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Perception of Frailty

by Gary Clifton

Part 1 appears in this issue.


Shimanski sucked in a full lung load of air. “Two million? Wouldn’t take much fire to destroy all the electronic microtransistors and the like. That baby was state of the art. And it hadda be connected to several external computers.”

“Transistors? That sorta technology is fascinating. You must have an electrical engineer on staff?”

“Aw, hell, in this business, you just pick up a lot of knowledge about stuff.” Shimanski held Flannigan’s gaze for several seconds as if waiting for the agent to process the information.

Flannigan returned the toolmaker’s stare. “How do you ship a machine that size? Rail or...?

“Truck. Takes a hell of a rig to move somethin’ that big. Gotta worry about ICC rules and weight capacity of bridges along the way. Railroad woulda took it, but the expense to and from the railheads was out of sight.”

“What truck line?”

Shimanski’s eyes narrowed. “ truck. Cartage costs woulda been hell. That’s gotta be a thousand-mile haul.”

Flannigan nearly corrected him to “1,182 miles” but thought better of it. The threading machine had been about the size of an armored car but much heavier. Badly damaged in the fire, the name Cleveland Tool and a serial number were stamped deeply into the heavy steel frame along with a date of manufacture two months before the fire.

“Your people unload it in Dallas?”

“Uh, not exactly. Our driver woulda supervised, but the customer... uh, Mister Botler, had a couple of heavy-duty cranes there to unload it.”

Flannigan made a mental note to query outfits in the Dallas area who offered heavy crane service. There couldn’t be many.

“The Botlers refused to talk to us. We don’t know what happened to the old machine the new one replaced.”

“Uh... damned if I know. We didn’t do nothin’ with it.”

“Do you have a similar machine on the premises, Mr. Shimanski?”

“Uh... no, that was a special work-up. We gotta a couple machines about half that size in progress. Wanna see ’em?”

Flannigan nodded to Shimanski’s invitation and stood, picking up his yellow note pad and the manila folder. As Shimanski struggled onto his crutches, Flannigan squeezed his forehead. His ears continued squealing like an incoming rocket. Slender, fit, with dark hair carefully combed in standard federal agent style, Flannigan, still a tad woozy, concentrated to avoid falling on his head from the stubborn vertigo.

About ten employees, all in dirty denim with matching hostile glares for the federal man, watched them as they walked across the parking lot to the small factory. They’d been told he was coming.

Shimanski proved to be very agile on the crutches as he circled two hunks of steel in the center of the workshop. He watched as Flannigan jotted down the serial numbers on both machines under construction.

“Mr. Shimanski, are the crutches related to the Silver Star on your wall in there?”

“Yeah. My Reserve Unit got called up when Desert Storm went down in ’91. Iraqi artillery couldn’t hit crap, except me... or one part at least.” His thin smile again appeared forced.

“Truly sorry, sir. Thank your for your service and sacrifice.”

“They gimme a prosthetic leg. I get around with these sticks better, and I don’t gotta take a half hour strapping that sucker on ever day. You ever been shot at, Flannigan?”

“Uh, yes, as a matter of fact. Took a .25 round in the left thigh.” he patted his leg. “And this nick in my left ear is a bullet scar. Two toads who couldn’t shoot straight. More like gettin’ missed than shot.” He smiled. “Lucky enough never to have taken an artillery round.”

Shimanski loosened slightly at the common ground. “Gettin’ shot at ain’t worth a damn, no matter who’s shootin’ what.”

Flannigan nodded. “I’d like to see the truck capable of hauling a chunk of metal twice the size of these babies all the way to Dallas.”

Then, there it was again. Flannigan’s expression morphed to concern. “Parked over there,” he pointed to a semi-trailer rig between them and the office.

Flannigan looked across the yard. “Can we talk back in your office, Mr. Shimanski? I’m holding up progress by your workers.”

What he didn’t say was the dust and noise were aggravating his ringing ears and fuzzy brain. He followed Shimanski across the shop to the office.

As he passed the truck, he noticed painted on the driver’s door: Gross weight 24,000 pounds. The entire rig, fully loaded, could only weigh a thousand pounds more than the machine it had reportedly carried to Dallas. What the hell was that about?

Shimanski led the way back into his office. Taking his chair, Flannigan pulled out a sheath of papers and thumbed through them. He waved the manila folder and papers. “I’d need to talk to the driver who made the haul, please.”

“That’d be old Willie Washington. Willie quit about two months ago, right after he made the trip to Texas. Poor health. Think he moved back to Georgia.”

Flannigan slipped the proper level of hard cop’s edge into his voice. Time to lash out slightly. Shimanski wouldn’t allow a little overweight truck violation make him want to cover up. “I’d need his local address, Mr. Shimanski,” he said as coldly as he could.

“Oh man, Willie had moved out west of Cleveland five six months ago before he quit and left town. “

“I need his address, anyway.”

“Ain’t thinkin’ we have it. Never thought we’d need it.”

Never thought? Famous last words. Shimanski is screwing with me. Why? Flannigan drew his mental dagger. He bent forward in his chair, wondering how to lean on a decorated veteran. “You seem to be short a lot of simple information, sir.” Of long habit, he added a slight emphasis to the “sir”. Had the Botlers gotten to this guy?

Flannigan held up the original order form. “Mid-October, you say was the order date?”

Shimanski nodded, eyes wary.

“The print date on this form says ‘ReddiPrint, January 1st’. This year, Mr. Shimanski. This form doesn’t seem to have been in existence in mid-October. Did somebody mix up the paperwork? That can happen.”

“Uh... maybe. I wonder if we got those forms in early... before January first.” The uneasy expression flushed to panic. “Sometimes, they...”

“Suppose we could check and see when the print shop delivered your new forms, Mr. Shimanski?”

The old warrior looked across the desk at Flannigan, tears forming. Without warning, a husky, female version of Shimanski walked in. She was unattractive with a frizzy, bleached-blonde hair like the Bride of Frankenstein.

Shimanski looked up at her sharply. “Melissa, this don’t involve you. Go on back to your office.” He turned to Flannigan. “My daughter. She helps run this place.”

Flannigan thought Melissa appeared big and tough enough to kick the asses of all the men out in the shop. He stood. “I’m Chris Flannigan, Ms. Shimanski, federal officer from Dallas. We’re inquiring about a fire which destroyed a machine you folks made here in Cleveland.”

She moved behind her father and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Yeah, I know the circumstances. Did our machine start the fire?” She repeated her father’s initial question.

Flannigan had made the trip to Cleveland to try to squeeze up a witness and hopefully background on the Botlers, but the inquiry was slipping off track. “Mr. Shimanski, we can subpoena your records and interview your employees. If they don’t cooperate, they all come to Dallas to testify before a federal Grand Jury. Two men are dead, two maimed and near death, sir.” The sight of distraught children welled up.

“My God.” Shimanski’s reaction was partly a sob. “My God.”

Melissa patted her father’s shoulder. “Daddy, keep your mouth shut. Don’t say another word.”

Flannigan realized he’d seen it earlier, but refused to believe. He delivered the hammer blow in a soft voice, respectful of a hardworking patriot. Empathy was unavoidable. Two men were dead, lives ruined. No time for kid gloves. “Mr. Shimanski, there was no new machine, was there... or old Willie?”

Anguish contorted the hard face behind the desk. “Those Texas bastards. Those dirty scum. They come all the damned way up here and told me the old machine was fully depreciated. Offered me ten grand to go down there, grind off the old data and stamp the machine with our name and a new serial number, then come back and make up a file. They said they was gonna screw the IRS by depreciating that thing all over again. It was a tax they said.”

“Did you actually go to Dallas in person?”

“Daddy, stop!”

“Yeah, drove for God’s sake. Me ’n Melissa. Used a simple grinder to clean the old imprint. Stamped the new info on the side with a hand-held die set.”

Washington could fly lab squints to Dallas and raise that ground-off number. Flannigan sat, embarrassed at Shimanski’s predicament, uncertain what to do next. “There’s more, Mr. Shimanski, and I don’t exactly follow you here, sir.”

“Bastards never paid me. The two-million check was a paper transaction. We deposited it then canceled the deposit five minutes later. The banker has been my friend thirty years. He never thought to question the transaction. Lord, we needed that ten thousand.” His voice dissolved again in tears, a very unusual reaction for a man who’d been hoodwinked by fast-talking Dallas lawyers. There was something else here, and Flannigan still didn’t get it.

“Never paid us.” Quickly lost in sobs, he looked up at Melissa. “Never paid us. I hadda get back at those sorry asses. Now two good men are dead and two more ruined and I... I... oh, my God.”

“Did Melissa make the second trip to Dallas with you?”

Face frozen in horror, Shimanski didn’t answer.

Bending to hug her father, Melissa glared at Flannigan as if he might pounce over the desk and drag her disabled father off in chains.

Like lightening from a clear sky, the startling realization of truth nearly slapped Flannigan off his chair. “My God, Mr. Shimanski, you set the fire for revenge. Deaths and injuries to firefighters were collateral damage you didn’t anticipate.

“The gasoline cans we found at the scene will trace back to this workshop. I saw two identical ones setting on the bed of that semi-trailer rig out back. That reddish color on your face isn’t suntan. It’s flash burn from the gasoline igniting. If you went alone, how did you manage to lug that much gasoline inside on crutches?”

Flannigan absorbed the reality, the expressions of the distraught father and daughter. Melissa had in fact made the second trip. Shemanski wouldn’t have had the strength either to drive the distance or to move the fuel inside.

“Uh...Mr. Shemanski, your daughter... or someone who could lug ten gallons of gasoline into that building, had to have helped you. With your crutches, sir, you could not have...”

Shemanski, blue eyes cold as the defeated warrior he was, looked up, his face a plea for clemency. “Is there any way we can leave Melissa out? I dragged both cans inside and splashed gas all over those fancy computers and power tools. Lucky for them bastards I didn’t know where they lived.”

Flannigan saw it in their faces. Melissa, big and strong enough to carry a half dozen gas cans, had helped him burn the building. Hammering her for an admission of the obvious could wait. Shimanski was confessing when he could simply order Flannigan off the premises. Lawyers, specialists in bargaining away the lives of the unfortunate, would love the chance to interrogate her from their squeaky chairs behind wooden desks before they stuffed her down the same hole as her father.

“Daddy, oh my God!” Melissa was now in tears, still standing behind the desk beside her sobbing father.

Shemanski, face buried in his hands sobbed, “Two million insurance. Oh, Melissa baby, we did their dirty work twice.”

“We” reverberated in Flannigan’s ears like a foghorn. He sat, as stunned as the Shimanskis. “Mr. Shimanski, do you have a lawyer, sir?”

Shimanski continue to sob. Melissa looked at her father, then blankly at Flannigan. “Yes.” She cleared her throat. Her voice quivered. “Yes, we do.”

Flannigan studied the Silver Star, the broken man behind the desk, the distraught daughter. Then his head filled with the autopsies of the two dead men, the horrible burns of the two injured firefighters in Parkland, the devastation of the families. “Ms. Shimanski, you need to call that lawyer and get him over here immediately.” He didn’t notice, but his ringing ears, the dizziness, were gone.

He looked up at the Silver Star, a trinket traded to a brave man in return for leaving a third of his body in a desert halfway around the world in service to his country, which was now quite likely to lock him in a cage. None of his sacrifice would be worth a damn to a one-legged man in the penitentiary. Hector had prevailed this time, but this Achilles had already been damaged in battle. Flannigan felt like he’d just run over his neighbor’s puppy.

Through a side window, the chilly wind blew dust and an old newspaper against a chain link fence. Soon, he’d have to call his boss and the U.S. Attorney’s office in Dallas. They weren’t going to give a damn if Melissa had been a reluctant participant or how many legs Shimanski had.

Copyright © 2014 by Gary Clifton

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