The Poles and others who had gathered at the landing field to see the legendary Blackhawks land now were treated to another spectacle. After a few moments, most of them realized it wasn’t a staged fight.
The six Blackhawk planes were facing down seven enemy aircraft with shark’s-head emblems on their fuselages. Those in the crowd who were familiar with Blackhawk history could have guessed that the newcomers were the squadron of Killer Shark, the Blackhawks’ most long-lived and persistent enemy.
Killer Shark had been a creation of Adolf Hitler himself, a man whose strength had been artificially boosted by the power of the Third Reich’s scientists. As such, he had been sent against Blackhawk, and had almost defeated him. Later, he gained a coterie of flyers from the Axis to pit against the Blackhawk squadron, even as his artificial powers faded. Killer Shark survived the end of the war and went on to become an international supercriminal. The Blackhawks faced him and his henchmen time after time, and had always been victorious.
But, for about a year, Lady Blackhawk herself had been stricken with amnesia. Killer Shark came upon her, took her in, and gave her the costume and identity of Queen Killer Shark. In effect, he stole her from Blackhawk. That rankled Bart Hawk almost as much as Zinda’s new criminal escapades, and he vowed to free her from the Shark and restore her senses. Eventually, he did just that.
The Shark remained a menace. It was he and his men whom the Blackhawks faced in their last mission together, the one in which Chuck had given his life to save Blackhawk himself from the War Wheel. They had not captured the Shark after that episode.
Now, they had a second chance. Unfortunately, as Blackhawk well knew, it was a second chance for the Shark Squadron as well.
“They’ve got one on us, men,” Blackhawk said into his microphone. “But that’s all right. Keep in mind we have civilians down there. Over.”
In her plane, Zinda thought, Not a mention of his brother, or what disaster he could wreak if any or all of us fall today. That was like Bart. What was understood was not mentioned.
Then bullets started filling the spaces between the planes, and the war was on.
Andre found himself growling unconsciously again, as he had often done in the battles against the Boche. The planes they flew had been built in the Seventies and were modified many times since then. His hands moved the control yoke and his thumb found the firing button on it as he began to line a Shark plane up in his viewscreen.
He was able to loose a burst of lead at his chosen foe just before gunfire through a wingtip caused him to wrench the plane upward. More bullets through his fuselage. Leaking fuel? He glanced at the dash. No, thankfully not.
Olaf was heading against two of the enemy. A radio channel was kept open in Blackhawk planes, separate from the one on which they communicated, for emergency contact. They heard a voice which was not of a friend on it.
“Greetings, Blackhawks!” One didn’t have to listen long to picture the sneer on the face of the man who spoke. “Or should I say, ‘the Magnificent Seven’? Oh, but I forgot...there aren’t so many of you now, are there?”
Olaf broke silence on the private band. “Keep cool, py yiminy,” he warned. “Don’t let him bait you.” He cut it off as the two before him criss-crossed his airspace with machine-gun fire. He pulled up, readied his own firers for action.
“Long time, Killer Shark,” said Blackhawk, as casually as possible.
“Oh, yes, it’s been that,” agreed Killer Shark. “Let’s see...the last time we met, I believe there was a Texan with you. Named Chuck, am I right? Whatever happened to him?”
Stanislaus’s voice intruded, black as the bottom of an oil pit. “You do not speak that name, Killer Shark. Not a safe idea, even for you.”
The Shark laughed, briefly. “And there was another one, that old man, Hendrickson. All things considered, it’s a miracle he lasted as long as he did. Pity, really.”
“It’s a miracle you lasted this long, Shark,” Blackhawk replied. “What made you throw in with my brother on this?”
“Oh, about ten million dollars, plus the chance to see you again, Hawk,” Shark said. “And maybe Queen Killer Shark, too.”
“Shut up,” snarled Zinda. For what might have been the first time, she began to feel the hate of a Blackhawk.
“Oh, I remember you, Zinda, to this very day,” said Killer Shark. “I remember all the fun we used to have together. Any time you want, my dear, your old uniform is waiting for you. Even though I think you looked better out of it.”
“Shut UP!” Zinda sent her craft towards the nearest Shark plane in view, recklessly. She didn’t think it was Killer Shark’s, but it was something to shoot at.
The bullets went through her tailfin as the Shark was saying, “Do you know the age of my current squadron members, Blackhawk? None are over 35...”
Then the plane attacking hers broke away, hammered by another Blackhawk’s bullets. Chop-Chop got on the horn. “Watch yourself, Zinda. I can’t save you if you keep doing that.”
Lady Blackhawk pulled back into herself. “Thanks, Chops,” she replied. “I will.”
Olaf was in trouble. The two Sharks he faced, working in tandem, were trying to strafe him. Then the Swede saw one attacker burst into flame from a punctured fuel tank, and, instants later, saw the pilot grasping his throat as the inside of the cockpit window blotched with red.
Blackhawk had drawn first blood. Olaf, putting his plane into a blackout-busting turn, said “Thank you,” a second before his guns pumped lead into the enemy craft.
The voice of their leader rang out on the common channel. “Appears you’ve lost somebody, Shark. Evens the odds a bit, don’t you think?”
The Shark didn’t speak for a moment. When he came back on, he was a bit more angry in tone. “Four old men and one hag against my young Sharks? I think not, Blackhawk!”
Zinda said, “A minute ago you wanted to see me naked. Now you’re calling me a hag. Make up your mind, darling.”
“Watch out, madame,” said Andre. “The Shark still has teeth.”
Stanislaus was closing with another foe. “Yes,” he said. “But we pull them for him, one by one!”
Lady Blackhawk tried to keep her husband’s plane in view, but had the problem of another attacker to deal with. The pilot was good, she had to admit, as she tried evasive action. Good, apparently experienced, and about twenty years younger than herself.
An Immelman turn was difficult in the kinds of jets they flew, but Zinda managed it. The kid anticipated enough of it to try and get out of her sights when she circled behind him and righted herself, but he wasn’t quite that good. Enough gunfire punctured his tail section for him to hit the ejector switch and let his plane pancake in a field nearby, sending up a plume of smoke. The pilot loosed his parachute and was coming down at a safe velocity. She knew at a glance that it wasn’t Killer Shark.
With another glance, she caught the sight of the man’s body jerking in mid-air as it was torn apart by gunfire.
Killer Shark was back on the air. “Just to clear up any misunderstanding: I did that. Now the rest of my men know that they have one choice: kill a Blackhawk, or die.”
Everyone on both sides heard the next words of Blackhawk, and none would ever forget them.
“You’ve already killed one Blackhawk. And you will die.”
Dead silence on the channel.
One frightened Sharkman finally broke it. “Chief, perhaps we should negotiate, yes? Perhaps we can work out a deal, yes?”
“SHUT UP!” came Killer Shark’s voice. “All right, Blackhawk, that’s how we both want to play it. To the death. Your move.”
“I’m already moving, Shark,” said Blackhawk.
That was all he said, and all he needed to.
Andre clutched at his control yoke, felt his creakiness, and cursed himself for being an old man. True, his reflexes were still good--he couldn’t have held out this long if they weren’t--but not what they had been. Not when he was one of the seven terrors of the skies, in the Forties, Fifties, and Sixties.
He flashed once again on his wife and children, waiting for him back in Mougins, and wondered what in the hell he was doing here. A split-second was all the time he could allot for it. The Sharks were at him again, trying to catch him in a pincers of lead.
With a sudden wrench of the controls which caused his aged arms pain, Andre pulled the Hawkjet into a roll and halted it so that his wings were perpendicular to the ground. As such, he slipped by the leaden lances of his two foes, minus a few that hit a wingtip. Then he righted himself, came at them from the back, and opened up with his own guns. First one, then two, burst into flame.
“Zut alors,” he told himself. “Andre, there is something of the old rogue in you yet.”
A steel-jacketed bullet snackered through his cockpit window and out the other side. He pulled the jet up in an evasive maneuver. The old rogue still had to watch his own tail.
Stanislaus was aware of Andre’s deed and broke off a confrontation of his own to chase the pilot on the Frenchman’s back. He had seen the gunfire break into the cockpit of Andre’s plane, but his friend seemed unharmed. “By gar, we keep it that way,” he promised.
The Sharkman saw Stanislaus and broke off his pursuit of Andre. Both planes converged on each other, and Stan smiled grimly, as he had many a time before but not for years since.
Weapons blazed. Metal was pierced, fuel lines were penetrated, and the two opposing aircraft still came for each other. Then Stanislaus’s plane soared upward, and a trail of smoke came from the Sharker’s tail section. Lady Blackhawk saw it and headed that way, leading with her guns. Before another minute had passed, she blasted a goodly number of holes in the enemy plane’s cockpit--and in its pilot.
The Sharkplane tailspun, engines doing what they do when a pilot’s cold hand is no longer on the controls, and crashed with a horrible impact on the ground. A fireball formed the pyre of the young criminal aviator. It would be hours before firemen could drag away what was left of the body.
Zinda saw it and her eyes widened. My God, she thought. My God. I did that. I really did that. I shot down a plane. I killed a man.
Her breath came in short gasps and her hands trembled on the controls. A voice on the radio. Bart’s. “Zinda, are you all right? Zinda, talk to me.”
“I’m...here, Bart. I’m...” She opened her eyes. She had to open them. The battle was still on. The muscles on her jaws stood out as she said, “I’m a Blackhawk.”
And what a cold and awful thing that has turned out to be, she told herself.
The voice of Blackhawk returned. “I understand, kid. We’ll finish this up and then talk about it.”
His tone held understanding. Even comfort. He sounded like a human being again.
All it took was her killing a man.
Three were left, and Chop-Chop was taking care of one of them. The Sharkplane exploded, even though the Chinese pilot’s ship took some hits. Then the sound of gunfire piercing his plane from above. Accompanied by a stinging pain that shot through a shoulder, taking a bit of him with it as it went through the floor. Wu Chieng gasped in pain, fought to hold his control with his good arm.
“Chief,” he grated. “Blackhawk. I’m out...gotta pancake.”
“Chops,” came Bart Hawk’s voice. “How bad?”
“Shoulder,” he said, in a strained whisper. “Sorry. Gotta. Go down.”
“Py yiminy, Chop-Chop, I get him for y--” That was Olaf’s voice. Cut off. Even through the throbbing pain of his wound, Wu Chieng wondered, What happened?
“Olaf, come back,” said Blackhawk. “Olaf, acknowledge.”
Zinda saw it.
The plane of Olaf, pinwheeling in the air, dragging smoke. Then the cockpit blasting loose, and the figure of Olaf, ejected in his chair, heading up on jets of compressed force suddenly loosed, the apex, the bounce, the plummet down, and the open parachute, all within seconds.
Then the stream of bullets that tore into him and spattered his blue-black uniform with gore.
“Olaf,” Zinda said. Then she yelled it. “OLAF!”
Only two Sharkers were left in the air, and she saw them both. She didn’t have to wonder long which of them had got him.
“Blackhawk,” came Killer Shark’s voice, softly. “I think I got one.”
Obscenities Zinda didn’t even know she could use spewed from her lips. All the world contracted into a small sphere of hate in her mind that felt as though it had the mass of a white dwarf star.
A phrase of poetry intersected it from some half-remembered text: I sing of Olaf, glad and big...
Zinda didn’t even know she had shot down the secondary Shark plane until she saw it going down in flames.
“Back off, all of you,” Blackhawk ordered on the channel open to all. “He’s mine.”
“Blackhawk,” came Stanislaus’s voice, and he couldn’t hide the tears in it. “Olaf...”
Zinda looked down and saw Chop-Chop’s plane on the ground, in a field, having plowed up a whole line of wheat in its landing. Stanislaus and Andre were pulling back. That left herself and Blackhawk. Her husband, Bart, against the sole surviving enemy, Killer Shark himself.
She began to circle, damning herself for not being involved, and knowing it could be no other way.
They heard the voice of Killer Shark, now. “Blackhawk, a bit of advice. I bear a mesage from your brother.”
“You can give him one from me when you see him in hell,” said Blackhawk. The Hawkjet was coming for Killer Shark’s plane like a bull towards a matador.
“We’ve done this before.” This time, they heard the nervousness in the villain’s tone. “You knew something like this was bound to happen. Fortunes of war. Nothing personal.”
“Shut up, Shark.”
Then there was only time for the guns to fire and the planes to maneuver as best they could. Both caught fire. One went down.
It was Killer Shark’s plane.
Zinda waited for Blackhawk to bail out. And waited. And waited.
The Sharkjet was dipping lower in the air, and Blackhawk’s burning plane followed. He was blasting away at Killer Shark with every foot of space through which they fell.
“Bart,” she said, breaking radio silence. “Bart!”
Stanislaus’s voice was heard. “Wait, Zinda,” he said. “Please...wait.”
Killer Shark was next to speak, in a voice choked with wetness. “Blackhawk,” he gurgled. “Black...hawk...”
The Sharkjet exploded into an incalculable number of pieces hundreds of feet above the ground.
Incredibly, something had ejected from it before the blast.
They saw him in the ejector seat, arcing above the flying metal, plastic, and burning fuel. They saw the chute open, saw him pressing his arm to his stomach as if holding in his guts.
“I get him,” said Stanislaus, in as deadly a voice as Zinda had ever heard. “I finish the job. For Olaf and Chuck.”
It was Bart’s voice.
“He’s mine, Stanislaus. Let him land.”
Nobody said a word after that. They just watched as Blackhawk let Killer Shark drift from hundreds of feet to the side of a dirt road, clutching his front and looking redder every minute. He didn’t look like he’d be in any shape to run.
“Chops,” Bart said at last. “How is he?”
Andre spoke in a voice that seemed to be pulling a thirty-ton weight. “His plane is down. He made a safe landing.”
“You go check him out, Andre. Medical help. Immediately.”
The French Blackhawk’s plane peeled off to make another crop-smashing landing in the field nearby Chop-Chop’s plane.
“Stan,” said Blackhawk. “Go...find Olaf.”
“Yes, Blackhawk.” Zinda thought Stan sounded as though all his years had finally caught up to his voice.
“I’m coming with you, Bart,” said Zinda, resolutely.
“He may--” There was a long pause. “He may still be dangerous, Zinda.”
“And the Blackhawks aren’t?”
Another pause. “All right. All right.”
The local branch of Communist cops and what passed for a militia were gathering on the scene. Even the government hadn’t expected this kind of activity, and Zinda guessed that whoever was responsible for letting the Shark Squadron sneak in, however it had been done, would be doing whatever was done in a Siberian labor camp soon.
Luckily, an ambulance was headed for Chop-Chop’s and Andre’s planes, even though it had to cut through the field to do it. There was no telling how much the crop would have been worth, and the state would probably demand reparations for it. Uncle Sam would probably end up footing the bill, Zinda decided, since they had negotiated the Blackhawks’ presence here.
Blackhawk’s own plane was making a landing in the area nearest Killer Shark’s touchdown point. The landscape, Zinda noted, was strewn with downed planes and bits of planes, some flaming, some not. A number of firetrucks were on their way, still a bit distant on the road she saw below. She brought her jet into a near-perfect parallel with Blackhawk’s plane and landed only a few seconds after he did.
And to think that before she’d met him, she was only a secretary...
Killer Shark. Focus on Killer Shark. The man who had slain two Blackhawks. She unlocked the cockpit, emerged from it, swung herself to the ground. Broken wheatstalks lay everywhere, as if a careless giant had been dancing in the field.
Bart was already standing before Killer Shark. The villain was lying on the ground, his breath coming in a sucking wheeze. She could see the gut wound and part of what the Shark was trying to keep in with his hands.
There appeared to be holes in his uniform over the chest as well, and something black behind them.
Blackhawk’s hand was extended. “Hand it over,” he said.
The Shark could barely talk. “What you...what you...”
“The videotape,” said Blackhawk, softly and very grimly. “It protected your chest. Hand it over or I tear open your shirt. Now.”
With a trembling hand, Killer Shark unfastened the stays on part of his tunic with his free hand. He reached in and pulled out a thin, black box, just the size to contain a videotape. He almost managed to put it in Blackhawk’s hand. His eyes went to Zinda, and she could not read what was in them.
Then there was the loud sound of a .45 and a new wound opened gorily in Killer Shark’s throat and all his eyes held were pain and surprise and perhaps a little terror. Then they held nothing at all.
With the hand that wasn’t holding his smoking gun, Blackhawk took the videotape.
“Bart,” breathed Zinda. “My God, Bart.”
He holstered the gun and did not look at her. “I barely got to him in time,” he said. “That was for Chuck and Olaf.”
“Olaf,” Zinda repeated, and her eyes teared up. She had admired the big Swede, the lantern-jawed, good-natured man who had, in 1939, disavowed his country’s neutrality policy to fight the Nazis as a Blackhawk. The man who had been a steadfast member of the team for thirty years and more. The man who
would fly with the Blackhawks no more.
A contingent of police were approaching. Zinda felt herself trembling with grief and anxiety. Then Blackhawk’s strong arm went about her, and, for once, she felt as she had when she had been with the team for the first time. She looked at his face. It was once again strong, resolute, perhaps even human.
This is where he belongs, she thought. The only thing that can make him human is war.
The police were by their side, and Blackhawk exchanged words with them in perfect Polish. After a time he said to her, “Chops is being taken to the local hospital. We’ll go there in a minute. They’re going to take us to...Olaf.”
And they did, taking both of them in a police car to the section of field in which Stanislaus’s plane had landed. Big Stan was cradling the body of Olaf, holding him so that only his back, full of exit wounds, was visible.
Big Stan was crying. He wasn’t speaking, wasn’t even saying Olaf’s name. He was just holding his comrade and crying.
Even the cops didn’t come near. The ambulance crew were keeping a respectful distance. Bart and Zinda stepped to the edge of the circle the officials had formed. Then Blackhawk, none too gently, shoved two of the cops out of the way. They started to protest, then looked in his eyes. Zinda followed.
Blackhawk lay his hand on Stanislaus’s shoulder. “It’s all right, Stan. We have to let them take him now.”
“We will not take him anywhere!” roared Stan, his eyes still streaming tears. “I go with him! Olaf is--”
“We can ride with them,” Blackhawk said, very gently. “But we have to see Chop-Chop, too.”
“Shark killed Olaf! Shark killed Chuck!” Stanislaus still held Olaf tightly, staining his own uniform with blood.
“And I killed Killer Shark, Stan,” said Blackhawk. “We’ve still got a job to do.”
“Olaf is gone,” said Stan, his eyes shut tightly as if he expected his friend to live when he opened them again. “Olaf is gone.”
Zinda came closer, saw close-up the gory mess of Olaf’s chest (though his face, miraculously, didn’t appear to be touched), and swallowed. Fighting what she felt right now seemed harder than fighting all the Shark Squadron. But somehow, she managed.
She put her hands on the sides of Stanislaus’s head. “Stan,” she said. “Let him go. Please. We have work to do.”
For a long second, Stanislaus’s shoulders shook. Then he held Olaf tighter and said, quietly, in his ear, “We got him for you, Olaf. We get Black Mask for you, too. Fly easy, Olaf. Fly easy.”
Then he stood, opened his eyes, and looked at those who had gathered about them. Without another word, he walked to the ambulance, lay Olaf gently on a stretcher that two attendants bore, and got in the back with them.
Blackhawk said, “We’ll get him to the...to the hospital later. Zinda.”
“Yes, Bart?” She waited.
“Go with the gentleman here.” He pointed to one of the policemen. “I’ve...spoken with him.”
She came closer to him, tried to reach out to him. “Bart, it’s all right. I feel the same way.”
He turned his face away from her. “Zinda, will you please go now! That’s an order.”
Without a word, she let her hands fall to her sides. The uniformed cop cleared his throat. Zinda went with him, and looked back over her shoulder. Blackhawk was heading for Stanislaus’s plane. Undoubtedly, he would climb into the cockpit to be alone for a few minutes.
That was, she thought, a place where no one could see him cry.