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Fly by Wire
By Ward Larsen
Oceanview PublishingCopyright © 2010 Ward Larsen
All rights reserved.
Jammer Davis had always made a lousy cup of coffee. He dumped the trails of this morning's effort into the kitchen sink and went to the foot of the stairs.
"Jenny!" he barked in his best drill sergeant voice. "Get a move on! School in thirty minutes!"
There was no reply. He heard music blaring. Davis stomped up the stairs, his boots anything but subtle. Nearing the top, he saw his daughter's bedroom door partially open. He stopped in his tracks. Jen was standing in front of the full-length mirror, twisted around, and checking out her own jean-clad rear end.
His mind blanked in ways it shouldn't have. In ways it never had. Davis wondered what the hell to do. Tell her she had a great butt? Tell her it didn't matter what kind of butt she had because no young man was going to get within a hundred yards of it? He decided to punt. Davis put his head down, and gave the banister a swift kick. He didn't look up until he came through her door.
Jen had straightened up, but there was a mortified look on her face. "Don't you ever knock, Daddy?" she huffed.
"Come on, sweetheart. Two minute warning."
"But my hair isn't ready. I can't find a scrunchy!"
"A scrunchy for my ponytail."
"Well — use something else."
He threw his hands in the air. "How should I know? Try one of those plastic cable ties, the ones that zip up. They're in the garage."
She glared at him, then picked up a hairbrush and began yanking it through her shoulder-length auburn hair. At fifteen, she was changing every day. Jen was nearly a full-grown woman in stature, yet still awkward and frisky in that filly-like way. And she was beginning to look more and more like her mother.
She said, "It's those new housekeeping ladies. They clean too much."
"How can they clean too much?"
"They put stuff in the weirdest places. Can't you talk to them?"
"No. They speak Portuguese."
She put the brush down and picked up a tube of hair gel. "Do you know what they did?"
"We don't have time for —"
"The two books I'm reading for English were on the night stand next to my bed. The housekeepers put them in a stack and then pulled out the bookmarks — they laid them on top, as if that was more orderly or something!"
Davis saw it coming. She was a cresting wave headed for shore, just looking for a spot to crash.
"They pulled my bookmark out of The Odyssey. Do you know how hard it is to find your place in The Odyssey?" Her voice quivered, "Do you?"
"Yes — I mean, no. God dammit!"
"Daddy!" She threw the tube of hair gel at him, striking him in the knee.
Jammer Davis, all six foot four, two hundred forty pounds, stood helpless. He had no idea what to do. Jen collapsed on the bed, a sobbing heap of convulsions. He thought, Nice going, Jammer. Now what?
Davis went to the bed and sat next to his daughter. He heaved a sigh. This wasn't getting any easier. Her moods were like the weather. Sunny, breezy, gloomy — and always changing. He wondered how much was hormones and how much was the lingering effects of losing her mother. It had been nearly two years since the accident, but the tears still came almost every day.
Jen leaned into him, put her head on his shoulder. Years ago he might have whisked her up and taken her in his arms. But that couldn't happen anymore. Davis knew he had to just sit there and wait things out. As he did, he noticed the room. It looked different. The posters on the wall had changed — High School Musical was gone, replaced by a graffiti-strewn banner of something called Less Than Jake. A band, he figured. The old dolls and stuffed animals were gone too, probably stuffed in a closet. This bothered him. Not that she was discarding her childhood, piece by piece, but rather that she was doing it on her own. No, Dad, can I give this stuff to Goodwill? He wondered how long ago things had started working that way.
"Dad —" she sniffled, "I want you to stop the bad language."
"Bad language?" Davis tried to remember what the hell he'd said. "Baby, you hear worse than that a hundred times every day in school."
"No! Mom never allowed it in the house, and with her gone, it's up to me to keep you in line."
In a reflex probably born from some long-ago martial arts training, Davis took a deep, deep breath. "Your Mom was a strong woman, Jen. I'm glad you are too. I promise to mind my tongue."
Her head came up and she used the corner of a bed sheet to wipe her eyes. As she did, Davis noticed the framed picture on the nightstand next to her bed, the three of them with arms around shoulders, smiling on a ski slope. At least that hadn't been stuffed in a drawer.
He said, "And you have to promise not to throw any more hair care products at me."
She smiled. "Sorry."
He gave her a lopsided grin — the one that Diane had always said was roguish. The one that Jen said made him look like a big doofus. All a matter of perspective, he figured. "Okay. Let's get ready."
"But I still need something for my hair."
Davis got up and headed toward the door. "I'll go down to the kitchen and get you a twisty tie — you know, the ones we use for the garbage bags." Davis bolted for the stairs. Too slow. Just before he rounded the corner, a flying hairbrush smacked him in the hip. He heard the giggle, her mood having completed its one-eighty.
With no small amount of pride Davis thought, That's my daughter. Her hormones might be in a blender. But her aim was dead sure.
Ten minutes later, Jen was waiting in the car.
Davis was still in the kitchen poking buttons on the dishwasher, trying to get it out of the damned "potscrubber" cycle, when the phone rang. Davis wanted to ignore it. Should have ignored it. He picked up.
There was a pause at the other end of the line, then, "Hello, Frank."
Aside from the occasional phone solicitor or census taker — people he didn't want to talk to anyway — there was only one person in the world who called Davis by his given name. "Hello, Sparky."
Only one person in the world called Rita McCracken anything but Mrs. McCracken. Or Assistant Supervisor McCracken of the National Transportation Safety Board. Davis had given her the name on the spot when they'd first met, a not so subtle jibe at her fiery red hair. Davis often gave call signs to his friends, but in her case it was more like naming a hurricane. After first impressions had gone south, he'd kept at it just to torque her off. Not good form with the boss, but that's how Davis was. And probably why he'd never made it past the rank of major in the Air Force.
"Pack your bags," she said.
"Haven't you seen the news?"
"No, I'm a busy guy."
"Well, you just got busier. A World Express C-500 went down in France yesterday. I need you to go to Houston this afternoon for a seventy-two-hour on the captain."
Davis frowned. Much of the information gathered in aircraft accident investigations was a simple matter of reviewing records. Maintenance logbooks, flight plans, and air traffic control data were all documented, either electronically or on paper. But some of the most pertinent history was perishable — the short-term personal background of crewmembers. A seventy-two-hour look-back was standard procedure.
"You know my situation, Rita. I can't —"
"I know that you are on the 'go team,' Davis! Now pack your bags and get in here. I'll brief you myself." She hung up.
The horn honked in the garage.
Davis seethed. He had an urge to crack the phone across the counter. That would feel good. But then he'd just have to go out and buy a new one. He hurried into his room and slammed some clothes into a suitcase. As a member of the "go team" he was supposed to have his bag already packed, available on a moment's notice. One minute was all he needed. Davis traveled light.
The drive to school was quiet. Davis tried to think of a good way to break it to Jen that he had to go out of town for a couple of days. She interrupted his mission planning.
"You know, Dad, for a big-shot investigator you're not very observant."
"We need gas."
He looked down at the gauge. One eighth. Davis never filled up until he had to. "Don't worry, baby. I keep up with these things."
"Go to Mel's. It's always five cents cheaper than that other place you use."
He considered explaining that a six-pack of his preferred beer at "that other place" was a buck less, which made for a wash. Now probably wasn't the time.
She said, "I'll be driving soon, you know."
"Don't remind me."
But he was reminded — a whole new set of worries, right around the pubescent corner. Jen was going to take driver's ed over the summer, learn to merge and parallel park, keep her hands at ten and two. Right then, Davis decided he'd brake hard for any yellow traffic lights. Not step on the gas. Like she'd been watching him do for the last fifteen years.
"Your hair looks cool, Dad."
"Your hair, it's getting longer. That tight military cut was getting pretty tired."
Davis looked in the rearview mirror. He needed a trim.
Jen said, "And we still have to work on your wardrobe."
He looked down. For twenty years it had been a uniform, something he'd never really minded. One less decision each day. Now that he was a civilian, Davis tried to keep things simple. He had on khaki pants and a brown polo shirt. He owned six polo shirts. Three were in a suitcase in the trunk. His leather shoes were old and comfortable, strung with the second pair of laces. A long time ago they'd been expensive. Davis didn't mind buying expensive stuff — not because he cared a whit about style, but because it usually wore well. Fewer shopping trips.
"Maybe some baggy gangsta pants and a Hawaiian-print shirt," she prodded.
He looked at her sourly, saw the grin. "You're yankin' my chain again."
"I'm the only one who can."
He nodded. "Yep."
Davis slowed as they came to the school drop-off loop. He still hadn't thought of an easy way to break it to Jen that he had to leave town. That being the case, he laced his voice in parental graveness and just said it. "Baby, I have to go away for a couple of days on business. You'll need to stay at Aunt Laura's. I'll set everything up."
Davis looked at his daughter, expecting concern or anxiety. She looked positively giddy. He tracked her gaze to the campus entrance.
"It's Bobby Taylor!" she gushed. "Red shirt."
A tall young boy leaned on a pole. The kid was rail thin and gawky, all elbows and knees and pointed shoulders. He was cutting up with his friends.
"Did you hear me?" he asked.
"What? Oh, yeah. You gotta go away." She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. "Have a good time, Daddy."
"A good time? It's a crash investigation."
"Oh, right. Well, you'll figure it out, Daddy. You always do."
Davis watched his daughter get out of the car like she was arriving at the Academy Awards. "Aunt Laura will pick you up," he called out. The door closed in his face and Jen gave a finger wave behind her back. She strutted by the Taylor kid like a runway model.
If he looks at her butt, Davis thought, I'll break his skinny neck.CHAPTER 2
The Headquarters of the NTSB was centrally located, two blocks from the National Mall in L'Enfant Plaza. It was very nearly, and perhaps should have been, in the shadow of the FAA building, a far more imposing mountain of gray roughly a block away. The NTSB structure was demure by D.C. standards, a modernist undertaking rife with raw concrete and glass that blended to the point of invisibility among an ocean of the same. Unpretentious and anonymous. Which suited Davis just fine.
He crossed the lobby, his soft soles having minimal impact on an overpolished marble floor. Davis approached the elevator just as the door slid open. A pair of men had been waiting — perfectly Windsored ties, starch-stiffened collars, venti Starbucks lattes. They stepped inside and turned toward the opening, gave him an inquisitive look.
Davis shook his head. "No thanks, guys."
As soon as the door closed, Davis hit the adjacent stairwell and started out hard, taking three steps at a time. On the fifth floor he burst into the hallway and checked the numbers over the elevator. Just passing four. Davis grinned.
He turned into the office labeled ASSISTANT DIRECTOR MCCRACKEN. Davis passed the vacant receptionist's desk and walked straight into his boss's office without knocking.
It was a room Davis had never liked, the furniture more expensive and plush than a mid-level bureaucrat deserved. Rita McCracken, all five feet two of her, was standing behind her desk trimming perfectly green foliage from a leggy, anemic-looking indoor plant. Davis knew she fancied herself as something of a gardener, but he pictured her as one of those people whose time in the yard was all digging and cutting and pulling things up by the roots. More anger management than horticulture.
She dumped her clippings in the trash, stashed the clippers, and then planted herself in an oversized leather chair. When McCracken looked up, she didn't bother with a greeting. "What have you heard about the crash?" she asked.
"There was a short blurb on NPR as I drove in. Not much in the way of details."
She held out a collection of faxes. Davis took them and began skimming as he sat down. He'd been working under McCracken for two years now, ever since retiring from the Air Force and hiring on with the NTSB. They had never gotten along. She was a baseline feminist, a red-headed locomotive who didn't think much of ex-fighter pilots. And Davis didn't think much of fifty-something bureaucrats who'd never had their hand on a control stick, but were sure you could find the cause to any crash by organizing the right ad hoc committee.
"The lead page is a twenty-four-hour update," she said. "A C-500, near Lyon, France. It went straight down from thirty-eight thousand."
Davis scanned the cover document. There wasn't much. The aircraft in question was brand new, a factory delivery for World Express, one of the three big overnight package delivery companies.
She said, "The second page is a plot of the radar data. From the first sign of trouble to estimated impact, not much more than two minutes. This thing fell like a brick. The air traffic controllers heard one 'Mayday' on the way down, but that was it."
He looked over the data. Radar stuff was okay, but incomplete. It was essentially a series of snapshots — Davis had always likened it to those clay animation movies where the character movement was so awkward and choppy. The data flow had stopped abruptly as the aircraft dove through ten thousand feet. Which was odd. "Do you have any pictures?" he asked.
McCracken pulled an eight-by-ten from her desk. "This just came in, commercial satellite imagery. It won't tell you much."
Davis stared intently at the photograph. It was grainy, but right away told him a lot. A lot that didn't make sense.
"It hit in a farmer's field," McCracken declared.
Davis took his eyes off the photograph. "There were just two pilots on board? No mechanics or lawyers?"
"Lawyers? Why on earth would there be lawyers?"
"It was a delivery from the factory. Sometimes the airlines and manufacturers sign the papers airborne, once they're over international waters — big tax breaks."
"No. Two pilots. Both fatalities," she said matter-of-factly. "Their licenses and medicals are there."
Davis shuffled through and found two FAA pilot's licenses, two airman medical certificates. The faxes were simple reproductions of the original boilerplate documents, what the FAA spit out at a rate of 180,000 every year. Properly trimmed and with the right bond, the medical certificates could have passed as originals. It had always amazed him — you couldn't get into Sam's Club without a photo ID, yet to command an airliner with five hundred passengers or tons of hazardous cargo, all you needed were two documents any bozo could replicate on a home computer.
He studied it all. The captain was a guy named Earl Moore, Houston address. Forty-two years old, six foot one, one hundred ninety pounds. Airline transport pilot with five type ratings, including the C-500. First officer Melinda Hendricks, Dallas. Thirty-six, five foot five, weighing in at one twenty. ATP, typed on the Boeing 737 and C-500. Standard stuff.
Excerpted from Fly by Wire by Ward Larsen. Copyright © 2010 Ward Larsen. Excerpted by permission of Oceanview Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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