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Perception of Frailty

by Gary Clifton

part 1 of 2

“Are you ill, sir?” The flight attendant leaned down to Flannigan. “You can remain in your seat while other passengers disembark before you try to exit, if it would help.”

Flannigan struggled to his feet. “Thank you, ma’am, but I have an appointment I can’t miss.”

“Of course, sir,” she stepped back. “Watch your step.”

Flannigan wasn’t exactly airsick from the trip to Cleveland. He was irritated that the extra rough ride and bumpy descent had made him a little queasy with more ear pain than he’d known in hundreds of previous flights.

He found Cleveland traffic as aggravating as Dallas rush hour as he herded the worn-out rental car to the north side.

Shimanski’s office in Cleveland Tool Company was out-of-style wood panel, an oval throw rug in place of a carpet. A Silver Star on the wall behind the desk was prominent, impressive.

In print too small to read across the desk, a second framed document beside the medal probably extolled the bravery of the man who sat beneath it: Major James Shimanski, U.S. Marine Corps. Flannigan was surprised at the medal, but encouraged. War hero equated to an unimpeachable witness on the stand.

He flashed his credentials. “Good morning, Mr. Shimanski, I’m Chris Flannigan, agent with ATF down in Dallas, as I explained on the telephone yesterday.” He leaned across the battered desk, hand extended. Only then did he see Shimanski was missing his left leg at the hip, a pair of crutches out of sight on the shelf of a credenza behind the desk.

Fiftyish, with thinning, graying, blond hair cropped Marine-short, Shimanski hunched forward and upward to reach Flannigan’s hand from his chair. “Not sure I should say I’m glad to meet you or not, Flannigan. Feds investigating a fire that damaged a machine we made here?”

“Destroyed, sir, at least according to the insureds’ claim. Bigger problem is the roof caved in. Two firefighters killed, two more critical. You gotta figure all that’s gonna bring on a full-court press.”

Shimanski motioned Flannigan to a chair across the desk. “My God, what a tragedy. Don’t see how our machine could have caused a fire.” He crinkled his brow. “Didn’t know fire was a federal offense, Flannigan?” His face was hard, blown-off leg hard, industry manager versus United Steelworker’s Union hard.

His calloused, stubby fingers reflected manual labor. Cracks in the fingerprints of his hands were indelibly filled with grease stains. His forehead reflected the suntan of a man who’d spent many years in the wind and sun. This one-legged war hero was a tough customer.

“Arson directed at a building or business engaged in interstate commerce and mail fraud are of interest to us, for openers, sir. Possibility of Texas state homicide charges close behind.” Flannigan’s ears clanged at high volume as he struggled with a sudden wave of very uncomfortable dizziness. “Somebody could be looking at capital murder here. That’s the three-needle cocktail, as we say down our way.”

Shimanski’s tough face flashed a toothy grin. “Homicide? Death penalty? Good God. But our machine didn’t cause a fire, right?” Flannigan hadn’t started in the police business the day before. He saw it immediately. The smile was forced. However, a visit from the Feds often brought unusual reactions.

* * *

The Dallas Fire Department had routinely called ATF into the case. The dollar loss, plus the death and injury to firefighters, had generated considerable angst among city officials and Flannigan’s superiors. They’d sent him forth to conquer, like Hector to face Achilles at Troy, except that Hector had failed.

A contrite, introspective man, Flannigan knew chances of success against clever, entrenched lawyered conspirators were slim at best. Then he’d found Shimanski. The toolmaker’s potential testimony was so pivotal, Flannigan had wrangled authority to fly to Cleveland and conduct the interview himself rather than following normal procedure of requesting the Cleveland office to make contact.

The owners, according to the insurance policy, were a pair of Dallas attorneys named Botler, who Flannigan thought were probably brothers. Unity Pipe, the scene of the fire, was actually controlled by a holding company headquartered in Canada, owned by another holding company incorporated in Maryland. Penetrating the corporate veils of two shell companies to file any sort of criminal charges was a monumental challenge, compounded when the Botlers had lawyered up the first day.

Flannigan had attempted to interview them and within hours, they’d filed lawsuits against him, the Dallas Fire and Police Departments, and Dixon Mason Mutual. Texas law gave the insurance carrier the option of refusal to pay in the absence of minimal information.

Reluctantly, the Botlers’ attorney had sent a thin file by messenger, which included an invoice showing the destroyed machine had been purchased for two million dollars from Cleveland Pipe Company ten days before the fire. Although the building had been a total loss, and considerable contents had been destroyed, the two-million dollar individual coverage rider on the machine itself had sprung out of the policy like a Christmas jack-in-the-box.

Cooperation, information, and subsequent testimony of Shimanski was vital to provide background and technical data on the sale and transfer of the new machine. The fire appeared to have been pure insurance fraud by the owners.

* * *

Flannigan couldn’t shake the image of the shattered firefighters’ families in the hospital hallway. He ginned up his practiced “I’m the good cop here to help you” smile.

“No, sir, your machine did not cause the fire. But it was the center point of a lot more gasoline than necessary to take down that building. There was plenty of other contents lost: computers, a John Deere tractor, power tools. But the machine is the big ticket item on the insurance claim.”

“Gasoline? Man, you probably already figured them boys from Texas called me and said you guys might be coming to see me. They mentioned gasoline.” The rugged man sat at a desk in Cleveland, but his accent showed roots in West Virginia or somewhere close. “They said something about a burglary?” Shimanski was unduly nervous.

Flannigan needed him to be as calm as possible. He disregarded the man’s unease and flashed the smile again. “No burglary.” Flannigan shook his head. He’d been in the crew who’d dug out the fire debris and the two dead firefighters.

“Cause and Origin,” as the fire investigator’s lexicon goes, was ten gallons of gasoline poured on a brand-new high-speed pipe-threading machine. Amidst considerable other valuable assets in a nearly new building, a trail of fuel strung out the door onto the parking lot as a remote ignition source. The perpetrator had known to get some distance away from the mother lode before he tossed in the book of paper matches. Not an amateur act.

Flannigan saw no need to add that despite the 23,000-pound, two-million dollar threading machine, plus numerous expensive specialty tools, several computers, and other equipment, nothing had been reported stolen and that a burglar who just happened to be lugging two five-gallon gasoline cans weighing together over 70 pounds, all added up to a very unlikely scenario.

“I had my secretary dig out the files.” Shimanski tossed a brand new manila folder across the desk.

Flannigan’s experienced eye wondered why such a file was not worn and finger-stained. Shimanski filled in the answer. “It’s all there. We made copies. That’s yours.”

He pulled the folder closer, but didn’t open it. “How long did it take to manufacture that machine?”

“Uh... about four months. The original order form is in there,” he pointed to the folder.

“That would be last October?”

“Yeah, about mid-month.”

“The insureds... the owners... their lawyers actually showed they paid you by check. Two mill on a single check or did they...?”

“Single check,” he answered a tad too quickly, nerves again showing. “Copy’s in there and a copy of the sales invoice.”

“Two million dollars seems pretty steep for a steel box with no purpose beyond twisting threaded ends onto case-hardened steel pipe.”

* * *

Flannigan had witnessed the autopsies of the two dead firefighters burned beyond human recognition. He’d walked across the connecting walkway from the morgue to the Parkland Hospital Burn Unit, more as a courtesy than from evidentiary need.

The horribly burned, barely alive men were shocking enough, but he’d seen such carnage plenty of times before. Then, he stumbled across a scene worse times ten. Stunned, distraught, shattered wives and several children of the injured men were gathered in the hallway.

The odor of burned human flesh was still in his nose. He’d learned not to show anger, and although the tough cop could file the horror away in that secret brain compartment reserved only for such unspeakables, the concealment was only superficial. In his quiet way, he intended to rip somebody a new ass.

* * *

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2014 by Gary Clifton

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