Wheat or Chaff
by Sheila M. Cronin
Old Suffolk County Courthouse rested majestically and on its foundations. Inside, however, Judge Lucille Pierce continued to vie with the media for control of the high profile proceedings, smacking down her gavel impatiently.
Mark Conwell, clad in a gray silk suit and silver tie, maintained his motionless posture on the stand. One MSNBC pundit described his demeanor as e-motionless too. Behind his rimless bifocals, Conwell’s cold blue eyes remained fixed on the clock high above the entrance at the back of the courtroom. All other eyes stayed riveted on him.
After the room quieted, the judge reminded the former president and CEO of Patriot Airlines that he was still under oath, then directed the prosecuting attorney to proceed. Conwell fingered the American flag pin that adorned his lapel, reminding himself for the nth time why he was there. His gaze then shifted back to the clock. For him, timing was everything.
The prosecutor’s next question was fired at Conwell so forcefully it all but knocked him out of his chair.
“Did you kill Dr. Dennis Stedmeyer?”
While the courtroom strained to hear his reply, Conwell’s thoughts reverted back two years to the fateful summer of 1996, the summer when suspected terrorism had again targeted air traffic in America. Previous to that event, Conwell had been Patriot’s senior vice president of marketing through seven tumultuous years. With extremely shrewd, often ruthless stratagems, he’d proven to be the company’s driving force in a notoriously competitive industry and had grown its market share to a commanding double-digit percent. Only United and American claimed higher revenues.
His company showed its appreciation by boosting him to the president’s office. At best, the reward was dubious, for, like the other big players, Patriot’s top job amounted to faux celebrity status. His associates could still roll up their sleeves and tackle the day to day challenges of steering a billion dollar enterprise. While he, a vigorous toiler at forty-nine, was stuck signing legal documents, making the occasional warm and fuzzy TV commercial, and traveling to represent the company at stockholders meetings, international conferences, Senate hearings, and the like.
Among the things in life Conwell loathed most was flying. He hated anything that took him away from the office.
The promotion was followed two weeks later by TWA's flight 800 disaster. In his suburban Boston den that evening, alone, he sat glued to CNN, a third uncontested divorce decree on the coffee table. Marriage did not suit him. A lean workaholic, with a striking resemblance to Steve McQueen in his prime, Conwell let his wife have everything, the kids, house, money, toys. He got back the thing that mattered most: himself.
Now, he listened as President Bill Clinton called for extensive new safety measures for all domestic airlines. Conwell saw into the future: expensive new detectors, increased and better paid security personnel, elaborate delay-creating check-in procedures and customer service nightmares. These changes would close down the smaller carriers and good riddance. But for Conwell it meant that everything he’d accomplished now seemed threatened.
“Will the defendant answer the question?” prompted the prosecutor. Conwell tuned him out.
That night watching the news, it had hit him that the only way to avoid wholesale government takeover of airline operations was to develop the quintessential smart detector that could ferret out any bomb, guarantee safety, and lead the industry in the fight against terrorism, foreign or domestic. He couldn’t do it but he had an idea who could.
Conwell phoned Denny Stedmeyer.
Denny, a brilliant scientist and Harvard classmate, owed him a favor. Conwell had gotten him accepted into a Harvard secret society when membership was denied to eggheads and underclassmen with no redeeming social connections. Ordinarily, the science nerd would have been oblivious to such matters except that Denny, a lonely brain in a sea of brains, had fallen hard for a Radcliffe English major.
Crystal, with the botched appendix scar, Conwell recalled with a smirk. Apparently, Denny hadn’t felt the same revulsion to her imperfection.
She, on the other hand, was intolerant of his social lacks and made it crystal clear that he must gain admittance to the same society her father had belonged to in his undergraduate days; otherwise, no nuptials. Conwell, unable to turn down a challenge, cajoled, bartered and otherwise bought Denny’s way into the coveted group. The wedding at which Conwell ushered was the talk of Cape Cod that summer.
Denny had gone on to become a renowned researcher and even played a consultative role in the development of the Internet. His original field of expertise, however, was chemistry. Through the years, Conwell kept track of Denny Stedmeyer’s accomplishments because he never knew when he might need the skills of a genius. Until TWA flight 800.
Judge Pierce was speaking now. “Mr. Conwell, you must answer the question.”
Conwell, after a brief conversation, arranged for Stedmeyer to be flown overnight from southern California, where he taught at USC, to Boston. He arrived at Conwell’s corporate office high above the Charles River just before a Revolution-era church chimed ten o’clock.
During the next forty-five minutes, Conwell presented what he considered to be the pitch of a lifetime. Briefly touching on the recent bomb incident at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, President Clinton’s many new safety demands, the experts’ forecasts for increased random acts of terrorism, and his own ambition to set the industry standard, Conwell put the challenge to Stedmeyer: Could he design a device capable of doing the work of all other existing scanners and bomb detectors? Produce such a device well under the cost of the current million dollar state-of-the-art system? Ensure that such device be updated as newer explosive materials “came to market” so to speak? Do it in sixty days? And most important, could he keep the specs so completely under wraps that no government or private agency or pimple-faced high school hacker would discover the project’s existence? (Here, Conwell made the most of their secret society affiliation.) Stedmeyer would have carte blanche, no expense would be spared, and if successful, his reward would be in the millions. Denny took down fast notes.
Now Judge Pierce, in an attempt to bring the defendant out of his reverie, turned to him. “Mr. Conwell, answer the question or — ”
But before she could finish, Conwell’s attorney shot to his feet. “Your Honor, may I approach the bench?”
Her scowl included both sides of the aisle. “Council may approach.”
Stedmeyer had had his own reasons for wanting to accept Conwell’s offer. He detested terrorism, the bane of all logical minds. He owed Conwell and wanted the debt erased since he did not particularly like the man. He yearned to be financially independent and never again have to deal with migraine inducing grant applications. Plus, unbeknownst to Conwell or anyone beyond a few trusted colleagues and his wife, he’d been working on a related endeavor for the past twenty years. With the proper equipment, lab facilities and collaboration of gifted researchers, he was confident he could meet Conwell’s demands.
Forty-two days later, after round the clock shifts in laboratories on both coasts, he presented Conwell with a hand-held scanner that achieved their goals beyond their wildest dreams. Inside the eight pound contrivance was a microchip capable of identifying all substances—animate and inanimate—which in any form would be inappropriate on a commercial aircraft. Discovery of substances in the program would set off an alarm and alert airport security. The data could be updated as needed. Conwell and Stedmeyer went out to Logan Field and walked through an idle Patriot 747, a 727, and a cargo carrier in which Stedmeyer had hidden numerous types of explosives as well as coral samples culled from the ocean’s floor, and moon surface samples borrowed from NASA. The scanner found them all.
“Have you named this sucker?” Conwell asked as he twirled the deceptively compact gadget over and over in his hand.
Conwell nodded. “Its code name is Wheat ’n Chaff. Hope you don’t take exception to the Biblical reference, Mark, but I think it sums up this device nicely, separating the good from bad.”
“Under fifty grand per unit.”
Conwell was ecstatic. He scheduled a press conference at which he announced that by fall, Patriot Airline could guarantee safe travel, short lines at the airport and on-time departures as well. Meanwhile, Stedmeyer, whose name was never mentioned to the media, remained in Boston to oversee production of thousands of the prototype scanner.
Each Patriot flight and grounds crew were trained on how and when to use the device, including sweeps of the luggage compartment and aircraft, as well as how to handle emergencies. Two months later, the airline could confidently and proudly make good on its new marketing slogan: Safety and Comfort with No Delays. By then, the elections were occupying the nation’s attention but Conwell knew that with the holiday season approaching, the issue of air safety would resurface. The timing was perfect.
Dimly, he observed the judge and the attorneys having some sort of confab. He remained a million miles away.
Stedmeyer had called him late the night of the elections. The Thanksgiving holiday was on his mind, too, specifically, the millions of travelers expected to fly on the heaviest air traffic weekend of the year. Stedmeyer wanted to share the scanner specs with the world’s airlines immediately. He said anything less than complete candor would be unethical, tantamount to the French doctors who kept their AIDS research breakthroughs to themselves. Such conduct went against science and against America’s truest ideals. Conwell agreed to meet Stedmeyer early the next morning to discuss his proposal over breakfast at the Sheraton.
Conwell didn’t ask himself back then what a Harvard man would do. He asked what a patriot would do. For, while the domestic competition might deserve the information, Stedmeyer was dead wrong to think non-Americans merited the same right. To give it away would amount to giving away America’s edge. Conwell wasn’t about to let that happen.
After breakfast the following morning during which Conwell had enthusiastically endorsed all of Stedmeyer’s naïve plans, he suggested they walk back to the corporate office just blocks away and make the exciting announcement together. Then, on a busy street corner with snow falling heavily around them, Conwell shoved Stedmeyer off the curb into the path of oncoming traffic and managed to slip away in the crowd.
* * *
Judge Pierce sent the attorneys back to their seats. The courtroom grew restless. Squaring his shoulders, the prosecutor addressed Conwell with steely determination: “Mark Conwell, I ask you one more time, did you willfully and with malicious intent murder Dr. Dennis Stedmeyer?”
“Yes!” howled Conwell as if jolted out of a blissful dream. The courtroom gasped. Journalists leapt to their feet and raced out, some to meet print deadlines, others to go live on cable. The bailiffs edged to the front of the room while the judge attempted to restore order. Well, they could lock him up and throw away the key, Conwell thought, fingering his lapel pin. He would never divulge the scanner’s specs.
He didn’t know that already every airline in the world possessed the scanners. He never guessed that his old chum, Stedmeyer, had instructed Crystal, in the event of his untimely death, to fax copies of his data to the FBI, the UN Secretary, and to forward hard copies to the International Red Cross headquarters as well as The New York Times. Had Conwell paid more attention to the trial he would have learned that the piles of documents entered into evidence were Stedmeyer’s notebooks, furnished by grieving Crystal, which had led to Conwell’s quick arrest and indictment. However, Conwell cared little for details or, for that matter, people.
In fact all his life, at his home, in business, and friendship, Mark Conwell had lived as a terrorist. While Denny Stedmeyer, egghead and outsider, had lived and died a true patriot.
Sheila M. Cronin is the author of The Gift Counselor, winner of the Beverly Hills Book Award and shortlisted for the U.K. Wishing Shelf Book Award. Her collection of stories appears in: Heart Shaped: a collection of short romances. Both books are available in e-book form on amazon.com and most online stores.
Copyright by Sheila M. Cronin
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