Adam Blake’s associates met at the airport. They crowded in a hangar where the Jenny was parked. Tank Tinker spread a map on the top of a fuel barrel and circled an area around the small town with a pen. “This is where we searched,” he said. “The only thing in the area was scrub, coyotes, and that abandoned airport from the army.”
“‘Abandoned airport’?” asked Cully Morrigan, smoking a cigarette.
“It was the first place searched,” said Professor Carter Nichols. “Nothing was found there, according to the operators in the tower. I was able to secure statements by the operators and their log sheets. The only thing I found was the same as everyone else has. The plane fell below radar and vanished.”
“Everyone in town has your girl pegged for a Commie,” said Twitch. “They’re not even looking for her around here. The thinking is she flew across to Mexico to sell the plane.”
“They’re wrong,” said Hop, slamming a hand in his fist. “And we have to prove it somehow.”
“I have an idea,” said Morrigan, stubbing out his cigarette on the floor.
Hop Harrigan and Tank Tinker were at the controls of the Jenny again. Carter Nichols sat at the engineering station, reports at hand. Cully Morrigan and Paul Twitchell watched the landscape go by from windows forward of the cargo area.
Morrigan’s idea was old, but somehow seeming to fit the mystery they were floundering in. Blake’s associates were recreating the crime.
Hop circled the plane in a wide loop over the desert, heading back to the airport on the same heading as Gerry’s plane. He listened to Nichols read the report from the earlier flight as Tank talked to the tower. The Jenny slid toward El Gordo Mesa, but things seemed wrong for some reason. The town flew toward them as they dropped lower toward the desert floor. Hop almost laughed as the Jenny flew by the airport. Another airport approached as the jet flew on.
“That’s the abandoned airport,” said Tank. “That’s already been cleared.”
“I know,” said Hop.
The Jenny headed in a straight line for the mesa that had given the town its name. The massive outcropping of rock could easily accommodate a plane landing on its top. Hop settled into a straight run, letting his jet float gently to a touchdown. The Jenny rolled to a stop, engines dying, as bullets beat against the metal body of the jet.
“Get the door, Twitch,” ordered Cully Morrigan, reaching under his coat with both hands. He pulled twin Colt .45s as the former stool pigeon pushed the door open with his foot. The troubleshooter waited for a lull before dropping through the hatchway. His automatics roared continuously as he headed for cover.
Twitch dropped to the ground right behind him. He had an old .38 Special, but he held his fire as he followed in Cully’s footsteps. He wasn’t a killer like the former gunman, and he knew it.
Hop Harrigan grabbed his own .45 as he ran down the aisle toward the opened hatch. He heard Tinker’s heavier steps following close behind. “Get the Jenny out of here, Tank,” he ordered his friend. “Someone has to go for help.”
“Man, I never get any fun,” Tank grumbled, brandishing an automatic of his own.
“Take Carter with you,” said Hop as he dropped and rolled. “They’ll believe him.”
Tank emptied his automatic as he reached for the Jenny’s hatch. One simple tug slammed the door shut. He dogged the hatch and went forward. “All right, Professor,” he said as he settled into the pilot’s chair. “We’re leaving.”
“What about the others?” Carter Nichols said, strapping back in.
“They are on their own,” said Tank as he flipped switches and pushed the throttle forward. Luckily, Hop had left the engines idling. Moments later, the Jenny roared toward the edge of the mesa and took flight.
Cully Morrigan paused behind a rock. A man stepped into view with a Thompson submachine gun. Morrigan fired first, striking the man across the side of his head with the bullet.
Hop Harrigan fell beside him, holding his still-unfired pistol at the ready. He shook his head to shake the dust of the Jenny‘s passage and takeoff from his eyes. Paul Twitchell had taken refuge behind a boulder to their right.
“When I give the word,” Cully called out, “rush ’em.” He paused for a moment. “Go!” he then shouted with false enthusiasm.
The remaining three gunmen fired on the cowering Twitch. He hunkered down, letting the bullets bounce here and there around him. Morrigan stood up, firing his pistols empty as he ran forward. The men dropped, fooled by the fake setup.
Cully slid to a stop beside the cave’s entrance, reloading with simple practiced movements.
“I got your girl, Harrigan,” called a voice from inside the rocky hangar. “Back off, or she gets it.”
Hop Harrigan slid to the other side of the cavern’s entrance. He looked over at the grinning gunman. Morrigan nodded slightly, indicating a willingness to try to negotiate with something other than bullets.
“Who am I talking to?” Hop asked. He had a vanishing small list of suspects from which to choose. The man at the top was the only one on the flight who could have ensured the plane would arrive at the top of the mesa and not in town. That man was the pilot, Captain Humphrey Dufries — the only man who could have directed the plane without the passengers noticing.
“You know who this is, Harrigan,” said the voice. “This is Dufries. I walk with the HX-110, or your girl gets it. No bargaining, no stalling, nothing. Am I understood?”
“Show your face, Dufries,” said Hop, trying to pierce the darkness of the cavern with his own eyes.
Lights bloomed to life. Twin engines whined, then roared as Dufries prepared to taxi out of the cavern and take to the air. Hop could not see Gerry and was afraid she was already dead.
“We have to stop that plane!” shouted Morrigan. “If it gets off the ground, there goes the ballgame.”
“I’m open to suggestions,” said Hop, rushing forward. He could not decide where to shoot the plane.
Morrigan went for the tires, emptying his guns. The plane kept rolling, the slugs barely penetrating the black rubber. He reloaded his last two clips as he decided to switch targets. He took aim at the engines at the back of the plane and fired. He was rewarded by a tongue of flame erupting in the air.
Hop ran for the wing. He ducked under the swept-back piece of metal. A single tug dumped a small boarding ladder from the side of the plane. He jumped up, pulling the hatch out and to the side. The aviator took aim at the thieving pilot.
“I’ll kill her before you can pull the trigger!” said Dufries, aiming his own pistol at the woman sitting in the copilot’s chair. “Don’t think I won’t.”
“You don’t have a chance, Dufries,” Hop said, grim for once. “Give it up. Otherwise Gerry won’t be the only one dying tonight.”
“You’re not a killer, Harrigan,” said Dufries with a twisted smile.
Both men were surprised by a bullet smashing the plastic window, hitting Dufries’ pistol, ricocheting from the metal, and slicing through the cords around Gerry’s arms, before burying itself in the inner wall of the cockpit.
Dufries tried to jump to his feet, but Hop bounded across the intervening space and swung a hard right first. The pilot crashed against the windshield, then slumped to the floor. Hop Harrigan took his old flame Gerry Nolan in his arms, whispering things. The world and the events of the last few years seemed to disappear for a timeless moment.
“You and your trick shooting,” Morrigan said to Twitch.
“When you got it, you got it,” said Twitch, trying to twirl the .38, and dropping it to the ground.