John Turner drove past Tennyson's shorn cornfields in a state he had never found himself before: on the side of an owner.
He stopped at the Wilford Diner for coffee, hoping to clear his mind for the long drive ahead.
"Sit anywhere you like, hon," the waitress said.
Turner took a booth adjoining one occupied by two men, the only other customers.
"Here's to Holly Estates, Phase Two," one said, toasting with his mug.
"Don't pop the champagne yet, Fred," his companion replied. "Not until Henderson signs on the dotted line. I never thought he'd sell."
"You can thank me for that, Hank. If I hadn't gotten the Labor Department to pay Pop a visit, you'd still be waiting."
Turner shifted in his seat to get a clear view. The man talking smoothed back his hair.
* * *
"Nice work, Turner," Wage and Hour Division Chief Metcalf said, later that day, gleefully swiveling in his chair. "Change of scenery did you good."
"I'm not so sure."
"It's open and shut," Metcalf said, slapping Turner's report from Tennyson.
"It's not that simple," Turner said.
Metcalf's smile vanished. He opened the folder. "Are these figures accurate?"
"Yes, but . . ."
"No buts. These workers aren't paid minimum wage."
"I know," Turner said. "You see, it depends -"
"Depends? You going soft on me?"
"Course not. But things are different down there."
"The law applies to everyone," Metcalf interrupted. "Henderson's breaking the law."
"A law made for city rats," Turner said bitterly.
"And I suppose Henderson's Santa Claus," Metcalf said, resting his elbows on the desk. "It's been real quiet here while you were away. No calls from the mayor or the Chamber of Commerce. No one breathing down my neck about my hotshot investigator. I like that."
"I'm just saying we could be making a big mistake," Turner said.
"The only mistake I'm making is wasting any more time on this with you. You made your case. Now shut him down."
Metcalf raised his hand to cut off any more debate. "That's an order, Turner. Don't come back until it's done."
* * *
The man Turner wanted to see occupied his usual counter seat in the Capitol Diner, engrossed in a paperback. Turner slid onto the adjoining stool. "A little light reading?" he asked his buddy - Peter Doyle of the Chronicle.
"Ah, the elusive Mr. Turner reappears," Doyle said, looking up from his book. "Mark Twain is a master storyteller. I'm hoping his talent may rub off."
"I've got a story that'll test your talent," Turner said. "A real tearjerker."
"Let me venture a guess," Doyle said sarcastically, blocking out a headline in the air with his hands. "Downtrodden Immigrants Oppressed by Heartless Sweatshop Owner. John Turner Saves the Day."
"Not even close," Turner said. "I'm talking about a real scoop." Leaning close, he said in a conspiratorial whisper, "Who's the Grinch who stole Christmas?"
Intrigued, Doyle rubbed his chin meditatively. "In this city," he said, "the possibilities are endless."
"How about the U.S. Labor Department?" Turner said.
Doyle closed his book, his eyes wide, and gave Turner his complete attention.
"I'm all ears."
* * *
Broom in hand, Jeff Henderson waited outside Fred's office. Working at Swiggett's General Store wasn't so bad, he decided. Miss Mabel always treated him to a soda and even promised to teach him how to run the register.
Fred was a different story, and Jeff already worried about life after the wedding. "There's my way to do something and there's the wrong way" seemed to be his soon-to-be stepfather's favorite expression.
Like sweeping the office stairs. The first time Jeff did it he raised a dust cloud that brought Fred storming from his office in a coughing rage. This time Jeff crept up the stairs on tiptoe, planning to brush each step with slow care. In the stillness, he heard Fred dialing the phone.
"It's been a week since I called you Labor Department fellas to tell you about the problem down here in Tennyson," Fred said, sounding aggrieved. "Now I know your man was nosing around, but Henderson's still in business." He paused. "That a fact?" he continued, pleased now. "I'm mighty glad to hear that. No, my pleasure. Like I said, I care about working folks."
Jeff froze on the steps for a moment, and then began furiously sweeping his way down the steps. By the time Fred charged out, choking on the dust, the boy was gone.