Valhalla rising, p.25

Valhalla Rising, page 25

 

Valhalla Rising
 



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  "He's coming back!" Mary shouted. "He's eight hundred feet above and diving on our tail!"

  Pitt could bank and barely turn, but he couldn't gain a foot of altitude without the elevators that were shredded with bullet holes and frozen in the neutral position. A plan formed in his mind, a plan that would only work if the red Fokker made a strafing run directly over the trimotor and then overshot. He reached over and flicked the ignition and fuel switches of the middle engine to the ON position. The battered engine coughed several times, then caught and began turning over. Then he banked the trimotor sharply to the right, knowing his insane attacker was thundering in from above. The evasive action momentarily caught the pilot off his mark, and the twin streams of fire from the red Fokker went wide to the left.

  The old transport was no match for the maneuverability of the tri-wing plane flown with great success by Imperial Germany's finest pilots eighty years ago. The Fokker's pilot quickly compensated, and Pitt felt the thumping of bullets tearing into the upper wing of the trimotor and ripping into the starboard engine. Flames erupted inside the nacelle behind the engine, but its cylinders still beat strongly. He twisted the old plane in the opposite direction, waiting with infinite patience for the right moment to go on the attack.

  Suddenly a storm of bullets swept the cockpit, smashing into the instrument panel. The mad pilot was anticipating Pitt's every move. The man was cunning, but it was Pitt's turn as the red Fokker flashed over the shattered windshield and roared ahead.

  Pitt shoved all three throttles to their stops. With two engines, his speed matched that of the Fokker, but with his center engine throwing out clouds of smoke and oil but running on all cylinders, the trimotor leaped forward like a thoroughbred out of the chute.

  His face streaking blood from windshield glass that had been hurled into his cheeks and forehead, splattered with oil and barely able to see through the smoke, Pitt shouted out in glorious defiance.

  "Curse you, Red Baron!"

  Too late, the leather-helmeted head in the red cockpit spun around and saw the silver trimotor boring through the air within twenty feet. He hurled the Fokker into a violent bank, flipping it on its wingtips. It was the wrong move. Pitt had outguessed him. If he'd pulled up in a steep climb, the trimotor would have been helpless to follow, not with the damaged elevators. But on a ninety-degree angle with its three starboard wings rising toward the sky, the red Fokker was vulnerable. One of the trimotor's big landing wheels smashed through the wood and fabric, shattering and splintering the upper wing into shreds.

  Pitt only had time for one brief glimpse of the pilot as the Fokker catapulted crazily in an out-of-control spin. In a show of unabashed audacity, he shook his fist at Pitt. Then Pitt lost sight of the red plane as it spun and crashed into the trees around the Shakespearean Gardens. The wooden propeller splintered into a hundred pieces as it struck the trunk of a large elm. The fuselage and wings crumpled like a boy's model airplane made from balsa wood, tissue paper and glue. Within minutes, the wreckage was surrounded by police cars, their red-and-blue lights flashing like colored lightning strikes.

  With fortitude he didn't believe possible, Kelly was still leading the children in song as the battered aircraft struggled to stay aloft:

  This old man, he played ten.

  He played knick knack on my hen.

  Pitt shut down the center and the starboard engines before they turned the trimotor into a torch. Like a badly wounded warhorse that never faltered in charging forward, the old bird fought to claw the air. Streaming smoke and flame, her one good engine racing at full rpm, Pitt made a flat circle and aimed the plane toward the largest open space in sight, a large grassy area known as the Sheep Meadow.

  Hordes of people, who were picnicking or lying in the sun tanning, suddenly began scattering like ants when they saw the bullet-riddled aircraft losing altitude and coming their way. They didn't need an illustration to realize the plane might crash and burn in their midst. Leaning out the side window to avoid the smoke flooding the cockpit, Pitt squinted at the green field and lined up for a landing. Under normal circumstances, he knew he could land her on a quarter and give a dime for change, but with almost no control, all bets were off. He eased back on the throttle and slowly dropped her toward the grass.

  Two thousand people stood in shocked silence, many praying the badly damaged plane engulfed by smoke and flame could somehow land safely without exploding on impact. Breaths were held, fingers crossed. They gazed fascinated and listened to the howling roar of the one engine running at full rpm. They stared and stared, numb with anticipation, fear and disbelief, as it brushed through the tops of the trees on the edge of the meadow. Years later, none who witnessed the incredible sight could describe it accurately. Their memory became hazy trying to recall the sight of the ancient aircraft lumbering toward the grassy field.

  In the main cabin, the children were singing the final chorus:

  This old man came rolling home.

  The plane wavered as Pitt sideslipped it. Then it seemed to hang for a moment before the big wheels met the grass, bounced twice and then the plane was down, the tail wheel dropping to the ground. To everybody's amazement, the trimotor rolled to a stop in less than fifty yards. None who watched believed it possible.

  Seeing the crowd pour toward the airplane, Pitt cut the remaining engine, watching its propeller come to a stop, the blade stopping in a vertical position. He turned to Mary and started to say something, to compliment her on her intrepid assistance. But he remained silent when he saw her face, drained of all color. He reached out and put his fingers against her neck, feeling for a pulse. Then his hand dropped and clenched.

  Kelly leaned breathlessly into the cockpit. "You did it!" she burst out happily.

  "The children?" Pitt asked in a distant voice.

  "All unharmed."

  Then she saw the back of Mary's copilot seat, the almost perfectly spaced pattern of small holes, punched by the Spandaus of the Fokker. Kelly stood absolutely still in shock as Pitt solemnly shook his head. At first, she refused to believe Mary was gone, her friend of many years dead, but she looked down and saw the expanding pool of blood on the cockpit floor and realized the awful truth.

  Deep sorrow brushed her face, matched by the confusion in her eyes. "Why?" she murmured vacantly. "Why did this have to happen? There was no reason for Mary to die."

  People came from all over the nearby streets and park to look at the peppered old aircraft and marvel. Thousands were shouting and waving at the cockpit. But to Pitt it was as if they were not visible and they could not be heard. He felt surrounded, not by the people, but by the futility of it all. He looked at Kelly, and he said, "She wasn't the only one killed by the man who flew that plane. There were many others who needlessly lost their lives."

  "It's all so stupid," murmured Kelly, through hands covering her face as she sobbed.

  "Cerberus," Pitt said quietly, barely audible above the cheering outside. "Someone-I don't know who yet-is going to Hades to meet him."

  25

  After the children's bumps and bruises caused from being knocked around during the fight with the Red Fokker and its unknown pilot were tended to by paramedics, they were reunited with their parents. Pitt stood by a grief-stricken Kelly as the body of her friend Mary Conrow was carried from the plane to an ambulance. After the police cordoned off the airplane, Pitt and Kelly were escorted to police cars to be taken to the nearest precinct for questioning.

  Before he was led off, Pitt walked around the old Ford trimotor, amazed and saddened at the amount of punishment she had endured. Yet, she had miraculously hung in the air until he set her down safely in the Sheep Meadow. He studied the bullet-ripped tail section, the neatly stitched holes in the upper wings, the shattered cylinder heads on the two Pratt & Whitney engines, still crackling from the heat and emitting light swirls of smoke.

  He laid a hand on the fender over a landing wheel and murmured, "Thank you."

  Then he asked the po
lice officer in charge if they might stop by the wreckage of the Fokker before heading for the precinct. The officer nodded and motioned to the closest police car.

  The red Fokker looked like a crumpled kite as it lay embedded in a huge elm tree twenty feet off the ground. Firemen, working from a ladder on a fire truck, were standing under the wreckage, staring up at the mangled plane. Pitt exited the police car and walked under the plane. He stopped and stared at the engine that had been torn from its mountings and was lying partially embedded in the grass. He was surprised to find it wasn't an updated, modern engine, but an original Oberursel 9 cylinder that put out 110 horsepower. Then he stared up into the open cockpit.

  It was empty.

  Pitt looked into the branches of the tree and then studied the ground beneath the plane. A leather flying jacket, along with a helmet and goggles, its lenses smeared with streaks of blood, was the only trace of the pilot.

  Almost miraculously, he had vanished.

  While Kelly was being interrogated by police officers, Pitt was allowed to call a local aircraft-maintenance company and arrange for the trimotor to be disassembled and trucked back to Washington, where he would have it repaired and reconstructed to her previous pristine condition by aircraft-restoration experts. Then he called Sandecker and reported on the situation.

  His calls made, Pitt calmly sat at an empty desk in the precinct and worked on the New York Times crossword puzzle until he was called. He and Kelly embraced as she left the office where four detectives were waiting at a scarred oak desk that showed its age by the number of old cigarette burn marks on its surface.

  "Mr. Pitt?" asked a small man with a thin mustache. The detective was coatless and wore narrow suspenders.

  "That's my name."

  "I'm Inspector Mark Hacken. My fellow detectives and I would like to ask you a few questions. Do you mind if we record the session?"

  "Not at all."

  Hacken made no offer to introduce the other three men in the room. None looked like the police as depicted on TV. They all appeared like ordinary neighbors who mowed their lawns every Saturday.

  Hacken began by asking Pitt to talk about himself briefly, explain his job at NUMA and tell how he came to bring his old aircraft to the Disabled Children's Air Show benefit. The other detectives asked an occasional question but mosdy took notes, as Pitt described the flight from the moment he'd taken off with the disabled children from Gene Taylor Field until he'd landed on the Sheep Meadow in Central Park.

  One of the detectives looked at Pitt and said, "I'm a pilot myself, and I hope you realize you could go to jail for your antics, not to mention losing your pilot's license."

  Pitt gazed at the detective with a faint trace of a confident grin. "If saving the lives of fifteen disabled children makes me a criminal, so be it."

  "You still might have accomplished that by not turning off the river and into the city streets."

  "If I had not turned onto Wall Street when I did, we would have surely been shot down and crashed in the river. Trust me when I say there would have been no survivors."

  "But you must admit, you took a terrible chance."

  Pitt shrugged indifferently. "Obviously, I wouldn't be sitting here if I hadn't taken the gamble."

  "Do you have any idea why the other pilot would risk a million-dollar aircraft, load it with antique operational weapons and attack an old plane full of disabled kids?" asked Hacken.

  "I only wish I knew," said Pitt, sneaking past the question.

  "So do I," said Hacken sarcastically.

  "Do you have any idea who the pilot was?" Pitt asked in return.

  "Not a clue. He melted into the crowd and escaped."

  "The aircraft has to have a registration number that would lead to the owner."

  "Our experts haven't had a chance to examine the plane yet."

  "Surely the air show officials have his entry papers," said Pitt. "We all had to fill them out for insurance purposes. They should tell you something."

  "We're working with New Jersey law enforcement from that end. All they can tell us until they are further into the investigation was that an aircraft collector called and said an identical plane was hangared at a small field near Pittsburgh. He claimed the owner was one Raul St. Justin."

  "Sounds phony," offered Pitt.

  "We agree," said Hacken. "Did you know St. Justin, or whatever his true name is?"

  "No." Pitt stared steadily into Hacken's eyes. "We talked briefly before I took off."

  "What did you talk about?"

  "His triplane. I've always been fascinated by antique aircraft. Nothing more."

  "Then you had never met him previously."

  "No."

  "Can you give a description and assist our crime artist in making a likeness of his face?"

  "I'll be happy to cooperate."

  "We're sorry to have put you and Miss Egan through this, but with the death of Mary Conrow, we're looking at a murder investigation as well as charges of endangering public lives. It was a miracle no one was killed when the red airplane strafed you in the city streets and our police helicopter was shot down near a busy intersection."

  "We can all be thankful for that," said Pitt sincerely.

  "I think that will be all for now," said Hacken. "You and Miss Egan will, of course, have to remain in the city until our investigation is concluded."

  "I'm afraid that is impossible, Inspector."

  Hacken's eyebrows rose. He wasn't used to having a witness in a prominent case tell him he was leaving town. "May I hear why?"

  "Because I'm a part of the ongoing government investigation into the fire on board the cruise ship Emerald Dolphin, as well as the hijacking of a NUMA survey ship. My presence is required in Washington." Pitt paused for effect. "Naturally, you'll want to clear this with my superior, Admiral Sandecker of the National Underwater and Marine Agency." He pulled out his wallet and handed Hacken his NUMA card. "Here is his phone number."

  Hacken silently passed the card to one of his detectives, who left the room.

  "Are you through with me? I'd like to take Miss Egan home."

  Hacken nodded and gestured toward the door. "Please wait outside until we confirm your connection with the government and the investigation."

  Pitt found Kelly sitting curled up on a wooden bench. She looked like a pathetic little girl left on the steps of an orphanage. "Are you all right?"

  "I can't get over Mary's death," she said sadly. "She was a close friend of my father's for many years."

  Pitt's eyes strayed across the busy precinct office to see if anyone was listening to their conversation. Satisfied that no one was within earshot, he asked, "Just how close was Mary to your father?"

  She looked at him angrily. "They were lovers over the years, if that's what you want to hear."

  "That's not what I want to hear," Pitt said softly. "How knowledgeable was she about your father's projects?"

  "She was no stranger to them. Because I had my own career and was away most of the time, she acted as his close confidante, secretary, maid and housekeeper when she wasn't flying with the airlines."

  "Did he ever talk to you about his work?"

  She shook her head. "Dad was a very secretive man. He always said that explaining his work to anyone other than a scientist or engineer would be impossible. The only time he lectured me on his work was on board the Emerald Dolphin. He was quite proud of his engineering concepts for the ship's engines, and he explained their mag-netohydrodynamics principle to me over dinner one night.

  "That's all he ever told you?"

  "After a few martinis in the lounge, he did say that he had created the breakthrough of the ages." Kelly shrugged wistfully. "I thought it was the gin talking."

  "Then Mary was the only person aware of his activities."

  "No." She looked up as if seeing someone. "Josh Thomas."

  "Who?"

  "Dr. Josh Thomas was my father's friend and sometimes his assistant. They went to MIT tog
ether and received their doctorates, Dad in engineering and Josh in chemistry."

  "Do you know where you can get in touch with him?"

  "Yes," she answered.

  "Where is your father's laboratory?" Pitt asked.

  "At his home not far from Gene Taylor Field."

  "Can you call Dr. Thomas? I would like to meet him."

  "Any particular reason?"

  "You might say I'm dying to find out what the breakthrough of the ages is all about."

 

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