Aphelion Issue 261, Volume 25
May 2021
 
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1947 v.2.0

by George Schaade




The auburn-haired teen tilted her seat back and threw a bored, negative stare at the two men across the aisle. “What are we waiting for? Let’s get this plane off the ground.”

The large, black man lowered his book and looked at the young girl over the top of his half-frame reading glasses. “Aristotle said, ‘Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.’”

Shirley rolled her eyes and sank deeper into the seat. Her whole life had been one big hurry-up-and-wait. She was getting tired of others telling her what to do and treating her like a child. All she wanted was others to give her a little respect.

The second man leaned toward her and said, “We’re waiting for the pilot.”

Shirley looked down the aisle of the empty plane and frowned at the cockpit door. “Where is he, Mr. Hoover? You always expect the rest of us to be on time.”

“Well, he is a bit eccentric,” said the FBI Director, “besides, he owns the airplane.” After a short pause Hoover added, “Actually, he owns the whole airline.”

Shirley shot up in her seat with a surprised look. “Howard Hughes? Howard Hughes is a member of the Franklin Group?”

“There’s lots of Americans with special talents that the Group can use to defend our democracy,” said Hoover. “We would never discount someone because they’re a business leader like Howard, an athlete like Joe, or an entertainer like you.”

From outside came the screeching sound of braking tires which drew everyone to the plane’s windows where they saw a customized Lincoln limousine come to a sudden stop near the tail of the DC-3. The man emerging from the car had slicked-back dark hair and a thin moustache. He wore a lightweight jacket and wide legged trousers. He quickly ran up the stairs and into the plane.

“Well, thanks for finally joining us,” said Hoover. “I think you know Joe Louis and this young lady is Shirley Temple.”

Hughes nodded to each of them, removed a pipe from his jacket, and said, “Sorry, Edgar, I was in a real estate meeting.” As he lit the pipe, he asked, “So what’s this mission all about?”

“You may have heard about the incident in Roswell, New Mexico a few months ago,” began Hoover.

“Oh, with the spaceship, aliens, and whatnot?” said Shirley.

Hoover gave her a chiding look and continued, “The official government position is that it was all a mistake involving a weather balloon. Right now all you need to know is that something from that event was stolen and is now in transit to Mexico City where we surmise that it will be sold to the Communists. The Franklin Group has been asked to recover that object as discreetly as possible.”

“Gadzooks!” exclaimed Shirley. “What is it? A space gun? An alien?”

“We are to recover it,” Hoover said stiffly, “no questions asked. Howard will fly you to Mexico City where you’ll be met by one of our agents. They will fill you in on what’s happening there.”

“You’re not coming with us?” asked Joe.

“No, I’m involved in this new Central Intelligence Agency that’s being established. Howard will be in charge of the team. Good luck. I’ll see you when you return.”

Soon after Hoover left the plane, Howard checked the flight plan, fired up the two Pratt & Whitney radial engines, and flew off to the south. About an hour into the flight Shirley stuck her head into the cockpit.

“Mind if I join you?” she asked. “Mr. Louis is taking a nap and I’m bored.”

Howard motioned toward the co-pilot’s seat and said, “Strap in. Rumor has it that I have a tendency to crash planes.”

“That’s no rumor, Mr. Hughes. It’s a fact,” smiled Shirley. “Mind if I smoke?”

“Are you cultivating a habit or trying to look more grown up?” asked Howard.

That angered Shirley. “Why does everyone talk that way to me? I wish they would see me for who I really am.”

“I know the feeling. Most people think of me as a rich business magnate, an innovative film producer, a daring pilot, an amazing engineer, and an international playboy. While that’s all true, I’m much more than that.”

Shirley chuckled. “You could add narcissistic comedian to that list.”

Howard laughed with her. “My point is, to most people you’ll always be that little girl with the golden curls that could sing and dance her way into our hearts. I’m sure you’re more than that but you’ll have to prove yourself.” Howard paused as he checked some of the plane’s gauges. “I joined the Franklin Group because I had lots of connections in government and I wanted to pay back the country for backing me in the Spruce Goose project. Why did you join?”

Shirley shrugged. “I don’t know. Last year I was working on a movie for RKO. The role required me to do some stunts, nothing dangerous just jumps, rolls, and falls. I think the government guy that censors things must have seen the dailies because it wasn’t long before the movie was cancelled and Mr. Hoover was knocking on my door. I accepted his invitation because it sounded more exciting than singing and dancing like a little girl.”

“Shirley, I think you joined the Franklin Group not to escape that image but to become more than that.”

“Thanks, I hope it turns out that way,” said Shirley. She turned, looked out the window, and let her thoughts drift off into the pale blue sky.

After refueling in Houston the trio flew on to Mexico City. Arriving at the international airport, the team grabbed their luggage and made their way into the terminal. It was there that they were greeted by a Mexican woman in a long ruffled skirt and a loose fitting blouse. She was quite attractive with dark hair and heavy eyebrows. Joe spoke to her in fluent Spanish.

“This is Frida Kahlo de Rivera,” explained Joe. “She knows some English but prefers to speak in Spanish, so I’ll translate. She says she was sent to pick us up and take us to her boss’s office. There’s a car outside.”

“Who’s her boss?” asked Shirley.

Joe spoke to Frida who put a finger to her lips and pointed to the exit.

When they got to the car Howard practically broke into a dance with excitement. The car was a 1936 Rolls Royce Phantom III. Howard was beside himself and insisted on seeing the engine.

“Do you know what this is? This is a 7.3 liter V12 engine,” he cooed. “It can go 0 to 60 in sixteen seconds. Sixteen seconds! And to think it was built eleven years ago. Amazing! I’ve got to drive it.”

Frida did let him drive the Phantom as she directed him through the city streets to the Coyoacan district where they finally stopped at a large blue house. Inside she led the team through hallways lined with armed guards to a room where a man was playing billiards.

Turning to his guests the man smiled and said, “Velcome, friends. Edgar said he vould send team of experts. Ve have been expecting you.”

Joe was visibly shocked by the man but managed to mutter, “You’re… you’re Leon Trotsky. I thought you were… dead.”

Trotsky’s smile broadened. “Ah, zis is good you zink I’m dead, but nyet I’m very much alive.” Trotsky leaned forward and pointed to an ugly scar on his head. “Stalin’s assassin used axe but I have very hard head. Later ve decided to fake death to avoid more attacks. My close friend Frida hid me from my enemies and recruited me for Franklin Group.”

Howard hadn’t heard a word that Trotsky said. He was staring at a painting on the wall. It was a portrait of Frida but in a surrealistic style.

“Did you do this?” asked Howard. “It’s beautiful.”

“Oh, nyet. Zat is self-portrait,” said Trotsky. “You find Frida’s paintings all over house. She is very good.”

“Can we get down to business,” said an impatient Shirley.

Joe and Howard gave her a disapproving look and Joe said, “Please excuse Shirley. She’s new to all of this.”

“Is okay. Young lady has point. Our information indicates zat something is happening tonight so ve should get started. As you can understand I keep close eye on the Soviet embassy here. Two veeks ago ve intercepted coded messages between the embassy and freelance agent in United States. Frida is very good at deciphering such zings. Agent claims to have items from the Roswell crash zat he vants to sell to the USSR.”

“I knew it,” cried Shirley, “and I bet they’re closing the deal tonight.”

“Da, Stalin must zink zis is very important because he sent high ranking member of Politburo, man named Nikita Khrushchev.” Trotsky spread a city map on the table and pointed at a spot. “At midnight zey vill meet in abandoned varehouse here. It vill be dangerous. I can send men to help you.”

Joe and Shirley turned to Howard. He read the looks on their faces and understood. “Thanks, Leon, but we can move faster and quieter alone.” He thought for a second and added, “If it’s all right I’d like to borrow Frida and the Rolls for tonight.”

Just as the sun set on the city Howard parked the Rolls in an alley two blocks from the warehouse. Leaving Frida to watch the car, the trio disguised themselves as locals and cautiously made their way to the warehouse. They used an open window to climb inside the building where they took a position in the loft behind some boxes. From there they could look down on the floor of the building.

“Check your weapons,” said Howard. “There’s no way this is going to be easy.”

Joe and Howard looked over their 38 Specials then showed particular interest when Shirley displayed her pearl-handled Colt pocket pistol.

“It’s very pretty,” said Joe, “and lightweight. Can it really do much damage?”

“More than a Brown Bomber uppercut,” quipped Shirley.

Howard laughed. “Obviously you haven’t seen him fight.”

They fell into a long silence until Shirley asked Howard, “I noticed something odd about you. Why don’t you shake hands with anyone?”

“Germs,” Howard said. “There are 400,000 germs on a human hand, while a dusty, old building like this doesn’t even have half that. The human body is covered in all kinds of bacteria. I’d rather not touch them.”

Shirley wanted to ask more but didn’t get the chance. The rusty garage door screeched as a man slowly pushed it open. An old flatbed delivery truck pulled into the warehouse and three more men climbed out of the cab. They walked to the back of the truck where they pulled back a tarp to expose four wooden crates.

“The guy in the pith helmet is Frank Buck,” whispered Joe. “He wrote Bring ‘Em Back Alive, a bestseller.”

“He’s a big game hunter and animal collector, but he also did some movies,” said Shirley.

“I think the man with the gray hair and beard is Ernest Hemingway,” added Howard, “but I thought he was living in Cuba.”

A side door to the warehouse opened and a squat, balding man entered carrying a briefcase. He was flanked by two men with automatic weapons. They approached Buck and Hemingway near the truck and a conversation ensued. Khrushchev spoke in Russian which was then translated by one of his flunkies. Joe, who also spoke Russian, was translating for Shirley and Howard.

“Khrushchev wants the crates opened so he can see the items,” whispered Joe. “Buck wants to see the money first. Sounds like an argument about who goes first.”

Suddenly there was a shot that was soon followed by machine gun fire and men scattering in all directions. No one spotted the team in the loft so they had an open view of the floor below. Khrushchev and his men took positions behind crates and barrels, while Buck, Hemingway, and their goons fired from the other side of the truck.

Howard noticed that Buck and Hemingway had slipped into the cab of the truck. “They’re going to get away with the goods,” said Howard. “We’ve got to end this now. Joe, take care of the Russians. Shirley and I will aim for the guys behind the truck.”

It took a while for the gunmen on the floor of the warehouse to realize there was a third group firing at them from the loft but once they did the bullets were flying in every direction. Eventually Joe was able to take out one of the Russians and Howard brought down one of Buck’s henchmen. It was at that point that Khrushchev and the other Russian grabbed the briefcase and ran out the side door. Buck and Hemingway wasted no time in backing the truck out of the building, leaving one of their own thugs to run for his life.

“We’ve got to follow that truck,” yelled Howard.

The team climbed down from the loft and ran to the open garage door.

“Which way did they go?” cried Shirley. “We’ll never catch up to them.”

Just then Frida arrived in the Rolls and called to Joe.

“She says that the truck raced by her going north, so she hightailed it over here.”

The group piled into the Rolls with Howard taking control of the wheel. They tore down the streets weaving left and right under Frida’s direction. Eventually they caught up to the truck just outside the city where the road narrowed considerably.

“I can’t get around them to force them off the road,” yelled Howard.

“It’s too dark and the truck is kicking up too much dirt for me to get a clear shot at the tires,” said Joe. “What are we going to do?”

“I’ve got an idea,” said Shirley. “Get the car as close to the truck as you can.”

Shirley stepped onto the running board of the speeding car and inched her way forward to the hood. Holding onto the side spare tire she eased to the top of the front fender where she could grab the iconic hood ornament and balance herself on one of the protruding headlights. It was a dicey spot to be in. The speed of the vehicles, the bumps in the road, the slippery hood, all made it near impossible for her to succeed.

“Closer,” yelled Shirley.

Howard had been watching her carefully. So by anticipating her jump he gunned the engine and the Rolls leaped forward giving Shirley enough momentum to span the gap between the vehicles. She hit the bed of the truck, rolled once, and popped up with a huge smile on her face. A bullet immediately buzzed past her ear.

Hemingway had taken a shot at her through the small, rear window of the truck’s cab. Shirley ducked and then crawled behind a crate near the window. Considering the angle he was now trying to shoot from and the protection of the crate, there wasn’t any way he could hit her. But this wasn’t doing anything to stop the truck.

Shirley pulled out her pocket pistol and fired randomly into the window hoping to disrupt Buck’s driving. It worked. The truck swerved back and forth on the road then plunged into a shallow ditch before bouncing into the air and finally smashing into a tree. Shirley and the crates were thrown out of the truck, landing haphazardly in the surrounding bushes and shrubs.

Howard stopped the Rolls as soon as he could and they all jumped out. Frida grabbed some flashlights from the glove compartment and they hurried to the scene of the wreck. The truck was sparking and smoking but the cab was empty. Buck and Hemingway had escaped into the woods, but it was more important to find Shirley. They spread out looking for her.

After a bit Joe shouted, “Over here! I found her. She’s alive. Cuts, bruises, and dazed, but she’s alive.”

“I’m okay,” Shirley mumbled. “Just give me a minute to clear my head.”

“Joe, carry her back to the car. Frida can stay with her while you and I look for those crates.”

As it turned out the crates had landed harder than Shirley. The wooden boxes had broken open and packing material was strewn everywhere. Eventually they collected the objects that had been in the boxes and brought them back to the Rolls.

“Let me see! Let me see!” cried Shirley who had obviously recovered.

They had found four pieces of jagged metal that they dropped on the ground at Shirley’s feet. Each piece was highly polished and paper thin.

Shirley was disappointed. “That’s it? Just some scraps of tin foil?”

Joe picked up a piece and tried, with all his strength, to bend it, but despite its thinness the metal didn’t budge. He handed the scrap to Shirley.

“Oh, my!” she exclaimed. “It makes my fingers tingle. What’s happening?”

“I’m not sure,” said Joe. “It may have some kind of energy pulsing through it. I never thought I’d say it but these things seem to be from another planet.”

Shirley smiled and shook her head in disbelief. “It’s been a hell of a day. I met all of you, chased bad guys across Mexico, got thrown out of a truck, and touched something from another world. But you know, the best part was making new friends. That’s just what my life needed.”

Howard was touched by what she said. “Shirley, I’ve lived through four plane crashes, numerous car wrecks, a Senate committee hearing, and a lot of anger from some of the most beautiful women in the world, but I’ve never experienced anything like you jumping onto that truck. That took courage beyond anything I can imagine. I’m honored to have you on the team.” And with that he offered his hand.

Shirley understood and appreciated the magnitude of his gesture, but instead of shaking his hand she wrapped her arms around him, gave him a big hug, and said, “To hell with the germs.”



THE END


2021 George Schaade

Bio: George Schaade is a retired history teacher that loves writing science fiction and humor. He's always been fascinated by the oddities of life and the quirks of human nature. His stories often focus on an unexpected twist or a shocking ending.

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