“Arrêtez! Arrêtez!” The German SS soldier shouted, as the crack of a pistol ripped through the Parisian quiet. Arthur Cutter ignored him and quickly ducked down a narrow alleyway. “Come on, Victor,” he called in French.
Victor scrambled after Cutter, his breath ragged and coming in short gasps. He wheezed and leaned against the wall, struggling for air. “I’m shot,” he gasped, a red splotch spreading on his shirt.
“But you aren’t dead, so move!” Another gunshot echoed down the alleyway as the German soldier caught up to them.
“Bollocks.” Cutter pulled his Walther from his waistband and let off two shots.
The German ducked for cover as one of the rounds snapped against the brick wall inches from his head.
“Let’s go, Victor! If we stop the Gestapo will torture and kill us.”
“I can go no further!” Victor wheezed as he slouched against the wall. He struggled to stand, but his legs buckled underneath him.
Cutter looked at his friend with a combination of concern and urgency. “Victor, if we stop we’re dead.”
“I can’t go on.” Victor choked, his breath becoming more erratic as one of his lungs collapsed.
Cutter gritted his teeth, Victor wasn’t one to quit. “Please.”
Victor looked up at Cutter, his face set in a grimace. “I can’t go on. You know what you have to do.”
Cutter shook his head. “No. I won’t do it.”
The shouts of their German pursuers grew closer. By the sounds it was more than just one or two members of the SS chasing them. Victor coughed and spat out a globule of blood. “We don’t have time. Stop acting like a fucking child and do your job!”
Cutter froze. He couldn’t do it. All the training, all the cautionary tales, none of it prepared him for this. His pistol dangled limply at his side as he stared down at Victor.
“If you don’t do this, they’ll torture me and my family.” Victor looked up at Cutter, his eyes pleading. “Please, just get it over with. Do your job.”
Cutter’s vision blurred as he adjusted his grip on the Walther. His stomach tightened as he raised the pistol. “Je suis désolé.” The crack of the Walther reverberated down the alleyway. He fired two more rounds, one in the chest and another in the head to insure Victor was dead. “I’m so sorry, my friend.” Cutter whispered and turned and ran. The Gestapo wouldn’t capture another SOE agent tonight. Cutter was hell bent on making that a reality. He sprinted down the alleyway and made a few quick turns and found himself at a Christmas market. He took a deep breath and fought back the tears.
With all the willpower he could muster, he holstered the Walther and casually walked out of the alleyway and strolled through the market. He could hear the German soldier shouting as he ran out of the alley but didn’t turn to look. He had to make it to the Seine. He had to get out of Paris and back to London.
“You there, stop!”
Cutter froze. His body tensed and his hand slowly moved to the Fairbairn-Sykes knife sewn into his coat.
“Don’t move!” The voice was closer than before.
Cutter counted the seconds, waiting to make his move. A hand grabbed him and spun him around, bringing him face-to-face with a young, blond-haired, blue-eyed Aryan.
The boy glared at Cutter, his ill-fitting uniform making him look like he was playing soldier in his father’s clothes. His mouth was half open, prepared to demand Cutter’s papers, but Cutter didn't give him the opportunity.
In a quick motion, Cutter pulled the knife from his coat and drove it up through the boy’s chin. The knife slid easily through the soft tissue of his neck, surprising and unnerving Cutter. He had never killed someone before, and the realization that he had killed two people in less than five minutes almost made him lose his bearing. Cutter’s jaw muscles tightened as he struggled not to vomit. His eyes drifted to the SS Death Skull perched atop the boy’s cap. The skull leered at Cutter, daring him to escape. It all transpired in the blink of an eye, but for Cutter it could have been an eternity.
The German grabbed at Cutter’s coat, struggling to stand, but Cutter kept his eyes transfixed on the skull. He quickly pulled the knife from the boy’s chin, crimson blood oozing out of the hole he had left. A woman next to him let out a scream as the German collapsed.
Cutter averted his eyes and darted past her, quickly walking away from the body. He kept his fedora low over his eyes, avoiding eye contact with the people on the street and turned a corner. He wouldn’t dare run, running was what guilty people did, what spies did.
His mind raced as he tried to map how he would get out of the city. His worst nightmare had come true. He was on the run from the Nazis, and the one person he knew in Paris, he had just killed.
Cutter traced his way down to the Seine and took a moment to collect himself. “Goddammit,” he whispered softly. He looked out at the inky black water, but all he saw was Victor’s deformed face after his bullet had entered the center of his forehead. He cursed the three Special Air Service commandos who had shown up at Victor’s house with little warning. If it weren’t for them, Victor would still be alive and he wouldn’t be on the run. If by some miracle he made it back to England, he swore he would break the jaw of the SAS sod who had planned this.
Cutter took a deep breath and forced himself to calm down.
“Think, you idiot. What do I do now?”
Cutter checked his watch and looked around. He wasn’t far from Gare Montparnasse. With a little luck he could catch a train to Spain. Without another thought he darted down an alleyway and started to make his way to the train station. In the next twenty minutes the entire arrondissement would be flooded with Nazis. He did his best to keep to the alleys and only used the major streets when necessary.
When he was a block from the train station he dumped his pistol and knife in a trash can and made his way to the ticket counter. One of the many German soldiers patrolling the station stood next to the counter and demanded his papers before he could purchase a ticket.
Cutter gave him an annoyed look and shoved his papers into the German’s hands, playing the part of a disgruntled Parisian.
The German ignored him and examined the papers with the practiced diligence of a Prussian drillmaster. Satisfied, he handed the papers back to Cutter and motioned him to the counter.
He hurriedly bought a ticket for Bordeaux and raced to the platform; with a little luck he could be in Barcelona by morning. Cutter thrust his ticket into the conductor’s hands and stonily stared at him as the old man inspected the ticket. Satisfied that all was in good order, the conductor nodded and moved his arthritic hands to return the ticket. Cutter impatiently snatched it from him and, without a word, darted up the stairs onto the train.
As soon as he sat down the train whistle bellowed and the conductor called, “All aboard.”
Cutter swayed in his seat as the train gently pulled out of the station, slowly accelerating toward Bordeaux. Only when the City of Light swept away did Cutter allow himself to crack. His hands started to tremble violently and his stomach turned. He pulled his fedora low over his eyes to hide his tears and sobbed softly. He struggled to calm himself and slowed his breathing. He leaned his head against the cool glass window of the train car and watched as the twilight landscape of France swept by. His sobbing reduced to an occasional hiccup as he steadied himself. Victor was gone, the fact that he was the one who had snuffed out his life was still a surreal fact to Cutter. He watched in a daze as trees whipped by, and said a silent prayer hoping he would never return to France while it was under Nazi control.
The roar of the Supermarine Spitfire Mk. VA’s Rolls-Royce Merlin Five engine vibrated through the airframe of the aircraft, drowning out all other noise inside the cockpit. Flying Lieutenant Ian Faraday of No. 71 Squadron adjusted the trim tabs as he leveled out at 15,000 feet. He checked his course and double-checked the map attached to his kneeboard, and marked his location. He was twenty miles inland off the French coast of Normandy.
He turned and looked toward the horizon; the skies were remarkably clear.
“Ulster Leader, this is Ulster 2, no luck finding a holiday house today, or anything else for that matter,” one of Faraday’s wing mates, Flying Sergeant Stokes, called.
Faraday looked down along the French fields. He couldn’t see anything either. “Alright, Ulster 3, we’re zero for three, what do you say we call it a day?” he asked his other wing mate, Flying Officer Tombs.
“You yanks sure do have strange idioms; we must be hunting in the wrong place,” Tombs said in his clipped English accent.
“Ulster 3, you joined an American squadron, we speak the President’s English here.”
“Sorry, old boy, but might I point out that you are in the RAF and we speak the King’s English like proper fighter pilots.”
“Not in 71 Squadron,” Faraday fired back. He checked his fuel gauge and checked his wing mates. They were both brand new with less than 100 hours of flight time between them, and were still prone to rookie mistakes in Faraday’s opinion.
“Ulster Leader, might I point out that 71 Squadron is no longer exclusively American.”
“Alright, cut the chatter, otherwise you may both suffer the same fate as your American predecessors. The only reason you’re with 71 is because we don’t have enough American pilots.”
“Roger,” they both chorused.
“Damn kids,” Faraday muttered. They were still green. Their tendency to joke on the radio displayed that easily enough, but Faraday trusted them. He checked his map and clicked his mic, “Ulster Flight, turn to heading 3-2-5. How copy?”
“Ulster 3, roger.”
“Ulster 2, copy.”
The flight turned northwest and started a track back to England, the French coast coming into view. Faraday could see Cherbourg over his left wing; in a matter of minutes the English coast would be visible.
“Bandits! Five o’clock low!” Tombs called over the radio.
Faraday searched the sky frantically and spotted them. A flight of five yellow-nosed Messerschmitt 109’s were roughly two miles away flying toward them.
Damn. Faraday had hoped to make it back to England without issue. He could tell the German fighters were on an intercept course with his flight. He adjusted his goggles and mask and pushed down on his mic. “Tallyho! Six Messerschmitts, break left.” He pulled back hard on the stick and pushed left. The Spitfire banked and turned over, rolling into a descent. Tombs and Stokes followed suit, hot on Faraday’s tail.
“We can’t outrun them, but we’re more maneuverable. Use it to your advantage!” Faraday reminded.
“They’ve spotted us.”
“Watch the split!”
The five ME109s broke off into two groups. One hung back while the other took off toward Faraday’s flight.
“They’re coming at us head-on.”
Faraday jotted down their location on his kneeboard and looked up. One of the flights of ME109s was hurtling toward them as though they were playing an angry game of chicken.
“Control, this is Ulster Leader, we are engaged with five, I say again, five ME109s. We are at Angels 1-5 near Cherbourg.”
“Roger, Ulster Leader,” a woman’s voice responded in a curt tone. “At this time we are unable to assist; all aircraft in the area are engaging with German bombers.”
Faraday gripped the circular joystick tightly, “Ulster 2, Ulster 3, we‘re outnumbered. Hit them head-on, take your shots and when we pass you two will break off and head home. I’ll try and draw them off for a few seconds.”
“Ulster Leader, we’re staying with you.”
“Do it, that’s a bloody order!”
Faraday gingerly nudged the joystick, pushing the gunsights onto the middle ME109. He took a deep breath and relaxed his grip. Waiting until the last possible second, he squeezed the trigger as the ME109s raced by. His rounds raked the left wing of one of the planes as it hurtled past. Faraday whipped around, not losing sight of them. He smirked in satisfaction as he spotted smoke trailing from two of them.
“I got one,” Tombs shouted jubilantly.
“Great, now bugger off,” Faraday snapped. He pulled up hard on the stick and put the plane into a sharp turn. “Go, I’ll be right behind you.” Out of the corner of his eye he spotted the two Spitfires split off in the direction of England. Faraday leveled off and checked his fuel gauge; he had maybe another minute. Most of the ME109s appeared to be uninterested in going after Stokes and Tombs, but Faraday spotted two giving chase.
In a calm as if he were discussing the weather, Faraday warned them, “Ulster 2, Ulster 3, you have two bandits giving chase. Stay your course, I’ll break them off.”
“Roger, Ulster Leader. Godspeed.”
Faraday pushed the throttle forward. The Rolls-Royce Merlin engine revved and the odometer began to rocket up into the red. Faraday’s body sunk back in his seat as the Spitfire careened toward the two German fighters. He started to line up a shot with his gunsights. As he inched closer and closer, he peeked at his fuel gauge and saw it start to sag closer to empty. He performed some quick math in his head and doubted he would be able to make the English coast.
His thumb hovered over the trigger of his eight .303 Browning machine guns. He was almost in range.
“Come on, ya bastards, just a little to the left.” He was close to a shot. One more kill and he’d be a double ace, Faraday realized and chuckled softly. Just as he was about to depress the trigger, both ME109s broke right and away.
“Goddammit!” Faraday swore, before he even turned to look behind him he instinctively knew what had happened. He had been outmaneuvered and was a dead man.
He looked over his shoulder and spotted two more ME109s bearing down on him. Faraday rolled the aircraft and put his plane in a corkscrew dive, attempting to shake his pursuers.
Tracers shot past his cockpit as one of the ME109s opened fire. Faraday struggled to shake them, but as he tried to lose them in a turn, another spurt of tracers danced around the cockpit. Where the hell did they come from? He felt the plane shudder and checked both wings. Several large holes peppered the right wing two feet from the cockpit. Sloppy, I should have seen them.
Red hydraulic fluid and fuel oozed from the holes and Faraday didn’t need to check his gauges to know he was about to begin losing control of his aircraft. He checked his altitude: 10,000 feet. He pushed the stick forward and went into another dive and banked hard to the right. “Control, this is Ulster Leader. I’ve been hit and will need to ditch in the Channel.” He looked at the map on his kneeboard. “I am approximately fifteen miles due south of Dover.”
“Roger, Ulster Leader, search and recovery boats are being alerted, Godspeed.” The sorrow in the controller’s voice was barely masked. She knew better than Faraday what his chances of survival were.
Faraday scanned the skies again and spotted the flight of ME109s, they had regrouped, accepting Faraday’s fate as a cold death in the Channel. He checked his gauges again; the fuel needle was bouncing between full and empty, as though it were teasing him with the possibility of staying airborne. For a moment Faraday dared to hope the engine had a chance, but was quickly dismayed as the grinding screech of the engine pierced the air and it sputtered and died.
He set the Spitfire on a glide path and looked down at the Channel, he could glide for roughly four miles, but would have to ditch soon after to deploy the parachute. He scanned the horizon, searching in vain for any sign of a boat.
Faraday queued his mic and desperately tried to hail any search and recovery boats in the area, but was only met with silence. After what felt like an all too quick four miles of gliding, there was still no sign of a rescuer.
“Christ, this is it,” Faraday groaned. He leveled out the aircraft, opened the canopy, and clambered out on the wing. The wind buffeted him, nearly knocking him off his feet, but he kept his balance.
Faraday looked out over the wing and eyed the white crests of the waves. The sea was rough, and, without question, cold. He stared out at the frigid water, the knowledge that he most likely would freeze to death terrifying him.
He looked back at the cockpit and wondered if he could land the Spitfire in the ocean, and decided to give it a try. As he turned around to move back to the cockpit, a jolt of turbulence jarred the aircraft, breaking Faraday’s grip on the airframe and pushing him off the wing. Faraday hung in the air for a moment, completely confused, but he quickly recovered and pulled the rip cord to his parachute.
The chute caught the wind and he started to slowly glide down into the chilling blue Channel. He looked around and watched as his plane crashed into the water, breaking apart on impact.
His descent was slow, making his splash in the water all the more nerve-racking. He prayed a fishing trawler or even a German U-boat would appear. As Faraday hung in the air another thought entered his mind that made him nearly soil himself: sharks. What if instead of freezing to death he was eaten alive by some invisible monster? His mind was transfixed on the thought of some unseen mouth coming up from the black depths of the Channel and tearing through his legs with no warning. The thought terrified him so much that he didn’t realize he was about to enter the water until his head submerged.
The water was as cold as Faraday expected. He shuddered as his body hit the water and couldn’t breathe from the shock of the frosty sea. As fast as he could, he moved to get out from under his chute, its shroud threatening to drown him.
He quickly inflated his Mae West and looked around. Waves bounced him up and down, bobbing him around as he curled his legs up tight to his chest to conserve body heat. His teeth chattered and his body shook uncontrollably. As the cold seeped into his bones, Faraday replayed over and over in his head the dogfight. Why did I have us hit them head-on? he wondered. Had we just waited and let the ME109s catch up we could have gone into a high roll. We could have gotten behind them without giving them a shot! Faraday shook his head and grunted. He couldn’t help but question his decision. After all, it was the reason he was floating in the Channel freezing to death.
Two hours ticked by before Faraday was finally picked up. When he was pulled out of the water his face was a deep tinge of blue. Wrapped in blankets and guzzling hot tea, it took Faraday nearly four hours to stop shaking.
“You’re one of the lucky ones,” an old toothless sailor said, as he handed Faraday a fresh cup of tea.
“Normally we just recover bodies. We don’t always conduct rescues.”
“Thanks for that cheery bit of information.”
The sailor scurried away under Faraday’s glare, and resumed his duties on the deck. Faraday rode the rest of the way home in silence, save for the occasional groan of pain as feeling returned to his arms and legs.
“Your arms hurt?” the sailor asked.
“Like they’re on fire.”
“That’s good, means warm blood is circulating through your limbs and thawing them out. It’ll hurt like hell for a couple hours, but it’s supposed to.”
“Fantastic,” Faraday mumbled, and resumed his silence. When he arrived at his airfield at RAF Martlesham Heath, Stokes and Tombs were eagerly waiting for him.
“Catch anything while you were in the Channel?” Tombs asked cheekily.
“The old man wants to see you.”
Faraday looked over at the ready room and back at his two protégés. “Any trouble on your way across the Channel?”
“None, thanks to you.”
Faraday nodded silently while Tombs and Stokes exchanged an uneasy look. “Boss we . . .” Tombs hesitated, his voice thick with emotion.
“We thought we lost you,” Stokes finished.
Faraday nodded to them, not trusting his voice. What he had done was incredibly thickheaded. Who the bloody hell sacrifices themselves for others in real life? That stuff was for the silver screen. Unsure of what to say, he gave a thin smile and shrugged. “You nearly did.”
Stokes bit down on his lip and stayed silent while Tombs grunted and averted his eyes.
“Thanks for getting us home.”
Faraday gave an understanding nod. “Best not dwell on it.” He was as eager as they were to let it go, more even. He could venture a guess that until five minutes ago, they had thought they had lost their flight leader in an act of selfless heroism. He could tell by Tombs’s bleary eyes and Stokes’s hoarse voice that his presumed death had extracted a heavy toll. He patted them on the shoulder and started toward the ready room. “Oh, and lads, if either of you are stupid enough to question my order to scatter again, I’ll ground you in a heartbeat. Daft heroic acts are reserved for your flight leader and flight leader only, understood?”
Stokes and Tombs chuckled and bobbed their heads. “Understood, sir.”
Faraday nodded and kept walking. As he strode across the grass a handful of pilots gave him soft praise.
“You got bigger balls than Leigh-Mallory.”
“Well done, old boy.”
“You’re a mad geezer.”
Faraday gave a polite smile and tried not to make a big deal out of it. As he got closer to the ready room, stuffed couches and flimsy chairs littered the grass around the shack where pilots lounged in a standby status. The chairs were beginning to show mold as rain started to pick up with the end of autumn.
“Hello, Ian, nice to have you back with us!” Clyde Baker, Victor Flight’s Australian Flight leader, called to him from the comfort of one of the armchairs.
Victor Flight lounged in the grass and chairs around their leader and jeered Faraday with mock congratulations for his amphibious landing.
“How’s the water this time of year?”
“That was daring, to say the least.”
“Didn’t have any better ideas,” Faraday called over his shoulder.
“Yeah, well next time, try and make landfall,” Clyde shouted as Faraday walked into the shack.
“Is he in?” Faraday asked the clerk in the outer room.
The outer office of the shack was no bigger than a shed someone kept gardening tools in. It consisted of a window to the outside, and sitting next to it a flying officer whose head was permanently attached to a telephone listening for the order to scramble the pilots for takeoff, as well as a clerk who assisted the squadron leader with the mundane paperwork necessary to run the squadron.
“Go on in, sir, he’s waiting for you,” the clerk said.
Faraday nodded and knocked on the door.
“Enter,” a muffled voice behind the door called.
Faraday opened the door and started to march toward the desk.
“Oh, please, just sit down in the damn chair.” Squadron Leader Michael King impatiently motioned toward a chair that looked like it wouldn’t support Faraday’s 180-pound frame. “You look like shit.”
Faraday sat down hard in the chair and chuckled, “You ever go in the drink?”
“Twice, at Dunkirk and during the Battle of Britain.”
“Well, maybe if I do it one more time they’ll promote me.”
King’s face tightened. “I do hope that’s not a dig at me being the youngest squadron leader in the wing.”
Faraday grinned. “Never, it was more a dig at you being a prize pupil of Air Vice-Marshal Park.”
“You tosspot,” King said icily.
“Oh, relax, Mike. You know I’m kidding, and no one thinks that, especially here in 71,” Faraday said with a wave of his hand. He reached into his pocket and fished out a carton of cigarettes and plucked one out. He placed it between his lips, but hesitated.
King looked at him in bemusement.
Faraday pulled the cigarette from his lips and threw it and the carton in the waste bin next to King’s desk. “Still waterlogged,” Faraday explained.
King chuckled softly. He opened a desk drawer and pulled out another carton and tossed it to him.
“Thanks.” Faraday caught it, pulled a fag out, quickly lit it and inhaled deeply.
“Good to see you in one piece.”
“Nice to be seen at all after that, sir.”
“The operations officer will debrief you, but I wanted to see how you were first.”
Faraday took a heavy draw on his cigarette before responding, “I’m fine, sir.”
King leaned back in his chair and eyed Faraday coolly. “Jolly good, stiff upper lip and all that, but I’d honestly be worried if you were okay.” King knew the look on Faraday’s face all too well. Faraday was mentally exhausted but refused to tell anyone.
“When was the last time you had a day off?”
“About a month ago when I went to a meeting in London with you.”
King nodded; he figured as much. He had watched Faraday cross the flight line and had observed his interactions with the other pilots. He was levelheaded and in control but King could see he was close to cracking.
“How many missions have you been flying a day?”
Faraday squirmed in his seat at the line of questioning. “Oh, not nearly as much as the rest of the lads, I’d reckon.”
King wordlessly pulled a file from one of his desk drawers and thumbed through it to Faraday’s flight file. He silently scrolled through the flight logs and found what he was looking for. “Ian, you’ve been flying at least a mission a day for the past three months and have lost three of your flight in the last two weeks. You have over three hundred hours more flight time than the next flight leader and over six hundred hours more than the next one.”
“What are you saying? You think I’ve lost my nerve?” Faraday couldn’t believe what he was hearing, it was one thing for him to question himself, but another to be questioned by King. “I just sacrificed my aircraft to save my flight, and ditched into the Channel and froze my ass off for two hours; I don’t think I’ve lost my edge.”
King held his hands up in surrender and changed tactics. “Calm down, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying you’ve been going out daily running rhubarb and rodeo sweeps of France, and you’re one of the few that has beaten the life expectancy curve for pilots running missions in France. That makes you valuable. I’ve submitted your name and it has been approved for you to become an instructor up with 13 Group at RAF Turnhouse near Edinburgh.”
“Stokes and Tombs are as ready as they are going to get. We’re getting a new crop of pilots and I’m sick of watching half of them die before the other half becomes competent enough to make a difference.” King leaned forward in his chair and locked eyes with Faraday, the timbre in his voice changing, “I’m sending you north so the new pilots we get won’t be as inexperienced as we both were when we went into our first dogfight all those months ago.”
Faraday absently toyed with a worn button on his navy blue tunic and eyed King for a long moment. “The Squadron is losing all her Americans.”
King placed his fingertips together and nodded slowly. “Command is reshuffling the Squadrons. We don’t have as many Americans as we once did, and I doubt we will be getting more. You all will stay in the Eagle Squadrons, but more and more of British pilots will be entering the ranks. Especially Aussies and Kiwis.”
“Great. More characters like Clyde.”
“Yeah, I tried to send him away but he’s like that damn boomerang he plays with. Always comes back.”
Faraday finished his cigarette and tossed it in the waist bin. “When do I leave?”
“You may want to get your uniform serviced; that button you play with isn’t the only one that looks like it’s about to fall off. Come by in the morning and we’ll have a copy of orders for you.”
“Will do, sir.” Faraday stood up and brought himself to the position of attention, stamped his foot and saluted and departed the office. He walked out of the ready shack and found Stokes and Tombs loitering outside.
“Well?” Tombs asked.
“I’ve got orders for RAF Turnhouse to begin instructing students. I depart tomorrow.”
“What? What about Ulster Flight?” Stokes asked.
“We didn’t discuss it, but Tombs will be taking over. You’ll be getting a new batch of pilots soon so you’ll have to teach them everything I taught you.”
Tombs and Stokes exchanged an uneasy look.
“Hey,” Faraday said sharply, “you both are ready. I’ve taught you everything I know and you don’t need me to babysit you. It’s time for you to do the same for the new pilots.”
Both Tombs and Stokes shook their heads slowly. “Damn,” Tombs said softly. He ran a hand through his sandy blond hair. “What now?”
“I’ve got to go debrief, but I’ll meet you at the pub.” Faraday nodded to the pair of them and started to make his way toward the operations building.
Tombs and Stokes watched him walk away in disbelief, the news hitting them like a ton of bricks.
“Christ, we’re in trouble now,” Stokes said, punching Tombs’s arm.
Tombs nodded uncertainly, the thought of taking over the flight making him queasy.
“Come on, we better go pass the word,” Stokes said, gesturing to the crowd of pilots watching intently from their lawn chairs.
Faraday turned and watched them from the doorway of the debrief room as Clyde Baker started to interrogate them. Although Tombs thought he wasn’t ready, Faraday was confident he would make a good flight leader. Both he and Stokes were some of the better rookies in the squadron. Rookies. Faraday snorted. I guess they aren’t that anymore. Today’s engagement had been their fourth dogfight, and fifth rodeo sweep of Normandy. Between that, and the six rhubarb missions they had done to interdict German targets of opportunity, they were more than ready.
Faraday smirked as Clyde started to argue with Tombs. The Aussie’s arms flailed angrily about as he shouted at Tombs. But Tombs stood his ground. Faraday guessed that Tombs had just told him that he was going to be taking over Ulster Flight. Clyde continued to shout and work his arms vigorously, but Tombs seemed unperturbed.
Faraday watched a few seconds longer and smiled. Tombs’s first challenge as a flight leader would be earning the other flight leaders’ respect, and by his body language and how angry Clyde was getting, Faraday could tell he had made the right decision in picking Tombs.
He turned from the doorway and continued into the debrief room. He still couldn’t believe his luck. The thought of being sent north and leaving the squadron was a bitter one, but it was quickly overwhelmed by the relief that he wasn’t going to be in aerial combat for a while. He was secretly happy he was being sent north. He would never admit it publicly, but he was burned out. He couldn’t remember the last time he had taken a respite from the war.
“Faraday, take a seat.” The Operations Officer pointed to the lone chair in front of his shoddy, weathered desk and started to scribble down a quick set of notes. “Alright, let’s get this over with, quick and as painless as you like.”
The debrief went smoothly and lasted only an hour. The Operations Officer asked the usual questions: “How high were you flying? At what speed? At what time did you engage the enemy? What did you see on your patrol?” It was tedious, but it helped the Operations Officer construct an image from all the pilots’ debriefs. Each debrief was like a puzzle piece the Operations Officer could use to build a picture.
Fortunately for Faraday, Tombs and Stokes had provided a very clear sight picture of their mission earlier so there were only a few questions Faraday had to answer. When the debrief finished, Faraday made his way back to his room at the local inn. He changed into a set of warm clothes and turned the sink on. He dunked his head under the hot water and groaned in pleasure. He stood there for a few minutes musing about his future as the water’s warmth seeped into his skull.
He could hardly believe that he was transferring. The shock of it still hadn’t worn off. He pulled his head from the sink and studied himself in the mirror. The youthful Princeton student who had traveled to England in search of adventure was gone. He was only 23, but he looked closer to 30. His face hadn’t particularly aged, but it was thinner and sharper from the lack of sleep and a proper diet. He had been fighting for nearly a year and already he felt like a changed man. He had killed and seen friends killed. He had watched helplessly as friends burned alive, listening to the radio like a helpless bystander as they screamed and moaned as fire burned through their cockpits and they spiraled down to the earth in a fiery pillar of smoke and metal. Faraday had seen all of this, and the thought of taking a respite from the war was such an enticingly sweet dream that Faraday rarely permitted himself to think of it. Now hearing that this dream may become a temporary reality brought a thin smile to his face. He finished with the sink, toweled off and reached for his bomber jacket and made his way to the pub.
As he walked through the door he was greeted with the raucous sound of what could only be the entire squadron packed into the tiny, dark establishment. A beer was thrust into his hands before he was fully through the door.
“Hey, cobber! Couldn’t let you go quietly into the night!” Clyde Baker roared.
“Cheers.” Faraday raised his glass in thanks and took a sip. He navigated his way over to the bar, his back being patted the entire way and congratulatory remarks being spouted with every step.
“Although you’re an ugly bastard, I hate to see you go,” Craig Bolden, the flight leader of Swift flight, called from a corner where he was playing a game of darts with Squadron Leader King. Faraday meandered through the crowd and joined them.
“Is there going to be another late-night bare-knuckles brawl?”
King chewed the tip of his cigar in thought. “You know, that’s not a half-bad idea. Maybe I’ll step in the ring.”
“Sir, you keep trying, but no one is going to fight the pride of Sandhurst, especially when you’re the commanding officer,” Bolden mused with a chuckle. “Besides, it’s only Aussies and Kiwis that ever want to bash each other’s brains in.”
“Right, well, we’ll see where the night takes us,” King said jovially. “Craig, be a good lad and go grab us another round.”
Craig nodded, but before he left he raised a dart to eye level and took aim at the board, his tongue stuck out in devout concentration. When the dart left his hand and hit the bull’s-eye, King let out a groan.
“I win. You’re buying, sir.”
“Bloody conman,” King grumbled as he dug some money from his coat. He thrust a few quid into Bolden’s hand and waved him away. Once he was out of earshot, King looked at Faraday, his face serious. “You tell Stokes and Tombs?”
Faraday nodded. “They’re a little unsure of themselves, but give them some pilots to train and they’ll quickly stop worrying about their own feelings.”
“I can only make one of them flight lead. Who will it be?”
“Tombs,” Faraday said simply. “The kid has a good understanding of aerial tactics. To him it’s not just a science but an art.”
“That was my thoughts exactly. Are you all packed to leave tomorrow?”
Faraday snorted. “What is there to pack? All I have are the clothes on my back and the small trunk and toiletry kit I brought with me from the States.”
“I figured you may have bought some new things since you’ve been here.”
“Clearly you’ve never seen my lodgings. It resembles a dingy closet.”
“Well, maybe when you make squadron leader you can get a bigger dingy closet.”
“Maybe.” Faraday looked over at the far end of the bar. Clyde Baker had snatched a bottle of whiskey from behind the bar and was lining up a row of shot glasses. He caught Faraday’s eye and aggressively motioned for King and him to come over.
“Oh Christ.” King grimaced. “Baker is going to get us pissed out of our minds.”
“I have a feeling I’m still going to be drunk tomorrow morning when I leave.”
When Faraday awoke the next morning back at camp, a wicked headache and a mouth as dry as dust greeted him. He rolled out of his cot with a groan. He hadn’t been this drunk since his going away party at Princeton when he left for England. He stumbled over to the wash basin and dunked his head under the cold water. The water had its necessary effect and helped clear his head.
He surveyed his room and made sure he had packed all of his worldly possessions into the small trunk, and slowly, carefully, hobbled down the stairs. As he walked outside he found King leaning against his car waiting for him. His face was pale and the pool of vomit on the ground next to the tire indicated that he was suffering just as much as Faraday.
“All packed up?” King belched.
Faraday nodded, “Just need to fill up the bike and I’ll be ready to go.”
“You’re taking that grimy motorcycle?”
“I like to think of it as a sentimental possession.”
King snorted and handed him a sheaf of papers. “Your orders and a couple rations cards for petrol. They should get you to Turnhouse.”
“Thanks.” Faraday took the documents, and the pair of them walked over to his motorcycle. It was a 1938 Norton 16 home model. Faraday had bought it almost immediately after flight school from another pilot who was selling it on the cheap prior to deploying to Burma.
“If you need anything, don’t be afraid to give me a call,” King said, extending his hand.
“Will do, sir. Keep an eye on Tombs and Stokes for me.”
“They’ll do fine.”
Faraday nodded but didn’t say anything. A silence fell over them. For some reason, Faraday couldn’t say goodbye; it felt strange and the words caught in his throat.
King gave a knowing smirk. “Good luck.” He patted Faraday’s shoulder and started to walk away.
“Thanks.” Faraday smiled and straddled his bike and started the engine. As he did so the claxon started to sound for an incoming German raid. He watched as pilots scrambled to their planes, Stokes and Tombs among them. The determined looks on their faces gave Faraday a vote of confidence in their chances of success. He had taught them everything they knew, now it was time for Faraday to do the same to another batch of students. He revved his engine, not wanting to be around when the first German strafing run hit the base. He pulled back on the throttle and accelerated away.
“Durand, what’s the hold up?” Francois Crevier demanded.
“It must be the weather; the signal is strong,” Durand said, double-checking the radio battery and instruments.
Francois grunted in annoyance. He shouldered his Sten submachine gun and pulled out a carton of cigarettes in one deft movement. “Damned weather, we rarely get in touch with England and the one time we can the weather is against us.” He fought the urge to pace about the barn and stood silently behind Durand as he tinkered with the radio controls.
“If we don’t hear from them soon, we’ll need to break down the radio. The Germans will be triangulating us as we speak.”
“Yes, yes, I know.” Francois scanned the barn and spotted his niece near the barn door. “Talia!” Francois beckoned her over to him.
Talia looked up from her place by the door. She could tell by the look on her uncle’s face that something was wrong. It was the same look he had had when the news came that the Nazis had taken Paris. “Climb up into the loft and keep watch.”
“Is something wrong?”
“There will be if you don’t do as I say, girl.”
Talia frowned but did as her uncle commanded.
“Wait, take this.” He rummaged through the pocket of his coat and pulled out a pair of binoculars and tossed them to her. “Shout if you see something.” Without another word he resumed his position hunched over Durand as he struggled to get a signal.
Talia clambered up the ladder into the loft and rearranged a hay bale near the loft door and sat down. She took a moment to let her eyes adjust. The sun was dipping below the horizon and the twilight dusk had already set in. The long shadows cast by the hills and the forest gave the landscape a hollow feel, as though the French countryside knew the plight of her people. With the German occupation, nothing felt the same. The woods and hills, once sites where Talia would go to play as a girl, were now ominous and threatening places. Danger lurked everywhere, as German soldiers scoured the countryside in the search of Maquis fighters: people like Talia and her uncle.
Talia squinted and struggled to keep watch. With the sun fading, she had a hard time seeing in the shadows. She scanned the rolling hills and watched the three roads that intersected a half mile from the barn. If a vehicle came she was sure they could get away quickly.
As she watched the landscape, the angry shouting of her uncle floated up into the loft.
“Dammit, Durand, why won’t it work!”
Talia shook her head, if they would let her she was sure she could get the radio to work. It was infuriating, ever since she had moved from Paris to live with Francois it had been a struggle to prove her worth. Getting Francois to simply agree to let her help the French Resistance had been a Herculean task. But she had quickly proved to him, if not everyone else, that she was up to the challenge. Francois had not been keen to the idea of letting his niece run around sabotaging Nazi supply lines, but she had given a persuasive argument: No one would suspect an eighteen-year-old girl to be a member of the Resistance. This made her valuable because the Nazis would pay her no mind.
Francois had relented and had in turn convinced Claude to let her help, but her argument to help also proved fatal to her chances of advancement. Claude had agreed with Francois to let Talia help, but all he saw in her was a messenger and a lookout. The idea of using her for sabotage or anything more was out of the question.
Talia silently grumbled and picked up the binoculars and resumed her watch. There were other assignments she could perform well. Smuggling munitions and weapons was a constant requirement, and one they were shorthanded for. She knew she could do more if she was given the chance. She looked through the binoculars and scanned the roads. She would speak to Francois about it later. As difficult as he was, he was family and was always looking out for her, unlike the others. Talia swept the three roads and scanned the woods. The sun was halfway below the horizon, making it difficult for her eyes to adjust to the semi-darkness. She blinked and struggled to focus on the trunks of the trees. As she did so, a dozen figures appeared from the darkness of the forest. Their gray tunics and matte black guns made Talia’s heart skip a beat. They stopped at the edge of the woods as their commander surveyed the barn, his blond hair jutting out beneath his gray cap.
“Merde.” Talia leapt up from the hay bale and scrambled to the edge of the loft. “Francois! Amsel is coming with his men!”
Francois stopped what he was doing and looked up at his niece. “Are you sure?”
“Durand, break the radio down and make for the fields.”
Durand frowned but started to turn the radio off and pack it. “What about you?”
Francois grabbed two magazines for his Sten and pocketed them and started up the ladder to the loft. “I’ll buy you some time.”
Talia watched as her uncle moved to the loft’s window. She had no weapon, but she knew she could help. “I’m staying with you.”
“Don’t be foolish, go with Durand.”
“Dammit, girl, you’re as stubborn as your father. Go!” Francois shoved her toward the ladder and turned back to the window and started to fire the Sten.
Talia clambered down the ladder as the staccato of the Sten pierced the evening quiet.
“I’m nearly done. Go to the field, Talia,” Durand ordered as he finished packing the radio.
Talia wordlessly ducked out the back of the barn and scampered through the wheat field. The wheat was taller than her, and with a few steps she was hidden by its golden stalks. Since the Nazi occupation, many farmers had abandoned their harvests rather than give it to the Germans. Talia was thankful that the farmer that had fled these fields hadn’t burned his crops. She ran through the field and came out near a large clump of trees where another member of the Resistance was waiting with a car.
“What’s happening? Where are the others?”
“Behind me,” Talia gasped as she caught her breath.
The man stared at Talia uncertainly and brandished a shotgun as a heavy rustling emanated from the field. “Who goes there?”
“Don’t shoot, it’s Durand! With Francois and Fabrice. Francois is shot, we must go!” Durand staggered out of the field with the radio over one shoulder and Francois struggling between him and Fabrice.
“No!” Talia screamed and darted toward them.
“Get him in the car!”
Francois grimaced in pain but struggled to move under his own power. “I’m fine, Talia, just get in the car.”
“You’ve lost a lot of blood.”
“Are you a doctor? Get in the car.” Francois climbed into the back seat with some difficulty while Durand loaded the radio into the trunk.
Talia sat down next to him and inspected his wound. A dark hole gushed blood next to his navel. “We’ll get you help.”
Francois inspected the wound and shook his head. His face was pale and his voice shaky, as he said, “Don’t bother. You may not have been a doctor but I was. The bullet hit my liver . . . with the amount of blood I’ve lost, I don’t have much time.”
“Don’t say that,” Talia whispered.
“Let’s go!” Durand called as he clambered into the car and sat down next to Talia. He looked over at Francois. “You okay?”
“No one can know that I was part of the Resistance. If the Nazis find me like this they’ll ask questions.”
The tires screeched as the driver pressed down on the pedal. The car shot through the woods and came out on a dirt road a mile from the barn. Durand looked around, searching for any Nazis, but the road was empty. He looked over at Francois. “What should we do?”
“Crash the car and burn it. If anyone asks, tell them I was drunk driving.”
“We can take you to a doctor,” Talia argued. She gave Francois a pleading look. “Please, don’t die.”
Francois smiled weakly and put a hand on Talia’s face. “You’re strong, but I need you to be stronger. Survive this war for me . . . for your parents and brother.”
Talia stifled a cry as Francois’s head drooped to the side and his hand slid into his lap.
Durand reached across her and checked for a pulse, “He’s gone. I’m sorry.”
Talia wordlessly nodded. The pain of knowing that Francois was no longer there for her felt like a noose around her neck. Her last living family member had died and she was alone. She struggled to breathe and fought the urge to wretch. She refused to let Durand see her in such a vulnerable state.
Durand put a comforting arm around her. “I’m sorry, Talia.” He grabbed a blanket off the floor of the car and gently draped it over Francois’s body. “Fabrice and I will do what needs to be done. We’ll take you home.”
Talia stifled a sob and dried her eyes. “No, I will do it.”
“This isn’t something a girl your age should do,” Fabrice argued softly.
Talia stole a glance at her uncle. The warmth was slowly fading from his face, his skin was starting to take on the pale tone of the dead. I’m alone. The realization hitting her again. She swallowed bitterly and bit her lip. She needed to be strong for her parents, for her brother, for Francois. She turned and gave Durand a hard look, her eyes like granite. “I’m a member of the Resistance, not some innocent girl. Now let’s get this done.”