"Battling" Barney Calhoun in
by "Doc" R.B. Danby
Chapter Four - Casino of Death
"To use a Christian simile," mumbled Rashad, "this must be how Jonah felt."
A pretty young Chinese girl stepped up to them, dressed in a G-string, high stockings, tassels over her small breasts, but mainly just big feathers. In her arms was a tray. Smiling, she said, "Cigarettes? Peanuts?"
The little man who was warlord Lo Phat's emissary snapped his fingers and the girl bowed and hurried away on awkward high heels. Barney watched her go and thought of the young girl he had thrashed his former captain over (see Chapter One ~ the Supreme Plasmate.). The reason, in fact, he had found himself unemployed and willing to take on this mad assignment. So he tried to save one girl, he mused resignedly, and there were a dozen more he didn't save. He wondered what else the girl provided besides cigarettes and peanuts? Abruptly, he remembered that he didn't like men like Lo Phat -- not at all.
"Barney?" whispered Arlene.
It was the first time she had used his first name since their tryst in the night. He looked at her, and saw the way she was fearfully staring at his hands. He looked down and realized they were clenched almost bone white. He forced himself to relax. His temper and his fists could get him out of trouble...but they could also get him into it, too. Remember, he told himself. You're trying to get everyone out of this...alive.
Barney looked around them as they moved across the floor, trying to recognize any of the attackers from the night before. Obviously, if Lo Phat had sent their would-be looters, he would be politic enough to have made sure they kept out of sight. But there was still the nagging question about whether he had, in fact, sent them. Everything about them had smacked of paid mercenaries, of the type Lo Phat would employ. Everything...save for the fact that one of them had been carrying a cage that seemed to hold a bird or a bat. Barney couldn't be sure which.
And they were travelling inland to meet up with a cult that worshipped the image of bats.
Then the moment for speculation was past as they were brought before the far end of the chamber. Before them was a second tier to the room where an enormously fat man sat in a gilded chair. He was bald, his skull gleaming in the harsh glare of the chandelier, with a thin mustache that descended all the way to his chest. He was garbed in a general's fancy dress uniform, though Barney noted that the medals glinting impressively across his breast were representative of a dozen different militaries. In fact, one looked as though it was just a pilot's name tag. Lo Phat hadn't earned any of them. It was merely a question of whether he had won them in a poker game, or slit the throats of their various owners. Probably a little of both, Barney thought.
The corpulent warlord looked at him and rose from his chair, an amused smile on his lips. "Welcome to my humble establishment, Mr. Calhoun." He stepped down to the same level as Barney and his companions.
"We accept your welcome," Barney said in little less than a shout, for everyone in the room to hear. He embraced the warlord, and kissed him on each cheek, Frenchman style. Lo Phat looked a tad disconcerted by the intimacy and stepped back. Barney continued in a loud voice, "Just as we accepted your guarantee of safe passage."
Lo Phat regarded him critically for a moment, then threw back his head and laughed. It wasn't a pleasant laugh. "I understand you travel inland to meet with certain...religious types."
"The cult of the Bat-Men, though not widespread, nonetheless is spoken of even this far down river. A nasty bit of business, so they say. A cult of blood rituals and decadence." Lo Phat was obviously pleased to have a chance to display his knowledge. "It was begat centuries ago by renegades from some of the local tribes -- headhunters and the like, who incorporated some of their more anti-social tendencies into their beliefs. More recently it has, apparently, become quite chic with foreigners -- I guess it offers something we lack in our more civilized climes." The warlord grinned, and Barney found it hard to take the word "civilized" spilling from the mouth of a ruthless warlord. "In a sense, I suppose you might consider that I'm doing you a favour. Saving you from yourselves."
It took a moment for that to sink, then Barney said, "What?" Instantly he knew he had erred in bringing them here.
Lo Phat clapped his hands and suddenly a dozen guns were aimed at him.
"Barney?" gasped Arlene as she was yanked aside by one of the goons.
"What is this Lo Phat?" Barney demanded, trying to bluster. One of Lo Phat's mercenaries, a big Caucasian with close-cropped military hair stepped forward, as if this had all been pre-planned. He briskly patted Barney down, as though searching for something. After a moment, he straightened and shook his head at the warlord.
"I see you are not carrying the jade figurine on your person, Mr. Calhoun," purred the warlord.
Ignoring him, Barney said, "Are you crazy? You gave us your word. You kill me and everyone in this room -- everyone," he emphasized, thinking of the casino's patrons who were a far cry from the hardened criminals in Lo Phat's employ, "will know never to trust your word again. You'd throw all that away for a few lousy thousand pounds that you can get hawking a figurine?"
"No, Mr. Calhoun. You are quite right." The warlord looked around the room, now breathlessly still, the gamblers struck dumb. He stepped back up to his chair-cum-throne. "I would never jeopardize all this, and the precarious alliances I have made, for the five thousand pounds I could get for that jade figurine you are rumoured to be carrying." He smiled again. "However, for a million pounds, it is worth it."
Barney waited for no more. He plunged into the thick of the mercenaries, startling them with the sheer ferocity, the unexpectedness of the attack. He was betting on the fact that the guns were just for intimidation -- they didn't really want to open fire iin close quarters where they were as likely to hit each other as him.
Barney was a brawler, and this was just a brawl with bigger stakes. At least, that's what he told himself as his iron hard fists laid men on the floor and sent teeth loose in mouths. The mercenaries were fighters themselves, though, and he grunted as brutal fists crashed into his sides and ribs.
His knuckles were split raw as he reeled back and forth, the room spinning, but he managed to keep his feet. He found himself grappling with the big Caucasian who had patted him down, the man a Titan of heavy muscle. Still, Barney could almost believe he had a chance.
Then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw Lo Phat touch a button on the arm of his chair.
Something creaked beneath him and Barney felt the floor give way as a trap door dropped open. He leapt desperately for the side, keeping hold of the big Caucasian mercenary. They struggled there for a moment, the man twisting and snarling, trying to send him plunging into the abyss, while Barney managed to use the man as an anchor and hook one foot on the solid floor. Then he heard Lo Phat mutter something, and the little man with glasses stepped efficiently forward and simply booted the mercenary in the backside. With a startled yell, both Barney and the other man plunged through the floor.
They hit the warm, muddy waters of the river with a noisome "galoomp!" that echoed thunderously against the underside of the massive houseboat. Barney struggled to the surface and looked wildly about him. Overhead was the flat, mossy expanse of the casino's bottom which cast them in a kind of ominous twilight, while on two sides they were hemmed in by the huge pontoons that kept the place afloat.
To one side lay the open river.
And to the other?
Barney spun as he heard a gentle splash, followed by another, and then another. He looked and his eyes flared wide.
The crocodiles had left the shore and were already leaving gentle wakes as they cruised toward him.
"Gott im Himmel!" screamed the mercenary who Barney now pegged as a German. The man was scrambling helplessly in the water, trying to propel himself upward toward the still-open trap door.
The little man with glasses peered over the side. "Please consider this a formal notification of the termination of your contract, Gunter. No hard feelings. You should not have stood so close to the edge." Then his glasses sparkled as they caught the light as he angled his head to regard Barney. "Tah tah, Mr. Calhoun."
"Nein!" screamed the German as the scalely shadows of death drifted closer, moving with a languid grace as though in no hurry at all. As if confident of their meal. The German started firing his gun wildly, in his panic not even coming close to hitting anything. Suddenly water closed effortlessly over one of the crocs as it submerged, and Barney heard the German scream. Abruptly the muddy water was turning red. The mercenary thrashed about as the crocs moved in.
Barney was numb with horror, but he also knew he had to do something or he would share the man's grisly fate. He couldn't out-swim the crocs, he knew that. Then a mad scheme entered his brain. An insane, suicidal scheme.
He told himself that if he died now, he would never learn what it was about their expedition that Lo Phat believed was worth a million pounds.
Stealing his courage, he swam toward the bloody, churning carnage...
"Enough," said Lo Phat. He touched another button and the trap doors swung up, sealing off the sight of the bloody death struggle. "Take the girl in back and search her. She's of far greater value to me than the statue, but that doesn't mean I'm going to pass up on it. If it's not on her, search their boat."
Arlene Wentworth snarled, "You filthy fat bastard, I'll...", as, struggling like a wild thing, she was forcibly dragged from the gambling floor.
"Tsk, tsk," chided Lo Phat, "such language from a lady."
And back among the gambling tables, Seth Rashad had managed to lose himself in the crush of nervous spectators, everyone seeming to have forgotten that Barney Calhoun had had two companions, not just one. His gaze fell to the sealed trapdoor, realizing that he was now stuck in the middle of the jungle, so very far from home...
Previous episode: The Gambling Den
Next episode: To Escape the Warlord
The Bat-Men of the Yinga River is copyright 2001 by the author.