Short Story: “Unvarnished Siding”

The important moments in your life don’t always seems so at the time. (This sequence started in the story, “Logical Conclusion“)

“Unvarnished Siding”
Part 8 of a series
by P. Orin Zack

“You wanted to see me, Your Honor?” The woman’s voice was breathy. She’d been running.

US District Court Judge Wilfred Clary, who noticed such things because he often ran to meditate on big cases, sat back in his leather chair and peered over the monitor at the backlit silhouette in his office doorway. He tended to leave it open when he wasn’t meeting with anyone, a practice that reflected his annoying willingness to be interrupted. This quirk had been mentioned repeatedly in “Corporate Crime Wave”, the new book about two high-profile cases he had ruled on in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to extend full rights of citizenship to corporations. The increased foot traffic it caused was beginning to irritate him. This visitor, however, was not only welcome, he was eager to speak with her.

“Claire,” he said gruffly, “Good to see you. Come in and close the door.”

Claire Fuller had the dubious honor of being the first of a new kind of parole officer. He had picked her to oversee the three-year imprisonment of Fremont-Wayfarer Corporation for stealing from its employees’ self-insurance fund. That was the second of the two cases in the new book. The first was Consolidated Communications. It had been terminated for the deaths it had knowingly caused, so there was nothing to oversee except employee outplacement and asset disbursal.

“Sorry I’m late, sir. I got tied up with —.”

“All I want to hear right now is an explanation. Why are the news feeds running a picture of you having dinner with a suspected terrorist?”

“I can explain that, sir,” she said, as she set down her case and slid into the visitor chair beside his desk. “First of all, John Frachetti is not a —.”

“Then it really happened. You were there.”

She looked at him quizzically. “I don’t understand, sir.”

Judge Clary leaned towards her. “Drop the formalities, Claire. Look, I was prepared to believe that the picture they’re circulating had been faked. After all, you haven’t given me any reason to question your professionalism. So who is he, this Frachetti?”

Claire was still for several seconds, her eyes focused on memories rather than the graying judge or the newly sparse bookcase behind him. “He’s a blogger, Wil. He’s also pretty sharp. Some people from one of the intelligence agencies have been threatening him because of something he wrote. They’re not supposed to be doing that.”

“So, you’re telling me that he’s being characterized as a terrorist because of his politics?”

“Not exactly.” She bit her lip. “It was more of an economic rant. You see, he’s convinced that the whole War on Terror is window dressing, and that the real objective is to put this country so far into the hole that the WTO will offer debt relief in exchange for signing over our natural resources, just like it does with third world nations. As far as he’s concerned neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have any say in how things go. For him, it’s the bankers.”

“So you were just having dinner with him, then? How did you two even meet?”

“I’d gone to the restaurant to speak with Alizondo Klee. He’s night manager there, but he’s also the new union’s rep on the Board of Directors. I’ve been concerned about how profitable the chain has been since Reese turned the FW Diners into some kind of theme park. After all, people aren’t supposed to be able to profit from being incarcerated, and yet that’s exactly what Fremont-Wayfarer is doing during its imprisonment. Anyway, he wasn’t there, and I, well, I bumped into Mr. Frachetti. He told me what was happening, and I agreed to speak with him. After all, we were both waiting for a table.”

The judge crossed his arms. “And that’s all there was to it? Just a quiet chat over chicken or something?”

“Well,” Claire said uncomfortably, “he did start to attract a crowd.”

“In a restaurant?”

“In this one.” She considered him briefly. “Have you been to an FW Diner? I mean recently.”

He shrugged. “Never. Why?”

“Have you read about how the employees are dealing with Reese’s prison uniforms and all that?”

“Only that they’re using it as some kind of ice-breaker, to get people talking.”

“It’s more than that, Wil. A lot more. They’re using the whole prison theme as a conversational wedge. Customers idly ask what it’s all about, and the employees, any of them, explain about the case. But then they turn it around and start asking the customers about the companies they work for, and whether there’s anything fishy going on there. After that, it’s open season on controversy. Once you’ve given people permission to drop their public self-censorship, they pick up the conversation and run with it.”

“So you’re saying that Reese’s diners can get pretty noisy.”

She nodded. “Well, yeah. I heard people chatting about media consolidation, airport security and the war on terror. But once John got rolling, they dropped their own conversations and started listening to ours. Some had even left their tables. Sitting there, looking up at that eager crowd, I had a flash of what might go wrong, so I rose to break it up. I tried to, anyway, but that just made things worse. There was some shouting.” She stopped briefly, visibly embarrassed. “That was when John told them all who I was. He claimed it was to defuse the situation, but all I felt was exposed.”

Judge Clary nodded. “Overexposed, if you ask me. All it takes is one person with a phone-cam to toss a monkey wrench into all the good work you’ve done on this case. That diner is part of a chain, after all. And from what you tell me, they’ve all been turned into hotbeds of dissent. I’ve been getting reports from law enforcement all over the country as a result of your dinner chat. At least now I know why.”

She winced.

“Fortunately, the media’s been playing it for laughs. All those costumes and props. But I’m afraid we could be looking at something a lot more serious than that. We’ve essentially got a nationwide chain of riots waiting to happen. If the other diners are as easy to ignite as the one you were at, something that sets off one of them is likely to spread. I’m half-expecting Homeland Security to sweep in and shut the whole chain down. I doubt we’d have much chance of incarcerating any other businesses after that.”

“So what can we do?”

“I didn’t think I’d ever say this, but we may have to muzzle the union. Keep them from stirring things up like that.”

“What?” Claire said incredulously. “But that was the union’s condition for agreeing to wear Reese’s uniforms. They’ll never agree to that.”

“Then either Reese scraps his remodel, or loses his staff. Of course, we could just sit back and wait for something to snap, but I doubt the press would look too kindly on how we’re managing this corporate incarceration. Or, more pointedly, how you’re managing it. This could all explode in your face, Claire.”

Someone knocked twice and then opened the door. The earnest young man gripping the handle opened his mouth to speak, but then froze when he saw who was in the visitor’s chair.

Judge Clary turned his palms up. “What is it, Lonny?”

He stared at Claire, who had turned towards the door. “Maybe I should wait.”

“Not after a reaction like that. Come in. What’s going on?”

Lonny closed the door, and stood silently for a moment, lost in thought. “It’s Edward Reese, sir. He’s been shot. He’s dead, sir.”

Claire stood unsteadily. “Where? How?”

“It was in one of his own motels, Ms. Fuller. Housekeeping found him when they went in to prep the room for a guest. The preliminary forensics report said that he was dead before he was brought there.”

The judge tented his fingers. “But why that particular motel? Had he been there before?”

“Seems so. According to the motel records, they had held that very room open for him one afternoon while the case was in progress, but they don’t know why he wanted it.”

Claire held up a finger. “I think I do. Do you remember Randolph Starling, Wil? The man who cinched the Consolidated Communications conviction?”

“Sure. What about him?”

“If I remember correctly, Starling met with Reese when the Fremont-Wayfarer case was just getting started. He offered to have the charges dropped in exchange for the business community relinquishing all claims to corporate rights.”

“So you think,” Lonny said, “that his being left there has something to do with that?”

“I doubt there’s any other reason for Ed Reese spending time in one of his own rat-traps. But even so, what does it mean? It’s got to be a message of some sort.”

“Whatever it means,” Judge Clary said hopefully, “at least it’ll draw the press’ attention away from our other problem, Claire… your dinner with Mr. Frachetti.”

“Not necessarily, sir.”

“What now, Lonny?”

“It’s the FBI, sir. They’ve listed him as a person of interest in the case.”

“But why?” Claire asked sharply. “What could he possibly have to do with Randolph Starling?”

“It’s not so much Mr. Starling, ma’am, as what Mr. Frachetti represents. He’s been described as a possible ignition point for a widespread activist revolt based at the FW Diners. The FBI thinks he has that much influence.”

“So the point of murdering Ed Reese was to pull the plug on his prison scheme?”

He nodded. “That’s their best guess right now, yes.” When nobody spoke for almost a half minute, Lonny excused himself, being careful to close the door as he left.

Claire returned to her seat, but sat nervously at its edge. “What do I do now? Your orders locking Fremont Wayfarer’s executive staff into their roles for the term of the company’s sentence didn’t include a contingency for this. Do I fill the CEO spot? Can I?”

Judge Clary grabbed the armrests and pressed back in his leather chair for a few seconds. “I think the more pressing question is what to do about the situation he created at the restaurants. You’ve seen how volatile it’s become. Perhaps, with Reese out of the picture, the staff ought to hang up their prison uniforms and revert to running a chain of family restaurants.”

“I don’t think so. As volatile as they may be, what the people who work at those restaurants have done is nothing short of amazing. They’ve managed to transform millions of what the administration likes to think of as consumers into the kind of involved citizens this country needs in order to be the example of democratic principles we’re trying to instill in other countries. I think it’s a good thing, and I intend to see to it that they continue doing it.”

“Regardless of the risks?” he pressed. “Regardless of the potential for violence that people like your Mr. Frachetti might drive them to?”

“Not regardless of the risks, Wil, because of them. I believe in what they’re doing.”

The judge closed his eyes and let out a long breath. “I hope you know what you’re doing, Claire.”

She nodded. “So do I.”


[Afterword: You’re not done yet. The story continues in “The Tallysheet Bankers“.]

Copyright 2007 by P. Orin Zack


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