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The Twisted Cross
By Mack Maloney
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1989 Mack Maloney
All rights reserved.
The three F-4 Phantom jet fighters attacked the unarmed airliner without warning.
"Take evasive action!" the pilot of the Boeing 727 yelled to his crew even as the first of the green-camouflaged attackers laid a burst of cannon fire across the bigger airplane's starboard wing.
"Jesus! Where did they come from?" the airliner's navigator cried, trying to get an exact fix on their position.
No one answered him. The 727 pilot was too busy putting the big plane into an evasive dive; the co-pilot was punching buttons on his radio.
"Mayday! Mayday!" the second-in-command screamed into his mike. "This is civilian charter Flight 889 ... We are under attack by three fighters ... approximate position, fifteen nautical miles south of Memphis ... at fifteen thousand feet ..."
Suddenly the air was filled with the horrible sounds of screaming jet engines and cannon fire. The second F-4 roared in on the airliner head-on, its nose gun blazing wildly. The 727 pilot yanked the big airplane to the right, limiting the Phantom's hits, but still sustaining damage to the airliner's portside engine cowling.
All the while the copilot continued to put out his distress call. "Mayday! Mayday!" he yelled with no small amount of panic in his voice. "Any friendly aircraft in the area ... We are being attacked by three fighters ... identity unknown ... Any friendly aircraft in the area, please assist us!"
The pilot put the 727 into yet another gut-wrenching maneuver in an effort to avoid the third Phantom now peeling off to begin its strafing run. The copilot never stopped broadcasting his frantic SOS calls. But the navigator knew it was hopeless. A quick check of his radar screen told him that besides the three attackers and themselves, there were no other aircraft—friendly or otherwise—within twenty miles of them.
"Call back to the passengers," the pilot yelled over to the copilot while pulling the 727 out of a steep bank. "Tell them to prepare for a crash ..."
The copilot immediately switched his radio to internal and quickly relayed the pilot's message back to the airliner's 86 terrified passengers.
Just then the third F-4 found the 727's cockpit in its sights and unleashed a long barrage of cannon fire.
The shells ripped into the airliner's flight deck, puncturing the copilot's left shoulder, smashing the navigator's legs and knocking both men unconscious. At the same time, the pilot was hit in the face with a shower of broken glass from the instrument panel shattered by the cannonfire.
Suddenly the cockpit was awash in oil, hydraulic fluid and blood. Through stinging, blurry eyes, the pilot could see the three F-4s regrouping off to his left.
"One more pass and we're going down ..." he whispered grimly to himself. Already the 727 was dangerously losing altitude. The Phantoms had succeeded in blasting away the airliner's port wing stabilizers and damaging its centerline tail engine. It was all the pilot could do to keep the big airplane from flipping over.
He looked over at his bleeding crewmen and thought "Only a miracle can save us now ..."
The pilot managed to plunge the 727 into a large cloud bank, all the while knowing it would not be enough to shake his attackers. The airliner was trailing a long line of black smoke that any pilot with two eyes could follow. As soon as he emerged from the cumulus, he saw one of the F-4s had streaked up and over the cloud bank and was now bearing down on him at 10 o'clock. Already he could see the nose of the Phantom light up with the telltale signs of the cannon's muzzle fire.
"This is it ..." he said, resigned to his fate.
Suddenly, the onrushing F-4 exploded ...
The 727 pilot shook his head once, just to make sure he wasn't already dead and dreaming. In the next instant, he had to jar the airliner hard to port to avoid colliding with the high-speed flaming debris that seconds before was an intact enemy Phantom.
"What the hell is going on here?" he yelled looking back at the hurtling wreckage, the slightest hint of hope running through him.
He managed to pull it out of its hard bank and level out at 5000 feet. His aircraft was still smoking heavily and his muscles were snapping from the strain of holding it right side up.
But he was still airborne ...
Just then he saw one of the two remaining Phantoms streak underneath him and pull up on his left, nose gun blazing. The 727 pilot's heart sank, realizing his death sentence had merely been postponed.
But then, just as his life began to flash before his eyes for the second time in less than a minute, this F-4 also exploded into a ball of yellow-blue flame. Once more he had to put the 727 into a steep dive to avoid smashing into the flaming wreck of the second Phantom.
Having dodged the bullet twice, the pilot was now determined to at least make a controlled crash landing. He reached over and tried to shake his copilot out of his unconscious state. But it was no use—the man's shoulder was practically shot off and he was bleeding heavily. And if anything, his navigator was in worse shape.
Just then, the third F-4 appeared directly overhead. As the 727 pilot struggled with his controls, he watched in horror as the Phantom peeled off sharply and dove right for him.
"This guy ain't going to miss ..." the airline jockey thought.
Already the F-4 was firing—the muzzle flashes from its nose seemed to take on an angry look, vengeance for his two downed comrades. The first few cannon shells began peppering the windshield of the airliner, sending another spray of broken glass and hydraulic fluid into the pilot's face.
Now nearly blind, the 727 pilot was suddenly aware of another airplane, this one off to his right. In an instant he knew it was not an F-4. It was smaller, delta-winged and painted in a distinct red-white-and-blue color scheme.
Just on the verge of passing out himself, the 727 pilot saw this new airplane streak right across his flight path and turn in a screaming climb to meet the oncoming F-4. Now it was this mystery airplane's nose cannons that lit up—and with six times the intensity of the F-4.
The Phantom tried to pull out of its strafing dive, but in doing so, exposed its unprotected underside to the awesome cannon barrage from the other jet fighter.
It was over in a matter of seconds ...
This time there was no flaming wreckage to avoid. The Phantom was simply obliterated.
Still unaware who the life-saving Good Samaritan was, the pilot once again tried to rouse his copilot. This time the man responded, though groggily.
"Can you get hold of the controls, even with one hand?" the pilot asked him. "We're only twenty minutes out from New Orleans."
The copilot did as he was told, trying not to look at his wounded shoulder.
"What happened?" he asked, his face a mask of shock and puzzlement.
"I'm not sure," the pilot said as he grabbed the radio mike and started broadcasting to New Orleans tower. "But someone up here likes us ..."
The 727 came in for a smoky, but successful wheels-up landing at the New Orleans' International Airport. Emergency crews surrounded the airplane immediately, washing it down with foam as its passengers leaped, walked or crawled out of the wreckage.
Despite the hundreds of cuts on and about his face, the pilot helped the rescue crews extricate his copilot and navigator before accepting any medical attention himself. He was sitting on the back bumper of an emergency van, talking to the base doctor when he finally took stock of what had just happened.
"We were jumped by three fighters ..." he told the doctor. "They had us dead to rights. Then suddenly, the first two just blew up—boom! boom! ..."
"Blew up or were shot down?" the doctor asked him as he cleaned out the pilot's nastiest cuts.
"Well, that's just it," the 727 pilot said, just now enjoying the indescribable rush of realization that he was still alive. "There was another airplane out there. The guy got the third Phantom with a shot that I didn't think was possible. He put his jet into a screamer of a climb. It must have had six Goddamn cannons in its nose. All of them firing. Smoke. Fire. Jesus, it was unbelievable!"
A military officer from the airport's security forces had joined them by this time and had heard the pilot's story.
"What did this other airplane look like?" the officer asked. "What color was it?"
The 727 pilot, still jittery from the ordeal, had to stop and think a moment.
"It was all painted up ... it was red, white and blue," he said finally. "It looked like a delta-type wing. But I've never seen an airplane like it. Ever ..."
The doctor wrapped a bandage around the pilot's head, covering his left eye and ear.
"Red, white and blue, you say?" the military man asked. "You sure?"
The pilot nodded, gingerly feeling the wounds under his bandage.
"And it was a flashy, souped-up kind of delta-wing?"
Again, the pilot nodded.
The officer looked at the doctor and shrugged. "Could it be?" he asked the physician.
The doctor shook his head. "If you mean who I think you mean ..."
The pilot looked up at the two men. "Who are you talking about?" he asked.
Just then, as if to answer his question, all three of them heard a high whining sound, the unmistakable call of a jet fighter. Shielding their eyes against the hot Louisiana sun, they saw a jet fighter streak over the base and turn for a landing. The airplane was a delta-wing design and was painted in red, white and blue.
"Well, I'll be damned ..." the military man said. "We're finally going to get to meet him in person ..."
"Meet who?" the pilot said, his voice tinged with exasperation.
"Meet your guardian angel," the doctor told him. "You guys just got your asses saved by the guy they call Wingman ..."CHAPTER 2
The military commander in charge of security of New Orleans International Airport was a Cajun named Hugo St. Germain. A former officer of the Texas Republican Army, The Saint served as governor, protector, confessor and all-around fix-it man for the parishes surrounding the city they still called the The Big Easy.
Huey was also a friend of General Dave Jones, the commander of the United American Army, whose forces had two months before finally destroyed the hated Circle Army and its Soviet backers in a series of climactic battles that stretched from the Mississippi River to Washington, DC. The Saint was the only person at the New Orleans airport who knew that Jones's right hand man, Major Hawk Hunter—the famous Wingman himself—was flying in. He was not surprised when he learned that Hunter had saved the 727 airliner from the bushwhacking F-4s.
Now Hunter sat before him in Huey's executive airport offices, diving into a big bowl of gumbo.
"Who were they, Hawk?" Huey asked, digging into his own bowl of gumbo. "Organized air pirates? Or just freelance troublemakers?"
Hunter wiped his mouth with a large cloth napkin and took a swig of his beer.
"Hard to say," he answered, his mouth still half full. "There was something strange about them. You don't see many pirate gangs flying something as sophisticated as Phantoms. Yet, these days, who knows?"
He took another mouthful of the stew and added: "Also there were actually four of them."
"Four?" Huey asked. "Really?"
Hunter nodded. "One of them stayed way out of the fight, twenty-five miles away," he said. "I'm sure he was off the airliner's radar screen. After I took care of first three, I lit out after him, but he was gone in a shot. A good flyer, too. He went down to the hard deck, real quick—treetop level. Then, by the time I picked him up on my long-range APG radar, he was climbing at a 45-degree clip, heading south.
"I was low on gas and figured I'd best keep that airliner in front of me, just in case ..."
"Well, we sure appreciate the help," Huey said. "We're lucky you came along when you did. Any idea who was riding in that 727?"
Hunter shook his head between swigs of beer. He hadn't thought about it before. He had just assumed the airliner was on a routine civilian hop.
"It was our Goddamn football squad," Huey said, his voice a mixture of anxiety and relief. "They were coming back from a try-out at Football City. Christ, if they had gone down, this city would have been throwing funerals for a month ..."
Another wipe of his mouth and Hunter asked: "What were they doing flying without an escort?"
Huey shook his head. "Beats me," he said. "We sponsored the team's flight up there and back. And I personally gave the pilot enough cash to buy protection round-trip ..."
Hunter shrugged. "He probably lost it all in the casinos," he said. "Or at the cathouses ..."
Football City, formerly St. Louis, was now the continent's gambling mecca. It got its name from the fact that just after World War III, an enterprising Texan named Louie St. Louie, had an enormous 500,000 seat stadium built and instituted a 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year football match to be played between two 500-member, free-substituting teams. Bets could be made on any increment of the game—from the quarters up to the entire year's match—and the resulting revenues proved incredible.
Trouble was, many of the criminal elements around the continent—all of them Soviet-backed—became envious of the good thing St. Louie had going. Thus Football City had already been the scene of several full-scale battles and one authentic war, all in its short four-year history. But now with the United Americans in control, however tenuous, of both the eastern and western portions of the continent, things were beginning to return to normal in Football City.
The good news is that the team did really well up there," Huey said, scooping up the last few spoonfuls of his stew. "Played their asses off ..."
Hunter drained his beer. "I heard they were going to start exhibition games up there," he said. "Glad to hear your boys did well."
Just then a thought came to The Saint. "Hey, Hawk," he said cautiously. "You don't think those F-4s were sent after my guys as part of some, you know, gambling scam, do you?"
"You mean, eliminate your opponent off the field?" the pilot asked.
"Yeah, something like that," Huey replied, his round face sagging in worry.
Hunter dismissed the notion immediately. "No, I doubt that was the case," he said, reassuring the stout little man. "First of all, the Football City Secret Service is the best on the continent. If someone was planning to carry a football grudge that far—as in trying to shoot down the other team—those guys would uncover it quicker than you could say 'Hike!' Then, knowing St. Louie like I do, he'd launch an air strike on that team's training base that would blast them back to playing tiddlywinks."
"I'm glad to hear that," Huey said. "Hate to think someone wanted to ice our boys. Maybe you don't know it, but they also double as our Rapid Deployment Force. You know, like a SWAT team to handle snipers, bomb threats, hostage crises, things like that. They're good. Damn good. Especially in skyscraper work. For some reason, these guys just love to work in tall buildings. And the way things are in town these days, I'd hate to lose a gang like that."
He poured himself another beer from the pitcher on the table and refilled Hunter's glass as well.
"I'm certain those Phantom-jocks out there today were just looking for trouble," Hunter said. "I could tell by the way they were acting. They certainly didn't hit your airliner when it was totally to their advantage. It was almost as if your guy just happened to come along ..."
"Then they were air pirates?" Huey asked, another look of worry coming over him. They hadn't had any major air pirate activity in his neck of the woods in more than a year.
"Again, I doubt it," Hunter said. "These guys were more organized than a pirate crew. That's what was so weird about it. Besides having this fourth airplane watching over them, they were really right on the beam. They went for individual attacks. One at a time. Not the swarm tactics that pirates use.
"And these guys were shooting to kill. Not like pirates, who just want to disable you first, force you to their airbase so they can rob you."
The Saint wiped his brow with authentic relief. "As far as I know, the 727 crew didn't get any warnings over the radio from the attackers."
"See?" Hunter asked. "These guys weren't your usual air thieves. They wanted something else."
"Such as?" Huey asked.
"Maybe to send a message," Hunter said with a shrug. "Though just what message that may be, I don't know."
Hugo lit his pipe and changed the subject. "Can I ask just what it is you are down here for?"
Excerpted from Wingman by Mack Maloney. Copyright © 1989 Mack Maloney. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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