Straw Men

William Johansson and Charles McAbott walked side by side, chatting amiably. They had just picked up takeout food and were headed back to work. William carried a canvas bag, and together, they slipped through a hole in the chain link fence. They called it “the executive gate.”

Immediately, three Dobermans rushed toward them, barking and baring teeth. Calmly, William reached into the bag, pulled out a charred, overdone steak, and tossed it to the animals. They descended upon it, barking no more.

“That was mine,” Charles remarked acidly.

“Have to take care of the security guards. They look out for us, you know,” William replied.

Charles nodded.

The pair continued on through a rusting door and into the dilapidated building.

“Ah, ladies! I have something for you too!” William exclaimed, reaching into his bag and taking out a stick of butter. With his pocketknife he cut off three chunks and tossed them to the six skinny cats yowling for attention.

“Before you say anything, Charlie, reception needs to know they matter too. They’re the first faces customers see.”

“And that’s what makes you a good manager,” Charles said with a sigh.

William, a brilliant businessman, was CEO of Johansson Firearms. Charles had been William’s Chief of Manufacturing for some twenty years. Together, they had made millions from a quite lucrative contract with the federal government. But William felt like the government hadn’t necessarily negotiated in good faith, forcing him to continually lower his prices to keep the business. So in return, he felt rather justified in not paying taxes on any of the profits.

This didn’t sit well with the Internal Revenue arm of the government, who seized the facility, sold off the equipment and furniture, but had yet to find a buyer for the building. So it sat abandoned, a shell on the banks of the Allegheny River.

The two men walked up the stairs to William’s office, high above the empty manufacturing floor. They sat at a scarred table that had escaped the auction. William upended the canvas bag and dumped the contents onto the table. Another steak with all the appeal of shoe leather and the rest of the stick of butter tumbled out, along with lots of bread.

“That’s not vegan,” Charles said, eyeing the pile of food.

“It’s OK, the bread is probably fine.”

“It doesn’t work that way.”

William shrugged.

Both men eyed each other for a moment, then began eating.

“Fortino’s still has the best bread,” Charlie said, sinking his teeth into a large slice of focaccia.

William nodded.

In better days, the pair had eaten at Fortino’s Italian Restaurant at least twice a week. Three dirty Gray Goose martini lunches and long client dinners were not uncommon.

William and Charles had taken good care of the owner back then, and Mr. Fortino now returned the favor. Stale bread and other food items no longer fit to sell to customers were gourmet lunch in an abandoned factory.

“We having a board meeting today?” Charles asked, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

“I think we should. It affects us all,” William said, then standing. “Let’s go. I believe we’re in the executive conference room.”

The men walked down the hall and opened the door to the room that once held a twelve-foot-long mahogany table with black leather chairs. To William’s eyes, it still did.

“This meeting will now come to order,” William said, banging his fist, in lieu of a gavel, on the wire spool table, scaring the rat audience.

“Charles, read the minutes of the last meeting, please.”

“Uh, right. ‘Be it resolved that the executive committee of Johansson Firearms votes nay to the City of Pittsburgh’s proposal that we vacate the premises, and furthermore, we reject their claim that they may demolish the building, on a date that is, uh, today.’ That is all,” Charles said, sitting down.

“Fine, yes. Thank you. Next order of business,” William said, as the sound of heavy footsteps came down the hall.

“Do we have a guest presenter today?” Charles asked as the door burst open in front of three of Pittsburgh’s finest.

“C’mon boys, you’ve had enough warning. Time to go,” the tallest policeman said.

William and Charles stayed seated.

“Not kidding, gentlemen. You either leave on your own or we take you out of here.”

William sat back in his chair and his shoulders slumped. He looked at his trusted sideman, the architect of so much of Johansson Firearm’s success.

“It’s been a good run,” Charles said.

William nodded.

Both men stood, defeated, and allowed themselves to be led out the back door.

The truth threatened to set in.

Side by side, they walked slowly down Penn Avenue.

William remarked, “Well, that was quite a coup today in the boardroom, huh?”

Charles perked up. “Yes. I never suspected a hostile takeover, but you handled that deftly. You can’t get one over on William Johansson!”

“Damn straight.”

“So now what, Chief?”

“I hear that the plastics mill over on Twenty-Fifth is looking for senior leadership.”

“Yeah?” Charles said, scratching at his unshaven chin.

“Yeah. Want to go check the place out? See if it’s suited to our management style?”

“Sure.”

As they walked, they talked about business. Profit margins. Potential customers for plastics sales.

“Oh, and if I’m going to stay on as your operations guy, I’ll need a raise,” Charles said.

“A raise?! I pay you too much already!”

“Oh, and we have to eat some vegetables sometimes. These boardroom hodgepodge meals are killing me.”

“Look, that’s your thing, not mine.”

“You’d be a lot healthier if you’d take care of yourself,” Charles said, waving his hand dismissively.

“What are you, my wife?”

“How would you know, you’ve never been married.”

“Doesn’t matter. It’s starting to feel like I’m married to you, and I don’t like it.”

“Aaaah!” Charles grunted, waving his hand again as William came to a stop.

Together, they stood outside the abandoned Clack Plastics plant.

“Let’s have a look around,” William said, leading them through another “executive gate.”

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