Sunday, October 27, 2013

Distance, Chapter 55


Tuesday morning,
September Twelfth
7:14 a.m.

Doug stood before the window of his soon-to-be-empty apartment, looking out at the Front Range and thirteen columns of black smoke rising from many areas of the city and suburbs.

He’d risen early, unable to sleep, and packed the last of his few belongings in the low-priority baggage to be shipped to Regent Columbus.  His highest priority items resided in a very business-like backpack, containing all of the elements an individual would need for three days to a week, including an M9 Beretta and magazines. On the company aircraft that Doug was expecting, the pack would travel with him unchecked.  Travel on commercial airlines would see the bag emptied, the weapon secured in a locked enclosure and placed under constant supervision of an armed and uniformed air marshal. Doug would also have to pay a surcharge for the privilege of bringing a firearm aboard.

Doug had noted the fires, appearing to burn unchecked, not long after sunrise.  The lone AM radio station did not mention them, only providing innocuous local news and weather forecasts, and some puff pieces on upcoming Federal appointees, followed by meaningless story about a high-end invitation only dinner and reception for several un-named foreign dignitaries, to be held in the Zone at an undisclosed location.  He’d turned on the television, finding only black screens on all channels.  FM radio stations seemed to be operating normally, until he noted there were no DJ’s announcing songs, filling the transitions with meaningless drivel, or news at the top and bottom of the hour. It seemed fully automated on all stations.  Doug also noted that the little LED on the ‘cable box’, most likely the hub of the apartments’ surveillance system, was dark—it had never been ‘off’ in Doug’s memory.

Finally, at nearly seven-thirty, two men from ‘Preferred Shipping’ arrived at Doug’s door, quickly loading up a single hand-truck with Doug’s things.  Both were in their late twenties or early thirties, wearing worn and not particularly clean coveralls with a company logo.  Doug welcomed them further into the apartment.

“This is it? Seriously?” the larger of the two asked—he reminded Doug of a linebacker. “Thought there’d be more.  You not taking any of this?” he said, waving at the furniture.

“Belongs to the company,” Doug said. “This was a temp job.”

“Pretty nice digs,” said the second man, a thin, wiry twenty-something with numerous tattoos. “Jeezus pleezus, lookit them fires,” he said, looking out over the city.

“Yeah. Saw them at sunrise. What’s going on? There’s nothing on the radio,” Doug said.  Linebacker stopped his companion from replying.

“We gotta get moving. We got orders to get you to DIA as soon as we can. We gotta non-disclosure against talkin’. Can’t even give ya our names. Sorry.”

“You guys want some coffee before we go? Just going to waste otherwise,” Doug said, taking a different tack. “Or the maid’ll take it. Can’t take it with me.”  He noted that the men exchanged quick glances.

“Well, we’re not supposed to,” the larger man said.

“I’m not telling,” Doug said. “Let me get a couple of mugs.”

Doug retrieved two Regent mugs from the kitchen, and filled them both with some of the Kona coffee provided to him.

“Cream and sugar?” Doug asked, getting both out from the kitchen.

“You serious? This is real coffee? And sugar?” Tattoo asked.

“Company provided it. Hard to get,” Doug replied.

“Impossible. Not hard,” Linebacker said, pouring an ample dose of cream into the mug, and two tablespoons of sugar.

“Yeah, I know. It’s getting pretty shitty out there,” Doug said, sitting down at the polished mahogany dining table. “Have a seat if you like.”

“We would so get our asses fired if our boss knew about this,” Tattoo said, pulling up a chair. “I haven’t had a coffee in months.”

Linebacker sat down across from Doug. “Uh, Mister Peterson, do you, uh, have any plans for your leftover stuff? I mean your leftover stuff in the kitchen?”

“No, not a one. Want it? There’s not much in there, but the Company will just toss it before someone new moves in,” Doug replied.

“It’d be a shame to waste it,” Linebacker said. “You mind if we take that along?”

“Not at all.  There’s not much in the fridge, just that leftover cream and some stuff that oughta get tossed. I had the concierge send up the cream and the orange juice for breakfast, and that loaf of bread. Freezer’s got some stuff though. Bacon, a few steaks and chops,” Doug said offhandedly, seeing the reaction of the two men. “Split it if you like.”

“Uh, OK. We can take care of that for you,” Tattoo said.

“Now, could you give me a little news from the outside?” Doug asked quietly, having provided them payment in advance.  They sat there for a few moments before either answered.

“You didn’t hear this from us, OK? We’d get canned if we tell anyone anything, and canned in this town is as good as being on the street, which is just this side of dead.”

“Didn’t hear a thing from you two,” Doug said, taking a drink of coffee. 

“Riots all over the place. Feds tried a house-to-house search for guns or some-such, some kid fresh from that goat-screw down in Mexico took exception and they shot him dead. That was last night about eleven,” Tattoo told Doug. “That was over in Lakewood.”

Linebacker continued. “Word got out quick. Bunch of black-wearin’ thugs started showing up on other people’s doorsteps, just bang in the door with a big ol’ sledge and start looking for God knows what. Someone popped one of those Feds in the face with a twelve-gauge when they busted inta his place, and then the neighbors joined in.  Them fires are the Feds’ tanks a-burnin’.”

“Tanks?” Doug asked.

“Might as well be, yeah. Some of them armored things left over from Afghanistan, sorta looks like a semi-tractor. Big ‘n black and a chain gun up in the roof. They burn real good, you get enough fuel on ‘em,” Linebacker said.

“That’s gotta have the Feds shittin’ bricks,” Doug said, in a more casual dialect.

“You got that right. Getting the Hell outta here’s about the smartest move out there.”

“What about you guys? This thing comes apart, you got a plan?”

They exchanged looks before Tatoo answered. “We got plans. We’re gonna be just fine. Question is, where you headin’?”

“Supposed to go to Columbus, finish up with the company, then a nice quiet corner of nowhere.”

“Bad shit comin’, Mister Peterson. Bad shit.”

“Yeah. If this is the way it looks in our temporary Capitol, what does the rest of the country look like?”  Doug asked. Neither of the men answered.

They finished up the coffee, and Tattoo made a trip down to their truck to retrieve moving boxes.  Within ten minutes, the kitchen was stripped of all remaining foodstuffs, soaps and detergents; everything packed in boxes and secured to a second hand truck.  Both men were in considerably better moods as they left the apartment.

8:20 a.m.

Doug rode in the back seat of the double-cab box van, showing his I.D. badge as the van was searched at the roadblock, finally getting the nod from the armed and armored security team.  Linebacker radioed in to his dispatcher on the company radio, briefly stating they had ‘the package’ and were heading to DIA.  The dispatcher acknowledged the pickup, with orders to report from DIA for their next assignment.

“Surprised they didn’t open up the boxes and search them, too,” Doug said.

“They’ve got our seals on them,” Tattoo replied. “We’re bonded shippers, so they don’t search our stuff once we seal it up. Penalty for not playing by their rules is wicked steep.”

“Good thing that we’re following the rules then,” Doug said with a chuckle.

“Yessir!” Linebacker said as he laughed. “Them porterhouses woulda been wasted in them boys.”

Interstate Seventy, heading east toward the Denver International interchange was virtually deserted.  Doug noted numerous additional plumes of smoke on the eastern side of the metro area as well.

“Same thing over here? Feds?”  Doug asked.

“Could be. Could be boys just gettin’ off on gettin’ even, too. Lotta that goes on outside the Zone,” Linebacker replied. “But usually only at nighttime. Fires mostly burn out by dawn.”

The van approached the airport, cruising along the empty Pena Boulevard. Doug contemplated the flight to Columbus, and what he’d do once he arrived.  Linebacker suddenly slammed on the brakes, jarring Doug in the back seat and forcing him to grab whatever he could as the van slewed to a stop.  A rapidly expanding cloud of fire and thick black smoke rose near the Airport.

“Jeezus,” Tattoo said as the van stopped in the middle of the road.  “You think sum’n bagged a frickin’ plane?”

“Dunno,” Linebacker replied, “but no way in Hell am I drivin’ up to all that security in a van that looks like a truck bomb.”  He turned the van around and headed west in the eastbound lanes, soon crossing over to the other side of the boulevard.

“Sorry, Mister Peterson. You’re not getting to the airport today,” Tattoo said as Linebacker radioed in to dispatch.

“Dispatch, this is Fourteen. Something bad just happened at the airport.  We’re not going out there,” Linebacker said. No response from the dispatcher came through.

“We gotta get off this highway,” Tattoo said. “This ain’t a good place to be. Feds gonna come down like a hammer again.”

“Take the next exit,” Doug said. “Bunch of hotels to the south of here. What do you mean by ‘again?’”

“Some government people bit it last week at the airport. Any truck or car moving got shot all to Hell by helos. Friends of ours were running a cargo load. The never knew what hit ‘em.”

Linebacker took the next exit, quickly but legally, driving the posted limit.  The flashing lights of a Colorado State Patrol car met them, speeding north toward the airport. It passed them without notice.

“Next one on the left,” Doug said. “Over there. There’s a few vans in the parking lot like this one.”

Tattoo was scanning the horizon toward the city. “Choppers coming. Jeez. Six of ‘em.”

The van slowed, pulled into the parking lot, and casually parked near three other box vans.

“Maybe it’s time for a late breakfast,” Doug said.

“We ain’t really dressed for a place like this,” Tattoo said.

“It’ll be OK. We’ll just tell ‘em the truth,” Doug replied. Linebacker took a smaller radio from the dash of the van. 

“This’n links to the main radio,” he said to Doug. “Maybe dispatch’ll have an idea what’s goin’ on.”

The hotel restaurant had a dozen or so people inside, many looking to the northeast as the smoke plume towered into the sky. The waitress greeted Doug at the front desk.

“C…Can I help you?” she asked shakily.

“Well, we were heading to the airport when something happened…we figured we should maybe come here,” Doug said. “Can we stay here? Tom and Larry here are helping me ship some important materials,” he said quietly.

“Uh, sure. No one knows what happened. Take a seat anywhere. I’ll get you some menus and coffee,” she said, and then asking quietly,  “Do you have money?”

“Yeah. We’re good,” Doug spoke confidently. “I’ve got this.”

The waitress went to get a carafe of coffee as they took their seats. Tattoo asked, “So which one of us is Larry?”

Two hours passed before ‘Tom’ and ‘Larry’ heard from their dispatcher, who ordered them back to the Metro area for their next assignment. While they were waiting, speculation ran wild in the hotel and the restaurant about what had happened at the airport, but no television coverage of it appeared, other than a simple statement ‘that at the present time, DIA had been closed due to an incident.’  The statement was not repeated.

 Both of the men apologized to Doug for leaving him short of his destination, and suggested that he might be able to catch a ride on an Eastbound convoy of semis, which were on regular schedules departing every few hours.

Doug would be left to fend for himself, his two large suitcases, suit bag, a soft-side attaché and backpack in the restaurant of the Front Range Suites. Doug’s essentials were in the backpack and the attaché, which was actually a detached portion of the backpack.

“Hang on a second before you go,” he told ‘Tom’ and ‘Larry.’ He headed over to the desk of the concierge.

“May I be of service?” the well-groomed young man asked.

“Yes. It appears that my flight out today will not be taking off. Do you have rooms available?” Doug asked, fishing out his Regent credit card and sliding it into the hands of the concierge, who looked at it briefly and handed it back without entering into the computer. Months before, Doug had concealed the card in a very thin scan-proof sleeve in his backpack. In theory, the case prevented the embedded chip to be detected ‘on the fly’. In reality, Doug had no idea if the technology really worked.

“We are fully booked at this time, but we should have a large contingent of guests checking out within the next two hours, leaving on ground transport. Would that be of interest?”

“Yes. That would be fine.  May I store those bags until that time?”

“But of course. I will reserve a suite for you, Mister Peterson. How many nights?”

“Well, I’m uncertain on that. Have you heard when the airport will reopen?”

“Unfortunately not, sir. I cannot hazard a guess.”

“Let’s call it three nights then, just in case.”

“Excellent, sir. Until your room is available, you are welcome to use our conference center at your convenience.”

“How is your communications service? Still intact? I’ve been working at the FDA downtown for quite a while.”

“Apologies, sir, there are some limited connections to the Federal network, but only with proper login and authorization. Unfortunately, telephones are a bit spotty as well.”

“No problem. I may just take a stroll around. Pretty day for a walk.”

“It is at that, sir,” the concierge said, signaling to a bellhop to retrieve Doug’s bags, tag and store them. Doug paid the bill for ‘brunch’ with his Regent card—deliberately—and then put it back into the metallic sleeve.

“Mind if I catch a ride with you two?” Doug asked ‘Tom’ and ‘Larry’, who both raised their eyebrows at the question. “Just drop me at that truck stop you mentioned.”

“What about your stuff?” ‘Larry’ asked.

“They’ll store it. They think I’m staying here tonight. With luck, I’ll be on a truck headed east by then.”

“Sure. Saddle up. Thanks for brunch, Mister Peterson. Can’t tell my girlfriend about this though. She’d kill me if she found out I had eggs benedic’,” ‘Larry’ replied.

Five miles south of the cluster of hotels, the van pulled into the truck stop, just off of Airport Boulevard.  The parking lot was packed, with easily more than a hundred trucks parked.

“Weird to see this many mid-day,” ‘Tom’ said.

“Yeah. Should be on the road this time a-day,” Larry replied. “You might be in luck, Mister Peterson.”

“Maybe so,” Doug said as the van stopped near the far end of the fueling island. He grabbed is pack, thanked the men again, and closed the door.  The van quickly turned around and left as Doug made his way up the fueling island, checking out the trucking companies along the way. He knew most of their coverage areas as well as they did, in his former life.

“Anyone heading east?” Doug asked two drivers conversing as their tanks filled.

“Damn near ever’ one. Needin’ a lift?” said a rotund, overall-clad man about Doug’s age.

“Yeah. Doesn’t look like flying’s an option,” Doug said.

“Got that right. Hell’a mess over there,” the second driver said. He looked to be too old to be driving. “Where ya headed?”

“Des Moines.”

“I’m headed to Chicago,” the first man replied. “We leave in twenty minutes. You got some scratch?”

Doug looked the older man in the eye and asked, “What’s the goin’ rate?”

“Whatever the driver can get, a-course,” the younger driver replied with a wink.

“Twelve hour drive, probably a stop or three for security, maybe a few Federal searches along the way, I’d guess?” Doug said.

“Depends,” the older driver replied.

“This a Federal convoy, or private?” Doug asked.

“Depends,” the driver repeated.  Doug was getting frustrated.

“OK. Let’s cut the bullshit then,” Doug said, taking out his Federal ID and FDA badge, which caused both men to step back involuntarily.  “I have business in Des Moines. These can be used to make things easier, or more difficult.  What’s your price?”

“How’s fifty bucks gold?” the man answered quickly. 

“I don’t have any ten-coins. Call it good at sixty, and no one will see these for the duration,” Doug said, putting his obsolete Federal ID’s away.  The younger driver laughed and shook his head.

“Money’s more than fine. And keep that ID handy. Might smooth things along the way. Ya never know,” the older driver said, shaking Doug’s hand. “Sorry about that.”

“Not to worry,” Doug answered.

They cleared the truck stop exit on schedule, part of a fifty-truck convoy protected by private security ahead, within, and behind the line of trucks. Lead and chase vehicles surrounded the convoy, jumping ahead to block off on-ramps, provide scouting of the highway ahead of the main convoy, and trailing units keeping an eye on any vehicles that might approach from the rear. There was no citizens’ band radio chatter on orders of the convoy commander. Without anything but Government approved radio within radio range of Denver, Doug and the driver, Ezra Hempstead, had little to listen to, other than the commands of the convoy commander to the security team, and some ancient Country Western music dating from the sixties.

Doug told Ezra that the business in Des Moines wasn’t related to official FDA business, which was correct of course—he was no longer employed there.  As the miles ticked away, Ezra told Doug to ‘catch some Z’s while you can’. Just outside of Sterling, Colorado he took the advice, made himself comfortable, and dozed off. 

Two hours later, the truck lurched to a sudden stop, waking Doug from a particularly nice dream.  The weather had turned while he slept—he woke to steady rain and gusting wind from the north.

“You OK?” Ezra asked.

“Yeah. Surprised me that we stopped is all,” he said, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. “Where are we?”

“Five miles outta North Platte.”


“Looks like the road’s closed. Expect we’ll be here awhile,” Ezra replied.

“Did the convoy leader say that?” Doug asked.

“They never say that, but no one’s movin’, and there’s no reason to stop here unless there’s trouble up ahead. If there’s any trouble between here and Grand Island, I’d bet we’re here for the night.”

“Weather sure went downhill,” Doug said. “Do you make this run often?”

“Six days a week for three and a half months. Seen enough of this road to last a lifetime.”

Exiting at Eighty Three South. Stay in queue and park as directed,” the convoy leader directed on the radio.

“And there you are,” Ezra said. “Hope you brought a book or two to read.  We’re restricted to the truck stop area, or whatever they designate as a truck park. No one leaves their truck until we get the say-so.”

For twenty minutes, the convoy crawled along Interstate Eighty, barely moving toward the interchange.  Finally, the hundred-truck convoy parked in a huge, graveled parking area a half-block from a local truck stop. 

“One through twenty, clear to exit. Back in thirty, no exceptions,” the radio stated.

“That’s us. We’re nineteen, in case you didn’t know,” Ezra said.

“But we’re something like thirty-third in line, aren’t we?” Doug asked.

“Yep. Doesn’t matter where we are in line, though. Too much to keep track of in a convoy.” 

Doug pulled a rain shell from his pack, along with a baseball cap, and climbed down from the cab, following Ezra in his ‘Hempstead Limited’ jacket.  The convoy security teams had deployed and cordoned off the truck park.  Doug casually noted five men with rifles, looking out through the grey rain at the small town of North Platte.

“This happen often?” Doug asked. “Sorry I ask so many questions, by the way. Trying to learn what it’s like out of the city.”

“Often enough.  Haven’t had a clean run to the east in four weeks, maybe five.  South’a here snipers are taking out solo drivers.  Gets worse the farther from the big cities you go. So we convoy, those lead trucks usually are armored up. Glass, steel plate, run-flat tires. The security boys run up ahead, see if there are any traps on bridges or overpasses,” Hempstead explained as they crossed the street toward the  truck stop restaurant.

“More trouble away from the cities? I don’t get it,” Doug said.

“Seems wrong, doesn’t it?” Ezra explained. “Used to be the other way around. Cities have been, well, I guess you’d call it ‘pacified.’ Anyone gettin’ near a convoy highway is pretty much fair game for security.  Gangs and such that used to mob a convoy pretty much been killed off by now. But out here, I figure it’s the loners. They got nothin’ left, so they figure to score a truckload of food or somethin’.  Small towns like this’n have some real problems. Can’t hardly feed themselves. You’ll see what I mean, inside,” Ezra said as he opened the door.

The restaurant was nearly deserted except for the truckers and a few security men, who were looking out the windows and manning the doors.  Two men, obviously with the security detail, hauled in two locking trunks, popped the latches, and started handing out sandwiches and pouring coffee from a large, insulated container. A man and woman, Doug guessed they were the cook and a waitress, stood and watched from behind the lunch counter.  The menu items, displayed above the counter on a backlit plastic panel, were nearly all crossed out with a black line.  All of the prices had been removed, he noted.

“You oughta hit the can while you got time,” Ezra said. “One thing you should learn is to take every opportunity. Can’t stop on the road. I’ll get you a sandwich and some coffee.”

“OK,” Doug said. 

“One more thing. No talkin’ to the locals,” Hempstead told Doug.  “Doesn’t pay to stir the pot.”