Big Mike

By Robert Bidinotto
Author’s Note: The following short story is a self-contained “flashback” chapter taken from BAD DEEDS, the second book in my “Dylan Hunter” thrillers series. Each of the thrillers contains such a chapter, presenting a formative episode from the hero’s youth, when he was known as “Matt Malone.” In these vignettes, Matt’s colorful father, Mike Malone—nicknamed “Big Mike”—leaves his son with important “life lessons” that will, decades later, shape critical choices he makes in the stories.

In BAD DEEDS, the adult Matt Malone—a reporter now living under the alias “Dylan Hunter”—has taken on a conspiracy of politicians, bureaucrats, and environmental activists targeting property owners and energy entrepreneurs. This tale reveals how young Matt Malone first developed his sympathy for such victims—and his antipathy toward political predators.

PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA

July 12, 1983, 6:40 p.m. 

Tucked deep in the shadowed canyons of buildings in downtown Pittsburgh, the expansive construction site was the latest part of the city’s revitalization effort. A sign on the metal security fence surrounding the perimeter described the new bank building to be erected there, along with an artist’s rendition of a gleaming glass tower. At the bottom of the sign were the words:

Construction by

Malone Commercial Development

The crew had knocked off for the night. Only Matt and his dad, Big Mike, remained behind, in the glass-enclosed cab of a Caterpillar D9L bulldozer.

Matt sat in the operator’s seat; his father stood, squeezed against the left-hand door of the closed, cramped cab. The interior was coated in dust and grime, and the smell of oil hung in the air. Here and there the mustard-colored finish of the walls and control levers was scratched and worn down to bare metal.

The beast idled in neutral, its throaty growl making Matt feel as if he were trapped in the belly of a huge yellow lion. The gas pedal, he had to remind himself, worked opposite from the one in a car: It was more like a clutch. When you took your foot off it, the dozer began to move. So he pressed his feet down hard on both the gas pedal and the brake to keep the thirteen-foot-high, 100,000-pound monster leashed. Its vibration shook him through the seat and the pedals.

He was sweating profusely, and not just from the heat and humidity of the July evening. He’d been at this for ten minutes under Big Mike’s patient gaze, and he still couldn’t manage to coordinate the various controls.

“Okay. Let’s get her moving again,” his father said.

He tried to remember the steps. The throttle lever was already pulled back. He raised his left foot off the brake, then his right off the gas pedal. The engine growled louder—but the dozer didn’t move.

Then he remembered: You have to put it in gear, stupid.

His left hand reached for the gear shift lever at his side, but Dad bent down and grabbed his forearm.

“Remember, now,” he said mildly, “you have to keep the gas pedal pressed in when you shift gears.”

He felt his face grow warm. Stupid.

“Right,” he said.

He took a breath; licked his dry lips. Pressed in the gas pedal, then pulled the gear shift lever back, into first gear. Black smoke puffed from the top of the vertical exhaust pipe that rose just outside the dirty windshield. He released the gas pedal, gingerly . . . and the beast began to crawl forward on its giant tracks across the expanse of dirt. His heart hammered with excitement.

“Good job. Now, remember how I showed you to turn. Try a left turn.”

He raised his hand to two side-by-side levers next to the seat; pulled back on the left-hand one. The dozer obediently started a slow turn to the left.

“Great. Now, let’s stop here and lower the blade.”

He hit the brake with his left foot. The huge machine began to lurch in spasms. Dad had to seize a grab bar to keep from falling.

A jolt of panic surged through him.

“Push in the gas pedal, too,” Dad said mildly.

He jammed both pedals to the floor. The dozer stopped rolling forward.

“Sorry,” he said, for what seemed like the hundredth time.

Dad chuckled good-naturedly.

“Stop apologizing, Matt. You’ll get the hang of it. It takes a while. My first time in the seat of a dozer, I was sixteen—already a couple years older than you are now. And I backed it right into an old pickup truck. Squashed it like a bug up against a cement retaining wall.” He chuckled again, pale blue eyes distant, remembering. “Fortunately, nobody was inside the truck.”

“Wow! That’s awful . . . So, did they fire you?”

“No. Why should they? After all, it was my truck.”

Matt burst out laughing. Dad laughed, too. Matt felt his jitters melt away.

“Well,” he said, “at least I can’t wreck anything out here in an empty dirt lot.”

“That was the idea . . . Well, I wonder what he wants.”

He pointed off to the right, toward the site’s parking lot. A black-and-white police car sat in the lot, the blue-and-red light bar on its roof flashing. A uniformed officer stood outside the vehicle, motioning in their direction.

“Okay, shift into neutral; push forward the throttle lever; then set the brake . . . Good. Now let me take the controls, and we’ll go see what he wants.”

His father expertly steered the dozer over toward the prowl car, then shut it down at the edge of the lot. They climbed down from the high cab onto its track, then hopped down to the muddy ground.

The officer was young and brown-haired. His dark navy uniform was crisply creased; his hat bore the department’s distinctive black-and-yellow checkerboard band; and his short-sleeved shirt revealed bulging biceps. He wasn’t short, but at six-three Dad towered over him, as he did most people.

“Problem, officer?”

“Is that your vehicle over there, sir?” The cop pointed toward the Lincoln sitting at the far end of the lot.

“That’s mine.”

“Well, I was just driving by, and I spotted a guy stabbing at your tires with something. I pulled in and caught him. I’m sorry to tell you that he punctured two of your tires before I could stop him. He’s sitting in the back of my car now.

“Oh, great.”

The cop asked for his name and identification.

“Mike Malone,” he said, handing over his driver’s license. “I own Malone Commercial Development. We’re the construction outfit here.”

The officer jotted down a few notes onto a pad.

“Do you know who the guy is, officer?”

“His name is Louis Marino. Know him?”

“Name doesn’t ring a bell.”

“I haven’t gotten much out of him yet. But he’s an older guy, which surprises me. Vandalism is usually a young person’s crime. So I wondered if this might be something personal between you two. Maybe if you saw him, you might recognize him.”

Dad went over to the car and looked inside the rear-door window. The guy inside yelled something that Matt couldn’t make out. Dad came back to the officer, shaking his head.

  

“Never saw the guy in my life. But for some reason he’s really pissed at me. I’d like to know what this is all about, too. Would you mind bringing him out here, so I can ask him a few things?”

The cop thought about it. “Okay. He’s cuffed, but still, keep your distance.”

He hauled the man out of the back and took him by the arm to where they stood. Marino was middle-aged with a hooked nose and salt-and-pepper hair. He reminded Matt of Tony Bennett.

‘You son-of-a-bitch!” he shouted.

The cop got in his face. “Hey! You calm down, okay? We want to know why you’re out here trashing this gentleman’s car.”

Gentleman? You call some prick who steals your house and business a ‘gentleman’?”

“What the hell are you talking about—me stealing your house and business?”

“Not just me. The whole neighborhood! Ten blocks of the Bloomfield district—dozens of row houses, dry cleaners, barber shops, my neighborhood grocery, everything. Don’t pretend you don’t know about it. We got a notice about the city council hearing. The universities want to expand, and the council wants more high-tech firms to feed off them, by building another ‘business incubator.’ So they plan to vote to just take our houses and businesses, under ‘eminent domain.’ And your goddamned company is going to do the development—it says so in the Post-Gazette, don’t say it isn’t true. So tell me, Malone: Does a bastard like you enjoy making your millions by stealing other people’s land? Or don’t you even stop and think about it?”

“Hold on!” Dad was frowning. “Sure, we’ve been negotiating a development deal with the city and the university. But nobody told me they were going to get the land by eminent domain.”

Marino snorted. “Well, how else do you think they’ll get all that property?”

“They aren’t buying you out? Offering you a fair price?”

“They’re making offers, sure. ‘Offers we can’t refuse’—like in The Godfather . . . Why are you looking at me like that? I know you don’t give a rat’s ass about it, but a lot of us have lived in Bloomfield for years—generations. My parents came over on the boat and settled there. My brothers and sisters and our relatives and friends were all born and raised there. We’ve built our businesses, homes, lives there. So we don’t want to sell, not at any price. But they’re just going to force us out, then demolish everything we spent decades building—and then just turn our land over to the universities, or to some rich, connected company. And of course, they pay you millions to do it.”

Matt had never seen his father look rattled by anything. It was a shock to see him standing with a stunned look on his face.

“My wife Marie and me, we sweat blood to build the grocery,” Marino said, his voice growing thick. “It took years to finally turn a profit. We invested everything in it, including our hearts and souls. We hired our family members and friends to work there. Everybody in the neighborhood shops there. Now, Marie’s crying her eyes out. We don’t have the dough to hire fancy lawyers to fight you rich guys. We just have to sit there and take it—then figure out where the hell we’re supposed to go, and what the hell we’re supposed to do with the rest of our lives, after your goddamned wrecking balls move in.”

He nodded toward the Lincoln.

“So, I’m driving by and I see your company’s name on the fence. And I see the gate open, with that big Linc sitting here. I didn’t know it was yours; but I figured it had to belong to one of your company big shots. So yeah—it was stupid what I did. But I lost it. If I had a crowbar, I would have smashed in the windows and doors. But all I had was a screwdriver, so I started on the tires.”

“All right, Mr. Marino,” the cop said. “I saw you do it, and now you admit you did it. So, you’re under arrest for trespassing, for malicious destruction of—”

“Wait a minute,” Dad said quietly. “Let him go.”

The cop blinked. “What do you mean? He—”

“I said: Let him go. I won’t be pressing charges.” His voice softened again. “Please, officer—take Mr. Marino’s handcuffs off.”

The cop stood there a moment, then shrugged. He freed Marino, who rubbed his wrists as he glared at Dad.

“Feeling guilty, huh? Well, if you think you can make up for this by not pressing—”

“Mr. Marino, before you go on, let me say something.” Marino opened his mouth, but Dad raised his hand. “Please, sir. Just give me a chance.”

 Marino stopped, breathing hard.

“Whether you believe me or not, Mr. Marino, I didn’t know about the eminent domain takings. The city council and I have had it out about that stuff in the past. They know damned well that I don’t get involved in that sort of thing. So I think they’re trying to pull a fast one on me—get me to sign contracts for this project before I find out what they’re up to.”

His lips pressed thin, and his jaw muscles worked. He went on:

“I want you to know that this is not going to happen.”

Marino blinked. “You mean, you’re not going to be involved?”

“More than that. I mean this whole ‘takings’ thing—it just isn’t going to happen. I’ll make sure of that.”

“Oh yeah? So, just how are you going to stop them?”

His father sent a quick look at the cop, who was watching him intently. His lips curled into that crooked little grin that Matt loved.

“You leave that to me.”

Matt could tell that Marino was debating with himself whether to believe it. Finally he cleared his throat.

“Sorry about the car,” he said.

“You’ve got nothing to be sorry about. I don’t blame you one bit. I’m just glad you weren’t carrying a gun.”

“Yeah,” Marino said, swallowing hard. “Still . . .” He dropped his eyes, then looked up. “Look. Can I give you a lift somewhere?”

Dad’s grin broadened. “I know this Irish bar. You like Guinness? Or do you drink that wop chianti shit?”

Marino grinned back at him. “A bottle of Iron City will do fine.”

As they walked toward Marino’s car, Dad dropped back and said, “Sorry you didn’t get your lesson tonight, Matt.”

Matt looked up at him. “But I did.”

The next day, Dad invited him to take a seat in his cluttered office at the company headquarters.

“One of life’s most important lessons,” he said, “is to own up to it and make amends whenever you make a mistake.”

“Like you did last night.”

“Like that. But I want you to learn another lesson, too. Don’t ever be afraid to stand up to people who everybody else thinks are important. Politicians, celebrities—people with money, degrees, fancy titles. They’re no better than you are, Matt. Most times they’re a lot worse. So never let them intimidate you. You can’t be a doormat and let them walk all over you. You got to stand up to them. Today I want to show you what that looks like.”

He picked up his office phone, poked the buttons, and waited.

“Jerry. Mike here.” He covered the mouthpiece of the phone and whispered to Matt, “Jerry’s my lawyer.”

Over the next ten minutes, Dad explained to the lawyer about the eminent domain plan. They discussed options.

“Far as I’m concerned, I’m out of the project, and they’ll know why later this afternoon. But I want to go farther. I don’t want them to proceed with another developer. I want to fight this whole thing . . . I know, I get that I don’t have legal standing to sue them myself. But those property owners do. They just don’t have the money to do it, which I do. That’s where you come in, Jerry. I want to pay you to take on their case. Represent them in court. You’re the best I can think of to handle this kind of thing . . . Uh huh . . . Well, I’m sure you’re busy. So, how much would it take to persuade you to make time for it? . . . Yes, right away . . . Come on, that’s ridiculous. Your time is more valuable than that. I’ll double that, to one-fifty . . . Sure, I’m serious. And if you find that you need more, it’ll be no problem. Okay?”

They continued the discussion for a few more minutes, and Dad gave the lawyer Marino’s phone number. After they hung up, he dialed another number, winking at Matt as he did so.

“Now to get the media involved.”

He drummed his fingers on the desk, waiting, then said: “Yes, could I have Dick Ryker in the city room? . . . Tell him Mike Malone’s calling.”

Read the rest of BAD DEEDS and the Dylan Hunter series by finding it on Amazon here.

 He gave the reporter a shorter version of the story.

“Dick, you’ve been covering urban renewal mostly from the politicos’ point of view. But there’s this whole other side: the human-interest angle. All these people are about to be run out of their homes and shops. It’s outrageous. They’ll wreck Bloomfield the same way they wrecked East Liberty and the Lower Hill District in the Fifties and Sixties. All that federal urban renewal money tore down thriving neighborhoods. They pushed five thousand families out of their homes. Then they replaced it all with—what? Scores of parking lots. And empty, abandoned lots. And crime-infested, high-rise public housing. Everybody admits it was a disaster. But now they want to do it all over again.”

He explained that he was hiring an attorney to represent the neighborhood. “I aim to stop this bullshit, Dick. And you can print that.” He chuckled. “Okay, maybe you change the word ‘bullshit.’ Anyway, I’m planning to hold a news conference with representatives from the district: families, mom-and-pop store owners . . .” He listened, then laughed. “Do I sound like somebody who gives a shit about ‘repercussions’? . . . Yeah, you can quote that, too.”

When he hung up, he looked over at Matt and said, “I don’t think we’ll have to wait long before this phone starts ringing. So why don’t we go get some lunch before everything hits the fan?”

That afternoon, they were ushered into the office of the president of the city council. Perry Nickson was a thin little man with quick darting movements and tiny teeth. He reminded Matt of a weasel.

“What’s with bringing the kid here, Mike? We have to talk serious business.”

“The ‘kid’ is my son, Perry, and someday he’ll be running my business. So I think this meeting will be a valuable civics lesson for him.”

“Suit yourself. But don’t expect me to pull any punches just because he’s with you. I invited you here right after I got a call from Dick Ryker at the paper. He told me what you’re up to. Mike, what the hell are you trying to pull here?”

“That’s exactly what I came here to ask you. You know damned well I don’t do projects built on eminent domain takings. But you guys on the council tried to hide that fact from me about the Bloomfield project.”

Matt sat back, listening and watching as the argument unfolded and grew more heated by the minute. Nickson finally exploded in a torrent of profanity when Dad said he was hiring a lawyer to represent the property owners.

“Understand this, Malone: We won’t put up with that kind of shit. Not from you, not from anybody. I don’t give a shit how much work you have done for the city before, or what your reputation is, or what other contracts we have pending with you. I’m telling you right now: You pursue this, we’ll ruin you. I’ll ruin you. I’ll make sure that your company never works again in this entire city. Hell, in this entire state. I have a lot of friends in Harrisburg. I can see—”

“Matt,” Dad interrupted, turning to him. “I’ve changed my mind. I need a private moment with Mr. Nickson. Would you excuse us for a few minutes, and go wait in the outer office?”

Matt got up and left, closing the door behind him. Nickson’s secretary was away from her desk. He stood there, not quite knowing what to do. He took a visitor’s chair in the waiting area.

Then he heard noises from the office he had just left. Then a sharp squeal. Then more noise, and a heavy thump against the wall next to the office door. A scuffling  sound, as if something were scraping against the wall.

Then the sound of a low voice that he thought was Dad’s.

He waited anxiously for several minutes.

Finally, the door to the office opened.

Dad walked out, looking serene.

Behind him in the room he caught a glimpse of Nickson—tie askew, straightening his glasses and his suit jacket, a terrified look on his face.

“Come,” Dad said, motioning him.

Matt got to his feet and walked beside him down the hall, toward the elevators. His father’s face was always hard to read, but it had what seemed to be a look of amusement.

“So Dad . . . what happened?”

“It’s all settled,” Dad said simply.

Matt ventured, “What did you say to change his mind?”

Big Mike looked down at him, a twinkle in his pale blue eyes.

“I spoke the only kind of language people like him understand.”

Robert Bidinotto is author of thriller HUNTER — a #1 Amazon Kindle Bestseller in “Mysteries & Thrillers” and a Wall Street Journal “Top Ten Fiction Ebook.” Its sequel, BAD DEEDS, was named “2014 Book of the Year” by the Conservative-Libertarian Fiction Alliance. Before turning to fiction, Robert received top national journalism awards as a Staff Writer for Reader’s Digest and as editor of The New Individualist magazine. His articles and reviews also have appeared in The American Spectator, The Boston Herald, Breitbart, PJ Media, and many more. Visit his blog, “The Vigilante Author,” at www.HunterThrillers.com.