A Trail of Fire (Page 2)

A Trail of Fire (Lord John Grey #3.5)(2)
Author: Diana Gabaldon

‘Lieutenant!’ Malan rose from his seat, smiling. ‘The very man I had in mind!’

The Devil he had, Jerry thought, arranging his face into a look of respectful expectancy. Malan couldn’t have heard about Dolly’s spot of bother yet, and without that, Jerry would have scrambled with A flight on their way to hunt 109s over Flamborough Head. Malan hadn’t been looking for Jerry; he just thought he’d do, for whatever job was up. And the fact that the Group Captain had called him by his rank, rather than his name, meant it probably wasn’t a job anyone would volunteer for.

He didn’t have time to worry about what that might be, though; Malan was introducing the other man, a tallish chap in army uniform with dark hair and a pleasant, if sharp, look about him. Eyes like a good sheep dog, he thought, nodding in reply to Captain Randall’s greeting. Kindly, maybe, but he won’t miss much.

‘Randall’s come over from Ops at Ealing,’ Sailor was saying over his shoulder. He hadn’t waited for them to exchange polite chat, but was already leading them out across the tarmac, heading for the Flight Command offices. Jerry grimaced and followed, casting a longing glance downfield at Dolly, who was being towed ignominiously into the hangar. The rag-doll painted on her nose was blurred, the black curls partially dissolved by weather and spilled petrol. Well, he’d touch it up later, when he’d heard the details of whatever horrible job the stranger had brought.

His gaze rested resentfully on Randall’s neck, and the man turned suddenly, glancing back over his shoulder as though he’d felt the stress of Jerry’s regard. Jerry felt a qualm in the pit of his stomach, as half-recognised observations – the lack of insignia on the uniform, that air of confidence peculiar to men who kept secrets – gelled with the look in the stranger’s eye.

Ops at Ealing, my Aunt Fanny, he thought. He wasn’t even surprised, as Sailor waved Randall through the door, to hear the Group Captain lean close and murmur in his ear, ‘Careful – he’s a funny bugger.’

Jerry nodded, stomach tightening. Malan didn’t mean Captain Randall was either humorous or a Freemason. ‘Funny bugger’ in this context meant only one thing. MI6.

Captain Randall was from the secret arm of British Intelligence. He made no bones about it, once Malan had deposited them in a vacant office and left them to it.

‘We’re wanting a pilot – a good pilot –’ he added with a faint smile, ‘to fly solo reconnaissance. A new project. Very special.’

‘Solo? Where?’ Jerry asked warily. Spitfires normally flew in four-plane flights, or in larger configurations, all the way up to an entire squadron, sixteen planes. In formation, they could cover each other to some extent against the heavier Heinkels and Messerschmitts. But they seldom flew alone by choice.

‘I’ll tell you that a bit later. First – are you fit, do you think?’

Jerry reared back a bit at that, stung. What did this bloody boffin think he— then he caught a glance at his reflection in the window pane. Eyes red as a mad boar’s, his wet hair sticking up in spikes, a fresh red bruise spreading on his forehead and his blouson stuck to him in damp patches where he hadn’t bothered to dry off before dressing.

‘Extremely fit,’ he snapped. ‘Sir.’

Randall lifted a hand half an inch, dismissing the need for sirs.

‘I meant your knee,’ he said mildly.

‘Oh,’ Jerry said, disconcerted. ‘That. Aye, it’s fine.’

He’d taken two bullets through his right knee a year before, when he’d dived after a 109 and neglected to see another one that popped out of nowhere behind him and peppered his arse.

On fire, but terrified of bailing out into a sky filled with smoke, bullets, and random explosions, he’d ridden his burning plane down, both of them screaming as they fell out of the sky, Dolly I’s metal skin so hot it had seared his left forearm through his jacket, his right foot squelching in the blood that filled his boot as he stamped the rudder pedal. Made it, though, and had been on the sick and hurt list for two months. He still limped very noticeably, but he didn’t regret his smashed patella; he’d had his second month’s sick leave at home – and wee Roger had come along nine months later.

He smiled broadly at the thought of his lad, and Randall smiled back in involuntary response.

‘Good,’ he said. ‘You’re all right to fly a long mission, then?’

Jerry shrugged. ‘How long can it be in a Spitfire? Unless you’ve thought up a way to refuel in the air.’ He’d meant that as a joke, and was further disconcerted to see Randall’s lips purse a little, as though thinking whether to tell him they had.

‘It is a Spitfire ye mean me to fly?’ he asked, suddenly uncertain. Christ, what if it was one of the experimental birds they heard about now and again? His skin prickled with a combination of fear and excitement. But Randall nodded.

‘Oh, yes, certainly. Nothing else is manoeuvrable enough, and there may be a good bit of ducking and dodging. What we’ve done is to take a Spitfire II, remove one pair of wing-guns, and refit it with a pair of cameras.’

‘One pair?’

Again that slight pursing of lips before Randall replied.

‘You might need the second pair of guns.’

‘Oh. Aye. Well, then . . .’

The immediate notion, as Randall explained it, was for Jerry to go to Northumberland, where he’d spend two weeks being trained in the use of the wing-cameras, taking pictures of selected bits of landscape at different altitudes. And where he’d work with a support team who were meant to be trained in keeping the cameras functioning in bad weather. They’d teach him how to get the film out without ruining it, just in case he had to. After which . . .

‘I can’t tell you yet exactly where you’ll be going,’ Randall had said. His manner through the conversation had been intent, but friendly, joking now and then. Now all trace of joviality had vanished; he was dead serious. ‘Eastern Europe is all I can say just now.’

Jerry felt his inside hollow out a little and took a deep breath to fill the empty space. He could say no. But he’d signed up to be an RAF flier, and that’s what he was.

‘Aye, right. Will I— maybe see my wife once, before I go, then?’

Randall’s face softened a little at that, and Jerry saw the Captain’s thumb touch his own gold wedding ring in reflex.

‘I think that can be arranged.’

Marjorie MacKenzie – Dolly to her husband – opened the blackout curtains. No more than an inch . . . well, two inches. It wouldn’t matter; the inside of the little flat was dark as the inside of a coal-scuttle. London outside was equally dark; she knew the curtains were open only because she felt the cold glass of the window through the narrow crack. She leaned close, breathing on the glass, and felt the moisture of her breath condense, cool near her face. Couldn’t see the mist, but felt the squeak of her fingertip on the glass as she quickly drew a small heart there, the letter J inside.

It faded at once, of course, but that didn’t matter; the charm would be there when the light came in, invisible but there, standing between her husband and the sky.

When the light came, it would fall just so, across his pillow. She’d see his sleeping face in the light: the jackstraw hair, the fading bruise on his temple, the deep-set eyes, closed in innocence. He looked so young, asleep. Almost as young as he really was. Only twenty-two; too young to have such lines in his face. She touched the corner of her mouth, but couldn’t feel the crease the mirror showed her – her mouth was swollen, tender, and the ball of her thumb ran across her lower lip, lightly, to and fro.

What else, what else? What more could she do for him? He’d left her with something of himself. Perhaps there would be another baby – something he gave her, but something she gave him, as well. Another baby. Another child to raise alone?

‘Even so,’ she whispered, her mouth tightening, face raw from hours of stubbled kissing; neither of them had been able to wait for him to shave. ‘Even so.’

At least he’d got to see Roger. Hold his little boy – and have said little boy sick up milk all down the back of his shirt. Jerry’d yelped in surprise, but hadn’t let her take Roger back; he’d held his son and petted him until the wee mannie fell asleep, only then laying him down in his basket and stripping off the stained shirt before coming to her.

It was cold in the room, and she hugged herself. She was wearing nothing but Jerry’s string vest – he thought she looked erotic in it, ‘lewd,’ he said, approving, his Highland accent making the word sound really dirty – and the thought made her smile. The thin cotton clung to her br**sts, true enough, and her n**ples poked out something scandalous, if only from the chill.

She wanted to go crawl in next to him, longing for his warmth, longing to keep touching him for as long as they had. He’d need to go at eight, to catch the train back; it would barely be light then. Some puritanical impulse of denial kept her hovering there, though, cold and wakeful in the dark. She felt as though if she denied herself, her desire, offered that denial as sacrifice, it would strengthen the magic, help to keep him safe and bring him back. God knew what a minister would say to that bit of superstition, and her tingling mouth twisted in self-mockery. And doubt.

Still, she sat in the dark, waiting for the cold blue light of the dawn that would take him.

Baby Roger put an end to her dithering, though; babies did. He rustled in his basket, making the little waking-up grunts that presaged an outraged roar at the discovery of a wet nappy and an empty stomach, and she hurried across the tiny room to his basket, br**sts swinging heavy, already letting down her milk. She wanted to keep him from waking Jerry, but stubbed her toe on the spindly chair, and sent it over with a bang.

There was an explosion of bedclothes as Jerry sprang up with a loud ‘FUCK!’ that drowned her own muffled ‘damn!’ and Roger topped them both with a shriek like an air-raid siren. Like clockwork, old Mrs Munns in the next flat thumped indignantly on the thin wall.

Jerry’s nak*d shape crossed the room in a bound. He pounded furiously on the partition with his fist, making the wallboard quiver and boom like a drum. He paused, fist still raised, waiting. Roger had stopped screeching, impressed by the racket.

Dead silence from the other side of the wall, and Marjorie pressed her mouth against Roger’s round little head to muffle her giggling. He smelled of baby-scent and fresh pee, and she cuddled him like a large hot-water bottle, his immediate warmth and need making her notions of watching over her men in the lonely cold seem silly.

Jerry gave a satisfied grunt and came across to her.

‘Ha,’ he said, and kissed her.

‘What d’ye think you are?’ she whispered, leaning into him. ‘A gorilla?’

‘Yeah,’ he whispered back, taking her hand and pressing it against him. ‘Want to see my banana?’

‘Dzien dobry.’

Jerry halted in the act of lowering himself into a chair, and stared at a smiling Frank Randall.