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Where the Evidence Lies (A Mulholland / Strand Magazine Short)

Jeffery Deaver

  Where the Evidence Lies

  Jeffery Deaver

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  Where the Evidence Lies

  Jeffery Deaver

  “Mayday, mayday. This is Horizonjet Eight Five Eight Four on IFR from Miami to Rio de Janero. Do you read me, San Juan Center?”

  “Go ahead, Five Eight Four. San Juan Center.”

  “I’m descending through nine thousand feet. Not sure where—Hell, losing power. I’m declaring an emergency.”

  “Roger, Five Eight Four. We have you. Do you want vector to Muñoz Marín airport?”

  “Let me…I’ll get this under control. Yes, vectors to airport.”

  “San Juan Center to Five Eight Four. We’re holding arrivals and departures. We’re vectoring now…What’s the nature of your emergency?”

  “Power loss. Fire, I think. There was a bang, it sounded like. Aft. I’m—I’m, okay, descending fast through seven thousand feet. I don’t know.”

  “We have your position, Five Eight Four. We’re vectoring you to—”

  “Descending…I can’t slow rate of descent. Through five thousand feet. Not responsive. How far am I from the airport?”

  “You’re twenty-two miles from airport, Five Eight Four. Can you make it?”


  “All right. We’re alerting Coast Guard air-sea rescue. They’re getting your position, Five Eight Four.”

  “Jesus. Descending through one thousand. Rate’s too high. No power. I—”

  “Five Eight Four? Do you copy?…Do you copy?…Any traffic in area north of Marín airport, ten miles out, do you see any sign of an aircraft down?”

  Eastern Dade Airport was a small facility near the Atlantic Ocean. It featured a runway, about three thousand feet long, big enough for small jets, though the majority of the two dozen planes parked on the tarmac were one- and two-engine props. Mangroves, royal palm, cabbage palm, live oak, gumbo-limbo, and West Indian mahogany, as well as orchids, bromeliads, and ferns surrounded the area. Lincoln Rhyme, on his way to the airport, spotted an alligator.

  “Look. Well,” he said to Amelia Sachs, his partner—in both the professional and personal senses. She’d leaned over his wheelchair in the accessible van and gazed at the shallow canal in which a bored-looking gator sat in the humid heat, seemingly too tired to even think about chomping down whatever bored-looking gators normally ate.

  His caregiver, Thom Reston, drove the van in a slow circle around this part of the field until Rhyme told him to stop.

  Sachs said, “There’s a rumor they have those in the sewers of New York, you know. Parents buy them for kids and then flush them down the toilet.”

  “Really?” Rhyme said. The details of the flora and fauna of this part of the state grew less interesting, as his mind had already drifted elsewhere. His eyes took in the airfield once more.

  The three of them were en route to the airport, because a detective with the local sheriff’s department had approached Rhyme after one of his lectures in the county building and asked for some help. Paul Gillette was a trim forty-five-year-old with impressive posture, a hairstyle that an army major would have sported, and a face that seemed incapable of smiling. But he had revealed a droll sense of humor when, as a thank-you for the lecture, he gave Rhyme the choice between a coupon to the local Red Lobster or an incident report on a local businessman who’d just died in what might or might not have been an accidental plane crash.

  Rhyme had replied, “Hmm. Murdered crustacean or murdered human. I’ll pick the latter.” He’d turned to Amelia. “You up for that, Sachs?”

  “Sure. Nothing pressing back in New York.”

  So Rhyme agreed to stay for an extra day or two and help out on the Stephen Nash homicide investigation. Besides, he’d enjoyed the trip here and had for the first time tasted stone crabs. Quite the delicacy. And the rum in Florida seemed better than the rum anywhere else but the Bahamas.

  At Rhyme’s direction, Thom now piloted the accessible van into the airport itself and aimed for the unmarked police car at the far end of the field.

  According to Gillette, there had been a possible explosion in Nash’s plane midflight. A bomb was suspected, though a mechanical malfunction could have been the cause of the crash. As they were driving in, Rhyme noted that it was unlikely that a bomber could have breached the perimeter fence and not been spotted. Or injured—the fence was topped with razor wire. There were also cameras, facing down and out. That meant if anybody did get in to plant the bomb it was most likely—not certain, but likely—an inside job.

  They drove to the one hangar at the airport, on the far eastern edge. It was a small structure, windowless and doorless at the rear—facing the water—and open at the other end. Presumably so that the relentless wind from the Atlantic, not far away, wouldn’t blast the aircraft and workers inside.

  Thom parked near the squad car and he, Rhyme and Sachs exited the van and met the detective on the tarmac. A fierce storm had descended upon the area yesterday; it had passed, but the wind still buffeted those present. Rhyme brushed his dark hair from his eyes with his one working limb and fingers, his right.

  “Thanks again, Mr. Rhyme. Detective Sachs.”

  “‘Lincoln’ and ‘Amelia’ are fine. What was the aircraft?”

  “One of those new ones, personal jets. Horizonjet, twin engine, mounted in the rear. Real small, seats four.”

  “Nobody else on board?”

  “No. For those planes you don’t need a copilot. The autopilot’s so good; they do most of the work.”

  He added that this secure area was owned by Southern Flight Services, a fixed base operator—a company that provided ground services to upscale private pilots.

  Rhyme was familiar with such operations from a prior case, and he noted that this was a shoestring FBO. There was only one jet and two twin-engine prop planes parked here now. And they were covered with leaf-strewn tarps. It seemed they’d been there for a long time.

  “So, Lincoln, we’ve kept the scene secure. What equipment do you need? I’ll call forensics and get you whatever. We’ve got some pretty good stuff.”

  Rhyme was looking at the dim hanger. Good. Concrete floors, which would retain footprints. And it looked like the place hadn’t been swept for a week. Any trace would still be there. “Where exactly was the plane?”

  Gillette pointed to the middle of the rain-soaked tarmac.

  “It wasn’t in the hangar?” Sachs asked.


  “At any time?”


  Rhyme grimaced. The storm would have destroyed any evidence of anybody planting a bomb on the airplane—tread marks would have been the best source of information. But trace evidence, too. The bomber—if there was a bomber—might have shed trace evidence.

  The storm, which Rhyme remembered clearly, had not exactly been a hurricane, but the winds had been close to sixty miles an hour and the rain had fallen for hours.

  He gave a sour laugh. “I’m sorry, Detective. But there’s nothing left. Weather is one of the worst con
taminators of crime scenes. This storm now’d be enough to destroy all the trace. Yesterday’s downpour? Nothing’d survive.”


  Sachs laughed. “Thought he was a miracle worker, hmm?”

  “Guess I kind of did. Your lectures were pretty damn impressive.”

  Still, Rhyme reflected, this was only a secondary crime scene. The more important one was the plane itself. However powerful the improvised explosive device had been, it would have left bits of trace on the wreckage of the plane that had been recovered. There would be fingerprints, possibly, chemical residue profiling, even a bomb maker’s signature—a unique construction pattern that ties a bomb to its builder.

  Rhyme explained this to Gillette.

  “Ah, well, that’s the problem, Mr.…That’s the problem, Lincoln. The plane didn’t break up. Whatever the explosion was, it didn’t blow the plane up, just destroyed the flight controls. The plane hit the water but stayed intact and sank.”

  “Well, that’s okay. Water won’t necessarily destroy any evidence.” He frowned. “Unless you don’t know where it is.”

  “Oh, we do.”


  “Not really. It’s at the bottom of the Puerto Rican Trench.”

  “I don’t know what that is.”

  “The deepest part of the Atlantic Ocean. About twenty-eight thousand feet under water. Twice as deep as the Titanic. We can’t raise the plane. And there’s no way to get to where the evidence lies.”

  That’s the problem, Lincoln ...

  They had moved into the hangar to get out of the wind.

  The place was deserted at the moment. “I’m not sure how I can help you, Detective. You’re asking my advice on a case where there’s no evidence. My expertise is forensics.”

  “I heard your lectures, Lincoln. You’ve got a mind that’s, well, like nobody else’s. I was hoping you could just give us your insights. The NTSB will be here tomorrow. I was hoping we could have something to tell them.”

  Sachs turned to Rhyme with a smile. “You like your challenges, Rhyme. Doesn’t get any more challenging than this.”

  She had a point there.

  And what could it hurt?

  He shrugged, one of the few physical gestures he was capable of. “All right, we’ll give it a shot. Now, any witnesses to the crash itself?”

  “A container ship, not too far away. All they saw was the plane come in and crash-land and go under before any doors opened. They changed course and steamed over to the spot. But there was nothing there—just a little oil.”

  “Ah, oil?” Then he frowned. “But they wouldn’t have collected it. It’s all gone now.”

  “I’d guess,” Gillette said. “And the way the currents run, the Coast Guard was sure the plane was five miles down in about a half hour. They had search-and-rescue combing the area, but no sign of anything.”

  “Do you have the last transmission?”

  “Sure. On my computer. I’ll get it.”

  He went out to his car and returned a minute later. He called up an audio file of the exchange between Nash and air traffic control.

  Those in the hangar remained silent as they listened to the tragedy unfolding. Gillette shut it off.

  “Okay. Well, I think a preliminary question is: why don’t you think it was an accident? Nash didn’t mention a bomb. He just said ‘bang.’”

  “Sure, it could’ve been a malfunction. But I’m suspicious by nature. And I looked into Nash’s life last night. He had enemies.”

  Who doesn’t? Rhyme thought.

  “Now, there’s an ex. Sally Nash. Divorced two years and under a restraining order. She’s still ‘Nash’—kept her married name. Never let go.”

  Rhyme asked, “He had an affair? He dumped her?”

  “Nope. The other way around. She cheated on him, and when he found out he filed for divorce. Pissed her off. Go figure. Oh and the judge kicked out her request for alimony—yeah, she asked. So she wasn’t a happy camper.”

  “Any threats?”

  “From time to time. Never amounted to much. But he called us a few times to have the deputies go out there and remind her of the restraining order.”

  “Okay. An angry ex. Who else?”

  “Nash was in a dispute with his business partner. After he found the man was talking to competitors. At least, those were the facts in court. It was for a few million dollars, but at a level I’m not sure that’s worth killing somebody for.”

  “Angry ex–business partner.”

  “What was his business…Nash’s?” Sachs asked.

  Gillette chuckled. “I really couldn’t tell you. He owned companies that made components that went into other components. Apparently he was pretty good at coming up with parts like that. Components. Nothing sexy. But he made a ton of money.”

  “Any other suspects?” she asked.

  “He’d had problems with a stalker. A woman he dated. Her story is she’s sort of a gold digger—do you still say that nowadays? Anyway, he walked away, and she threatened him a few times. Attacked him once, but it was more throwing a glass of wine in his face at a fancy restaurant than blowing him up.”

  “Bad choices with the ladies, it seems,” Sachs offered.

  Gillette continued, “And Nash was serving on a grand jury in Orlando, and so we wondered if that exposed him to threats. But they were pretty mundane cases. Mugging, some drug cases. Lot of them. But low level. Real low. Getting a bomb into a plane? I looked at the indictments and it just didn’t fit.”

  “No obvious motive,” Sachs said. “And stalkers and exes—ex-wives, that is—don’t really have much access to IED makers. But you can find just about anything on the Internet nowadays. Maybe the most likely explanation is mechanical failure.”

  “Should say we’re exploring that with the manufacturer. They’re going to run some simulations. They weren’t optimistic about finding anything, not without the plane. I checked all of those folks out and nobody was in town yesterday.”

  Rhyme then asked, “Assuming there was an IED, why do you think it was planted here? Not where the flight originated?”

  “Security in Orlando’s a lot tighter than here. That’s where Nash keeps the plane. Same at Miami. Even the private aviation areas are swept with dogs and explosives detectors. Here—well, like I said, deputies make the rounds occasionally and that’s it.”

  “Let’s go through the details of how somebody could’ve gotten an IED on board.”

  He wheeled to the front of the hangar and looked out over the tarmac, the chain-link fence, the buildings on the other side of the highway.

  Gillette explained: In the short time Nash’s jet had been parked here, there had been only four people inside the fenced area, with access to it. Three employees of the FBO and the deputy making his semidaily security check, though the man checked the buildings and gates only, not the aircraft. Besides, Gillette knew him personally and could vouch for him.

  “That video?” Rhyme said, nodding at a camera on a tall pole in front of the hangar. Another was nearby. “We may have some forensics after all.”

  But no such luck. The detective reported the cameras were trained only at the taxiway and the road approaches to this portion of the field, not the tarmac itself. The cameras were aimed at the area in front of the FBO; the plane was not in view. They knew no one had entered through the gate or jumped over the chain, but they had no way of knowing if anyone had actually approached the aircraft.

  “What was the exact timing?” Sachs asked.

  “The employees arrived between seven and eight. Nash landed at eight ten. He came into view on the camera at the gate about eight thirty, met a cab. He met with his lawyer and they left together. We checked out the cabbie—and he’s legit. The video showed he didn’t get out of the taxi. Then the deputy making the rounds for security arrived at the FBO about nine ten and was seen walking away around nine thirty. Nash returned at ten thirty, and the plane took off a half hour later. Cabbie stayed i
nside his car again the whole time, and nobody got out with Nash.”

  “How hard would it be to turn a video camera on the tarmac, hmm?” Sachs asked wryly. “The good news, I guess, is that at least we can limit the number of suspects to the three employees.”

  “Tell me about them,” Rhyme asked. He gave a sour laugh. “Since that’s the only so-called evidence we have to work with.”

  The detective pulled out a notebook. “Same staff here today was here yesterday. The manager of the FBO is Anita Sanchez. Forty-two, married. Joey Wilson runs the refueling truck. Twenty-eight. Single. Busted twice for pot. No biggie. And Mark Clinton is the mechanic. He’s fifty, divorced. Iraq veteran. There’re other mechanics, but they weren’t working this week. Been a slow time, apparently. Aside from the grass, none of them have any convics. None of them have any connection with Nash, either. He lives in Orlando. Flies through here occasionally—to meet with his lawyer and banker, like he did yesterday. And as far as I can tell, Nash never had any disputes with anybody here at the field.”

  Rhyme said, “No, if any of them planted the IED, it was because they got paid to do it. Or extorted into it.”

  “And,” Sachs added, “they’d all know airplanes and know exactly where to put in a bomb to do the most damage.”

  “They would, I’d imagine. How do you want to proceed, Lincoln?”

  “I’ll talk to them. I’m going to treat them as witnesses. Put them at ease. We’ll tell them we don’t suspect them, but I’ll hint we’re suspicious of the deputy who made the security rounds. What’s his name?”

  “Cable. Jim Cable.”

  “They’ll get the idea that Cable’s the main suspect. And we hope they can help us describe what they saw, if he went up to the plane. What they saw him do. If one of them’s the guilty party, he—or she—will try to solidify the case against the cop or at least deflect attention from themselves. I’ll try to catch them in a lie.” Rhyme considered what he’d said. He laughed.

  Gillette regarded him with a raised brow of curiosity.

  “It’s the opposite of what we normally do. I get a bit of evidence and try to find the truth. Now I’m trying to find the lie.” He smiled at the pun, thinking of Gillette’s comment.