Pulp Heroes: OPERATOR #5 - RAIDERS OF THE RED DEATH, Chapter 10
RAIDERS OF THE RED DEATH
CHAPTER TEN - The Challenge
John Christopher demanded suspiciously: "What do you plan to do, lad? If it's a question of holding them a while, to give Diane a chance to get out, I'm the man to do it. I'm old. I've nothing much to live for--"
"Trust me, dad!" Jimmy whispered urgently. "I'm not sacrificing my life uselessly, I promise you that. I've got to cripple that mysterious exploding death. Now go!"
He heard his father say huskily: "All right, Jimmy. Come, Diane!"
Operator 5 heard them move down the passageway, but did not turn. He was facing the door now, and he dropped to one knee. From the lining of his coat, he extracted a long, pencil-like tube. It was made of dull metal, and there was a cap at one end, with a smell pin sticking out of it. He had this in his right hand, his eyes intently fixed on that door. In the darkness he could just discern the dark shape of the officer he had shot, lying inert on the floor.
Jimmy swiftly raised the tube in his hand, and drew out the pin. Then he held it poised, while the watch on his wrist ticked off three seconds. From where he knelt he could hear the click of a machine gun bolt through the door, and he waited no longer. He drew back his arm, hurled the tube straight at the door.
This tube was a modification of the Mills bomb, used extensively by the police of large cities. But unlike the Mills bomb, its area of damage was confined to a radius of only four feet. He had developed this pencil bomb in his laboratory at Address Y. and had perfected it only after tireless experiments with varying quantities of explosive, and with various containers. This was the first time since he had perfected it that he had occasion to use it.
Even as he threw it, he dropped prone on the ground, placed fingers in both his ears. He waited there in the darkness for what seemed an eternity; but it was only two seconds--hardly enough for the machine gunner on the other side to get his weapon in position. And then suddenly, a deafening explosion shook the walls and floor of the passageway...
THE terrific force of that concentrated detonation jarred Operator 5 even where he lay, a dozen feet from the door. The sound of tinkling, broken glass and of rending, cracking wood followed the explosion. He took his fingers from his ears, raised his head, then got to his feet.
A dark, gaping hole showed where the door had been. Groans and screams of wounded men came to him. The lights in the room beyond the doorway had all been shattered by the concussion, and he could distinguish a milling, panicky crowd of figures there. Between him and them, at the spot where the pencil bomb had exploded, there was a wide gap in the floor.
Jimmy Christopher turned silently and made his way in the opposite direction along the passageway after his father and Diane. They were not in the corridor. He hoped they had had time to get outside the mansion.
Behind him now, over the agonized groans of dying men, he heard the voice of the Princess Dolores: "Fools! Why do you wait here! That passageway leads to the cliff entrance. Go around and head them off!"
Jimmy hurried on, groping ahead of him for the end of the passageway. And then he heard Horgavo's smooth voice, saying: "Let us try them with the exploding death, your highness. This Operator 5 had already killed some of our best men. Why send more men against him, when we can destroy him in a moment?"
"All right, Horgavo," the princess assented. "Order them to direct the exploding death to cover the cliffs behind the house!"
Jimmy's blood ran cold. He had seen the terrible results of the exploding death. His father and Diane must even now be coming out of the mansion. He shuddered at the thought of what would happen to them.
And as if in answer to that very thought of his came the words of the princess once more: "They will all three be shattered into bits. I am sorry that I cannot capture that Operator 5 alive. I would let the other two go if I could make that man my prisoner!"
And Jimmy Christopher suddenly, without thinking, called out from the darkness of the passageway in Spanish: "You have your wish, princess! I am still here. Let my father and the girl go out unharmed, and I will give myself up!"
Abruptly, at the sound of his words, there was a hush in the small room at the end of the passageway. Even the men who were groaning with pain ceased their laments for a moment.
The princess exclaimed: "It is he! Bring a flashlight!"
Someone clicked on a flashlight, but Jimmy Christopher's automatic slid out of his holster, and it barked once. The flashlight was shattered, and the man who held it uttered a yelp of pain.
Jimmy called out coldly: "Countermand the order you just gave for the exploding death, princess, and I will give myself up. Then you can turn on your flashlights."
The princess raised her voice: "Do you give me your word that you will surrender?"
"I give it!" Operator 5 said simply.
The princess ordered Horgavo: "Call back the one who went with my order. At once!"
Horgavo grumbled, but he obeyed. Jimmy, listening attentively, heard him shout out to someone to return.
Jimmy Christopher stood erect, squared his shoulders, and walked slowly toward the shambles created by his pencil bomb. A dozen rays of light from as many torches were concentrated on him, almost blinding him. Someone called out from the other room: "Wait! There is a hole in the floor."
He stood still, while boards were brought, placed over the gaping hole in the floor, so that he could cross. He stepped across into the room, and almost slipped on the blood of the men who had been killed by the pencil bomb.
The cold voice of the Princess Dolores ordered: "Seize him!"
ROUGH hands gripped his arms, twisted them behind his back. He was held helpless while the princess stepped close, took a flashlight from one of the men, and held it close to his face, shining straight into his eyes.
"Operator 5," she said, "you are a fool. You deliberately sacrificed yourself for a girl and a man. It is the weakness that will destroy all of you Americans--your senseless gallantry."
Jimmy said nothing, but stared into the eye of the flashlight. His lips were set grimly. The princess was right. He had given himself into her cruel hands to save Diane and his father.
He said coolly: "Thank you for your compliment, princess. But it is not gallantry that will destroy us. It is the mysterious force which your father controls."
Dolores' cold laugh tinkled like ice in a glass. "It is too bad that the leaders of your country do not understand that as well as you do, Operator 5. They are hard to convince. But the lesson we will give them tonight is one that they will never forget. There are soldiers climbing the cliff outside now--thousands of them. And in one hour, they will all be destroyed. No doubt your father and that girl will be with them--so that your sacrifice is in vain, you see."
She was laughing at him. "And now, Operator 5, I shall give myself the pleasure of seeing you on the torture rack," She swung to Horgavo. "Take him away, and prepare him! We shall have some sport for the next hour!"
Jimmy Christopher allowed himself to be led away by Horgavo asked two other men. The last sound in his ears was the cold laughter of the princess.
They took him back through the sacrificial chamber, where the bodies of the two dead priests lay in a water of their own blood; then out into the broad hallway, where men stared at him curiously.
They led Jimmy Christopher down a flight of stairs, and past an open door. A peculiar, humming sound came from that room, and Horgavo motioned for Jimmy's two captors to stop a moment, then stepped inside.
Jimmy glanced after him, saw that the hum came from a tremendous generator that was set in the concrete floor, and rose through an opening in the ceiling into the room above. Machinery was arranged in orderly fashion along the two opposite walls of this room--huge, black steel monsters over which men in greasy overalls were climbing, oiling and testing them.
Jimmy's keen eyes traveled over the various items, classifying them in his mind. He turned quickly to the man at his left, said in Spanish: "Those are the instruments by which you spread the exploding death, are they not?"
The man grinned, nodded. "From that room, Senor Operator 5, the exploding death goes out all over your country. Soon it will be set in motion again--but you will not be interested. You will be screaming in agony while the Princess Dolores watches and laughs!"
Jimmy swung his eyes back into the room. Horgavo was talking to a bald-headed, sharp--eyed man in white smocks who was nodding and smiling. Jimmy heard this man say in English:
"All is ready, major. The rarefying element is in position, set to saturate the area from here down to the river. At the word, everything on the cliffs below will explode. Not a single one of the soldiers will be left alive!"
He motioned toward the one wall against which no machinery was erected.
On this wall was an immense map of the United States in detail. The reading matter on this map was so fine that it could not be read with the naked eye, but a huge magnifying glass hung on a projecting steel elbow in front of the map; and the particular spot before which it was suspended stood out in bold relief, magnified fifty times.
A BEAM of light, emanating from a lens in one of the machines on the opposite wall was lancing across the room, and was focused on the map through the magnifying glass. Jimmy Christopher immediately recognized the spot on the map as corresponding to the place on the edge of the water where he had landed with Horgavo and Helen Powers. It was there that the forces of Z-7 were concentrating now, awaiting a signal from him. And it was there that the exploding death was focused to strike!
Horgavo was saying: "That is well, Doctor Maltbie. If they should begin the attack before the hour, you will be notified."
He left the white-smocked man, came out into the corridor, smirking at Jimmy. "Now you have seen the device that has struck death to your countrymen, Operator 5. Do you understand it?"
Jimmy Christopher nodded. "I understand the principle, Horgavo," he said quietly. He nodded his head toward the white-smocked man who was moving about in the other room. "I also know that renegade scientist. Maltbie is the inventor of an electronic ray that decomposes the atmosphere at any given spot with the speed of lightning. It is that ray which he is generating in there."
Horgavo stared, surprised. "You are clever, Operator 5!"
Jimmy Christopher went on, stating the swift confusions he had readied, and waiting for Horgavo to confirm them.
"The electronic ray is discharged by means of that vacuum"--he nodded toward a huge round, duralumin-enclosed piece of machinery at which the white-smocked scientist was bending--"and travels with the speed of light toward the spot at which it is projected. At that spot, it rarefies the atmosphere so suddenly that all pressure from the outside is removed from any object in the area, and the object explodes due to the pressure from within. Is that right, Horgavo?"
Maltbie, the scientist, had heard what Jimmy said. Now he turned, and his small, bird-like eyes settled on Operator 5. He came out of the room, still staring at Jimmy. He muttered: "There was only one other man in the world who knew the secret!"
Jimmy relaxed in the grip of his two captors, said bitingly: "That man was George Powers, Maltbie! But unlike you, Powers died in an effort to save his country. You"--his words bit like acid at the scientist--"have sold your soul to the devil! You have betrayed your country, Maltbie!"
The scientist shrank from the hot rage in Jimmy's eyes, turned and slunk back into the room. Horgavo said shortly: "Come!" and the two men dragged Jimmy along after him.
The major led the way to the end of the corridor, thrust open an iron-grilled door. Jimmy was pushed roughly in, and the two men and Horgavo came in after him. They were in a small, cell-like room, absolutely bare of furniture. The two men each seized one of Jimmy's wrists, stretched his arms out on either side of him, and snapped handcuffs on them. Then they clicked the free end of each pair of handcuffs to a ring set in the wall, so that Jimmy stood spread-eagled against the wall, facing the iron-barred door.
Horgavo watched, smiling with smug satisfaction. Then, when Jimmy seemed helpless, he stepped closer, and with his finger nails he raked the make-up from Jimmy's face. He said, "It is not fitting that you should meet your death with the features of one of our own men."
He kept on raking Jimmy's face until none of the make-up remained. His inquisitive fingers removed the small plates from Jimmy's nostrils, and he examined them carefully nodding in appreciation. "You are a very clever man, Operator 5," he said. "Too clever to live!"
His hands rapidly went through Jimmy's pockets, removing article after article. He examined them all with growing amazement as he realized their possible use. He handed each article to one of the other men as he finished with it.
While this was going on, Jimmy tentatively tried the handcuffs that stretched his arms taut on either side of him. And his blood chilled. Those cuffs were not the usual kind. Ordinarily he could so manipulate his wrists as to release himself from a set of handcuffs within a few minutes. But he knew at once that it would be impossible in this case. These cuffs closed tighter than any he had ever seen, and they had been clamped high on his wrist, just above the ulna. Even if he were able to come free of them, it would take hours of painful manipulation. And there was less than an hour to spare before Z-7's men were to be annihilated down there on the cliffside--with John Christopher and Diane among them, no doubt.
JIMMY'S plan of action had been essentially simple--relying on that very simplicity for success. He had expected to be left alone for long enough to effect his release, and then, with the knowledge of the exact location of the exploding death device, first to find Montezuma and kill him, and then to wreck that device.
Now, however, Jimmy Christopher realized that his plan would not work. These men had done their job only too well; he could not get free of those handcuffs. Like the good strategist that he was, he did not stick to a worthless plan until it was futile.
At once he began to work on a new one. He had not been blind to the ardent glances that Major Horgavo had cast in the direction of the Princess Dolores; neither had he been blind to the fact that Horgavo was deathly jealous of himself. This was a weakness of the enemy, and like a good general, he used it.
He said dryly: "I suppose you will be quite relieved to see me die, major?"
Horgavo laughed, showing his large, white teeth. "It will be a pleasure which I could never think of denying myself, Operator 5."
Jimmy made sure he spoke loud enough for the other two men in the cell to hear. "It is too bad, major," he drawled, "that you have to win in such a cowardly fashion!"
Horgavo's cheek flushed. Involuntarily he raised his open hand, brought it sharply across Christopher's face in a vicious slap that left a livid mark. "You call me a coward!"
Jimmy's cheek smarted from the blow, but he managed to grin under it. His hands were manacled to the wall, but his legs were free. With his right foot he lashed out vigorously, and the toe of his shoe caught Horgavo in the left shin.
With a howl of agony the major doubled over, dancing about on one foot, while the other two officers gazed in dismay. Jimmy said to the groaning major: "If the princess were to see you now, what would she think of you? There are tears in your eyes!"
Horgavo straightened, and white hate shone from his eyes. His gross mouth twisted into a merciless leer. "When I am through with you," he snarled, "the princess will find no pleasure in looking at you!"
He raised his automatic, brought it down in a raking blow that tore a long furrow in Jimmy's left cheek, bared it to the bone.
Operator 5 tensed, said deliberately:
"You are brave, major--while I'm handcuffed to the wall. Would you be so brave if we faced each other with weapons?"
Horgavo sneered. "Go on. Talk. You will be whining soon!"
He transferred the automatic from his right hand to his left, prepared to rake it across Jimmy's other cheek. But from the doorway an imperious feminine voice called out sharply: "Stop!"
The eyes of Horgavo and the other two men swiveled toward the doorway, and they stood stiffly at attention, saluting. For there stood the regally beautiful Dolores. Her face was cold, expressionless, but her bosom was heaving. She stepped into the cell, stared at Horgavo. "Why do you strike this man? Were you not ordered to prepare him for the torture? Am I to be cheated of the pleasure of witnessing this man's agony?"
Horgavo stammered: "He insulted me, your highness. I lost my temper."
She laughed coldly. "Fool! Can you not see that he is deliberately trying to goad you into killing him? He has no taste for the things that my father and I will order done to him!"
Jimmy said tautingly: "If you feel yourself insulted, major, why don't you demand satisfaction? I'll be glad to fight you with any weapons you name!"
Horgavo sputtered with rage, but dared not strike again....
THE princess eyed Jimmy speculatively for a while, her gaze resting on the bleeding furrow in his cheek. "You are a brave man, Operator 5," she said. "Also, you are a fool!" She motioned to Horgavo and the two others. "Leave us. I wish to talk to this man alone!"
Horgavo started to protest, but his words froze at the glance she gave him. Silently the three officers filed out of the cell. The princess waited, tapping her foot impatiently, until they were alone. Then she stepped close to Jimmy, her eyes flashing, her breasts heaving excitedly.
She drew herself up to her full height before him. "Look at me, Operator 5," she commanded. "Am I not beautiful?"
Jimmy gazed at her appreciatively. "You are very beautiful, princess!"
Suddenly her eyes flashed. "You are a fool to waste your loyalty on a lost cause. America is doomed!"
Jimmy Christopher said nothing. His lips were set tight, and his blue eyes met her dark ones in an uncompromising gaze.
She went on, the words rushing from her lips. "But you are so brave, so clever, so strong! You face death and torture so nonchalantly!" Her lips were close to his now as she whispered: "I could have you tortured--tortured until you scream from sheer agony which no man can endure. Our priests know refined tortures which can keep you gasping in pain for days and days, praying for death to relieve you. Operator 5, I could make you plead with me for death. But I offer you life!"
She paused, and Jimmy Christopher murmured: "Thank you, princess. What do you want me to do?"
"I want you to give up your senseless loyalty to a country that will be in slavery within twenty--four hours. Cast your lot with my father and with me. Montezuma will conquer the world--no power on earth can resist his exploding death. Montezuma the Third shall be Emperor of the World. You and I will be married in the temple of Huitzilopochtli, and Montezuma will make you the president of America. You will have more land to govern under my father than the president of the United States has; and you will have more power than any king. You will be a Prince of the Aztec Empire. And I will be your Princess!"
She stopped, breathing quickly, spasmodically, her eyes shining at the picture of power she had painted. She stepped back, drew herself up, displaying to the full the curves of her glorious figure. Her head, with its heavy knot of raven-black hair was held high on the white column of her throat, and she looked like some goddess of legend offering a chance at heaven to a mere mortal.
Jimmy Christopher gazed at her in frank admiration. His life had been a hard one, filled with action and the thunder of guns. He had found happiness and the zest of life in fighting for his country, and thoughts of women seldom interrupted the pattern of his existence except for the rare occasions when he saw Diane Elliot. Now this woman stood before him in all her beauty, in her sheer, ravishing loveliness.
He had to force himself to remember that it was this superbly beautiful woman who had caused a poor soldier to be tortured and then killed for failing to salute her. He had to force himself to remember that only a short while ago this deceptively handsome creature had ordered Diane Elliot to be placed upon the stone block of the altar in the sacrificial room, and had ordered that the heart be torn from Diane's living body as a sacrificial offering to a loathsome god.
And he said tightly, coldly: "Princess Dolores, you are a cruel, heartless beast. You have the body of a beautiful woman, but you have the mind and the soul of the Devil. I regret that I must refuse your kind offer."
For a moment the princess stared at him unbelievingly, as if she could not credit her ears. Then slowly her face became suffused with a deep, dull red. Her black eyes blazed with ungovernable rage, and her red lips twisted cruelly. She half crouched as if to leap at him, and her fingers bent, claw-like. A transformation took place, and Jimmy Christopher gazed at her in disgust. She was no longer beautiful.
For a moment, Jimmy Christopher thought that she would leap at him, with fingers clawed to rake the flesh from his face. But she mastered her rage, took a step toward the door. When she spoke, she was once more mistress of herself. She said, in a queer, low voice: "Then we shall see how a fool can die!"
She stood there for a long two minutes, staring at him, and a cunning look crept into her face. "Perhaps," she added enigmatically, "you shall have your satisfaction from Major Horgavo!"
Then she turned and walked from the cell, leaving Jimmy Christopher alone....
CHAPTER ELEVEN - The Duel
MINUTES passed, and no one entered the cell--minutes that seemed like hours to Jimmy Christopher, who knew that the time was so short to the moment when the exploding death would burst upon the soldiers congregating on the cliffs below.
He made futile attempts to release his wrists from those handcuffs, but to no avail. Doubt began to assail him there in the darkness of the cell--doubt as to whether or not his usually keen knowledge of human nature had failed him at this crucial moment. He had staked everything on the vanity that he had read in Horgavo's features. But if the major did not rise to the bait....
At last he heard footsteps outside, and the iron door creaked open. The two officers who had brought him here, entered. Their faces were grim, mask-like. They said nothing, but went about their work quickly.
One of them stepped close to Jimmy Christopher, grinned at him sneeringly, and unbuttoned Jimmy's coat and shirt. Then he stepped back, and the other produced a knife similar to those used by the priests.
Jimmy stared at him with narrowed eyes, thinking that they had come to murder him here in the cell. He tensed, prepared to defend himself with his feet.
But the officer had no intention of killing the prisoner. Instead, he seized Jimmy's coat and shirt in one hand, and slashed at them with the other. Two swift slashes on either side, and both coat and shirt came away in the officer's hand. Then the man with the knife seized Operator 5's undershirt, ripped it away viciously.
Jimmy's body was bared to the waist. The officer now stepped back, eyeing the smooth muscles of Jimmy's torso.
The second one now came closer, and ran his hands through the pockets of the prisoner's trousers, and transferred everything to his own pockets. A thick roll of bills that he found, he glanced at contemptuously, but kept.
Throughout the proceedings, not a single word was spoken.
Now, they released the handcuff which held Jimmy Christopher's left hand to the wall, and the officer with the knife clicked the cuff onto his own right wrist. Then the other officer did the same for Jimmy's right wrist, so that he stood between them, handcuffed to both men.
The officer with the knife had transferred it to his left hand, and he now held it's point to Jimmy Christopher's chest just below the heart, spoke for the first time:
"Come!" was all he said, in Spanish.
Out in the corridor was a file of soldiers, who fell in step behind them as they marched along the broad hall. Men turned to stare at the baretorsoed prisoner under escort, and Jimmy saw that their glances were pitying.
The procession passed the open door of the room where the electronic rarefying device was located, and the white-smocked Maltbie came to the door to watch them pass. His restless eyes followed them until they turned a bend in the corridor.
Jimmy ventured a question to the one with the knife. "Would it be out of place for me to ask where we are going, senor?" he inquired courteously.
The other grunted, kept the point of his blade at Jimmy's chest, but made no response. Jimmy shivered a little. It was chilly going through the hall, with nothing to cover him from the waist up. He ventured once more: "Of course I realize, senor, that since I am only the principal in this ceremony, I have no business being curious. But I am dying to know where we are going."
The officer laughed harshly, and his knife point pricked the skin of Jimmy's chest. He winked across at his companion. "You are not dying--yet, Operator 5. But you will wish you were dying before the ceremony is over!" He continued to laugh, tickled at his conception of a witticism. Then, grudgingly, he added: "The Princess Dolores has decided that before you are turned over to the priests, you must give the satisfaction to the major Horgavo for the insult to him. You will fight him. He honors you by stooping to duel with you!"
JIMMY CHRISTOPHER'S blood raced. He had been right. His taunts had produced the proper effect. He was going to be permitted to duel with Horgavo!
The officer, watching him narrowly, said. "You are a fool. The major is a deadly swordsman. He will trim you down a bit for the amusement of the emperor and the princess--but he will be careful to leave enough for the priests to play with." He eyed Jimmy's muscular body appraisingly. "You are strong. You should last four or five days!"
Jimmy said courteously: "I hope you enjoy the spectacle, senor. I shall do my best to amuse you."
There was a flicker of admiration in the other's eyes, as he said to his companion on the other side of Jimmy: "This one is indeed a brave man. It is a pity that the princess hates him so. He must have said something terrible to her."
They passed through another wide corridor, and stopped before a closed door. Jimmy's keen eyes swept the hall, and he recognized the spot. This was the door to the sacrificial chamber from which he had fled only a little while ago, with Diane and his father. Now he was returning to it---a prisoner.
There were two guards standing before the door, and they opened it at once as Jimmy and his captors approached.
Jimmy passed inside between the two officers, leaving the file of soldiers outside. The door closed behind them.
The sacrificial chamber had been rearranged for the ceremony, whatever it was to be. On the altar still squatted the loathsome figure of the fat god, Huitzilopochtli. The bodies of the two priests whom Jimmy Christopher had killed were no longer there. But two other priests now stood before their god, with arms folded across their chests, glaring with fanatical eyes at their prospective victim.
Beside the altar had been erected a raised dais, and upon it now sat Montezuma, the Emperor of the Aztecs. He was attired in the full regalia of an Aztec emperor. Over his head hung a canopy skillfully wrought out of green feathers, gold and silver embroidery set with pearls. He wore a crown of gold on the front of which was emblazoned the figure of a bird of prey, the features of which were no less hawk-like than those of Montezuma himself. He was fully covered down to his wrists by a richly wrought suit of chain mail that fitted him like a glove. Over his shoulders was thrown carelessly a rich ermine cloak, and there were strings of pearls about his throat. He sat proudly erect, not even deigning to glance down at the room full of richly uniformed officers who thronged about the dais.
Beside him, on the right, on a lower chair, Jimmy Christopher saw the white, frightened face of Helen Powers. She, too, had been richly dressed, and she fidgeted nervously with a bit of her gown. Her eyes met those of Operator 5, and there was terrified, hopeless appeal in them.
Jimmy Christopher tried to look his reassurance at Helen Powers, and then switched his glance to the left of Montezuma, where sat the Princess Dolores.
She had changed her costume to one of brilliantly glittering white. Jewels adorned her white throat and her hands, and a long pin set with huge diamonds was thrust into the big black knot of hair at the nape of her neck.
Her black eyes gashed hate at Jimmy Christopher as he was led across the room.
In the center of the room Jimmy saw a peculiar wire cage. It was larger than those used for keeping prisoners--there was enough room in it for a dozen men to move about with ease. He was puzzled for an explanation of its presence, but that explanation was soon forthcoming.
The two officers did not lead him to the dais where Montezuma sat with his daughter and with Helen Powers. Instead they led him to this cage, turned a key in the lock of the wire door, and unfastened the handcuffs from his wrists. Then they thrust him into the cage, fastened the door.
JIMMY CHRISTOPHER turned coolly, surveyed the audience. They were all staring at him as some old Roman crowd might have stared at the gladiators in the arena, about to fight to the death for the delectation of the audience.
Montezuma touched a bell at the side of his seat, and the door at the side of the altar opened to admit Major Horgavo!
The major had removed his scarlet Tunic, and he was in his shirtsleeves. He carried a naked sword in his right hand. He stepped with military precision up to the dais, bowed low, murmuring: "Lord, my lord, my great lord!"
Montezuma glanced at him, asked: "Are you ready, Horgavo?"
The major bowed low once more. "I am ready, mighty emperor!"
Montezuma smiled cruelly, turned to the cage in which Jimmy Christopher stood.
"Operator 5!" he said in ominous tones. "You have insulted an officer of the Aztec Empire. For that you must die. But before you die, you shall be taught humility. Major Horgavo has consented to fight a duel with you. Are you willing?"
Jimmy's glance met the gaze of the princess "I am willing," he said.
He was watching the princess. There seemed to be a queer quirk at her lips, as if she were enjoying a huge joke at his expense.
At a nod from Montezuma, Major Horgavo bowed, turned and strode toward the cage. He was smiling cruelly, swinging his long sword ahead of him. The two officers at the door opened it, and Horgavo stepped inside the cage, stood facing Jimmy Christopher.
Now Jimmy saw that the men in the audience were all smiling broadly. There was some huge joke going on, of the nature of which he was not aware. He soon learned....
Montezuma, himself smiling wolfishly, ordered: "Let the prisoner be armed for the duel!" A page, who Stood near the dais, now stepped forward, approached the cage. He was carrying a long wooden stick, perhaps an eighth of an inch in thickness, and about four feet long. He passed this in through the wires of the cage, offered it to Jimmy.
Operator 5 looked at the stick, and suddenly understood what they were all laughing at. This was not to be a duel. It was to be a cruel farce. He was to be compelled to face Horgavo, armed with a glittering steel sword; but he himself was to have no more than this stick.
He shrugged, took the stick. He hefted it in his hand, found that it weighed no more than about fifteen ounces. It would be no defense at all against the major's sword.
He smiled, bowed toward Montezuma's dais. But he addressed the princess. "Your highness is too generous!" he murmured.
Dolores was watching him with triumphant, malignant eyes. Montezuma raised and announced: "Major Horgavo will now give us a demonstration of accurate swordsmanship. It will be his task to slice off the prisoner's ears. He will do this, not with a single blow of his weapon, but only a bit at a time, until the prisoner's head has no further protuberances on either side. I have never liked the appearance of ears, and this will be an opportunity to see how a man looks without them."
His announcement was greeted with loud laughter from the uniformed officers, whose sadistic faces were lighted up with glee at the anticipation of the spectacle.
"The prisoner," Montezuma went on, "will, of course, be able to defend himself with his own weapon. Judging by his reputation he should put up a good fight."
Jimmy had been listening to Montezuma automatically. His eyes were on a small pile of articles that lay on the floor of the dais at Montezuma's feet. He recognized those articles. They were the things that Horgavo had taken from him in the cell. He distinguished his flat make-up case, his mechanical pencil, and three of the pencil bombs similar to the one he had used a while ago, except in color. The one he had used had been black. The others were green, red and yellow. There were also his file, and his compact tool kit, as well as many other items. Apparently Montezuma had been interested in the uses of the various things.
He was startled out of his study of the pile by the voice of the emperor. "Before the duel begins," the Aztec was saying, "it is only fitting that the noble fight which we are sure the prisoner will put up should be witnessed by some of his friends."
THE emperor struck a bell twice, and the door at the side of the altar opened again. And an icy finger of despair coursed down Jimmy Christopher's spine. For there in the doorway, stood the two people for whose safety he had allowed himself to be dragged into this predicament. John Christopher and Diane Elliot were still prisoners!
Their hands were bound behind them, and they were urged into the room by a huge mestizo. Jimmy exclaimed huskily: "Diane! Dad!" His eyes blazed as he swung his gaze to the Princess Dolores. His lips formed a single word, which she heard distinctly: "Cheat!"
She flushed, half rose in her chair, then shrugged and subsided. Horgavo, watching Jimmy in the cage, chuckled. Diane cried out: "Jimmy! We couldn't leave you there, fighting, so we came back to look for you, to help you. And they caught us!"
Operator 5 groaned inwardly. "You--didn't deliver the warning?"
Montezuma interrupted. He motioned to the mestizo, who pushed them forward until they were in front of the altar.
The emperor said to them: "You may watch your hero from there. No doubt you will be greatly entertained! After we are through with your hero, our priests will have some business with you both--on the altar!"
He clapped his hands twice. "Let the duel begin!"
Jimmy tore his eyes away from Diane and his father, swiveled to face Horgavo. The major was smiling, holding his sword over his heart, one hand on the hilt, the other fingering the sharp, pointed tip. He had his right leg slightly advanced, and his body leaned forward at the hips, in the position of the accomplished duelist.
He taunted Jimmy: "It is too bad that you have to be the subject of my exhibition, Operator 5. Which ear shall I begin on--the right or the left?" Christopher smiled at him bleakly. "Whichever you think you can reach first, major. For my part, I warn you that I shall aim for the heart!"
Horgavo laughed loudly at this, as did all the others in the room.
Diane wailed: "Jimmy! He'll kill you!"
And Operator 5 heard his father say: "Quiet, Diane! Jimmy knows what he's about!"
Then Horgavo took his fingers from the tip of the sword, let it whistle through the air in a vicious, glittering arc. Its edge came slashing down toward the side of Jimmy's head.
Jimmy swung his body an inch, brought up his stick, which he held like a sword. The two unequal weapons met in the air, and Horgavo's steel sliced through Jimmy's wood, shearing off a foot of it.
Horgavo stepped back quickly, executed a lightning-fast feint, then lunged. Jimmy Christopher fought calmly, his eyes locked with those of his adversary. He parried with all the skill in his possession, and the major frowned as his steel slithered off Jimmy's laughably short piece of wood without reaching its mark.
He couldn't understand how that maneuver had failed to bring the point of his sword to Jimmy's naked torso. It had been his intention to draw blood, then quickly to slash upward toward the ear. But he found his sword entangled by that short length of wood. Wherever he lunged, wherever he feinted, always his blade was met by the pitiable stick.
The throng in the room watched in silence, and the major grew more and more irritated. At last a vicious slash of his sword sheared off most of Jimmy's remaining stick. Jimmy stepped back quickly out of range, dropped the piece of wood remaining in his hand.
Horgavo smiled cruelly. "You put up a good fight. Operator 5. Now I will begin!"
He took a step forward, and Jimmy Christopher retreated before him. The major's eyes gleamed lustfully. From the dais, the princess cried out: "Go on, Horgavo. The exhibition! But remember--do not kill him yet!"
Jimmy had his back to the wire wall of the cages eyes were still fixed on the major's, and his hand flew to the buckle of his belt. Horgavo advanced, his big white teeth showing as he smiled in triumph, his sword point extended toward Jimmy.
And suddenly Operator 5's hand flashed away from his belt. He had released the buckle, and the belt seemed to spring away from his body, to straighten out in his right hand. A flick of that hand, and the leather sheath fell away from the long, flashing rapier of Toledo steel that had rested within the belt.
Horgavo stopped, astounded, as the glittering steel flashed before his eyes in a bewildering series of lightning-fast thrusts. He parried the lunges mechanically, giving ground before the sudden furious onslaught of Jimmy's weapon.
Gasps of amazement went up from the audience. Montezuma shouted: "Quick! Open the cage and disarm him...!"
JIMMY CHRISTOPHER had taken the measure of Horgavo while he fought with the length of wood. Horgavo was an accomplished swordsman, but Operator 5 knew all the tricks that Horgavo knew, and then a few more. He forced the major back toward the door of the cage, and the major gave ground steadily. Perspiration covered his forehead, dripped down over his face. He understood that he had met his master, and sudden fear showed in his eyes.
He dared not take his glance from that bewilderingly swift blade of whistling steel that seemed to be everywhere at once. But he shouted in a panicky voice: "Quick! Help me!"
The two officers who stood near the door bustled frantically with the lock, got it open. But when one of them put out a hand to open the door and enter the cage, Jimmy's blade flicked out at him through the wire, pierced his wrist, then swung back to threaten the major.
The officer with the wounded wrist cried out in agony and jumped away. The second officer sprang toward the door, and once more Jimmy's rapier flicked out, this time through the muscles of the officer's arm. The man uttered a shriek of pain, fell back from the unlocked door.
Now Jimmy Christopher faced Horgavo. The man was sweating copiously, and he was so weary from the fast fighting that he could hardly lift his heavy sword.
Operator 5 said coldly: "I warned you, major--straight for the heart!" And his blade flashed swiftly through the air. "On guard, major!" he shouted. "Through the heart--in tierce!" His right knee bent, his wrist came up to a level with his shoulder, and he lunged!
Horgavo saw the point coming, and raised his sword for the parry. But his movements were like those depicted in a slow-motion camera beside Operator 5's Lightning lunge. Jimmy Christopher's point pierced the major's body right through the heart, and the heavy man dropped like a log.
Jimmy whipped his sword out of Horgavo's body, sprang backward and kicked open the door of the cage.
The room was in pandemonium, with a dozen men running toward the cage. Jimmy leaped across the floor, with men shouting behind him.
"Turn around, Dad!" he shouted, and John Christopher caught his meaning, spun around, extending his bound hands behind him.
Jimmy's sword flashed down swiftly, and the keen edge severed the cords that tied John Christopher's hands. Then Operator 5 leaped up on the dais, with men in uniform howling behind him. A revolver barked, then another. Lead flew through the room, whined and ricochetted. Jimmy glanced back to see that his father had picked up a revolver from one of the fallen men, and was pumping lead at the uniformed officers.
Operator 5 did not spare a second glance. He swung at Montezuma, who had arisen from his seat, dragging Helen Powers up in front of him. The emperor's face was ashen-white under his crown, and he twisted Helen Powers' arm behind her back, held her before him as a shield while he drew his own sword.
Jimmy glimpsed Dolores rushing at him, screaming wildly above the thunder of the guns, her fingers curved to scratch like the claws of a wildcat. He sidestepped her, rushed at Montezuma.
Helen Powers' face was white with the pain of her twisted arm, as Montezuma backed away from the point of Jimmy's sword, dragging her with him.
Jimmy could not reach Montezuma without striking Helen Powers. The plucky little girl raised her foot, kicked back wildly. Her heel caught Montezuma in the shins, and he howled, relaxed his hold on her arm.
At once she dropped away, and Jimmy seized the opportunity. He stepped in quickly, his blade flicked out at the only spot in the emperor's body unprotected by chain mail--his face. Jimmy was grimly determined to kill. And kill he did. The point of his sword pierced through Montezuma's eye, and the emperor uttered a weird, ungodly shriek. Blood spurted gruesomely from the wound, and the emperor dropped to the floor of the dais, writhed there for a moment, shrieking. Then suddenly he stiffened, lay still. Jimmy's lunge had reached his brain.
Operator 5 swung from the dead body of the man who had planned to make America part of his empire, faced the brightly uniformed officers who had been storming the dais. John Christopher now had two guns in his hands, and both were blazing methodically. But he stopped as the officers suddenly fell back. They had seen their emperor killed. Some one among them began to shout: "Kill the gringos! They murdered Montezuma!"
JIMMY CHRISTOPHER recognized the voice of Dolores, but he could not see her in the crowd of men. He did not wait for them to surge forward, but leaped from the dais, his sword point whirling before him. He reached quickly the small pile of his belongings on the dais, snatched up the three different-colored bombs in his hand.
"This way, Dad! Run, Diane! Run, Helen!" he shouted, and sprang toward the small door. John Christopher, Diane, and Helen Powers rushed to him, with the uniformed men after them.
But Jimmy had already pulled the pin from the green pencil-bomb. Now he flung it among the officers, and they leaped back from it, turned to flee the certain death they knew it would spew.
Jimmy tore open the door behind them, pushed his father and the two girls through just as the green pencil exploded with a terrific detonation that shook the rafters of the room.
Jimmy pulled the door closed, led the others through the room, over the planking that bridged the gap in the floor that his earlier bomb had left.
Behind them, on the other side of the door they heard the groans of dying men.
As they hurried out into the wide corridor, he said: "The green one was twenty percent stronger than the one I used before. This red one is fifty percent stronger, and the yellow one has almost the force of a Mills bomb. I'm going to use the yellow one now!"
The corridors were filled with armed men, with officers uttering hasty commands. Men were rushing to all the windows and doors, bringing up sub-machine guns. But they were paying no attention to Operator 5 and his companions.
Diane gasped, as she ran beside him: "Something's up, Jimmy! These men don't even know what happened in the sacrificial room. Why are they hurrying?"
Operator 5 returned grimly: "Don't you hear it? There's musketry fire outside. Z-7's men are coming up!"
It was true enough. From outside came the rumble of rifle fire, the clatter of machine guns. The United States troops were attacking!
"Let's hurry," Jimmy urged, "before the exploding death goes into action!"
He left his father and Diane behind as he tore down the corridor to the room where he had seen Maltbie. The door was shut now, and he gripped the knob, twisted. It came open under his hand, and he saw the huge machinery of the exploding death in operation. The room was in darkness except for a glowing luminance tinged with all the colors of the spectrum, which came from the huge machine at the far wall. A dozen men were in the room now, stationed at various switches.
Maltbie himself was behind a huge metal desk, on which rested an instrument that resembled a compass. Operator 5. Knew that this was the means of directing the electronic ray at whatever point on the map was desired.
Maltbie glanced up as the door opened, and his face twisted into a mask of fear as he saw Jimmy Christopher pulling the pin from the yellow pencil bomb.
His hand reached across the desk to snatch up a huge automatic that lay in front of him, and he leveled it at Operator 5. Jimmy Christopher did not move by so much as an inch from his position in the doorway. He was listening to the tick of his watch, counting. Even as Maltbie's finger contracted on the trigger of the automatic, Jimmy hurled his bomb into the room. Jimmy was deliberately throwing away his own life in order to wreck the exploding death device, in order to save the lives of those advancing United States troops outside....
But Maltbie never fired. For from behind Jimmy Christopher there came the wicked bark of an automatic; a slug whined past his ear, buried itself in Maltbie's heart. And Jimmy Christopher stepped quickly back, slammed the door on the terrific detonation that shook the whole building.
He turned, saw his father, still holding the automatic with which he had shot Maltbie over his son's shoulder. The two men looked at each other, and they smiled in understanding. These two made a remarkable fighting team.
Jimmy said simply: "Thanks, dad. That wasn't a split-second too soon!"
The door of the room behind them was creaking, yawing wildly open, sagging on broken hinges. Within, a fire was raging. The machinery had come tumbling down, had crashed through the floor. The body of Maltbie would never be recovered from the flaming inferno of that room. It had perished with the secret of his hellish device.
Diane Elliot, who, with Helen Powers, had panted up beside them, suddenly exclaimed exultantly: "Jimmy! They've broken through! Here come our men!"
From around the bend in the corridor came the staccato bursts of machine gun fire within the building. Men's screams sounded, and above all the noise and thunder rose the thrilling notes of a bugle!
AZTEC soldiers came pouring back from the door, fleeing in panic. Jimmy and his father stood with guns in hand, with the girls behind them. But panic had seized the Aztec forces, with no one to command them. They fled pell-mell, passing right by the trio.
And in a moment, there appeared the bend of the corridor the familiar olive-drab of United States troops--with Z-7 in the lead beside a captain of infantry.
Z-7 raised a hand as he saw them, came running over with a glad shout. The troops poured by, rounding up the fleeing Aztecs. Z-7 clasped Jimmy's hand. "You've done it, boy. We climbed the cliffs unhindered! The exploding death--?"
Jimmy motioned toward the room behind them, where the fire was roaring, with flames licking out into the corridor. "There's the last of it, Z-7. It will never threaten the United States again!"
A small figure, fairly flying through the corridor, catapulted itself at Jimmy Christopher, threw arms about him.
Jimmy exclaimed gladly: "Tim! How are you, kid?"
Tim Donovan was speechless with joy. There were tears of gladness in his eyes. "Jimmy!" he finally managed to get out. "I--I never thought I'd see you alive again!"
They had moved down toward the door, away from the spreading heat of the fire. The infantry captain came up to them, saluted Z-7. "The Aztecs are completely routed, sir," he reported. "Every last one of them killed or captured. I'm ordering the men out--this whole building will go up. Nothing can save it."
Z-7 nodded. Jimmy asked the captain: "Did you see any trace of a women? Tall, dark, with black hair?"
The officer shook his head. "No sir. But as we were working up the cliff, we saw a helicopter take off from the roof of the house. Perhaps--"
Diane Elliot exclaimed: "She's escaped, Jimmy. I--I'm glad!"
Z-7 ordered a handsome young lieutenant to escort Helen Powers from the burning building---to take her back to her mother at the Beacon Hotel.
Outside, in the clearing, the olive drab soldiers herded their captives into a small circle, while the troops reformed.
Jimmy Christopher, Diane, John Christopher and Z-7 stood by themselves in a small group, watching the blaze. "There," Operator 5 said somberly, "is the funeral pile of the Aztec Empire."
The flames roared up into the night sky, throwing their sanguine blaze over the waters of the Hudson, clear across to the docks of New York on the other side. Suddenly the west wail crumbled, went toppling with the roar of thunder, down the cliffside. The heat from the flames became almost unbearable, and they were forced to move backs They watched while the rest of the old building caved in. As if by mutual agreement, no fire apparatus was sent for. It was as if they all wanted every last vestige of the ambitions of Montezuma to be consumed.
Finally Z-7 said: "Well, that's the end."
Jimmy Christopher shook his head. "I'm afraid not, Z-7."
The others looked at him questioningly. He explained. "While Dolores is still alive; the end is not here!"
Z-7 scoffed. '"What! One woman! Tomorrow, when the rightful government of Mexico is restored to power, she will not even have a country! What can one woman do against the United States of America?"
Jimmy Christopher pressed the hand of Diane Elliot in the darkness. "I know that woman," he said somberly. "She is all evil, but she has supreme beauty, which is enough to turn men's heads. And I have seen how she can hate. I tell you, Z-7, that woman is dangerous!"
His eyes sought those of Diane. "Yet," he added in an undertone, "I can't feel sorry that she has escaped!" He felt Diane shudder beneath his arm as they turned to make their way down the cliff toward the river; toward a world of sanity again, and safety.
And somewhere in the void of the heavens a beautiful woman flew south; a woman whose full red lips were pressed into a tight, bitter line, and whose eyes behind the goggles were a terrible mirror of hate. Suddenly she turned around in the seat, and shouted into the void behind her: "We shall meet again, Operator 5. We shall meet again...!"