What's gone before: Mr. Amazing fails to prevent Professor MacCreary's kidnapping, even with the help of the professor's robot, Roberta. The Silhouette and Blacklight manage to prevent a report of the professor's from falling into the hands of Nazi spies, but are themselves taken prisoner. Meanwhile, across Lake Ontario on the scenic shore of upper New York state...
A FLY IN THE OINTMENT
The lights from the swank hotel spread like liquid fire out over the lazy black swells of Lake Ontario. Somewhere, across the lake, the opposite shore was dark thanks to blackout procedures as befitting a country at war -- not that there was any real danger of air bombardments. Here, though, on the shores of New York state in the United States of America, even such affected precautions were unnecessary.
The U.S. was at war with no one.
Music from a big band fleshed out the cool air, drowning beneath it the usual nocturnal sounds of crickets and waves. Not so the voice of man.
Inside the main ball room of the hotel, men in black tuxedos and women in elegant gowns whiled away the pleasant fall evening, their voices mingling freely with the music.
A short, dapper-dressed man stood at the centre of a small circle of listeners, seeming very much a man accustomed to such attention -- nay, a man who expected such attention as his due.
"So you really think the war is almost over, Dr. Vogel?" asked a pretty young debutante.
"Absolutely, my dear," Wolfgang Erich Vogel assured her. "You must understand that Germany only desires peace and to be left alone. Even France has now conceded that and signed an armistice. It is only Great Britain and the warmonger, Churchill, who pursues hostilities. That is, Great Britain and her colonies, of course. All we want is to be protected from our enemies -- an ambition with which you Americans would sympathize with more freely, if you were not surrounded by the natural protection of the oceans."
A slouch-shouldered old man in a white dinner jacket shouldered through the small group, a tray in hand. "Drinks, anyone?" he asked, his voice hoarse and cracked beneath his bristly white mustache.
Vogel pursed his lips at the interruption, then took a glass from the tray and waved the old man on. "I, myself, am here on your shores at the behest of our beloved Fuhrer. As one of Germany's highest-ranking scientists, I am here as a kind of goodwill ambassador -- perhaps to meet with some of my American colleagues."
"You get many invitations, yet, Doc?"
Vogel looked around, then narrowed his eyes at a clean-cut man in a grey suit. "Not as such, Mister-?"
"Kelley. Jake Kelley."
"Not as such, Mr. Kelley, but there are a lot of, well, let me be frank -- a lot of Jews ensconced in America's scientific circles. And where there is a lie spread about Germany, there is a Jew with the, heh, the butter knife nearby."
A titter of laughter buoyed Vogel's remark, but then his eyes flashed to the glass doors that let out on to the terrace. He tipped back his martini and absently placed it on the serving tray, the old man having miraculously reappeared at his elbow as though psychic. "Please excuse me a moment," he said, and hurriedly slipped through the cluster of people.
At the outside doors he met three men and they stood together upon the threshold between light and darkness, muttering amongst themselves for a moment. At first Vogel seemed pleased by what he heard, then he frowned a little. After a moment, he nodded curtly. He looked quickly around, as though not wishing to be observed. Then, touching one of the men's elbow, he guided them out into the night where all four men were swallowed fully by the darkness.
Moments later, they walked briskly along a boardwalk, warehouses on one side, the cold Ontario on the other. The water was placid this evening, though in a few short months the November storms could make the lake a very treacherous place to be indeed. Now, it was only upon the shore where danger dwelt.
A shadowy figure flittered through the darkness, squeezing up in the shadows pooling up around the warehouse walls. He was trying hard to go unnoticed. He was not doing very well at it.
He stopped, suddenly realizing that the doctor and his companions had vanished somehow ahead of him. He stopped, scratching his head doubtfully for a moment. Then, frustrated, he slipped a cigarette into his mouth. As he was about to light it, three big shapes separated from the shadows around him and Jake Kelley allowed his unlit cigarette to dangle from his lips, forgotten.
"Uh, hi, boys," he said. "Nice night for a stroll, eh?"
The three men, minus Dr. Vogel, moved in on him, as quiet, as quickly, as phantoms. Kelley's hand went for the pistol on his back hip, but a fist across his jaw gave him other things to worry about. Reeling a little, he tried to strike back, but another man came at him, delivering two rabbit punches to his flank. He doubled over, groaning, his cigarette lost and trampled beneath his own feet. Gasping, he knew three against one were not the sort of odds he'd have chosen voluntarily.
Kelley and his three assailants turned as the elderly waiter from the hotel stepped into the moonlight; old, frail, slouch-shouldered.
Kelley couldn't say who looked more surprised, himself, or his attackers. "Ge-get out of here!" he shouted as one of the men went for the old man. "Run!" Kelley tried to throw himself at the attacker, but an arm curled around his throat, savagely pulling him back.
A silver knife glinted in the moonlight, angling for the unwary old man's chest. Suddenly the old man straightened, seeming taller than he had been a moment before, and his cocktail tray connected brutally with the face of his attacker. He caught the knife wrist and twisted hard enough to send it clattering to the boardwalk, then an elbow to the knife-man's chest laid him out next to his knife.
The waiter ducked beneath a fist swung by a second man -- ducked more deftly than Kelley could credit to such an old man -- and fairly lifted the man off his feet with a blow to his mid-section. The third goon released Kelley and started toward the old man, flashing another knife. Kelley, partly recovered, slammed into him with a football tackle. They struggled for a moment in a surreal silence, then suddenly there was nothing beneath his feet. They both plunged toward the water below.
Suddenly a powerful hand caught Kelley's belt and hauled him back onto the boardwalk. He turned, ignoring the heavy splash below, and found himself staring into the old man's face. "Look out!" he shouted.
The old man whirled as the second man came at him, also with a knife. Seeming from nowhere, an odd-looking pistol flashed to the old man's hand. There was a phutt! of compressed air being released, and the would-be attacker sprawled at their feet. He did not move again.
"Not that I'm not grateful...but is he-?"
"Unconscious. It was a sleeping dart," answered the old man, his voice no longer hoarse, but low and commanding.
"Your voice, I'm sure I know it," Kelley said, scrutinizing his benefactor. "But I'm sure I've never seen you before."
The old man stepped back, becoming absorbed in shadows. Kelley saw the figure move, then twist; saw him seem to pull something bulky over his head, like a hood. Then the "old man" stepped back into the light. "Remember me now, Agent Kelley?"
Kelley took an involuntary step back, feeling a visceral shock of horror. Then he quelled the feeling, embarrassed and knowing it was silly. "Man-Fly," he acknowledged, recognizing the hideous mask. "You're a bit out of your jurisdiction, aren't you? Canada's that a-way."
"I'm not sanctioned by anyone, so I have no jurisdiction to be out of. Besides, I'd think you'd be grateful, given that your German playmates didn't look very friendly -- certainly not as friendly as you are to them."
"Now hold on a minute, fella. I'm not friendly with anyone, but we aren't at war."
"No," deadpanned the Man-Fly. "You aren't. The rest of the world may be, but here in the land of the free and the home of the brave, other people's freedom doesn't seem too mean much, does it?"
"Domestic politics are tricky. The American people are still smarting from the last war."
"Whereas the rest of us had a ball, eh?"
Kelley scowled. "I don't like the Nazis -- personally, I think we're headed for war whether we want it or not. So do my bosses. I wasn't spying on those guys for kicks, after all. But let's not get too high and mighty, fella. Canada's not fighting the 'good fight', you're just in it 'cause Mother England is. Hell, before the war, your Prime Minister thought Hitler was pretty keen -- I've seen the file. Yeah, that's right. Hoover's got a file on everybody."
The Man-Fly nodded. "That's why I'm here, Agent Kelley. I want to know everything you and the F.B.I. have on Wolfgang Vogel and his friends."
The G-man froze, then looked down at his shoes. "When I said everybody, I meant within reason. I mean, how much do you think we can have on a bunch of German nationals anyway?"
"If you want to dance, pick more convincing music. You're talking to Stephenson and the BSC, and they've got contacts all over...including the German underground."
"Stephenson who?" he said unconvincingly. "Oh, you mean the entrepreneur? The Canadian? I...I... Aw, what the hell." He shrugged. "How the Hell do you know so much, anyway?"
"I'm a regular fly on the wall."
Kelley's eyes dropped to the serving tray lying on the ground, and he nodded, slowly understanding. "I'll just bet you are. We kind of suspected you for a master of disguise." He lit a cigarette and inhaled, collecting his thoughts. "You aren't so clever, you know? We've got a file on you, too. We got a file on all the costumed adventures both here and in Canada. We're this close," he pinched his fingers together, "to putting a face behind that Gawd-ugly mask of yours."
"Do tell," said the Man-Fly, sounding almost amused.
"They figure you're an ex-British intelligence officer who was reported drowned ten years ago, or maybe an American mercenary who disappeared in Spain during their civil war."
"Not a Canadian?"
"Consider it a compliment. They figure you're too good to be some doughy-faced Canuck. There's one name on the list -- way, way down on the list, though. More a joke than anything else. Me, I'm thinking they should bump it up to nearer the top. You'd like it: he's Canadian. A wrong side of the tracks kid who became a world war one flying ace named Artie Trent. Not as spectacular as some of his -- of your -- countrymen: he didn't have anything like Bishop's "kills", or Brown bagging the Red Baron. But word among airmen is, as a flyer, he was one of the best, literally fearless. He was wounded, and after the war he did some barnstorming, then bummed around India and the East for a while. Since then, he's kept a low profile, but disappears periodically, sometimes for months at a time. And whenever he disappears, pretty soon the Man-Fly breaks a big case. The real peach of the thing, though, is this: while in hospital at the end of the war, he struck up an unlikely friendship with a wounded infantryman, a Toronto blue-blood named Dennis Welbeck. And Welbeck's near the top of our list for the guy behind the Blacklight."
The Man-Fly let out an involuntary snort.
Kelley frowned, then shrugged. "So, maybe we're wrong about that, still..."
"Still, while we're jawing, that goon you put in the drink is making like a river rat and is on his way to tell Vogel what's happened here. I know the Nazis have a boat in the harbour, taking advantage of U.S. neutrality to set up a base of operations for something that's going on in Canada."
Kelley looked up, eyes bright. "Like what? We know their up to something, but not..."
"Loose lips, Kelley," the Man-Fly cautioned. "Tonight I'm asking the questions -- you owe me for times past. Just tell me everything you know."
He sighed, then nodded. "Well, for one thing, it's not just Dr. Vogel. He and his party arrived in New York a while ago. Our information is that a General von Schlachten is the one calling the shots...except no one's seen hide nor hair of him..."
It was almost midnight and the shallow, lazy swells thudded dully against the hull of the yacht moored in the harbour. Lights spilled out from the portholes, stabbing planks of golden light out across the dark water. The "planks" were as much an illusion as the civility of the vessel's occupants.
Two armed men in civilian dress paced the length of the boat, alert for everything. Almost.
A weird, soundless glider drifted rapidly toward the boat from the direction of the American shore. It banked, momentarily standing out against the moon, though unobserved by men more attentive to an approach from the water. Suddenly a figure in a dark trench coat with the head of a fly separated and landed unseen upon the fore deck. The remote controlled glider angled off even as the sentries stirred, having heard the thud of the Man-Fly's arrival.
"Was ist das?" demanded one, slipping his machine gun to a ready position in the crook of his arm.
The other shook his head and gestured forward, even as he went to check aft.
The first man started cautiously forward, the deck reasonably well-lit by the silver moon and the bright yellow light spilling out from the deck houses. He moved cautiously. Normally he would have been concerned about little, but Heinrich had arrived but a little while ago, soaking wet. He and two others had stayed behind Dr. Vogel to take care of an unwanted snoop, but only he had returned.
Gun levelled, the sentry inched around a fuel barrel, positive he spied a slight shadow crouched behind it. He started to speak, to order the intruder to show himself, but suddenly the shadow loomed up before him and the sentry recoiled. A cry of terror froze in his throat as he stared at a face not even remotely human -- a face from out of a nightmare.
He did not hear the phutt of compressed air being released. He was only aware of the deck, the night, going conspicuously, perhaps mercifully, dark.
The Man-Fly caught the sentry and his weapon before either hit the deck. Then he cached the unconscious man behind the barrels he had been using for concealment. Carefully, hurriedly, he moved forward, intent on taking out the second sentry as cleanly and quickly as the first. He halted beside a porthole as voices reached him from inside.
One voice was Vogel's.
"I am disappointed," said the scientist. "And, if I am disappointed, you can be sure the General will be doubly disappointed." He spoke German, but the Man-Fly had picked up enough of that language in the first world war, and from a bitter-sweet liaison with a German-Canadian woman years later, to make out what was said. "Those Canadian gangsters acquired the professor, but all his notes were burned in the fire. Now Strauss has, likewise, failed to secure documentation."
"But, Herr Docteur," protested his companion, "surely the professor is the most important component?"
"True. He is 90 per cent of the operation...but, in science, even a ten per cent variable can foul up everything."
"And Strauss has captured two of the wonder-Canadians," continued his companion, still trying to see the bright side. "Surely that is-"
The Man-Fly stiffened, no longer listening. Bad enough that the German's apparently had Professor MacCreary, now it seemed as though Dennis Welbeck's great scheme had delivered two hopelessly inexperienced, costumed-babes-in-arms into the clutches of the Nazis. Things were getting worse by the moment. He had told Dennis a group was just too big, too unwieldy -- too prone to missteps. He had already been alerted to Nazi activity in Toronto while involved in a separate investigation when he received Dennis' summons, but he had chosen to pursue his own investigation. Now it looked as though he was going to have to get involved with the others whether he wanted to or not.
"How long before the others arrive?"
"Any moment, Herr Docteur."
Arrive? The Man-Fly looked about quickly. A boat was coming? That meant more Germans, probably better armed and trained if they managed to capture two costumed adventurers -- a bona fide strike team, no doubt. The Man-Fly peered over the rail on the north side of the yacht, staring toward Canada. There was no sign of anyone. At least that much was going his way. They were late. Could he take the yacht -- an entire ship of German spies -- and lay a trap for the next wave all by himself? He doubted it. The advantage of surprise, and the paralysis-inducing reaction his mask instilled, would be lost in the narrow, brightly lit corridors of the yacht.
But if he went to get help -- assuming he could find Kelley and convince him to break protocol and lend a hand -- there was no telling how things might transpire in his absence.
Frozen with indecision, the Man-Fly stiffened as a weird, droning sound came to him. He looked again to the midnight blackened water, but it did not quite sound like a boat -- at least no boat he had ever heard. What made him look up, he could not say. But he did, and inside his mask, his mouth dropped open.
A great shadow blocked out the moon, blocked out even the stars themselves. He stared upward and felt a shudder run up his spine as a great, celestial whale settled lazily over the yacht.
"An airship," he hissed to himself.
He turned, damning his carelessness. The second sentry stood some paces away, machine gun levelled. He was too far to tackle, the Man-Fly realized, and too alert to fall for the dart gun. He'd barely get the gun out of his pocket before a hail of bullets would cut him in half. Obviously the hawk-eyed sentry had had time to adjust to his eerie visage before announcing himself.
The Man-Fly started to raise his hands even as footsteps to the rear of the vessel announced the yacht's occupants spilling onto the deck. In moments, the sentry would shout out and then he'd really be in the soup. He tensed, deciding he would have to risk his trank-gun.
Suddenly a figure vaulted over the rail, onto the deck, and a karate chop sent the sentry crashing to the boards, unheard beneath the noises coming from the aft deck. Jake Kelley stood over the sentry. "Sorry I'm late, but you try renting a row boat at this hour." The G-man crouched down and peered aft.
"Now who's out of his jurisdiction?"
"You're welcome," Kelley returned ironically. "So what the Hell's happening?"
"Damn," hissed the Man-Fly, for the first time realizing what was actually transpiring at the back of the boat. "They're not letting people off...they're taking them on!" He leaped to his feet and raced aft. Vogel and his companions had already vanished into the camouflaged behemoth above.
"What should I do?" called Kelley.
The Man-Fly threw himself into the air and just caught the rope ladder lifting from the deck as the great airship started angling away, back toward Canada. "Wish me luck," he shouted back.
And then he was gone.
Kelley stared after him a moment, then, quietly, said, "Good luck...Artie."
Next: "Terror in the Skies!" (The title says it all.)
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