The first nine chapters of this novel, Eminent Domain, can be found by clicking here or on Fiction Projects in the top menu bar.
10 Ross Fowler
February 10, 1988
Ross turned his BMW from the snowy tree-lined street into his driveway and pushed the button on his steering wheel to open his garage door. He was irritated for many reasons, but the number one reason at the moment was because he had braked too quickly at the stop light and his coffee cup had tipped over. The car now reeked of coffee and there was a wet brown stain on his beautiful cream-colored carpet. Joanie had thought it ridiculous when he chose the color — “It’s bad enough keeping the white carpet in our bedroom clean,” she had said. “How are you ever going to keep it clean in a car?”
He cut the engine and jumped out, hurrying to the trunk where he kept a clean supply of rags and bottle of Spray’n’Wash. Just as he had finished scrubbing the carpet, Joanie opened the door to the garage and walked out, wrapped up in her long down coat, keys and purse in her gloved hands. “Oh, you’re home,” she said surprised. “I didn’t hear you drive in. I was just going to the store, but I can wait. There’s still some coffee in the pot if you want some.”
“Nah,” he said. “You go on. I’m just going to take a quick nap. I have another meeting with William this afternoon.”
She looked at him quizzically. “What’s up? Is it going to cancel St. Croix next week?”
“I don’t think so. Not at this point anyway, but it does depend on how well they handle the project up in Adamsford. William wants it pronto. Much faster than it should be done. I don’t like it. That’s the same way it went wrong twenty-five years ago — trying to hurry up and shove through a half-…” he stopped.
“Well, you know, the unnecessary speed with which it was drawn up.”
“Why does William want it done so quickly?” she asked. “Oh, never mind. I can guess it’s because this is an election year. And it’s already February. Go take your nap. Do you want anything at the store?”
“A fifth of Jack Daniels?” he whined. “Please?”
“Fat chance,” she retorted as she backed the Volvo out of the garage.
Ross found a mostly empty bottle of Jack that he had stashed in his third dresser drawer. He downed it in one gulp — just to help him sleep — he said to himself, and then he was left holding the empty bottle. He was weighing whether to take it down to the kitchen and stuff it in the bottom of the trash bag, or put it back empty in the drawer, when the phone rang.
He cursed mildly, stuffed the bottle back into his drawer and took a deep breath. “Ross Fowler,” he said into the receiver.
“Ross, this is Alex Goddard. I’m sorry to bother you, but to tell you the truth I was hornswoggled this morning by everything, and I didn’t have time to think things through enough to even ask any questions. Now I’ve got some, if this is a good time.”
“Yes, Alex. Now is as good as any. I want things to be thought through.” Ross sat down on the edge of the bed and kicked his shoes off. “Fire away.”
“You said we should put everyone on this project. In our office, we have two engineers, a draftsman, and a secretary. And the draftsman’s best buddy is the photographer on the Adamsford Chronicle. Do I have the authority to tell him that if there’s a leak, he loses his job?”
“Absolutely. Fired on the spot, and I’ll back you up. Next question.”
“Can we get someone from another district to help us on this? Someone from District 14 next door, maybe? I was wondering about Dana Pellari — I’ve heard she’s good.”
“We can put her up in a hotel in Adamsford for three months max. We’ll give her good overtime and an extra two weeks vacation. If she’s willing. Same for the others in the office. I don’t want any whiners. Have you got whiners?”
Alex was quiet. He didn’t want to tell Ross that he hadn’t told anyone except Phyllis, but he had already decided that he was going to be as straight as possible on this project. “I haven’t told Keith or Henry yet. That will be this afternoon after I talk to you.”
“Good man. That’s probably wise. Next question.”
Alex closed his eyes in relief. He was glad he’d written down his questions. “Do we have to keep close to the old plan?”
“The plan that you have is the one that was originally approved back in 1963 when we were still the Highway Department. It can be modified slightly, just remember the dollar sign. I think the old plan is an interstate — it doesn’t have to be an interstate — to my mind a regional arterial highway would be plenty. We have some money to throw at it, but not as much as we’d like. We don’t want you taking it all the way to Tidioute and Tionesta and back again. Next question.”
“How soon can you get DER to give variances? Are they in ConOil’s pocket too?”
Oh, crap, he thought. I shouldn’t have said that.
To his great surprise, Ross burst out laughing. “Alex, I didn’t hear you say that. But it is a real concern. I have a meeting with Sternberger at one o’clock tomorrow. I’ll be able to tell you more then. I’ll check in with you every morning this week. I’m not micromanaging you, and the calls don’t have to be long. Just to see what comes up and if you think of more questions.”
“Uh, Ross, should I know who Sternberger is?”
“Oh, of course not. Sorry. I’ve just been talking to Harrisburg bureaucrats who know him. Benjamin Sternberger is the Con-Oil executive in charge of their Pennsylvania operations. The governor set up this meeting, so I don’t know what to expect. I’ll let you know what is said.” Ross paused. “And Alex, I know this is the hot seat. I’ll back you up as much as I can.”
“Okay, Ross. Thanks. That’s great. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
Both receivers were put down. Both men sighed. Ross collapsed on the bed and stared at the ceiling. Alex walked over to the map on the wall and stared at it, wishing he could invent a car that could fly. It might be easier.
February 11, 1988
Ross walked into his office at 12:45 after alerting his receptionist that he was expecting people at 1:00. He was hoping to have the meeting right there at his desk, unless Sternberger brought someone with him. And now that he thought of it, that was extremely likely. He’d asked an attorney, so why wouldn’t Sternberger? He was just thinking that he would drag over another chair, when the PennDot attorney he’d invited made his way into the office.
“Jonathan, welcome. Hey, drag that chair over, would you please?” Ross smiled his disarming smile, and if Jonathan Lee was disgruntled at having to get his own chair, he didn’t show it. Ross himself walked to the far corner of the office and brought back a small table for sundry papers or briefcases. He looked up to see the receptionist escorting Sternberger and a short, balding man into the room. Ross walked over to shake hands and make introductions. “Benjamin Sternberger, this is Jonathan Lee, an attorney with the transportation department.”
“And this is Robert Fiorelli, one of our attorneys.” They all shook hands.
“Gentlemen, please have a seat. Can I offer anyone a drink? Water? Coffee?”
Drinks were politely declined.
“Well, then,” Ross said, “let’s just get started, shall we?”
Robert Fiorelli began in a high-pitched nasal voice that grated on Ross from his first word. “My client wants to be certain that this project proceeds in a timely manner.”
“Yes, we are–”
Fiorelli didn’t let him finish the sentence. “But my client is also concerned that the project is perceived as being completely on the up and up. This project will get completed. We, of course, would like it to be completed as soon as possible. But whether the current governor sees it to completion or the next governor sees it to completion is immaterial to us.”
“We have engineers studying the road as we speak and extra engineers are assigned to the project as well,” Ross said, finishing his original sentence.
“Our concern is –” Benjamin Sternberger started to speak, but Fiorelli held up his hand and interrupted him too.
“…that the project is not in the Twelve Year Plan, and thus may not be considered legitimate. By the public, or by a Pennsylvania court.”
Damn, Ross thought, he might run the meeting all by himself.
“And that is exactly what we do not want,” Fiorelli added. “I’m sure you can understand our position.”
Ross nodded, wishing Jonathan Lee would speak up.
Fiorelli continued, “So the problem seems to be how to get the project done speedily with an appearance of legal conformity.”
Jonathan cleared his throat. “The road in question, PA Rte. 592 was, in 1963, part of a planned interstate system from Pittsburgh through State College up to Elmira, NY, where it would meet Rte 17. That plan was scrapped, but the Department, the Governor, and several legislators feel that perhaps this is the time to revisit that original plan. With the uproar that the local newspaper is making, we believe we could easily hold a local meeting suggesting the old project be added to the current Three-Year-Plan with modifications.
“If we put the word ‘modification’ in the new plan, I don’t see the problem,” Jonathan finished. “It is the same road, some of the design will be the same and some will be different. That’s a modification.”
“Good.” Fiorelli started to stand.
“But there is another problem,” Ross said and Fiorelli sat back down. “In 1963 there was no DER. In 1988 the DER does exist and building roads through wetlands is frowned upon. The stream that winds through the Game Lands between Adamsford and Hattiesville is Fox Creek and, where it is joined by Little Fox Creek, it is a designated wetland.”
“Yes, we are well aware of that,” Fiorelli said. “It is those particular Game Lands that are of interest to us.”
Ross continued. “The Department of Environmental Regulations has control over wetlands development and issuing variances for development. Currently, they are–”
“…very strict.” Fiorelli finished the sentence for him. “Perhaps they should have been invited to this meeting?” he asked.
Ross looked chagrined. He simply wasn’t going to say anything about money or influence or kickbacks. He wasn’t going to be bullied by a short bald lawyer with a bad voice. He was silent.
The silence grew louder until Jonathan cleared his throat again. “At this early date, the engineers have not yet determined how the road plan will be modified. Perhaps we do not have to concern ourselves with DER variances until we know if they will be required.”
Sternberger sat forward in his chair. “Our corporation has thousands of acres of mineral rights holdings under public Pennsylvania lands, including the Game Lands in question. We work with DER quite closely to make certain the environment is not damaged when wells are drilled.”
“Good,” Ross said. “Because those particular Game Lands are very popular with the hunters and hikers and fishermen in that rural area. Would you prefer to have the road not be delayed by requests for variances through wetlands?”
Benjamin Sternberger stood up. “Mr. Fowler,” he said, “we are not transportation engineers, and we trust that you are putting your best engineers on this project, as well as your best public relations experts. I would hope your engineers would find the quickest, most expedient way through the countryside near Adamsford. In my opinion, you should hire that local newspaper editor. He seems to be doing a fine job of swaying the public.”
He extended his hand. Ross stood, shook his hand and said, “Thank you for coming, gentlemen. It’s been very instructive. Jonathan, would you see them out, please?”
Jonathan Lee did look surprised then and a bit annoyed. He walked the two men out, and then continued to the elevator and rode down the five floors to the lobby with them. When they turned toward the parking garage, he excused himself saying he had to get back to his own office, which was just around the block. He fumed all the way to his office. If Ross thought he was going to turn around and come back to discuss that worthless meeting, well, he was mistaken. If Ross had anything to say to him, he could call him on the phone.
When he walked into the office, his phone was ringing. He picked up the receiver. “Hello Ross.”
“And just what special projects have gotten approved without being on the Three-Year Plan?” Ross asked. “You do realize, don’t you, that this is 1988, and the State Transportation Commission is in charge of deciding what projects are on the Three-Year-Plan.”
“Didn’t you tell me that the governor wanted this road? Do you mean to say he has no influence on the STC? The Governor himself called me last night and specifically told me to placate the worries of Mr. Sternberger and his attorneys. What did you want me to say, Ross?”
“It’s too early. The engineers have barely started, and we don’t want to have a public meeting yet.” Ross had a touch of whine in his voice.
“I disagree, Mr. Fowler. Right now, while everyone is worked up about the accident, while the newspaper is writing about it, is exactly when we want to have a local meeting.”
Ross hung up without even saying goodbye. Opening his bottom drawer he pulled out an unopened bottle of brandy and an elegant crystal brandy snifter that Joanie had gotten for him in better times. He swiveled his chair around and stared out over the city, his thoughts and his gut churning. Holding the brandy to the window, he swirled it and frowned. He thought of calling William but discarded the idea. Probably better to call him from home tonight. He drank the brandy down fast, wishing its fire would burn away the fragments of fear from his brain.