April 1994 Fort Myers, Florida
Sweating in my suit and tie despite the cold air blasting from the vents in Bob Whiteside's new burgundy Toyota Camry, I couldn't shake a feeling of foreboding. Whiteside, normally so jovial and talkative, had fallen silent after grilling me yet again about my conversation with the auditor two days earlier. The trip along I-75, hugging Florida's southwest coastline, took only an hour from Fort Myers to the little town of Port Charlotte. This morning, however, it seemed endless. I hadn't slept much the night before. I was too worried about the upcoming meeting to relax.
My briefcase, heavy with files, leaned against my leg as I watched the tangle of scrubland pass by with each monotonous mile. Most of what I saw out Bob's windows were melaleucas. I'd been in Florida less than a year, but I already knew that the tall, spindly trees were an invasive scourge that threatened native species. The trees, native to Australia, had been imported to Florida in the early 1900s to dry up the swamp with their spongy bark so the land could be sold and developed to accommodate Florida's growing retiree population. The plan worked too well. Like those other transplants, melaleucas had planted roots and proliferated, choking out the original fauna.
Watching the crowded melaleucas' budding green leaves, I saw how difficult it would be to cling to paradise's soil. I reflected on the parallel between those trees and Columbia Healthcare, and I silently replayed the