Pulp Heroes: OPERATOR #5 - RAIDERS OF THE RED DEATH, Chapter 4

novelRAIDERS OF THE RED DEATH

CHAPTER FOUR - Chamber of Sacrifice
THE room beneath Operator 5 was immense, lighted by tapers that stood in sconces along the walls. At the far end, directly opposite the window, was a great stone image of a repulsive god--Huitzilopochtli, half serpent and half man. Before the god was a stone altar, smeared with dried blood.

Two bearded priests, with close-shaven heads, in white robes, stood on the altar. A man was staked out on his back, at their feet, tied to a rack similar to the one upon which F-13 had died. This man was dead also, and Jimmy's blood grew hot with revulsion as he realized the manner of the victim's death. He had been offered as a sacrifice in the ancient Aztec manner; the heart had been torn from his body, and one of the priests was even now holding the gory thing in his hands, offering it before the ghastly idol.


The dead man was stripped to the waist, and his torso was bathed in his own blood. Jimmy saw the lower part of the man's body was clothed in puttees of olive drab. He had been an officer of the United States Army--probably captured in the first advance of the Aztecs when they had overrun southeastern Texas.

Along both side walls of this room there were small iron cages, about two dozen in all. And in each of these cages was a man, sitting in a crouching position, because there was not enough room to straighten. These were the sacrificial victims who would follow the one now on the altar. The Aztecs always fattened those whom they prepared for the sacrifice--Huitzilopochtli did not like lean and scrawny offerings.

The two priests now prostrated themselves before the stone god, and Jimmy's eyes roved from one cage to another--seeking a certain face. He dreaded to see the features of his father in one of those cages. But he did.

In the third cage from the altar John Christopher was crouched in the narrow cubicle, head bowed in prayer.

Jimmy's lips tightened. He took from the lining of his coat a thin, tempered steel saw sheathed in a small chamois scabbard. He removed the scabbard with his teeth, proceeded to file at one of the bars. But at the first rasp of the saw, one of the priests rose, gazed toward the window suspiciously. Jimmy drew back. He was in darkness, of course, but he did not know how sharp the eyes of the white-robed votary of Huitzilopochtli might be.

The second priest got to his knees, and the two of them whispered together for a moment. Then one of them shrugged, and they returned to their devotions. Jimmy surmised that they considered it impossible for an enemy to have reached that window.

They prostrated themselves once more, and Jimmy knew they would remain there for hours, hoping that their god would vouchsafe them some word of advice or prophecy in return for the sacrifice.

He dared not resume his sawing, lest he attract their attention again.

Suddenly Jimmy noticed that his father had turned his head and was gazing through red--rimmed eyes up at the grilled window. The other prisoners in the cages were lethargic, hopeless, not even casting a glance at the grisly figure of their dead compatriot on the altar. But John Christopher, in spite of the obvious torture of his cramped position, in spite of the awful fate that seemed to be in store for him, was alert and keen.

Jimmy's pulse raced as he saw his father's face, gray and lined, with a four or five day growth of beard, looking up in his direction.

HE WAITED, breathless, watching his father. And then a slow, glad smile spread over Jimmy's face. For John Christopher had begun to sing!

In his deep baritone voice that Jimmy remembered listening to so fervently in his childhood days, John Christopher began to chant the august, cadenced measures of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic!"

The priests looked up, disturbed, from their prostrate devotions; then shrugged, and returned to their prayers. No doubt they thought that the prisoner was seeking surcease in song. And slowly the other prisoners, cheered by the slow swing of the majestic melody, joined in, until the room was filled with sound.

Jimmy Christopher murmured: "Good old dad!" and began to saw away at the window bars. The rasping of the saw was entirely drowned by the chorus of voices!

The priests looked up several times, but did not disturb the singers. And in less than fifteen minutes, Jimmy had two of the bars cut through. He squirmed through the window, dropped to the floor. And several of the singers, seeing him, involuntarily halted their song. This attracted the attention of the two priests, who turned their heads, saw Jimmy, and sprang to their feet.

One of them ran toward a small gong near the altar, with the intention of striking it. The other reached out his bloody hands, seized a long, sacrificial knife which was still red from the last victim's blood. He leaped from the altar and raced across the room past the cages at Jimmy. He brandished the knife wildly, and his eyes blazed with a murderous, fanatical fury.

Jimmy Christopher's automatic sprang into his hand like a live thing, and barked twice. He shot first at the priest who was raising the baton to strike the gong; then at the second one, who had the knife. Both shots were aimed for the heart, and both went home. The first white-robed devotee of the Aztec cult collapsed over the brass gong without striking it. The second fell literally at Jimmy's feet, and though he had a slug in his heart, he raised a hate-stained face, lifted his knife to slash. And in that moment death overtook him. He fell face down on the stone floor.

Jimmy rushed to the cage in which his father was crouching, and disregarding the shouts of the other prisoners he reached through the bars, clasped his father's hand.

"Dad!" he exclaimed, almost choking with emotion. "Good old dad! I'll have you out of here in no time!"

John Christopher clung to his son's hand for a moment, tears filming his eyes. Then he said huskily: "Jimmy, lad! How did you get here?"

The other prisoners were shouting: "Save us! Save us!" and their voices reached a high pitch of frenzy. Jimmy had to raise his voice so as to be heard by his father.

"I failed, dad," he said. "I failed miserably. I had a chance to kill Montezuma, and didn't shoot because of a woman!" He spoke swiftly, relating the events that had brought him here, telling his father hour F-13 had died, and how the man had revealed his identity. As he spoke, Jimmy set to work on the bars of the cage with his saw.

John Christopher grasped his hand. "No, no, Jimmy. Leave me. There's something more important."

Jimmy Christopher gazed, uncomprehending at his father. "More important?"

John Christopher nodded. "F-13 and I were at the Texas border when we were captured. You know why we went there---an electro-chemist named George Powers claimed to know the secret of Montezuma's mysterious force."

"I know," said Jimmy. "He wrote to Washington, and Z-7 sent you and F-13 to interview him."

"That's right, son. Well, we were all captured--F-13, myself, and Powers, together with his wife and daughter. Powers is here, son, in the next room, with his family. You've got to get him out of here, and learn what he knows!"

"And leave you, dad?"

JOHN CHRISTOPHER gazed deeply into his son's eyes. "You're Operator 5, Jimmy, of the United States Intelligence. Forget that you are my son. Getting Powers out of here may mean the salvation of our country."

Thee other prisoners had grown quiet, watching these two. Perhaps they had realized that their shouts might attract guards.

In the comparative quiet, Jimmy said: "I'll get Powers, then come back for you, dad. We'll fight our way--"

John Christopher stopped him, shaking his head. "You can't do it, Jimmy. Look at the bars on this cage they're four times as thick as the bars on that window. It would take you an hour to cut through one of them, and a guard detail looks in here every hour. There's one due in a short while."

The older man was speaking urgently now, almost pleadingly. "The Powers family is in the next room, and the connecting door is open. It'll be an almost hopeless task to get them out as it is. But if you stop to saw these bars as well--no, Jimmy, you must leave me."

Jimmy's eyes were bitter, as they strayed to the poor, mangled remains of the dead man on the altar at the feet of the heathen god. "So they can offer your heart--?"

"Even that, Jimmy," John Christopher answered in a calm voice. "I am ready--in fact, I've been ready for a long time. Only, if you will, Jimmy, leave me that death's-head watch-charm of yours. Maybe I can break the capsule inside it, and spare myself and these others--" he motioned toward the other caged prisoners---"the--ordeal."

For a long time, Jimmy Christopher crouched beside that cage, fighting a terrific battle within himself, while his fingers toyed nervously with the death's-head charm on its chain. He knew very well what his father meant, and his eyes were bleak. He always carried that watch--charm with him. For within it, there reposed a silver, thin-walled capsule of diphenlolchlorasine, a liquid which, upon being exposed to the action of the atmosphere, changed at once into a gas--a gas so volatile that it would cause instant death. By removing the capsule from the watch-charm and pinching it, Jimmy could at any time bring about the immediate death of everyone within a radius of fifty feet--including himself.

And his father was asking for this watch--charm now....!

Jimmy Christopher's pain-filled eyes sought those of his father. He was like a small child seeking guidance.

He asked in a thick, choked voice: "If I were in that cage, Dad, would--would you--leave me--to die?"

Quietly, with cool eyes steady, John Christopher nodded. Without hesitation he said:

"If our situations were reversed, I would, Jimmy. We mean much to each other--but think of the millions of fathers and sons and mothers who will be spared the pain of losing loved ones if you can only break the power of Montezuma!"

Suddenly, uttering a little choked cry, Jimmy tore the watch-charm from the chain, handed it to his father. Their hands met between the cage bars, clasped firmly. They avoided looking at each other.

"Right behind you," John Christopher said, "is the door to the room where Powers is held. Good-bye, son--and good luck to you!"

Blindly, Jimmy Christopher tore his hand from the older man's, turned and made his way, stumbling, across the chamber. The other prisoners in their cages sensed that they were being left to their fate, and began to howl, shout and scream.

Jimmy Christopher hardly heard them. He pushed through the connecting door, entered the next room without looking back at his father--lest he weaken and return...

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