There was a cough and a rattle from across the beach, and the first autogyro's engine sputtered to life. Murasaki noted this, and smiled grimly. He turned to Hayes. "There is no time left. The weather is worsening. Finish things here and then get underway." The officer then faced Kahn and gave a deep, mocking bow. "I told you we would meet again, Mister Kahn," he said. "But now we part forever. You were an excellent tool, and it is a pity my country will not be able to make use of you again." He gave the pirate leader a brief, mocking smile, then turned and ran for the waiting autogryo. The troops handling the gold redoubled their efforts to haul the cargo over to the second machine.
Kahn shook his head. "You know he's never going to give you a cut of that gold," he said to Hayes. "You're just another pawn to him."
"Gold? Who said I was getting any of the gold?" Hayes smiled. He jerked a thumb at the Machiavelli. "That's my prize right there, and I've got enough troops on board to make sure the crew behave themselves. If they get me to Hong Kong without any trouble, I might even let them go."
"I'm not stupid, Hayes." Kahn snarled. "Your boss isn't going to be happy with any witnesses to what happened here. You're going to kill themjust like you're about to kill us."
Hayes paused. There was a bright flash of lightning, and then, distantly, a hammerblow of thunder. "You catch on quick, old son," he said, almost sadly. "It's not personal, you understand. None of this was. Not that it matters much, I suppose."
Murasaki's autogyro roared down the beach and hopped into the air, wavering momentarily in the crosswind. Dane suddenly stepped forward, hands thrust into the pockets of her flying jacket. "Hey! Hold on! I'm not with these guys, and you know it! Can't we come to some kind of arrangement?"
Hayes looked her over. "You know, normally I wouldn't be able to resist that kind of invitation," he said with a sly wink. "But Murasaki was very specific. Sorry doll...but this just ain't your lucky day."
Dane's face fell. "Yeah," she said with a sigh. "That's what I was afraid of." She started to turn awaythen pulled Kahn's pistol from her pocket and fired wildly into the cluster of Japanese guards. Men screamed and fell. Hayes threw himself to the ground, firing a couple of wild shots of his own.
"Run!" Kahn bellowed.
Everyone scrambled, kicking up plumes of sand. "Kahn!" O'Neil yelled, and threw a small, dark object at his boss. Kahn plucked it out of the air. It was a grenade, lifted from the pocket of the guard who'd grabbed the wiry little thief when he made his phony stumble.
Kahn pulled the pinand at the last second remembered to strike its base against the heel of his boot. The fuse sputtered, and he threw it. The grenade sailed over the heads of the troops and rolled under the remaining autogyro, almost twenty yards away. The troops carrying the gold scattered, and the little bomb went off with a flash and a sharp bang, blowing out the autogyro's tires and windows.
The pirate leader turned and sprinted after his men. Rifle shots rang out behind him, and a bullet hissed past his head. He plunged into the gloomy depths of the jungle and put as many trees as he could between himself and the surviving troops.
People seemed to materialize out of the shadows around him as he ran. "What do we do now?" Hetty asked, gasping for breath.
"For now, just keep running!" Kahn said, hardly slowing down. "If we get deep enough in here, they won't bother to follow us. They're running out of time to get underway before the storm hits...and they know it. They won't waste time chasing us."
O'Neil's voice came from the shadows to Kahn's left. "If you hadn't completely blown that grenade toss, we wouldn't have to run at all. I swear, you hardly dinged the paint on that bird!"
"I put it right where I wanted it, smart aleck," the pirate leader replied. "That autogyro can't taxi without wheels, so the gold isn't going back to Murasaki's airship. They're going to have to load it onto the Machiavelli...and fast."
"A fair lot of good that does us, old chap," came Gordon's cultured voice. The man didn't sound the least out of breath. "Either way, it's still going to wind up in Japan."
"Not if I've got anything to say about it," Kahn snarled.
"And how do you propose to catch them? Fly?"
"As a matter of fact, yes," the pirate replied.
They got back to the pirate base in record time. Kahn suspected that the storm brewing overhead helped encourage them to pick up the pace. Each flash of lightning felt like another tick of a bomb timer...and everyone knew that time was running out.
All ten of the pirates' planes were airworthy, and two of them were two-seaters, so no one had to be left behind. The British agents, it turned out, were competentif not especially combat-worthy-pilots.
Once airborne, the ad hoc squadron conferred as to what direction the two zeppelins must have taken. The consensus was south by southwest, figuring that they would try to skirt the edge of the typhoon and head for Hong Kong. They opened the throttle and sped through the steadily darkening sky, knowing full well that they were gambling their lives on being right.
"Even if we catch them, then what?" Corbett asked him, once they were on their way. "We don't have any rockets, and even if we could knock down the Japanese zep, what about the Machiavelli?"
"We're going to have to take her back, of course." Kahn said.
"How? You don't think they'll just open the hangar and let us in, do you?"
"Don't worry, kid. I've got a plan..."
To Be Concluded...