Pulp Heroes: OPERATOR #5 - RAIDERS OF THE RED DEATH, Chapter 3

novelRAIDERS OF THE RED DEATH

CHAPTER THREE - The Princess Dolores
LOOKING through the windows of the swiftly moving car, Jimmy Christopher could see the feverish military activity on all sides. This small country of sixteen million people had overnight become a warrior nation. Only a few months ago there had come out of the province of Zacatecas a man who claimed to be of pure Aztec blood--a direct descendant of the haughty, cruel Montezuma who had been emperor of the Aztecs when the Spaniards conquered Mexico. He called himself Montezuma the Third. Indians and mestizos flocked to him. The Mexican government had viewed this at first as only another chronic rising, to be quelled quickly.


But the authorities soon learned their mistake. Montezuma was possessed of a mysterious force which destroyed the detachments of Nationalist soldiers sent against him. In a short time, he was master of Mexico, had proclaimed himself Emperor. And now he was extending his conquest to the United States! If Operator 5 did not quickly discover the secret of this strange power which Montezuma wielded, his country would soon be a vessal of the Aztec Empire!

Jimmy Christopher continued to watch the progress of the car, saw they were racing along a wide, concrete causeway toward a huge castle--like structure about a half-mile away. The causeway stretched like a long, white ribbon straight ahead of them, over a glittering body of water upon the edge of which the palace was built.

To the right and left of them were other causeways. These roads were crowded with Aztec soldiers marching in slovenly fashion. Jimmy glanced sideways at the brilliantly uniformed, thin--lipped officer who sat next to him, saw that the man was watching him through sharp, narrowed eyes. "Do you speak Spanish?" he asked, and when Jimmy nodded, he immediately changed to that language. "Permit me to introduce myself. I am Major Juan Horgavo, the head of the Aztec Intelligence Bureau. I have heard many tales of you, Operator 5, and I am surprised to find that you are so young."

Jimmy answered dryly: "Thanks for the compliment. How did you know I was in that plane?"

Horgavo raised his eyebrows. "We know nearly everything that goes on in Washington, Operator 5. Our agents are everywhere."

Jimmy Christopher grinned. "Pretty good organizer, aren't you, major? When the Aztecs are licked, and you're looking for another job, let me know and I'll give you a reference."

The major's teeth shoved in a wolfish smile. "You Americans are so rash in your talk. You are all fools. You will change your tune when our torturers have worked on you for a while. You--"

He stopped as the car swung off the causeway into a wide drive, braking under an immense portico.

A squad of soldiers under a junior officer were drawn up to receive them, and Major Horgavo got out first, then bowed ironically, murmured: "Welcome to Mexico City, Operator 5!"

Jimmy grimaced, and descended from the car. At a sharp command from Horgavo, the squad of soldiers divided, took positions on either side. They marched through the aisle of men to the broad entrance and into the huge palace.

Here there was much scurrying and bustle. Men in uniform were everywhere. All saluted Horgavo with great respect and cast curious eyes on the prisoner. Jimmy, with his military escort, ascended a broad flight of stairs, marched along another hall, and finally stopped before a huge, oak door.

Major Horgavo motioned to the junior officer, who produced a pair of handcuffs. The Aztec intelligence commander murmured to Jimmy: "I hope you will not object. No prisoner is permitted to appear in the presence of the emperor unbound."

Jimmy shrugged, extended his hands. The officer slipped the handcuffs on him, then quickly searched Jimmy, took the automatic from his shoulder holster, as well as a thin, flat silver case. He handed the case to Horgavo, who, still smiling with mock courtesy, opened it. Within the case was revealed a typed sheet of paper which read:

THE WHITE HOUSE

Washington


To Whom It May Concern:

The identity of the bearer of this letter must be kept strictly confidential. He is Operator 5 of the United States Intelligence Service.

The signature at the bottom of the document was that of the President of the United States of America.

HORGAVO nodded in satisfaction. "This is what I wanted to make sure of," he said. "You are the man whom our emperor wishes to see!"

He turned, and at a word from him, the guard opened the big oak door. They passed into a huge room at the far end of which was a raised dais. Men in brilliant uniform filled this room, but the figure on the dais outshone them all. Montezuma the Third sat there upon a chair of gold, clad in a gold-embroidered mantle which must have cost a fortune. Upon his head rested a glittering crown, and at his side, in a scabbard, hung a short sword whose hilt was cunningly fashioned into the head of a bird of prey.

The emperor's face was long and thin, with a sharp, straight nose and a cruel gash of a mouth almost hidden by his moustache and carefully trimmed beard. The haughty, predatory features reminded Jimmy Christopher of pictures he had seen of the earlier Montezuma. He reflected that it was quite possible for this man to be a direct descendant of the Emperor of the Aztecs.

Jimmy was propelled across the room by his guards, and he approached the dais. Horgavo bowed low before the emperor, bending himself almost double, and said reverentially: "Lord, my Lord, my great Lord!"

Montezuma raised his hand to the others in the room, ordered imperiously: "Leave us!" There were some forty or fifty men there, and they all backed meekly out the doorway.

When they were alone, Horgavo said humbly: "Master, I bring you Operator 5. By projection, we forced his plane to fly directly here."

Montezuma's black, piercing eyes settled on Jimmy. He spoke in English with only a slight accent. "Operator 5, do you know why I had you brought to me?"

Jimmy shook his head. He was studying the other, trying to decide what manner of man this was who had made himself Emperor of the Aztecs--overnight.

"For five days, Operator 5, I have caused my priests to make sacrifice upon the altars of the old gods of the Aztecs--Huitzilopochtli and Tezcatlipoca. In the old tradition of our beliefs, we offered the still palpitating hearts of hundreds of your captured countrymen upon the altars, asking our gods to give us an omen that would bring us victory. And our gods spoke. They told us to find a certain man who we known as Operator 5."

Jimmy, returning the stare of Montezuma, said dryly:

"Are you sure it was your gods that spoke, or was it the tortured lips of some of my countrymen?"

Montezuma smiled. "You are bold, Operator 5. I like bold men. I like to see them writhe before they die. After you have served your--"

Suddenly, from somewhere behind the curtains which hung in back of the dais, came a shriek of agony. It filled the whole room, seeming to have been torn from a tortured throat by red--hot, demoniac fingers.

Operator 5's flashing blue eyes became cloudy and dark. His lips pressed into a thin line, and his manacled hands clenched in front of him. He took an involuntary step toward the dais, but was roughly seized by his guards, held back.

He said tightly: "I give you my word, Montezuma, that my country will exact terrible vengeance for every one of its men whom you torture!"

Montezuma's face became ugly with rage for an instant, and he half rose from his throne. Then he smiled thinly, said softly: "Your country, Operator 5, will bow its head in abject submission!"

"Never!" Jimmy said hoarsely. "The United States will never surrender to a barbarian race led by a madman like you!"

Montezuma's face darkened. He grated: "You are too bold." He stopped, for once more that shriek sounded from behind the dais, chilling Jimmy Christopher's soul, then it died away in a soft gurgle of agony. From behind the curtains came the roll of a drum in a dreadful, funereal cadence. Then the sound of many jabbering voices.

JIMMY CHRISTOPHER watched, white--faced, while Montezuma rang a bell at his elbow. Immediately, the curtains behind the dais parted, and a tall Aztec, clad in a long, white robe that was spattered with blood, entered, bowed low. This man had a gaunt face with deep-set eyes under heavy, bushy brows. His teeth were big, and glistened as he spoke in a tongue that Jimmy could not understand, but which he guessed to be the language of the ancient Aztec nation.

Montezuma listened carefully, until the man had ceased talking. Then he smiled in satisfaction, said to Jimmy:

"My high priest brings me most interesting information. He has just made another sacrifice to Tezcatlipoca, our god of war; and Tezcatlipoca has spoken, telling us your true name. You are James Christopher. Your father, John Christopher, was once known as Q-6 in the American Intelligence Service. Is it not so?"

Jimmy Christopher's face flushed. "No god told you that, Montezuma! That devilish priest of yours has just tortured some poor captive into revealing who I am. Who was that man who just shrieked?"

Montezuma smiled thinly, motioned to the high priest, said something to him in their own tongue. The high priest bowed, stepped back to draw the curtains aside. "I will show you, Operator 5," Montezuma said softly. "So that you may know what fate to expect yourself!" The priest drew back the curtains, and at a sign from Montezuma, Jimmy's guards urged him around the dais so that he could see what lay behind it.

There was a small room there, windowless, except for a large opening cut into the stone of the roof. In one corner sat a large, ugly idol, fat, revolting. This was the god, Tezcatlipoca, half man and half serpent. It was carved out of stone, about five times the size of a normal man, and about its fat throat hung a necklace of human skulls. Some of them were fresh--still dripping blood.

On the floor before the gruesome idol lay a man, stripped to the waist, and stretched upon a wooden rack to which his hands and feet had been nailed. Jimmy gazed down with wide eyes at the agonized, pain-distorted face of the man. This was one whom he knew well--F-13, one of the most trusted agents of the Secret Service. F-13 was one of the few men who knew Operator 5's true identity. He had been sent down into Mexico only a few days before, in company with Jimmy's own father, who, in spite of a bad heart, had insisted upon serving his country in this grave, new peril.

Now he saw F-13 lying nailed to that rack, dying. And he saw the long bloody furrows on F13' s body, where Montezuma's torturers had torn strips of skin from his living body to make him talk. F-13's torso was a bloody thing of pain and agony, and Jimmy Christopher's face was gray and drawn as he knelt, handcuffed, beside the dying Secret Service man.

"F-13!" he said in a choked voice. "I promise you they'll pay for this!"

F-13 stared up at him through filming eyes. He said huskily: "I--I couldn't stand the torture. They--they made me talk, made me tell your name. I--God! I'm a skunk. I should have kept quiet. Now they know--"

Jimmy Christopher forced a smile. "Don't worry, old man. No harm will come to me. You should have talked--sooner!"

F-13's face twisted into a pain-wracked smile. "Thanks, Operator 5. I--I know--you're trying to make me feel--better. I shouldn't---have--talked!" Suddenly, a spasm of pain shot through his body. A low moan tore through his tortured lips. His eyes glazed, and his body stiffened. He was dead.

Jimmy Christopher arose slowly from his knees. He whispered: "God forgive you, F-13, and save your soul!"

His darkening eyes sought those of Montezuma, who had stood in the doorway watching the scene. The two guards felt Jimmy's body stiffening as if for a leap, and their hard hands clamped on his arms. But Jimmy did not move. He recognized the foolhardiness of attempting to spring upon the bloody emperor. For beside Montezuma stood Horgavo, a loaded automatic in his hand. Jimmy would only have thrown away his life fruitlessly.

MONTEZUMA was smiling maddeningly. "There are certain things we wish to know from you, Operator 5. Even if you do not care what happens to you, you will not wish to see your father in the hands of our priests. Come, I will show you more. Perhaps then you will be more ready to answer Major Horgavo's questions!" He turned, led the way out. Jimmy cast a last glance back at the dead, distorted body of F-13, and followed, propelled by his guards. Horgavo stood in the doorway, smiling ironically.

Jimmy asked him: "Where is my father?"

"Your father," Horgavo replied, "has not been harmed--yet." And he stepped back so that Jimmy and his guards could pass through.

Outside, in the corridor, the guards bowed reverently as Montezuma passed them. They crossed a courtyard, entered another wing of the palace. Jimmy Christopher, still in the grip of his captors, still manacled, followed Montezuma silently.

At length they arrived at another room, where a dozen officers were assembled. There was another raised dais in this room, and Montezuma mounted it while all the officers bowed reverently, saying: "Lord, my Lord, my great Lord!" As they said it, they bowed almost to the floor.

Jimmy gazed at them scornfully for a moment, and then his eyes settled on the fiery--eyed, darkly beautiful woman who stood beside the dais. She did not bow like the others, but held her head high, proudly, haughtily. Her figure was encased in some sort of clinging, red-silk gown that trailed on the floor, and her black hair was done up into a great knot at the back off her neck.

Jimmy noted at once the resemblance she bore to the emperor. He was not surprised when Montezuma, after seating himself, said to her: "My daughter, this is the man of whom you have heard--Operator 5 of the United States Secret Service. You remember that our agents informed us about him, but regretted that he was too clever to capture?"

The girl's cruel, red mouth curved in a slow smile as she inspected Jimmy Christopher. Her dark flashing eyes studied him with a sort of feline interest as she breathed: "Yes, I have heard much about him. I am very glad he is our prisoner."

Jimmy Christopher shuddered inwardly as she spoke. There was revealed in her eyes a cruelty fully equal to that of her father. And there was something else--something that he had seen in the eyes of many women, but hoped to find only in the eyes of one. For Operator 5 was good to look at. He was clean-cut, blue-eyed, with the broad shoulders and narrow hips of an athlete. And despite his youth, he was possessed of a poise that many an older man might have envied; for his life had been packed with danger and action and strange experiences--which are the doings that fashion a man out of a youth.

Now the girl said softly, with the air of one who is accustomed to getting anything that she wants: "Do not kill him, father--yet. I would like---to know him better!"

Montezuma chuckled. "You shall have him, Dolores, as soon as I am through with him." He suddenly became brusque. "But now--let us get to business. We are here to pass judgment upon a culprit. Bring him in!"

At a sign from one of the officers at the door, two guards led in a trembling Aztec soldier, who seemed to shrink away from the august presence of the emperor as he was dragged toward the dais.

He was perhaps forty-five years old, well built. But his face was pale and drawn with pain. Jimmy Christopher saw that he had been tortured--the fingers of both his hands hung at queer angles; all had been broken!

When the man stood before the dais, half supported by the two guards, Montezuma said: "What is this man accused of, and who is the complainant?"

THE beautiful Dolores took a single step forward. "I am the complainant, father. This man failed to salute me when I passed him this morning. For that, the fingers of his hands have been crushed between two rocks. But I demand further punishment."

The man with the broken fingers raised both his hands in supplication. Sweat beaded his forehead, and his hands, with their gruesome broken fingers, trembled. "Great Lord!" he cried. "Do not torture me further--!"

Montezuma frowned at him, and the man subsided into frightened silence. "What punishment do you wish for him, Dolores!" the emperor asked.

Dolores said coldly: "Let him die," and tossed her head in contempt.

Montezuma nodded. "It is right. We must set an example for the other soldiers. My daughter's person is as sacred as my own. Those who forget their respect toward us must die."

The poor wretch with the broken fingers screamed: "Mercy, my lord. Mercy! Mercy!"

But at a look from Montezuma, Horgavo, who had been standing on the other side of the dais from Dolores, motioned to the guards, and they dragged the man, struggling, screaming for mercy, to a wide French window that faced on the courtyard. The window was open, and they thrust him out, sent him sprawling to the flagstones.

The man struggled to his feet, raising himself up on his wrists to avoid resting on his broken fingers. He turned a piteous, pleading face toward them; but Horgavo, who had come close to the window, raised his arm in some sort of signal. And suddenly, with horrid abruptness, the man outside seemed to explode from within!

His body seemed to have been torn to a thousand bits, as if there had been a time-bomb within him. Blood spattered the flagstones, bits of flesh and bone hurtled through the air. And in a moment all was quiet again. The big incandescents in the courtyard threw a glittering light on the bloody pavement.

And through the sudden stillness that followed, rang the brittle laughter of the woman Dolores. She was laughing! Laughing at the sight of a man blasted into bloody shreds because he had failed to salute her. And Operator 5 realized she was beautiful--beautiful even in her cold, heartless amusement. Her eves were flashing with the sadistic pleasure of some medieval princess, and her laughter echoed in the large, stone room, while Horgavo bowed in her direction with a smirk on his face.

And it was at that moment, when the attention of everyone in the room was focused on the bloody event that had just taken place, that Jimmy Christopher acted--with the swift sureness that had made him the ace of the United States Intelligence.

The grip of his two guards was still tight on his arms, but their eyes were on the courtyard. Jimmy twisted his body to the left, then lunged right, allowing his weight to break the grip of the guards. For a fraction of a second, he was free; and in that instant of time, he raised his manacled hands, brought them down hard on the skull of the guard at his right. The man dropped like a plummet. Jimmy dropped with him, picking up the rifle that the unconscious soldier had dropped!

The second guard, with a vicious expression on his face, had raised his own clubbed gun. In a moment, he would have brained Operator 5 with it; but Jimmy, from his position on the floor, shot out both his legs to catch the guard in a powerful scissors hold that sent him toppling off balance.

Then, as the second guard crashed to the floor, Jimmy Christopher rolled over, uncoiled his legs and catapulted toward the doorway, holding in his manacled hands the rifle he had picked up.

The superbly swift reaction of his trained muscles brought him to the door before any one of the assembled officers could raise a finger to stop him. There, Jimmy, with a face grim as granite, turned, raised the rifle awkwardly to his shoulder and drew a bead on the august figure of Montezuma....

Even in that split second when he leaped for the door, he had realized that this was the only thing to do. With Montezuma dead, the whole attack against the United States would collapse, leaderless. Jimmy himself might be torn to pieces by the enraged followers of the emperor, but his own life was a small price to pay for the safety of America.

Jimmy's finger curled around the trigger while the brilliantly uniformed officers stood rooted to the floor. Only one person in that whole room thought quickly--Montezuma's daughter, Dolores. With the grace of a tigress she stepped in front of her father, facing Jimmy's rifle.

There was a tenseness in her eyes, and her whole body was quivering under its red sheath of a dress.

JIMMY'S eyes clouded. In spite of the heartless cruelty which she had just shown, he could not bring himself to send a slug of lead crashing into that beautiful breast. Into his mind there flashed the words that Z-7, his chief, had often spoken: "In the Secret Service, we cease to become human beings--we become numbers. We must have no emotions, no mercy, no loves; we must be machines. And we must destroy whatever threatens our country!"

Jimmy tightened his lips. This woman was beautiful, cruel--but she was brave. He steeled himself to shoot--and it was too late!

Dolores' action had pricked the panicky lethargy of the officers. With shouts of rage, they hurled themselves at Jimmy, forming a well of living flesh between his rifle and the body of their emperor. Guns appeared in their hands. One exploded, crashing in the confines of the room; but Jimmy had already ducked around the edge of the doorway, out into the corridor.

He collided with the guard stationed outside the doorway, whirled, and brought the muzzle of the rifle up sharply against the guard's chin. The uniformed man staggered backward, reeled against the wall, sank to the floor....

Jimmy, gripping the rifle in his manacled hands, dashed, zigzagging, down the corridor, turned a corner just as a hail of lead thundered after him from the weapons of the officers who had stormed out of the room. He sped down the bend of the corridor. A broad flight of stone stairs loomed before him, and he knew he could not get to the top of it before his pursuers reached the bend. They would be able to pick him off with ease as he ran up. So he raced past the foot of the stairs, swung in behind the staircase. There was an open door here, and a flight of steps led down into darkness. Jimmy did not hesitate. He stepped through the doorway, reached out and swung the door shut behind him. In the dark, he felt his way down the narrow steps with one hand against the wall.

The steps seemed unending. The air grew foul and dank, the wall slimy and wet under his touch. He reached a landing, stepped cautiously until he found more steps, and continued his descent.

At last, the staircase ended in some sort of platform, and Operator 5 risked putting on his flashlight. He found that he had come down into a narrow, vaulted passageway that seemed to lead around the palace. The sound of a low, chanting voice came to him from somewhere at the left.

He made his way toward that sound, clicking off his light, and feeling along the side wall. The old Aztec palaces, he recalled reading, had been honeycombed with secret passages, with underground dungeons, and with torture chambers. There was an old story to the effect that one of the temples of the god, Huitzilopochtli, was located underneath the earth in the palace of Montezuma, and that it had been the scene of rites too obscene to be exposed to the light of day. It was in this underground temple that the Aztecs had secretly sacrificed living beings after the Spanish conquerors under Cortez had forbidden the practice.

It was entirely possible that he was now in one of the passages of the old temple. He worked swiftly along now, turned a bend in the passageway, and glimpsed, at a little distance away, a dull shaft of light which was coming across the stone flags from somewhere. The sound of the chanting gained in volume.

Jimmy headed for the light, found that it came from a low, wide-grilled opening on the right. He crept up close, and the chanting ceased. He risked peering through the opening, and he crouched there, frozen with horror.

This must indeed be the secret underground sacrificial temple of which legend had spoken.

The grilled opening was close to the ceiling of the room into which he looked....


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