"I took what I thought was the best possible course of action at the time, sir."
Merriwether-MacKenzie let out an exasperated sigh. "What could have possibly led you to believe that countermanding specific orders was the 'best possible course of action'?" he said.
"I decided that to deviate from the plan was the best way to try and discover the identity of the traitor, and protect the lives of my squadron-mates...sir!" Crawford shot back, his tenuous grip on his temper slipping by the second.
"And did you? Did you discover the identity of the traitor?" said Merriwether-MacKenzie.
"No, sir. Engine noise and the radio static prevented me from positively identifying the traitor's voice, sir. All I know is that it was a man."
"There were four other male squadron members on the mission with you. This 'revelation' is hardly helpful."
Loyle sighed, exasperated. "I am well aware of that, sir."
Colonel Merriwether-MacKenzie stared up at Crawford silently for a few seconds. "Damn it, son," he said, his voice much calmer. "You're the best pilot in this outfit. La Guardia's calling for your head this time, despite what you've done for the nation...and for him.
"Your frequent...appearances in the tabloids isn't helping." the Colonel continued. The President's top military advisors are calling you a disgrace to the Empire State and are advising him to cut you loose. I really have no idea how the hell I am going to placate him."
"For what it's worth, sir, I fully realize that my actions have placed this squadron in an awkward position. I am prepared to take full responsibility for my actions."
"Damn straight you will, son." Merriwether-MacKenzie opened a manila folder on his desk. "As much as I hate to do this Crawford, I really have no choice. Until this matter is resolved, I'm suspending you from flight duties, effective immediately. You are not to set foot inside the hangar unless you have written permission from me first. Furthermore, you are confined to barracks. You are to receive no visitors unless I clear them first and you are not, under any circumstances, to leave this building."
The Colonel paused, locking eyes with the young pilot, before adding: "Do I make myself clear, Major?"
"But sir" Loyle protested.
Merriwether-MacKenzie cut off Crawford's reply, jumping to his feet and pounding his fist on the desk. "Do I make myself clear?" he thundered.
"Yes sir. Perfectly clear."
"Very well," said Merriwether-MacKenzie. "Report back here to me at 0800 tomorrow morning. I may have figured out what the hell to do with you by then. Dismissed."
"Yes, sir," said Loyle dejectedly. He snapped a salute and then turned about face and left the room.
Crawford's mind was in turmoil; he had hoped the Colonel would be a sympathetic ear, someone he could turn to in hopes of flushing out the traitor. Instead, the young pilot was staring at the end of his career as a Broadway Bomber.
And there were only unanswered questions before him. Who was the traitor? How could he be trapped? And how, he thought, do I get the Bombers off the hook with the President?
Loyle roused himself from his thoughts and headed to the squadron mess hall; it was always empty at this hour. Maybe he'd have a chance to think things through.
He walked in and hung his cap on one of the hooks near the door. He was intercepted on his way to the leather armchairs by one of the mess stewards.
"Would you like a coffee, sir?"
Loyle nodded. "Cream and two sugars, thank you, Evans."
Loyle settled himself into one of the deep blue leather armchairs and stared out the window at the Manhattan skyline. I just don't understand! Why? Why sell out the rest of the squadron?
Evans arrived with Crawford's coffee and set the cup down quietly on the table next to the leather armchair. "Will there be anything else, sir?"
"No, thank you, Evans. That's all for now."
Loyle went back to staring out the window. An aerolimo touched down briefly and Colonel Merriwether-MacKenziein full dress uniform, no lessran to its open door, holding his cap against his head. With a roar, the aerolimo sped forward and leapt into the air.
"There you are, Stopper! We want a word with you!"
Loyle turned to see the other members of his squadron coming through the door of the mess towards him.
"Ivy" Iverian stood right in front of him, her feet apart and her hands on her hips. Loyle looked up into her blue eyes, which were burning with fury at the moment.
"I don't suppose you'd like to tell us just what the hell happened out there yesterday, would you?" she demanded.
Loyle shook his head. "Not now, Ivy. This isn't a good time."
"Then when is a good time?" she shot back, her eyes flashing with anger. "You've been avoiding us like the plague since we got back to base yesterday! How long are we going to have to wait to hear why the hell you pulled that stunt?"
Kenneth Vanderbilt sat down in the armchair next to Loyle. "You at least owe us that much, old son."
Loyle just stared at the floor. "I understand that you're all angry with me at the moment. I ruined the mission and I'm sorry for that. But you have to believe me: it was the right thing to do."
"Carpetbagger" Hawthorne blew smoke directly at Loyle's face. "Oh yes. And why is that? What possible reason could you have for directly disobeying orders and destroying the base?"
"I had my reasons, all right?"
Ivy shook her head. "No, it's not all right! I want some answers, Crawford! You may be the best pilot in this squadron, but we're all members of a team. Don't start believing your own press."
"I overheard Merriwether-MacKenzie tearing strips off your hide earlier. Something about a traitor?" Hawthorne added, grinning maliciously.
Loyle shot him a disgusted look. "Listening at keyholes again, Carpetbagger?"
Hawthorne took another long drag on his cigarette. "Actually, if you must know, I was walking down to the weather office for the latest updates. He wasn't exactly whispering."
Ivy glared at Loyle. "What's this nonsense about a traitor? Are you accusing one of us of selling out the rest of our team?"
Loyle glared angrily at her. "I can't say anything about that. Until I have proof, I'm not going to talk to anyone but the squadron heads about that!"
Vanderbilt shook his head. "Oh come on, Stopper. You know you can trust us. Just tell us what went on at the lake!"
Peyton nodded in agreement. "What's going on, sir? Just tell us, and maybe we can help!"
"No!" growled Loyle as he jumped to his feet. "Maybe you should all just...mind your own damned business."
"You know what I think?" said Hawthorne. "I think Crawford here's the traitor. He's just trying to find a way to pin it on us. If he isn't a rat, then why won't he just come out and tell us what he was doing out there?"
Loyle clenched his fist and hauled his arm back to slug Hawthorne. The next thing he knew, Iron Horse was standing in front of him, with a massive hand wrapped around Loyle's fist.
"That's enough, Stopper," Vanderbilt said quietly. "You're in enough trouble as it is. Don't make it worse on yourself by striking a fellow officer. Or forcing one to strike you."
Loyle took a deep breath. He's right. Hitting Hawthorne would only make matters worse. "Look, just leave me alone, okay? I haven't got anything to say to you."
Before any of his teammates could reply, he turned on his heel and stalked out.
He headed up the stairs and unlocked the door to his room. As he opened it, Loyle heard the sound of scraping paper. Peering around the edge, he saw a plain envelope jammed under the door. He stepped inside the room and shut the door quietly before bending down to retrieve the envelope.
The envelope was unmarked and had only a single piece of paper inside. The note was typewritten.
I KNOW WHO THE TRAITOR IS, it read. COME TO THE HANGAR TONIGHT AT MIDNIGHT AND YOU WILL FIND ALL THE PROOF YOU NEED.
It was signed, "A Friend."
Loyle started at the note, hope and distrust churning in his gut. He glanced at his watch; it was only half past four.
Seven-and-a-half hours, he thought. I'll be ready, my friend.
Loyle quietly opened the door of his room and peered into the corridor. He checked his watch again, for the third time in as many minutes. It was ten minutes before twelve. Time to get moving.
He slipped silently from his room and closed the door behind him. Pausing for a moment to listen for approaching footsteps, Loyle padded down the corridor to the stairwell and down to the first floor.
Within minutes, he was outside the barracks building and sneaking across the dimly lit tarmac to the hangar. Loyle crept to the main doors, carefully avoiding the pools of light cast by the interior hangar illumination.
The six planes of the Madison Avenue Venturers were inside, looking as though they had just been brought in from the showroom. No one would have ever guessed that all six had been in combat the previous morning.
Loyle crept inside and up to his plane, on the lookout for sentries or mechanics. Parry, his mechanic, had fitted new armor panels that afternoon; the Madison Dawnhis Grumman E-1C Avengerlooked as if she had just rolled off the production line. Loyle never ceased to be amazed at how fast the ground crews could repair a damaged plane.