A Trail of Fire (Page 3)

A Trail of Fire (Lord John Grey #3.5)(3)
Author: Diana Gabaldon

‘Oh, aye,’ he said. ‘Like that, is it? Niech sie pan odpierdoli.’ It meant, ‘Fuck off, sir,’ in formal Polish, and Randall, taken by surprise, broke out laughing.

‘Like that,’ he agreed. He had a wodge of papers with him, official forms, all sorts, the bumf as the pilots called it – Jerry recognised the one you signed that named who your pension went to, and the one about what to do with your body if there was one and anyone had time to bother. He’d done all that when he signed up, but they made you do it again, if you went on special service. He ignored the forms, though, eyes fixed instead on the maps Randall had brought.

‘And here’s me thinkin’ you and Malan picked me for my bonny face,’ he drawled, exaggerating his accent. He sat and leaned back, affecting casualness. ‘It is Poland, then?’ So it hadn’t been coincidence, after all – or only the coincidence of Dolly’s mishap sending him into the building early. In a way, that was comforting; it wasn’t the bloody Hand of Fate tapping him on the shoulder by puncturing the fuel line. The Hand of Fate had been in it a good bit earlier, putting him in Green flight with Andrzej Kolodziewicz.

Andrzej was a real guid yin, a good friend. He’d copped it a month before, spiralling up away from a Messerschmitt. Maybe he’d been blinded by the sun, maybe just looking over the wrong shoulder. Left wing shot to hell, and he’d spiralled right back down and into the ground. Jerry hadn’t seen the crash, but he’d heard about it. And got drunk on vodka with Andrzej’s brother after.

‘Poland,’ Randall agreed. ‘Malan says you can carry on a conversation in Polish. That true?’

‘I can order a drink, start a fight, or ask directions. Any of that of use?’

‘The last one might be,’ Randall said, very dry. ‘But we’ll hope it doesn’t come to that.’

The MI6 agent had pushed aside the forms, and unrolled the maps. Despite himself, Jerry leaned forward, drawn as by a magnet. They were official maps, but with markings made by hand – circles, X’s.

‘It’s like this,’ Randall said, flattening the maps with both hands. ‘The Nazis have had labour camps in Poland for the last two years, but it’s not common knowledge among the public, either home or abroad. It would be very helpful to the war effort if it were common knowledge. Not just the camps’ existence, but the kind of thing that goes on there.’ A shadow crossed the dark, lean face – anger, Jerry thought, intrigued. Apparently, Mr MI6 knew what kind of thing went on there, and he wondered how.

‘If we want it widely known and widely talked about – and we do – we need documentary evidence,’ Randall said matter-of-factly. ‘Photographs.’

There’d be four of them, he said, four Spitfire pilots. A flight – but they wouldn’t fly together. Each one of them would have a specific target, geographically separate, but all to be hit on the same day.

‘The camps are guarded, but not with anti-aircraft ordnance. There are towers, though; machine-guns.’ And Jerry didn’t need telling that a machine-gun was just as effective in someone’s hands as it was from an enemy plane. To take the sort of pictures Randall wanted would mean coming in low – low enough to risk being shot from the towers. His only advantage would be the benefit of surprise; the guards might spot him, but they wouldn’t be expecting him to come diving out of the sky for a low pass just above the camp.

‘Don’t try for more than one pass, unless the cameras malfunction. Better to have fewer pictures than none at all.’

‘Yes, sir.’ He’d reverted to ‘sir’, as Group Captain Malan was present at the meeting, silent but listening intently. Got to keep up appearances.

‘Here’s the list of the targets you’ll practise on in Northumberland. Get as close as you think reasonable, without risking—’ Randall’s face did change at that, breaking into a wry smile. ‘Get as close as you can manage with a chance of coming back, all right? The cameras may be worth even more than you are.’

That got a faint chuckle from Malan. Pilots – especially trained pilots – were valuable. The RAF had plenty of planes now, but nowhere near enough pilots to fly them.

He’d be taught to use the wing-cameras and to unload the film safely. If he was shot down but was still alive and the plane didn’t burn, he was to get the film out and try to get it back over the border.

‘Hence the Polish.’ Randall ran a hand through his hair, and gave Jerry a crooked smile. ‘If you have to walk out, you may need to ask directions.’ They had two Polish-speaking pilots, he said – one Pole and a Hungarian who’d volunteered, and an Englishman with a few words of the language, like Jerry.

‘And it is a volunteer mission, let me reiterate.’

‘Aye, I know,’ Jerry said irritably. ‘Said I’d go, didn’t I? Sir.’

‘You did.’ Randall looked at him for a moment, dark eyes unreadable, then lowered his gaze to the maps again. ‘Thanks,’ he said softly.

The canopy snicked shut over his head. It was a dank, damp Northumberland day, and his breath condensed on the inside of the Perspex hood within seconds. He leaned forward to wipe it away, emitting a sharp yelp as several strands of his hair were ripped out. He’d forgotten to duck. Again. He shoved the canopy release with a muttered oath and the light brown strands caught in the seam where the Perspex closed flew away, caught up by the wind. He closed the canopy again, crouching, and waiting for the signal for take-off.

The signalman wig-wagged him and he turned up the throttle, feeling the plane begin to move.

He touched his pocket automatically, whispering, ‘Love you, Dolly,’ under his breath. Everyone had his little ritual, those last few moments before take-off. For Jerry MacKenzie, it was his wife’s face and his lucky stone that usually settled the worms in his belly. She’d found it in a rocky hill on the Isle of Lewis, where they’d spent their brief honeymoon – a rough sapphire, she said, very rare.

‘Like you,’ he’d said, and kissed her.

No need for worms just the now, but it wasn’t a ritual if you only did it sometimes, was it? And even if it wasn’t going to be combat today, he’d need to be paying attention.

He went up in slow circles, getting the feel of the new plane, sniffing to get her scent. He wished they’d let him fly Dolly II, her seat stained with his sweat, the familiar dent in the console where he’d slammed his fist in exultation at a kill – but they’d already modified this one with the wing-cameras and the latest thing in night-sights. It didn’t do to get attached to the planes, anyway; they were almost as fragile as the men flying them, though the parts could be reused.

No matter; he’d sneaked out to the hangar the evening before and done a quick rag-doll on the nose to make it his. He’d know Dolly III well enough by the time they went into Poland.

He dived, pulled up sharp, and did Dutch rolls for a bit, wigwagging through the cloud-layer, then complete rolls and Immelmanns, all the while reciting Malan’s Rules to focus his mind and keep from getting air-sick.

The Rules were posted in every RAF barracks now: the Ten Commandments, the fliers called them – and not as a joke.

TEN OF MY RULES FOR AIR FIGHTING, the poster said in bold black type. Jerry knew them by heart.

‘Wait until you see the whites of his eyes,’ he chanted under his breath. ‘Fire short bursts of one to two seconds only when your sights are definitely “ON”.’ He glanced at his sights, suffering a moment’s disorientation. The camera wizard had relocated them. Shite.

‘Whilst shooting think of nothing else, brace the whole of your body: have both hands on the stick: concentrate on your ring sight.’ Well, away to fuck, then. The buttons that operated the camera weren’t on the stick; they were on a box connected to a wire that ran out the window; the box itself was strapped to his knee. He’d be bloody looking out the window anyway, not using sights – unless things went wrong and he had to use the guns. In which case . . .

‘Always keep a sharp lookout. “Keep your finger out.” ’ Aye, right, that one was still good.

‘Height gives you the initiative.’ Not in this case. He’d be flying low, under the radar, and not be looking for a fight. Always the chance one might find him, though. If any German craft found him flying solo in Poland, his best chance was likely to head straight for the sun and fall in. That thought made him smile.

‘Always turn and face the attack.’ He snorted and flexed his bad knee, which ached with the cold. Aye, if you saw it coming in time.

‘Make your decisions promptly. It is better to act quickly even though your tactics are not the best.’ He’d learnt that one fast. His body often was moving before his brain had even notified his consciousness that he’d seen something. Nothing to see just now, nor did he expect to, but he kept looking by reflex.

‘Never fly straight and level for more than 30 seconds in the combat area.’ Definitely out. Straight and level was just what he was going to have to do. And slowly.

‘When diving to attack always leave a proportion of your formation above to act as a top guard.’ Irrelevant; he wouldn’t have a formation – and that was a thought that gave him the cold grue. He’d be completely alone; no help coming if he got into bother.

‘INITIATIVE, AGGRESSION, AIR DISCIPLINE, and TEAM WORK are words that MEAN something in Air Fighting.’ Yeah, they did. What meant something in reconnaissance? Stealth, Speed, and Bloody Good Luck, more like. He took a deep breath, and dived, shouting the last of the Ten Commandments so it echoed in his Perspex shell.

‘Go in quickly – Punch hard – GET OUT!’

‘Rubber-necking,’ they called it, but Jerry usually ended a day’s flying feeling as though he’d been cast in concrete from the shoulder-blades up. He bent his head forward now, ferociously massaging the base of his skull to ease the growing ache. He’d been practising since dawn, and it was nearly tea-time. Ball-bearings, set, for the use of pilots, one, he thought. Ought to add that to the standard equipment list. He shook his head like a wet dog, hunched his shoulders, groaning, then resumed the sector-by-sector scan of the sky around him that every pilot did religiously, three hundred and sixty degrees, every moment in the air. All the live ones, anyway.

Dolly’d given him a white silk scarf as a parting present. He didn’t know how she’d managed the money for it and she wouldn’t let him ask, just settled it round his neck inside his flight jacket. Somebody’d told her the Spitfire pilots all wore them, to save the constant collar-chafing, and she meant him to have one. It felt nice, he’d admit that. Made him think of her touch when she’d put it on him. He pushed the thought hastily aside; the last thing he could afford to do was start thinking about his wife, if he ever hoped to get back to her. And he did mean to get back to her.

Where was that bugger? Had he given up?

No, he’d not; a dark spot popped out from behind a bank of cloud just over his left shoulder and dived for his tail. Jerry turned, a hard, high spiral, up and into the same clouds, the other after him like stink on shite. They played at dodgem for a few moments, in and out of the drifting clouds – he had the advantage in altitude, could play the coming-out-of-the-sun trick, if there were any sun, but it was autumn in Northumberland and there hadn’t been any sun in days . . .