Read an Excerpt
The Lucifer Crusade
By Mack Maloney
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1987 Mack Maloney
All rights reserved.
The F-4 phantom jet fighter touched down on the deserted runway and taxied towards a nearby row of hangars.
Just off the landing strip, next to the aircraft parking area, the remains of a MiG-21 were still burning. Another MiG had crashed through the roof of one of the hangars, and the resulting fire had burned down half the building. Still another Soviet fighter had crashed into the base's only radar antenna, scattering pieces of the huge, once-revolving dish all over the tarmac.
Smoke from the three smoldering fighters had spread out over the small airbase like a dark and dirty fog.
The F-4 came to a halt in front of the burning hangar and its pilot popped the airplane's canopy. Standing up in the open cockpit, Captain "Crunch" O'Malley removed his flight helmet and looked around.
"Welcome to the Azores," he muttered.
Crunch's rear-seat weapons officer, a lieutenant named Elvis, also stood up and surveyed the damage. "Do you think he's been here?" he asked Crunch.
"Well, we got three MiGs shot down here and two more burning on the beach," Crunch said. "All apparently iced by one person. Only one pilot I know that could do that."
Then Elvis noticed an odd thing: through the smoke and next to the burning hangar, he could see a man tied to a chair. "Captain," he said pointing toward the bound and gagged man. "Who the hell is that?"
The two pilots climbed out of the F-4 and cautiously walked toward the man. Crunch was armed with an M-16, Elvis with a 9mm pistol.
The man sat silently as they approached. The only noise was the jet's engine winding down and the crackling of the three MiG fires. Directly above, the noon sun was beating down unmercifully.
Crunch took out a knife and immediately cut off the man's gag.
"Gracias, señor," the man gasped, taking a quick succession of deep breaths. He was about sixty years old, with a slight build and wearing the sweaty remains of a mechanic's overall. The two pilots, themselves clad in sleek dark-blue flight suits, towered over him.
"How long you been here, Pops?" Crunch asked, hesitating to undo the ropes holding the man's hands and feet to the chair.
"Two days," the old man answered, with a slight accent. "They come. Wreck my home. Wreck the base. Look at that hangar. It's ruined. Burnt. I'm an old man. I cannot repair it myself."
"Who wrecked this place?" Crunch asked, deciding the man was harmless enough to untie. He quickly undid the ropes.
"Air pirates. Russians. I don't know," the man answered, rubbing his wrists made raw by the twine.
"Russians?" Elvis asked, catching Crunch's eye.
"Si," the man said, stretching his arms and legs. "Russian air pirates. Bounty hunters. They land here, three days ago. Five MiGs. They don't call ahead. They don't contact me in control tower. They just land, with no permission. Steal my fuel. Steal my food."
"This sounds interesting," Crunch said, wryly. "Go on, Pops, tell us the whole story."
"Start by telling us who you are and what the hell you're doing here alone," Elvis added.
"My name is Diego de la Crisco," the craggy-faced man began. "I run this base. Used to be four hundred men. Now just me. Airplanes, flying from America, used to stop here all the time. For fuel, food, ammo. Now not as much. But those who stop, I sell to them food. Fuel. Maybe fix an engine blade sometimes.
"Three days ago, the MiGs came. The pilots, they bust in, slap me around. Keep me locked up. They don't talk my language, but I can tell they are waiting for someone."
"Who's that someone?" Crunch asked.
"The American pilot," the man said. "He is my friend. He saved me. He is the man who shot them all down."
Crunch and Elvis exchanged winks. "Go on, Diego," Crunch said.
"The MiG pilots," he continued, "they knew the American was coming. They are very excited as there is a reward for shooting down the American's airplane. They wait until he shows up on radar, then they take off, all five of them. They plan beforehand how they will attack him. Like an ambush.
"Ah, but the American, he's way too smart for the MiGs. He knows somehow they are waiting for him. He has more Sidewinders on his jet than anyone I have ever seen. The MiGs jump him, right over the base. But he flies like a demon. Twisting. Turning. Diving. One minute he's here. Next second, way over there. One by one, he blasts all five MiGs from the sky. I watch the whole thing, cheering. My throat still stings I cheer so much. Trouble is, the wrecked MiGs, they fall on my base."
"After the battle, did this American land here?" Crunch asked.
"Well, of course, señor," Diego said, slightly taken aback. "This American is now a very good friend of mine."
"Did he tell you what his name was?" Elvis asked.
"Yes," the old man said with a sly smile. "But I know who he is before he even lands his airplane. I have heard of this American pilot. He flies a red, white, and blue jet. The powerful F-16. I know my airplanes. I know no one flies the F-16 anymore, except for this American."
"Was his name Hawk Hunter?" Crunch asked.
"Si, señor," the man said excitedly. "But I know him by his other name. He's the pilot they call The Wingman."
Crunch and Elvis looked at each other and nodded.
"The Wingman stays only a day," Diego went on. "Then he says he must go."
"So, if you and he are such good friends," Elvis asked, "who tied you up here?"
"The others, señor," Diego said, anger coming back into his voice. "The others land hours after Hawk Hunter leaves. They too are looking for him."
"Who were these 'others'?" Crunch asked. "More Russians? Were they flying Russian jet fighters?"
"No," Diego answered. "They come in only one airplane. An American P-3. Big, four propeller engines. Old US Navy. But these men are not Americans. They are Arabs, I think. The plane is painted all black. I know they stole it somewhere."
"And they were also looking for Hunter?" Elvis asked.
"Yes," Diego continued. "They come and they slap me around. I'm an old man. I can't take all this. They are mad that Hunter has shot down the MiGs. These men have paid for the MiGs to shoot down Hunter. Now they are mad that it is the MiGs that have crashed."
"So they tied you up and left you out here?" Crunch asked.
"Si, si, señor," Diego said, spitting for emphasis. "They are pigs. They could have just shot me. But they leave me to die the slow death. But I knew that either Hunter or his friends would rescue me."
"What else did these other men say?" Elvis asked.
Diego shook his head. "They say a big battle is soon to happen. Out in the eastern Mediterranean. Out in the desert. These men, like the MiGs—they are on the bad side. But they are afraid."
"Afraid?" asked Crunch. "Afraid of what?"
A wide smile creased Diego's face. "They are afraid, señor, that they will have to fight Hunter."
They gave Diego some food packs from the F-4 and also a cask of brandy they always carried. The old man ate heartily and drained the brandy, then immediately went to sleep. Retreating to the base's control tower, Crunch and Elvis discussed their mission so far.
They were looking for Hawk Hunter. He, like they, belonged to the Pacific American Air Corps, the air defense arm for the territory formerly known as the states of California, Washington, and Oregon. Hunter was one of PAAC's commanders, and in a strict military sense their commanding officer. But he was more their friend than anything else, and an unusual friend at that. Formerly a pilot in the Air Force demonstration team known as the Thunderbirds, Hunter was also a genius (certified at a young age), a doctor of aeronautics (at seventeen, being the youngest student ever to graduate MIT), and had trained to pilot the Space Shuttle.
He was also widely regarded as the best fighter pilot who had ever lived ...
There were many stories about how Hunter had fought so bravely in World War III. But no one was more bitter than he when America was tricked into signing an armistice with the Soviet Union—supposedly to end World War III, a non-nuclear struggle that the US and NATO had won on the battlefield of Western Europe. But no sooner was the ink dry on the treaty—and the traitorous US Vice-President safely transported to Moscow—when the Kremlin ordered a devastating surprise nuclear strike against the center of the American continent. It was the most dastardly sneak attack in the history of mankind.
Mortally wounded, the US had no choice but to accept Russia's terms. The punishment was called The New Order. Its major demands had the US Armed Forces immediately disarmed and their weapons destroyed. Then the US itself was dismembered—broken up into a mishmash of countries, republics, and free territories. Dividing the continent down the middle was The Badlands, the radioactive netherworld that stretched from Oklahoma to the Dakotas, courtesy of the Soviet ICBMs.
Ever since they were broken up, the many American states and countries had frequently been at war with one another—wars started in large part by Soviet agents and their agitating terrorist allies. The latest battle had pitted the democratic forces of the West against a Soviet-infiltrated, cultish Eastern army known as The Circle. The leader of The Circle had been a Soviet agent named Viktor Robotov. Hunter had successfully led the air forces for the West in defeating The Circle, despite the fact that Viktor's Russian allies had secretly infiltrated thousands of SAM antiaircraft batteries and troops into the American Badlands.
The victory was a costly one for the West, though. Many major cities as well as small towns had been destroyed in the fighting. The vital air trade routes between Free Canada and Los Angeles—plied by convoys of airliners now turned into cargo carriers—had been disrupted for a long period of time. Shortages of all kinds had been felt on both sides.
What was worse, thousands of Americans on both sides had died in the civil war. And this was the real reason Viktor and the Kremlin had started The Circle War. Their aim was to continue the distablization of America, thus forestalling any notions that the American states and territories might have about reuniting and carrying out their revenge on Mother Russia.
But the fighting aside, The Circle War had had a very personal effect on Hawk Hunter. Before the war broke out, Viktor had kidnapped the pilot's true love, a stunning Bardot look-alike named Dominique. He had drugged her, forced himself on her, and used her viciously—through a kind of pornographic psychological warfare—to control his Circle troops. Hunter had finally rescued Dominique, literally crashing in on a party being given for Viktor atop one of New York City's World Trade Center buildings. Once she was safe, Hunter had made arrangements for her to live in the relative security of Free Canada.
But he could not let Viktor get away with his crime. The man had violated the two things that meant the most to Hunter—his country and his woman. Hunter had vowed to track Viktor down.
He was gone the day the war ended. Somehow, he had gotten to New York City and retrieved his F-16 from its hiding place at the abandoned JFK Airport. Then he had set out across the Atlantic in pursuit of Viktor. Crunch and Elvis had no idea how Hunter knew Viktor had headed for the Mediterranean after The Circle War ended. He just knew. The fact was that Hunter had been born with an amazing aptitude for ESP. Hunter's extraordinary abilities were particularly acute in detecting enemy aircraft. Besides being the ultimate fighter pilot, Hunter was also a kind of human radar. But he also had an astounding sixth sense about many things. Knowing where Viktor fled to after the war was one of them.
Everyone—from the Russians to the PAAC pilots to the air pirates that roamed the North American skies—knew that a man of such intelligence and skill as Hunter was an automatic threat to those who ran The New Order. These Soviet puppets, firmly ensconced in the Bahamas, had put a price of $500 million on Hunter's head. He was wanted—dead or alive—for "crimes against The New Order." Crimes such as carrying an American flag. Or espousing reunification of the states. Or even uttering the words "United States of America."
But Hunter had decided long ago that if these were the kinds of crimes that made The New Order put a price on his head, then he would continue to commit them freely and openly.
Besides, the amount of money a bounty hunter could get for his hide was source of amusement for the pilot. He would tell people that he wasn't worth even half that much.
He was, however, very valuable to PAAC and all the democratic peoples who wanted to reunite America again. That's why his overall commander at PAAC, General Dave Jones, had sent Crunch and Elvis after Hunter. Crunch and Elvis made up one half of a free-lance F-4 fighter unit known as the Ace Wrecking Company. They were, in effect, under contract to PAAC. So General Jones was their employer. Jones knew Crunch, a veteran F-4 Phantom pilot from way back, was best suited for the mission. At best he and Elvis could convince Hunter to return to America. At worst, they could give him protection in his search for Viktor.
But they would have to find him first.
"Well, we know he was here in the Azores two and a half days ago," Crunch said, looking at a large map of the Atlantic and Mediterranean. "He could be in Portugal, Gibraltar, maybe North Africa by now."
"Well, he had no trouble icing those MiGs," Crunch said, shaking his head in admiration. "Maybe he doesn't need any help in tracking down Viktor either."
"Well, I agree that Hunter is the best to ever fly, and so he's very valuable to PAAC right now," Elvis said. "But I also know him pretty well, as you do, captain. And when he gets something set in his mind, it's impossible to talk him out of it. Viktor fooled with his lady big time. Screwed up the country too. That's playing with fire as far as Hawk is concerned. I don't blame him for going after Viktor. And he could probably track down the creep better if he is alone."
Crunch ran his fingers through his hair, then continued. "Hunter's a good friend of mine and a good friend to all the guys in PAAC. But Jones is the boss. He says find him and drag him back. So we find him."
"Well, it's not the finding him that will be difficult," Elvis said. "It's the 'dragging him back' part that worries me."CHAPTER 2
The skies over Casablanca were busy the night Hunter arrived.
He had seen the lights of the city from seventy miles out, reflecting off the atmosphere and the nearby Atlantic. Now, as he descended from 55,000 feet, the city's blue-green glare got brighter, shining out like a beacon on the otherwise pitch-black Moroccan coastline.
Fifty miles out, he brought his F-16 down to wavetop level and throttled back to a 350-mph crawl. The jet fighter's terrain-radar-acquisition system had painted an infrared picture of the city's airport onto one of his control panel's TV screens and he had been studying it with much interest.
He had assumed that the airport—and the city—would be deserted. But just the opposite was true. In fact, there were so many airplanes circling Casablanca, it looked like a typical stack-up over Chicago's O'Hare in the old days.
Suddenly, his radio crackled.
"Casablanca control to approaching aircraft," a high-pitched voice sang over the static. "We have you on our radar screens. You are on an unauthorized landing pattern. Break off! Break off!"
Hunter calmly pushed his radio transmission button. "Casablanca Control, this is an aircraft of the Pacific American Air Corps. I am requesting emergency landing clearance. I am low on fuel."
"Break off," the shrillish reply came back. "We are at over-capacity. Our airspace is at the critical point. We have no open landing zone for you. You are unauthorized."
Hunter checked his instruments. He was twelve miles off the coast. He tapped the back of the throttle bar twice, slowing the F-16 down further.
"Casablanca Control, I am down to a hundred pounds of fuel. I must land."
"We have no fuel for you," the air controller came back. "You are unauthorized ..."
Hunter was carefully watching the action over the airport on his TV screen. The aircraft were stacked up ten high over the airport. More than forty airplanes at various altitudes were traveling around and around on the same lazy circling pattern. At the same time, other aircraft were taking off every thirty seconds from the airport's single runway.
Excerpted from Wingman by Mack Maloney. Copyright © 1987 Mack Maloney. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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