Eminent Domain: Valentine’s Day, Alex

Sunday, Feb. 14, 1988

Alex was sitting in his office on Sunday morning, not really waiting for Ross’ daily call, but yes, waiting for his call. He had papers in front of him, maps, and enlarged sections of the old road plan, but his brain was elsewhere. Only the fourth day in, and his powers of concentration were failing. Of course, here he was at his desk on Sunday at 8 AM. The others weren’t due in until nine, and Phyllis had asked politely and firmly for Sundays off. He’d said yes, with the caveat that if something was desperate she’d have to come in, and she had cheerfully agreed.

When the phone rang, he took his standard deep breath and answered. Ross’ voice was no longer jovial either. In the last phone call he had sounded just loud and brash. Brash was usually a cover for something else; Alex had wondered idly what it meant.

“…just wanted to keep you on top of things. Jonathan Lee, Esquire, and I are flying up with the helicopter tomorrow. While you guys are out enjoying yourselves on the carnival ride, we are meeting with Del’Olio. He’s going to sponsor this project in the House, and we have some coaching to do. Next week, on Monday the 22nd, we are going to have a public meeting about this project. It will likely be in the courthouse — your public meeting room isn’t big enough, and we don’t want SRO. People will be better behaved in a court room, don’t you think?”

Alex felt the warmth drain from his upper body. “What does that mean for us, Ross? What do you want from us at this meeting?”

“Well, you’ll all want to be there. It’ll put a local face on the project — you know — not a project designed by engineers from Philly. And you’ll just tell them that you’re working hard to keep everything fair and everyone happy.”

“Why do I have the feeling that we are being hung out to dry?” Alex asked.

Ross’ voice turned edgy. “Listen, Alex. I’m missing a vacation to St. Croix because of all this, and it had been planned for six months. My wife is not happy. My attorneys are not happy. The governor is not happy. You’re not happy. As far as I can tell, I’m the biggest happy suck in Pennsylvania these days, so don’t start whining to me. You’re getting paid well for this. I am not. We’ll talk more tomorrow, but start planning your comments to Clancey, because they’ll be ringing you up. See you tomorrow.” The phone clicked.

“Don’t hang up on me!” Alex shouted into the empty receiver as the dial tone buzzed in his ear.

___________________________

The engineers wandered in around nine o’clock, all looking as if they had gotten a good night’s sleep. Keith found Alex lying on the couch with his eyes wide open staring at the ceiling.

He looked up at the ceiling. “Nope, it doesn’t look good up there,” he said. He sank down in the recliner they had dragged in from Henry’s apartment yesterday. “What did the Horrible Head Honcho howl about this morning?”

“I’ll tell you when everyone gets here,” Alex said.

On cue, Dana and Henry walked in. “Okay, we’re here. Looks bad.” Henry said.

“I’ll come in tomorrow at eight o’clock and answer the call,” Keith said. “And…”

“You won’t have to — Ross and the attorney, Jonathan Lee, are flying up with the helicopter. They aren’t going with us — I guess that’s good, anyway — they are talking to Del’Olio while we fly. But the big news is that next Monday there is a public meeting at the courthouse about this project. We are all to be there —  you know, putting a local face on the project. I’m feeling like we’ll be at the table facing the crowd — well, no one said that, but…”

Everyone was silent.

“What no smart remarks from the peanut gallery?” Alex asked. And immediately he said, “Oh, guys, I’m sorry. Didn’t mean to…”

Dana interrupted him. “It’s fine. We aren’t offended. But we do need to know what it is we’re supposed to say. Are we supposed to have plans or something? In a week?”

“How many ways can we say ‘We’re working hard to keep everything fair and everyone happy’?” Alex said.

“We will try our best to be just and equitable with everyone,” Henry said with a self-satisfied smirk.

“We want your trust and we will work hard to be un-biased,” Keith said.

“We are working day and night on this and we welcome everyone’s input. Call us anytime,” Dana said.

“That could be dangerous,” Alex laughed. “How about, we are local, just like you, and we want a non-partisan, legitimate plan to fix this dangerous road.”

“We sound like we’re running for office,” Dana said.

“We might be running for our lives,” Henry said. “They did fire DeBolt.”

“The key word to all of this is honorable. That’s what we have to be, and we have to come up with the best plan with the least damage.”

“What a way to spend Valentine’s Day,” Henry said.

“Let’s go get some breakfast,” Keith suggested.

“Can’t go anywhere public and talk about this,” Alex said. “Let’s go to my house and I’ll fix bacon and eggs for everyone. Just let me call Angie to warn her she’s about to be descended on.”

When he came back a few minutes later, Keith had found Roget’s Thesaurus on Phyllis’ desk, and they were looking up words for fair and happy.

“Angie didn’t answer,” Alex said. “She’s probably in the shower. Come on, we can all squeeze in my car, and maybe we’ll take a drive after we eat. Bring that thesaurus along…”

Eminent Domain: 13, Harrisburg Descends, Engineers Ascend

13 Harrisburg Descends; Engineers Ascend
Saturday Feb. 13, 1988

It’s a good thing there aren’t surveillance cameras in the Engineers’ Office of PennDOT District 13, Alex thought as he surveyed the chaos.

Maps were thumbtacked on every spare wall. They had each thrown in twenty bucks and purchased a cheap couch from Fisher’s Big Wheel. The store had actually delivered it to the door, and they had all three dragged it up into the spare office with Phyllis holding the doors and giving directions. Then they had placed a standing order for two large pizzas to be delivered on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. And since they had been on the phone, they ordered pizzas for today too.

“I will bring crockpot soup and homemade bread every Thursday,” Phyllis promised. “I can’t bear to see you eat junk all the time. It won’t be good for your stress levels. Or mine,” she added. “And also, I don’t mind cleaning up after you, but you can’t be Total Slobs.” She bent to pick up the pizza boxes.

“Ah, Ma, come on…” Henry teased. He got up and hugged her. “We won’t be total slobs, we promise.”

“Right,” said Keith. “Especially if we want to impress Dana.”

“We need a coffee table,” said Alex.

“I can bring in my coffee table,” said Keith. “We need a Barcalounger, too.”

“We are working in here, not watching movies,” Alex said.

“I thought this was going to be our lounge and napping office,” Keith said.

“Speaking of work, let’s go look at some of these maps and brainstorm.”

The three of them were actually working, discussing possibilities, looking at topography, and throwing out ideas, when the phone rang. Phyllis appeared and looked at Alex. “It’s Ross.”

Alex disappeared into his office, and though they all listened, no one could tell what Ross was saying by listening to Alex’s end of the conversation. Until he said, “But Ross… that’s impossible.”

Phyllis wondered aloud if every one of Ross’ phone calls would involve this much stress.

“Count on it,” Keith said. “It’s the man’s middle name.”

“I think it’s the nature of this project,” Henry said. “We knew it when we signed on. I think we also need a kitchen cabinet filled with Excedrin, Antacids, and maybe a bottle of vodka.”

Alex walked out of his office and all eyes turned to him. “There’s good, there’s bad, and there’s messy,” he said. “Which first?”

“Good,” “Bad,” “Messy,” Phyllis, Keith, and Henry all spoke at once.

Alex shook his head. “Maybe we should retire to the lounge.”

They had just sat down when the door to the office opened and in walked a slender girl with short blonde hair. She was loaded down with a bulging brief case and a large green flowered duffle bag. “Hi guys,” she grinned. “I’m Dana and I’m early.”

They all stood up. Henry was the closest, so he took her duffle bag and stuck out his hand. “You’re just in time for our first staff meeting,” he said. “I’m Henry, this is Phyllis, the ugly guy over there is Keith, and the tall guy is Alex. He’s the boss, so be nice to him.”

Alex walked over to shake her hand. “I hope you have a sense of humor,” he said. “And if they start to drive you crazy, Phyllis will take care of you. Or them.” He smiled. “Welcome. Henry was telling the truth; we were just about to have our first bit of good news/bad news. So would you like to join us, or do you need some time to gather yourself before you jump in?”

“Just need a place to put my coat and boots, and I’m ready. It didn’t really take that long to drive — I actually drove over Rte. 592 to get here.”

Phyllis took her coat. “What did you think?” she asked.

“It’s an old fashioned country road that’s beautiful but not suited to the modern desires for speed, efficiency, or safety.”

“Yep. A one sentence summary,” Keith said. “Bill Clancey should hire you.”

Dana looked puzzled.

“He’s the newspaper editor, who covered the front page and the second page, and, in essence, got Harrisburg interested in this whole mess, in a single day,” Keith said. He handed her a copy of Wednesday’s Adamsford Chronicle.

“And has Ross Fowler calling us twice a day,” added Henry. “I hope our illustrious boss informed you of the dangers involved in accepting this job.”

“He did. Our mission, should we choose to accept it…” and she whistled the beginning tune to “Mission: Impossible.”

“Okay, someone get Dana a chair.”

“As long as it doesn’t self-destruct in five seconds,” Henry grinned.

Phyllis stood up. “Here, have mine. I just want to hear the good bits, and then I have to get back to work. My job is not the same as yours. Thank goodness.” She smiled at Dana.

“Ross has been having meetings with Con-Oil executives and he met with the governor yesterday,” Alex began. “Apparently attorneys are doing most of the talking, but Con-Oil wants to give the appearance of doing everything on the up and up. The secrecy of the project is off, but Harrisburg is taking the reins as to what gets said and when. So we don’t say anything until we’re given the okay to do so.

“The second thing is that Con-Oil is not interested in having the road go through the State Game Lands. So one of our ideas is out the window already, before we even got to develop it.”

“Well, that sucks,” Henry said. “That was going to be the best way to avoid taking people’s houses.”

“Yes,” Alex agreed. “I told Ross that if he wanted us to take fewer houses, we had to use the public lands instead, but he was firm — no State Game Lands.”

“Yeah, but we knew that whole wetlands issue made it iffy,” Keith added. “If you ask me, they don’t want to have to wait on variances from DER.”

“Wait,” Dana said. “You mean after we draw up the plans, there aren’t going to be meetings or any public hearings or anything? The Transportation Commission won’t allow them to get away with that, will they?”

“There has never been any public input on this road. The plan was drawn up before the PennDOT that we all know and love existed — when a bunch of local Highway Departments were loosely run by the state. No Twelve Year Plans, No Three Year Plans… so there were no meetings for it. No input, just an engineer drawing up the road on some Harrisburg engineers’ and senators’ request. Ross says that the legislature rammed it through quickly. This whole project is crazy, so there you are: seems to me like anything can happen, and we should try to be as prepared as possible.”

Alex paused. “I saved the best for last.”

Henry groaned.

“On Monday afternoon at 1:00, weather permitting, there will be a helicopter at the Adamsford Airport waiting to give us an aerial tour of the countryside down SR 592. We have it for four hours. The pilot will land at the airport outside Hattiesville if we want, so we can talk and decide what we might like to see from the air on the way back.”

“Are you serious? Cool.” Henry said. “Wait. Is Ross coming too?”

“Uh, that wasn’t made plain to me, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he does. I couldn’t really ask, ‘Ross, are you coming with us?’ But I also wouldn’t be surprised if the Honorable Tom Del’Olio is invited.”

Henry groaned again. “My first helicopter ride, and it’s ruined by some jerk I didn’t vote for. How big is this chopper anyway?”

Alex shrugged and shook his head. “Can it get much stranger than this?”

Phyllis stood up. “I’m afraid it will. And it’s not going to be pretty.”

“Tomorrow we’ll spend the day getting Dana up to speed, comparing topos, and the old plan. Have questions in your minds that you want to see on that chopper ride. The maps tell us the terrain and the contours, but they don’t show us where all the buildings are. I’d like to have a photographer. When Ross calls tomorrow, I’m going to request that he bring one. Unless any of you have skills?” He looked at Dana.

“I do have a good camera in my duffle, and I’ve taken shots from the air before, but I’m no expert.”

“Well, you win, unless these guys are holding out on me about their expertise?”

Keith and Henry both shook their heads.

“Great! You’ve got the honors,” he said to Dana.

 

 

The first chapters of this novel, Eminent Domain, can be found by clicking here, or by clicking on Fiction Projects in the menu bar.

Eminent Domain 12: The Penn Dot Engineers, 3

February 11, 1988
Part 3, Coworkers On Board and the Work Begins

Alex walked in the office at 7:55 with a bag of doughnuts. Phyllis was just starting the coffee.

“You’re here early,” he said.

“Wouldn’t do to have Ross call and no one be here,” she said. “Are you ready for the day?”

“As much as I can be,” he said. “I’m going into my office to prepare. Tell the guys when they come in that there’s a conference at 9:00. In the meantime, I’m going to call Dana Pellari from District 14. Ross gave us permission to bring in another engineer for three months, and I’m going to ask her if she’ll consider it.”

Phyllis nodded. “9:00 it is. Do you want me to take minutes?”

Alex looked flummoxed. “Uh… I don’t know. Do you think we need to document our meetings? We never have in the past. But then, we’ve never had to do anything like this, either. Yes. Please. We don’t want any hint of deceit.”

At five minutes till nine, Alex was sitting in the conference room waiting. His office was on the other side of the kitchen and the conference room; he could access both without going into the main reception area. Phyllis had arranged the doughnuts on a plate, so he had grabbed them and put them on the table. He was a great proponent of food at meetings, especially if the meeting was likely to be contentious. Too bad he had brought just doughnuts, he thought, but his lemon-glazed banana-walnut bread probably would be wasted on these guys anyway…

Phyllis walked in with her legal tablet; behind her was Henry Purcell, the draftsman and Keith Sharpneck, the other engineer, both carrying coffee cups. They looked puzzled — formal meetings like this were uncommon in their informal office. They usually just gathered around someone’s desk and talked.

“Okay, thanks for getting here on time. Grab a doughnut and listen up.” Alex paused as they pulled out chairs and reached for the doughnuts. “We are tasked with a confidential project that we have to do quickly. Probably faster than is humanly possible. We will be working days and nights and weekends until the project is finished, which could be up to three months, maybe more. We will get paid overtime — though I don’t know how much — and an extra two weeks vacation to be used whenever, just not at the same time as anyone else in the office. If there is a leak, and I find out who leaked it, and I will, I have the authority to fire you on the spot.”

Alex paused and looked around the table. Keith said, “Did we just join the CIA?”

Phyllis bit her lip to keep from smiling.

“Holy crap,” Henry said. “This is some weird–”

Alex cut him off. “Henry. Just tell me — Are you in? Both of you have the option of taking a leave of absence until this project is finished. You’ll be sent to other districts to fill in for vacations. I can’t say where, because I don’t know. That would be up to Harrisburg.”

“I’m intrigued, and I’m in,” Keith agreed immediately.

They turned to Henry. “Sign me up,” he grinned. “I’m going to the Bahamas when this is over.”

Alex’s anxiety vanished, and only then did he realize how much he had needed his coworkers to sign on with him. “Okay, great,” he said. “That’s all good news.”  And then he reviewed the whole plan, telling them everything he knew or had gathered from Ross, Conrad DeBolt, and Phyllis. He ended by telling them that Dana Pellari had agreed to come and fill in for three months, starting on Monday. Today was Thursday; they would spend the next couple of days gathering their thoughts and talking and planning. On Monday, when Dana arrived, they would begin in earnest. Sometime today, they each needed to drive the road. At least once. Maybe twice. And then sometime soon when they needed a break, they would all four drive it together.

“I call the back seat with Dana,” Henry said.

Keith glared at him. “Be professional, Henry.”

“Hey, she’s a babe,” Henry said. “Maybe she’ll go to the Bahamas with me.”

For the second time in twelve hours, Alex burst out laughing. Henry was a pain and had a foul mouth, but he was a great draftsman. He might lighten the atmosphere too, if Dana could tolerate him. “Okay, Henry. Keith’s right. There’s no time for romance on this project. And no talking to Pat the photographer either. Remember, you took a vow of silence.”

“Yeah, maybe we should get it signed in blood,” Keith agreed.

Henry stood up. “Okay then, let’s get started, you workaholics. I think you’ll find that I can outlast both of you. We should start with maps — every map we can find.”

“I think we need an addition to the office,” Keith said.

“We can start by making this our work room. Any conferences, we’ll have in here while we’re working. We can move this small table out in to the kitchen and pull a big table in. The extra front office I was going to give to Dana, but maybe we could bring in a couch and use that as a napping office? I don’t know. Phyllis, any ideas?” Alex asked.

“I’m the gofer and the cook,” she said. “You can redecorate as much as you want. Just leave my desk where it is. Actually, I can move it more into the corner at an angle and give everyone more room to move around.”

The phone rang and everyone stopped. “And I’m still the secretary,” she said. “That’s probably Ross checking in on us all.”

“I’ll take it in my office,” Alex said. “You guys get to it, and I’ll be out in a few minutes.”

 

 

The first chapters of this novel, Eminent Domain, can be found by clicking here, or by clicking on Fiction Projects in the menu bar.