To Geoff and Gina
The vibrating clangour from the four great piston engines set teeth on edge and made an intolerable assault on cringing eardrums. The decibel-level, Smith calculated, must have been about that found in a boiler factory, and one, moreover, that was working on overtime rates, while the shaking cold in that cramped, instrument-crowded flight-deck was positively Siberian. On balance, he reflected, he would have gone for the Siberian boiler factory any time because, whatever its drawbacks, it wasn't liable to fall out of the sky or crash into a mountain-side which, in his present circumstances, seemed a likely enough, if not imminent contingency for all that the pilot of their Lancaster bomber appeared to care to the contrary. Smith looked away from the darkly opaque world beyond the windscreens where the wipers fought a useless battle with the driving snow and looked again at the man in the left-hand captain's seat.
Wing Commander Cecil Carpenter was as completely at home in his environment as the most contented oyster in his shell in Whitstable Bay. Any comparison with a Siberian boiler factory he would have regarded as the ravings of an unhinged mind. Quite dearly, he found the shuddering vibration as soothing as the ministrations of the gentlest of masseurs, the roar of the engines positively soporific and the ambient temperature just right for a man of his leisured literary tastes. Before him, at a comfortable reading distance, a book rested on a hinged contraption which he had swung out from the cabin's side. From what little Smith could occasionally see of the lurid cover, depicting a blood-stained knife plunged into the back of a girl who didn't seem to have any clothes on, the Wing Commander held the more serious contemporary novelists in a fine contempt. He turned a page.
“Magnificent,” he said admiringly. He puffed deeply on an ancient briar that smelt like a fumigating plant. “By heavens, this feller can write. Banned, of course, young Tremayne”—this to the fresh-faced youngster in the co-pilot's seat—“so I can't let you have it till you grow up.” He broke off, fanned the smoke-laden air to improve the visibility, and peered accusingly at his co-pilot. “Flying Officer Tremayne, you have that look of pained apprehension on your face again.”
“Yes, sir. That's to say, no, sir.”
“Part of the malaise of our time,” Carpenter said sorrowfully. “The young lack so many things, like appreciation of a fine pipe tobacco or faith in their commanding officers.” He sighed heavily, carefully marked the place in his book, folded the rest away and straightened in his seat. “You'd think a man would be entitled to some peace and quiet on his own flight-deck.”
He slid open his side screen. An icy gust of snow-laden wind blew into the flight-deck, carrying with it the suddenly deepened roar from the engines. Carpenter grimaced and thrust his head outside, shielding his eyes with a gauntleted right hand. Five seconds later he shook his head dispiritedly, screwed his eyes shut as he winced in what appeared to be considerable pain, withdrew his head, closed the screen, brushed the snow away from his flaming red hair and magnificent handlebar moustache, and twisted round to look at Smith.
“It is no small thing, Major, to be lost in a blizzard in the night skies over war-torn Europe.”
“Not again, sir,” Tremayne said protestingly.
“No man is infallible, my son.”
Smith smiled politely. “You mean you don't know where we are, sir?”
“How should I?” Carpenter slid down in his seat, half-dosed his eyes and yawned vastly. “I'm only the driver. We have a navigator and the navigator has a radar set and I've no faith in either of them.”
“Well, well.” Smith shook his head. “To think that they lied to me at the Air Ministry. They told me you'd flown some three hundred missions and knew the continent better than any taxi driver knows his London.”
“A foul canard put about by unfriendly elements who are trying to prevent me from getting a nice safe job behind a desk in London.” Carpenter glanced at his watch. “I'll give you exactly thirty minutes' warning before we shove you out over the dropping zone.” A second glance at his watch and a heavy frown. “Flying Officer Tremayne, your gross dereliction of duty is endangering the entire mission.”
“Sir?” An even deeper apprehension in Tremayne's face.
“I should have had my coffee exactly three minutes ago.”
“Yes, sir. Right away, sir.”
Smith smiled again, straightened from his cramped position behind the pilots' seats, left the flight-deck and moved aft into the Lancaster's fuselage. Here in this cold, bleak and forbidding compartment, which resembled nothing so much as an iron tomb, the impression of the Siberian boiler factory was redoubled. The noise level was so high as to be almost intolerable, the cold was intense and metal-ribbed metal walls, dripping with condensation, made no concessions whatsoever to creature comfort. Nor did the six metal-framed canvas seats bolted to the floor, functionalism gone mad. Any attempt to introduce those sadistically designed instruments of torture in H.M. penitentiaries would have caused a national outcry.
Huddled in those six chairs sat six men, probably, Smith reflected, the six most miserable men he'd ever seen. Like himself, each of the six was dressed in the uniform of the German Alpine Corps. Like himself, each man wore two parachutes. All were shivering constantly, stamping their feet and beating their arms, and their frozen breath hung heavy in the ice-chill air. Facing them, along the upper starboard side of the fuselage, ran a taut metal wire which passed over the top of the doorway. On to this wire were clipped snap-catches, wires from which led down to folded parachutes resting on top of an assortment of variously shaped bundles, the contents of only one of which could be identified by the protruding ends of several pairs of skis.
The nearest parachutist, a dark intense man with Latin features, looked up at Smith's arrival. He had never, Smith thought, seen Edward Carraciola look quite so unhappy.
“Well?” Carraciola's voice was just as unhappy as his face. “I'll bet he's no more bloody idea where we are than I have.”
“He does seem to navigate his way across Europe by opening his window and sniffing the air from time to time,” Smith admitted. “But I wouldn't worry—”
He broke off as a sergeant air-gunner entered from the rear, carrying a can of steaming coffee and enamel mugs.
“Neither would I, sir.” The sergeant smiled tolerantly. “The Wing Commander has his little ways. Coffee, gentlemen? Back at base he claims that he reads detective novels all the time and depends upon one of the gunners telling him from time to time where we are.”
Smith cradled frozen hands round the coffee mug. “Do you know where we are?”
“Of course, sir.” He seemed genuinely surprised, then nodded to the metal rungs leading to the upper machine-gun turret. “Just nip up there, sir, and look down to your right.”
Smith lifted an enquiring eyebrow, handed over his mug, climbed the ladder and peered down to his right through the Perspex dome of the turret cupola. For a few seconds only the darkness filled his eyes then gradually, far below and seen dimly through the driving snow, he could make out a ghostly luminescence in the night, a luminescence which gradually resolved itself into a criss-cross pattern of illuminated streets. For a brief moment only Smith's face registered total disbelief then quickly returned to its normal dark stillness.
“Well, well.” He retrieved his coffee. “Somebody should tell them down there. The lights are supposed to be out all over Europe.”
“Not in Switzerland, sir,” the sergeant explained patiently. “That's Basle.”
“Basle?” Smith stared at him. “Basle! Good God, he's gone seventy or eighty miles off course. The flight plan routed us north of Strasbourg.”
“Yes, sir.” The sergeant air-gunner was unabashed. “The Wing Commander says he doesn't understand flight plans.” He grinned, half apologetically. “To tell the truth, sir, this is our milk-run into the Vorarlberg. We fly east along the Swiss frontier, then south of Schaffhausen—”
“But that's over Swiss territory!”
“Is it? On a clear night you can see the lights of Zurich. They say Wing Commander Carpenter has a room permanently reserved for him there in the Baur-au-Lac.”
“He says if it's a choice between a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany and internment in Switzerland he knows which side of the frontier he's coming down on ... After that we fly down the Swiss side of Lake Constance, turn east at Lindau, climb to eight thousand to clear the mountains and it's only a hop, skip and jump to the Weissspitze.”
“I see,” Smith said weakly. “But—but don't the Swiss object?”
“Frequently, sir. Their complaints always seem to coincide with the nights we're around those parts. Wing Commander Carpenter claims it's some ill-intentioned Luftwaffe pilot trying to discredit him.”
“What else?” Smith asked, but the sergeant was already on his way to the flight-deck. The Lancaster lurched as it hit an infrequent air pocket, Smith grabbed a rail to steady himself and Lieutenant Morris Schaffer, of the American Office of Strategic Services and Smith's second-in-command, cursed fluently as the better part of a cup of scalding coffee emptied itself over his thigh.