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Authors: Mack Maloney

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BOOK: The Twisted Cross
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"Well, I'll be damned . . ." the military man said. "We're finally going to get to meet him in person . . ."

"Meet who?" the pilot said, his voice tinged with exasperation.

"Meet your guardian angel," the doctor told him. "You guys just got your asses saved by the guy they call Wingman . . ."

Chapter 2

The military commander in charge of security of New Orleans International Airport was a Cajun named Hugo St. Germain. A former officer of the Texas Republican Army, The Saint served as governor, protector, confessor and all-around fix-it man for the parishes surrounding the city they still called The Big Easy.

Huey was also a friend of General Dave Jones, the commander of the United American Army, whose forces had two months before finally destroyed the hated Circle Army and its Soviet backers in a series of climactic battles that stretched from the Mississippi River to Washington, DC. The Saint was the only person at the New Orleans airport who knew that Jones's right hand man, Major Hawk Hunter -the famous Wingman himself-was flying in. He was not surprised when he learned that Hunter had saved the 727 airliner from the bushwhacking F-4s.

Now Hunter sat before him in Huey's executive airport offices, diving into a big bowl of gumbo.

"Who were they, Hawk?" Huey asked, digging into his own bowl of gumbo.

"Organized air pirates? Or just freelance troublemakers?"

Hunter wiped his mouth with a large cloth napkin and took a swig of his beer.

"Hard to say," he answered, his mouth still half full. "There was something strange about them. You don't see many pirate gangs flying something as sophisticated as Phantoms. Yet, these days, who knows?"

He took another mouthful of the stew and added: "Also there were actually four of them."

"Four?" Huey asked. "Really?"

Hunter nodded. "One of them stayed way out of the fight, twenty-five miles away," he said. "I'm sure he was off the airliner's radar screen. After I took care of first three, I lit out after him, but he was gone in a shot. A good flyer, too. He went down to the hard deck, real quick - treetop level. Then, by the time I picked him up on my long-range APG radar, he was climbing at a 45-degree clip, heading south.

"I was low on gas and figured I'd best keep that airliner in front of me, just in case . . ."

"Well, we sure appreciate the help," Huey said. "We're lucky you came along when you did. Any idea who was riding in that 727?"

Hunter shook his head between swigs of beer. He hadn't thought about it before. He had just assumed the airliner was on a routine civilian hop.

"It was our Goddamn football squad," Huey said, his voice a mixture of anxiety and relief. "They were coming back from a try-out at Football City. Christ, if they had gone down, this city would have been throwing funerals for a month .

. ."

Another wipe of his mouth and Hunter asked: "What were they doing flying without an escort?"

Huey shook his head. "Beats me," he said. "We sponsored the team's flight up there and back. And I personally gave the pilot enough cash to buy protection round-trip . . ."

Hunter shrugged. "He probably lost it all in the casinos," he said. "Or at the cathouses . . ."

Football City, formerly St. Louis, was now the continent's gambling mecca. It got its name from the fact that just after World War III, an enterprising Texan named Louie St. Louie, had an enormous 500,000 seat stadium built and instituted a 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year football match to be played between two 500-member, free-substituting teams. Bets could be made on any increment of the game -from the quarters up to the entire year's match -and the resulting revenues proved incredible.

Trouble was, many of the criminal elements around the continent -all of them Soviet-backed - became envious of the good thing St. Louie had going. Thus Football City had already been the scene of several full-scale battles and one authentic war, all in its short four-year history. But now with the United Americans in control, however tenuous, of both the eastern and western portions of the continent, things were beginning to return to normal in Football City.

"The good news is that the team did really well up there," Huey said, scooping up the last few spoonfuls of his stew. "Played their asses off . . ."

Hunter drained his beer. "I heard they were going to start/ exhibition games up there," he said. "Glad to hear your boys did well."

Just then a thought came to The Saint. "Hey, Hawk," he said cautiously. "You don't think those F-4s were sent after my guys as part of some, you know, gambling scam, do you?"

"You mean, eliminate your opponent off the field?'' the pilot asked.

"Yeah, something like that," Huey replied, his round face sagging in worry.

Hunter dismissed the notion immediately. "No, I doubt that was the case," he said, reassuring the stout little man. "First of all, the Football City Secret Service is the best on the continent. If someone was planning to carry a football grudge that far-as in trying to shoot down the other team - those guys would uncover it quicker than you could say 'Hike!' Then, knowing St.

Louie like I do, he'd launch an air strike on that team's training base that would blast them back to playing tiddlywinks."

"I'm glad to hear that," Huey said. "Hate to think someone wanted to ice our boys. Maybe you don't know it, but they also double as our Rapid Deployment Force. You know, like a SWAT team to handle snipers, bomb threats, hostage crises, things like that. They're good. Damn good. Especially in skyscraper work. For some reason, these guys just love to work in tall buildings. And the way things are in town these days, I'd hate to lose a gang like that."

He poured himself another beer from the pitcher on the table and refilled Hunter's glass as well.

"I'm certain those Phantom-jocks out there today were just looking for trouble," Hunter said. "I could tell by the way they were acting. They certainly didn't hit your airliner when it was totally to their advantage. It was almost as if your guy just happened to come along ..."

"Then they were air pirates?" Huey asked, another look of worry coming over him. They hadn't had any major air pirate activity in his neck of the woods in more than a year.

"Again, I doubt it," Hunter said. "These guys were more organized than a pirate crew. That's what was so weird about it. Besides having this fourth airplane watching over them, they were really right on the beam. They went for individual attacks. One at a time. Not the swarm tactics that pirates use.

"And these guys were shooting to kill. Not like pirates, who just want to disable you first, force you to their airbase so they can rob you."

The Saint wiped his brow with authentic relief. "As far as I know, the 727

crew didn't get any warnings over the radio from the attackers."

"See?" Hunter asked. "These guys weren't your usual air thieves. They wanted something else."

"Such as?" Huey asked.

"Maybe to send a message," Hunter said with a shrug. "Though just what message that may be, I don't know."

Hugo lit his pipe and changed the subject. "Can I ask just what it is you are down here for?"

Hunter nodded. "It's not really top secret or anything," he said. "I know Jones called and told you I'd be coming."

"He did," Huey said between puffs. "But that's all he told me."

Hunter ran his fingers through his long dark blond hair.

"Jonesie just wants me to talk to an old pal of his down here," he said cautiously. "He had a message from the guy last week. That's really all I know. Jones would have come himself, but he's still busy, trying to get things straight and running back in DC."

Huey blew out a long plume of pipe smoke. "You boys certainly kicked ass on The Circle," he said with a grin. "Believe me, there's a lot of people in this country who are very, very grateful . . ."

"It's not over yet," Hunter said, just a little wearily. "Sure, we're in control of the major cities. But there's a lot of territory in between them that we don't have a handle on. At night, the highways and backroads are just as dangerous, just as unlawful as before. The air routes are no better. We still have a lot of air pirates roaming around, especially up north and out west. In fact one of our big convoys was attacked three days ago just outside the Badlands.

"And there are still many small outlaw armies on the loose, especially down here in your neighborhood."

"Yeah, tell me about it," Huey said, refilling his pipe.

Bourbon Street was absolutely mobbed when Hunter arrived downtown.

It was still early -only about 9 PM. Yet the famous street was crowded with all kinds of people -soldiers, merchants, hookers and assorted shady characters. The vast majority of them were carrying some kind of weapon, so Hunter didn't look out of place at all, wearing his brown camouflage flight suit, his helmet bouncing from his belt, his well-worn M-16 slung over his shoulder. Everywhere he looked there were people. The bistros, cafes, barrooms and brothels were overflowing. The night air was thick with jazz and the sweet, peppery smell of New Orleans cuisine. If Hunter hadn't known better, he would have sworn it was Mardi Gras already . . .

But the pilot knew he'd have to forego the many temptations of Bourbon Street and its back alleys. His mission here was much more serious than he had let on to The Saint. Only for that reason had Jones been able to talk him into making the trip.

The memory of the past few weeks was as painful as it was fresh . . .

After the last war, Hunter headed north -up to Free Canada, to where his longtime girlfriend, the beautiful Dominique, lived. Just before the climactic battles at Syracuse and Washington, DC, Hunter and Dominique had had a sobering rendezvous at a small airfield on the Free Canadian border. At that time she made it all too clear that she was tired of waiting for him to fight this war and that war. It was time for her to go on with her own life, she had decided, as complicated as that may be.

So after The Circle had been defeated, Hunter went up to Free Canada, specifically to Montreal, and tried to find Dominique. He was crushed when he learned that she had gone west with a group of friends - Free Canadian government officials mostly -and an entourage of security people. Apparently they were all living in the Canadian Rockies at a far-flung retreat and wouldn't be back in Montreal for some time. It was even hard for him to get a precise location of this secluded resort in the northern mountains. All that he was sure of was the place was practically inaccessible by air.

Disappointed, he hung around Montreal for a few days, trying to meet people who would know more about Dominique. A million questions burned in his mind, the biggest one being: Did Dominique go west with a new lover?

He did meet several friends of Dominique's but he was reluctant to put the question to them directly. Instead, he wrote a long letter to her and left it in care of the security people who protected her trendy Montreal townhouse.

Then he headed back down to DC, still wondering if he had blown the one and only true romance of his life . . .

He had intended to make his visit to DC brief-just long enough to tell Jones that he was considering retirement from the fighter pilot/hero business. What better time? The continent was back in one piece again and the Circle Armies all but decimated. The threat of invasion - whether by the Soviets directly or by their proxies -was at its lowest likelihood since the end of World War III.

If there was to be a time for him to hang up the old crash helmet, now was it.

However, it took Jones only about ten minutes to talk him out of it ...

America was hardly out of trouble. While the industrial and manufacturing base on the West Coast of the continent

had survived the devastating effects of both the most recent battles and the earlier Circle War, the eastern half of the country was in shambles. As before, the major vehicle of trade between the two coasts was still the air convoy. Parades of 30 to 40 cargo airliners, watched over by escorting fighters, flew back and forth between the coasts on a daily basis. However, the expense involved in moving the much-needed material to the east was always growing, as was the cost of hiring on the protecting escort fighters.

After the campaign to reconquer the eastern part of the American continent was executed by the United Americans and their allies, one suddenly crucial post-war initiative involved determining the status of the Panama Canal. The reason was simple: If the East Coast was to survive, it would need all the help the West Coast could send it. This would be much more than could be moved by the air convoys, no matter how big they might be. The bulk of the material would have to be moved by ship, so the use of the sea lanes became critical.

Yet hauling everything around the tip of South America would be almost as costly and time-consuming as flying it across North America in convoys. This problem focused attention on the Panamanian waterway.

The trouble was, no one in the United American Army or its allies knew just what the situation was in the Canal Zone. With the seemingly endless series of wars that had recently wracked the North American continent, no organized recon expedition had ever been assembled to go down to the zone and thoroughly check it out. Manpower was at a premium as were reliable recon aircraft and the situation in North America took precedence over sparing valuable men and equipment for a dubious adventure way south of the border. Besides, before the second war with The Circle, most just assumed the intricate canal locks were either destroyed or had fallen into disrepair and thus the waterway was closed. This is what ship captains on both coasts believed - they avoided even going near the Canal Zone or the Panama isthmus itself. Bizarre rumors persisted that the Pacific side of the impassable waterway was inhabited by heavily-armed Satanic cultists, who shot first and didn't bother to ask questions afterward. Another story had it that the Ku Klux Klan had claimed the entire country as its own, and that any stranger with so much as a slight tan was suspect and summarily shot. Some old salts even claimed that cannibals now ran wild in Panama, eating anybody and everybody who dared set foot in their territory.

BOOK: The Twisted Cross
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