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Valhalla rising, p.24
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       Valhalla Rising, p.24

           Clive Cussler
slower 1  faster

  24

  Pitt sensed the peril before the hail of bullets struck. He threw the trimotor into a steep 360-degree bank until he could see the Fokker moving below and to his left before it banked and returned for another attack. He shoved the throttles to their stops and followed, in the vain hope of staying on its tail. But it was a losing proposition. With three healthy engines, Pitt might have given the Fokker and its insane pilot a run for the money. The trimotor's top speed was more than thirty miles an hour faster than the ancient fighter plane. But now, with the loss of one engine, his advantage in speed was canceled by the Fokker's agile maneuverability.

  Smoke poured out of the exhaust stacks of the center engine, and it was only a matter of seconds before it caught fire. He reached down between his legs and turned off the fuel selector switch and then the ignition on a panel below the throttles, watching the propeller on the center engine come to a stop in the horizontal position.

  Mary's face was flushed in confusion. "He's shooting at us!" she gasped.

  "Don't bother asking me why," Pitt fired back.

  Kelly appeared in the doorway of the cockpit. "Why are you throwing us all over the sky?" she demanded furiously. "You're frightening the children." Then she caught sight of the smoking engine, the shattered windshield, and felt the rush of air. "What is happening?"

  "We're under attack by a lunatic."

  "He's shooting at us with real bullets," Mary said loudly, holding up a hand and shielding her face from the onrush of air.

  "But we have children on board," argued Kelly.

  "He knows it and doesn't seem to care. Go back and calm the kids. Make them think we're playing a game. Urge them to sing. Do whatever it takes to occupy their minds and play down the danger." He turned his head slightly toward Mary and gave her a nod of encouragement. "Get on the radio and give a Mayday. To anyone who answers, report the situation."

  "Can anyone help?"

  "Not in time."

  "What are you going to do?"

  Pitt watched as the red Fokker triwing swept around for another pass at the trimotor. "Keep everyone alive if I can." Kelly and Mary both marveled at Pitt's unruffled calm, the grim determination that shone in his eyes. Mary began shouting a Mayday into the radio microphone while Kelly ran back into the main cabin.

  He scanned the sky, searching for clouds to enter and lose the Fokker, but the few that floated in the sky were several miles away and a good twenty thousand feet above the ground, three thousand feet above the ceiling of the trimotor. No clouds to hide in, no place to escape. The old transport plane was as defenseless as a lamb in a pasture stalked by a wolf. Why was the pilot he'd met earlier doing this? Pitt's brain churned with questions, but there were no simple answers.

  Pitt might have attempted to set the plane down in the East River. If he could make a water landing that didn't damage the airplane or injure the children, and if it floated long enough for them to escape: the thought quickly came and was rejected. With the trimotor's rigid landing gear, the potential for a watery crash was too high, and he couldn't be sure the blood-crazed pilot of the Fokker would not strafe the helpless passengers if they weren't injured in the landing. If he intended to shoot them out of the air, Pitt thought, the guy would have no qualms about killing them in the water.

  Pitt made his decision and circled the trimotor back toward the Brooklyn Bridge.

  The red Fokker stood on its wingtips and followed the trimotor on a reverse course down the river. Pitt eased back on the throtdes to his two remaining engines and allowed his attacker to close. Unlike modern jet fighters with missiles that could down an enemy plane from a mile away, the aces of World War I held their fire to less than a hundred yards away. Pitt was counting on the Fokker's pilot to wait until the last minute to fire at the trimotor.

  Like the historic days on the Western Front, the warnings of Allied pilots held true. Pitt thought of the old adage: Watch for the Hun in the sun. It was just as relevant now as it had been then. The Fokker's pilot pulled his nose up in a steep climb, nearly hanging it on its propeller, before dipping downward in a shallow dive out of the sun. At a hundred yards, the pilot opened fire as he swooped on the trimotor, the bullets tearing into the corrugated aluminum sheets on the right wing behind the engine. But time was too short-the twin Spandaus were on target for less than two seconds before Pitt pushed the trimotor in a near-vertical dive.

  The plane plunged down toward the water, the Fokker pilot right on its tail but not firing undl he could line up his sights again. Down Pitt went undl it looked to the people walking along both shores, those crowded on the upper deck of an excursion boat and firemen on a passing fireboat, as if the plane would surely smash into the water. But at the last instant, Pitt pulled back on the control column and sent the trimotor on a course that would take him direcdy under the Brooklyn Bridge.

  The famous bridge loomed like a giant spiderweb with its maze of support cables. Completed in 1883, the bridge carried more than 150,000 cars a day, 2,000 bikers and 300 pedestrians. Traffic was stopping and people were gawking from their cars at the sight of the two old aircraft speeding toward the span. Pedestrians and bikers on the wooden walkway that was elevated over die traffic came to a halt and rushed to the railings. No one could believe the World War I fighter was actually pumping bullets into the old three-engine plane.

  "Oh lord!" muttered Mary. "You're not going under the bridge."

  "Watch me," Pitt said doggedly.

  Pitt hardly took notice of the towers rising 271 feet in the air. He swiftly estimated the distance between the roadway and the water at 150 feet when it was actually 135. With smoke trailing from the center engine, the trimotor flashed under the bridge and broke out into the open, dodging a tugboat pushing a pair of barges.

  Thrilled at seeing the bridge pass above, the children thought it was part of the ride. Kelly instructed them to sing. Blissfully unaware of the deadly seriousness of their plight, they broke into song:

  This old man, he played one.

  He played knick knack on my thumb.

  With a knick knack paddy whack, give the dog a bone.

  This old man came rolling home.

  The air controllers at La Guardia, Kennedy and the surrounding smaller airports all picked up the Mayday message sent frantically by Mary, and the police radios were alive with reports of the aerial battle. The controller at Kennedy Airport called over his chief.

  "I've got a Mayday from a woman in an old Ford trimotor from that air show today. She claims she's under attack by a World War I fighter plane."

  The chief controller laughed. "Sure, and Martians are landing at the Statue of Liberty."

  "There must be something to it. I'm receiving police calls saying a red triplane chased an old three-motored aircraft under the Brooklyn Bridge and smoked one of its engines."

  The humor quickly faded. "Do you know if the transport is carrying passengers?"

  "The police say it has fifteen disabled children on board." He paused and his voice hesitated. "I... I can hear them singing."

  "Singing?"

  The controller nodded silently.

  The chief controller's face took on a pained expression. He stepped over to the radar array and put his hand on the controller monitoring incoming flights. "What do you read over Manhattan?"

  "I had two aircraft over the East River, but the larger one just went offscreen."

  "It crashed?"

  "Looks that way."

  The chief controller's eyes went sick. "Those poor kids," he murmured sadly.

  The pilot of the Fokker pulled up and soared over the arched cables of the bridge with only feet to spare. Then he dove ahead to pick up additional speed and made a 180-degree turn, flying head-on toward the trimotor.

  Rather than wait to be shot at like a tin can on a rock, Pitt stood the trimotor on its port wingtip and sent the aircraft on the sharpest turn possible, heading directly over piers eleven and thirteen and crossing the FDR Drive and South Street
at a ninety-degree angle. He flattened out as he soared less than two hundred feet above Wall Street and swooped over the statue of George Washington taking the oath of office, the roar from the exhaust of the Pratt-Whitney echoing off the buildings and vibrating their windows. The seventy-seven-foot, ten-inch wingspan barely cleared the fronts of the buildings as he struggled to climb out of the glass-and-concrete canyon.

  Mary sat in shock, blood trickling down one cheek cut by a flying shard of glass. "This is madness."

  "Sorry," Pitt said flatly. "I don't have a wide range of choices."

  Pitt pulled back the control column as he saw what looked to be a wide street that turned out to be the lower reach of Broadway. With only a few feet to spare, he made a sharp bank and swept up the famous thoroughfare only a block from the New York Stock Exchange past Saint Paul's Chapel and across from City Hall Park. Police cars with sirens attempted to follow in the path of the airplane, but it was no contest. They could not make their way through traffic at half the same speed.

  The pilot of the red Fokker temporarily lost Pitt in the jungle of buildings. He circled over the East River before climbing to a thousand feet and heading over lower Manhattan. He passed above the tall ships at the South Street Seaport and leaned from the cockpit, trying to locate the trimotor again. And then he caught a flash of silver that reflected in the sun. He raised his goggles and stared disbelieving at the trimotor flying below the tops of the buildings up Broadway.

  Pitt knew he was endangering lives, knew that having the red Fokker send him down in flames along with the children was also jeopardizing the people below on the streets and sidewalks. His only hope was to elude his nemesis long enough to gain a substantial lead and wing out of the city, leaving the crazed Fokker pilot to deal with police helicopters. He became fixed in his dedication to save the children as he heard their voices singing:

  This old man, he played four.

  He played knick knack on my door.

  With a knick knack paddy whack, give the dog a bone.

  This old man came rolling home.

  Suddenly he saw the pavement below the trimotor explode in a spray of asphalt as the red Fokker swung onto his tail and unleashed a burst of 7.62 shells. The shells carved their way through the hood of a yellow taxicab and into a mailbox on the corner without hitting anyone. At first, Pitt thought the trimotor had escaped unscathed, but then he felt a noticeable lack of response in the controls. A quick check revealed that the rudder was sluggish and the elevators refused to respond. Only the ailerons still functioned normally. Pitt realized that a bullet must have struck either the pulleys or their mountings to the control cables that traveled from the cockpit to the rudder and elevators on the exterior of the fuselage.

  "What's wrong?" asked Mary.

  "The last burst caught our elevators. I can't pull her into a climb."

  The Fokker's approach had been near-perfect, but the sight of buildings rising above his wings unhinged him, and he overshot the trimotor before his guns could do any fatal damage. The pilot pulled up in a sharp vertical climb and performed an Immelmann maneuver by entering, a roll and coming out flying in the opposite direction. It was immediately apparent to Pitt that his opponent was not going to waste time with a frontal assault. He was content to come up from the rear and attack from behind the trimotor's big tail section.

  "Can you keep him in sight?" Pitt asked Mary.

  "Not when he's directly behind," she said calmly. She loosened her seat belt so she could twist around in her seat. "I'll lean out as far as I can and watch our tail."

  "Good girl."

  Kelly appeared in the doorway. "The children are incredible. They're taking it in stride."

  "Because they don't know we're on borrowed time." Pitt glanced down and guessed that they were flying through Greenwich Village. Then they flashed over Union Square Park. He could see Times Square approaching ahead. He knew the theater district was only a block off to his left. The lights from the huge signs flashed past as he flew over the statue of George M. Cohan. He tried to pull the plane higher to rise from the city, but the elevator controls refused to respond. For the moment, all Pitt could do was maintain a straight-and-level flight. He was all right as long as Broadway was angling slightly to the west, but when it took a slight dogleg at Forty-eighth Street near Paramount Plaza, he knew he was in trouble. There was no feel to the elevators, and he had to push the pedals with all his strength to get the slightest response from the rudder. The ailerons were all he had, but the slightest miscalculation, the tiniest twitch of the control wheel, would send the plane smashing into the side of a building. He was reduced to maintaining a straight course up Broadway by orchestrating the throttles.

  Pitt was sweating freely and his lips were dry. The sheer walls of New York City's buildings seemed close enough for him to reach through the side window and touch. The street ahead looked endless and he felt as if it were closing in and becoming narrower. The crowds of people on the sidewalks and crossing the intersections stood dumbstruck at seeing the trimotor flying down the middle of Broadway only ten stories above the pavement. The roar of the two engines was deafening, and they could hear it coming blocks away. Office workers who looked down at the plane from their windows as it roared past were frozen in disbelief at the bizarre sight. All who watched the trimotor's progress thought it was about to crash.

  Pitt tried desperately to bring the nose up, but it simply would not rise. He throttled back to reduce the speed to a bare seventy miles an hour, only six miles an hour above stalling. The pilot of the red Fokker was a good flyer and skilled as a fox stalking a chicken. Pitt was in a battle that took every ounce of pure courage or fearless defiance. This was a conflict between two men of equal skill and technique, of patience and tenacity. He was not merely fighting for his life but the lives of two women and fifteen disabled children, and God only knew how many would die if the trimotor fell and exploded on the crowded streets of the city.

  Behind him, the children were beginning to feel the first tentacles of fear at seeing the buildings so close to their windows, and yet they still managed to sing, urged on by Kelly, who was too frightened to look outside at the blur of passing office buildings and see the faces of stunned workers behind the glass windows.

  At a thousand feet, the pilot of the Fokker gazed down at the trimotor threading its way between the stores and buildings of Broadway. His was the patience of the devil waiting for the soul of an honorable man. He did not feel the need to dive and strafe the old transport again just yet. There was every likelihood it would crash on its own. He watched with fascination as a police helicopter appeared and took up the chase, flying at an altitude just above the rooftops between the Fokker and the Ford.

  Cool and precise, he eased the control stick forward, nosing the Fokker into a dive directly toward the helicopter. A policeman on board who had kept an eye on the red Fokker could be seen frantically shouting and pointing upward to the pilot. The helicopter swung to meet what they assumed was the onslaught, but the hand weapons carried by the crew were no match for the rapid-fire machine guns whose bullets spat from the twin muzzles and smashed into the engine below the rotor. The attack was executed with single-minded viciousness and savagery. The burst of gunfire lasted no more than three seconds. But they were three seconds that transformed the helicopter from a sleek flying machine into a shredded, falling wreck that dropped onto the roof of an office building.

  Several people on the sidewalks were lacerated by flying debris, but incredibly none was seriously injured, nor were any killed. The two policemen, pulled from the wreckage by building maintenance employees, suffered a few broken bones but nothing that was life threatening.

  It was inhuman. Inhuman action that served no earthly purpose. The pilot of the Fokker could just as easily have broken off the chase when he felt assured the trimotor had only seconds to remain in the air. His sole reason for shooting down the police helicopter was not self-preservation. It was a cold-blooded act of p
ure enjoyment. He hardly glanced back at the destruction before taking up the pursuit of the trimotor again.

  Pitt was not aware of the catastrophe in the wake of his aircraft. Mary, looking back through the cockpit side window, saw it, but she was frozen into silence. The street was making a slight curve and he compressed his concentration to jockey the plane into a turn.

  Broadway angled left as it crossed Columbus Circle. He gave the right rudder a hard kick and slewed the plane around to the right as it broke free of the long chasm of tall buildings. His left wingtip missed the seventy-foot-high statue of Christopher Columbus by less than ten feet as he banked over Central Park West and Fifty-ninth Street. At the southwest entrance to Central Park, he dodged around the monument to the victims of the battleship Maine and headed out over the park. Riders on the bridle path struggled to stay in the saddle as their horses reared when the trimotor roared overhead.

  Thousands of people who were enjoying the park on a warm summer afternoon stopped their activities and stared at the drama unfolding above them. Police cars from all over the city were converging on the park, sirens screeching. More police helicopters were sweeping into the park from Fifth Avenue, accompanied by a squadron of helicopters from the television channels.

 
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