***FFF #9 comes not with a starter sentence per usual but with a short list of words that need to be included. Please enjoy this dark tale that was composed around Lies, Compromise, Disguise, & Redemption.***
"I hate like hell to drag you out of bed at this hour Mr. Levarr but you might be the only man in the state who can help me," Slane said as he plopped down behind his desk. Frank rubbed his sleepy eyes and yawned, "As long as you make it worth my while, I can miss a few hours of sleep."
"Oh the money is there. Don't you fret about that. I just-"
"What kind of money?" Frank pressed.
Slane sat back in his squeaky swivel chair and rubbed his jaw, "Now Mr. Levarr, we have always been very generous with you in the past. Why should now be any different?"
"One, you never knocked me out of bed at two in the morning before, and two, I've always dealt with old man Marshall in the past. Where is he?"
"He took sick. Got cancer in his thyroid or something. He went to Chicago to get some kinda radical treatment. Super chemo or some such. He left me in charge while he's gone." Slane leaned forward on the desk and looked him in the eye, "You want the job or not?"
Frank lit a cigarette and blew a plume of smoke at the ceiling, "Now Slane, you and I both know that Marshall got the contract with the new shock absorber plant going into Youngstown. Tomorrow is the first of the month and I'm willing to bet that the machine is due for delivery, and it isn't ready yet is it? Why else would you drag me out at this ungodly hour? A machine like that has got to be worth at least $750,000 right?"
"850," Slane grumbled.
"Now it wouldn't look too good if you had to explain to Mr. Marshall how you suffered a big penalty on that contract because you couldn't have it ready on time, now would it? What does the penalty run?"
"Ten grand," Slain said flatly.
"Lies," Frank said as he flicked some ash from the knee of his jeans, "It's got to be at least fifty or perhaps even more? I'll take thirty and save you the grief. You can make the check out to cash." Frank took a long pull at his cigarette and watched the sweaty fat man squirm.
"Surely we can come to some compromise?" Slane pleaded, "I have a wife and family to think of! And what about the business? These are hard times Mr. Lavarr and there are a lot of folks counting on this money!" Slane's eyes grew wide.
Frank dropped his butt on the office floor and made a slow motion of crushing it with his heel. He looked Slane in the eye. "Your wife is a no-good slut and everyone for three counties knows it," Frank cocked a crooked smile, "and if it wasn't for this contract, this place would have folded six months ago, but I am not a blood thirsty vulture. Mr. Marshall was always good to me in a roundabout way, so why kick a man when he's down? I'll take twenty-five and we will call it even. Take it or leave it." Frank began to button his coat as a cold rain began to patter against the window and plink against the metal roof of the pole building.
Slane shook his head as if to rid himself of an uncomfortable truth, but he couldn't shake the reality that he was over a barrel. "I'll get the checkbook from the safe," he said quietly as he rang a buzzer. He tried to disguise his defeat but his hangdog expression gave him away.
The door to the grimy office opened and a hunched man in overalls entered. His slitted eyes took in the scene.
"You remember my brother-in-law Wenzel don't you Mr. Levarr?" Slane said as he crouched in front of the antique safe and waved a hand at the newcomer. Wenzel nodded his hello and slid his hands deep in his pockets. "Why don't you take Mr. Levarr to the machine Wenzel. It is going to take me a few minutes to get this old bastard to open, as it's always temperamental when it's damp out."
"Come on," Wenzel said in a gravely voice and motioned with a jerk of his head that Frank was to follow him. Frank grinned at the thought of easy money as he followed the hunchback out.
Wenzel lead Frank out into the factory with a peculiar shuffling gate as his twisted back seemed to make him wobble from side to side as he took his short, hobbled steps forward. Wenzel let his work boots scuffle along the dirt floor. They ambled past steel stock of all shapes and sizes, and huge presses that were to cut pizza boxes from cardboard three feet thick. The air reeked of grease, dust, and exhaust. The bare light bulbs hung low and it seemed as if only every other one was lit. The rain picked up and began to pound the metal roof like lead shot falling on a drum head.
Wenzel paused at a hard-used red tool box at his feet and rummaged around for a moment. "Here we go," he muttered as he pulled out a heavy-duty metal flashlight. He clicked the switch to make sure that it worked and the light fell into the tool box. "So that's where I left it," he muttered as he pulled a pint bottle of cheap whiskey out. He unscrewed the cap and took a long pull. "You want a snort?" he offered. Frank noticed how he wiped the bottle off on his grease encrusted sleeve before he held it out. "No thanks," Frank said, "not before breakfast."
"Suit yerself," and most of the bottle slid down his gullet before he tucked it away in his back pocket. "C'mon," he said as he handed the flashlight to Frank and they mounted the narrow metal stairs up the huge gray machine. Wenzel pointed out each feature and section as they went along, from the feeding system of the metal stock to the stamp that produces the cylinder that was the body of the shock. He motioned to the entry of the milled piston and the measurement of the fluid that was used. All the while, Frank was shining the light from each connection and joint, checking every air hose and belt, his critical eye was taking in all the facets of this complicated machine in much the same way a surgeon lays open his patient and surveys his project.
Wenzel stopped along the high catwalk and shouted above the sound of the torrent of rain on the metal roof, "Here's where we got the problem. This bit is supposed to stuff the rubber washer into the grommets at the ends but it just won't do it. I've checked the feed. I checked the air pressure, the timing, and the placement, but the son of a bitch just don't want to line up." Wenzel had another sip from his bottle, "I can't figure it out, maybe you can," he said with a toxic grin.
Frank ran a few pieces and saw how the rubber washer was consistently crushed and mauled. "It just doesn't have enough throw to the mounting arm," he said with resolve as he climbed the ladder to the access panel on the top. Frank removed the loose panel and stuck his head in. The hole was small and it took him some effort to work his hand holding the flashlight into the confined space.
What greeted him was the anguished face of a seventy-year old man with gray hair who had had his throat cut out with a jagged, sharp object and had wedged himself in the machinery in an effort to hide from his attacker, and had promptly bled to death.
Frank yanked his head from the machine with a startled cry, "It's...it's Mr. Marshall...he's dead!" he managed to sputter out.
Wenzel's pale face lost what little color it had and he turned his slitted eyes on Frank in an insane way, "So that's where he's been hiding," Wenzel nodded as if it all made sense now. "I think you had better climb down now Mr. Levarr," his gravel voice turned deeper as the lightening began to flash through the high windows.
Frank stared at him in disbelief, "The man is dead Wenzel! Doesn't that mean anything to you?"
"He said a dirty thing about my sister," Wenzel said in a monotone.
Frank's mouth moved but he couldn't make any sound.
"You said a dirty thing about her too!" Wenzel shouted, and to punctuate it, he broke his bottle on the hand rail and waved the jagged glass at Frank's face. "I heard you! I was outside of the office and I heard you!" The lightening flashed again and seemed to leave it's bright spark in Wenzel's maniacal eyes. Frank trembled and the flashlight fell from his fingers and made a wildly tinny sound as it clattered down through the machinery until it struck the floor with a thud.
"You can't talk like that about her!" he screamed. His face screwed itself up into a look of rage as tears welled in his eyes. "She was the only one who protected me from Pappa! He would beat me when he was drunk and curse me for killing Mama by being born, and she would always lead him away. Sometimes she would sleep in his bed and I would hear her cry out and scream, like the devil had her by the ass, and maybe he did! But in the morning, when he was sleeping it off, she would bring me hot towels and patch my hurts..." Now the tears wouldn't stop and Wenzel couldn't see straight through his madness and his wet eyes.
He lashed out at Frank with the broken bottle and cut a large gash in his side. Frank crumpled to the catwalk and tried to hold his guts in as he scooted away from certain death at the hands of a mad man. Frank pulled himself along, his gaze never wavering from Wenzel's slow plod after him until his back bumped something solid and he looked up into the eyes of Slane.
"So you figured out what was wrong?" Slane asked in a calm voice.
"He's fuckin' crazy!" Frank blurted out.
"Yes, yes, we all know that," Slain dismissed the statement with a casual wave of his hand, "what's wrong with the machine?"
Frank was not a religious man but at that point he began to mumble the only prayer he knew. He got to "Who art in heaven" before Wenzel's broken bottle scooped out his throat from chin to collar bone.
Slane looked down at the dead man and sighed, "I guess there is no need to worry about redeeming ourselves in Mr. Marshall's eyes now," he concluded.
"They ain't no redemption for guys like us," Wenzel muttered as he ran his bloody fingers through his long, greasy hair. "Go get the van and call Velma. We can cash the check in Cleveland," he said.
**Author's Note** This idea was "lifted" from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Engineer's Thumb" and in no way should be viewed as an invention of the author himself. While the author takes much pride in his work, he is deeply indebted to those who came before him and tries to give them credit where it is so often due. The author also knows nothing about how shock absorbers are made.