Story by D.K. Latta
Illustration by L.A. Spooner
The Sopwith Camel burrowed sluggishly through the early morning,Perry struggling to keep aloft. He maintained the pace intentionally, though — the slower the velocity, the quieter the drone of the engine.
The verdant countryside rolled beneath him, a vivid contrast to the corrugated death fields of No Man’s Land a few miles away. Flying low made them too easy targets, he knew. Catching Eddie’s eye in the second plane twenty yards to his side, Perry gestured exaggeratedly skyward, indicating they should gain altitude. Eddie shook his head and grinned, turning his gaze deliberately forward.
Perry pursed his lips. Eddie and he had gone to the same high school in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan and had joined the Royal Flying Corps together when war broke out ‑‑ Canada lacking an air force of its own. They’d survived more than a few scraps together since. That made Eddie cocky as if he believed he was protected by that figure of the Virgin Mary that always dangled about his neck.
Even Perry sometimes believed that as long as they were together, he shared his pal’s invincibility.
Currently, they were on a reconnaissance mission. The Germans had launched many-a devastating raid from a base in the area, and the RFC had sent more than a few aviators to strike back. None had returned. The brass had eventually decided resources were best expended elsewhere. Recently, however, no German raids could be traced back this way. And Command wanted to know why.
The countryside below was interrupted by vulgar craters and scorched patches — grave markers for previous RFC flyers. Perry gestured to Eddie to pick up speed, his engine swelling to a roar. Nearing the base’s presumed location, any minute they might find themselves running a deadly gauntlet of anti‑aircraft fire or be beset by a squadron of Fokkers.
So where was the defensive fire?
As if on cue, a puff of smoke came from a cluster of trees. They arced their planes away from each other as shots whizzed between them. Another meager couple of shots followed. This was the impervious German base from which no raiding RFC squadron had ever returned?
Pulling higher, he gleaned one clue as to the lackluster defense. The base was not worth defending ‑‑ not anymore. On the field where the German planes awaited their call to flight nothing remained, save shattered wings and charred fuselages. The hulks of the burned-out hangers resembled nothing more than the skeletal remains of prehistoric beasts.
What had happened? It wasn’t an RFC raid. He didn’t think anyone would forget to report such devastating success. Had a German squadron got turned around in a fog and mistook their own base for the enemy? But surely, they’d have recognized the Black Cross insignias before inflicting such total devastation.
And why hadn’t it either been repaired or abandoned entirely? Why leave it a ruin, but with a handful of pitiful guns to stave off whoever should come along? It didn’t make any sense.
But war was insanity, where only the mad found solace.
Hearing a rumble, Perry squirmed about in his seat, then relaxed slightly. It was only a black cloud that had surreptitiously encroached upon the azure vista overhead.
He would’ve loved to investigate further. Command would never be entirely satisfied not knowing the cause. But was it worth the risk? Clearly, there were still some troops in the area.
The question was rendered violently moot as his left wing was creased by gunfire from above ‑‑ incendiaries, he realized with horror! Miraculously, none caught fire. Shaken, Perry banked left, acting on instinct more than intent. Flying low over the devastated airfield, he almost clipped the charred ribs of one of the hangars. He cursed, pulling out just in time and opening the throttle, blasting back into the sky.
Frantically he craned his head, expecting a squadron descending upon them…
But there was nothing.
Sweat beaded on his brow as he spotted Eddie engaging in random evasive maneuvers, likewise ignorant of their foe’s location.
Suddenly Perry heard a chortling roar of an engine. He swung his head back, but above was only the black storm cloud. Still no plane. Trusting his instincts, he threw his Camel into a steep rise, pushing it almost beyond its limits, bucking, threatening to fly apart. He looped her over and around and — there! Before him was the enemy.
It was a lone Fokker triplane, painted black as though a charred skeleton of an aircraft. Given that burning was an aviator’s greatest fear, the sight of it struck an almost primal chord of terror. Perry realized its funereal black skin had blended with the black cloud. The unknown pilot had used it as camouflage, as another pilot might hide in the blazing glare of the sun.
That only worked if there was a storm cloud ‑‑ like the one that had conveniently appeared minutes ago. Perry shook his head, his thoughts sliding in a bizarre direction. Focusing instead on the pilot below, he opened up with his Vickers machine guns.
But the black triplane seemed almost to shift horizontally at the last moment. It was just a little thing, barely perceptible. A trick of the light. After all, no plane could do that. Then the black Fokker banked to the left. Shaking off his doubts, Perry followed, his rudder groaning as he tenaciously stuck to the black plane’s tail. The mystery pilot abruptly cut his engine, plunging into a dive. They were ridiculously close to the earth ‑‑ there was no way the Fokker would be able to pull up from that, even assuming its engine didn’t choke as the pilot fired it up again.
Then Perry gave a startled snarl as he realized Eddie was coming right at him! The black plane’s pilot had engaged in his mad maneuver precisely to distract Perry, to cause the two comrades to collide.
Perry dove, the shadow of Eddie’s plane blackening the sky above him as its wheels barely missed glancing off his wings. But he had no time to dwell on it as the earth surged toward him. He pulled back hard on his stick, the mighty Clerget engine moaning, the wings shuddering. He was leveling then, miraculously, nudging the nose up, till once more he was soaring into the blue.
Then he heard the bitter cackle of gunfire.
Heart galloping in his chest, he saw Eddie weaving erratically, the black triplane swooping down from out of the storm cloud on his tail. The Fokker had recovered from its suicidal dive after all!
Perry stared open-mouthed at the deadly dance against the blue sky. Again, the triplane opened fire, the sound shaking him from his paralysis. He had hesitated only second, but even that was too much. For even as Perry threw open his throttle and his plane leapt to engage the triplane, he saw Eddie’s plane lurch as one wing was turned into confetti by the unrelenting barrage.
Then the plane caught fire! Perry watched helplessly as Eddie scrambled to leap from his plane ‑‑ better a fall than flame. But he was stuck, or too scared to move properly. The flames roared over him and the entire plane became a fireball scarring the morning sky.
Transfixed by the horror, Perry lost sight of the triplane. Suddenly he realized its black hull, like an eerie shadow, was pacing the flaming coffin. Mad as it might seem, the German pilot barrel‑rolled away, nudging the flaming plane with his own wing tip, sending it tumbling at Perry. By rights, the tactic should have destroyed the triplane as well.
Perry screamed as he tried to turn. He felt the heat, felt his own plane lurch as some part of Eddie’s plane hit him. His craft careened through the air. The earth heaved up to meet him. The best he could do was nudge up the nose so that he hit with his wheels, not his propeller. From the silky smoothness of the air to the thick morass of the earth grabbing at his wheels, Perry felt the sudden impact throughout his entire body. Blood filled his mouth from a bitten cheek. The plane rocked and shook as it bumped over ground. A wheel caught, and the plane tipped, almost spilling over, but its center of gravity reasserted itself and the plane slammed down upon its wheels with a spine-shivering impact, sending his head cracking against the coaming. He struggled to stay conscious.
Dimly he heard the growl of the black plane approaching.
His engine coughed and stalled and Perry knew there was no way he was getting her off the ground — not before death rained from above. He leapt and hit the earth awkwardly, like a drunken man. He struggled to his feet, lurching blindly for a thicket of trees he had seen nearby, hoping to gain shelter before the triplane strafed the ground.
He dove amid the trees, drawing his pistol in a futile act of defiance. For the first time, he looked up
The sky was clear. Triplane and storm cloud were gone.
— ♦♦♦ —
Perry awoke beneath a hasty camouflage of leaves and branches. Aching, he sat up stiffly — but nothing seemed broken. Staying still amid the remnants of his improvised “nest,” he nervously fingered his pistol.
Momentarily he thought of Eddie ‑‑ devil‑may‑care, bullheaded, Eddie. His throat grew tight. At least there was no girl back home to be crushed by the news, he reflected. Though perhaps that was an even sadder epitaph. If only he hadn’t panicked, he thought. Eddie might still be alive. He was a coward! he cursed himself.
Then he thought: No, I didn’t kill Eddie, not all by myself. There was another who pulled the trigger!
In war, it did no good to personalize, to thirst for revenge against a foe you might never face again in the capricious assignments of war. Yet there was something uncanny about that black triplane, something that transcended the accepted murderousness of war.
Grimacing with pain, Perry rose and stumbled through the trees in the direction of his plane. If the damage was not too severe, he might be able to get it into the air. Otherwise, he would have to hoof it home across the killing fields that were No Man’s Land.
He stopped at the edge of the trees and stared — at an empty field!
— ♦♦♦ —
Studying trampled tracks in the grass, Perry noted that whoever had dragged away his plane had hewed close to the tree line. He wasn’t sure why they had, but it was a small boon. It allowed him to track them while keeping within the concealment of the woods himself.
Eventually, he came upon his plane, nestled as close to the tree line as it could get, camouflage nets draped over it. A half dozen battered planes were about, mostly German with their Black Cross emblems, and even the hulk of what could only be a captured Handley Page bomber ‑‑ the mighty leviathan of the sky lanes.
What did it all mean? A German airfield devastated? A mysterious black plane that killed and then vanished? And now a scavenged squadron?
If war was madness, had he stumbled upon its Bedlam?
Perry stiffened, hearing a nearby rustling of leaves, and quickly squeezed against a tree. He was not proud; hiding and fleeing was his chosen strategy.
In moments a lone figure appeared amid the flora. A dark-haired woman in a simple cotton dress, two buckets of water hanging from a stick across her shoulders. She was clearly a local French peasant and did not seem to portend a threat, he thought wryly, allowing himself the luxury of self-deprecation at his momentary fear. Then he scowled.
A German soldier emerged from the trees. He called to the girl. She hurried her steps, pretending she had not heard him. He quickened his pace, his long legs taking him to her side in seconds. He was smiling. Coldly. He grabbed her arm.
Perry knew that in occupied territories scenes like this might transpire every day. If he had not been here, it would still have happened. His duty was to escape, to take advantage of the German’s distraction and melt soundlessly away. But was that the action of a soldier doing his duty — or of a coward seeking an excuse?
The German was endeavoring to be charming. Perry could infer that much. But in a manner that was blatantly unctuous. He reached out and stroked the girl’s black tresses. She shook off his hand, glaring at him defiantly. The German’s interest in her was not surprising. Beneath her black hair, she was quite lovely, with a complexion suggesting some Roma blood. She tried to pull away and all friendliness vanished from the German’s eyes. He grabbed her, the buckets spilling to the ground. The strap over her left shoulder ripped as the German shoved her against a tree.
Perry knew he should slink away. Instead, he launched himself forward. “Hey, Fritz!” he called.
The German whirled, his eyes growing wide. “Was‑?” he managed before Perry put his fist into his face. The German went down heavily.
Perry turned to the girl. “Are you okay-?” he started to ask, but the German wasn’t out yet. Booted feet scissored around his ankles, and Perry hit the leafy earth. Then the German was upon him, and they were both struggling for his pistol, spitting and cursing each other in their respective languages, gouging and kneeing ‑‑ the Marquis of Queensbury rules reserved for another universe entirely.
Trampling footsteps told Perry he’d made a terrible miscalculation even as a half dozen German soldiers surrounded them. Perry hesitated but, seeing no alternative, he spread his hands. His erstwhile sparring partner rose unsteadily, nursing a bloody lip and nose. “English dog,” he spat, the spittle-laced with scarlet. “Kill him,” he ordered in English, no doubt so that Perry would not miss out. “Shoot him like‑ “
“What goes on here?” They all turned as a man emerged from the trees, dressed in the uniform of a German air squadron commander.
The German with the bloody face said, “I was attacked by this English spy.”
“Canadian, actually,” interjected Perry. “Tell me, Herr Rittmeister, is it German policy for junior officers to have their way with the local citizens?”
The German commander was a youngish man, barely older than Perry. Hearing Perry’s words he glanced over at the girl. His eyes barely registered the torn dress, but register it they did. He looked at the bloodied German with disgust. “Handel.” Another soldier stepped forward. “The mademoiselle has spilled the water we all require to drink. Escort her back to the well, and then to the house. See that she is not interrupted again. By anyone.”
The man called Handel saluted, then ushered her away. She glanced over her shoulder at Perry, her eyes wide with fear — for his safety, he realized. Then she was lost to the dappled light between the trees.
“He is still a spy,” blustered the bloody-faced German. “He should be shot.”
The commander looked at Perry steadily. “He is no spy, Gunter. He is in uniform.” He gestured at the concealed plane just beyond the trees. “That is yours?”
“And yet you reported that the pilot was dead,” the Rittmeister remarked with deliberate casualness to the man named Gunter.
Perry noted that the small group was a mixture of airmen and ground soldiers ‑‑ a ragtag bunch from the looks of them.
Gunter glared at him. “He struck me. He should be shot for such effrontery.”
“Not if he can still fly,” the Rittmeister said enigmatically. “Bring him.”
— ♦♦♦ —
Perry found himself treated with almost casual indifference for a prisoner. The Germans seemed weary, even dissipated, which seemed odd for men stationed enviously far from the trenches, in otherwise beautiful countryside. He was led through the woods until they came upon a house nestled amid the trees. An older man in civilian garb was to the side of the house, chopping wood. He stopped, axe in hand, to watch them return. Perry guessed he was the owner of the house, the woman his daughter, and they had been pressed into acting as involuntary hosts to the Germans.
Inside, the men scattered to various parts of the house, and Perry was pushed roughly onto a chair in the kitchen. A few moments later, the German commander settled opposite. He carried two cups of tea, one of which he placed before Perry.
They stared at each other. Then:
“You are welcome to try to escape. That is what you are thinking of, yes? Escape? Well, no one here will stop you. I’d even offer you a gun if I had any to spare. And good luck to you. But you won’t make it two miles. No one does.”
Perry narrowed his eyes.
“I am Rittmeister Franz von Grubenstatt. I am — or was — in charge of the local airfield. We had quite the reputation: one of the highest kill ratios of any German squadron ‑‑ and of any British, I’ll wager. I led the finest pilots ever to serve the Kaiser. Perhaps that is why we were…chosen.”
“Chosen?” Perry spoke at last.
“Yes,” he said absently, then focused more sharply on Perry. “By Herr Nichtmann. He arrived with his black plane to help protect us from British reprisals. He claimed to be something of a scientist, in addition to a pilot. The official papers he proffered said that we were to provide him with an isolated area to work, to sleep. That was all. At first, he was quite a boon. He flew like no man I knew and had an eye that even a hawk would envy. At times it seemed almost single-handedly he would bring down the British planes that came growling over the horizon.
“He used the storm clouds for cover ‑‑ even on a cloudless day,” von Grubenstatt said pointedly. “How can a man see in a storm cloud? How could he manufacture a cloud?” He shrugged. “As I said, he claimed to be a scientist.”
“He also claimed to be a man ‑‑ and that is a lie!”
Perry looked over to see another German airman standing in the door, arm in a sling.
Von Grubenstatt stared at his tea. “Yes, there were stories. What can you expect? A man who does not mingle with his comrades, who spends all his time in his own hangar ‑‑ from which strange sounds occasionally issued.”
“Sounds of working?” Perry asked.
“Not always,” he said neutrally. “But, no matter. He did his job exceptionally well, and success forgives a multitude of eccentricities, yes? Unfortunately: You. Stopped. Coming,” he said, emphasizing each word. “We ‑‑ or Herr Nichtmann ‑‑ proved too intimidating, I suppose. There were no more British pilots to kill.” He fingered his tea but still left it untouched. “And Herr Nichtmann, he liked to kill. He seemed to thrive on death. So, like a beast deprived of food, what was he to do? He sought out alternative sources of nourishment. He began to kill us. The very skill, the very ‑‑ almost supernatural ‑‑ abilities, that we so welcomed when fighting for us, now became our nightmare. That black triplane became our own Angel of Death. He shot our planes from the sky, he bombed our own field, our guns, forcing us to hide in these woods. Nor can we make it out on foot. He strafes us should we try.”
“He sounds insane.”
The Rittmeister chuckled. “Appropriate, yes? Perhaps he is the purity of war manifested for us with two arms and two legs. War is insanity and he is its agent.”
Perry started, the German’s words echoing his own recent musings.
“When we fired at you and your companion as you flew over, we thought you were him.” He leaned forward, as if with mock confidentiality. “The men do not think Herr Nichtmann is a man at all. Since he turned on us, we have not seen him land. How can he appear and disappear, and with his damnable storm cloud? Even his papers ‑‑ his papers he showed me when he first arrived ‑‑ I think they were forgeries. I do not pretend to know who he is, or what he is, or who sent him. Though we all have our private theories.”
He rose. “What I do know, is that we ‑‑ you and I and my men ‑‑ are in this together. Most of my men are injured, some barely able to walk, let alone fly. I have barely more than a half dozen planes that are flight worthy, including yours, scavenged from the wrecks of the field. And against that one hell-sent plane, I do not think they are much good at all.” He reached into his pocket and tossed something on the table. It was a slightly charred figure of the Virgin Mary dangling from a chain ‑‑ Eddie’s good luck piece. “We found this in the wreck of your companion’s plane. It was all that was salvageable.” He turned and left.
— ♦♦♦ —
Perry was not treated as a prisoner. Or else he was one prisoner among many. When night crawled over the woods, Perry found himself outside, sitting on a tree stump, staring at the house. Lights flickered from oil lamps inside, but the building was melancholic and subdued. He glanced up through the dark branches of the trees, imagining the black plane circling, circling, even now.
A light bobbed through the trees, and Perry rose cautiously. He relaxed as the light materialized into a lantern held by the girl. In her other hand, she lugged a pail of water.
He sat again, and she came almost furtively before him. She crouched down and stared at him. Though a Canadian, he had never quite mastered French, though it was spoken by a quarter of his countrymen. In English, he said, “Hello.”
A small smile flashed across her lips as she looked down shyly.
“Are you okay? That man hasn’t bothered‑?” He stopped, realizing how futile it was to attempt conversation.
She caught his hand in hers, her eyes attracted by a glittering. Her warm fingers against his skin sent an involuntary shudder up his spine. She pushed back his sleeve, revealing Eddie’s Virgin Mary figure he had wrapped around his wrist as a keepsake. She looked at it for a moment, then her gaze shifted to the bruised skin of his forearm. Hesitatingly, she leaned forward and gently kissed his arm. Then again.
Like a tide rolling onto a shore, her body seemed to melt and flow up his until she was in his arms, her hot lips against his.
Their bodies struggled against each other for a moment, then Perry was vaguely aware that the light seemed to be growing brighter. Reluctantly lifting his eyes from the vision in his arms, he gasped. Somehow, in their wild embracing, they had kicked over the lantern. The glass hadn’t broken, but the heat had caused the dry grass to burst into flame.
The girl pushed away, wild-eyed. She hurriedly grabbed up the bucket of water and threw it on the growling fire. The flames sputtered, snarled defiantly, then collapsed, leaving only smoke and steam billowing into the air.
She looked at him, he at her. Spontaneously, they started laughing and she fell into his arms again. He held her close for a moment, but the sight of the smoldering grass nagged at him.
Suddenly Perry had an idea.
— ♦♦♦ —
The Rittmeister, roused from his bed, stared broodingly at his stockinged feet, the cloth in desperate need of darning. His men sprawled in chairs or sagged against the surrounding walls. “It would be suicide.”
“Not with the Handley Page you have. There might be a chance ‑‑ well, a slim one,” Perry conceded. “The question is, are your men as good of pilots as you say?”
The German looked up. “If you are wrong, we will lose everything, every plane we have managed to salvage. It will be the end for us. We will no longer be able to fight back.”
“You aren’t fighting back by hiding in the woods, salvaging planes you are too frightened to use.”
The Rittmeister almost rose from his chair. “Be very careful, my friend.” Then he relented. “But you are not wrong. And yet which one shall duel the Devil?”
“From the looks of it, my Sopwith Camel is in the best shape. And we both know it’s the better plane.”
“And you will fly it, naturally?” demanded the Rittmeister ironically.
Perry hesitated for a moment. He honestly hadn’t thought that far ahead. To go up there? To face the black plane again? After it had killed Eddie — after he froze and watched it murder him? Could he even do it?
Misunderstanding his silence, the Rittmeister sighed resignedly. “Of course, you must fly it. You are the most familiar with it. And you are fresher, healthier.”
“You cannot be serious?” exclaimed Gunter, angrily. “Allowing this enemy‑ “
“The enemy,” interjected the commander, “is out there.” He gestured above their heads. “But I will let the men vote on this unorthodox plan. Do we continue to sit and cower? Or do we grab at whatever last straw fate hands us?”
“Wait,” Perry said, his throat growing tight, forcing him to cough out the word.
The German eyed him.
Perry looked around, knowing he’d be compounding his cowardice if he kept silent. “I panicked before, up there. I froze, for a second or two.”
The others stared at him. Then, one by one, they began chuckling. Perry flushed, feeling his skin burn.
Then the Rittmeister, still smiling, said, “Thank God, I say. It is the man who does not know fear who worries me, for then he is truly a casualty of war, though his heart may beat for another fifty years. The brave man accepts his fear but controls his panic. Can you do that?”
Perry hesitated, then nodded. “I can try.”
“Good. Then let us vote.”
— ♦♦♦ —
As Perry lay under the stars ‑‑ there being no room in the house ‑‑ he tossed and turned fitfully. Tomorrow was the day of reckoning. The day when he avenged Eddie or joined him in death. Eddie had always been so brave, so sure. Perry had, in a sense, derived his courage from Eddie. Would he have enough alone?
He started as something slithered up beside him under his blanket. Then the girl was in his arms, looking at him with her dark eyes. He stared at her in silence, their emotions too deep for words. Then he pulled her close. Perry wondered if any of the German soldiers had benefitted from the girl’s passions. Not Gunter, that was obvious. But might she have looked favorably on one of the others?
He decided it did not matter.
Still, he knew he must ask ‑‑ no, demand ‑‑ one further favor from Herr Rittmeister von Grubenstatt…
— ♦♦♦ —
Morning came too soon.
Like condemned men, the remnants of the German squadron filed silently out beyond the trees. While nervously eyeing the barren sky, they set to work dragging camouflage nets and branches from the battered planes. Kerosene canisters were lugged from the woods and, with silent prayers, each plane was doused in turn. Limping, some with arms still bandaged, the pilots took their positions.
Herr Rittmeister von Grubenstatt himself took the pilot’s chair in the mighty Handley Page ‑‑ the bomber designed to carry more weight than any of the single‑seat fighters. Its Lewis guns were torn out, lightening it – but rendering it utterly helpless up there.
As Perry mounted his plane not even the wind stirred. He caught the eye of von Grubenstatt. The two men nodded at each other. Perry closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. Then he opened his eyes as one of the Germans gave his prop a spin and his engine coughed to life.
One by one, the planes rolled onto the field and rose with a grace once reserved only for birds. The sky opened before them as they lifted higher and higher.
The next move was the enemy’s.
They did not wait long.
Perry heard the now familiar rumble of a storm cloud and looked to see the black billows that had not been there moments before. His heart began to race.
Suddenly gunfire chortled through the air. Planes dipped and rolled as the German pilots tried to coax what life they could from their battered craft. One of the planes erupted into a fireball as the bullets ignited its kerosene-drenched wings.
Perry slammed his fist against his coaming as a pilot who just days before would have been an enemy, instead died an ally. Suddenly the black plane burst from its cloud cover and stood in brazen relief against the blue sky. The vision momentarily stilled Perry’s heart, the black plane so much like a flying carcass that had no right to still be in the air. He felt the fear, felt it rise toward panic. With an effort of will, he squashed the panic. The fear he kept.
Perry opened his throttle and angled in on the black Fokker, his Vickers machine guns barking. But the black plane rolled gracefully away, as though mocking him. It swooped up, vanishing once more into the storm cloud.
By this point, the Germans had fallen into the formation they had discussed throughout the night. Two Fokkers flew above the captured Handley Page. Perry watched with admiration as the German pilots jammed their sticks then, carefully, crawled onto their wings. One pilot tossed something behind him. Instantly the kerosene caught fire and his plane became a raging inferno. He leapt from the wing of his plane onto the wing of the larger bomber below. The Handley Page rocked momentarily, but Rittmeister von Grubenstatt steadied her quickly. The other pilot did likewise, but as his plane blazed into a flying ball of fire, he leapt awkwardly. He missed the bomber’s wing and plunged to the earth below.
Perry could do nothing but salute him grimly as he fell.
The Handley Page fell back as the two pilot-less, flaming planes soared up into the black cloud where lurked the triplane. No sooner had they disappeared into the black billows then two more planes pulled up over the Handley Page and the process was repeated. This time, both pilots made it to the other plane as their erstwhile chariots, now roaring balls of Hellfire tore through the cloud. The next and final pair followed, also without mishap. The Handley Page sagged with the weight of the men clinging to its wings. Should the black plane strike, they were sitting ducks.
Success, however, was already becoming apparent.
A cloud is merely an accumulation of moisture. And as the bucket on the flames the night before had demonstrated, fire and water create simply mist and steam. The flaming planes burned through the cloud’s intestines, eviscerating it. Already the once-dense black cloud was disintegrating into lashing tentacles of vapor. Perry began climbing so that he’d be above when the black plane, so arrogant and cruel, was flushed from its cover.
And there it went! Roaring from the cover that was no longer cover, it dove toward the earth, and Perry leapt after him. Bullets tore a trail across the black plane’s fuselage, scoring perhaps the first scar on its unearthly hull it had ever known.
Sticking to its tail like Ahab bound to the White Whale, Perry pumped slugs into it as they plummeted earthward. He tore a hole through one wing. But the pilot was uncannily good. Suddenly the other threw upward at such a sharp turn that any normal engine would have stalled. Instead, the black triplane climbed, sluggishly at first, then with greater and greater ferocity. Perry tried to mimic it as best he could, but his loop was wider, his climb more graceful. Screaming in rage, he realized he had lost sight of his quarry. It could be anywhere.
No — not anywhere. It no longer had any place to hide. So, if Perry could not see it in front or beside him, that meant‑
Perry instantly rolled his plane to the right, even as bullets from behind gutted the air where he’d been.
A shadow flickered to his side and the next instant the great black demon was paralleling him. Both planes were struggling, Perry’s from its earlier crash, while the black triplane sported flapping gaps in its wings from where Perry had wounded it. Perry tried to glimpse the notorious Herr Nichtmann, but the figure was difficult to make out, his face lost behind trails of smoke.
Then the mad pilot nudged his plane closer to Perry, then closer still. The Sopwith Camel shook as the black plane’s wings nudged under it, throwing off its balance. The black plane was trying to physically capsize Perry’s plane! It was all Perry could do to keep stable.
He pulled his pistol and fired at the other pilot, but the buffeting wind was throwing off his aim. Then the hammer clicked hollowly on empty chambers. With a roar of frustration, Perry threw the spent gun at the other plane. It bounced uselessly off the side and was whipped away by the winds.
Struggling with the stick, he frantically tried to think of something else to throw — anything to distract the other pilot. A gleaming at his wrist caught his eye: Eddie’s Virgin Mary figure. Driven by wild desperation, and with nothing else at hand, Perry threw the little charm and chain at the black plane — even as the Fokker began to fall back, to put Perry once more in front of its guns.
The charm hit the propeller and was sucked into the whirling engine. Instantly the prop sputtered and coughed. The black plane shimmied and then flipped away, tumbling end over end.
Perry couldn’t believe it. He threw his plane into a dive, once more drawing a bead on the black plane, opening up with his Vickers. The black plane smoldered, then burst into flames, golden fire racing across black wings.
Transfixed by his enemy’s demise, Perry scrambled suddenly to pull up and away, even as the Fokker slammed into the ground, smearing lambent fires across the earth like trailing fingers spreading out from the impact.
He pulled harder, the plane shimmying around him, the engine roaring. And then he was shooting upward, once more master of the air.
Clothes sticky with sweat, Perry nudged the Sopwith Camel into a gentle turn. Over by the remnants of the German airfield, Rittmeister von Grubenstatt had safely landed his men. Perry could see the little figures cheering his victory ‑‑ cheering their enemy. He dipped his wings in salute, then turned back for the field neighboring the forest where dwelt the girl and her father. Von Grubenstatt’s final favor to him.
If they succeeded, the German had agreed to land at the airfield. He could not allow Perry, an enemy aviator, to go free, nor allow him to take the girl and her father with him if they chose to go. Not officially. But he could not be expected to prevent them if he was half-a-mile distant with a battle-weary crew and only a battered bomber to engage in pursuit — could he?
As Perry flew to retrieve the girl, he pondered on the black plane. The Rittmeister had said they all had their “theories.” Did the sinister pilot answer neither to Berlin nor London, but to some other force entirely? A seat of power far below the realm of men? Perry could not help but wonder how it was that the little Virgin Mary, on her fragile chain, could possibly have gummed up the pilot’s powerful engine so effectively. Unless in some way it was anathema to the plane and its pilot.
In the end, he thought it best not to dwell on it as he flew to his rendezvous with the mademoiselle.
— ♦♦♦ —
They got Bucky in the mess-hall fridge, a whole two levels down and 150 feet from where he was killed. They were thinking it upsets the men to see a mate dead in their bunk, a mate murdered by another mate, and I’d say they were right. But you never move the body.
There’s 1,225 men aboard and one of them is the killer. I mean they’re all killers when you think about it, but whoever it is has killed one of our own and I’ve got to find him.