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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 Three: Old Debts

The banshee cry of the alert siren made Jonathan Kahn's blood run cold. The heist had very nearly paid off; another few minutes and the Red Skulls would have been home free. Now the Deadwood ground crew scattered, scrambling for cover, and all along the battered airstrip Kahn saw militia gun crews working furiously to bring their cannons to bear.

For more information see:
Jonathan "Genghis" Kahn

The pirate fighters had started their engines and were already rolling, taxiing to start their takeoff run, but there was no way they'd survive the deadly gauntlet they'd be forced to run in order to make it into the air. At the far end of the field a rapid-fire gun cut loose, sending a crescent of red tracers fanning the air over the Red Skull's cockpits. Kahn's hand tightened on the stick as he waited—with steadily mounting dread—for the shells to hammer into his plane, the "Whitney's Neglect."

For more information see:
The Red Skull Legion

A shadow passed overhead, an airplane low enough to send a blast of wind raging through Kahn's open cockpit. The ground shook, and the concussion of a huge explosion hammered at Kahn's chest. Craning his head around the seat's headrest, he saw one of the airfield's hangars ripped apart by a huge fireball. Motley-colored planes roared over the field at treetop height; as he watched, one fighter volleyed a salvo of rockets at the control tower.

Harry Nesbitt and his boys were back for round two, banking everything on a last-ditch strike just before sunset.

You're smarter—or more desperate—than I thought, Harry, Kahn thought to himself. Nesbitt had evidently counted on catching the town's fighters on the ground...and the gamble had paid off. Cannon and machine-gun fire tore into two of the Deadwood planes, blasting away pieces of armor and airframe until their fuel tanks exploded, hurling blazing debris high into the air.

Cody Emerson's Brigand was next. The pirate fighter, grounded by a punctured oil pan, suffered a near miss from a pair of bombs that flipped the aircraft over like a child's toy.

For more information see:
Fairchild Brigand

Nesbitt's boys had gone after the sitting ducks first. Kahn watched them scatter like crows, coming around for another pass, and knew who they'd be after next.

"Grab some sky, Red Skulls!" Kahn called over the radio. "If they catch us on the ground, we're dead!"

Already the first planes were tearing down the grassy strip, fighting to get aloft. As one plane started rolling, the next turned into position and raced after it, with barely a yard between one's propeller and the lead plane's tail.

Kahn cast a worried glance at the Machiavelli. The airship was still anchored to the mooring tower, like a steer tied up for slaughter. He could see the ground crew staggering to their feet and running for the ship...but no one was carrying anything. Looking around quickly, he saw that Scales, Jones and O'Neil were aboard their planes.

Kahn keyed his throat mike, fighting a surge of panic. "Tell me you got the money aboard the Machiavelli, Pete."

For a few seconds there was nothing but silence. "Hetty said you wanted us in the air, boss," the thief answered hesitantly, "so I told the grease-monkeys to take care of it."

Kahn bit back a curse. With an angry scowl, he cut off O'Neil's frequency and switched over to the zeppelin's channel.

"Machiavelli: this is Kahn. Cast off immediately...but get a crew over to the car and unload the money."

Everything was happening too fast. He needed to move quickly, or the game was well and truly up.

He switched to the all-hands channel, and barked orders to the Legion pilots in the air, struggling to control the radio and manage his take-off.

"Everybody cover the airship!" he snarled into the radio as the Devastator's wheels left the ground. With barely enough airspeed to stay aloft, Kahn brought his fighter around in a tight left turn, pushing the heavy plane to its limits to lay his gun-sights on Nesbitt's raiders.

For more information see:
Hughes Devastator

The sky above Deadwood airfield was a churning cauldron of fire and smoke. Fighters spun and dove in twisting dogfights, slipping through curtains of tracer fire from the gun emplacements below. Across the field, a plane exploded in midair and tumbled to earth in a tangle of blazing metal—whether one of his or Nesbitt's, he couldn't be sure.

Suddenly a drumbeat of light-caliber hits battered at his right wing and a red-painted Bell Valiant roared past, its left wingtip a scant two feet from his canopy. The raider had overestimated the Devastator's airspeed and overshot his mark.

For more information see:
Bell Valiant

Kahn brought his nose up and cut loose with everything he had. The Whitney's Neglect trembled as the plane's four .60 caliber cannons erupted in a long, roaring volley, riddling the Valiant from rudder to cockpit. Savaged by the armor-piercing shells, the light fighter flipped over and plummeted to the ground.

Kahn allowed himself a moment of satisfaction, smiling as the enemy plane exploded as it smashed into the hard earth. He opened up the throttle and pulled into a high right turn, using a careful mix of rudder and aileron to keep the Devastator—yawing slightly from the damage to the wing—under control, and surveyed the aerial battlefield.

The freewheeling dogfight was spreading out in all directions as pilots fought to gain advantage over their opponents while avoiding the murderous AA fire around the airfield. Movement to the west caught his eye—two heavy fighters, a Kestrel and a three-engine P2 Warhawk in close formation, heading straight for the Machiavelli. Both planes were in a shallow dive, picking up speed by the moment, but they kept their course straight and wings level, plunging like arrows towards the airship. Kahn didn't need to see the long, narrow shapes under their wings to know that they were setting up an aerial torpedo run.

For more information see:
McDonnel S2B Kestrel; Curtiss-Wright P2 Warhawk

The pirate leader cursed under his breath. He couldn't tell from overhead whether the airship had slipped her moorings or not, but she still sat motionless, a stationary target bigger than a barn. Even Nesbitt's amatuers couldn't miss. Kahn calculated the angles and figured he had less than ten seconds before it was too late.

For more information see:
Aerial Torpedo

Kahn dipped his right wing and dove, picking up speed as he raced head-on towards the two raiders. The two pilots both saw him at the same time, and staccato flashes licked out from their gun mounts, throwing a wild flurry of tracers across his path. Shells slammed into his nose and port wing, but he pressed on and placed his gunsight at a point well ahead of the enemy Warhawk. He squeezed the trigger, firing a series of short bursts. Hits burst in firecracker-like flashes across the Warhawk's nose and starboard wing, and suddenly the huge Wright R-1350 engine at the end of the wing erupted in flame. With one engine gone, the Fury's unbalanced thrust dragged the plane into a left turn, forcing it to break off its attack.

That just left the Kestrel. The enemy bomber roared past Kahn on his port side, and shells thudded into his fuselage. The Kestrel had a light machine gun mounted on a ring behind the pilot's position, and the tail gunner hammered at the Devastator with deadly accuracy. Kahn pulled his plane into a tight loop and rolled out onto the bomber's tail, unleashing a storm of gunfire that slashed into the heavy plane's wing and tail—

—to no avail. The raider pressed on, its armored hide weathering the Devastator's fire. Another machine-gun burst raked across the heavy fighter's nose; one round hit a metal strut on the fighter's canopy, sending splinters of plexiglass into Kahn's face. He shook his head savagely, wiping a smear of blood on his sleeve, and fired another burst. The Machiavelli was looming ever larger in his field of vision—the raider could fire at any moment.

Kahn checked to see if he had any rockets left. There were only two, a high-explosive rocket, and a flare. He selected the HE and fired. The rocket roared off its rail and streaked towards its target, only to slide beneath the Kestrel's wing and explode harmlessly in front of the plane. The bomber drove on through the blast, but the flash of the explosion gave him an idea. He armed the flare rocket, aimed just ahead of the enemy plane, and let it fly.

For more information see:
HE Rockets; Flare Rockets

The Kestrel's pilot, intent on his target, never saw the flare until it burst right in front of him. Surprised and blinded by the actinic flash, he yanked the bomber into a steep climb—but not before releasing his load of torpedoes. A pair of the devastating weapons dropped from the Kestrel's wings and plunged towards the motionless airship. Kahn watched helplessly as the torpedoes fell in a long, almost leisurely arc—and hit the earth only scant yards from the airship. A curtain of fire and earth erupted from the half-dozen blasts, flinging wreckage high into the air—including pieces of Captain Dane's Packard.

When the fountain of dirt and debris settled, there was only a smoking crater to mark where the car—and the money—had been.

A cold wind raged through the open windows of the Machiavelli's observation gallery. Heavy winter clouds formed a sea of steel gray beneath the airship, lit by the glow of a silvery moon.

Jonathan Kahn rested his hands on the icy metal of the window frame and leaned out into nothingness. The stubby cigar in his teeth flared in the fierce wind and went out; he plucked it from his lips and considered it for a long moment, then tossed it to the waiting arms of the earth, five thousand feet below.

The door to the darkened gallery swung open and Henrietta Corbett slipped inside. She narrowed her brown eyes at the freezing wind and shivered despite the fleece-lined leather flying jacket she wore. "I should have known I'd find you down here," she said sourly, pulling her jacket's fleece collar up to cover her ears. "Things are bad enough without you trying to give yourself pneumonia."

Kahn folded his arms and leaned against the window frame looking out at the clouds below. "I thought a little subzero cold would get me a little privacy," he growled. "Life seems full of disappointments these days."

Hetty fished a cigarette out of her jacket pocket and a battered Austrian mountaineers' lighter. The tiny flare of light threw her angular, raw-boned features into sharp relief. She blew out a long plume of smoke and studied him with eyes that belied her eighteen years of age. "Deadeye Dugan says we're headed back to the ISA."

For more information see:
The Industrial States of America

Kahn shrugged. "What about it?"

"The minute you set foot in the country Don DeCarlo is going to know about it. What are you going to do when his goons show up looking for the money?"

The pirate leader glowered at her. "Maybe if you gave me a little peace I could figure out some kind of plan."

"A plan?" Hetty said incredulously. "To do what, exactly? We lost three guys over Deadwood, and with Emerson's bird gone that leaves us just eight planes, and they ain't got gas enough to taxi, much less fly anywhere. Plus the zep's shot to hell. There's so many holes in the hull the ship plays the Star Spangled Banner when the wind's just right. A Manhattan cabbie in a busted autgyro could knock us right out of the sky."

Kahn straightened to his full height and glared down at his young wingman. "There's always options, kid," he said coldly.

Hetty stood her ground. She took a long drag on her cigarette and gave him a rueful smile. "Yeah. That's what I'm afraid of." The smile faded. "Are you thinking about cutting your losses, boss?"

"What are you talking about?" Kahn said warily.

"I'm talking about you hopping into a car the minute we get to Chicago and heading for greener pastures, leaving us holding the bag. That's what you did after the Crash, when you wound up owing all those investors. You did it when the Drake scam hit the skids." She folded her arms and looked him in the eye. "The question is, are you going to do it now?"

Kahn met her stare for a long moment, saying nothing, then turned back to the open window. "How's our prisoner doing?" he asked.

Hetty frowned. "What the hell does that have to do with anything?"

"She's a People's Collective air ace, the commander of the Deadwood Air Militia," he said coolly. "When we get to Chicago we'll ransom her back for a hundred g's."

For more information see:
The People's Collective

"That's nuts. There's no way those Commie farmers will pay that much for one pilot."

"Let me worry about that," Kahn said, staring out at the night. "How long 'til we get to the farm?"

For a second Hetty just stared at him, then finally let out a tired sigh. "Eight hours. Maybe less, if the wind shifts."

"Okay. I'm going to get some shut-eye then. Wake me when we're there." He brushed past her and headed for the door. At the doorway he glanced back. "One other thing, Hetty."

Hetty half-turned. Moonlight framed her long face, haloed with silvery strands of cigarette smoke. "Yeah, boss?"

"When we land, have Pete get the car ready."

The Red Skull Legion's base wasn't much to look at—which was precisely the point. A failed dairy farm that dried up just after the crash, there was nothing left but a boarded-up farmhouse, a dilapidated barn, and a partially collapsed granary, set on twenty-five acres in the middle of an isolated valley.

But the fields were level enough to land aircraft on, and the granary was stronger than it looked, modified to act as a mooring tower and holding fuel tanks and a pump at its base. When the pirates took to the skies they didn't waste time and energy keeping the site under guard; they just threw tarps over the machine tools in the barn, padlocked the doors, and left. A chance passerby would see just one more failed farm—another casualty of the ISA's move to massive, corporate-controlled industrial agriculture—rotting away in the Illinois countryside.

The Machiavelli arrived at just after three in the morning, running silently down the sleeping valley on minimum power. The ground crew slid to the earth on ropes and within minutes the ship was tied up at the granary tower. By the time the zeppelin was lowered to the ground, Kahn was ready to go.

"I still don't see the point in taking her with you," Hetty said, glaring at Angela Dane. The Collective pilot was awake, but her eyes were glassy as she still struggled to fight off the effects of the laudanum.

"I want her someplace where I can keep an eye on her, instead of letting her get into mischief in the cargo hold," Kahn said. He took Dane by the arm and led her down the gangway. "Is Pete getting the car?"

"He's supposed to be," Hetty answered darkly. Kahn was headed across the pasture in the direction of the old farmhouse. She followed doggedly in his footsteps. "Where do you plan on going at this hour of the morning?"

"Chicago. Where else? The longer I wait, the more chance DeCarlo has to find out I'm back." Kahn reached the house and pushed the front door open. Beyond the doorway it was dark as a tomb. "If you're going to trail after me like a puppy why don't you make yourself useful and light a lamp or something?"

Hetty pushed past Kahn and stomped inside, biting back her anger. There was a kerosene lamp sitting on a table inside the front room, beside a book of matches. She lifted the glass bowl and deftly lit the wick. The room filled with pale orange light as Kahn and Dane stepped inside. She picked up the lamp and turned to face him, her expression defiant. "I think you've got some explaining to do—"

She froze, her eyes widening as she saw the man standing behind Kahn and Dane, hidden behind the farmhouse door.

"I couldn't agree more," the man said in a silky Southern drawl, pushing the door closed and pressing a large Colt revolver to the back of Kahn's head.

 


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