Andre LeBlanc was the owner of a winery near Mougins, France. His family had come from that area and he was proud to have returned to it as one of its liberators, during the latter part of World War II. But he didn’t stay there for long. He was a Blackhawk.
Since the death of Chuck Wilson, Andre had come home, found his legend preceded him, and married a younger woman, Michelle Duquesne. She had borne the old man two sons and a daughter. The winery had cost Andre a lot of his Blackhawk pay, but it had been worth it. Jacques and Rene were going to take over when they reached their 21st birthdays. Perhaps Charlotte would decide to be part of the company in more than just a stockholder’s status, as well. Right now, she was considering becoming a plastic surgeon, a singer, a supermodel, or all three.
Picasso had spent his last years in Mougins. It was Andre’s eternal regret that he had never been able to meet the man. To make up for it, he had bought one of the artist’s paintings, and hung it prominently in his home. He had a self-devised burglar system that had sent one thief to the local jail for trying to steal it. That is, after Andre had shown the intruder that a man over 60 still knew a few tricks about punishing the human body, if he was a Blackhawk.
Right now, Andre and Michelle were reading in bed. She was only 30, but she could see in his lean form the bearing of one of her homeland’s greatest fighter pilots. Even if his hair was shot through with gray and he had to wear thick bifocals to read.
Michelle, paging through Paris-Match, knew that they would have but few years together. Nonetheless, it was the quality of those years, not the quantity, that mattered. She loved this man who was old enough to have fathered, or perhaps grandfathered, her as if he were her contemporary.
Andre loved Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, and was reading one of the latter’s Socialist novels. As old as he was, even he had never been able to read all of Wells’s works, and he wondered if anyone had, even Wells himself.
Michelle put her hand on his thigh, under the covers. “You require that of me, already?”, he said, turning a page. But she knew he was responding to her touch.
“‘Require’ it?” she asked. “Hmph! You are not that old a man, Andre LeBlanc. Even an old goat such as you feels like a young ram, given proper stimulation.”
Andre lay the book aside. “And you think two glasses of wine from my vineyards--our vineyards, excuse me--are stimulation enough to make me ram you, as I would have a peasant girl 40 years ago?” His arm was behind her neck now, toying with her, and Michelle closed her eyes.
“Would that I had been a peasant girl 30 years ago,” she said. “To have you then would have been worth enduring the Boche.”
Andre growled, pulling her closer. “We must teach the peasant girl some discipline. Off with the nightdress!”
As they were in mid-fondle, the bedside phone rang.
“Name of a name,” he said.
She was startled. Only a few had the number of this phone, and most of those knew well enough when to use it. This was probably serious.
“Answer it, Andre,” she said as the phone rang again.
Andre grabbed for the receiver, toppled it from the hook and onto the floor with his slightly-shaky left hand, and dragged it back up by its cord. “LeBlanc,” he said, a second after.
And several seconds after that, Michelle saw his eyes widen.
“You? It is really you, again? Yes, yes, of course, but...I am not the same as I was when we parted ways. I have a family now, a business, a wife, not in that order, and... I did not say that. I merely said... You are certain of this? It is him? And there are none else to whom you may turn? Ah, very well, expect me on the morrow. Or the day after that, at the latest. Goodbye.”
He replaced the receiver. Andre was breathing hard.
“What is wrong?” asked Michelle. “Who was that speaking?” Then, realization hit her like a sledge. “That--that was not--”
“You know who that was,” he said, quietly. “Tomorrow, you must help me pack.”
In Hong Kong, Wu Cheng sat in an office and tended to details involving his airline. He did not tend to relive the days in which he wore a uniform of yellow and green, or one of black and blue leather, or one of red shirt and green trousers, or even the one consisting of a dark suit and titanium gloves. There was much to deal with in the present.
Retooling to meet new safety standards, for example...his own, higher than the industry norm. Trying to find new ticket and shipping prices high enough to cover operating expenses, but low enough to keep customers, mostly businessmen, using his planes. Approving a short list of new pilots and an even shorter one of those leaving the company. That, and all the other things.
Plus, there was one overwhelming thing he had to worry about. The Mainland. In a number of years it would be taking over the entire island, legally. Those whom he had fought with every breath in his body, in the 1950's, could lay claim to one of the most successful outposts of capitalism in the East. Wu Cheng had no illusions that the West would offer help to Hong Kong. But he did accept the fact that, before that time came, he, his wife, and his sons and daughter would have to move to America.
This was not such a sad thing. He had worked in America for decades. There was still much to love about that land...its freedom, its opportunity. But it was really not his land. He had only made it his second home because he had been a Blackhawk.
Japan was closer. But, even though he dealt with them, and even though he knew it was not what it had been forty years ago, he would never live in that country. Never.
Lunch was not so far away, just about the only thing he looked forward to besides going home to Kumi and the kids. The lights on his desk phone were going off like a New Year’s celebration, but that was all right. His secretary fielded all but the most important ones.
The buzzer sounded.
He pressed the offending button. “Yes?”
“A Mr. Hawk for you on line 7, sir. He says he’s from ‘the island.’”
Wu Cheng’s chin trembled, once, despite himself.
It took him several seconds to press the button.
“Wu Cheng,” he said.
“Chop? This is Blackhawk. Something’s come up.”
The voice from the past. The one he knew would call, someday. He balanced the need the man would inevitably have against his new life and family, and the scale weighted towards the latter. But when he added a weight called Duty to the equation, it swung the balance in favor of his caller.
He made the decision.
“Tell me about it,” he said.
After Bart hung up the phone, Zinda swore at him. He looked at her, without rancor.
“You’ve just condemned two men to death,” she said.
Blackhawk got up from the chair. “My brother just condemned 104. Not counting the injured. The government has already called.”
“The government can go to hell, and try catching Black Mask themselves,” spat Zinda. “You can’t play war anymore, Bart. You’re an old man, dammit! You have a family. We need you.”
He was already at the doorway when he stopped and turned. “Do you, Zinda? Do you, really?”
The woman who was Lady Blackhawk stared at him in confusion. “What do you mean, Bart? You’re my husband, Bart’s and Linda’s father, for heaven’s sake. Of course I need you?”
The old soldier smiled, ruefully. “Just a day ago you were ready to take my kids and go live on the mainland. You wanted to forget you were ever part of the Blackhawks. But that’s not something I’m allowed to forget, Zinda.” He pushed the door open and stared across the open space towards the airfield beyond.
There stood the proud planes that were heir to his original modified Grumman Skyrockets, and all of them bore the same hawk’s-head emblem as the originals.
“Jack is as old as I am,” he said. “I killed Von Tepp because of what he did to him, and to Connie. I guess that old German bastard must be having a merry laugh in Hell, today.”
She wanted to hold him back, but it was no use. Bart was walking towards the planes. Stan and Olaf were already there.
By the time the Blackhawk planes landed at the coastal USAF base, a squad of reporters was there to greet them with a full feeding frenzy. They enveloped the black-clad pilots in a cloud of questions, trailing them and taking pictures as the old heroes walked from their planes. After about 100 yards, Blackhawk decided he’d had enough. He stopped, held up his hand for the others to halt as well, and delivered his one answer to them.
“No comment,” he said.
And the look he gave them let the newsies know he meant it.
The Blackhawks silently walked to the place where a military escort was waiting for them. It was larger than normal. The flyboys might be high-ranking, but when it came to the Blackhawks, every one of them wanted to say he’d shaken one of their hands.
“Blackhawk? I’m Colonel Drummond,” said the man in charge. “This is Lieutenant Avery.”
“An honor, sir,” said Avery, sticking his mitt out.
Blackhawk looked at them. “Col. Drummond. My brother has committed mass murder. Tell me what you know, so that we may deal with him.”
Avery, after another second, withdrew his hand.
“This way, Blackhawk,” said Drummond, and turned on his heel. He led the grim pilots to a small building nearby. At the door, Avery tried to hold the door open for the last entrant.
“Save it,” said Zinda, taking his hand from the door. “I’m one of the boys.”
Inside, Drummond and Avery had set up a long table for the Blackhawks, with a number of papers at his seat and a large-screen television dominating the room. Everyone but Drummond sat down. The colonel picked up a videocassette and displayed it to them. “This is the original tape which the terrorist sent to the Seatlle television station,” he said. “We were hoping you could give us more than what we’ve already got.”
Blackhawk gestured to the VCR before the screen. Obidiently, Drummond put it in, turned on the set, and started the tape.
Avery had a chance to study the Blackhawks’ faces. Old men, all of them, and one woman. One wouldn’t believe that these guys were fit to handle anything but a private plane on a day trip. That is, until...until one looked in their eyes. The lieutenant had seen hard men in his time, from sergeants on up to major generals. But there was nothing that compared to the force he saw in these men’s eyes, and in their bearing. Even the woman and the Chinese guy sent off a don’t-mess-with-me vibe to outdo John Wayne.
And compared to Blackhawk, the others seemed like Twinkies.
The tape started again. In larger-than-life view, they saw the man in the metal mask. Blackhawk’s jaw tightened.
Black Mask repeated his shpiel. “I am the Black Mask. No one but Blackhawk knows my real name. We have been too long apart. Unless he meets with me, that we may settle accounts, more destruction will result. I did it in years past, as he and the government well know. I will do it again, if my demand is not met. Both of us are dying. It is only fitting that we die together.”
Then the image ended. The rest of the tape was only blank.
“The FBI’s been over this tape a hundred times already,” confirmed Drummond. “No hidden noises we can analyze, no clue from the background, no trace on who mailed the thing. What can you tell us?”
“A lot, General,” said the biggest of the Blackhawks. Avery guessed, from his accent and size, that he had to be the one they called Stanislaus. He was a bit stooped, and it looked like his uniform might be a bit too tight around the middle, but Avery still wouldn’t have picked a fight with him. “He is Blackhawk’s brother.”
“Stan,” said Blackhawk, and the big Pole subsided. “Stanislaus is correct, Colonel. Black Mask is my brother. He pulled this same kind of thing years ago, when he wiped out GEORGE. There was only a crater left when he and his men were finished. A lot more than 104 people died in that incident.”
“Please explain,” said Drummond.
Blackhawk leaned back in his chair. “In the late Thirties, before America joined the war, Bart and I joined the RAF to fight the Nazis. My sister Connie became a battlefield nurse. A Nazi ace called Von Tepp killed both of them. Or so I thought at the time. I left the service, started my own outfit, and pointed it at him and the rest of Hitler’s and Tojo’s bunch. It took awhile, but I found Von Tepp. He died.
“It was decades after the war when I found out Jack wasn’t dead. I found it out just after he’d finished wiping out GEORGE. His face and one arm had been torn up by Von Tepp’s bomb. The Krauts had saved him, though, and he recouped in a POW hospital. It took awhile. When they learned who he was, and who I was, they twisted him against me. Wanted to make him my executioner. That appealed to uncle Adolf.
“Before he could be set against us, the Blackhawks made a raid on the base in Norway where they were keeping him. We didn’t know he even existed. We were just doing a job, triggering an avalanche that buried the base under a few thousand tons of ice and snow. Don’t ask me how, but the ice kept Jack alive, in suspended animation. It took a lot of summers for it to thaw out. Once it did, he felt that he had another reason to get me.
“As far as we can tell, he took over a group of malcontents and mercenaries and molded them into his own personal strike force. After he destroyed GEORGE, he sent us a filmed challenge, not unlike the one he did here. I caught up to him, tried to reason with him. I tried. But he wouldn’t listen. He fought me. I didn’t fight back. But the Blackhawks appeared, saved my bacon. I finally managed to--fight him--in a second encounter. He got away.”
Olaf, once the most acrobatic Blackhawk, now walking with a cane, remembered the particulars of that incident. Blackhawk had had a chance to bring down Black Mask’s escape helicopter with a bazooka round. He claimed it misfired. When Hendrickson had tried it, a few minutes later, the weapon discharged without a hitch.
“He got away,” repeated Col. Drummond. Zinda glanced at Bart’s face. It was icy.
“Yes,” said Blackhawk.
“I assume that you tried to find this Black Mask after that incident,” said Drummond.
“We tried,” Blackhawk confirmed. “But he went to ground. Or perhaps underneath it. We never caught his trail, after that.”
“Surprising, for a man who wanted vengeance upon you that badly,” commented Drummond.
Zinda spoke up. “Permit me, Colonel, Blackhawk, if I might. It is possible that Black Mask didn’t actually want to kill Bart--that is, Blackhawk. He had two chances to do so. But he didn’t succeed. Black Mask might have consciously wished to kill Blackhawk, but couldn’t do so, because, subconsciously, he might have remembered...well...he is his brother.”
Andre nodded. “Oui, mon colonel. As Lady Blackhawk notes, the upper and lower parts of the mind often move in opposition, willingly or not.”
Drummond said, quietly, “Such a mechanism might also lead one to think that he is trying to find someone’s whereabouts, as well, when in reality, he has no such intentions. Is that not theoretically possible, as well?”
Blackhawk stared at him, in grim surprise.
“Just a minute,” said Chop-Chop, taking his glasses off. “The implication, Colonel, is that our commander--”
“Stow it, Chops,” said Blackhawk, in a low voice. “I understand the implication. The colonel...is not out of order.”
Zinda and each of his men looked at Blackhawk with something akin to horror.
Blackhawk continued. “Perhaps I did not try hard enough to find Black Mask. Perhaps, as the colonel implied, my...lower mind...was less than eager to see my brother pay the price for his crime. If so, I regret this action, or inaction, as it may be.”
“But, Blackhawk, you do not know this!” protested Stanislaus. “It is only speculation. We know how hard you tried to find him after that.”
“Yes, Stan,” said Blackhawk. “But I didn’t. And because I didn’t, 104 people died. This time, I don’t have the option of failure.”
“One would hope not, Blackhawk,” said Drummond. “But if I might point out the obvious, your brother, if that is who he really is, has not given you any overt clue as to his whereabouts. He implies that you can find him before he causes more destruction, but that he will commit similar acts if you do not.”
Blackhawk’s face twisted in a sardonic smile. “I think I know where to find him, Colonel. One of two places. I need somebody to talk to the State Department for me, quickly.”
Moscow had not been friendly towards the Blackhawks since the end of World War II. The Dark Knights had been fighting Communist tyranny even before the Truman Doctrine was applied, though they were less successful against Stalin and his successors than they had been against Hitler.
Gorbachev’s Russia was not the most stable of places. Glasnost and the financial crisis were precipitating a political one to match, and it was anybody’s guess as to how long the politburo could hold on. This, in turn, made it harder to keep places like Poland under control. But the Soviets still ostensibly ruled, so they were the ones who had to grant the Blackhawks permission to fly there legally. After a bit of wrangling between their ambassadors and those of the U.S., it was granted.
After all, Moscow wasn’t in love with terrorism. Unless the perpetrators were terrorists they sponsored. When it was explained that the suspect had worked for the Nazis, Gorbachev’s people were happy to give permission.
It had been a damned long time since Blackhawk had been there. And, as he led his squadron through the skies over that one particular section of Poland, he wondered if the twitching in the muscles of his left arm were due to age, or something more.
He would not let his mind replay the incident. He would not remember the death of Connie, the maiming of Jack. He would not--
He caught himself trying to close his eyes and lower his head, and smacked himself hard in the side of the face.
“Blackhawk,” came Andre’s voice on the radio. “You are wavering a bit. You wish to land, yes?”
Bart Hawk forced steel into his voice. “Negative, Andre,” he said. “We will proceed to the landing field, meet with the authorities, as planned, and begin our search.” Which means, he told himself, we use the old trick of making ourselves sitting ducks, and letting somebody shoot at us. “This is our first trip back home in a long time. Let me hear you. Count off.”
“Andre,” said the Frenchman, as clearly as he had over forty years ago.
Blackhawk waited. Then he almost kicked himself. Nobody was going to say “Chuck” or “Hendrickson” on this radio, ever again.
“And what do we say after we count off, boys and girls?” asked Blackhawk.
A familiar cry went through their earphones, and Blackhawk joined in it, with unfeigned gusto.
A moment later, he flashed upon the faces those persons really bore. Not the young men of World War II, but four very, very old men. Two of whom had families. Plus one woman, whom was his wife.
My God, he thought. What have I done?
Another thought-voice said: What you’ve always done.
There was nothing left to be done but to run the gauntlet. The landing field was not far away.
Then he saw something. Chop-Chop must have seen it at the same time.
“Incoming at three o’clock,” said the Asian. “Suspect bandits.”
Blackhawk squinted through his windscreen, checked a computer screen, got a match from an inboard IFF device.
“Bandits confirmed,” he said. “It’s one of our old friends, Zinda.”
By that time, the Blackhawks recognized the shape of the planes. They didn’t have to get close enough to see the shark faces painted on the fuselages.
“Thought he was still in jail,” muttered Blackhawk. “What the hell.”
Killer Shark and his squadron moved in to give the Dark Knights their reception.