Continued from last week…
Synopsis: Nairobi Bombay, a blogger for an anonymous Internet site, is investigating reports that unusually large numbers of people are dying in the new homeless camps. Meanwhile, Dancing Fawn also uses anonymous Internet links in an attempt to track down her missing husband. And Arnold Parker, head of one of the world's largest financial organizations, takes steps to stop the release of critical information that, unknown to either Nairobi or Fawn, is essential for the success of their searches.
FEMA Death Certificates
Nairobi* began her investigation by getting copies of every FEMA death certificate issued over the past five years – 27,836 of them. All, fortunately, in electronic format. Each came from a homeless camp and was electronically signed by a physician, a real person with a real phone number. Using an alias she set up for the purpose, she started making phone calls.
Dr. Hiram Goodman was not the first physician she was able to contact, but he was the first one willing to give her a telephone interview.
"I'm doing a story on the FEMA homeless camps," she began.
"Shelter Camps," he interrupted.
"They're called Shelter Camps. Promise me you'll use that term in your story? Not any other, just that one?"
"What do you want to know?"
"Are you a doctor at one of the Shelter Camps?"
"Not Heart Mountain?" She had certificates from that camp that bore his signature.
"Only as a fill-in. My full-time position is in Beaumont, Texas."
"Do you sign death certificates?"
"Not in Beaumont. I'm just a staff physician there."
"And Heart Mountain?"
"I'm the designated Medical Examiner when I'm there."
"I don't understand."
"Only the Medical Examiner can sign a death certificate. There's one at each FEMA camp. At Beaumont, it's someone else, another member of the staff. When I get duty in Wyoming, though, I'm the only physician on site. By default, I have to be the M.E."
"So you sign certificates there?"
"Why do you work at two camps?"
"Perhaps I could be more direct with my answers if I had some idea what you are looking for."
"Sorry. I've got copies of all the FEMA death certificates for the past five years."
"Camp death rates are higher than for the general population."
"Have you ever been to a Shelter Camp?" the annoyance clear in his voice.
"You should visit one. They're filled with people who have no other option. Families. Children. Houston and New Orleans, we take the desperate from both cities. They have no place else to go. Most lived on the streets for months before they came to us. Weak immune systems. Poor nutrition. Parasites, skin lesions, infections of every sort. Diabetes. TB. Dysentery. Some so overweight they can hardly walk. We manage to keep most of them alive. Do miracles with what little we get. You should praise us for keeping the death rate as low as it is."
"Yes. I see that."
"Without these camps, our cities would overflow with homeless. Hunger. And crime. Hungry people do bad things to eat. And sanitation? How would you like a vagrant defecating on your front porch? They have to go somewhere. You have to tell the country why we need these camps. You will, won't you?"
"Yes," answered Nairobi, well aware of the reason for their existence. When the homeless overwhelmed private charitable institutions to become a national emergency, FEMA was mobilized to house them. The camps were supposed to be a stopgap measure, to be eliminated when the economy improved. But when the crisis became permanent, they did also.
"It's not like these people can turn anywhere else," continued Goodman. "They don't have addresses. No address, no EBT card. Many don't have IDs. Some are illegal. How are they going to survive? And families? How could they feed their children if we didn't have the camps?"
"Every camp is on the edge. Right on the edge. It would be a holocaust. Measles. Mumps. Chicken Pox. These kids didn't get vaccinations. Flu. Anything. The crowding, the poor sanitation. One spark and thousands will die in an epidemic. That's what you have to tell people.
"I'm doing my best. We all are. But without more money, FEMA is just delaying the inevitable. Please, write about that. I don't want this on my conscience. Please."
"OK. I will. I promise." She paused for a minute to try to clear the images out of her mind. Then she started again.
"Can you tell me about Heart Mountain?"
"What do you want to know?"
"The death rate is three times higher than any other camp. Why?"
"They're not a primary camp. They're overflow."
"When someone new is sent to Beaumont, the camp administrator has a problem. We're full. Can't take any more. So he sends a current guest to Heart Mountain to make room."
"The new person doesn't go to Heart Mountain?"
"No administrator wants trouble in his camp. They're big places. Beaumont is rated for 125,000. Packed tight. Limited medical facilities, minuscule police force. The best way to avoid violence and disease is to ship off the bad apples. The sick and the mean. The bottom of the barrel gets transferred to Heart Mountain. Not just from Beaumont, but from every camp.
"But it's worse than that. FEMA allocates resources according to rated camp capacity. Heart Mountain's is 30,000. But its population is half again over that. There's no provision for too many people in an overflow camp. But they keep coming. And Heart still only gets resources for 30,000."
The frustration and anger came through clearly in his voice. She paused a minute to let him calm down, then asked, "You work at Heart Mountain?"
"When I have to."
"How often is that?"
"Two, three times a year. Maybe ten days total."
"Who's the regular doctor?"
"There isn't one. No one will take the job. So we rotate through, every FEMA physician. We're all temporary."
"You all sign certificates?"
"Why are there so many more deaths at that camp?"
"Haven't you been listening? Heart Mountain gets the dregs. The scum, the infected, the hot potatoes that everyone else wants to get rid of. To deal with them, Heart Mountain gets almost nothing in the way of resources. No Shelter Camp gets much, but Heart gets even less. Poorer food. Worse medical facilities. Fewer marshals. The place is a cesspit under the backside of hell. You really want answers? Go there. Walk through the filth. Smell the stink yourself. I'll get you a pass. … Well?"
Nairobi couldn't answer at first, then stumbled for an excuse. He cut her off.
"Give me a call if you change your mind. Until then, I have work to do. Good day."
And, with that, the phone line went dead. She considered calling him back to take him up on his offer, but her stomach wouldn't let her.
* * *
Fawn had sent a message to Caper Oleander asking for details on his snitch ad about her husband. His reply suggested a meeting at the WAREZ Chat house. So now, although she was hunched alone in a dark corner of a local pub, the two of them were also sequestered in a private chat room in the badlands. Text from their conversation glowed on the screen in front of her.
She had asked about her husband and had received an eerily chilling reply:
Oleander: Yes, I know where he is now.
Only a few words, floating in the dark. But with their appearance, years of desperation overwhelmed her. If she hadn't been seated, she might have fallen down.
Fawn: Is he alive?
Why did she even ask? He must be. He had to be. He was the only hope she and her girls had.
Yet when she last saw him, the twins had still been babies. Now they ran and yelled. And, sometimes, even wore dresses. How could he be silent all that time?
Oleander: Did I mention a fee?
It didn't matter. She'd get the money. She had to know.
Fawn: What can you tell me?
Oleander: A fair amount. Once you pay for it.
Fawn: When did you last see him?
Oleander: Listen, he was a good guy. I would really like to help you, but I need the money.
Fawn: How much?
He told her. She hoped it was just an opening offer, not a bottom line.
Oleander: What's he to you?
If I tell him the truth, he'll know my real-world name.
Fawn: One of his friends is looking for him.
Oleander: Well, tell this friend that I have the goods when he has the money.
Fawn: He'll want proof.
Oleander: I have it, part of the package.
Fawn: What kind of proof?
Oleander: A complete FEMA file. Logs. Pictures. The works. Encrypted with FEMA codes. And the passwords.
Fawn: When did you last see him?
Oleander: I never said I saw him, only that I know where he is and can prove it.
Fawn: You said a FEMA file. Was he in one of the homeless camps?
Fawn: Which one?
Oleander: Did I mention that I need money?
Fawn: You still haven't given me any evidence that you really have a file.
Oleander: He went into the camp 37 months ago.
She did a quick calculation. A little over three years. Yes, that was when the checks stopped.
Fawn: I don't have that much money. Will you come down any?
Oleander: Maybe if I know the money is really there. But you're a newbie. Your rep doesn't give me much confidence that you can deliver.
Fawn: I can get it if you can come up with a reasonable price.
Oleander: Hey, listen, I really want to help you, but I got a family to feed, you know?
Fawn: OK, I got that part. Thank you. I'll get back to you.
Oleander: Listen, if you're really interested, I got other bidders, so you need to act soon, you know?
Fawn: Who else is bidding?
Oleander: They want it quiet. They're bidding to get all these files off the market and they don't want their names spread around.
Fawn: There are other files?
Oleander: Yeah, lots of them, but this is the only one on your guy.
Fawn: The others from FEMA camps, too?
Fawn: They all for sale if I can find a buyer?
Fawn: Who are the other files on?
Oleander: I'll send you the list.
Fawn: Will you throw this one in for free if I get you a buyer for the rest?
Oleander: Yeah, maybe.
Then maybe, Fawn thought, there might be a way.
* * *
All Fawn could think about was how to get enough money to buy her husband's file. One obvious way was to borrow it.
Chang: That's an awful lot of money, child. Are you in some kind of trouble?
Fawn: No. I just thought maybe you might make me another loan.
Chang: I was willing to make the last one because it made good business sense. If I can get some details, I might be able to help.
Fawn: No, I would rather not.
Chang: Child, I wish I could help. But your income won't support any more debt.
The text stream stopped as Fawn thought about what the rejection meant. Somehow, Mrs. Chang must have understood how important it was to her, because she typed:
Chang: There might be another way. You could always leverage what you make by taking your real-world payment in counterfeit.
Fawn: Dollars? You mean pass counterfeit dollars?
Fawn: Isn't that dangerous?
Chang: Of course. That's why we decided to have you go with meds in the first place. But, if you really need the money, this is probably the safest way to get it. You are already running a distribution route. You could just pay your expenses in bogus scrip.
Fawn: How likely am I to get caught?
Chang: Not very, but if you do, the penalties will be much stiffer than for med smuggling. The fake bills are very good, so good that I doubt that even the banks can detect them. If they can't, none of the merchants you deal with will, either. If you spread your spending around, it's unlikely that anyone will ever connect you with the bad bills.
If I ever want to find out what happened to my husband, I have to make a lot more money than I'm making right now. What other alternative do I have?
Fawn: OK, I'm in. Where do we go from here?
Chang: Order another kit ID. Use a different name and address from the one you used for your meds. Open a mailbox with that ID at the other end of your delivery route. Plan on picking up a package only about once a month. I suggest ID IN A BOX, just like last time, and FUNNY MONEY for the bills.
Chang: One other thing.
Chang: Please, child, keep your head down. It's getting very dangerous out there.
* * *
"You've got a serious problem. Serious," said Arnold Wilson Parker.
Across from him, on the large leather sofa that was the centerpiece of Parker's well-furnished study, sat Edgar Kohrob, CEO of ENGCO. His face had the look of concern that only an emergency trip from halfway across the country could induce.
"You stopped paying on the files, Edgar. That was a bad idea," began Parker.
"He won't do anything," came the dismissive reply.
"He put them on the market."
"No. He wouldn't dare."
"Shit." Kohrob had obviously underestimated the blackmailer. "How do you know?"
"Never mind how. He even has a buyer sniffing around."
Kohrob's face showed the struggle as his mind tried to reject the news.
"Start the payments again, Edgar. Now," demanded Parker.
So no one else will get blamed if it blows up, you greedy ass, thought Parker. Instead, he said, "Because it's your mess."
"It wasn't my mistake. I didn't lose those files. FEMA did. Make them pay for it."
"No, Edgar. FEMA was cleaning up for you. You cut the corners. You pay the tab."
"I had to stop, Arnold. ENGCO has auditors. They were getting too close."
"Find a way, Edgar. Hide it deep, where no one will ever look. I have faith in you. Find a way."
The plea got no reply.
"Edgar, you're at risk here."
Both men knew Parker wasn't just talking about an audit. Not many people could threaten the chairman of ENGCO and make it stick. The change in Kohrob's face showed that Parker was one of that select group.
"You need to do this. Absolutely need to. For your own good, Edgar."
"All right," came the grudging answer.
"Now, Edgar. Time is running out. We have to get him paid right now. Before he actually sells some of the damned things. Do you understand me? This is urgent. Very urgent."
"By tomorrow night."
"Don't mess this up, Edgar."
* See the Appendices for a list of characters, crossing houses and technical terms.
To continue reading, click here: Part 13. Previous installments of Thieves Emporium are available here: Introduction/Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11.
Thieves Emporium is available from Amazon in both paperback and Kindle and in epub format from Smashwords or Nook. Max Hernandez welcomes comments and feedback and can be reached at MaxHernandez@protonmail.ch.
© 2012-2015 Max Hernandez. Reprinted with permission.