Pulp Heroes: OPERATOR #5 - RAIDERS OF THE RED DEATH, Chapter 5
RAIDERS OF THE RED DEATH
CHAPTER FIVE - Unmasked!
He noted that each of the three was secured to the wall by a heavy chain about the right ankle, and that the three chains were all fastened to a single staple in the wall. If they wanted to walk they could probably walk two or three feet away from the corner in which they crouched, but no more.
The man was in his early fifties, gray-haired, with an absent look in his watery eyes. Jimmy assumed that this was George Powers, the electro-chemist. Next to him sat a plump lady with a tear-stained face. She was perhaps forty-eight or forty-nine. Beside her sat a girl, hardly more than nineteen or twenty. She was blonde, and pretty in a child-like sort of way, though tears had stained the white cheeks of her thin, almost elf-like face.
It was she who spoke first. "You--you are not from--Montezuma?"
Jimmy shook his head, knelt beside them. "I'll try to take you out of here--if you're willing to risk it," He turned to the man. "You are George Powers?"
The gray-haired man lifted vacant eyes to him. "Eh?" he asked in a cracked voice. "What's that you say? I'd like some tobacco for my pipe, young man. Do you know where my pipe is?"
Jimmy said impatiently: "Mr. Powers! I am going to take you out of here, to get you through the Aztec lines to Washington. Do you understand?" Powers gazed at him vacantly.
"Washington? I tell you, I want my pipe." He turned to the plump lady, said irritatedly: "Emma! Where is my pipe? You always used to get me my pipe."
There were tears in the plump lady's eyes. She said softly: "Yes, George, dear. I'll get your pipe--soon. Just have patience." She put a hand on Jimmy Christopher's arm. "Please," she begged. "He--he's sick. The shock of capture--" she threw a significant side glance at her husband--"he hasn't been quite right since we were brought here."
Jimmy nodded understandingly. "Once we get him out of here, he can be brought around. We'll get the best physicians in the world. The knowledge that is locked in his mind will save America." He turned to the girl. You are--?
"His daughter," she answered. "Helen Powers. We were all caught together, with two agents--"
"I know," Jimmy said. He set to work bruskly, examined the chains about their ankles. Each was fastened with a large padlock.
Helen Powers said urgently: "Please, I don't know who you are, but we trust you. You must act quickly if we are to escape. Montezuma--" she lowered her eyes "is going to send for me in a few minutes."
Jimmy looked at her. "Why?"
She hesitated, blushed. She seemed fragile, delicate, with the slight tinge of red in her cheeks. Mrs. Powers answered for her. "Montezuma intends to--take Helen away from us. He has taken a fancy to her. He says he will share his empire with her!"
Jimmy whistled. Montezuma--infatuated with this slip of a girl!
Suddenly Helen Powers buried her face in her hands, and her little body was wracked with sobs. "I don't want to be an empress!" she blurted. "I'm afraid! Afraid of that terrible man!"
Jimmy was working swiftly with the padlocks. His mind and his heart were with John Christopher in the cage in the next room, but automatically he soothed the girl. "Don't worry. You'll be away from here before he sends for you."
The long, supple steel instrument with which Jimmy had been working on the old man's lock clicked it open, and the chain was of George Power's ankle. The other two padlocks yielded in short order, while the three watched him, two with suddenly reviving hope and the third with vacant interest.
AND at that moment, disaster came to knock at the door. The heavy tread of footsteps sounded in the corridor outside. Helen Powers' face lost all its color. "They're coming!" she gasped.
George Powers displayed no especial interest, merely staring at the wall, vacantly. But Mrs. Powers began to sob quietly. Her hopes had been raised so high, only to be dashed.
But Jimmy Christopher acted swiftly, with quick decision. He stooped quickly, replaced the heavy chain about the older man's ankle, but without snapping the padlock. He did the same for the two women, then hurried to the far end of the room, crouched against the wall in the shadows where the light of the candle did not reach.
He was not a second too soon. The footsteps had stopped at the next room, and many voices were raised in excitement. They had discovered the dead bodies of the priests. This must be the guard detail that John Christopher had spoken of.
One voice, uttering hot, angry orders in Spanish, Jimmy recognized. It was that of Horgavo. He heard Horgavo say: "Send for more men. Place guards in every corridor. Operator 5 must not leave the palace. I will give twenty ounces of gold to the one who kills him!"
There was a mad marching and trampling of feet outside, and the connecting door opened. Horgavo peered in cautiously. His narrow eyes darted to the corner where the Powers family crouched, and his lips twisted in a smile. He stepped into the room, closing the door behind him. He paid no attention to the vacant-eyed scientist or his wife, but moved over to tower above the shrinking figure of the girl, Helen.
"I am glad that you are safe, Miss Powers," he said softly. "My master would have been very angry had anything happened to you."
Horgavo bent over her, leering. "The noble Montezuma has chosen you to be his lady. I hope that when you are empress you will not forget the humble Horgavo." He holstered his gun, produced a key from his pocket, and started to insert it in the padlock. "Now, you must come--"
He stopped abruptly as he heard Jimmy Christopher step out from the shadows. He straightened, turned, and his hand darted to the holstered pistol at his side.
Jimmy Christopher covered the distance between them in a quick leap, brought up his bunched fist to the point of the other's jaw. Horgavo's hand fell away empty from his holster, his eyes glazed, his knees buckled, and he collapsed to the floor.
George Powers' vacant eyes were fixed on the brightly uniformed, inert body. "I wonder," he cackled, "if he has a pipe on him?"
The two women gazed in terror.
Jimmy Christopher paid them no attention. Acting swiftly, he dragged the unconscious Horgavo over under the candle where the light was best.
"You ladies," he said, "had better turn your backs for a few minutes. Maybe we can squirm out of this." And he began to remove the uniform from the inert officer. As in a daze, Mrs. Powers and her daughter arose, turned away.
Jimmy Christopher's fingers worked with desperate speed. He got his own clothes off, squirmed into Horgavo's uniform. Then, while men stormed to and from in the corridor outside, while frantic orders were issued in hoarse voices, Operator 5 took from the inner lining of the coat he had discarded a flat leather case, which, when opened, revealed a number of tubes, and many small metal plates of various colors, set into slits in the case.
There was also a mirror and a small, flat battery which had been especially constructed at Jimmy Christopher's specifications to fit into the case. There was a small bulb fitted into the frame of the mirror, and when it was connected with the battery, this bulb gave off a powerful light through a small magnifying-glass set into the top. It furnished enough light for the delicate task Jimmy now undertook.
The tubes contained plastic material, tints and dyes. The small, metal plates were nose and cheek fillers, ear distorters, tooth coverings. In short, that case contained everything necessary for effecting a perfect-make-up...
NOW, with the mirror before him on its collapsible stand, illuminated by the magnifier--bulb, Jimmy Christopher's fingers fairly flew over his face. From time to time he stopped to examine Horgavo's features, and then he would continue with his work.
Seconds sped into minutes while the two women stood with their backs to him. And gradually, the coarse features of Horgavo began to take shape, superimposed upon the face of Operator 5. With exquisite skill, Jimmy Christopher spread his own nose, by means of two little plates inserted in the nostrils, so that it became the exact replica of the unconscious officer's. Using the plastic material, he created the effect of Horgavo's high cheek bones. Then he used the tubes of tint to duplicate the officer's face coloring.
At last he was finished, and packed away the make-up case. He covered the unconscious man's body with his own discarded clothing, threw a grim smile at George Powers, who had been watching him listlessly, and got to his feet. Standing there in the dim light thrown by the candle, anyone would have sworn that he was an officer of Montezuma. He cleared his throat, and spoke: "You may turn around, now, ladies."
But his voice was not the voice of Jimmy Christopher. His marvelous ability had duplicated to the very slightest tone quality the voice of Horgavo!
Mrs. Powers and her daughter whirled, startled, and Helen Powers shrank away, uttering a little cry of terror. Her eyes jerked unbelievingly to the unconscious form of the officer on the floor. She had seen him knocked out, could not understand what had happened.
Jimmy said: "It's all right, Miss Powers. Your father was watching me. He will tell you that I am not Horgavo."
George Powers nodded, cackled. "Very clever young man. Very clever indeed. He ought to be an actor. But you shouldn't have hit that man so hard."
Jimmy stepped over to him, helped him to his feet. "Come on, Mr. Powers. We're going out through the front way."
Mrs. Powers gasped: "We'll be caught. We can't do that!"
Jimmy Christopher laughed bitterly. "Why should you be caught? You will be escorted out by the great Horgavo, the right-hand man of Montezuma. Come!"
He led them to the corridor door, flung it open, and stepped out....
This was the crucial moment. Back there in the dim light of the dungeon room, the two women had taken him for Horgavo. But the disguise had been hastily assumed; he had worked quickly, spurred by great necessity. It was possible that he had omitted some slight detail that would betray him at once to the soldiers, here, in the better light.
Jimmy kept his hand close to the holster, with his fingers taut. If his impersonation were discovered now, everything would be lost. He might kill half a dozen of these Aztec soldiers, but he could never hope to fight his way out of the palace with the Powers family.
Grimly he stood for a moment in the doorway while the eyes of several of the hurrying, excited soldiers rested on him. But they noticed nothing. Each of them saluted briskly as he passed. Jimmy heaved a sigh of relief, moved along the corridor, motioning to the Powers family to follow him. They moved along behind him nervously, the two women holding tight to each other's hands.
As they came abreast of the next door in the corridor, Jimmy Christopher halted a moment. His pulse was racing. In there was his father. Rescue of John Christopher had seemed impossible a little while ago.
Major Horgavo, it seemed, was second in power only to Montezuma. Disguised as the major, was it not possible to effect his father's release too?
Jimmy turned abruptly, said to his wards: "Come in here with me!"
Grimly he pushed aside the guard who stood before the wide door, stepped into the sacrificial chamber in which his father was caged. A dozen soldiers were here now, and some of them were moving the bodies of the dead priests to one side. The prisoners in the cages were silent, staring in terror. They feared that the Aztecs would exact dreadful reprisals from them for the deaths of the priests.
Jimmy's eyes flicked to the cage where his father crouched. John Christopher had raised his eyes, was staring at him, but without any hint of recognition.
A JUNIOR officer, who was in command of the detail, approached, clicked his heels smartly together, and saluted. "Your orders," he said, "have been carried out, major. Guards have been posted everywhere. The American Secret Service man cannot escape from the palace without being seen. All sentries outside have been doubled, and warned to be on the lookout for him."
He spoke in Spanish, and Jimmy answered him in the same language, mimicking to perfection the thick, guttural speech of Horgavo.
"It is well. Go now, and get me the key to these cages."
The junior officer hesitated, looked puzzled. "But you know, sir, that only Montezuma has the key to these cages. Montezuma himself chooses the next victims for the sacrifices."
Jimmy's blood suddenly ran cold. His hopes of rescuing his father by means of this disguise had been high. But he had not foreseen this.
He saw John Christopher gazing at the Powers family in hopeless dejection. He understood that his father was thinking that there was no more hope. The sight of Horgavo, in charge of Powers could mean only one thing to the older man--that Jimmy had failed in his attempt to rescue them, and that everything was lost.
Jimmy Christopher said to the young officer in Spanish: "Leave me here. Take your men out for a few moments."
The officer saluted, turned and gave reluctant orders to his men, who began to file out. The lieutenant followed, saying, puzzledly:
"I obey, Major Horgavo, but I do not understand?"
"It is not necessary that you understand," Jimmy broke in coldly. He waited until the door had closed behind the last of them, and then hurried over to his father's cage.
"Dad!" he exclaimed. "Didn't you recognize me?"
John Christopher swung startled eyes to his son. "Jimmy! You! I--I thought you had been caught or--killed in there!"
"I'm going to get you out of here, dad, while I have the chance. These others, too!"
John Christopher's voice took on an edge of steel. "No. You'd only be caught. There's too much to risk. Go now. Take the Powers family out of here. Get Powers to Washington."
"Look at him, dad," Jimmy interrupted. "He's lost his mind from shock. Shall I have you to die for the sake of that?"
"You know very well it's only a temporary shock, Jimmy. Once he's out of here, in the care of competent doctors, he'll recover his mind, and give us the secret that will save America--the secret of Montezuma's mysterious force!"
Jimmy lowered his eyes rebelliously.
John Christopher said firmly but gently: "I know it's hard for you, Jimmy. But remember, I've got that watch-charm of yours. Death will not be hard for me...."
Jimmy sighed; "Good-bye, dad," he choked, and turned to the Powers family. "Come!" he ordered, and stumbled from the room.
Out in the corridor, he recovered his poise, said to the young officer who was looking at him suspiciously: "The prisoner on the third cage to the left must not be harmed in any way. He is the father of that gringo, Operator 5, and will be a valuable hostage in case we do not recapture the son."
The young officer saluted and Jimmy motioned to the Powers family to follow him. They had not said a word all this time, but followed Jimmy docilely.
Now Jimmy led the way up along a steep stone staircase that must be the mate of the one he had descended. Helen Powers, walking close beside him on the stairs, plucked at his sleeve timidly. "W-where are you taking us?"
Jimmy told her grimly: "We are going to walk out through the front entrance. Say nothing. Leave all the talking to me. And see if you can keep your father quiet."
They reached the top of the long flight of stairs, came out into the main hallway. Here there were many uniformed men, all armed. Every nook and cranny of the palace was being searched for Operator 5.
Jimmy led the way in the direction of the wide entrance, before which a detail of armed men was drawn up. Soldiers saluted him respectfully all the way along the hall. He was even imitating Horgavo's manner of walking.
Helen Powers, alongside him, whispered: "Please God you can carry it through!"
"If we can only get safely outside."
Jimmy said, "I can commandeer one of the palace cars. We'll say I'm talking you to other quarters at the command of Montezuma. We--"
He suddenly ceased talking, stopped short with a hand on Helen Powers' arm. A door at the left of the corridor had opened, and Dolores, the daughter of Montezuma, stood framed in the doorway.
Her dark, imperious eyes returned Jimmy Christopher's stare. Her red lips curved in a cold smile. "You do not salute me, Major Horgavo?" she asked icily.
Helen Powers barely restrained a gasp of dismay, while her father and mother huddled close to Jimmy.
Jimmy left them standing there, came over close to Dolores, saluting. "A thousand pardons, princess," he said. His eyes were gleaming with a sudden, bold plan. "Something of grave importance has arisen. May I see you alone for a moment?"
She studied him a moment, and her eyes dropped to his right hand. There, exposed to her gaze, a peculiar grayish birthmark. It was in the shape of an American eagle, and it shone, grayish under the red cuff of the bright uniform. Jimmy Christopher had carried that strange birthmark with him all his life, had become so used to it that he forgot it most of the time; forgot that it was noticeable to other people.
Now he looked into Dolores dark eyes, saw that she was smiling cruelly.
"You," she announced sternly, "are not Major Horgavo. You are Operator 5!"
THE hall was teeming with armed servants of Montezuma. Dolores had only to raise her voice, and a hundred men would swarm about Jimmy Christopher and his wards, each one eager to earn the reward of gold offered for his death. She was aware of this, and she took a crude delight in the situation.
But Jimmy Christopher gave her no opportunity to summon help. He had seen recognition in her eyes even before she spoke; and he acted swiftly, surely. His right hand slipped inside his bright red tunic to his mechanical pencil. His thumbnail flipped up the small metal plate covering the top. This plate opened on a hinge, exposing a grayish powder that nestled in the receptacle where one usually carries spare leads.
Jimmy dipped his thumbnail in the powder, then withdrew his hand, leaving the pencil in his pocket. The whole thing was so swiftly done that Dolores noticed nothing until Jimmy reached out, took her arm. She was just saying: "You are not going to escape, Operator 5. I think I shall enjoy your company for a short time--and then I shall enjoy even more watching you die--"
She broke off, startled, as Jimmy, leaning over her, raked his thumbnail down the flesh of her soft, white arm. She winced with pain as the sharp nail tore the skin of her arm, making a bloody furrow.
The powder on Jimmy's thumbnail entered the wound. It was a chemical that Operator 5 had developed in his own laboratory in New York. The few grains on his thumbnail were sufficient to induce a coma lasting for several hours. It consisted of a mixture of urethane, scopolamine and ethyl chloride, delicately balanced so as to form the most powerful anaesthetic known to man.
Its effect on Dolores was immediate. Her whole body stiffened, her eyes glazed, and the words she had been about to utter died on her lips. She would have collapsed if Jimmy had not placed an arm about her waist, half carried her into the room from which she had appeared. The whole thing had been done so swiftly that, to those passing in the hall, nothing extraordinary seemed to have taken place. Indeed, no one looked very closely, for they preferred to keep a good distance from Horgavo and the daughter of Montezuma.
Jimmy lost no time. He laid the unconscious princess on the floor, sprang across the room and yanked down one of the silken drapes hanging over the window. While Helen Powers with her father and mother waited breathless just outside the door, Jimmy the drape completely around the princess, lifted her dead weight up in his arms, and strode out into the hall.
"Follow me," he said to them, and led the way out through the broad main entrance, past the lined-up guards. A junior officer saw him, said obsequiously: "Can I help you carry that--burden, sir?"
Jimmy shook his head. "No. But you can get me a car and a chauffeur. I must take these people away at once, by order of the emperor."
The officer saluted, left. In less than five minutes, a big car pulled up at the entrance, driven by a gaudily uniformed Indian chauffeur. The officer was riding the running board.
"Do you wish an escort, Major Horgavo?" he asked. "This gringo, Operator 5 is loose, and there may be danger."
"Never mind," Jimmy Christopher said. "I can take care of him." He bundled the unconscious princess into the car, had the door open for Helen Powers and her father and mother. Then he closed the door, went around in front and got in with the chauffeur.
He said to the driver in Spanish: "Just a minute," and took from his pocket a small notebook and his pencil. While the officer waited at attention, he wrote upon a page of the notebook:
I have your daughter with me. If any harm should come to my father while he is in your hands, I swear that Dolores will never return to you. If you attempt to use your explosive force to prevent our escape, your daughter will perish with us.
Jimmy Christopher tore the page from the notebook, folded it and gave it to the officer.
"See that this is delivered at once to the emperor," he said.
The officer took it, bowing. "It shall be done, major." He watched while the chauffeur got the car in motion. "Drive to the flying field," Jimmy directed.
AS THE car rolled away from the palace, Jimmy glanced back into the rear, to see Helen Powers supporting the inert body of the princess, still wrapped in the drape. George Powers and his wife were sitting in the two folding-seats. Powers was listless, while his plump wife was nervously tearing a handkerchief to shreds.
Jimmy faced forward again, staring out into the night along the awash of the car's powerful headlights. He glanced at his wrist watch. It was eleven o'clock; only two fleeting hours had passed since he had landed here, a prisoner. Now he was riding in an imperial car which had the right of way over all other traffic; he was taking away, with him the one man who might be able to reveal the secret of the mysterious force which enabled the Aztecs to decimate United States troops; he was abducting the daughter of Montezuma. But he had a heavy heart. His father...The car came in sight of the flying field. Jimmy's blood raced. This was going to be a crucial moment. Was there a plane available that could carry five people--and could he get it?
An official came out of the operations building, bowed low when he saw the man he thought to be Major Horgavo descend from the car. Jimmy asked bruskly in Spanish: "Have you a large plane available? One that will accommodate four besides the pilot?"
Elation glowed in Jimmy's eyes as the official replied obsequiously: "But yes, senor. We have a large transcontinental plane that we captured from the gringos only yesterday. It is all ready in the hangar. I can have a pilot--"
"I will fly it myself," Jimmy announced.
The official raised his eyebrows. "I did not know, Major Horgavo, that you could--"
Jimmy said coldly, in the tone which he was almost certain the major would employ: "There are many things you do not know. Be careful that your lack of knowledge does not cause you---unhappiness."
The official squirmed. "But I meant nothing at all, Major! I am only too glad to serve you. I will have the plane ready in ten minutes."
"Five minutes," Jimmy said firmly. "Otherwise--"
"But of course, senor," the official agreed hastily. "It shall be done as you say!" He hurried away.
Operator 5 returned to the car, and with the aid of Helen Powers and her mother, he got out the bundled form of Dolores, placed her on the ground. George Powers got out, stared around him vacantly.
"Are we going to take a ride in a plane?" he asked with sudden interest. "Do you think I'll be able to get a pipe and some tobacco where we're going?"
Jimmy Christopher sighed, turned away from him. "You may go," he told the chauffeur. "Leave the car here. You need not return to the palace. You may have the rest of the night off."
The Indian chauffeur got out of the car with alacrity. "Gracias, senor!" he said, saluting, and hurried away toward a troop-truck which was just ready to return to the city.
Jimmy, watching him go, said to Helen Powers: "He won't report back for duty till tomorrow morning--and Montezuma may not learn for hours that we have commandeered the plane."
He donned the helmet and goggles which one of the mechanics brought him, helped Powers and the two women to put on similar equipment. Then he motioned to two men who stood near by to carry the princess, and started across toward the huge passenger plane which was being wheeled out of a hangar at the other end of the field.
The Powers family followed him.... The rest was easy....