Thursday, October 18, 2012

Distance, Chapter 46


11:40 a.m.
August Thirtieth
Near Fairfield, Iowa

The drive away from Des Moines was completely uneventful.  Nothing in the way of traffic—nothing. Roadblocks obviously thrown up earlier in the year were unmanned, in some cases wind-blown soil had drifted around the concrete barriers. Doug had never seen the farm fields of Iowa completely bare of crops.  The appearances of the scattered farmhouses east of Interstate Thirty-Five alternated between ‘abandoned’ and ‘fortified.’ Twice, west of Centerville, he spotted single riders on horseback, watching the highway. He didn’t slow down to see if they were armed. He realized later that there were probably many eyes watching that he never saw.

The route that Regent prepared for him was seemingly random, taking Doug farther south than he’d previously traveled, which allowed him to approach home from Keosauqua, well south of his ‘Regent’ home.  He could’ve just as easily turned south and ended up at the Farm, but it would probably be in his best interest to stop at his ‘home’ before heading to the Farm.

He slowed well before he needed to, still well south of his home and that of Augie Kliest.  A cluster of emergency vehicles at the Kliests was an unwelcome sight.   He pulled in behind a City of Fairfield fire truck and paramedic unit, with an ambulance off to the side.   A Jefferson County sheriff’s car was parked near the garage.  A deputy approached Doug as he got out of the car.

“You have business here, sir?” the deputy asked, right hand on the butt of his holstered handgun.

“Uh, no. I’m a neighbor,” Doug replied, pointing to his house across the highway. “I’ve been out of town for most of the summer. I work for the Food and Drug administration. Mr. Kliest was watching the place for me. What’s happened?”

“Can you verify your whereabouts for the last several days?” the deputy asked.

“Well, I suppose so. I was in Des Moines until this morning; yesterday I arrived there from Denver,” he said, handing the deputy his Federal I.D. card and drivers’ license.

“Can you prove that?”

“I have my travel papers from the Denver office in my bag. Is that enough? What’s happened here?” Doug asked again.

“We’ve had a number of people in outlying areas killed by raiders. In some cases it’s appeared to be neighbor on neighbor. Mr. and Mrs. Kliest are deceased.”

“Good God. The Kliests wouldn’t harm a fly,” Doug said.

“No matter,” the deputy replied. “That your place?” he said pointing across the way to Doug’s place.

“Yeah.  I’ve been gone since…June.”

“Pearson! Over here, now!” the deputy shouted over his shoulder to the house.

“Sir?” a very young man appeared in the doorway.  Doug then noted a muddy boot print on the white door, and the destroyed door jamb. Something didn’t add up, though, because if Kliest had the same type of security that his home had, a mere kick on the front door would’ve just frustrated the would-be intruder. A kick wouldn’t trash the door jamb like that. A battering ram maybe…

“Escort this gentleman to his home over there,” the deputy pointed.  “Do not enter the residence if you see anything out of the formerly ordinary. Got it?”

“Yes, sir,” the young man replied.  Doug noted he was armed with a revolver that had seen better days.

“One of our volunteers,” the deputy said to Doug quietly. “If there’s anything that looks like it’s been tampered with, do not enter the home. Got it?” he said to Pearson.

“Sure. It’s not like there was much in the place,” Doug replied, not mentioning the extensive security system.

The young man jogged ahead of Doug’s government vehicle, down the Kliest’s driveway and up the hill to Doug’s place.  He stopped dead in his tracks, forty feet from the house.  Doug got out of the Cherokee as the young man waved him back. 

“Be right back sir.  Better not go in there,” he said.

Doug’s front door was rammed in; most of the windows in the home were shattered.  Some sort of explosion had taken place inside, blasting glass and the wood mini-blinds apart and scattering them across the yard.

“Good God,” Doug said again, this time to himself.    Looking to the ‘concealed’ fuel pump, he noticed the ‘shed’ had been ripped open and the pump was missing.   A few moments later, the Deputy’s Chevrolet pulled in around Doug’s Jeep.

“Well, they got yours, too,” the deputy said.  “Stay here while we clear the place.  You got a basement?”

“Yeah,” Doug said, giving him the details on the layout.

“Hold fast here,” the deputy replied.  “Pearson, holster that thing.” 

Doug noted the young man had the weapon out and had both hands on it, ready to move into the house. 

“Shotgun’s for close quarters work,” the deputy said, handing the young man a pistol-gripped shotgun. “Try not to shoot me.”

The deputy armed himself with his own shotgun, this one equipped with a small flashlight, and moved into the home through the front door, weapon ready.  Pearson followed.  Five long minutes later, both exited the home.

“Mister Peterson, come ahead please,” the deputy told Doug.

“What’d you find?”

“Looks like a couple of grenades.  Your place is a wreck. Pretty well stripped, too,” the deputy replied. “Pearson will walk you through it,” he said, handing Doug a huge flashlight.  “I need to get back across the street.  Check in with me when you’re done with your walkthrough—let me know what they’ve taken.”

“Uh, okay,” Doug said, checking the flashlight.

Pearson kept quiet as Doug entered the wrecked house, smashed and blasted by explosives thrown through the front windows, blast marks radiating from several points on the floor.  While the home was sparsely furnished, it appeared to Doug that several pieces had been taken out before the home was blown up.  He was shocked to see some of the sheetrock blown into the voids between the wall framing—the walls now looked corrugated, and most of the ceilings had collapsed. Hunks of the wood flooring were blown out, with holes into the basement in the front room.
The security closet though, told Doug a different story, beyond simple theft and destruction: The closet was empty, cleared of all cables, connectors and hardware that held the Regent security system.   Reviewing the rest of the house, the security cameras were also missing—carefully removed. The upstairs rooms had been hit by several small explosions—one per room—blowing out the glass and destroying several walls.   Shattered parts of doors and wood trim covered the floor.
The basement had been stripped of all supplies—but Julie might have removed them.  The furnace, hot water heater, and most of the plumbing was destroyed, again by some sort of small explosive. There was nothing undamaged in the home.

“I’d like to look out back. There was a generator out there,” Doug told Pearson, not looking for permission.

The door to the generator shack was hanging from a single hinge.  Inside, the remains of the generator showed the level of effort put forth to destroy it.  The entire room was blackened by fire and reeked of burned oil.

“Looks like it’s…melted,” Pearson said from over Doug’s shoulder.

“Yeah, it does,” Doug replied. He had no idea what could possibly melt a hole through the cylinder head and block of the big generator. A pool of hardened metal lay on the floor beneath it.

Doug sent the young Pearson back to Kliest’s with the deputy’s flashlight after retrieving one from the Jeep, and spent a few minutes collecting a few possessions as he mulled over the situation and tried to come to a different conclusion than the obvious one: Regent had killed Kliest, his wife, and sanitized the houses.  

It was a full five minutes before he realized that the Segher Farm might have been sanitized as well. He headed back across the road before heading to the Farm, heart pounding at what he might find.

“You make a list of what’s been stolen?”

“Too much to list,” Doug told the deputy.  “I’m heading to my wife’s place—she’s been staying with friends all summer,” Doug said as two men carried a basket with a body bag from the home.

“Who would that be exactly?” the deputy asked, noticing Doug’s stare.  Doug gave him the name of the Seghers, as the second body was removed.  The deputy wrote it down. “I’m going to need you to make a report on your home, Mister Peterson, whether you elect to go back there or not.”

“I’ll be happy to, tomorrow. As is, there’s nothing left worth anything to me.”

“Here’s the location of the Sheriff’s office,” the deputy said, handing Doug a business card.  “You can file your report there.  Sooner the better…as in, before close of business tomorrow. Got it?”

“Got it,” Doug said. “One thing though. How did they…die?” 

“Looked like a single gunshot wound to the base of the skull. They were both bound with zip ties before they were killed.”

“My God. That’s horrible.”

“That someone entered their home, and that they didn’t see fit to defend themselves as whoever entered, tells us something. Either they didn’t see a threat coming or they knew who their killers were,” the deputy said as the doors to the ambulance were closed.

“When did it happen? Can you tell?”

“Yesterday morning, by the looks of it.  Breakfast dishes were on the table,” the deputy replied.  “Quite a few things look to have been taken, along with both of their vehicles. And firearms.”

“Do they have family?” Doug asked, feeling bad that he didn’t know.

“Son in the Navy. Two daughters.  We haven’t located any of them yet.”

“I’ll stop in at the Sheriff’s office tomorrow.”

“Thanks. Appreciate it,” the deputy replied.

Almost absentmindedly, Doug drove south toward the Seghers, and almost missed the turn east that led by the farm.  Augie Kliest did not strike him as the kind of man who would let a stranger inside; and if Regent was involved, the pieces fit that they were eliminating loose connections. ‘Am I next?’

The entry to the Farm had a new, very heavy-duty gate blocking the road, and the earthworks on either side would prevent anything from entering from the road. The gate sported a very heavy chain and lock.  Doug grabbed his backpack and started to pull out his rifle when he heard a shotgun slide.

“Don’t even think about moving until I tell you to, Fed,” an unfamiliar voice ordered.

“No problem,” Doug replied.

“Hands where I can see them.  Back away from the Jeep,” the man said. Doug complied immediately. “Hands on the hood, feet back and spread ‘em.”

Again, Doug complied.

“What’s your business here?” the man asked.

“To see my wife, Julie.”

“Really.  What’s her given name?” the man asked, unfazed.

“Julia Kristen Forsythe. We were married on Easter Sunday.”

“Stay put,” the man said.   A moment later, Doug heard a chime from the direction of the house, and the man spoke quietly, he assumed into some sort of radio.

“All right. Sounds like you might be who you say you are. Relax,” the man said. Doug turned around.

“I’m Kurt Segher. One of the many cousins,” he said, lowering the shotgun.  “You’re Doug?”

“Yes. Good to meet you,” Doug said, shaking the man’s hand. He looked like a much younger version of Arie, and had just a hint of Arie’s accent. “Where are you from? I don’t remember hearing of you the last time I was here.”

“California. Not a good place for dairymen these days. Arie and the family were kind enough to help us get settled in here,” Kurt said as he unlocked the gate and pulled the chain free.  “We’ll talk more later. I’m on patrol for the next couple of hours.  Drive up to the equipment barn, and right inside. Doesn’t pay to have cars outside.”

“OK. Thanks,” Doug said as he got inside the Cherokee.

Julie was on the porch as he drove up, slowing for Arie who waved him into the equipment shed.  The massive outer door was open, and Doug parked within a metal, fence-like cage inside.   Julie met him as he opened the door and almost crushed him with a hug.

“You’re here! And early!” she said as she buried her face in his neck.

“I am, finally,” Doug said, finally kissing her as Arie closed the huge door. He noticed something different. “You’re…”

“Pregnant,” Julie replied softly. “Congratulations, Daddy,” she whispered in his ear as she kissed his neck. “I didn’t want to put that in a letter.”

Doug was stunned by the news, in a good way, and didn’t have any coherent reply. It took him more than a few moments to come up with words.

“That’s the best thing I’ve heard in a really long time,” he said quietly.

Julie loosened her grip on him and smiled.  “Something’s wrong,” Julie said to him, taking a good look at him for the first time. “What’s happened?”

“Let’s go inside,” Doug answered, taking her hand.

After a robust handshake from Arie and a hug from Maria, Doug sat at the worn kitchen table, holding a giant mug of strong tea in one hand, Julie’s hand with the other.

“My neighbors, the Kliests, were murdered yesterday. I was up in Des Moines, drove down today.  Thought I’d stop by the house to see how it was, talk with Augie.  Cops, paramedics and firemen were there.”

“That’s terrible!” Julie responded immediately. Maria looked shaken as well.

“This man,” Arie said. “The one you spoke of? Worked for your company? Security man I believe you said, yes?”

“Yes,” Doug said.

“Someone he knew then,” Arie surmised.  “You think company did this?”

“Distinct possibility. No. More than that…there’s more to it though,” Doug said before explaining the condition of his home and the relatively undamaged Kliest residence.

“Outsiders did this,” Maria said.

“I agree.  Several of my colleagues in the Des Moines office have also been murdered recently. The Kliests may have been murdered in the same manner. Perhaps by the same people. I don’t know,” Doug said. “It’s not plausible that the Kliests were murdered randomly and that the security system equipment in our home was surgically removed prior to the house being trashed.  Either Regent did it, or they didn’t. If they didn’t, then someone else knows what’s going on and acted. If Regent did it, then I’ve brought trouble here.”

“How do you find out?” Julie asked. “Can you…contact Corporate?”

“I can probably try from Fairfield tomorrow.  No cell phones of course,” Doug said. “I’ll need to make a police report, so I’m already going to be in town.  I’ll try to get through to Columbus.”

“How long are you here?” Arie asked.

“I’m to be on the road on September Eleventh. I’ve a number of locations in the Midwest that I’m to visit as part of an FDA inspection tour.  I also believe that there are materials in the Jeep that are to be retrieved by Regent agents in those locations, or on the way,” Doug said.  Arie quickly leaned back in his chair, hands on the table.

“Maria, call Roeland,” Arie said. “Douglas, with me please. We’ll be back soon,” he told Maria and Julie.

Doug and Arie walked back to the equipment shed, met by Roeland just inside. He’d obviously been on patrol on the Farm.

“What’s going on?” Roeland said, barely acknowledging Doug.

“His vehicle,” Arie began before Doug interrupted him.

“It has information aboard.  Maybe marching orders from Columbus or Denver or both,” Doug said. 

“If it can be retrieved without appearing to have been tampered with, do so.  You have men for this,” Arie directed Roeland.

“Yes. I’ll contact them as soon as I can.  Doug, when do you leave?”

“I’ve got time.  I don’t leave until the Eleventh. I’m off the grid until then.”

“Good.  Plenty of time for us to put you to work. You remember what ‘work’ is, don’t you?” Roeland said with a smirk.

“I’m sure I can figure it out.”

“What’s the story on the contents of the Jeep? Roeland asked.

“My personal bags, a few firearms.  The boxes in the back are supposed to be Regent Preferred.  Not altered.”

“Supposed to be?” Arie asked. “You believe otherwise?”

“I suspect otherwise,” Doug said. 

“Have you checked for marker tags?” Roeland asked, referring to the radio frequency identification markers that could be hidden in any package, garment or vehicle.

“No point in checking.  The technology has advanced dramatically.  The chips could be buried within the packaging and I’d never see it. Some of the samples I know of were paper thin and a sixteenth of an inch wide,” Doug said. Arie looked through the cargo area windows suspiciously at the cardboard cases bearing the Regent logo.

“That’s OK.  We’ve ways to find them if they’re here, and ways to find the repeater unit in the car if there is one,” Roeland said. “Not that any signals are going to get out of here,” he said off-handedly.

“Huh?” Doug asked. “Why not?”

“Look around,” Roeland said, pointing to the huge cage that held the Jeep.  “The cage is designed to shield electromagnetic signals.” Doug noticed the steel cage had numerous copper wires fastened to it in a grid. “The cage seriously limits the effectiveness of radio transmission or reception. On the flip side, something like this cage could save our sensitive electronics if another nuke goes off and we’re smart enough to stow them inside.”

“Would you mind if I tried the radio?” Doug asked.  He was skeptical that the cage would do what Roeland stated.

“Go for it,” Roeland replied.

Doug got in the Cherokee, turned the key on, and turned the radio on.  Hitting the ‘scan’ button, the radio was unable to lock onto any station. Nothing but static.  Switching to the FM band, he was met with similar results.   The Cherokee also had a scanner for emergency services and weather bands.  No signals were detected on any of the bands.

“This really does seem to work,” Doug said.

“It does a very good job for what it is.  Your RFID tags and any on board repeater are almost certainly completely blocked,” Roeland said.

“If Regent were tracking me, I’d have gone off-grid,” Doug replied.  “And they’d wonder how that happened.”

“Yes, but the transmitter systems don’t have a strong enough signal to go very far.  You need a cell phone type repeater to provide a fix on your location, and two or three towers to triangulate your location. Since the cell towers…and the cell systems have been dead since the war, you probably went off-grid as soon as you left the neighborhood in Des Moines.”

“What about satellite?”

“GPS’s are dead.  Sat phones are too. Without functioning satellites, GPS’s are just fancy bricks.”

That relieved Doug a little, knowing now that Regent didn’t know exactly where their products might be. Even so, they knew were he was heading, and he’d hardly be staying at his wrecked home when there were other options available.  He still struggled with the Kliests deaths.  He felt as if he were being herded, his options limited by others to suit their needs, not his.

“Roeland, you do what you can with this. Douglas, what should we do with this…stuff in the back of your Jeep?”  Arie asked.

“I can’t recommend eating it.  I don’t know where it’s from or what’s in it, unlike product made in my own plant back in the spring,” he said. “Feed it to the pigs or something.”

“Not sure they’d eat it,” Roeland replied.