His gaze over the majestic panorama of Manhattan, 218 feet below, was interrupted by the alarm.
He had never before heard the urgent electronic pulsing on the job.
He was familiar with the sound from training, while getting his Fall Protection 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-by-eight-inch 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.
And, yes, seconds 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 his wife's mother for Natalia, neither of those was going to happen. Perfectly fine names. But not for Peggy and him, not for their son or daughter. He'd suggested they have some fun with their parents. What they'd decided at last: Kierkegaard if a boy. Bashilda if a girl.
When she first told him these, 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-quickly. What a reaction they'd-
The alarm began to blare again, the light to flash. They were joined by another excited box on the monitor: 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 and the weight of the concrete counterweights behind. Finally, it measured their distance from the 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, other than the warning sound.
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?"
He replied into the stalk mike, "Gotta be an LMI sensor problem. If there was moment five minutes ago, there's moment now. Nothing's changed."
"None. Sensor, I'm . . ." He fell silent.
Feeling the tilt.
"Hell," he said quickly. "It is a moment fault. Forward jib is point three nine 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?
Garry had never heard of that happening.
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 six-by-four-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.
Moment . . .
He looked 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 indicator flashed Warning and the Moment Imbalance messages continued.
The super said, "We've hit diagnostics and don't see 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 for it not to.
But it did not.
Back to the front jib.
He cranked the trolley closer to him. The flanges swung. He'd moved more quickly than he'd meant to.
He was looking at his coffee cup.
The chair-padded, comfortable-did not come factory-equipped with a cup holder. But Garry, an afficionado of any and all brews, had mounted one on the wall-far away from the electronics, of course.
The brown liquid was level; the cup was not.
Another glance at the LMI indicator.
A full -2 percent down in the front.
He worked the trolley control and brought the load of flanges closer yet.
Ah, yes, that did it.
The alarm light went out as the balance indicator now moved slowly back to -.5 and then 0, then 1, and kept rising. This was because the counterweights were so far back. Garry now reeled them in until they were as far forward as they could go.
It brought the LMI needle to 1.2.
This was normal. Cranes are made to lean backward slightly when there is no weight of a load on the front jib, which should, at rest, be about one degree. The main stability comes from the massive concrete base-that's what holds it upright when there's no balancing act going on.
"Got it, Danny," he radioed. "Stable. But I'll need maintenance. Got to be some counterweight issue."
"K. I think Will's off break."
Garry sat back and sipped his coffee, replaced the cup, listened to the wind. It would be some minutes before the mechanic arrived. To get to the cab from the ground, there was one way and one way only.
You climbed the mast.
But the cab was twenty-two stories above the ground. Which meant at least one, maybe two five-minute rest stops on the way up.
Guys on the site sometimes thought if you were a crane operator you were in lousy shape, sitting on your ass all day long. They forgot about the climb.
With no load to deliver, no hook block to steer carefully to the ground, he could sit back and enjoy the indescribable view. If Garry wanted, he could put a name to what he was looking at: the five boroughs of the city, a huge parcel of New Jersey, a thin band of Westchester, one of Long Island too.
But he wasn't interested in GPS information.
He was thrilled by the browns and grays and greens and white clouds and the endless blue-every shade far richer and bolder than when viewed by landlocked pedestrians below.
From a young age, Garry had known he wanted to build skyscrapers. That's what he had made with his Legos. That's what he had begged his parents to take him to visit, even when his mother and father blanched at the idea of standing on observation decks. He only liked the open ones. "You know," his father had said, "sometimes people go crazy and throw themselves off the edge of high places. The fear takes them."
Naw, probably not. There was nothing to fear from heights. The higher he got, the calmer he became. Whether it was rock climbing, mountaineering, or building skyscrapers, heights comforted him.
He was, he told Peggy, "in heaven" when he was far, far aboveground.
Back to baby names.
Kierkegaard, Bashilda . . .
What would they really pick? Neither wanted a Junior. And they didn't want any names currently in vogue, which you could find easily in the tiny booklets on the Gristedes checkout lane.
He reached for his coffee cup.
The level had changed again. The front jib was dipping once more.
A moment later, the duo of warning signs burst on again, and the alarm, which had defaulted back on, blared.
The balance indicator jumped to -1.2.
He hit Transmit. "Dan. She's moving again. 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 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 seventeen tons of steel free-fall 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 adjusted the counterweights, hit the hook release and detached the load.
But this had no effect.
The word "impossible" came to his mind yet again.
He cranked the counterweights backward once more.
This had to arrest the forward tilt.
No load and the counterweights were at the far end of the back jib.
And still . . .
"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 skeletons of steel tubes and rods and plates begin to buckle and bend. The slewing plate-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 cry. This was not associated with a crane disaster specifically. It just meant some bad shit was going to happen. Instructions would be coming from the loudspeaker and on the radio.
"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 scanned 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, with windows rolled up?
"I'm aiming away from the buildings. Have somebody clear that park on Eighty-Ninth. And get a flagman into the street, stop traffic."
"Garry, get outta there while you can!"
"The park! Clear it!"
Creaking, groaning, the wind . . .
Another explosive snap.
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.
"Come on, come on . . ."
Thirty feet from the gap.
Any minute now. He could feel it. Any minute she was going to drop.
Cars continued to stream past.
His decision was logical, but nonetheless stabbed his heart.
People were about to die because of him. Maybe fewer than if he didn't move the jib, but still . . .
The numbers rolled through his frantic mind.
Distance to the gap: twenty feet.
"Come on," he whispered.
"Garry . . ."
"Clear the goddamn park! The street!" He tore the headset off as if the distraction of transmissions was gumming the mechanism further.
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.
Slowed, but not stopped.
A sudden squeal. Nails on a chalkboard . . .
He jammed his teeth together at the sound.
Ten feet, ten degrees down.
Eight feet from the gap.
Please . . . A little farther . . .
Close. But if Big Blue failed now, the jib would slice through four or five floors of offices, all open design, hundreds of workers at desks and in cubicles, at coffee stations, in conference rooms. He could see them. A few were on their feet, staring at the tilting mast. No one was running. They were taking videos. Jesus . . .
The motion stalled momentarily, then resumed, with the squeal and grinding even louder.
He nudged the stick to the left and it responded, swinging back a foot or two, then he shoved it to the right. The plate resumed its rotation in that direction, past the sticking point.
Six feet from the gap, down twelve degrees . . .
Crack . . .
The loud sound from behind made him jump.
What was it?
Ah, of course.
The exit door in the floor that led down to the mast, to the ladder, 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.
Six feet away from the lifesaving gap, the mast suddenly pitched forward a few feet. Garry slipped from the seat and fell. He landed face-first on the bulb of the window. From here, he found himself looking straight downward, twenty-two stories, to the jobsite. 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.
Copyright © 2023 by Jeffery Deaver. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.