The funeral procession snaked from the First Baptist Church, east down Main Street for two miles to the Interstate. By the time the two funeral coaches reached the on-ramp, the final cars in the procession were only just leaving the church parking lot.
Ryan rode up front with Tommy Bollinger in the lead coach, the one with Barbara Collins' casket in the back. Attending her were Billy Fontenot and Mary Jo Barron, Gail Vetters and Jody Snell.
"Look at that, would you?" Ryan said quietly, nodding his head at the side mirror.
Tommy Bollinger looked up to see the procession streaming behind him for two miles, thirty-six ambulances and police cruisers following the funeral coaches, all with their emergency lights flashing. Bringing up the rear was an untold number of mourner's cars snaking onto the Interstate, their headlights shining.
It was an impressive sight.
"Pretty damned sad," Tommy mused, "When the best damned party a guy ever gets is after he's dead."
"Yep," Ryan agreed. "So how have things been around here, Tommy?"
"Same old story; good ideas and no follow through. Dave handin' out projects to one and sundry, then standing behind you tellin' you how to do it until you finally give up and let him do it hisself. Then Dave complainin' about how he cain't never git anything done. Asked for new cardiac monitors a couple years back, so Dave told me to get some bids. I did, and we had sales reps fightin' with each other over who could make us a better deal. Dave told 'em he'd think it over, then turned around and bought six new computers for the office. Still got the old cardiac monitors."
"You still working a truck?" Ryan asked.
"Naw," Tommy grunted, "they made me a supervisor three years back. Got tired of babysitting that bunch, so they put me on a truck part-time, and I manage the supplies and the fleet the rest of the time."
"Who are the supervisors now?" Ryan asked curiously.
"Me, I got the fleet and supplies," he answered. "Mack's the A-Shift supervisor, Royce has B-shift. Gail does education, when she wasn't fightin' with Miss Barbara because she refused to pencil-whip paperwork. Richard cain't lift no more, so he runs the wheelchair vans. Mack's wife Shannon is the Office Supervisor, Billy Fontenot's the Dispatch Supervisor, we got a gal named Molly Peters as the Training Center Coordinator…"
"Who runs the Department of Redundancy Department?" Ryan chuckled.
"It's a lot," Tommy admitted. "So," he ventured casually, staring straight ahead through the windshield, "how many of 'em you gonna fire when you take over?"
"What makes you think I'm taking over?" Ryan asked carefully.
"Ty called a company-wide meetin' fer this afternoon, right after the funeral," Tommy snorted. "Ain't hard to figger out."
"Still doesn't mean I'm taking over," Ryan dodged.
"Answer the question, Hawkeye," Tommy pressed. "This is me. We was partners fer six years, me and you."
"Things are going to change, Tommy," Ryan sighed. "They have to. Some people are probably going to lose their jobs. Who that is yet, I don't know. One thing is for certain; we have too many people in the office, and not enough on ambulances. That will change, and right smartly."
"Figgered on that," Tommy grunted. "How much did you buy the place for?"
"None of your Goddamned business," Ryan retorted good-naturedly. "How many people think they know what's going on? Who's been speculating?"
"Just the old timers," Tommy assured him. "Me, Mack, and Gail mainly, and we've kept our mouths shut. None of the rest of 'em knows that much about you. They've never met the man behind the legend," Tommy ribbed him. Ryan refused to take the bait.
"Well, keep on keeping your mouths shut," he ordered. "I want to meet with you three guys this afternoon, after everyone else has left."
"Just the three of us?" Tommy questioned. "What about Shannon, or Billy Fontenot?"
"Have Mack tell Shannon to come too, but Billy is a problem I'm going to handle privately."
In the coach behind them, Royce Trenton and Richard Chambless were arguing.
"I'm telling you, he's sold out," Richard insisted.
"Ty wouldn't sell his parents' company," Royce assured him. "He knows what it meant to them."
"He sold it to Ryan Pierce, and he's gonna come in and clean house," Richard said darkly. "You watch. We'll all be out of jobs in a month."
"You and your conspiracy theories," Royce rolled his eyes in exasperation.
"Then why the big meeting after the funeral? What else would they be announcing?"
"Dude, you're assuming Ryan would even want this place. I was there that day in the office when he stormed out. He ain't coming back, believe me."
"Then why did he quit his job at MetroCare, huh? Answer me that, smartass."
"I hadn't heard he quit his job. Where did you get that from?"
"You know that jackass that runs MetroCare?" Richard asked rhetorically, and Royce nodded. Everyone knew Roger Dickles. "Well, when him and that guy he had with him filed past the caskets, I heard Ryan lean over and tell him 'by the way, I quit.' I heard it with my own two ears. On top of that, he was on suspension for the past week. I ran into Mark Perry the other day and he told me."
"You're always full of gossip, Chambless," Royce snorted, rolling his eyes. "Presuming the story is true, what was he suspended for?"
"Perry didn't say," he confessed, "but I can make a guess; Ryan being Ryan, what else? You know what an arrogant ass he can be. He thinks he's so much better than everybody else."
"That's because he is so much better than everybody else," Ricky retorted, "including the both of us. Ryan's good, man. The best I've ever seen."
"You've always been part of his fan club," Richard snorted, "but just because his old man was some big shot doctor doesn't mean he's –"
"Shut up," Royce cut him off, the warning clear in his voice. "Your ass is showing, Richard. Ryan Pierce never once traded off his dad's name, and never once asked him for money. I had the room right next to his back when we both lived at the Mason Ferry station. If he ever even talked about his parents, I never heard it."
"He's a spoiled little rich boy who lives on a yacht. He's arrogant and immature."
"Don't think I don't know what this is about," Royce snorted in amusement. "He took a laryngoscope out of your hand eight years ago, and you've had it in for him ever since. Instead of thanking him for bailing your ass out, you took it as an insult to your manhood. And you can't let it go, even eight years later. If you ask me, Ryan's not the immature one."
"You won't find it so funny once he's gutted this place and pissed away everything Dave and Barbara worked for," Richard warned. "Mark my words, it's coming."
"You know what I think?" chimed in Lila Rogers, sticking her head through the divider window between the box and the cab. "I think you two haven't changed a bit. We're about to bury the two people who gave you your start in this business, and all you're worried about is how it will affect your paycheck. Do us all a favor by shutting up and showing a little respect for the next hour, okay?"
Ty and Trent Collins sat on opposite sides of the limo, each staring out their respective windows, lost in their own thoughts. They were as far apart as they could get, both literally and figuratively. Trent broke the silence first.
"You could have easily gotten six hundred thousand," he accused, out of the blue.
Is that all he's been thinking about? Ty wondered bitterly. How can I be related to this asshole?
Ty Collins shifted in the limousine seat to face his brother. "You going to come back and run this place, brother?" he challenged. "You're welcome to it, but you can do it without me. I'm done."
"I'm just saying you let Ryan take advantage of you, that's all. You trusted him too much. He's not family, Ty."
More brother than you've ever been. He taught me to drive, taught me how to shoot…
"Mom and Dad always said everyone who worked here was family," he said mildly.
"That's just something they had to say to keep this bunch of misfits working," Trent snorted derisively. "I always told Dad that if he hired better people – professionals – that such charades wouldn't be necessary."
"I like this bunch of misfits, Trent; I was raised around them. I just don't want to lead them. Ryan can do that. He can run it the way Dad should have."
"You've always looked up to Ryan, and you let that cloud your judgment, Ty. If you had just played this the right way, we could have –"
"Could have what, Trent?" he challenged, tears in his eyes. "Profited more from Mom and Dad dying?"
Trent said nothing, just stared at his brother openmouthed.
"Do me a favor, brother," Ty said caustically, fairly spitting the last word. "When this day is through, I never want to see you again. I'll send you your check when the deal is closed. After that day, you and I are no longer family."
Tommy Bollinger and Royce Trenton parked the funeral coaches as close as possible to the gravesite. Given the ground still damp from the last week's rain, it wasn't very close. The pallbearers stood in ranks at the rear of the coaches, more or less at attention, waiting impatiently for the last of the funeral procession to arrive.
The plot was near the back of Memorial Gardens cemetery, and the rank of ambulances and police cars parked in its narrow lanes stretched all the way to the main gates. Most of the mourners who chose to attend the burial service had to park the cars along the shoulder of the road outside the main gate and walk in.
It took a while.
Ryan's mind threatened to wander, and he occupied his time by scanning the crowd for familiar faces. To his shame, he recognized precious few.
Damn, have I been gone that long? I don't even know half the people who are going to be working for me, much less the rest of the people who came to pay their respects.
There were twenty chairs arranged under the awning erected over the graves, and the Collins family and employees filled up all of those, with a few employees left standing in a rank behind them. The rest of the mourners had assembled in a loose crowd surrounding the awning, taking care to avoid other graves.
Ryan was struck by an incongruous thought: How do you pack a few hundred people into an almost full cemetery, and crowd them around a 20x20 foot area without stepping all over the other graves? What's the proper etiquette? Is it okay to stand on the graves, as long as you don't climb up on the headstones to get a better view?
The idea brought a fleeting smile to his lips, one which vanished almost immediately as Don Bailey gave a quiet command, and the rear doors to the funeral coaches were opened. Whether by luck or design, Ryan found himself taking a position directly behind Billy Fontenot as the pallbearers slowly carried Dave and Barbara Collins to their graves.
Ryan found himself a place standing in the rear rank of Collins Ambulance employees, and listened respectfully as the minister quoted Scripture, an unfamiliar passage Ryan struggled to identify. He found himself feeling a little lost, wondering what came next. The funeral director had been rather vague about what the pallbearers were supposed to do after they had placed the caskets over the graves. Or he may have explained it in detail. Ryan hadn't been paying much attention anyway. In his mind, he was reliving another funeral entirely.
For all the death he had seen, Ryan had attended only four burial services; Ann Heflin's, and those of Renee and his parents. All four were Episcopal burial services with their own rituals and traditions, rituals Ryan found comforting in their familiarity. The words themselves had meant precious little, because by the time the funerals had been conducted, he had long since said goodbye in his own way.
He barely remembered the funerals of his parents. He had mourned his mother, of that he was reasonably certain, and at his father's funeral he had been unreasonably bitter, but the memories of both had been crowded into the forgotten corners of his mind by his sister's death. Renee's funeral, and the days preceding it, had been the elephant in the room, trumpeting for attention to the exclusion of all else. Ryan had been despondent and guilt-ridden, flagellating himself for not doing more, not having acted quicker, for not being more supportive in the first place…
After the burial, he had broken down and cried in great, wracking sobs, tortured with the belief that he had failed her. His father had laid a hand on his shoulder, trying to comfort him, but only Dawn understood that the failure in Ryan's mind began years before the day he found her dead on the floor of that crack house in downtown Oneida.
She's gone, son," his father had said gently. "She's been trying to die for ten years. Nothing you or I could do to stop it. You managed to postpone it for a week, but she got what she wanted. It's not your fault."
Something had snapped in Ryan's mind, and he swung. The punch had caught Robert Pierce square on the angle of the jaw. His head whipped around like he'd been shot, and he dropped like a bag of cement. Ryan didn't even remember the punch, only standing over his father with Dawn desperately clinging to one arm, begging him to stop. He hadn't spoken a word to his father since.
The skirling of bagpipes startled him from his reverie, and Ryan unconsciously assumed the position of attention as an Oneida Parish firefighter dressed in the traditional kilt of the Great Scottish Highlands concluded the ceremony with Amazing Grace. Halfway through the first verse, Ty Collins broke down. He made no sound, but his shoulders shook with sobs. Ryan hesitated a moment, then stepped forward to his chair. Ryan put his hands on Ty Collins' shoulders and kept them there until the bagpiper was through playing. He said nothing. He didn't have to.
It gets easier, kid. It'll fade. Crying over your parents is infinitely easier than wondering why you didn't. Believe me, I know.
Ryan stole a surreptitious glance at the mourners. Trent Collins stared straight ahead, stone-faced. His expression was matched by that of most of the Collins Ambulance employees, only most of their eyes were moist. Billy Fontenot was sobbing openly, and Dawn had a comforting arm wrapped around his waist.
Ryan had no idea what to think, or feel, about that.
"So that's it, then," Ty Collins sighed in relief as he signed his name to the sale documents. Actually, the sale would not be official until the estate had been probated, but the signing of the papers lent some degree of finality to his decision.
"More or less," Jeff Layton answered, pointing to the lines where Ryan and Trent were to affix their signatures. "Once we're through probate, you sign the final sale papers and I release the money to you, less the repayment of the loan, at zero interest. You then send a check to Trent for his half, or I can divide the money equally between you."
"Just send me my check," Trent Collins said shortly. He looked around the room. "Anything else?" he asked with a snide edge to his voice. "Any other papers to sign?"
Everyone shook their head, no.
"Good, then I've got a plane to catch."
He left without even pausing to tell his brother goodbye. Ty wordlessly watched him walk away, but Ryan could see the pain in his eyes.
Technically, the papers were an agreement with Citizen's Bank and Trust to place $390,000 into an escrow account, with Jeff Layton as the escrow agent. A different sheaf of papers covered Ryan's $60,000 loan to the Collins Ambulance business account, and made Ryan a required signatory to withdraw funds. A third document involved a Power of Attorney, empowering Ty Collins to act as his brother's agent in the sale of Collins Ambulance, Inc. and all assets and liabilities attached thereto.
Jeff had assured them that probate would take roughly thirty days. Ryan had his doubts, but then he remembered that Jeff and his lawyers had been able to shepherd his father's estate through probate in scarcely longer time.
Dave and Barbara Collins had no debt to speak of, thanks in large part to Ty, and no real assets other than their home and Collins Ambulance, a Louisiana corporation in which they had owned 100% of the shares.
The IRS lien was more problematic. Jeff had contacted a lawyer with the general details, and had been assured that he could negotiate a settlement substantially lower than what the government was currently asking, but it would take time. Six months, the lawyer had told him, and Ryan could expect to pay roughly sixty percent of the lien amount, and the specter of withheld Medicare payments would be forestalled while negotiations were ongoing.
Ten minutes earlier, Ryan had also privately ordered Jeff to pay the estate lawyers from his personal account, and had arranged for Ty Collins to be paid a salary of $1,000 a week as a "Transition Manager."
"What the hell is a 'Transition Manager', and why is it worth a grand a week?" Jeff had snorted dubiously.
"I just made it up," Ryan had grinned proudly, "but he's basically a kid who has been working for his parents for chump change for the past ten years. He's just as broke as you and I were at that age. He needs the money, Jeff."
"And what will he do?"
"Hopefully, stay the hell away from the place and give me some freedom to evaluate things and start making changes."
"How did he talk you into this, Ryan?"
"He didn't talk me into anything. He doesn't even know about it yet."
Jeff Layton had snorted and rolled his eyes. He walked to the door and opened it, bowed deeply and said, "After you, Alphonse. Let's get started on your trip to the poorhouse."
"So how do you want to do this?" Ty asked nervously. "Should I make the announcement, or do you want to?"
"By now they probably know," Ryan said gently. "It's still your company, Ty. Your call."
"I…I suppose I should break the news personally," Ty decided, but his voice carried little conviction. "Like you said, I'm still the boss…at least, for the next month or two." He paused, considering what he had said, and his eyes clouded over. His throat worked, and he said thickly, "I'm still the boss…Jesus Christ, Ryan, how did I come to this? I was never the boss of this place. My Dad was. I have no idea what to say."
"Tell them what you told me," Ryan suggested. "Tell them that your heart isn't in it, and you need some time away."
"Some of them aren't your friends, Ryan. You know that, right? Not everyone is gonna be happy to hear this."
"I'll deal with those problems as they come. Don't worry about me."
"You can't just fire the people that don't like you, Ryan."
"Who said anything about firing anyone?" Ryan protested. "You know as well as I do that some people are going to have to be let go, Ty. When I make those decisions, it's going to be about what's best for the company, not me."
Ty stopped pacing and leaned forward, placing his hands on his thighs. He took a deep breath and slowly let it out. "God, I'm glad I won't be around to see that," he shook his head. "I've never had to fire anyone in my life."
Neither have I, Spud. Come to think of it, your Dad wasn't real good at it either.
Ryan traded a look with Jeff Layton. "Uh, about you not being around…" he ventured hesitantly. Ty looked up at him questioningly. "How are you fixed for cash?"
"Well, in another couple of months, I'll have two hundred fifty grand. Right now, I have just enough to pay the rent and my truck note. I'll figure something out."
"That's something I wanted to talk to you about. I'd like you to stay around here until the sale is final, if you don't mind. You can help with the transition, and get paid to do it."
"Thanks for the offer, Ryan," Ty shook his head, "but when I walk out that door, I ain't coming back. It'd be too weird."
"So take a vacation. Bring your girlfriend and walk on a beach somewhere. The pay's the same whether you're here or not."
"I've got so much to do here, and–"
"So you'll be available by fax, e-mail or cell phone. Jeff knows some estate lawyers who can handle all the legal stuff. Take some time off, Spud."
Ty Collins looked at Jeff Layton, who simply nodded.
"I've already arranged to pay for the lawyers," Ryan explained gently, "and Jeff can arrange to have a thousand bucks a week direct-deposited into your checking account. Just let him know how they can contact you."
"That wasn't part of the agreement," Ty protested weakly. "You don't have to–"
"Go to all this trouble?" Ryan finished with a smile. He walked over and put his hands on Ty Collins' shoulders. "You're family, Spud. Always were."
Ty's eyes clouded over, and for a moment looked as if he might break down again. The moment passed quickly, however, and he squared his shoulders and looked at Ryan gratefully.
"Um, I don't mean to break up a tender moment between family," Jeff interjected dryly, "but wasn't your company meeting supposed to begin five minutes ago?"
"Don't worry," Ty chuckled, dragging a sleeve across his eyes. "Dad never started a meeting on time either. They're used to it."
If any of the Collins Ambulance employees were still in the dark about the deal struck between Ty Collins and Ryan Pierce, those questions were immediately and unequivocally answered when Ty walked into the room with Ryan trailing closely behind.
Ryan saw it in their eyes. The facial expressions ran the gamut from shock and dismay to elation, but all of them said quite clearly, "Hawkeye's back." Tommy Bollinger winked slyly from the back row, leaned over and whispered something to Royce Trenton. Richard Chambless narrowed his eyes and folded his arms across his chest.
They know. And not all of them are happy about it.
"Thank you all for coming," Ty stammered nervously, and then stopped cold, recognizing the inanity of the statement. They had just buried their employers not three hours before, and their new boss had called a mandatory company meeting. They could scarcely have done anything else.
"Especially those of you who are off-duty today," Ryan furnished. "We know how precious your days off are. I think it reflects well on all of you that you came to pay your respects to Dave and Barbara today, and to give Ty your support."
"Exactly," Ty went on, flashing Ryan a grateful look. "Look, everybody…I, uh…I wanted to tell you how much I appreciate each and every one of you. Most of you have known me since I was a kid. All I've ever known is this place, and you people. Before Mom and Dad started Collins Ambulance, they'd park their MetroCare rig at our house. They'd get a call, and Trent would look after me until they got back. Sometimes it seems like every memory I have is sandwiched between ambulance runs…"
"We love you too, kid," Tommy Bollinger rumbled good naturedly, instantly bringing tears to Ty's eyes yet again. Tommy fixed him with a gentle smile, and went on. "But you didn't call this here meetin' to reminisce about old times, and Ryan ain't standin' there behind you just to be a visual aid. You brung us here to tell us somethin', Ty. Might as well get on with it, son."
Ty stared at him for a few moments, almost visibly pondering what to say. His jaw set, and he blinked his eyes to clear them. "Okay," he shrugged, "I'm out, guys. That's what this meeting is about. Mom and Dad invested their whole lives in this place, trying to make it work, and never quite succeeded. I don't have the energy to try. So I sold the place to Ryan. The sale will be finalized sometime in the next couple of months, but as of right now, he's your new boss."
"Why Ryan?" Richard wanted to know, his lip curling. "Daddy's money burning a hole in his pocket?"
Why do you hate me so much, Rich? I'd really like to know what it was I did that offended you so much.
"Let's clear the air about that," Ryan answered firmly. He swept the entire group with his gaze, but came to rest squarely on Richard Chambless, who was staring back at him with a defiant sneer. "The terms of the sale are not the topic of this meeting. More to the point, they never will be a topic of discussion. All you need to know is, we reached an amicable agreement – one that was fair to both parties."
"Fair to you two," Richard shot back in disgust, "but what about the rest of us?"
"What about the rest of you?" Ty challenged hotly. "What are you trying to say, Richard?" Ryan laid a quieting hand on his arm and shook his head.
"Why don't you tell them why you came to me, Spud," he suggested softly.
Ty Collins, his facial features darkened with barely controlled anger, clenched and unclenched his fists. He swallowed hard, and nodded. "I never really considered StatFleet or MetroCare, guys," he explained. "We all know how they operate. They'd have probably made an offer, but you all know what they'd do as soon as the deal went through. They'd shut down two trucks and go right back to covering this parish with one truck again. Some of you would get raises for sure. The others, the ones they didn't need, would be let go. Dad and Mom didn't do business that way."
"Are you telling us Ryan won't do the same?" Richard snorted.
"Shut the fuck up, Richard!" Tommy growled. "Let him talk!"
Heads nodded around the room in agreement. Cowed, Richard Chambless slid lower in his seat and stared sullenly at the floor.
"No, I won't do the same," Ryan said evenly. "The way Dave ran this place will have to change. We have to do it leaner. We have to do it better. But I think we can do it without cutting trucks, or cutting salaries."
"How do you plan to do that, Ryan?" Gail wanted to know.
"Well," Ryan acknowledged, "that's a good question. The answer is, I don't know. I have a vision, but it ain't firm enough to be called a plan. Over the next two months, I want each and every one of you to think about what needs to be changed around here. I don't want impotent bitching. I want workable solutions. So, if you want to be a part of getting this place on sound footing again, I want to hear your ideas about fixing what's wrong. I do have a couple things going for me that Dave never did, though."
Everyone waited expectantly, waiting for Ryan to elaborate. When he didn't, Royce Trenton hesitantly raised his hand and asked, "Uh…what things?"
"Money," Ryan grinned, "and more money." The answer got the expected chuckle, and Ryan went on. "You know who my old man was. Some of you know that we never got along. Well, as it turns out, he left me a sizeable chunk of money, much of which I'm willing to spend to turn this place around."
In the corner, Jeff Layton's face slowly turned a sickly green.
"The pale man over there is my buddy, Jeff," Ryan laughed, "who hates hearing me say things like that. Jeff and I have known each other since we were kids. In addition to being friends, he's also my banker. That makes him Collins Ambulance's banker, and I think he'll tell you that Collins Ambulance's financial picture just improved immeasurably."
Jeff Layton mopped the sweat from his brow and nodded gravely.
"Jeff's job is to keep me from throwing my money down a black hole. This is a labor of love for me, but mark my words; Collins Ambulance will be profitable. I don't need to get rich doing it. I'm already rich. I don't intend to lose money here. I may never see my initial investment back, but I certainly hope to in a few years. The biggest asset any organization has is its people. Look at your budget, and the payroll records will reflect that."
Someone in the back snorted derisively. Ryan ignored it, and continued.
"In business, you protect your assets," he explained. "That's you people. So my first order of business will be to evaluate our assets and see where they can best be utilized. Right now, I don't think Collins Ambulance is making efficient use of its assets. That will change, and soon."
"So what does that mean for us?" Gail pressed. "Are you going to lay people off? Cut salaries? What?" At that, Richard Chambless looked up at Ryan with a challenge in his eyes.
"Nobody's going to lose their job," Ty interjected hastily. "Nobody's getting a pay cut."
Goddamn it Ty, we didn't agree to that, Ryan fumed inwardly. We've barely even made the announcement, and you've already sandbagged me.
"When I said 'protect assets', Gail," Ryan explained gently, "that's exactly what I meant. You guys are the biggest asset this company has, and I'm going to do everything I can to keep you here, and happy. What I'm saying is, I'm going to do my best to make sure this isn't a labor of love for you. You stayed here for fifteen years when you could have made more money elsewhere. Tommy did the same. So did Mack. I don't want you to have to choose between job satisfaction and better pay. I'd like to be able to provide both."
"And yer gonna be able to do that… how, exactly?" Tommy wanted to know.
"I don't know how, exactly. That will take me a little time to figure out. But some of it's going to involve you changing the way you do things. Some of you may be moved around within the company. That's all I'm willing to say right now, but I promise you that when I have a clear plan, I'll share it with each and every one of you. You won't have to guess where you stand with me."
"Are you gonna hang around, Ty?" Royce Trenton asked. "You know more about running the business than anyone else here."
"I'll stick my head in the door now and then," Ty blushed, sharing a sidelong look with Ryan, "and I'll be in contact. But for now, I think I'm going to take a little vacation."
"I wish you'd stay until the sale is final, Ty," Gail pleaded. "I mean, at least until Ryan has his feet under him."
Ryan said nothing, but as he looked out at the thirty-odd faces in front of him, he came to a sobering realization.
They don't think I can do it.
An hour later, Ryan huddled with the three supervisors at a secluded table at the Cajun Café, long a favorite haunt for Collins Ambulance crews. Ryan drained the last of his Coke and idly pushed his pistolette around the plate. The silence was uncomfortable. No one wanted to be the first to speak.
"Okay Tommy," Ryan said, almost casually. "Spit it out. I know all of you are itching to say something, so you go first."
"All right," Tommy Bollinger drawled. "I think you bit off more than you can chew. You got money to burn, Pardner, but you ain't no businessman."
"Dave was a pathetic businessman, and he made a go of it for fifteen years," Mack Barron pointed out. "I think Ryan can make a go of it too, if we help him."
"I'll share something with you, Tommy," Ryan said quietly, "and you damned well should have already picked this up from working with me for six years; I believe in picking good people, giving them the tools they need to do their job, and then getting the fuck out of their way."
"Dave never did that," Mack agreed. "You all know how he was. He wanted good people, but he wasn't willing to pay 'em enough. He never could understand that job satisfaction doesn't pay the rent. I guess the five of us here are the only ones who ever bought into it."
"Speaking of," Gail challenged, "why weren't Richard and Billy invited to this meeting? Why just us four?"
"Because you're the ones I trust," Ryan answered evenly. "You're the ones I can rely on."
"If you're thinking about getting rid of Billy, I think you should –"
"He's a good EMT, Ryan," Tommy said quietly. "He's done a good job as dispatch supervisor.
"And he's also fucking Ryan's wife," Mack Barron said flatly, and Gail Sellers punched him in the arm. Undaunted, he went on, "What do you expect him to do, Tommy, just smile and work with the little weasel?"
Tommy Bollinger bristled at the rebuke, and soon he and Mack were engaged in a heated argument. Names were exchanged. Ancestries were questioned. Threats were made. The usual.
Ryan watched it for a few moments, and then winked at Mack's wife, sitting across from him. Shannon Barron was watching the two friends bicker with a bemused, been-there, done-that expression.
"Don't you love watching two macho rednecks vainly trying to mask their latent homosexuality?" Ryan asked. "Makes you wish those two crazy kids would just admit their attraction for one another and get it on."
Shannon did a spit take, and Gail Sellers laughed gleefully. Mack and Tommy, faces red and angry, stopped in mid-argument and stared at Ryan incredulously. Tommy was the first to laugh.
"He's not my type," he lisped, batting his eyes coquettishly. "Even though I am a sucker for that porn star moustache."
Mack chuckled and affectionately gave Tommy the finger.
"To answer your question," Ryan said, turning serious, "I'm not going to fire him. Oh, I'd like to; I'd like to rip his fucking guts out. I invited him into my home, and he betrayed me by making moves on my wife. That's a sin that cannot be forgiven."
"But, I can't look at this like a betrayed husband. I own a business now, and I have to run it with my head and not my emotions. And my head tells me that we don't need a dispatch supervisor and two dispatchers working at the same time. We don't have enough call volume to warrant that. So what to do with Billy Fontenot?"
"He gets his license back next month," Gail pointed out quietly. "He could go back on one of the rigs."
"You want me to put someone with judgment so poor that he drinks and drives, and gets caught doing it, driving one of my ambulances?"
"He made a mistake, and he learned his lesson. I seem to recall a couple of EMTs from this company who drove home from a Christmas party in a lot worse shape than Billy was when he got his DUI."
Both Ryan and Mack blushed deeply at the rebuke. It was a miracle that they had not killed themselves, or someone else, that night.
"I'll figure out what to do with Billy," Ryan promised. "Let's talk about Richard Chambless. What's his problem?"
"Well, he's been mad at you for eight years," Mack answered, "but he's been mad at the world, and Collins Ambulance in particular, for the last two."
"Ever since he hurt his back," Tommy agreed.
"I can't believe he's still holding a grudge over that damned code," Ryan shook his head. "So why's he so pissed at Collins Ambulance?"
"Says he hurt his back on the job," Gail sighed. "He's permanently injured, not cleared to lift anything over twenty-five pounds."
"He never reported his injury, Ryan," Shannon explained. "Those forms come through me. The first we ever heard of it was when we got the excuse from his doctor and the order for the MRI. That was six weeks after it supposedly happened."
"Dave and Barbara disputed the fact that it happened on the job," Tommy chimed in. "He shot hisself in the foot by not reportin' it when it happened. So, no worker's comp."
"And then," Shannon sighed, "Dave lets our employee health insurance lapse. Told no one about it, either. Richard runs up five grand worth of doctor's visits and tests, and he only finds out he's uninsured when the bills start coming back to him. It was ugly. We had several people stuck with big medical bills when that happened. Two of them quit, but Richard stayed. I guess Dave and Barbara felt guilty about it, so they gave him a raise and put him in charge of the wheelchair vans."
"They're lucky he didn't sue their asses," Ryan spat. "So, now Richard runs the wheelchair van service, which includes himself and three part-time drivers, and has yet to turn a profit. That about sum it up?"
"Pretty much," Shannon reluctantly agreed. "Dave said it was a loss leader. We lost money on the wheelchair vans, but they made up for it by bringing us ambulance patients. Richard identifies a few patients every month that meet stretcher criteria; patients too sick or too heavy to ride in a wheelchair."
"The wheelchair vans are going to go away, guys. We can't sustain that operation. It's pure dead weight."
"So what happens to Richard and our other drivers?" Gail wanted to know. "You're firing them?"
"How I'm going to accomplish that without leaving people unemployed, I'm still trying to figure out. But you'd better accept the fact that some people are going to lose their jobs, Gail. We're bloated here. Dave ran this place for fifteen years like it was a jobs program for indigent relatives. That has to stop."
Gail Sellers plainly didn't like it, but she couldn't dispute his reasoning. She took a sip of her tea and savagely stabbed her fork at a stray cherry tomato in her salad.
"For that matter," Ryan continued, "your job in the Training Center is going to change."
Gail's head snapped up, and she started to speak.
"Hear me out," Ryan cut her off, one hand raised to ward off the inevitable tirade. "Right now, you're the Education Supervisor. Tommy says we have this Molly Peters chick as the Training Center Coordinator. We don't need both of you, so Molly has to go."
"It's too much work for one-"
"- person to handle alone?" Ryan finished with a smile. "Look, Molly's job is mainly clerical. She deposits checks and shuffles paperwork. You're the one that actually does all the education. We don't need an AHA Training Center. I know it was always a big feather in our cap, but lately the training center has gotten an unsavory reputation. I get complaints all the time about instructors from here not getting their course cards on time. I get student complaints, too. I always pass them off to another Regional Faculty, using the excuse that I have a bias against Collins Ambulance. Well, now I own that Training Center, and I don't want it or its reputation."
"That wasn't Molly's fault," Gail said in defense. "She'd deposit the checks, but Dave ordered the cards – or didn't order them, usually. He'd make Molly stall the instructors and students."
"That's because he was subsidizing the rest of the business with income from the Training Center. I'm not going to do that, but the damage has already been done. In a month, I'm shutting it down."
"I'll see Molly first thing Monday morning and break the news. She'll have a month to look for a new job. In the meantime, she'll be getting instructor records up to date and processing all the outstanding rosters," Ryan explained. "On Monday, you call Cynthia Duplechain at West Oneida Regional Medical Center; she's the head of the Education Department."
"I know Cynthia."
"Good. You tell her that we're shutting down our TC, and we'd like to transfer all our instructors – the ones that are willing, of course – under her umbrella. That'll double her cadre of instructors, and remove us as a source of competition. Tell her that we want to continue as an independent Training Site under West Oneida Regional. We'll retain only the instructors you choose, and we already have all our own equipment. Cynthia handles all the administration, insurance and record-keeping, and you keep on doing what you do best – teaching. No interference from me, and less paperwork for you."
"That sounds…good," Gail agreed grudgingly. "And you're sure Cynthia will agree to all that?"
"If she has any questions, you tell her to call me," Ryan instructed. "Ask her to waive the affiliation fee for all our instructors for the first year. Have Molly start sending out letters to the instructors announcing the change, and be sure to tell them that West Oneida Regional will accept them all, free of charge."
"Your only oversight will be me – another instructor – and you know I'm not going to ask you to pencil-whip anything. All you'll have to do is teach. I want you to come up with an educational budget, and justifications for what you want. Don't go nuts, but if there's something you really think you need, you'll get it. I also want you to start doing regular chart review and CQI, and build continuing education programs to address all the areas you think are weak."
"I'm already doing that," she answered, nodding at Shannon. "She pulls all the emergency run tickets, and I review them."
"Good. Probably a better way to do it would be to flag certain call types or procedures. That'll cut down on your workload. It may take you a few months to determine what criteria you need to define, but start working on it now."
"The system will do that," Shannon offered. "I can flag calls in God only knows how many ways. We just never used that feature."
"If you had been flagging calls, just how many transfers do you think we do require mechanical ventilation, or say dopamine or nitro infusions? Or fibrinolytics, for that matter?"
"Hard to answer," she mused. "I'd have to query the system. Offhand, I'd say five or six calls a month. Why do you ask?"
"Because all those calls qualify as critical care transport," Ryan answered.
"And we get reimbursed a lot more for critical care transport," Shannon nodded, catching on. "I like it."
"Query your system," Ryan ordered. "Monday morning, I'll get you a list of the qualifying criteria for critical care transport. I'm betting we do enough of those runs a month to justify putting up a CCT truck."
"And which one of our rolling pieces of junk do you think we'll set up for that?" Tommy asked caustically.
"First things first," Ryan admonished, holding up a hand to discourage further comments. He turned back to Shannon. "You do all the billing, right?"
"When I'm left alone long enough to do it," she answered. "Dave had a tendency to – "
"Lemme guess," Ryan interrupted with a grin. "He'd walk into your office, settle into a chair with a big sigh, cross his legs, fold his hands in his lap and say…"
"Gotta little project for ya'," everyone chorused, then dissolved into gales of laughter.
"Those words have struck fear into the hearts of every Collins Ambulance employee at one time or another, Shannon," Ryan chortled, wiping tears from his eyes. "And he probably nagged you incessantly, nitpicked everything you did, and generally got in your way until you gave up in frustration, and then wound up doing it himself, right?"
"Right," she chuckled.
"Well, I know damned little about billing. I know how much we should be getting reimbursed, but very little about the nuts and bolts. I need you to educate me on that subject, time permitting."
"What's our reimbursement rate?" Ryan asked indirectly. "I mean, percentage-wise, how much do we collect from Medicare versus what we currently bill?"
"Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement, maybe 60%," she admitted, shamefaced.
"Why so low?" Ryan pressed. "At MetroCare, we were collecting at 90% of what we billed."
"In a word, compliance," Shannon answered. "Crews don't get signatures, don't document stretcher necessity, don't get authorization forms completed…"
"Dave used to offer a bounty," Mack offered. "Four bucks to each crewmember for a completed, fully billable run ticket. It didn't work."
"I'm not offering a bounty for crews to do their fucking jobs," Ryan stated flatly. "They either get what Shannon needs, or they find a new place to work. I can understand not getting a signature or stretcher certification every now and then. But it shouldn't be the norm."
"And how are you gonna replace the people you fire, Hoss?" Tommy inquired. "Good EMTs ain't exactly linin' up to work here."
"They will," Ryan predicted confidently, "wait and see."
Tommy raised one dubious eyebrow, but said nothing.
"Tell you what, Shannon," Ryan offered, "if you get our collection percentage up to 90% in the next ninety days, I'll fire you."
"What?" Mack and Shannon Bryan blurted in unison.
"Relax," Ryan chuckled. "If you can get our collections up to 90% of billable, I'll set you up as an independent contractor. I'll lease you three offices and the computer equipment, and pay you 10% off the top. Sound good to you?"
"Maybe. What's the catch?" she asked suspiciously.
"No catch. You do whatever it takes to increase compliance from our crews. Gail and I will back you up on that. If you can increase our revenues by that 30% - and I think you can – I'd still be money ahead by paying you a percentage of the net revenue. Plus, I'd save the expense of your salary and health insurance."
"Can I hire my own staff?"
"You can do whatever the hell you like," Ryan laughed. "Like I said, you'd be a contractor, not an employee. You hire your own staff, and pay 'em whatever you think is fair. Even better, I'll pimp your services to all the other small, independent ambulance services around here. You could make a very nice living."
"That I could," Shannon breathed, mentally calculating 10% of Collins Ambulance's yearly billable charges. A very wide grin slowly crept across her face. "All I'd need is one other person, and Molly Peters would be perfect. She already knows a little about the system."
"Even better," Ryan grinned. "That'll make firing her so much easier."
Across town, at the same time Ryan was laying out his plans to his trusted circle of friends, Billy Fontenot was staring at a plate of crawfish etoufeé, barely able to eat. "He's going to fire me, first thing in the morning," he predicted morosely.
"Hold on a minute," Dawn interrupted. "Back up. You're telling me that Ryan bought Collins Ambulance? My Ryan? That's impossible, Billy."
"Why impossible?" he asked bitterly. "He's rich. You told me so yourself."
"He never touched that money when we were together. He refused to even discuss it. I tried to get him to set up a healthcare trust and a college fund for Caitlin with some of it, and he refused. The closest he ever came was buying Ecnalubma with the money he got from selling his parents' house. We took the other half of that money and set up Caitlin's trusts."
"Well, it looks like he's gotten over his moral conundrum," Billy observed sarcastically. "Next he'll fire me, and then he'll be trying to get you back. I don't see why you wouldn't go, either. He can give you everything you ever wanted."
"Not everything," Dawn disagreed. "I'm here with you, aren't I?"
"Why are you with me, Dawn?"
"Because I love you," she sighed. "That's why."
"Do you still love Ryan?"
"I always will in some way, Billy," she explained gently. "I've told you that. When I first met Ryan, he was cocky, and arrogant, and…gentle. He had this sweet side that very few people saw, except maybe his patients. I saw that, and that's what I fell in love with. But the last few years, that sweetness and gentleness…well, it went away. I haven't seen it for a long time. That's everything that I loved about Ryan Pierce, and it just isn't there anymore."
"Would you go back to him if it was?" Billy asked softly, his face betraying his fear.
"I'm here with you," she replied. "There's your answer."
"That's going to be very expensive," Mack Barron was saying.
"Not so much," Ryan disagreed. "Two servers at headquarters, and new workstations all around. Maybe ten or fifteen grand."
"You throw out words like 'maybe ten grand' like it's nothing special."
"Oh, it's my money, Mack. I know exactly how much I'm spending. We need new computers, period."
"The new servers, plus two workstations for dispatch, two more for billing, one each for me and Gail, and set up three in the classroom. That's nine."
"Hell, we have more than that now. It's a full time job just keeping 'em running."
"And why is that?"
"It's a full time job because he's always been half-assed about the way he does things," Tommy answered for him. "We've got computers from five different manufacturers, running seven different versions of Windows, all strung together by some nineteen-year-old Emo kid posing as an IT geek."
"Exactly," Ryan emphasized. "I'd rather hire a professional to set up a top end office network, out of compatible machines running the same operating software, and maybe pay him a per-diem every now and then to come troubleshoot it, than pay Dave Collins' nephew $32,500 a year to tinker with computers when he's not attending a rave or pretending to go to class."
"They paid that little fucker that much?" Mack asked incredulously. "That's ridiculous!"
"They paid him that much," Ryan confirmed grimly. "Now you're starting to see what I meant about bloat. I figure I'll spend another hundred fifty thousand just buying equipment for the office and the rigs. On the plus side of the ledger, I eliminate $100,000 a year in salaries just between Molly, Emo Boy, Shannon and a few others. I figure in two years, the equipment investment will have been recouped. That, of course, doesn't count the cost of new rigs."
"New rigs?" Tommy asked, brightening considerably.
"Yup, new rigs," Ryan confirmed. "You run the fleet, Tommy. Why don't you tell the rest of us what we paid McDaniel's Automotive last year for repairs and routine maintenance."
Tommy Bollinger fidgeted uncomfortably. "I didn't have no control over that," he rumbled, shamefaced. "I told Dave we was gettin' gouged by that greasemonkey."
"Tell them, Tommy."
"I even shopped around for other mechanics. Found a couple that was real reasonable. But Dave wanted a mechanic on 24 hour call, and Mike McDaniel was the only one willin'."
"Goddamnit Tommy, how much?" Mack flared, exasperated.
"Seventy four thousand," Tommy mumbled, staring at the floor.
"Jesus H. Christ on a flaming pogo stick," Mack groaned, propping his elbows on the table and cradling his head in his hands.
"It gets worse," Ryan said grimly. "We're talking $332.00 for an oil change. That's each and every oil change, on every truck in the fleet, every 3,000 miles. He gouged us even more on brakes and tires."
"Stop," Mack begged. "I don't wanna hear any more."
"I could buy four brand new trucks, built to our specifications, with service plans and extended warranties, and the monthly notes wouldn't be any more expensive than what we're paying McDaniel Automotive," Ryan told them all. "All it takes is decent credit, and folks…we have decent credit now."
"So what kind of trucks are we getting?" Tommy asked, over the embarrassment now and warming to the idea of new ambulances.
"Remember that company we talked to right before I got fired?"
Tommy nodded. "Them little European lookin' thangs."
"You talking about those little vans FedEx uses now?" Gail asked.
"That's them. Well, this company I was talking about now makes a box based on that same Sprinter chassis. Double the fuel mileage of anything you've got in the fleet now, and half the maintenance costs. That's half of what maintenance costs should be, not what you've been paying. The trucks will pay for themselves over their life span, just in the savings from fuel and maintenance."
"I like it," Tommy grinned. "When we gettin' 'em?"
"As soon as you can contact their sales rep and work out the specs. We don't need LED light bars and all that shit, Tommy. Get a list of must-haves, including equipment. Anything you consider a must-have, we'll spend top dollar on. But I ain't shelling out money for stuff we'll never use or need."
"So who gets to tell Mike McDaniel the bad news?" Tommy cackled evilly. "Please, please let me be the one to break it to him."
"Be my guest," Ryan chuckled. "And while you're at it, I want you to contact one of those other mechanics you mentioned, and start shuttling the entire fleet through their shop, one by one. Anything that's broke, I want fixed. Anything that looks close to breaking, I want replaced. I want every truck in the fleet mechanically sound. If there's any truck that's going to cost more to fix than it's currently worth, sell it for scrap."
"Why go to the trouble of repairing all the trucks if you're just gonna turn around and buy new ones?" Gail wondered.
"Because I have plans for those trucks," Ryan winked. "Plans that will pay greater dividends than we'd get in trade-in value."
"New computer network, new rigs and equipment, shutting down the Training Center and the wheelchair vans, splitting off the billing office as an independent contractor, and firing half the office staff," Gail summarized skeptically. "Pretty ambitious plan for your first thirty days, Ryan."
"Well, I didn't want to overwhelm you with too much in this first little meeting," Ryan winked. "So I decided to start small."
"I'd hate to know what you call 'big' plans, then," Tommy chuckled, to nods of agreement from Gail, Mack and Shannon.
"Y'all wanted to know my plan," Ryan said, turning serious. "That's it, in broadest terms. In three months, we'll have new everything – trucks, equipment, paint scheme, office equipment, uniforms. We're going to have another truck up and running, maybe two. And in six months, we're going to have the best employees, best ambulances, and best reputation in this area. And we'll be profitable. I've looked at the numbers, and so has Jeff Layton. We figure we can cut our expenses by thirty percent, and increase our net revenue by that much as well. That leaves a lot of room for salaries, benefits and equipment."
"I know it's a cliché to say that it takes money to make money, but sayings don't get to be clichés unless they have a lot of truth to them."
"They got another sayin', too," Tommy drawled, "and it goes like 'everybody's got a plan until they get hit'. What happens when you get hit, Ryan?"
"I don't know. I guess we'll all find out soon enough."
"You think we're gonna be in the black in six months," Mack observed dubiously.
"You already are in the black, and that's while collecting far less than you should, and spending far more than you have to. Dave was never more than a few missed Medicare payments from bankruptcy, but he was also never more than a good credit score from making this place really take off. We can do this, guys. Just do what I asked, and keep your mouths shut until all the pieces are in place."
"So you're gonna transform this whole place in six months," Tommy laughed. So where do you see us in a year?"
Ryan leaned forward and winked conspiratorially. Everyone unconsciously leaned in and waited expectantly for his answer. He simply said two words: