Pulp Fiction | The Finger in the Sky Affair by Peter Leslie

BOOK: Pulp Fiction | The Finger in the Sky Affair by Peter Leslie
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The Finger in the Sky Affair
By Peter Leslie

Mystery in the Skies

Five major air crashes in two months—the cause of all of them a complete mystery. In each case the plane's instruments were working perfectly, the crew was in command and ground control in contact. Then the plane would suddenly nosedive into the runway as it came in to land, killing most of the passengers. Those who weren't killed outright died mysterious deaths soon after.

Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin hurried to Nice to follow a trail that led unavoidably to THRUSH—and to a monstrous master-plan that was moving steadily toward the point of no return...

Chapter 1 — Turning on the heat

Screaming, the man pelted from the blazing wreckage towards the airport buildings and the control tower. Flame licked the trousers and sleeves of his lightweight suit, his tie was on fire, and thin trails of smoke streamed from his hair. Behind him, the inferno which lay across the main runway dwarfed the scarlet shapes of fire truck and ambulance racing towards it along the perimeter track.

To the horrified watchers in the tower and along the crowded observation terraces, the man's pumping legs seemed hardly to move him across the immensity of the apron (one of the ambulances had changed course and was dashing across the field to intercept him). "Lie down, man! Lie down and roll," the duty officer was shouting impotently behind his green glass window high in the tower. "Lie down and roll on the ground to smother the flames, you idiot!" But the injured man was still running, staggering now, falling to the sun-drenched asphalt, dragging himself to his feet and stumbling doggedly on. When he was near enough for the airport workers pounding towards the crash to see his open mouth and staring eyes, a second explosion erupted from the center of the wrecked plane. One of the lazily spinning fragments of incandescent debris brushed him lightly with its flaming tail as it flew past and dropped him once more to the ground. This time he did not get up.

Less than sixty seconds before, the huge Trident—Transcontinental Airways Flight T.C. 307 from New York—had been planing in from the west to land on the main runway at Nice airport dead on time after its four thousand mile journey. No cloud sullied the dark blue of the sky. No breeze ruffled the sea. The visibility was perfect and the friends, relatives and onlookers thronging the terminal building in the heat of the early afternoon scarcely gave the silver plane a look as it neared the finger of reclaimed land which carried the runway emptily out into the Mediterranean.

A porter driving an electric baggage trolley shaded his eyes against the glare of the sun and watched the aircraft take shape against the dark outline of Cap d'Antibes on the far side of the bay as it sank from the brassy bowl of the sky. The pilot of a private Cessna waiting on the perimeter to take off throttled back his engines and glanced out to sea as the giant undercarriages and nose-wheel thumped down from the belly of the Trident. Holidaymakers on the beaches at Cros-de-Cagnes looked up as the great jet, air-braked now by seventy degrees of flap, roared overhead.

The plane's shadow undulated across the crowded little port, snaked over a storm beach of shingle and sped on along the sparkling sea. Soon it was hurtling towards the markers spaced out along the landward side of the runway.

As the dusty grasses flattened beneath the machine's 250-mph approach, the shadow and the substance drew inexorably nearer: slowly the speeding aircraft sank towards the tarmac, and as slowly the skimming shadow moved out towards the middle of the runway to join it. The only unusual thing about the whole operation was the rapidity of the junction: instead of leveling off, throttling back and settling gently down, the Trident continued flying at exactly the same speed and inclination until the two, the aircraft and its shadow, met together. It flew, as it were, straight into the runway...

As the shattering sound of the first impact split the hot afternoon, a mushroom of dust spurted from the dry ground. With its port oleo snapped, the jet bounced high into the air, slewed sideways when it crunched to the runway for a second time 400 feet further on, dug its port wingtip into the earth and cartwheeled for a further 250 feet in a slow arc before it slammed upside down across the tarmac and instantly burst into flames.

Ambulances and fire trucks were racing towards the stricken plane almost before the bloomp of the explosion was over, but it was outlined in fire long before they got near. On either side of the white-hot fuselage, the stressed metal of the triangular wings buckled and curled like charred paper in the fury of heat. Off to one side, the skeleton of the tall tailplane with its trefoil of jet engines streamed flames and smoke into the air. And between the blazing mass of the machine itself and the point where it had first touched the runway, an irregular trail of spilled baggage, window frames and shattered fragments of auxiliary controls sprawled. Two hundred yards away in the middle of the airfield, one of the giant landing wheels rolled slowly to a halt, wobbled and fell over to one side.

And from the holocaust, just this one man emerged. Spewed onto the ground by who knows what chance of mechanics when the tail and the fuselage parted company during the Trident's last cartwheel, he picked himself up, flaming, and zig-zagged in panic away from the disaster.

The ambulance reached him just after he had been struck down by the second explosion. By the time they had smothered the flames and lifted him tenderly on to a stretcher his eyes were already glazing. Once on the way back to the terminal building he gave a deep groan, tried to sit up, and said quite clearly: "It's too high...it's much too high..."

The nurse pushed him gently but firmly back on the pillows. "Don't try to speak," she said in French. "You must not exert yourself."

The burned man writhed beneath the red blankets. "They...they...lifted up...the ground," he panted. "Not...far...enough below...I tell you I...
it's too high up...
" And his voice died away in an incoherent mumble.

"You must not speak, my friend," the nurse said again. "I am afraid I cannot understand your language—and anyway, you have to conserve your strength. Be quiet now and rest..."

But the injured man continued to twist and turn, though his voice remained a low babble just above the threshold of hearing and he said nothing further that could be identified as words.

The other ambulances were halted a hundred meters away from the crash by the intense heat. One of the asbestos-suited firemen lumbered towards them scissoring his arms in a gesture of negation. "No use," he called out. "There's not a chance in hell. Apart from that one poor devil, the whole bunch must have fried in there like sausages. There's not even one chucked out onto the runway to die of a broken neck!" He looked over at the dense pall of black smoke and shook his head.

"Oh, well," the ambulance driver said philosophically, "I guess it must have been pretty quick at that...How long before we can start getting the bodies away, then?"

"A little while yet, friend. Even with the foam and that, the whole lot's still practically incandescent. A messy job, I'm afraid. You'll be rooting about in those ashes with the salvage boys for hours."

"Hell! I was off duty in half and hour, too. Jeanette and I were going to eat at the Rotonde. Still—better a late dinner than being a client for me and the salvage boys, eh?"

Twenty minutes later, the duty officer and one of the directors of the airport clambered out of a jeep at the scene of the crash. Weeping relatives and anxious friends had been taken care of, the curious had been dragooned away, cables had been sent and pressmen dealt with. And now all that remained of the Trident was a cruciform patch of smoldering debris through which the salvagers combed in antlike convolutions. Many of the corpses had already been removed and laid out in rows, many more, in whole or in part, had to be extricated from the tangle of incinerated fabric, melted foam rubber and scorched steel and aluminum.

"I still cannot understand it," the duty officer was musing. "A perfect day, with everything in order. Everything. I was
talking
to the fellow. And he flew straight in. Smack into the ground. I
can't
understand it..."

He picked up a charred woman's handbag, opened it, took out a buckled address book, a lipstick and compact, and then, with a helpless gesture, dropped them back inside and carried the bag over to the growing pile of personal belongings at one side of the runway. The director was shaking the foam from a fire extinguisher off a child's teddy bear. "You had no warning, Calvert, no warning at all that anything was wrong?" he asked.

"Nothing,
Monsieur le Directeur
. Nothing at all. One moment, he was about to touch down; the next moment—this." He spread his arms in a Gallic gesture at the scene before them.

Trembling through the hot air which still rose in waves from the litter of wreckage, the long line of sightseers' cars illegally parked at the side of the motor road flanking the airport winked in the fierce sunlight. The director stared absently at them for a moment and then reached into his breast pocket for a piece of paper.

"Ninety-seven passengers and the crew killed," he said slowly, adjusting his spectacles with forefinger and thumb, "and only a single survivor...that would be bad enough in all conscience. But this is the fifth crash Transcontinental has had in the past two months—and the third they've suffered here at Nice."

Chapter 2 — Mr. Waverly is worried

"The
fifth
crash in the past two months!" Napoleon Solo echoed in astonishment. "But that's fantastic! Way above any normal average for civil airlines as a whole, let alone any one particular company..."

Alexander Waverly nodded. He selected a short briar pipe from a rack on his desk and began with a forefinger to feed tobacco into it from a circular tin. "The statistics are the least remarkable thing about it, I'm afraid," he said soberly.

"You mean the crashes were—sabotage?"

"Nothing as simple as ordinary sabotage. The report's on its way up from the second floor. If you'll be patient a moment, I can give you all the facts..." Ramming the tobacco down into the bowl of the pipe with his thumb, Waverly rose and crossed to the window which gave on to the panoramic view of New York's East River. From the middle of the tangle of roofs and walls, the United Nations building soared upwards like a huge glass replica of the matchbox in search of which he now vainly slapped at his pockets.

The window was the only one in the whole concealed fortress comprising the headquarters of U.N.C.L.E—the United Network Command of Law and Enforcement. The rest of the three-story enclave was masked by a front of crumbling brownstone buildings and buttressed at the ends by a public garage and a whitestone housing a restaurant and club.

Of the five Sections making up the multi-national organization of the Command, Waverly headed the very top echelon: the Policy Department of Section One. Napoleon Solo was his Chief Enforcement Officer—the leader of the operational elite, the men and women of Section Two.

Solo gazed with approval at the nubile figure of the blonde who knocked and came into Waverly's office a few moments later carrying a pink folder. The girl wore a tight black skirt and charcoal nylons. Her shirt was shadowed by the thrust of full breasts against the crisp poplin. The agent smiled and unconsciously raised a hand to smooth his dark hair as her gray eyes roved appreciatively over his athletic figure and clean-cut features. She placed the file on the desk, turned, and looked him boldly and provocatively in the eye as she left the room.

"Later, Mr. Solo. We have business to attend to." Waverly's lean, middle-aged face creased into an expression of momentary irritation as he swung around from the window. He sat down at the desk, laid the unlit pipe beside the blotter, and opened the folder. It contained half a dozen sheets of meticulously typed paper stapled together through a red stick-on seal.

"And now," he said dryly, glancing at the top sheet, "perhaps—if you are sure I have your full attentio—perhaps I can give you a rundown on this matter of the air crashes?"

"I'm sorry, sir. Please continue."

"Very well. I shall give you the whole story. You may stop me if I dwell on anything you know already. First of all, what do you know of Transcontinental Airways?"

"T.C.A? They're the next biggest domestic line to PanAm and T.W.A. And I guess they rate pretty highly on the international scene, too."

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