Chapter One December 1944
Zur Letzten Instanz Restaurant, Waisenstrasse, Berlin
"The Fuhrer is depressed."
The shapely blonde in the black leather tunic looked up from her untouched dinner.
"He has his good days, and his bad ones. There have been disappointments recently." She studied the woman who had addressed her: slender and slight, her bunned hair a mousy brown, her brown eyes large behind a pair of thick black-rimmed glasses, dressed in a mannish black suit. "Do I know you?"
"I hear," continued the slender woman as though the blonde hadn't spoken, "that one of his disappointments was a recent intelligence operational failure in the heart of London."
Inga Von Schmerz' blue eyes snapped ice, and her hand reached instinctively to her waist, where she would normally hang the black bullwhip that supplemented her namesake pistol. She was debating taking a table knife to the damned busybody, but noticed that there was nothing of derision or criticism in the woman's face: if anything, she seemed to project a warm empathy.
"And forgive me for not introducing myself--I am Doctor Gerta Sonderbar."
The blonde narrowed her eyes. "You're one of those crackpot scientists the Fuhrer has holed up in Stuttgart. What are you doing here?"
"I came to meet the great Lady Luger, legendary intelligence agent." She had either failed to notice the "crackpot", or ignored it.
The blonde snorted. "A legend which hasn't prevented the Fuhrer from turning the cold shoulder on me since things went wrong in London." She sighed. "It would have been glorious. Churchill dead, St Paul's in ashes, and the clock on Big Ben replaced with the Fuhrer's face."
Her 'guest' nodded. "Just so. And do you know why your plan failed?"
Von Schmerz sputtered in rage. "Of course I know! It was those damned costumed floozies from America!" If there was anything Lady Luger was unlikely to ever forget, it was the sight of the three young heroines in their gaudy getups, dispatching her team of expert saboteurs with a combination of skilled gunplay, acrobatically lethal martial arts, and unholy physical abilities, all the while cracking wise in their stupid American way. If she did nothing else again for the rest of her life, she would have her revenge on the costumed adventurers-that damned All-Girl Squad!
"No." The scientist interrupted her reverie matter-of-factly. "The intercession of the heroines is HOW your plans failed, but not why."
"Because you were not in charge." She let that sink in for a moment. "Because after all your planning and preparations, they could not allow a 'mere woman' to strike a blow for the fatherland, and refused to let you command the actual operation."
"How do you know--"
"That's not important. What is important is that I understand exactly what happened--it's happened often enough to me."
"You?" Von Schmerz had to admit that she had rather imagined the good doctor happily ensconced in a well-equipped laboratory, with lackeys scurrying to and fro while she conducted her unusual bizarre?... research.
"You have your generals and intelligence chiefs meddling in your work; I have my beauraucrats and administrators," Dr. Sonderbar assured her. "But they all share the belief that you and I have more to offer the Reich as harlots or hausfraus than as crusaders for our fatherland."
"True enough," Von Schmerz nodded. "They can be pigs."
The doctor smiled. "As the Americans say, that is not the half of it." She pulled out a chair and sat opposite the blond agent.
"So why come to me?" Lady Luger was intrigued, but always cautious when dealing with the Byzantine politics of the various branches and departments of the Reich.
"Because I can tell you exactly where the chink in your operation's armor was."
"The major, in command in London that day? He betrayed you."
"He wouldn't dare." The blonde's voice was ice and steel.
"Oh, not knowingly he simply behaved like a man: he allowed a pretty face to lead him around by his private parts and failed to take a woman seriously."
"I don't understand."
"He had an affair with a beautiful Brazilian actress he met in London an actress who is the undercover espionage arm of the All-Girl Squad." Lady Luger just stared, and Dr Sonderbar went on. "Her stage name is Rita Ribiera, but her code name is Rio Rita. She is one of the Allies' most skilled intriguers, and no doubt had her ear filled with your colonel's boasting about his importance to the operation, to the Reich with the result that Liberty Lass, the Blue Phantom, and Miss Mask were able to thwart your grand plan: something that would never have happened had you been in charge."
"Shit!" the blonde cursed. "I'd like to have seen that Allied strumpet try her wiles on me!"
The doctor raised an eyebrow, and her face creased into a smile, as though at a private joke, but she said nothing.
"And why tell me all this?" Von Schmerz snapped in frustration. "The lot of those imbeciles wound up in a British prison, and I was lucky to get away myself. What would good would it do to tell my superiors which of them bungled it?"
"None at all," the doctor responded. "But it is information we can put to good use."
"You and I." She leaned closer, casting furtive glances about the room. "Just like you, I find my greatest plans stifled by small-minded men. So I have decided to share that information with you, and you alone-a woman who suffers as I do." Her face was intent, her eyes bright, her voice breathy and insistent. "A beautiful I mean, a woman who can appreciate the potential implications of my research, and who will help me engineer a plan to allow us both to regain our rightful places of command."
"And what is this grand plan?" If Lady Luger even noticed the doctor's odd slip of the tongue, she chose to ignore it.
"We are going to give the Fuhrer the greatest Christmas present imaginable: we are going to deliver to him, gift-wrapped, the verdammt American heroines."
Strand Palace Hotel
Covent Garden, London
"We really shouldn't be seen too much together." Laura Lane glanced surrepititously around the hotel bar, admiring the fact that even in wartime, the home of Charles Dickens knew how to hang garland and light some cheerful candles for Christmas. "A group of American women on their own attracts enough attention without anyone wondering why we just happen to be here at the same time as Liberty Lass and the Blue Phantom."
"Just a quick one," Joan Justice assured her. "But after kicking the heck out of those Ratzis, of course we have to celebrate!" Enthusiasm radiated from her blue eyes, and it was as though the elegant blue frock, and carefully-coiffed blond hair, could barely suppress the desire to allow her identity as Liberty Lass to burst forth right then and there.
Laura nodded, the candles' amber light bouncing in her sleek dark hair. "Sure, we did great. But smashing one spy ring doesn't mean we've cleaned London out of fifth columnists and saboteurs. We've got another few days before we return stateside." Her fellow heroines often accused the Blue Phantom of taking the pessimistic view of things, but she preferred to think it was just prudence. "It's just best if we don't attract attention."
Joan laughed. "And how do you propose we do that?" She nodded in the direction of the hotel's lavish Art Deco lobby, and at the elegant beauty in the red silk dress who entered through it, to the sound of popping flashbulbs and murmurs of recognition from the patrons in the lobby. Rita Ribiera, Brazil's most dazzling export to Hollywood, waved off the secretary and publicists that accompanied her, and entered the bar alone, sliding up beside Laura. Waves of glossy coal-black hair slid forward as she bent her head to her friend.
"Started without me?"
Laura rolled her eyes. "Honestly, Rita, how about a little subtlety "
"Rita!" Joan Justice had hopped up from her seat and embraced the brunette beauty. "I told ol' sourpuss here that rounding up a passel of Ratzis means we deserve a celebration!"
"All right, all right," Laura rolled her eyes. "But Diana's not here yet." Heiress Diana Dane completed the All-Girl Squad, in her identity as the crimson-clad crimebuster Miss Mask.
"She's not coming." Rita grinned. "Believe it or not, she's already on the trail of something, and she's gone undercover. For that matter, she's not the only one."
"Oh?" Laura raised an eyebrow.
"Oh indeed," Rita responded. "Downing Street suspects that a writer for one of the British movie magazines is a rat, passing info back to the Germans. The poor sap came out to visit me on the set, and I've got him wrapped around my finger now. I'm meeting him upstairs later on, so I can feed him enough bogus info that Herr Hitler can choke on it."
"Good girl," Joan nodded emphatically. "We'll meet you back in Washington next week, and you can tell us all about it."
Rita stood up. "In fact, I should probably be going. Got to send my entourage home before my lovely pigeon shows up."
"Early night for me, too," Laura smiled at Joan. "Those of us without super-strength need our sleep."
There was laughter; the three rose, hugs and kisses were shared, farewells spoken with no hint that their most dangerous adventure of all was about to begin.
Strand Palace Hotel, London
Ah, Herbert. Rita looked at the expensive crystal set on the sideboard, brandy gleaming darkly in the room's dim light. Such a shame that a fine-looking, generous man should be a Nazi pig.
She read the note placed beside the decanter.
I have a bet with the sommelier about this vintage. Please take the first taste. I will join you shortly. H.
The first sip was heavenly being a movie star certainly made her undercover assignments more pleasant than most. She allowed the liquid to slip slowly across her tongue, spreading warmth from her stomach, her throat, and up into her head. Such a vintage! She closed her eyes and the second swallow greedily larger than the first seemed, this time, to go straight to her head and maybe a bit too quickly.
Rita shook her head, as though clearing cobwebs from her mind, but continued to feel a lovely, energy-sapping warmth filling her. It occurred to her that she ought to do something to snap out of it-after all, when Herbert returned she was supposed to what? She was here for a reason, she knew that questions? Information? But remembering was too much work, and far less pleasant than just one more taste
At the sound of the door opening, she jumped in surprise, then giggled at her own skittishness, and was surprised at the slurred and sloppy quality of the sound that came from her mouth.
"I'm in here!"
She turned away from the sideboard, looking toward the door, the movement sending stars whirling before her eyes, which for some reason seemed to be staring at the carpet at her feet. With what felt like a tremendous effort, she raised her head, tossed back the shining curtain of raven hair, and blurted out a slightly sozzled "Herbert, my dear!"
After a pause, Rita thought to herself. OK, I'm slightly tipsy, but that might mean I should be seeing multiple Herberts, not multiple strange women. And certainly not strange women pointing guns at me.
"How delightful to meet you, Senorita Ribiero." The woman who spoke was in the front of the group, and her hotel maid's outfit seemed to be straining to contain the chest that thrust proudly forward, and not even its drab white color could diminish the startling beauty of the woman's pale blond hair and icy blue eyes. "Or should I say Special Agent Rio Rita!"
"Who I " though the sight of the deadly luger in the woman's hand should have been sobering her up, Rita found herself simply gaping stupidly at the visitors: besides the beautiful blonde, there was another, smaller woman, with mousy hair and heavy-framed eyeglasses, and where the blonde was regarding the stunned starlet with the lazy ease of one who knows she has another in her power, the woman in the glasses was staring intently at Rita's face, as if trying to decide just how drunk she was.
Or just how drugged I am!
The realization hit Rita like a Joe Louis haymaker: Herbert wasn't coming. Somehow these women knew of her activities, and had set a trap, baited with an extremely expensive piece of cheese! But knowing that they'd doctored the brandy did her no good. It was still working its way through her bloodstream, and while she didn't feel about to pass out, neither did she feel like taking any initiative. In ordinary circumstances, she'd have considered bluffing her way out, or calling upon her knowledge of ataque, the ancient Incan art of self-defense but somehow, her will to resist was draining away to nothing.
Instead, the third and fourth women in the room advanced toward her: a matched pair of tall, plain-looking, but well-muscled Valkyries. The dazed Brazilian beauty could muster but the most feeble resistance as steely fingers clamped down on her upper arms, and swung her around like a rag doll, to face the blonde with the gun, and her bespectacled associate, who stepped forward and casually took Rita's chin in her fingers!
"Whu " a dull protest died in the secret agent's throat, as much from inertia as fear of the gun pointed at her. She felt her head rocked back and forth as the woman scrutinized the limpid brown eyes.
Ready? Ready for what?
At a nod from her blond chief, the thuggish woman threw Rita down into a chair, leaving a meaty paw on her shoulder as a deterrent to any thought she might have of resistance.
The blonde pulled another chair around to face Rita, smiling into the dulled brown eyes.
"Now, Senorita I am going to ask you a few questions, and thanks to that delightful cocktail that the good Dr. Sonderbar prepared for you, you are going to answer them." She reached under her stolen maid's outfit, and slid out a huge black leather whip, thicker than a cobra and twice as ugly. She tapped the butt end under Rita's chin and tipped the girl's head up slightly; even that tiny gesture was more than the helpless heroine could resist, nor did she have the power to look anywhere but in the cold blue eyes. "You are going to tell us everything we need to know about your colorful friends Liberty Lass, The Blue Phantom, and Miss Mask. We will, of course, use that information to capture them but you're going to give it to me, anyway."
NO! Rita shouted in her mind at the same time that she nodded her head dully.
"All right," the blonde smirked. "Let's begin."
Half an hour later, four women in the livery of hotel staff rolled a white laundry hamper out of the service door in the back of the hotel, barely noticed by the late-night skeleton crew. Waiting in a back alley was a dark, nondescript, canvas-backed truck. Inside the basket was stuffed the first of the Fuhrer's intended "gifts."
Following Rita's narcotically-enhanced interrogation, they had casually laid the stupefied starlet down on the floor. Rita wished they'd just leave her there, to sleep on the thick carpet, but instead, the two tall blondes knelt down next to their charge. One took the helpless girl by her shoulders and sat her up, as the other grasped the shapely legs and folded them up against Rita's ample chest. Rita's fogged brain felt the women handle her like a parcel, but she could move not a finger to resist-her muscles weren't paralyzed; her brain simply refused to put them into action.
Her arms were then wrapped around her legs, snugged close to her chest, and tight cord was used to cinch her wrists together. Wrist bonds were then joined by, and to, ankle bonds, so that Rita was now forced into a grotesque fetal-like position.
The women used their weight to bear down on their captive, ensuring that she was squeezing her legs to herself as tightly as possible. Longer coils of the rope wrapped around her torso and legs, forcing them even closer together, her knees nearly to her chin; callous yanks at the rope ensured that there was virtually no slack at all. The beautiful and deadly Rio Rita was now but a helpless ball on the carpet.
And as if the girl hadn't yet been tormented sufficiently, one of the women produced from her pocket a ball made of thick black rubber, with a leather thong passed through its center. Rita's attempts to fight the drug were useless, and at her captors' command, she opened her mouth to allow the rubber ball to be forced into it. It settled against her back teeth, and she bit down on it reflexively-her mouth was filled with the vile taste. The leather straps were then wrapped around her head, pulled tight over her hair, and knotted securely into place.
The blonde leader came to stand over her, and gave the captive a sharp nudge with the toe of her shoe.
"Now, verdammt meddler, you are in the power of Lady Luger. Soon I will be back in the Fuhrer's good graces when I present to him the gift of you and your interfering friends."
Rita was lifted off the floor, a helpless parcel. The two women unceremoniously dumped her into the laundry cart, covering her with loose linen. The bound and gagged girl wanted to sob in fear and anger, but was still too doped-up to do anything but suffer miserably as she was trucked along to captivity.
Once they reached the lorry, as Rita was lifted from the cart by the two hulking women, and deposited in the rear cargo area, the blond leader and the woman who had supervised her interrogation stepped into view, gloating over their prize.
"You see proof of my methods," the mousy one said. "It was child's play to make these two--" she nodded at the two large blond women--"into unthinking automatons, doing our bidding without question. But to thoroughly command the mind of a heroine like this one "
"Mmm., yes," Lady Luger mused, stroking the whip that hung at her belt. "But I'm sure I will still find the opportunity to introduce this spy to my own personal form of persuasion;" her gaze at Rita was sadism personified as she turned on her heels and got into the driver's seat of the truck.
The bespectacled kidnapper stayed behind. She reached a hand out to stroke Rita's smooth dark tresses, and looked into her eyes.
"Beautiful, yes but sadly unsuitable. The one I seek must be a true Aryan."
With no explanation, she turned and left Rita, still trussed into a ball on the floor of the lorry, at the feet of a pair of pitiless, mindless, Nazi captors, her heart suffused with despair for herself and her friends.
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