"Battling" Barney Calhoun in
by "Doc" R.B. Danby
Chapter Eight - Death on Wings
The legendary Bat-Men of the interior were no myth, it seemed.
Barney stared at the little creature, trying to read its vaguely human features, to see if it could be reasoned with -- if it was more man than monster. But all he could read in the twisted visage was primordial and savage, like the crocodiles that lurked outside this ancient jungle temple.
Suddenly the Bat-Man flung itself at him, its leathery wings snapping open with a whip-like crack! and, before Barney could react, it had fixed itself around his neck. He cried out as sharp fangs dug into his throat. With a snarl of horror and disgust, Barney grabbed the little, clammy shape and dashed it violently against the floor. He scrambled to his feet, panting hard, clutching at his bloody neck, and peered downward, ready for another attack.
But the creature lay limp and broken on the cold stone of his cell. It was dead.
"Hellfire and damnation!" cursed Barney, shocked nearly out of his wits. "Jesus God!" He continued muttering curses for another minute, dancing back and forth on his heels, wrapping his powerful arms around himself for warmth. At last he slumped against a cold stone wall and tried to breathe more steadily.
He was in a narrow cell, maybe five feet wide and eleven feet long. It was dark, the only light filtering through the little window in the door. And it was damp. He didn't know where Arlene was.
Slowly, pieces were beginning to come together. He had learned that Seth Rashad, the humble little anthropologist, was in reality one of the cultists, sent to escort the jade idol back to its worshippers.
Lo Phat had told him the cult had become popular with foreigners, men like Rashad, and Arlene Wentworth's father.
It was Rashad who had knocked Barney unconscious in Moyalai (see Chapter One ~ The Supreme Plasmate) in an attempt to render him unwilling to sign on with the expedition. It also didn't take much to view subsequent events from a different perspective. When Barney had spied that man carrying a covered cage (Chapter Two, but you knew that, right? ~ the Supreme Plasmate), the man hadn't brought it -- he was stealing it, presumably hoping it would have some value. Stealing it from where Rashad must have smuggled it on board in his steamer trunk. It was Rashad who had "accidentally" freed whatever was inside before Barney could examine it. Obviously, it had carried one of those Bat-Things -- Barney glanced down at the dead creature and shuddered.
Rashad must've realized, after the attack, that the trip up river was going to prove more dangerous than had his earlier, less conspicuous trip down river. At that point, Rashad had become a genuine ally -- at least until they had reached their destination.
But enough of such musings, Barney told himself. It was time to get out of here, even if it required busting a few heads -- especially if he could bust a few heads! He peered out the little window and saw a robed cultist on guard outside. He picked up the little corpse of the Bat-Man, cringing at the unnatural texture of its cooling skin. Then he propped it in the little window.
"Hey," he called. "Are these things good to eat?"
The cultist turned...and let out a horrified wail as he saw the dead object of his idolatry.
Barney danced back into the dark interior of his cell even as he heard keys scraping outside. Suddenly the door was flung aside and the cultist burst in, rage frothing his lips, a pistol in his hand. "Heretic!" he screamed, firing wildly. Barney ducked, barely in time, then swung a mighty fist that cleared the gun from the cultist's hand. With an uppercut, he put the true believer down for the count.
Grabbing up the gun -- Barney's gun as it turned out -- and the ammunition belt the man had wrapped around him, Barney set off. Part of him just wanted to make it back to the Lucky Anne and run, leaving Arlene Wentworth to whatever fate befell her. After all, he had begun to piece together things about her that formed a rather uncomplimentary picture. But he couldn't bring himself to do so.
He set out to find where they had her hidden.
* * *
Arlene stood there, dressed in nothing but her creamy white skin. Just seeing her exposed loveliness sent a pulse through his veins.
"Daddy," she shouted, half plea, half command...half whimper.
"The Way permits no familial ties, child," shouted her father, standing opposite Barney, peering down on his nude daughter. "All who unbelieve must be converted, or must perish."
"Then I'll convert. Please, daddy, I'll be one of you."
"No, wanton whore," roared the senior Wentworth. "For you are unworthy."
Barney raised an eyebrow. It seemed an uncharitable thing for a father to say about his daughter. Barney fingered his gun, trying to figure out what was planned. If it was an execution, how would it be carried out. Why was she naked? he asked. That was the key. Surely it wasn't just for salacious reasons. Wentworth was still her father for crying out loud, Barney thought. I mean, could this get any more sordid? he asked. No, assuming there was a practical reason for her lack of clothes, what was it? Why would they want her flesh exposed?
Barney's features blanched.
Suddenly Edgar Wentworth struck a bronze gong beside him and the cultists raised their hands and commenced to chant. Again he struck the gong. And again.
And Barney heard a sound like scurrying feet. But it wasn't feet.
It was wings!
Bursting from the little niches that lined the chamber walls, the same niches they had first seen in the main hall, came a torrent of winged death. They weren't niches, but tunnels! The Bat-Men flocked out into the main chamber, thickening the air with their leathery wings, the shrieking chirps of their voices -- voices that seemed partly the scream of bats, and partly the cackling of human voices.
Arlene screamed and flung herself to the ground as the deadly creatures flocked around her.
Barney looked around wildly. What could he do against such as they? Then he noticed the netting and an idea came to him. Stepping forward boldly, he wrenched aside the netting between him and the arena and, raising his gun, fired into the thick of the Bat-Men, though away from Arlene. One. Two. Three. Bat-shapes spiraled from the air.
Edgar Wentworth screamed, his eyes wide. "There!" he shrieked, pointing at Barney. "Stop him! Kill him!"
Already the Bat-Men had turned en mass from Arlene and were flying at Barney, seeking this enemy who cut them from the sky. With a prayer he wasn't in a position to expect would be listened to, he leapt from the balcony, into the arena. And the bats kept going.
He raced to Arlene who only bore a couple of scratches.
She looked up, eyes wide, body shivering. "B-Barney? What?"
He grinned as screams of the cultists drifted down to him from above. "Obviously when the creatures get into a feeding frenzy, they don't much care who they eat. That's why the cultists erected a net. With the net down, well, the Bat-Men are as happy to munch on their devotees as anyone else..." Scooping her up, he threw her over one shoulder and raced for the nearest door before the bats remembered they had left a morsel unfinished.
He kicked out at the door with all his might, then again. With the third kick it came off its hinges and they raced out into the hall.
Two minutes later they were in the main hall, marked by the brain-dashed corpse of the Chinese sailor. Barney raced for the entrance, and escape.
He whirled to see Edgar Wentworth running at him, his face torn and bloody, an ax in his hands. "The Bat-Men have expressed their displeasure with us. We have failed them by letting you live."
"Hell, man," said Barney. "They're not displeased, they're hungry. Face it, they don't care one whit about you."
Roaring inarticulately, clearly not dissuaded from his murderous agenda by the sight of his daughter's gleaming bare bottom draped over Barney's shoulder, Wentworth raised his ax. Barney flung up his pistol and shot him in the face. Then a second time in the chest as he went down, for good measure.
"C'mon, princess," Barney muttered. "Let's get out of this nuthouse."
He raced out onto the stone steps fronting the river, and stopped. His small boat was still there, and the Lucky Anne farther out on the water. But the sailor he had left to man it was gone. Obviously the cultists had got him, Barney realized ruefully. He lowered Arlene into the boat, then untied the mooring line and, moments later, the motor was sending them growling toward the Lucky Anne. The crocodiles watched them sullenly as they passed.
Arlene sat at one end of the boat, naked but seeming unaware of that, or unconcerned. "You-you saved me," she said hoarsely.
He grunted non-committally. "Which was more than you intended for me." She looked like a sensual, feral creature, nude against the primordial backdrop of the scum flecked river and dense jungle. And that wasn't far from the truth, he realized. She had all the instincts of a predator.
Arlene said nothing to his cryptic comment.
He cut the engine as they came up beside the Lucky Anne, bumping sullenly against the bigger vessel. Arlene rose and climbed the ladder onto the bigger boat as Barney secured the smaller skiff aft. Then he followed...
..and found himself face to face with a gun held in the hands of an immaculately dressed Englishman with a glinting gold tooth. Daimon Farnsworth the Third grinned at him. Barney's eyes glanced over and saw Arlene held in the arms of the missing Chinese sailor, his hand covering her mouth, preventing her from shouting a warning.
"Well, Mr. Calhoun," purred Farnsworth, "we meet again."
"Didn't figure we'd get this far, did you?" Barney asked.
"Why, whatever do you mean?"
"I had a little chat with Lo Phat. He told me all about your arrangement with him, to ransom Arlene."
Farnsworth's eyes grew cold, though his smile never left his lips. "Yes. I'm afraid I arrived in time to catch the aftermath of your handiwork at Lo Phat's casino. Pity. Moyalai won't be the same without the little diversions he provided. Pray tell, what else do you know?"
"I know that you figured to get rich even if Arlene did make it up river. For a long time, I didn't know how. Then I realized. This wasn't a rescue mission -- it was an assassination. Arlene, spoiled little rich girl with only a trust fund to keep her amused, is instructed by message to return an artifact to her father in the jungles of Maroon. For her, it's a golden opportunity that's hard to resist. She spreads the word that her father is being held by cultists, demanding ransom. She hooks up with an unscrupulous man like you to help organize an expedition. She plans to go up river, murder her own father, and return, claiming cultists did it. No one would question it under the circumstances and Arlene inherits millions. And you get your percentage."
"You are clever," agreed Farnsworth. "And everything worked out reasonably well, I take it? Wentworth is dead? So Arlene inherits. I collect my fee."
"And I feed the crocodiles."
"How astute," conceded Farnsworth. Arlene began to squirm against the confining arms of the stocky Chinese sailor, but her supple body was helpless against his thick arms of corded muscle. Farnsworth glanced her way, and a cruel smile creased his already grinning lips as he took in her totally nude body, writhing helplessly in the arms of his henchman. "Take her below, Ching. There's a good chap. I'm sure she can amuse us on the way back to Moyalai."
Arlene's eyes grew wider as the sailor grinned. She began to flail about even more as he bodily lifted her from her feet and started hauling her aft.
Farnsworth looked at Barney and shrugged. "No reason we can't be paid in trade as well as cash. After all, when we reach port, I somehow doubt she'll press any charges concerning any, ah, ungentlemanly behaviour on my part -- not when, with what I know, I can put her in prison for a long time."
"But how will you explain Wentworth still being alive?" Barney said, nodding at something just over Farnsworth's shoulder. He hadn't really expected the Englishman to fall for such an obvious ploy, so he was almost unprepared to take advantage of it when Farnsworth glanced over his shoulder.
Barney leapt forward and his iron hard fists sent Farnsworth careening against the pilot house, his gun skittering away on the deck. He delivered another blow to the Englishman's mid-section when a brawny shape collided with his side, bearing him to the ground. Barney drove an elbow into the ear of the Chinese sailor, then kneed him, freeing himself enough to roll to his feet. He was exhausted, battered, bruised, and just plain fed up.
But Barney Calhoun was damned if he was going to die now.
As the sailor snarled and came at him, Barney hit him hard with a right, then his left, but the sailor got in a couple of crosses himself. The air around them was a pink mist from flying sweat and blood. Both men were growling like beasts as they lay into each other, hitting and grappling, no longer entirely resembling men. The sailor tried to get him in a bear hug, but Barney ducked and slipped around him. Then his mighty arms coiled about the sailor's bull neck like a python. The Chinese sailor clawed at his arms, raking great rivers of blood, as Barney pulled back, harder and harder. Finally, with a tremendous twist, Barney heard a sickening crunch, and the sailor fell dead.
He staggered about, momentarily disoriented, then turned clumsily to face the muzzle of Farnsworth's gun. "The end of the line for you, old fruit," said Farnsworth.
Suddenly a flash of naked limbs, and Arlene Wentworth barreled into the Englishman, sending him tumbling over the side. Barney staggered forward, wiping blood from his eyes, and peered over.
Farnsworth was treading water, glaring up at him. "This isn't over, Calhoun. Not by a long shot. I--" As if hearing, or maybe sensing, that he was not alone, Farnsworth turned.
He had time to scream before a crocodile dragged him under the murky waters.
Grimacing, Barney turned...and once more faced a gun.
Arlene stood there, radiantly beautiful in her nakedness, save for the death spitting weapon. She stared at him blankly for a moment. Then she dropped the gun and came to him. "You're hurt. Oh, baby. We must get you patched up."
He studied her suspiciously.
"What?" she asked. "You can't believe anything that dreadful man said. Besides, even if it were true, isn't it possible I fell in love with you, despite myself?"
Barney continued to stare. He remembered their moments of passion -- but he also remembered how they seemed to coincide with moments when she needed to manipulate him, like when he might have been having second thoughts after the first attack, or was asking too many probing questions. Lo Phat referred to her as a "seductress", as if she had used her wiles on him. Had she put the gun down now out of love, compassion...or because, with everyone else dead, she needed someone to get her back to civilization.
She continued to dab at his wounds. "Besides, whatever Farnsworth said, none of it can be proven, so let's forget it." She looked up at him. "You get us underway, then we'll get you fixed up. Then," she rose on her toes and kissed his chin, "you'll get freely what Farnsworth would've taken by force. After all, it's a long way home, and we must do something to pass the time." She grinned slyly, then turned, and walked toward the aft of the boat.
Barney watched her round, perfect bottom as she did.
Hell, Barney figured, as he set to work casting off. What did it matter? She was right, he couldn't prove anything. And maybe he should have some sympathy. With a dad like Edgar Wentworth -- well, it was no wonder Arlene might have grown up a tad...skewed.
They might as well enjoy each other while they could. After all, he doubted she'd be very pleased with him once they reached the city and he'd lie and tell the authorities that, well, gosh, sirs, but Edgar Wentworth was alive and well when last I saw him.
Maybe she wouldn't get punished for all her schemes, but she wouldn't be getting her inheritance anytime soon. Not if he could help it.
Previous Episode: The Temple of the Bat-Men
The Bat-Men of the Yinga River is copyright 2001 by the author.