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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 Nine: The Shell Game

Harry Nesbitt's Peacemaker 370 circled Sky Haven in lazy circles, like a buzzard waiting for the inevitable. Jonathan "Genghis" Kahn eased back on the throttle of his damaged fighter, hoping to take some of the strain of its engine. There was little point in prosecuting a dogfight; the race had been run, winner take all. As far as Nesbitt was concerned, shooting up Kahn's plane would only be damaging his newly acquired property.

For more information see:
Peacemaker 370; Jonathan "Genghis" Kahn

Hetty Corbett, Kahn's wingman, circled back to cover him as he lined up for his landing. Other planes had begun to emerge from the treacherous course known as the Cut; of the seven planes the Red Skull Legion had started the course with, only five emerged, most of them heavily damaged.

For more information see:
The Red Skull Legion

Nesbitt had started with far more planes under his command; he had offered any pilot in the Free Colorado pirate enclave, Sky Haven, a share of the spoils once Kahn had been beaten...and hadn't had much trouble finding takers. He had sent up eighteen planes, and one of them—a Bell Valiant—had reached the finish line first.

For more information see:
Free Colorado; Bell Valiant

Kahn lowered the gear on his Devastator and cut his engine. The heavy fighter glided down onto the rutted, snowy landing strip. He touched the brakes lightly, and coasted to a stop just a few yards away from the winning plane. A crowd had already gathered around the Valiant. Karl Regen, a self-styled "leader" of the pirate haven, caught Kahn's eye and shrugged. No hard feelings, his expression said. The Red Skulls' leader responded with a wintry smile.

For more information see:
Hughes Devastator

Nesbitt's Peacemaker landed next. It streaked in, and bounced across the frozen ground. The twin-hulled fighter taxied in, and stopped next to the Valiant. Spectators ducked and clutched their hats as the Peacemaker's powerful engines kicked up dirt and snow. Kahn pulled off his flying cap and rubbed wearily at his shaven head. Time to face the music, he thought grimly, and pulled himself from the Devastator's cockpit.

The crowd of onlookers parted as Kahn approached. Nesbitt climbed out of his cockpit and hopped onto the Peacemaker's wing, his hands planted on his hips and his face twisted into a vicious sneer. "You didn't think I had it in me, did you, Kahn?" he crowed. "How's it feel to get taken for a ride, mastermind?"

Kahn cocked his head and squinted up at Nesbitt. "I'm not sure I understand, Harry," he said mildly, as he reached for a cigar.

Regen stepped from the crowd between the two men, and nervously cleared his throat. "The rules of the challenge didn't say anything about how many planes each side could bring to the duel, or where they came from," he said, loud enough for everyone to hear. "Nesbitt didn't have to play fair any more than you did, Kahn. All that mattered was being the first side to get a pilot through the course and back on the ground."

"Winner take all!" Nesbitt cheered. Several people in the crowd added their voices to his.

Kahn looked from Nesbitt to Regen, and back again. "What makes you think I'm disputing any of this?" he said innocently. "You're absolutely right." He struck a match with his thumbnail. "I must say, Harry, you're taking this remarkably well." Kahn puffed thoughtfully at his cigar, and cast his cold gaze at his opponent.

Nesbitt's exultant face froze, then started to melt. His expression went from glee, to amazement, then unease. "What the hell are you getting at?"

The Red Skulls' leader walked around Nesbitt's Peacemaker and stood at the Valiant's port wing. He extended his hand with a smile. "Congratulations on a fine bit of flying, Comrade."

Comrade Angela Dane, late of the People's Collective Air Militia, pulled the pilot's cap from her head and ignored Kahn's offer of assistance, leaping gracefully to the ground. Her small mouth curled in distaste as Regen and the other onlookers crowded around her and Kahn.

For more information see:
The People's Collective

Regen's eyes widened. "Are you telling me she's one of yours?"

"Let's just say I was flying against Nesbitt and leave it at that," Dane said sullenly.

"We persuaded the owner of the Valiant to...loan his plane to us at the last minute," Kahn interjected, "in return for a share of the winnings after the race."

Kahn looked back at Nesbitt. "I can't lay claim to the idea, of course. Harry there was the inspiration behind it all."

Nesbitt spat out a curse, his voice rising to a shriek. He leapt from the Peacemaker's wing and charged at Kahn, clawing at the holstered pistol at his hip. "You son of a b—"

Nesbitt's tirade—and his pistol draw—were cut short as Kahn launched a powerful blow at the enraged pirate's solar plexus. Nesbitt—his wind knocked out—crashed into the waiting arms of a cluster of burly men in coveralls.

Kahn nodded to Tony and his gang of engineers, then turned his gaze back on Nesbitt. "No one likes a sore loser, Harry," he said, "and as our mutual friend Karl here said, this had nothing to do with playing fair." The burly pirate stepped closer. "About all you've got left to lose now is your life. Are you sure you want to keep rolling the dice with me?"

Nesbitt slumped in the engineers' arms, eyes downcast. Kahn regarded him coldly. "Tell you what," he growled. "Just to show you there's no hard feelings I'll let you keep your plane. You've got at least half a tank of gas left. See how far that'll take you."

On cue, Tony and his boys flung Nesbitt back the way he'd come, and the pirate collapsed in an untidy heap in the snow. He glared at Kahn and the rest, but said nothing. His eyes burning with hate, he climbed to his feet and turned his back on the crowd, heading for his plane.

Kahn then turned his attention to Regen. He stepped close to Sky Haven's boss, looming head and shoulders over the man. "Spread the word, Karl. I'll be sending some men over to my new zeppelin within the hour. I don't expect there'll be any more trouble. Do you?"

Just then Kahn's surviving planes roared low overhead, the rumble of their engines sweeping across the plateau like a peel of thunder. Regen went pale. Kahn grinned like a wolf, savoring the sense of power.

It was good to be calling the shots again.

"We would'a made out like bandits if you guys hadn't gone and shot down everything Nesbitt had," Pete O'Neil groused. One hand strayed to the bandage at his forehead. His Valiant had taken a rocket just shy of the finish line, and he'd been lucky to make it out alive.

The Machiavelli had been moved to a mooring tower close to Nesbitt's former airship, a converted merchant zeppelin called the Wanderer. Kahn watched from the Machiavelli's bridge as his crew moved crates from one ship to the next. Nesbitt's airship couldn't hold a candle to Kahn's stolen—and heavily modified—combat zeppelin, but her spare parts and supplies would go a long way towards putting the Machiavelli back in fighting trim.

"As I recall, you accounted for one of those kills yourself, Pete, so I don't think you've got much room to complain." Kahn replied.

He turned back towards the map table, where Dugan, Corbett and O'Neil were going over the long list of plunder taken from Nesbitt's gang. "We'll sell off anything we can't use, and see about picking up some replacements for the planes we've lost."

He clapped O'Neil on his shoulder. "Don't worry. I'll let you lease one for a reasonable fee. I might even be persuaded to loan a fighter to our hero of the People's Collective." Kahn eyed Dane, who stood near one of the starboard viewports, apparently lost in thought. "What do you say, Comrade? The Red Skulls could use a good pilot."

The pirates laughed. Dane threw Kahn a look of pure murder. "Don't do me any favors, Kahn," she said. "I'd sooner die than turn pirate."

Kahn grinned savagely. "Such misplaced conviction. What makes you think you're any different than the rest of us?"

The color drained from Dane's face. "Are you kidding? My pilots don't rob and kill innocent people! We protect and serve a law-abiding government and try to keep the peace! You're just a bunch of bloodthirsty thugs!"

"Really?" The pirate leader started to pace, folding his arms and frowning thoughtfully. "So when the People's Air Militia are sent to raid airship convoys across the I.S.A. border, that's keeping the peace?"

For more information see:
The Industrial States of America

"We do no such thing!"

"Comrade, please! You're not that naïve. The I.S.A. flies 'training missions' near your border to give new pilots a chance to shoot at live targets from time to time...and your government retaliates by hitting their supply convoys. Do you suppose that there are innocent people that get killed in the crossfire? I guarantee it." He pointed an accusing finger. "Your hands are no cleaner than ours in the long run, Captain. You and your superiors simply choose to obfuscate the facts behind the anonymous facade of government. You do what you want and justify it as national interest."

"Now you're just twisting the facts to suit you," Dane said disgustedly. "Save your breath, Kahn. It won't work. Sure, I've killed my share of men. But it was always in the observance of law."

"Law?" Kahn said the word with a sneer. "Laws are nothing but a set of excuses to restrain the strong from preying on the weak as nature intended. It's the sheep dictating terms to the wolves."

"No, it's about giving everyone an equal chance at prosperity. Government by the people and for the people. That's what America was about."

"And look how well that worked out." Kahn said with a snort.

"Hey, newlyweds! Knock it off!" Hetty cried. "Do you hear that?"

Kahn and Dane paused. From outside came a distant, rising wail.

Dugan cocked his head and frowned. "That's an air raid siren."

"Someone's attacking Sky Haven?" Kahn said incredulously. He crossed the bridge in four long steps and stuck his head into the radio room. The radio operator looked up, one hand pressing a headset to his ear. "What's going on?" the pirate leader asked.

The radioman shook his head. "There's a lot of chatter coming from Regen's tower controller. Sounds like one of the regular patrols picked up a Mayday, just outside the East approach." The operator paused, listening intently. "Yeah. It was Nesbitt. He'd just made it out of the mountains and ran into some kind of trouble. The patrol decided to go bail him out." His expression turned grim. "Now they're getting their slats kicked in."

Kahn looked back at Dugan and Hetty, then to Dane. "Could it be a Collective raid?"

Dane shook her head. "No way."

Dugan straightened. "You don't think La Guardia—"

"The tower is asking the same thing," the radioman called out. "The Flight Leader says he's spotted unknown fighters—white with red circles on their wings."

Hetty's eyes widened. "The Japanese! They followed us all the way here?"

"They will follow you to the ends of the earth and beyond," a woman's voice said from the bridge hatchway. "And they will kill whoever gets in their way."

Chiang Liu-Mei stood at the hatchway, leaning against its rim for support. Her fine-boned features looked incongruous against the oil-stained coverall she wore. The young woman stared hard at Kahn, her green eyes reflecting the torment she'd suffered at the hands of her captors.

"So long as I remain in your hands, 'Genghis' Kahn, you and your crew are in gravest danger."

"The man you saw at the Embassy was Major Saburo Murasaki," Chiang said, cradling a steaming cup of tea in her long-fingered hands. She sat at the edge of a leather couch in the Machiavelli's former wardroom, back straight and shoulders squared. Her English was precise, with a faint British accent. "He is an officer in the Imperial Japanese Navy, and a highly decorated fighter pilot. Until recently he has served in Manchuria as an agent for Naval Intelligence, gathering information on the Kuomintang and my father's attempts to stop the Japanese invasion."

It had taken quite a bit of explaining to convince Chiang Kai-Shek's daughter that she wasn't the Red Skulls' prisoner, as the rest of the world seemed to assume. She dimly remembered the events leading up to her rescue, but had never heard of Artemus Hayes, much less believed that her father's government had any idea where she was being held. Ironically it was Angela Dane who managed to convince her that Kahn was telling the truth; the two young women developed an immediate rapport that won Chiang's trust.

"So this Murasaki learned of your mission and pursued you to the Empire State, where he kidnapped you?" Kahn asked, puffing thoughtfully on his cigar and leaning back into a leather-covered armchair.

For more information see:
The Empire State

"That's right," she nodded, "and he is no doubt leading the pursuit now. The Japanese government gave him wide latitude to act in the occupied territories, and I expect he has the same authority here as well." Chiang looked down at her cup. "He is absolutely relentless. And the cruelest, coldest man I have ever known."

"Really? Well, we'll see about that," Kahn said mildly. "He certainly seems intelligent and aggressive. Clearly he reasoned we would attempt to return you to your government, and it was only logical to assume we would at least stop at Sky Haven while en route." His eyes narrowed. "He also has a zeppelin, and a complement of fighters.

"But I don't imagine he's going to come in here after us," he continued. "Scrapping with an isolated patrol is one thing; poking blindly through Sky Haven's east approach is tantamount to suicide. I think he's trying to flush us out and then intercept us on the other side of the mountains." The pirate leader smiled. "But I doubt he's got a Deadeye Dugan commanding his zeppelin. We can slip out of Sky Haven tonight and be halfway across Hollywood by morning, while Murasaki is still trying to find a passage through the Rockies. We'll have you at the Chinese Embassy on Hawai'i before he knows what's happening."

For more information see:
The Nation of Hollywood; The Kingdom of Hawai'i

Chiang's head came up. "Chinese Embassy? No—we must go to the British Embassy. Surely this Mister Hayes told you?"

Kahn frowned. "He told us you were on your way to Columbia to protest Japanese atrocities in Manchuria."

For more information see:
Columbia

"What? No, no, that is wrong," Chiang said. "What is the point in protest? Our enemies have been committing horrible acts against my people for years, and the world has done nothing. We have no time to waste in empty protest. China is in a fight for its very existence." Now Chiang's voice strengthened, and her dark eyes flashed. "They think we can be terrorized into surrendering to their Imperialist demands, but they have misjudged us. We will fight!"

Kahn straightened in his chair. "Why were you in New York?"

"To meet with the British," she said. "To finalize a deal for weapons and equipment for the Kuomintang. They were negotiating with President La Guardia to use the Empire State as the transfer point between our two nations. The deal had been struck. I was sent to Manhattan as my father's representative to make payment for the first shipment. That was why Murasaki kidnapped me."

Kahn's mind whirled. "How much money are we talking about, Miss Chiang?"

"Half a million dollars," she said. "In gold. And Murasaki will stop at nothing to get it."

 


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