Wheat or Chaff

by Sheila M. Cronin

Judge Lucille Pierce pounded the gavel until the courtroom hushed. Old Suffolk County Courthouse, that day in 1998, bulged to its rafters with gawkers, professional and non. Engaged in a tug of war with the media for control of the high-profile proceedings, the wiry-haired judge thumbed her wedding ring and waited.

Meanwhile, Simon McClusky, clad in a gray wool suit and silver tie, resumed his motionless posture on the stand. Behind his rimless bifocals, McClusky’s eyes were eerily fixed—as they had up to the noon adjournment—on the clock above the room’s doubled-door entrance. All other eyes, however, remained on him.

The judge turned toward the former president and CEO of Patriot Airlines and reminded him that he was still under oath, then directed the prosecuting attorney to proceed. McClusky’s gaze landed briefly on his American flag lapel pin, a daily reminder of why he was there, then returned to the clock. For him, timing was everything.

The prosecutor’s next question, fired at him so forcefully it should have knocked him out of his chair, was to the point: “Did you kill Dr. Dennis Stedmeyer?” The courtroom strained to hear his reply.

The facts were familiar to everyone present. Two years earlier, in the fateful summer of 1996, suspected terrorism had again targeted air traffic in America. Previous to that event, McClusky had been Patriot’s senior vice president of marketing through seven tumultuous years. With extremely shrewd, often ruthless stratagems, he’d proven to be the company’s driving force in a notoriously competitive industry and had grown its market share to a commanding double-digit percent. Only United and American claimed higher revenues but the gutsy deal he’d finessed just that March, which would land Patriot jets for the first time in Buenos Aires daily from twenty gateway cities, guaranteed his airline the edge.

That summer his company showed its appreciation by boosting him to the president’s office. Like the other major players, Patriot’s top job regulated him to pseudo-celebrity status. His former colleagues in the company could still roll up their sleeves and tackle the day-to-day challenges of steering a billion-dollar enterprise while he, a vigorous toiler at forty-nine, was stuck signing legal documents, making the occasional warm and fuzzy TV commercial, and traveling to represent the company at stockholders’ meetings, international conferences, and Senate hearings. Among the things in life McClusky loathed most was flying. He hated anything that took him away from the office.

He did not accept the well-earned perks graciously. The promotion came just two weeks before TWA’s flight #800 disaster. He sat in his suburban Boston den that evening alone, a third uncontested divorce decree on the coffee table, glued to CNN. President Clinton was calling for extensive new safety measures from all domestic airlines, which McClusky translated into expensive new detectors, increased and better paid security personnel, elaborate delay-creating check-in procedures and customer service nightmares. These changes would close down the smaller carriers and good riddance. But for McClusky, it meant the new Buenos Aires itinerary might not be enough to put Patriot in the lead. In other words, everything he’d accomplished was now threatened.

“Will the defendant answer the question?” prompted the prosecutor. McClusky wasn’t listening.

That night watching the news it hit him that the only way to avoid wholesale government takeover of airline operations was to develop the quintessential smart detector that could ferret out any bomb, guarantee safety, and lead the industry in the fight against random—be it foreign or domestic—terrorism. He couldn’t do it himself, but he had an idea who could.

McClusky phoned Denny Stedmeyer.

Denny, a brilliant scientist and Harvard classmate, owed him a favor. McClusky had finessed his acceptance into a Harvard secret society when membership was denied to eggheads and underclassmen with no redeeming social connections. Ordinarily, the science nerd would have been oblivious about such matters except that Denny, a lonely brain in a sea of brains, had fallen hard for a Radcliffe English major. Crystal, McClusky recalled with a smirk, of the botched appendix scar. Apparently, Denny hadn’t felt the same revulsion to her imperfection. She, on the other hand, was intolerant of his social lacks and made it crystal clear that he must gain admittance to the same society her father had belonged to in his undergraduate days; otherwise, no nuptials. McClusky, never able to turn down a challenge, cajoled, bartered and otherwise bought Denny’s way into the coveted group. The wedding at which McClusky ushered was the talk of Cape Cod for years to come. Denny had gone on to become a renowned researcher and even played a consultative role in the development of the Internet. His original field of expertise, however, was chemistry. Through the years, McClusky kept track of Denny Stedmeyer’s accomplishments because he never knew when he might need the skills of a genius. Until TWA flight #800.

The judge was speaking now. “Mr. McClusky, you must answer the question.” The accused fingered his lapel pin in defiance.

McClusky, after a brief conversation, arranged for Stedmeyer to be flown overnight from Southern California (where he taught at USC) to Boston. He arrived at McClusky’s corporate office high above the Charles River just before a Revolution-era church chimed ten o’clock.

During the next forty-five minutes, McClusky presented what he considered to be the pitch of a lifetime. Briefly touching on Clinton’s many new safety demands, the subsequent unfortunate events at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, the experts’ forecasts for increased random acts of terrorism, and his own ambition to set the industry standard, McClusky put the challenge to Stedmeyer: Could he design a device capable of doing the work of all other existing scanners and bomb detectors? Produce such a device well under the cost of the current million-dollar state-of-the-art system? Ensure that such device be updated as newer explosive materials “came to market” so to speak? Have it ready in sixty days? And, most important, could he keep the specs so completely under wraps that no government or private agency or pimple-faced high school hacker would discover the project’s existence? (Here, McClusky made the most of their secret society affiliation.) Stedmeyer would have carte blanche, no expense would be spared, and if successful, his reward would be in the millions. Denny took down fast notes.

Judge Pierce, in an attempt to bring the defendant out of his reverie, turned to him. “Mr. McClusky, answer the question or—” Before she could finish, McClusky’s attorney shot to his feet. “Your Honor, may I approach the bench?” Her scowl included both sides of the aisle. “Council may approach.”

Stedmeyer had his own reasons for wanting to accept McClusky’s offer. He detested terrorism, the bane of all logical minds. He owed McClusky and wanted the debt paid, since he did not particularly like the man. He longed to be financially independent and never again deal with migraine inducing grant applications. Plus, unbeknownst to McClusky or anyone beyond a few trusted colleagues and his wife, he’d been working on a related endeavor for the past twenty years. With the proper equipment, lab facilities, and collaboration of gifted researchers, he was confident he could meet McClusky’s demands.

Forty-two days later, after round-the-clock shifts in laboratories on both coasts, he presented McClusky with a ten-thousand-dollar hand-held scanner that achieved their goals beyond their wildest dreams. Inside the eight-pound contrivance was a microchip capable of identifying all chemicals—animate and inanimate—which one would not expect to find on a commercial aircraft. Discovery of substances in the program would set off an alarm and alert airport security. The data could be updated as needed. McClusky and Stedmeyer went out to Logan Field and walked through an idle Patriot 747, a 727, and a cargo carrier in which Stedmeyer had hidden numerous types of explosives as well as coral samples culled from the ocean’s floor, and moon surface samples borrowed from NASA. The scanner found them all.

“Have you named this sucker?” McClusky asked as he twirled the deceptively compact gadget over and over in his hand.

McClusky nodded. “Its code name is ‘W.C.’, short for Wheat or Chaff. Hope you don’t take exception to the Biblical reference, Simon, but I think it sums up this project nicely, separating the good from bad.”

McClusky was ecstatic. He scheduled a press conference at which he announced that by fall, Patriot Airline could guarantee not only safe travel, but short lines at the airport and on-time departures as well. Meanwhile, Stedmeyer, whose name was never mentioned to the media, remained in Boston to oversee production of thousands of the prototype scanner.

Each Patriot flight and grounds crew were trained on how and when to use the device (including sweeps of the luggage compartment and aircraft) as well as how to handle emergencies. Two months later, the airline could confidently and proudly make good on its new marketing slogan: Safety and Comfort with No Delays. By that time, the elections were occupying the President’s and the nation’s attention, but McClusky knew that with the holiday season approaching, the issue of air safety would resurface. The timing was perfect.

Dimly, he observed that the judge and the attorneys were having some sort of confab. He remained a million miles away.

Stedmeyer called him late the night of the elections. The Thanksgiving holiday was on his mind, too, specifically, the millions of travelers expected to fly on the heaviest air traffic weekend of the year. Stedmeyer wanted to share the scanner specs with the world’s airlines immediately. He said anything less than complete candor would be unethical, tantamount to the French doctors who kept their AIDS research breakthroughs to themselves. Such conduct went against science and against America’s truest ideals. McClusky agreed to meet Stedmeyer early the next morning to discuss his proposal over breakfast at the Sheraton.

That night, McClusky didn’t ask himself what a Harvard man would do. He asked what a patriot would do. For, while the domestic competition might deserve the information, Stedmeyer was dead wrong to think non-Americans merited the same right. To give it away would amount to giving away America’s edge. McClusky wasn’t about to let that happen.

After breakfast the following morning during which McClusky had enthusiastically endorsed all of Stedmeyer’s naïve plans, he suggested they walk back to the corporate office just blocks away and make the exciting announcement together. Then, on a busy street corner with snow falling heavily around them, McClusky shoved Stedmeyer off the curb into the path of oncoming traffic, and managed to slip away in the crowd.

Judge Pierce sent the attorneys back to their seats. The courtroom grew restless. Squaring his shoulders, the prosecutor addressed McClusky with steely determination: “Simon McClusky, I ask you one more time. Did you willfully and with malicious intent murder Dr. Dennis Stedmeyer?”

“Yes!” howled McClusky as if jolted out of a blissful dream. The courtroom gasped. Journalists leapt to their feet and raced out, some to meet print deadlines, others to go live on cable. The bailiffs edged to the front of the room while the judge attempted to restore order. Well, they could lock him up and throw away the key, McClusky thought, fingering his lapel pin. He would never divulge the scanner’s specs.

He didn’t know that already every airline in the world possessed the scanners. He never guessed that his old chum, Stedmeyer, had faxed all his data to the FBI, the UN Secretary, and had sent hard copies to the International Red Cross headquarters. Had McClusky paid any attention to the trial, he would have learned that the piles of documents entered into evidence were Stedmeyer’s notebooks—furnished by grieving Crystal—which had led to McClusky’s quick arrest and indictment. However, McClusky cared little for details or, for that matter, people.

In fact, all his life, at home, in business, and in friendship, the once celebrated Simon McClusky had been, in actuality, a consummate narcissist. While quiet Denny Stedmeyer, egghead and outsider, had lived and died a true Christian.

Sheila M. Cronin’s stories have appeared in Woman’s World Magazine, The Golden Domer, Good Old Days Magazine, Spark, Kaleidoscope, Dappled Things, Liguorian Magazine, and The Lutheran Digest. Her novel, The Gift Counselor, was endorsed by Publishers Weekly Indie Spotlight as “good will for adults.” Best of All Gifts is the sequel. Cronin is at work on the third installment in the Gift Counselor series.

4 thoughts on “Wheat or Chaff

  1. Very well written – tight and clean and colorful. Surprise ending. I enjoyed the story. Congratulations!


  2. Loved this story and the ending, as well as all your books which I have read and reread, looking forward to more of your books Sheila Cronin


  3. Well written, I didn’t anticipate the ending.

    I’ll look for more courtroom stories from the author.

    Tom Murray


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