Cleveland, Ohio, 2011
Kevin Lang had no idea that I was anyone other than who I purported to be. In the days before I approached him at the Backstop Bar & Grill, I had let my beard stubble grow. Sitting in my rented car in the parking lot of the bar, I deliberately mussed my hair a bit, so that it looked like it had been covered by a safety helmet all day.
My assistant and sometime lover, Claire Turner, says that even when I try to look disheveled, I still look like a Calvin Klein underwear model. When I step into a role like this, I try to remember that the average 35-year-old factory worker already looks like his best years are far behind him. Well, if I looked like a Calvin Klein underwear model, then at least I looked like one who had been operating industrial machinery for the last eight or nine hours. And I was wearing the uniform of the average Joe: jeans, a tee shirt, a denim jacket, and a “Union Yes” baseball cap.
I certainly didn’t look like what I actually was: a highly paid corporate consultant, a graduate of the Wharton School of Business, and a former employee of a major East Coast consulting firm.
I stepped out of my car into the damp, cold air of an early winter afternoon in Cleveland, Ohio. I had driven to this spot in a 1999 Chevrolet Cavalier. The vehicle had 123,576 miles on its odometer, rust around the wheel wells, and a busted exterior mirror on the passenger side. The sort of transportation that a semi-employed welder named “Ben” might drive. A far cry from the Lexus LS 460 that Craig Walker owned. But then, at this moment I wasn’t Craig Walker anymore. And I would not be for the next hour or so.
I had no trouble locating Kevin Lang inside the Backstop Bar & Grill. He was seated at the bar, right where I expected him to be. I had studied Kevin’s picture dozens of times: He was an early middle-aged guy with a receding hairline, goatee, and the beginnings of a beer gut. He had a distinctive birthmark on his right cheek. Kevin’s evening routine seldom varied. I knew that from the research and surveillance work that I had paid for. Everyday he headed to the Backstop following the end of his shift. He ordered either a pizza sub or a Reuben, usually with fries or onion rings. He also downed an average of two to three beers before finally heading home for the night.
The barstool beside him was vacant, so I took it. I ordered a beer; and after a suitable amount of time I gestured to the television set above the bar and said to him:
“This is too painful to watch.”
ESPN was replaying highlights from the previous Monday’s Browns game. Cleveland had been clobbered by Cincinnati—the town that every self-respecting Clevelander loves to hate. Cleveland and Cincinnati are at opposite ends of Ohio, and the sports rivalries between the two cities are the stuff of legend.
He turned around and looked at me and gave me a double take: It was an expression that I’ve seen from a lot of women over the years, and yes, more than a few men. One of the items noted in my file on Kevin Lang was his “ambiguous sexuality.” Kevin was thirty-six and unmarried. He had no girlfriend, and we had never observed him contracting the services of an escort, picking up a streetwalker, or entering a strip bar. We had discovered that Kevin maintained a profile on a bisexual Internet dating site—a site for “bi curious” males. My researchers had been unable to confirm if this aspect of his life had progressed beyond online activity. Kevin had not logged on to the site for a number of weeks.
I resisted my reflex reaction—which was to flinch when another man appraises me like that. A key element of my success is my ability to get underneath people’s skin, to expose their weaknesses. This means that I sometimes have to be adaptable. Within limits, of course.
“I’ll say,” Kevin said. He recovered himself, and seemed vaguely embarrassed that his eyes had lingered on me a few seconds too long. He returned his attention to the television set. Like my character of the day, Kevin was a blue-collar working stiff. But whereas “Ben” was a fabrication, Kevin was the genuine article. He lifted his sandwich and took a large bite from it.
“I turned the game off during the third quarter. Not worth the time,” he said through a mouthful of food.
Kevin was an employee of a medium-sized manufacturing company called Great Lakes Fuel Systems, or GLFS for short. GLFS had recently been bought out by TP Automotive, a large automotive components conglomerate that owned various factories in twenty-three countries. TP Automotive was the company that had hired me to be here on this barstool beside Kevin.
“That’s okay,” I said, taking a sip of my beer. “At least the Monsters are doing well.” The Lake Erie Monsters are the hockey team that everyone in Cleveland follows. “I’m more into hockey, anyway.”
I noticed that Kevin was wearing a United Autoworkers tee shirt beneath his Cleveland Browns windbreaker. Although I had a job to do, I wished for Kevin’s sake that he had not embraced the UAW. TP Automotive’s management team had immediately pegged Kevin as one of the troublemakers at GLFS; but his decision to support the union had been his real undoing.
Truth be told, I didn’t like assignments like this. Most of the time, my clients hired me to go after white-collar agitators and malcontents: people who were hauling down high five-figure and even six-figure salaries, but still weren’t happy with their lot in life. I didn’t relish the idea of taking down a man like Kevin. There was an aspect of him that reminded me of my father, who had spent thirty years as a machinist in a grimy industrial plant near Dayton. Dad had been a lot like Kevin in some ways: he worked long hours in a job he tolerated, and he took his pleasures in simple pastimes like following professional sports. Nothing like my life.
But merely tolerating your job is one thing; hating it is another. Acting on your resentments and grievances is another thing still. Practically every person who I have ever targeted is one of that 71% of the population who, according to pollsters, “hates their jobs.” It is rare for a truly satisfied and dedicated employee to run afoul of their management to the degree that my services would be required. My clients pay me to handle the most intractable elements of the unhappy 71%. Employees like Kevin Lang.
They call me the Termination Man. I never really cared for that nickname; but once the moniker arose in client circles, it sort of stuck. The Termination Man inevitably calls to mind that series of movies from the 1980s and 1990s, in which a future governor of California portrays a homicidal android who goes about blasting hapless mortals to kingdom come.
There is nothing even remotely science fiction-esque about the services performed by Craig Walker Consulting, LLC. In my job, I am part lawyer, part private investigator, and part crisis management specialist.
I am called when a company wants to terminate an employee for reasons that cannot be strictly traced to job performance issues. This is more common than you might imagine—unless you have ever worked in corporate human resources, or in one of the corner offices of company management. There is a wide range of factors that might drive a corporate employer to oust one of its own.
A few years ago, every CEO and CEO-wannabe was reading a management book entitled Good to Great, by Jim Collins. The author stated that in order to succeed, a company has to “get the right people on the bus.” Otherwise, the bus—the organization—won’t go in the desired direction.
The corollary here is that a company sometimes has to get the wrong people off the bus. This is where my services become essential. I get the wrong people off the bus.
The target employee can fit a variety of profiles. He might be a rank-and-file staff professional who poisons the atmosphere with his bad attitude, turning his colleagues against management. She might be a first-tier manager who has made veiled threats about filing a frivolous sexual harassment or discrimination claim. Or he might be a union agitator, like Kevin Lang.
Kevin and I had both downed several beers when I finally made my first reference to the marijuana cigarette that was in the breast pocket of my shirt. We had already exhausted the full gamut of working-man-at-the-bar topics: professional sports, the best places to drink after work, our respective trades. I had studied up on the basics of welding the week prior; and as usual, my thoroughness paid off: It turned out that Kevin knew a thing or two about welding himself. If I hadn’t prepared, Kevin would have been able to see through my cover in a heartbeat.
“Just out of curiosity,” I began when the conversation reached a lull. “Are you 420 friendly?”
Four-twenty is a codeword for smoking marijuana, known universally within the cannabis subculture, and sporadically throughout the general population. I don’t move in cannabis circles, but a cursory Internet search informed me that the term had originated in California in 1971, when a group of high school students developed the habit of lighting up just outside the grounds of their school at 4:20 p.m.
Kevin made a perfunctory display of being mildly shocked.
“Why would you ask me something like that?”
I shrugged. “Just curious. I’ve been known to light up myself every now and then. Nothing heavy. A joint here and there. You know?”
In fact, I knew from my file that Kevin Lang was more than a little 420-friendly, though he had apparently been abstaining of late. Great Lakes Fuel Systems had tried to nail him through their ostensibly random drug testing program twice in the past three months. The results were negative both times.
“Yeah,” Kevin said with a reluctant smile. “I know. But I haven’t smoked any weed in years now. My employer is aggressive with the drug testing. By number has come up two times in the past three months.”
“Doesn’t sound very random to me,” I said.
Kevin placed his beer mug on the bar. It made a loud clapping sound. “When did I say it was random? My company doesn’t much care for me. They’d be glad to see me quit. They’d be even happier if they could can me for toking. Say—what’s the real reason why you’re asking me this? I don’t even know you, after all.”
Kevin was giving me a long, slow stare. I would have to be very careful now if I wanted to avoid arousing his suspicion.
“Okay,” I said, laying my hands flat on the bar. Luckily, the buzz of a dozen conversations and the blare of the television made our discussion virtually inaudible to others. “I’m not much of a smoker myself. But I like to dabble with it. From time to time.”
“Yeah. Keep going.”
“Well, I got my hands on some Citral the other day.”
“Citral!” Kevin said. I could tell that I had pushed the right button. Kevin’s natural sense of apprehension was weakening. “Been a long time since I’ve had any of that stuff. Where’d it come from?”
Citral is a sweet, high-grade form of marijuana that is grown mostly in Nepal, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. A favorite of European potheads, Citral is rare in the United States. And expensive.
“Bought it from a friend of a friend,” I said. “Kind of on impulse.”
“Potent?” Kevin asked.
“That’s what those little green men told me. It stretched my limits.”
Kevin laughed. “I might have seen a few green men in my smoking days. How much did you buy?”
“Well that’s the thing,” I said. “I bought two joints. The first one I smoked already. And like I said, it was a little too much for one person. I overdid it. I’ve got one left.”
“How much did you pay for them?”
“Forty for both,” I said.
“Geez,” Kevin said, wincing. “You got taken.”
“I know, I know. But I’ve still got this one left, and—”
“You were wondering if I might like to buy it,” Kevin said. “I’ve got to tell you, man: I’m not used to dropping a twenty for a single joint. A bit too rich for my blood.”
“I was thinking we might share it,” I said. “And you could give me five or ten bucks—whatever you can spare. That will defray some of my costs—and I won’t have to smoke it alone.”
I was worried for a moment that the use of a word like “defray” might be a bit out of character. But this had apparently escaped Kevin’s notice.
“It’s tempting,” he said, nodding contemplatively. “Citral is really good weed. But still—I’ve got to think about that drug testing thing.”
And now I inserted a piece of logic that would be almost impossible to argue with: “You say they already tested you twice in the last three months? And you came up negative both times? No way they’re going to hit you again in the near future. That would make them liable for harassment charges.”
“Unless I come up positive on their third try,” Kevin said.
“Yeah,” I allowed. “But it’s not like somebody from your company’s HR department is going to smoke it with us.”
Kevin paused for a moment and gave this some more thought. As I had anticipated, my argument was bulletproof.
“Sure,” he said, smiling anew. “What the hell? I may not get another chance to smoke Citral for a long time.”