Dirty, unshaven and in desperate need of a sleep, Loyle pushed his way through the door to Union Station. Loyle was thankful there weren't many people aboutthat left fewer people to identify him and alert the cops.
Loyle hadn't caught the train in years and it took him a few minutes to figure out where the lockers were. After a moment of searching, Loyle spotted a sign directing him to "Storage" and he shuffled over, his shoulders hunched. So far, impersonating a bum had prevented anyone from realizing who he was.
He shuffled up the row of lockers, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible. A minute later, he found the locker he was looking forlocker 227.
Loyle made sure no one was looking, and fished a large screwdriver from his pocket. He jammed it into the crack between the door and the frame and pushed with all his strength.
The locker door sprang open with a metallic crash. The noise echoed loudly in the quiet alcove. Loyle glanced around, making sure that no one was watching him. Everything was quiet in Union Station.
The only thing inside the locker was a battered black leather attaché case. Loyle quickly pulled it out, flicked the catches and pushed back the lid.
Inside was a large sealed manila envelope. Loyle tore it open, grabbed the photographs insideand breathed a sigh of sadness and relief.
He thumbed quickly through the photos, the proof that would allow him to clear his name...
...and destroy the reputation and career of a man he had called friend and colleague.
The photos, a dozen in all, showed Carlton "Carpetbagger" Hawthorne. In one, Hawthorne was on a busy Manhattan street, entering an upscale office building. The next nine showed him in various stages of breaking into a safe, in a lavishly appointed office. The last two showed Hawthorne removing a bundle of papers and stuffing them into a briefcase.
Carlton Hawthorne was a thief, all right.
Loyle shoved the envelope inside his coat, then closed the case and slid it back into the locker; he wouldn't need it. With one final look around, he shuffled off towards the stairs.
Loyle hammered on the front door of the Fifth Avenue house. "Open up, dammit!" he yelled. Loyle, accustomed to looking the part of a dashing militia pilot, felt uncharacteristically uncomfortable on Manhattan's Upper East Side.
The door swung silently aside, revealing an elderly butler. "Can I help you, sir?"
Loyle pushed his way past into the hallway. The house was lavishly decorated, with marble floors, and a sweeping staircase which led to the upper floors. "Where the hell is Carlton Hawthorne?" he snapped.
"I'm sorry, sir," replied the butler, "but Master Hawthorne is currently enjoying dinner with his father. Perhaps you could come back later?"
"I'll see him now."
Loyle hadn't been to the Hawthorne house for a while, but he remembered the way. He moved down the hallway at a run, and stopped at the third door on the left. He slammed the door open and stormed in.
Maxwell Hawthorne leapt to his feet as Loyle burst into the room.
"What is the meaning of this?" he yelled. "Pomeroy! Who is this man?"
Loyle stood staring at Carlton. The younger Hawthorne's eyes open wide and he dropped his spoon as the color drained from his face.
The butler stepped quietly into the room behind Loyle. "I'm sorry, sir. He just barged in. I couldn't stop him."
Loyle's eyes narrowed. "Go on, Carlton," he said coldly. "Tell your father why I'm here."
Maxwell Hawthorne. turned to his son, his face red with anger. "Well?" he demanded. "Who is this bum?"
"Crawford," mumbled Carlton. "Loyle Crawford."
"Crawford? The murderer?" Hawthorne turned to the butler. "Pomeroy! Call the police immediately!"
The butler nodded and vanished from the room.
Loyle shook his head. "I'm not the murderer, sir," he said, removing the wad of photographs from the inside of his coat and throwing them on the table in front of Carlton. "I think you should talk to your son."
"What the devil is he talking about?" said Carlton's father, snatching up the photographs. He flicked through them quickly, his face dropping as he realized what he was looking at.
"This is Jack Cranston's office," he said distantly, dropping back to his chair. "He told me someone had broken into his office and stolen fifteen thousand dollars in bearer bonds from his safe." He looked up at Carlton. "You? You knew the bonds were there and you stole them?"
Carlton got slowly to his feet moved around the table towards Loyle. "You shouldn't have come back, Loyle. The police will arrest you."
"Don't be stupid, Carpetbagger," said Loyle, coldly. "I went to hell and back to find out who the traitor was. Don't think I won't turn you over to the cops."
Carlton suddenly lunged towards Loyle. "Don't count on it!" he yelled as he lashed out with his fist. It slammed into the side Loyle's head, sending him staggering back against the wall. Carlton sprinted from the room.
Loyle shook his head to try and clear the stars from his vision. After a moment, he was on his feet and he raced out of the room and sprinted down the hallway towards the open front door.
As he leapt down the front steps, he spotted Carlton running into Central Park. Loyle raced across Fifth Avenue; a cab, coming round the corner from 72nd Avenue, screeched to a halt in the middle of the road, missing him by only inches. The cab driver blasted the horn and shouted abuse after Loyle as he dodged around the car.
Loyle bolted after Carlton, chasing his former comrade as they raced deeper into the darkened park. Loyle heard the sounds of approaching sirens as he sprinted harder, closing the gap. Loyle knew he had to catch Carlton before the police arrived.
"Give it up, Carlton!" Loyle yelled. Carlton glanced over his shoulder and kept running. Loyle's lungs were on fire from the exertion and the cold night air. The pressure on his cracked ribs felt like someone had stabbed him in the chest.
Loyle caught Carlton as the pair reached the top of Bethesda Terrace. He hurled himself bodily at his Hawthorne, and grabbed Carlton's legs. The tackle sent them both crashing to the ground.
They landed on a patch of ice, slid over to the stairs, and tumbled down to the terrace; Loyle screamed in agony as the cold, hard edges of the stairs slammed into his already battered chest.
Loyle slumped back to the ground, wheezing heavily, his breath billowing in white clouds, his vision greying out. He rolled over slightly, and saw Carlton lying on the ground nearby, groaning in pain.
Loyle forced himself to his feet, then reached down and grabbed Carlton by the front of his shirt. Hauling the traitor to his feet, Loyle jammed his face up close to Carlton's.
"Why'd you do it, Carpetbagger?" said Loyle. "How could you frame another Bomber?"
Carlton just shook his head and stared at his shoes.
"Answer me!" yelled Loyle, slamming his fist in Carlton's stomach. Carpetbagger doubled up, coughing loudly.
"I didn't want to," said Carlton weakly. "You've got to believe me. Those bastards made me do it."
"You just about killed me," said Loyle. "Those pirates should have been on the ground. Instead they were waiting for us, you bastard. It's a miracle any of us made it home from that attack."
"I'm...sorry, Loyle," said Carlton, despair etched on his features. "I wish I could make you believe that. When I stole that money, I had no idea that anyone was watching me. When the pirates first showed me the prints, I nearly gave myself up. But I just couldn't bring myself to do it."
"You're sorry?" Loyle snarled. "Not only have you stolen money and lied to cover it up...you're a murderer. Dammit, Carlton, I knew Siobhan. She was a good pilot."
Carlton looked down at the ground. "I know," he said softly. "She wasn't supposed to die. I was only trying to knock her plane out of action. She jinked at the last second...and the cannon fire just about tore her head off."
Loyle saw the remorse in Hawthorne's eyes. "You should have come to me when you first got into trouble," he said. "I could have done something, could have helped you. But now it's too late. They'll throw the book at you, just like they threw it at me."
"Freeze!" yelled a voice behind them. "Don't move Crawford! We've got you surrounded!"
Loyle looked around to see a dozen uniformed policemen training their pistols on him. Detective Alvarez swaggered down the stairs. "You just couldn't stay away, could you, Crawford?" he said. "I knew you'd come back sooner or later."
Loyle turned to face him. "I told you once, Alvarez: you've got the wrong man. He's the one you're really looking for," he said, jerking his thumb towards Carlton.
"Tell it to the judge," said Alvarez, snapping a pair of cuffs onto Loyle's wrists. "Me, I'm going to make sure you go to the chair this time."
"No," said Carlton, "he's right. I'm the one you really looking for."
"And I'm the tooth fairy," said Alvarez. He turned to one of the other policemen. "Bring him along too, just in case. It's going to be a long night."
The secretary knocked once on the door, and then pushed it open for Loyle.
"Mr. Crawford? Your nephew is here to see you."
Bryce Crawford stood up and moved around his desk, extending his hand. "Loyle, my boy!" he said. "It's so good to see you again."
Loyle shook his uncle's hand and took the chair he was offered. "It's good to be home again, sir."
"You're looking well. Things couldn't have been too rough for you then?"
Loyle stared out the window at the Manhattan skyline. Since his release from prison, he'd had a shower and a shave and lookedand feltlike his old self again. "It could have been worse," he said. No thanks to you.
Bryce Crawford sat back down behind his desk and steepled his fingers. "So, you've been cleared of the murder charges, then?"
"Yes, sir," said Loyle. "Hawthorne confessed to everything, including the death of Siobhan Fitzgibbon. His family's disowned him, of course."
"So I heard. I spoke with his father earlier today. It's a real shame; Carlton was a good man." He stood up and walked around to Loyle's side of the desk and sat on the edge.
"Loyle," he said, "I'm genuinely sorry about what happened. I should have believed you when you said that you were innocent."
Damn straight you should have, thought Loyle. "I suppose it didn't look very good."
"No, it didn't," said Bryce, shaking his head. "I didn't want to do it, but the board of directors left me no choicethey had bought the rubbish the press was publishing about you and there was no convincing them otherwise. But now that the real traitor's been arrested, I can't see any reason for your position here at the company to be reinstated immediately...assuming you'll come back, of course."
Loyle nodded reluctantly. "At the moment, I don't have a lot of choice. I won't lie to you sir, I'm not happy about it.
"A fighter pilot has to trust his wingman, and the trust between the fliers in the squadron have had that bond shattered. It's going to take a lot of time to fix that...if it even can be fixed. But," he said with a sigh, "all I really care about at the moment is being reinstated to flight status."
There was a knock on the door and the secretary opened it. "Colonel Merriwether-Mackenzie's here to see you, sir."
Bryce rubbed his hands together. "Excellent," he said, getting up off the desk. "Show him in."
Colonel Richard "Wraith" Merriwether-Mackenzie entered, wearing his full dress uniform. He smiled warmly at Loyle and shook hands with his uncle.
"Richard," said Bryce. "Good of you to come down."
"Not at all, sir."
"Things went well with the President, then?" said Bryce, showing the Colonel to a seat.
"As well as could be expected. President La Guardia isn't happy that he's ended up with egg on his face over this whole affair. His public outbursts over Loyle's 'guilt' are starting to come back to haunt him. But he agreed to your request." The Colonel turned towards Loyle. "Son, the President realizes that you were set up, and he's agreed to your return to flight status, effective immediately."
Loyle face lit up. It was what he had hoped for.
"But before you get too excited," said Merriwether-MacKenzie, "there are a couple of conditions. La Guardia took some convincing. While you might not have committed murder, you still assaulted that prison guard, stole the plane and then later destroyed it. These are all serious crimes, Loyle."
"I had no choice!" said Loyle. "If I didn't act, then 'Carpetbagger' would still be betraying us!"
Merriwether-MacKenzie raised his hand to silence Loyle. "Both your uncle and I pointed this out to the President, explaining the mitigating circumstances behind your actions. He reluctantly capitulated, allowing you to rejoin the militia. But he's not a man that likes to be made a fool of. He's ordered that you are given every lame duck assignment around until he's satisfied that you've repaid your debt to the Empire State. After that...there will be some adjustments made to the militia, measures taken to prevent this kind of scandal."
Loyle didn't care he had to escort cargo zeppelins, or shuttle people around Manhattan for months. "It doesn't worry me, sir, as long as I'm still allowed to fly. Do the rest of the Venturers know?"
Merriwether-MacKenzie glanced at his watch. "Look out the window."
Loyle got up and walked over to the window. Roaring up Madison Avenue from the south, level with the window were the blue and gold Avengers of the Madison Venturers.
Loyle quickly came to attention, and his hand snapped to his forehead in a salute as the Avengers all simultaneously twisted into barrel rolls as they screamed past the windows of the office.
Even through the closed windows, the noise was almost deafening. Now I know why my uncle hates us doing that so much, thought Loyle with a smile.
"You know," said Bryce Crawford with a grin, "under the circumstances, I think I can forgive those flyboys for that stunt...this time."