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The Rocketeer

Peter David


  1938. In Germany, Nazism reaches a fever pitch. Rumors of war spread across the continent of Europe. In the calm before the storm, Hitler searches for a shortcut in his plans for world domination—and looks to Hollywood. He sends his agents across the Atlantic to the celluloid capital of sin and glamour, on the trail of an all-powerful secret weapon.


  Los Angeles. Cliff Secord is a barnstorming air-race pilot. He makes his living by living dangerously, is happiest when he's shattering air-speed records and riding the contrail edge of disaster. After thugs destroy his prized GeeBee race plane during an FBI gun battle, Secord finds himself out of work, out of luck . . . and hung out to dry. For someone has saddled him with the most dangerous weapon of the war—the Cirrus X-3 rocketpack, a flying device faster and more dangerous than any Secord has ever encountered. Now he and his starlet girlfriend are on the run, one step ahead of gangster mercenaries, federal agents, and Nazi assassins, who prowl the City of Angels looking for America's most reluctant hero.

  Men have died for this weapon.

  Cliff Secord is next in line.


  A Bantam Falcon Book / July 1991

  FALCON and the portrayal of a boxed “f” are trademarks of Bantam Books, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.

  All rights reserved.

  Copyright © 1991 by The Walt Disney Company.

  Cover art copyright © 1991 by The Walt Disney Company.

  Illustrations by Dave Stevens.

  Designed and project supervised by M’NO Production Services, Inc.

  No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

  For information address: Bantam Books.

  ISBN 0-553-29322-2

  Published simultaneously in the United States and Canada

  Bantam Books are published by Bantam Books, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. Its trademark, consisting of the words “Bantam Books” and the portrayal of a rooster, is Registered in U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and in other countries. Marca Registrada. Bantam Books, 666 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10103.


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  who can fly rings around the rest of us


  The sun was just coming up, the rays creeping over the large white letters that read HOLLYWOODLAND far in the distance as the small but sturdy caravan worked its way slowly up the steep canyon road. There was a very slight chill to the air, and the only sound around was the noise of the powerful engines of the three vehicles. They roared in protest, as if annoyed that they were being subjected to such effort so early in the morning.

  In the lead was a Los Angeles County police car, two cops carefully watching the road ahead of them. Bringing up the rear was a green Plymouth sedan, also occupied by two men.

  The one at the wheel of the sedan was thick-necked and square-jawed. He looked like the kind of guy who could crack walnuts with his chin, a little stunt that he had in fact performed at the occasional holiday party. The lanky man seated next to him was scanning the horizon with an intensity that suggested at any moment that they might be subjected to air attack. Then he turned and surveyed the road in front of them as if expecting, at any moment, that someone might burrow out in front of them. In short, he was clearly expecting something to happen, and almost seemed disappointed when all appeared quiet.

  In the middle of the odd caravan was a heavily armored truck. It was the slowest vehicle in the assemblage, of course, and the other two were matching its speed perfectly. The black and white Los Angeles police car led by half a car length and the Plymouth followed by a like distance. On the side of the armored car was the seal of the government of the United States.

  Satisfied that for the moment all was quiet, the man in the passenger side of the Plymouth picked up the newspaper that the square-jawed driver had stuck into the seat next to him. He scanned the headlines and shook his head slowly. “Guy gives me the creeps,” he said after a moment.

  The driver didn’t turn his gaze from the road as he said, “What guy?”

  “Uncle Adolf.”

  The driver made an impatient clucking noise. “Aw, Fitch, I tell ya and tell ya not to read that stuff. Gives ya gas.”

  “Gives me more than that. Gives me a swift pain is what it does, which is what I’d like to give this bird right here.” He tapped a photo on the front page. “Does just looking at him get you angry, Wooly?”

  “How angry am I supposed to get, Fitch?” said the one called Wooly skeptically. “I mean, look at ’im! The monkey looks like Charlie Chaplin! Now, am I supposed to get worried about Charlie Chaplin?”

  “If Chaplin had just come marching into Austria with a bunch of Nazi saps backing him up, I’d be plenty worried. Hitler’s bad news all around, I’m telling you. I know his type. I seen it before, lotsa times. Hitler isn’t going to be satisfied until he steamrolls all over Europe.”

  “Ah, you’re squirrely.” Wooly waved him off. “They can settle with him. He keeps sayin’ he wants peace. The Brits keep sayin’ they can handle him.”

  “Wrong,” Fitch shot back, stabbing a finger at his partner. “You see, that’s where your never bothering to read anything besides the funnies is causing you not to realize the big picture.”

  “Oh, and you got the big picture.”

  “Yeah, I got the big picture,” said Fitch. “Not all the Brits think they can handle him. The Limey prime minister, that Chamberlain duck, he thinks Hitler’s someone he can talk to. Trusts him to deal in good faith. But Anthony Eden resigned a little while back. Eden’s the foreign minister and he’s got more brains in his little finger than Chamberlain does in his whole head.”

  “Wow. Just think,” Wooly said, smiling. “If they could take Eden’s whole hand and stick it on top of Chamberlain’s neck, they’d be okay.”

  “Aw, you’re a riot, Wooly.”

  “You wanna see something that can cause a riot? Take a gander behind us.”

  Fitch did so. There was a tan Ford roadster behind them, and driving was a striking young woman with blond hair hanging over one shoulder. She saw Fitch glancing in her direction and waved to him, and then she honked once to indicate she wasn’t thrilled about the slow speeds. She had a playfully petulant look on her face, and Fitch shrugged in a wide, what-am-I-supposed-to-do-about-it manner.

  Ahead of them, for a few hundred feet, the road straightened out, and the tan roadster suddenly roared forward, sweeping past the Plymouth, the armored car, and the police car. The woman at the wheel was laughing, and she waved gaily, not caring that she was in the oncoming lane. She whipped in front of the police car and shot away.

  “Now, that’s a tomato with more guts than brains,” said Fitch. “Pulling stunts like that right in front of a police car.”

  “She weren’t no dope,” said Wooly. “She figured the cop car was with us, and wasn’t gonna go buzzin’ off after her.”<
br />
  “Yeah, well, if they got her plate number, she might get a little surprise,” said Fitch.

  Wooly laughed deep in his throat. “I wouldn’t mind givin’ her a little surprise.”

  “Knowing you, it would be pretty darned little.”

  Wooly roared loudly in amusement. “Aw, thanks, buddy.”

  “Think nothing of it. That’s what you’re best at. Thinking nothing,” said Fitch in annoyance. “Don’t you see we gotta get this Hitler guy before he gets us?”

  “It’s none of our beeswax what he does,” said Wooly. “The Limeys, the Frogs, they got their problems and we got ours. I mean, England and France don’t like the guy, let England and France hash it out. It’s not like this country’s in any great shape, brother. Or don’t the word Depression ring any bells?”

  “Things are a lot better than they were. FDR’s doing just fine. But he keeps talking about world peace and scaling back on the arms race. That ain’t going to happen. Not while Hitler’s running around. I’m telling you—”

  “ ‘Hitler’s bad news.’ ” Wooly sighed as he quoted Fitch. “Fitch, I got broken records that are more entertaining than you. He ain’t done nothin’ to us, and we should be just minding our own business, and whatever you say ain’t gonna change—”

  “Hold it!” shouted Fitch. “Look out!”

  But Wooly had already been alerted by the sudden screeching of tires up ahead. The police car had slammed to a halt and the doors of the cruiser were already flying open. The armored car almost rear-ended the police car, and Wooly cut his wheel hard to the left, slamming on the brake. The Plymouth slowed and Fitch had leapt out of the car, gun drawn, before Wooly had it completely stopped. Then Wooly was out, too, the driver’s side door open, and he was crouching behind it for protection. Fitch was poised on the far side of the hood.

  Just ahead of them was the tan Ford that had passed them a short time before. It was crossways on the lane in front of them, effectively blocking progress.

  The woman was out of the car, and clearly not willingly. Standing behind her, his back against the car and his arm around her neck in a fierce choke hold, was a thick-necked man with gnarled features and brilliantined hair. He was holding a tommy gun to the head of the young woman, and his face was twisted in a savage snarl.

  Positioned on the far side of the car, holding a revolver aimed at the cops, was another man, not quite as fierce looking but nonetheless clearly meaning business. He had a face that looked kind of like a ferret, and a tweed cap perched on his head.

  The woman was sobbing hysterically, and instantly Fitch worked it out. The men had been standing in the road, their weapons at the ready, when the woman had come around the curve. A guy with a tommy gun aimed at you would make you slam on the brakes pretty fast, especially if you were a dame and weren’t thinking that you could just run him down. Dames didn’t think like that. You could threaten them and they’d just fold up like a card table.

  Maybe they had their own car stashed away nearby. Maybe they were planning to steal the roadster. Whatever it was, the terrified woman’s inarticulate pleadings had definitely increased the danger of the situation.

  “All right!” the tommy gunman was shouting. “All right! Everybody out of the armored car! Open up the back! Do it now, or so help me, the girl’s death is gonna be on your hands and her brains are gonna be on your nice suits!”

  “Oh, God, no, oh, no oh no . . .” the woman was screaming.

  “You know ’em?” Wooly whispered to his partner.

  Fitch shook his head. “Must be local talent. Small change with big ideas.” Then he raised his voice and called out, in his most authoritative tone, “All right, you clowns! We’re FBI! I’m Agent Francis Fitch, and this is Agent Jake Wolinski! You want to muck with us, you want to go up the river for the rest of your life, you just go right on with what you’re doing!”

  “And you want to see her die, Francis!” called back the tommy gunman. He shoved the muzzle even harder against the side of her head. It looked like he might push it right through her skull. “That’s gonna look real good on your report, Francis. Mr. Hoover’ll be just tickled pink, won’t he.”

  “He’s not bluffing!” shouted the other thug. “He’s nuts! Ask anybody he’s killed.”

  “The driver and guard get out of the armored truck, and you open up the back now!” His finger was starting to tighten on the trigger.

  “Don’t let him hurt me!” screamed the woman, trembling violently.

  “You got to the count of five, Francis! One! Two! Four! Fi—”

  “Hold it!” It wasn’t Fitch who had called out. It was the driver of the armored car, a young man with red hair. The uniform he wore looked almost too big on him. “We’ll do what you want! Just don’t hurt her!” The other guard was getting out the other side.

  “Get back in the truck!” shouted Fitch.

  The guard turned angrily and said, “Hey! I’m not gonna sit there and watch some girl die just for some piece of government hardware! It ain’t worth it! Nothin’s worth it!”

  Wooly tended to agree, but nevertheless he had to agree with Fitch. “You know the drill!”

  “She’s the one gonna get drilled, brother,” said the guard, “and not if I can do anything about it.”

  He went around to the back of the armored vehicle and moments later had the rear doors opened up. Fitch looked at Wooly helplessly. What were they supposed to do now? Fire on the guard? Run and grab him? But if they did, they’d be exposing themselves as targets to the gunmen. No matter which way it played, they were in a fix.

  Seconds later the guard was slowly walking toward the tommy gunman, and he was carrying a large case. It was an odd suitcase, custom designed to hold some special instrument. The case was made from hand-tooled leather, the spines and fittings of brass. He set it down in front of the two thugs and then stood.

  “Open it,” said the one who was holding the young woman. She whimpered softly in protest against the fierceness of his grip, but otherwise was too frightened to say anything.

  The guard reached down and did what he was told. He flipped some latches and lifted back the lid.

  The contents gleamed silver in the light of the morning sun. The sky overhead was brilliant blue, and the clouds almost seemed to beckon to what was in the case.

  “That’s it all right. Close it up.” As the guard did so, the tommy gunman said, “Wilmer, grab it.”

  The one addressed as Wilmer now came from around the car. He reached down and lifted the case. “Heavier than I would have thought,” he muttered. “I can carry it though.”

  “Great. Glad you like it,” said the tommy gunman. “Now get in the car and—”

  All of a sudden the red-haired guard’s gun was in his hand.

  Fitch gasped in surprise. It was the fastest draw he’d ever seen. The guard’s gun had cleared its holster before the tommy gunman had even blinked, and it was leveled right at Wilmer. Wooly nodded, impressed. Obviously the kid wasn’t a total washout at that.

  “Let the woman go,” said the young guard with icy calm. “Let her go or I shoot your partner.”

  “My leg,” the woman was moaning. “He hurt my leg . . .”

  “I’ll kill her!” the tommy gunman shouted. “I swear I will!”

  “And I’ll kill him,” said the guard. “Either way, you’re not going anywhere.”

  And now Wilmer, frozen and afraid to try to aim his own gun at the guard for fear that he would fall victim to the guard’s remarkable swiftness, said nervously, “Lenny, better do as he says.”

  “Shut up, Wilmer!”

  “Do it, Lenny! Let her go!” snapped Wilmer.

  “My leg,” moaned the woman, and she started to sag.

  “All right!” said Lenny furiously. “All right!” And he pushed the woman toward the guard.

  The guard hadn’t taken his eyes off of the man called Lenny. So he didn’t notice when the woman, clutching at her thigh, reached under her dress
and pulled out a small derringer.

  She brought it up and fired at almost point-blank range. The guard staggered back, a red stain appearing just above his heart.

  “Let’s go!” shouted the woman. She scooped up the torpedo-shaped case and leapt toward the car before the guard had even fallen to the road.

  “We’ve been had!” howled Fitch in fury. “Fire!”

  “Watch the case!” bellowed Wooly. “Don’t hit the case!”

  The woman clutched the case to her as she ran toward the car, and Lenny opened fire with the tommy gun even as he leapt to follow. Wooly and Fitch ducked for cover. Fortunately, the armored car was blocking the direct line of fire, and bullets struck and ricocheted off the huge vehicle.

  One of the ricochets struck the woman.

  She screamed and staggered forward, dropping the case. Lenny deftly caught it before it struck the ground, and hurled himself into the car, firing blindly. Wilmer was already at the wheel, but when he saw the woman on the ground he called out, “Sheila! Lenny, Sheila’s been hit!”

  Lenny cast one quick glance and saw the blood pooling under her. “Forget her! Let’s go!”

  The woman lay sprawled across the road, unmoving, as the roadster peeled out with Lenny leaving a covering fire behind him. Wooly, Fitch, and the two cops opened fire, but before they could draw a bead on it, the car was gone around the hili.

  Fitch ran forward as Wooly jumped into the driver’s seat of the Plymouth and backed up. Running up to the woman, Fitch saw immediately that she was dead. The other armored-car guard, meantime, was trying to staunch the blood that was flowing from the hit the young guard had taken. Fitch hoped the guard made it. He had guts. It would be a shame if those guts wound up all over some canyon road.