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Authors: Mack Maloney

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BOOK: The Twisted Cross
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No small wonder then that as far as anyone knew, no ship captain had attempted a shortcut voyage through the Canal since the Big War and lived to tell about it. The rare ship that did sail from the West Coast to the East or vice versa these days went by way of the tip of South America.

But as puzzling as the situation seemed, there was now a new, more frightening report on conditions down in the Canal Zone. And investigating this latest rumor was the reason Hunter was in New Orleans in the first place.

Hunter walked halfway down Bourbon then took a right onto Orleans Avenue. If anything, this street was even more crowded. The cast of characters was the same-soldiers in as many different uniforms representing various armed groups or militias, gun salesmen, gold exchangers, moonshiners, sleazy insurance hawkers, hookers of every age and proclivity and the usual gaggle of black market traders. The only thing not for sale - in the open anyway - were drugs, which under the new United American Government were strictly verboten.

The Wingman made his way through the crowd until he finally reached his destination: A place called 33 Thunder Alley. "Alley" was a good word for it.

Two blocks down off Orleans Avenue, it was so narrow, it seemed a motorbike would have had a hard time navigating its way through, never mind an auto or a truck. The alley was a confusion of overhead wires, fire escapes and clotheslines. At ground level, his eyes went blurry from the combination of multicolored neon lights advertising tiny taverns, cathouses, pawn shops and money changers that lined the skinny passageway. This electric rainbow was offset by old gas-powered street lamps, which despite the competition, still managed to give the cluttered buildings a strange, bluish-green glow.

Hunter walked down the alley until he reached a battered red door that had

"33" carved into its frame, courtesy of a stiletto jackknife, no doubt. He opened this door to find a cramped hallway and another, even more garishly-painted crimson door.

There was no bell or buzzer, so he rapped on the door three times.

"Who the hell is there?" he heard a gruff voice shout from the other side. At the same time he also detected the unmistakable click of a round being loaded into a rifle chamber.

"I'm Major Hawk Hunter of the United American Air Force," Hunter yelled out, seeing no reason to mince words. "I'm a friend of Dave Jones and I'm looking for a guy named Captain Pegg ..."

All the while, Hunter was silently slipping his M-16 off his shoulder and into firing position.

"Maybe Pegg ain't here!" came the reply. Jones had told him that this man, Pegg, was an old duffer-mean and ornery. The voice behind the door was harsh and well-worn. It seemed to match.

"And maybe I flew all the way down here for nothing!" Hunter counterpunched.

"And maybe Pegg is a crazy old man who's eaten too many clams . . ."

The door swung open before he finished the sentence. Suddenly he was staring down the barrel of no less than a German-made Heckler & Koch G3 SG/1 sniping rifle. Behind the rifle was a typically-grizzled old timer, complete with worn-out boat captain's cap and corncob pipe.

"That's some heavy artillery you got there, Pops," Hunter said, bringing his own M-16 barrel up to bear.

"And I'd aim to use it too!" the man growled, adding a nervous chuckle as he took stock of the business end of Hunter's M-16.

"Well, you don't have to use it on me," Hunter said, slowly lowering his rifle. "Are you Captain Pegg?"

"I am!" the man said defiantly, not moving his rifle an iota.

"Well, I'm a friend of Dave Jones," Hunter told him. "And I hear he's a friend of yours. He said you'd be expecting

me .

The old man lowered his gun only a notch. "You're this 'Wingman' guy?" he asked in his gnarled tone of voice. "Gripes, from what I heard about you, I expected you'd have sprouted a pair of wings . . ."

Hunter had to smile. With his battered cap, pipe, unshaved face and heavily-muscled forearms, the old guy was right out of a Popeye cartoon.

The man lowered his powerful rifle and managed a gap-toothed smile. "Okay," he said. "You look like a flyboy. C'mon in."

Hunter stepped inside the small flat and it too looked as authentic as Captain Pegg. It was a clutter of sea paintings and photos, fishing lines, hats, parts of lobster traps and shrimp kettles, plus a couple dozen empty liquor boxes. A small lamp on the room's table competed with the neon barrage coming from outside the flat's single window.

"Nice place . . ." Hunter said.

"It's comfortable for someone like me," Pegg said, dropping into a large overstuffed chair. "Besides, I ain't here much. Spend most of my time out on the open sea."

Hunter drew up a wooden chair and sat down. Pegg reached into a cabinet beside his seat and came up with a bottle and two glasses.

"Hong Kong brandy," he said, opening the bottle and giving it a sniff.

He poured out two stiff belts and handed one to Hunter. The pilot took a sip and was genuinely surprised. The stuff was actually good. Most booze running around the continent these days was nothing more than glorified rot-gut.

"Aye, I surprised you!" Pegg said, his eyes gleaming. "Bet that's the best hootch you've tasted in a while ..."

"That it is," Hunter said, suddenly finding himself talking like Pegg.

"How is my old friend, David?" Pegg asked Hunter through a sip of the brandy.

"I haven't seen him since the Big War started. We grew up in the same neighborhood, you know. He, his twin brother Seth and me. They went into airplanes and I took to the sea."

"The general is well," Hunter answered. "Of course, he's up to his ears in work, trying to coordinate repair of all the war damage, as well as getting the Reconstruction Government running smoothly ..."

"My hat's off to you guys," Pegg said, actually tipping his cap. "You ran those Circle bastards and their commie friends right out of the country. Lot of us are proud of you all ..."

Hunter took a good swig of the liquor. "Thanks, Captain," he said. "But, believe me, the hard part is just beginning."

"You'll do fine," Pegg said.

Then suddenly the old man became very serious.

"Did David tell you why I contacted him after all these years?" he asked Hunter. f

The pilot shook his head. "No, not really," he replied. "Just that you had some very critical information on the Canal . . ."

"Not just information" die old man said, his face creasing with worry. "A dire warning, my boy. There's trouble brewing down there that will make your latest brawl with The Circle look like a finger fight . . ."

"Tell me about it," Hunter said, leaning forward a little.

Pegg relit his pipe and through a swirl of smoke, began his strange story.

Chapter 3

Earlier that year, Pegg had been hired to pilot a medium-sized coastal freighter out of New Orleans down to the Amazon. Inside its hold were three tons of frozen shrimp -a birthday present, he had heard, for the Queen of Brasilia (the current name of Brazil) from her husband. While no self-respecting seaman like himself would ever be caught actually eating frozen shrimp, Pegg took on the job because it promised good pay for little work.

The first leg of the trip went well. The shrimp was delivered and payment received from the King of Brasilia himself. But then the monarch had a proposition for Pegg and his crew: Would they carry another load of cargo down to Buenos Aires? Being an old merchantman, Pegg knew that this was how the hauling business usually worked: one job frequently led to another. In fact, he had anticipated such a thing and thereby had leased the trawler for three months.

Pegg and his crew took on the King's cargo - heavily-sealed containers with invulnerable laser combination locks - at the Brasilia port of Macapa on the mouth of the Amazon and made Buenos Aires six days later.

"Now Buenos Aires is a very strange place these days," Pegg said to Hunter, pouring out another couple of drinks for them. "Everybody -men, women, kids and grandmothers-wears a uniform. Everybody is in the army."

The Brazilian king's cargo was off-loaded and again, Pegg was asked to take on another assignment. This one was to bring more sealed cargo to Lima, Peru.

Pegg said he took

three full days to think the job over as it entailed sailing around the southern tip of South America through the treacherous waters off Cape Horn.

"I'd done it once before," Pegg said. "Vowed then I'd never do it again . . ."

But the lock-step military government of Buenos Aires promised a fortune (in gold, no less) for Pegg if he agreed to make the voyage. For despite their obvious military might, the Argentines no longer had sailable ships, much less anyone who had the skills to navigate the typhoon-like passage at the southern tip of the world.

Pegg put it to a vote to his crew. Seven men agreed to go,, four chose to jump ship in Buenos Aires. Pegg collected a' third of his payment in advance and set out, his crew supplemented by a half dozen Argentinean marines, none of whom could speak English.

The passage around the cape was predictably nightmarish, Pegg claimed. One crewman and a marine were washed overboard as the freighter was battered by hurricane-like winds and 25-foot waves. The sky was as dark as midnight even in the middle of the day. The waters were so churned up' that Pegg claimed he and his crew saw all kinds of strange creatures - giant eels, serpents and squid -riding on the surface. Sharks were jumping out of the water like flying fish. Seagulls and albatross continually smashed into the hull of the freighter, content, according to Pegg, to commit suicide rather than to drown in the hellish sea. For three straight days, Pegg and his crew did nothing but bail water, both by hand and diesel-driven pumps. Two men dropped dead of exhaustion. Another went insane and jumped overboard-Pegg said they inexplicably heard his screams for more than an hour . . .

Finally they made it to the southwestern-most islands at the tip of Chile where they docked and recovered for two days. Then they set out northward on the more placid waters of the Pacific.

"That's when the voyage started getting very strange," Pegg told Hunter.

The captain was asleep in his berth one night just as the ship was halfway to Lima when he was awakened by an ear-splitting crash.

Quickly out of bed and into his boots, Pegg ran to the bridge to find that his ship was now dead in the water. Right off its bow was no less than a battle cruiser.

"Looking back on it, if I had to guess, I would say it was of Italian design,"

Pegg recounted. "It might have been a Veneto-class warship. Very sleek-looking. Very modern. It looked like it was very fast for a ship of its size."

But the cruiser's crew was anything but a gang of friendly Italians. They had rammed Pegg's ship on purpose, and before Pegg had a chance to tie his boot lacings, a 50-man heavily-armed boarding party was crossing over to his small ship.

"Everyone of them looked alike," Pegg swore to Hunter. "Tall, blond, all the same age and weight. It was the strangest thing, as if they were all first cousins or something . . ."

No one in the boarding party said a word. They simply took up positions at various points on the freighter's deck after having shot the two Argentine marines who had dared to raise their guns to them. After that Pegg wisely ordered his crew not to resist.

On a given signal, the strangers commenced searching the ship. Under the light of the cruiser's powerful searchlights, they quickly hauled up the 12 sealed containers that Pegg had taken on in Buenos Aires and one man, an officer in charge of the raiding party, was able to disarm the supposedly foolproof laser locks.

To the surprise of Pegg and his crew, the 10 foot-by-10-foot boxes were filled to the brim with gold.

"Not gold bars, either," Pegg told Hunter. "Gold objects. Plates. Goblets.

Crucifixes. Chains and necklaces. Rings. And coins. Thousands of gold coins .

. ."

"The Argentines put all that gold ... on a freighter?" Hunter asked. "Why?"

"Good question, Major," Pegg told him. "And I believe the answer is this: It was all part of their plan. The gold, in fact, was a payment to these men on the cruiser, or more accurately, their superiors. Blood money. Protection money. Call it what you like. It was never intended to make it to Peru at all.

"And neither were we ..."

Once the raiders took all the gold onto the cruiser, the boarding party shot one more of the marines, then returned to their warship.

"We breathed a sigh of relief when that ship turned away from us and started heading north," Pegg said. "But what fools we were!"

The cruiser sailed away about ten miles, then, without warning, launched a Swedish-built RBS-15 antiship missile at Peg's freighter.

"I saw it coming," Pegg said. "I had just enough time to shout a warning to my crew. About half of us made it over the side before the missile hit . . ."

The powerful RBS-15 hit the freighter just above the waterline and instantly obliterated the vessel. Pegg and another crewman -a man they all called

"Goldie" because of his mouthful of gold teeth - were blown out of the water and landed in a sea of burning oil and debris.

"We caught hold of a big chunk of wood that went floating by," Pegg said.

"Then we kicked our feet as fast as we could, just to get away from the burning wreckage."

Although they heard the cries from some of the other crewmen, they weren't able to find any of them in the smoke and darkness and confusion. They paddled around until dawn and finding no other signs of life, set out for the coast of Chile, luckily just three miles to the east.

The two men made landfall after 10 hours of grueling paddling, all the while, Pegg said, fighting off man-eating sharks with their bare fists. Once ashore they sought refuge in a nearby woods and soon met some villagers who gave them food and warm clothing.

"We were near a town called Tongo, Chile, which is about seven hundred miles south of the border with Peru," Pegg said. "The place was all but abandoned.

Only old people and young women lived there. We asked them: 'Where is everybody?' But they couldn't answer us very well because we didn't speak their language and they couldn't speak ours. We got the impression that all of the other villagers had

BOOK: The Twisted Cross
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