Bugle P.I. returns after late-winter hiatus

Editor's note: Our American audience is probably accustomed to long breaks in narratives, given the recent television writers' strike. Nevertheless, I apologize for the long break from the last episode. If you'd like to review the story so far, then scroll down to click on "private eye" under the Categories heading.

I wanted to help Eddie in every way possible, I quizzed Dan, his lawyer, for about a hour. Dan kept my drink topped off. Good guy, that Dan. Smart, too. Still, I was worried that there would be some surprise on Friday that would leave Eddie in dire straits. Dan did all he could to prepare me and reassure Eddie.

The alcohol helped with the second part, if not the first. Eddie and I left Dan’s office with few cares beyond a slight buzz and a strong desire for a meal at Hot Doug’s Encased Meat Emporium.

By ten, Eddie and I were knocking back lovely, yellow, watery American beer at Tommy’s. Tommy’s Bar was a neighbourhood place in just the way that the Cubbie Bear wasn’t. The Lincoln Park kids wonder how this place stays open, and the answer comes straight from Tommy’s mouth if you ask: “Figure out how many beers you gotta sell in order to buy a television. We don’t have a television and I serve the guys that I like.”

My phone rang and I answered it without leaving my stool. Eddie’s face broke into a smile as soon as he heard the voice at the other end say, in a flat Chicago accent, “This is the Athlone Garda. Am I speaking to Will’s pants?” It took me a few seconds to realize that Kelly Grosznowski was playing on her alleged Irish heritage. Kelly was a steward with the Amalgamated Wood, Plaster, and Tin Ornamentation Union, and an operative in the sputtering political machine that are Illinois’s labour unions.

We arranged to have coffee the next morning in a Starbucks near Eddie’s house. Kelly said to bring my computer; unlike Eddie, she knew how useful free Wifi and a laptop could be, even when you’re just catching up.

I was a little late to our meeting the next morning, which meant that Kelly was two skinny lattes ahead of me. She handed me a DVD before I sat down. It was filled with files of various types and cryptic names. She reached across the little table to double-click on an Applescript that started a slideshow and opened a few other windows.

“That’s the plan for the Spire, and it really is a big deal,” she said as the screen flashed Tribune headlines and artist’s renderings. Kelly could create jaw-dropping presentations in minutes, but her life’s work and her real passion was plaster ornamentation. She envied my life in Dublin, where she knew there were hundreds of “unknown masterworks by day-laborers like me.”

Her life’s greatest frustration was that management types were more dumbfounded by her powerpoint than her dirty-nailed colleagues. She’d been kicked off a negotiating team by an arbitrator (albeit with his regrets) because a corporation’s vice-president took offense and broke off talks because his “Creative Services” consultants were upstaged by a “stucco-stained §*@¢#.” As the disc spun in my laptop, I watched her most casual work and I was impressed.

“This is why you’re in Chicago,” Kelly whispered. “The bad guys are making good on a threat delivered to every union involved on the project.”

I didn’t come up the river on a bicycle,” I said. “So I know you have something more for me.”

“Luka Caprasso. He’s de facto guy for union relations on this project. He hired out Eddie’s case.”

“That’s hardly encouraging.” I knew Caprasso from my own Chicago union days.

“What’s more, he’s got a huge budget. The developers are giving Caprasso more money than they gave the suits who set up the permits and planning permissions.”

“More rain on the picnic,” I said. Employers have the upper hand without spending their own money. The basic fact was that, in the US, the law virtually required that union reps were volunteers. At the same time, employers could pay anybody any salary and fees, usually to read the WSJ while impeding the labour-management process.

Kelly hopped forward on her seat before I could begin my usual lament about employers’ legal upper-hand. She was eager to take me through her speculations about Caprasso and she’d had way too much caffeine.

“But why so much money? Lawyers never need much to manipulate the process — they just tell their assistants to file the same old forms at the last possible moment, attend a few meetings to show good faith, and bask in the thanks of a middle manager who’s scared to death of unions.” She hit a key on the laptop, and a wildly over-designed graph popped up.

“I figure that nearly every ‘relation’ with a union costs nearly the same amount of money. And there’s no point in spending more unless you want to break a local.” Once Taft-Hartley made it so easy to exhaust the progressives in any given local, breaking unions became like grouse-hunting in Scotland. It was a sport of bored aristocrats who saw themselves as part of a grand tradition and spiritual heirs to proper civilized society, as defined by George Pullman.

“So the Chicago Spire developers aren’t just trying to get a building up. There’s something else, and Caprasso is in charge of it.”

Clearly, she was proud of her graph and her exhaustive study of employers’ legal costs. But she was also onto something. There were two ways to spend that kind of money on union relations: bribes and thugs.

“Tell me, Kelly,” I said after that that last thought. “Is there any way to know how Caprasso’s spending the money?”

“Lawyers have it good with the whole client-privilege thing. There’s no straight way to know.”

“How about a twisted way, then? The hitch is that I need something by early Friday morning.”

Kelly’s eyes twinkled at the suggestion. Her face gleamed when she played on the edge, and as a consequence, most men didn’t hold her indiscretions against her. “These things happen fast if they happen at all. I’ll call you tomorrow. In the meantime, look through those files so I don’t have to explain everything twice.”

Kelly went home to open her bag of tricks, before her shift started. I moved to the Panera down the road and perused Kelly’s work. I was glad to have moved from Starbucks, not for the atmosphere but the free wifi. I spent half my time finding background information. Kelly always assumed that her colleagues had the same curiosity as she did. That meant that her second greatest frustration was that her own compatriots failed to use the dossiers she lovingly compiled.

They were foolish, because time with her files was always well-spent. I learned a lot about the Spire and about an Irishman who made it big in Chicago, Garran Keocaigh. In my second hour on a pleather bench, I nearly choked on my muffin: Keocaigh was a painter on Chicago’s West-side in the 1990s. It took five seconds for me to decide that the biggest wheel on the Spire project was almost certainly Eddie’s associate from the good old days.

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