Saturday, October 27, 2012


(NOTE: This serial takes place out of order chronologically with the Challenger Storm novels, which are being written with a definite timeline in mind.  "The Valley of Fear" happens after at least book 5 or 6, but this shouldn't hinder the reading experience.  I'm flying by the seat of my pants here, so I make no guarantees in regards to quality or coherence.)


Episode 6: "Lunch and Treachery"

There was a moment of silence as the two men sized each other up.  A wind sprang up and stirred the humid air of the island, and the trees around them sighed and whispered in the breeze.  Finally, Storm ended the silence.

"I was blind not to see the signs.  The uniforms were one, and that bull-horned fellow with the helmet... I suppose he's Taurus?"

Count Zodiac nodded.  "Absolutely.  Taurus is my current enforcer, the strong arm of my empire."

Storm scoffed.  "Empire?  Seems to me I quashed your dreams of an empire back in '35.  I wouldn't exactly call hiding out here in the jungle an empire."

An ember of hot anger briefly stirred in Zodiac's black eyes, but it passed and he smiled.  "I suppose this seems small-scaled when compared to the scope of my vision when we last met," he calmly said, "but I needed to get my feet under me again somewhere, and this was as good a place as any."

"Yeah, the natives here don't seem too thrilled about that.  I don't suppose you know anything about a girl we heard screaming in the jungle out there?"

Zodiac ignored the comments and turned on his heel, motioning for his captives and their guards to follow him into the castle.

"It's regrettable that your aircraft had to be destroyed to bring you here: the ornithopters were designed only to destroy your craft, not to eliminate you and your men when you bailed out.  It's a shame, but necessary.  I admire your fleet and the modifications that you make on your planes."

"A fleet that's now down by one seaplane, thank you.  I suppose those ornithopters should have raised a flag for me too," Storm replied, shuffling along with his shackled feet.  "They were a piece of work, really.  I noticed that they split into two to do their dirty work once they landed on the plane.   I suppose that's another zodiacal reference, too: Gemini, the twins... an 'air sign'?"

Zodiac chuckled.  "Right you are.  You continue to be as perceptive as when we last met."

"And you continue to keep sticking to your tired horoscope-shtick," Storm countered with a lopsided grin.  He remembered Count Zodiac's mania for astrology and how he disliked it being mocked.  "Ever thought about getting a new gimmick, Count?"

Zodiac wheeled, the spark again within his eyes.  "The stars chart our fate, our course in life.  It is no gimmick, no arbitrary theme that I have chosen.  Fate chose me, as I told you before.  It is a gift, a gift of power, and you are in no position to poke fun at it."

Storm grinned back in defiance but his eyes held anger, a rage he'd held suspended for four years.  "Whatever you say, Madame Zelda."

Zodiac ignored the taunt and turned again, and the others followed in his wake into the castle.  Willy and Brock exchanged a questioning glance before they started to walk with the others.  The MARDL troubleshooters had heard of the villain known as Count Zodiac, and had known that Storm had encountered him once before while on a mission for a secret US government group simply called "The Eye", but they didn't know much more about the event.  Neither of them had been on the mission with Storm, and their friend and leader was very reluctant to discuss the details of the encounter with them.  There were some raw nerves being played upon here and it was evident that despite Storm's flippant attitude toward the strange Count, there was a seething and deep-seated anger between the two men.  For now, however, they would have to wait for an answer, if one would ever come.  All they could do was continue their march into Zodiac's fortress and wonder, just as Storm was wondering, exactly where and what they were being led to.

The castle's structure was enormous, with soaring arched ceilings and ornate stonework at every turn.  Everywhere Storm and his teammates looked, their gaze was met with a beautifully crafted tribute to a zodiacal sign in nearly every room: a statue and fountain built to honor Aquarius, a massive stone lion representing Leo, an enormous flaming chandelier designed to look like the scales of Libra...  There was a grand hall, and the floor was an elaborate mosaic depicting all of the signs of the horoscope in a circular pattern, with corresponding constellations and planetary figures at the design's outer edges.  The grandeur of the setting was only matched by the military-like presence of Zodiac's forces: there were uniformed guards everywhere, many of them adorned with astrological symbols that denoted their specialties within Zodiac's mad army.

Finally, after leading his soldiers and the captive adventurers to an upper level of the castle, Zodiac paused before a closed door.  He turned briefly toward his captives and said, "You're just in time for lunch," before he turned and pushed open the massive wooden door.  Beyond the portal, a sunny open terrace was revealed, and beyond it was a beautiful panoramic view of the island's valley.  A long wooden table was laid out with a pristine white tablecloth, and upon this were succulent-looking exotic dishes in serving bowls and platters.  The odor of spices mixed with the jungle air on the breeze to bring the feeling of a tropical paradise to the newcomers, a feeling only broken by the presence of the armed soldiers of Count Zodiac's army.

Sitting at the table was a man in a crisp white shirt and khaki trousers.  He looked like a vacationing member of the idle rich, but on second glance Storm recognized him: he was the missing B-movie producer and director, Jimmy Keane.  Keane's round face beamed in a grin at the sight of Storm and his men.

"You got him," he said in a slightly hushed and awed tone to Count Zodiac.  "Geez, I can't believe you really got him."

"Of course I got him," Zodiac replied imperiously as he sat at the head of the table.  "There was no reason he wouldn't have come."  Then to the captives: "Please, sit."  He motioned them to their chairs.

Storm rattled his shackles.  "Oh, you're just too kind," he said sarcastically.  He sat down at the other end of the table, and Willy and Brock flanked him on either side as they sat.

Servers appeared and they set about making plates for the men at the table.  The dishes were hard to identify, being some kind of fusion of styles: Indian spices, Chinese vegetables, an American-style sirloin steak... the mix was heady but delicious.  Several ice-buckets appeared, and the diners were served fine red wines in crystal goblets.  Although they chose ice water over the wine, Storm and his team ate with surprising gusto, and they had not realized they had been so hungry until now.  The first half of the meal was eaten in silence.

Finally, after the most of his hunger was sated, Storm broke the silence.  "All right, Zodiac.  I know you didn't just invite us over for lunch.  What's it all about?"  He sipped at his glass of water.

"Well, it's all about revenge," Count Zodiac said, leaning back in his chair and steepling his fingers before him.  "It's about a dream you plucked from my grasp, and the dreams I've had since of destroying you."

"Ah, of course it is.  Spoken like a true mad villain with a thorn in his side," Storm shook his head.  "And I suppose Mr. Hollywood here and his crew was just the bait?" he nodded toward Keane.

Jimmy Keane dropped his gaze shamefully, and Zodiac spoke for him.  "Indeed.  Mr. Keane had run afoul of some bad men in America.  He was already living the Hollywood high life, but it wasn't as high as others.  So he borrowed money to help him live above and beyond his means and he couldn't pay it back.  And then the men he borrowed money from were threatening him with torture and worse.  It's a very old story."

Storm nodded, already sensing where this was going.

"Mr. Keane," Zodiac continued, "sunk all of his remaining money into what he hoped would be an epic film to be shot on location in the islands of the Pacific-"

"And it stunk," interjected Keane without looking up from his plate.  "I would never have been able to make back what I owed.  I was a damn fool."

"And that's where you came in, I suppose?" Storm asked Zodiac.

"Of course.  You see, I've been watching you for some time, Mr. Storm.  I see you globetrotting and travelling, and the whole time I've been biding my time and waiting for you to come near me.  I knew that you cannot resist helping someone in need, and so I contacted Mr. Keane and arranged to help him if he helped me."

"In the US we say 'you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours'," Brock grunted.

"Very quaint, but nonetheless appropriate," Zodiac replied before continuing.  "I helped him to arrange an 'accident' to befall his crew's chartered aircraft when it neared my island home here, made sure you heard the distress call on your return trip from Australia, and the rest, as they say, is history.  The timing couldn't have been more perfect for me.  The stars smiled in my favor once again."

Storm glanced over at the filmmaker, who was starting to look nauseous.  "And what about the others with Keane?  The crew and cast... where are they?"

"Safe, for now," Zodiac replied.  "Although I can't guarantee how long that will last.  Their livelihood is going to rest squarely on your shoulders, I'm afraid."

Finishing the last of his water, Storm swallowed.  Here it comes, he thought.

"And why is that?" Storm asked.

"You'll find out, just as soon as you wake up," Zodiac smiled.

A wave of heat washed over Storm's insides, and he felt a cold sweat spring up on his forehead.  The water...

Storm stood up but his legs tottered and felt like noodles beneath him.  The world was spinning around his head.

"I am such an idiot...," Storm mumbled aloud with a loopy grin before collapsing into unconsciousness.


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