The Watchmaker’s Hand Excerpt
Person of Interest
His gaze over the majestic panorama of Manhattan, 218 feet below, was interrupted by the alarm.
He had never heard the urgent electronic pulsing on the job before this morning.
He was familiar with the sound from training, getting his Fall Safety Certificate, but never on shift. His level of skill and the sophistication of the million-dollar contraption beneath him were such that there had never been a reason for the high-pitched sound to fill the cab in which he sat.
Scanning the ten-inch-by-eight monitors in front of him. Yes, a red light was now flashing.
But at the same time, apart from the urgency of the electronics, Garry Helprin knew that this was a mistake. A sensor problem. Happened sometimes.
And, yes, a moment later the light went away, the sound went away.
He nudged the control to raise the eighteen-ton load aloft, and his thoughts returned to where they had been just a moment ago.
The baby’s name. While his father hoped for William, and her mother, Doris, neither of those were going to happen. Perfectly fine names. But not for Peggy’s and his son or daughter. He’d suggested they tell the parents what they’d decided at last: Kierkegaard if a boy. Bashilda if a girl.
Garry had said, “Bathsheba, you mean. From the Bible.”
“No. Bashilda. My imaginary pony when I was ten.”
Kierkegaard and Bashilda, they would tell the parents and then move on to another topic. What a reaction they’d—
The alarm began to blare once more, the light to flash. They were joined by another excited box on the monitor. It was the load moment indicator. The needle was tilting to the left above the words: Moment imbalance.
The computer had calculated the weight of the jib in front of him—extending the length of a Boeing 777—and the weight on the jib behind. It then factored into the balance game the weight of the load in front, the weight of the concrete counterweights behind. Finally, their distance from center, where he sat in the cab of the crane.
“Come on, Big Blue. Really?”
Garry tended to talk to the machines he was operating. Some seemed to respond. This particular Baylor HT-4200 was the most talkative of them all.
Today though, she was silent.
If the alarm was blaring for him, it was blaring in the Supervisor’s trailer too.
The radio clattered, and he heard in his headset: “Garry, what?”
“Problem. Forward jib is point 39 degrees down. Wait, now point four.”
Was the load creeping toward the end of the blue latticed jib on its own? Had the trolley become detached from the drive cables?
That had never happened that Garry had ever heard of. Here or at any other job.
He looked forward. Saw nothing irregular.
Nothing is more regulated and inspected on a construction site than the stability of a tower crane, especially one that soars this high into the sky, and has within its perimeter a half dozen structures—and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of human souls. Meticulous calculations are made of the load—in this case 36,000 pounds of 6×4-inch flange beams—and the counterweights, the rectangular blocks of cement, to make sure this particular crane can lift and swing the payload. Once that’s signed off on, the info goes into the computer and the magic balance is maintained—moving the counterweights behind him back and forth ever so slightly to keep the needle at zero.
Looking back at the counterweights. This was instinctive; he didn’t know what he might see.
Nothing was visible.
The blaring continued.
He shut the alarm switch off. The accompanying flashed Warning and the Moment Imbalance messages continued.
The super said, “We’ve hit diagnostics and don’t show a sensor issue.”
“Forget sensors,” Garry said. “We’re tilting.”
“I’m going to manual.” He shut off the controller. He’d been riding tower cranes for the past fifteen years, since he signed up with Moynahan Construction, after his stint as an engineer in the army. Digital controls made the job easier and safer, but he’d cut his teeth operating towers by hand, using charts and graphs and a pad attached to his thigh for calculations—and, of course, a needle balance indicator to get the moment just right. He now tugged on the joystick to draw the load trolley closer to center.
Then switching to the counterweight control, he moved those away from the tower.
His eyes were fixed on the LMI, which still indicated moment imbalance forward.
He moved the weights, totaling a hundred tons, farther back.
This had to achieve moment.
It was impossible not to.
But it did not.
The level had changed again. The front jib was dipping once more.
The balance indicator jumped to -1.2.
He hit transmit. “Dan. She’s moving. Big time.”
“Shit. What’s going on…”
“Can’t reel the load any farther. I’m dropping it. Clear the zone. Tell me when.”
He couldn’t hear the command from here, but he had a view through the Plexiglas straight down between his legs and he saw the workers scatter quickly as the ground foreman told them to get out of the way.
Of course “dropping” the load didn’t mean that literally—yanking the release and letting the eighteen tons of steel freefall to the ground. He eased the Down lever and the bundle dropped fast. He could see, on his indicators and visually through the Plexiglas, exactly where it was on descent. At about thirty feet above the ground he braked, and the bundle settled onto the concrete. Maybe some damage.
He hit the hook release and detached the load.
But this had no effect.
“Dan,” he radioed, “we’re five degrees down, forward jib. Counterweights’re back.”
A crane is not meant to lean more than five degrees, beyond that, the complicated skeleton of steel tubes and rods and plates begin to buckle and bend. The slewing ring—the huge turntable that swung the jib horizontally—was groaning.
He heard a distant but loud crack. Then another.
Into the radio: “I’m losing it, Dan. Hit the siren.”
Just moments later came the piercing emergency siren.
“Garry, get out. Down the mast.”
“In a minute…”
If Big Blue was going down, he was going to make sure she landed with as few injuries to those on the ground as possible.
He was scanning the surroundings. There were buildings almost everywhere.
But fifty feet to the right of the jib was a gap between the office building in front of him and an apartment complex. Through the gap he could see a street and a park. On this temperate day there would be people outside but they had most likely heard the siren and would be looking toward the akilter crane.
Cars and trucks? Nothing to do about them.
“I’m aiming away from the buildings. Have somebody clear that park on 89th.”
“Garry, get outa there while you can.”
“The park! Clear it!”
Creaking, groaning, the wind…
He operated the swivel control and the slewing plate cried from binding against the bearings. The electric motor was laboring. Then slowly the jib responded.
The numbers rolled through his frantic mind.
Distance to the gap: 20 feet.
“Come on,” he whispered.
Twelve feet from the gap, nine degrees down.
The joystick was all the way to the right and the jib should have been swinging madly. But the binding metal of the slewing plate had slowed it to a crawl.
But slowed only, not stopped.
A sudden squeal. Nails on a chalkboard…
He jammed his teeth together at the sound.
Ten feet, ten degrees down.
Please… A little farther…
Six feet from the gap, down twelve degrees…
The loud sound from behind made him jump.
What was it?
Ah, of course.
The exit door that led to the mast and the stairs to safety had buckled. He climbed from his seat briefly and tugged. Useless.
There was only one other exit—above him. But that gave no access to the mast.
Forget it now. Just get another five feet and she’ll be clear.
The jib was still tilting down but the LMI indicator had stopped at -13. The engineers, of course, had known that there was no point in going farther. A jib would never tilt that far forward.
With six feet still to go to reach the life-saving gap, the mast suddenly pitched forward a few feet. Garry slipped from the seat and fell, landing face-first on the bulb of the cab’s window. From here he found himself looking straight downward, twenty-two stories, to the job site. He inhaled and exhaled deeply, leaving a design of condensation on the glass in front of him. It was, curiously, almost in the shape of a heart.
He thought of his wife.
And of their child soon to be born.
Kierkegaard or Bashilda…
At some point an open investigation slips over an unseen border and becomes a cold case.
Who knows what the time frame is? Some cops might say a year, some might say a decade.
Lincoln Rhyme didn’t like the phrase. It suggested that the offense had been seized on by podcasters and documentary TV show producers to sell the ever-popular tale of an evil doer escaping justice.
The unsolved cases that drew the most attention were murder, of course. The spouse that went missing, the Mafioso snitch, the abusive father who has “no idea” where his young son wandered off to. No one paid much attention to unsolved larcenies—other than the spectacular: the diamond heist, the armored truck stick-up, the parachuting from Boeing 727 with $200K in ransom (And where are you D.B. Cooper?).
To Rhyme an unsolved case, was merely an unsolved case, whether twenty-four hours or one hundred years old and it absolutely needed to be closed, larcenies included. Which is what was presently occupying much of his time.
This one was a few months old and the inability to close it was giving Rhyme—and the NYPD and Homeland Security–more than a little concern.
A person they’d designated Unknown Subject, UNSUB, 412, had on April 12 broken into the NYC Department of Structures and Engineering and downloaded a trove of infrastructure documents: blueprints, engineering diagrams, underground maps, plats, permit requests—all the bits and bytes of material involved in the gargantuan process of helping the organism of New York City to grow and to morph. To be safe, maybe, he’d also copped hundreds of hard copies of the same and other documents, maybe in case some files were encrypted.
At the time of the theft, everyone thought: terrorism: always a good default motive for a crime of this sort. Bombs would be planted, subways hijacked, buildings targeted with missiles or airplanes.
Rhyme and his wife and professional forensic partner Amelia Sachs had been brought in to try to identify the UNSUB via forensics. Despite the man’s accidentally setting off an alarm and fleeing, leaving his burglar tools behind, they could come up with no leads. The city remained on high alert for a while, but no terrorist attacks ensued.
And so UNSUB 412’s theft remained an active case, and his nickname was atop the evidence white board in the corner of the parlor of Rhyme’s 19th century townhouse, the war room for the cases he and Sachs ran. The boards were known throughout law enforcement as “murder boards,” though in this case it offered the details of the theft; there’d been no loss of life or injury in the incident. Rhyme and Sachs had had turned their attention away from the case temporarily– to a couple of urgent organized crime prosecutions and run the forensic analysis, which was now finished. There was nothing more to do than wait to testify at trial as expert witnesses (either one or the other, never together; defense lawyers would have a heyday inquiring about the relationship status of the two; there was not, legally, any reason they could not testify jointly, but criminal trials are optics, optics, optics…and then the law).
So now it was back to the open—not “cold”– UNSUB 412 case.
Rhyme aimed his motorized wheelchair toward the board. Injured on a crime scene years ago, rendered a quadriplegic, the former head of NYPD Forensics was always searching out any medical treatments that might improve his condition. While there was no way, yet, to restore sensation below his neck, complicated procedures involving surgery and prosthetics had restored most movement to his right arm, which he exercised regularly. The chair, quite the “miracle of mobility,” the literature declared, could also be deftly operated by his left ring finger, the one appendage that had escaped consequences of the catastrophic accident.
The human body is nothing if not an assembly of marvels and flukes.
Sachs was reading a report from the Major Cases detective in charge of the 412 case: “No persons of interest on the city payroll.” She went on to explain that the officer had been interviewing employees of the DSE, thinking that it might be an inside job, as intangible property thefts often were when hackers were not involved—and here they had not been. There was a video of the thief physically breaking into the server room, where he downloaded the files on a hard drive. It was clever: everyone protects against those sharp and bored Western European and Chinese hackers, but physically guarding data lagged.
There were videos too of him leaving the building. These came to Rhyme and the investigators via the city’s Domain Awareness Program, a network of 20,000 CCTV video cameras around the city. The system collected and stored video and had access to more that 2 billion license plate readings, 100 million summonses, 54 million 911 calls, 15 million complaints, 12 million detective reports, and millions of warrant and arrest notices. All of the data were stored for a period of time—some up to five years.
The DAP included city-installed cameras, as well as those from stores and commercial buildings, which were sometimes, though not always, of higher resolution and better at grabbing nighttime shots. One of these private videos, from a small electronics store, had caught UNSUB 412 walking out of the DSE, then disappearing around the corner.
How helpful? That was another matter. It recorded dark, clothing, a hat. Head down, of course.
Sachs’s hands went to her trim hips, in black jeans, and, head tilted, her long dark red hair fell straight down, plumb. “What was he after?” Staring at the white board.
The key question, of course.
Motive is irrelevant in a trial and Rhyme didn’t particularly care for the topic during the investigation, preferring evidence as the arrow that might point to the perp. Yet, even skeptical Rhyme had to admit that, absent solid forensics, discovering a motive might lead you to a helpful location or perp. His metaphor in class: motive might give you the neighborhood, and a little door knocking might get you the bloody knife or recently fired, if not smoking, gun.
In 412’s case, though, no one involved in the investigation, nor anyone at the Department of Buildings, could figure out why the perp had committed the crime. Yes, he got plenty of details on the city infrastructure, tunnels, bridges, underground passages—of which there were enough beneath the five boroughs to be an entire city in itself. But how did that help the bad guys plan an attack? Even the dullest terrorists could find suitable targets in this target-rich city without having to resort to tunnels or infrastructure diagrams.
“Hm,” Rhyme offered. It was a variation of a grunt. When he spoke, it was, more or less, to himself. “No obvious reason. And yet the data were stolen. And it was risky.” He wheeled close to the board. “For. A. Purpose. And what might that be?”
Frustration sent his eyes to the bottle of Glenmorangie scotch sitting on a high shelf nearby. Rhyme’s right arm and hand were largely functional, yes, and could easily grip a bottle, and open and pour it.
He could not, however, stand and snag it from the perch where his mother hen had set it. Coincidentally that very individual, his caregiver, Thom Reston, happened to enter the parlor just then and notice Rhyme’s gaze. “It’s morning.”
“Aware of the time, thank you.”
When Rhyme didn’t look away from the colorful label, Thom said, “No.”
The man was dressed impeccably, as always, today in tan slacks, a baby blue shirt and a floral tie. He was slim yet strong, his muscles largely developed not from hunks of iron or machines, but from Rhyme himself. It was Thom who got the man into and out of chair and bed and bath.
Another grunt and dark glance toward the liquor.
It was early, no disputing, but the concept of “cocktail hour” had always been a moving target for Lincoln Rhyme.
He looked back at the white board devoted to the DSE theft but the going-nowhere meditation on the theft was interrupted by the hum of the door buzzer.
Rhyme glanced up, curious. It was Lon Sellitto, his former partner from the days before the accident. He was senior in Major Cases, Sachs’s assignment, and was the detective who most often liaised with Rhyme when he was hired on by the NYPD as a consultant.
“He looks energized,” Rhyme said and ordered the latch to open.
Inside, the big man, balding in an unenthusiastic way, sloughed off his brown raincoat and hung it. Not that Rhyme cared, but Sellitto seemed to buy the ugliest garments on the rack. And one could find colors that were not muddy-camel-brown, could one not? They were often wrinkled too, as today, a function of the man’s weight, Rhyme guessed. Most manufactures presumably created garments of textiles whose waiting state was smooth.
Then again, what did Rhyme know? Thom and Sachs bought his outfits—like today’s gray slacks, black Polo shirt and forest-green cardigan. Someone once condescendingly commented that, my, what he was wearing looked comfortable. Thom cut him a glance and his planned response, “Wouldn’t exactly know, now, would I?” was replaced with an insincere smile.
Sellitto offered a brief nod to all in the room. Then a frown crossed his face as his eyes shot to—in Rhyme’s view—an overlarge Sony TV screen mounted in the corner of the room. “Why isn’t the news on?”
“Is this the remote. No. Where’s the remote.”
Thom picked it up from a shelf and powered the unit up.
Rhyme said, “Why don’t you just tell us. Instead of waiting for the anchor-bot.”
“A situation,” he said but didn’t elaborate. He took the remote and clicked to one of the national stations. Depicted were a Breaking News bulletin, a crawl at the bottom that Rhyme was too far away to read and video of damage at a construction site. Another message popped up. It reported, E. 89th Street, New York City. This was replaced by: “One dead, six injured in crane collapse.”
Sellitto looked from Sachs to Rhyme. “It wasn’t an accident. Somebody did it on purpose. They’ve sent the city a list of demands. And if they don’t get what they want, they’re going to do it again in 24 hours.”
Read more from The Watchmaker’s Hand when it’s published in November.
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