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Sweeney’s Run

~ ~ Chapter 38 ~ ~

       Cap kept the climb even—not too shallow, not too steep—and over the mossy slabs of Middletown’s roofs she made an easy one-eighty turn for the southwest. The approaching winter was being announced by a lowering overcast that rode a stiff wind out of the Pennsylvania hills to the north, and the lead-colored bay ahead—so glassy only hours before—was lacy with whitecaps. The engine bellowed steadily, sending back the bouquet of rich exhaust, and below the goggles her cheeks tingled, flat and taut, in the icy propwash.
       Sweeney had said nothing since he’d climbed into the front cockpit, and, recognizing that he was wrestling with something, she kept her own silence, losing herself in the little fussings of flying.
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       They were at fifteen hundred feet, with Crystal Beach off the lower right wingtip, when the sky filled with the sound of dry sticks breaking—a raucous noise whose suddenness literally lifted her off the seat cushion.
       “Holy baloney! What was that?”
       Sweeney’s voice was in her ears. “We’re being shot at. Get down on the deck and head for Aberdeen.”
       She craned her head right and left in alarm, searching for the attacker. “Where is he? What is he?”
       “He’s making a turn under us and is coming back for a belly run. It’s a Henschel ‘Dagger,’ a low-wing, single-engine turbo-prop thing. This particular one was parked at the Azalea Manor airstrip when I went in last night. You can assume Cummings heard you on the intercom with Sammy and that he called one of his people to get up here and stop us. It’s fast and tougher than hell, so go down and go slow and get over populated land.”
       “Slow? Are you nuts? We need all the speed this critter can manufacture.”
       “Wrong. See how wide his turns are? He’s too fast for efficient attacks on this old crate. Not only that, but he’s not a very good pilot and he’s a lousy marksman.”
       “What the heck do you know about it?”
       “Watch it. Here he comes again.”
       “What’ll I do?”
       “Make a bad target by showing how good you fly.”
       As they skimmed the water, missing boats by inches, there was another racketing, and gashes showed in the yellow fabric of the right lower wing. The Henschel, true to Sweeney’s promise, went tearing past, close overhead, and the Stearman wobbled in its propwash.
       “That guy’s really starting to bother me,” Cap grated.
       “That’s the way to talk. That’s the Chartreuse Countess I and love. Fly the bastard’s pants off.”
       “Why over Aberdeen?”
       “The guy’s shooting may make the Army and the state police mad enough to send somebody after him.”
       “Why not just land, get out, and run?”
       “We’re in the middle of the bay, for cripes sake.”
       “The Army airfield. And there’s lots of pastureland over there, too.”
       “Sure. And that’s when he’d really nail us—gliding in on a straight path, rolling our wheels in the grass. No, just keep moving and keep dancing and hope the sumbish runs out of ammo.”
       “What do I do after Aberdeen?”
       “When you pass the Proving Ground, turn southwest and zigzag the Pennsy line, keeping your wheels just above the overhead power lines, all the way to Baltimore and Washington. That way, he won’t be able to get under you, and all that voltage will make him nervous.”
       “Well, it’ll sure make me nervous, too. Not only that: do you realize that by flying down that railroad line we’ll be heading straight into a huge jungle of prohibited areas and military defense zones?”
       “Exactly. If we ran down the bay route, we could be shot down without anybody ever knowing why. This way, the whole goddam Eastern Defense Command will be watching us and clearing the way ahead of us. And that’s why I want you to get on the horn and tell anybody who’ll listen that we’re on our way to deliver the president some documents crucial to U.S. security. Kick up as much fuss as you can. Make everybody know we’re coming, make everybody make way.”
       “How about the people on the ground? That nut is shooting real bullets. Somebody’ll get hurt.”
       “Maybe. But if we stay over the railroad, how many moms hang washes on the Pennsy? How many kids ride tricycles there?”
       She looked over her right shoulder. The Henschel was in a near-vertical bank over the Turkey Point light and leveling off for a straight, behind-the-tail pursuit that promised to close within the minute. She placed the Stearman’s nose on the Proving Ground’s checkered water tower and turned her radio to the Phillips air base traffic control frequency of 126.2.
       “Phillips ATC, Stearman one-zero-zero-three Alpha, at five-zero feet VFR on one-eight-oh. Request clearance emergency vector for Washington National. We are being pursued by armed un-ID’ed Henschel single turbo presumably flown by terrorists. Please clear ATA and alert law enforcement.”
       Her altitude was too low for reliable transmission and reception, but she’d had to make the effort. Surprisingly, the voice came back, belabored by interference but understandable.
       “Stearman one-zero-zero-three Alpha. Is this some kind of stunt—a prank? Over.”
       “Phillips ATC, stick your head out the window and see how this grabs you.”
       She had been watching the Henschel in her rearview mirror. The other machine closed to virtual point-blank range just as they leapfrogged Spesutie Island and went blattering across the airfield. With the sound of the first shots, she kicked the Stearman into a wrenching vertical bank to the right that took them in a tight, thundering, deceptively lazy 180 turn with the air base control tower as the pivot. Eruptions of concrete and turf formed wildly scattered trails across the runways and taxiways, and she was aware of a scrambling of tiny running figures and frantically circling vehicles. Her earphones were suddenly cacophonous as the tower rattled off orders to the Stearman and the Henschel to “cease and desist and land at once for consultations.
       Cap punched the button again. “Phillips ATC, Stearman one-zero-zero-three Alpha. Please clear to Washington National Special VFR. This is an emergency—a national emergency.”
       The Henschel was coming around again, but she tried to ignore it. If she didn’t sort out the traffic-control problem, they could end up in more danger from near-misses and military intercepts than from the madman in the Henschel. When it came back on the line, Phillips ATC was cool, collected, and obviously the beneficiary of some quick advice from God and the FAA.
       “Stearman one-zero-zero-three Alpha is cleared out of Phillips-Aberdeen Control Zone to east, then southwest to NAS Patuxent River, maintain Special VFR conditions at or below three thousand feet. You are reminded that central Washington is a prohibited zone.”
       “Negative, Phillips ATC. Your clearance will guarantee destruction of one-zero-zero-three Alpha and national security documents aboard, destined eyes-only for the president. Request Special VFR your zone via Middle River, Baltimore, Fort Meade, and Washington National, with special clearance all prohibited zones. Please advise all agencies that the terrorist craft is firing live ammunition and may very well cause damage and personal injury on the ground. Urge all agencies to make maximum effort to intercept and destroy terrorist aircraft, a red-and-black Henschel Dagger. I’m going to be very busy now, so this will be my last transmission.”
       For emphasis she lured the Henschel into another gunnery run while she virtually floated around the air base ATC, and she could imagine all the soldier boys diving for cover as little fountains of debris and shattered glass spouted fro tower’s facade.
       “Hey, Cap,” Sweeney grumped through the intercom “why are you screwing around here? Let’s get the show on the row damn it.”
       “I’ve been having a lot of unproductive talk with some air controllers. So I have just gone incommunicado, and if they want to shoot us down they’ll have to wait in line.”
       “So let’s go, then.”
       She headed southwest, so low over the railroad that one of the Pennsy’s silver streamliners seemed to catch up with them and match their ninety knots. The Henschel made a wide turn over Churchville, so far off it looked as if it might be headed for Canada, then, its wings glinting in the pewter-colored light below the overcast, it came for them in a long, descending rush. As the other craft closed, Cap booted the Stearman into a shallow, diving turn that put it into a virtual head-on collision course. This not only ruined the Henschel pilot’s range-setting but also forced him to voom aloft in an almost-vertical climb.
        “Way to go, kid,” Sweeney said. “Ruin his aim and his timing, he won’t shoot at all. He’s got his problems, too, especially the limits on his ammo and gas. Thank God the nut isn’t carrying air-to-air missiles. We wouldn’t last a minute.”
       “Well, we may not have to worry about missiles, but we do have to worry about the weather. It’s starting to turn stinky on us. The ceiling’s coming down, I’m feeling rain on my face, and the crosswind is so stiff I’m practically breaking the rudder pedals to compensate.”
       “Keep at it. Baltimore’s just ahead.”
       The Henschel pilot also took note of the weather, apparently, since he began to attack more urgently. Cap managed to give him a good run, but three of his machine-gun bursts connected solidly, tearing away an interplane strut, shredding the upper right wing, and smashing Sweeney’s windscreen. Two bursts that missed sent flickering tracers ahead to tear up a line of boxcars on a siding and to knock out some windows in a signal tower.
       But then they were over Baltimore, where the Pennsy did lot of its work in deep cuts and tunneling. Cap kept the ship its heading, but held one eye on I-95, which was roughly going her way and was easier to watch in all the hullaballoo than the instrument panel and its compass. The Henschel pilot seemed somewhat awed by so much big city so close below because the rearview mirror showed him to be wheeling wider on his turns and getting higher in the sky, both of which, happily, reduced do shots coming the Stearman’s way.
       Cap said, “That guy seems to be even more inexperienced at this kind of thing than I am.”
       “Right-o. We may be dumb, and we may be doing all the wrong things, and we may go to jail for a hundred years, but that guy is a mile ahead of us in all respects. He doesn’t know his ass from a bass bassoon.”
       “I wonder why that doesn’t make me feel better.”
       A rattling hail of fire ran across the lower-left wing aileron and took out a pair of landing wires. The Stearman was growing sluggish, and she thought she caught a miss in the Lycoming engine’s beat.
       She picked up the Pennsy tracks as they emerged from the southside tunneling. Throttling down to just above stalling, she settled the wheels about four millimeters above the power line spaghetti and began to wallow for the misty blob of Washington, twenty-five miles ahead.
       The Henschel made two more passes, the first of which turned the Stearman’s horizontal stablizer to flapping junk, blew away the baggage-hatch lid behind Cap’s cockpit, and riddled the top wing anew. The second came between Beltsville and College Park, and it turned Cap’s windscreen to an opaque tangle, bisected a center-section strut, and set the Lycoming to coughing and throwing brown smoke.
       “Are you okay, Sweeney?”
       “My pants are wet.”
       “Hold on. Washington National is out. I have to set this baby down.”
       The Stearman barely cleared Union Station and made a wobbling turn along Louisiana Avenue with the Henschel close bead. And then Cap lost track of chronology and precise circumstance, knowing only that the end began when the Henschel passed overhead, a shadow that screamed. She had no awareness of watching, but she must have, because her mind registered the Henschel’s mad climb over the Capitol, a darting of fire and smoke from the ground somewhere, and the red-and-black machine’s dissolution in ballooning flames and whirling debris. She felt, rather than saw, the insane rolling, over and over, that coursed down the sky to conclude in a tower of spray in mid-Potomac.
       And then they themselves were down, benumbed in a welter of wrenching and splintering and tearing. The wreckage seemed to have a mind of it own, determined to slide as far as possible along the great wide way of Pennsylvania Avenue, committed to sending cars over sidewalks and pedestrians shrieking into doorways, over walls, and up trees.
       A silence. Deep, total.
       Then a pattering of rain. Heavy drops, wet, splattering on the torn fabric and steaming metal.
       Sweeney’s voice: “Did you bring an umbrella?”

Copyright © 1992 and 2008 by Jack D. Hunter.  All rights reserved.  No part of this document may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.

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