A blog where Stephanie M. Belser test-drives her fictional stories.
Expect the occasional
"stall, spin, crash & burn".

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Aluminum Rain, Pt. II

My client was an elderly gent named James Bell.  He was related to Alexander Graham Bell, his father had been either a cousin or grand-nephew of the inventor.  James Bell was wealthy, not just rich.  He had money managers who looked after his investments.  This Bell was a patron of the musical arts and, in his youth, had been both a musician of some note and had helped jazz cross over into a higher level of society.  More to my concern, he was a great-uncle of Loftus.  I went to see him the day after I talked to Dr. Durden.

Bell was a cave-dweller, his family had lived in northwest D.C. for a few generations.  He lived in a brick townhouse, but not one that shared walls with neighbors.  His butler showed me into the parlor, which had a Steinway baby-grand piano.  Bell was noodling along at something.  The butler showed me to a seat and whispered that I was to wait until Mr. Bell finished whatever he was doing.  I didn’t recognize the tune he was playing.  It was clear that Bell was talented.

“Damn,” he exclaimed and then stood up, holding some sheet music.  He took it to a desk, worked at it with an eraser, then picked up a pencil and entered some new notation on the sheet.  When he finished, he looked up.  “Ah, Mr. Hawkins.   You have news.”

“Yes, sir, I do.  The NTSB will conclude that Mr. Loftus’s airplane came apart in flight because of flutter in the right aileron.  The designer of the airplane, Dr. Durden, stated that he had performed flutter analysis up to 450MPH, which is far faster than the airplane should have flown.  Durden also said that he was familiar with your nephew’s airplane, that the airplane was built in compliance with the plans and that there should not have been any flutter.”

“What is flutter?”

I thought for a few seconds.  “Mr. Bell, have you ever seen ribbons tied to a fan and noticed how the ends wave very quickly?”

“You don’t see ribbons on fans anymore, but when I was younger, that was a popular decoration, so yes, I have.”

“The ends of the ribbons are fluttering.  The engineers call it ‘aeroelasticity’, the ends of the ribbon are not stable in the air-stream of the fan, so they flutter back and forth.  The same can happen to the control surfaces of an airplane if they are not set correctly, only instead of a fabric ribbon vibrating, you have structures made of aluminum or magnesium alloys vibrating like they were made of rubber.

“According to some of the literature, the pilot might feel a buzzing in the controls.  Once flutter sets in, a pilot may have only a few seconds to react before parts start falling from the airplane.  If the pilot doesn’t do something fast to change the aerodynamics of the airplane, usually by slowing down rapidly, then he and his machine are doomed.

“The NTSB report will state that your nephew knew something was wrong and that he tried to make an emergency landing.  However, the airplane disintegrated in flight.  Mr. Loftus had no chance to survive.”

“I see.  Could someone have arranged for the airplane to flutter apart?”

I didn’t have to think about that.  “It’s possible.”

“If someone arranged for this, I want to know who was responsible.  Please continue your inquiries, Mr. Hawkins.”

“Of course, Mr. Bell.”  I stood up.  “I will keep you apprised of my findings.”

“Very well.”  He bent his head back to his desk and resumed working on his musical score.  I showed myself out.

My next stop was the library.  I check there when the new periodical indexes are published.  I have a small case of index cards in my car for all of my open cases, so I can quickly refresh my memory and then search to see if anything new has been published.  There were a few new articles on some of the matters.  Business Week had a story that mentioned Loftus, I got the copy of the issue from the magazine file and sat down for a read.

The story wasn’t all about Loftus.  The article was a series of cautionary tales about the need for businessmen and entrepreneurs to have good estate plans and buy-sell agreements.  The writer noted that Loftus didn’t and that, due to peculiarities regarding one of Loftus’s business ventures, his business partner and his widow were engaged in some nasty litigation.  The article didn’t say what the fight was about.

I drove out to Tyson’s Corner.   My destination was a seriously nondescript office building.  That’s where I maintained my office of record.  I said hello to the receptionist, Angela Watson, collected my phone messages from her and went to my little cubbyhole.  The phone messages were almost always garbage.  I unlocked the door to my office, turned on the lights and started the computer.  I had a deal with a law firm to be on their accounts for Lexis-Nexis.  I didn’t use it often, it wasn’t cheap, but there were times when it was worth it.

This was one of those times.  There were several stories in the Cleveland and Akron papers about the crash of Loftus’s airplane and the litigation that followed as a result.  Loftus had remarried a few years before; his new will cut out his children entirely in favor of his new wife and her children by two previous marriages.  There apparently were enough irregularities about the will that Loftus’s own kids had sued over the will.

There was a second set of lawsuits going on.  Loftus’s agreement with his business partner for the rent-to-own stores had a buy-sell provision that kicked in for the death of one of the owner.  The weirdness of it was that if one partner died in the first five years of the business, the other partner got it all.  The surviving partner, Junior Manno, had explained that provision was because they thought that it would take at least that long for the business to be profitable.  Instead, the business had been profitable within six months of starting up.  Loftus had been killed four years and seven months after the agreements had been signed.  By that time, they had opened twenty rent-to-own stores and they were making money like they had a printing press in the basement.

The “grieving” widow was outraged that she didn’t inherit Loftus’s interest in the rent-to-own operation, so she was suing Junior for fraud and some other dubious claims.  One of the reporters noted that while Manno wasn’t born with the given name of Junior, so many people had called him that, that he legally changed first name.  The judge hadn’t been happy with that, Manno had to produce a stream of witnesses who had known him for years and who had no idea what name was on his birth certificate.

While it was probably all nice and juicy material, there seemed to be little point in reading the litigation case files.  I now had four suspects: Loftus’s two adult children, the grieving widow and his business partner.  The children were less likely, but I couldn’t rule them out.

*          *          *

The credit checks arrived within the following week.  The material on Shirley Annabelle Alson Deakin Carraway O’Shaunessy Loftus was interesting, to say the least.  She was on her fourth marriage.  I mentally sighed, for now I would need to learn the details of how her previous marriages had ended.   The report indicated that she had filed for bankruptcy three times before.  If credit ratings had negative numbers, she’d have one of those.  Manno’s personal credit was tolerable, but he had one past business that went into Chapter 7 bankruptcy and another that had been through Chapter 11.

The ones on the two adult children, Christopher and Sheila L. Starke, were good reports.  That didn’t eliminate them as suspects, but it pushed them down on my likeliness scale.

I also needed to go at it from the other end.  I dug out Hendrickson’s business card and called him.  After the usual and customary exchange of bullshit pleasantries, he asked me what he could do for me.

“Do you have the maintenance logs for the airplane?”

“We do.”

“Good.  I’d like the names of everyone, other than Loftus, who worked on the airplane, please.”

“You know that another mechanic could have worked on it and not been the one to sign it off?”

I thought about that for a few seconds.  “If he had an independent mechanic working on it, then that guy would have signed it off.  But if he took it to a shop, then the shop just would have used their people, correct?”


“If the aircraft was worked on at a shop, do you have or can you get the names of the mechanics who worked there at the time?

Now it was Hendrickson’s term to think for a few seconds.  “If we don’t have that information, I’m sure that we can get it.  It would be pertinent.”

"Did Loftus have a repairman’s ticket for the airplane?"

“He did.”  Repairman’s licenses are issued for experimental airplanes to the one person who does most of the work.  The licensee essentially becomes a licensed mechanic for just that one airplane.  That Loftus had one indicated that the FAA was satisfied that he was the actual builder of his airplane and that he hadn’t hired a mechanic to ghost-build it for him.

“Great, thanks for your help.”

“No problem.”  Hendrickson hung up.  I thought it to be a safe bet that the NTSB people normally weren’t this helpful.  They were either being persuaded to help by Mr. Bell’s rather weighty connections or, if at least in part, they thought something was fishy about the crash.

*          *          *

It took about three weeks to receive the information from the NTSB.  Hendrickson came through, he sent the employee rosters for Airdock Airmotive Corp., which ran a maintenance operation at the airport in Akron, Ohio.  I ordered credit checks on all of them.  While it could be that there was another motive at work, greed was often good for a motive.  If Loftus’s airplane had been sabotaged, it would have taken someone who knew what they were doing.

All this was costing Bell a pretty penny.  I sent detailed billing statements to him.  He paid promptly.  All clients are created equal, but some are more equal than others.  Those who paid their bills on time certainly were.

The credit checks for the mechanics were interesting.  More than a few of them were in some degree of financial trouble.  The `87 crash and the `91 recession apparently played havoc with the amount of work available.

One stood out: Rusty Holton.  He had two past bankruptcies.  In between bankruptcies, he took advantage of the bottom-feeding credit card companies which give credit to people emerging from bankruptcy, because the credit-card issuers know that those folks can’t file for another five years.  Holton had filed five years and two months after coming out of bankruptcy.  His credit had been a mess.  But then, a little over four months ago, he paid off his balances on all of his cards.  His mortgage was caught up.  For the last three months, he had barely used his credit cards.  Before then, he was a man who had lived from them, making minimum payments and struggling to not go over the limits.

From the financial data in the reports, there was no way he could have paid all of that off on his paycheck.  The money had to have come from somewhere.  That didn’t mean that he had done something wrong, of course.  For all I knew, a beloved great-aunt had died and left him a substantial bequest.  He could have hit a lottery prize large enough to settle his debts, but small enough to not be of interest to the press.  He could have settled a legal claim or sold some stock.

I’m not a big believer in coincidence.

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