By Christopher Mills
This short story originally appeared as a bonus feature in the limited hardcover edition of The Captain Midnight Chronicles, published by Moonstone Books.
The cold steel muzzle of the Thompson submachine gun pressed hard against his left temple, the aroma of gun oil thick in his nostrils. A bead of sweat trickled down his bruised and bloody cheek, and his eyes burned, stung by the oppressive pall of strong tobacco smoke and dust that hung heavy in the stifling, stagnant air.
He was tied to a wooden chair with coarse rope in a small, dark room, presumably somewhere in Port Said, Egypt. At least, that was the city where he’d been attempting to carry out his mission when he was ambushed in a narrow alley and bludgeoned into unconsciousness. Four men in light suits stood between him and the only door. The one with the machine gun was French, apparently, or maybe Belgian, while the others seemed to be Arabs. He didn’t recognize them, nor had he caught any names.
“Once again, I ask you,” the man with the Tommy gun growled in accented English. “Where is the girl?”
The bound man tried to work up enough saliva to spit, but his mouth was dry. So, he forced a small, defiant grin instead, and whispered through cracked lips: “Go to hell.”
The man holding the gun was pale and plump, stuffed unflatteringly into a sweat-stained linen shirt and light gray jacket. A red fez was mired in his greasy blue-black hair, and a slim Turkish cigarette dangled, smoldering, from fleshy lips. His perspiration-dappled face and gleaming, pig-like eyes reflected his desperation, and he kept glancing anxiously at his dusky associates. The three Arabs, on the other hand, stood silently, stoically; dark eyes trained unwavering on the bound, battered man in the chair.
As for their captive, he was an athletic young man of about thirty. He was stripped to the waist, his torso marred by a multitude of mottled blue bruises and round, festering cigarette burns. If not for the split lip, swollen left eye and gash on his forehead, he would have been quite handsome. His close-cropped hair was brown and matted with blood. On a small wooden table to his right, his personal effects were spread out – billfold, passport, assorted currency in American dollars, Egyptian and British pounds, a half-empty deck of Luckies, a slim stiletto, a leather shoulder holster containing a 9mm Baretta pistol, and a black-enameled wristwatch of unique design.
His name was Edward Remington North, also known in certain classified files as Operative SQ-313 of the Secret Squadron.
“You are out of time, monsieur,” his interrogator said. “I will give you one last chance to live. If you refuse to cooperate, I will execute you, and my associates and I will find the mademoiselle through other means.
“Tell me: where were you to meet the treacherous bitch?”
North shook his head. His contact – who he only knew by the codename “Fatima” – possessed intelligence vital to the Squadron. He didn’t know who these guys were (though he certainly had his suspicions), but he wasn’t going to give her up. Death was always a possibility in his occupation, and he was prepared to meet it with honor. That’s what the Captain would expect of him, and he wasn’t going to let his commander down. “Forget it, tubby.”
“Damned fool!” The Frenchman cursed, and roughly yanked back the Thompson’s heavy bolt. He placed the barrel between the prisoner’s eyes, and a stubby finger slowly tightened on the trigger…
There was a deafening roar and the room shook violently as the door exploded inward. The Frenchman was knocked off his feet by blast, and the Thompson fired, sending a volley of .45 caliber slugs into the shadows. The three Arabs reacted as one, reaching within their suit jackets to draw weapons while turning quickly toward the smoking portal.
Standing in the doorway was a figure wearing a black leather flight suit with red piping and a palm-sized insignia on his left breast representing a clock face with both hands pointing straight up. Silvered goggles hid his eyes and a crimson scarf covered his face. In both gloved hands he held imposing Colt 1911 automatic pistols.
North, blinking wildly from the smoke and dust, smiled.
The cavalry had arrived.
One of the Arabs charged the intruder, a long, curved dagger clutched menacingly in his hand. Before he’d taken two steps, one of the blue-steel automatics barked, and the dark-skinned man was dead, his knife hitting the floor just a moment before the rest of him.
“Drop your weapons,” Midnight commanded. “No one else needs to die here today.”
The two Arabs silently exchanged an unfathomable look, then, in unison, brought their own firearms to bear. The room erupted with thunder and the smell of burnt gunpowder as four pistols fired almost simultaneously. When it was over, Midnight stood over three corpses, shaking his head at the waste of life.
In the far corner of the room, the Frenchman had partially recovered. He raised himself to a sitting position, and trembling, considered his options. The Thompson was on the floor near at hand, but he doubted he’d have time to retrieve it and bring it to bear on either North or his rescuer – a man he recognized as his supreme enemy – before Midnight cut him down with a well-placed shot.
Midnight, never taking his eye off the portly Frenchman, stepped into the room, followed by a teenager in a leather aviator’s jacket and a slender young woman of about twenty-five, dressed almost identically to the boy. Both were high-ranking members of the Secret Squadron: Lieutenants Chuck Ramsey and Joyce Ryan. Joyce immediately moved to free North from his bonds, while Chuck appropriated the discarded submachine gun.
“Pierre Lubec,” Midnight said, as he stood over the cowering Frenchman. “Arms merchant and smuggler. Dabbling in kidnapping now, Pierre?”
“Non,” Lubec replied, unconvincingly. “This is a simple misunderstanding. I had no idea the young man was one of yours….”
“You’re a poor liar, Lubec.” Midnight said. He turned to his adopted son. “Chuck, cuff Monsieur Lubec, and take him to the car. Don’t forget to give him a good frisk.”
Chuck grimaced at the thought. “C’mon, Frenchie. You’ve got a date with the gendarmes.”
Joyce was trying to treat North’s injuries with a small first aid kit. “He needs a medic, Cap,” she said. “They really worked him over.”
Midnight picked up North’s watch from the table. “Fortunately we were able to triangulate the signal from his transmitter,” he said. “I just wish we’d found him sooner. Is he conscious?”
“I can talk,” North whispered.
“We’re going to get you to a hospital, Ed, but I need to know. Did you make contact with Fatima?”
The battered agent nodded. “She got a message to me in Tangiers. I was on my way to meet her when these goons jumped me. I didn’t give her up, Captain….”
“I never thought you would,” Midnight assured him. “I need to know the location and recognition procedure you worked out with Fatima, Ed. It’s vital we find out what she knows!”
* * *
Fifteen minutes later, Captain Midnight was racing through the crowded streets of the Egyptian coastal city in a commandeered roadster, heading for the Café Albatros, where North had arranged to meet with the informer codenamed Fatima. It was late evening, and well past the designated rendezvous time, but the leader of the Secret Squadron prayed that the woman would still be there.
As he drove, he removed the soft leather aviator’s helmet, goggles and scarf, revealing the carrot-colored hair, slate gray eyes and rugged features of James “Red” Albright. He mentally reviewed the identification routine that Ed North had relayed to him before Joyce rushed the rescued agent to a hospital. When he arrived at the café, he parked the automobile at the curb and made his way inside, his eyes searching the restaurant for a European woman in a green dress.
He found a likely candidate at the end of the bar, an attractive brunette in her mid-twenties sitting alone, nursing a tall fruit drink. Her body language was the giveaway – she was obviously tightly coiled, as if prepared to bolt at the slightest provocation. He approached her slowly, and settled upon the empty stool to her right. There was little time to spare, so he spoke as soon as he sat down. “Excuse me, miss. Could you spare a cigarette?”
She eyed him warily. “I only have Gitanes,” she replied.
“ That’s all right,” Albright said. “I became accustomed to French tobacco during the war.”
“You’re very late, Monsieur North. I was about to give up on you.”
“I’m not Ed North, Fatima,” Albright said.
The girl’s eyes widened in panic, and she started to rise from her seat. Albright laid his hand lightly on her arm. “It’s okay, Ed sent me in his place. I’m SQ-1.”
“SQ-1? But that would make you…”
Albright nodded, and attempted a reassuring smile. “That’s right. Can we talk?”
The girl sat back down, and fumbled a pack of cigarettes out of her purse. They weren’t even Gitanes, but a local blend. “I suppose I have to trust you. There’s so little time…”
“What’s your real name?”
“Susanne Vigue,” She took a deep drag on her cigarette, exhaled. “For the last three years, I have been secretary to Pierre Lubec. You know him?”
“Then you know that he deals in munitions. His best customer is a man who calls himself Shark. Ivan Shark.”
Albright wasn’t surprised. Ivan Shark was a megalomaniac genius with a private army of mercenaries and fanatics, whose mad desire for power would be satisfied by nothing less than world conquest. Such ambitions required substantial firepower. “Go on.”
“Shark plans an attack upon the canal, and Pierre has provided him with the special materiel he requires to carry out his plan.”
The Suez Canal, 192 kilometers in length, connected the Mediterranean with the Red Sea, and was one of the world’s busiest and most important waterways. If Shark was able to damage it and shut it down for any length of time, the consequences would be staggering.
“What is Shark’s plan?”
* * *
Captain Midnight’ Nightfire fighter soared through the night sky, the dark waters of the Mediterranean rushing by only a few hundred feet below his wings. He scanned the horizon for the lights that would show him the location of his target.
Somewhere out there was the tramp freighter Maiden Faire, out of Liverpool. The ship had recently been purchased by one of Ivan Shark’s front companies and its crew replaced by his most loyal soldiers. The hold was packed with high explosives and huge tanks of a new poison gas of Shark’s own creation. According to Susanne Vigue, Lubec had called it Z-1, and bragged that it was far deadlier than even the phosgene and chlorine gases employed by Germany during the Great War.
Shark’s suicide crew was to detonate the explosives shortly after entering the canal at Port Said, not only causing untold damage to the waterway and blocking it with the wreckage, but releasing the heavy gas into the atmosphere. The sea winds would then carry the deadly vapor across North Africa, murdering thousands and causing turmoil in the region.
The ship was due in Port Said shortly after dawn.
Midnight saw only one chance. He had to intercept the freighter while it was still out to sea and sink it with an aerial torpedo before its fanatical crew could detonate the explosives and release the Z-1 gas. It was a long shot, but if the torpedo struck just right, he might sink the ship without setting off the explosives, sending the vessel and its lethal cargo harmlessly to the bottom of the Mediterranean.
He was starting to worry. He should have found the ship by now. But the slowly-lightening horizon remained maddeningly clear. He was about to veer to the west and search a different stretch of sea, when the dark silhouette of a ship appeared to the north. He banked and moved to intercept.
It was a freighter, and the right size, but in the dim, pre-dawn light, he wasn’t certain that it was the Maiden Faire. He made a low pass over the vessel, and was rewarded by the sight of crewmembers scrambling onto the deck. If he’d possessed any doubts that he had the right ship, they were dismissed by the Tommy guns they carried, and the hail of .45 caliber bullets that tried to sting his tail as he flew over.
He circled and began his run – he had only one torpedo aboard, so he had to make his shot count. He approached the Maiden Faire from astern, the bombsight centered on the ship’s engines. Hopefully, a direct hit on the stern would sink the vessel without also setting off the explosives in the forward cargo hold. It was a million-to-one shot, but….
Midnight flew straight and sure toward his target, and at exactly the right moment, released the torpedo, which hit and shot through the water in a laser-straight line toward its target. For good measure, the obsidian ace strafed the deck of the death ship with his .30 caliber guns before pulling up and away from the vessel into the golden Mediterranean dawn.
Behind and below him, the aerial torpedo impacted the hull of the Maiden Faire and detonated, instantly turning the engines into twisted metal slag, and the ship immediately began to founder as the sea rushed in through the gaping hole. On the bridge of the Maiden Faire, the scarred captain grimly faced his first officer, prepared to give the order to set off the explosives in the hold and release the Z-1 gas. They had failed to damage the canal, but at least some part of their leader’s plan could be salvaged. The people of North Africa would still die, choking on clouds of pure poison.
But before he could give the order, he was distracted by gunfire on the deck. He turned, and the last thing he saw on this Earth was his crew firing their weapons ineffectually into the air at the sleek, black airplane flying directly toward his bridge, guns spewing .30 caliber death.
* * *
The Maiden Faire, with its deadly cargo, slowly disappeared beneath the waves. Captain Midnight toggled his throat mike and radioed Chuck in Port Said. “SQ-1 to SQ-2.”
“Go ahead, Cap.”
“Mission accomplished, son. I’m coming home.”
© 2010 by Christopher Mills