A MANHUNT CHILLER
TERROR IN THE SKY
By Gardner F. Fox
Originally written for MANHUNT #3 (1947) and published by Magazine Enterprises
JUG HERKIMER was nervous. He stood in the brightly lighted room where the Van Halstens were holding a masquerade party and touched his wet forehead with a handkerchief. This was his first job as a private detective, and he was watch dog for the Van Halsten jewels. To make matters worse, word had come from headquarters, on an underworld tip, that Rocks Baxter—the best stickup-man in the business—was gunning for the diamonds!
Jug walked by a table that was covered with cold cuts and salads. He gently reached out and took an olive away from its companions. He munched on it as happily as he could, thinking about Rocks Baxter.
"Havin' fun?" asked an elfin voice beside
Jug almost swallowed the olive pit, as he gazed down into the wide blue eyes of the pretty girl staring up at him. The olive pit seemed to be the size of a football in his mouth. He mumbled, "Yes'm!" and wished she'd go away.
"I'm Judy Van Halsten," she told him, selecting a tiny sandwich and biting into it. "I –"
She chattered on, but Jug kept thinking of the olive pit. He remembered how he used to shoot buckshot with his teeth and tongue when he was in school, but he couldn't do that with an olive pit here! And now the girl was taking him by the arm and leading him out into the hall.
"You just have to see the diamonds. Uncle Josh is showing them to some friends, in the west library. Come along now."
Bu-but," Jug mumbled. "I - I'm supposed to watch the jewels ... a private eye ... I mean, detective. That's what I am." "Silly! I know that. That's why ...oohhhh !"
The girl screamed. Her fingernails were digging right through Jug's coat-sleeve and into his arm. He tried to shake himself loose but she hung on with all her strength.
A man in a convict outfit, with a patched and worn jacket, was backing out of the west library. There was a .45 revolver in his right hand, and a small sack in his left hand. From the neck of the black velvet sack, Jug could see a strand of brilliants dangling.
He tried to yell, but the olive pit choked him. He ran forward, hand going for his own gun. The girl was right beside him, running as fast as her skirt would let her.
The masquerader in the patched jacket whirled and sent a bullet past Jug's cheek. Then he dove like an acrobat through the hall window and out onto the lawn.
Jug got the pit in his fingers and shoved it into his pocket. He yelled, "Let's go!" and jumped for the window. Judy Van Halsten gave a small shriek, but stayed with him.
Jug and the girl landed in a tumble on a mass of peonies. They didn't stop to pity the crushed flowers, because the man in the convict suit was going like the wind across the big lawn and —
Jug gulped when he saw it. It was a big blimp, the kind used for aerial advertising. Its gondola was floating just above the lawn. The gondola door was open, and the jewel thief was leaping for it! His hands closed on the rope ladder and he went up.
"Hurry up! Hurry up! We got to stop him!" Jug panted.
The thief darted for the controls. He threw over a lever. He kicked something with his foot. The blimp began to rise. Jug knew that once that blimp was more than seven feet above the ground, the thief would have escaped.
He made a wild leap. His fingers caught on the swaying rope ladder. Then Jug had an arm around Judy, lifted her until her high heeled shoes could catch in a rung of the ladder.
"Ohmigolly!" she moaned, looking down at the fading lights of the Van Halsten mansion that was disappearing rapidly as the blimp picked up speed.
"Just hang on tight," encouraged Jug. "I'm going up into the gondola and — hey! I think he's seen us!"
The man's face was framed for a moment in the glass window of the gondola. Jug saw him grin and laugh derisively, and jump for the controls.
Jug tried to get up to the gondola door, but the blimp was going too fast. The wind almost flung him from the rope ladder. He needed all his strength to hold Judy on, to make sure they both weren't swept off to crash two thousand feet below.
"He's heading out over Long Island Sound!"
The wind grew worse over the water. It howled and whipped and tugged at Jug and the girl with frenzied glee. It yanked them and snapped them at the end of the ladder. It played with them until they were exhausted.
"Got to ... hang on ... just ... little longer!'' Jug panted.
Judy was sobbing with weariness. "I—I can't!"
Jug's strong right arm held her to the ropes. But Jug knew that he couldn't keep this up much longer! A glint of moonlight below him caught his eye. The water was rushing up toward them with frightening speed!
“He's going to brush us off in the water!" Jug cried. He tried to tighten his grip on the ladder, then the water struck him
The fury of the water at that speed would have pulled Jug and the girl free of the ladder if it had not first twisted a strand of the rope about them. It wrapped the ladder tightly around their bodies and it held them. But it almost drowned them, at the same time.
Rocks Baxter must have thought he'd lost them, because the blimp began to lift the ladder free of the water. Frozen, half-drowned. Jug and Judy clung to the ladder as tightly as the wet ropes clung to them.
Jug said, "I have to get up to that gondola! Hang on tight. Judy. I have to let you go!"
The girl wrapped her fingers in the ropes and held tight. Slowly. Jug pulled himself up the ropes, hand over hand. Just as he was about to close a hand on the gondola door, it opened.
Rocks Baxter grinned down at them. His little pig eyes glittered cruelly. He laughed at them.
"Still hanging on, hey?" he snarled. "I'11 fix that! You bet I will!"
He disappeared into the gondola and came back with an ax While Jug tried frantically to get to him, he chopped down on the rope ladder with the sharp edge of the ax
The rope ladder jerked wildly as one strand parted under the ax-edge Rocks stood up and grinned. "It's not polite to let a lady fall all the way down there! I'd better find a way to help her!"
This time he came back with a rope that he had twisted and knotted into a hangman's noose! He knelt at the edge of the doorway and lowered it. The noose slipped over Judy's throat and Baxter yanked it tight.
Jug redoubled his efforts, and managed to close his fingers on the floor of the gondola. With one hand he held himself as he drove his free fist at Rock's jaw. The fist landed and the jewel thief rocked back.
"I'll get you for that!" the man roared. "I'll hang your girl friend and then I'll chop you to pieces!"
He turned the rope around a hook on the inside of the gondola. Then he chopped at the rope ladder again. The last strand gave way and the ladder twisted and fell thousands of
feet below toward the streets of New York, over which the blimp now was passing.
Out of the corner of his eye, Jug caught a glimpse of the lights of Manhattan. He could distinguish the pointed spire of the Chrysler Building, the tall bulk of the Empire State Building. He shuddered, thinking of that fall.
Judy was clinging with both hands to the rope above the noose that held her. When her arms tired, she would let go, and the noose would close ...
Jug heaved himself up. He called on some last resource of energy deep inside him and he made it. He caught hold of a handle on the side of the gondola and pulled himself into the doorway.
Rocks met him with his fists. He rammed a left to Jug's head and sank a right into the pit of his stomach. Battered by wind and water, Jug almost let go. But a voice deep inside him whispered. You have to make it. That girl down there will die if you don't get this killer!
Jug lunged. He came forward, his fists pumping, and he and Rocks brawled furiously near the doorway of the gondola. But the strain of the long ride on the rope ladder was telling. Jug just didn't have the strength left to fight his way in away from the door.
He went back and back. With one hand he clung to the door frame, as Rocks bent him back farther and farther. Beneath him, Judy was sobbing with the effort of holding onto the noose-rope.
His free hand clawed at Rocks, fell away. It tore the pocket of his jacket. Something fell into his palm. It was the olive pit!
There was just a bare chance! Rocks wouldn't expect an attack from that direction! Jug popped the pit in his mouth and tongued it. With accuracy born from years of shooting buckshot, he sent the pit winging right at the other's eye!
The jewel thief bellowed with pain. He fell back two steps, and that was just what Jug wanted. Jug lurched forward, sank a left and a right. The man went down like a felled log.
It was the work of seconds to bend and grasp Judy's wrist, just as her fingers were relaxing. He lifted her up beside him and put her on the gondola floor. Then he turned to Rocks and tied him up with the noose-rope.
Judy stared at him as Jug began to laugh. When he could he said, "If Rocks only knew that a little olive pit stood between him and success! Whew! From now on I'm carrying a whole bottle of those things with me! Who knows?—maybe I'll have to use a pit again—to get out of another pitfall!"