Burned Out

by Howard Faxon

Copyright© 2010 by Howard Faxon

: I loved a sweet lass and lost her. I grew bitter and reserved, protective of my own. My belligerence thwarted abuse of power. I denied them an easy cover-up. I bellowed my anger to the world. The world screamed back in return: 'We're Mad As Hell and We're Not Taking It Anymore.'

Tags: Slow   Violent   Transformation  

The premise for this story came to me after seeing all the confusion caused by an electrical fire under the soffit of my apartment building last weekend. Add a pyromaniac that douses all the hallways and staircases with kerosene, a 2AM wakeup call and a rainy night. Many would die, I fear--Especially the elderly and the children.

I was startled out of a sound sleep by the fire alarm yelping in the corridor. I lived on the ground floor of a fifty-year-old two-floor apartment building with about 50 units per building, six buildings total. I shook myself awake, dressed in my work clothes, scuffed on my shoes, grabbed my computer and headed for the door. No! I turned around, reached behind my desk and grabbed my buffalo box (Ethernet-available very large hard drive) and headed for the door. No! I turned, looked for and found a trade-show goodie bag, stuffed the buffalo box into it, opened my highboy drawer and threw the pistol along with what ammo I had stashed there in the bag as well. Then I headed for the apartment door. Shit! When I accidentally leaned against the door while unlocking it I burned my shoulder! I certainly wasn't going out that way.

I re-locked the door and headed for my sliding glass door to my pathetic little patio. It was going to be a life saver today. I unlocked door and slid it open. A deep breath of the cool damp air centered me. I keep a suitcase at the end of my bed for emergency call-outs. I stuffed it with underwear, socks, shirts and pants. I took the time to use a flashlight to find the power supply for my buffalo box and stuffed it in the trade show bag. I had a handful of four-packs of batteries in my highboy. I pocketed those as well. I made sure I had my cell phone. I put on a coat because I noticed a soaking rain coming down. I calmly exited through the patio door and locked it behind me. I strode through the boggy back yard to the parking lot which was jammed with emergency and fire vehicles. I walked into a horror show. There were people on litters and gurneys being madly worked upon by EMT and rescue crew-members. I saw arms, legs and chests covered in charred and blistered skin. There was a short row of body bags guarded by two sheriffs on the grass. I smelled cooked pork and kerosene from the people. A sudden burst of nausea almost overcame me. I had to grit my teeth and swallow continuously to push it down. Breathe. Breathe. I looked at a policeman, gaining his attention. "Arson?" He nodded grimly. Shit. I made my way to my jeep, unlocked it, slung my stuff inside and lit it up. There was no way I was going to exit via the parking lot so I eased it forward over the parking bump, across a landscaping berm and into traffic on the street. I headed to work. At 2 AM.

I'm an IT guy in a small company. I've got the keys for everything and the alarm codes. I silenced the alarm, went to the men's room, sat down on a stool and went back to sleep. (They don't alarm the johns.)

After a few uncomfortable hours the maintenance man got the shock of his life as he woke me up. I described the apartment flambe and he shook his head. "Bad shit." I had to agree.

I told the boss what happened the next morning and arranged to get the rest of the week off (taking time from my vacation hours, of course. Fucking bean counters.) I found police waving off anyone trying to get into the building--it had been preemptively condemned until it could be examined. Assholes! The fire damage was all at one end other than the hallways. Most of the building was sound! It was made of concrete slabs! The flaming fucking bastards were trying to keep from being sued if someone happened to cut themselves on busted glass while the people were forced to live on the streets in early April. Around Chicago this isn't a pleasant little camp-out.

I needed a place to stay and quick. I couldn't afford a new apartment with first, last and security deposit at a thousand plus per as well as re-stock the place. Screw that! I'd recently read a couple of articles about using shipping containers as cheap modular frames for housing. Well, that may work around shipping ports but wouldn't hang in the Midwest.

Alternatively I wanted to use semi trailers. I shopped around on the Internet (thank you, library). I found out that what we call trailers are called dry vans in the business. I found a place in Rockford (a goodly ways North-West) that had used Dry Van trailers for sale. I called a number from their web page and got in touch with a manager. When I told him that I wanted a 54 foot trailer to turn into a house he got excited. He had a couple of twenty-plus year old trailers that had burned out hydraulic brakes that he couldn't get rid of come hell or high water. He'd sell both to me for four grand, delivered. I couldn't believe it! Those things sell for over 25 grand apiece new! He told me that the brake replacement jobs would cost more than the value of the shells. With that, I talked him down to two grand for both to get the damned things off his lot. Now I had to find a place to put them.

Over the line from snooty Kane County where a house trailer was the sign of the lower class we come to DeKalb County, governed by a much more pragmatic group of people that just wanted revenue and people to supply it. I drove west and stopped at each farm I came across. I gave them my pitch about adding to their income by 300 a month if they could provide a place for a couple of trailers, a 100 Amp service, water and sewer. I'd pay for the electricity by the month. I finally got a bite at a horse farm that had seen better days. The Pete Franz was getting on in years and couldn't provide the labor necessary to keep the operation viable and couldn't afford the price of the hired help to replace him. He and his wife Laura were at wit's end looking for some added income and were about to sell the place. I suggested that he open a small trailer park. With a gravel ring road, two 600 amp service panels to split the load bringing up 100 amp service at stub posts, water and sewer done the same and a fenced dumpster bay he could run twelve or so trailers at three to four hundred bucks a month rent per lot. It wouldn't have been feasible without the existence of the high power lines just over his fence, paralleling the main highway. I convinced them to let me bring in my trailers as a place to live in while they got the power installed, septic field dug and water lines run. The road-fines pads and ring-road would be a final touch with a couple parking places in front of each trailer site.

I pulled services from a garden hose and a heavy extension cord from one of the old horse barns while we got things going. I checked the load I was putting on the extension cord with a clamp-on ammeter. I couldn't run too much at once.

The bank was remarkably sensible about the loan. There was a college town 14 miles away and housing was always in demand. I wanted to set one trailer up for myself and rent out the other so it would pay my lot rent at the minimum. There was a cell tower within two miles and my fancy blackberry from work had full network services. I could tether my computer to it for Internet services. Great! I had a place to stay! I had data communications! The next day I had the trailers ferried down and paid the guy with what was going to be my next month's rent check. Sweet. I needed to get my stuff out of the old apartment but I needed a place to put everything first. I dropped by work and explained the situation. I never knew I had so many friends! The owner had a son just out of college that wanted to help. My immediate boss had a 4WD SUV with a hitch--he was moving to Missouri in a couple of months, leaving me holding the bag, but for now he'd help out. His mission was transportation only--the guy was retiring at 72. I didn't blame him not wanting to risk his back! I put a 8ft. by 14ft. covered trailer purchase on my credit card (Capital-O-Ouch!) We filled it with 1/2 inch plywood, 2x4s and 1 7/8 inch Corning pink rigid foam panels. I spent two days screwing down 2x4s around 4x8 voids, dropping in pink foam panels and screwing down 1/2 thick plywood panels cross-ways over them for the floors and walls. The ceiling consisted of a stressed steel ski, so it got twice as much foam glued in place and blonde birch paneling glued over that. It was pretty damned well insulated by the time I was done. I found some 2' high by 4'wide high R-value windows and bought eight—four per trailer. Damn, that hurt the budget. I gave all the walls a coat of sealer and two coats of cream-colored interior latex. A Sawzall and blades were a cheap investment. I broke the place into rooms like a shotgun shack-- I set up a mud-room at the double doors in front, a living room/kitchen in the middle and a bedroom at the back. I set up a short hallway between the bedroom and the living room--it became a bathroom on one side and a closet on the other. I installed a tub-shower enclosure and stool in the bathroom, on the same side of the trailer as the kitchen sink so the waste pipes would be easy to run. I framed the walls with 2x2s. Strips of Corning pink foam filled the voids. I screwed down blonde birch paneling over both sides of the walls and used metal edging glued and tacked over the corners. I used the electric saw to cut holes for the windows, one per room and two in the living room as well as square openings for itty bitty air conditioners in the living room and bedroom. I found 'em cheap for $ 130.00 per piece at the grocery store! I'd try to use radiant electric heaters in the winter and fans year-round. I found a queen sized ultra-firm mattress and box spring for $150.00 per piece still in the plastic via the local newspaper ad section. A local home builder's place (Lowe's) had a dent-and-scratch aisle where I found a nice high-efficiency refrigerator and chest freezer in really ugly colors really cheap. Six hours with flint sandpaper and cream spray enamel gave me what I wanted. They had mobile home stoops for sale at various heights. I got two of their tallest ones at 4' 6" to bring them up to the base of the trailer doors. I about tapped out the credit card getting sheets and stuff for the new bed, but I got it done. A pre-hung steel-panel exterior door cost me about 85 bucks. I installed it in one rear door of the trailer. I used U-channel around the hole for strength glued in place with construction adhesive. Carriage bolts and fender washers fastened the door in place. More construction adhesive and flashing covered the exposed frame and bolts. It wasn't going anywhere without the rest of the trailer! Next, we had to clean out the old apartment. We did a dawn run on the place, pulling the trailer up to the sliding glass door. I unlocked it and proceeded to raid the place. I took the bed-frame as it would expand to queen size but left my crappy old mattress and box spring. I got my bedside stand, highboy, dresser, hanging clothes, computers, printer, a counter-top I'd used as a desk, CDs and movies, lamps and all the crap that makes up a kitchen. I left the damned futon couch--it fell apart when we were moving it INTO the last apartment! I took the bedside stand, the iron-and-glass coffee table that my sister gave me when SHE moved out of state, all the bookshelves and my itty bitty barbecue grill. I'd bought a custom-made camp kitchen with an upper piece, lower piece and custom table to hold it all together. It would make a nice workstation. I'd need rugs so they came with me too--including a six-skin sheepskin rug I treasured. Everything in the freezer had thawed so I called it bad luck and left it. A lot of stuff was still good in the fridge, though. I shoved it in a cooler and picked up a bag of ice to keep it cold on the way west. I stuffed the empty voids that I could reach in the trailer with coats and shoes. My tool kits went into the back seat of his king cab pickup. Yes, I grabbed the toilet paper and paper towels. All the crap that I'd salvaged got dumped willy-nilly into the spare trailer except for the bed frame until I got the electrical in place which I'd planned to do the next day.

I surface mounted the conduit, and screwed the boxes to the walls. Thank you, who ever invented cordless screw guns. a little laser mounted on a string gave me level lines to work from. Everything got a proper ground and everything got routed through a 100-Amp service box in the mud room. I opened the big doors for the last time, went around the edges with a generous bead of construction adhesive and dogged them shut. Then I locked them with a big padlock and mutilated the keys. I hadn't planned for air-flow. I had to put a small air intake with spring-loaded louvers in the mud room. The bathroom ended up with three switches--light, vent and radiant heater. I didn't carpet the place. I used 2x2 foot stick-on tiles over double-primed plywood. Later I'd scatter rugs everywhere. It had been almost a week since the fire. I finally slept in my own bed. Damn, it felt good.

The next day I headed back to the old apartment to see if I'd left anything important. It gave me pause when I saw a woman sitting on a concrete brick in the drizzle with the remains of a burned-up computer in her arms, crying steadily She was wearing a stocking cap and half her face was covered in bandages. She was wearing sweat pants that looked pretty bulky. Soot streaked her bandages and covered both her hands and shoes. I was betting that there were bandages on her legs too. Shit. I'm a sucker for tears. "What's wrong?"

She looked up at me like her dog had died. "This was my thesis. It was almost done until that drunk bastard living next to me doused everything with kerosene and lit it off." She looked down sadly. "It's all gone now. All gone."

Depending on how hot her apartment had gotten and who made her hard drive she might have a chance. "Gimmie." Her eyes opened like saucers while she clenched the ruined mess to her chest. "No, I mean it. Gimmie. It's what I fucking do, all right?" I took it from her hands and walked over to my jeep. I laid the mess on the hood while digging around in back for a piece of canvas (I'm a re-enactor. No re-enactor worth their salt is without a two pound hammer, sisal ropes, foot-long iron tent stakes, a bucket and a big chunk of canvas. Trust me on this one.) I laid the canvas out and put her computer corpse on top of it. I pulled away the chunks of carbonized case. I flexed the motherboard in my hands. It didn't powder away or splinter easily. Hmm. Chances are ... Nice. a Seagate raptor. I dug it out of the mess and held it up in the light like the Holy Grail. The circuit board looked factory-new. "Lady, we've got a pretty good chance that this thing will start up. Come on..." I got her seated in the shotgun seat of my jeep cradling that hard drive while I shook the crap off my canvas and threw it in the back. I drove us to where I work where I then took her up to insanity central. I gently put the drive into a baggie, and then laid it in the communal freezer. The circuits had been badly heat-stressed as well as the motor but they'd been turned off at the time. If this was going to work it would take the old Mac trick to get it going, then we'd have to strip the drive fast. The fastest way I knew of to do this was to 'Ghost' off everything to an image over the same data bus. I had to get a machine ready. Her drive seemed to be a fairly new one, but the interface was IDE, not SATA (the latest greatest technology). I had a few boxes to play around with. I looked up the jumper configuration of a Seagate Raptor to see what a master and what a slave configuration looked like on the controller pins. The box I had available had a CD-ROM drive set up as second-channel master. I took the cables off of it. I installed Ghost and set up a backup job to a file on C:. After four hours in the freezer I pulled out the drive, wired it in, crossed my fingers and powered everything up. It showed up as the D: drive! I started the drive imaging process immediately and watched it intently.

"What's happening?"

"It looks like it's working. We won't know for a while. Keep your fingers crossed."

tick-tick-tick-tick-tak-tak-tak-tak--tick-tick-tick-tick-tick ... a few bad sectors here and there, but the automated recovery seemed to cope with them. I wouldn't trust running the binaries but the data files looked promising. In twenty minutes we had an image. I powered everything down, pulled out her drive and handed it to her in a baggie. "Lady, if you're Catholic now would be the time to light a couple candles in thanks. Now let's see if we can burn that image on a good drive for you." I picked up a 40-Gig 2.5" drive I'd pulled out of a laptop that had gone to hell, wired it into the machine with an IDE-to-Micro-IDE connector and fired it up. Fine--I saw it. I gave that drive a good scrubbing and sector test via a deep format, then pulled up Ghost again. I selected the image, targeted the new drive and let it rip. When it was done I rebooted the machine to register the media and took a look. I asked her what her login name was, explored the XP structure to find the desktop and user's file directories. There they were in all their glory--her thesis betas. She was shaking! I copied everything off onto a clean thumb drive and handed it to her. "There you go. Miracles while you wait. Pretty cool, huh?" She wrapped herself around me so fast I ended up on the floor with her on top of me. Martin, in the next room, was chortling like a drunken water-buffalo. His voice floated in from around the corner. "Paybacks are a bitch." "Martin, go fuck yourself." All I heard from the young lady was "thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou..." Okay, I got the idea. I turned my head and saw shoes. Above the shoes was the face of my Uber-boss all squinched up-- wondering what the hell was going on. I kinda gave him the idea. "NIU grad student. Computer was in the fire. Almost-ready thesis on said crispy computer. I got it back for her." He looked at me and grinned. "This could be considered supporting education, right?"

I nodded like the idiot that I am. He said "Great. It's in line with your job description. Well done." and he walked away. Did I mention that my boss is the Kane County Regional Superintendent of Schools? Well, he is. I think he was writing the press release in his head as he walked away. Cool. If it got the job done, it got the job done. I looked down at the armful of pretty girl on my chest. Her cap had fallen off. Her head was covered in oozing blisters. "Hey, you. What's your name, dammit?" "Well, it isn't dammit. I'm Charlene." "Not Charlie? I had a cool aunt named Charlie." "Well, OK, for you, Charlie." "If I can cage twenty bucks around here, I'll take you to lunch, OK?" A twenty floated down around the corner from Martin's desk. "Payday, OK?" "Gotcha." Martin's a cool guy, even though he gives skinflints a bad name. Regretfully I eased her up so that I could get off the floor, and then helped her up. I pocketed the twenty. "Up for Jimmy John's with all the fixins?" I got a smile and a nod. "See you guys Monday." It was Thursday, so it wasn't any great reach. Over a couple of sandwiches and an extended drink or two I found that she was a semester and a half away from a dual degree in chemical and electrical engineering. Her family had been underwriting the apartment but now she was in a fix. She was from St.Louis and that was beyond any reasonable commuting distance.

She was bummed out. I looked at the ceiling. Cute chick. Check. Smart. Check. I just did her a favor from hell. Check. She NEEDED a place to stay near DeKalb. Check. Spare trailer. Check.

"Say, want to help me run through my old apartment on a search-and-destroy for whatever's left worth grabbing while we talk? I have an idea for a place for you to stay that won't break the bank and is even closer to DeKalb." At least she was willing to listen.

She freaked out when she learned that I was leaving the guts of my old electronics lab behind. She insisted that my drawers of capacitors, transistors, inductors, diodes, regulators, amplifiers and whatever were NOT left behind. She thought that my Pana-Vise was the greatest thing since sliced bread. Maybe if I gave her my oscilloscope I'd get lucky. With that, I made sure that I grabbed the old 10-amp Radio Shack 12-volt power supply. They don't sell them any more so they're getting valuable. They're stable as hell. I had a variable oscillator /frequency display in storage that hadn't worked right since I got it. I'd have to give her a chance at making it work. It had a ten-digit display which is what I bought it for in the first place. I grabbed a couple of sleeping bags from the back corner of my closet where I'd forgotten them and we called it quits. they'd make nice quilts.

"You need a place to stay. I've got a place to stay, and within a month I'll have two places to stay, once a couple of paychecks come in. If you want I 'll show you what I'm doing and you can decide if you want in." She was intrigued enough to at least look it over. I drove us to the farm and showed her the layout. A plumbing firm was running water pipe around the ring, laid deep enough to keep it from freezing in the northern-Illinois winters. The septic had been run and the white waste pipe stubs were obvious. A couple of big transformers had been put in next to the road and a feeder trench was obviously leading from the transformers to the closest of the dug-out pads. I took her to my new home and unlocked the door. She seemed impressed with how bright and homey it felt. I got us a couple of sodas, then we sat at my dining island and talked out the deal.

"I want to duplicate what's here in the other trailer. I don't have enough cash to build out the second trailer immediately. It needs to be insulated, paneled, the interior walls put in, the bathroom and kitchen plumbed and installed, the wiring run and the whole thing painted. Then it needs a stove, fridge, freezer, doors and air-conditioning. The landlord wants 400 a month a lot rent. I want 300 a month for trailer rent. This is still less than half what our old apartments cost per month, including no pyro neighbors, a quiet place to live and a short jaunt to NIU.

If you can stand to live with me for a month or so and your dad can help fund your furniture then you're set by winter, when we have to have these things moved over the utility stubs, wired in and insulated from the cold." I shut up and watched her. She hemmed and hawed for a while. I tried to get her off top-dead-center. "Why don't you get your family involved? This could be a good thing if you're going on to a higher degree, or even just for eight months. Whatever you and your family pay into the trailer that stays with it when you leave I'll take off the rent."

"But they're so damned ugly."

"But they're so damned CHEAP! We can always slap some siding on them and a brick base will look decent as well as insulate them."

"Okay, you're a good salesman. I'll call Dad to come up and look everything over."

"Good! By the way, what's your dad do?"
She smiled an evil little smile. "He's the St.Louis county prosecuting attorney."

"Well, Shit."

Well, I laid all the paperwork out in front of Mr. Nelson. He liked the idea of the trailers as far as cost and strength. His only sticking point was to have concrete anchors installed and the trailers cabled to them. I thought it was a pretty good idea myself--this was tornado country every eleven years or so. He wrote up a plain English contract stating everything we'd agreed to and we signed it. We were in business.

I was glad that I'd bought the queen bed. I really should have held out enough money for a roll-away washer and dryer, but that was for next payday. We got everything put away so that the other trailer was emptied out and the hauling trailer was ready for the lumber and insulation. We had crap piled everywhere. I set up two desks/workstations and wired everything together with Ethernet. I set up the Buffalo Box for common access on 1 Gigabit copper. We subsisted on canned fruit and vegetables, Kielbasa, potatoes, spaghetti and mac 'n cheese for a month and a half. I set up Charlie's workstation with a windows XP laptop and she went to town on her thesis. I kept her in coffee and Fritos and she was in heaven. Payday! We paid the landlord for the month, got the trailers moved to their pads and hooked up. Then I went to work insulating trailer 2. She said cream color was good for her so I duplicated what I'd done for mine. Once the bathroom went in it went faster. Her dad helped out with the stove, fridge and chest freezer. I had a breakfast island-counter in mine. her folks bought a little table with four chairs for hers. We each got stacking washer-driers that did a half-load a cycle With a bit of nudging they would fit in the mud rooms. Our food budgets were comfortable enough to grill out on the weekends while the weather held. I readied my crockpot for inclement weather.

I hoped that the radiant heating would provide enough Kcals. Charlie thought I was nuts. It was an argument about where the decimal point would land. I guess I should have listened to her--she's the one that took classes on mathematically modeling real systems. I had concrete block walls laid under the edges the trailers and the trailers jacked up about four inches to rest on the blocks with thick closed-cell foam pipe-insulation tubes set down between the caps and the bottoms of each trailer. I realized later that this was radical overkill.

Charlie liked to sleep with me even after her place was done. I sure as hell didn't kick her out--I LIKE sleeping with a woman in my arms--I'm a cuddle-slut and I admit it. So sue me.

In November Charlie got caught in a lab experiment that went wrong. There was an explosion and two other people were hospitalized--long term. She inhaled some reaction products that really gave her problems for a while. Her breathing sounded like hell. We had her on an oxygen tank and a nebulizer at night.

I did some reading about what she was working with. Nothing should have gone wrong. We went over the reaction setup, pressure and temperature regulation as well as bail-out procedures over and over again. The gas chromatogram showed nothing out of the ordinary. The electrophoresis-gel done from what was in the reaction flask scared the hell out of her.

Someone had substituted a perfectly innocent nitrated feed-stock with something having a multiple phosphorus group and a triply-bonded nitrogen ring--very energetic, very dangerous. The proctors didn't want to touch it. Their insurance would go through the roof. The FBI ate that shit up. Charlie's case became a rallying point for lab security. There'd been too many really nasty accidents during the past three semesters to be 'accidents'. The FBI took a close look at the employment records. Fingerprint samples were obtained from every student, professor, maintenance man and graduate student assistant.

Two graduate students weren't what they said they were. They were East German. Charlie sued for damages, medical bill restitution and penalties. Due to the controversy she hung out around our place reading and putting circuits together rather than hanging out on campus. When I came home one day we had a dish on the roof and over 500 channels on the TV. "What's the matter, got bored?"

"Naw, just met a challenge. Encrypted my ass." I craned my neck. "Doesn't look encrypted to me. Looks kinda nice. " She blushed and smacked me.

I watched her pull a parabolic dish out of a sheet of plastic with a hot lightbulb. Then she spray painted it with aluminum--I think. She drilled a little hole in the back, then four smaller holes a few inches up equally spaced. She threaded a coil through the center and wired it in place, then glued on a handle. When she plugged in the box it was connected to and waved that dish around the browned grass blackened and started to smoke. She smiled and switched it off.

"What's that? Halloween party favor?"

"Nope. burglar alarm. When they scream, we wake up." She put it on a motion detector circuit in her mud room.

Brr. Cold woman. La Belle Damme Sans Merci. I have to admit it though--if I had gotten sabotaged in the lab I'd prepare for uninvited guests too. In all sincerity I gave her my favorite pistol--a .22 magnum 8-shot revolver that would flat-out ruin anyone's day. I taught her how to shoot it--from half cock. It's much more accurate that way. I LIKE .22 magnums.

We gave the information we'd collected to Mr. Nelson. He took the bit in his teeth like a pissed-off Mustang and ran with it. He had professional witnesses and professional chemists ringing every bell down sabotage road. The university board of trustees was going to be very, very unhappy with their chemistry and the HR departments. A lot of flat rocks got turned over. A lot of tenures got examined.

"Do you know much about high energy electronics?"

"A little--mostly theory. Why?"

"What if we get a little monster for a neighbor--a rocker that doesn't know what a volume knob is and figures that 'neighbor' means 'someone to piss off'? Ever made a Herf gun?"

"Herf gun?"
"Yeah-- it's an EMP cannon. It works on ultra-fast cascading voltage doublers using very fast capacitors. Is there anything in chemistry that has a catastrophic drop to ground state?"

"Umm, I can think of a few. Hmm. Electrochemistry. Azide cascade effect. We could have something here--Moles make Amps!" She wandered off with a tablet and pencil in her hand. I didn't want to know. All I knew is that if I heard the word 'Acetlylene' I was going to run far and run fast.

I came back from work to face a scowling Charlie drinking coffee at my breakfast bar. "Can't do it. Not without a room-full of crap that would fill two of these trailers if you wanted the effect to go over five feet." She got on the Internet and showed me pictures of an abandoned Marx generator in Russia that was used for EMP trials. I shrugged my shoulders. "That's OK. We'll just glue transducers to their trailer and shake the living shit out of them with infra-sound at 8 Kilo-Watts." Gawd, I loved her evil smile.

Early one morning I saw shoe tracks in the snow around our cars. It had snowed early last night. Who the hell? Right. Take no chances. I called the FBI. They got fingerprints, footprints and plastic explosives. I got the beginnings of an ulcer. Charlie got pissed. She took the take-no-prisoners option. I watched her set it up. She put eight 12-volt batteries in the trunk of her car hooked up to a charging circuit and an inverter. Her car got a burglar alarm but instead of sirens she installed microwave emitters.

Me? I took a less offensive route—I installed a couple of small lights that would illuminate our parking spaces and set up a low-light USB camera in the shadow just above and to the side of my door. I duplicated our system from work with a storage drive and software that would flip on high-speed recording mode when a radical change between successive frames was detected. I set the program to run a Perl script that would call my cell phone and play show-and-tell. Charlie asked "What if we get intruders?" I decided to get sneaky. A similar USB camera went into an upper corner of the bedroom and living room. I ran the cables down the inside of the walls next to the studs. They came out behind my dresser. I sacrificed my bottom drawer for a computer and battery stash. (If you tear down your computer's power supply and run direct 12-volts with a 5-volt and 3-volt bleed-off the power requirements are much smaller. Keeping the 12-volt battery charged was trivial. The power feeds to the cameras were likewise trivial when I realized that their transformers had 12-volt outputs.)

I thought it was all overkill until I got a call at work from my computer. I watched two guys roam around my trailer working here and there. I called the cops and the FBI. I was kicked out of my trailer for a couple of days but they caught the guys red-handed in my place. They'd done a number on Charlie's place too, losing one guy to the microwave trap. He was hard-boiled like an egg. I wondered how long this was going to go on. I was pissed and it didn't help that I no longer felt safe in my own home.

It was spring! The snow had turned to mud and the mud was drying up. Things were turning green. I wandered around the farm taking in the sights. I found four more sites that would work perfectly for trailer parks—a road to the rings would wind around a hill so that they weren't visible from the highway, the big power mains were close, the sites were level and the ground sloped downhill, affording simple construction for septic fields. You could see the trailer rings from each other but some plantings would fix that. He had two big barns that were doing nothing as well. People lusted after inside storage for their boats and RV trailers. I gave Pete a call to invite Laura and him over for a cup of coffee. I dashed into town to a high end bakery for something to nosh on and picked up a bag of good coffee. When I got back I put everything together and drew out a quick and dirty map of his road frontage that followed the power lines and sketched in what I thought might work. They showed up soon. We sat and talked about little things while getting around the coffee and Danish, then I brought out my sketch.

"How would you like to retire?" I couldn't keep the grin off my face. "You've got this beautiful horse farm lying fallow. The bank ate up the deal for the trailer park. I walked some of the property and came up with this." Then I pointed to the flat areas I found. "With a little work four more trailer rings can go in here, here and here where the ground falls away to make septic field installations a snap. The electric lines run along the road here and little berms can be laid in to keep the rings out of site of the main road, maintaining a little privacy. You spend some time riding a tractor-mower every week and collect, umm, twenty four thousand a month at four hundred a lot, full occupancy. That's a hundred and sixty eight thou a year before expenses and taxes. You don't own the trailers so there's no maintenance to worry about. You pay for garbage pickup and water. The customers pay for electricity. If everyone has cellular phones then AT&T doesn't get to charge an arm and a leg for running lines. You can keep some rings family-friendly, some adult-only, some retirement-age. If you don't mix the types of people there's a good chance of keeping out the assholes, or isolating them until they can be kicked out, if you word the leases right."

He looked at her, and she looked at him. They raised their coffee cups at the same time. (They'd been living together a LONG time.) Laura started it off. "We could sell off those fields on the other side of DeKalb to that developer and not have to take out a loan. That's sixty acres at sixty thousand an acre."

"Let's sell half now, half when he gets hungry for more."

I dropped another thought on them. "The builders would be happy to have some dry storage during the build-out if you let them use the barns. If they checked them out and did a little repair on them for the privilege you could lease out winter storage space for a small fortune every year."

Pete pushed his coffee cup away and leveled his eyes at me.

"What do you get out of all this?" I smiled. "A little something for everyone. I'm getting older too. I'd like to rent space from you in a slightly different area. Past your house, past the barns, there's a track back to a glade and a small lake with a brook leading out of it. I'd like to live back there where it's peaceful, quiet and beautiful. I'd pay for the trencher to lay services and to fill and grade the road back there myself--if you say Okay."

Pete smiled and said "Hell, I thought you'd want to buy in! That's fine. We can have you moved in by the time summer starts. It's real pretty down there—we used to picnic there when we ran trail rides out of here." I was happy, they were happy. We shook on it.

I excitedly told Charlie what I'd arranged. She smiled a little but I could see a little pain in her eyes. "That's great, Howard." Then I realized she was almost done with her degrees. She'd never get to enjoy it. Bullshit. "I raised an eyebrow and looked down my nose at her. "I propose, missy, that you take a season or two hiatus after receiving your due for all your efforts. Upon graduation I expect to see you down at that little lake tanning your pretty little butt and everything attached to it. I could see the hope blossom. "Really?" she squeaked out. "Really." There. That put the stamp on it.

We did a mark-one eyeball survey and staked out the mile-plus-long roadbed. A little cat diesel leveled-up and dug out the roadbed for the rock. The big chunk rock went in by the dump-truck full then road fines over that. It got leveled out with the cat and driven over plenty of times to settle everything into the dirt and clay below. Running a trencher is easy—when there's no rock! I paralleled the road back to the trailer site a full three feet deep. We set up the trailers at the edge of the glade as far away from the lake as we could get. Water and electric went in, and a small septic field was dug out and connected to a concrete settling tank that could be siphoned out every few years. We'd have to run the grey water out of the washing machines right out to the grass or we'd exceed the capacity of the leaching field fast. We decided to plant the trailers side-by-side and open a doorway between them. They were put in heel-to-toe so that one of the kitchens wouldn't be destroyed. Instead of a simple doorway we had the contractor put in an eight foot wide opening that made the living rooms one real-house-sized living room. I had the same contractor slap up a raised deck that allowed her mudroom door direct access to it. I sniffed around the 'for sale' pages and found a used hot tub. I damned near scratched my head bald figuring out how to plumb that goddamned thing but we got 'er done. I had to install a bigger water heater.

We broke the thing in on a late June night. The stars were shining and the iced sangria was flowing. A few frogs were peeping away in the pond. Other than that it was silent.

"Howard, why haven't you hit on me? Do you bat for the other team?"

I about snorted Sangria. With the amount of rum I'd dosed it with that would have been painful!

I sat up and looked out at the pond. This was hard. I tried to marshal my arguments.

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