The Man With Three Wives: 1.06

Neither her truck nor her boss act normally after Vicky leaves Fortek’s farm. The Feds descend upon them, convinced Vicky is withholding information. She is not telling everything, but it couldn’t have anything to do with either the government or the bank. On the other hand, maybe it could.

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Vicky glanced at her gas gauge as she got close to Alma. Even without the detour to the Fortek place yesterday, she should be at less than a quarter tank. Surprisingly, the gauge read just under a half tank, which was where the needle showed before going out to see Fortek. Just to be sure, she went into the combination truck stop and convenience store on the edge of town. Filling it took the amount she knew would be half a tank.

As she got back in her truck, she saw Julie come out of the cafe next door to the convenience store. They waved to each other as Vicky pulled out and headed the short distance to the bank. There, amazingly, Roger was already inside and waiting for her.

“Did you say he planted amaranth?” were the first words out of Roger’s mouth.

“That’s right.”

“Where will he sell it? It’s several hundred miles to the closest place that would handle anything like that. Don’t you remember those folks who tried to convert their farm to organic standards several years ago?”

“Fortek didn’t say. I see your point, but it isn’t as though we gave him a mortgage or production loan. I didn’t think about that angle, to tell you the truth. At the same time, you sent me out there to scout around. I did that. The man was at least as strange out there as he was when he was in here. All I wanted to do was take care of business and scram.”

Julie came in, and Roger headed to his office. Typically, Roger never showed up for another half hour or forty-five minutes. Julie always came in for girl talk unless there were people in the bank. Today, she glanced nervously in Roger’s direction and went directly to the teller station.

It was just as well, since somebody pulled up to the drive-through, and Julie had to hustle over to handle the transaction. A few minutes later, two men came into the bank. They smelled like Feds, both wearing ties and wrinkled shirts. Vicky guessed times were tough all over.

They glanced around the bank, stared at Vicky and then made a bee-line for Roger, who was standing in the doorway of his office. They all went inside and shut the door. Vicky didn’t recognize either of them. They could have been anybody. She couldn’t tell one Fed from another in any case.

Two hours later, they were still in there. Maybe those were aliens, and they abducted Roger. Vicky couldn’t imagine what they could discuss for two minutes, much less most of the morning. That time span brought the clock to a couple of ticks after eleven. Vicky decided that if Roger was still in his office, her phone should ring pretty soon. It did.

“Vicky, call the sandwich shop down the street and order three sandwiches and drinks. Get whatever their special is.”

She could hear voices in the background, and Roger amended the request or order. “Make that four sandwiches and drinks. One will be for you. Bring them on in the office when they are ready. These gentlemen have a question for you. I’ll reimburse you.”

Now there was a thought. Roger was always going to reimburse her for things. Vicky had never seen a nickel so far. That was business as usual. These Feds, though, could damn well pay up or she would eat their sandwiches for them.

A young couple recently opened the sandwich shop. Vicky liked them a lot. That made supporting them much less painful.

Returning, she saw the car that waited for her outside Fortek’s farm. It had dents along with pits and breaks in the windshield. That told her all she needed to know about their visitors.

Carting the bag of sandwiches and drinks into the bank, trying not to spill the drinks as she went through the door, Vicky mentally added up what the Feds owed her. They were watching since the office door opened as she approached. Inside, the Feds had their money out to pay her for the meal. It was too bad. She had looked forward to raining all over them.

Afterward, the Inquisition did not immediately begin. The Feds chatted about their families and other nonsense. All the while, she could see they were trying to get her into their little dialogue. That was the point, though. It was their conversation. If they wanted to talk to her, they could address her directly.

At the same time, she noted the fact that her personnel folder was sitting on the edge of Roger’s desk next to the Feds. They knew what was in her file and she already told them everything there was to say about Fortek. Vicky finished her sandwich and part of her drink when she decided to take the bit in her mouth.

“I can only assume you held off your interrogation to avoid having to clean a sandwich and drink off your face and shirt. There’s still half a cup of tea here, and I’m about to take it and my indigestion somewhere else.”

The one Fed licked his lips. “That possibility had not occurred to me. What we need to know are all the details of what happened in the forty-five minutes you spent with Fortek.”

Vicky shrugged. “I went at Roger’s request. The purpose was to protect the bank’s interest in the situation when it became evident you gentlemen had an overwhelming interest in him. As I told your people when they grabbed me, I took a couple of forms and had him sign them.”

“That took nearly an hour to do?”

“When I drove into the place, I hit a pothole and something popped loose. Fortek was kind enough to do a repair so that I could leave. Maybe he wanted me gone almost as much as I wanted to get out of there. We tested the repair, driving to the end of his field where three laborers got in the back. Then we went back to where he’s living. They offered me a drink, which I took. Then I left.”

“You didn’t tell me about the truck breaking,” Roger accused.

“It doesn’t belong to you or the bank. I saw no point in bringing it up since you wouldn’t do anything about it whatever I said.”

“Are you sure that’s all that happened?” the one Fed asked, leaning forward.

“Your man mentioned that all your surveillance toys decided to take a break while I was there. I’m sure you’d like to create a case out of it. The fact is that while you obviously want to connect my visit with your equipment, they have nothing in common. I’ve heard some people have a hard time believing in coincidences, but sometimes the timing is all that two events have in common.”

“I’m sure something must have happened,” the Fed insisted. “Satellite, drone, and terrestrial coverage all went down at the same time.”

Vicky shook her head. “I’m like the kid who hit a power pole with a stick at the moment the electricity went off. You’ll have to look somewhere else.”

The Man With Three Wives: 1.05

Vicky got away from Fortek in one piece. Then she discovers a pack of Federal agents watching the place. They want to talk and Vicky can’t give them anything.

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The suspension seemed far more capable as she bounced out toward the farm road. Vicky’s attitude more than made up any difference in the ride. He already had three wives, all of them gorgeous, and he was staring at her like Vicky was the most astonishing thing he’d ever seen. Was he trying to make a foursome? That would only make a difference if they had a girl’s day off to play golf. Well, Vicky did not golf.

Who did this Fortek think he was? Come to think of it, what did he think he was? Roger sent her out here to do work that he should have taken care of himself. She had to admit that the man was easy on the eye. It was like somebody designed him as the perfect mortal man. Not only that, he did miraculous things, and apparently considered what he did perfectly ordinary.

With those mixed thoughts chasing each other around her mind, she got to the farm road. Glancing left, there was a car. It did not have a Nebraska license plate on the front. It was close enough that she could see it was a Federal plate. It started toward her. Well, that was just dandy. She turned right and gunned it. The truck had more power than it ever had before and sprayed gravel as it fish-tailed. There was little doubt that at least some of the rocks found their way back to the vehicle paid for by taxpayers. Whatever subject the Fed had in mind for a chat, Vicky desired to talk about it less.

The car hung back a little. Maybe the driver got the message. On the other hand, the car never stopped. As Vicky approached an intersecting farm road, two large black SUVs pulled out from opposite sides, completely blocking the road. Two more closed the road behind her. Additional guys got behind the black vehicles with weapons pointed her direction. That just wasn’t friendly. There also wasn’t a whole lot she could do about it unless those lights from the Fortek place appeared to fly her out of here. It didn’t seem likely at the moment.

Now she tried to remember experts said to do when pulled over by law enforcement people. Vicky shut off the engine, rolled up the windows, and put both hands on her steering wheel. That was to show she wasn’t doing anything to threaten these guys. As far as she could tell, that would have been suicide.

Three of them approached warily, the one in front with a pistol drawn. The two slightly behind both carried shotguns. Mr. Handgun peered at her through the dust-covered side window.

“Please step out of your vehicle,” he said.

“Show me your identification,” Vicky replied. “I want to see identification from all of you.”

She wasn’t that surprised when they immediately produced badges, identifying them as Homeland Security. Vicky got out.

“Why were you at that farm?”

“Mr. Fortek opened an account at our bank. My boss heard there was a lot of Federal interest in our customer and sent me out to have a look. My excuse was to bring a couple of forms for him to sign.”

“What did you see?”

“I didn’t see much. The man is working on a field and a little on the place he’s staying. You guys have the equipment to see ten times as much as I did. Why are you asking me?”

“All of our equipment went down shortly after you arrived. It didn’t come up again until we saw you coming out.”

The men let her go after getting her name and other information. Their eyes told her that what they saw spooked them. In that, she considered they were on the same wavelength that she was. Beyond that, they had neither been on the property nor been up close and personal with Fortek. It was certain that none of them experienced Fortek gazing at them with lustful eyes.

As she drove toward Alma, Vicky called the bank. Roger was still there, which surprised her.

“Did you do it?” he wanted to know.

“Fortek signed the forms. He lives there or appears to. Also, I saw three people helping him. He’s managed to plant a field of amaranth and hopes to get a crop from it, even this late. The Feds stopped me just after I left. They asked a few questions and let me go. I expect they’ll be by in the not-too-distant future. I doubt there would be anything more to tell them than what they already know.”

“It sounds like you did a great job, as always. There’s no point in coming back to Alma this late. Why don’t you head home and we’ll see you in the morning.”

Once again, Vicky knew she got off far too easily. At the same time, she did not feel like arguing the point. At the same time, Vicky was aware of badly needing something to separate her from the experiences of the afternoon. At this point, Vicky decided she had a choice. The sensible way was to get some gelato, snacks, and beverages, and cocoon in front of the television. The alternative was to go to her favorite bar. As a choice, it was a no-show. She needed the human interaction.

She discovered that getting sloppy could not be any part of the evening. Vicky didn’t dare risk getting into a situation where her mouth started working without complete control of her mind. In spite of that resolution, she managed to consume a great deal. A large part of the consumption came from a lack of interaction. Everybody was friendly, but it was impossible to get into a real conversation with anyone. Fortek’s eyes seemed to follow her wherever she went and whatever she did. The creepy feeling from earlier in the day went on and on.

There was a bit of alcoholic anesthesia as the evening ended. At least the condition gave a period of unconsciousness. That was a great break while it lasted, but the alarm clock interrupted it far too soon. Vicky got ready for work, running on autopilot and trying to survive a perilously dry mouth and a nasty taste in spite of consuming whole milk and orange juice.

Twenty-five miles at highway speed doesn’t take that long. At the same time, she’d done it so many times that it was all automatic. That, unfortunately, left her with nothing but thoughts about yesterday. Why didn’t she tell anybody the whole story? The Feds were on their own and could make up any story that suited them. Roger, however, was another matter. He seemed ready to believe just about anything.

The critical part of that was that Roger might find just about anything believable. What she’d seen and experienced was a long way beyond anything she might expect anybody to buy. It appeared that Vicky was going to support Fortek even though the man had not asked for anything.

At this point, a closed mouth looked like her best strategy. After all, if she told anyone, she would either be crazy or a liar.

The Man With Three Wives: 1.04

Vicky’s truck broke down on a farm now owned by the oddest man she’d ever met. Now, it seemed he could grow crops at an incredible rate. All of these things qualified the day as strange. Wait a minute — there were three wives in the title. Where are they?

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The extraordinary sight and what it meant could not have distracted Vicky for more than a moment. However long it was, a bright flash of light under her truck brought her back to reality. Fortek slid back into view and stood up, brushing the dust off himself. Oddly, he didn’t have any grease visible.

“It will work now,” he announced.

Vicky was astonished. “It will? How can that be?”

“It was a simple thing. Perhaps you should do a test. That might not have been the only problem.”

Vicky chuckled. “There is everything wrong with the truck. Taking care of all of it, as you say, is simple. It requires a simple thing I don’t have. It’s called money.”

Fortek seemed perplexed. “You work in the place that has lots of money. How could you not have it?”

“It’s called a conflict of interest. Those who work with other people’s money are not allowed to have any themselves.”

“I do not understand.”

“It does not require understanding. The only requirement is that everyone put up with it.”

Forte blinked. Then, with no other visible reaction, told her, “Start your vehicle. We will go to the end of the field and return. I will ride, too.”

Vicky sighed and climbed in while Fortek walked around and climbed in on the passenger side. He cocked his head and listened as Vicky started the engine and put it in gear. Whatever he had done translated into immediate action as the truck rolled forward with no hesitation or noise. As they picked up a bit of speed and the automatic transmission upshifted, Fortek shook his head.

“Please stop. That is not right.”

He went out the door and slid under the truck with the engine running and still in gear. Vicky thought that was strange, not to mention dangerous. He popped back out a moment later.

“Please turn it off. I can take care of it.”

Vicky did as he asked. The truck hadn’t shifted smoothly since the day she bought it. Her mechanic told her several times that fixing it would cost more than the relic was worth. She was suddenly aware of multi-colored lights flashing all around her and the truck. A moment later, a pronounced white flash along with a slight thump came from underneath. The flashing lights disappeared, and Fortek reappeared.  Spots of grease and dirt seemed to evaporate from his skin and clothing as he stood up. He got back into the truck as though nothing unusual just happened.

“Try again,” he instructed.

There was no way to get much speed but the truck now ran like it was new. Vicky had no idea what she could report to Roger. None of this had anything to do with how things got done anywhere, much less here. There was certainly no way the bank should make the man a loan. After all, there would be no way to collect anything if and when he disappeared.

She wondered if the Federal surveillance watched all this. Then it occurred to her that the Feds might now want to interview her directly. That part did not bode well. On the other hand, she now apparently had functional transportation. Hopefully, that functionality didn’t happen to include trips through space, dimensions, or time.

Meanwhile, Fortek relaxed in the passenger seat as they approached the end of the field. He finally pointed ahead.

“You will be able to turn around right there.”

The steering was uncertain when she bought it and got worse since. Now, however, the steering was tight and precise, giving a smaller turning radius than she could remember.

“Please stop now,” came from the passenger seat.

Vicky immediately stopped. The brakes were far better than she could remember. Mostly, she wondered what Fortek decided he needed to fix now. The man didn’t move. A moment later, she heard and felt clunks and clanks just behind her. Turning around, Vicky saw hoes, rakes, and shovels dropping into the bed of the truck. Following the tools were three attractive young women who looked as though they dropped from a reality TV show. One grinned and waved to her through the back window and another pounded three times on the top of the cab.

“Is this why we’re out here?” Vicky asked Fortek. “Does the pounding mean we can go back now?”

“It is an exchange of favors. I repaired your vehicle, and you helped get the wives.”

There had been more strangeness with this situation than Vicky could easily count. For some reason, she had thought of Paul Fortek as a single person. She thought that even while concluding he might not be human. Julie thinking she might have been a personal reaction on Vicky’s part to Mr. Fortek was more accurate than Vicky herself could have believed. While there was something about him that got her hormones racing, Vicky now saw he had three — count them, three wives. All looked like Hollywood starlets or models, too. The whole situation was too much, and Vicky decided on the short drive back to the ramshackle residence that to preserve her sanity, she had to put the whole thing behind her.

The three ladies vaulted out of the back before she completely stopped. It was like they all came from the same mold. The only difference between them was their hair color. One had raven locks, the second was blonde, and the third was a redhead. It was the redhead who bounced up to her window.

“Come inside. We’ll have lemonade or iced tea.”

“I couldn’t possibly,” Vicky started to say, only to have the redhead open her door.

“Don’t be silly. We all need something to drink.”

It was a good thing Vicky wasn’t leaning on the door. She’d have been on the ground, otherwise. Outside the truck, she considered how to get out of this insane asylum.

“Mr. Fortek, the way you repaired my truck, I wonder why you haven’t done something to the house.”

Paul stopped to consider the comment. The raven haired gal and the blonde ganged up on him at that point, each overtly pressing against him. “Yes, why don’t you do that?” they both cooed.

There was silence for a few moments, and then multi-colored lights appeared, whirling around the place. Vicky got the impression that fixing the house represented more effort. Vicky saw more lights and they danced around the place several minutes before multiple flashes of brilliant white light burst from all parts of the old home. Then everything became quiet again. The house had not become a fairy tale castle. As a matter of fact, it was not painted and didn’t even look very different from before. Now, though, Vicky got a feeling of strength and substance radiating from it. There were windows and doors now. The porch looked like it could take her weight without collapsing.

As they went into the house, Vicky noted the ring finger of each of the three women. There were gold bands on each, all identical. Inside, the three were all over Paul Fortek. Disconcertingly, he reserved all his attention for Vicky, who excused herself as quickly as possible.

The Man With Three Wives: 1.03

Vicky’s boss discovers the Feds are very interested in their new customer. He sends her to investigate. Maybe Vicky should run away, instead.

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If Fortek represented an explosive situation, it was on a long fuse. Two weeks went by without so much as a whisper about him. Meanwhile, Julie continued giving advice about life. Vicky had no doubt its purveyor considered all of her words to be wisdom. Vicky also noticed that most of it blew on by without much notice. A large part of it appeared to be that no matter how she tried, Paul Fortek stayed on her mind. She couldn’t figure out what would make him memorable. The man was a walking disaster, inviting calamity on everyone and everything in sight.

In a spare moment, she did a search on the address he gave in Omaha. There was a building at the address. She got a street level view and saw that it was a doggie day care. As far as she could tell by looking at the place, there was no way a person lived there. Vicky’s timing was precise since Roger walked into her office just then. Vicky showed him what she found. Roger had some news of his own.

“We can add that to the laundry list. It seems that Mr. Fortek suddenly came up with specific things to go into the offer. Chief among them was that he was to take immediate possession of the property. Even more intriguing was the fact that the seller was willing to do it. That might be beside the point. He moved into a run-down house on the corner of the property that night.”

Vicky shook her head. “All that says is that the man didn’t have a home and didn’t care to buy a motel room while the deal went through.”

“The house on the property is so bad that he’d have been better off sleeping down beside the lake. There are no utilities. The night he went out there, the strange lights everybody’s been seeing moved there as well. I sent the notification, and here’s something else for your laundry list. Ordinarily, the Feds would take one to six months even to reply. They started having satellite and drone observation the very next day.”

“That only means he’s not an illegal immigrant. If that were the case, they’d just wave him through and tell him where to get benefits.”

“We’re not going there. Something is going on that merits all this attention. Fortek is our customer. Right now, we’re flying blind. I need to know what’s going on. You signed him up, Vicky. You get to go check it out. In any case, Rhonda tells me the road into the place is pretty bad. You’ve got a four-wheel drive truck. From what Rhonda tells me, my little car wouldn’t have a chance. This trip being bank business, I’ll reimburse your mileage.”

“Are you telling me to go right now?”

Roger nodded, and he wasn’t smiling. “I shouldn’t have to mention the need to invent a bank reason for going. He is not to know about the surveillance. Here are the directions.”

Vicky sighed as she grabbed a few forms. These were not required forms. If Fortek didn’t know the difference between a business and personal account, he would have no way to know about whether these were needed or not. She grabbed her purse and headed out the door. It wasn’t until she got outside and down the street that she started cussing out Roger. The stream of invective continued the entire way to see the walking disaster. Other than the rudimentary driveway, her boss could have done this even in his happy little car.

It was a good thing she didn’t need four-wheel drive to get in. The kind of vehicle she could afford was not in good or even fair shape. Fortunately, the basic two-wheel drive was adequate for nearly all of her needs. When the highway got too bad, she stayed home. Bouncing along the heavily rutted track, Vicky saw Rhonda’s doubts about Roger being able to drive it. He would have had to walk. Since it was a long driveway, he would have gotten a lot of dust on his Italian loafers. Vicky thought it would be good for him. Going through a particularly large pothole toward the end, Vicky heard something pop and grind. She figured it was probably a U-joint. They told her the things were on borrowed time the last time she had it in the shop. Somehow, the truck kept going to the front of a ramshackle place. Roger described it accurately.

Vicky didn’t have any time to look at the house since Paul Fortek was almost immediately beside the truck.

“You are the lady from the bank,” he observed.

She nodded. “We discovered a couple of forms you need to sign. I have them here.”

In the past two weeks, Paul managed to swap the funny straw costume hat for head gear from the co-op. “That was not a good sound coming from your vehicle.”

Vicky found herself adopting Paul’s odd speech mannerisms. “It was not good. The U-joint broke.”

“I will look,” he said and then stopped. “First, I will sign your forms.”

“That would be good.”

She got out, placed the forms on the truck fender, and handed him a pen. After signing, he slid under the truck. Vicky could not imagine Paul or anybody else, for that matter, being able to get the truck able to run. It wasn’t long before he came out from under the truck.

“It is the U-joint. You were nice to me. I will take care of it for you.”

Vicky considered he had a low threshold for what constituted being ‘nice.’

“This will take a little while. You should sit on the porch in the shade. You asked what I intended to do. The first part is in the area across from the house. It is the amaranth. I have a way to make the plants grow faster so they will be ready before the winter comes.”

She was had reservations about the stability of the porch but went there in spite of everything. After she sat down, Vicky did look at the planted area, which looked like about five acres. It was impossible, but in two weeks, he had cleared that amount of land and planted the amaranth. Not only that, the field was fully sprouted and a foot tall. As far as she recalled, the plants should just be germinating, even assuming he got the field ready and planted the day after he moved in.

The Feds might have many reasons for keeping an eye on this situation. Vicky thought she just figured out one of them. If Fortek could have mature seed pods by the first frost, he would have pulled off a horticultural miracle. From that standpoint, it wouldn’t matter where he came from. For that matter, the source of his funds ceased to have anything like the importance anybody thought. Quinoa in the springtime and amaranth in the fall meant two high-protein crops from a single field. Amaranth, she recalled, could produce a thousand pounds of seed per acre. As a bonus, the leaves were eatable.

The Man With Three Wives: 1.02

Who is this guy with no memory, lots of cash, and a focus on where he’s going? Could he have three wives? Enquiring minds want to know.

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Once she escorted him outside, Vicky looked up and down the street. She was curious to see what Paul Fortek drove to the bank. The town of Alma, Nebraska was small enough that Vicky was able to identify every car in sight. Today, she could even include those at the grocery store half a block away. The real estate office was on the opposite side of the commercial center of the town. That might have been a significant distance elsewhere. In the case of Alma, it only amounted to a block and a half. Along the way, Vicky made another attempt at conversation.

“What will you do with the land, Mr. Fortek?”

“I will grow grapes for wine. I also plan on bottling wine. Since that will take some time, my first crops will be quinoa and amaranth.”

“I suppose you’re going organic.”

Fortek looked at her, a puzzled look in his eyes. “No, I will not grow any organs. Why would I do that?”

Vicky considered the size of the deposit. She hoped something good would come of meeting this character beyond the dollars in the bank’s vault. Having anything like an intelligent conversation certainly didn’t seem to be on the list. For the moment, the closest approximation to a good time was how fast they arrived at the real estate office. Vicky introduced him to Rhonda, who was both the broker and owner. Vicky was acquainted with her since she had been suggesting local properties to her for some time. Vicky couldn’t complain about her being too pushy, though. As a matter of fact, her impression was that the broker was quite personable. She appeared to get the same mixed signals from Mr. Fortek that Vicky did.

After the introductions, Vicky made as graceful an exit as possible under the circumstances. There was no doubt in her mind this new account would be the subject of further discussion at the bank. That foreboding was the case. Roger immediately dragged her into his office when she walked in the door.

“You realize we have to do a suspicious activity report for this deposit. It smells like money laundering and who knows what else. Have we done everything possible to meet due diligence requirements?”

“I’m sure you already know the answer to that from Julie. His name is bogus. However, the computer validates both his name and identification. The address he gave appears valid although I’m not familiar with the area. It’s near Omaha. To check further, I looked when we went outside, and if he drove here, he hid his vehicle somewhere off Main Street.”

“That was all excellent, Vicky. We’ve done everything properly. You even managed to go beyond the requirements. Julie expressed concern that you might have a personal attachment to the man.”

Vicky could only snort and shake her head. “Julie was the one with the massive reaction to him. She thought he looked like a Hollywood star. That may be so, but the man has such a huge short circuit between the ears that when I was able to wish him off on the real estate broker, it made my day.”

Julie knocked on the office door. “The real estate broker is on the phone. Our new customer wants to write a check as earnest money for a property.”

Roger waved her into the office. “I’m going to put this on speaker, and I want both of you for witnesses.”

The broker’s voice filled the small office. “Mr. Fortek was very specific about the nature of the property he needed. I didn’t know of any, but when I looked it up, the exact property he described is available. He will to pay the full price and is ready to write a check for the earnest money. I need to verify the funds are available.”

She saw Roger take a deep breath and grit his teeth before replying. “The gentleman opened the account with sufficient cash to take care of almost any earnest money requirement you might have. My head cashier, Julie, can confirm the specific amount. I have to tell you, though, that by law, the funds are available now.”

“Thank you, Roger. Julie did confirm the specific amount but suggested I chat with you, as well.”

“I appreciate that, Rhonda. Is Mr. Fortek listening to our conversation?”

“No, he isn’t. He is in the other office right now. He is a bit of a weird bird.”

“You will get no disagreement from us. The consensus here is that you should treat Mr. Fortek in as conservative a manner as possible. While the funds are technically available, we have to report the deposit under money laundering regulations.”

Vicky expected a pause from the other end as Rhonda digested the information. Instead, the response was nearly immediate. “I expected things might be along that line. I’m writing the offer. I have to, after all. At the same time, I will take that into consideration. With the possibility of the Feds raining on our parade, I don’t want to build the seller’s hopes for nothing.”

Rhonda never mentioned who was selling. Neither Roger nor Julie brought it up. The community being as small as it was, there was no doubt the name would be familiar to everyone there. For that matter, there was every chance the seller had an account with them. It could make the situation that much more touchy, and everybody knew it. The possibility that Paul Fortek, or whatever his name was, might have just invited unwelcome State and Federal attention on their private little corner of the planet was bad news, indeed.

The call ended and the only thing bringing an end to the three of them commiserating with one another was Grace arriving with the day’s deposit from the coffee shop. Her place closed at two in the afternoon, which gave Grace plenty of time to close out and get the deposit to the bank. Vicky recalled how people used to talk about banker’s hours being short. Of course, the cafe opened at six every morning. The main benefit of working there was being able to keep up with the local gossip, and while Julie kept up with it very well, Grace was Alma’s rumor control.

That made it very significant when Julie and Grace conversed while Julie processed the deposit. The point was that Julie did not say a single word about what went on. Come to think of it, Grace didn’t bring anything up either, and half the town had to have seen Vicky walking Mr. Fortek down to the real estate office. That also meant everybody in Alma knew about him and were keeping their eyes open and their mouths shut.

As Vicky thought about it later, she didn’t think Fortek could have caused more concern if he’d walked into town wrapped in high explosives. About the only good thing was that Julie was no longer trying to redesign Vicky’s life. At the same time, tomorrow was another day and old subjects would rise from the ashes of today’s distractions. It would be a while before the government came snooping, and even the real estate transaction couldn’t happen overnight.

Author’s note: Could it?

The Man With Three Wives: 1.01

Here’s a new tale for you. It doesn’t involve the end of the world. At least I don’t think so. Yet.

What we do know is that nothing is quite right about the stranger opening an account in a small-town bank.

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“You should get a place in town, Vicky. It makes no sense having to drive thirty miles to work, especially with what they pay here.”

Julie was in Vicky’s office. At the moment, they were the only ones in the bank. Vicky agreed with Julie but couldn’t let the old bat think she had the best of the situation.

“It’s only twenty-five miles on good roads. As it happens, I do a lot of thinking on the way.”

Julie would not let that pass. “We all know what you think about, too. Tom left you to head off to Omaha.”

Okay, that occupied a good part of her thoughts, but not in the way Julie put it. “There were no jobs for him locally. I told him to go. He needs to use his training for something worthwhile.”

The additional point was that Vicky was supporting Tom with a job that wouldn’t take care of one person’s needs, much less two. Saying she told him to go put it mildly. Vicky threw him out when he decided that being planted in front the television was better than looking for work or even helping around the place. That, however, would be grist for Julie’s rumor mill, and that was not about to happen.

“I suppose you’re plotting about how to take over the bank from Roger.”

“That would be a promotion. At the same time, Roger isn’t going anywhere. No, I think about lots of things. Why do you suppose my mind is so narrow that I would only think about men or money?”

“Maybe you hope to see some those UFO’s folks have seen lately.”

Vicky was glad the conversation moved on. “I hadn’t thought about what people said at all. Do you think there’s anything to the stories?”

“When I stopped at the cafe this morning, they talked about nothing else. Several there swore there were lights above the Republican River east of town. They were white, green, and blue.”

Just then, the door of the bank opened. Vicky’s so-called office was a cubicle, the walls glass above her desk. The location near the front door made Vicky wonder if she was more receptionist than bank officer. There was no way to tell from her paychecks.

Julie gasped and giggled as she looked at the individual in the doorway. “That outfit looks like the costume the guy wore in that old TV show, HeeHaw. Archie Campbell wore a silly straw hat and that looks just like it. On the other hand, that’s a lot of man wearing it. He could be a Hollywood star.”

With that, she scurried to a teller station. Vicky had to admit Julie’s observations were accurate. Also, he looked around as though lost. He finally walked up to Julie and said something Vicky couldn’t hear. Julie replied. After a couple of exchanges, Julie pointed toward Vicky’s office, and the man headed her way. When he turned around, Julie grinned as though the whole thing was hilarious. Sending handsome guys her way would be Julie’s idea of a good time.

“I need to open an account,” came from the man’s mouth in a smooth baritone.

“Certainly, sir. Will that be a personal or business account?”

The man looked confused. “What would be the difference?”

“If it’s for expenses, a personal account would work.”

“I will open that kind, then.”

Vicky took a form. “What is your name?”

There was a pause. Finally, “Paul Fortek.”

Red flags went up everywhere. “What is your Social Security number?”

There was a pause again, and then he gave a number. It was not from their local area. Vicky quickly checked online. The name and number were valid. After that, he produced a Nebraska driver’s license. That included the now predictable pause, as though he had to process each request through a remote computer system.

Julie’s comment about this Paul Fortek looking like a Hollywood star, together with his obviously having to think about things which should come automatically, such as his name and Social Security number, made Vicky wonder whether this might not be some television program or stunt. If so, then it appeared that she must be the object of some network silliness.

His driver’s license was valid. Vicky got to the next item, “How much of a deposit would you like to make to open the account, Mr. Fortek?”

Fortek reached into his bib overalls, pulling out a huge roll of currency. Easily visible were fifty and hundred dollar bills, and evidently a lot of them.

“How much is there?”

He shrugged and shook his head. “I don’t know. Can you count it?”

Vicky took a deep breath. “That will be no problem. We have a machine that can do it quickly. Did you say that you wanted to deposit all of this?”

The man nodded, and Vicky arose and strode to the counter. “Count this, Julie. Check all of them. They could be counterfeit bills.”

“I see what you’re saying. Still, that guy is cute.”

“That’s coming from someone who’s married, a mother, and a grandmother.”

Julie laughed and started checking the currency. Fortek, meanwhile, was still in her office and hadn’t moved. It was like he wasn’t a real person. Vicky was confident that if she handed somebody a wad of money, she’d be keeping a very close eye on the situation to ensure nobody developed sticky fingers. At the same time, she would have known the precise amount. There was a distinct air of unreality about this entire thing.

With no other customers, Julie did it in short order. Not only that, she had the different denominations banded. “They are all real. You said he wanted to deposit it, so I thought I’d save myself some time and get some of it done ahead of time. The total is on the adding machine tape.”

Vicky looked at the numbers and took another deep breath. “Roger said we’re supposed to take good care of our best customers. This Paul Fortek just joined the club. I’d better get him some counter checks right away. Could you run some for me, please?”

“I’d be glad to do that. Meanwhile, why don’t you get back in there and make sure our new best customer doesn’t decide to wander off?”

Back in her office, Vicky made several unsuccessful efforts at small talk. At the same time, she saw her boss, Roger, come in from another extended lunch. She also saw Julie gather up the counter checks and confer with him.

At a loss to know what to do next, Vicky finally asked, “Mr. Fortek, where are you from?”

He stared at her a moment, and stammered, “I have no memory. That is, I do not remember. I do know what I have to do.”

“What is that?”

“I need land on the northern bank of the river.”

“I don’t know of any for sale. A real estate office is just down the street. I could take you there.”

Vicky saw Roger standing by the corner of her office behind Mr. Fortek. He nodded vigorously and chose that moment to bring their new customer his temporary checks and register.

Beside the Mississippi Sea, Part 5

The grain elevator protected them from the Omega dust and the rain. It could not protect them from the Mississippi Sea.

A photo by Conrad Ziebland. unsplash.com/photos/agE97zp_Xvo

 

“Do you feel anything odd?” Jerry inquired.

“Yeah, the building is leaning toward the river.”

“When I told you how the Mississippi now connects to Hudson Bay, one thing made no sense until this very moment. That was how Burlington, at five hundred feet elevation could suddenly be sitting on the seashore. That could only happen if we’re on the edge of one hell of a deep crack in the earth. We should improvise backpacks for a few things. We’ll want both our arms and legs free in case we have to go swimming.”

His journal, rations, and water secure in bags strapped to his back; Steve made his way to the high side of the building. He followed Jerry on down the gallery to the access hatch, and they climbed out on the roof.

“Shouldn’t we try to get to the ground somehow?” Steve wanted to know.

“That idea could kill us. Omega dust may still be on the lower floors. Also, the stairs are over toward the river side. When this place falls into the water, I don’t want to have to deal with being underwater and this whole structure on top of me.”

Just then, the building lurched toward the river, making both of them grab for support. Steve looked over at Jerry.

“How about if we get ready to swing onto the bluff side of the building? We would need to time it to when the building gets to a forty-five-degree angle.”

“Now you finally came up with a good idea, Steve. Give yourself a promotion. Hell, if we live through this, I’ll give you the newspaper.”

It felt like the grain elevator was holding together. The ground beneath it was another problem. There was a strange vibration, something like when the New Madrid earthquakes were going on.

“Underwater landslide?” Steve gasped, as he tried to maintain his grip on the corner of the building.

“That would be my guess,” came the rasping reply.

The building tipped again. At this point, the edge of the roof seemed the highest point on the building.

“Looks like forty-five degrees to me,” Jerry puffed, and flipped around so he was hanging against the increasingly horizontal side wall.

Steve followed as fast as he could, and not a moment too soon, as the grain elevator capsized in slow-motion, not even making much of a splash as it hit the water. They were at the south end of the building. The other end turned out from the shore in a ponderous fashion. Steve could feel the place scraping along the bottom. They were heading slowly toward where the bridge had been. Steve suddenly noticed Jerry was walking along the wall. He was going toward the end of the building still hugging the shore. Steve stood up and followed as fast as he could, avoiding windows and spots that looked weak.

Just as he caught up to Jerry, the building stopped, knocking him over. He could hear the concrete grain bins grinding against something, and the whole structure shuddered. Steve saw they were at the location of the downed bridge span. The wooden beams began to splinter and rotate in unexpected directions. Finally, the place collapsed. It must have been in slow motion, since both he and Jerry found themselves deposited on the shore, with little more than scratches.

They both hurried uphill away from the wreckage, which now looked like a strange sort of pier going into the water. Jerry looked at Steve.

“So what are you going to do now? We’ll need to get on up the bluff. The first time our little ocean here decides to get storms and such things, this whole area is likely to get very wet.”

Steve felt giddy, realizing he was still alive, and his poor reactions took over once more. “We can divide the town between us. The grain elevator can now function as a pier. Maybe we can get cruise ships to stop here. We can sell margaritas to the tourists here on the beach beside the new sea.”

Jerry laughed and shook his head. “You’ll wait a long time for those cruise ships. In the meantime, I suggest you finish writing about all these events.”

He paused, and then added, “Survivors might come through here. Just remember terrorists might still be wandering around. Also, wild animals will become a problem. The Omega bug might have bothered them, but it will not kill them. Oh, you’ll need to go scrounging for food and supplies. When you do, be very careful. Any little piles of dust you find may very well be the Omega bug.”

Steve suddenly sobered. “Those who show up here are as likely to want us dead as alive. Maybe we ought to stick together for a while. One of us might see what the other misses.”

Jerry agreed, and Steve turned back to look at the sun sparkling on the waves of the Mississippi Sea. Maybe they could survive in this strange new place. If they could learn quickly and if luck favored them, it was possible. At least he could hope. Yeah, there was always hope.

The End … for now.

Steve may have further adventures in Steam & Trust, Book 5 of Dust & Cannibals

Beside the Mississippi Sea, Part 4

Jerry brings Steve up to speed about the country splitting up the Mississippi River, along with all the other disasters, both natural and man-made. Meanwhile, the Omega dust slowly ebbs. A monster rain storm took care of the dust. When the weather clears, it appears their challenges have not ended.

A photo by Conrad Ziebland. unsplash.com/photos/agE97zp_Xvo

Steve nodded. He got the reporter part. Still, this was no interview, and they were both witnesses. “We went outside to look at the bridge. You let me use your binoculars. As I looked the far bank suddenly moved. The New Madrid earthquakes came soon after.”

Jerry simply took up the narrative. “After the last quake, the bridge was in the water and didn’t look like it could have ever spanned the river. Since then, the center support collapsed, and the far bank is barely visible on a clear day. North America has split in two, following the Mississippi River through the Great Lakes, up to Hudson Bay.”

“You got all this off your radio. I knew you were listening to it a lot. My little rental house across the river isn’t coming back.”

“Your home is running away. It may be underwater if the other side looks like here. We’re near flood stage.”

They eventually decided the dust wasn’t getting any closer to them. Jerry went back to monitoring his radio, wearing earphones. He could use it quite a while before having to crank up the battery. On his part, Steve decided he might as well jot down what he knew of the situation. There was plenty of paper for the task. Jerry informed him that in the old days, people would even use the same paper a second time, writing crosswise. Steve figured his fingers would fall off before that happened, but he kept that opinion to himself.

Most of the current problems began the same time he went to work for the paper. Disasters were suddenly coming one right after the other, sometimes going two or three at a time. There were earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, floods, and droughts. Even so, the man-made ones were the worst, even without the Omega bug. There were limited nuclear wars, civil wars, economic depression, and terrorist attacks among everything else. It included a nuclear device under Times Square last New Year’s Eve. So humanity was up against a tag team composed of his planet and those self-styled human creatures who had a community death wish.

It got to where everyone was sitting on the curb with a tin cup, waiting for the cosmos to come through with a positive outcome.  An answer to that cry for help came when the sun cut loose with a massive and long-lived series of solar flares, disabling a large number of satellites. Communications and navigation networks fried. The flares impacted Earth too, knocking out many electric distribution grids. Nobody would repair or replace them anytime soon, either orbital or terrestrial.

Maybe there was a bit of a rainbow after the flares. It only gave a morale boost to those still able to appreciate such things. Magnificent auroras were visible further south than anybody could recall. Also, Burlington continued to get electric power some of the time. Well, it had until earlier that day.

Steve made notes about each disaster, mentioning inadequate and wrong-headed government responses. Jerry reviewed what Steve had, and told him to create a page for each catastrophe. That way, he could add pages to a section as needed. Steve saw the point even if he couldn’t see the possibility. The writing went slowly, but there was no visible deadline. Steve had the unique luxury of being able to consider his word choice. It wasn’t as though there was a positive spin to any part of the story.

Each day, they estimated the dust dropped about a foot. After ten days, the next floor down appeared to be clear. At the same time, neither man was in any hurry to check it out. Jerry agreed with Steve’s estimate that it might be a couple of months before they dared to leave the grain elevator. Their water supply now became a larger concern than the rations.

An answer to their concern about water came the following day with a monster rain storm. There was something eerie about it. There was no lightning and almost no wind. At the same time, the rain fell in buckets. It was not like any storm either of them had ever seen. On top of it, the rain just kept on coming. They thought about drinking it, but couldn’t decide if the rain had the dust in it. They didn’t test it. The darkened sky made it nearly impossible for Steve to work, and he was no longer inclined to write in any case. At the same time, as Steve looked out the windows, it appeared the rain was doing one thing well. It was removing the dust.

There was little difference between day and night, but Steve counted fifteen periods of darkness before the steady drumming rain finally began to abate. Eventually, skies began to lighten, and the deafening rainfall fell silent. The downpour became a mist and then stopped altogether. The clouds dissipated rapidly, and the sun shone down on a bright morning.

Jerry suddenly called him over to the side of the grain elevator facing the river. Jerry just pointed downward. Steve saw the river now lapped against the building’s base. The car they came in was completely submerged. The split in the country continued to grow as the Illinois side was barely visible on the horizon, even viewed at this height.

Beside the Mississippi Sea, Part 3

Steve tries to figure out whether his boss is telling the truth. If it’s true, why is he alive and not someone else?

A photo by Conrad Ziebland. unsplash.com/photos/agE97zp_Xvo

They clinked their plastic bottles, which didn’t make any sound, of course. “If this is the best of all possible worlds, I don’t think I want to know about worse ones. There would be way more news than I could keep up with.”

Steve sipped the water and stared out at the mass of dust. That humming and popping never stopped. Nothing added up to anything rational. A nagging thought rose to the surface of his mind, and he turned to look at Jerry.

“Two questions. How do I know what I see does what you say?”

Jerry nodded. “That’s a reasonable question. I’ll give you an answer you should be able to absorb.”

He then pulled out his wallet and extracted a bill. “Here’s a hundred dollar bill. Not long ago this governmental promissory note would buy something. The last time I found a place open, one of these barely paid the sales tax on a bag of groceries. Let’s go to the stairwell. We should be able to see the level of the Omega dust in there. This bill, as you can tell, is pretty rumpled. Lots of people handled this thing a lot. Who knows how much sweat, spit, and other magical human things are on it and absorbed within it? I’m going to drop it down the stairwell. The idea is to watch it go into the Omega dust. If nothing happens, you’re welcome to get it. You’d be a hundred bucks richer, for what that will get you. If the dust eats the human DNA on it, then you’ll know what will happen to you.”

At the stairwell, Jerry directed Steve to a spot with good visibility. Then he dropped the picture of Benjamin Franklin. As soon as it got to the dust, there were popping and crackling noises. The current suddenly seemed alive, jerking, twisting, and spinning. A moment later, the action stopped, and it silently dropped out of sight.

“That bill is now clean of anything human. It probably has holes in several places and might even fall apart if you touched it. I’m in no rush to pick it up. If you want it, that’s up to you.”

They both headed back to the stash of water and rations. Steve sat on one of the cots. He picked up the looseleaf journal before looking back at Jerry. “Well, that answers my first question. It was not what I would consider a satisfactory response. At the same time, you recall I was curious about two subjects.”

Jerry just nodded.

Steve hesitated, took a deep breath, and wondered, “Why was I the lucky ticket holder to join you on this glorious adventure past the end of the world?”

Jerry studied Steve for a moment before he snorted and shook his head. “I get the impression you’re concerned about your virtue. For your information, I’m not into boys. If I were, it wouldn’t be anybody even vaguely resembling you. By the time I managed to put all the pieces together, you were the only one around. There simply wasn’t any time to go searching for the girl of my dreams. Now I can only hope to connect with other survivors after this clears off. If you’re still not convinced, you can haul your bed down the head house gallery as far as you please.”

Steve grunted at Jerry’s less than reassuring response but decided not to move just then. “So this stuff that looks like dust started out as people. Where were they when this started?”

“The dust we see now was the population of East Asia, according to the military.”

“How did dust from Asia get all the way over here?”

“The outbreak coincided with a large dust storm. It swept up the Omega bug’s victims. The storm was off the charts for severity and duration. Air currents brought it across the Pacific Ocean. What we’re seeing is just a remnant of the original.”

“How long will it be before we can get out of here?”

“The best guess I’ve heard is a couple of weeks, but nobody knows. From what I’ve heard on the radio, the humming sound is where the bug is still eating human DNA. The popping noise is when one of the bugs has run out of sustenance, and either eats itself or otherwise pops out of existence.”

“That explains your stockpile of rations and water. Did you bring any entertainment?”

“My original intention was to have entertainment of the female persuasion. If you get bored, try paying close attention to your breathing. Compare that to the alternative a few feet below us.”

Steve got up and went over to the nearest window, peering out at the flowing dust. It was about where it was before. That felt like a good thing at the moment. After a while, he headed back to his cot.

Finally, he got up enough nerve to look back at Jerry. “I don’t know why you brought up the thing about living at the newspaper. It became home the day after Thanksgiving. There was one hell of a bump as I drove onto the bridge and another as I got off it.”

“The reason for having you interview me is called attribution. It separates the reporter from the witness. As for the bridge, you’ll recall that the gaps at either end kept getting bigger, and they closed the bridge just after you got across. You had no place to stay, so I let you bunk at the office.”

Beside the Mississippi Sea, Part 2

Steve tries being a wise ass only to discover he’s facing the reason there are no longer any people around.

A photo by Conrad Ziebland. unsplash.com/photos/agE97zp_Xvo

“Is this your penthouse, sir? My compliments to your interior decorator.”

“That’s really cute, Steve. If it weren’t for some fast thinking on the part of a worker back in 1987, this place would be history. A fire broke out up here in the head house. Only his fast action kept the place from blowing up. If that had happened, neither of us would have enough life left even to start an interview. I was a cub reporter back then, even greener than you. Drop the notebook by the upscale sleeping accommodations. Then come over to the windows facing the bluff. Tell me what you see.”

His boss was making no sense at all, but Steve went along with it. “Well, I can see farther up the bluff. Of course, we’re something like eight stories up here. So what?”

Jerry looked at Steve, disappointment in his eyes. “Try again. Tell me, is there anything odd about what you’re seeing? Investigate with your eyes. Report what you see.”

“There’s dust or fog rolling down the bluff,” Steve finally said. “It’s some nasty looking, grayish brown stuff. The appearance is similar to the smog in the larger cities.”

“That,” Jerry replied somberly, “is why we’re up here. You’re looking at the results of a bio-terror weapon called the Omega Bug. It is heavier than air, so we might be able to survive up here. It consumes every part of anything containing human DNA. After a few moments, a person becomes only a little pile of fine dust. If even a speck of it gets on you, you’re dead. There is no cure.”

Steve stared at the dust coming down the hill. “Is that what happened to all the people we don’t see any more?”

“I’m afraid so. Terrorists spread it. They are doing their utmost to ensure nobody remains.”

Steve shook his head. “Why kill everyone? Who would they terrorize?”

“Whoever said terrorists made any sense?”

Steve stood there and stared at the foul haze now going by the lower portions of the elevator. “Are we high enough here to survive?” he asked finally.

“Do you know of anyplace taller?”

“Nowhere near here. That’s for sure.” Steve stopped and looked over at Jerry. “You got all this off that crank-up radio of yours?”

“Bingo. That’s not the only information I got. The shortwave receives just fine. It’s unfortunate that I can’t transmit. I could have helped people.” Jerry stopped to think about what he’d just said. “On the other hand, considering all the insanity I’ve heard masquerading as official pronouncements, it may be just as well nobody knows we’re here. We’ll hide out and wait for the dust to clear.”

Steve couldn’t believe what he just heard. Then again, Jerry was not known for practical jokes. Also, there was the issue of where everyone had gone. He turned to look out the window again and saw the level of the dust was now about halfway up the side of the elevator.

“If the Omega stuff gets all the way up here, what will happen?”

“We’ll be two more piles of dust, telling St. Peter how we tried to avoid it. There is an access ladder to the roof. I looked out there, but it’s not a place to spend any time. Going out on the roof might be a last resort, but I don’t recommend it.” After a pause, Jerry added, “You’re right, of course. Let’s migrate on down to it, just in case. Grab some extra water.”

The ladder was not far, with a window next to it. The two stood by the window, watching the level of the dust continue climbing the building. Steve looked back toward town but could no longer see any buildings. It was like they were in an airplane just above a cloud layer. There was nothing attractive about this cloud, though. The idea that he was looking at the remains of millions of people made him shudder.

The rate at which the dust, bug, or whatever, climbed toward them finally slowed, although it was hard to pick out the top. At last, it stopped about ten feet below their floor.

“So will it get better now, or can it get worse?”

“I don’t know, Steve. We’ve already done better than almost everyone. Survivors I monitor are in underground bunkers built for nuclear war. Other than the dust gumming up their air filters, they are doing just fine. I have not found any eye witness accounts. We should get a couple more bottles of water, and toast our success. Would you care to do the honors?”

Steve left the water he held, and went to the stash. Back at the window, he handed Jerry a bottle, and commented, “With what you’ve got, there’s more than one IOU laying around town.”

Steve was surprised when Jerry cracked a grin. “Yeah, there are. Do you suppose anybody will collect on them?”

“Not if you’re a member of the truth telling tribe, boss.”

“How would you know, I wonder? By the way, that Omega cloud makes sounds. You should listen.”

Steve cocked an ear out the open window for a moment. Then he listened some more. “There’s a humming sound. There are also intermittent popping noises. That’s exceptionally strange. For what it’s worth, I don’t think the dust level has come up any higher.”

“I don’t believe that it has, either. What say we each pop the lid on another bottle of water and celebrate? We just won a couple more breaths of air in this, the best of all possible worlds.”