The TV powered up with its distinctive electronic snap, and a blast of full-volume static boomed from the set. The scratchy noise felt like sandpaper scraping across raw nerves.
"God Almighty." Dan scrambled for the volume control, punched the wrong button, and turned the static to blaring canned-sitcom laughter. Laughter, especially fake, felt obscene in the fragile silence and made our situation that much more surreal. He found the volume and turned it down as I fumbled with shaking hands to get the cassette out of the envelope.
"Where's the fucking remote?"
"Are you sure Delta's not going to mind us being in here?"
"I told you, we have a deal. I loan them a B767 towbar when they need it, and I get to use their VCR whenever I want."
I put the tape into the slot-tried to, anyway-cramming it in a few times before I realized one was already in there. Every step seemed to take forever as I found the button to eject, pulled the cassette out, and put ours in. Dan found the remote, killed the light, and moved in next to me in front of the screen. His shoulder was warm against mine as we leaned back against the conference table, and I was glad that whatever we were about to see, I wasn't going to see it alone.
I took a few deep breaths, trying to stop shaking. It didn't work.
He aimed the remote at the screen. "Ready?" Without waiting for an answer, he hit Play.
Within seconds, the picture changed from the high, bright colors of situation comedy to the grainy black-and-white cast of a surveillance video. The date and time were marked in the lower right-hand corner, and the rest of the screen was filled with the image of a small aircraft parked in the rain on a concrete slab. It was a commuter, so there was no jetbridge, just a prop plane parked at a gate. I looked at the markings on the tail. A wave of recognition began as a tightening of my scalp when I realized that I also recognized the gate. The date-check the date again. The tight, tingling feeling spread from the top of my skull straight down my back and grabbed hold, like a fist around my backbone. It was March 15, 1995, at 19:12:20. The Ides of March.
Without taking his eyes from the screen, Dan found the Pause button. We stared, as frozen as the image before us, and I could hear in his breathing, I could feel in his stiffening posture, that he was thinking what I was, that it couldn't be, please don't let it be-
"The Beechcraft," he whispered.
The Beechcraft, he'd said, not a Beechcraft. I looked at him, grasping for reassurance, hoping not to see my worst fears in his face. But the odd TV glow turned his skin into gray parchment and made deep hollows of his eyes. Under a day's growth of dark stubble, he looked stunned.
"Are you sure? Is that…" I tried to swallow the lump in my throat. "Check the tail number."
He didn't check. He didn't have to check. We both knew what we were looking at. It was one of Dickie Flynn's surveillance tapes of the ramp, the one from March 15, 1995. That was the night that Flight 1704 crashed outside Baltimore. This was the Beechcraft that had gone down, and this was our ramp it was parked on. It was less than three hours before the fatal landing, and I had no doubt that when he raised the remote and hit Play, we were going to see things we weren't supposed to see. We were going to find out the things that Ellen knew, and maybe understand why she was dead.
I turned back to the screen, eyes wide, neck rigid, and stared straight ahead. A feeling of dread filled the room-Dan's or mine or both, I couldn't tell. It was growing, filling the small space and, like that heat in my office, pressing back on me and making it hard to draw a breath. I wondered if Dan could feel it, too, but I couldn't look at him. I was glued to the screen, afraid to keep looking, but afraid to look away.
He held up the remote, but before he restarted the tape, I felt him pull himself up, square his shoulders, and center his weight, like a soldier girding for battle. He hit Play and the rain began to fall again.
The rain was falling hard on the evening of March 15, 1995, hard enough that I could see the drops bouncing off the wet concrete. During the first minute or two of the tape, that's all we saw, the Beechcraft sitting in a downpour. Occasionally, a ramper would walk through the shot, or a tug would cut through the narrow passage between the airplane and the terminal, which they weren't supposed to do.
A fuel truck pulled into the frame. Dan had been still, but when the truck stopped just behind the left wing, he started shifting his weight back and forth from one foot to the other.
"That's Billy Newman," he said as the driver climbed out and went to the back of his truck.
"Does it mean something?"
"I don't know, boss. He's just another guy out there."
Not knowing exactly what we were looking for, everything meant something-or nothing. We had to watch every movement, every motion closely, and when Billy Newman disappeared behind his truck for an inordinately long period of time, we were both drawn a little closer to the screen. But when he reappeared, all he did was go about the business of fueling the aircraft. He hooked up on one side and stood in the rain with his hood pulled over his head. When the first tank was full, he went around and started on the other side.
"This is killing me." Dan pointed the remote and fired. "I'm going to fast-forward until something happens."
"Are you sure? We don't even know what we're looking for."
"If we miss something, we can start it over. Besides, I have a feeling we'll know it when we see it."
The tape whirred as the cockpit crew came out, stowed their gear, and boarded. Then the passengers appeared, most carrying umbrellas and forming a line to the boarding stairs. I tried to be dispassionate, to look with a coldly analytical eye for anything unusual in the high-speed procession. But in this moment captured on this tape, these people were about to die. I knew it and they didn't, and I thought maybe I should look away, lower my eyes and-who was I kidding? I was like any other wide-eyed, slack-jawed, rubbernecking ghoul. I felt ashamed and I felt dirty. At the faster speed, their movements were hyper and manic, almost comical, and I heard echoes of that canned sitcom laughter. We should slow this down, I thought. We're hurrying these people along when what they need at this moment is more time.
"Wait, stop it there."
"I see it." Dan was already pausing and reversing. "Goddammit." His gentle shifting from foot to foot accelerated to jittery rocking as he searched the tape, first going too far back. He hit the Rewind button, accidentally going still further back, then had to fast-forward again. I watched the seconds on the time stamp, each tick up and down winding the tension a little tighter.
Finally we were in normal speed. A tug towing a cart full of bags and cargo pulled into the frame. The vehicle, moving too fast for the conditions, skidded to a stop at the tail of the Beechcraft. I held my breath. The driver stepped out into the rain, stumbled, and nearly fell to the wet concrete. Dan saved him momentarily by stopping the tape.
"Oh, my God." I'd been staring at the screen so intently, my eyes were dried out and my vision was starting to blur. But there was no mistaking the identity of this man-his size, his build, the span of his wide shoulders. It was Little Pete, and Little Pete was drunk.
Dan was squeezing the remote with one hand. The other was on top of his head, as if to keep it from flying off. "That fucking moron," he said in a voice that was so quiet, it was scary.
"Did you know he worked this trip?"
"I didn't know he was in this kind of shape. No one did."
His hand slipped from the top of his head, brushing my forearm in the process. I almost didn't feel it. The pieces were beginning to fit together, each one falling into place with a dull, brutal thud that felt like a punch to the solar plexus. "Someone knew, Dan. Someone knew." A terrible feeling of panic began to take hold of me. But I had to stay focused. "Let's keep going."
He restarted the tape, and Little Pete continued his grotesque dance, reaching back for the steering wheel to keep from going down. He stayed that way for a few seconds, swaying as if the ground was a storm-tossed sea. And then, God help us, he began loading the aircraft.
My stomach tightened into a hard lump as I watched him lift a dog in its carrier out of the cart, stagger to the aircraft, and slide it through the aft cargo door, stopping to poke his fingers through the cage before pushing the carrier all the way in. I couldn't tell if he was teasing the animal or trying in some sloppy, sentimental, drunken way to give comfort.
In contrast to the passengers' movements, Little Pete's in normal speed were slow and dreary and indifferent, but knowing what had come later that night, every single thing he did was painfully riveting. Pete followed the dog with the bags, stopping occasionally to pull a scrap of paper from his pocket and make a notation.
Dan shook his head. "I can't believe he's actually keeping a load plan."
"It doesn't look to me like he's following any kind of a plan. He's stuffing the load wherever he can make it fit."
"You're right, but he is keeping track. See there." Little Pete pulled out the scrap again and made some adjustment with his pencil. He finished by trying to fit two boxes in the forward compartment. It didn't take long before he gave that up and shoved them in the back with the dog. "He didn't load anything forward," said Dan, "Did you see that? All the weight he put onboard is in the back."
"It was out of balance," I said, feeling the air go out of me as another piece thudded into place. Little Pete had been drunk the night of the fight with Terry McTavish and reversed the load on a jet, which is more or less what he'd done here. "Little Pete loaded it wrong, and the flight crew got blamed."
We watched him close the cargo compartments, almost slipping again at the rear door. He disappeared into the cab of his tug, then popped out with his glow-in-the-dark wands. Appearing remarkably composed, he stood in front of the aircraft, in front of the captain, and guided the airplane out of the frame.
Little Pete walked back into camera range and stowed his wands.
Dan and I stood for a long time staring at the screen after he'd driven away. Neither one of us made a move to turn off the tape, even though there was nothing left to see but rain falling on a bare concrete slab.
Eventually, I felt the insistent aching in the middle of my back and realized I'd been standing stiff enough to crack. Dan had started moving around. He looked as if he was in fast-forward mode himself, pacing around the table and talking to himself. "That son of a bitch. That cocksucking, motherfucking, degenerate scumbag. He was drunk. He fucked up the load. He caused the crash. That's what this has all been about."
I found the light switch and flipped it on, but not having the energy to pace, I leaned back against the closed door as much for support as to ease my sore back. "How did the captain get the plane off the ground?"
"What do you mean?"
"If the load was out of balance enough to bring the plane down, how could he have gotten it off the ground? He would have been tail-heavy."
He answered without ever breaking stride. "It doesn't take that much on a Beechcraft to move the center of gravity. It's a small airplane. A couple hundred pounds in the wrong place would do it. He could have been able to take off but not land. That's possible."
"I can't believe it."
"Why not? They use flaps on landing but not take-off. Plus, the fuel tanks are forward, so if the tanks were full, they could have compensated-"
"No. I'm saying I can't believe anyone would be that negligent, that stupid. How could they let him work like that? Even his father-especially his father."
"C'mon, Shanahan, you know these people. And how stupid are they if they covered it up and got away with it?"
"Yeah, how did they do that?" I dropped down into one of the chairs that ringed the conference table. Spread out in front of me was the stack of papers and documents that had spilled out of Dickie's envelope along with the tape. "The whole thing was caught on a surveillance video, Little Pete is clearly drunk, and yet the true story has never come out. The pilots took the fall for what he did. Obviously, the tape never came out, but still-"
"Lenny had to be part of it," he said. "He was the GM. There's no way this thing gets covered up and he doesn't know about it."
"No doubt. Little Pete Dwyer didn't fool anyone on his own." I traced the edge of the conference table, following the line with my thumb, avoiding eye contact. "And if Lenny was involved, Dan, I think we have to consider that Ellen was, too, at least in the cover-up. There's plenty of motive for murder here all the way around."
His response was instantaneous. "You will never, ever convince me that Ellen Shepard was part of this."
"Maybe she got sucked in. Once you've committed contract fraud, once you've gone that far, if something like this happens, you have to cover it up just to protect yourself. You keep getting in deeper even if you don't want to."
"Buying off a contract is one thing, but twenty-one people died here."
"And if the true cause had ever come out, there would have been no deal. You know that. You would have had investigations and lawsuits all over the place. Nor'easter would have been grounded, maybe even had their certificate yanked. What started out as contract fraud to make the deal happen ended up being a cover-up to make sure it didn't blow up."
He stood across the room from me on the other side of the table with his feet shoulder-width and his arms crossed. The look on his face was as closed as his stance. "Ellen didn't know about this."
He was so confident, so sure that even if he hadn't known everything about Ellen, he had known the important things. He simply refused to believe the worst about his friend. I rested my head against the high back of the chair and stared at the TV screen. The surveillance tape was still running. Neither one of us had made a move to turn it off. I envied Dan his certainty, and I wished so much that I had known Ellen. That I didn't have to draw my conclusions about her from what she hung on her walls, or what was left on her kitchen counter, or the look in her eyes in that dating video when she said she didn't want to be alone anymore. The rain continued to fall on the concrete on March 15, 1995. It was falling harder, and no matter what the facts said about Ellen, I wanted Dan to be right. I didn't want her to have known about this.
"Let's look at it from a different angle. Ellen knew nothing about the crash-the true cause of the crash- until she got to Boston. Dickie sent her this package, she saw the tape and realized that Lenny had used the money they'd stolen-"
He opened his mouth to object again, but I kept going. "Used the money for something besides the contract payoff. She got angry or scared, and that's why she took the evidence. When she figured out what he'd gotten her into, she panicked."
He stared at me for a long time, and I couldn't tell what he was thinking. But he must have been considering the theory, and he must have decided he could live with it. "She got to the evidence first," he said, picking up the thread, "she threatened to go public, and they killed her for it." He tapped his lips with the tip of his index finger. "Now all we have to do is prove it."
"That's not our job."
He turned away in frustration, then circled back and motioned to the TV screen. "Aren't you even curious about how they did this? That pisshead Dwyer kid took that Beechcraft down and is still out working the ramp loading airplanes. He's working tomorrow. What if, God forbid, something happened and we knew about this and didn't do anything?"
"We can take him out of service. Or assign him to the stock room."
"Boss, I don't want this guy anywhere near one of my airplanes."
Having seen what I'd just seen, it was hard to argue with that sentiment. With both palms flat on the surface, he leaned across the table. "Shanahan," he said, looking me directly in the eye, "I need to finish this tonight."
His tie had disappeared long ago, his shirttail was out, and I noticed for the first time how thin he'd become, too thin for his suit pants. His face was drawn, his forehead lined with every sleepless night he'd spent thinking about why Ellen had died and, more painful than that, what his role in her death might have been. I had a feeling that watching that videotape had taken more out of him than he could have admitted, and it occurred to me that he might have been leaning on that table because he was too worn out to stand up. No matter what I had promised Bill, there was no way Dan was going home tonight. With the answer right there in front of us on the table, he didn't have enough left to wait it out until tomorrow. It had to be finished tonight.
I checked my watch. Tom Gutekunst from Corporate Security would be in at six o'clock in the morning. We had almost eight hours. I reached out for a stack of papers.
"Sit down before you fall down," I said, handing him half, "and start with these."