Dominic Roo and the Missing Shipwreck (chapter six)

(Jump to: Chapter One, Chapter Two, Chapter Three, Chapter Four, Chapter Five)

Chapter Six

Tuesday

Dom continued his story, watching Fred’s face. “Mr. Cain flew here from Detroit on a Tuesday morning. Very early on a very gloomy morning, when it was unlikely he would be observed.  He took on fuel — to suggest a reason for stopping here, I suppose — and then started his airplane and taxied toward the runway, passing several rows of hangars as he did so.  It so happened that as he moved in this direction, you — in your own airplane — were taxing away from this very hangar, leaving the door open.”

“As you taxied on toward the runway, Mr. Cain taxied his airplane down this very lane, to this open door, shut down the engine, and pushed his airplane into your open hangar.  You did not witness this, as you were in the process of taking off and picking up an IFR clearance from Great Lakes approach.  But here we cross an important line.  You identified yourself to ATC as Cessna 5559B — Mr. Cain’s airplane.”  Fred appeared to waver and reached out a hand to steady himself against the airplane.  “In fact, you continued the flight toward Minneapolis which he had begun, following his planned course and flying at his planned altitude.  In short, you impersonated Mr. Cain flying Mr. Cain’s airplane, and there was no way for ATC to recognize the deception.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Fred said, shaking his head, a tight smile on his face.

Dom ignored him and continued.  “As you may recall, after climbing to your assigned altitude and reaching the midpoint of your flight across Lake Michigan, you reduced throttle and began to descend, very much as an airplane without a working engine would descend.  You transmitted one distress call — doing an unsatisfactory job of disguising your voice, by the way — and glided down, nearer and nearer the surface of the lake until, reaching an altitude below radar coverage, you turned off your transponder.  In the eyes of ATC, you disappeared, having apparently ditched in a very deep part of the lake and, very possibly, having sunk without a trace.”

“But leaving no trace leads to awkward questions.  The right kind of trace would serve your purposes far better, and so I think that you had prepared a tool for this purpose — a very simple but effective tool.  The world is full of garbage bags.  They do a remarkable job of collecting miscellaneous objects and substances and keeping them in a neat package.  Imagine a garbage bag containing a goodly number of documents belonging to Mr. Benjamin Cain and his aircraft.  Further, imagine that this garbage bag contained a quantity of aviation oil and fuel.  If the contents of that bag were released over the water, it might support the idea that a particular airplane had crashed and sunk in that location, don’t you think?”

Fred scoffed, “It would look like a bag full of trash had been dropped in the water, that’s all.”

“If the materials stayed in the bag, yes.  That would raise the wrong questions, but imagine if a rope had been tied to the bottom of the bag and the bag then turned inside-out before it was filled.  Such a bag, held by its rope and passed through the open window, would immediately burst open, releasing its contents in a convincing pattern.  The bag could then be pulled back into the airplane.  At worst, it would break free of the rope and then sink or perhaps float away.”

“Ah, I see you glancing at the wall, Fred, and I did the same.  That very rope would suit the purpose admirably, wouldn’t it?  In fact, a fragment of the garbage bag is still present, captured within the knot.  The knot itself and several inches of rope near it are also stained with an oily substance.  Quite a coincidence, don’t you think?”

Dom studied Fred’s face for a moment then said, “Well, let’s move on.  The task of flying low over the lake is not trivial, but not so difficult for a skilled pilot.  He might well continue even so far as to this airport without identification by radar or the human eye, remembering that his transponder has been turned off and that he flies an indirect path over uninhabited areas.  In fact, I think that is what he did.”

“Meanwhile, let’s say that Mr. Cain has been busy.  As you recall, he has quickly moved his airplane into your hangar and closed and locked the door.  He then begins the process of using your air compressor to apply paint remover to the airplane, especially the tail numbers.  He does not need to do a good job; just good enough to scrape away the patina of his very nice paint job and make it look like a project airplane.  In fact, rather like your own project airplane, which was — as you know — the same model.”

“Now, what is an airplane?  In the eyes of the FAA, the very soul of an airplane is the data plate: that little metal rectangle on the tail which identifies its model and serial number.  I notice that the data plate attached to this airplane matches the serial number of your project airplane.  I also notice that the four rivets used to secure the data plate to the airplane are not of the type used by the factory.”

“That is a curious coincidence, made even more curious by the fact that, in the woods behind your home, we find several airplane parts that match your project airplane, including an airplane tail from which the data plate has been removed.  I think that data plate ended up here, Fred.  In fact, I think we are looking at Mr. Cain’s airplane, which we had supposed to be lost at sea.”

Walt’s eyes grew more focused and he turned to Fred, who again muttered, “This is ridiculous.”  Just then, the deep whoosh of a large motor became audible, grew in intensity, and suddenly ceased.  A moment later, the bright doorway darkened, the sun eclipsed by the shape of a large man. 

“Well, howdy, boys”, the police officer said, stepping into the hangar.

“Hey, Mike”, Roo said.  “I was just telling a story that may interest you.”  Dom turned again toward Fred.  “Well, so far we have a collaboration.  Mr. Cain seems to have been a willing party to your impersonation and to the changes made to his own airplane — and yours.  I think he was even a willing party to what came next — his entry into the trunk of your car.”

Here, the police officer stiffened and looked at Fred.

“Now, why would he do that?” Roo continued.  “Why would he be a part of any of the events I have described?  I believe that Mr. Cain had offended powerful friends and decided it might be safer to disappear.  His thought, I take it, was to cooperate in his own apparent death and then, once he was officially deceased and all financial benefits had been transferred to his wife, he would compel her to support him, perhaps by suggesting she was a party to his fraud.”

Mike gave a low whistle, which Dom ignored.

“But we have another motive at play.  Our friend Fred was a long-time admirer of Mrs. Cain — now known as Miss Sayers.  Fred was aware of Mr. Cain’s unsavory character and perhaps suspected some mistreatment of Mrs. Cain.  Perhaps he was even interested in renewing his friendship with Mrs. Cain.  It thus occurred to him that he might make a small improvement to the plan he had worked out with Mr. Cain, and that improvement was the actual — and not only apparent — decease of Mr. Cain.”

Fred jerked and glanced toward the door.

“So we have Mr. Cain stepping willingly into the trunk, ready to be spirited away from his troubles.  But Fred had provided himself with a hose — very like this one, by the way”, Roo said, lifting the hose from its nail on the wall.  “Note that it fits easily over a car’s tailpipe and even shows signs of being partially melted, as if by the heat of exhaust.  Note also that it is long enough to reach easily to the trunk, where it can be wedged and caused to pump carbon monoxide inside.”

Officer Mike noticed Fred’s shifting feet and moved closer to the hangar door.

“Now, Mr. Cain, smelling the exhaust and noting that the car was not moving, sensed a problem.  Here he lay, trapped inside a car which was locked inside a hangar, and he realized he was being slowly poisoned.  He did what any of us would do.  He pounded with his hands and feet  in a desperate effort to free himself or get help.  Even now, on Fred’s trunk, we find dents, pushed out from the inside, perhaps by Mr. Cain’s feet.  The trunk lid has been slightly deformed, perhaps by the violence of Mr. Cain’s protests, and it will no longer close without further violence.”

Fred could take no more.  “Nonsense!”, he screamed.  “This is slander!  That’s it.  I’m leaving!” and he started for the door.

Walt nodded to the officer and said,  “Mike, I’m with the NTSB and I want this man detained, if you would, please.  If he refuses, I want him placed under arrest in connection with the murder of Benjamin Cain.”

Fred looked at the imposing blue figure who had stepped in front of the door and suddenly deflated.  “All right”, he said, “but I had nothing to do with it.”

The officer took him by the arm and they moved awkwardly out of the hangar.  Dom looked back at Walt.  “The damage to Fred’s trunk was, by the way, one of two things that caught my attention.  The other, we see here, inside the airplane.  Although Fred changed the color of the original instrument panel, he kept this instrument which, as you can see, is damaged in a distinctive way.  It was Miss Sayers’ shocked recognition of this instrument — which she knew to be from her husband’s airplane — which began Fred’s undoing.” 

“So, Cain died in the trunk?”

“I think so, yes. Fred, quite literally, spirited Mr. Cain away from his many troubles.  The body might be found in Fred’s woods, but that’s only a guess.”

Tuesday

Dom and Walt met in the parking lot and walked into the airport office.

“Walt, this is Julie”, Dom said, gesturing toward the receptionist.

“Hello!”, Walt said, holding up his badge for her inspection.  “My name is Walt Peters, I’m with the NTSB.  May I please have the key for hangar D5?”

Julie stared at him for a moment, then walked stiffly to the key box, picked a key off the hook and handed it to him.

“And, if you would, please don’t mention this to anyone.  In fact, if Fred should happen to appear before we leave, would you please dial this number?”

“Uh…, sure”, she said, puzzled, and took his card.

“It’s OK, Julie”, Dom said.  “We’ll just be a few minutes, and, by the way, were any airplanes from Fred’s hangar row in for maintenance in March, two years ago?”

Julie held up a finger and turned toward her desk.  Walt said, “Why would we care about that?”

Instead of answering, Dom watched as Julie flipped through a calendar.  She looked up and nodded.  “Bill was in for an annual inspection.  He’s right across from Fred.”

“Curiouser and curiouser”, Walt observed.  “I guess you’ll tell me soon enough.”

They took Walt’s car to the hangar and opened the door, turned on the lights.

“OK, Dom, what are we after?”

“Let’s get a picture of this.”  Dom pointed to the coil of hose hanging on the wall and, looking behind it, exclaimed, “Ah!  Here you are.”

“It’s a rope?”, Walt said.

“A rope with a knot at one end and a loop at the other and, inside the knot…”  He brought the rope into the light, pointed to a shred of green material trapped inside the knot. 

“It looks like plastic”, Walt said.

“Rather like the plastic used in garbage bags,” Dom said.  “And I suspect this stain around the knot will be found to contain aviation oil and fuel.”

“I don’t follow…”

“So”, Dom began, “let’s pretend…” but was interrupted by the ringing of Walt’s telephone.

“Hello…  What?  He’s where?”

The sound of squealing tires echoed through the hangar, then a car door slammed, and Fred rushed into the hangar.  “What’s going on here?” he roared.  “Who are—?”  He looked from Walt to Dom, and his eyes widened in recognition.  He raised his arm, pointed at Dom and stepped forward. “You!  What are you doing, snooping around in here?”

“Why, hello, Fred”, Dom said.  “I’m glad you’re here.  This is my friend Walt from the NTSB and in a moment we will be joined by a few other officials.  I wonder if we might have a friendly conversation before they arrive?”

Fred stopped, drew back a step.  “About what?”

“About a dark morning a couple of years ago, a very dark morning, indeed.”

“I…  I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Very well.  I was not expecting a confession.  How about this?  I’ll tell you a story, and you let me know if, at any point, it contradicts your own memories.  All right?”  Fred stared at Dom and shifted his feet but said nothing.  “The story begins with your friend, Mr. Benjamin Cain.  Not a very pleasant fellow, I understand, and he took something precious that once belonged to you.”

Dom continued his story, watching Fred’s face.  “Mr. Cain flew here from Detroit on a Tuesday morning.  Very early on a very gloomy morning, when it was unlikely he would be observed.  He took on fuel — to suggest a reason for stopping here, I suppose — and then started his airplane and taxied toward the runway, passing several rows of hangars as he did so.  It so happened that as he moved in this direction, you — in your own airplane — were taxing away from this very hangar, leaving the door open.”

“As you taxied on toward the runway, Mr. Cain taxied his airplane down this very lane, to this open door, shut down the engine, and pushed his airplane into your open hangar.  You did not witness this, as you were in the process of taking off and picking up an IFR clearance from Great Lakes approach.  But here we cross an important line.  You identified yourself to ATC as Cessna 5559B — Mr. Cain’s airplane.”  Fred appeared to waver and reached out a hand to steady himself against the airplane.  “In fact, you continued the flight toward Minneapolis which he had begun, following his planned course and flying at his planned altitude.  In short, you impersonated Mr. Cain flying Mr. Cain’s airplane, and there was no way for ATC to recognize the deception.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Fred said, shaking his head, a tight smile on his face.

Dom ignored him and continued.  “As you may recall, after climbing to your assigned altitude and reaching the midpoint of your flight across Lake Michigan, you reduced throttle and began to descend, very much as an airplane without a working engine would descend.  You transmitted one distress call — doing an unsatisfactory job of disguising your voice, by the way — and glided down, nearer and nearer the surface of the lake until, reaching an altitude below radar coverage, you turned off your transponder.  In the eyes of ATC, you disappeared, having apparently ditched in a very deep part of the lake and, very possibly, having sunk without a trace.”

“But leaving no trace leads to awkward questions.  The right kind of trace would serve your purposes far better, and so I think that you had prepared a tool for this purpose — a very simple but effective tool.  The world is full of garbage bags.  They do a remarkable job of collecting miscellaneous objects and substances and keeping them in a neat package.  Imagine a garbage bag containing a goodly number of documents belonging to Mr. Benjamin Cain and his aircraft.  Further, imagine that this garbage bag contained a quantity of aviation oil and fuel.  If the contents of that bag were released over the water, it might support the idea that a particular airplane had crashed and sunk in that location, don’t you think?”

Fred scoffed, “It would look like a bag full of trash had been dropped in the water, that’s all.”

“If the materials stayed in the bag, yes.  That would raise the wrong questions, but imagine if a rope had been tied to the bottom of the bag and the bag then turned inside-out before it was filled.  Such a bag, held by its rope and passed through the open window, would immediately burst open, releasing its contents in a convincing pattern.  The bag could then be pulled back into the airplane.  At worst, it would break free of the rope and then sink or perhaps float away.”

“Ah, I see you glancing at the wall, Fred, and I did the same.  That very rope would suit the purpose admirably, wouldn’t it?  In fact, a fragment of the garbage bag is still present, captured within the knot.  The knot itself and several inches of rope near it are also stained with an oily substance.  Quite a coincidence, don’t you think?”

Dom studied Fred’s face for a moment then said, “Well, let’s move on.  The task of flying low over the lake is not trivial, but not so difficult for a skilled pilot.  He might well continue even so far as to this airport without identification by radar or the human eye, remembering that his transponder has been turned off and that he flies an indirect path over uninhabited areas.  In fact, I think that is what he did.”

“Meanwhile, let’s say that Mr. Cain has been busy.  As you recall, he has quickly moved his airplane into your hangar and closed and locked the door.  He then begins the process of using your air compressor to apply paint remover to the airplane, especially the tail numbers.  He does not need to do a good job; just good enough to scrape away the patina of his very nice paint job and make it look like a project airplane.  In fact, rather like your own project airplane, which was — as you know — the same model.”

“Now, what is an airplane?  In the eyes of the FAA, the very soul of an airplane is the data plate: that little metal rectangle on the tail which identifies its model and serial number.  I notice that the data plate attached to this airplane matches the serial number of your project airplane.  I also notice that the four rivets used to secure the data plate to the airplane are not of the type used by the factory.”

“That is a curious coincidence, made even more curious by the fact that, in the woods behind your home, we find several airplane parts that match your project airplane, including an airplane tail from which the data plate has been removed.  I think that data plate ended up here, Fred.  In fact, I think we are looking at Mr. Cain’s airplane, which we had supposed to be lost at sea.”

Walt’s eyes grew more focused and he turned to Fred, who again muttered, “This is ridiculous.”  Just then, the deep whoosh of a large motor became audible, grew in intensity, and suddenly ceased.  A moment later, the bright doorway darkened, the sun eclipsed by the shape of a large man. 

“Well, howdy, boys”, the police officer said, stepping into the hangar.

“Hey, Mike”, Roo said.  “I was just telling a story that may interest you.”  Dom turned again toward Fred.  “Well, so far we have a collaboration.  Mr. Cain seems to have been a willing party to your impersonation and to the changes made to his own airplane — and yours.  I think he was even a willing party to what came next — his entry into the trunk of your car.”

Here, the police officer stiffened and looked at Fred.

“Now, why would he do that?” Roo continued.  “Why would he be a part of any of the events I have described?  I believe that Mr. Cain had offended powerful friends and decided it might be safer to disappear.  His thought, I take it, was to cooperate in his own apparent death and then, once he was officially deceased and all financial benefits had been transferred to his wife, he would compel her to support him, perhaps by suggesting she was a party to his fraud.”

Mike gave a low whistle, which Dom ignored.

“But we have another motive at play.  Our friend Fred was a long-time admirer of Mrs. Cain — now known as Miss Sayers.  Fred was aware of Mr. Cain’s unsavory character and perhaps suspected some mistreatment of Mrs. Cain.  Perhaps he was even interested in renewing his friendship with Mrs. Cain.  It thus occurred to him that he might make a small improvement to the plan he had worked out with Mr. Cain, and that improvement was the actual — and not only apparent — decease of Mr. Cain.”

Fred jerked and glanced toward the door.

“So, we have Mr. Cain stepping willingly into the trunk, ready to be spirited away from his troubles.  But Fred had provided himself with a hose — very like this one, by the way”, Roo said, lifting the hose from its nail on the wall.  “Note that it fits easily over a car’s tailpipe and even shows signs of being partially melted, as if by the heat of exhaust.  Note also that it is long enough to reach easily to the trunk, where it can be wedged and caused to pump carbon monoxide inside.”

Officer Mike noticed Fred’s shifting feet and moved closer to the hangar door.

“Now, Mr. Cain, smelling the exhaust and noting that the car was not moving, sensed a problem.  Here he lay, trapped inside a car which was locked inside a hangar, and he realized he was being slowly poisoned.  He did what any of us would do.  He pounded with his hands and feet in a desperate effort to free himself or get help.  Even now, on Fred’s trunk, we find dents, pushed out from the inside, perhaps by Mr. Cain’s feet.  The trunk lid has been slightly deformed, perhaps by the violence of Mr. Cain’s protests, and it will no longer close without further violence.”

Fred could take no more.  “Nonsense!”, he screamed.  “This is slander!  That’s it.  I’m leaving!” and he started for the door.

Walt nodded to the officer and said, “Mike, I’m with the NTSB and I want this man detained, if you would, please.  If he refuses, I want him placed under arrest in connection with the murder of Benjamin Cain.”

Fred looked at the imposing blue figure who had stepped in front of the door and suddenly deflated.  “All right”, he said, “but I had nothing to do with it.”

The officer took him by the arm and they moved awkwardly out of the hangar.  Dom looked back at Walt.  “The damage to Fred’s trunk was, by the way, one of two things that caught my attention.  The other, we see here, inside the airplane.  Although Fred changed the color of the original instrument panel, he kept this instrument which, as you can see, is damaged in a distinctive way.  It was Miss Sayers’ shocked recognition of this instrument — which she knew to be from her husband’s airplane — which began Fred’s undoing.” 

“So, Cain died in the trunk?”

“I think so, yes. Fred, quite literally, spirited Mr. Cain away from his many troubles.  The body might be found in Fred’s woods, but that’s only a guess.”

Continue to Chapter Seven

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