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July 10th, 1937
The Silver Avengers streaked through the air over the cheering crowd of the Crown City Airfield. The roar of their turbocharged Allison inline engines zipped across the sky sending ribbons of exhaust fumes in their wake. From his cockpit Captain Steven Hawklin had the best seat of the show. He peered down at the spectators, his only thought was to give the crowd a performance they wouldn’t soon forget.
The idea of his combat force, The Clandestine Wing, grew out of his desire to assistance in the protection of the west coast of America. The first and only privately-owned air militia was sanctioned by the United States Government with the blessing and support of President Roosevelt himself.
The journey from conception to achievement was long. After a decade of missteps, funding issues and other events that sidelined him a few times, Steven was proud to be leading the small squadron in their first official appearance to the public. Within six months, ten more Avengers would be ready to join the ranks – flown by his Crusaders. Pilots handpicked and trained in the country’s largest privately-owned aviation school. At long last Steven’s dreams were becoming a reality.
“Alright Crusaders, follow my lead and stay in tight formation,” Steven called into the radio.
“On your six, Captain,” Dawson replied.
“Right behind ya,” O’Brien squawked.
Several other replies followed, and Steven pulled back on the yoke of his Silver Avenger and sent the plane racing skyward. The aircraft handled beautifully, and flew smoothly as it climbed up, up and up. The steady hum of the powerhouse engine remained constant. Though there was some wind turbulence the plane handled it flawlessly.
Steven held his air mask up to his mouth and said, “Stand by… stand by… Okay, just as we did in practice gentlemen. And Break…!” He pulled a release handle at his left side discharging a canister of color smoke from the back of his plane and shoved the flight stick to a hard left.
The seven planes broke formation, each of them spiraling in different directions. Red, white and blue smoke trailed behind the fighters. Steven hoped his little show of patriotism was a hit with the gathering of spectators on the ground.
His Avenger shuttered as he leveled it back on the horizon. He glanced to his left to find Dawson and then to the right to see O’Brien, their planes falling into formation next to his.
“Yee Haw,” Dawson yelled with a boisterous laugh. “I bet that’s got them cheering down there, Captain.” Dawson had worked for Steven since 1934, flying cargo runs between America and Europe – he was a good pilot, and recently began to train new Crusaders. Where Hardy and Oz were Steven’s righthand men, Dawson was his left, working behind the scenes at the airfield and vetting new applicants.
“That maneuver worked better this time than it did during practice,” O’Brien said, his voice laced with a smile. O’Brien was twenty-two but had a good head on his shoulders. It was his idea for the red, white and blue as part of the airshow. His father died in the Great War and his mother soon after. For a man raised in foster homes most of his life, he had a good work ethic, and was loyal to a fault.
“I didn’t have any doubt,” Dawson replied.
“Really,” Steven said. “I was doubting it for a split-second. Considering we hadn’t done it with the smoke until today. I’m surprised it didn’t blind us.” He leaned toward his window. The red, white and blue had begun to mix together forming a purplish, green fog.
Suddenly, the colors mixed violently together, and from the swirling cascade a single engine fighter plane emerged, its wing guns opening fire.
“Scatter!” Steven shouted.
The attacking plane broke through the Crusader’s ranks, rocketing skyward. The aircraft was fast and maneuverable and quickly turned for another pass as the seven Avengers broke formation. The warplane had no discernible markings, even the cockpit’s glass was tinted, masking the pilot from view.
Steven clipped the air mask on his face and pulled his goggles down over his eyes. He hadn’t expected to be in an aerial dogfight, especially over Southern California. If he had, he would have made sure his planes were loaded with ammunition before takeoff.
The attacking craft sped by the Avengers, opening fire again and disappearing into a low cloud bank.
“What the hell is going on…?” O’Brien yelled.
“I’m sure that’s not part of the show,” Dawson chimed in.
“Cut the chatter,” Steven snapped. “Scan the sky – where did that plane go?”
“I don’t see – wait…!” Dawson shouted. “Coming at us out of the sun!”
The sun washed out Steven’s vision – he shielded his eyes with the palm of his hand. He spotted a black speck charging toward him and he banked his plane right just as the attacking craft opened fire again. Steven heard the ting, ting, ting of shrapnel hitting the side of his craft.
“Who is this joker?” Dawson’s voice cut over the radio.
“If we were only carrying ammunition,” O’Brien exclaimed.
“He’s clearly singling me out,” Steven said. “We can’t take the chance of jeopardizing the people on the ground or losing any of the Avengers. I’ll lead him toward the sea, the rest of you hang back.”
“That’s a bad idea, Captain,” Dawson said.
“He’s right, Steven,” O’Brien said, followed by several of the other pilots protesting.
“This isn’t open for debate,” Steven barked. “Follow my orders and keep those planes safe.”
The radio fell silent, and the six Avengers dove out of the fight as ordered.
Steven turned his plane. On the horizon he saw the Pacific Ocean. Opening the throttle, the Silver Avenger shot forward. You might be armed, pal, Steven thought. “But I doubt you’ll be able to keep up with this plane.”
The accelerator wide-open, the plane’s engine hammered alive – the landscape raced below at incredible speed. The yoke vibrated in Steven’s grip, confident that his Avenger was unmatched, he set his site on the looming blue waters of the Pacific.
Assured he was alone in the sky, Steven drew an easy breath, but instinct took control and his automatic reflexes went to work. He jerked the control stick hard to the right as red-hot bullets zipped past him like enraged fireflies. He jerked the yoke to the left and then back to the right, uncertain how the attacking plane was able to keep up with him. Steven knew of no other plane as fast as his.
Jerking back on the flight stick, Steven sent his Avenger straight up. I might not be able to outrun him, but let’s see how high he can go…
More weapons fire whizzed past the cockpit window, and Steven looked back, pressing his face against the glass of the cockpit. He grimaced. The attacking warplane was matching his altitude and steadily gaining on him.
“That’s it,” Steven muttered. He shoved the yoke to the left and the Silver Avenger banked, and then he turned toward the pursuing warplane. “I’ve had about enough of you.”
Though the thought of suicide never crossed his mind, it was certainly something to be considered as he flew toward the oncoming attack craft.
More gunfire shot toward him, and Steven spun his plane, avoiding every shot. He quickly closed the gap between him and the other aircraft. Unsure how he was going to fight without bullets, Steven didn’t worry about that. His intention was to ram the other plane, and by doing so send them both to their deaths in the waters below. It wasn’t the way he wanted to die, but he’d be damned if he died and the other pilot survived. It didn’t seem fair.
When the enemy pilot understood Steven’s intention, he banked his plane to the right. But Steven wasn’t about to allow him to get away so easily and he turned to match the enemies new course.
The attacking plane opened fire again, but this time Steven wasn’t as lucky avoiding the bullets and his plane took several hits along the right wing. “Damn it!” he exclaimed. He righted his course, but the attack craft was gone.
Steven scanned the sky. Again, his instincts kicked in, and he shoved the control stick forward diving for the deck, the sea coming up fast, he jerked the plane right and there it was, the attacking plane swooping in on him. He had Steven dead to rights. Swallowing in a cottony throat, Steven waited for the blasts that would send him to the drink. But out of nowhere, four more attack planes shot in between the Silver Avenger and the approaching aircraft. Everything happened so quickly. Steven jerked his airplane up and pulled a hard right on his controls and there in front of him were the four planes. All the same design as the attacking craft.
The small squadron of fighter planes were black and sleek, also with no markings and cockpits just as black as the ship he’d been fighting. Whoever they were, Steven was at a loss as to why four identical planes, like the one that attacked him, were now in combat with one another.
Whoever they were, they were part of the same organization. But why fight one another? He wondered. It didn’t make any sense. Steven drew his attention back to the fight, when the first craft, well-outnumbered, bolted and raced across the sky. The other four planes followed in pursuit. For a brief instant, Steven considered giving chase, too. But when thick black smoke bellowed out from under the engine bonnet, he grimaced, he had no other choice but to get to ground.
Steven managed to land his plane back at the airshow without incident. His canopy pulled back, he heard the cheer from the crowd and the announcer assuring them that everything they witnessed was all part of the show.
Steven offered a wave, playing up to that idea. The last thing the public needed to know was they were watching an actual dogfight. The Silver Avenger spewed gray-black smoke from under its fuselage, but its engine didn’t falter, and Steven had no trouble taxiing his craft back toward the other five Avengers parked at the end of the airfield. He steered the plane off the tarmac and into the sod. A firetruck tore up the runway along with several cars and an ambulance.
Crusaders ran toward the craft with fire extinguishers in hand as Steven unbuckled himself and climbed out of the plane. He pulled off his flight cap and threw it to the ground. His blonde hair lay matted to his head with perspiration. Soot outlined his eyes and mouth – he hacked and coughed black mucus from the back of his throat and spat it at his feet. Fumbling with the hooks on his flight suit, Steven managed to open the front of the one-piece coverall and yanked the scarf away from his neck.
“You alright, Steven?” Dawson said upon approaching. He was tall and slim with dark curly hair. His eyes were equally dark, yet always mindful and attentive. Though a man in his early thirties, he still held on to that boyish innocence. His skin was milky and without blemishes.
“Give him some room,” O’Brien said. William O’Brien was the total opposite. He was shorter than Dawson, he had the same dark hair color, but at twenty-two looked much older. His eyes were deep blue but well-aged, certainly a man who had seen his fair share of tough times. His chin was cleft, and he wore a dark mustache – presumably to cover up a scar he’d received while living in a foster home.
Steven waved his pilots back, taking several deep breaths of the dry California air, the afternoon sun beating down on him, he looked up to the partly-cloudy sky and leaned against his plane as ground crews worked to contain a small fire in the engine.
“Who was that guy?” Dawson asked.
Steven stood erect. In his experiences the bad guy wasn’t always a guy. He unzipped his flight suit all the way and climbed out of it – unfastening the top button of his shirt, and said, “Beats me who it was –”
“It was odd that he singled you out,” O’Brien said.
Steven’s lips formed into a hard-little line and he said, “Not really. I’ve ticked off enough people over the last twenty years. It’s hard to tell who it could be.”
“Who do we call when something like this happens… the police?” Dawson asked.
Steven hitched a smile, and said, “Whoever it was, it’s too much for the police to handle and right now – without more to go on, we do nothing.”
“Nothing?” Dawson asked.
“Yes – nothing. Sooner or later, whoever attacked us will try again. And when they do…”
“We end up dead, when whoever wants you dead walks up behind you and shoots you in the back,” Dawson said.
“Not necessarily,” O’Brien replied. “Someone so bent on killing the Captain won’t do it by simply shooting him in the back. They’ll do it extravagantly, and in a way that will make them feel good about how they killed him.”
“Could we stop talking about how I might be killed please,” Steven said. “Until whoever it was tries again, its business as usual.”
“Damn right its business as usual,” a wheezily high-pitched voice shouted behind Steven. “What in blazes are you up to Hawklin? You scared the kids and their mother’s half to death. Mothers who are here with their husbands. Husbands I might add, who are paying. When you frighten people, they stop buying snacks and souvenirs, are you trying to bankrupt me?”
“Calm down Zeke – I promised I’d put on a good show, didn’t I?”
“You promised a show, not deadly combat.” Zeke Laszlo was a round short man in his late fifties. His hair had thinned away to almost non-existence. The saggy skin under his gray eyes jumbled when he talked. “Steven Hawklin and his Crusaders are a big draw… I made more this weekend than I have all year. But I suppose money is no object to you,” he said with his fingers hooked in the suspenders under his faded blue suit. “Might I remind you, you’re in a contract for a two-day appearance. The last thing I need is for you to run off on one of your well-known adventures leaving me high and dry.”
Steven put his hands up in front of him defensively, he looked to the sky for a second when he heard the next aerial performance taking off from the second runway and then leveled his eyes on Zeke, and said, “I will be here for the two days as contracted and my planes – all my planes will be performing as arranged.”
A toothy smile broke out on Zeke’s face, showing his yellow teeth, and he said in a victorious voice, “There, I knew you’d see things my way, Captain. Your next performance is at four o’clock. Will this plane be ready by then… because I warn you, if you renege on the contract you’ll be paying a hefty fee.”
Steven checked his wristwatch, twelve-thirty, and said, “All seven planes will be in the air come four o’clock, Zeke.”
Zeke slapped his hands together, the fat rolls around his neck tightened with anticipation and reminded Steven of a walrus. “I’m happy you said that, Captain, very happy indeed,” he said, taking a half-burned cigar out of his inside pocket and chomping it between his teeth. He offered a half smile and said before he sauntered away, “Otherwise I would have had to sue.”
Dawson spat in the dirt, and grunted, “You almost get killed and all he’s worried about is money.”
“Someone trying to kill me isn’t his concern. The bottom line is,” Steven said. “Besides, my problems shouldn’t be Zeke’s. I owe him – a contract is a contract. And I intend on honoring my end of it.”
“You’re taking this in stride Captain,” O’Brien said. “I mean, aren’t you a little bit concerned about what happened this afternoon?”
“Right now, I don’t have time. Whoever has a beef with me, will show their faces sooner or later. I’ll worry about it when the time comes. Right now, I want you two to check out your planes for the four o’clock show, and then give the ground crew a hand in getting my plane ready for flight.”
“Right on it,” Dawson said.
Steven made his way to the supply truck across the field away from the planes, pouring a cup of water from a cooler strapped to the bed and took a deep drink, clearing the soot out of his throat. He glimpsed a newspaper in the cab and reached inside, unfolding it to read the headline: Amelia Earhart Still Missing, Search Continues. He skimmed over the article but didn’t read it in depth. Earhart’s disappearance was a great loss for aviation. It was a flight he had contemplated a few times himself but decided to remain in the scientific and design part of aviation. He’d trekked all over the world at one time or another, just not all at once.
“Did you know Miss Earhart?”
Steven looked away from the newspaper, to find a man in his mid to late thirties, with wavy red hair, and dressed in a dingy tweed suit. At first, he thought him to be a reporter, but upon further scrutiny Steven believed him to be a government man. But with the man’s British accent, Steven was sure it wasn’t the American government. The man had the same characteristics as other government men he’d met before, but more refined, educated and smart-looking. Maybe it was because he wore wire thin glasses and stood assured of himself, Steven wasn’t sure. Cautious, and level-voiced, Steven said, “I knew her. She was a friend.” He remembered their first meeting in 1935 and the situation that brought them together. Amelia was smart, witty and the only person he’d ever met who could outfly him – that is, until this morning.
“I caught your performance today, it was more intense than I would have thought it to be,” the man said reserved.
Steven tossed the newspaper back in the cab of the truck, and replied, “That’s the thing about us flyers, you never know what kind of show we’ll put on.”
“You’re more than just a pilot, aren’t you, Captain Hawklin. A man of many talents if what I’ve read about you to be true.”
“Depends on where you’ve read it,” Steven replied walking cautiously past the man.
The man followed, said in a mocking tone, “It came from a very reliable source. I mean, hunting dinosaurs on Monster Island and stopping a two-thousand-year-old Jade Dragon from altering the course of reality is no easy feat for a mere pilot. I liked how you rectified that situation – but do you think tossing the Dragon into the ocean was the right choice?”
Steven spun around, snagged the collar of the man’s jacket and shoved him against the supply truck, his arm wedged in the man’s neck, he applied pressure, and demanded, “All right, talk. Who the hell are you and how do you know so much about me?”
Unscathed, the man replied in an even tone, “I assure you Captain, I mean you no harm. I was told you could be trusted.”
“Who told you?” Steven asked, wondering if the man was referring to his sister, Juno. She was one of the few people that knew of his exploits in detail.”
“I’m not at liberty to say,” the man struggled to speak, gasping for air. “All I can tell you is that I am here to enlist your aid – and I think you’ll find we share a common threat – and the information I have, is beneficial to us both.”
Steven loosened his hold on the man, but didn’t remove his arm, and said, “Just who are you mister – and what common threat are you talking about?”
“My name is Reginald Brunt, and I have information about the plane you fought today.”
Steven reapplied pressure to Brunt’s neck and said, “I’m listening.”
Brunt made a choking sound deep in his throat, but remained calm, and said, “Not here. But I can take you some place, where you can meet some people that I work with and…”
“I don’t know you Mister! You’re not American that’s certain and the last thing I’m going to do is go anywhere with you. So whatever information you have, you can spill it here or you can go. There is no third option.”
“I assure you Captain Hawklin, you can trust me.”
Steven raised an eyebrow, said, “Why is that?”
A thin smile graced Brunt’s lips and he said, “Because, I’m British.”
Steven stood quietly for a moment and blinked a couple times before offering the only reply he had to such a statement. He took a step back, balled his hand into a fist and delivered a right cross to Brunt’s face.
Brunt hit the ground a second later, his legs out from under him, he leaned against the supply truck, his hand to his jaw and his gaze on Steven. “I say, she neglected to tell me how violent you can be.”
Steven’s theory was correct, it was Juno. “Where is she, where is my sister?” he demanded.
“Sister?” Brunt asked confused.
Steven fisted Brunt’s shirt collar and hoisted him back to his feet and warned, “Did she also tell you I don’t like to be kept in the dark?” He balled up his hand for another punch, only this time Brunt was ready for it. He blocked the punch, slipped out of Steven’s grip, passed by him, and kicked the back of Steven’s leg.
Steven dropped to one knee and used the supply truck to stop himself from falling to the ground. Brunt grabbed him at the scruff of the neck and pulled him. Steven pushed himself up faster than Brunt was prepared for, knocking him off balance. Both men tumbled to the ground, bearhugging each other, both scrambling to get back to their feet.
Steven was up first, deciding not to yell for assistance from any of his Crusaders. They would just get in the way. He looked at his hand discovering he held a fistful of Brunt’s dress shirt in his grip. He tossed the torn garment to the ground and righted his footing, squaring his shoulders – fists up in front of him, waiting.
Brunt scurried to his feet, confused, he looked down at his torn shirt, drew a sour look on his face and placed himself in a fighting stance, determination etched across his face, he dove forward, and Steven pulled back his fist to fire another strike – but he stopped when he heard: “Steven – STOP!”
Steven turned, recognizing the voice, but Brunt continued his charge. The two men went back to the ground – with Brunt on top of him, Steven absorbed most of the impact. He kicked Brunt away, and scrambled back across the ground from the fight, focusing his eyes on the woman who stood feet from him.
Brunt stopped his advance, noticed who Steven was looking at and shot to his feet in attention. Disheveled, his white tweed suit was soiled, the outer lining of his jacket hung below the hem and he looked like he’d been in a fight with a dozen stray cats. “My apologies, ma’am,” he said.
Steven got up, raked his hands through his mussed hair and cleared his throat, drawing a breath, he couldn’t speak.
Enamored, Steven exhaled. Desa Wintergreen was the last person he expected to see. His heart did flipflops and his mouth bled dry. He stood there in silent recognition eyeing her. Desa was close to Steven’s age, lithe and petite, she stood five foot nothing. Her soft features gave her an old-world look, her face was round and supple. Her smoky eyes, alluring and lovely. No matter how many times he saw her, he was awestruck by her elegant beauty. She wore a dark skirt, a tan blouse, and flat bottom shoes. Her dark hair hung just below her shoulders; it was the longest Steven had ever seen it.
His emotions in overdrive, Steven quelled his desire to run to her arms. They had left things hanging upon their last encounter and he wasn’t sure if he should go to her or not. Steven met Desa many years ago when she was married to Orman Wintergreen, a business associate of Steven’s father, Thomas. Steven had harbored feelings for Desa, but never acted on them until a couple of years ago, well after Orman’s death.
“Well, say something…”
A thin smile graced Desa’s lips and she said, “Well that’s a start, I suppose.”
Steven took half a step closer to her and said, “What are you doing here?”
Desa crossed her arms in front of her, her lips forming a hard-little line. Her voice became sharper, she eyed Brunt for a second and then said, “It wasn’t by choice, I assure you. Three days ago, I was in my flat in London until Agent Brunt here spirited me away… what did you say Agent, ‘a matter of life and death’?”
Brunt took a step forward, arms at his side in a less aggressive demeanor, he said in a cautionary tone, “I must insist Misses Wintergreen that you and Captain Hawklin accompany me. It’s for your own safety. When we are in a safer place, we’ll explain everything to you, Captain. Until then it’s... it’s our orders.”
Steven’s brow furrowed. “Orders?” he asked.
Coy, Desa shifted her footing, and drug her hair behind her right ear as if wanting to say something, but in a deep directed tone Brunt said, “This isn’t open to discussion, ma’am. There are protocols to maintain. We are compromised and must be going.”
Steven righted his footing, digging his boots into the sod at his feet, said in a sharp tone, “I’m not going anywhere until someone tells me what in the world is going on.”
“See, I told you,” Desa said.
Steven shot Desa a side glance but kept his attention on Brunt. Steven always prided himself of being in control of any situation, provided he had all the details. Not knowing something was unnerving. “Just a quick simple explanation,” he said.
“And then you’ll go with me?” Brunt asked.
“I’ll consider it,” Steven replied.
Desa threw her hands into the air, and said, “The world could be coming to an end, and you wouldn’t act until you have all the information. Sometimes Steven you have to give into blind faith.”
Steven turned to Desa, in a calm even tone, he said, “It’s how I do things. I figured after my little altercation this morning the answers would come together as to why I was attacked. Is it too much to ask to be given some answers upfront?”
“We don’t have time for this,” Brunt said. “I’ll sum it up for you Captain. I work for a secret British intelligence organization. Last week one of our agents went rogue, killing several of our operatives and stealing highly confidential records.”
“What does that have to do with me?” Steven asked.
“Please, Captain – I dare not say more until I have you and Misses Wintergreen in protective custody.”
Desa stepped into Steven’s line of sight and said, “You can trust him Steven. I do, and once you hear the whole story, I know you will, too. Until that time – will you trust me? Let’s go with Agent Brunt. You know as well as I, with or without their information and resources you’re in the thick of it. Wouldn’t it be better to know all the variables before you face what’s coming for you?”
Silent for a long moment, Steven stared into Desa’s eyes. No matter how they left things two years ago, he couldn’t get past the honesty on her face. He trusted her. He didn’t trust many people. “Alright,” he said with a hooked smile. “Alright, I’ll go and listen.”
Brunt let out a sigh of relief, said, “My car is parked just this way – we must hurry.”
Steven looked toward his Silver Avengers and his pilots, deciding the best thing was to leave them out of the loop. He knew them, especially Dawson and O’Brien. They would want to come along. But until he knew the whole story, the last thing he wanted to do was bring them into something that might get them killed. They were trained for aerial combat and they were good at it. But this was something more and he wouldn’t be held responsible. “Okay, let’s go,” he said.
Desa folded her arm into Steven’s, but jerked him to a stop and asked, “Wait a second – Steven, where’s Hardy and Oz?”