Authors: David Rollins
Tags: #Suspense, #Fiction
“I’m going to get a cup of coffee down the road,” said Masters. “Oh, before I forget, you’ll need these.” She handed me a large envelope. “Your common access card—your CAC—will get you in and out of Ramstein. You’ll find a cell phone and pager in there, too, as well as a swipe card to get you into OSI on the base. See you in, say, twenty.”
She turned and walked out before I could offer an alternate plan. The receptionist had slipped away too, gone back to her bratwurst. I was alone in the foyer with a bag that contained four pairs of underwear and socks, a spare shirt, and a toothbrush I was too afraid to use. To be honest, I don’t like being told what to do, which might be an odd thing for someone in the military to say. But I especially don’t like it when I’m being ordered around by an officer of the same rank. So I walked out.
Okay, I needed a shower, but what I needed more than anything else was that dentist, or at least some serious painkillers. Deodorant would’ve been good, too, and some mouthwash. I was thinking that maybe I could rinse my teeth clean. I also needed a car. It occurred to me that General Scott’s second-in-command wasn’t the person I should interview first. That honor went to the chief crash investigator. And I also wanted to talk to the person everyone seemed most concerned about, not, it seemed, because her husband had been killed, but because of who her father was.
I found a tourist office and took a map of K-town. I asked the woman behind the counter for the nearest tooth doctor and was told that he didn’t open till 0900, confirming what Masters had said. That was still half an hour away. I found a pharmacy and bought the strongest analgesic available without a prescription.
Next stop, Hertz. I rented a Mercedes—what else?—and a map of the Rhineland-Palatinate, the province I found myself in. By the time I got back behind the wheel, the painkillers were working—mercifully—and I found myself able to at last concentrate on the job.
I drove back down the highway, retracing my steps to Ramstein, fumbling with Masters’s report, holding it against the steering wheel as I read. Two miles beyond the Kaiserslautern city limit, the pager beeped.
WHERE ARE YOU
? it said. I turned it off. A handful of seconds later, the cell began ringing. I was about to turn that off, too, but decided to see what was up.
“Major, what are you doing?” said the voice on the other end.
“Driving. Do they do it on the left side of the road here, or the right?”
“I’m on the road to Ramstein, which I know sounds like a song title or an old Bob Hope movie, but—”
“Special Agent Cooper, we agreed that you were going to meet me in the foyer.”
agreed on that, but I’m not sure who with. Hey, I hired a Mercedes, like yours only newer. I think I prefer Chevrolet.” I can be infuriating, especially when I want to be, and this was one of those times. It was obvious that Masters didn’t want me here, probably because she thought she was more than capable. She was treating me like I was a pain in the ass, and I objected to that because she didn’t even know me. And, apart from these interpersonal observations, as far as I could see from her report, her investigation had gotten precisely nowhere. It was all typed out neat and tidy and all her verbs were conjugated correctly, but the whole was utterly devoid of any imagination or intuition. She didn’t get it. Scott had been killed, but the big question on everyone’s lips was whether someone had helped him along, even though no one was prepared to even voice that option, except for Gruyere, and her only admission on that point was the fact that she’d sent me here. Masters had asked questions and people had answered them, but she didn’t appear to have questioned the answers.
“You’ve got a meeting with Lieutenant General von Koeppen in fifteen minutes,” Masters said.
“But I haven’t had a shower or a shave and I’m still wearing yesterday’s nonthermal underwear.”
I wondered whether she was the type who uses silence as a weapon to keep her partner in line. Not my kind of woman. “Okay, then,” I said, keeping it light and cheery. “I’ll catch up with you later.” I didn’t wait for an answer. I ended the call and turned off the cell. That was against the rules, of course. In this business, people get nervous if they can’t contact you 24/7. I opened the glove compartment and threw the phone in, closing the hatch after it.
A short time later, I turned off the highway and into the security post. The guard scanned my CAC card with a portable gizmo and checked that I looked as handsome in real life as I did in the photo. Satisfied, he then said, “Thank you, sir,” and waved me through. Before moving off, I asked for directions to Hangar B3. Ramstein, as I said, is a huge facility, and the soldier had to go back inside and consult a map. He returned moments later with a photocopy of the base layout. A line drawn in blue ink meandered across the page to the hangar.
Ten minutes later, I pulled up outside my destination. B3 was at least the size of two, possibly three, football fields. It was
big, it was impossible to tell how big. I walked to a side door feeling dwarfed by the structure. Huge overhead lights illuminated the interior. There were several C-5 Galaxies parked inside—transport planes roughly the size of 747s. I stopped an airman and asked for further directions. He pointed down the far corner of the hangar.
I eventually found what I was looking for, an area sealed off by walls of plastic and tape. Signs warned that this was a restricted area and that access was for authorized personnel only. I did what any investigator worth his pay would do and figured the signs weren’t talking to me. I parted the plastic and looked inside. On the floor were the remains of what I assumed was General Scott’s glider—pretty much every little piece—laid out for examination. The plane had hit the ground with such force that it appeared to have literally exploded. At least a dozen personnel were picking through these remains, cataloguing them. It was a mammoth task. There weren’t many whole sections left intact.
I made my way to what would have been the cockpit. There was a lot of dried blood on the pieces. That figured. The human body is really just a big bag of water. When it hits the ground at over one hundred and fifty miles per hour, it bursts.
“You right there, mate?” said a voice behind me. The man wore the uniform of a Royal Air Force squadron leader, except his accent was about as English as mine. Australian. I’d come to recognize the accent after a stint in Afghanistan, where Australia’s Special Forces, the Special Air Service, were deployed. Those boys were smart and very tough. I owed my life to half a dozen of them.
“Special Agent Vin Cooper,” I said, flashing him my OSI creds.
I recognized the name. Roach was heading the crash team investigating the wreckage. He was looking for cause. His was the signature on the report I’d read.
“OSI. Not the local branch, I take it?” he asked.
“Flew in this morning.”
“You working with that Masters chick on this?”
“Lucky man. She’s a spunkrat. Young to be a major, too. Rumor has it she can suck-start an F-16.”
That gave me an interesting perspective on Masters. She had a reputation. Also, this guy thought her meteoric rise through the ranks had something to do with qualities other than those for which officers usually received promotion. I didn’t add to the conversation, which might have made the squadron leader nervous. Parts of the services are, in some ways, even more PC than private enterprises.
He cleared his throat and said, “You read the preliminary?”
I nodded. “You’ve had a couple more days with this since you and your team did the initial write-up. Got anything to add?”
“Yeah, as a matter of fact.”
I followed the squadron leader to a bench covered with various items of metal and fiberglass. Roach was short and bald, and the crotch of his pants appeared to get sucked up his butt as he walked, springing off his toes with each step. His uniform was a size too small for his frame, which didn’t help. Maybe he was getting fat and didn’t realize it. Or couldn’t accept it.
Hanging on the wall behind the bench was a large photograph of the smiling, relaxed General Scott standing next to his sailplane. The aircraft’s wingspan was a tad under sixty feet. The nose where the pilot sat was small and bulbous, with a large Perspex bubble canopy. Now, only shards of the glider remained—slightly more than what remained of the general, according to Masters’s report. I ran my eyes over the individual pieces spread out across the floor and found it difficult to imagine that this was the aircraft in the picture. Roach picked up an aluminum bracket.
“I can tell you now that General Scott’s plane was sabotaged.” He held up a piece of metal. “Check this out.”
Sabotage meant murder. I didn’t bat an eyelid at the news, though once the folks Stateside heard it, the shit would definitely fly. “What is it?” I asked.
“The wings of the glider slide off and on to make transporting it from field to field possible. That makes this piece crucial. It’s the bracket that clamps the main wing spar to the fuselage.” Roach pulled the clamp apart and the top section split into two separate pieces across a fine, ragged crack. “That’s not supposed to happen, by the way,” he said. “This is seven-oh-seven-five—aircraft-grade aluminum alloy. It’s light and, as you might expect, extremely strong. At least, it’s supposed to be.”
He passed me a black-and-white photo. “What’s this?” I asked.
“A photo,” he said, being a wiseass. “Well, actually, it’s called a macrograph—makes it easy to see the metal’s crystal structure. This is what seven-oh-seven-five should look like.” He passed me another black-and-white print. “Compare them.”
I put the two prints side by side. On one, the crystals were big; on the other, they were small. Easy to see the difference, sure, but I still didn’t know squat.
“Basic metallurgy lesson number one: When the crystals are small, the metal is good and strong,” Roach said. “The bigger those crystals get, the weaker the metal becomes. Milled nonferrous metals like aluminum don’t take kindly to stress. They have almost zero elasticity. Put too much stress on them and they don’t bend or deform, they just crack.
he said, musically.
“Do you mind putting it together for me like I was a five-year-old, Squadron Leader?”
Roach swapped the photos for a couple of bits of aluminum he’d recovered from his bench. “We’ve duplicated what we believe happened to the failed clamp that held on the general’s wings. We heated and cooled it rapidly a couple of dozen times. Doing that to a metal—just about any metal—changes its crystal structure, making it weaker. The seven-oh-seven-five in your left hand failed at one-tenth the load of the seven-oh-seven-five in your right. Take a closer look.”
I did as I was asked and examined the metals. On the outside, they appeared identical. In cross-section where they’d cracked, though, one piece had broken clean while the other had a porous honeycomb appearance.
“Nothing like this could happen by accident?” I asked. I knew the answer to that before I asked the question, but I’ve found it sometimes pays to ask the obvious.
“No bloody way,” the squadron leader said, shaking his head. “Someone got to the general’s plane, removed the clamp, and then went to work on it, or exchanged it for this one, knowing full well what the consequences of that would be.”
“Don’t stop now, Squadron Leader. You’ve got a captive audience here. What happened when that clamp failed?”
“You read about it in the report,” he said.
“I’ve read an eyewitness account. Tell me in your own words what you think happened.”
He shrugged. “On the morning of the crash, the general and another pilot were chasing thermals, maybe ten miles from the base. The weather was good and the conditions were ideal for soaring. The general, like the pilot in the other plane, was climbing to around twelve thousand feet and then doing aerobatics—loops, rolls, and spins—down to around five thousand feet. They’d apparently done that twice—gone up and then come down—before the general’s day flew into the crapper. When he reached altitude for the third time, he put the glider into a flat spin. I reckon the clamp was probably already broken by then, but it’s impossible to say. According to the witness, the right-hand wing on the general’s plane appeared to fold. The airflow ripped it clean away a second or two later as what was left of the aircraft began a spiral dive.
“It dove like that, spinning, for several thousand feet before the g-forces tore the other wing off. Within moments, gravity accelerated the wreckage to around two hundred and fifty miles per hour. General Scott would’ve had plenty of time to contemplate his end before it came. From the clamp letting go to impact took around thirty seconds. That’s a lot of time for your life to flash before your eyes.” Roach paused. Maybe he was picturing the man trapped inside his fiberglass coffin heading for the ground. I certainly could. Roach snapped out of it and cleared his throat. “The tail broke off at about two thousand feet of altitude. The nose of the aircraft hit a tree, which is why so little of it was left intact. Not much of the tree left, either. The general’s remains—what they could find, at any rate—were scooped into buckets with a ladle. Shooting the bugger with a twelve-gauge at close range wouldn’t have been nearly as effective, or messy. Not a great way to get your card punched.” Roach paused for another moment of consideration before asking, “Anything else, Special Agent?”
“Yes,” I managed to say. The saliva glands in my mouth were working overtime and my skin was clammy. I knew what was coming. I made it to a basin against the wall before my stomach let go. I’d be lying if I said my reaction to Roach’s re-creation had nothing to do with my own experiences in the air. The Australian had just brought it all back—the fear, the helplessness, the feeling in your guts when the hard floor beneath drops away revealing an abyss. And you just…fall…My stomach heaved again.
“You okay, mate?”
“Yeah, I’m on one of those weird fad diets,” I said. I cupped my hands under the water and splashed my face.