‘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 breasts, true enough, and her nipples 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.

br />

‘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 breasts, true enough, and her nipples 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, breasts 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 naked 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.

‘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.


Tags: Diana Gabaldon Lord John Grey Suspense
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