It was two weeks yet to Hallowe’en, but the gremlins were already at work.
Jerry MacKenzie turned Dolly II onto the runway full throttle, shoulder hunched, blood thumping, already halfway up Green leader’s arse—pulled back on the stick and got a choking shudder instead of the giddy lift of takeoff. Alarmed, he eased back, but before he could try again, there was a bang that made him jerk by reflex, smacking his head against the Perspex. It hadn’t been a bullet, though; the off tyre had blown, and a sickening tilt looped them off the runway, bumping and jolting into the grass.
There was a strong smell of petrol, and Jerry popped the Spitfire’s hood and hopped out in panic, envisioning imminent incineration, just as the last plane of Green flight roared past him and took wing, its engine fading to a buzz within seconds.
A mechanic was pelting down from the hangar to see what the trouble was, but Jerry’d already opened Dolly’s belly and the trouble was plain: the fuel line was punctured. Well, thank Christ he hadn’t got into the air with it, that was one thing, but he grabbed the line to see how bad the puncture was, and it came apart in his hands and soaked his sleeve nearly to the shoulder with high-test petrol. Good job the mechanic hadn’t come loping up with a lit cigarette in his mouth.
He rolled out from under the plane, sneezing, and Gregory the mechanic stepped over him.
‘Not flying her today, mate,’ Greg said, squatting down to look up into the engine, and shaking his head at what he saw.
‘Aye, tell me something I don’t know.’ He held his soaked sleeve gingerly away from his body. ‘How long to fix her?’
Greg shrugged, eyes squinted against the cold wind as he surveyed Dolly’s guts.
‘Half an hour for the tyre. You’ll maybe have her back up tomorrow, if the fuel line’s the only engine trouble. Anything else we should be looking at?’
‘Aye, the left wing-gun trigger sticks sometimes. Gie’ us a bit o’ grease, maybe?’
‘I’ll see what the canteen’s got in the way of leftover dripping. You best hit the showers, Mac. You’re turning blue.’
He was shivering, right enough, the rapidly evaporating petrol wicking his body heat away like candlesmoke. Still, he lingered for a moment, watching as the mechanic poked and prodded, whistling through his teeth.
‘Go on, then,’ Greg said in feigned exasperation, backing out of the engine and seeing Jerry still there. ‘I’ll take good care of her.’
‘Aye, I know. I just—aye, thanks.’ Adrenaline from the aborted flight was still surging through him, thwarted reflexes making him twitch. He walked away, suppressing the urge to look back over his shoulder at his wounded plane.
* * *
Jerry came out of the pilots’ WC half an hour later, eyes stinging with soap and petrol, backbone knotted. Half his mind was on Dolly, the other half with his mates. Blue and Green were up this morning, Red and Yellow resting. Green flight would be out over Flamborough Head by now, hunting.
He swallowed, still restless, dry-mouthed by proxy, and went to fetch a cup of tea from the canteen. That was a mistake; he heard the gremlins laughing as soon as he walked in and saw Sailor Malan.
Malan was Group Captain and a decent bloke overall. South African, a great tactician—and the most ferocious, most persistent air fighter Jerry’d seen yet. Rat terriers weren’t in it. Which was why he felt a beetle skitter briefly down his spine when Malan’s deep-set eyes fixed on him.
‘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 squadron 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 sheepdog’s, 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 one another 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 windowpane. 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.