“What’s going on?” Maxwell stammered slightly. His tough guy persona was totally gone.
“Who’s Judge?” Jed asked as his eyes fearfully burned into me.
Ignoring his pilot’s question Maxwell’s nervousness continued to build. “Who told him? What does he want?”
“Never mind who told him,” I growled, “but you, and maybe me, are who he wants.”
“What?” The actor twitched.
“Listen,” I said quickly, “it’s looking like he knows what you were doing out here.”
“Look,” I grabbed him by the shoulders. “It doesn’t matter. He’s here to make sure we don’t get back without an escort. I don’t know if he’ll recognize me, but under the circumstances he probably will. That’ll be strike two.”
“What do we do?” Jed’s voice was unsteady.
I ran both my hands through my hair. “Is there any other way to get to the plane?”
“Not really,” Jed replied without knowing why we were in trouble. “We’d have to walk all the way around the chain link fence to get out onto the runway. But by the time we were out onto the tarmac everyone would see us.”
While we were debating Judge began walking toward us. We were going to have to make things up as we went along. Even our bad plan of trying to sneak around to the plane wasn’t going to be possible.
“Stay where you are,” Judge called as he crossed the pavement that separated the terminal from the parking lot. His right hand was hidden in the pocket of his jacket and he was making no attempt to disguise the pistol it held.
I thought about grabbing my handgun out of my belt, but with people scattered everywhere I couldn’t take a chance. We were going to have to wait and see how he played it.
“Well, well,” his voice was oily, “the great Brix Maxwell and the murderer of Eve Standish.” There was a catch in his voice as he said her name. “Who’s this,” he said gesturing toward Jed, “your pilot, I guess.”
“Yes,” Maxwell replied in a very small voice.
“Doesn’t matter,” Judge spat, “you’re all coming with me. Walk in front of me. Do something stupid and I’ll kill you.”
“You wouldn’t dare with all the people around,” Maxwell pleaded.
“Try me,” he said in a monotone. We walked.
My mind was racing as we neared the small terminal. If Judge was able to get us through the building and then onto his plane we were all in big trouble. Just because I now knew how everything fit together wasn’t going to do anyone any good. Not only were we going to die, but the careers of many people associated with the National and Excelsior studios were going to go down the drain as well. My only solace was that I had hope that Doris, Tenny, and Sarah were safe. No matter what I was determined to keep it that way.
With no other choice we let Judge force us into the terminal toward the exit that led to his plane. Maxwell, Jed, and I were walking side by side with Judge close behind. The door that would lead us out to the runways was getting very close.
The summer season and the late afternoon had caused there to be a fairly good crowd in the terminal and it gave me an idea. Catching my actor friend’s eye I motioned for him to remove his hat and fold down his collar. I don’t know whether he understood why, but he complied.
“Look!” I yelled all of sudden as soon as his face was visible. “It’s Brix Maxwel!”
In one motion it seemed that everyone’s head looked over and after a very short pause the crowd converged on us. Maxwell, winked at me quickly comprehending what I was doing. He then instantly played along and spoke in a loud voice greeting the throng that was collapsing around him.
Taking advantage of the commotion I immediately turned and grabbed Judge in a bear hug effectively pinning his arms against his side. As the crowd surged toward Maxwell I lowed my shoulder and propelled my struggling captive in the opposite direction. Fulfilling his role as a famous movie star Maxwell made as much of a diversion as he could while I drove Judge toward the men’s room door.
Having caught him flatfooted he wasn’t able to fight me off. I slammed him hard through the bathroom door and drove him against the far wall. Judge scrambled frantically to free his arms, but I held tight. Knowing I couldn’t continue this dance much longer I violently rammed my forehead against his nose a couple of times. There was a loud cracking sound which took the fight out of him. Dazed he slumped back bleeding against the wall.
Just to make sure I popped him twice with short lefts and when he dropped to the floor I wrestled the gun out of his pocket. I quickly jammed it into my belt. Next I lifted the wobbly Judge to his feet and half carried him to a sink. As I did the door opened and two men entered. They both froze when they saw us.
“My friend’s not a very good flyer,” I covered as quickly as I could. Judge’s head lolled from side to side as I tipped him over the sink. “I’m afraid he had way too much to drink and then fell down in the parking lot. If his wife sees him this way before they get on the next plane she’ll have a fit.” I tried to laugh convincingly.
The two men smiled as if they understood and went about their business. I went about cleaning my victim’s face. By the time they left Judge was beginning to come around.
“I need you to listen to me,” I said menacingly with my face very close to his. “Can you do that?”
He nodded weakly.
“We’re going to do the reverse now. You’re coming with us. You give me the slightest trouble and I’ll take you apart right here. You get me?”
“Yes,” he whimpered in a very small voice.
“I’ve already killed your buddy Johnston,” I hissed, “I can send you to meet him.”`
“Wha…” Fear welled up in his eyes.
“OK,” I commanded, “now stand up. Wipe your face and then we’re going to walk across the airport to our plane. Don’t even think of trying anything. At this point one more death won’t matter.”
We made our way slowly through the terminal. Maxwell was still signing autographs, but had managed to work his way toward the exit to the tarmac. Assuming that I’d been able to subdue Judge, Jed had already hustled out to the plane to get clearance for us to take off. Maxwell met us just outside the terminal.
Maxwell took one look at Judge’s smashed face and whistled. “You are a little frightening, my friend,” he said to me. “Remind me to not get on your bad side.”
We could see that Jed had the engines running so Maxwell and I half dragged the still unsteady Judge across the tarmac. It was all we could do to try and make my victim stay upright and put one foot in front of the other. Judge was a mess. I’d clearly broken his nose and a large blue welt was forming over his right eye. Blood stains adorned his shirt and jacket and it would be a long while before he’d be able to go on any auditions unless it was for a horror movie.
By the time we reached the plane the stairs had been lowered waiting for us. As soon as we were inside I expected we’d move out onto a runway. One problem down, several more to go.
As I pushed Judge up the stairs a figure appeared silhouetted in the doorway. He looked too tall to be Jed. Suddenly in one motion he grabbed Judge and dragged him into the plane. He then leveled a gun at Maxwell and I.
“What the hell did you do to him?” The unfamiliar voice barked.
Judge sat at the unknown’s feet still breathing hard, but appearing much more alert. His partner helped him struggle to his feet. Bracing himself between his accomplice and the doorway he took a deep breath and glared at us.
“You bastards,” Judge hissed. “What did you think, that I flew here myself? Now, give me my gun. Very carefully.”
I took it out gingerly and the pilot grabbed it. It was now jammed into his belt.
“What do you want to do?” His partner asked. He was tall and gangly with a pencil mustache and a receding hairline. Not looking tough didn’t matter now. He and Judge had the upper hand.
“We’ll take this plane,” Judge said. “It’s cleared for take off and I don’t want to have to go back to the terminal and start over.”
“What are you going to do?” Maxwell asked in a weak voice.
“I’m afraid that you are going to have an accident,” Judge sneered through his very misshapen face. “It’ll be a shame. ‘Hollywood star Brix Maxwell dies in a plane crash’.”
“What?” Maxwell said softly and then looked at me. His face was very pale. I imagine mine was too.
“We’ll let you go down in the mountains. I bet they won’t find your bodies for days.”
“But how will you…” Maxwell started.
Judge’s pilot pointed out two parachutes lying on the floor behind him next to an unconscious Jed.
The pilot went to the cockpit and sat behind the wheel waiting for clearance. Judge kept his gun leveled at us and ushered us into the rear of the plane. Maxwell and I were then ordered to sit on the floor. The still breathing Jed was slumped between us.
I’d never thought about Judge’s pilot, but when he had to wait so long for us appear he must have figured out what had happened. Knowing what plane Maxwell had used would have made it easy for him to find Jed and take his place. Judge was going to be able to take out someone who he thought had been his rival for Standish’s affections as well as the person he thought killed her. Two for one.
We were cleared for take off and within minutes the plane taxied down the runway and slid easily into the air. We gently banked west and Judge’s pilot turned toward the reddening late afternoon sky. Whatever they were going to do was going to have to happen fast. All we had to do was think of a way to prevent it.
In the tense silence we heard Jed groan. Maxwell turned to his friend and helped him into a sitting position. He had a long oozing gash across the top of his balding head. Thin streams of blood had run down his face and dripped onto his shirt. Jed’s glassy eyes and the brown-crusted blood on his chin made him look like a drunken sailor with a goatee.
Maxwell looked at me. Surprisingly I didn’t see any fear. He looked resigned to our fate and appeared to be simply gritting his teeth waiting for the inevitable. Maybe I had misjudged my new friend. Maybe he was tougher than he’d shown. Our eyes met in silent grim surrender.
I wanted to tell him that I’d gotten through tough spots before, like fighting off a murderer in a car as it toppled off a drawbridge, or being trapped unconscious in a burning building. There was also the time I was pulled down into a sinkhole in the Louisiana bayou. I’d been shot, beaten, stabbed, and left for dead more times than I could count. But if I told him maybe he would just think that my nine lives were up. Thinking that maybe they were I stayed silent.
After about a half hour Judge called to the pilot to put the plane on automatic and come back. Next they opened the fuel line and dumped most of the full tank out over the desert below. Then they picked up the two parachutes and strapped them on. Nobody spoke.
Judge opened the door and the wind howled into the plane. The pilot went back to the cabin and pulled some wires out from behind the dash. With a hard yank they snapped in two. The plane shuddered slightly and then regained its level flight as the wires hung loosely below the instrument panel.
We had nothing to loose. We could die fighting or in a plane crash. At least fighting we had a chance to take Judge and his pal with us. Time was short. I watched for an opening. He didn’t give me much, but when it happened I took it.
As Judge moved toward the door he looked down at his feet. In all the stress of the last hour I’d temporarily forgotten about my own gun, which was still wedged into the back of my belt. It had never occurred to Judge to check to see if I was carrying. I hoped it would be a fatal mistake.
Maxwell looked at me and I winked. A startled confused expression washed over his face. There was only a second’s opening. To protect my friends I suddenly rolled away to my left and grabbing my pistol I fired wildly. My shots missed, but momentarily froze our two captors.
Before Judge was able to react Maxwell dove toward him. A second later Judge recovered enough to raise his weapon to fire. The gun barked just as Maxwell hit him with a perfect waist high tackle sending a bullet crashing harmlessly through the fuselage.
As they toppled to the floor I jumped to my feet and rushed the pilot. While he’d appeared tough earlier with a gun in his hand the actual sound of one firing rattled him. Before he could react I dove at his knees. I heard something crack. Wearing the parachute made him awkwardly top heavy and screaming in pain he toppled over backward.
I climbed on him as he reached into his jacket for the gun he’d held on us earlier. We reached for it at about the same time. Four hands scrambled for control as we rolled across the floor with our arms outstretched. He got his hand to the trigger first and as we fought for the weapon two more shots exploded. One broke the cockpit’s side windshield, which made the wind whine loudly.
I knew I’d injured his knee so while we continued to struggle for the gun I managed to lean my leg on top of his. That did it. The pilot shrieked in pain and lost his grip on the gun. As it clattered across the floor and under the chair in the cockpit I pounded his face into a bloody pulp. He gasped and went silent.
Turning to my partner I flinched in terror. Maxwell and Judge had rolled precariously close to the still open door. I had to make a choice whether to run to help or get the gun and empty it into Judge. I decided to double up on Judge.
As I grabbed his shirt his gun fired again. The bullet flew out the open door and I heard it clank into the metal wing. The plane shuddered again and began to bank wildly to the right. The three of us rolled uncontrollably into the doorframe. In the raging wind Judge lost control of the gun and it flew out the door into the clouds. Grabbing at anything to keep him from falling out of the plane Maxwell’s hand found our assailant’s belt. I then grabbed Maxwell’s.
The two of them dangled out the open door as the plane continued to circle lower and lower. Knowing he’d lost the fight Judge tried to drag all of us out of the plane. I grabbed a hanging strap inside the fuselage that was probably intended for skydivers to use for balance. I tightened my grip on Maxwell and for a second or two the three of us were suspended in a chain.
Deciding that he’d gotten the best of it Judge let go and tumbled out into rushing wind. He had the parachute. He had disabled the plane. His plan was going to work after all. Too bad that there would be four dead in the crash instead of three. At least he was still going to make it.
It seemed that way to me too, but neither of us had accounted for the plane’s crazy spiral. As soon as he let go the wind slammed him back loudly against the exterior of the plane. In less than another second his body was hurled into the tail wing, which nearly cut him in half. He plummeted out of sight with his limbs flailing lifelessly.
Maxwell grabbed me around the neck and pulled himself back into the plane. His face was red and his eyes were wild, but he was still in one piece. I slapped him on the back and he slumped onto a sitting position with a dazed look on his face.
Not knowing what else to do I ran to the cockpit. I climbed over the fallen pilot and jumped in behind the wheel. I grabbed it and pulled it back hard. The plane rose, but too fast. I pushed it forward and then turned it to the left. Amazingly we were flying somewhat level.
Maxwell staggered up behind me. “You know how to fly this thing?” He wheezed.
“Not even a little,” I said between gasps. “You?”
“Is that the gas gauge?” Maxwell said frantically pointing at the instrument panel. It was very close to the E.
We didn’t know where we were. Neither of us could fly. We were running out of gas. Looking below all we could see was thick forest. Swell.
Behind me on the floor I heard the pilot stir. We turned to see the bloody pulp that my fist had made. We also saw the gun in his hand. When I’d pulled the plane out of the spiral it must have slid out from under the seat and gone right to him.
He was in bad shape. It looked like I’d broken his leg, his nose, and maybe even his jaw. Blood poured from his mouth and nose and his eyes were unfocused. Despite the shape he was in the gun in his hand made him look like the winner until he tried to move. His injuries made him holler in pain.
“Take me to the door,” he gurgled trying to spit the blood out of his mouth.
“No,” I sneered making Maxwell flinch. “Do it yourself.”
“I’ll kill you,” he managed.
“Go ahead,” I taunted. “We’re all going to die anyway. What’s it matter? Now or in just minutes from now.”
His eyes rolled in his head as he tried unsuccessfully to drag himself to the still open door. He was screaming, crying, and swearing as blood continued to pour from both his mouth and nose. Finally he started making slow progress by laboriously dragging himself and his shattered leg toward escape.
After several minutes he reached the door, but was too exhausted to pull himself into a sitting position. He rolled over onto his stomach and pushed himself toward the door. With one last gasp he leaned forward and somersaulted into the air.
Maxwell ran to the back of the plane. He grabbed the still woozy Jed and tried to lift him to his feet. Our pilot’s eyes fluttered and he slumped in Maxwell’s arms. The actor slapped him lightly across the face and wrapping an arm around his shoulder propelled him toward the cockpit. Together we strapped him into the pilot’s chair and put the wheel in his hands. Jed began to come around.
“Oh God,” Jed wheezed as he looked at the horizon, “where the hell are we?”
No answer was necessary or possible.
As he became more alert he began to experiment with the controls. He shook his head. “They disconnected the ailerons,” he said.
“So?” Maxwell yelled.
“I can’t bring it down. I can bank but that’s all.”
“They fixed it so we could only level off or go up?” I guessed.
“…until we ran out of gas and dropped out of the sky,” Maxwell said with his head in his hands.
The gauge was on empty. The prop on the right wing coughed and stopped. The plane shook and dropped like we’d driven off a cliff. We all yelled in fear. Then the left propeller stalled and the only sound was the shrieking wind. My stomach rose in my throat.