Blackhawk was standing on the balcony of the hospital roof.
Stanislaus saw him through the door he had just opened and wondered, wildly, if the chief meant to step off and try flying without a plane. No, that must not happen. “Blackhawk,” he called.
A pause. “Leave me alone, Stan.”
“I cannot. Zinda wanted me to bring you back down.”
Blackhawk did not turn to face his old friend. “Tell her I want to spend some more time out here.”
“I cannot,” Stanislaus repeated, and, tentatively, went over to stand beside Blackhawk. The boss still wouldn’t look him in the face.
“What happened was not your fault, Blackhawk,” the big Pole began. “That bastard Shark--”
“That bastard Shark killed Olaf because that bastard Blackhawk was too proud and stupid to leave his men to their own lives,” said Blackhawk, evenly. “Olaf died and Chop Chop got wounded because that bastard Blackhawk wanted to play war again.”
“They made the choice,” said Stanislaus, softly. “They chose to come with you, chief.”
Blackhawk wheeled to face Stan, his face wrought by incredible fury. “They were old men. They weren’t up to the challenge. I put Olaf in his grave, Stan.”
“Chief, we said over and over again we would give our lives for you, and Olaf did! It was not you who killed him. Killer Shark did.”
“Good god, Stan, don’t play Mr. Reasonable with me! I don’t need that now. Neither one of us need it.” He sat down, cross-legged, near the railing about the roof, and sighed. “All because of my brother. All because of my lousy, crazy, damnable, mass-murdering brother. The one who made me Blackhawk.”
Stan sat beside Blackhawk, facing him. “So? You think you should maybe have come here alone? How long do you think you last against seven planes, Blackhawk? Listen. Black Mask knew we would come. He knew we were bonded together. When he calls out one Blackhawk, he calls out them all. Even ones in retirement.”
“Even Olaf,” said Bart Hawk, looking at the night sky.
“Yes,” agreed Stanislaus. “Especially Olaf.”
Neither one of them spoke for a long while. The data in their memories replayed selective and subjective images and incidents of Olaf’s existence in their lives. The big, acrobatic Swede who had turned the tide of war in their favor time and again since 1939. The man who had defied his country’s neutrality to battle Hitler the most effective way he knew how, as a Blackhawk.
“We both know where we have to go next,” said Blackhawk, at last. “I’d like you, Zinda, and Andre to sit this one out. He may be satisfied with only me.”
“No, Blackhawk,” said Stan. “This is a mission. Our last. But we fly with you all the way. Remember? ‘Over land, over sea, we fight to make men free...’”
“Don’t sing the song, Stan. Not now.”
“All right,” Stanislaus said, and stood up. “I’m going down to see Chop Chop. They need to know somebody cares.”
Blackhawk was up in a single motion. “Don’t ever say that, Stan. Don’t ever tell me that I don’t care.”
“Then maybe you come with me,” said Stan, not turning around as he began descending the stairs.
He heard Blackhawk’s steps not far behind his own.
“I wish Von Tepp had killed my brother, after all.”
It was almost midnight and Zinda and Andre were sitting around Chop Chop’s bedside when Blackhawk and Stanislaus entered. All three of them looked up. Chop Chop’s arm was in a sling, his shoulder was heavily bandaged, and he was getting blood from a bag suspended from a metal pole and connected to him through a needle and an IV tube. The Chinese Blackhawk didn’t smile, but he nodded to his old commander. Stan thought he was probably looking forward to his next shot of painkiller.
“I already know,” said Chop Chop. “I could guess what happened when he wasn’t here and you wouldn’t answer my question about him.”
“I told him,” Andre confirmed. “There was no point otherwise.”
Zinda looked at her husband and saw the fatigue, both emotional and physical, he was fighting against. And, even though she knew the answer rationally, she asked herself what he was fighting for.
“Have you all seen the videotape?” Blackhawk asked, quietly.
“Oh, yes,” Zinda said, looking with loathing at the TV set on the stand and the VHS unit they’d had to ship in from the American embassy. “Several times.”
Wordlessly, Blackhawk went to Chops’s bedside table and cracked open the black case once again. The casing of the videotape was made of the same material used to shield black boxes in commercial aircraft which record a plane’s final moments before crashing. It had saved Killer Shark from injury to his chest when he wore it under his shirt. The tape had no label and was very short.
He placed the tape in the video machine, turned on the TV set, waited for it to warm up, and then hit Play.
The figure of Black Mask was visible from the waist up, limned against a white background. His head was covered by a steel helmet-mask that recalled the design of Nazi helmets. His dark green uniform also hearkened back uncomfortably to the Hitler era--not surprisingly, for it was Hitler who had given it to him. And his saber-arm was still very visible.
“Greetings, Blackhawk,” he said, in the voice of Jack Hawk.
Blackhawk hoped he had not flinched when he heard it.
“If you are viewing this message, you must have beaten Killer Shark. That is a heartening thought. This means that you will probably be able to meet me at our destined place of conflict. Remember from whence I came, Blackhawk. Not both of us, but only I. There you will find me, but only the Blackhawks will meet me. If others come with you, I will slip away into the darkness of years forever. This must be finished between us, brother. There must be a reconciliation of blood.”
“Cochon,” spat Andre. Nobody bothered telling him to keep quiet.
“And one thing more, Blackhawk,” said Black Mask. He reached down with his good hand to pick up something from below camera range. He came up with a small mechanical device that featured a prominent metal cone at its front.
“This is the small prototype of the device I have constructed,” the masked man continued. “As you might guess from its appearance, it generates and amplifies a great sonic pulse. I improved somewhat on the theories and creations of the Modoran Bito Wladon, whom you might know as Sonar. The destruction it can wreak will make the decimation of that insipid government structure look like the collapse of a child’s house of blocks. You must find me to find it, and you must beat me to deactivate it. You have everything you need to know now. I think I shall see you again.”
He stood there, hand and sword clasped behind his back, and the screen turned to blue. Blackhawk ran it all the way to the end, then rewound it. Nothing more than what he’d seen. No secret codes or clues. Not that he needed any.
He knew where to find his brother.
Zinda spoke up. “The government wants us out of here in the morning, except for Chop-Chop. We explained that he’s not yet in condition to travel.” Chops looked pained at the statement, but said nothing. “Bart, I...I’ve had the doctors prescribe us some sleeping medicine.”
“Don’t want it,” said Blackhawk, flatly. “Don’t need it.”
Chop Chop said, “Chief, to hell with your pride, for once. You’re going to need rest tonight, more than even the rest of them. Black Mask won’t be striking back at us here. So do what Zinda says and get some sleep. You’re not going to help Olaf or Chuck or even Hendy’s memory by staying up all night.”
The founder of the Blackhawks shot a glance of anger at his teammate. “Excuse me, Chops. I had the feeling that I was the leader of this unit. And that the chain of command still had some validity as a concept. In short: I don’t see much validity in your attempting to give me an order.”
Andre stood and faced his chieftain, his face masklike in its composure. “He was not attempting to give you an order, mon capitan. He was only attempting to talk some common sense into you. A quality which, if I may say so, seems to be sadly lacking in our deliberations of late.”
Zinda kept her mouth shut, as did Stanislaus. But Blackhawk could tell on which side both of them stood.
“All right,” he said, at last. “But I want both of you in this room with Chops tonight, and the guard outside doubled. Andre, I don’t want you taking any sleeping dope. In case somebody tries something--I’m counting on you to waken like a Blackhawk.”
Andre smiled. Then he saluted.
“Rely upon it, my chief,” he said.
Blackhawk and Zinda left the room together. Stanislaus looked at Chop-Chop and resolved not to take a sedative himself. Andre could use a hand if someone threatened their Asian brother.
Then the vision of Olaf being perforated in mid-air by Killer Shark’s bullets came to him again, on a wave of grief and nausea.
He decided to opt for the sedative.
Just after they reached the room set aside for them in the hospital, Bart and Zinda noticed a small light blinking on a stand. He hit the light switch. The telephone in their room was signalling a call on hold. He looked at Zinda. She nodded back. Walking very deliberately, he crossed the room and picked up the receiver. “Blackhawk,” he said.
A voice he had not heard in some years came to him. “Blackhawk, this is the Batman.”
Zinda saw a look of distaste on his face and wondered if yet another terrorist act had occurred. She stepped forward, but Bart held his hand out to stop her. “Yes, Batman. What is it? I don’t have a lot of time.”
There was a pause. “We’ve heard about Olaf Bjornson. I’m sorry, Bart.”
“We’re sort of sorry about it ourselves,” he replied.
Batman continued, “The Justice League has asked me to convey their regrets and offer our services. If you’re in need of help, Bart...”
“Look, Batman, I would appreciate you not referring to me as ‘Bart’. Call me Blackhawk, or don’t call me anything. As for your offer, I appreciate it. But the day hasn’t come yet when we need the help of the Lo...of the Justice League. We’re still not junk-heap heroes.”
He hoped the barb drew blood.
Batman, after another pause, said, “I understand the pressure you’re under, Blackhawk--”
“You understand nothing! Stay back in Gotham City, or in that satellite of yours with the other longjohns. We neither want nor welcome the help of the Justice League in this endeavor. Is that clear?”
“Clear enough,” said Batman. “But if you need help, Blackhawk, you know how to reach us.”
“Thank you. Goodbye.” Blackhawk slammed the receiver down.
Zinda came to him. “The Batman. Right?”
Bart scowled at the air. “Everytime something like this happens, the fruits in suits want to cut themselves a piece of it. Not this time.”
“Bart,” she said. “I know this is a dreadful time to ask. But...it’s been hard for me, too. Would you love me? Tonight?”
He looked at her and the granite faded somewhat from his expression.
“Zinda, I would love you any night of my life.”
They waited till afterwards to take the sedatives.
This was in Blackhawk’s dream:
He found himself in a darkened room which he recognized as that of a court. The judge sat in an impossibly high seat and seemed to have an aspect not unlike Blackhawk’s own father, dead these many years, before Bart and Jack and Connie had gone to Poland. No words were spoken. Blackhawk’s arms were bound behind him.
In a jury box to the left, one with propellors and wings, there sat a jury whose number was hard to determine. It was certainly not the regulation twelve. Their complement included Hendrickson, Chuck, and Olaf, all in their Blackhawk uniforms, all with the faces of zombies. Killer Shark also sat there, as did Von Tepp and Connie. The latter two seemed to be holding hands. There were others, some women and children, and these he thought in dream-thinking were the relatives or families that some had left behind to come with him.
It was probably true. Fuzzy logic was good enough for dreams.
A prosecutor stepped up and Blackhawk was surprised to notice that she was female. She was dressed in a white gown and crimson gloves and her face seemed indistinct. Then she seemed to be Zinda, or Connie (that would mean Zinda was holding hands with Von Tepp, but at least not with Killer Shark again), or some one of a number of forgotten female faces who had crossed Blackhawk’s path at one time or another.
The woman spoke not a word, but pointed at Blackhawk with one red-gloved hand.
Then he was standing on the wing of an airplane, somehow keeping his footing even though clouds and land rushed by below and he could feel the sweet chafe of the air in his face. A noose was placed about his neck. He assumed it was tied to the wing of the plane. Then the person behind him tapped him on the shoulder twice, to assure him that everything was all right.
After that, the person pushed him off the wing.
Blackhawk craned his neck around to see who was pushing. Not surprisingly, it was Black Mask. He was flanked by Connie and by Blackhawk’s mother. Both of them waved. The other Blackhawks and Zinda also popped up to stand on the plane wing and wave at him.
He felt that it was truly an injustice that his hands were tied behind him so that he couldn’t wave back.
The rope seemed to be taking an awfully long time pulling taut. Blackhawk fell for what he estimated to be hundreds of feet, perhaps thousands, and the end of the rope wasn’t yet reached. But the ground was getting closer.
Blackhawk Island was below him.
He was plummeting closer, ever closer. He recognized the tennis court below. Bart, Jr. and Linda were on it again. Only this time they were wearing small Blackhawk outfits, and he wanted to yell at them to take them off. Not only had they not been given permission to wear those uniforms, but the things were eminently impractical to play tennis in.
They looked up, smiled, and waved at him.
And, just about the time his boots would have touched the cemented surface, the rope suddenly took up slack and his feet kicked upward to almost reach his face and he could feel a terrific pressure about his neck and felt the surface of the rope burning his skin and the bones in his neck begin to give way and
and Zinda was slapping him. “Bart, wake up. Wake up! You’re having a bad dream, Bart. That’s all it is, just a bad dream! Open your eyes, this is Zinda!”
“Wha?” It seemed to be the most intelligent thing he could say at the time. Blackhawk was used to coming awake all at once, but the sleeping drug retarded his capacities somewhat. “Zinda, stop. Stop slapping me, dammit.”
“Then open your eyes and let me know you’re all right!”
He did. She was straddling him, dressed in the hospital-provided version of a nightgown. He was still in his underwear. Blackhawk grabbed her hands before she could unleash another slap. “How’s that for letting you know?”
“Okay. Okay.” Zinda sighed. She looked better than she had the night before, but still showed the strain. “You want me to let you rest a little longer, Bart? You were thrashing around like a...well, like a man in a nightmare.”
“Oh, yes.” He rubbed his eyes with a thumb and forefinger. “Only I’m not sure which nightmare I like best. What time is it?”
“6:48. You haven’t had a lot of sleep.”
“Had enough. I want us in the air right after breakfast. The Commies refueled us?”
“Yeah. The embassy got them to do that much for us.”
“No. They did it just because they want us out of here. Don’t blame ‘em.”
“Bart,” she said.
He paused, reaching for his uniform on the chair it was draped over. “Yes, Zinda?”
She hesitated. “I feel sick with myself. I killed a man, Bart. For the first time in my life, I killed a man.”
“Oh?” Blackhawk donned his shirt and started to put on his pants. “Would you rather it be the other way around? I wouldn’t.”
“No.” Zinda hugged one knee and didn’t look at him. “I’d rather it hadn’t happened at all. Ever. But it did, and I’ve got that man’s blood on my hands.”
Bart had already finished putting on everything but his boots and hat. “Be proud of that, Zinda. Make your peace with it. That man was trying to kill us. He was in the pay of the man who killed Chuck and Olaf. That doesn’t qualify him for mercy in my book.”
“Olaf,” she said, and started to tear up. “God, Bart, I just can’t...he’s dead, and I can’t deal with it.”
“You’ll have to,” he said, touching her shoulder. “I have to. I knew him, Zinda...knew him for better than forty years. I still remember that big Swedish face grinning at me at lineup in the morning. I still recall what a fighter he was, how many Nazis and Japs didn’t get a chance to help conquer the world after he got ‘em in his sights. How he used to pull those flips and monkey tricks for us when we were back home. How he used to sing...God, he was awful.” Blackhawk chuckled. “Couldn’t carry a tune on his back, but he loved to do it. So we let him. He sounded good enough when he was with us, though.”
“They always sounded good when they were with you, Bart,” she said, and knew it was the truth.
“Yeah. But now they’re not with me anymore, not so many as we had before. Hell, it’s just like 1940 again, when we were starting out. We lost Zeg, we lost Archie the Brit, we thought we’d lost Boris, but it turned out we just lost him years later. That was when I really tightened up on them, made damned sure that our casualties would be as low as was humanly possible. Except for that sad sack of crap Ted Gaynor, I don’t think we lost another man.
“Now. Well, maybe it’s come full circle. I don’t want you to come with me, Zinda.”
“I have to, Bart. I’m a Blackhawk, now.”
“Are you sure of that?”
“Before yesterday, I’d have said I was kind of sure. Now I am sure. And, Bart, I don’t think I like it.”
“I don’t blame you. Want to go back and take care of the kids?”
“I want to go and take care of you.”
“All right, then.” He took her flying cap from the night stand and put it on her head. “Get dressed. We’re having breakfast and moving out.”
So the four of them had said a heartfelt goodbye to Chop Chop and made certain that the American diplomats secured Olaf’s body, to be kept until they returned to take it back for burial at Blackhawk Island. Whoever survived would have that duty. Even if Chops had to do it himself.
Blackhawk, Zinda, Andre, and Stanislaus boarded their patched-up planes and took off across Europe. Their passage was announced well enough in advance that no nation’s air force came to challenge them, though some came to offer an aerial salute to the Black Knights.
Blackhawk didn’t seem to notice them.
But, over Belgium, he did notice a familiar bunch of planes with a stylized insignia, and cursed at the sight of them. They were coming to intercept the Hawkjets, and veered off to fly alongside them.
All the pilots were women, and the tails of their planes were emblazoned with a green RF insignia.
At least when he heard the voice over the contact channel, it sounded appropriately serious. “Attention, Blackhawk. Please respond, Blackhawk. Over.”
He opened the mike. “Ramona, this is Blackhawk. What do you want? Over.”
Zinda raised her eyebrows. She had never met this crew, but the Blackhawks had told her of them when she returned to the fold.
“We’ve heard about Olaf,” said Duchess Ramona Fatale, flying close enough to Blackhawk so that he could see the patch covering her left eye. “In his memory, we’d like to offer our services. Please accept them.”
Andre and Stan looked out their cockpits at the women pilots. They tentatively waved, and the ladies grinned and waved back. At one time, the Hawks had thought they might have a chance of being in love with these women, and vice versa. But that, for good or ill, was in the past.
Ramona Fatale was everything her name implied, a great-looking six-foot redhead who had lost an eye on one of the missions she undertook with her Strike Force of troubleshooters. The Force was almost a female counterpart to the Blackhawk squadron, and Blackhawk himself had almost shared romance with Ramona herself. That didn’t put her in good graces with Zinda, but Lady Blackhawk wouldn’t turn down aid even from her today.
Andre looked out at the planes pacing them and remembered the names of the women who flew them. Ayn, Prudence, Tania whose face had been injured, but later restored, and...was there another one besides Ramona? There was indeed, just a bit out of the range of his sight. “Andre here,” he said. “Have you gained another flyer since we parted? Over.”
A young woman’s voice came on the channel. “It’s me, Andre. Elsa.”
“Ma foi,” he breathed. Elsa had been Hendrickson’s estranged granddaughter. They had reconciled during the Blackhawks’ last adventure, but Hendy had died not long after that and Elsa had left. It had been the last time they had seen her, until now. “Ma’amselle, you have chosen a most dangerous profession.”
“It’s the same one my granddad was in,” she answered, “and I chose it because of him. And we want to fly with you now.”
“That is not much of a good idea,” opined Stan. “Over.”
Blackhawk lay down his judgment. “Appreciate the offer, Duchess, but we’ll have to decline. Our quarry has made it clear that if anyone comes along with us, he won’t make contact. It’s our affair, and ours alone. So, repeat: sorry, but we must refuse. Over.”
Ramona Fatale said, “Is that your final decision, Blackhawk? Over.”
He sighed. “It has to be. More lives are at stake. Thanks, Patch, but...no thanks. Over.”
“Understood,” said Fatale. “Should you need us, be in contact. We’ll be in waiting. I know how it is to lose a brother in arms, Blackhawk. That’s why the offer still stands. Over.”
“We’ll try and get together after this, for old times’ sake,” said Blackhawk, wondering to what degree he lied. “Over and out.”
“Good to see you guys again,” said Ramona. “Wish I could have stayed and met you, Lady B. Keep your flaps up. Over and out.”
The planes of Ramona Fatale’s flying circus peeled off and were gone.
Zinda said a silent prayer for Elsa Hendrickson, and hoped her luck would outdo theirs. Then she opened her mike. “Are we still on track, Blackhawk? Over.”
“Still tracking, Zinda,” his voice came back. “Still on course for Norway.”
And the four Blackhawk planes flew on.