Pulp Heroes: OPERATOR #5 - RAIDERS OF THE RED DEATH, Chapter 9


CHAPTER NINE - The Man Who Killed Operator 5
THE deck of the power-boat was a shambles. The boards were slippery with blood. They had started out from the New York side with eight men; now, only two besides Horgavo and Operator 5 were left on their feet. The barrage from the police boat had accounted for the others.

Horgavo ordered the two men to take care of the casualties. Then he motioned to Jimmy Christopher. "Come, Hernando. We will bring the lady up to the emperor!"

Jimmy Christopher felt the girl shiver under his grasp. She turned frightened eyes to him, was about to blurt out something. But he squeezed her arm. "Steady, Miss Powers," he whispered. "You've gone this far--go through with it."

At last, they reached the top of the cliff, came out into a wide clearing. The big house loomed dark and ugly, with one side of it sitting at the very edge of the rock, overlooking the river.

Dark shapes moved everywhere, with small flashlights. Jimmy discerned many cars grouped in the clearing, and he noted, as they followed Horgavo toward the wide, unlit entrance of the house, that the license plates on those cars were representative of many states. They were from Pennsylvania, Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut. Montezuma's agents, apparently, were assembling from all over the country.

They entered through two huge doors of solid oak, and stood in a brightly lit, low-ceilinged foyer. Jimmy saw why no light had shown out while they were climbing the path down below---all the windows were tightly shuttered. Men in uniforms were hurrying to and fro here. All who passed close saluted Horgavo, and some of them nodded in recognition to Jimmy. He assumed that as Hernando he must be known to them, and nodded in response.

Horgavo bowed to Helen Powers, said: "If you will come with me now, I will present you to my master. He has been unhappy ever since you--er--left him in Mexico City. You, fair lady, are one of the principal reasons for transferring our headquarters to this place."

He took her unwilling arm, and threw over his shoulder to Jimmy Christopher: "Wait for me in the officer's room, Hernando. I have more work for you tonight."

Jimmy saluted, watched Helen Powers go unwillingly with the major. Then he turned to inspect his surroundings. The other two men who had come up the path with them had already left, and he was alone to do as he pleased.

He noted that many of the officers were turning to the left down a broad corridor, and he followed them. He turned a bend in the hallway, and saw that these men were all going into one of the rooms off the corridor.

He strolled up past the open doorway, and peered into the room. There must have been at least a hundred men in there, all standing about in attitudes of expectancy.

Over their heads, at the far end, Operator 5 saw that a makeshift altar had been erected, over which brooded the vicious, stone carved features of the obscene god, Huitzilopochtli.

Jimmy Christopher's blood raced as he thought that if the Aztecs mastered the country, altars to this deity might be set up throughout the land. He turned away from the scene in revulsion, stopped short at sight of the small procession that was approaching from the other end of the corridor.

About a dozen officers in brilliant uniform, with swords clanking at their sides, were marching in escort to the Princess Dolores.

All the men in the hall stood at attention as she passed, and saluted. Horgavo's eyes lighted on Jimmy, and he bent, whispered in her ear. The dark gaze of Dolores settled upon Operator 5, and he stiffened, saluted as he had seen the others do. Dolores' full red lips parted in a smile, and she raised her hand, motioned him to come closer.

JIMMY stepped up near her. His heart was beating fast. He had taken the precaution this time, to cover that birthmark on the back of his hand, by spreading a tinted wax over it. But Dolores was a woman, and it is more difficult to deceive a woman than a man. She had looked into his eyes once before, and he could not avoid her gaze now.

But there was no hint of recognition in her voice as she said to him: "Major Horgavo tells me that you are the man who brought about the death of Operator 5."

Jimmy bowed, lowering his eyes.

The princess sighed. "He was a brave man. I would have preferred to have had him captured alive. I would have given much to watch him upon the torture rack!"

She spoke in Spanish, and Jimmy Christopher answered in the same language. "I am sorry, your highness, that I did not know. I would have saved him for you." The princess' eyes became dreamy. She said musingly to Horgavo:

"Do you know, major, that this Operator 5 was the only man who ever aroused my interest? There was something dynamic about him--a certain poised strength that made me want to conquer him. I never thought that a man like Operator 5 would meet his death in a minor chase, from machine-gun bullets!"

Jimmy Christopher watched Horgavo's sultry eyes play upon the supple form of the princess. It could be readily seen that his desire for her was so strong that it bid fair to overcome his discretion. "It shall be my endeavor, your highness," he said gallantly, "to make you forget that--that spy!" He spat the last word out venomously. He was deathly jealous of a man whom he believed to be dead.

The princess shrugged, resumed her stately walk toward the room with the altar. She threw over her shoulder negligently at Jimmy: "You may come with us, and view the sacrifices--"

Jimmy Christopher was about to bow and ask to be excused, for he wanted to be free to explore the house. But he froze into silence at the next words of the princess: "I shall, at least, derive some satisfaction from watching the death agonies of this woman whom Operator 5 is supposed to have loved. She will be the first on the altar." And she added savagely, gloatingly: "We will see if this much vaunted hero can come back from the grave to save her!"

Automatically, as in a daze, Jimmy fell in behind the princess's retinue. Diane to be sacrificed on the altar! To have her heart torn from her still-living body as he had seen done in Mexico City--to have her still living, palpitating heart offered up to Huitzilopochtli in the bloody hands of those barbarous priests!

Operator 5 was but a number in the archives of the United States Intelligence. Yet he was human.

His eyes had become a dull, murky blue; his jaw muscles were bunched into hard ridges as he tried to keep from throwing himself upon Dolores and choking the life from her.

As soon as they were within the room, the doors were closed. Jimmy was puzzled at this, for he had expected that the Emperor Montezuma would himself preside at such a sacrifice He had the explanation in a moment when he heard the princess say to Horgavo, with a scornful curve of her lips: "My father is so infatuated with that American girl whom you brought, that he cannot even spare the time for the sacrifices! He should be careful; I saw that girl's eyes, and she hates him!" The princess shrugged. "If the girl kills him in his sleep some night, I shall not be too surprised."

Horgavo smiled, said very low, so that none could hear except Operator 5; who was close behind them: "If that should happen, your highness would become the Empress of the Aztecs. And you would have no more loyal servant than--myself!"

The princess made no reply, but turned her eyes to the altar, where two white-robed priests had appeared. The officers in the room had divided to form a lane down which the princess and her retinue could approach the altar, and Jimmy Christopher had followed close behind.

Now he watched as the two priests prostrated themselves before the stone idol, then arose to their knees and began to recite strange incantations. A hush fell upon the entire room. The droning voices of the priests rose higher and higher until they reached a screaming pitch of frenzy. Finally one of them seized a long, gleaming knife, and whirled it above his head three times, touched its point to his own forearm, drawing blood.

He lowered his eyes, pointed a scrawny finger at Dolores. "O Princess!" he intoned, as if speaking a ritual, "Do you bring an offering to the great God, Huitzilopochtli? Do you wish power and glory? Do you wish to know the secrets of life and death and love and hate? Then bring to the altar an offering of a live thing, and Huitzilopochtli will speak!"

The priest Mazatlan, lowered the knife, continued to stare at the princess.

Dolores spoke slowly, clearly, so that all in the room could hear: "Mazatlan, High Priest of the temple of Huitzilopochtli!" she intoned. "I bring two offerings. One is the heart of a young girl, the other is the heart of an old man. But both will be welcome to Huitzilopochtli; for they are the hearts of those who were loved by a bitter foe of the Aztec Empire. Let them die, and then I will ask my questions of Huitzilopochtli!"

She turned to Horgavo, ordered: "Bring in the girl, Diane Elliot."

Almost at once the door opened. Diane Elliot appeared there. Her face was pale, but she held her chin high. She was attired in a long white robe that fell to her feet, with a girdle at the waist. Her hands were tied behind her back.

Behind her, with one huge paw on her shoulder appeared a giant of a mestizo, whose coarse, brutish features were twisted into a leer of expectancy. This must be her jailer.

Diane stopped a moment in the doorway, and her hopeless eyes darted around the room as if in search of some one. When she saw the roomful of men, the two priests, the darkly arrogant princess, she seemed to shrink back. But the mestizo pushed her forward roughly, and she stumbled toward the altar under the fanatical gaze of all in the room.

She recovered her balance with difficulty, and stood facing the princess, who said to her acridly: "Before you are sacrificed to Huitzilopochtli, pale one, I will give you some news. Your gallant knight, Operator 5, has been killed--killed, do you hear? There is none to help you here. We shall see if you can die as bravely as he would have died!"

Diane Elliot staggered under the news. Her breasts heaved with emotion. Jimmy, watching her, wanted to cry out to her, to tell her that it was not the truth. But he waited.

Diane, by a supreme effort, mastered her emotion. She swallowed hard, said in a low voice: "I am ready--to die, too!"

ONE of the priests stepped close to her, seized her by both elbows from behind, and forced her down on her back upon the great stone set at the foot of the image. Mazatlan, the high priest, still held the long, curved knife in his scrawny hand. Now he approached, gazing down upon her with his gaunt face as obscene in its blood thirsty fanaticism as that of the bestial god he served.

He raised the knife high, spoke in Spanish, in a high-pitched, screaming voice: "Huitzilopochtli! Great god of the Aztecs! In return for this offering, bring us victory! Bring strength and greatness to Emperor Montezuma, and to the Princess Dolores! Make our people the rulers of the earth!"

And he reached down one long-fingered, claw-like hand, gripped the blouse of Diane's robe, and tore it open. Diane uttered a shriek, but she was hapless in the grip of the second priest.

She shut her eyes as the sharp blade described a flashing arc in the air, descended toward her white body.

Until then, Jimmy Christopher had stood tense, waiting. He had not dared to act until the lustful attention of every one in the room was riveted upon the altar. Now he moved.

He no longer had his own gun, for he had given it to Helen Powers. He took a quick step to the left, which brought him alongside Horgavo. His left hand reached into Horgavo's holster, while his right, bunched into a hard-knuckled fist, came up in a smashing blow to the side of the major's chin.

The blow sent Horgavo crashing backward to the floor, and Jimmy's hand came away with his automatic. Suddenly the room was in pandemonium. Men shouted, scrambled toward Jimmy. The Princess Dolores turned a livid face toward his face momentarily robbed of all its beauty by the rage that twisted her features. She screamed something unintelligible at him--something that was unintelligible because it was drowned by two quick reports from the automatic that had sprung up like a live thing in Jimmy Christopher's hand.

The two priests were thrown backward by the impact of the slugs, and their bodies went hurtling into the stone image of Huitzilopochtli, then slumped to the floor of the altar. They were both dead before their bodies came to rest on the cold stone. The knife went slithering from the grasp of the executioner, lay almost at Diane's feet.

In the second of astounded silence that followed those two shots, Operator 5 launched himself like a rocket through the throng about the altar, bounded up its steps at a single leap. His movements were swift, well-coordinated; he had shot with his left hand, with which he was equally as accurate as with the right. Now he snatched up the long knife, stepped to the side of the bound girl, and pushed her roughly over. With a single slash he cut the cords that held her wrists, saying as did so: "It's I, Diane! Jimmy!"

Diane Elliot's glad cry rang through the room. "Jimmy! Thank God!"

Operator 5 lifted her swiftly, pushed her toward the edge of the altar. Men were swarming toward them now, guns flashed the room.

Now he thrust Diane behind him, turned to meet the rush of uniformed men who swarmed about them. Several guns exploded, harmlessly; for the fighting was at too close quarters. Jimmy clubbed his automatic in his right fist, and his arms pistoned in and out.

He threw over his shoulder: "Diane! The door! Get it open!" His fists kept flailing at the attacking officers; each blow that he struck was carefully placed, directed at a vital spot. He stood there, fighting coolly, methodically, taking advantage of the lack of elbow room of his opponents. He was a cold, dangerous fighting machine. His face was set, expressionless, but his blue eyes darted everywhere, seemed to see everything. Pistol butts were raised against him, swords flashed; but hardly a blow reached him.

AND while he fought coolly, calculatingly, the eyes of one woman were on him with dawning wonder and amazement. The Princess Dolores watched him, with her red lips slightly parted, her breast rising and falling with each blow he struck. She was like some old Roman empress watching a barbarian gladiator fight in the arena for his life. Never had she seen such an exhibition of cold fighting nerve.

Suddenly the voice of Major Horgavo rose above the noise of the fighting. He had gotten to his feet from the floor, his jaw blue and swollen. He had snatched a revolver from the hand of one of the officers on the fringe of the attackers, and now he shouted:

"Stand back, all of you." He sprang up on the altar, from where he had an unobstructed view of Jimmy and Diane, over the heads of the fighting men.

At his command the officers fell back, leaving several of their number on the floor. The major lowered his gun to cover Jimmy Christopher, and at the same time Diane cried out: "Jimmy. Come. The door is open!"

Her voice was drowned by the roar of the major's revolver; but the bullet went high--for the Princess Dolores had sprung up on the altar after him, and just as he pulled the trigger, she had knocked up his gun hand. "I want that man alive!" she exclaimed.

Jimmy had whirled at Diane's call. Now he lunged through the open doorway after her, just as the other officers surged forward at the Princess's command. And Jimmy slammed the door in their faces!

He glanced around at the room they were in. It was small, dark, lit by only a single, small, electric bulb. It was the pen in which the prospective sacrificial victims were confined. And there was one other victim there--John Christopher!

Another huge mestizo, like the one who had brought in Diane, stood guard beside him, with an automatic in his hand. Before the mestizo could bring his weapon up, Jimmy Christopher stepped in, brought up the edge of his open hand in a short, cutting blow that landed at a point about two thirds of an inch below the mestizo's eye.

Though Jimmy had seemed only to hit him lightly, the mestizo uttered a shriek of agony, dropped the gun, and raised both hands to his face. That blow had paralyzed his optic nerves. He would be unable to see for hours. He doubted over in agony, uttering screen after scream.

And though Jimmy's face was distorted into the features of another man--though he was skillfully disguised--John Christopher exclaimed gladly: "Jimmy!"

The door behind them urged open under the influx of attackers from the other room, and Jimmy swung quickly, snapped a shot at the face that appeared in the opening. The face disappeared in a spray of blood, and Jimmy, moving with swift precision, drew a knife from his pocket. The blade snapped open at his touch on a hidden spring, and he slashed twice at his father's bonds.

John Christopher's hands came free. The two men, father and son, wasted no time in explanations. All that John Christopher needed to know was that this was Jimmy, and that Jimmy had come out of the next room fighting.

With a single step John Christopher reached the side of the screaming mestizo, stooped and picked up the revolver he had dropped. Then they each took one of Diane's arms, hurried her toward the door in the opposite wall.

The other door was coming open again; it swung wide, and the doorway was jammed with uniformed officers eager to be the first through. They got in their own way in the narrower entrance, and Jimmy turned his automatic on them, kept the trigger down while it sprayed lead into the thick of them.

Then he turned, and with lead whining wildly into the small room from the sacrificial chamber, he darted out after Diane and his father, kicked the door closed behind him.

They found themselves in a narrow, unlighted passageway. John Christopher threw back: "Follow me! I know the way here."

No unnecessary words were spoken. These two fighting men had been in ticklish spots together before. They could almost read each other's minds in a crisis. And Diane was too overcome yet with emotion at finding Jimmy alive again--at the sudden escape from the sacrificial altar--to be able to say anything. She was content to go where they took her, to be guided by them. Now with peril all about them, she felt unaccountably safe...!

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