Wednesday, 10 April 2013
Prisoner in Space
All the astonishing scientific achievements of Professor Flaznagel, and the bravery and resourcefulness of CAPTAIN JUSTICE, are thrown into the fight for the release of young Midge—from the hands of the man who has planned to steal the Wealth of the World and make himself Ruler of all Mankind!
Complete By MURRAY ROBERTS
From The Modern Boy magazine, 23 June 1934, Vol. 13, No 333. Part 5 of 6 of The World in Darkness. Part 1 is here.
Surrender of the Flying Cloud!
“THOSE are my terms—the Flying Cloud in exchange for Midge. Refuse, and you will never see the red-headed brat alive again!"
The cold, passionless voice of Marcus, self-styled Emperor of the World, ceased to boom out from the loudspeaker in the circular control-room at the top of Titanic Tower-Professor Flaznagel's gigantic headquarters in mid-Atlantic—from which Captain Justice and his comrades were conducting their wireless and television interview with the scheming scoundrel who had captured Midge and was holding him to ransom.
Stunned silence settled on the comrades. This was the most terrible blow they had suffered since the Black Menace had descended from outer Space and plunged the whole world into prolonged darkness. Justice, Professor Flaznagel, Dr. O'Mally, and Len Connor stared at the black-bearded man in the television screen as if they could scarcely believe their eyes and ears.
Yet they might have known that Marcus' terms would be harsh. They knew that he planned to pillage the darkened cities of the earth, stealing their gold, so that when the great darkness eventually dispersed, he would be able to make himself Emperor of the World.
Only one form of light could penetrate the world-wide darkness—Professor Flaznagel's infra-orange ray, the secret of which Marcus had stolen. But Marcus could not carry out his plans without some swift means of transport. His ship, on which Midge was prisoner, was too slow. That was why he was demanding the huge and speedy airship, the Flying Cloud, in exchange for Midge, the youngest of Justice's band of adventurers.
Midge had fallen into his hands at a time when Justice's yacht, on which he had been cruising with the captain, O'Mally, Len, and Ham Chow, the Chinese cook, had been wrecked, and before Professor Flaznagel had come to their rescue and carried them off to Titanic Tower.
Captain Justice gave a quick glance at Professor Flaznagel. It was evident that Marcus' unexpected and unconditional demand had come as a stunning surprise to the old scientist. He looked dazed and bewildered.
"Any negotiations for Midge's release must be conducted through me," broke in Justice harshly. "I am responsible for the boy's welfare. This affair is not one in which the professor can be forced to concede anything. The Flying Cloud is largely his property."
"Fiddlesticks!" snapped Marcus contemptuously. "I want that airship; and I mean to have it. Either that, or—"
"Or what?" It was Flaznagel who spoke, coldly, incisively, his shaggy head thrust forward towards the glowing television screen. "Or what, Marcus? Supposing I refuse to consent to your terms?"
"Then there'll be one red-headed brat less in the world,” vowed the big-bearded man callously. "I mean what I say, Flaznagel. Either the Flying Cloud becomes my property within the next hour, or our young friend goes overboard to the sharks!"
O'Mally Tittered a strangled cry of horror.
''Marcus, ye low spalpeen!" he said shakily, thrusting out his great fists, knotted and gnarled like chunks of oak. "If ye harm a hair of that boy's head, I swear by the beard of St. Patrick, that I'll tear ye to pieces with my bare hands!"
Marcus laughed contemptuously, glanced at the watch on his hairy wrist, and said slowly:
"You have another ten seconds in which to decide, professor."
"I have already decided," said the professor firmly. "Naturally there can be only one answer. Your terms are accepted!"
THERE was a moment's silence. Even Marcus seemed surprised and unprepared for the old scientist's ready compliance with his extortionate demands.
"Flaznagel, old man, I can't allow this!" Justice laid a tense hand on his friend's shoulder. "Let me deal with this scoundrel. There must be some other way out. We can't turn a dangerous power-and-riches-seeking fanatic loose on the world in a craft like the Flying Cloud. It would be a crime against humanity!"
"Leave this to me, Justice," Flaznagel whispered. "No use haggling with the fellow. Midge has got to be released, so we might just as well strike a bargain and have done with it.
"Flying Clouds can be easily replaced. But Midge has only one life. We must think of the boy first."
With this typical, unselfish remark, Flaznagel turned away, facing Marcus with lifted head, and a defiant dignity of defeat.
"Bedad, the old boy's a real white man, if ever there was one!" said O'Mally huskily, blinking a suspicious mistiness from his eyes. "Sure, parting with the Flying Cloud must be like tearing the heart out of his own body."
"We'll get her back!" vowed Len Connor fiercely. "By gosh, Marcus is not going to get right away with a stunt like this. Twig the professor? The old chap's got something up his sleeve besides his funny-bone, or I'm a Chinaman."
"Well, you've had your answer, Marcus," said Flaznagel curtly. "Your terms are accepted. The Flying Cloud will be handed over to you immediately Midge has been released and sent back to us."
"Guess again!" snapped Marcus, revelling in his character of upper dog. "You've got things the wrong way round. I'm pulling the strings —not you. You'll get the brat back when I and my men are on board the Flying Cloud, and not before. I'm going to make sure the airship's in flying trim before there's any swopping done. Now, here's the programme. It only takes one man to navigate the Flying Cloud. One of you can fetch her along, while another couple come across by water, and join me on my yacht.
"And if there's any trickery, or funny business, so much the worse for you—and the brat!"
"Very well," snapped the professor. "Alter your course to due west, and switch on your infra-orange ray beam, so that we can determine your exact position. The Flying Cloud will be over you in exactly twelve minutes."
"O.K., make it snappy," replied Marcus. "I'll be waiting for you."
He waved a mocking hand, and pressed a switch. Instantly his voice was silenced, and the vision in the screen blurred and vanished.
Len Connor drew a deep breath and rubbed his eyes. The recent interview seemed more like a dream than an actual happening.
"Bedad, and is it serious ye are, professor?" blurted O'Mally incredulously. "Is it a fact that ye're going to hand the Flying Cloud over to that blackguard?"
"You heard the discussion. The matter is settled," answered Flaznagel curtly. "But," he added, with a mysterious smile, "I am not going to guarantee that our friend Marcus is going to have matters all his own way. He has made his own terms, and I have accepted them.
"I shall adhere to my side of the bargain, and I have no doubt he will do the same. But after that—well, who knows what might happen?"
"You old spoofer! You've got some diabolical scheme simmering in that brain-pan of yours," challenged Justice. "Marcus may have won the first round, but, by James, if I'm any judges—"
"Ssh, the fellow may be listening," said the professor gravely, as he switched off the microphone. "The first thing to be done is to surrender the Flying Cloud and fetch young Midge along.
"I shall remain here," he went on, indicating the vast control-room with its motors, switchboards, and other strange apparatus. "If Marcus tries any underhanded business, I shall know how to deal with him. Connor and O'Mally will take one of the sub-aquaplanes and join Marcus aboard his yacht."
"Bedad, and how are we going to find her?" blurted the doctor, thinking of the ten miles of darkened sea that stretched between them and their objective.
"You will be steered by wireless," explained the professor. "I shall be in touch with you all the time, following your course with the telatoscope."
"And where do I come in?" asked Justice.
"You will take charge of the Flying Cloud," replied the old scientist, "and hand her over to Marcus the moment you are assured of Midge's safety. You will return here in the subaquaplane, in company with the others. And then—"
Flaznagel made a vague gesture, hinting at future operations that would not be to Marcus' advantage.
"Let's get going," snapped Len Connor, buttoning his coat.
The Wizard of Science!
WITHOUT palaver, Flaznagel's orders were carried out. The little party split up and dispersed. By means of an electric mono-rail car, traversing the wide runway that curved in a graceful spiral from top to bottom of the gigantic structure, Connor and O'Mally swooped down to the harbour at the base of the tower.
There they found Bingley, the professor's head mechanic, in charge of the speedy subaquaplane—combination of tank, submarine, and hydroplane—that was to convey them to keep theirs appointment with Marcus.
Justice's was a one-man job. He needed no assistance to navigate the Flying Cloud. A lift raised him to the peak of the mooring-mast at the top of the tower, where the huge airship floated in space.
Once across the gangway, twenty paces brought him to the control-room in the nose of the craft. The pressure of a button released the hold of the electro-magnetic mooring gear and the flick of a finger set the powerful motors droning sweetly.
The dirigible lifted and floated free. Then she raised her tail and dived steeply into the sea of darkness below.
Alone in his vast chamber of wireless wonders and mechanical mysteries, Professor Flaznagel adjusted his big spectacles, seated himself at the telatoscope, switched on its infra-orange ray, and peered intently into the luminous heart of the spinning crystal globe. There a blurred picture of sea and sky and tiny, moving shapes gradually formed, until it was as distinct and vivid as a view reflected in the screen of a camera-obscura.
Vigilantly he followed every movement of the subaquaplane and the Flying Cloud, which were heading for the distant yacht, where Marcus awaited their coming and the ignominious surrender of the Flying Cloud.
The professor chuckled in his ragged beard. His demeanour was not that of a crushed and defeated opponent who had been forced to part with one of his most treasured possessions.
He had no shadow of doubt as to the final issue of this battle of wits and science between himself and Marcus.
The old scientist rotated a dial on the telatoscope, marked with the various points of the compass, and in the crystal sphere came a picture of a lean, sinister-looking craft, with turtleback bows and a round superstructure, like the turret of a monitor.
She carried no funnels and showed no flag. But a feather of white at her prow and a spreading wake beneath her stern showed that she was moving.
"Marcus' yacht," muttered the professor, as if verifying a point. "She's keeping much the same position."
The scene blurred and changed as he rotated the dial and picked up the aquaplane and Flying Cloud again. The great airship was only a few hundred feet above the lean, grey shape of the leaping, wave-hurdling subaquaplane, and as Flaznagel kept them in sight, the yacht towards which they were heading came into view again.
The professor settled back in his seat, drumming his fingers on the edge of the ebonite switchboard. It was in no way remarkable to him that he should be able to sit comfortably in his observatory above the clouds, watching scenes that were being enacted in total darkness, ten miles distant from Titanic Tower. Not for nothing had he been named the Wizard of Science!
He was smiling grimly as he watched the subaquaplane and the graceful dirigible converging on the yacht. He had been forced to accept Marcus' terms, and he would adhere to them. But once the exchange had been effected, and Midge was safe at Titanic Tower, he would be free to act as he chose.
There was no corner of the earth where Marcus would be safe from the future vengeance of Professor Flaznagel.
The Wizard of Science, with his mild blue eyes and long, grand-fatherly beard, had his own ways and means of dealing with anyone rash enough to incur his enmity. The kidnapping of Midge, and the anxiety and inconvenience it had caused—irrespective of the loss of the Flying Cloud—was an incident that Professor Flaznagel would not easily forget!
Silent as a Ghost!
"BEDAD, 'tis pleasant it'll be when this crazy journey is finished!" groaned Dr. O'Mally, as the floor of the subaquaplane rose beneath him, and his bald head struck the cabin roof with a resounding bang. "Faith, another few minutes of this confounded jolting and jumping, and there won't be a whole bone left in my body. I'll swear my skull's fractured, and my knees have been driven up into my chest!"
Len Connor grinned feebly, and clutched tightly at the edge of his padded seat.
"We—we're certainly having a pretty rough passage," he agreed. "Like crossing the Alps in a wheelbarrow. But it can't last much longer. We must be nearly there by now."
The strange craft, in which they were distributed in narrow bucket seats, was careering through the darkness in a series of skimming movements arid gigantic leaps that hurled her clean out of the water.
Len Connor blinked at the instrument-board. A white dial informed him that they were progressing at a speed of a hundred and thirty miles per hour.
"Travelling pretty, and then some!" he muttered, peering along the beam of the infra-orange ray headlight, that cut a dazzling path through the blackness that hemmed them in on all sides. "We ought to be sighting Marcus' yacht at any moment now."
" 'Tis mighty glad I'll be when we're back at the tower again!" groaned O'Mally. "By the bones of St. Patrick, 'tis a fine dance that snub-nosed, carroty-headed young spalpeen Midge has led us. But I'll be powerful pleased to set eyes on him again," he added fervently.
Bingley suddenly jerked a switch and leaned back in his seat. The fierce drone of the powerful motors gradually sank to a gentle whisper.
Len Connor's teeth snapped together as he glimpsed the long grey shape of Marcus' yacht held in the spreading beam of the subaquaplane's infra-orange ray searchlight.
"Take over the controls, Bingley," spoke the voice of Professor Flaznagel, from the summit of Titanic Tower, ten miles away. "You fellows will go aboard the yacht and wait for Captain Justice. He should be with you in a couple of minutes."
Silent as a shadow the subaquaplane glided forward and nosed alongside the lean, sinister-looking yacht.
Her approach was observed, and the snakish length of a Jacob's ladder slid down from above.
"You may come aboard, gentlemen!" said the mocking voice of Marcus.
"Hark to the oily-tongued spalpeen," muttered O'Mally, under his breath. " ‘Tis the first time we've met, and I'm hoping it won't be the last. Up ye go, Len, my boy."
Len Connor was taking no chances. He knew that they were dealing with a man who was as cunning and vicious as a wolf. His promise of a square deal meant nothing, until his word had been put to the test.
Len's one hand closed around the automatic in his coat pocket as he climbed actively up the ladder, with Dr. O'Mally puffing and panting close behind him. Bingley remained in charge of the boat, flooding the fore-deck of the yacht with the soft yellow beam of the infra-orange ray.
"Mr. Connor, I presume? And the worthy Dr. O'Mally?"
THERE was no doubt that Marcus, would-be Emperor of the World, was a fine figure of a man. He stood well over six feet in height, broad in proportion, with a square-cut black beard, and the coldest, most compelling eyes Len Connor had ever stared into.
A dangerous man, one who would stop at nothing to gain his own ends, and a worthy leader of such an enterprise as he had planned to carry out. Connor could imagine him sweeping like a flame through the darkened world, looting, pillaging, and spreading terror in his path.
"A nasty bit of work," he decided. "Hard, capable, utterly selfish and unscrupulous. It'll need Captain Justice to knock him off his pedestal!"
O'Mally was in a truculent mood after his uncomfortable trip in the subaquaplane.
"Bedad, so this is the baby-snatcher?" he blared offensively.
"The bold, bad grabber of innocent, unprotected boys. Faith, and why couldn't ye have kidnapped a grown man?"
Marcus took no offence. He laughed gently.
"My accommodation is limited, doctor," he said, in sly reference to the Irishman's huge bulk. "It is not size that counts in matters of this kind. But I have no doubt I would find you easier to handle than your fiery-headed young friend. I shall be glad to be rid of him—'pon my word I shall."
O'Mally beamed proudly at this gratuitous testimonial to Midge's pluck and disturbing influence.
Marcus' expression suddenly hardened. His eyes snapped as he surveyed his two visitors and the third man in the subaquaplane.
"Let's get to business!" he said curtly. "My terms demanded the immediate and unconditional surrender of the Flying Cloud."
"Your terms were accepted," acknowledged Len Connor, "and they will be carried out to the letter."
"I have no doubt of that," said Marcus coldly. "But I want no delay. Where is Captain Justice? And where is the Flying Cloud?"
"Begorrah, there she is now, and the captain as well!" exclaimed O'Mally, pointing into the wall of darkness that loomed on the far side of the yacht.
Silent as a ghost, the Flying Cloud had arrived to surrender herself to the enemy!
The gigantic bulk of the great airship glided over Marcus' ship like a lowering thundercloud, the base of her gleaming tranzelonite hull almost touching the yacht's two stumpy masts.
On the railed platform, jutting like a lip from below the control-room, stood the trim, dapper figure of Captain Justice, cigar in mouth, his peaked cap tilted aggressively over one eye.
He waved a hand casually to his friends, and a length of metal cable, armed with an electro- magnetic grappling-hook, slid down from above.
There was a sharp click as the jaws of the hook fastened themselves on the yacht's rail in a grip that only the switching off of the electric current could release.
The dirigible was safely and securely moored to the yacht, which looked no bigger than a cork to a bottle in comparison with the huge airship.
Justice stood for a moment with bowed head. He was feeling the wrench of parting with a craft that was rich in memories of past exploits, perils, and triumphs, and was now about to be handed over to the man who was waiting on the deck below, smiling covetously at his new possession.
Then he stood erect, lifted his hand in a farewell salute, and swung himself over the rail on to the metal, rubber-treaded ladder that dangled in space.
He reached the deck, jammed his hands in his pockets, and strode briskly to where Marcus stood.
For several moments the two men eyed one another in silence. Marcus was the bigger in height and breadth, yet he seemed to be the smaller man. And he was the first to drop his gaze beneath Justice's cold, steady scrutiny.
"We won't waste valuable time, captain," he said brusquely. "I take it I have your assurance that the Flying Cloud has not been tampered with in any way?"
"You have!" snapped Justice. "But she is open to your inspection if you care to reassure yourself."
Marcus shook his head.
"Your word is good enough for me. It is a pity," he went on seriously, "that you do not feel disposed to join forces with me, Justice. Would you care to reconsider your decision?"
Justice ignored the question. He flicked the ash from his cigar and jerked a thumb in the direction of the Flying Cloud.
"There's your airship," he said icily. "How about the boy? You will hand him over now—so that we can get away?"
Marcus gave an ugly laugh. He was eager to find some means of humiliating this steely-eyed, tight-lipped adventurer.
"Pardon me, it is I who am making terms—not you, captain," he sneered. "The boy will be released when I and my men are safely aboard the Flying Cloud. In the meanwhile, I will permit you to see for yourself that he is quite content, and unharmed. Step this way!"
Marcus reached over and closed the peephole.
"You have seen for yourself that the boy has not been harmed," he remarked. "This key will be handed over to you, so that you can release the boy yourself, so soon as I have placed my men in possession of the airship."
Justice could see nothing wrong with this arrangement. Midge was quite safe where he was for the time being. It was impossible for him to leave the cabin, so long as Marcus retained possession of the key.
"Begorrah, where is the snub-nosed gossoon, and what may he be doing?" demanded O'Mally eagerly, as the men reappeared on deck.
Justice told him. The information caused the big Irishman's jaw to drop in astonishment. He had been picturing Midge imprisoned in some black hole, far down in the bowels of the ship, with no food or water.
"Eating? Eating, ye say?" he blurted incredulously. "By the beard of the one-legged piper of Dunmullion, did ever ye hear anything like it! And here's me with my pockets full of biscuits and cheese and sausage-rolls, and all manner of good things, thinking the poor spalpeen was starving to death, confound the greedy glutton!"
O'Mally insisted on going below to witness for himself the remarkable spectacle of Midge feeding in captivity, whilst the others went into the yacht's control-room. He returned with a frown of disappointment on his round, red face.
"Bedad, the boy's there sure enough; but he's stuffed himself so full of food he's had to crawl into bed, and there he is snoring away like a gorged crocodile, begob, with his red head on the pillow, and his clothes scattered all over the floor."
After further talk, the crew of Marcus' yacht assembled on deck. There were a dozen of them all told, as villainous-looking a gang of thugs as Len Connor had ever set eyes on.
"Gosh, what a beauty chorus!" he breathed. "I wouldn't trust 'em with change for a shilling."
A Vain Sacrifice.
WITH a meaning glance at Len Connor and O'Mally, and one hand gripping the butt of his automatic, the captain fell in behind Marcus as the latter led the way across the deck and down the main hatch.
The whole ship was illuminated with infra-orange rays that kept the sullen, crouching shadows of the Black Menace at bay.
Marcus halted before a closed door at the end of a narrow passage. It was bolted, and there was a key in the lock. The key he removed, hooking it over one finger, while he indicated a small peephole in the upper panel of the door.
Justice placed an eye to the aperture, and stared into a cabin that was little bigger than an official prison cell. It was barely furnished, with a metal cot, table and chair, all bolted to the floor. There was a ventilator in the ceiling and a porthole that was screened with an outer cover.
On the bed lay Midge. There was no mistaking his flaming red hair and the familiar tuft on top, that no amount of brushing, combing, and greasing could reduce to order. It stuck straight up, like the crest of a cockatoo.
On the table beside the bed stood a steaming cup of coffee and a plate piled high with sandwiches.
Justice smiled. Midge, as usual, was eating. At regular intervals his arm would reach out and a sandwich would vanish. Being kidnapped, and separated from his friends obviously had not affected his appetite.
"Proper toughs, Bedad," agreed O'Mally. “But they must know their jobs, or they wouldn't be any use to a man like Marcus. Begorrah, 'tis heartbreaking to see that gang of cross-eyed, unwashed scallywags going aboard the old Flying Cloud."
Marcus had switched on a couple of infra-orange ray searchlights, and directed their beams on the gleaming envelope of the huge dirigible, that hovered gigantically over the yacht.
One by one the crowd of men ascended the dangling ladder, and disappeared into the interior of the airship, until only Marcus and his visitors from Titanic Tower were left on deck. Marcus turned to Justice with a triumphant smile.
"Well, gentlemen, I must bid you farewell," he said mockingly. "Kindly present my compliments to Professor Flaznagel and tell him that I shall be paying a visit to Titanic Tower in the near future!"
Justice ignored the sly suggestion of future trouble. He had no doubt that the man had not yet given up hope of seizing Titanic Tower, and using it as a headquarters for himself and his gang.
"You are leaving the yacht?" he exclaimed in surprise, never dreaming that Marcus had intended abandoning the craft.
"Certainly, it is of no further use to me now that I have the Flying Cloud to range the world in," answered the man. "I will leave her in your hands."
With another mocking smile, the man turned away, and commenced to ascend the ladder that dangled from the airship.
"Bedad, he's going, sure enough," declared O'Mally, without any regret. "And what about Midge? Hey, where's that key, ye spalpeen? Did he give it to ye, captain?"
JUSTICE frowned and shook his head. But Marcus was only playing for safety. It was not until he reached the platform, and the ladder had been drawn up, that he leaned over the rail and waved a derisive hand to those below.
There was a tinkle of metal as the key to the cabin in which Midge was imprisoned landed almost at Captain Justice's feet.
Justice picked it up and slipped it into his pocket. He was on the alert, his nerves tingling, his gaze fixed on the huge airship overhead. The possibility that Marcus might have some master-stroke of cunning and treachery up his sleeve was not to be lost sight of. It heartened him to know that Professor Flaznagel was watching every movement through his amazing telatoscope.
But Marcus displayed only elation and triumph as he peered mockingly down from his lofty perch.
"So-long, captain," he gibed. "The time may come when you will regret having refused to join me in this great enterprise."
"Away wid ye, ye spalpeen!" muttered O'Mally. " 'Tis tired we are of listening to your boasting and bragging."
The electro-magnetic mooring-hook suddenly opened its metal jaws. With humming motors and spinning screws the Flying Cloud soared gracefully upward, swinging round until her bows were pointing due north-east.
Then she sped away at dizzy speed and was lost to sight in the darkness.
"What about the boy, Justice?" asked O'Mally. "Shall we be fetching the spalpeen and taking him along with us? Faith, 'tis glad he should be to see us again,"
"Be a big surprise for the young scamp," chuckled Len Connor, as Justice led the way below. "I don't suppose he knows that we've arrived and Marcus and his gang have cleared off."
Midge was unusually quiet in his cramped quarters. A deafening bellow from O'Mally brought no startled response. Justice unlocked the door and flung it open.
"Midge, ahoy!" roared O'Mally. "Wake up, ye spalpeen!"
There was no sound or movement from the bed. Len Connor stepped forward and stripped off the blankets. Cunningly arranged in the centre of the mattress was a bolster. On the pillow, now fully exposed to view, was a red rubber sponge that, from a distance, had quaintly resembled the top of Midge's tousled, carroty head.
But there was no Midge! The cabin was unoccupied.
"Bedad, he's not here!" exploded O'Mally incredulously. "By the beard of St. Patrick, we've been double-crossed. 'Tis only a dummy we've been left with!"
"Impossible!" snapped Justice. "The boy was here sure enough when Marcus brought me here. He was wading into a hefty meal. There's the remains of it!"
"And there are some of his togs," declared Connor, indicating the garments strewn on the floor. "Where the dickens has the young idiot got to? He must have escaped. But—how?"
Captain Justice pointed mutely to the ceiling, where yawned the opening to a round ventilator shaft leading to the deck above. The wire gauze had been torn away and pushed upwards. The orifice was little over a foot in diameter, but there was just room for a boy of Midge's small size to squeeze through.
"Begob, no wonder he had to shed some clothes to wriggle in that rat-hole!" breathed O'Mally.
A dismayed silence was broken by the sound of Bingley's voice, hailing them excitedly from the top of the stairs.
"Message from the professor," he thundered. "He says young Midge has gone off in the airship, and we're to get back to Titanic Tower just as quickly as we can travel!"
Two minutes later Justice and his companions sat in the cabin of the speeding subaquaplane, watching the lean shape of Marcus' abandoned yacht merging into the darkness.
"Bedad, she's a trim craft," muttered O'Mally, regretfully. "And I'm wondering why the professor didn't ask us to stay aboard and bring her back to harbour."
The captain suddenly started from his seat. Marcus' yacht had vanished! Where she had lain a gigantic column of water erupted high in the air, spreading out in a huge cloud of smoke, shot with stabs of crimson flame.
Several seconds later came the sullen rumble of a great explosion, and the rattle of falling debris on the roof of their craft.
"There is the answer to your question, O'Mally," said Justice grimly. "Had we remained aboard the yacht, we would now be blown to shreds. A final gesture on Marcus' part. I thought the scoundrel had something up his sleeve."
Len Connor's face was pale as he watched the grey sea spreading over the empty space where the shattered, sunken boat had floated. O'Mally mopped his bald head with a shaky hand. He had suffered a bitter disappointment and a nasty shock.
They had made a vain journey, and a vain sacrifice in parting with the Flying Cloud, for Midge was still missing, and Marcus was hopelessly beyond pursuit, swallowed up in the world-wide darkness of the Black Menace!
Midge in a Muddle!
"GREAT haddocks, likewise suffering cats, and agonized blinking elephants!"
Midge was merely relieving his feelings and expressing his keen satisfaction as he balanced himself on the top of the table and ripped away the circle of tough wire mesh that covered the mouth of the ventilator-shaft in the ceiling of the cabin that had been his prison for the past twenty-four hours.
"My hat, what a howling chump I am not to have spotted this hole before!" muttered the red-headed youngster, sucking a scratched thumb, and peering into the dark air passage that extended to a metal cowl in the deck above. He could feel a steady draught blowing cool against his flushed, freckled face.
There was no obstruction. The way was clear, but the narrowness of the aperture caused Midge to wrinkle his snub nose doubtfully.
"It's going to be a blinking tight squeeze," he decided, measuring the diameter of the shaft against the width of his shoulders. "Good job I haven't had much to eat lately."
He temporarily replaced the wire mesh, lowered himself to the floor, and listened intently for several moments. There was no use attempting to effect an escape if he was likely to be interrupted in the middle of it.
There had been quite a stir and a commotion aboard Marcus' yacht during the past half-hour. He had heard distant voices, the throb of a motor, and a tramping of feet across the boat deck.
And he had suddenly noticed the disc of wire mesh in the ceiling above his head. Investigation had revealed the air shaft, offering a possible means of escape from his present quarters. True, he would still be a prisoner aboard the yacht, but one step to freedom might lead to another.
"And," he had determined grimly, '"'if I can't put one over on that black-bearded, bottle-nosed, two-legged talking shark, may I never look a fried egg in the face again."
Midge knew quite well that he was being held as a valuable hostage, and that negotiations for his release were taking place between Marcus and Captain Justice.
But he had no idea that Captain Justice and Professor Flaznagel had agreed to surrender the Flying Cloud in exchange for him.
Nor did he know that Justice, Len Connor, and Dr. O'Mally were already aboard the yacht.
Midge tiptoed to the door, and listened.
"Lot of blinkin' jawing going on somewhere," he muttered. "Mebbe I can find out what it's all about when I get out of this dump. Every time I look at that hole the smaller it seems to get."
He realised that even his clothes were going to prove a handicap. Finally he discarded coat, trousers, and shoes, and arranged the bolster in the bed in such a manner that anyone glancing into the cabin after his departure would presume that he had turned in and gone to sleep.
With an eye to enhancing this illusion, he placed a large red rubber sponge in the centre of the pillow, so that it was just visible beyond the edge of the blankets.
"Crumbs, that's not half bad!" he grinned, surveying the effect from a distance.
By clambering on to the metal table, the youngster was able to thrust his head and shoulders in the opening, and grasp a projection higher up the shaft.
Despite his small size, Midge was as strong and wiry as a young puma. It needed all his strength and activity to accomplish the task he had set himself. Inch by inch, straining and panting, he dragged himself up into the shaft, barking his knuckles, knees, and elbows in the effort.
The length of the shaft seemed interminable.
"Like climbing up a blinkin' factory chimney," he grumbled, just before he found himself at the top, clinging to the edge of the ventilator, with the night air ruffling his damp red hair. He slipped headfirst to the deck, where he lay panting, and rubbing his bruised, aching limbs.
Midge was prepared to find himself in the pitch darkness of the Black Menace. But the faint glow of some kind of light—evidently infra-orange ray—was reflected from the far side of the deckhouse that loomed above him.
He blinked and rubbed his eyes. Dangling within a few yards of him was something bright and tenuous, and gently swaying, that hung down from the black sky.
Midge reached out a hand. His fingers encountered cold steel uprights, with crossbars set in jointed sections.
It was a ladder of some kind; a metal, rubber-runged, folding ladder, that reached up from the deck of the yacht to—where? Midge lifted his eyes, tracing its source, until his astonished gaze rested on a huge dark shape, black and ominous as a thundercloud, that was suspended motionless above his head.
The Flying Cloud! The youngster's heart seemed to turn a somersault as he recognised the familiar outline-of the airship. There was no mistaking the long, graceful craft, with its ribbed tranzelonite hull, tapering bows, and flanged tail.
"The Flying Cloud! Great cats, it's the old blimp right enough!" gulped Midge, quivering with excitement as he followed the contours of the great airship, and noted the magnetic mooring-hook clamped to the yacht's rail. "This means the professor's arrived on the scene, and the captain and the whole giddy bunch must be with him!"
Where the Flying Cloud had come from he had no idea. But he guessed that the presence of the dirigible meant that Justice and his friends were visiting Marcus' yacht to negotiate for his release, and were even then discussing terms.
Midge drew a deep breath as he clutched the rungs of the dangling ladder and peered in all directions. Apparently he was alone on deck. And he was free! Here was his chance to take the wind out of Marcus' sails, and save his friends from being forced to accede to the man's extortionate demands.
Active as a monkey, cool-headed as a steeplejack, the plucky youngster commenced the ascent of the swaying, jerking ladder. His heart was pounding against his ribs as he reached the railed platform that stretched from bows to stern along the airship's keel.
Just by him was the entrance to the control-room, and a metal ladder leading to a look-out point in the extreme nose of the craft.
He had no time to lose. He could now hear voices below. Quick as thought he shinned up to the look-out point.
"This is going to be a proper smack in the eye for old Marcus, and a big surprise for the captain!" he chuckled, crossing to one of the windows, and peering down at the platform below.
It was Midge himself who received the metaphorical "smack in the eye." The platform was thronged with strange men, amongst whom stood the tall figure of Marcus, bending over the rail and smiling mockingly down at Captain Justice, Len Connor, and Dr. O'Mally, who were grouped together on the deck of the yacht.
The scene was clearly lit with an infra-orange ray beam. Even as Midge watched, dumbfounded with dismay, Marcus took some bright, object from his pocket and tossed it into space. It was the key to Midge's prison.
Too late Midge realised the truth. Frantically he struggled to open the jammed window, shouting to attract his friends' attention. His voice was drowned in a sudden drone of powerful motors. There was a jolt as the mooring-hook was freed, and the Flying Cloud shot straight up into the air.
Midge's eyes bulged as he saw the yacht dwindle to the size of a toy-and merge into the darkness. This was the end of his gallant attempt to escape.
He had jumped out of the frying-pan into the fire. He had exchanged one prison for another!
And now poor Midge's chances of rescue seem utterly hopeless.... But Murray Roberts has got some really staggering surprises in store for you— and everyone concerned!— in Next Saturday's Captain Justice Thriller!!!
Part 6 here.
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.