Bad Bird

A Mystery

Jackie Swaitkowski Mysteries (Volume 2)

Chris Knopf

Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books

1
 

If I hadn’t been spending so much time living in my head, I might have noticed earlier that there was something terribly wrong with the single-engine plane circling overhead.
I was leaning on the top rail of a white plastic fence that encircled a huge grazing and exercise pasture for a herd of show horses. When I was in the thrall of a certain kind of moody unease, I liked to hang there and watch the elegant creatures trot around, caress one another with their long necks, and occasionally drop to the ground and roll around on their backs. I’d made friends with a few of them, relationships reinforced by the breath mints I’d hold out in the palm of my hand, which they’d slurp up into their huge horsey mouths with surprising delicacy.
I don’t remember which internal debate had driven me there that morning, but I remember it was a pretty spring day—early spring, when the grass of the pasture was in its first blush of new growth and the big maple trees planted randomly along the white fence were sporting a fresh coat of light-green fuzz. The sun was still fairly low on the horizon, but the cloudless sky was already a vivid blue, presenting a clear contrast with the white fuselage of the little plane as it passed above.
My mind suddenly became disengaged from the obsession of the moment, and my heart leaped to my throat as I realized a trail of gray-black smoke was suddenly pouring from the engine as the plane wobbled drunkenly through the air. I reached for the cell phone in the pocket of my pants and held it, along with my breath, as I watched the plane continue to circle as it lost altitude. The horses weren’t as transfixed as I was, accustomed as they were to the sound of small aircraft buzzing into East Hampton Airport about five miles to the east. But I was very aware of them innocently standing or milling about directly beneath the struggling aircraft.
“Get out of there,” I yelled, which alarmed only one of the breath-mint enthusiasts standing nearby. He pulled up his head, swiveled to the left, and trotted directly into harm’s way.
The smoke was now gushing out of ventilation ports around the engine, leaving a thick, spiraling contrail that began to dissipate into a formless cloud. The plane was close enough for me to see numbers on the underside of the wings and to hear the irregular, angry-insect whir of the engine. The horses, which were spread out across the pasture, finally picked up on the threatening sounds from above. As if with a single mind, they immediately surged into a headlong gallop, most toward the barn up the hill, the others in a split-off herd running toward the white fence, along which they flew in a loose, frantic formation, like racehorses turning into the final stretch.
The plane continued to tighten the circle as it descended toward the ground. The dark gray smoke streaming from the engine obscured all but the propeller and the outer tips of the wings, which swung from side to side as the pilot fought to gain visibility.
With the horses now out of immediate danger, I recovered some presence of mind, flipped open my phone, and stabbed 911. I don’t remember what I said, or rather shouted, at the dispatcher, but as they always do, she told me in a calm, deliberate voice to get to a safe place—wherever that would be—and stay on the line while she called in the emergency crews.
“Call everyone you know. You’re gonna need it,” I said.
“Have you moved to a secure location?” she asked.
I hadn’t. I was too immobilized by the sight of the plane spiraling downward, ever closer, its wings seesawing and tail slashing back and forth in a desperate effort to see through the cloud of smoke. And then suddenly, it was quiet, the sound of the engine replaced by a breeze through the trees lining the road behind me. The silence snapped me out of my trance, and I ran toward my Volvo station wagon where it was parked by the side of the road. But before I could get there, I heard a steady whir as the engine caught hold again. The plane’s nose lifted slightly as it regained purchase on the air and settled back into its banking descent.
The voice of the police dispatcher barked out of my phone, still steadfast and composed, asking me to report on the state of affairs.
I told her the plane was still struggling, though my voice might have been drowned out by the sound of the engine, now even closer overhead. The left wing dipped severely as the plane banked into another turn, and with the smoke temporarily diverted by the wind, I caught a glimpse of the pilot. It was a woman, with brown hair secured by a headband. She was too far away for me to make out more than that. It sounded like the engine had straightened itself out, the unsettling silence replaced by a smooth buzz. As she continued to turn left in that inexorable circle, I strained to get a better look at her face. It was a hard face, nearly attractive if not for the determined, anxious set of her jaw, and though still a distance away, I was sure she looked directly at me. I waved like mad, hoping she’d know our eyes had met.
The pilot’s door abruptly opened, and out flew a large silver thing that took but a few moments to fall to earth.
It didn’t take much longer for me to clamber over the fence and dash across the field to where the object lay. It was a type of aluminum case, cracked open by the fall. Inside was a 35mm camera and lens, each still safely in its own pocket carved out of cushioning foam. Some other debris—pens, lipstick, camera accessories, a local shopper’s guide from Burlington, Vermont, and a few crumpled pieces of paper—was strewn nearby. I stuffed what I could back in the case, then slammed it shut.
The police dispatcher asked for another briefing. She was still calm, but slightly more insistent, her voice loud enough to hear out of the phone that I’d stuck in my pocket.
“Be right with you,” I yelled, though she likely didn’t hear me. The sound of the plane, which I’d almost lost track of, suddenly got a lot louder. I looked up and saw it coming straight down upon me, rotating in a slow downward spiral, what had been smoke now a roar of flames flowing from the engine, any semblance of control entirely lost.
“Please describe the current situation,” yelled the dispatcher, patience and composure running out. I would have answered, but I was too busy running like hell with the aluminum case under my arm. The grassy field was a lot lumpier underfoot than it looked from the road, but that did little to slow me down until my toe caught some treacherous little tangle of vegetation and I pitched headlong to the ground. Aided by forward momentum, I almost scrambled back on my feet, but I lost my balance and ended up on my butt instead.
There was nothing left to do but watch. I held my face in my hands and moaned “Oh, God” softly to myself as the plane drove directly into the bright green grass, where it exploded into a beautiful orange ball, topped by blossoms of black smoke boiling up into the sky as if a fountain from hell had erupted into the hopeful promise of spring.
A wall of red-hot air punched me in the chest. The grass between me and the destroyed plane began to burst into flame. Still holding the camera case, and furiously sucking gulps of acrid air into my lungs, I stumbled to my feet and ran like a demon for the relative safety of the roadside and my waiting car.
I tossed the case over the fence and followed with a vault that would have brought envy to an Olympic high jumper. I landed on my back and stared gasping up at the blue sky, already beginning to haze over from the smoke of the plane.
A few years before, I’d been blown nearly to smithereens by a car bomb, resulting in months of painful convalescence and plastic surgery. As I looked up, I asked the cloudy heavens why all the exploding vehicles, but no answer was forthcoming.
*   *   *
In some ways, the worse the calamity, the less there is for first responders to do. As requested, every ambulance and fire truck from Hampton Bays to Montauk showed up on the scene, along with a half dozen black-and-white Southampton Town Police patrol cars and every available cop from adjacent villages.
The real work would be done by the National Transportation Safety Board Go Team, whom my cop friends told me would be swooping in within the hour. Meanwhile, the fire was in the hands of the emergency squad from East Hampton Airport, who were the only ones with the foamy chemicals capable of putting it out. The regular volunteer firemen could only stand around in their heavy boots and suits and watch. I, in turn, watched them, noting for some perverse reason that half of them were smoking cigarettes.
Thus engaged, I nearly jumped when Joe Sullivan, one of the Southampton Town cops, put his hand on my shoulder.
“Erin said you were the one who put in the call,” he said.
“The dispatcher? How did she know it was me?”
“She recognized your voice.”
“Everyone’s a detective.”
“You’re all right?” he said, in the way people do when they really want you to say yes.
“Yes. I think.”
“Should I get the paramedics?”
“Only if they can pour me a cocktail.”
Sullivan pulled his archaic little casebook out of a special pouch that hung from his belt. Around Southampton Town Police headquarters he was called a plainclothesman, which for Sullivan meant he had to look like a cop in some other way than by wearing the official patrolman’s navy blue uniform. That day he wore a T-shirt under a nylon Windbreaker and army fatigues tucked into a pair of paratrooper’s boots. His head sat on his shoulders without the benefit of a neck and was covered in buzz-cut blond fur. Wraparound sunglasses ensured that you’d know this was a cop even if he didn’t have his badge hanging from a chain around his neck.
Sullivan and I had been through a lot of things together as the result of my bourgeoning career as an underpaid defense attorney. Some of those things had been pretty traumatic, at least for me. We also had a few people we cared about in common, so even though I was a defense lawyer and he was a cop, we had a kind of genuine friendship. Anyway, that’s what I wanted to believe.
“It looks like you’re the only witness,” he said.
“There goes the investigation.”
“You know that’s not true, counselor,” said Sullivan. “There’s no witness I’d rather have.”
“You’re being nice to me.”
“I’m trying to be sympathetic. If it’ll make you feel better, I’ll slap you around a little, then we can do the interview.”
Actually, I wasn’t feeling that good. I felt the way normal people feel after witnessing a horrible accident. Somewhere between numb and on the verge of barfing up breakfast.
“Maybe I ought to lie down,” I said, dropping to the grass.
“You sure you’re okay?” he asked again, squatting down next to me.
I lied and said I was fine.
“No paramedics. I just need to collect myself.”
I gave him my statement. I’d handled enough criminal cases to know that eyewitness accounts had a shelf life of about five minutes. And even then they weren’t all that reliable, contrary to common misconception reinforced by cop shows and other popular forms of disinformation in which the investigators knock on the door of an old lady who says something like, “Oh, yes, I was out watering my garden and I noticed this young blond man with a slight limp and a tattoo of a rose on his left hand leaving the victim’s home looking rather furtive. I think it was at three forty-five P.M., though it might have been three forty-six.”
So I gave my statement while I lay there looking up at the sky, now a deep blue behind a smear of dark gray smoke that reflected the strobing yellow, white, and blue lights of the emergency vehicles crowded onto the scene.
My statement was dramatic but not very long. It came down to a fairly simple story of a plane with its engine on fire, laboring to clear a place to land, and ultimately failing to do so. Except for the odd detail of the lady pilot heaving a camera case out the door a few moments before crashing.
“Is that the case?” Sullivan asked, pointing to the only aluminum case within view.
“Could be,” I said.
He frowned and asked if I’d handled the contents. He knew me better than that.
“The case was open when I found it. It holds a camera with a detached lens. Also a few incidental items, like cosmetics and pen and paper, though there used to be more.”
“What do you mean, ‘used to be’?”
“I saved what I could. There wasn’t a lot of time.”
“Any film in it?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said, honestly, since I hadn’t thought to look.
“You want to stay with that answer, counselor, or reconsider?” he asked.
And there it was, the eternally unresolved conflict between a cop with a reflex devotion to proper procedure and a defense attorney with anything but.
“What are we, a half hour into this and you’re already impugning my integrity?” I asked.
“Half hour into what?” he asked.
“This.”
“Don’t start,” he said, pointing at me. I knew exactly what he meant.
“I don’t know what you mean,” I said.
He picked the camera case off the ground like he was afraid I’d snatch it up myself and run away. Then he pressed me to recall additional details of the crash, but I swore I’d done my best.
“I’m just getting you ready for the NTSB,” he said. “The National Transportation Safety Board. They’ll be here soon.”
“I can’t wait for them. I have to get to the office,” I said.
He shook his head.
“Stay put and get it over with. They do not want you to leave, and they do not screw around. Try to be a cooperative member of society, just this once.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
I did what he told me to do, despite impulses to the contrary. I soothed my impatience by lying on the grass and looking up at the sky. I did this from time to time anyway, when I was in the same kind of mood that drove me to stand at a plastic fence and talk to horses. This mood was usually contemplative and introspective. Sometimes pensive, more often self-flagellating. Or more likely, lazy and good-for-nothing.
It was from this vantage point that I turned my head and saw a man in a blue-and-gray herringbone jumpsuit leaning against the front fender of a pickup truck and staring at the fire. He had his hands in his pockets and one heel braced against a tire, like he was trying to get comfortable for a long stretch of disaster watching. Everything about the pose was ordinary, except I noticed he was crying.
I rolled up on one shoulder to get a better look. His eyes were fixed on the flames, and he didn’t see me looking at him. When I was sure I was seeing what I thought I was seeing, I stood up and walked over to him.
“You okay, sir?” I asked.
He turned his head toward me. The wet lines running down his cheeks didn’t seem to fit. His hair was a slicked-back brown, his nose a busted lump in the middle of his face. His complexion was the color of wheat dough and cratered by the scars of ancient acne, a deformity nearly disguised by thick black stubble.
“No. Not okay,” he said, and turned back toward the fire.
This should have been a cue for me to back away and leave him alone.
“Can I get you some help?” I asked.
He gave a mirthless little laugh.
“Nothing nobody can do now. ’Cept maybe leave me alone,” he said, which I was in the process of doing when he added, “Or else arrest me, I guess.”
I turned around and walked back.
“Arrest you for what?”
He looked like he was listening to a private joke inside his head.
“Isn’t that what they do in these situations? Just arrest everybody that coulda had anything to do with it? Then let the lawyers and God sort it out?”
I didn’t think that was exactly how it worked, and I told him so.
“I doubt that, sir,” I said. “You have something to do with the crash?”
His face went blank—if it showed anything, maybe a little bewilderment.
“Shit, yeah. My wife was flying that thing.”


 
Copyright © 2011 by Chris Knopf