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Chapter One:
Raiders from the Sky

Chapter Two:
In Enemy Hands

Chapter Three:
Old Debts

Chapter Four:
Under the Gun

Chapter Five:
Caught in the Act

Chapter Six:
Old Friends

Chapter Seven:
Making the Cut

Chapter Eight:
The Cut

Chapter Nine:
The Shell Game

Chapter Ten:
Serpents In Paradise

Chapter Eleven:
Into the Storm

Chapter Twelve:
Owning Up

Chapter Thirteen:
Interesting Times


"Genghis" Kahn & The

Manchurian Gambit

—A Tale of the Red Skull Legion—

By Mike Lee


Chapter Eleven: Into the Storm

"If you ask me, I say we throw the lot of 'em into the sea," Hetty growled, glaring at Chiang Liu-Mei and her British entourage.

The view ports of the Machiavelli's observation deck were open, letting in the briny smell of the ocean as the zeppelin hugged the rocky coastline of an island barely ten miles across. If the island had a name, it wasn't on the detailed map Dugan had acquired in Hilo; once the airship was safely away from the Kingdom of Hawai'i, Chiang tapped a well-manicured nail over a brown dot in the Marshall Islands and left it at that.

For more information see:
The Kingdom of Hawai'i

Since then the daughter of Chiang Kai-Shek had been withdrawn and increasingly anxious, no doubt fearful of what Kahn and his crew would find once they reached their destination. The future of her country rested in large part on the gold that—hopefully—awaited them there. She paced the airship's observation deck, her shoulders uncharacteristically hunched, as if the suspense was a physical weight that threatened to crush her.

If Chiang had grown silent in the face of her concerns, the six men sent along by the British ambassador to take charge of the gold were all too eager to share their ideas about the expedition. Ostensibly they were associates of William Downing, a bookish-looking member of Britain's Foreign Office, but Kahn thought the men were the youngest, fittest bureaucrats he'd ever met. He figured they were either handpicked soldiers or spies, members of their country's vaunted Secret Service. Despite the fact that they knew next to nothing about airship operations, their leader—a dashing fellow named Rupert Gordon, offered an endless stream of "suggestions" about every conceivable aspect of the "operation."

Jonathan "Genghis" Kahn—master of the zeppelin and leader of the Red Skull Legion pirate gang—eyed the British team, clustered aft along the starboard ports, each clutching a set of powerful binoculars. "Don't tempt me, kid," he growled. "We've got enough problems as it is."

For more information see:
Jonathan "Genghis" Kahn; The Red Skull Legion

We, indeed, Kahn thought ruefully. The fact of the matter was, it was his obligation to an old associate that had gotten them into trouble in the first place. Artemus Hayes had saved his life many years ago, when a high-stakes poker game went sour in New York City. Kahn had misjudged their mark, a Republic of Texas oil tycoon, and never dreamed the man would catch them dealing from the bottom of the deck. The memory of terror and helplessness when the tycoon threw the cards in the air and stuck a gun in his face still haunted him. Hayes, of course, never let him live it down.

For more information see:
The Republic of Texas

He'd lived for the day when he could even the scales and pull Hayes' fat out of the fire. Kahn thought the time had arrived when Hayes appeared out of the blue, asking for his help to rescue a Chinese girl held by the Japanese. What Hayes hadn't mentioned was that the girl was the daughter of China's president, Chiang Kai-Shek, and that she had been in Manhattan to broker an arms deal between her country and Britain. Every step he'd taken since the raid on the Japanese Embassy seemed to mire him deeper in a web of international intrigue that pushed him around like a pawn on a grand chessboard. Now he sensed they were approaching the endgame.

Kahn eyed the dense jungle growth surrounding the island's twin peaks. The Chinese zeppelin carrying the arms payment had never reached the Empire State; either it had fallen prey to pirates, Japanese patrols or the increasingly hostile weather. If the airship had been too damaged to complete the journey, there had been several waypoints planned where the zeppelin could lay up and call for help. The island was one such waypoint, and the likeliest place the Chinese airship would be hiding.

For more information see:
The Empire State

"Why didn't Hayes tell you who she was, or why she was in Manhattan in the first place?" Hetty asked, as if reading his thoughts. Perhaps she was—they'd been wingmen as long as Kahn had been terrorizing the skies over North America.

The pirate leader shrugged. "He probably didn't know. Mercenaries aren't usually kept well-informed by their employers. Or maybe he was afraid I'd balk, knowing who Chiang Liu-Mei really was, and planned on letting me in on the full picture only after I'd rescued her. Instead he caught a bullet, and here we are."

"What I want to know," said a small, hard-eyed woman to Kahn's left, "is why no one has heard any word from this gold-laden airship." Captain Angela Dane of the People's Collective Air Force—"The Dusters" as they were colloquially known—rested her hands on the edge of an open view port and leaned out into the warm tropical breeze.

For more information see:
The People's Collective; The People's Collective Air Force

She had come on board the Machiavelli as the Red Skulls' prisoner after an abortive raid on her hometown of Deadwood, and had only reluctantly cooperated with the crew on their desperate flight across the country. But a change had come over her since her encounter with the British ambassador at Hilo, where she'd seen firsthand how even great nations put their ethics aside where hard currency was concerned. She'd been silent for a long time afterwards, then suddenly began to act as though she were just another member of the crew.

"It's been, what, almost three weeks since the zep disappeared?" she continued. "You'd think they'd have gotten a message to someone by now."

"That's concerns me, too," Kahn said. "Even if their radio was damaged, they've had plenty of time to make repairs."

"So something else happened once they got here," Hetty said thoughtfully. "You don't think the Japanese caught up to them, do you?"

Kahn shook his head. "I doubt they would have followed us across the continent if they already had the gold." From the moment the Machiavelli left Manhattan they had been hounded by a Japanese airship, commanded by a ruthless Imperial naval officer named Murasaki. They managed to track the Red Skulls as far as Sky Haven, the pirate city in the Free Colorado Rockies, but Kahn was certain they'd slipped out of Hawai'i without any sign of pursuit. There was no way the Japanese could find them now, since they hadn't even known where they were headed until the last possible moment. "There are, however, other possibilities."

For more information see:
Free Colorado

"Such as?" came a cultured, British voice. Rupert Gordon spoke the question with a friendly smile, but something about his manner turned it into something of a demand. Kahn wasn't certain if it was Rupert's imperious tone that irritated him so...or the fact that the Englishman had managed to cross the length of the observation deck without the pirate leader noticing him.

"Pirates, Mr. Gordon," Kahn replied curtly. "According to the newsreels, these islands are a favorite hiding place for pirate bands. It's possible that the Chinese might have stumbled onto one."

Gordon sniffed dismissively. "Attacking relatively unarmed merchant zeppelins is one thing, Mister Kahn, but a military airship is another matter entirely. I doubt the Chinese would have much to fear from some South Seas rabble. In fact," he continued, "I and my men are coming to the conclusion that the zeppelin was likely lost at sea." He nodded towards the island. "I rather think a thousand-foot-long airship would be hard to miss, don't you think? Yet there's no sign of her."

Hetty looked pointedly at Kahn, then at Gordon, then cast a sidelong glance at the open view port. Before he could reply, however, Dane interjected. "There!" she said, pointing with an outstretched hand.

Kahn wasn't sure what she saw at first, but then he noticed the black stain, a subtle dark shading against the green jungle canopy. Gordon shouldered past Hetty and stared out at the island. "What is it?"

"The Chinese zeppelin," Kahn answered. "Or what's left of it." He pointed to the black outline against the slope of one of the island peaks. "She crashed against the hillside there, and someone set fire to her later, hoping the jungle would conceal the evidence. Looks like the local South Sea rabble isn't so harmless after all."

They found the crew in a mass grave, not far from the zeppelin's charred and twisted skeleton. Kahn had landed the Machiavelli at the closest beach and led a landing party up to the site. He'd entertained little hope of finding the gold amid the wreckage, and he was right. What he hadn't expected to find was a freshly cut trail, leading to a lagoon on the other side of the island.

The pirates had hacked out a crude airstrip at the edge of the lagoon, and sometime in the past had built bamboo huts to house machine shops and living quarters. "Not all that different from our setup in the I.S.A," Kahn observed, crouching with the landing party in the dense undergrowth alongside the landing strip. There were a mix of fighters parked haphazardly on the packed ground, some with their engine cowlings open but covered with tarps after the pirates had found something better to do. Judging by the sounds emanating from one of the larger huts they were in the middle of a raucous party.

For more information see:
The Industrial States of America

The landing party formed a rough crescent around Kahn, clutching shotguns and pistols and watching closely for any sign of movement amid the huts. Kahn had brought Dane, Corbett, O'Neil, Scales, and Jones, plus Gordon and his men. He counted ten planes on the strip. If the pirates had any ground crew, there could be anywhere between fifteen and twenty men between them and the gold, possibly more. He cradled a Tommy gun in his arms and rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

"Looks like they haven't been here too long," Dane mused. "The jungle's had enough time to start reclaiming the strip, so no one's been using it in the last few weeks, at least."

"They've probably got little bases like this scattered all through these islands, and just shift from one to the other," Kahn suggested. "I bet the Chinese pulled in, and were in the middle of making repairs when the pirates showed up. They jumped the zep more out of self-preservation than greed, probably. Once it crashed, they settled in here at the base, and eventually put together a salvage party."

"And hit the mother lode," O'Neil whispered, shaking his head in wonder. "Why can't stuff like that happen to us once in a while?

Gordon frowned. "I don't understand why they're still here, then."

"Their boss has probably been trying to figure out how he's going to turn all that gold into something he can actually use," Kahn replied. "He needs a fence to turn the gold into cold cash. Judging by the celebration, it sounds like he's finally got that part of the problem licked."

"Is the gold still here, do you think?" Gordon asked.

"Absolutely," the pirate leader replied. He pointed to a well-made hut, separate from the rest. Two men stood outside, holding shotguns. "Those boys wouldn't be missing out on the fun without a damn good reason."

"Right. Right," Gordon said, putting it all together. "The only problem is that they most likely outnumber us."

Kahn surveyed the landing strip carefully. His eyes settled on a concealed ring of sandbags, partially covered by the tarp. He nodded to himself. "Sit tight," he told the Englishman, and crawled over to O'Neil and Jones. Kahn whispered instructions to the two men, and they set off silently through the undergrowth. He returned moments later. "Okay. Get ready," he said, checking his weapon.

The pirates quickly followed suit, readying for action. Dane shared apprehensive looks with Gordon. She looked at Kahn. "What do you want us to do?"

"Just follow my lead," he answered. "When I give the signal, we're going for the gold. Shoot whoever gets in your way."

Dane snorted. "With what? My finger?"

Kahn stared at her for a moment. "Under other circumstances, I'd say rely on your razor tongue," he said, "but—" He reached into his jacket and pulled out a pistol, a battered but serviceable Colt. "Here," he said, handing her the gun.

She took the weapon—and immediately checked to make sure it was actually loaded. It was. Dane looked at Kahn strangely. "I take it you've got some master plan to sneak in there and get the gold, with no one the wiser?"

Kahn smiled. "Not at all, Comrade. I learned my lesson at Deadwood." He turned to Hetty. "What was it I said to you?"

She grinned. "Stealth is for the birds."

As if on cue, O'Neil and Scales broke from cover. They sprinted across the strip and dove into the sandbag emplacement. Moments later Scales threw aside the tarp, revealing a .60-caliber machine gun mounted on a tripod. He swung the heavy gun around and cut loose with a long, roaring burst, sending armor-piercing rounds scything through the hut where the pirates were holding their celebrations.

"Now!" Kahn cried, leaping to his feet. The rest of the landing party fell in behind him, howling like banshees as they rushed the camp. The guards standing watch over the gold froze momentarily, but recovered quickly and brought up their weapons. Kahn fired a wild burst from the Tommy gun. Both guards collapsed.

Kahn and his people stumbled to a halt in front of the hut. Scales' machine gun fired another burst, then went silent. There were no cries, no answering shots. The building where the pirates were celebrating had been torn to pieces by the heavy .60-caliber rounds. The ambush had been sudden, deadly and ruthlessly effective.

There was a padlock on the hut's door. A quick burst from the Tommy gun took care of the problem. Kahn kicked the door open, still wary, but the one-room structure was empty. Save for six chests, the size of footlockers, one of which had been thrown open by a machinegun round, to reveal a gleaming mass of golden coins.

Kahn looked around at the awed faces of his crew and couldn't resist a triumphant grin. "We've got to do this more often."

The gold slowed the return trip considerably. Even with a freshly-cut trail it took them nearly four hours to cover the five miles back to the Machiavelli's landing site. Kahn noticed along the way that the wind was picking up, and clouds were scudding fast across the sky. By the time they reached the edge of the beach there was an angry, black overcast looming overhead. The typhoon, it appeared, was headed in their direction.

"Step on it!" Kahn yelled to the landing party. "Let's get this stuff on board!" There was supposed to be a ground crew waiting for them, but the beach was deserted. Evidently they had gone back inside the zeppelin to avoid the coming storm. "We're not out of the woods yet!"

The team surged across the sands, and shots rang out from the treeline only fifteen yards away. Bullets kicked up sand all around them, and a loud voice ordered them to halt. "Put down your weapons!" came a shout, in accented English.

The pirates froze as a wave of brown-uniformed Japanese soldiers emerged from their hiding places, rifles leveled. Behind them came the proud figure of Saburo Murasaki, naked sword in hand.

But that wasn't the sight that made Kahn's blood run cold. It was the man who walked beside Murasaki, idly clutching a pistol of his own and grinning like the devil.

Artemus Hayes shook his head sadly. "Told you you're getting slow, partner," he said over the rising wind.. "Now it looks like the end of the line."

 


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