Read CHAPTER II - A Dirty Red Freighter of The Finding of Haldgren , free online book, by Charles Willard Diffin, on ReadCentral.com.

Chet Bullard was more at home among the air-lanes of Earth than he was on solid ground. But he oriented himself in an instant; knew he was on a cross street in the three hundred zone; and saw ahead of him, not a hundred feet away, the green, glowing ring that marked a subway escalator.

In the passing throng there were those who looked curiously at him. Chet checked his first headlong flight and dropped to an unhurried walk.

About him, as he well knew, the air was filled with silent radio waves that were sounding the alarm in every sentry box of the great city. They would reach the aircraft terminals and the control room of every ship within a fixed radius. He had dared the wrath of one of the most powerful officials of Earth; no effort would be spared to run him down; his picture would be flashing within ten minutes on every television screen of the Air Patrol. And Chet Bullard knew only one way to go.

Of course they would be watching for him at the airports, yet he knew he must get away somehow; escape quickly and find some corner of the world where he could hide.

He was in the escalator, and wild plans were flashing through his mind as he watched the levels go past. “First Level; Trains North and South; Local Service. Second Level; Express Stop for North-shore Lines. Third Level; Airport Loop Lines; Transatlantic Terminals ”

Chet Bullard, his hair still tangled on his hatless head, his blouse torn where a hand had ripped off the Master Pilot’s emblem, stepped from the escalator to a platform, then to a cylindrical car that slid silently in before him and whose flashing announcement-board proclaimed: “Hoover Airport Express. No Intermediate Stops.”

Would they be watching for him at the great Hoover Terminal on the tip of Long Island? Chet assured himself silently that he would tell the world they would be. But even a fugitive may have friends if he has been a master pilot and has a lean, likable face with a most disarming grin.

Where would he go? He did not know; he had been bluffing a bit and the Commander had called him when his hand was weak; he had no least idea where he could find their ship. If only he had had a chance for a word with Walt Harkness: Walt had been flying it; he had left it apparently in a storage hangar.

But where? And what was it that Walt had called out? Chet was racking his brains to remember.

“The ship is yours,” Walt had shouted ... and something about “storage.” But why should he have laid up the ship; why should he have stored it?

Chet saw the lights of subterranean stations flashing past as the car that held him rode silently through a tube that it touched not at all. He knew that magnetic rails made a grillwork that surrounded the car and that drew it on at terrific speed while suspending it in air. But he would infinitely have preferred the freedom of the high levels, and his own hand on a ship’s controls.

A ship! any ship! but preferably his ship and Walt’s. And Walt had said something of “storage cold storage.” The words seemed written before him in fiery lines. It was a moment before he knew what he had recalled. Then a slow smile tugged at the corners of his mouth, and he turned and stared through a window that showed only blackness.

“Cold storage!” That was good work on Walt’s part. He had been forced to shout the directions before them all, yet tell none of those others about him where the ship was hidden. Chet was picturing that place of “cold storage” as he smiled. The fact that it was some thousands of miles away troubled him not at all.

The great Hoover Terminal was a place where night never came. Its daylight tubes wove a network of light about the stupendous enclosure, their almost silent hissing merged to an unceasing rush of sound, so soft as to be unheard through the scuffing feet and chattering voices of the ever-hurrying crowds.

From subways the impatient people came and went, and from highway stations where busses and private cars drove in and away. The clock in the squat tower swung its electrically driven hands toward the figure 22; there lacked but two hours of midnight, and a steady stream of aircraft came dropping down the shaft of green light that reached to and through the clouds. There would be many liners leaving on the hour; these that were coming in were private craft that spun their flashing helicopters like giant emeralds in the green descending light, while the noise of their beating blades filled the air with a rush of sound.

Outside the entrance to the Passenger Station, Chet Bullard withdrew himself from the surging press of hurrying men and women and slipped into a shadowed alcove. Two passing figures in the gray and gold of the Air Patrol scanned the crowd closely; Chet drew himself into the deeper shadows and waited until they were by before he emerged and followed the shelter of a coffee-house that extended toward another entrance to the field, where pilots and mechanics passed in and out.

A bulletin board showed in changing letters of light the official assignment of landing space. And, though every passing eye was turned toward it, Chet knew that each man was intent upon the board and not on the shadowed niche in the building behind it. He watched his chance and slipped into that shadow.

Unseen, he could see them as they approached: men in the multicolored uniforms of many lines, who paused to read, to exchange bantering shop-talk and to pass on.

Many voices: “Storm area, over the South-shore up to Level Six. You birds on the local runs had better watch your step” ... “ coming down at Calcutta. Yeah, a dirty, red-bottomed freighter that rammed him. I saw it take off two of his fans, but Shorty set the old girl down like a feather on the lift of the four fans he had left. You said it Shorty’s a real pilot....”

Another pause; then a growling voice that proclaimed complainingly: “Lord, but I’m tired! All right, Spud; grin, you damned Irishman! But if you had been hauling the Commander all over Alaska to-day and then got ordered out again just as you were set for a good sleep, you’d be sore. What in thunder does he want his ship for to-night, I ask you?”

Chet, crouching still lower in the little retreat, stiffened to attention at the reference to the Commander. So the “big boss” had ordered out his own cruiser again! He listened still more intently to the voice that replied.

“Sure, and it’s thankful you sh’u’d be to be holdin’ the controls on a fine, big cruiser like that; though, betwixt you and me, ’tis myself that don’t envy you your job. Me and my old freighter, we go wallowin’ along. And to-night I’m takin’ her home for repairs back to the fact’ry in Rooshia where they made her; and the devil of a job it will be, for she handles with all the grace of a pig in a puddle.”

Chet risked a glance when the sound of heavy footsteps indicated that one of the two speakers had gone on alone to the pilots’ gate. Before the huge bulletin board, in pilot’s uniform and with the markings of a low-level man on his sleeve, stood the sturdy figure of the man called Spud. He started back at sight of the face peering out at him, but Chet whispered a command, and the man moved closer to the hiding place behind the board.

There were others coming in a laughing group up the walk; daylight tubes illuminated the approach. Chet spoke hurriedly.

“I’m in a devil of a mess, Spud. Will you lend a hand? Will you stand by for rescue work?”

And Spud studied the bulletin board as he growled:

“Lend a hand? yes, and the arm with it, Mr. Bullard. You stud by me once whin I needed help; and now you ask will I stand by for rescue work. Till we crash that’s all, me bhoy!”

Spud’s speech was tinged with the brogue of Erin; it grew perceptibly more pronounced as his quick emotions took hold of him.

“Quiet!” said Chet. “Wait till they pass!”

The newcomers stopped for no more than a glance. Then:

“I’m demoted,” Chet told the round-eyed man who stared unbelievingly at the vacant place on Chet’s blouse. “The air’s hot with orders for my arrest. I’ve got to get out, and I’ve got to do it quick.”

And now there was only a trace of the brogue in Spud’s voice. Chet knew the trick of the man’s speech; touch his heart and his tongue would grow thick; place him face to face with an emergency and he would go cold and hard, while the good-natured phrasing of his native sod went from him and he talked fast and straight.

“The devil you say!” exclaimed Spud. “What you’ve done I don’t know, nor yet why you did it. But, whatever it was, I don’t believe you let that triple star go for less than a damned good reason. Now, let me think; let me think ”

A figure in gray and gold was approaching, a member of the Air Patrol. Spud’s tongue was lively with good-natured raillery as he fell into step and drew the officer with him through the pilots’ gate, while Chet, from his shadow, saw with satisfaction the apparent desertion. He had known Spud O’Malley of old. Spud was square and Spud had wanted time for thinking.

There were many who passed Chet’s hiding place before a cautious whisper came to him and he saw a hand that thrust a roll of clothing around the edge of the bulletin board.

“Put ’em on!” was the order of Spud. “And smear your yellah hair with the grease! Work fast, me bhoy!”

The command was no less imperative for being spoken beneath Spud’s breath, and for the first time Chet’s hopes soared high within him. It had all been so hopeless, the prospect of actual escape from the net that was closing about him. And now !

He unrolled the tight package of cloth to find a small can of black graphite lubricant done up in a jacket and blouse. Both were stained and smeared with grease; they were amply large. Chet did not bother to strip off his own blouse; he pulled on the other clothes over his own, and his face was alight with a grin of appreciation of Spud’s attention to details as he took a daub of the grease, rubbed it on his hands, then passed them through his hair.

“Yellah,” Spud had said, but the description was no longer apt. And the man who stepped forth beside Spud O’Malley in the uniform of an engineer of a tramp freighter looked like nothing else in the world but just that.

“Come on, now!” ordered Spud harshly, as a figure in gray and gold appeared around the corner of the coffee shop. “You’re plinty late, me fine lad! Now get in there and clean up that dirty motor and get her runnin’! Try out every fan on the old boat; then we’ll be off.

“You’re number cg41!” he whispered. And Chet repeated the number as he followed the pilot through the gate.

“O.K.,” said the guard at the gate, “and I’ll bet he gives you hell and to spare!”

Chet slouched his shoulders to disguise his real height and followed where Spud O’Malley, with every indication of righteous anger, strode indignantly down the pavement, at the far end of which was a battered and service-stained ship.

Her hull of dirty red showed mottlings of brown; she was sadly in need of a painter’s gun. She would groan and squeal, Chet knew, when the fans lifted her from the hold-down clutch; and she couldn’t fly at over twenty thousand without leaking her internal pressure through a thousand cracks that made her porous as an old balloon but to Chet’s eyes the old relic of the years was a thing of sheer beauty and grace.

O’Malley was leading through an open freight hatch; Chet followed, and, at his beckoning hand, slipped into a dingy cabin.

“Lay low there,” the pilot ordered, and still, as Chet observed, his speech showed how clearly the man was thinking, since the emergency still existed “I’ve cleared some time ago, Mr. Bullard; we’re ready to leave as soon as we get the dispatcher’s O.K.”

The minutes were long where Chet waited in the pilot’s cabin. Each sound might mean a last-minute search of departing ships, but he tried to tell himself that the attention of the officers would be centered upon the passenger liners.

Beyond, where he could see out into the control room, a white light flashed. He heard the bellowing orders of the Irishman at the controls. And, as other sounds reached his ears, he had to grip his hands hard while he fought for control of the laughter that was almost hysterical. For, beneath him, he felt the sluggish lift of the ship, and, from every joint and plate of this old-timer of the air, came squawking protests against the cruel fates that drove her forth again to face the buffeting, racking gales.

But the blue light of an ascending area was about them, and Spud O’Malley was shouting from the control room:

“Sure, and we’re off, Mr. Bullard. Now do ye come up here and tell me all about it but I warn you, I’ll not be believin’ a word ”