Monday, October 6, 2014


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 11: "Escape"

"Man, c'mon.  This is cruel and unusual punishment."

Willy Avis stood at the bars of his cell in Count Zodiac's island castle.  He wasn't sure where it was located within the building: he too had been drugged at the lunch table and had woken up in the cell by himself.  He had no idea where Clifton Storm or Brock Thurman were.  His personal belongings had been left to him but had obviously been rifled through, and even his shoes had been removed and examined.  The small wire saw he kept rolled up in his wallet was missing as was his pocket knife and a few other tools he'd kept on him, along with his silver Zippo lighter.  He was left with only the wallet and his pack Lucky Strikes, which showed signs that all the cigarettes had been removed, examined, and replaced when they had been found to look normal.

Across from the barred door to Willy's cell, one of Zodiac's armed guards stood with an impassive face and stared at the captive.  He acted like Willy hadn't even addressed him.

"They left me cigarettes but no lighter or no matches.  I know this is a captive situation, but come on..." Willy continued.  "I can at least smoke in here, can't I?  Whether we get out of this or not, I know that a firing squad might be waiting for me, and at least they let you have a last smoke before they perforate you.  So why not now, why not here?"

The guard shifted his stance against the wall and cleared his throat, looking down the hallway to his left.  Willy hoped the shift meant he was chipping away at the guard's patience.

"Look, I know you can't let me have my lighter in here because you guys are all paranoid that we've got gadgets up our sleeves.  And I can also tell that the gadgets I did have have been taken from me.  But you left me with my smokes and no way to light up.  And I could really use a cigarette right now."

The guard shifted again and looked the other way, to his right.  Willy decided to play up his common bond with the guard.

"Look, don't lie to me," he told the guard, "I can see the outline of your pack of cigarettes in your breast pocket.  I know you know this feeling, when you just feel like you're gonna die if you don't have one.  C'mon.  Humor me, please.  Gimme a light."

The guard shifted again and sighed.  "Okay," he said at last, "I guess I could use a cigarette myself.  But make it quick, okay?"

The guard fished a pack of matches out of his pocket along with his own pack.  He checked down the hall again as he stepped forward.  Willy grinned as he extracted a cigarette from his Luckies.

Willy placed the Lucky between his lips and leaned forward.  The guard struck the match and held it to then end of Willy's cigarette.  The paper and tobacco began to burn.

"Thanks: you are a lifesaver," Willy told him gratefully.  He inhaled deeply through his nose and closed his eyes.

Then blew out forcefully through his mouth and through the cigarette.

Willy's exhaled breath forced a powder of magnesium through the faux cigarette's body and out through the burning tip at the end.  The white-hot cloud engulfed the guard's head, blinding and burning him.  Before the guard could cry out Willy's hands shot through the bars: one gripped the front of the guard's fatigue shirt, the other the back of the guard's head and Willy yanked the guard forward, hard.  The guard's head bashed into the iron bars between them, and Willy slammed it again and again into them.

The guard's weight went slack, unconscious.  Willy cracked one eye open: the fast-burning magnesium was fizzling out and the guard's head and hair were smoking.  His head was bleeding and his eyes closed.  He wasn't dead, but he was out cold and badly burned.

Willy didn't feel great about tricking the guard the way he did, but it was necessary: he had to get out and try to find the others.  They had to take Zodiac down, or at least escape and come back with reinforcements.

The act had made a lot of noise.  Willy listened for approaching footsteps: there were none.  He lowered the guard to the ground through the bars, then searched for the keys to the cell.  He found them and fished them out of the guard's pocket, then stood and unlocked his cell door.  It swung open, creaking slightly.  Willy grimaced at the noise and waited for other guards to approach.  Once again, there were no others approaching.

"So far, so good," Willy muttered as he dragged the guard into the cell.  He shut the cell door but didn't shut it all the way in case he needed a quicker exit.  Willy then stripped the guard of his weapons and uniform.

Willy was on the thin side so even though the fatigues would be a little large on him they would still fit.  The fit wasn't what worried Willy, though: the disguise would only work at a distance.  Not only were the neck and shoulders of the fatigues visibly burnt by the magnesium, but Willy himself would be suspect.  Simply put, Count Zodiac's home country of Altaveria - where most of his soldiers had been culled from - had little or no black people among its population.  Storm's team had seen a lot of Zodiac's guards throughout the castle when they had arrived, and to Willy's memory there hadn't been a single person of color among them, just a lot of white eastern-Europeans.  He would have to stay as far away from others' view as he could.

Willy rapidly dressed the guard in his own clothes and placed him on his bunk, concealing his body just enough so that a casual passerby would recognize Willy's clothes only.  He checked the guard's sub machine gun and sidearm (a Finnish Suomi KP/-31 and a Walther P38 respectively, along with several spare drums and clips of ammunition) and then, shutting and locking the cell door behind him, Willy stalked down the corridor to find his friends.

The lack of windows and the low ceilings tipped Willy off that he was probably underground.  He checked his watch and found it to be almost five o'clock PM, but he couldn't tell if it was the same day or not.

Willy passed cell after empty cell.  Zodiac's dungeons were quite empty it seemed, at least here in this section.  At the end of the low-ceilinged hall he found a door.  He peered through the barred window and saw yet more cells in the hallway beyond, along with the retreating back of another uniformed guard as he made his rounds along his patrol.  The guard disappeared around the corner.

Willy opened the door, holding his breath as it creaked softly in the quiet hall.  He moved stealthily along the stone-walled corridor, sweat beading across his brow.  As he walked, he passed more cells, this time many of them occupied.  In one of them, Willy recognized the face of Billy Hartsell, the actor who was part of Jimmy Keane's ill-fated film shoot.  A few of the captives looked to him and started to speak.  He silenced them with a finger across his lips as he passed them.  Ahead, the guard had stopped and Willy could hear him speaking as he approached the corner:

"... if Storm's lucky enough to reach the other end of the valley, Count Zodiac says he'll let you and the others go free."

"That's hokum and you know it," the voice of Brock Thurman retorted.  "Your boss is as nutty as they come, but he's twice as crooked and he isn't stupid.  There's no way in hell you're gonna let us go and you know it."

The guard laughed.  "Of course: you know that and I know that but Storm doesn't, I'm sure.  He's got no choice but to play along.  I'll wager your leader is as gullible as you are ugly."

Brock's sneer was audible.  "Tough talk for a guy with guns.  Drop your gear and step in here and I'll show you how ugly I can get."

The guard laughed again.  "Right.  No thank you.  You're good right where you are, caveman."

The guard chuckled again and turned back the way he'd come.  He rounded the corner and came face to face with Willy Avis.

"Hi," Willy said, and clubbed the guard in the face with the butt of the Suomi.  He reeled backward, stunned, and Willy stepped forward, tripping the man and clubbing him again with the gun when he hit the ground.  After he let out a ragged groan the guard slipped into unconsciousness.

Brock looked at him.  "Willy, we gotta get these people out of here.  Zodiac's got Cliff out there in the jungle in some kinda crooked sick game, and he's not planning on letting anyone go even if Cliff makes it."

Willy rifled through the keys on the jailer's ring and found one that opened Brock's cell, then the big troubleshooter took the second guard's ring and the pair of them began opening the cells of the other captives.

"Where's Fay Durning?" Willy asked.  "She was among this bunch too, wasn't she?"

"No, she's always been kept separate," Billy Hartsell spoke up.  "We haven't seen her since we were first taken captive."

The door at the other end of the hall burst open and a trio of Zodiac's guards stood there with their sub machine guns at the ready.

One of them shouted at the captives.  "Surren-!"

Willy's Suomi blasted, cutting the guard off mid-shout.  He went down as his companions began to fire into the group of escapees.

Brock had snatched up the other guard's weapons & ammunition, and he blasted back at the guards.  One of the men crumpled to the ground as he spouted blood.  The third had turned and run  back the way he came.  After several seconds an alarm began clanging throughout the castle.

"So much for the element of surprise, Willy," Brock grunted.  "Let's get these people out of here."

Willy nodded.  "We're gonna need one of those troop trucks outside."

The two MARDL team members led the group through the winding corridors of the dungeon, coming at last to a narrow staircase leading up to the ground-floor level.  A group of Zodiac's soldiers were charging down the steps when the escapees arrived, and Willy and Brock let loose with more gunfire.  The first few guards went down but withering fire from the second line of the group sent the troubleshooters and their rescued prisoners scurrying around a corner.

Brock blindly fired a volley of covering shots around the corner, causing the approaching guards to shrink back.  More were coming through the doorway, and more bullets where whining everywhere in the stone-walled hallway.

Aware of his dwindling ammo, Brock glanced at Willy who crouched next to him.  "This is bad, y'know," he said between shots.  He glanced upward, over the captives' heads and at a narrow air duct in the corridor's ceiling.  "Get them out of here,"

Willy looked up at the air duct's cover, then at the film crew.  They were all men and women of medium build: they could all fit through the duct and get outside that way, or at least get to where they could get out of the castle from there.  But Brock would be too big to fit.

"What about you?"

A ricochet spanged off the wall above their heads, showering them with bits of splintered rock and dust.  "Forget about me," Brock told him.  "I've probably got enough ammo to hold them out for a bit longer.  You take them away from here and keep your own bullets to yourself, you might need them."  Brock grinned his overgrown child's grin.  "I'll slow them down and let' em think you've gone ahead.  Don't worry, I got this."

"You playin' the hero, kid?" Willy asked him as he stood up and began loosening the duct cover from the low ceiling.

"Isn't that our job?"  Brock winked back.

Willy began helping the film crew up into the air duct.  It was cramped and they had to crawl along their hands and knees in the dark but they began to move in the direction Willy told them to go, a direction which hopefully would lead them closer to the outside of the castle.  All the time the soldiers of Count Zodiac crept closer to the corner that Brock still held.  He was running out of time and bullets.

"If we get out of here, I'm taking them to the village on the other side of the island," Willy Told him.  "They won't be safe there for long-"

"Which is why I'm going to where the Island Girl should've crash-landed," Brock cut him off.  "We're gonna need to get some help on this rock, or we're all sunk.  Zodiac's got us outnumbered and outgunned."

"That's if the radio still works," Willy reminded him as he helped the last movie crewman up into the air duct.  "Once they're safe at the village I'll go to the crash site myself, in case..."  He didn't finish.

"Don't worry, I'll meet you there!" Brock yelled over the gunfire, which was getting ever closer now.  "Now get going, old man!"  He fired back a burst from his sub machine gun, and then it clicked on an empty chamber.  He'd run dry.

A fresh drum of ammo from Willy's reserves clattered to the floor beside Brock.  He scooped it up and slapped it into the Suomi, and he glanced up just in time to see the duct cover slide back into place in the ceiling over the now empty hall.

Grinning again, Brock fired another burst of covering fire then ran further down the hall, taking cover behind another corner just before a new burst of fire from his enemies ripped through the air.