Arch Whitehouse authored many aviation-related techno-thriller mysteries for Flying Aces magazine. He was a British World War I veteran with the RAF as a mechanic and observer. In this adventure, Hale Aviation Company's intrepid chief test pilot Crash Carringer took on the challenge of identifying the cause of an unreasonably high number of deaths of Hellfire aircraft fighter pilots while in the air. I won't spoil the plot by giving any details of the story. It's a good way to kill 20-30 minutes.
Breed of the Hellfire
by Arch Whitehouse
Author of "The Silent Raider," "Wings of Sawdust," etc.
Illustrated by Alden McWilliams
Two More Crashes
Crash Carringer, chief test pilot, ace salesman, and Size-4 headache of the Hale Aviation Company of Long Island, knew his firm could sell a lot of airplanes to the U. S. Government, but he also knew they could sell more to the Dominion of Canada. Canada was at war and was really air-minded. Canada was a big prop in the British Empire's thrust against Nazism, and, besides, Canada needed fighting planes of the Hale Hellfire class. But unless something was done about this business, Hale would not be able to sell an airplane to a ninth rate South American republic for coffee beans.
In three days, three Canadian Air Force pilots had been killed while testing the new Hale fighter - and no one at the plant knew how or why. But Crash Carringer had an idea, a crazy idea, and he offered a mechanic - a smell of oxygen!
Two young Canadian Squadron-Leaders had gone west in two days, testing Hale Hellfires-for their government. Two youngsters who had been overseas for seven months, youngsters who had two ribbons for gallantry up under their RCAF wings.
Crash Carringer was boiling mad about it, but what could he do? The young Canadians were first-class airmen. The machines were in first-class-plus shape, but two had gone West in two days, leaving no trace of what had happened.
Group-Captain Eric Swain, DSO, DFC, was a slim god of a man. He had a profile, a stride, and the laugh of some fawn that has been touched by a magic wand and changed into man. The trim Royal Canadian Air Force kit didn't detract from the illusion, either. He had seen all there was to be seen over the old Maginot Line and above Krupps and he got his DSO at Dunkerque when he calmly shot seven lumbering Junkers dive-bombers out of the air in exactly seven minutes. As the result of his effort, a side-wheeler Yarmouth ferry loaded to the stack-base with two regiments of Seaforths got safely across the Channel during that hellish adventure.
For his marksmanship, Swain was given a leave, a few extra rings of braid on his sleeve, and was sent home to hold down a Purchasing Board post until a new Canadian air group could be trained and outfitted.
That's how Group-Captain Swain happened to be at the Hale plant, testing Hale Hellfires that had been ordered for his unit. Swain still had the profile and the stride, but somehow the laugh had become hollow with a tonal quality of mockery. He had helped pull Squadron-Leader Craddock out of a wreck and had gamely put it down to the twist of Fate. He had been the first at the wreckage of young Armstrong's pile-up and stood off when they carried the broken body away.
Crash Carringer knew by the way Swain had acted that he sensed something foul - and Carringer was with him all the way.
"Never mind, Swain. I'll take the next one up," he had said. "I'll find out what's wrong."
"You will not," Swain argued. "There's nothing wrong with these machines, Carringer. But there's something wrong upstairs. An hour from now, I'll take one up myself." Carringer nodded. The guy sure had what it takes. "I'll take one up, too," he offered. "We'll fly them together and carry out the RCAF test program together ... right to the loop and the second."
"It's not your job," Swain protested, "but it might work and give us some idea of what's taking place. Let's go and check them over from prop to fin." There were about nine Hellfires, complete with Cutlass engines and instruments, in the storage shed. They selected the first two, and with the Chief Engineer and the Maintenance Foreman they went to work. Satisfied that both planes were in perfect shape and had in no way been tampered with, they turned their attention to a study of the two that had crashed.
In both instances the wrecked Hellfires had simply nosed down straight from about 8,000 feet and had plunged full tilt into the ground within five hundred yards of each other. In both instances the fatal dive had started about eleven minutes after they had left the ground, and in both instances neither flyer had made any attempt to get clear of the planes and take to their parachutes.
They studied the flight-test cards the pilots had been filling out during the tests and in both cases they were startlingly alike.
Time of take-off ... Climbed to 20,000 feet in 9 minutes ... Checked supercharger output at that height ... Made notes von manifold temperatures ... Performed two loops, a barrel roll, and then checked all controls in neutral to test control rigging ... Fired all guns and checked temperatures of gun-warring units ... Series of sharp dives with steady pull-outs.
That was as far as either Craddock or Armstrong had got. In eleven minutes after taking off, they were on their way down to their deaths. The machines had not flamed because of the automatic crash switches and the fracture-proof tanks. There was no evidence in either wreck of sabotage or meddling with any of the controls. They had checked and tested the fuel and oil. The belts had not been unlatched.
"These guys were Okay, from a physical standpoint, weren't they?" asked Crash, utterly unable to. figure it out, "I mean, they were not run down as the result of their time abroad?"
"We all went through special medical examinations in Ottawa, when we got back," explained Swain. "Then we took another to satisfy your CAB men down here. We all passed with ease."
"Well, even so, they had oxygen and the bottles were filled and the valves worked, so that at 20,000 they could have taken a snifter if they felt like it," pondered Crash. "And you can't get monoxide in a twin-motored job; the engines are too far away from the cockpit."
"There's only one way to. find out, and that is to carry out the show just as they had done it," Swain said with deliberation, "We'll try it after lunch, eh ?"
"Right. But we'll put a guard on these planes right away. We don't want any monkey business, while we are getting some grub into us. I know an old lady who runs a tourist house down the road a couple of miles. She cooks like something you read about. No one will get gay with her kitchen."
The two Hellfires were checked again, even though they had been carefully guarded by a group of picked mechanics. They assayed on the check list as perfect. Crash, in greasy breeches, golf stockings, and brogues was a grim contrast to Swain who was spotless.
They warmed the engines together, climbed in at the same time, and closed the hatches in unison, Then, almost wing-tip to wing-tip, they took-off across the field.
They had set their radios for communication and had ordered the field traffic man to have a complete type-script of their conversation from take-off to landing. Nothing had been left undone that might in any way give a clue to the mysterious crashes - in case another took place today.
The display they made in getting off with those amazing machines would have taken a top-billing position on any airshow program. It was a splendid exhibition of precision flying by two men who flew and handled planes as though they were part of them. The exhibition would have drawn unstinted applause except for the tension and fear that gripped the small group that watched it. They saw nothing of the clean get-away, the synchronized hoik off the ground, or the curling bank as they came about and drew up their retractable undercarriages together.
Glenworthy Hale, president of the company, was at the head of the ground group checking everything that went on. He hunched up on the corner of the table that had been set up outside, There was a loudspeaker that gave off their conversation and checks, and the group had one ear cocked to the speaker and one eye to. the sky as the machines climbed in even circuits.
They caught the clipped accent of Swain as he spoke into his flap mike at 8,000 feet: "All well, so. far, Carringer ... Nothing in the sky either, eh?"
"Not even a whisp of cloud," Carringer answered back as they turned again and sent down the glints of sunshine from their dural wings. They called the time again at 15,000 and reported a thin layer of clouds but explained that it was not heavy enough to cause any trouble. They reached their 20,000 foot mark in the accepted nine minutes and stood off and checked temperatures and manifold pressures.
"All right, Carringer," Swain reported, "Oxygen working well?"
I'll take a snifter to make certain," Carringer said, drawing up the face mask and strapping it to the lugs at the side of his helmet. He leaned over and turned on the valve and the dull, almost sweet tang of the air seemed to caress his nostrils for a minute. He checked the needle on the flow-meter and slipped off the mask.
"Okey doke, Swain," he said into the mike. "What'll we go into now ... the two loops and barrel-roll, according to the card?"
Just as Swain went down in that death dive, a lead-spitting Douglas B-18A hurtled at Crash's craft!
There was a moment's delay. Swain was probably getting his mask clear. Finally, he came through with: "Righto! Power loops from about 45-degree dives."
"Take it away. I'll stay just behind your elevator."
The two Hellfires poised for the test and Carringer watched Swain raise his hand and then snap the fingers down. Immediately, both ships dived at 3/4 throttle. When the needle was well around the air-speed indicator and nuzzling the 450 mark, Swain's hand came up again, four fingers pointing upward.
Both ships went over in a trim curling loop and the two pilots were jammed down into their seats with the centrifugal force of the maneuver. Crash watched the other machine carefully, trying to discover if anything had broke up as they came around.
The two. planes made the loop perfectly in infantry-drill unison and Crash waited for Swain to pull out. The horizon came down from somewhere above as it will following a loop, and Crash started to speak to his flying mate.
"You should start to pull out just a fraction earlier, Swain," he began to say. "You have a lot of weight here, you know." Then he argued quietly with himself, for he sensed that Swain was smart enough to. know that. Perhaps he was going to do the two loops. But Swain's ship only started up the second and then fell off.
"Hey, Swain!" barked Crash.
"Swain ... Report, Swain! What are you doing?"
But all Carringer got in reply was a dull guttural sound that might have been a choked sob, a harsh cough, or the first gutting gasp of strangulation. Still, it might have been some form of radio tube break-up. There was no answer in words, at any rate.
"Swain! ... Swain!" Carringer called again. "Are you all right? Answer me, Swain!"
The lead Hellfire was falling into a tight spin now and Crash was speaking distinctly and calmly, trying to contact the Canadian Group-Captain: "What happened at the end of that loop, Swain? What happened?"
There was no answer, and somehow Crash knew that Swain was dead ... or doomed. The two-engined fighter was going down full tilt in an erratic tight spin. If she held together with all power on like this, there could be no question as to her ability to stand structural stress and strain.
Then before Crash knew what was happening, a new terror crept into the picture. But this was a terror that could be seen-and fought!
For an instant, Carringer could not believe his eyes. He saw the plane, he saw the insignia, and he saw the guns firing at him. Still, he couldn't believe it. But there it was, and the bullets were slamming into the dural wings and fuselage of the Hellfire!
From the turrets of an odd-looking Douglas B-18A carrying American Air Corps markings, came a hosing of bitter fire.
That was enough. Crash made a game effort to get his nose around and draw a bead on the strange Army job, but the effort only completed what the bomber's guns had started. The starboard wing came away and slapped over the back of the Hellfire with a thunderclap of metallic inferno. Cruel .50 caliber slugs had cut away the main spars at the wing-root and the torsion ribs had been slashed as if by giant knives. The battered Hellfire swung around hard, tried to get her nose up in a final game effort to fight back, but Crash knew another flamer was about to go down in his log-book.
A Defiant oath
All view of the Douglas was blotted out by the fractured wing, but Carringer had retained enough in his memory to recall certain salient features of the plane. It was a regulation B-18 with regulation markings, but above all he had seen that squadron insignia - a gay sword-in-hand Cavalier astride a black shield.
All that flashed through Crash Carringer's mind as he fought to get clear of the tangle of wreckage that fouled the sliding hatch of the doomed Hellfire. He slipped the catch of his safety belt and shoved himself back as far as possible. He reached up and rammed the palms of his hands against the curved top of the hatch. He yanked at the release bar and tugged at the slide handles, and for the first time in months he sensed the talons of Fear - not only sensed them, but felt them!
"They got Swain one way, and then made sure of me another," he fumed, sweating as he struggled. "If I ever get out of this, I'll at least have something to work on."
But there was the matter of getting out. The hatch was sticky. He managed to get it back about three inches and realized that he would have to work fast if he was to get out at all.
"Crack-up came at about 14,000," he calculated. "If she'll spin flat a few minutes I might make it. If she goes down nose first, she may pull the other wing off and I'll be down before I can open that sardine can."
The Hellfire was swirling in wide, uneven circuits so far and he had some hope. Still, there was nothing he could do with the hatch. He could kick out the Plexiglas panes if he could get over on his back and get his heels up, but the frames of the hatch were too small to allow egress with his parachute. He'd see that that item was fixed - if he ever got out.
He swore and glanced about. Was there another method of getting out? Why didn't that wing root come away clean and leave a big hole? No, the main fuselage structure had been too well built. There wasn't room for a toy terrier to escape that way.
He wondered about Swain and then fought to erase the memory of that crazy loop. He tried the hatch again and sensed that the Hellfire had gone into a new movement - a movement complete with high-pitched wails and screams. She was nosing down, getting herself into a lather about diving fast and splathering herself all over the landscape.
Crash fought madly now, but the pressure of the wreckage was even greater. If only that other wing would come away. That might clear the whole mess. He sat back and took the gambler's chance.
Whirl after whirl was spun off. The screams increased and the retch of outraged metal joined the chorus until the elements took their toll and the gambler saw the dice turn and show the desired spots. There was another soul-rending banshee wail of dural and the other wing came away, letting the nose down steeper. That was all she needed. The wreckage of the starboard wing swept off and the hatch was cleared.
"Baby, oh baby!" breathed Crash as he ripped the hatch back and climbed on his knees to the seat.
Then began a new battle for life.
The whirling projectile which was carrying Crash down at well over 500 m.p.h. was really in its stride now. Getting the hatch open was simple compared to the struggle of getting his body into the clear. The first hammer-blow of slipstream almost took his head from his shoulders, but he hunched up and struggled to get his shoulders clear. The pressure forced his stomach against the raw metal of the hatch and almost winded him, but he struggled on fighting for life and breath and finally got his feet under him and gave a mighty push.
The slipstream did the rest. A giant unseen hand took a "bouncer's" grip beneath Carringer's windbreaker and gave the desired heave. Crash's body went out with all the force of a circus performer being blasted from a cannon. He went away, somersaulting like a flying pig, clearing the tail fin by inches.
He found the ring and pulled. He closed his eyes and relaxed into the slow tumble of a solid body falling to earth and then got the clap of the pilot chute and the responding jerk of the risers. The harness stiffened and yanked him with a thud into a numb semi-consciousness. The big canopy opened and he was swung back and forth for several seconds.
Then he hit - and hit hard!
They found Crash crawling about on his hands and knees, trying to spill the air from the chute which was dragging him. His nose was bleeding and he fought invisible enemies with his hands and elbows as he tried to gather in the shrouds and blank out the pull of the canopy. They ran their car into it, tearing the chute to ribbons, and then leaped out and cut him from the tangle of linen cords and webbing.
"Swain ... Where's Swain?" was the first thing he asked.
"Take it easy, Carringer," Granville Hale advised. "There's nothing we can do about Swain. He really got a packet."
Hale nodded and then stood aside while a medical man kneeled and began to go over Carringer.
"He didn't pull out of the loop," muttered Crash, holding his head in his great hands.
"No. He came down all the way, full tilt, and hit smack. Didn't try to get out. What happened to you?"
"Didn't you see?" asked Crash, raising his head quietly.
"See? See what?"
"Never mind. Prepare another Hellfire for me. I'm going up again and clear up this mess for once and for all. Get one ready, just as these two were fixed up. Same equipment, same weights, and everything - and get me a drink!"
The medical man got up and looked at Hale: "He seems all right. Dragged about a bit, but no real damage. But be shouldn't go up again today. There's a certain amount of shock to a thing like this, you know, and he should rest."
"That's the reason I ought to go up, Doc," Carringer argued, trying to get to his feet. "Get out of a crash and go up again as Soon as you can. I'll go right away if you have a ship ready. Only thing to do."
"No," the medical man said. "I want to look you over closely first. After that, you can do as you like."
"Get me back to the office."
The group was enlarged by now. Two more cars came up and mechanics, CAB officials, and a couple of State Troopers made up the circle.
"Get me on my pins," Crash ordered. "I'm flying again in an hour."
Carringer sat in a Packard with Hale, the doctor, and a CAB man. A State Trooper rode with the driver up front. They ignored the two wrecks and went back to Hale's office where Crash lounged on a settee while the doctor gave him a more thorough check-up.
"Swain was alive when we started that loop," Crash explained slowly. "But you probably heard him on your set. He was talking to me right up until we started the loop, but he never spoke again and he never actually pulled out of his loop."
"We heard that," nodded the CAB man. "But what happened to you?"
"I didn't get what Swain got - whatever that was. I was shot down 1"
The faces of the men in the room took on a new mask of incredulity. To a man, they turned on the Doctor as if to inquire: "Is this guy Okay?"
"I know you don't believe me, but go out and look at that wreck - if there's anything left of it. You'll find bullet holes all right."
"We didn't hear or see it," someone else said.
"You saw me come down," argued Crash. "There was a layer of clouds up there and that might have blocked it off, but it was there."
"A strange-appearing Army Douglas B-18A bomber. Carried the identification marking BS-21 on the fin and a squadron insignia on the fuselage, just forward of the rear gun turret, of a guy in a big floppy hat with a sword. There was a black shield in the background."
The CAB man got Crash to repeat that and then said: "BS-21 is the No. 21 plane of the 19th. Bombardment Group. That ship disappeared less than two weeks ago during a flight from Selfridge Field to New York. It had a new-type turret and a deeper fuselage."
"That doesn't make any sense, Carringer," argued Hale. "If that plane had been swiped, they wouldn't keep the same identification numerals on her."
"But I don't get that insignia of the the bird with the sword. I thought I knew them all. A hobby of mine, but I've never heard of that one, and the 19th Bombardment Croup certainly doesn't have that," the CAB man went on.
"You can't argue those bullets out of my ship," Crash belted back at him.
"But why the devil would a U.S. Army bomber attack you ?"
"That's what we've got to find out. They didn't fire on Swain, and they blasted at me only after he began to go down. Now the argument is whether they first got Swain one way and then used their guns on me. That's the crux of the mystery here."
Hale began to stride up and down his office, running his fingers through his hair. "How could they tell you from Swain? You both had planes carrying Canadian - that is, British markings."
"If I knew all these things, I wouldn't be sitting here," snapped Crash. "All I know is that Swain didn't pull out of his loop. I did, and I got a packet of Browning for my trouble."
"But that plane - if you caught the identification letters and numerals correctly - disappeared two weeks ago."
"You said that before. So what?" Crash demanded.
"Well, where has it been all this time - and who flew it?"
"That's one I'll answer after I get those birds down. And, baby, I'll get them down next time!"
"There may be no next time," mooned Hale. "This isn't being directed at you. This is at the whole Hale plant. They're trying to stop our deliveries to Canada. And if they have a bomber, they can take a crack at the factory."
"They could have done that before, but instead they just picked on me," Carringer went on. "But what is the connection between the bomber - which had' disappeared - and the crazy business about these poor Canadians? They get it one way, and when I go upstairs to find out I get mine another."
Shop inspectors came in with two reports on the crashes. As Crash had stated, his plane was riddled with machine gun fire, while that flown by Group-Captain Swain had simply crashed for no apparent reason. The pilot had sat there and had made no attempt to escape from the fighter.
"So that's that," said Crash coldly. "Now, we'll get another ready, and I want it prepared by exactly the same men who serviced the other. You have the list of mechanics Hale?"
"Sure, but what good will it do?" Hale wailed. "The same thing will happen, and the next time they'll get you."
"So you're quitting cold, eh?" growled Crash. "What are you going to do, chuck this Canadian order? Are you giving in to some mug who has a hate for you because you build a better plane than anyone else in the country? Are you going to let down those guys in the shop? If you are, I'm not, Hale. I'm going up there if they shoot me down a dozen times. I'm going to find out what this is all about, if I go out trying!"
"Maybe they won't shoot you down, next time," Hale argued. '''Maybe you'll get what Swain got."
"No I won't. I think I know now what Swain got - at least, I'm going to find out. Stick around, Doc. I got a swell idea."
"I wish you had one that involved going to bed," the medico said moodily.
The group broke up because there were a number of newspapermen outside who wanted to see and talk to Hale and Carringer. Crash agreed to lay low and keep quiet until they had a plane ready. They left him and he had time to think it all over.
He was pretty certain what had happened to Group-Captain Swain. He'd make sure of that before he took off again. Swain, he was convinced, had been snuffed out through one act of carelessness on their part.
But the other business had Carringer puzzled. Why had they taken the risk of being caught with a Government bomber carrying a new turret when they could have carried on in the same way? Why had they decided to get him by firing on him in the air that way?
"There's only one answer," he muttered to himself. "They had the business on hand to get Swain, but they didn't have two. They figured that if they could get me by gunfire it would put us off the scent as to how they were getting the others."
He relaxed with that thought and satisfied himself that he was at least on the right track. There was only one way to find out now - and find out he would!
The Stage is Set
They had another Hellfire ready by 3 o'clock in the afternoon, and Crash was eager to get into action again. He had a routine all set, but he went about the business in a somewhat confusing manner. He ignored the newspapermen who tried to question him and hurried through the milling crowd outside Hale's office.
As he made his way around the Administration building, a taxi cab rolled up to the main doorway and a broad-shouldered man in civilian clothing stepped out with his bags. His eyes came at once on Carringer, and for an instant Crash caught a slight grimace of surprise - or perhaps it might have' been a glint of recognition.
"You looking for anyone special?" Crash inquired.
"I'm Hardin - Squadron-Leader Hardin - Canadian Royal Air Force," the man said.
"You on the Purchasing Commission?" asked Crash putting out his hand. "I'm Carringer, Chief test pilot."
"Of course. I've heard about you. Is Swain about?"
"Bad news about Swain. We've had a lot of hard luck around here. I presumed it would be in the papers and on the radio by now. He cracked up and was killed - like Armstrong and Craddock."
"Killed?" Hardin said hollowly. "I hadn't heard. Whatever is wrong here ?"
"That's what I'm trying to find out. I'm taking up another now in hopes of finding something we can put our fingers on."
One of the Hale field mechanics came up and stood nearby: "What do you want?" demanded Crash.
"I'm to take Squadron-Leader Hardin's bags, Sir," the man said. "These are your bags, aren't they Sir ?"
"Of course they're his," snapped Crash, who wondered how the man knew Hardin's name.
"Thanks," Hardin interrupted" "But be careful of this Gladstone, will you? I brought a few bottles of the best down." He winked at Crash.
"Not a bad idea," Crash agreed, watching the man pick up the bags and hurry away through the wide doors. "Does Hale know you were coming?"
"Well, I don't know. You see, I was selected when we heard about Craddock."
Carringer looked straight into Hardin's eyes, trying to fathom all these twists. Hale hadn't mentioned any more Canadian officers that were to join the test crew, but that mechanic knew his name right off.
"I see. Come on along with me and you can meet Hale on the line."
Hardin peered about. "I'll go along with this mechanic chap," he said, "and see that he gets my stuff in. You won't be buzzing off for a minute or so, will you?"
"No, I won't. You'd better take care of that whisky; you may need it," Crash said, adding it all up in his mind.
Crash strode away, his mind a turmoil of distrust, suspicion, and fuming rage. He went blindly out to the apron where a Hellfire was being tuned. The CAB men were there. Half a dozen celebrated newspaper men were standing about with press cards in their hat bands: There were several selected mechanics and the Maintenance Foreman. Glenworthy Hale was in the clear, striding up and down and smoking a big black cigar.
"There's another Canadian in your office. Know anything about him?" asked Crash.
"Well, he's here and he acts dumb about Swain's crash. It's in the papers, isn't it?"
"Yes. On the radio, too. They're having a holiday out of this. I wish you'd give this up until tomorrow, Crash."
"Well, this guy must have heard about it, if he flew down from Ottawa or Montreal. He must have come into La Guardia, and you can't hire a hack today without getting an earful of radio. But he acted dopey about it."
"Trying to maintain an open mind, I guess," Hale said dubiously. "But why don't you give this up for today?" .
Carringer ignored that and set about checking for the flight. He looked the men over and went to the test table where the outdoor radio was still set up. He went back to the plane after a few words with a State Trooper who stood nearby and then stood watching a man fumbling in an open panel just aft of the cockpit ... It was the same man who had carried in Hardin's bags.
"That oxygen set working Okay?" asked Crash, selecting a cigarette and lighting it calmly. "I may go pretty high today."
"Yes, Sir. I have just made certain, with a new bottle."
"Fine. Slip up into the seat, will you, and take a snifter just to make sure she's all right."
The man went stiff and fumbled uncertainly with the panel catches. "But this is a new bottle, Sir. I'm sure she's all right."
"All right. Just make sure. Take a sniff of it."
"I. ... I don't like to use your helmet nozzle, Sir. You'd better check it yourself."
"You're responsible for the oxygen equipment, aren't you?" Crash demanded suddenly. "Well, get up there and try it. You put the bottle in."
"But it makes me ill. I somehow can't take it ... I get ill, Sir," the man said, plainly frantic now.
"Okay! That's all I want to know." Crash turned and nodded to the State Trooper. "Hold this man. I'm going to have the oxygen bottle checked. He refuses to test it himself and he just put it in."
The man darted around the plane, twisted away, and went under the wing just as the Maintenance Foreman snapped the Eclipse switch that started the motor on that side. The unfortunate mechanic charged full into the slashing steel blades of the prop. There was a leaden thock, a low scream, and he went down in a heap, holding his head with his hands. A stream of scarlet trickled out from under his arm-shielded head.
There was commotion galore. The motor was stopped and the Maintenance Foreman climbed down, chalk-faced.
The blade had slashed the mechanic from his shoulder, across the side of his neck, and had opened his skull for about seven inches. He was dead when they had dragged him clear.
''What happened?" demanded Hale, coming up. "Is this field haunted?"
"I don't know, but I'm going to have that oxygen bottle tested," snarled Crash. "Get it out of there and bring a new one - one you know is Okay!"
"Did you' say the oxygen?" gasped Hale.
"I'll bet all the tea in China that stuff has been tampered with. I'll bet Swain, Craddock, and Armstrong got it the same way. Why didn't we think of that before? They were breathing some sort of gas that knocked them out. Hey, Doc. Come and get this bottle."
"But you tried yours didn't you?" the medical man said when Crash had explained.
"Sure, but mine wasn't doped. This guy apparently had only one left. He got some more just now ... that phoney Canadian."
There was a jumble of mechanics, newspapermen, and others around the dead man. They were all shouting and bellowing. The newspapermen began racing for the phone booths and the place was again in an uproar.
"Come on. Let's' get that guy who just arrived. I don't believe he's a Canadian at all."
They moved cautiously and skirted the hangers, avoiding the rest of the mob. They cut between a shop and the paint loft and then darted for the Administration building.
"Why would that guy come here like this?" demanded Crash.
"I don't know," panted Hale. "The others were staying at a small hotel in town. He had all his bags with him ?"
"Sure. Bags and bottles!"
But the man called Hardin was nowhere to be found. There was no trace of his bags nor any evidence that he had even been into Hale's office. No one had seen him anywhere in the building.
"Arrived, delivered the goods, and the bird has flown," said Crash. "Well, that puts it off again. I'm not flying that boiler, oxygen or no oxygen, until we check that prop. Might have pulled her out of line."
"I'll put a teletype report out for him," the State Trooper said as he darted into a side office.
They went on into Hale's office and sat down again.
"How did you get the idea?" Hale inquired.
"Didn't have an idea until that so-called Canadian showed up. Then, when our mechanic walked up to the bird and called him by name, I knew I was on the right track. They had a gag about bottles in a Gladstone bag, and I had a hunch about what sort of bottles they meant," Carringer explained.
"Too bad that mug walked into the prop. We might have caught the rest of the story. Hope they can get this other bird; we might put the screws on him and make him talk," Hale went on with his gloomy attitude.
"I still think there's an angle to that Douglas business," Crash argued. "They came after me today for some particular reason, and I m going to find out why. In the meantime we ought to check with Canada and find out who this guy Hardin was supposed to be. There must have been a Hardin - a real Hardin - somewhere."
"I'll bet he's dead by now, if there was," Hale said in a subterranean growl. "This is big, Carringer. Only a large and powerful outfit can go into all this. They can get to our men, they must spend big money, and if the two angles are connected it must cost them a fortune to handle that Douglas that tackled you. They would need a field, a hangar, and a crew to man her."
"Well they're playing for real chips. If you pull out of this Canadian business, they'll step in and grab it and probably sell those guys a lot of junk - and the U. S. can't afford to have junk go abroad."
"What do you mean ?".
"Well suppose this mob sells Canada a bill of goods. The stuff will go to England and have to compete against the best they have over there - on both sides. If it doesn't stand, up, it will be a black eye for American military aircraft. We've got to think beyond this war. When it's all over we'll be back in the commercial market and we will have to live down that junk someone else sold."
Hale didn't answer, but he knew there was a lot in what Carringer had said. There was no need to answer. It was the obvious truth. "Well, what are we going to do about it?" Hale finally went on. "Should we tip off the Army Air Corps about that bomber and have them put out an aerial dragnet?"
"By now, they should know something about it. You made a formal report to the CAB guys, didn't you?"
Crash suddenly jerked around as though someone had stabbed him with an ice-pick. "Wait a minute! They may figure on that, and have half the Air Force out searching. That will give them an even better chance of doing damage, if the sky is full of planes - Army planes."
Hale stiffened as much as his bulbous body would stiffen.
"Wow! That sure cooks it! Now we have made a mess of it! The only way we can tell is by that nose - and we probably won't get close enough for that!"
And as if in answer, there was a dull, massive drone outside and Hale swung around in his desk chair and stared up out of the wide windows of his office. A formation of Army observation planes was winging to the North.
The search for the mysterious Douglas bomber was on, but both Carringer and Hale sensed that this official effort would only make their task that much harder and give the mysterious raider a wider scope of action.
"That means, of course," Carringer said coldly, "that I'll have to stay in the air over this field for hours and hours until I can suck them in and do the job right."
There was a knock at the door and the doctor came in. He had the metal bottle of oxygen in his hands. He stood just inside the doorway, hunched up as if he had bad news to impart.
"Okay, Doc. What is it?" asked Crash, throwing a leg over the arm of his chair. "I'll bet I was right."
"You certainly were. Know what was in this air bottle? Nothing less than diphosgene. That is to say, trichlor methyl chlorformate, a gaseous mixture of decidedly deadly effect if inhaled direct as this must have been. Diphosgene has been considered in chemical warfare, but it is too dangerous to handle. Those Canadian pilots must have been dead within a few seconds after they took their first inhalation."
"Where can they get such stuff, Doc?"
"They couldn't buy it without exciting suspicion. They might have produced it themselves, if they had the equipment. Or they could have procured it through various means from abroad. You can have your own guess."
Crash took the metal bottle and stared at it with interest. He held it in the palm of his hand and studied the laboratory markings and the intricate stopper. The gas in that cylinder, if accidentally released, would kill all three of them before they could get out of the room. "Did you give this story out, Doc?"
"Well, yes. The newspapermen stopped me on the way in. I simply told them the oxygen bottles had been filled with something else."
"Good! Then all the evening newspapers will have it and we'll give out the impression that all the trouble is over. First thing in the morning; we'll start testing again as though nothing had happened. Make sure that is released also, will you, Hale?"
"I'll make sure our insurance still holds, too," Hale said with a gloomy gesture. "What are you going to do about the rest of the oxygen, Doc?"
"I'm sending it all back for a complete check-up. We can't take chances on the rest. You'll have to manage without it until some time tomorrow afternoon, Carringer."
"I won't need any. I'll take that chance, anyhow."
By the next morning the plot was thickened even more. The body of a man had been taken off the Montrealler delux express in Grand Central station. The man had taken a private compartment and had come aboard early in the morning. He had taken lunch on the train, after passing through the Customs officials at the border, and then had retired to his compartment to read and rest. All that the conductor swore to.
ut that was all they knew. When the train pulled into New York City, inquiries were made for him - by Canadian government officials and it was fully an hour later that the man's body was found hunched up in the small private lavatory connected with the compartment. There was no trace of his baggage.
His name was Andrew Hillary Hardin and he was a Squadron-Leader in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He had been on his way to take over testing duties at the Hale plant on Long Island.
All that was in the newspapers, along with the incredible tale of the poison-filled oxygen bottles that had been placed aboard the Hale Hellfires. The general public was beginning to wonder how soon the Dominion of Canada would declare war on the United States. A Group-Captain and three Squadron-Leaders in that many days was a little too much to stomach.
"And to think," Crash fumed in his hotel room that morning when he read the story, "that I had my hands on that guy - the mug who killed the real Hardin. What a dope I was!"
But he was certain now that there was little chance that he would ever see the man again, so he turned his attention to the more pressing feature of the problem - the mysterious Douglas bomber that had made such an effort and taken such a chance on getting him down.
There was the crux of all this - aboard that Douglas B-18A bomber. And there would be dozens of bombers, fighters, and observation planes searching for it from the Canadian border all the way down to the Mason and Dixon line. There was no telling. Next time they might even strike from a Curtis Hawk or a Lockheed.
After breakfast, Crash left the hotel, slouched into his new automatic-top convertible coupe, and rambled at a comfortable speed out to the Hale field. Two formations of Army fighters were doing a routine patrol up and down Long Island and a formation of Navy Grummans was booming along the shoreline. It seemed improbable now that the Douglas would risk all this, but they had been taking wild chances all along.
When he arrived at the field there was a full squadron of new Curtis P-40's lined up in front of the hangars. Crash stared at them as he slid from behind the wheel of his car and caught himself wondering just what would happen. And then it did happen!
There was a low scream at first, like the laugh of a loon across a lake at nightfall. The scream increased in tempo and pitch until it became an insane retch of Death.
C-r-a-s-h! W h a n g! Car-r-u-m-p! Three great greenish streaks spewed out of the sky and struck full among the P-40's and blew them to a tangle of wreckage. Two more hit a dozen or so yards away and flamed out great holes in the Tarvia runway. Another brace fell wide and exploded with a mad roar at the far end of the field.
Car-r-r-u-m-p ! C-r-a-s-h!
More fell, and Crash threw himself flat near the car. Another bomb struck amid the lineup of fighting planes, and chunks of dural wing and shattered sections of fuselage went sky high and banged back on the ground with a clatter of old iron.
Men ran in all directions. Some crawled in agony and then lay flat, kicking their toes into the concrete apron. They screamed and rolled over and tried to crawl again. Another explosion belched out nearby and blotted out slabs of the mad scene with concrete, dust, and smoke.
Through it all, Crash charged for the open door of the Test hangar. There was a Hellfire standing there and he roared orders left and right. The mechanics swarmed back toward it and Crash raced for a locker where he knew he would find a parachute and a jacket. The helmet should be ready in the cockpit.
Army men stood staring at the wreckage of the P-40's. A mechanic had one engine of the Hellfire ticking over.
"Get her wound up! Get her wound up!" Crash was bellowing as he snapped the swivels of his harness. "Get her going!"
It seemed minutes, but it was actually only seconds before both engines were thumping over. Crash was in the cockpit, buckling the helmet and tightening the safety belt. Outside, more bombs were striking with savage ferocity. Machines were afire and the field was half obliterated with smoke and debris dust.
A man who was bleeding and holding one arm stiff, got the doors open wider and Crash charged the Hellfire outside and let her rumble through the smoke to a position where he could risk a take-off. It would be a risk, too, for the engines were hardly warm. But he had to take that chance now. None of the Curtiss fighters were available now. Those that had no been struck were tangled up in the wreckage of the others.
Someone came yelling out toward him as he fanned the tail of the Hellfire around. Crash waved him off. He knew that the man would tell him that there was no oxygen aboard and not to risk altitude. He knew all that, of course, and would have to take that chance.
He ignored the man and let the Hellfire charge into the swirling column of smoke that was rolling across the field. He came out still fighting to get her off. The engines were cold and sluggish and he did not dare risk forcing them for fear of choking them off completely. It was too late now to pull out. He was struggling into the air on about 40% of available power and he was glad that the Hellfire was only fairly lightly loaded.
Somehow he managed to get her into the clear and begin a crazy climb upstairs. He settled himself for minutes of anxious effort and hoped he would be able to find out just what it was that was releasing that death and destruction from above.
The temperature needles went up gradually and he was able eventually to open the radiator shutters a trifle. He checked his instruments in sequence and was so intent on reaching the raider that he forgot all about contacting the ground. While he sat there counting the minutes and watching the altitude needle move around the black and silver dial, he drew up his oxygen mask and snapped on the valve, just to see if there was a bottle available.
Just as he thought. There was no sweet warm hiss from the nozzle and he smiled and snapped the valve again. He settled back for the climb and tried to pierce the early morning haze above for some sign of the raider. He wondered what he would find up there. Would it be a Douglas bomber with Air Corps markings? Would it be several light bombers? Or would it be a bomber of foreign origin?
"No use sitting here wondering," he argued with himself. "They're still slapping sticks of bombs down below, so they're still up there."
Crash glanced at his altimeter and saw that he had made the 12,000-foot mark. He forced her still more and began to sense the outside cold and decided to do something about the guns. They would at least need warming up.
He glanced at the ammunition box indicators, and then for the first time realized the hopelessness of it all. That's what the mechanic ran out to tell him. The Hellfire had no ammunition aboard!
He snapped the switch of his radio, took up the mike, and called the ground. They were bellowing at him from there by now.
"... tried to tell you," Hale was saying. "That ship was being prepared for a gun test at the butts, and they had taken the belts out. Better come back, Carringer."
"Well, I'll be ... " raged Carringer. "I thought this was the ship you had prepared for today's test. Now what do I do? That guy must be a few hundred feet above ... "
But that was as far as Crash got. The radio chatter had been picked up and he was already under a stiff hail of fire from above. A torrent of lead spattered into the Hellfire and Crash knew he was in a tight spot.
"That's what I get for talking too much," he growled, ripping the two-engined fighter around. "Should keep my mouth shut more. Now they know I have no guns. They'll raise the devil with me. No guns, no oxygen!"
Still, he did not stick her nose down. Instead, he hoiked hard and ripped her into an even steeper climbing turn, oxygen or no oxygen.
The attacking plane was a Douglas. There was no question about that, but it was carrying different markings. They had pulled the stunt Crash had figured they would. The letters were "B.N." and the numerals "16." There was a patch across the nose that glistened more than the other doped area, and Crash sensed that they had daubed off the Cavalier squadron insignia. But that strange-appearing turret and the deep body gave it away at this close distance. Crash knew it was the same job - but he didn't know what to do about it!
"You babies sure worked fast," growled Carringer. "You've got me stuck, too. No guns and no oxygen!"
He held her in the steep climbing turn and darted about as the gunners aboard the Douglas slapped slug after slug at him. He had to fight it out as long as he could keep ducking slugs, because there was only one way he could get them now.
The altimeter needle climbed from 19 to 20 and he began to sense the rarity of the air. His breath came hard and his respiration increased. He was hot and yet cold. Beneath his helmet he was sweating profusely, but his hands and feet were almost numb with the cold! He felt stiff and weak. Much of the marrow of his spine seemed to have dripped away in the last few minutes. He found himself drooping listlessly against the belt or against the seat back.
"Cut it out!" he argued with himself as he slithered away from another burst. "Get hold of yourself, you dope, or you'll be going off to sleep !"
Another burst bashed through the Hellfire and the slipstream whistled through the holes and added a new wail to the screaming agony. He fought against the weakness of his limbs and tried to get the Hellfire up higher. He knew she could do it - but could he?
The Douglas slammed across the nothingness of the sky again and the the front gunner went to work. The Hellfire somehow weathered it and staggered on. Crash drew deep breaths, doll-danced the Hellfire all over the sky, and tried to hang on. Then he realized that the Douglas was trying to get away. They had played out their string. They were being out-gamed by a man with no guns!
Crash swore and dragged back farther on the stick. The altimeter was up well over the 26,000 foot mark now and he was simply gasping for breath. His legs were leaden and his arms were frozen stiff. By now, too, his eyes were doing strange things and at times he could see two Douglases - one super-imposed on the other.
He had no idea where he was flying, or how. He simply flew by instinct. He could see the Douglas trying to get away now, and he suddenly sensed what they were running away from. They had figured out what he had planned to do and they wanted no part of it.
"That's it," he muttered slowly, hunched up in one corner of his seat. "They know what I'm going to do - and I'm going to do it! They can't get away with this!"
Somehow, he pulled himself up and let his weight rest against the broad webbing of the safety belt. He dragged the Hellfire up a few more feet, and with his last gasp of breath and effort he suddenly slammed the throttle up the gate to the last notch and tore full tilt at the scurrying Douglas.
He could see the rear turret gunner start to swing the fire tubes around at him, but he could also see the gunner stop and stare wide-eyed at him. Or was Carringer seeing things?
The mad duel went on for seconds and finally the gunner was rattled to his senses - but it was too late then. Carringer just remembered ramming the port engine smack into the big tail assembly of the Douglas as the double blast of point blank fire took the top of his hatch away. He had mercifully slumped as the propeller ripped into the tail and fin, eating away the vital controls, and he knew no more until he regained consciousness several thousand feet below.
He finally jerked and stared about. He was going down in a flat spin with the remaining engine flaming like a giant torch. He kicked his feet clear of the rudder stirrups, drew in several long gulps of reviving air, and then prepared to go overboard. He was still stiff and cold, but his mind was clear and faculties were at his command. He stared out and gulped when he discovered that he was still somewhere over the Island. He realized that he had probably worked his way Northeast with a wind without knowing that he was playing safe.
He kicked clear and went over the side, taking his time about pulling the ring. He allowed himself the cushiony pleasure of the easy tumble and stared about as he went earthward. The Douglas was kiting around the sky, about a mile away, slipping, diving, rolling, and throwing away chunks of its tail assembly.
There were two white parachute blossoms, also, not far away, and Crash Carringer was very satisfied.
The state troopers rounded up two of the crew from the Douglas, which crashed in a heavy thicket near a golf course. The third managed to slip away. One of the two caught was the man who had represented himself as Squadron-Leader Hardin. The other was a hook-nosed Latin who had acted as the front gunner. The rest aboard were all dead, the Latin bird said.
"You're nuts," the pseudo Hardin said when they met in the Cloverdale Police Station. "Any guy who will take the chance you did, with no guns, ought to have his head looked at."
"What do you expect from a test pilot?" demanded Crash. "And what do you mean, they're all dead aboard your bus? I didn't fire any shots."
"No," Hardin grinned savagely.
"But I did. I wasn't letting those . guys get down here and talk too much. I'd have knocked them all off, but they jumped too soon."
"You're a nice guy," a Trooper said. "Sure. But he'll squeal when they stick him in the chair."
The hook-nosed Latin leaped to his feet before a Trooper could stop him.
"You swine!" he blazed. "You did them in like that?"
"Shut up, greaseball! You got out alive, didn't you? You jumped before we were really in trouble. We sure had some brave guys aboard."
"Well, I'll be brave enough to spill the whole story ... right now," the excitable Latin guy blazed. "What you want to know, Mister ?"
"Where'd they get that Douglas?" demanded Crash.
"Three of us got three hundred dollars apiece for that and a chance to get out of the Army," the hook-nosed youth snarled, looking at the man who had killed Squadron-Leader Hardin. "Three hundred bucks, and we blew it all in the first night.
"We were supposed to fly from Selfridge to Mitchell Field one, night," he went on. ''Instead, we held the bus up. Daubert - he was the radio man - socked Captain Derwent, and he socked him too hard. Derwent died before we got down. Maloney a Mick Flight-Sergeant, took over and brought her down at Zigler's place up above the Adirondacks."
"Zigler? Who's Zigler?"
"This guy," the hook-nosed man said, pointing to the man who -had killed Hardin. "He's Zigler."
"Shut your ugly trap," Zigler raged. A Trooper shoved him back in his seat.
"What else you want to know, Mister? It don't matter now, I guess. We blew our three hundred in one night at a hot spot in Albany. Crime don't pay, I guess."
"But what was it all about?" asked Crash.
''We were paid after that to get you - you're the Hale test pilot, ain't you? They were fixing the oxygen bottles at first, but they ran out of thr stuff and Zigler bopped off another Canadian so he could get into the plant with his bag of new bottles. He' kills guys for nothing, that guy Zigler."
"I know he killed Squadron-Leader Hardin on the Montrealler, but that doesn't make any sense or clear up why he picked on me and why he swiped that Douglas," said Crash probing for information.
"Look, Mister," hook-nose said with another glance at Zigler, "I'm just a punk in this racket - I must be, to sell out for three hundred bucks - and I don't know the whole story. All I know is that we swiped the Douglas so that Zigler could use it to beat your outfit. If he didn't do it by getting the Canadian test pilots, he was going to bomb the joint. That's what we were trying this morning, when we knew you had got out of that mess yesterday."
"But Zigler doesn't have all the money to pull this, does he?"
"He ain't got none, Mister. All he's got is an airfield up New York State. He tried to sell it to the Government for plenty of jack and they didn't come across, so he sells out to some other punk who wants to put your mob out of business. It don't make much sense, I know, but maybe you can put Zigler on the pan later and heat him up till he talks."
"He gets dough from a rival concern?" asked Crash.
"I guess so. He didn't sell his field to the Government. He had picked it up quick and cheap and figured to make a few grand, but the deal didn't work - so he just took dough another way. An' we mugs sold out for three hundred bucks! Now we all get the hot seat, eh ?"
"I wouldn't know, kid," said Crash.
"What made you sell out that way?"
"Zigler starts off by telling us we're in a suicide mob and shows us how to get out, with three hundred bucks. But we slop it all up in one night and we have to stay with him because we had deserted."
"You changed the letters on that ship, didn't you?"
"Sure! After we heard you sneaked in yesterday, we figured you would remember something about it; we changed 'em to make it harder. That was Zigler's idea, of course. He's a tricky guy, all right." ,
"Well, we'll see if he can wriggle out of this one. You keep talking, kid, and you may talk yourself out of this rap. You didn't hit your pilot, did you?"
"No, Daubert - the radio guy - did that. I was just the gunner - for later on. I'll talk Mister. I'll talk that guy Zigler straight through the little green door. Hell, he kills guys for nothing !"
"Well, they'll put him away for plenty, kid. Take 'em away, Trooper," grinned Crash. "I've got a lot of Henllfires to test until a good live Canadian comes along."
Posted October 21, 2017