departure wouldn’t end the--Doug struggled to find the right word--evil that was RNEW. He’d have to find a way to work for Regent while also finding a way to expose the reality of RNEW…and not get himself or anyone he cared for killed in the process.  He’d have to get back to Des Moines and back home; get fully integrated into his new role, and go from there. He’d need to find a way to let Julie know about everything as well.  His head hurt, but not from the wound.

Doug found virtually nothing on the FM band on the car radio, and only three stations on AM, all talking about the crisis in the Middle East. One was harping on the ‘appropriate American response to unreasonable Israeli demands.’ He didn’t quite know what to think about that.

Crossing Interstate Ninety-Four at Black River Falls, Doug came across his first manned roadblock—keeping anyone from exiting Ninety-Four and entering the town. Two men with AR-15’s waved him through, apparently not thinking anything of his Iowa license plates. For a brief moment, his cell phone came to life, signaling that he had voice mail.  By the time he pulled over to retrieve it, the signal had faded again. 

Originally heading for La Crosse, Doug saw smoke plumes rising from several locations to the south, and he quickly decided to head west, making the crossing of the Mississippi at Winona, Minnesota.  The radio was useless for information locally.

He finally remembered the citizens band radio, built into the center console.  It had been obscured by Matt’s map.  Doug felt the familiar wave of idiocy rush across him. ‘Dammit!’
Doug pulled to a stop after passing through Winona and familiarized himself with the CB.  Following Matt’s advice, Doug placed the radio on ‘scan’ to listen in to local conditions.  The radio had a headset as well as a hand-held microphone, stashed in a small pocket in the console.  He put the headset on, ensuring that the ‘transmit on voice’ button was disabled.  He then adjusted the reception to pull in the strongest broadcasts, several of which were seemingly within a few miles.

“…closed at French Island, east and westbound. State Police have it blocked,” said a gravelly male voice. “Some bad stuff goin’ on east o’here.”

“We’re clear to Sioux Falls westbound anyway…for the lucky few that made it out,” replied a woman.

Doug figured that they were talking about Interstate Ninety, the common thread of the two reference points in the conversation.  He hit ‘scan’ again to change to another strong frequency, finding someone reading from the Bible in a droning monotone.  He punched the button again, and picked up someone reading a series of numbers with occasional pauses. He returned to the original frequency, until it faded.  The broadcasts were mostly from long-distance truck drivers, all exchanging notes on their most recent travels. 

The states bordering Mexico seemed to be filled with checkpoints, with drivers and loads searched by the military for illegal weapons and ‘contraband’.  Doug gathered from the broadcasts that many of the large trucking companies were near collapse, as clients were unable to pay rates demanded by the companies for shipping.  Most of the truckers, Doug figured, were independents.  One stated that ‘this was it. I’m done.’ Another replied in some sort of trucker slang, ‘I’m taking the Cornbinder and bobtailin’ home. Screw the freight.’
Doug pulled over to the side of the road a few miles south of the state line to relieve himself.  The April sunshine should have been shining down on green fields all around him.  All were brown and fallow, as far as he could see in every direction.

Fifty miles north of Waterloo and a little east, Doug turned south, keeping to narrow county roads.  His cell phone finally received a reliable signal, and he pulled over again, just south of the small town of Osage. Seven voice-mails, all from Regent Des Moines, the last just fifteen minutes old.

The first three were simple ‘call me back’ messages from Pete Bollard.  The fourth was a status update from Mitch Grayson in Regent R&D, which was several days old. Five was an anxious call from Pete Bollard, asking Doug to call immediately regarding an ‘emergency meeting of senior staff.’ Six was a hang-up; seven was from someone at Corporate, requesting him to call in as soon as possible.

‘Here goes,’ Doug said to himself, calling Regent.  The phone was answered on the first ring.

“Mister Peterson.  Thank you for returning the call.  We’ve been concerned,” the voice said.

“I’ve been out of touch for a few days. I’m about an hour or so out of Des Moines.”

“Yes, we see that.  Please hold for a moment. I’ll transfer you to E Branch.”

“Sure,” Doug said casually, as if he knew what ‘E Branch’ was.

“This Doug Peterson?” a gruff male voice asked.

“Yes it is,” he replied calmly.

“Doug, I realize you’re brand new to E Branch and have been out of touch for the past few days.  We need you in Des Moines immediately. We have board members from Columbus and Denver inbound at this time for meetings tomorrow.”

“OK, I can be there….Would you mind introducing yourself?” Doug asked, feeling a little sheepish.

“Sorry, yeah.  This is Rob Dowling.  Remember me? I was on your team from the L.A. office when it hit the fan.”

Doug remembered.  The last he’d heard of Dowling, he’d relocated to one of the Columbus subsidiaries. “Oh. Sure, Rob!  Good to hear from you,” he said.  “Now, do me a favor. What in the Hell is E-Branch?”

  “Exec Branch,” Dowling replied.  “They run the show….You’re serious? You didn’t know that you got a promotion?”

“I’d heard in a roundabout way.  I didn’t hear anything about a transfer.”

“Don’t worry. You won’t have to move or anything. Probably a fair amount of travel, but they’re completely decentralized. We’ll talk more when you get in,” Dowling said, before giving Doug instructions on where to meet him within the expanded Regent campus.

Once again, Doug’s mind was in overdrive as he drove toward Des Moines.  He wasn’t paying as much attention to the road as he should have.

He’d just passed an abandoned mini-van, and he prepared to pass several derelict vehicles ahead on the right, and another to the left.  Doug was driving at just under fifty miles per hour when two of the ‘derelicts’ moved in front of him.   The minivan pulled onto the road from behind.  He slammed on the brakes for just a moment and accelerated hard, thinking ‘you dirty sonofabitch!’ The impact with the Toyota pickup tore up the drivers’ side of the Explorer, but spun the Toyota and rolled it on the passenger side.  Doug recovered in the grassy median, still accelerating as the Ford came under fire from behind and to the tree line on the right.   The firing ended as he hit eighty-five miles per hour.  The minivan was at least two miles behind him when it gave up the chase.  The Explorer’s dashboard was alight with warnings, and the engine was starting to ‘miss’.  Doug limped into the city on Interstate Thirty-Five.

The Regent Des Moines campus had expanded by thirty percent, just with the expansion of a highly secured perimeter. The original secured compound access point was now a hundred yards inside the new non-climbable fencing.  Doug thought the place looked like a prison. He wove through the concrete barriers, and noticed a dozen armed men patrolling between the inner and outer fences.  Two men and a heavy gate were ahead of him.

“Mister Peterson?” The man to the left asked. Doug noticed that no one was wearing any type of breathing mask. “I.D. please.”

“Here you go,” Doug said.  “No masks?”

“No sir.  We’re all internal here—no outside contact. I assume that you haven’t had contact with any infected?” the man asked as he swiped Doug’s card in a belt-mounted reader.  The reader immediately approved Doug for entry.

“Nope. I’ve been out in the sticks.”

“So, what in the Hell did you hit with the company car, if you don’t mind asking.”  The second man was looking at the right side and rear of the car.

“Jesus, Robbie.  You oughta see this side.  You have someone decide to use you for target practice?”

“A little trouble north of here. Someone decided to pop up a roadblock.”

“You better pull this over to maintenance.  Down and to the right,” the guard said, pointing the way.  “You’re leaking something,” he said, looking at the ground.

“No surprise.  Screwed up something in the engine, too,” Doug replied, pulling ahead as the gate opened.

He dropped the Ford at maintenance, retrieving his day pack from the back seat, and took his rifle, the case containing the shotgun and his M9.  The staff mechanics immediately put the Ford on a lift for an inspection. He headed over to Administration to meet with Dowling, a little awkwardly carrying his weapons.  The doors opened ahead of him, with people moving out of his way as he headed to the conference room.  People looked…intimidated.

Rob Dowling was already in the conference room, part of a video meeting with three other Regent staff.  He nodded at Doug, and wrapped up the meeting. “Boss is here. Gotta go.  Be available at five-fifteen for a follow on. Got it?”   The other attendees agreed, and their screens faded to the stylized company logo.

“Doug, nice to meet you in person,” Dowling said as he shook Doug’s hand.  Rob Dowling was a solid six inches taller than Doug had imagined him, only having ‘met’ him through video previously.  Thirty or forty pounds heavier, too.  

“You, too,” Doug said, closing the conference room door and tossing his bag in one of the big, leather chairs.  “What’s the emergency?”

“To be honest, we’re not entirely sure.  We’re getting a lot of pressure from the board. They’re trying to get us to be creative with the Fed regulators.”

“’Creative?’ In what way?”

“Apply pressure. Personal, professional, legal and otherwise?” Dowling replied.

“And how do you feel about that?”

“Not particularly good. It’s not right.”

“No, it’s not. So we find a way around the parts that aren’t right, or a better way entirely. The illegal stuff, pressure, whatever, is asinine. No one will work with us again if we pull that kind of crap.  People that don’t understand long-term working relationships come up with those kinds of ‘suggestions’.  Food and Drug Admin was about twenty percent effective before things started coming apart.  Toss in the events of the past three months and they’re even more useless,” Doug said.  ‘This isn’t that hard to work around.  Are these people idiots?’

“What do you suggest? I got off the phone an hour ago with some asshole in Columbus by the name of Slocum who wanted my nuts nailed to a wall because this problem hasn’t been fixed yet—a problem that I didn’t know about until ten o’clock this morning,” Dowling said.

“Never heard of him. Sounds like a prick,” Doug said, probably gaining some points with Dowling. “It’s counter to our purposes go attack an agency that can shut you down and throw you in prison.  You just don’t attack the regulatory process or the regulators, ever. You want them on our side. You insert yourself into their system and work it from there. They’re wildly understaffed and unable to complete their basic mission.  The solution isn’t to attack them and rile them up against us. The solution is to help them get the tools they need to do their job…but help them do it in a way that doesn’t hurt us.”

“So you co-opt the regulators,” Dowling stated.

“Well, in a manner of speaking, yeah,” Doug replied. “But if we, as creators of food products, cannot convince regulators that our products are needed during a time of starvation, we’re piss-poor salesmen.” Doug looked at Dowling. “How much do you know about RNEW?”

“Flavor enhancements. Expansion of building block materials in basic products that will allow existing foods to have lower price-points market wide. Expansion into new offerings not previously possible without the product,” Dowling replied.

Doug was not surprised by the clinical accuracy of the marketing blurb Dowling just provided.  He didn’t know that RNEW had additional capabilities.  “Anything else?”

“That’s what I know about the product.  My career has been focused on integrating new products, upgrades, and processes into existing markets.  I never really get into the minutiae. Why?”

“Just curious,” Doug said. “Ponder what I just said.  Dig into Regent--and other competing companies while you’re at it--for people that might’ve worked for the FDA in the past. Get a list together. Maybe we can create a mechanism to ‘loan’ them to the FDA….”

“There’s no way they could stay on the payroll, and the Federal Government is broke,” Dowling criticized.

“In a time of national emergency, I’m sure there is some bureaucrat that could be shown a creative solution,” Doug said.  “Where am I staying tonight? Are there quarters here?”

“Sure. Let me have Francine show you,” he replied, punching in a number on the conference room phone. 

“What else is on the docket before tomorrow?” Doug asked.

“Production problems. Quotas. Distribution problems. Staffing…we’re falling behind on all fronts…because they keep raising the numbers.  Some big deadline this Friday, and we’re going to miss it by a mile.”  

“OK. Get help if you need it to get that list of people generated. I’ll be back in a half-hour or so. I’ve got some other calls to return,” Doug said as a shapely young woman knocked and entered the conference room, assessing him as some women do, with one sweep of her eyes. 

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Distance, Chapter 34


April Eleventh
Near Crandon, Wisconsin
7:20 a.m.

Doug had washed up in the bathroom, wishing for a hot shower instead of the bowl of warm water that Brenda had provided. Changing into ‘road clothes’—cargo pants, layered shirts—generally clothes that were comfortable for hours in the car.  He hurriedly packed his things as the kids ate breakfast.  Matt was outside, topping of Doug’s gas tank with precious gasoline.  He gave each of the kids a quick hug, and slipped a dark chocolate bar in front of each—gaining a huge smile and a larger hug. Brenda was busy making a couple sandwiches for the road. 

“How far can you make it today?” she asked.  “Barring the unexpected of course.”

“I need…rather, I’d like to meet up with a couple of suppliers on the way back south. One in Green Bay.  Another in Sheboygan.  After that, back to Des Moines and corporate. Then, home. So, long answer for ‘no idea.’”

“Not sure about either Green Bay or Sheboygan…” Brenda said, looking at him skeptically.

“I know,” Doug said. “I’ll try to call ahead, assuming that I’ll have coverage. If I can’t get through to them, I’ll have to go with Plan B.”

“Which is?”

“Drive on through.”

“Stopping sounds extraordinarily risky,” Brenda said with eyebrows raised, out of earshot of the kids.

“I think any travel is, Bren. Can’t stay here though,” he said, thinking all the while that Regent just might come looking for him.  That wouldn’t do.

“OK.  Gassed up and good to go,” Matt said as he came inside, shaking off his wet hat. “Hope you like driving in the rain.”

“Beats driving in the snow,” Doug replied. “I should get a move on.”

“Here’s your lunch.  Two sandwiches, a half-dozen boiled eggs. Two bottles of water and some of Ronnie’s home made potato chips. Salt and vinegar.”

“My favorite,” Doug said. “Home made?” Again, Doug was astounded by the transformation.

“They’re better for you,” Brenda said. “We know what’s in them,” she said, making a point of it.

Doug was getting ready to shake Matt’s hand when a radio on his belt chimed three times.  Matt’s brow furrowed instantly as he retrieved it.

“Two,” he replied.

“Heavy fire. North edge of Crandon.  Multiple heavy weapons. Civilians down,” Doug heard.  He recognized the voice as that of Nate Delacroix.  “Deploy to…” the radio went to static.

“One,” Matt called back.  He was greeted by silence.  He repeated his call.

“Under fire. Pulling back,” Nate said. Doug thought his breathing sounded labored.   “Deploy to County G, advance with caution to Range Line on North Lake. Regulars are deployed east on Glen and holding. Second unit is advancing south on Pence and Town Line. Enemy force headed north and east—east side of Clear Lake.” 

“Three heading in,” another voice spoke.  Jess Mecklenburg. Jess should probably have been sleeping, Matt as well.

“Three, go to Range Line and Town Line and hold,” Nate instructed.

“Affirm,” Jess replied.

“Gotta go, babe,” Matt said to Brenda, giving her a quick kiss.

“I’m going with you,” Doug said, deciding so on the spot. “Give me a minute.”

“Doug, you can’t…” Brenda started, before Matt cut her off with a wave of his hand.

“Sure he can,” Matt replied calmly.

Two minutes later they were out the driveway.  Doug had his M-4 and a half-dozen magazines in a vest.   “I take it this isn’t normal,” he asked.

“No. Two things are very wrong here.  First off, Nate is way outside of his patrol area.  Second, we’ve never had any organized force this big this far north. You may well have need of that rifle.  Here’s the map,” Matt said, tossing Doug a map of the area. 

They drove quickly toward County Road G, north of Crandon.  Doug could see smoke rising from the town, blowing off to the east in the rainy sky.

“Shit,” Matt said as he stopped the truck.

“Two in place,” he said into the radio.

“Three is holding, two minutes ahead of second unit.”

“Stand fast,” Delacroix replied.  “First unit is holding east of the trailer park.”

A few seconds went by.  Matt pointed out where they were; where Jess had stopped, where the ‘regulars’ were positioning themselves, and where the ‘enemy’ forces were believed to be.

“Estimated enemy force, twenty men,” Nate replied.  “No friendlies,” he added. 

“No hostages,” Matt translated.   “Let’s get into the field.”

They left the truck, Doug awkwardly putting on his load-bearing vest.  Matt handed him a spare helmet.    “Stay close,” Matt said.

Doug’s heart was racing as they got off the road, south of Range Line, and made their way into the trees and wet brush.  Doug hadn’t noticed, but a home just north of Range Line was burned to the ground. Another home was a scant hundred feet to the east.  They ducked down behind and earthen berm. The helmet promptly fell off his head. He adjusted the strap to keep it more or less in place.

“Two thousand feet that way, more or less,” Matt said.  “Watch your ass. Stray rounds can get you just as easily as not. Let’s move up,” he said. “You know how to provide cover fire?” he asked, pausing.

“Yeah. We trained to,” Doug said, shouldering the rifle and peering to the east.

“Just try not to shoot me in the back.”

Matt took off before Doug could respond, heading to the north side of a small house, south of the road.  He waved Doug ahead, peering around to the west side of the house.  Doug advanced quickly. An open field greeted them, with trees beyond. 

“OK.  Same thing, more real estate to cover.  I’m going to those trees…that one on the right that’s down.  Cover me to the south. Other side of those trees is a rail line,” Matt said. They heard automatic weapons fire from the southwest. “Other side of the tracks, we’ll have a few cabins. Those are on the east side of the lake.  We’re going to skirt those and position ourselves at the north end of the lake.  Enemy should be advancing north along the west shore. Friendly unit to the south is herding them north.  Second unit should be in position on the north and east, boxing them in. Got it?”

“Yeah,” Doug said.  His heart had slowed considerably. He felt…alive.  This was different than training, but the same sharpness surrounded him. Matt took off at a sprint as the distant weapons fire continued.   Doug was still panning to the south, rifle in position, as Matt flagged him forward.

The meadow seemed to claw at his feet as he tried to run across it.  His boots were soaked and heavy, pants clinging to his legs.  After an eternity, he made it to Matt’s position.

“You OK?” Matt asked, not looking at him, but continuing to look to the west.

“Yeah. My boots are like lead though.”

“Wrong gear for this. Learn from it,” he said as he took off again. He soon was nearly out of sight.   Doug followed, and heard the weapons fire much more distinctly. No longer muffled, the low chunk-chunk-chunk of a heavy machine gun seemed only yards away. Higher-pitched weapons, Doug recognized were a mix of AK-47’s and M-16’s.

“Two in position, north shore of Clear, southeast of Pence Lane,” Matt radioed.  It was only then that Doug noticed he held a small, plastic-encased map of the area.

“Second unit holds the tree line west of the clearing, approx one hundred meters west of the lake,” Jess replied.

“Two, advance west and south to shoreline and engage,” Nate ordered.

“Affirm,” Matt said before turning to Doug. 

“OK.  Crapshoot on what happens next.  I’ll be five meters from the shoreline; you take a position five meters east of me.  Do not fire without orders. If I fire, consider yourself free to follow. Got it?”

“Yes,” Doug replied.  Matt took his position and waved for Matt to do the same, directing him to a tall row of trees. The gunfire grew louder…including the low, regular thumping that he could feel in his chest. Doug knelt behind the largest tree he could find. The base was more than three feet in diameter.

A pause in the shooting gave Doug the opportunity to look towards the south, just as mud and wood spattered up toward him from directed fire. He involuntarily swung back behind the tree to try to hide. He looked over at Matt, who was prone, behind another tree. Matt motioned him to get down as more of the tree was blasted away.  He tried to get as flat as he could as more rounds hit around him, now aimed toward Matt’s position as well.

Doug didn’t see where the enemy fire was coming from at first.  He heard Matt’s rifle from his left as the woods to the east of the clearing erupted. The second unit opened up with dozens of rifles firing toward the south of his position.  Finally he brought his rifle up to position and peered around the tree.  Two men were advancing, leapfrogging around each other toward Matt.  Matt’s view though, was blocked by brush.  More men trailed behind, some appearing wounded.  Doug quickly took aim on the lead man, in cover behind a tree. The man was struggling to load a magazine when Doug fired.  The first, and then the second just behind, were hit by two bursts from Doug’s rifle. Both men collapsed in screams, writhing on the ground. Matt moved up to Doug’s position. Doug found his magazine empty, surprisingly.   The firing ended by the time he replaced the mag. Jess Mecklenburg appeared from the woods on the east, advancing with thirty or forty men.  Most were in farm clothing.

“You hurt?” Matt asked.

“Don’t think so,” he replied, before realizing an adrenaline rush had taken over.

“Side of your head. You’re bleeding from under your helmet.”  

Doug hadn’t noticed.  He took the helmet off and found the right side of his head bloody, along with his shoulder. He felt something stuck in his hair, just above the ear.  A large splinter had hit him, slicing his scalp. He pulled it, and felt a tug on his scalp as he did so. He stared at the six-inch piece of wood as his shoulder and shirt were coated in blood.    He heard someone call for a medic as Matt made him lie down and applied a compress to his head.  He looked south and saw that the men from the second unit had surrounded the downed enemy.  None appeared to be alive.   A young woman in uniform appeared from somewhere. His head began to throb.

 “That should do it, Mister Peterson. Got you all cleaned up and patched back together. Nineteen stitches. You’re pretty lucky,” the young medic said. 

Doug barely remembered being helped to one of the nearby houses. Two other men were being treated for gunshot wounds. Both would be transported to a hospital. He was still a little shocky. He’d never had an injury remotely like this before.

“Thanks. Much appreciated,” he said.

“You’re going to need to rest for at least a day. I cleaned out the wound as best as I can. Are you current on tetanus? ”

“Yeah.  Had a shot last November,” the side his head felt like he’d been hit with an axe.

“Good. That’ll help. I’d like to get you an IV of Penicillin G. That OK? No allergies?” she asked as Matt came into the room, carrying Doug’s rifle and his own.  “We’ll have to transport you to the clinic, unless you have someone who’s had medical training.”

“My wife can do it.  She’s had EMT and paramed training,” Matt replied.  Doug could not have been more surprised. “We’ll get him to our place. He’s not from these parts.”

The young brunette was surprised, not knowing quite what to say.  “Oh, I’m sorry. I thought you lived here.”

“Iowa, actually,” Doug said. “No allergies. I do have some topical antibiotics in my travel kit. Should I use them?”

“Those are fine for some things, not a wound like that one,” she said.  “Deputy, is your wife current on her certifications?”


“OK. I’ll get your supplies,” the slim woman said.  “Getting thin on this stuff. Another month and we’ll be in trouble.”

One of the locals delivered Doug back to Matt and Brenda’s.  The young man was around twenty, and was instructed by an older man not to say anything, just deliver Doug and his equipment.  Doug noted that the young man had a military-type utility jacket, pockets bulging with used brass shell casings.  Some littered the seat and floor of the ancient Blazer.

Brenda met them in the driveway, already aware that Doug had been wounded.  He hadn’t thought to ask how exactly.  He guessed that she was patched into the local CB radio network.

“This way, Robbie.  Thanks for helping,” Brenda said to the young man.

“Glad to help, Missus Bowman,” he said as he carried Doug’s rifle and vest into the house.  Doug was directed into the dining living room. 

“You’ve had quite the morning,” Brenda said. “Lucky you didn’t get your fool head blown off. What hit you?”

“Chunk of a maple tree,” he replied as she examined the wound.

“Someone did nice work on your scalp. Couldn’t do any better myself.”

“I had no idea you knew anything about stitching people up.”

“I was training to be a volunteer firefighter last year. That also meant training to be an EMT.  I took the paramedic courses first,” she said, checking out the contents of the small box that Robbie brought in.  “Let’s get you out of those muddy clothes before I get you settled in. Robbie, can you go out to Doug’s SUV and grab his green bag?”

“Yes, ma’am,” the young man said, disappearing instantly.

“His Mom was in training with me. Sweet kid.”

Robbie reappeared with Doug’s overnight bag. “Thanks, Robbie.  Doug you go get some dry clothes on and get washed up a bit. You’re not leaving today anyway,” Brenda said.

“You got it,” Doug said, rising slowly. The mornings’ workout illustrated just how physically unfit he was.

“Robbie, if you wouldn’t mind, would you take Doug’s rifle out to the garage and get it cleaned up?”

“Sure. Is the kit still up in the cupboard?”  He replied.

“Should be. Thanks.”

Doug made his way to the bathroom, getting a look in the mirror for the first time. The right side of his head was swollen; a row of stitches an inch above his ear.  Dried blood covered his neck and jaw. His dress shirt was ruined; jacket covered with mud and blood.

He stripped down to his shorts, washed up in cold water, which didn’t bother him nearly as much as it would have earlier in the day. He dressed in jeans and a long sleeve t-shirt, and pulled on some delightfully dry socks.

“You look a little better,” Brenda said. “Here. Drink this,” she said, handing him a mug of orange juice.   “Head over to the recliner. You’ll take your IV there, all right?”

“Thanks. Sure,” he replied. “Thanks for having that young man clean my rifle. I’m sure it was a mess.”

“I was taught to keep things clean, especially if your life depends on them.”

“Good lesson,” he said. “Where are the kids?”

“I sent them up north with Jess’s wife and kids. If something was coming this way I didn’t want them around.”

“Has this…happened before?” Doug asked as Brenda swabbed his arm with an alcohol wipe in preparation of the IV.

“Not like this. It’s never the same way twice.”

“You’ve…had the kids hide before?”

“Hide? Yes. This was ‘evacuate.’ We’ve had them do that before, too. Twice,” Brenda replied as she inserted the needle and started the drip.  The bag hung from a hook attached to a floor lamp next to the recliner.   “I was listening in on the radio during the fight. You OK…mentally?”

“I think so. Still trying to process it. I think I killed two men.”

“You need some time alone?” she asked quietly.

“No, I’m OK. It was…instinct. Without thought,” Doug said. “They were coming at us, leapfrogging from tree to tree. I think one of them was probably responsible for this,” he said, pointing to his head. “He had a different kind of rifle. Bigger. Heavy. Sounded different,” he said, recounting the fight in his mind. “I looked around the tree and they were coming. I fired. That’s all. I know I hit them…. Matt couldn’t see them from where he was…I hit them in the guts. I heard them scream…and it was over. Matt came over to me. That was it.”

“Matt said you did very well. He was impressed,” Brenda said. “He is not easily impressed.”

“So I gather,” Doug said as Robbie came back in, carrying Doug’s rifle.

“All cleaned up. Refilled your mags too, sir.”

“Thank you. You didn’t have to do that,” Doug said.

“You killed the guy who shot at my sister. Yeah. I did have to,” the young man said, shaking Doug’s hand. “Thanks.”

Doug nodded, not having the faintest idea of what to say.

April Eleventh
2:50 p.m.

“Doug? Are you awake?” Brenda asked. 

“Just.  Didn’t plan on nodding off,” he said. His head throbbed.

“You didn’t get any sleep last night, or did you forget?”

“Seems like a week ago.” 

“Here’s some soup and one of those sandwiches I made you. Eat up.”

“Kids home?”

“Uh, no. They’re going to be gone overnight,” Brenda replied a little awkwardly. “How are you feeling?”

“Pretty good. My head feels twice as heavy, though. Is Matt home?”

“He went to bed around ten. You were sawing logs. I took the IV out and you didn’t even stir.”

“Does he still pull a shift later?”

“No. They’re all standing down. Eagle River will take care of themselves tonight.”

Doug heard someone in the next room.  Matt entered, carrying a cup of something steaming. “I heard my name mentioned.  How’re you doing?”

“Pretty well, I think. How did it go after…”

“Twenty-six enemy dead. Nine survivors. Some from Milwaukee, some from Kenosha. Couple from all the way down in Gary,” Matt said, taking a sip from the mug. “Four civilians from Crandon. Two from the grocery, two from the machine shop.”

“Damn,” Doug said.

“You got credit for two of the bad guys. Nicely done,” Matt said. “You got the ringleaders.”

“They were just the ones coming at me…at, us.”

“Well, you ended up with some serious street cred with the locals.”

“Completely undeserved.”

“You up to heading out tomorrow?” Matt said, thoughtfully changing the subject.

“Yeah. More than ever, I think.”

“Hon, the news should be on. Do you want to listen? I’ve got to get this bread in the oven,” Brenda said from the kitchen.

“Yep,” Matt replied. He flipped on a small radio in the living room, just as the ‘chime’ from the network sounded. Both men leaned toward the radio to listen.

No sound came from the radio.

“That happen often?” Doug asked, still straining to listen.

“No,” Matt answered, switching to another frequency.

“…in Chicago late last night, where negotiations have reportedly broken down between management and labor at Agnew Middleton, the agricultural super-giant.  Inside sources have stated that corporate reorganization of domestic production operations will take in excess of eighteen months, throwing production estimates and the larger commodity markets into further chaos.  Key market analysts stated ten days ago that petrochemical shortages would cause further dramatic increases in food costs almost immediately.  Private security forces have been seen at numerous grain elevators, food processing plants and distribution centers in Illinois and Indiana.”

“You know anything about that?” Matt asked.

“That it’s no surprise.  No fertilizer, no fuel to get into the fields, whammo. Instant shortages.  RNEW was…is being marketed to help alleviate the shortages,” Doug said.

“…in Crittenden County.  National Guard forces, already stretched thin, are struggling to contain the riots in adjacent Shelby County.  Two neighboring counties have been sealed off to prevent rioters from entering.  The glow from urban fires is visible from more than twenty miles away. The President again today, asked for calm.”

“In international news, Syria continued their push into northern Lebanon, despite heavy Israeli opposition.   The Secretary of State has reportedly asked Israel to stand down as a coalition force is considered for the region.  Israel responded by condemning American inaction as numerous medium range missiles targeted Tel Aviv. Rescue efforts are still proceeding at the Knesset, damaged yesterday in a missile attack. President Moshe Ben-Artzi was seen at the Israeli Defense Force headquarters earlier today, not in hiding as had been reported earlier today. Reports have not been confirmed that Ben-Artzi participated directly as a pilot in a recent bombing mission against Syrian ground forces.”

“Imagine any of our recent Presidents getting away with that,” Doug said.

“Or having the balls to try,” Matt replied.