For your reading pleasure, please see below the first four chapters of Wrathful Skies. This is a free pre-release sample, and there might still be one or two changes between now and 30 September 13 – so you’ll just have to give me the benefit of the doubt if you find any typos!
There was no moon the night the war changed.
Flying Officer Dunn checked his instrument panel for the hundredth time and thought again of the warm bed that awaited him in England. Concentrating wasn’t easy when shivers wracked his body with every steaming breath, the bitter cold of the cockpit seeping through his fleece lined jacket and boots.
At twelve thousand feet the darkness of the summer sky seemed infinite, broken by faint patches of cloud. It never failed to amaze Dunn how peaceful the night could seem, in stark contrast to the painful noise within the cockpit. The Wellington bomber had two engines. Razor sharp metal fragments had left one silent and useless, but the vibration from the surviving engine continued its jarring assault on Dunn’s body, feeding his familiar headache.
He glanced at the figure slumped in the co-pilot’s seat, and reached out to squeeze his shoulder. Allen’s eyes snapped open. Dunn had been impressed with Allen this sortie, only their second together. He admired the way the Australian stayed calm over the target despite the adrenaline that must have been pumping through him. That same adrenaline would be gone now, leaving the younger man drained. Dunn felt the same, and wondered if they had achieved anything. It might be days before a reconnaissance aircraft could provide bomb damage assessment. Still, he thought with a rueful glance at the ruined engine, at this funereal pace it might take them almost that long to get home.
It could have been worse. Much worse. He shook his head at the memory of the pre-flight brief that told them to expect light resistance, and wondered how many of the one hundred and fourteen bombers in tonight’s stream would make it home at all.
Allen tapped his watch and gave Dunn a quizzical look.
“Captain to Observer,” Dunn said into his intercom. “Are you on headset, Forbes?”
“Yes, sir. We’re on course and twenty minutes from home.” It didn’t surprise Dunn that he hadn’t had to ask any questions. Flight Sergeant Forbes was always efficient. The Scotsman bore the title of ‘observer’ but counted navigator and bomb aimer among his duties. In their four flights together, Dunn had developed a strong respect for the Flight Sergeant’s abilities in both roles.
“Good,” Dunn said. “We’ll start descending soon. Freddy, have you made contact yet?”
“Not yet,” the radio operator responded. “I’m still trying, sir.”
Allen stared out towards the silent engine with its feathered propeller, the blades edge-on to the airflow to reduce drag. “She’s done well, hasn’t she?”
“She’s a tough old bird,” Dunn agreed, thankful that the Wellington could take such punishment. Two hours earlier there had been nothing but fear. The sky over the lightless city of Hamburg had shuddered with the bursts from heavy flak shells, and as they started their attack run, red-hot shrapnel from one near miss struck the starboard engine. Dunn still wasn’t sure how he’d kept the aircraft steady and allowed Forbes to get the bombs away on cue.
“I reckon we’ve earned our pint tonight,” Allen said, looking out into the night, his grin reflected in the cockpit windows.
“I’ll be asleep before I can drink it,” Dunn told him. “I’m-” His headset crackled with sudden noise.
Dunn hesitated, stunned. His mind recognised the voice of Perry, the rear gunner, while his eyes flickered towards the tiny streaks of light ripping through the darkness within a few feet of the cockpit. Struggling to clear his head, he yanked at the controls and threw the bomber into a tight bank to port. The straps of his harness dug into his shoulders. A shadow, barely darker than the night, filled his vision until several flashes from the nose turret of the bomber caused him to blink.
The machine guns fell silent.
“Is everyone okay?” The crackle of the intercom intensified the concern in Forbes’s voice. Dunn breathed a sigh of relief as each crewman reported in.
“What happened?” Allen’s eyes raked the sky ahead. All colour had drained from his face.
Dunn saw nothing now except the smothering darkness. “I think he overshot.” A single bead of moisture ran down his face, already cooling in the icy air.
“The bastard must be new,” Forbes growled. “Bloody amateur.” It was a common mistake for inexperienced fighter pilots to make, Dunn knew, particularly at night. They would come in too fast, misjudging the difference in speed between them and their slower prey, unprepared for the violent evasive manoeuvre that was the bomber’s first defence.
“I had a go at him,” Roberts reported from the front turret.
Dunn glanced towards the starboard engine. There was no smoke or flame to give their position away. The engine was inert, the fire extinguished and the props motionless. “What was it?”
“I didn’t get a good look, but I think it was a 110.”
Dunn caught Allen’s look, and nodded. That made sense. The Messerschmitt Bf-110 was one of the mainstays of the Luftwaffe’s night fighter fleet. He took the Wellington down another thousand feet, his hands damp with sweat within his gloves, and kept the aircraft jinking for a few more minutes.
“Try not to put too much pressure on that engine, sir,” Forbes warned from somewhere within the aircraft.
“Do you think he’ll find us again?” Allen asked.
“I doubt it,” Forbes said. “It’s far too dark tonight. He was lucky to find us the first time.”
“We were lucky he missed,” Dunn said. “Everybody stay alert, okay?” He brushed at his face, hoping the gesture would hide the confusion on his face. It was almost unheard of, encountering a night fighter this far out over the Channel. Forbes was right; finding the bomber had to have been a monumental stroke of good fortune for the fighter’s pilot. The German had probably caught a glimpse of an unknown shadow, taken his shot and headed home.
An anguished scream drowned the rear gunner’s warning shout. Something ripped through the airframe. The instrument panel burst apart. A sharp pain lanced through Dunn’s face, followed by a sudden breeze as air howled through the jagged hole in the Perspex of the cockpit. His face felt cold and wet in the airflow.
This time the fighter didn’t overshoot. A second burst of fire hammered into the fuselage. Dunn slammed the controls forward, pushing the nose of the aircraft into a dive as he searched the sky below for cover. The scream in his ears faded to a constant monotone groan. He banked and increased the rate of dive as he spotted a band of cloud. More tracers flashed past the starboard wing.
The Wellington was a sturdy aircraft but it couldn’t take much more of this dive. The controls shook violently in Dunn’s hands. He held them tight, his body tensed as he waited for the final killing burst from the fighter or the awful rending sound that would accompany the airframe breaking up. Neither came. The aircraft plunged into the safety of the cloudbank.
With a grunt, Dunn wrenched the Wellington level. One look at Allen lolling in his chair was enough. The Australian was dead. Blood and glistening chunks of something worse coated the Perspex and the shattered instrument panel ahead of him.
“Forbes to Captain. The radio is in bits, and Freddy’s in a bad way.”
Dunn tore his eyes away from the seat next to him. “Where is he hit?” He had to force the words out.
“High in both legs,” Forbes said. “I’ve given him morphine, but he’s losing a lot of blood. There’s not much I can do for him.”
Dunn rubbed his face with his gloved hand and took a deep breath. The sour taste of vomit burned at the back of his throat. He swallowed it down, turning in his seat so he would not have to see the body hanging limp against the straps next to him.
“What about Roberts?” He tried to sound calm, knowing he was failing.
“He took one in the back of the head.”
Dunn stifled a curse. “Perry?”
There was an edge of panic in the tail gunner’s voice. “I’m okay, sir, but the turret’s jammed. I can’t get out.”
“Can you still use your guns?”
“Only if he comes straight at them. I can’t see a thing in here. There’s oil all over the place and my electric gun sight’s out. Sorry I couldn’t give you any more warning. The bloody thing came from nowhere.”
“I think he’s gone now,” Dunn said, hoping his voice sounded more confident than he felt.
“I hope so,” the gunner said. “I got a few rounds off. They weren’t really in his direction but he sheared off as soon as I opened fire.”
There was movement behind Dunn and he turned to see Forbes entering the cockpit.
The observer barely glanced at Allen. “Are we burning?”
Dunn looked out of both windows and then scanned what was left of his instruments. As far as he could tell the port engine was fine, and they weren’t losing fuel. Most importantly there was no fire to spread to the rest of the aircraft. “We’re okay,” he said.
“At least there’s no light for him to follow,” Forbes said, “but we should probably stay in these clouds, just in case.”
“How did he find us again?”
“Luck,” the Flight Sergeant said. He didn’t sound as convinced this time.
Dunn took a long look at the sky around them, careful to avoid letting his eyes linger on the glistening spots on the instrument panel. Why had the fighter broken off the engagement so soon? Perhaps it was understandable, given the dangers of the two machine guns in the rear turret. “He must be miles away by now,” he said to no one in particular. He felt disconnected. He didn’t feel the cold any more, simply numb.
“The bastard’s probably already marked us down as a kill,” Forbes muttered. “We’re pissing hydraulic fluid all over the place, sir. How’s she flying?”
“Seems fine,” Dunn said. He had to regain control of himself and his aircraft. He turned to Forbes. “Take the emergency axe and see if you can get Perry out.”
Safe in the cloud, they had kept their course for home for several minutes. The English coast had to be close now. Dunn took deep breaths, trying to bring his heart rate under control and peering out for any sign of the coastline through the murk. Even if the fighter stayed in the area, it couldn’t hope to find the bomber again.
The last shreds of cloud melted away. Dunn checked his watch. It was nearly two o’clock. He looked up again, and saw the shark-like form less than a hundred yards away.
It could not have followed them, not in this darkness. Even at this short distance he could hardly make it out, but Dunn’s hope that it had not seen them lasted only seconds. He watched, paralysed, mouth hanging open, as the night fighter slowed and positioned itself to fire.
The thin nose lit up with tiny flashes. Tracers slammed into the body of the Wellington and, after a slight pause for adjustment, into the port engine. The whole wing disappeared in a shower of sparks, followed by a shocking flash as the engine burst into flames. The light of the fire flickered on the canopy of the fighter.
“Captain to crew, bail out.” He fought to keep his voice calm, knowing he failed. “Everybody get the hell out.” He punched the release button on his harness with his right hand as his left fumbled for his parachute.
The night fighter kept formation with them as he stumbled towards the emergency escape hatch. A fire had started amongst the reconnaissance flares amidships, the light flickering off the steel of the oxygen bottles. The glow of the flames hung from the thick smoke in a swirl of shifting colour.
Dunn slipped on something, falling against the side of the fuselage. Looking down, he saw that he had stepped on Freddy, the radio operator, or rather the sodden and pulped remains of his legs. Forbes lay on the canvas crew-rest bed where a shell had hurled him, axe still dangling from nerveless fingers. He looked as if he were asleep, except for the blackened, sunken crater that had once been his face.
Acrid smoke burned his eyes. At the very end of the fuselage, the tiny door of the rear turret was jammed ajar, and he saw Perry’s arm flailing through the narrow gap, trying with hopeless desperation to free himself.
Dropping to his knees, knowing the fumes were overcoming him, Dunn started to crawl. Something splintered behind him in a terrifying roar of sound, and then he felt an impact that forced the last pockets of air from his lungs. He slumped to the floor, all pain and feeling gone. His final emotion was frustration, that he would never know how the night fighter had found them again.
The German fighter waited, observing the burning bomber as it slipped to port and began its inexorable slide towards the Channel below. The British bomber became a bright disintegrating mass, the turret at its tail still sending out defiant tracers until the sea ended its futile struggle. The flames continued to burn after impact, a slick of unused fuel covering the calm water. The fighter circled the fires in a slow pattern, then turned its tail towards the English coast just a few miles away and headed back towards the distant shore of Europe. Of the one hundred and fourteen aircraft that had left England that night, eleven aircraft and their crews did not return, but no other engagement that night was as significant.
The Vulture had claimed his first kill.
“We’ll have to make this quick,” the Fat Man said, itching at the collar of his dark suit. “I’m lunching at Mansion House with the Canadian PM. You’ll take a drink?”
“If there’s time, sir.”
“There’s always time for a drink, Quentin. Mackenzie King will wait.”
Quentin Quiet watched as the Fat Man walked to the sideboard that dominated one wall of the expensively furnished office. In truth, he was not particularly fat, simply a big man who, despite bouts of poor health and questionable levels of alcohol consumption, remained remarkably active for a man of his age. Quiet often wondered if his host knew of the nickname but decided it didn’t really matter. He was confident that he was one of only half a dozen men in England who could get away with voicing it.
With practised ease, the Fat Man poured himself a glass of brandy and moved to pour a second.
“I’d prefer whisky, if you have it,” Quiet said.
“Ah, yes. I always forget.” The Fat Man poured a generous measure of expensive Scotch, and sat down in a leather armchair. He placed his drink on the closest table and reached into his pocket. “You’ll forgive me smoking,” he said, making it a statement rather than a question. “Somehow every time you ask to meet me, I end up needing a drink and a smoke.”
Quiet ignored the second armchair and remained standing, one arm resting lightly on the mantelpiece above the open fire. His host produced a Cuban cigar, lit it with a long match, and gave Quiet a quizzical look. “Do you ever take that hat off?”
Quiet smiled. The brown trilby stayed where it was. He reached instead into his rumpled suit, and withdrew a thin sepia file.
A trickle of smoke escaped from the side of the Fat Man’s mouth. “Is that the finished study?”
“With my recommendations,” Quiet said.
The Fat Man sighed and sank back in his chair. “The Air Staff sent me the latest figures for the strategic bombing campaign yesterday. I’m not sure how long we can sustain this level of losses.”
“It will get worse before it gets better,” Quiet murmured, “believe me.”
“You were right about this Hun fellow, then? What are we calling him now, the Vulture?”
“Yes, sir,” Quiet said. “We believe he has somewhere in the region of twenty kills so far, apparently always targeting damaged or isolated aircraft.”
“The bastard,” the Fat Man said with real venom.
“That’s in less than three months. No one else on either side is getting close to that kill rate at night.”
The Fat Man took another long drag on his cigar. “We could have used someone like him during the Blitz. How do you know it’s the same man each time?” He paused, and a look of contempt passed across his face. “I presume that little rat Goebbels and his propaganda cronies are milking it for all it’s worth?
“No, oddly enough,” Quiet said. “Or at least not yet. We’ve been piecing it together from aircrew reports. A few of the aircraft put up enough of a fight to scare him off and make it home, and in a couple of cases other crews saw him attacking a nearby bomber. All the reports mention the same thing, a crest on the tail of the aircraft. Some sort of bird.”
The Fat Man blew a smoke ring, his face thoughtful. “It doesn’t sound like you’ve got much to go on.”
“I have my other sources too, sir,” Quiet said. “The ones you prefer not to know about.”
“The sources you don’t want me to know about, you mean?”
“It amounts to the same thing.” Quiet shrugged, and walked to the sideboard to pick up his whisky. He held the glass under his nose, inhaling deeply. “There’s more bad news. The Germans are training up a special squadron for the Vulture to lead. Once that becomes operational, no RAF bomber operating anywhere in north-west Europe will be safe.”
The Fat Man leaned forward. “So what are you suggesting?”
Putting down the whisky without drinking, Quiet ran his finger along the edge of the binder. “We form a squadron of our own.”
Stepping forward, Quiet nudged the brandy aside and placed the opened binder onto the polished wood of the table. There was only a single sheet within, hand-written on brown paper. The Fat Man reached for it, resting the cigar in a trough at the top of his silver ashtray. He read the notes in silence, his eyes widening before flicking back to the top of the page and reading it again.
It was several minutes before he broke the silence. “Are you serious?”
“Always.” Quiet reached down and took the binder, closing it without a glance at the contents. “Twelve months ago I wouldn’t have believed it myself. Since then certain things have come to light, or in this case, not come to light. Does the name Morgan Bale mean anything to you?”
A shake of the head. “I can’t say it does.”
“He’s Sir William Bale’s son.”
“The industrialist? Yes, I remember now. You don’t mean to say that strange looking boy of his was-”
Quiet nodded. “I do mean to say that, yes.”
Quiet suppressed a smile. It took a lot to surprise the Fat Man these days. Quiet retrieved the sheet of paper, letting his eyes linger on his own handwriting for a few seconds, then took his whisky glass and downed it in a single go. “As always the whole affair would be above Most Secret. There would be no records.” He slid the sheet into the fire, pausing to watch as the flames enveloped it in thin smoke. “Everything is in place, ready to go. All I need is your authorisation.”
The Fat Man took a large swig of brandy, the shock on his face fading, replaced by a wary acceptance. “I don’t know,” he said. “You realise this is outlandish, even by your department’s standards?”
“I will admit that it is…” Quiet paused for a few moments, trying to think of the correct word to use, before adding “unconventional. But I’ve never misled you.”
The Fat Man looked up from his seat and raised an eyebrow.
“Well, I’ve never let you down, sir,” Quiet said with a straight face.
“No, I suppose you haven’t. Very well, then. Consider it authorised under the usual terms.” The Fat Man stood and finished his drink, and looked down forlornly at his barely-lit cigar. “I hate to leave so soon, but if you’ll excuse me, I must get to this damned luncheon. Keep me informed, will you Quentin?”
“Of course, Prime Minister.”
The handful of battered oil lamps hanging on the walls provided only a dim glow, but that wasn’t a problem for the seventy or so men crowded inside. Bright lights drew attention, and attention didn’t mix well with their sport. There would be panic if the crowd of farmers and munitions workers knew how close the police had come to raiding the barn that night. As it was, only one man knew. It was down to him that efforts to close illegal fighting dens in the area had been delayed.
Quentin Quiet watched from the back of the crowd as the fighters walked out. A makeshift ring had been constructed in the centre of the room. Parting to let the two men through, the crowd closed in again with a buzz of anticipation. The lucky ones at the front rested their arms on the ropes, while those further from the action stood on benches to look down into the ring through clouds of cigarette smoke.
Quiet squeezed onto a bench, ignoring the suspicious looks sent his way. He’d been to enough fights recently to know that the sort of person who came to watch bare-knuckle fighting would always be suspicious. The war had ruled out many legitimate sources of entertainment, and a small but growing number of men were making a lot of money from this business. As Quiet watched, bookies weaved through the spectators, taking bets that grew larger as the fight drew closer.
Had he been a betting man, Quiet would have found it easy to spot the favourite. The confidence of the first fighter was palpable across the room. He stood well over six feet, with a thick chest and heavily tattooed forearms. His face and knuckles bore the scars of dozens of contests. Only the excess weight above his flamboyant red shorts suggested any weakness.
“In the red shorts,” the promoter called, “the fans’ favourite, Harry ‘The Hammer’ Morrell!” A large section of the crowd cheered, and Morrell acknowledged them with a grin and a pump of his fist.
From beneath his trilby, Quiet watched with interest as the second fighter climbed through the ropes. He wondered briefly if he had been misled; the fighter did not look like a man with such a reputation. He had a naturally stocky build from which all fat had been stripped. His hair was long and unruly, and from across the ring, Quiet could see it was matted by dirt and lack of care. The paleness of the fighter’s skin contrasted starkly with his worn, dirt-stained trousers. He looked drawn, almost sick, as he paced about the ring without paying any obvious attention to the crowd or his opponent.
One detail utterly overshadowed the rest of his appearance. Even expecting it, Quiet still shook his head in amazement. Despite the dim light, the smaller fighter covered his eyes with several layers of thin material, wrapped around his head above the nose and tied at the back of his skull.
“In the black trousers,” the promoter called with less enthusiasm, “back from retirement, it’s the man you love to hate; Crowe!”
Whistling and booing filled the barn. Giving Crowe a wide berth, the promoter climbed out of the ring. Crowe didn’t seem to notice. He began pacing in his corner, and the sudden thought struck Quiet that, more than anything, Crowe reminded him of an attack dog, one deliberately starved and angered.
Perhaps his sources had been right about this man.
The referee called the two men together. The fighter in the red shorts towered over his opponent, and laughed as the referee gave his pre-fight instructions. The noise intensified, men pressing forward in a late flurry of betting. Quiet smiled. The money was all on the man called Crowe.
The bell rang.
The Hammer rushed forward and swung a huge right hand. The smaller man swayed easily away. Morrell stumbled with the momentum, causing a few chuckles around the arena, but he regained his balance and threw a heavy jab. Crowe stepped to one side and watched the hand fly past. Impatient shouts rang from the crowd now, as the fighters circled warily.
Then, as if freed from a leash, Crowe attacked. From well out of range, he took two quick steps forward, slamming three fast jabs into Morrell’s face. Crowe’s left hook whipped around with vicious intent before the big man could cover up, callused knuckles driving into the side of Morrell’s head. Quiet heard the crack of bone on bone above the noise of the crowd.
Morrell stumbled back, blood streaming down his face where his opponent’s fist had sliced open the soft flesh above the eye. Crowe gave no respite. Slipping beneath a despairing jab as the crowd roared in approval, Crowe drove the air out of the bigger man’s lungs with a brutal uppercut that ripped into Morrell below the sternum.
Morrell wrapped his arms around Crowe, trying to use his weight. The smaller man shrugged him off. Twisting from the hips, Crowe sent first a left hook and then a right thudding into Morrell’s ribs.
Morrell crumpled, his breath gone. Crowe stepped back, let him sag, and then threw a right hand with all his weight behind it. Morrell’s nose caved in, leaving a bloody mash and a fine spray of blood in the air.
The ‘Hammer’ dropped to one knee and curled into a ball on the cold floor, clutching his face as he gasped for breath.
Quiet could feel the turmoil in the crowd, the bench shaking under his feet with the fury of their reaction. A handful cheered, happy with the blood they had seen for their money, but the majority screamed their displeasure, making it clear the fight had been too short for their tastes. Many of those who booed had won money on Crowe’s victory, but that wasn’t the point. Some began to hurl coins, which tinkled as they struck the stone floor.
“Crowe wins,” the promoter called, and disappeared into the crowd. A group of men dragged the groaning Morrell away, leaving a red smear on the ground to join faded stains from earlier contests.
Crowe stood in the centre of the ring, head bowed. He seemed to be staring at his fist. His knuckles dripped blood. His hand and whole body shook, as if under great strain.
A coin struck his shoulder and his head snapped up. The offender backed away into the crowd. Crowe turned with a smile, walking back towards the side door from which he had first emerged. The crowd parted ahead of him.
Quiet stepped down off the bench and threaded his way through the angry spectators towards the exit. He had seen enough. Everything he had been told was true.
He heard yelled threats towards the promoter fade behind him as he walked out into the cool night air. He reached into his coat and drew out a battery-powered flashlight. Looking around at the silent farmyard, he flashed the light, once, twice, until on the third flash the night came alive with the sound of whistles. The fifty policemen who had waited so patiently closed in to get their reward.
The ensuing brawl lasted far longer than the fight the crowd had paid to see. Many of the spectators were drunk and proved as happy to be in a scrap as to watch one. The police had come prepared, though. Arrests were made with the liberal use of truncheons and boots.
The torchlight gave the grin on the Chief Inspector’s face a cadaverous quality. He was officially in charge of this operation, but both men knew the truth of it. “I’d call that a success,” the Chief Inspector said as a group of men were dragged out to waiting police vans. “It’s an impressive haul, though it looks like a fair few got away into the fields.”
“Never mind that,” Quiet said. “Did you get him?”
“Of course. He put up a fight, though. Three of my men will have to spend the night in hospital.”
“What about him?”
“Crowe?” The Chief Inspector chuckled. “He’s something of a legend on the bare-knuckle circuit. I’ve heard some remarkable stories. Apparently he-”
“Is he hurt?”
The Chief Inspector frowned at the interruption. He clearly wasn’t used to such lack of respect for his authority. “No,” he replied. “A few bruises, but nothing he won’t survive. He’s on his way to a cell now.”
“Make sure the cell has a window,” Quiet said.
“It will be arranged.”
Quiet nodded and walked away without another word. He regretted the necessity of involving the police, and felt little urge to be polite to them now that they had served their purpose. He had provided the tip off; the Chief Inspector’s prize would be the praise for thirty successful arrests. Quiet’s own prize waited in the police station.
He left Crowe alone in his cell for several hours. Dawn was two hours away when he walked in.
“Lock this door and stay at the end of the corridor,” he told the four policemen through the door grille. “No one comes past.”
The four men exchanged looks. “The Chief Inspector said to wait outside,” the oldest said.
Quiet gave him a look, and after a few seconds, the constable mumbled something. The policeman spun with a respectful nod and walked away, his colleagues almost running to keep up while their polished shoes echoed in the corridor. Quiet turned and looked around the room.
He breathed in the stench of stale sweat while his eyes took a few moments to adjust to the semi-darkness. Except for a thin shaft of moonlight coming from the high window, the tendrils of harsh electric light that seeped through the grille were the only illumination. It was enough to see that it was a simple room with a bench along one wall and a blood-spattered sink. The meagre light reflected from the drying, brownish droplets, and from fragments of light bulb on the stone floor. The bulb’s protective wire cage still hung from the ceiling, twisted apart.
The fighter sat on the bench in the darkest corner of the room, naked except for his blood stained trousers. He still wore the cloth across his eyes, but his face showed his wariness despite the shadows. His breath steamed in the cold air, but he gave no indication of any discomfort.
For a man recently beaten by half a dozen policemen with truncheons, his skin looked unmarked. The dried blood on the fighter’s chest was vivid against his abnormal paleness but didn’t seem to be his own.
“You don’t seem very happy for a winner,” Quiet said. “But I suppose your night has taken an unfortunate turn.”
“How long are you going to keep me here?” Crowe said.
“Why? Do you need to be somewhere else?”
“What do you want?”
“Just a few words,” Quiet said.
Crowe ran his hand across his scalp. “Unless you’re here to tell me I’m free to go, save your breath.”
“Crowe, isn’t it?” There was no response. “The name suits you. What’s your real name?”
“Who says that isn’t my real name?”
“I may be wrong,” Quiet said. “I doubt it, though. Just as I doubt you were called Crowe when you were a patient at Bedford Sands.”
The fighter froze. Surprise registered on his face for an instant before the mask of disinterest returned. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Of course not,” Quiet said, shaking his head. “Just as you wouldn’t know anything about the death of a patient called William Hunter in 1927, or of an unlicensed boxer in Clapham about twelve months ago.”
“I’ve never been to Clapham,” Crowe replied, but Quiet couldn’t fail to notice the telltale reaction this time. For all his talents, Crowe hadn’t mastered the art of hiding his feelings. That, thought Quiet, would come in time. Life had a way of forcing feelings to hide.
“Relax, Crowe. I’m not with the police. I’ve been looking for you, though.”
“What are you after, then?” Crowe turned his head towards the door. “Let’s hear it,” he growled. “I’m a busy man.”
“No, you’re not. I am. But I know you’re keen to be gone,” Quiet added, looking towards the window “I’ll make this quick for you. Tell me, have you ever flown an aircraft?”
“No,” Crowe said, leaning back against the cell wall.
“Ever wanted to?”
The fighter yawned.
“You really should try it,” Quiet continued. “It would suit a man of your talents.”
A shadow of a smile crossed Crowe’s face. “Why? Do they need pilots who can beat people half to death?”
“Sometimes.” Quiet took a step forward. He lowered his voice and let his casual manner fade with it. “I’m talking about your other talents. There aren’t many men who can see in the dark.”
This time the man couldn’t keep the surprise from his pale features. “I think it’s time I left,” he said, standing up.
“How exactly do you plan to do that?”
Crowe looked at him, with a true smile this time. “I’m going to ask you to open the door. Politely, of course.” The smile faded. “And you’re going to do it.”
Quiet shrugged, unconcerned by the implied threat. “There are four policemen just down the corridor,” he said, “and another twenty in earshot. You’re under arrest for illegal boxing. That’s a serious charge, not to mention the three policemen you’ve put in the hospital. They might call it attempted murder.”
“They’ll live,” Crowe said. “You might not. One way or another, I’m leaving this cell now.”
“Before the sun comes up, you mean?” He smiled at the flicker of concern on the fighter’s face. “When was the last time you saw daylight?”
Crowe didn’t respond. His head turned first to the window above him, then to the locked steel of the door, and finally back to the man in front of him. His eyes were unreadable behind the bandages.
“Where would you go anyway?” Quiet looked towards the door. “Back to some alleyway to hide until nightfall? From what I understand, you’ve been living on the streets for some time now. It shows. What then? Another meaningless fight? That’s not the life you want.”
“What would you know about it?”
“More than you realise,” Quiet told him.
Crowe’s response was a short laugh, a harsh sound devoid of amusement or emotion. “You don’t know anything about my life.”
“Perhaps not,” Quiet said. “But there are others who do.”
“Others?” Crowe sat motionless, and although Quiet could not his eyes, he knew they were staring at him.
“Oh, yes.” Quiet crossed his arms, relaxed now that he knew he’d succeeded, that this man would be recruited just as easily as the others. Everything was going exactly according to plan. “I know a number of other gentlemen like you. Pale skin, lightning reflexes, marked aversion to sunlight. Did you think it was just you?”
“They cover their eyes, too,” Quiet said.
“Who are they?”
“They work for me, Crowe. I work for the British Government.”
“You’ll find out in time.” Quiet looked at his watch. “Time, of course, is something neither of us has right now. I trust you’re interested in this…opportunity?”
“Maybe,” Crowe said, still staring. “But why should I trust you?”
Quiet smiled. “You shouldn’t,” he said. “But if you turn me down, you’ll be watching the sunrise in a couple of hours.” He turned and rapped on the door three times, waiting until the sound of bolts sliding open echoed in the cold cell. “The choice is yours.”
Crowe awoke. The bus had stopped, unlike the night rain beating a steady rhythm on the windows. He blinked as the glare of a flashlight played across the glass, and caught a glimpse of rifles slung over shoulders as the soldiers moved away.
“We’re here,” Morgan said, squeezing his shoulder. Crowe turned in his seat and looked around the bus. The others were waking, stretching and rubbing their eyes. Hinde coughed in the seat in front, looking more nervous than ever. The Swiss saw Crowe watching him and smiled, his delicate mouth curling at the edges to reveal tobacco stained teeth. Directly behind Crowe, Lieberwitz caught his eye and gave a nod. Gorecki continued sleeping at the back of the bus, his head resting against the window and a book lying open in his lap.
“You were moaning in your sleep,” Morgan said. “Dreaming again?”
Crowe grunted a non-committal reply, and reached for his smoked sunglasses.
“Are you okay?”
Crowe nodded. “What’s the hold up?”
Morgan shrugged. “Checking our papers, I guess.” Even with his eyes hidden behind his own sunglasses, the unimpressed look on his face was obvious. A heavy iron mesh gate barred the road ahead, and away to each side stretched a high fence, topped with barbed wire. Crowe couldn’t see a guardroom, just a handful of trees beyond the four soaked and miserable looking guards. One of them was talking to the pretty Women’s Auxiliary Air Force driver, the man’s low tones lost in the rattle of the light autumn rain on the thin metal roof of the bus.
“So this is it, then,” Morgan said. “Charney Breach, our new home. Doesn’t look like much, does it?”
Crowe raised his arms above his head, feeling the tightness of his muscles after the long drive. “Maybe we got lost?”
“I wish,” Morgan snorted. “Did you see that town we passed a few miles back? I think it was called Staverton.”
Hinde turned in his seat. “Staverton St Mary,” he said in his rough voice, his English precise as always.
“That’s it,” Morgan said, leaning back in his seat and placing his hands behind his head. “Didn’t exactly look like the party capital of East Anglia, did it?”
“What does it matter?” Werner said, stirring in the seat opposite. “We’re not here for party. We’re here to kill Nazis.”
Morgan sighed. “That’s all you ever think about. Personally, I’d like to think we might find time for the odd drink or two, though God alone knows where we could get a decent bottle of wine around here. Of course, it’s only a couple of hours to London, and I know some great places there.” He nudged Crowe. “Maybe you could take us to some of your old haunts, eh?”
“You wouldn’t like them,” Crowe said, staring out of the window at the rain.
Reaching into the pocket of his plain suit, Hinde drew out a cigarillo case and placed a cigarette in his mouth. He lit it and took a long, nervous drag. Acrid smoke drifted to the back of the bus. Gorecki’s book fell to the floor with a thud, and the Pole sat bolt upright with a cough, looking startled.
“Do you have to smoke those stinking things in here?” Werner’s thick Teutonic accent smothered the words. Crowe could imagine the German’s one remaining eye beneath the sunglasses, staring at the Swiss.
“Sorry,” Hinde rasped, inhaling again before quickly stubbing the cigarette out on the steel floor, still damp from their boots despite the long drive.
The soldier moved away from the bus and made a motion with his hand. Metal squealed against metal as the guards pushed the gates open, and the bus began to move forward.
“About time,” Crowe said, cracking his knuckles.
Hinde coughed, bringing a pained gasp with it. “Do you think Raithe will be here already?”
“He ought to be,” Morgan said. “That car of his looked a lot faster than this bus.”
“I could walk faster than this coffin,” Werner said, rubbing his shaven scalp with one thin hand.
“Why was he allowed to travel by car? Why didn’t he travel with us?” There was the faintest trace of a whine in Hinde’s voice.
“Six months in his company and you still have to ask?” Morgan laughed. “He’s too good to travel with the rest of us. What a dive,” he added after a few more moments of appraising their surroundings. They were driving alongside the airfield, passing a number of temporary buildings. The nightly blackout was in force throughout England, with no lights showing anywhere on the airfield. Through the darkness, Crowe saw several simple blister hangars a short distance from the buildings. He could make out a much larger hangar on the far side of the airfield, close to the trees and obscured beneath camouflage netting. Vehicles and piles of building materials were scattered around the place.
“Like a building site,” Werner said.
“Maybe they haven’t finished it yet?” Hinde’s hands were already rolling another cigarette.
“It’s probably a ruse,” Morgan said. “In case Jerry fighters come over. They won’t waste their efforts on a half-finished base.” He stood, smoothed down his civilian travel clothing and grabbed his bags. The bus slowed as they approached a larger single-storey building. Crowe guessed from its modern brick-construction that this must be the headquarters. The bus pulled up opposite the double doors at the front, and the driver sounded the horn once.
“Alright, boys, follow me,” Morgan said. “Make sure you’ve got everything because the bus won’t be coming back.” The door opened and Morgan thanked the driver with a low word and a generous smile, his perfect teeth flashing.
Crowe sensed the girl’s apprehension but could still tell from her reaction that she found Morgan attractive. He felt the slightest familiar pang of jealousy, though not surprise. Morgan had always had the looks to match his self-confidence. He was taller and slimmer than Crowe, and by his own generous admission much better looking. Untidy brown hair framed his face, perpetually happy and open.
With one large bag in his hand and another slung over his broad shoulders, Morgan stepped out into the rain, his sunglasses looking incongruous in the darkness of the early October night. Crowe followed with his solitary kitbag. He gave the driver a sideways glance as he passed, and saw her flinch before she turned away. Her reaction did nothing to improve his mood.
The doors of the building swung open, unleashing a painful flash of light. A short, well-fed man of about sixty walked out with a smile behind his black beard, raising the half-filled glass in his left hand while his right brushed crumbs from the front of his woollen sweater.
A delighted grin spread across Morgan’s face. “Doctor Madeley, I presume?”
“My dear Morgan,” the man said, embracing him warmly. The bus driver waited just long enough for the last of the men to disembark before she closed the doors and accelerated away. Doctor Byron Madeley shook hands with the new arrivals in turn, greeting each of them with obvious pleasure. Crowe hung back.
The physician lowered his voice. “How are you, Crowe?”
Crowe shrugged. “I’m here.”
“Are you still refusing to drink?” Doctor Madeley looked him in the face but kept his tone neutral. “We really should talk, dear boy,” he added when Crowe didn’t respond. “Will you come and see me sometime over the next few days?”
Morgan coughed. “Is there any danger of us getting out of the rain, gents?”
“Marvellous idea,” Doctor Madeley said, “I’m getting water in my Cognac.” He turned back to Crowe. “Come and see me. Let me help you.”
“I’ve told you before,” Crowe said. “I don’t need help.”
With a sigh, Doctor Madeley walked to the front of the group. “Okay, chaps, I appreciate you’ve had a long journey over from Wales and you probably just want to have a rest, but there are still three hours until dawn and your new squadron mates are keen to meet you.”
“I don’t want to sound negative,” Morgan interrupted to general smiles, “but are you sure keen is the right word?” Hinde chuckled until Werner silenced him with a glance.
“They’ve heard a little about you,” Doctor Madeley said, “so be prepared for some odd looks. We’re going to go through to the bar. I’m afraid it’s a little bright in there. I’ll try and get something done about the lighting tomorrow but until then I suggest you all keep your eyes covered.”
Doctor Madeley led them inside, where a long central corridor ran the length of the building with numerous doors on each side. The lights on the ceiling were not bright by normal standards, but they were enough to make Crowe glad for his sunglasses. Morgan fell into step next to him, the two of them leading the group as usual. They could hear the growing hubbub of raised voices and laughter.
“This is it,” Morgan said. He turned to Crowe. “Try not to start any fights, okay?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” Crowe said in mock innocence as Doctor Madeley opened the second door on the right and ushered them into the bar.
The rush of sound that accompanied the opening of the door died the moment Crowe and Morgan entered. The room was not large, and the harsh glow of two thin electric lights was enough to light it all. The décor was simple and cheap, with furniture that looked old and battered. A wooden bar top ran along the inside wall and several heavily curtained windows along the other. The dozen men in the room were enough to make it seem busy. Most had drinks and cigarettes in their hands, and all were dressed in pressed RAF uniforms except for a balding, white-shirted barman.
Crowe felt every pair of eyes looking at him, felt the tension in the room, and resisted the urge to smile. He knew what these people were thinking. He recognised the mixture of fear and discomfort on their faces. He had known it all his adult life. Part of him recoiled from it. Part of him revelled in it.
No one spoke as they filed in, until eventually the six men in their sunglasses stood by the near end of the bar. Hinde coughed. The sound hung awkwardly in the silent room.
“Well,” Morgan said, “I need a drink.” He walked past the nearest of the men towards the barman, Crowe following a few feet behind. One of the RAF officers, a big, good-looking Flight Lieutenant with pilot’s wings on his chest and black hair slick with Brylcreem, stared as Morgan went past.
“Freaks,” the man muttered. Morgan didn’t react. Crowe’s nature didn’t give him that choice.
“Did you say something?” Crowe spoke quietly, but loud enough for all to hear in the silent room. He stepped in close to the bigger man. Crowe saw the arrogance in the man’s eyes, but looked straight through it to the flicker of fear behind the posturing. He wanted to drive his forehead into the man’s nose, and felt his hand starting to curl into a fist. Instead, he slowly moved his hand up to his face and pulled his sunglasses down his nose. Not more than half an inch, but enough to reveal the eyes behind them.
The man inhaled sharply and took the smallest step back.
Morgan put one hand on Crowe’s arm, gripping it with enough pressure to make the point. “Why don’t you have a drink? You can chat with your new friend later.”
A single bead of sweat ran down the big man’s temple. Crowe smiled. For a second longer he held the stare, and then turned away, pushing his sunglasses back into place. “Mine’s a pint of Best,” he said, dismissing the incident and the man in the same breath.
The conversation returned to the room, soft and hesitant for a few moments but soon regaining its former volume. Crowe knew the talk would all be about the new arrivals, but he didn’t care. He’d heard it all before. His colleagues were left to talk amongst themselves.
“Did you even hear a word I said?” Morgan sighed. “I might as well talk to a brick wall.”
Crowe yawned. “You should try it. Maybe the wall will care.”
“Funny man. Now stop showing off and pay attention. I’d like to at least try to fit in here before you ruin it for all of us with your tried, tested and increasingly boring hard man act.” Morgan signalled to the barman, who shuffled towards them. He was in his forties, Crowe decided, with a heavy build now turning to fat and eyes that were unfriendly behind his round glasses.
“Good evening,” Morgan said. “Or should that be good morning now?” Undeterred by the lack of any response, Morgan added, “Could I have a pint of Best Bitter and a glass of red wine, please? Perhaps a half-decent Bordeaux?”
The man leaned closer with an irritated expression. “What?”
“Three pints of Best, Barry,” a friendly voice said from behind them. Crowe turned to see a solidly built man with dark, grey-flecked hair and a bushy but neatly cultivated moustache. “Ignore Barry’s rudeness. He’s half-deaf. And you won’t find any bloody wine around here, lads.” To Crowe’s surprise, the man joined them at the bar and offered a hand. “Hello, I’m Harry Stead.”
“Crowe.” They shook, Crowe noting the man’s grip was firmer than he expected. Harry Stead looked the oldest of the aircrew in the room but his eyes, shining with enthusiasm, belonged in a much younger face.
“Morgan Bale. Pleased to meet you, sir,” Morgan said, glancing down at the Squadron Leader rank braids on the wrists of the man’s jacket.
“Call me Harry, son,” Stead said with a genial wink. “Only the young lads call me sir, and from what I hear from Doctor Madeley I guess you’re both a lot older than you look. Am I right?”
“Well, I’m only twenty-two,” Morgan said. “But Crowe is thirty, and ageing at a frightening rate.”
“You both look so young,” Stead said, grimacing. “I’ll be forty bloody years old at Christmas and I’m showing every last year of it. Anyway, welcome to RAF Charney Breach. I couldn’t help noticing the sunglasses. We’ve put in some weaker lights but I take it that it’s still too bright?”
Morgan nodded. “A little bit, yes.”
“Well, I’m sorry. I’m Station Operations Officer around here so that’s probably my fault. I also answer to Station Intelligence Officer, and between those two job titles it means anything menial the boss needs doing winds up on my desk.”
Morgan looked around the room. “Is the boss here tonight?”
“I’m afraid Wing Commander Noone is far too busy. I don’t know exactly what he’s doing,” Stead added, “but I’m sure he’s very busy. You’ll meet him tomorrow night when he briefs the squadron.” He looked back down the bar, and his face brightened. “Ah, Barry’s excelled himself. He’s actually managed to fetch the drinks. You can’t always take that for granted.”
The barman placed three glasses of bitter onto the bar top and waited in sullen silence until Stead paid him. “I can’t say everyone here is pleased to see you,” Stead said, “but I bloody well am. We’ve lost too many good men in the last twelve months and your arrival has saved us from disbandment, even if that does mean major changes in how we do business. Now if you’ll excuse me, lads, I’d better see if your friends need a drink. It was good to meet you.” He smiled and moved with an odd gait towards the others, favouring his left leg.
“No wine,” Morgan said. “I had no idea the situation was so bad.”
“Yes, desperate,” Crowe muttered. “How will you live?”
“I suppose we all have to make sacrifices for our country. Harry Stead seems friendly enough, at least. Mind you, I suspect he’s the only one.”
There was no disguising the looks sent their way. It didn’t surprise Crowe. People had been looking at him like that for twenty years.
Morgan’s face crumpled as he looked down at the unfamiliar drink in his hand. He pushed his chin in the direction of Stead, who was introducing himself to the rest of the newly arrived pilots. “How do you think he got that limp?”
“He was shot down last year,” Doctor Madeley said, joining them. “Return fire from a German bomber. He refused, I’m told, to let them cut him free from the wreckage until his wounded navigator was safe. Harry was one of the top night intruder pilots in the RAF but the crash made a real mess of his back, so he doesn’t get to fly much these days and he’s stuck with that nasty limp. He’s a marvellous chap, by the way. He wants this business to succeed. It’s a shame that the same can’t be said for some of the others.”
Crowe thought of Stead’s words. “Like the Wing Commander?”
“I’ll let you make your own opinions about him, old boy.”
“So,” Morgan said, “any sign of Raithe yet?”
Doctor Madeley shook his head. “He’s arriving tomorrow.”
“Are you serious? Why?”
“Does Raithe need a reason? He does pretty much what he pleases. He probably just wanted to avoid spending time with his new colleagues tonight. You know how he feels about ordinary people.”
The bar was beginning to empty. One by one, the pilots finished their drinks and slipped away. “Looks like our new squadron mates weren’t all that keen to meet us after all,” Crowe observed.
“It will take time,” Doctor Madeley said. “Wait until you’ve flown some missions and proved what you can do. You’ll win them over.”
“You’ve already made a big impression on one of them, anyway,” Morgan added. The big pilot was talking with two other men. His eyes met Crowe’s, and he muttered something to his grinning companions.
“Shaun Clark,” Doctor Madeley said. “He’s one of the squadron personalities, though not in a good way. By all accounts he was lined up to be a flight commander here, until we got involved and he got passed over. He could be a dangerous enemy.”
“Enemies aren’t fun if they’re not dangerous,” Morgan replied brightly.
“I’m merely suggesting you be careful.”
“I looked in his eyes,” Crowe said. “He’s nothing.”
“I’m sure he speaks very highly of you,” Morgan said with a friendly nudge.
“We’re not welcome here, Morgan,” Crowe said without smiling. “We might be flying with them, but that won’t stop them hating us.”
Morgan opened his mouth, but kept silent. Crowe saw the look in his eyes, knew that it hurt Morgan that his friend bore so much anger and resentment towards normal people. Even after a year, Morgan did not understand. He’d never had to fight just to survive, or to hide from the daylight in foul-smelling sewers and abandoned houses. No, thought Crowe, that wasn’t fair. It wasn’t Morgan’s fault that he’d had a privileged upbringing.
“Well, gentlemen,” Doctor Madeley said, breaking the awkward silence, “you must be exhausted and the sun will be up soon. How about you finish those drinks and I’ll show you to your quarters? It’s not much, but for the next few months it’s home.”
“We should get some sleep,” Morgan agreed. “We’ve got a lot of work to do from tomorrow onwards.”
Crowe cracked his knuckles, picked up his pint glass and emptied it. Across the room, all but a handful of the pilots had already gone. Shaun Clark and his two companions were the last of them. There was no mistaking the menace in Clark’s eyes as they finished their drinks.
“Oh yes,” Morgan said, smiling. “A lot of work…”
“Make no mistake about it, gentlemen,” Wing Commander Raymond Noone said from the front of the briefing room. “This is not a normal squadron.”
Crowe’s first impression of the Station Commander was hardly flattering. Of average size, with brown curly hair and a weak chin, Noone did not look like a military man despite his immaculate uniform, razor-sharp creases and well-polished shoes. To Crowe he looked more like a librarian. The Wing Commander’s eyes scanned the assembled aircrew, looking first towards the fourteen experienced pilots and navigators who sat in their ironed uniforms on one side of the briefing room, and then towards the six pale men in sunglasses and well worn black overalls on the other. It was clear from the look of disdain on his face that the poor first impression was mutual.
“They tell me that our new colleagues can see in the dark,” he continued, his voice dripping with scepticism. “That they are better than radar. They also tell me that they are excellent pilots. At this moment, I have seen nothing to prove any of these claims. If you want my respect you must earn it. That goes for all of you, but especially those of you that require, let us say, special considerations.”
Crowe looked around him. The briefing room, by no means large, was close to full. The main lights were switched off, the room lit instead by a number of lamps placed along the walls. By conventional standards it was dimly lit, but Crowe knew only his sunglasses saved his own eyes from the pain that came with light. Behind Noone, a large chalkboard dominated the room. Alongside it, a telephone rested on a small table.
Of more interest were the other three men who sat against the wall in armchairs that looked far more comfortable than Crowe’s wooden seat. Harry Stead frowned, his narrowed eyes flickering from his superior officer to the new arrivals. Next to him sat Doctor Madeley, scribbling notes in a small black book and paying little attention to Noone’s opening address. It was the third man, though, who really interested Crowe. A tilted brown hat, which rose and fell as he dozed, obscured the man’s features. Crowe did not need to see his face. He recognised the hat, as he did the crumpled brown suit. He’d met the man only a few times, but each meeting had been interesting. One had been life changing.
What was he doing here now?
He leaned in closer to Morgan, keeping his voice low. “What do you think?” He meant the slumbering figure as much as the speaker.
“I think the Wing Commander likes us, don’t you?” Morgan smiled. “If only he knew what lovely people we are when you get to know us. Apart from Raithe, obviously. I can’t believe he’s still not graced us with his presence.”
“You really find that hard to believe?”
“Of course, I’m forgetting that in Raithe’s mind the word ‘grace’ is meant literally.”
“Am I interrupting your conversation, gentlemen?” Noone could raise his voice more than Crowe would have credited. The whole room turned to look at them.
“Not at all, sir,” Morgan said. “Please carry on.”
Noone’s eyes narrowed. “I understand that our newly-arrived and specially-gifted pilots have not received the full military education that the rest of us take for granted,” he said. “I do not know how you conducted yourself during your training, but you are now allegedly officers in His Majesty’s Royal Air Force, and while you are here I expect you to conduct yourself with the appropriate bearing. I appreciate for some of you that will be asking too much.” His eyes focused firmly on Crowe and Morgan, sitting at the back of the room.
“That is all,” the Wing Commander said.
“Room, attention,” Clark shouted, rising to his feet, the rest of his colleagues following with instant precision. The new men followed their lead, though a little alarmed and with far less enthusiasm. The difference in their responses was not quite as obvious as the contrast between the established pilots’ blue-grey battle dress and the faded overalls of the new crews, but it brought a raised eyebrow from Noone. With a muttered word to Harry Stead he strode from the room, his head turning to deliver a final poisonous stare towards Crowe and his companions.
“Oh,” Morgan said, “he definitely likes us.”
“Good evening, lads,” Stead said pleasantly as he limped to the front of the room. In contrast to his commanding officer, Stead looked happy to see them all. “I hope you slept well. For our new arrivals, I’m sorry the accommodation blocks are not up to much and that we can’t provide single rooms. Hopefully the double occupancy isn’t too taxing.”
Crowe hadn’t slept well, but it wasn’t because of the double occupancy. He’d grown used to sharing with Morgan during the months of training in Wales. The new pilots shared a single storey hut, divided into four comfortless bedrooms, plus ablutions and a small common room. Their own room had proved sparse, with just a minimum of furniture and a single shaded lamp.
Crowe had suggested smashing the electric bulb that hung, unneeded, from the ceiling. Morgan, always the optimist, had wanted to keep it in case he ever had the chance to ‘entertain’.
“A few admin notices from me before we start,” Stead said, drawing a sheet of paper from his pocket. “We’ve not had much time to work on this place since we took it over from the Yanks so the construction’s a bit half-arsed, but with luck we’ll be too busy hammering the Hun to care.”
“I like him already,” Werner murmured.
“Breakfast will be served in the dining room from 1700 to 1900. Other meals will be dependent on the flying programme. Please take the time to read Station Routine Orders each day. There is a lot to take in but as we’re an unusual station, we have some unusual rules.” There was a collective groan from the aircrew, and Morgan stifled a yawn.
“The engineers and support staff are housed on the other side of the airfield. That is intentional. We’re operating with a skeleton staff on this base and we want to segregate the aircrew as much as possible. Staverton and other local towns are off-limits to everyone.”
“God, this is going to be fun,” muttered Morgan.
“Harry,” Doctor Madeley said, putting down his black book and clambering with some difficulty from his chair, “is it about time I said a few words? I’m sure your chaps have lots of questions.”
Stead shook his head. “There’s been a change of plan,” he said, looking towards the dozing figure in the hat. “We’re to go ahead with a short test first. Two of my best, with radar, against two of your new boys.”
Morgan grinned. “That’s our cue.”
“About time,” Crowe said, rising to his feet.
One of the pilots, a thickset Flight Lieutenant with a weather beaten face, raised his hand. “Who’s going up for us, Harry?”
“You and Clark,” Stead said. “And don’t go easy on them, Geordie. We need to see what they can do.”
“I must protest,” the physician said sternly. “My boys are tired. They’ve not recovered from their journey yet and they haven’t flown in a week.”
“Don’t worry, doc,” Morgan said. “We’re ready.”
“Shouldn’t we at least have some idea what we’re up against?” Clark said. “Not that I’m worried, but before we fly against them it would be nice to know what these freaks can do.”
Morgan gave Crowe a look to warn him against responding, but Stead acted quickly to cut off the angry mutters from the new arrivals. “You’ll find out, Clark,” he said with a note of scorn in his voice. “If you’re only half as good as you think you are you’ve got nothing to worry about.”
“I’m going to enjoy this,” Crowe said.
“There are four fuelled up aircraft waiting at dispersal,” Stead continued. “Crowe and Morgan, you’ll be flying Spitfires. Clark and Hulse, you’ll be in your old Mosquito NF-Twos with Barton and Lomax as your navigators. Make the most of your radar. If this test goes well, you won’t be using it again. Your transport’s waiting, so grab your kit and get up there. We’ll see you in two hours for debriefing.”
Throughout the whole discussion, the man in the hat hadn’t said a word. It looked as though he had dozed through it all, but somehow Crowe knew he hadn’t missed a thing.
The drive out to dispersal was unpleasant. The six men were crammed together with their flying gear into the canvas-covered rear compartment, and the atmosphere was less than friendly as the small lorry bounced across the uneven ground. Clark sat as far as possible away from the others, staring moodily out over the back ramp at the cold expanse of the unlit airfield.
Geordie Hulse broke the silence. “Who was that bloke in the corner?”
“He recruited us,” Crowe said. He cracked his knuckles.
“Oh.” The silence descended again, lingering until the truck came to a halt. The driver banged on the wooden partition and someone unhooked the rear ramp. Clark jumped down and walked away across the grass towards his aircraft, with Hulse and their two navigators trailing him.
Morgan reached into the thigh pocket of his black flying overalls, pulled out a monogrammed silver hip flask and offered it to Crowe. “Try some. It will improve your flying. Lord knows you need it.”
Crowe waved him away. “Why do you keep offering me that?”
“I’m hoping one day you’ll accept,” Morgan told him, a note of sadness in his voice, and then when Crowe shook his head he unscrewed the cap and took a sip. As he placed the flask back in his pocket, his eyes closed and he began to shake. Crowe looked away in slight disgust, and heard his friend’s sharp intake of breath and the faintest of moans.
“Five hours until dawn,” Crowe said. “Don’t get lost.”
“Don’t worry about me,” Morgan said, his eyes opening. “Be lucky.”
“I’ve never been lucky,” Crowe said with a smile, and walked to his Spitfire.
There were few things that Crowe found beautiful, but the sleek Spitfire was definitely one of them. There was just something about the purity of its design. Every part of it, from the single Merlin engine to the long slim fuselage and the unmistakeable elliptical wings, was perfect in its balance and proportion. There was menace too, a sense of power focused in the partially obscured cannon and machine gun barrels in the wings.
He had known the Spitfire by reputation long before he’d flown it, the fighter already a legend before Crowe had been approached and recruited. Though he’d tried to ignore the war that raged on above London during the summer and autumn of 1940, he could not ignore the Londoners who spoke of little else at night than the Spitfires they had seen by day.
The ground engineer stood waiting with a clipboard, and helped Crowe strap himself into the tight cockpit. Crowe was polite to the man but otherwise ignored him, concentrating on his pre-flight checks. It had been months since he’d flown a Spitfire. They’d had just two of them in Wales, but he remembered how much fun they’d been to fly after the lumbering Harvard trainers. His first instructor, the normal one, told them all how difficult the Spitfire was to land in the dark with that mass of engine obscuring the view to the faint landing lights. Difficult, that was, for a normal man. Not for men like Crowe.
That instructor hadn’t lasted long. He’d been a good pilot, but after three months every one of his pupils was better than he would ever be.
Crowe exchanged gestures with the engineer, and fired up the engine with a touch of the starter button. A cloud of smoke rose into the night air, and a stab of flame stung his eyes despite the thin aluminium flare dampers, designed to prevent the engine glow from blinding the pilot at night. They also did a job of keeping the glow concealed from the enemy, but Crowe would have preferred the proper flare dampers found on twin-engined aircraft. To his right he saw Morgan taxiing towards the runway. A few hundred yards away the two Mosquitoes were coming to life, their twin propellers flickering in the faint ambient light.
He thumbed the Receiver/Transmitter switch for his radio and contacted the tower. “Belfry from Blue Two,” he said, “permission to taxi?” Belfry was the codename for Charney Breach’s Control Tower.
“Okay Blue Two.” That was it. The Controller obviously wasn’t feeling chatty tonight. Crowe slipped off his sunglasses as he followed Morgan out towards the runway, feeling the aircraft reverberating around him from the noise and power of the Merlin engine. He swung the aircraft from side to side as he taxied. The distinctive long nose made it awkward to manoeuvre on the ground, and he didn’t want to embarrass himself by ploughing into another aircraft before they were in the air. Something was different about the aircraft, a few of the controls unfamiliar. “Morgan, are you reading me?”
“Blue Two from Blue One, yes I am. Surely we taught you better radio discipline than that?”
“Bollocks to it, we’re just going out for a play. It’s been a long time since I’ve flown one of these. I could only just remember how to start the thing.”
“Blue Two from Blue One,” Morgan repeated with just a touch of exasperation, “there are a few changes. This is the latest model, the Mark Nine. I’ve not flown one yet either. It should be fun.”
They reached the runway and a quick call to the control tower gained them permission to take off. Pulling up alongside Morgan on the runway, Crowe gave him a smile. Morgan returned it with a thumbs-up, and then both opened the throttles. The Spitfires lurched forward in unison, skipping over the Pierced Steel Planking of the makeshift runway, building up speed as they passed Hulse and Clark’s waiting Mosquitoes.
Crowe felt it the moment the wheels left the ground, the familiar sense of peace, of comfort. Nothing in his life had prepared him for the first time he took control of an aircraft. The joy he had felt then had not dissipated with all the flying hours since. The sky above waitedfor him, vast and empty, and the night air extended its welcome to him. There was no sun to hide from here, no cold stone walls or damp earth enclosing him. Twenty years of living in the city and fleeing the daylight disappeared the instant the Spitfire was airborne, the moment he felt the graceful aircraft respond to his slow pull on the control stick.
At three hundred feet he closed the Perspex canopy. This was why he was here, why he put up with all the bullshit. This, he knew, would be the reason that whatever happened, he would try to put up with people like Clark, and why he would fly their missions, so that they would never have a reason to take this away from him.
Crowe looked over at Morgan, and remembered how their friendship had started, the shared delight in flying. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, savouring the smell of leather and aviation fuel, the throb of the Merlin, the sense of immense power enveloping him and yet at his fingertips. Grinning, he let the breath seep out and opened his eyes once more.
From the air his first impressions of Charney Breach were confirmed. The base lay on a virtual peninsula, surrounded on three sides by the marshy ground of the fens. The site had been chosen well. Though the small town of Staverton St Mary was only a few miles away, the area was otherwise uninhabited but for a few isolated farms.
For several minutes neither man spoke, content merely to enjoy the sensation of flying they both adored. They gained altitude at a steady rate, Crowe occasionally glancing down as Charney Breach dwindled beneath them. The Norfolk coast and Lowestoft lay ten miles to their east and the urban smudge of Norwich was visible to the north.
The weather, which had been awful for several days, was mostly clear, though there was little moon. It was cold in the cockpit, his cotton twill overalls and flying jacket unable to keep the frigid night air at bay, but Crowe hardly noticed it and knew Morgan wouldn’t either.
Passing twelve thousand feet, Crowe remained reluctant to break the spell. He forced himself to thumb the transmit switch. “What do you think?”
“This is good. Oh, yes, this is good.” Morgan didn’t elaborate, but his breathless tone left no doubt that he was as happy with the Spitfire as Crowe.
“Blue One from Forge One,” Geordie Hulse said over the squadron frequency. “We are flying a search pattern south of home base and ready to begin the test.”
“Roger Forge One, commencing test now.”
Out there in the night, Crowe thought, a pair of radar-equipped Mosquitoes waited for them, piloted by two of the most experienced and battle-hardened fliers in the Royal Air Force, each a veteran of fifty or more night combat missions. He was in an aircraft he had flown a dozen times, flying against a live target for the first time in his life.
Crowe smiled. It was a mismatch. He looked over towards Morgan’s cockpit, the other Spitfire almost close enough to touch.
Morgan returned his smile, and nodded. “Let’s show them what we can do.”
The two Spitfires pulled into a tight starboard turn, keeping close formation as they headed back towards the airfield. Crowe had never flown in a radar-equipped aircraft, but he knew enough to imagine what the Mosquito crews would be doing now. They would not be flying in close formation like the Spitfires. To do so would risk a mid-air collision. Instead they would operate individually, each pilot relying on ground control and his radar operator’s calls to guide him towards his target. For a regular pilot, Crowe had been told, visual range at night was rarely more than a thousand yards, and on a dull night like this, closer to five hundred.
Morgan called the first Mosquito at about four miles range. It was flying a slow zigzag at ten thousand feet. A few seconds later Crowe spotted the second, above them at fourteen thousand feet and three miles to the east.
“Belfry from Blue One, visual contact with both targets made,” Morgan announced. Crowe smiled at the thought of the confusion this would cause at Charney Breach. The Control Tower staff had been briefed that the Squadron would be trialling new night vision equipment. Still, they would be stunned, wondering what manner of pilot aid could allow visual contact at a range they knew to be several miles.
“Here we go,” Morgan said. “Which one do you want, Blue Two?”
Crowe pulled the Spitfire into a steep climb, hoping his target would be Clark. “I’ll go high, you go low.”
His finger twitched, and with a sigh of regret he checked his weapons were in the ‘safe’ position. The Mosquito was about two miles and closing, still jinking as it swept the sky.
Crowe turned across its front, giving himself a little more time to gain altitude, watching as the Mosquito stopped turning and pointed straight at him. His opponent must have made radar contact, but it didn’t worry Crowe, not at this range. He had passed fifteen thousand feet now and banked hard to bring his aircraft over the top of his opponent, still climbing.
The Mosquito did not follow. A few more seconds and it resumed its sweep pattern, and Crowe knew the fleeting radar contact had been lost.
He passed over the Mosquito and put the Spitfire into a slow descending turn that brought him in behind the target at a range of about eight hundred yards, thirty yards below it in the aircraft’s blind spot. He throttled back, aware of the risk of overshooting and content to close slowly on his target. There was no hurry, after all.
At six hundred yards he found himself admiring, not for the first time, the smooth and pretty lines of the Mosquito, the uncluttered profile and simple black paint scheme. The glow from the exhausts of the two engines, near to invisible by normal standards, was to his eyes a flaming beacon that was painful to look at. Two hundred yards now. Crowe sighed as he noted the aircraft’s markings identified it as Hulse’s.
The range was down to one hundred yards. He checked his pace to match the cruising Mosquito, and waited. A glance to his left, to where two aircraft could be seen three miles away, one close behind the other, showed him he wouldn’t have to wait long.
“Hello Forge Two, this is Blue One,” Morgan said. “I’m awfully sorry to have to tell you this, but some freak just killed you.”
“What?” Crowe could hear the confusion in Clark’s voice. “You’re lying.”
“Forge Two, check your six o’clock high position.” Whatever effort Morgan made to conceal the triumph in his voice failed dramatically. The stream of curses that filled the radio suggested that Clark had at last spotted the dark shadow fifty yards behind him.
Crowe smiled. Clark would have been yet more annoyed if he could have seen Morgan’s victory roll in the darkness. He turned back to his own target. “Forge One from Blue Two, claiming kill.”
“Nothing seen, Blue Two.” Crowe caught a glimpse of Lomax, Hulse’s navigator, peering out into the night. They couldn’t pick out the Spitfire against the dark carpet of the countryside below, even at one hundred yards.
“Hold your course,” Crowe said, releasing the full power of the Merlin engine. The Spitfire sprang forward like an unleashed animal and Crowe brought it over the top of the Mosquito, less than twenty yards above the crew’s heads.
“Jesus,” he heard Hulse exclaim. “I never saw a thing!”
“They got lucky, Geordie,” Clark said. “That’s all.”
“Shall we do it again?” All pretence at radio discipline had gone now, washed away by the joy that rang in Morgan’s voice.
Second time around the Mosquitoes weaved and broke every few seconds in an attempt to make themselves more difficult targets. It didn’t stop Crowe following them, but he could only guess how much it added to the difficulties faced by their navigators in attempting to pinpoint the target ‘blip’ on their radar screen. He was disappointed to find he was targeting Hulse again but there was no radar contact with him this time. He raced in to claim his kill, Hulse accepting the victory call without demur. Clark’s outrage when Morgan secured his victory intensified into a string of obscenities when his opponent dropped in front of him and performed a second elated victory roll.
“All call-signs from Belfry, return to base,” came the order from the Control Tower.
“Spoilsports,” Morgan sighed. “I was really starting to enjoy that.”
They allowed the Mosquitoes to land first, enjoying the last chance to play with the new Spitfires. Dawn was less than two hours away by the time Clark and Hulse had cleared the runway, and they were not kept waiting long before being directed in to land.
As Crowe clambered out of his aircraft, he found Morgan waiting with a beaming smile on his face. It didn’t fade at all during the silent drive back. Again, the seething Clark refused to acknowledge them. Twice, though, Crowe caught Hulse looking at him quizzically. Both times the stocky man maintained Crowe’s eye contact without apparent nervousness.
The rest of the squadron was gathered in two distinct groups outside the main building when they arrived, waiting for news of the engagement. Clark was first out of the vehicle. He paused as he stepped down, looking up at Morgan with open hatred.
“Very impressive,” he said. “It’s a different business in a real fight, though. Good thing for you we weren’t using our guns.” He smiled, looking at his navigator. Bobby Barton, small and slim, gave a nervous laugh at the remark then stopped abruptly the moment Clark was out of sight. He glanced at them with an apologetic look in his eyes before he turned away.
Crowe took a deep breath. The fresh night air mingled with the smell of aviation fuel, and he felt a twinge of longing. “Can we refuel and go up again?”
Morgan looked wistfully at the distant parked aircraft. “That would be nice. I really have missed it. But I don’t think our friends would be up for it, do you?”
“Probably not. They’re embarrassed.”
“Speaking of which,” Morgan said, “we should go and make sure everyone knows how we got on.” He smiled in triumph at the thought.
“You go ahead,” Crowe said. “I’m sure you’ll enjoy it more.”
“Too right I will. Don’t take too long, you’ll miss all the fun.”
“Crowe,” Geordie Hulse said as he stepped down last from the truck, “have you got a second?”
Crowe stopped. “What is it?”
“Clark’s going to be pissed off for a while. He’s not happy that you beat him.”
“Poor Clark. What about you?”
“Me? I don’t like being beaten by anybody.” Hulse smiled. “But you didn’t just beat us. That was murder, pure and simple. Greg Lomax is the best radar operator I’ve ever met, and he never saw a thing.”
Crowe glanced in the direction of Lomax as the navigator disappeared up the steps into the building. “I think he spotted me briefly first time around.”
“Maybe. It didn’t do us any good. How far away did you see us?”
Crowe shrugged. “Three miles. Maybe four.” He suppressed a smile as he saw the man’s eyes widen. “It would be further on a moonlit night,” he added.
“Jesus,” Hulse said. “If you could see a German bomber at that range, at night…” His voice dwindled away.
“Was there anything else, Geordie?” The pleasure of flying had kept him warm in the bitter temperatures at altitude, but now that he was standing still, Crowe could feel the cold creeping in. “The doctor’s going to tell you everything you need to know.”
“One last thing,” Hulse said. A note of hesitation flickered in his voice, but his gaze remained direct. “What’s it like, when you see at night? Is it like how one of us would see during the day?”
From inside the building drifted the sounds of excited conversation. Crowe ignored them. Memories flashed across his mind, vague but insistent. A country park, a garden, a street, a childish game played with friends. His parents. And above them all, linking every dimly recollected scene, was the sun, its pleasant warmth upon his skin.
“I wouldn’t know,” Crowe snapped, and walked away towards the waiting briefing room.
“I take it you’re impressed, Harry?” Doctor Madeley wore a satisfied smile. Hulse and Morgan had relayed the details of the engagement to the waiting audience, and the effect was obvious.
Stead was professional enough to keep his shock mostly under wraps. His eyes, though, glowed with enthusiasm. “The Germans aren’t going to know what’s hit them. I’d hoped all this bloody secrecy would be justified,” he said, “and I reckon it is and then some. Can you imagine if the Germans found out we had…” Stead stopped, looking a little embarrassed. “I’m sorry; I don’t have a bloody clue what to call you.”
“Vampire is fine.”
Crowe regretted the words as soon as they left his mouth, before he heard the collective intake of breath. Morgan gave him a sharp look. Doctor Madeley shook his head with a sorrowful expression. Of his friends, only Lieberwitz did not seem angry or disappointed. The regular crews, he noted, looked surprised but not stunned. Crowe guessed that the rumour mill on the station must have been going at full speed over the preceding days. He wondered how many of them wanted to walk out of the room right now in disgust, but he knew none of them would, not because they were too professional, but because they wanted to know more.
“We prefer the name Mulo,” Morgan said, speaking to Crowe as much as to the assembled squadron.
“Better we don’t hear that other word,” Werner growled.
“We also answer to chaps, gents, guys, boys, fellers…”
“Lads,” Hinde suggested.
“Thank you. Lads, mates, muckers…”
“They get it, Morgan,” Crowe said.
“We don’t want any special treatment,” Morgan continued, ignoring Crowe. “We’re all just men, after all.”
Clark stifled a titter, and Crowe saw the smile on his face. How good it would feel to smash that smile away, dislodge some of those teeth with a right hook.
“Of course,” Doctor Madeley said, “there are some fairly significant differences. I think you should let me speak to them now, Harry.”
Stead took a step back, his eyes lingering on Crowe with a quizzical expression. “Be my guest, Byron.”
Portly in his white woollen top and a pair of flannel trousers that struggled to contain his bulk, Doctor Madeley smiled at the gathered aircrew. Every man in the room appeared poised on the edge of his seat.
“Good evening, all. Some of you will already know me, others will not. My name is Doctor Byron Madeley, and I will be the Medical Officer for the Station. I’ve been a practicing doctor for over forty years. Recently, however, I have become the nation’s leading expert on the Mullo condition.” He paused, as if thinking about that statement. “That’s not as impressive as it may sound, sadly. Experts on Mullo are really rather few and far between.”
Crowe could tell every man in the room was giving the physician his full attention as the rumours were confirmed. No, he corrected himself, there was one exception. The man in the hat had not stirred.
“That’s M-U-L-O,” Doctor Madeley told the frantically scribbling Stead. “Two L’s for the plural.” He turned back to the crowd. “The first thing you need to do is dispel any ideas you might have about vampires. What you may have gleaned from Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Bela Lugosi movies bears no resemblance to the truth. Even the word is inaccurate, and insulting.”
Morgan nodded, and gave Crowe another accusing look.
“In fact,” Doctor Madeley continued, “what you are looking at is the real-life basis for all myths of so-called vampires. Every nation has them. They have been called Moroii, Strigoi, Nachzehrer, Nosferat, and many other names. I could go on, but I’m sure you all get my point.”
More than a dozen blank faces stared back at him. Doctor Madeley’s face dropped, and he murmured something as he rubbed his hands together. “What I’m trying to say,” he said as his cheeks began to glow, “is that what you see here is a medical condition. You won’t find it in any medical textbook, and don’t ask me the scientific name for it because there isn’t one yet. No one ever published a study. What we do know is that it predates the myths, and that it is hereditary. Some people are born with the condition, others develop it as they get older, but all suffer the same rather drastic symptoms, which become more acute the longer the condition continues. Some of these symptoms will directly affect their relationship with the rest of the squadron.”
Morgan leaned closer to Crowe. “Did you hear that, mate? Now we have a relationship with them.”
“I’m thrilled,” Crowe muttered back.
Doctor Madeley paused, plucking at his sleeves. “First,” he continued, his voice regaining confidence, “the skin becomes hugely photo-sensitive. To reduce it to simple terms, sunlight kills. It burns and blisters the skin at an incredible rate, causing terrible pain and, depending on the brightness and directness of the light, rapid death through shock. That’s why you won’t see any Mulo during daytime, and why the windows in their rooms have such thick blackout curtains.” He looked towards Stead. “Hopefully, Harry, you’ll see now why I wasn’t happy with the rooms you allocated for my boys.”
Stead nodded and mumbled an apology, but Doctor Madeley was already addressing the room again. “The second symptom is the eyes. Morgan, would you lower your glasses for a moment?”
Morgan slipped his sunglasses down so his unshielded eyes were visible. There was little reaction at first, as people struggled to see in the dimly lit room. Then, predictably, there were gasps. A few recoiled. The majority, though, leaned towards Morgan as one, trying to get a closer look at the dark orbs and the elongated feline pupils that were contracting tightly in the harsh light.
“You’ll note the eyes are like those of a nocturnal animal,” Doctor Madeley told them, their eyes still on Morgan.
“Nocturnal animal,” Werner whispered. “Sounds like he means Crowe.” Hinde giggled, and even Morgan’s face showed traces of amusement amidst his pain. Crowe didn’t mind the insult. At least it meant they were still talking to him.
Doctor Madeley didn’t seem to notice the merriment. He was a good speaker, Crowe thought, remembering the first time the physician had tried to explanation the condition to him. It was as odd to hear now as it had been then, like listening to a description of someone or something else. “Within the eye there are what we call rods and cones. Without getting too technical, cones work in bright light and register detail, while rods work in low light and detect motion and basic visual information. The ratio of rods to cones in a Mulo’s eye is about seven times that in a normal human eye. This has drawbacks; Mullo eyes are very sensitive to light, hence the sunglasses, and the picture they provide lacks definition. Mullo are largely colour-blind. That being said, their eyes are at least as effective at night as yours are during the day.”
That had been demonstrated to them already, yet Crowe found gratifying the dawning understanding of how much difference this would make to their effectiveness as night fighter pilots. Hulse in particular seemed enthused by the prospect. Clark tried to look disinterested.
Tears were seeping from Morgan’s eyes, but he maintained his posture until at last he slipped the glasses back into place. Crowe could see his facial muscles twitching as he tried to blink away the pain.
“Thank you, Morgan,” Doctor Madeley said. He was smiling at the effect the revelation had on his audience. “The third important symptom is the reflexes. Cat-like would be a minor exaggeration but a Mulo can generally process information and react to stimuli at least twice as fast as any ordinary man. This is part of the reason why they make such gifted pilots.”
The level of noise in the room rose at that, the pilots chattering amongst themselves. Doctor Madeley raised his voice. “I will be available in my office down the corridor each night if anyone wants more details. In the meantime, are there any questions?
Geordie Hulse raised a hand. “I’m sorry if I’m being daft, but in the myths vampires drink blood. I know these chaps aren’t vampires, but…”
“I should have covered that,” Doctor Madeley said. “Would you smile for me, Morgan?”
Morgan grinned, looking comfortable with the attention.
“Thanks again.” Doctor Madeley pointed in his direction. “As you can see, the whole sharp fangs thing is just folklore. There is, however, a seed of truth in it. For some reason science cannot yet explain, the drinking of fresh blood provides a boost to an already quite remarkable constitution and capacity for regeneration. It also feeds certain basic nourishment requirements that, for whatever reason, Mullo cannot effectively provide through a normal human diet. Animal blood is sufficient but human blood works best, rather like the difference between cow’s milk and mother’s milk. For the last year I’ve been providing enough blood, through medical sources, to satisfy their needs. Does that answer the question?”
Hulse opened his mouth to speak again, but Clark cut him off. “Can we get infected?”
Doctor Madeley’s eyes widened. “Excuse me?”
“This condition,” Clark said, rolling the words as if he’d swallowed something foul. He stared straight at Crowe. “Is it contagious? Could we get infected?”
“Did I not say it was hereditary?” The physician frowned. “It is not an infection. Don’t worry, Clark, you won’t become a Mulo.”
“You are not worthy to be Mullo,” a harsh voice snapped. All eyes turned towards the speaker.
The seventh Mulo stood framed in the doorway. He was a tall man, with long dark hair. While all the Mullo were pale, the complexion of the new arrival bordered on marble, his features sharp enough to be carved from it. He was clearly older than the other Mullo, with only the Austrian Lieberwitz seeming close to him in age. His thin face gave him the look of a forty year old. He was as close in appearance to the archetypal vampire of legend as could be imagined. He wore an ostentatious silver ring on his right hand; Crowe also caught a brief glimpse of the thick silver chain he wore around his neck, below the flying suit. With arrogance palpable from across the room, he scanned the audience.
“Ah, Raithe,” Doctor Madeley said. “Glad you could join us. Where have you been?”
“Listening. Watching.” Raithe made no move to enter the room. “It was an interesting presentation, Madeley. As usual you focused only on the negatives.”
“I believe I made it clear that the symptoms of your condition can be useful?”
The Mulo sneered. “Useful to them, you mean?”
Morgan stood up. “Why don’t you take a seat, Raithe?” he asked reasonably, though Crowe could read on his face his dislike of the new arrival.
Raithe smiled, a humourless twist of the mouth. “Of course, Bale. I would not miss your pathetic attempts to impress your beloved humans.”
“Raithe.” The single word sounded neutral enough, but the faint note of warning was clear. The man in the hat no longer slept. He rose to his feet, as Raithe took a seat on the back row, his face cold and emotionless.
With a nod to Doctor Madeley, the man took his place in the centre of the room. As always, Crowe found himself both puzzled and amused by his appearance. He was a big man, and would have been taller but for a slight stoop. He could have been anywhere between forty and sixty. If his lined face implied age, the thick forearms and neck hinted at the physical power of a younger man. The cheeks and nose beneath the shadow of the hat carried a suggestive redness, but his voice was precise and the hand that picked up a piece of chalk and began to write on the board was steady.
When he had finished, he turned his back to the simple message and gazed at the men before him. Behind him, the words ‘K Department’ stood out in large bleak letters. “Who knows what this means?”
Seven pale hands went slowly up. No one said a word.
“Good,” the man said. “That’s the way it is supposed to be. None of you will ever mention those words to anyone other than Noone and the others sitting here. To do so would not be,” and for several seconds he paused, as if searching for the right word, “tolerated.”
Morgan glanced at Crowe, his expression a familiar blend of respect and amusement. The man turned again and erased the words from the board.
“My name is Quentin Quiet,” he said, “and I work for the British Government. On one side of this room sit the top pilots and navigators the RAF has produced in three years of war. On the other side sit a group of people you probably thought existed only in fairy tales and cheap novels. Together you will be the most dangerous night fighter squadron in the world.”
The words were simple, a statement of fact. Crowe could see, though, that every man in the room believed it.
Quiet smiled. “I don’t give motivational speeches. I don’t expect to waste your time and, I assure you, you won’t waste mine. In three days this squadron will be operational again with a new name, and some of you are probably wondering how things are going to work. Tomorrow we will take delivery of three new navigators and six of the latest model Mosquitoes. Want to know what you’ll be flying? Pay attention now.”
Without any hesitation or recourse to notes, Quiet began to reel off names. “Bale, Clark, Crowe, Werner, Hulse and Masters, you will be flying Mosquitoes. Mosquito Leader will be Bale.” Morgan grinned at Crowe, seemingly oblivious to the reaction of the established two-seater pilots and navigators.
Hinde leaned towards Crowe, the smell of tobacco hanging unpleasantly on him. “Look at Clark’s face,” the Swiss whispered. “He looks like someone slapped him.”
Werner laughed. “He loves already having Morgan as boss.”
“The Spitfires,” Quiet continued, “will be flown by Raithe, Gorecki, Mills, Barnes, Lieberwitz, Mortimer, Rhys-Jones, Slater, Hinde, Owen, Farnham and Sullivan.” He could have simply said ‘everyone else’, thought Crowe, but then that wouldn’t have been half as impressive. A mischievous glint came into Quiet’s eyes. “Spitfire Leader,” he said, pausing long enough to gain their undivided attention, “will be Raithe.”
Where Morgan’s appointment had met with suppressed annoyance, Raithe’s caused open dismay. Not one of the original squadron had met Raithe until three minutes earlier. He’d clearly made an instant impression. Several of the pilots protested, although without any effect on Quiet. Crowe’s eyes met Morgan’s, and he could tell his friend shares his own unease at this development. The new Spitfire Leader didn’t blink, aloof to the mutterings and cries around him.
“Congratulations on the promotion,” Crowe murmured to Morgan. “Can you handle the pressure?”
“Less of your insolence. I was your instructor, remember? Have some respect for your betters.” He smiled. “I’m a bit disappointed to get Mosquitoes. That Spitfire was so good. I almost wish I was going to be flying one of those instead.”
“Maybe you could swap with Raithe?”
“What, and inflict him on some poor navigator?” Morgan shook his head. “You’re the cruel one, not me.”
“Enough,” Quiet said, holding up a hand. “If anyone has any burning issues with the personnel allotment they can take them up with Noone. I can assure you,” he added, “it won’t make an ounce of difference.” He looked out over the audience, his eyes hidden in shadow.
The squadron in front of him had been together for twenty-four hours but, as Crowe looked over at the faces of his new colleagues, he knew they were a long way from united. It appeared Quiet knew it too. For a long time he stood in silence, his face unreadable, his body relaxed as if he were enjoying the tension in the room.
“Combat ops start tomorrow night.” And with that, leaving regular pilots and Mullo eyeing each other in a wary silence, Quiet turned and walked from the room.
“Good God,” Morgan said, “they’ve sent us schoolboys.”
“They are a bit young,” Stead admitted as Crowe and Werner followed him into the deserted mess hall. The rows of tables still showed the detritus of the evening’s breakfast. “Some bugger at Fighter Command must think we’re not important enough to waste experienced navigators on. But they all come with top-notch reports from their training establishment.”
“None of them have flown any operational sorties at all?” Crowe raised an eyebrow as the three young Sergeants stood to attention. He couldn’t believe it.
“Neither have we, to be fair,” Morgan said. “I’m sure they’ll do just fine. Which one’s mine?”
Stead looked down at his list. “Danny Baggers.”
“That’s me, sir,” said a small, wiry figure, stepping forward. “Everybody calls me Bags.” Crowe saw Stead frown, presumably at the state of Baggers’ hair, which was blond and scruffy.
“Morgan Bale,” said the Mulo, stepping forward and offering a hand.
“Nice to meet you, sir,” Baggers said with a smile. “If you don’t mind me saying, you all look pretty normal to me. I mean, you’re not as weird looking as they said.”
“Who said?” Werner asked with a note of danger in his voice.
“The other pilots. They said you were right weird looking freaks.” Baggers winced at his own words. “Sir,” he added.
“Well,” Morgan smiled, “it’s nice to be noticed.”
“But it is true, though? That you’re vam…um, different?”
“See,” Morgan said to Crowe. “He’s already learned what words are appropriate.” He dropped his sunglasses to show his eyes. All three of the new navigators were clearly startled. The plump Sergeant on Baggers’ left took a step back.
“Bugger me,” Baggers gasped.
“I’d rather not,” Morgan said.
“Nice sunglasses though. Where can I get a pair?”
“If I get shot down, you can have mine.”
Baggers stroked his chin. “Won’t I be with you at the time?”
“Not if you’re this cheeky in the cockpit,” Morgan growled. “You’ll be out of the side window and still trying to climb back in when you hit the ground.”
Wonderful, Crowe thought as both men grinned. He’d hoped Morgan would get a navigator who could rein him in, keep him out of trouble. On first impressions, Baggers would probably be cheering him on to the bitter end.
“Right,” Stead said, “which one of you is Ronnie Hall?” A tall dark navigator stepped forward and slammed his foot to the ground as he came to attention. He looked like the oldest of the three, and had about him an air of competence that appealed to Crowe, not like the chubby child on the end.
“At ease, lad,” Stead said. “You’ll be flying with Werner.”
“Damn it,” Crowe exclaimed, far louder than he’d intended. The others turned to him in surprise. The plump navigator looked close to tears.
Werner stepped forward, looking Hall up and down. Despite Stead’s words, the young man stood rigid as the German paced around him before halting a few inches away, staring at him. His shaven head bowed forward, so close they almost touched foreheads. The Mulo was an intimidating sight at the best of times, but now he pushed back his own sunglasses and the three navigators jumped as they saw the empty socket where his left eye had once been.
“Bloody hell,” Stead muttered. “What happened to him?”
“We don’t know. He’s never told us,” Morgan whispered.
Stead swallowed. “Can he shoot straight with only one eye?”
Werner smiled. He spoke without turning towards Stead. “If you ever see me miss, you ask again,” he said. His eye never left his new navigator. “What do you think of Nazis, Hall?”
“Hate them, sir,” Hall said, his eyes still fixed on the dark ravaged hole. “My brother was killed in the Battle of Britain.”
Werner nodded, and let the sunglasses drop back into place. “He will do,” he said. The sound of Hall exhaling in relief could have been heard a mile away at dispersal.
“I guess that leaves us,” Crowe sighed to the final navigator. “What’s your name?”
“Jones, sir,” the boy stammered. “Stephen Jones.”
Crowe stared at him, ignoring the trembling hand that the navigator offered. Jones seemed even younger than his companions. His uniform looked neatly pressed at first glance, but Crowe could see tramlines on his dark blue trousers where the front crease had been missed one too many times. “How old are you, Jones?”
“Nineteen?” Crowe turned to the others in mock disbelief, winking at the grinning Morgan. “You look about twelve. Are you a Mulo?”
“No, sir,” Jones said, a little too fast for Crowe’s liking.
“Have you got something against Mullo, Jones?”
“No, sir,” Jones squeaked, his hand still hovering between them, frozen in place.
“You know it’s true, Crowe,” Morgan said, smiling, “you really are a nasty bastard.”
Danny Baggers leaned over, and nudged Jones. “I told you you’d need that spare flying suit, didn’t I?”
Crowe walked over to where Stead stood waiting by the door. “Come on,” he said, being careful to lower his voice. “There’s got to be more experienced navigators available.”
“I’m sorry, son. Go easy on them, will you? Everybody has to start somewhere.”
“He’s got a point, Harry,” Morgan said, joining them. “We start combat sorties tonight. We’re going to be busy flying the planes. If we have to try to bring our navigators up to speed too, it’s going to put a hell of a strain on us. I’m not worried about myself, you understand, but a lesser pilot, like Crowe, could really struggle.”
“It’s bollocks, I know,” Stead said as Crowe gave Morgan a threatening look, “but it’s out of our hands. From what I hear, Quentin Quiet has really put Fighter Command’s noses out of joint by taking over this squadron. I mean, we were one of the best they had. I don’t think we can expect any real help from them.”
“Politics,” Crowe spat. The little time he had spent in and around the military had been enough to convince him that most officers spent as much time “playing the game” as fighting the enemy.
“You said it,” Morgan agreed. “Toys thrown out of the pram.”
“These lads are all good,” Stead insisted. “All they need is a bit of confidence and they’ll be fine. Don’t complain too much, Crowe, you’ve got the one with the best report.”
“Unlucky him,” Morgan added. The two Mullo looked forlornly over at the three navigators. Apparently satisfied with Hall’s commitment to his anti-Nazi crusade, Werner now stood questioning Jones, leaving the young man wearing an expression of bemused terror.
“Right, then,” Stead said, raising his voice, “if you’ve quite finished scaring the life out of the new boys, I think it’s time you met your new aircraft. They arrived this afternoon.”
“The Mosquito NF II, Special Duties variant,” said the moon-faced Chief Technician with a note of pride when Crowe and Jones reached their aircraft. “It’s the latest model. In fact, it isn’t officially ready yet. The rest of the RAF won’t be getting hold of this beauty for at least another three months. Somebody up there loves you.”
Crowe ran his eyes along the engine from starboard engine to port. It was an awesome machine, he thought. It might have lacked some of the Spitfire’s beauty, but it still had a functional grace and part of him was glad of the security of the second engine. He looked at the Chief Tech. “What’s so special about it?”
The man snorted. “Where do I start? It’s a development of the fighter variant, so it’s as manoeuvrable as you could want and will still outrun anything the Germans can put in the sky, but it can also carry four two hundred and fifty pound bombs. It has one hell of a punch, too. Four machine guns in the nose, and four of these darlings.” He pointed to the dull steel barrels jutting out from the fuselage beneath the cockpit. “Twenty millimetre Hispano cannons, guaranteed to ruin Jerry’s day.”
Crowe nudged Jones as he adjusted the leather chinstrap of his helmet. “Have you flown in Mosquitoes before?”
“Yes, sir, a few times. We did a conversion course.”
“My name is Crowe. Not ‘sir’, Crowe. This uniform means nothing to me. Understand?”
“Yes, sir,” Jones said, looking at his feet.
The Chief Tech walked away to talk to Morgan. That left Dom, a short, slightly rounded member of the ground crew, to sign the aircraft over to Crowe and see them off.
Crowe did a quick circuit of the aircraft to make sure everything looked okay. A handful of men scurried around him, ensuring the battery cart was in position and that all their checks were complete.
Dom stood under the starboard wing, his hands tight on the ladder leading up to the cockpit. Crowe turned away while he slipped his sunglasses off, raising a hand to shield his eyes from the glow of the belly light. The thing allowed others on the ground to see them, but was invisible from above. He clambered up and squeezed through the narrow doorway into his seat on the port side, scanning the controls in front of him.
There were a few changes from versions he had flown before, but nothing to get him excited. The two main throttle levers sat to his left with their black handles, the two white-topped levers for RPM control just right of them. Two large push buttons on a panel at the top of the console, he remembered, were for feathering and stopping the propellers in mid-flight. He reached out to brush his gloved fingertips against them, familiarising himself with the layout.
His eyes lingered on the two levers below the corner of the central instrument panel, the left for bomb doors selection and the other for undercarriage. All the fuel and general electrical switches sat on the starboard side of the cockpit by the navigator’s right hand, or at least where the navigator’s right hand should be.
“Are you coming?” Crowe heard frantic scrambling on the ladder as Jones boarded, his Mae West life preserver snagging on the doorway. Crowe’s own preserver was still in the dispersal hut. None of the Mullo would take them. Better to drown than be caught floating on the waves when dawn came.
Crowe secured himself in his seat, pulling two straps over his shoulders and two up from the sides of his seat. He locked them together with the brass pin. Fidgeting in his own seat, mounted a fraction lower to Crowe’s right, Jones did the same.
The Mosquito’s cockpit was just as snug as Crowe remembered it. He slipped on his flame-retardant black leather flying gloves. “Have you got all your maps?”
“Yes, sir,” Jones said, double checking the small box at his right knee before looking up and adding “Crowe.” A mixed look of fascination and trepidation appeared on the navigator’s round face, and Crowe knew that Jones was looking at his eyes, seeing them properly for the first time.
“Relax,” Crowe said. “This is a practice flight. Just remember your training.” He knew that the prospect of facing the Germans was not foremost in the boy’s mind at that moment, but Crowe wanted it to be. They might not be looking for trouble, but there were still enough German night intruders and hit-and-run bombers over Britain each night to make it possible that they would find something. The boy looked so young that Crowe wondered if he would be up to the job. If not he would have to be replaced, and soon.
Dom pulled the ladder away. “Okay, Crowe?”
The door slammed shut and the latch clicked home, turned from the outside. Crowe plugged in his intercom and opened the small panel in the Perspex next to him. “Contact,” he yelled through the gap. The man at the battery cart returned the call. With an attempt at a reassuring smile to Jones, Crowe pressed hard on the start button for the port engine.
The prop turned twice and then the engine burst into life with a roar. A second later and he pressed the button for the starboard engine, which misfired before catching. Crowe winced at the flash of light from the exhaust before the flare dampers kicked in.
He edged the throttles forward as he requested permission to taxi from Control, and decided against reminding Jones of any of the matters he needed to attend to. He wanted to see if the navigator could get them right the first time without prompting. There would be time to complain later, but in the meantime this was supposed to be a practice flight. Better that Jones made his mistakes now and learned from them, while there was still time.
The ground crew pulled the chocks away. Dom signalled to them, his hands empty where he should have needed flashlights, beckoning them to pull out onto the taxi strip. Crowe followed the signals, until within less than a minute they were at the end of the runway and ready to go. He made sure the brakes were on and then inched the throttles forward until the revolutions per minute reached three thousand. The wooden frame of the Mosquito shuddered with suppressed power.
“Mosquito Three, you are cleared for takeoff.” The control tower had been told to abandon the previous unwieldy callsigns. The night missions they planned would be unlike anything ever seen before. Fast, simple communication was crucial.
Crowe released the brakes and the aircraft lurched into motion. He caught a glimpse of Werner’s Mosquito taxiing alongside, and then his speed increased and he shot forward, the other aircraft left behind. The tail came up as they roared past the control tower. At just under one hundred miles an hour, Crowe pulled back on the controls. The Mosquito lifted and soared over the twisted trees at the end of the runway. Crowe noted with satisfaction that Jones reached out to switch off the belly light at just the right moment, and then he himself reached forward and yanked up on the undercarriage lever.
They were airborne. Crowe held the aircraft steady as they gained height. He had heard of Mosquitoes crashing due to unnecessary violent manoeuvres at low speeds and altitudes. Twisting in his seat, he saw that Werner was airborne, with Morgan barrelling down the runway behind him.
As he looked past the two Mosquitoes, it struck him how basic the setup at Charney Breach was. The nature of the operation meant that personnel numbers were minimal, with barely fifty engineers and forty support staff employed. There weren’t many buildings. Other than the Station Headquarters, there were the accommodation huts, assorted hangers and a control tower that was by far the tallest building on the site. From this simple base, though, the squadron could intercept any German bomber raid against London or the east coast. Ultimately, that was all that mattered.
“How are we doing?” he asked Jones.
“Good, I think,” Jones said, the words punctuated with exaggerated nodding. “Everything looks fine. What course did you want setting?”
“I don’t care,” Crowe said. He meant it, too, conscious that he was grinning at the sheer pleasure of being airborne. “You choose.”
Crowe nodded. “Where do you want to go?”
Jones looked stunned at the question. “Well,” he said, “my family are from Hull. My Mum sends me letters saying the Germans have been bombing them, but I haven’t been home for ages.” He paused for a few seconds. “I miss it,” he murmured.
“Let’s go, then. Set us a course and we’ll have a bit of a play on the way.” Crowe thumbed the transmitter switch on his radio. “Mosquito Leader from Mosquito Three, are you receiving?”
“Ah, radio discipline at last,” came the laconic reply. “Maybe you’re brighter than you look.”
Crowe ignored that. “We’re going to Hull. You coming?”
“What on earth do you want to go to Hull for?”
“Jones says it’s lovely there this time of year. I’ll race you.”
“You’re on, little man,” Morgan laughed. “Just don’t expect to win.”
Crowe opened the throttles and took the aircraft up to its maximum cruising speed. The Mosquito’s performance was already legendary after just one year in service, but it was still a pleasant experience to be reminded of it. Seeing that Morgan and Werner were closing the gap behind him, he took the aircraft up to full speed, the engines roaring as their considerable horsepower propelled the lightweight airframe across the sky.
In what seemed like only a few minutes, Crowe found himself looking down through a layer of patchy cloud onto the English coast, the Humber estuary and the sleeping, blacked out city of Hull. From ten thousand feet, he could still see areas of severe damage. “Baedeker” raids the previous April, Crowe thought; German revenge attacks for the increasing civilian casualties inflicted on the Fatherland by Bomber Command.
Crowe slowed the Mosquito and made a gentle turn above the city. Werner dived towards the buildings below and then pulled his aircraft into a steep climb that brought him within a few hundred feet of Crowe’s idling aircraft. Crowe saw the German wave cheerily at him as he passed. Morgan closed into formation off Crowe’s starboard wing, startling Jones when he drifted to within fifty yards.
“I take it all back,” Morgan said. “There’s nothing I’d rather fly than a Mossie. What a machine!” He flicked the aircraft into a quick roll, holding it steady on its axis. Crowe, as always, watched Morgan show off his natural flying skills with envy. The gap between their abilities had narrowed since those first winter days when Morgan had begun teaching the other Mullo, but Crowe knew his thoughts of one day matching Morgan’s skill were nothing more than dreams.
“Hey,” Morgan added, a boyish enthusiasm in his voice, “have you tried it on one engine yet?”
“What do you mean?”
“Give it a try. Switch off your starboard engine and see what you think.”
Crowe reached out without hesitation and pressed the button to kill the engine. Jones looked startled as the starboard prop ground to a halt, and Crowe put the aircraft into a shallow dive to maintain his airspeed. To his surprise, though, the effect of losing one engine was minimal. The aircraft lost a little speed, and did not turn with quite the same grace, but it handled and flew well.
He pulled up and found he could still climb, and swung the aircraft around to bring his nose to bear on Morgan’s aircraft with little fuss from the remaining engine. “Unbelievable,” he murmured.
“Good, isn’t it? I wouldn’t want to take on half a dozen fighters on only one engine,” Morgan added, “but it’s rather nice to know I’d still get home.”
Crowe noticed that since he had feathered the propellers, Jones had been gripping the edge of his seat with such force that his fingers were in danger of ripping the leather. He reached out and pushed the starboard restart button. The props began to turn once more and the engine caught.
Glancing down to watch Werner throwing his Mosquito through a series of increasingly violent turns, Crowe caught sight of a flash of movement well beyond the Mulo’s aircraft. “Unidentified aircraft, my four o’clock low.”
“I see them,” Morgan said. “Four bandits, angels one.”
“Speak English,” Werner muttered, sounding more German than ever.
“Four enemy aircraft, one thousand feet,” Morgan snapped.
“I can’t see them,” Jones said, pressing his face to the Perspex, but Crowe ignored him.
“Are they British?” Werner said.
“Not likely,” Morgan said. “Not at that altitude. My guess is Dornier bombers out of Holland.”
“Excellent.” Werner made an odd sound, and Crowe got the distinct impression he was licking his lips. “We report the sighting?”
“No point,” Crowe interjected. He knew how Werner felt. “Someone would just ask awkward questions about how we’d spotted them.”
“Gut. Then we do not have to share.”
“Okay, boys. Remember your training. Nothing fancy. Just get in close and give them the good news.”
“Let’s get on with it,” Crowe said.
“Follow my lead,” Morgan said, and put his aircraft into a dive.
Crowe was already ahead of him. A rush of exhilaration coursed through him as they plunged towards the four tiny blobs in the distance. Twelve months of training had led him to this. No fear, not even the thought of fear, only a raging desire to engage the targets and to carry out the task which nature and his training had prepared him for so well.
The four bombers began to climb as they closed in on the unsuspecting city. They would be over the houses in a few short minutes, ready to empty their bomb loads onto sleeping civilians.
Crowe’s pulse thumped in his temples, not through anger but with a cold, controlled aggression. He didn’t think of the enemy crews as people. They were an opponent, not to be hated or pitied but to be crushed. The Mosquito shook with the buffeting from the air, the hands on his altimeter spinning as he dropped altitude towards the four bombers.
He could see them more clearly now, each about five hundred yards from its neighbour, long, skinny aircraft with two engines, bigger than the Mosquito and lacking its beauty. Morgan had been right. They were Dorniers, with a crew of four men. One man in each aircraft would be scanning the sky behind them, hunched over a machine gun. Crowe contemplated attacking them head on, but with such a high approach speed he knew he’d miss. Instead, he pulled the Mosquito out of its dive, passed by them at about a mile’s distance, and then pulled the aircraft in a sharp turn to get on their tail. Werner, he saw, had kept pace with him throughout, less than a hundred yards in trail.
He searched the air for Morgan, and saw his friend’s Mosquito drop down from above to take up a perfect killing position behind the bombers.
“How the hell did he get there?” Crowe all but shouted the words into the intercom, annoyed yet impressed. Jones, dragging his eyes away from the spinning altimeter for the first time since they started their dive, looked like he might vomit.
“I’ll take the two on the right,” said Morgan. “Werner, the one on the extreme left is yours. Crowe, take the middle left. Hold your fire until I open up. There’s no sense in letting them know we’re here, eh?”
“Why do you have two?” Werner asked. Morgan didn’t respond. They were within six hundred yards now, and Crowe’s mind flashed back to the practice engagement against Hulse. The gap was closing fast, and he began to worry about the risk of overshooting. But he trusted Morgan, and resisted the urge to open fire as the bombers loomed closer, oblivious to the three killers lurking in the darkness.
Jones gave a triumphant yell on the internal intercom. “I can see them!” As if on cue, a shocking flash ravaged the darkness.
The four machine guns in the nose of Morgan’s Mosquito and the four cannon beneath opened up simultaneously. At two hundred yards range against a target flying straight and level, Morgan couldn’t miss. It took only a short burst. As Morgan’s target crumpled and burst into flames, falling to the right towards the waiting sea, Crowe pressed his own firing stud.
The first few rounds passed beneath the Dornier’s port wing, but in an instant Crowe corrected and brought his aim up just as the bomber tried to evade. Cannon shells ripped through the aircraft’s fuselage and canopy, and Crowe saw the stunned look on the rearmost gunner’s face as the cockpit and crewmembers around him dissolved in the hail of impacting rounds. The bomber dropped away.
Crowe looked away to his left and saw that Werner was still closing in on his target and had not yet fired. The bomber’s pilot began weaving from side to side. It did him little good. Werner closed to within fifty yards before opening up, and his rounds smashed through the aircraft’s starboard wing. Crowe blinked as light flared from the engine.
Werner ceased his firing as the flames spread but stayed close as the stricken bomber began to burn along its whole length. Crowe could not understand the words that Werner muttered into the radio, but the harshness and venom of his tone was unmistakeable.
Morgan was closing fast on the final bomber, which had turned back towards the open sea as soon as the firing had begun. The bomber was at full throttle but it had no hope against the faster and more agile Mosquito.
Crowe grinned as he watched. Darkness, the night bomber’s greatest ally, was no longer any protection.
Morgan closed to three hundred yards this time, before firing a short burst that struck something vital. The Dornier exploded with sudden violence. The Mulo gave a cry of elation as he put the aircraft into a victory roll. The burning fragments tumbled through the air before splashing down into the sea.
“I’m still not sure what happened,” Jones admitted as they sat in the dispersal hut, waiting for Harry Stead.
Crowe stretched in his seat, yawning as he looked around. On one wall a board listed crews and their assignments, although for the moment it was blank. Maps covered the walls, for the navigators. Two telephones, some chairs and a large table for working out flight plans completed the sparse furnishings.
On a normal station, Crowe guessed, this room would probably be a lot busier. It was where crews gathered to plan their ops and to await the call to run to their waiting aircraft and get airborne. At Charney Breach, it was little more than a debriefing room.
“Why were they flying so low?” Jones addressed the question to no one in particular. “Weren’t they scared of crashing into the sea?”
“Not as scared as they were of radar-guided night fighters,” Morgan said. “They knew that radar would struggle to pick them out at such a low altitude.”
“It didn’t help them,” Werner said, his joy unmistakeable. He looked over at Morgan. “I still don’t understand why you get to have two and we only get one each.”
“I’m Mosquito Leader,” Morgan said, puffing out his chest. “That means, my murderous Teutonic chum, that I get first dibs on any extras. However,” he added, seeing the sour look of rebellion on the German’s face, “I suppose you can have the extra one next time.”
Crowe nudged Werner. “What was that you said up there? When you shot your bomber down?”
“Favri curse,” Werner replied, rubbing his scalp.
Crowe wanted to press him further, but at that moment Harry Stead walked in, a broad smile on his face. “I’m told you boys had some trade tonight? I thought it was supposed to be just a practice sortie.”
“Well,” Morgan said, “you could say we got some practice, couldn’t you? That reminds me, I meant to ask the engineers how many rounds I’d used.”
“I hate to waste them. Get close and be accurate, that’s my motto.”
“Spot on,” Stead said, nodding. “Now lads, I know you’ll want to get back and celebrate, but business first. As you know, I’m the Intelligence Officer here as well as just about every other job title under the sun, so I’ll try to see you after every sortie. So,” he said, taking out his notebook, “make yourselves comfortable and talk me through it.”
“Well,” began Morgan, “we were flying over Hull.”
Stead blinked. “Hull? What on earth possessed you to go there?”
“Who wouldn’t want to go there?” Morgan gave Jones an amused glance, before talking Stead through the mission.
“You got all four?” Crowe smiled at the shock in Stead’s voice.
“Two for him,” Werner said with a sour nod at Morgan. “One for me, one for Crowe.”
“Four,” Stead repeated. “My God, we’re not operational yet and you’ve just got more kills in one night than the entire squadron managed in the last two months before we were grounded. Dorniers, you say?”
There were more questions. Stead wanted to know about the formation the enemy had been flying, their altitude, their manoeuvres on reaction to enemy fire, the effectiveness of the brand new Mosquito’s armament and its stability as a gun platform.
Crowe let Morgan handle the enquiries. He thought back to his Dornier, and the look of terror on the gunner’s face as the damaged aircraft plunged towards the waves, his three colleagues already dead. He still felt no anger towards them. His overriding emotion was a sense of satisfaction. He’d seen them at three miles, and yet the tail gunner had not been able to see the fighter that condemned him to death a few hundred yards away.
He realised that the others had stood and were making their way to the transport outside. As Crowe rose to his feet and made to follow, Stead stopped him. “First time you ever killed someone, Crowe?”
Crowe didn’t reply. The Squadron Leader, he noted, wrongly took that as a yes.
“It gets easier, I assure you,” Stead told him, his voice quiet. “I don’t know if that’s good or bad. I find it helps if you don’t think about the crew. Just think about the aircraft. You shot down one bomber, and you and all your colleagues came home alive. Consider it a job well done.”
Crowe nodded, but remained silent.
Stead sighed. “You know, son, I’ve got fifteen kills. Fifteen aircraft destroyed, some single seat, some bombers; maybe thirty men dead? I’m not proud of that. But I’d rather thirty of them than ten of my colleagues or, most important of all, one of me.” He smiled. “Come on. Let’s get a beer before they drink the bloody place dry.”
Stead regained his joviality by the time they reached the Mess. He personally congratulated each of them at least twice, while the three navigators beamed with pride that their first sortie had been so successful. Werner had forgiven Morgan for his gluttony, and the two of them continued discussing the details of their kills as they clambered from the truck and led the way into the bar.
Crowe trailed in their wake. A couple of drinks and he would sleep well, at least until the dreams started. No amount of alcohol stopped his dreams.
The crowd took up most of the space in the small bar. Most of the non-Mulo pilots clustered in small groups, and Crowe overheard them discussing their new aircraft. A few looked intrigued as the three black-clad Mullo walked in. Clark stood at the bar, talking to the girl behind it. He barely glanced at the new arrivals, but a look of disgust twitched across his face as their Mulo colleagues greeted them with triumphant smiles and handshakes. Doctor Madeley hustled past Clark to join them, his beaming smile visible beneath the tangled mass of his beard.
“Marvellous,” the physician said, “simply marvellous stuff. Well done, my boys, well done.”
“Yes, well done,” Raithe said, his hands meeting in a loud, slow clap. “I think you’ve proved a point. That’s four kills for us, and none,” he added with a disdainful look across the room, “for the humans.”
“Don’t forget we had three of those humans with us,” Morgan said, with a protective nod towards Jones, Baggers and Hall.
“Ah. I forgot you had some of them flying with you. Such a shame.” The pale Mulo turned away.
“Right,” Doctor Madeley said, “what can I get everyone? I think this is a time for celebration.”
“Hey, new lads,” Clark shouted. He sounded half-drunk. “Why don’t you come and stand over here with us? You don’t have to stand with them.”
The bar fell silent. The three young navigators looked around in confusion. They couldn’t miss the tension, and if their expressions were any guide, they were far from oblivious to the dirty looks they were getting from the rest of the crews. Crowe saw the look of indecision on Jones’ face. “Go on over,” he murmured. “They’re your people.” Jones hesitated, and then the three of them shuffled off to join the regular crews in their blue-grey aircrew suits.
Tentative conversation resumed. Morgan gave Crowe a quizzical look.
Crowe shrugged. “You didn’t expect them to socialise with us, did you? They’re human.” He couldn’t help noticing the cold smile that passed over Raithe’s thin features.
“That Clark really is the most colossal idiot,” Doctor Madeley said.
“He’ll get his.” Crowe glanced over at the slick haired pilot. Clark, his work done, had turned back to the bar, and Crowe watched the smile fade from his face as he realised the girl had walked away to serve Harry Stead. Crowe looked at her as she pulled a pint of bitter, chatting to the Squadron Leader. From the way Stead leaned forward, one hand brushing at his moustache, Crowe could tell the old man was smitten.
He looked closer at the girl, noting the confidence in her stance, the open posture of someone who felt sure of her looks, not that he could blame her. She was certainly pretty, with large eyes and light-coloured hair that she wore loose about her shoulders. Her figure was slim with just a trace of lingering youthful plumpness, the appealing low cut of her top revealing a tantalising glimpse of firm breasts. He wondered who she was and how old she was.
An acute pang of desire struck him, but it was as fleeting as it was unexpected. He didn’t need to know the slightest thing about her to know she wouldn’t be interested, that it could never work.
She would think him a freak. One look at his eyes and her reaction would be just like everyone else. “Monster.” The word echoed in his ears, though he knew no one had spoken. It seemed like he’d heard it a thousand times, in a hundred different voices, as familiar as breathing.
Doctor Madeley thrust a pint into his hand, and Crowe downed it in one with a grateful smile. It had been a long night, and somewhere in Germany sixteen different families would be sleeping, unaware that their sons and husbands lay blackened and shredded in the dull waters off England’s east coast. Stead was right about one thing, thought Crowe. Better them than him. However kind and thoughtful the Squadron Leader was, though, he had misjudged. It wasn’t the first time Crowe had killed. He wasn’t upset about it. He remembered the surge of pleasure when his rounds struck his target, the sense of power as he’d adjusted his aim.
Perhaps the humans weren’t so wrong, he thought. Maybe he was a monster after all. The guilt would come later, of course, the way it always did, but it could wait. There were three hours to go until dawn, he was with the only friends he’d ever known, and the Mullo had claimed their first successes.
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