Loyle glanced up at the roof. "Hang in there, sweetheart!" he muttered.
Crawford glanced quickly to his left, then to his right, sizing up his situation.
A pair of autogyrosone to port, one to starboardhad him neatly boxed in, and a handful of armed pirates had just fired their first salvo. The second barrage would likely finish off the autogyro...and him with it.
Crawford grinned, as a wild notion formed in his head. He flexed his fingers and settled his grip on the stolen aerotaxi's control stick...then killed his throttle and yanked back hard, bringing his nose into the air
just as the pirates flanking him opened fire.
Crawford's sudden change in direction and thrust acted as a "brake"the autogyro seemed to hover for a moment, then dropped a half-dozen meters. The pirates, unprepared for the sudden evasion had opened fire, realizing a moment too late thatwithout Loyle's aerotaxi in the waythey were facing each other in a deadly crossfire.
For an instant, the sky over Loyle's head was filled with tongues of fire, and spent shell casings clattered off his windscreen. The pirate gunmen screamed and fell; one thug was forced to drop his weapon in order to grab for a comrade who stumbled. Both the gun and the off-balance pirate fell from the open autogyro cabin.
None of the pirates were in any condition to open fire again...at least for the moment.
Crawford firewalled his throttle, moving back into the pursuit of what he had come to think of as "his" quarrythe aerotaxi that had started the whole aerial chase. The pirate banked hard to starboard and headed for the Chicago Tribune Tower. The floodlit white skyscraper loomed large as Loyle closed in on his taarget.
The pirate off Crawford's starboard side stayed right with him; the high-pitched ring of a ricocheting bullet echoing through the cabin. Damn...one gunman left on that bird, he thought.
Loyle stayed glued to the tail of his target. With only fifty yards now separating them, the pirate suddenly banked hard to the left, snapping around the side of the tower.
Without warning, the gyro on Loyle's left roared ahead, then pulled hard to the right, cutting off his path. Loyle hauled back on the aerotaxi's throttle and yanked the stick hard to the right. The gyro's nose came around sharply, pointing directly at the side of the other aerotaxi. Working in tandem, the two pirate craft had cut Loyle off.
Reacting with the instincts and reflexes of a seasoned combat pilot, Loyle stamped down hard on the right rudder pedal and jammed the control stick forward. The nose dropped as Crawford worked feverishly to slip beneathand pastthe pirate craft.
With a horrific screech of stressed metal, the autogyro's undercarriage scraped against the concrete wall of the tower. One of the aerotaxi's windows shattered as the battered aircraft slid down the side of the building; a tire burst with a loud bang. As the ground rushed up to meet him, Loyle struggled with the controls to bring the aerotaxi under control.
As the engine redlined, the main rotor suddenly bit hard into the air and the gyro's nose came up again. Close call, he thought. Too damn close.
Loyle banked hard around to the right and sent his autogyro back underneath his two pirate "escorts," back the way he had come.
"Nice try, fellas!" he growled.
Crawford scanned the skies for the autogyro he was pursuing. With all the floodlights around the tower, his trained eyes quickly picked up the trail of black smoke billowing from "his" pirate.
Seconds later, Loyle slotted into position on the gyro's port side. The pirateapparently distracted by the problems with his enginehadn't yet reacted to Crawford's arrival.
Crawford grinned. Finally, he thought. I've finally caught a break. He eased the aerotaxi closer to the struggling pirate autogyro
and scrambled to regain control as his own aircraft pitched wildly. The cabin was filled with the roar of another engine and a loud "thud" echoed through the cockpit.
Loyle cursed, craning his head around to look over his left shoulder, searching for the source of the noiseand prayed it wasn't a rocket hit.
"Damn it," he muttered. He spied one of the pirate autogyros, holding position only feet from the side of Loyle's aerotaxi. One false move and the two rotor blades would shred each other. That explained the source of the engine noise. But, he thought, what the hell hit me?
Suddenly, Loyle was ripped from his seat by a pair of strong hands. He was dragged into the passenger cabin of the aerotaxi and found himself face to face with a scar-faced pirate. The goon clenched his fist and launched a bone-jarring punch that landed squarely on Loyle's chin.
Stunned by the blow, Loyle staggered back a couple of steps, teetering on the edge of the open cabin doorway. He overbalanced and fell backwards out of the cabin
and, with a desperate, flailing grab, he caught hold of the aerotaxi's landing strut.
Loyle clung to the cold metal, struggling to fight off the effects of the roaring wind and the rising panic that threatened to overwhelm him. The icy wind and the oily smoke from the lead gyro brought tears to his eyes, and the muscles in his arms ached in protest as he was buffeted mercilessly. He cried out in pain as the wind lifted and slammed him into the side of the aerotaxi.
Mustering all his strength, he hauled himself up until he was standing on the remains of the shattered tire at the base of the landing strut. He looked up into the cockpit; Scarface had slipped behind the controls and was staring down at Loyle, his face twisted by a malicious leer.
Loyle lost his footing and slid down the strut, desperately trying to get grab hold of something solid. He caught the wheel itself, and wrapped his arms around it tightly.
With mounting desperation, Crawford looked around for somethinganythingthat he could use to pull himself back into the comparative safety of the aerotaxi cabin.
He swung his legs up and wrapped his feet around the strut again, hanging half-inverted for a terrifying moment. Crawford forced himself to concentrate on his footing, ignoring the ground rushing past beneath him.
Inch by agonizing inch, he pulled himself closer to the cabin door.
The second gyro pulled in close, and Crawford saw a pirate standing on the running board, grasping the safety rail that went across the top of the open cabin door. Loyle heard him yell something into a radio microphone.
Scarface looked down from the cockpit, snarling in frustration that Loyle was still there. The pirate peered intently at Crawford, clearly trying to figure out how to dislodge the Empire State pilot. Scarface spoke rapidly into the cockpit radio-microphone as he struggled to fly the aerotaxi, keep tabs on Loyle, and coordinate with his partners.
Quicklytoo quicklythe pirates decided on a course of action. The trailing autogyro dropped altitude, moving into position beneath Loyle's precarious perch, maybe forty feet below and slightly to port. Scarface slowed his autogyro to a relative crawl, and began to pitch the aircraft back and forth.
With dawning horror, Crawford realized the pirates' plan: to send him plummeting from his precarious perch...and into the spinning rotor blades below.
Crawford looked around frantically, searching for any way out. In the distance, a few miles past a nearby skyscraper, he could see Zachary's autogyro, zooming towards him.
No good, he thought. He's too far away.
There was no more time to think. The autogyro below hadn't yet made it into position; the pilot was playing it cautious, since the downdraft from the lead autogyro's rotor made maintaining control difficult; the autogyro inched to starboard.
In seconds, though, the combination of Scarface's violent maneuvers and the buffeting of the wind would send Crawford hurtling to his death.
Crawford quickly gauged wind, speed, distance
and leaped from the strut.
The wind rushed past Loyle as he fell.
He could see the ground rising to meet him...
...and the autogyro below, still slightly to port, but moving to starboard and narrowing the gap between her rotor blades and Crawford's descent path...
...and the menacing, silvery reflection of light from the forward edges of the autogyro's rotor blade, reaching for him hungrily...
...and then he was past the rotor, unharmed.
He slammed into the landing gear of the aerotaxi with a jarring crash that sent pain rocketing through Crawford's legs, arms and chest. He clutched the landing strut desperately, ignoring the agony that blossomed in his battered body.
I don't believe it, he thought wearily. It actually worked.
Fighting to ignore the pain, Loyle reached up and grabbed the leg of the pirate standing on the running board.
Crawford used the pirate's leg as an anchor, and flung himself into the cabin, dropping the pirate to his knees. The pirate struggled briefly, and moved to shove Loyle back out the door. Crawford regained his footing just in time; he dodged aside, and slammed his fist into the pirate's jaw. The pirate, still struggling to stand, lost his balance...and fell out the cabin door. Screaming in panic, the man disappeared into the darkness.
Crawford quickly sized up his surroundings. On the floor were the remains of the pirate gunmen, killed in the crossfire of their failed ambush. He pushed aside one of the bodies and grabbed the man's fallen Tommy gun, racking the bolt to make sure there was a round in the chamber.
He glanced to the fore, at the clear divider between the pilot and the passenger cabin. The pilot hadn't noticed that Crawford was aboard and armed...yet.
Crawford burst through the access hatch into the cockpit and slammed the butt of the Tommy gun into the side of the pilot's head with a sickening crunch.
Loyle pushed the unconscious pilot aside unceremoniously, and took control of the autogyro.
Crawford could see the autogyro he had just fallen out of, still forty feet above him, and he could hear Scarface calling into the radio: "Did you get him? Is he dead?"
"Not quite, you bastard," Crawford radioed back. "You'll have to try harder."
Crawford sent his new autogyro into a sharp climb, deftly working the rudder pedals and stick. Scarface was slow to react, andunprepared for the blast of downdraft from Crawford's rotorlost control of the aerotaxi.
The gyro slammed into the side of a nearby building, exploding in a huge fireball. Fragments of molten metal and shattered glass sprayed across Crawford's canopy as the pirate's aircraft crumpled, tumbled and fell to earth.
The radio call light flickered, and Zachary's amazed voice crackled across the airwaves:
"Loyle, my friend...that was, hands-down, the damndest thing I've ever seen."