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We are proud to launch the showcase series with a fine horror story from the estimable Donald Mead. The story is entitled “A Falcon Sharp and Passing”, and is certainly one of the Albedo One team’s favourites in 2010. The story placed in the top six shortlisted stories of the Aeon Award 2009 Short Fiction Contest for horror, fantasy and science fiction, beating over 300 competing entries to the contest that year. Grand Judge Ian Watson described the story as “ballsy and hard-bitten”.

Donald Mead lives in Bloomington Illinois (U.S.) where he works in the payroll department of a university. He has previous publications in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. One of those stories, “A Thing Forbidden,” was chosen by editor Ellen Datlow for The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror anthology. It also made the preliminary ballot for the British Fantasy Award. Last year, his story “The Shadow Man” won first place, second quarter, in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest. It is available in the contest’s anthology #25.

***
“A Falcon Sharp and Passing”, by Donald Mead

I was right at home, stationed at Wright Field just outside of Dayton, flying the army’s first jet fighter, the P-80 Shooting Star, when a blowjob got my ass sent back to Europe. Before you get all hot in the britches thinking this is a dirty story, let me tell ya’, you don’t want to be on the receiving end of a blowjob. Flyboys know what I mean. Ya’ see, a blowjob is a Messerschmitt 262–a twin-jet engine fighter that started showing up near the end of World War Two. Bastards would swoop in, blast a B-17 with its 30 millimeter cannons and then beat it. They cruised 200 miles per hour faster than a Mustang, so we never caught ’em. Cowards wouldn’t dogfight either.

Yeah, that’s one blowjob you wanted to avoid.

So as I was saying, I was flying test planes at Wright. These planes needed constant maintenance, especially the new jets that seemed to fall apart after each flight. I’d take ’em up for a spin before the test pilots got them back. Test pilots. There’s your joke for the day. I’d be haulin’ ass at about 15,000 feet in a Mustang or maybe a T-bolt, and I’d see one of those test pilots take off and I’d pounce his ass–see if he wanted to dogfight. No bullets you understand, just a friendly game of chase. They never lost me, and they sure as hell didn’t have the balls to do the same to me. I would’ve left them spinning in my prop wash–and in a lesser plane to boot.

Colonel Boyd, Chief of the Flight Test Division, said the new test pilots would sometimes ask about me. “Is that Chuck Adler?” they’d ask, their eyes as big as saucers. “Yeah,” he’d say. “That sorry son-of-a-bitch is Adler.”

“Is it true he shot down two German jets?”

The colonel’d nod. “Yep. Has a thing for blowjobs, I guess.”

I’m getting a little sidetracked with my bona fides. There’s a story here, as big as any my gramps told me back in Kentucky.

#

I dipped the nose of the Bell P-59 and lined her up with Main Street, Vanceburg, Kentucky. The jet eased down like scotch whiskey–smooth as silk. No roaring Merlin engine. Hardly any vibration to speak of. Just the muted whine of the engines.

Pea-sized citizens stopped dead in their tracks when they realized what was happening.

I grinned. They knew it was me. Only one man would buzz Vanceburg in one of those top-secret jet planes. It wouldn’t be the first time.

At about three thousand feet people on Main Street began waving.

I nosed lower.

The P-59 wasn’t really top-secret anymore. Sure, in ’42 it was, but just three years later it was an under-powered antique compared to the Shooting Star. I loved it none-the-less. Hell, I loved it more because I never got to fly it when it was brand-spanking new. We had three years of catching up to do.

Faces screamed by, everyone smiling, especially the kids who jumped and waved their arms over their heads.

I waved back, and in the briefest of moments, imagined the horrified faces of Germans–women, children, and old people–all fleeing the pounding .50 caliber guns.

I yanked the stick up and almost caused a stall. Circling, I could see the happy Americans still waving.

You never really escaped the war, even back home. It’s hard to explain.

Near the edge of Vanceburg was a two-story white house with two women working in a backyard garden. They stood and waved as I passed.

I waved back. Hi Mama. Hi Honey. See you soon.

At 400 miles per hour it was hard to tell if Gladys was showing yet. I wagged the wing tips to send a farewell and climbed to 15,000 feet. Colonel Boyd would give me some leave time before the summer was over. He knew my situation.

#

Hanger H is for maintenance: a lot of overhauls, so it’s loud in there. Pneumatic tools, air compressors and so forth. It’s a tough place to talk, so the colonel had given me a little office between hangers in case I had to chew out one of the maintenance crew for screwing up. That’s where I met the colonel and two government suits after I’d landed.

Now, when I got back to the States, a lot of folks treated me like a hero, parades, banquets and such. But that didn’t cut any mustard with the colonel. He was a big, grey-haired, cigar-chomping S.O.B. who didn’t buy into any of that hero crap. It was always “yes sir” “no sir” with the colonel, and that was fine by me. He had an important job to do.

So he was waiting for me along with these two civilians in my office. One was a bit older than me, maybe a college graduate with slick hair and a sly smile, like he knows all the stains on my underwear. And the other guy was an old flier–I spotted that first thing. Grey in the temples, angular face, big chin and falcon-like eyes good for hunting. Yeah, he was a hunter. I felt like I should’ve known him, but I couldn’t quite place the face.

The colonel gestured to the two men. “This is Aaron Jones O.S.S. Drove all the way from Washington to see you.” The colonel did a good job of hiding his sarcasm, but I could hear it. When you develop secret planes, the O.S.S. is one of your biggest benefactors.

We shook hands.

I looked at the older G-man, but the colonel clammed up. He expected me to recognize this guy. A pressure situation for some, but pressure for me was a P-59 stalling straight vertical at 8,000 feet.

I extended my hand. “You’re Eddie Rickenbacker.”

He nodded, smiled and shook. “Pleasure.”

Nobody would ever call me a history buff, but everyone knew Rickenbacker was hotter than a whore’s pillow back in World War One doing loop de loops in those bi-planes that’d barely qualify as crop dusters now-a-days. If I’d been born way back when, I would’ve had twice his number of kills. Maybe three times as many.

As we shook his eyes narrowed, and I had the cold feeling he knew what I was thinking. Or more likely, he was thinking the opposite: You’re lucky I wasn’t born twenty years later, kid, or I’d be standing where you are, and you’d be back home mucking out the horse stall.

Rickenbacker and the college boy sat on the thread-bare couch I’d found at a rummage sale, and I took the chair behind my desk.

The colonel sat on the edge of my desk since it was pretty empty. I’m not a paperwork kind of guy. “So,” he began. “You fellas want to talk to Captain Adler?”

The college boy, Jones, nodded. “We want to borrow him for a bit. If everything goes well, he’ll be back in the States before the end of the year.”

I shook my head. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Jones gave me that know-it-all look again. “You’ll go where you’re ordered. You’re a soldier.”

“You don’t understand,” I said. “I have first choice of my assignment since I was shot down in France. And the wife has a bun in the oven. She’s living with my folks, and this is the closest base.”

“This isn’t a reassignment; it’s a short mission,” said Jones. “And don’t give me that ‘rules’ crap. You were supposed to go home after you were shot down, but you went to Ike personally and had him keep you fighting.”

Rickenbacker, who’d been staring out the window at one of the jets, turned and gave me a penetrating look as if wanting to peel away the skin to see what was underneath.

The colonel butted in. “I don’t understand this mission thing. The war’s over.”

“There’s still resistance activity in Germany,” said Jones. “Someone’s flying a Messerschmitt two-sixty-two and blowing the hell out of Allied aircraft.”

“And you want me to go back to Europe to do your dirty work? No chance.”

Jones’ expression turned more genial. “Come on, Chuck. Deep down inside, don’t you want to go? The Shooting Star against the Messerschmitt two-sixty-two? The first jet-powered dogfight in history?”

He had a point. The two jets were almost evenly matched. The Messerschmitt’s 30 millimeter nose cannons could end a dogfight instantly, but he’d have to be a hell of a shot. The Shooting Star’s six .50 cals had much more sweep. I would win, but that didn’t mean I was buying into their bullshit.

“Why me? There’re dozens of fighter pilots with more kills than me. Hell, most of ’em are still in Europe.”

Jones tugged at his collar. “There…there are a lot of considerations. Your psychological profile is perfect for…for–”

I balled my fists. “For abandoning my wife?”

“Your profile indicates you’re emotionally distant,” Rickenbacker said. “That the job at hand is more important than any discomfort from the outcome. When you were flying, was there anything more important than killing Germans?”

I eased back in my chair. “You won’t win this argument; I’ve run through it a million times. When I sent a Kraut to the deck, I never felt anything but joy. Not because I was emotionally distant, whatever the hell that means. But because every plane I sent out of the sky was step closer to the end of the war.”

Rickenbacker’s face hardened. “So tell me about the atrocities.”

“What do you mean?”

He sneered, and looked out the window as a re-painted Jap Zero rolled by. “That’s the difference between us, you know–the old fighter pilots and the new. It used to be about honor. We were modern-day knights. And when we fought, it was the ultimate test of man and machine. The war didn’t even matter. We wept when one of ours was killed, and we saluted when the enemy was shot down. When Baron von Richthofen was shot down on our side of the line, we buried him with full military honors.” He looked back at me. “But today’s pilot is different. I asked you about atrocities, Captain Adler.”

“Well, the Kraut pilots were known to shoot our boys who’d parachuted. And there were all those camps they found after the war.”

“I’m talking about American atrocities, Captain.”

I fidgeted with my wedding band. “We had orders.”

“So did the Germans,” said Rickenbacker. “What were your orders?”

“To shoot anything that moved…or didn’t move. Trains, cars, houses, schools, convents, hospitals. Anything.”

“And did you follow those orders?”

I looked at Rickenbacker’s smug face and imagined smacking it back to 1918. “We all thought the orders were bullshit. I’m not saying I disobeyed an order, but I know I didn’t commit any atrocities.”

“Convenient logic,” said Rickenbacker.

After a few seconds of fuming silence, Jones looked up. “It’s not worth the argument, really. It’s a done deal.”

The colonel huffed. “This is bullshit.”

“Wait a second,” I said, poking a finger at Rickenbacker. “What the hell are you doing here in the first place? Why would the O.S.S. hire a dinosaur from the year nineteen who-gives-a-shit just to bust my balls?”

The old fighter ace leaned back into the couch. “Let me ask you a question, Adler. Can you work with people different from yourself?”

I shrugged. “Sure.”

“I’m serious,” he said. “Can you work with, say, Mexicans?”

“I have before. No problem.”

“Germans?” he continued. “Negros? Japanese? Jews?”

“I don’t have it in for anybody,” I said. “Just look in the hanger if you don’t believe me. If they can do the job, they’re on my ‘A’ list. I even have one of those ‘Rosie the Riveter’ gals doing some welding on a T-bolt.”

“The undead?”

I rattled my head. “Did you just say ‘undead’?”

Now it was Rickenbacker’s turn to squirm. “Yes. Um… in this case, ghosts.”

The colonel and I looked at each other and burst out laughing.

“I’m serious,” said Rickenbacker

“I’m sure you are,” said the colonel between snorts of laughter. “I mean, think of how much we’ll save on health care!”

I pointed a finger at the colonel. “I always knew you had a ghost payroll!”

The colonel bellowed another laugh and slapped his leg.

“People always have this reaction,” Rickenbacker said. “Believe me, you’ll sober up quick. Because the pilot of that Messerschmitt you’ll be chasing is Baron von Richthofen–the Red Baron.”

#

I stopped laughing all right–when my orders arrived a week later. Didn’t even have time to see Gladys. I knew she’d be madder than a box of frogs when she heard what was up. I called her from the colonel’s office, and she wasted no time telling me what she thought of me, the U.S. Air Corps, the O.S.S. and even President Truman and his wife. I couldn’t give her a lot of details of course, but I let her know I’d be safe.

I make it sound like leaving was easy, but it wasn’t. Let me tell ya’ about Wright Field. I never even knew this place existed until the day I found it on the map. It just happened to be the closest base to Kentucky and Gladys. I wonder what my face must’ve looked like on that first day when Colonel Boyd gave me the three dollar tour. Hanger after hanger full of the most incredible planes you could imagine. The Jap Zero, Spitfires, the Russian Lavochkin La-7, even the Folke-Wulf 190 which a lot of flyboys thought was the only plane that could match the Mustang. Then the colonel showed me the jets. The English Gloster, the P-59 prototype, the Messerschmitt 262, and the Shooting Star. As Assistant Chief Mechanic, I’d be working on them all, and I’d be flying them.

I honestly thought Wright was some Podunk airbase where I’d be working on trainers and thinking about retirement for the rest of my life. By pure luck, I’d landed at the Grand Temple of aviation. It was like Aladdin’s lamp with unlimited rubs.

Yeah, I wonder what my face must’ve looked like.

Anyway, I went to Europe….

#

I touched down on a weed-infested dirt airstrip just outside La Villeneuve, France. It had been abandoned after the First World War, and the O.S.S. thought it’d be the perfect secret hiding place for the Shooting Star. I taxied up to a decrepit hanger where a two-man crew waited to refuel the jet and push it into the crib.

Within ten minutes, I was dressed in civilian clothes and hoofing it into La Villineuve right before sundown.

I pushed open the door to the only café in the tiny village. There were casual glances in my direction. War-time shortages still dogged France, and the café’s few electric wall sconces were backed up by kerosene lanterns on each table. Open windows allowed the breeze to clear most of the fumes.

My contacts, Lufbery and Chapman, stood out like turds at a tea party. Seated at a corner table, they wore khaki waist coats, leather helmets with goggles, and worst of all, winter scarves draped around their necks. Rickenbacker had told me these guys were his flying buddies from the first war, but jeez, it’s kind of hard to maintain cover when you’re decked out like Clark Gable in some cheesy war movie.

A sweet young thing in a black dress and a Jane Russell hairdo asked me something in French. They taught us a little French in the Air Corps in case we were ever shot down, but I’d learned a lot more after spending a couple of months with the Maquis while they snuck me over the Pyrenees and into Spain.

I pointed at the corner table. “I’m just going to join my friends.”

She glanced at the table and gave me a confused look. “Should I open a bottle of Médoc for when your friends arrive?”

I thought maybe my French was a little rusty, and I’d misunderstood her. I definitely understand “bottle” though.

“Yes, please.”

“How many glasses?”

“Well, three of course.”

“Well, of course. How silly of me.” She turned up her nose and marched off.

I crossed the room, drew up a chair and sat.

The two men nodded at me. One was thin-faced with blond curls coming from under his helmet. The other had a pencil-thin mustache and a square jaw. Both were in their twenties.

I scooted my chair back and stood. “Excuse me. I’ve made a mistake.”

“No you haven’t,” said the blond guy in French-accented English. “You’re Adler, right?”

I paused and sat. “Yeah, that’s me.”

“I’m Raoul Lufbery,” said the blond. He inclined his head to the guy with the mustache. “This is Victor Chapman.”

“That can’t be,” I said. “Lufbery and Chapmen were Rickenbacker’s buddies in the first war. You guys are my age.”

The waitress showed up carrying a tray with a bottle and three glasses. She bent and extended the tray through Lufbery and onto the table. “Four Francs please,” she said as she straightened. “Oh, and we still accept American Dollars.”

I sat with my pie-hole gaping until Chapman cleared his throat. “You gonna pay the lady or what?”

That broke my trance. I pulled out some Francs and handed them over with a “thank you.”

She dropped them into her pocket and left.

“Oh come now,” said Lufbery. “It can’t be that big of a shock. Eddie was supposed to brief you about ghosts.”

“He did,” I said. “But how’s a guy supposed to take that? I thought he was joking.”

“You might want to keep your voice down,” said Lufbery. He tilted his head.

I turned to see many in the now silent room staring at me. “They can’t see you, can they?”

“Right,” said Lufbery. “To them, you’re talking to an empty chair.”

I turned back, set my elbow on the table and rested my chin on my hand, hiding my mouth. “This isn’t happening. This is just a nightmare.”

“Oh, it’s real, Adler,” said Chapman.

“I think you need a drink,” said Lufbery.

“Damn right I do.” I poured a glassful and downed half in a single gulp. “This means that Rickenbacker was right about the Red Baron flying around in a jet.”

“It’s true in a sense,” said Lufbery. “He can’t run the controls, but he can ride in the cockpit. Give the pilot instructions. Convince him to do foolish things.”

I poured myself another drink. “So I’m supposed to shoot him down. But that won’t kill him, will it? He’ll just start all over again.”

“It takes a lot of effort to intercede in the physical world,” said Lufbery. “The amount of energy he’s using to pull this shit has to be huge. It’ll drain him in the spiritual world. He could disappear even to other ghosts. Self preservation is just as important there as it is here. Once you shoot him down….” He adjusted the collar of his uniform. “If you shoot him down, he won’t have enough energy to start from scratch.”

I grinned. “Oh, I’ll shoot his ass down all right. Why’s he doing this in the first place?”

“That’s the question, isn’t it?” said Lufbery. “Why’s he putting it all on the line just to shoot down planes again? If there’s any chance for you to find out–”

Chapman’s face twisted into a snarl. “Lufbery! That’s not in the cards. The Baron has to go down. The ifs, whys and wherefores don’t matter.”

Lufbery shrugged. “I guess that would solve the immediate problem, but the mystery would still remain.”

Chapman turned to me. “You’re going to be stationed here and patrolling into Germany everyday. Can’t station you in Germany and run the chance of him spotting the base and shooting things up. Your boundaries are from the Belgium border to Kassel, down to Nuremberg and back to France.”

“And he can do this during daylight hours?”

“He can make his voice be heard in daylight,” Chapman said. “But it’s a huge amount of effort.”

I shook my head. “I still don’t understand. How come I can see you?”

“Very few people can actually see and hear ghosts even with the effort,” said Lufbery. “Bit of a mystery, really. My guess is that people who’ve been close to death are most likely to see us. People like you who should’ve died a hundred times over, but somehow manage to survive. It’s as if the grave can’t tell us apart anymore.”

“Enough,” said Chapman, standing. “We have to go. We’re wasting our own energy just being here.”

Lufbery stood too. “Captain Adler, your credentials put you heads above everyone else for this mission. I’m confident that you’ll be victorious. Good hunting!” He saluted.

I stood and saluted. “Thank you. I’ll….” I turned to see the café customers eyeing me again. I looked back at Lufbery.

He was sporting a broad, shit-eating grin. “Gotcha!”

#

I looked down on the thin blue ribbon that snaked through the German countryside. The Rhine. On a sunny August day, it looked downright peaceful. Hell, it was peaceful. No burning tanks. No flashing triple A. No black puffs of flak. I’d crossed the Rhine dozens of times during the war escorting bombers to their targets, but I never had the chance to take in the sights. Too busy staying alive, I guess.

“See anything, Adler?”

“Jesus!” The jet rocked as my arms flinched. I glanced around the cockpit. Nothing there but freezing thin air. “Who the hell’s in here? Is that you, Lufbery?”

Oui. An extra set of eyes up here won’t hurt. Besides, you’ll need advice if we meet the Baron.”

“I need extra eyes like I need an extra mother-in-law!” I swept the horizons: a couple of Mustangs on patrol at about 12,000 feet at my four o’clock; a DC-3 transport lining up for a landing at the Kassel airstrip.

No Baron.

The radio crackled to life and an American spoke. “Kassel tower to unidentified jet. What is your designation? Respond or you will be intercepted.”

“Somebody spotted you,” said Lufbery.

“They use radar now-a-days,” I said. I toggled the mic in the oxygen mask. “This is Patrol eight-nine-five.”

“Roger,” the tower controller responded.

There was a pause, and I imagined an overworked controller shuffling through disheveled papers. “Roger, eight-nine-five. If you spot anything there are Allied patrols in your area. Good hunting”

“Roger,” I said. At least they were organized enough not to shoot at me.

“They wouldn’t be any help even if we ran into the Baron,” said Lufbery. “They’d never keep up.”

“Are you still here?”

“You know it, Adler. Rickenbacker said you shot down two jets while flying a prop plane. How’d you do it?”
I touched my temple. “Sharp eyes.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it,” I said. “I spotted them miles before they even knew I existed. And in a dive, a Mustang can keep up with a jet. All other advantages are trumped by better eyesight.”

I turned south toward Nuremberg. The Baron might be hidden in the countryside, but he’d be hunting near big cities where the traffic was thickest.

“I’d want my advantage to be a sense of honor,” said Lufbery. “You know about honor, Adler?”

“Oh crap. You’re one of those ‘knights of the sky’ types like Rickenbacker. Let me shine a little sunlight up your skirt. Warriors fight battles, not knights. And warriors follow orders, do their job and kill the bad guys. Things changed since the first war….”

“You don’t know shit about the first war!”

My radio cracked. “Patrol eight-nine-five.”

I pounded the mic. “Standby!”

It was nearing dusk, but still too bright to see a ghost hovering around the cockpit. “I sure as hell know I don’t salute the enemy when I send him to the deck! And I never cried over anyone who bought the farm, even my best friends. Now those were the guys I saluted. A guy couldn’t keep it together dropping tears for their buddies. It’d drive ’em nuts after too long.”

Lufbery’s voice quivered. “You… you’re barely above an animal. That’s why it was so easy to commit those crimes.”

“I didn’t commit any goddamn crimes!”

“Civilians!” Lufbery hissed.

“I never said that!”

“Patrol eight-nine-five,” came the voice in my headphones. “Radar shows a bogie to your northeast at sixteen thousand feet. Closing fast.”

I yanked the stick hard right, but it wasn’t fast enough. My left wing exploded and I caught the shape of a jet in my peripheral vision as it flashed past in a dive. The Shooting Star spun from impact of the 30 millimeter shells. I fought the controls and my jet responded and leveled out. Looking at the wing, I found that the spin was caused more by the force of the shells than by damage. It looked like hell, the wingtip at least, all torn up like a cardboard box. The flaps and slats were out of the damage zone, but the aileron looked like hell. I tried a gentle roll, but got no movement. I was a dead duck.

“He’s coming up low on your four o’clock,” said Lufbery.

I looked right and saw the dark shape of the 262 rising up to intercept. It was painted in green camouflage with Luftwaffe black crosses on its wings. But instead of aiming to polish me off, he turned to fly parallel. I could see the pilot’s head and the sun’s glint off his goggles as he eyed my plane.

There was no way I could dogfight. I eased back the throttle and descended. “I’m bailing out. I don’t know what you’re gonna do.”

I toggled the mic. “Kassel tower. This is Patrol eight-nine-five.”

“Are you going to send a couple extra planes down with us?” Lufbery asked. “You know they’re going to send those Mustangs to help out.”

The American voice rang in my headphones. “Eight-nine-five. This is Kassel tower.”

“Stand by.” The ghost had a point. There was no reason to add the death toll just because I blew it.

I looked around for the 262 and found him fifty feet off my left wing. I could see his face–older than me, maybe twenty five or thirty. He was neatly shaven and had a rounded chin, but was otherwise unremarkable. Except for the eyes, of course. You can always tell a pilot by his eyes. His were cold and deadly, staring straight at me.

I reached for the canopy latch.

“Hold on, Adler,” said Lufbery. “He’s signaling us.”

“Doesn’t matter what he’s doing. I’m alive because I know when to bail out.” I looked at him anyway.

The pilot made a motion at pulling at his parachute cord and then shook his fists as if firing a machine gun.

“Oh you bastard!”

“What?” Lufbery asked.

“He’s saying he’ll shoot me if I bail!” I gave him the finger.

Humor flickered on the pilot’s face, and he pointed at a new heading.

“This SOB wants to take me prisoner!”

“This might be good, Adler. We need to know what the Baron is up to. Maybe we can find out.”

“That ain’t the Baron. That’s some psychotic who’s carrying on his own personal war.”

“Oh, he’s in there,” said Lufbery. “Same as I’m in here with you.”

I thought of the .45 on my hip. A duel of the ground maybe. I’ll still get out of this.

I wrestled with the stick and turned in the direction the pilot had indicated.

Within ten minutes, I spotted a dirt runway in the countryside bordered by a patch of woods. The pilot motioned that I land.

I worried about ruts as the sun disappeared below the horizon, but the runway was smooth. A barn stood at the far end–no doubt a converted hanger. I taxied to the end and turned to watch the 262 come in.

Three guards in civilian clothes and carrying Mauser rifles, rushed from the barn and surrounded the Shooting Star. So much for my .45. I popped the canopy and raised my hands.

Within minutes, Lufbery and I were flat-foot on the ground and face-to-face with the German pilot and the ghost of the Red Baron.

Lufbery looked nearly solid in the dim light.

The pilot wore a grey Luftwaffe uniform. The Baron, a smooth-faced fellow with a fated expression, wore a tunic-style jacket with brass buttons down one side and an officer’s cap. His pants ballooned at the thigh and tall black boots stretched nearly to his knees. A flared cross hung from his neck: the Blue Max. Unlike Lufbery, the Baron pulsed, his body becoming bright and then fading to near invisibility. Evidently Chapman was right; the Baron was nearly out of spiritual energy.

“I am Lieutenant Dierk Hoffmann,” said the pilot. He motioned for me to lower my hands. “You weren’t watching. I could’ve killed you easily.”

“I lost my concentration.”

“You let a little thing distract you,” he said.

My first inclination was to punch this guy’s lights out. No one likes to be humiliated, but I knew he was right. I’d broken my own rules of discipline and paid the price. He hadn’t humiliated me–I’d humiliated myself.

The Baron spoke. His voice sounded distant and hollow. “Would you like a second chance?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

He fiddled with his medal and looked away. “Look at my country, decimated. Not so unlike the first war. We’ll rebuild our buildings of course, but we have a stain on us that is not so easily washed away.” He looked squarely at me. “We followed very bad people who committed unspeakable crimes. As a German, I am ashamed.”

“What Hitler offered was so…intoxicating,” said the pilot, Hoffmann. “Being drunk on the illusion of greatness made it easier to overlook the camps.”

“Once, to be a soldier or a pilot was the greatest honor,” said the Baron. “Even after the disasters of the first war, wearing the uniform meant a handshake from an old-timer or a kiss from a girl.”

“I hope you’re going somewhere with this,” I said.

The Baron straightened and gave me an icy stare. “I want to restore my people’s faith in the Luftwaffe. I want them to see men of honor in a battle of honor. I want to wash this stain away by a dogfight–the way it was meant to be fought!”

My guts started to twist. “This whole thing was a set-up to get me to Europe!”

“Don’t flatter yourself,” said Hoffmann. “Any Allied fighter would’ve worked. This way, we knew we’d get the best.”

“You and I, Herr Adler,” said the Baron, “in the planes of my day dueling over the skies of Nuremberg. The citizens will see that honor still exists in the Fatherland. They will know that the stain can be washed away. That a uniform is a thing of admiration, not of fear.”

“Here’s what they’ll see,” I said. “Two nut cases taking pot-shots at each other in junkyard planes.”

“We will spread the word so people will know,” said Hoffmann. “We have many friends who believe in our cause. Enough citizens will understand. They will take heart. We can’t wash the stain away overnight, but this will plant the seed.”

I gave a humorless laugh. “I won’t do it.”

Lufbery turned to face me. “Don’t be so hasty. This is an opportunity. He’s not just thinking of himself, he’s thinking of you and the Air Corps. Your crimes. The United States has a stain too.”

“Oh, now don’t start that shit again. I told you once….” I paused as the blocks fell into place. “I’ll be the brown side of a polar bear. You’re in on this! You and that S O B Rickenbacker. You intentionally distracted me so this bastard could shoot up my wing!”

“You have to atone for your sins, Adler,” said Lufbery. “You know it in your heart.”
I swung hard at Lufbery’s chin.

His instincts kicked in and he tried to duck.

I would’ve clocked him good if he’d been real, but given the circumstances, my fist sailed through his face and I stumbled along with it.

Hoffmann barked an order and one of the guards leveled his Mauser.

The Baron pressed his lips into a thin line. “Agree or die.”

“Fresh out of honor?”

“I’m out of time and patience. Die here, now, or decide your fate in the sky.”

Mama didn’t raise no fool. I had no experience with bi-planes, but at least I’d have a slim chance as compared to being shot point blank.

“Fine, you bastard–seeing how you hold all the cards.”

The Baron smiled. “Excellent! No matter the outcome, we will show the world that honor still exists. At dawn, we will take off together and battle over the skies of Nuremberg.”

“Who takes off first?” I asked.

“Huh?”

“Rules. I’m talking about rules. If you take off first, you get to altitude faster and have the advantage. How do I know you won’t just turn and wax my ass as I’m taking off?”

The Baron blinked. “Well, you have my word I won’t.”

“Not good enough. Come on, I’ve agreed to this. The least you could do is make it fair.”

“It is fair! I’m not a cheat!”

I scratched my chin and played it cool. “I don’t know. I’d feel a lot better if you took off ten minutes ahead. That’d give me plenty of time to climb to a decent altitude. I’d meet you over Nuremberg.”

“Of course,” said the Baron, his smile, calculated. “My friends will still be here to make sure you climb into the cockpit. And should you decide to, oh, fly in a different direction, I’ll take my jet and blow every Allied plane I find out of the sky. I’ll kill hundreds, and it’ll be on your head.”

So much for playing it smooth. I sneered, but nodded.

“Good!” said the Baron. “See you in the morning.”

#

I watched as Hoffmann and the Baron lifted off from the dirt strip. Well, I assumed the Baron was with Hoffmann–the ghosts were invisible in the bright morning light.

They flew a tri-plane, painted blood red of course, with two black crosses on the top wing. It would turn the heads of a lot of pilots up there, but would otherwise be dismissed as a puttering antique.

“The Baron’s Fokker is armed with two Spandau machine guns, seven point nine two millimeters,” said Lufbery, “with a range of a little over two thousand yards. You won’t have to worry about that though. The Baron’s method is to get close, really close before he opens up.”

I nodded and watched the tri-plane shrink to the size of a sparrow. The growl of the engine faded at about two miles.
Lufbery continued. “It has phenomenal lift. He can make a flat-end turn–literally spin about in place and head right into you with guns blazing.”

“Uh-huh.”

“You’re not listening, Adler.”

“Huh? Oh, sorry. Just watching the Baron.”

While one guard kept a gun on me, the other two pushed a bi-plane out of the converted barn. I felt a slight tremor under my skin–the same feeling I always got right before flight. A visceral sort of anticipation like the promise of sex. Hell, better. There wasn’t all that talking afterward.

“The Sopwith Camel,” Lufbery said.

It was a beautiful thing of green canvas, wooden ribs and steel wire. The looming top wing made it taller than a Mustang, maybe twenty feet in height. Looking at it, I imagined an albatross, wings spread wide, sunning itself before a day of fishing.

I jumped up on the lower wing and looked into the tiny cockpit. No room for a parachute in there. There were a few rudimentary instruments, no throttle, and the twin Vickers machine guns were mounted on top of the cowling right under the pilot’s nose. Some sort of interruption gear must have kept them from shooting away the propeller.

“Let’s go.” I climbed in and one of the guards cranked the propeller while I pressed the ignition. After a couple of bursts of white smoke from the undercarriage, the engine fired to life. There was no way to muffle the exhaust of a rotary engine, so it made twice the noise of a Merlin engine. I wished for one of those gallant scarves that Lufbery wore just so I could plug my ears.

Lufbery, also in the cockpit, shouted instructions for take off. It seemed that instead of a throttle, the pilot could control the ignition to certain cylinders to add or reduce power.

The three guards, their guns still leveled, watched as I taxied to the runway. I gave them a small wave and ignited all the cylinders. The Camel roared forward and lifted off.

I glanced back at the hidden airfield and guards, still watching.

“She’s tail-heavy, and good at loops,” said Lufbery.

I turned forward and pushed the nose up for the ceiling.

“You know you don’t have an oxygen mask, right?”

“I don’t have a parachute either,” I said. “And I’m missing a couple of other things, but I know I want maximum altitude.”

After a minute, I looked over my shoulder. I was about a mile away from the strip. The guards, little dots now, appeared to be trudging back to the barn.

“If you go too high you’ll black out.”

My head started to swim as I climbed higher, maybe 17,000 feet now. “Does this baby glide?”

“Sure. Bi-planes and tri-plane are light and have a lot of lift. At the right speed they glide just fine.”

I looked back at the strip–two miles. I cut all ignitions. The engine went dead and the propeller came to a stop.

“What the holy hell are you doing?”

I turned right into a steep dive, and the propeller started a slow spin as the wind whistled past. “I want to test its gliding abilities.”

“It doesn’t need testing!” Lufbery screeched. “We’re supposed to meet the Baron over Nuremberg!”

“Change of plan.” I pulled up to a more controlled dive and approached the strip. Lufbery was right: it glided nicely. I leveled off as I neared the end of the runway–about 4,000 feet altitude. The guards, their backs to me, were blissfully unaware.

“They’ll shoot you if you try to land!”

“I think you’re right,” I said. I lined them up in my gun site and pulled the trigger.

#

The Messerschmitt 262 skimmed over fields and farm houses like a dragonfly over a pond. Now this was flying–balls-out speed in a jet built for battle.

“You can’t do this, Adler. It’ll ruin everything.”

I’d hoped Lufbery would’ve gotten the message and hauled ghost ass back over the river Styx. Maybe he thought he still could pull my strings.

“I gotta do it. Those are my orders.” I scanned the skies for Mustangs. I could avoid radar this low, but Allied patrols were on the prowl for a rogue German jet, and at tree level, I was a tempting target for a diving attack. I could’ve radioed the tower at Nuremberg and explained my situation, but most pilots would think it was a trick. I know I would.

“You could’ve made history today,” said Lufbery. “You could’ve made a difference.”

“Whatever.”

Houses became more numerous, and the eastern edge of Nuremberg came into view. There was Hoffmann and the Baron, their tri-plane puttering at about 16,000 feet.

I hit the throttle and climbed.

Tracers spat past my canopy, and two Mustangs flashed by in a dive.

I jammed the stick left in case more were on my twelve o’clock.

“Those guys are good,” I said. “Right out of the sun–I didn’t see them.”

“Yeah,” said Lufbery. “I spotted them a couple of minutes ago lining you up.”

“You son-of-a-bitch!”

“One back stab deserves another,” Lufbery said.

I looked right to see the Mustangs climbing, but they were way too slow. They’d never catch me.

Looking left, I spotted the tri-plane hugging the tree tops and trying to be invisible. They must’ve dove for it. Problem was, you can’t be invisible in a bright red plane.

I dove for the deck. I needed to work fast before the Mustangs discovered they had another chance.

The distance closed.

Hoffman and the Baron must’ve realized they were doomed because they tried that flat-end turn Lufbery had told me about. Their plane literally turned on a dime and came right at me. Any other plane would’ve dropped like a rock, but the Fokker just dipped for a moment before it regained its lift. Amazing.

Its Spandau machine guns flickered at me.

I snickered and pressed the trigger to the 30 millimeter cannons. The nose of the 262 buzzed and rounds poured out, all falling well short of the tri-plane.

“What the hell?”

“Oh, these cannons have awful muzzle velocity,” said Lufbery. “You’re going to have to get a lot closer.”

“Oh crap!” I heaved the jet to the right. When Hoffmann turned to match me, I reversed to the left to get a brief shot at him. Unfortunately, he had the same idea. We both let out a burst at 300 yards. My nose buzzed again, while bullets raked my wing. One bullet pierced the canopy and I felt the hot bite of glass in my cheek and ear. I touched my face and came up with a little blood–nothing serious.

I turned right to look for Hoffmann and the Baron. In the green field just below were two pieces of flaming wreckage not even discernable as a plane. My guns may not have had much range, but they were cannons after all and were meant to shoot down bombers.

The Mustangs were coming in fast on my eleven o’clock. I hit the throttle and beat it to the French border. The few bullets the Baron landed weren’t enough to hurt my flying.

“You killed honor today, Adler. You proud of yourself?”

“I’m proud I did my job.”

“What do you think you did to those people in Nuremberg who saw this? A German jet destroying a defenseless German tri-plane. They’ll never respect the uniform again.”

“All I did was strip away window-dressing to show war for what it is, ugly slaughter. Like I said–I’m a warrior, not a knight. I kill without a thought in my head. You really want to know what those people down there think? They just realized that it was bullshit artists like you who got them into this mess in the first place. I just put you out of business.”

#

Ever sit next to the tuba player in band class? Okay, me neither, but I think that’s what the Mustang’s Merlin engine sounds like times a hundred. A continuous, teeth-rattling drone that vibrates through the entire plane–especially in the stick and pedals. Yeah, sometimes I could diagnose the engine by my grip on the stick.

I lined up the Mustang with Main Street, Vanceburg, Kentucky. People on the sidewalks stopped and stared. Cars slowed and people poked their heads out.

They knew who it was.

The Mustang was a lot slower than the Shooting Star. I could see the smiling faces as I zoomed over head.

I pulled the stick to climb.

Nostalgia had reared its ugly head, and my old horse was the perfect cure. A lot of good memories of shitty, rainy England. Getting drunk with buddies, shooting barracks rats with my .45, even dumping a handful of .50 caliber bullets in our old stove to see the guys scramble.

The faces of horrified civilians flashed before my eyes, but I shoved them back in the corner.

I buzzed the white house at the edge of town. Mama and Gladys were in the backyard again, waving. The garden was green and healthy, and Gladys was really showing. I’d better see her before the baby was born or she’d give me hell. But the news about me becoming a test pilot would cheer her up. Yep, me–a test pilot. Not much call for warriors anymore, and the pay was better. She’d have to help me with the math though.

I waved and wagged my wings.

The colonel would give me some leave. He knew my situation.

I climbed to altitude and headed back to Wright Field. I had a hot date with a Shooting Star.

END

I was right at home, stationed at Wright Field just outside of Dayton, flying the army’s first jet fighter, the P-80 Shooting Star, when a blowjob got my ass sent back to Europe. Before you get all hot in the britches thinking this is a dirty story, let me tell ya’, you don’t want to be on the receiving end of a blowjob. Flyboys know what I mean. Ya’ see, a blowjob is a Messerschmitt 262–a twin-jet engine fighter that started showing up near the end of World War Two. Bastards would swoop in, blast a B-17 with its 30 millimeter cannons and then beat it. They cruised 200 miles per hour faster than a Mustang, so we never caught ’em. Cowards wouldn’t dogfight either.

Yeah, that’s one blowjob you wanted to avoid.

So as I was saying, I was flying test planes at Wright. These planes needed constant maintenance, especially the new jets that seemed to fall apart after each flight. I’d take ’em up for a spin before the test pilots got them back. Test pilots. There’s your joke for the day. I’d be haulin’ ass at about 15,000 feet in a Mustang or maybe a T-bolt, and I’d see one of those test pilots take off and I’d pounce his ass–see if he wanted to dogfight. No bullets you understand, just a friendly game of chase. They never lost me, and they sure as hell didn’t have the balls to do the same to me. I would’ve left them spinning in my prop wash–and in a lesser plane to boot.

Colonel Boyd, Chief of the Flight Test Division, said the new test pilots would sometimes ask about me. “Is that Chuck Adler?” they’d ask, their eyes as big as saucers. “Yeah,” he’d say. “That sorry son-of-a-bitch is Adler.”

“Is it true he shot down two German jets?”

The colonel’d nod. “Yep. Has a thing for blowjobs, I guess.”

I’m getting a little sidetracked with my bona fides. There’s a story here, as big as any my gramps told me back in Kentucky.

#

I dipped the nose of the Bell P-59 and lined her up with Main Street, Vanceburg, Kentucky. The jet eased down like scotch whiskey–smooth as silk. No roaring Merlin engine. Hardly any vibration to speak of. Just the muted whine of the engines.

Pea-sized citizens stopped dead in their tracks when they realized what was happening.

I grinned. They knew it was me. Only one man would buzz Vanceburg in one of those top-secret jet planes. It wouldn’t be the first time.

At about three thousand feet people on Main Street began waving.

I nosed lower.

The P-59 wasn’t really top-secret anymore. Sure, in ’42 it was, but just three years later it was an under-powered antique compared to the Shooting Star. I loved it none-the-less. Hell, I loved it more because I never got to fly it when it was brand-spanking new. We had three years of catching up to do.

Faces screamed by, everyone smiling, especially the kids who jumped and waved their arms over their heads.

I waved back, and in the briefest of moments, imagined the horrified faces of Germans–women, children, and old people–all fleeing the pounding .50 caliber guns.

I yanked the stick up and almost caused a stall. Circling, I could see the happy Americans still waving.

You never really escaped the war, even back home. It’s hard to explain.

Near the edge of Vanceburg was a two-story white house with two women working in a backyard garden. They stood and waved as I passed.

I waved back. Hi Mama. Hi Honey. See you soon.

At 400 miles per hour it was hard to tell if Gladys was showing yet. I wagged the wing tips to send a farewell and climbed to 15,000 feet. Colonel Boyd would give me some leave time before the summer was over. He knew my situation.

#

Hanger H is for maintenance: a lot of overhauls, so it’s loud in there. Pneumatic tools, air compressors and so forth. It’s a tough place to talk, so the colonel had given me a little office between hangers in case I had to chew out one of the maintenance crew for screwing up. That’s where I met the colonel and two government suits after I’d landed.

Now, when I got back to the States, a lot of folks treated me like a hero, parades, banquets and such. But that didn’t cut any mustard with the colonel. He was a big, grey-haired, cigar-chomping S.O.B. who didn’t buy into any of that hero crap. It was always “yes sir” “no sir” with the colonel, and that was fine by me. He had an important job to do.

So he was waiting for me along with these two civilians in my office. One was a bit older than me, maybe a college graduate with slick hair and a sly smile, like he knows all the stains on my underwear. And the other guy was an old flier–I spotted that first thing. Grey in the temples, angular face, big chin and falcon-like eyes good for hunting. Yeah, he was a hunter. I felt like I should’ve known him, but I couldn’t quite place the face.

The colonel gestured to the two men. “This is Aaron Jones O.S.S. Drove all the way from Washington to see you.” The colonel did a good job of hiding his sarcasm, but I could hear it. When you develop secret planes, the O.S.S. is one of your biggest benefactors.

We shook hands.

I looked at the older G-man, but the colonel clammed up. He expected me to recognize this guy. A pressure situation for some, but pressure for me was a P-59 stalling straight vertical at 8,000 feet.

I extended my hand. “You’re Eddie Rickenbacker.”

He nodded, smiled and shook. “Pleasure.”

Nobody would ever call me a history buff, but everyone knew Rickenbacker was hotter than a whore’s pillow back in World War One doing loop de loops in those bi-planes that’d barely qualify as crop dusters now-a-days. If I’d been born way back when, I would’ve had twice his number of kills. Maybe three times as many.

As we shook his eyes narrowed, and I had the cold feeling he knew what I was thinking. Or more likely, he was thinking the opposite: You’re lucky I wasn’t born twenty years later, kid, or I’d be standing where you are, and you’d be back home mucking out the horse stall.

Rickenbacker and the college boy sat on the thread-bare couch I’d found at a rummage sale, and I took the chair behind my desk.

The colonel sat on the edge of my desk since it was pretty empty. I’m not a paperwork kind of guy. “So,” he began. “You fellas want to talk to Captain Adler?”

The college boy, Jones, nodded. “We want to borrow him for a bit. If everything goes well, he’ll be back in the States before the end of the year.”

I shook my head. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Jones gave me that know-it-all look again. “You’ll go where you’re ordered. You’re a soldier.”

“You don’t understand,” I said. “I have first choice of my assignment since I was shot down in France. And the wife has a bun in the oven. She’s living with my folks, and this is the closest base.”

“This isn’t a reassignment; it’s a short mission,” said Jones. “And don’t give me that ‘rules’ crap. You were supposed to go home after you were shot down, but you went to Ike personally and had him keep you fighting.”

Rickenbacker, who’d been staring out the window at one of the jets, turned and gave me a penetrating look as if wanting to peel away the skin to see what was underneath.

The colonel butted in. “I don’t understand this mission thing. The war’s over.”

“There’s still resistance activity in Germany,” said Jones. “Someone’s flying a Messerschmitt two-sixty-two and blowing the hell out of Allied aircraft.”

“And you want me to go back to Europe to do your dirty work? No chance.”

Jones’ expression turned more genial. “Come on, Chuck. Deep down inside, don’t you want to go? The Shooting Star against the Messerschmitt two-sixty-two? The first jet-powered dogfight in history?”

He had a point. The two jets were almost evenly matched. The Messerschmitt’s 30 millimeter nose cannons could end a dogfight instantly, but he’d have to be a hell of a shot. The Shooting Star’s six .50 cals had much more sweep. I would win, but that didn’t mean I was buying into their bullshit.

“Why me? There’re dozens of fighter pilots with more kills than me. Hell, most of ’em are still in Europe.”

Jones tugged at his collar. “There…there are a lot of considerations. Your psychological profile is perfect for…for–”

I balled my fists. “For abandoning my wife?”

“Your profile indicates you’re emotionally distant,” Rickenbacker said. “That the job at hand is more important than any discomfort from the outcome. When you were flying, was there anything more important than killing Germans?”

I eased back in my chair. “You won’t win this argument; I’ve run through it a million times. When I sent a Kraut to the deck, I never felt anything but joy. Not because I was emotionally distant, whatever the hell that means. But because every plane I sent out of the sky was step closer to the end of the war.”

Rickenbacker’s face hardened. “So tell me about the atrocities.”

“What do you mean?”

He sneered, and looked out the window as a re-painted Jap Zero rolled by. “That’s the difference between us, you know–the old fighter pilots and the new. It used to be about honor. We were modern-day knights. And when we fought, it was the ultimate test of man and machine. The war didn’t even matter. We wept when one of ours was killed, and we saluted when the enemy was shot down. When Baron von Richthofen was shot down on our side of the line, we buried him with full military honors.” He looked back at me. “But today’s pilot is different. I asked you about atrocities, Captain Adler.”

“Well, the Kraut pilots were known to shoot our boys who’d parachuted. And there were all those camps they found after the war.”

“I’m talking about American atrocities, Captain.”

I fidgeted with my wedding band. “We had orders.”

“So did the Germans,” said Rickenbacker. “What were your orders?”

“To shoot anything that moved…or didn’t move. Trains, cars, houses, schools, convents, hospitals. Anything.”

“And did you follow those orders?”

I looked at Rickenbacker’s smug face and imagined smacking it back to 1918. “We all thought the orders were bullshit. I’m not saying I disobeyed an order, but I know I didn’t commit any atrocities.”

“Convenient logic,” said Rickenbacker.

After a few seconds of fuming silence, Jones looked up. “It’s not worth the argument, really. It’s a done deal.”

The colonel huffed. “This is bullshit.”

“Wait a second,” I said, poking a finger at Rickenbacker. “What the hell are you doing here in the first place? Why would the O.S.S. hire a dinosaur from the year nineteen who-gives-a-shit just to bust my balls?”

The old fighter ace leaned back into the couch. “Let me ask you a question, Adler. Can you work with people different from yourself?”

I shrugged. “Sure.”

“I’m serious,” he said. “Can you work with, say, Mexicans?”

“I have before. No problem.”

“Germans?” he continued. “Negros? Japanese? Jews?”

“I don’t have it in for anybody,” I said. “Just look in the hanger if you don’t believe me. If they can do the job, they’re on my ‘A’ list. I even have one of those ‘Rosie the Riveter’ gals doing some welding on a T-bolt.”

“The undead?”

I rattled my head. “Did you just say ‘undead’?”

Now it was Rickenbacker’s turn to squirm. “Yes. Um… in this case, ghosts.”

The colonel and I looked at each other and burst out laughing.

“I’m serious,” said Rickenbacker

“I’m sure you are,” said the colonel between snorts of laughter. “I mean, think of how much we’ll save on health care!”

I pointed a finger at the colonel. “I always knew you had a ghost payroll!”

The colonel bellowed another laugh and slapped his leg.

“People always have this reaction,” Rickenbacker said. “Believe me, you’ll sober up quick. Because the pilot of that Messerschmitt you’ll be chasing is Baron von Richthofen–the Red Baron.”

#

I stopped laughing all right–when my orders arrived a week later. Didn’t even have time to see Gladys. I knew she’d be madder than a box of frogs when she heard what was up. I called her from the colonel’s office, and she wasted no time telling me what she thought of me, the U.S. Air Corps, the O.S.S. and even President Truman and his wife. I couldn’t give her a lot of details of course, but I let her know I’d be safe.

I make it sound like leaving was easy, but it wasn’t. Let me tell ya’ about Wright Field. I never even knew this place existed until the day I found it on the map. It just happened to be the closest base to Kentucky and Gladys. I wonder what my face must’ve looked like on that first day when Colonel Boyd gave me the three dollar tour. Hanger after hanger full of the most incredible planes you could imagine. The Jap Zero, Spitfires, the Russian Lavochkin La-7, even the Folke-Wulf 190 which a lot of flyboys thought was the only plane that could match the Mustang. Then the colonel showed me the jets. The English Gloster, the P-59 prototype, the Messerschmitt 262, and the Shooting Star. As Assistant Chief Mechanic, I’d be working on them all, and I’d be flying them.

I honestly thought Wright was some Podunk airbase where I’d be working on trainers and thinking about retirement for the rest of my life. By pure luck, I’d landed at the Grand Temple of aviation. It was like Aladdin’s lamp with unlimited rubs.

Yeah, I wonder what my face must’ve looked like.

Anyway, I went to Europe….

#

I touched down on a weed-infested dirt airstrip just outside La Villeneuve, France. It had been abandoned after the First World War, and the O.S.S. thought it’d be the perfect secret hiding place for the Shooting Star. I taxied up to a decrepit hanger where a two-man crew waited to refuel the jet and push it into the crib.

Within ten minutes, I was dressed in civilian clothes and hoofing it into La Villineuve right before sundown.

I pushed open the door to the only café in the tiny village. There were casual glances in my direction. War-time shortages still dogged France, and the café’s few electric wall sconces were backed up by kerosene lanterns on each table. Open windows allowed the breeze to clear most of the fumes.

My contacts, Lufbery and Chapman, stood out like turds at a tea party. Seated at a corner table, they wore khaki waist coats, leather helmets with goggles, and worst of all, winter scarves draped around their necks. Rickenbacker had told me these guys were his flying buddies from the first war, but jeez, it’s kind of hard to maintain cover when you’re decked out like Clark Gable in some cheesy war movie.

A sweet young thing in a black dress and a Jane Russell hairdo asked me something in French. They taught us a little French in the Air Corps in case we were ever shot down, but I’d learned a lot more after spending a couple of months with the Maquis while they snuck me over the Pyrenees and into Spain.

I pointed at the corner table. “I’m just going to join my friends.”

She glanced at the table and gave me a confused look. “Should I open a bottle of Médoc for when your friends arrive?”

I thought maybe my French was a little rusty, and I’d misunderstood her. I definitely understand “bottle” though.

“Yes, please.”

“How many glasses?”

“Well, three of course.”

“Well, of course. How silly of me.” She turned up her nose and marched off.

I crossed the room, drew up a chair and sat.

The two men nodded at me. One was thin-faced with blond curls coming from under his helmet. The other had a pencil-thin mustache and a square jaw. Both were in their twenties.

I scooted my chair back and stood. “Excuse me. I’ve made a mistake.”

“No you haven’t,” said the blond guy in French-accented English. “You’re Adler, right?”

I paused and sat. “Yeah, that’s me.”

“I’m Raoul Lufbery,” said the blond. He inclined his head to the guy with the mustache. “This is Victor Chapman.”

“That can’t be,” I said. “Lufbery and Chapmen were Rickenbacker’s buddies in the first war. You guys are my age.”

The waitress showed up carrying a tray with a bottle and three glasses. She bent and extended the tray through Lufbery and onto the table. “Four Francs please,” she said as she straightened. “Oh, and we still accept American Dollars.”

I sat with my pie-hole gaping until Chapman cleared his throat. “You gonna pay the lady or what?”

That broke my trance. I pulled out some Francs and handed them over with a “thank you.”

She dropped them into her pocket and left.

“Oh come now,” said Lufbery. “It can’t be that big of a shock. Eddie was supposed to brief you about ghosts.”

“He did,” I said. “But how’s a guy supposed to take that? I thought he was joking.”

“You might want to keep your voice down,” said Lufbery. He tilted his head.

I turned to see many in the now silent room staring at me. “They can’t see you, can they?”

“Right,” said Lufbery. “To them, you’re talking to an empty chair.”

I turned back, set my elbow on the table and rested my chin on my hand, hiding my mouth. “This isn’t happening. This is just a nightmare.”

“Oh, it’s real, Adler,” said Chapman.

“I think you need a drink,” said Lufbery.

“Damn right I do.” I poured a glassful and downed half in a single gulp. “This means that Rickenbacker was right about the Red Baron flying around in a jet.”

“It’s true in a sense,” said Lufbery. “He can’t run the controls, but he can ride in the cockpit. Give the pilot instructions. Convince him to do foolish things.”

I poured myself another drink. “So I’m supposed to shoot him down. But that won’t kill him, will it? He’ll just start all over again.”

“It takes a lot of effort to intercede in the physical world,” said Lufbery. “The amount of energy he’s using to pull this shit has to be huge. It’ll drain him in the spiritual world. He could disappear even to other ghosts. Self preservation is just as important there as it is here. Once you shoot him down….” He adjusted the collar of his uniform. “If you shoot him down, he won’t have enough energy to start from scratch.”

I grinned. “Oh, I’ll shoot his ass down all right. Why’s he doing this in the first place?”

“That’s the question, isn’t it?” said Lufbery. “Why’s he putting it all on the line just to shoot down planes again? If there’s any chance for you to find out–”

Chapman’s face twisted into a snarl. “Lufbery! That’s not in the cards. The Baron has to go down. The ifs, whys and wherefores don’t matter.”

Lufbery shrugged. “I guess that would solve the immediate problem, but the mystery would still remain.”

Chapman turned to me. “You’re going to be stationed here and patrolling into Germany everyday. Can’t station you in Germany and run the chance of him spotting the base and shooting things up. Your boundaries are from the Belgium border to Kassel, down to Nuremberg and back to France.”

“And he can do this during daylight hours?”

“He can make his voice be heard in daylight,” Chapman said. “But it’s a huge amount of effort.”

I shook my head. “I still don’t understand. How come I can see you?”

“Very few people can actually see and hear ghosts even with the effort,” said Lufbery. “Bit of a mystery, really. My guess is that people who’ve been close to death are most likely to see us. People like you who should’ve died a hundred times over, but somehow manage to survive. It’s as if the grave can’t tell us apart anymore.”

“Enough,” said Chapman, standing. “We have to go. We’re wasting our own energy just being here.”

Lufbery stood too. “Captain Adler, your credentials put you heads above everyone else for this mission. I’m confident that you’ll be victorious. Good hunting!” He saluted.

I stood and saluted. “Thank you. I’ll….” I turned to see the café customers eyeing me again. I looked back at Lufbery.

He was sporting a broad, shit-eating grin. “Gotcha!”

#

I looked down on the thin blue ribbon that snaked through the German countryside. The Rhine. On a sunny August day, it looked downright peaceful. Hell, it was peaceful. No burning tanks. No flashing triple A. No black puffs of flak. I’d crossed the Rhine dozens of times during the war escorting bombers to their targets, but I never had the chance to take in the sights. Too busy staying alive, I guess.

“See anything, Adler?”

“Jesus!” The jet rocked as my arms flinched. I glanced around the cockpit. Nothing there but freezing thin air. “Who the hell’s in here? Is that you, Lufbery?”

Oui. An extra set of eyes up here won’t hurt. Besides, you’ll need advice if we meet the Baron.”

“I need extra eyes like I need an extra mother-in-law!” I swept the horizons: a couple of Mustangs on patrol at about 12,000 feet at my four o’clock; a DC-3 transport lining up for a landing at the Kassel airstrip.

No Baron.

The radio crackled to life and an American spoke. “Kassel tower to unidentified jet. What is your designation? Respond or you will be intercepted.”

“Somebody spotted you,” said Lufbery.

“They use radar now-a-days,” I said. I toggled the mic in the oxygen mask. “This is Patrol eight-nine-five.”

“Roger,” the tower controller responded.

There was a pause, and I imagined an overworked controller shuffling through disheveled papers. “Roger, eight-nine-five. If you spot anything there are Allied patrols in your area. Good hunting”

“Roger,” I said. At least they were organized enough not to shoot at me.

“They wouldn’t be any help even if we ran into the Baron,” said Lufbery. “They’d never keep up.”

“Are you still here?”

“You know it, Adler. Rickenbacker said you shot down two jets while flying a prop plane. How’d you do it?”
I touched my temple. “Sharp eyes.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it,” I said. “I spotted them miles before they even knew I existed. And in a dive, a Mustang can keep up with a jet. All other advantages are trumped by better eyesight.”

I turned south toward Nuremberg. The Baron might be hidden in the countryside, but he’d be hunting near big cities where the traffic was thickest.

“I’d want my advantage to be a sense of honor,” said Lufbery. “You know about honor, Adler?”

“Oh crap. You’re one of those ‘knights of the sky’ types like Rickenbacker. Let me shine a little sunlight up your skirt. Warriors fight battles, not knights. And warriors follow orders, do their job and kill the bad guys. Things changed since the first war….”

“You don’t know shit about the first war!”

My radio cracked. “Patrol eight-nine-five.”

I pounded the mic. “Standby!”

It was nearing dusk, but still too bright to see a ghost hovering around the cockpit. “I sure as hell know I don’t salute the enemy when I send him to the deck! And I never cried over anyone who bought the farm, even my best friends. Now those were the guys I saluted. A guy couldn’t keep it together dropping tears for their buddies. It’d drive ’em nuts after too long.”

Lufbery’s voice quivered. “You… you’re barely above an animal. That’s why it was so easy to commit those crimes.”

“I didn’t commit any goddamn crimes!”

“Civilians!” Lufbery hissed.

“I never said that!”

“Patrol eight-nine-five,” came the voice in my headphones. “Radar shows a bogie to your northeast at sixteen thousand feet. Closing fast.”

I yanked the stick hard right, but it wasn’t fast enough. My left wing exploded and I caught the shape of a jet in my peripheral vision as it flashed past in a dive. The Shooting Star spun from impact of the 30 millimeter shells. I fought the controls and my jet responded and leveled out. Looking at the wing, I found that the spin was caused more by the force of the shells than by damage. It looked like hell, the wingtip at least, all torn up like a cardboard box. The flaps and slats were out of the damage zone, but the aileron looked like hell. I tried a gentle roll, but got no movement. I was a dead duck.

“He’s coming up low on your four o’clock,” said Lufbery.

I looked right and saw the dark shape of the 262 rising up to intercept. It was painted in green camouflage with Luftwaffe black crosses on its wings. But instead of aiming to polish me off, he turned to fly parallel. I could see the pilot’s head and the sun’s glint off his goggles as he eyed my plane.

There was no way I could dogfight. I eased back the throttle and descended. “I’m bailing out. I don’t know what you’re gonna do.”

I toggled the mic. “Kassel tower. This is Patrol eight-nine-five.”

“Are you going to send a couple extra planes down with us?” Lufbery asked. “You know they’re going to send those Mustangs to help out.”

The American voice rang in my headphones. “Eight-nine-five. This is Kassel tower.”

“Stand by.” The ghost had a point. There was no reason to add the death toll just because I blew it.

I looked around for the 262 and found him fifty feet off my left wing. I could see his face–older than me, maybe twenty five or thirty. He was neatly shaven and had a rounded chin, but was otherwise unremarkable. Except for the eyes, of course. You can always tell a pilot by his eyes. His were cold and deadly, staring straight at me.

I reached for the canopy latch.

“Hold on, Adler,” said Lufbery. “He’s signaling us.”

“Doesn’t matter what he’s doing. I’m alive because I know when to bail out.” I looked at him anyway.

The pilot made a motion at pulling at his parachute cord and then shook his fists as if firing a machine gun.

“Oh you bastard!”

“What?” Lufbery asked.

“He’s saying he’ll shoot me if I bail!” I gave him the finger.

Humor flickered on the pilot’s face, and he pointed at a new heading.

“This SOB wants to take me prisoner!”

“This might be good, Adler. We need to know what the Baron is up to. Maybe we can find out.”

“That ain’t the Baron. That’s some psychotic who’s carrying on his own personal war.”

“Oh, he’s in there,” said Lufbery. “Same as I’m in here with you.”

I thought of the .45 on my hip. A duel of the ground maybe. I’ll still get out of this.

I wrestled with the stick and turned in the direction the pilot had indicated.

Within ten minutes, I spotted a dirt runway in the countryside bordered by a patch of woods. The pilot motioned that I land.

I worried about ruts as the sun disappeared below the horizon, but the runway was smooth. A barn stood at the far end–no doubt a converted hanger. I taxied to the end and turned to watch the 262 come in.

Three guards in civilian clothes and carrying Mauser rifles, rushed from the barn and surrounded the Shooting Star. So much for my .45. I popped the canopy and raised my hands.

Within minutes, Lufbery and I were flat-foot on the ground and face-to-face with the German pilot and the ghost of the Red Baron.

Lufbery looked nearly solid in the dim light.

The pilot wore a grey Luftwaffe uniform. The Baron, a smooth-faced fellow with a fated expression, wore a tunic-style jacket with brass buttons down one side and an officer’s cap. His pants ballooned at the thigh and tall black boots stretched nearly to his knees. A flared cross hung from his neck: the Blue Max. Unlike Lufbery, the Baron pulsed, his body becoming bright and then fading to near invisibility. Evidently Chapman was right; the Baron was nearly out of spiritual energy.

“I am Lieutenant Dierk Hoffmann,” said the pilot. He motioned for me to lower my hands. “You weren’t watching. I could’ve killed you easily.”

“I lost my concentration.”

“You let a little thing distract you,” he said.

My first inclination was to punch this guy’s lights out. No one likes to be humiliated, but I knew he was right. I’d broken my own rules of discipline and paid the price. He hadn’t humiliated me–I’d humiliated myself.

The Baron spoke. His voice sounded distant and hollow. “Would you like a second chance?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

He fiddled with his medal and looked away. “Look at my country, decimated. Not so unlike the first war. We’ll rebuild our buildings of course, but we have a stain on us that is not so easily washed away.” He looked squarely at me. “We followed very bad people who committed unspeakable crimes. As a German, I am ashamed.”

“What Hitler offered was so…intoxicating,” said the pilot, Hoffmann. “Being drunk on the illusion of greatness made it easier to overlook the camps.”

“Once, to be a soldier or a pilot was the greatest honor,” said the Baron. “Even after the disasters of the first war, wearing the uniform meant a handshake from an old-timer or a kiss from a girl.”

“I hope you’re going somewhere with this,” I said.

The Baron straightened and gave me an icy stare. “I want to restore my people’s faith in the Luftwaffe. I want them to see men of honor in a battle of honor. I want to wash this stain away by a dogfight–the way it was meant to be fought!”

My guts started to twist. “This whole thing was a set-up to get me to Europe!”

“Don’t flatter yourself,” said Hoffmann. “Any Allied fighter would’ve worked. This way, we knew we’d get the best.”

“You and I, Herr Adler,” said the Baron, “in the planes of my day dueling over the skies of Nuremberg. The citizens will see that honor still exists in the Fatherland. They will know that the stain can be washed away. That a uniform is a thing of admiration, not of fear.”

“Here’s what they’ll see,” I said. “Two nut cases taking pot-shots at each other in junkyard planes.”

“We will spread the word so people will know,” said Hoffmann. “We have many friends who believe in our cause. Enough citizens will understand. They will take heart. We can’t wash the stain away overnight, but this will plant the seed.”

I gave a humorless laugh. “I won’t do it.”

Lufbery turned to face me. “Don’t be so hasty. This is an opportunity. He’s not just thinking of himself, he’s thinking of you and the Air Corps. Your crimes. The United States has a stain too.”

“Oh, now don’t start that shit again. I told you once….” I paused as the blocks fell into place. “I’ll be the brown side of a polar bear. You’re in on this! You and that S O B Rickenbacker. You intentionally distracted me so this bastard could shoot up my wing!”

“You have to atone for your sins, Adler,” said Lufbery. “You know it in your heart.”
I swung hard at Lufbery’s chin.

His instincts kicked in and he tried to duck.

I would’ve clocked him good if he’d been real, but given the circumstances, my fist sailed through his face and I stumbled along with it.

Hoffmann barked an order and one of the guards leveled his Mauser.

The Baron pressed his lips into a thin line. “Agree or die.”

“Fresh out of honor?”

“I’m out of time and patience. Die here, now, or decide your fate in the sky.”

Mama didn’t raise no fool. I had no experience with bi-planes, but at least I’d have a slim chance as compared to being shot point blank.

“Fine, you bastard–seeing how you hold all the cards.”

The Baron smiled. “Excellent! No matter the outcome, we will show the world that honor still exists. At dawn, we will take off together and battle over the skies of Nuremberg.”

“Who takes off first?” I asked.

“Huh?”

“Rules. I’m talking about rules. If you take off first, you get to altitude faster and have the advantage. How do I know you won’t just turn and wax my ass as I’m taking off?”

The Baron blinked. “Well, you have my word I won’t.”

“Not good enough. Come on, I’ve agreed to this. The least you could do is make it fair.”

“It is fair! I’m not a cheat!”

I scratched my chin and played it cool. “I don’t know. I’d feel a lot better if you took off ten minutes ahead. That’d give me plenty of time to climb to a decent altitude. I’d meet you over Nuremberg.”

“Of course,” said the Baron, his smile, calculated. “My friends will still be here to make sure you climb into the cockpit. And should you decide to, oh, fly in a different direction, I’ll take my jet and blow every Allied plane I find out of the sky. I’ll kill hundreds, and it’ll be on your head.”

So much for playing it smooth. I sneered, but nodded.

“Good!” said the Baron. “See you in the morning.”

#

I watched as Hoffmann and the Baron lifted off from the dirt strip. Well, I assumed the Baron was with Hoffmann–the ghosts were invisible in the bright morning light.

They flew a tri-plane, painted blood red of course, with two black crosses on the top wing. It would turn the heads of a lot of pilots up there, but would otherwise be dismissed as a puttering antique.

“The Baron’s Fokker is armed with two Spandau machine guns, seven point nine two millimeters,” said Lufbery, “with a range of a little over two thousand yards. You won’t have to worry about that though. The Baron’s method is to get close, really close before he opens up.”

I nodded and watched the tri-plane shrink to the size of a sparrow. The growl of the engine faded at about two miles.
Lufbery continued. “It has phenomenal lift. He can make a flat-end turn–literally spin about in place and head right into you with guns blazing.”

“Uh-huh.”

“You’re not listening, Adler.”

“Huh? Oh, sorry. Just watching the Baron.”

While one guard kept a gun on me, the other two pushed a bi-plane out of the converted barn. I felt a slight tremor under my skin–the same feeling I always got right before flight. A visceral sort of anticipation like the promise of sex. Hell, better. There wasn’t all that talking afterward.

“The Sopwith Camel,” Lufbery said.

It was a beautiful thing of green canvas, wooden ribs and steel wire. The looming top wing made it taller than a Mustang, maybe twenty feet in height. Looking at it, I imagined an albatross, wings spread wide, sunning itself before a day of fishing.

I jumped up on the lower wing and looked into the tiny cockpit. No room for a parachute in there. There were a few rudimentary instruments, no throttle, and the twin Vickers machine guns were mounted on top of the cowling right under the pilot’s nose. Some sort of interruption gear must have kept them from shooting away the propeller.

“Let’s go.” I climbed in and one of the guards cranked the propeller while I pressed the ignition. After a couple of bursts of white smoke from the undercarriage, the engine fired to life. There was no way to muffle the exhaust of a rotary engine, so it made twice the noise of a Merlin engine. I wished for one of those gallant scarves that Lufbery wore just so I could plug my ears.

Lufbery, also in the cockpit, shouted instructions for take off. It seemed that instead of a throttle, the pilot could control the ignition to certain cylinders to add or reduce power.

The three guards, their guns still leveled, watched as I taxied to the runway. I gave them a small wave and ignited all the cylinders. The Camel roared forward and lifted off.

I glanced back at the hidden airfield and guards, still watching.

“She’s tail-heavy, and good at loops,” said Lufbery.

I turned forward and pushed the nose up for the ceiling.

“You know you don’t have an oxygen mask, right?”

“I don’t have a parachute either,” I said. “And I’m missing a couple of other things, but I know I want maximum altitude.”

After a minute, I looked over my shoulder. I was about a mile away from the strip. The guards, little dots now, appeared to be trudging back to the barn.

“If you go too high you’ll black out.”

My head started to swim as I climbed higher, maybe 17,000 feet now. “Does this baby glide?”

“Sure. Bi-planes and tri-plane are light and have a lot of lift. At the right speed they glide just fine.”

I looked back at the strip–two miles. I cut all ignitions. The engine went dead and the propeller came to a stop.

“What the holy hell are you doing?”

I turned right into a steep dive, and the propeller started a slow spin as the wind whistled past. “I want to test its gliding abilities.”

“It doesn’t need testing!” Lufbery screeched. “We’re supposed to meet the Baron over Nuremberg!”

“Change of plan.” I pulled up to a more controlled dive and approached the strip. Lufbery was right: it glided nicely. I leveled off as I neared the end of the runway–about 4,000 feet altitude. The guards, their backs to me, were blissfully unaware.

“They’ll shoot you if you try to land!”

“I think you’re right,” I said. I lined them up in my gun site and pulled the trigger.

#

The Messerschmitt 262 skimmed over fields and farm houses like a dragonfly over a pond. Now this was flying–balls-out speed in a jet built for battle.

“You can’t do this, Adler. It’ll ruin everything.”

I’d hoped Lufbery would’ve gotten the message and hauled ghost ass back over the river Styx. Maybe he thought he still could pull my strings.

“I gotta do it. Those are my orders.” I scanned the skies for Mustangs. I could avoid radar this low, but Allied patrols were on the prowl for a rogue German jet, and at tree level, I was a tempting target for a diving attack. I could’ve radioed the tower at Nuremberg and explained my situation, but most pilots would think it was a trick. I know I would.

“You could’ve made history today,” said Lufbery. “You could’ve made a difference.”

“Whatever.”

Houses became more numerous, and the eastern edge of Nuremberg came into view. There was Hoffmann and the Baron, their tri-plane puttering at about 16,000 feet.

I hit the throttle and climbed.

Tracers spat past my canopy, and two Mustangs flashed by in a dive.

I jammed the stick left in case more were on my twelve o’clock.

“Those guys are good,” I said. “Right out of the sun–I didn’t see them.”

“Yeah,” said Lufbery. “I spotted them a couple of minutes ago lining you up.”

“You son-of-a-bitch!”

“One back stab deserves another,” Lufbery said.

I looked right to see the Mustangs climbing, but they were way too slow. They’d never catch me.

Looking left, I spotted the tri-plane hugging the tree tops and trying to be invisible. They must’ve dove for it. Problem was, you can’t be invisible in a bright red plane.

I dove for the deck. I needed to work fast before the Mustangs discovered they had another chance.

The distance closed.

Hoffman and the Baron must’ve realized they were doomed because they tried that flat-end turn Lufbery had told me about. Their plane literally turned on a dime and came right at me. Any other plane would’ve dropped like a rock, but the Fokker just dipped for a moment before it regained its lift. Amazing.

Its Spandau machine guns flickered at me.

I snickered and pressed the trigger to the 30 millimeter cannons. The nose of the 262 buzzed and rounds poured out, all falling well short of the tri-plane.

“What the hell?”

“Oh, these cannons have awful muzzle velocity,” said Lufbery. “You’re going to have to get a lot closer.”

“Oh crap!” I heaved the jet to the right. When Hoffmann turned to match me, I reversed to the left to get a brief shot at him. Unfortunately, he had the same idea. We both let out a burst at 300 yards. My nose buzzed again, while bullets raked my wing. One bullet pierced the canopy and I felt the hot bite of glass in my cheek and ear. I touched my face and came up with a little blood–nothing serious.

I turned right to look for Hoffmann and the Baron. In the green field just below were two pieces of flaming wreckage not even discernable as a plane. My guns may not have had much range, but they were cannons after all and were meant to shoot down bombers.

The Mustangs were coming in fast on my eleven o’clock. I hit the throttle and beat it to the French border. The few bullets the Baron landed weren’t enough to hurt my flying.

“You killed honor today, Adler. You proud of yourself?”

“I’m proud I did my job.”

“What do you think you did to those people in Nuremberg who saw this? A German jet destroying a defenseless German tri-plane. They’ll never respect the uniform again.”

“All I did was strip away window-dressing to show war for what it is, ugly slaughter. Like I said–I’m a warrior, not a knight. I kill without a thought in my head. You really want to know what those people down there think? They just realized that it was bullshit artists like you who got them into this mess in the first place. I just put you out of business.”

#

Ever sit next to the tuba player in band class? Okay, me neither, but I think that’s what the Mustang’s Merlin engine sounds like times a hundred. A continuous, teeth-rattling drone that vibrates through the entire plane–especially in the stick and pedals. Yeah, sometimes I could diagnose the engine by my grip on the stick.

I lined up the Mustang with Main Street, Vanceburg, Kentucky. People on the sidewalks stopped and stared. Cars slowed and people poked their heads out.

They knew who it was.

The Mustang was a lot slower than the Shooting Star. I could see the smiling faces as I zoomed over head.

I pulled the stick to climb.

Nostalgia had reared its ugly head, and my old horse was the perfect cure. A lot of good memories of shitty, rainy England. Getting drunk with buddies, shooting barracks rats with my .45, even dumping a handful of .50 caliber bullets in our old stove to see the guys scramble.

The faces of horrified civilians flashed before my eyes, but I shoved them back in the corner.

I buzzed the white house at the edge of town. Mama and Gladys were in the backyard again, waving. The garden was green and healthy, and Gladys was really showing. I’d better see her before the baby was born or she’d give me hell. But the news about me becoming a test pilot would cheer her up. Yep, me–a test pilot. Not much call for warriors anymore, and the pay was better. She’d have to help me with the math though.

I waved and wagged my wings.

The colonel would give me some leave. He knew my situation.

I climbed to altitude and headed back to Wright Field. I had a hot date with a Shooting Star.

END

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