One Door Closing by Patrick Ritter

One Door Closing by Patrick Ritter

Conrad King didn’t know this was his last day in the office, or more importantly, his last day to be alive. He loosened his tie and stared at the mostly empty parking lot of Karpet King, Incorporated. Wiping a bead of sweat from his forehead, he remembered when that lot had been full. But his carpet manufacturing business had declined appreciably over the last decade due to relentless overseas completion and the muscular California labor unions. Once the leader among West Coast carpet mills, Karpet King was slowly fading into history, like a Paleozoic species doomed to extinction.

He picked at the remains of his sandwich as a flame of indigestion welled up. Shouldn’t have added the onions, he thought, rummaging through a drawer for antacids. He was exhausted and a little light-headed. And the office was way too hot, which was odd for Sacramento in April. Have to get maintenance to look into that. Conrad felt like he was being squeezed from all sides. He wondered if the work stress was finally getting to him.

Ok, just one more call and I’ll hang it up for today and get some rest. One of his oldest clients hadn’t renewed their annual order and Conrad suspected a competitor had moved in. He had a sense of dread, but he had to find out. Swiveling around to pick up his phone, he felt a pain in his chest. Oh, that’s just great, another pulled muscle. He knew he should have hired someone to clean up his yard last weekend. Now he was paying the price. He dialed the number, barely, despite a growing fatigue. His breathing came in short gulps.

The line connected. “Yes, Square Deal Carpets, how may I help you?” Conrad fell back in his chair and dropped the phone. The flow of blood to his heart slowed to a crawl.

“Hello? Is there anyone there?”  Conrad’s head rolled back and he stared at the ceiling, unmoving.

“Hello, can I help you?”

But no one could help him now. Deprived of oxygen, his heart struggled and then stopped altogether. Conrad King, the Karpet King, was dead.

I read the email for a third time. Then it finally sunk in. I slapped my desk, hard. If any of the staffers in the cubicles outside my office heard it, they wouldn’t come running to help. They would assume it was just Mike Cooper venting again, and best to stay out of it. But this time it was a celebration whack. After months of failed proposals, I had just landed a gigantic fish, Premier Developers, one of the largest California redevelopers of industrial property. If I played it right, they could even grow into a whale, or at least some large marine mammal. I got up and sprinted down the hall. At forty-two I could still outrun most of the twenty-somethings in the office.

I charged into Dash Morgan’s office. “We won it!” I blurted out.

Dash, the owner of the environmental consulting firm, was sitting behind what he proudly called a desk. It more closely resembled the deck of a large aircraft carrier, a sprawling acreage of expensive tropical hardwood, likely milled from the last surviving tree of its kind. He raised his arms in a touchdown signal. “Excellent,” he said, jumping up to high five me. “Great job knocking this one down, Coop. Premier is one of the big dogs in commercial development.”

Big dog, big fish, whatever, this project was going to give me enough billable hours to make my nut and survive the quarter. Premier had an option to purchase an old carpet mill in Sacramento and was planning a monster redevelopment there. That would mean plenty of add-on environmental work.

That’s gotta be good, I told myself, sitting down at Morgan’s colossal desk. But I didn’t feel good. Mini stabs of anxiety were doing time with my heart beats. What the hell, why wasn’t I more ecstatic? It’s not that I couldn’t do this job. I’d done many of these facility closures before. This one had a brutal schedule, sure, but was doable. But still I couldn’t shake the unease.

Smiling broadly, and not at all uneasy, was my boss, Daniel Morgan, Dash to everyone except the banks, who knew him as the formal, and more pompous, D. Ashton Morgan II. He was salivating at the business prospects for his company, Bay Environmental Services and Testing (BEST).

“Let’s break it down,” Dash said excitedly. I knew I was in for some CEO-speak. Dash always started it like that.

“Mike, I knew we were looking at a whiteboard superior alignment on this proposal.”

“Me too,” I lied.

Dash said, “We’re on the runway for a real-time potentiality here. BEST can bring almost unlimited win-win schemas to the table. Hell, we have the tactical architecture, resource-leveling processes, cross-platform models, you name it.”

Whatever those were, I don’t think we had them.

“Just make sure you build backward-compatible relationships with the decision-makers. And of course, we’ll need tactical collaboration.”

“Yeah, of course.” I had no idea what he was talking about. But then, neither did he.

“Things are looking good Mike,” he said, gazing out at the San Francisco Bay, “exceptionally good.”

Walking back to my office, I wondered why everything didn’t look exceptional to me. With the wave of layoffs at BEST this project would be my lifeline. I might actually survive the downturn and be able to stay in consulting for the long haul. And that was just it. To me the long haul looked like a prison sentence that had just been extended. I reached my desk, pulled out a hidden bottle of scotch and took a long pull.

The next day I left San Francisco early enough to beat the traffic to the Karpet King facility in Sacramento. Nice plan, but two traffic delays later, I barely got there in time.

The front door was open, and I entered the shuttered plant. It was as quiet as a morgue on a weeknight. I walked past a carpet tufting device, a giant sewing machine with a thousand needles that worked in concert to pull carpet yarn through backing material. I headed quickly to the conference room for my kickoff meeting with the two surviving partners of Karpet King. They were sitting at the far end of a large table when I walked in.

“About time, Mr. Cooper,” said the operations manager, Billy Cobb. “Didn’t we say ten o’clock?” He was a big, barrel-chested guy, with closed-cropped hair and a USMC tattoo on his forearm. He looked like the kind of manager you didn’t argue with, especially on the first day on the job.

I glanced at my watch, that read exactly ten o’clock, and then at a wall clock that said it was ten minutes after.

“Sit down Mr. Cooper,” Billy Cobb said. “How long is this closure going to take?” When he asked a question it came out as an order.

“You can call me Mike,” I said, trying to break the ice.

“I know what I can call you. That wasn’t my question. How long?”

So much for ice breaking. I wanted to ask him, Were you born a jackass, or did you study that in the marines? But I said nothing. I needed to work with these guys.

The other partner cut in, “Hey, Billy, can you just ease up a bit?” He rose and walked calmly over to me, holding out his hand. He was tall with a mop of silver hair and a confident voice like he owned the place, which in part he did. His polo shirt contrasted with my suit and tie. “Hello, I’m Francis Holland, Chief Financial Officer of Karpet King. Billy’s just a bit eager to get this closure done is all. We both want this deal with Premier to go through smoothly.” Looked like good cop, bad cop.

“No worries, I said, sitting down. “If all goes as planned I can get this facility clean-closed, with all approvals, in less than two months. Of course, I’m very aware that Premier Development has a three-month due diligence period to buy the facility, so we need to get it cleaned and ready for transfer by then.”

“Got that right,” Billy Cobb said, drumming his fingers lightly on the conference table.

“I’ll make it happen,” I said with as much confidence as I could muster, despite many doubts about schedule, agency delays, and a myriad of other unforeseen things that could derail it.

“And, I want to say how sorry I am at the passing of your president, Mr. King. I hear he was a legend in the carpet business.”

“Yeah some might say that,” said Francis Holland, running a hand through his hair. “He was a master salesman, I’ll give him that, although did some crazy stuff over the years.”

“Like what?” I said, trying to sound interested.

“Well, he once did a TV commercial dressed up in a Paul Revere outfit with a bunch of English solders charging him as he yelled, ‘Go ahead, tread on me!’ That kind of goofy stuff. It did grow our business, for a while anyway.”

I smiled. “Seems like he was an interesting guy.”

Holland shook his head. “Yeah, but the thing is, Conrad King couldn’t give it up, even when our business went down the tubes. We’ve been on life support for several years now. Billy and I tried to convince him to shut down the company and sell the property since it’s so valuable. I showed him the numbers, but no, Conrad had to stay the course. He was the incurable optimist.”

“Damn stubborn is what he was,” Billy said.

Holland looked out into the empty parking lot. “But we couldn’t do anything without unanimous approval of all three partners, so we slogged on and kept losing money.”

Cobb stopped drumming and said, “Conrad always joked they would have to carry him out of here in a box. Well, he got his wish. But what a waste. He could have retired wealthy and gotten himself healthy. Instead, the fool had a massive heart attack. But we don’t need to rehash company history. Let’s get back to the closure. What exactly do you need from us?”

“Ok,” I said, “I assume all operations have ceased and any salable carpets have been removed, is that correct?”

“Of course operations have ceased!” Cobb snapped. “Look around. You see any activity?”

“No, I’m just confirming-”

“Look, Mr. Cooper, we’re ready to sell this property, and pronto, without any hassle or delay.”

“Yes, I hear that, loud and clear,” I said, trying to appeal to Cobb’s military nature. “I’ll need complete access for my crew, beginning tomorrow for the mission critical tasks. We’ll start by removing all chemicals and hazardous materials, mostly dyes and cleaning solvents, then deal with the equipment.”

The partners stared silently. I wasn’t sure it was impressing them. I decided to throw in a little consulting-speak. I gave them the “thirty-thousand-foot view” and then “drilled down” to the details. I confidently told them we had “all the bases covered,” were going to “hit the ground running” and stay on track to “button it up asap.”  Holland just stared. Billy Cobb looked like he might have post-traumatic stress syndrome. So I threw in that we were going to “think smart” and sell all copper piping and wiring to local recyclers.

“We’re getting the revenue from the copper, I hope?” Holland asked.

“Yes, absolutely,” I said. Unless one of the crew steals it first. “After decontamination, for value-add we’ll auction off any equipment with salvage value, and the buyers will have to remove it,” and I quickly added, “at their cost.” Holland nodded approvingly.

“Other materials may not need to be removed, such as the ductwork, and will be left onsite.”

“The ductwork will remain?” Cobb asked.

“Yes, when Premier demos the building, they’ll remove the ducts and other metals and take them to a local recycler where they will be melted down. That’ll help them meet the City’s recycling requirements.”

“Got it,” Cobb said. “What else?”

“After all chemicals and equipment are gone, we’ll pressure wash everything and dispose the cleaning solutions. The last step will be the confirmation testing. I’ll need to collect enough samples to show the regulators it has been sufficiently cleaned. Then I’ll get a summary report to them, and you should be good to go, or, in this case, good to sell.” I ended with, “We’re going to fast-track this to completion and put a bow around it.” That didn’t even make any sense. But they seemed to like it.

“Alright,” Billy Cobb said, getting up. “That sounds like a decent battle plan. Don’t screw this up Mr. Cooper.”

Yeah, screw you, I thought. You guys aren’t even paying for this closure, Premier is. “Of course, Mr. Cobb,” I said.

Holland said, “We’ve got a great offer on the table, and we want this place closed up neat and tidy. We’re counting on you Mr. Cooper.”

“I’m going to bring it in for a landing,” I said.

“And if there any problems or delays whatsoever,” Cobb said, “let me know asap.”

Yes, I’ll do that, you over-muscled turd. I walked to my car, shell-shocked. What was with these carpet guys anyway? Their founder just died. Their long-time business is closing. You’d think they’d be a little more reflective. And this Billy Cobb dude is a real piece of work. Loaded for bear, he’s aiming at nearest prey, which of course is the environmental consultant. I’d dealt with guys like this before. The closer they get to money the more they start to act like they already have it, and are therefore entitled to order people around. If I was teaching Consulting 101, that would be Principle Number One.

Driving back to my office a familiar regret surfaced, like an annoying relative who shows up for an unwanted visit. Twenty years earlier, right out of grad school I was undecided whether to work for an environmental regulatory agency or go into consulting. It was a tossup. Government jobs were lower stress but lower pay. Consulting had the potential for better pay but came with long hours and difficult projects. That was only one dilemma. Government work was easier, but bureaucratic. Consulting sailed on uncharted technical waters, which was never boring, and allowed you to more or less make it up as you went. You could walk into a meeting as the “expert,” whether you were or not, just as long as you knew just a little more than anyone else at the table. That was a kick, at least for a while.

But consulting was always feast or famine. You either had too much work, and didn’t have the bandwidth to look for the next project, or not enough billable hours. When a slowdown hit, and you were low on work, your hours could be cut back, or worse. With government work, your job wasn’t usually on the line.

Given the tradeoffs, I had decided to try consulting for a couple of years, just to check it out. That somehow turned into ten, and then 20 years. Exciting at first, now it sucked. But if I went into a public-sector job now, while it would be easier, I would start at the bottom of the totem pole and it would take years to climb up, or to make enough to support my current lifestyle. I never thought I would envy the guys who took the public route and were now some of the top managers at the environmental agencies, regular Joes with regular hours and normal lives. That didn’t sound too bad now.

Late that night, I pulled into the cracked driveway of my million-dollar fixer-upper in the Outer Mission District of San Francisco. I poured myself a double Jack Daniels and tried to forget my day, but it gnawed at me between sips.

Why did I put up with this crap anyway? It wasn’t the difficult challenges, or even long hours, as much as having to kowtow to demanding jerks, like these carpet guys. Who needs it? I recalled my last bank statement, with its extensive list of withdrawals for mortgage, insurance, assorted charge cards, car loan, diving trips, and more. I took a long swig of Jack and stared bleakly at a wall that needed painting.

Three weeks later, I walked through a different-looking Karpet King facility. It was a vast open space now, with all the equipment and chemicals removed and the floors and walls scrubbed clean. All that remained of the former operations were faint footprints on the floor where equipment had been, ghosts of former manufacturing lives.

To verify that the facility was sufficiently clean, I needed sampling data. Sampling was a lower-tier task usually assigned to technicians with low billing rates. So why was I, the project manager and engineer-in-charge, unpacking a sampling kit containing jars, distilled water, and cotton pads? Because I liked getting out of the office into the field. My office was stifling, filled with ladder-climbers and gossip-whores, not to mention the chief executive clown, Dash Morgan. If the clients bitched about my billing rate to do the sampling I would tell them that I would have greater credibility in defending the results if I took the samples myself. That was completely wrong, as I would have a conflict of interest to get the results I wanted. It was a pure BS story, but screw it, at least I had a story. Consulting Principal Number Two: Always have a story ready.

I first collected wipe samples from the floor and walls in places where the heaviest manufacturing activities had taken place, carefully logging the sample locations and labeling each jar. Using a step ladder, I collected a sample from the ductwork above former manufacturing hoods. All I needed now were a few background samples from some part of the facility unaffected by manufacturing activities. If the concentrations of contaminants in the cleaned manufacturing area were no worse than in a non-manufacturing area, it would be considered clean enough by local regulators.

Taking the step ladder, I headed toward the office area, my footsteps echoing in the empty hallway. I came to a corner office with “Conrad King” on the nameplate. As good as any, I thought. The office hadn’t been totally cleaned out yet, and still contained a desk and a few chairs. Papers and debris littered the floor. On the wall behind the desk were a few photos from various stages of King’s life. I couldn’t believe the next of kin hadn’t already recovered these. Maybe there weren’t any next of kin. I stared at one photo showing an overweight, smiling Conrad King, puffing on a cigar in front of a roll of carpet. Yeah, looks like a definite heart attack candidate.

After collecting a few background samples from the walls, I set up the step ladder beneath the air supply vent above the desk. The offices would be supplied with fresh air from a ventilation system separate from the manufacturing area, and would therefore serve as a good background location. I unscrewed a louvered cover plate and peered inside. It was a pretty standard box, with the incoming air supply duct entering at one end. But there was a second, smaller duct coming in at the other end of the box. I hadn’t seen two incoming air supply ducts before.

After collecting a wipe sample from inside the air supply box, I screwed the plate back on. As I stepped down from the ladder I stopped midway. It did seem odd to have an additional fresh air duct, now that I thought about it. Then I realized why. Since the original ventilation system was so old, they must have beefed it up with an additional supply line. Anyway, the whole place will soon be rubble soon, so it won’t matter. I packed up everything in a small cooler and headed to the BEST laboratory.

I rang the buzzer and the sample receptionist came out. She was in her early twenties with eyes the color of black onyx and matching black stockings peeking out beneath her lab coat. I’d never seen anyone in a lab coat looking that good.

I put on my best smile and said, “I’m here to drop off samples.”

“Yeah, I would hope so,” she said icily, glancing at the sign to her left that read: Sample Drop-off Station.

I checked the chain of custody form again. It requested that the lab analyze all samples for a standard suite of metals, plus a range of organic compounds that could have been generated in carpet dyeing and waterproofing.

I handed the cooler to the lab receptionist and said, “Ok, everything looks good.” And it did look good. Then the results came in ten days later.

“What do you mean it isn’t right?” Dash stared at me, looking offended, as if I had insulted his choice of tie.

Pointing to the lab report, I said, “Well, the concentrations of metals in the manufacturing area are similar to background levels and show it has been sufficiently cleaned. But the background duct sample in the office shows an unusually high level of one organic compound called PFOA. In the manufacturing area, we found only trace levels of PFOA.”

“What is PFOA?”

PFOA is Perfluoro-octanoic acid, a chemical used in waterproofing. It was used at Karpet King to make stain-resistant carpets.”

“So, the elevated PFOA level must have come from one of the manufacturing area samples, right?” Dash said.

“Initially I thought so too. I went back and checked every sample label, and the lab quality control procedures. That sample came from the office fresh air supply box and appears to be accurate, or at least we can’t rule it out.”

“Well, that just can’t be,” Dash said.

“At this point we would need to re-sample and see if we get the same result.”

“Re-sample! That’s not actionable,” Dash said, which translated from CEO-speak meant he just didn’t like it. “How long would re-sampling take?”

“If we fast-track it, at least ten days.”

“Which will delay delivery of our report?”

“Unfortunately, yes.”

“And is re-sampling in our budget?”

I knew that was coming. “Well, not at this point, but we could-”

“Look, Cooper, you know how important this job is for us, so why would you want to boil the ocean over one sample?”

“No, I get how important this project is, but-”

“So, we’re going to tell the client, what? That we have to re-sample because our own lab screwed up the analysis, or you screwed up labeling the samples? What the hell do we tell them?”

My disgust meter started revving. “Well, it’s the only way to really resolve it.”

“No, there’s no need to resolve anything. We’re not jeopardizing this project because of our own errors. It’s obvious this PF-whatever chemical came from the manufacturing area.”

Disgust needle approaching maximum. “But if that’s the case, then we haven’t cleaned it sufficiently.”

“No, you said yourself the metals data show we have cleaned it well enough. So, it’s got to be a lab error. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter why, that data is simply wrong. So, we’re not putting it in the report.”

Disgust meter redlining. “Dash, do you not believe in the scientific method, or simply choose to ignore it at your convenience?”

“The hell you talking about Cooper?” Now Dash was fired up. He stood and leaned on his aircraft carrier desk.

I said, “I’m talking about, no strike that, you are talking about burying lab results.”

“We’re not burying anything. The facts are obvious, and if you can’t see that, I’ll get a new project manager in here who will.” He made an exaggerated move toward his phone. If it wasn’t so serious it would be comical. Reminded me of Principle Number Three: A fool plus power equals mismanagement.

Screw it. Wasn’t worth it. “No need for that” I said. “I guess I can gin something up.”

“No guessing about it, Cooper. Just make it happen, and right away. Circle back with me when it’s done.”

The cell phone on his desk rang and he said, “I need to take this. So we’re on the same page, right?”

“Right,” I lied. As I walked out of his office, I wasn’t on Dash Morgan’s page at all. I wasn’t anywhere in his warped book.

I worked the rest of the day and into the evening on the draft report, which made no mention of the PFOA result. Maybe it was no big deal. This PFOA was probably non-toxic anyway. They use it in carpets and clothing after all. And if it’s no big deal, then no need to even include it. Seemed like good logic. But I wasn’t really buying it.

I decided to Google around and find something that would justify ignoring it. I ran a search for Perfluoro-octanoic acid. The first links yielded only advertising for carpets, clothing, and luggage, touting the exceptional water and stain resistance from PFOA treatment. I clicked on “How Stain-Resistant Products May Get Into Your Blood,” which was an online article by an activist environmental group about the potential hazard of PFOA accumulating in humans and wildlife. The article concluded with a call to choose alternatives to clothing treated with PFOA. It sounded like the usual alarmist stuff, so I moved on.

The next article looked more reputable. It was an academic paper from the National Human Health Institute titled: “The Role of Perfluorooctanoic Acid Exposures in Increased Risk of Cardiovascular Disease.”

It began: “This study evaluated the association between airborne PFOA industrial exposure and coronary heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.”  I scanned through the report methods section, that looked highly credible. I skipped to the Results section where I read: “In summary, we have concluded, with a high degree of confidence, that elevated levels of PFOA, combined with other cardiovascular risk factors, including hypertension, obesity and smoking, can significantly increase the risk of heart attack and stroke.”

Holy crap. I recalled the picture of Conrad King, overweight and smoking. If King’s heart had somehow been affected by this PFOA, it would open up a huge investigation involving cross-contamination, design liability, worker health and safety, and other issues. There would be plenty of agencies involved, long delays, a tangled nightmare that would kill the deal and any chance for more billable work. Principle Number Four: The number of ways a project can be derailed is a positive integer between ten and infinity.

Late the next day I toured the Karpet King facility with Billy Cobb and Francis Holland. “Looks pretty clean, Cooper,” said Holland. “Quite a bit different isn’t it?”

“Yep,” I said, “all that’s left are equipment footprints.”  We stopped at a large dark rectangular stain on the floor. “This was where the old tufting machine was, right?”

“Yeah, that was it,” Billy Cobb said. “Got a lot of years out of it. Anyway, we’re getting the agency’s buyoff on the closure, right? No surprises?”

“Yes, the agency should approve the closure,” I said, holding up my copy of the report. “I’ll get it to them tomorrow, and they’ll do their walk-through within a couple of days.”

“Walk-through?” said Holland. “They have to come out here?”

“Yeah, they always look things over and review the closure sampling and so on. Pretty routine really.”

We continued our tour. “And where was the waterproofing booth?” I asked.

Holland stopped, thought a second, and said, “Oh, we hardly used that booth. The stain resistant carpets were only a small part of our output. I don’t even know where we had it. Do you know Billy?”

“I dunno, Francis. But everything looks fine to us, so let’s just get the report out and wrap this up.”

I was halfway back to San Francisco, listening to a Bill Evans piano solo, and suddenly realized I’d left my project folder at Karpet King. So I turned around and headed back into fierce rush-hour traffic. Son of a buck.

The Karpet King parking lot was totally empty. I drove to the rear service entrance. Using the access code they had given me, I opened the rear door. The facility was dimly lit with emergency exit lights only. I tried a light switch but everything remained in twilight. I went back to my car and dug out a flashlight.

The place was even eerier now in the dim light, a real ghost facility. I made my way down dark hallways to the conference room where my file was still on a side table. At least I was almost done with this project. As I reached the rear door I stopped. How can the partners not know where their damn stain booth was? Billy Cobb was director of operations for crype sake.

I went back in and headed to the engineering office. It took almost fifteen minutes to find it, having to balance my flashlight on the table while I unrolled the large as-built drawings. But there it was, “Stain-Resistant Coating Booth,” with its location identified by the nearest building column. I found it ten minutes later. It was a faint discoloration on the floor, a small rectangle that had been the stain booth where carpets had been coated with PFOA. I scanned my light upward and found the disconnected discharge duct, a six-inch silver snake, hanging in mid-air about thirty feet above. The duct disappeared into a maze of other ducts and utility lines and I couldn’t see where it went. But I did see the catwalk running just behind it.

My flashlight starting to fade, I shuffled carefully along the catwalk, tracing the stain booth duct. It disappeared several times into a utility maze, but I finally located the place where it merged into a larger emissions duct that took all of the facility emissions to a treatment scrubber before being discharged through the roof. It all looked the way it was supposed to. Ok, just forget it. Soon all the ductwork would be melted down and forgotten. Yet, as I backtracked along the catwalk, I scrutinized the stain booth line a last time.

And then I found it. It was partially hidden, but a small side duct had been inserted into the main stain booth discharge duct. It was about one inch in diameter and disappeared down the back of the nearest column, marked as L-22.

I backtracked down the catwalk. Back on the floor I counted off the numbers and finally came to Column L-22, which ran down through the ceiling of a corner office. The sheetrock came all the way to the floor. There was a slight gap in one place where it had worn away. Hell, this place is all going to be demolished anyway. It took me three small kicks until my toe broke though the wall.

I headed down the main office hallway and walked all the way to the corner. Conrad King’s office was still strewn with papers and debris. Poking around along the back wall I found the hole I had made. I shone the light from the floor up to the ceiling above and saw the fresh air duct I had sampled before.

Holy Mother of God. I retreated from Conrad King’s office, walked quickly to the rear door and left.

I didn’t sleep well that night, weighing my options, none of which were ideal. I could just submit the closure report tomorrow and be done with the whole damn thing. Premier will proceed with the redevelopment, the partners will get their cash, and I will likely have enough billable work to survive. Just forget this whole PFOA thing.

Or not. I could go to Premier tomorrow and tell them what I know and let them decide. That would take me off the hook. And probably get me laid off since the deal would die along with any prospects for more billable work.

Or I could go to the partners, and what? Ask them why a rogue duct carrying PFOA had been routed into Conrad King’s office, causing his heart attack? That sounded pretty crazy, even to me. Not to mention that Billy Cobb would probably kick the crap out me on the spot, whether they did it or not. Go to the authorities? With what evidence? This thing might have some reasonable explanation and I would look like a total fool, and most likely get fired. Hell, Dash may be right and the PFOA sampling result was simply wrong. Lab errors happen all the time.

At 3 AM I finally decided I would include the PFOA analytical results in the report appendix, despite what Morgan wanted. I wasn’t going to bury data, even unusual data. I bet no one will even notice. And if someone brings it up, I’ll deal with it then. Yeah, that seemed the best thing to do. I wasn’t altogether convinced, but I finally fell asleep, although fitfully. I dreamt that dilemma’s bull was charging toward me down a red office hallway; I could step to a side and avoid one horn but would be gored by the other one.

Three others weren’t sleeping that night either. One of them was Officer Sean Purtell, who was cruising his beat in the Sacramento industrial district. Officer Purtell made a left turn onto a wide street lined with manufacturing facilities. The street ended in a cull de sac. As Purtell wheeled around he noticed lights flickering inside the large building at the end of the cul-de-sac. A small pickup truck was parked outside a rollup door, which was partially open. Purtell parked, turned off his lights, and picked up his radio.

“Southeast Dispatch this is Sean Purtell, Sacramento Division 9, call code Charlie, Zebra, four, four. Possible burglary in progress.”

“Copy that CZ44. What is your location?”

“Alameda Industrial Park, 557 Progress Parkway.”

Copy that. Checking address now. That is the Karpet King Mill.”

Purtell glanced up at the rooftop sign, and said, “Correct.” He called in the license plate number of the truck and said, “Request backup. Come in lights out.”

“Copy that CZ44. Backup enroute, estimated four minutes.”

A few minutes later Purtell and his backup officer approached two men on the loading dock of the Karpet King facility. “Hands in the air where I can see them!”  Purtell barked.

Billy Cobb, carrying a load of ducting, was so surprised he dropped it to the pavement. “What the-.” The supporting officer patted him down.

Holland was right behind Cobb with another armfull of ductwork. “Officer, what is the problem?”

“The problem? It’s three AM and you two appear to be looting this place.”

“Whoa, wait a minute officer,” Holland, said, setting down the ductwork. “We own this place. We’re not stealing anything.”

“Hands up where I can see them,” Purtell said. “I need to see some identification.”

Purtell said into his radio, “Southeast Dispatch, two suspects in custody. They claim they own the building. Names are Holland, Andrew and Cobb, William. Please verify.”

A few minutes later the dispatcher replied, “That is affirmative CZ44. These individuals are the owners of record for that facility. And the truck is registered to William Cobb.”

“So, can you explain to me what you two are doing here in the middle of the night?” Purtell asked.

“Certainly, officer,” Holland replied smoothly. “We’re selling the facility and we need to complete a facility closure, removing chemicals and so on.”

“And this closure work is permitted?”

“Absolutely, officer. All work is being done according to Fire Department standard procedures.”

“And is it standard procedure to be here in the middle of the night?”

“Well, the closure report is going to the Fire Department tomorrow, today actually. Last night we realized we forgot to remove some ductwork. So, in case they do inspect today, we want to be ready is all.”

Purtell stared at him hard.

“It is pretty crazy, I realize officer,” Holland said. But we have a tight timeline in order to sell the place so we just wanted everything to proceed smoothly.”

“Ok guys, get finished up here. Next time how about some better planning?”

“Yes sir,” Holland and Cobb said in unison.

Driving away Sean Purtell leaned into his radio and said, “Southeast Dispatch, this is CZ44. Not a burglary in progress, repeat, not a burglary. Owners are doing some last-minute work is all. Request you forward the incident report to the Sacramento Fire Department for verification of closure permit.

“Copy that.”

The next day I brought the closure report to the Fire Department. It’s my policy to hand deliver key reports myself, and not have an aide do it, or worse yet, a delivery service. Show some respect for authority and all. I also like the opportunity to walk an agency through a report, highlighting the excellent work we had done, while teasing out any hanging concerns. If possible, I try to head off issues on the spot and avoid the always uncomfortable written comments, that go to everyone from the client to your supervisors. Principle Number Five: Face Time with Authorities Never Hurts, Unless You’re on a Wanted List.

I told the receptionist I was there to see the Fire Department’s Environmental Inspector. I expected her to phone for him. Instead she said, “Yes Mr. Cooper, they’re waiting for you in the conference room. Right this way please.”

That didn’t sound good. Who is they? And why would they be waiting for me? I imagined a team of muscled firemen, crouched under a big table, waiting to jump out with axes.

I walked in and saw the Environmental Inspector, along with several others I hadn’t met, sitting around a big conference table. A tall guy in crisp white uniform stood up and held out his hand. “Mr. Cooper, I’m Jerry Starkey, Captain of Division Ten of the Sacramento Fire Department.”

Uh-oh. He was the top dog and sounded way too formal, as in “Hi, I’m the grand inquisitor here. Welcome, and sit down in the examination chair.”

“Mike Cooper, from BEST,” I said trying to look at ease.

Mr. Cooper, you’re directing the closure at Karpet King, is that correct?” the captain asked.

“Yes, I am.”

“Well, the reason we wanted to speak with you is related to the incident last night.”


“The Sacramento Police Department forwarded a report to us this morning describing activities at the Karpet King facility last night. Do you know anything about that?”

“I wasn’t aware of any activities last night. We completed our closure and cleanup work over a week ago.”

“Well, that’s just it. The police initially thought someone was robbing the place, maybe looking for copper pipe or something. But it seems that the owners of the facility, Mr. Holland and Mr. Cobb, were there at three AM last night removing ductwork. They told the investigating officers that these ducts still needed to be removed as part of the plant closure and they wanted to get them out of there before our inspection.”

“What? All of the ducts are going to be removed during the building demolition and will be melted down and recycled.” I shook my head. “So, there’s no need to remove any of them now.”

The Environmental Inspector jumped in. “That’s our understanding too.”

“What ductwork were they removing?” I asked.

The captain slid the police report to me. “The police took a couple of photos, here.”

I stared at the photos. My pulse quickened. They were unmistakenly the small ducts that had been routed into King’s fresh air supply from the stain booth discharge main.

“Whoa,” I stammered. “These are the side ducts from the stain booth.”

Everyone in the room looked at each other, puzzled, and then turned to me. I thought of Billy Cobb, in the middle of the night ripping out ducts to cover-up their crime, his particular slant on the marine’s motto to improvise, adapt, and overcome. Not on my watch, pal. I opened my report to the appendix lab results for PFOA. “This may take a while,” I said. An hour later, Captain Starkey and I drove to Sacramento Police Headquarters downtown.

The next day I walked into Dash Morgan’s office. “Oh hey, Mike,” Dash said. “How did the Fire Department like our report?”

“We need to talk, Dash,” I said closing the door.

His expression changed from sunny day to impending storm. “There’s no problem is there?” he said.

“No problem? No not now, Dash. First of all, I ended up putting the PFOA lab results in the report, and pointed them out to the Fire Department. And I will be re-sampling the office duct for PFOA today.”

“The hell you will! I told you before we’re not re-sampling.”

“Well, the District Attorney agrees with me that resampling is needed, and he is going to accompany me when I do it.”

“District Attorney? What are your talking about?” Dash sat up.

I tried some CEO-speak on him. “Dash, the DA is deep diving this to help peel the onion. As you might say, the granularity of this project just ramped up.”

Dash wanted to understand that. He knew he should understand it. But his face was crunched in confusion. I continued. “The Sacramento District Attorney’s office has opened a homicide investigation into the poisoning of the Karpet King president by the two remaining partners, who are now in police custody.”

“Poisoning, how is that possible?”

“Last night the police found the two partners removing ductwork routed into Conrad King’s office that came from a stain booth that was using PFOA. If the resampling confirms elevated levels of PFOA in King’s air supply duct, as I’m sure it will, it will be evidence that PFOA could have precipitated Conrad King’s heart attack. PFOA has been shown to do just that. The coroner’s office still has a sample of King’s blood and they’re going to analyze it for PFOA. The DA says if elevated PFOA is detected, they will have an airtight case.”

“Cooper, do you have any idea what a police investigation will do to the redevelopment project, not to mention our follow-up work with Premier?”

“Actually, I do know, Dash. I talked to Premier yesterday and told them everything.”

“You what!”

“Yeah, you’re right, they’re opting out of the purchase contract to buy Karpet King. Could be problematic to redevelop a murder site I guess.”

“Well, where does that leave us?”

“Not us, Dash, you. I’m resigning from BEST right after I finish the re-sampling.”

“Resigning? To do what?” Dash said.

“Premier was actually quite impressed with my performance, and especially appreciative of me telling them about all this before the police investigation hits the press. As a matter of fact, Premier offered me a permanent position as their Environmental Coordinator for all of their West Coast operations, and I accepted.”

“Oh, you don’t really want to do that, Coop.”

“Yes, Dash, I do. But there is some good news for you.”

“Which is?”

“Premier has a huge backlog of projects and they’re looking for a single consultant to do the due diligence and permitting work on all of them. It’ll be a boatload of consulting work, Dash.”

“Ok, great. BEST is definitely interested.”

“Yeah I thought you would be. So, I put you on the list.”

“The list?” Dash looked pale.

“Yeah, at least eight or nine firms are interested in the work. My first task for Premier will be to screen those firms down to two or three. Then, based on my recommendation, Premier will determine which firm we want to be our trusted advisor. I emphasized the word trusted.

Dash slumped back and down into his chair. He appeared to be shrinking, like a balloon fast losing air.

“But,” I said, “if you are interested in bidding on this, I can give you the number of my new assistant who can set it up.”

That was first time I had ever seen Dash Morgan look distraught. Actually, more like dazed and confused.

I turned around and headed out of his office. “As they say, when one door closes,” I said, turning the knob, “another one opens.” I headed down the hall and never looked back.


Copyright Patrick Ritter 2020

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *