Stripped of Honor!
- A Tale of the Broadway Bombers -
By Geoff Skellams
Chapter Twelve: Incriminating Evidence
Loyle Crawford slapped switches on the autogyro control panel, shutting the engine down. Nearby, a second autogyropiloted by Nathan Zacharycoasted to a stop. He breathed a sigh of relief, wincing as a hot knife of pain shot through his chest. Broken ribs, he thought. I got off pretty light considering a fell off an autogyro...in flight.
He gingerly stepped out of the cockpit, and waved a greeting to Zachary.
"You look like hell, Loyle," Zachary said.
"Yeah, well, it's been a long night," he replied.
Crawford slid open the passenger cabin door on the autogyro, revealing the unconscious form of a pirate. "When Cinderella here wakes up, let's see if we can get to the bottom of this mess."
"Rise and shine, pal."
The pirate groaned and shook his head groggily, as Zachary stepped back and pocketed the small vial of smelling salts. The pirate blearily eyed his surroundings, until his gaze fell on Loyle Crawford.
Or, rather, on the gun in Crawford's hand.
The three men were in a dingy warehouse on the outskirts of Chicago; Zachary had flown them there and picked the lock. "This place is usually deserted at this hour," he had said, refusing to elaborate further.
The pirate stared balefully at Crawford, defiant through the pain in his head. "You gonna shoot me, flyboy? Do your worst."
"Oh, we can do a lot worse than shoot you," Zachary said, stepping into the pirate's field of view.
"Zachary? What the hell are you doing here?"
"Getting some answers, Drake," Zachary answered.
"You know this guy?" Crawford asked, puzzled.
"We know some of the same people."
"Yeah, well," Drake growled, "that may be, but I've got nothin' to say...to either of you."
Crawford thumbed back the hammer on the pistol, and the oily, metallic sound of the mechanism reverberated menacingly through the dark warehouse. "You sure about that?" he said coldly.
"That gun don't scare me, Crawford," the pirate sneered. "You're too much of a do-gooder to shoot me in cold blood...and you're nothin' when you ain't behind the stick of a fighter."
Crawford took a step forward, angrily moving towards the pirate, but Zachary stopped him with an outstretched hand. "Now, now, Loyle. Manners."
"Give me one good reason why shouldn't I beat the tar out of this creep?" Loyle shot back.
"Because, it would be...uncivilized. And its sweaty work," Zachary replied. "Besides, there are easier ways to get him to talk."
"Fat chance, Zachary," Drake muttered.
"Oh, really?" Zachary smiled. "How about I place a phone call to some mutual acquaintances? Maybe in Sky Haven or Hollywood, for instance. I could mention to Karl Regen that I ran into you...and heard you snitched to the I.S.A. cops on that payroll job last month."
"No! They'll kill me, Zachary!"
"Oh, sure...but not right away. They'll probably torture you first to get the money, Drake."
"Last I heard," Crawford chimed in, "Don De Carlo uses chainsaws on rats, doesn't he?"
Drake cursed and swore and struggled at his bonds, then, bowed to the inevitable. "All right, you miserable bastards," he growled. "I'll talk."
Crawford sat on a crate, staring blankly at the wall. Zachary stood by, quietly waiting until the Empire State pilot could collect himself.
"I don't believe it," Crawford muttered weakly. "It can't be"
"Carlton Hawthorne." finished Zachary. "It can be, and it is."
Loyle felt like he'd been kicked in the gut. "Why?"
Zachary took a long drag on his cigarette, then kicked Drake's chair. "Speak up, Drake. The man asked you a question."
Drake scowled at Zachary, then sighed with resignation. "Your buddy Hawthorne liked to bet on the air races...a real high-roller.
"A few months ago, he got in really deep with some connected fellaswise guys with contacts here in the I.S.A. and in the Empire State. The sap bit off more than he could chew. He made one too many illegal bets and ended up losing a bundle."
Loyle inhaled deeply on the cigarette, the smoke calming his nerves. "But he's from a rich family. They've got buckets of money."
Drake shook his head. "Not like this. This was an illegal bet...and it was a doozy. His family wouldn't bail him out of it. He'd lose his inheritance if the scandal was ever made public. So instead, he stole the money to pay off the loan sharks...and we caught him at it on camera, the big jerk."
"You've been blackmailing him?" Crawford growled.
"Of course we have, you dope."
"But why?" asked Loyle.
"Hey, you Broadway Bombers have been askin' for trouble. Raiding into Hell's Heights, constantly pastin' pirates in the Adirondacks...you made lots of enemies, flyboy."
Zachary nodded thoughtfully. "It makes sense, Loyle," he said. "The pirates used Hawthorne to wreck the Broadway Bombers from the inside, and break your morale. That was why he had to radio your plans to the pirates during the raid.
"I see," Crawford said. "They were hoping to force the squadron to go home empty handed...with the pirates still flying. After a few more failed missions like that, we would've fallen apart."
Crawford paused, then turned to Drake. "But that doesn't explain why I was framed."
"Hell, Crawford, you were a gift from heaven," Drake spat. "We couldn't have planned it any better. When you disobeyed orders and destroyed our airbase, you handed us an opportunity we couldn't pass up. If you'd stuck closer to the original plan and gone home, you'd probably still be flying for the Empire State right now."
"I still don't get it. Why would Carpetbagger do this to me? We've been friends for years. Why, I could have covered his bets."
"He's a stuck-up, rich kid snob...just like you," said Drake. "He was too proud to turn to someone for help, and too scared that they'd blackmail him or blow the whistle to the press or his family, so he covered his own tail.
"And the I.S.A. government no doubt paid you quite a bonus for our trouble," Zachary added.
Drake grinned maliciously. "Oh, yeah. They paid us a twenty-grand bonus for taking Crawford outta commission."
"It wasn't a bad plan, actually," Zachary mused. "By blackmailing Hawthorne into framing you for murder, they got to take out the Madison Venturer's star pilot, and the biggest thorn in their side. The I.S.A. actually managed to use your own popularity against you...in a convenient, plausibly deniable way."
"But there are other squadrons. If we didn't catch them, one of the others would have," Crawford said.
Zachary shook his head. "It doesn't work that way. You were the Empire State's golden boy, the 'man who could do no wrong.' But when you fell, people began to doubt the integrity of all the militia pilotsat least, if the Manhattan tabloids are to be believed. The pirates are making the most of it and causing as much confusion as they can."
Zachary turned to Drake, and whispered something to the pirate. The pirate responded with more whispers.
Without hesitation, Zachary drew a pocket knife. He flicked the blade open with practiced ease and slit the man's bonds. "Okay, Drake, you've kept your end of the bargain. Scram."
Loyle, shocked by Zachary's actions, raised the gun. "What the hell are you doing? I need to take him back to the Empire State so that he can get those photos and testify against Hawthorne!"
"No. We have to let him go," said Zachary nonchalantly, ignoring the gun in Crawford's hand. "Loyle, there are certain unwritten rules about these sorts of things. You just don't hand over a fellow pirate for arrest."
"What the hell are you talking about'fellow pirate?'"
"I'm a pirate, Major. I've been one for years."
"But I thought you said you were some sort of mercenary. You don't act anything like a pirate!"
Zachary chuckled quietly, stepping between Crawford and Drake. Drake spotted his opportunity and sprinted away into the shadows. A moment later Crawford heard the slam of the warehouse door.
Zachary chuckled, gesturing at Loyle to put aside the pistol. "You can be so naïve sometimes, Crawford. We're not all bloodthirsty killers or two-bit grifters like Bill Redmann or 'Genghis' Khan. Has it ever occurred to you that the Black Swan doesn't act anything like an 'average pirate' either?"
"Then why?" said Loyle, still coming to grips with the revelation. "Why did you help me?"
"Because you needed help," Zachary replied. He dropped the cigarette butt and ground it out with his boot. "I've been in some nasty scrapes in the past and I hate to see people getting the shaft. You looked like you could use my help."
Loyle shook his head. "I wasn't doing too badly by myself. I could have found the girl by myself."
"No, you're wrong. She was already dead by the time we found her. Without my help, it would have taken you at least another week to find her and by then the trail would have been stone cold."
Loyle was forced to admit the pirate was right. Had he done this alone, he would never have found the identity of the traitor.
"So what's in it for you?" asked Loyle bitterly. "Just the thrill of the chase?"
"Don't be a sore loser, Crawford," said Zachary, staring Loyle in the eye. "I saved your life and helped you get the information you needed to clear your name."
"A fat lot of good your information did me," snapped Loyle. "Somewhere in New York is a set of photos that proves Carlton Hawthorne stole some money and got us all into this mess. I still don't know where the hell they are."
Zachary smiled. "There's a copy of the photos in a briefcase in locker 227 at Grand Central Station. Drake just bought his freedom with that information."
Crawford was flooded with relief. With those pictures, he could clear his name and go home, and he owed it all to
to a thief and pirate, he realized with a start.
Loyle looked Zachary in the eye. "So what do you want from me?" he asked, warily.
"I honestly don't know yet," said Zachary, scratching his chin. "I'm sure that when the time comes, there'll be something that you'll be able to do for me. It might not be next week, or even next year, but sooner or later, I'll collect on this debt."
"But what if the Empire State doesn't want me back?" said Loyle. "What then?"
Zachary shrugged. "There are plenty of units that would like to have you aboard. You could even come and fly for me."
"Me, fly for a pirate, after all this? Fat chance!"
"Suit yourself," said Zachary. "If you can't find anyone in North America, there's plenty of action overseas. I hear there's a bitter civil war raging down in Australia and they're always looking for good pilots. That would put you out of the reach of the I.S.A. and Empire State. Of course, you'd never see your home or family again..."
Loyle sighed and holstered his pistol. "So what now?"
"I guess this is where we say good-bye," said Zachary, extending his hand. "You've got everything you need, so there's not much more I can do for you. From here on, it's up to you to finish it."
Loyle took Zachary's hand and shook it. "I don't like being in debt to a pirate, but you said it yourself, you're not like the others. I guess that means that you won't be blackmailing me into betraying my own side, so I can live with that."
Zachary smirked. "I always knew you were a smart guy. I give you my word...as a gentleman: no blackmail." He clambered back up into the cockpit and strapped himself in. " Good luck, Crawford. I'll see you around."
"I better not see you in my sights...or on my six."
With a laugh and a wave, Zachary kicked the gyro's engine to life. With a whine, the rotor blade spun up to speed and the gyro rapidly rolled forward, then leaped into the air. Zachary circled low over the parking lot, giving Loyle one final wave before he climbed rapidly and headed back towards the downtown area.
Loyle watched him go then looked over at his own gyro. With the amount of damage it had sustained, it wasn't going anywhere in a hurry. It was going to be a long trip back to the Empire State.
To Be Concluded...
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