Jerek Blok had always assumed that on the day it finally happened, he would be so cool, ice wouldn't melt in his hands. But now, at seven-forty-eight on the morning of June 6, both his hands were trembling.
The radio operator in the airfield's gray concrete control building was slowly dialing through the frequencies. Voices drifted in and out through a storm of static; not all of them were German, evidence that British and american troops had already seized some radio transmitters.
Through the pre-dawn hours, there'd been scattered reports of parachutes descending over Normandy. Several airfields reported being bombed and strafed by allied planes, and just before five o'clock in the morning, two fighter planes had screamed out of a rain shower and marched bullets through the building where Blok now stood, bursting out every window and killing a signals officer. Dried blood streaked the wall behind him. One of the three Messerschmitts on the field had been shot up beyond repair, and another had a riddled fuselage. The nearby storage warehouse, where Theo von Frankewitz had been confined, had also been badly damaged. But, thank the fates, the hangar had been unscathed.
as the sun rose in a cloud-plated sky and a strong salt breeze blew inland from the English Channel, the fragmented radio reports told the tale: the allied invasion of Europe had begun.
"I want a drink," Blok said to Boots, and the hulking aide opened a thermos of brandy and gave it to him. Blok uptilted it, the harsh liquor making his eyes water. Then he listened, his heart pounding, as the radio operator found more voices in the cyclone of war. The allies were swarming ashore, it appeared, in a dozen places. Off the Normandy beaches lay a truly fearsome armada: hundreds of troop transports, destroyers, cruisers, and battleships, all flying either Stars and Stripes or Union Jacks. The sky was claimed by hundreds of allied Mustang, Thunderbolt, Lightning, and Spitfire fighter planes, strafing German strongholds while the big Lancaster and Plying Fortress bombers flew deeper into the heart of the Reich.
Blok took another drink.
The day of his destiny, and that of Nazi Germany, had arrived.
He looked at the other six men in the room, among them Captain van Hoven and Lieutenant Schrader, who had been trained to serve as the B-17's pilot and copilot. Blok said, "We go."
Van Hoven, his craggy face resolute, walked on shattered glass to a lever on the wall and without hesitation pulled it downward. From atop the building a shrill bell began to ring. Van Hoven and Schrader, along with their bombardier and navigator, ran toward the large reinforced concrete hangar about fifty yards away as other men-the ground crew and the B-17's gunners-came out of a barracks behind the hangar.
Blok put the thermos aside, and he and Boots left the building and strode across the pavement. Since leaving Skarpa Island, Blok had lived in a Dutch mansion about four miles from the airfield, where he could oversee the loading of the carnagene bombs and the final training of the crew. Then there had been drills at all hours of the night and day; he would find out now if the drills had been worthwhile.
The crewmen had entered the hangar through a side door, and now, as Blok and Boots approached, the hangar's main doors were winched open. When they were halfway open, a low muttering echoed out across the pavement. The noise rapidly grew, through a snarl to a roar. The hangar doors continued to part, and as they opened the uncaged monster began to emerge.
The glass dome of the bombardier's position was marred with cracks that looked real even within a distance of a few feet. Painted bullet holes, the edges grayish blue to simulate bare metal, punctured the olive-green skin beneath the drawing of Hitler squeezed in an iron-mailed fist. The words "Iron Fist," in English, completed the B-17's nose art. The huge aircraft slid from the hangar, its four propellers whirling. The glass of the belly turret gun and the top turret were painted to look as if they had been almost completely shattered. False bullet holes pocked the sides of the plane in random patterns, and had been painted on the looming tall fin. all the pieces had been put together, using the cannibalized parts of several crashed B-17's, after Frankewitz had done the artwork. United States army air Force insignia completed the deception.
Of all the B-17's gun positions, only two-the waist's swivel machine guns-were manned and loaded. But no firing would be necessary, because this was in essence a suicide flight. The allied planes would let Iron Fist pass to its target, but coming home again was a different question. Van Hoven and Schrader both understood the honor of piloting this mission, and their families would be well provided for. But the waist positions, with their wide rectangular openings through which the machine guns were swiveled to follow targets, would look more convincing if...
Well, that was a task yet to be completed.
Once free of the hangar, Van Hoven braked Iron Fist to a halt. Blok and Boots, holding their caps down in the windstorm of the props, walked toward the main entry door on the plane's right side.
a movement caught Blok's eye. He looked up. an aircraft was circling the field. He had a few seconds of horror, expecting another strafing attack, until he saw it was a Dornier night fighter. What was the fool doingi He didn't have permission to land here!
One of the waist gunners unlatched the door for them, and they entered the plane. as Boots crouched forward, along a narrow walkway through the aircraft's waist, Jerek Blok drew his Luger and fired two shots into the head of the starboard waist gunner, then blew the port-side gunner's brains out as well. He went about the task of positioning the bodies in the rectangular openings so their blood would stream down the sides of the plane and they would be in full view.
an authentic touch, he thought.
In the cockpit Van Hoven released the brakes and started them rolling once more along the runway to their takeoff point. There they stopped again, while pilot and copilot checked their gauges and instruments. In the bomb bay behind them, Boots was performing his own function: removing the rubber safety caps from the nose fuses of the twenty-four dark green bombs, and carefully giving each fuse a quarter twist with a wrench to arm them.
His final work done, Blok left Iron Fist and went out to wait for Boots by the side of the runway. The magnificently camouflaged aircraft trembled, like an arrow about to be shot into flight. When the carnagene exploded in the streets of London, the messages of disaster would go to the commanders of that armada off the Normandy shore, and then trickle down to the soldiers. By nightfall there would be mass panic and retreat. Oh, what glory for the Reich! The Fuhrer himself would dance with-
Blok's throat clutched. The Dornier was landing.
and, worse, the stupid fool of a pilot was speeding along the runway right for Iron Fist!
Blok ran in front of the B-17, waving his arms wildly. The Dornier, burning rubber as its brakes locked, cut its speed but still came on, blocking the runway. "Get out of the way, you idiot!" Blok shouted, and drew his Luger again. "You damned fool, get off the runway!" Behind him the engines of Iron Fist were revving to a thunderous roar. Blok's cap whirled off his head, and went into one of the props where it was shredded to dust. The air shimmered with oily heat as the B-17's engines built power. Blok held his Luger at arm's length as the Dornier rolled toward him. The pilot was insane! German or not, the man had to be forced off the run-
Through the Dornier's windshield he saw that the co-pilot had golden hair.
The pilot was bearded. He recognized both their faces: Chesna van Dorne and the man who'd been with her and the baron. He had no idea how they'd gotten here, but he knew why they'd come and that must not be allowed.
With a shout of rage, Blok began firing the Luger.
a bullet cracked the windshield in front of Chesna's face. a second ricocheted off the fuselage, and a third punched through the glass and hit Lazaris in the collarbone. The Russian cried out in pain, glass fragments flying around Michael, who sat behind the cockpit. as Blok kept firing at the windshield, Michael reached for the entry hatch's handle and turned it. He leaped out onto the runway's pavement and sprinted beneath the Dornier's wing toward Colonel Blok, the propellers of the night fighter and the B-17 whirling up roaring windstorms.
He was on the man before Blok knew he was there. Blok gasped, tried to get a shot off into Michael's face, but Michael grabbed his wrist and uptilted the Luger's barrel as the bullet fired. They grappled between the propellers, Blok trying to dig his fingers into Michael's eyes. Michael struck his fist into Blok's jaw, snapping the man's head back. Blok held on to the Luger, and Michael held on to the colonel's wrist. Blok shifted his weight violently in an effort to throw Michael into the Dornier's prop, but Michael had read the move seconds before it came and he was ready to resist it. Blok shouted something-a curse, lost in the engine noise-and chopped the flat of his free hand at Michael's nose. Michael was able to dodge the full power of it, but the blow hit the side of his head and stunned him. Still, he gripped on to Blok's wrist, bending the arm back at the elbow in an effort to snap it. Blok's trigger finger spasmed with the pain, and two bullets left the Luger. They pierced one of the B-17's engine cowlings, almost overhead, and the black smoke of burning oil bloomed from the wounds.
Michael and Blok battled between the propellers, the wind screaming around them, threatening to throw them both into the spinning blades. In Iron Fist's cockpit, Van Hoven saw the trails of burning oil from one of the four engines. He released the brakes, and the aircraft began to lurch forward. Boots, still working in the bomb bay, looked up as he realized they were moving and roared, "What the hell are you doingi"
Blok slammed his elbow into Michael's chin and wrenched the Luger free. He lifted it to blow the false baron's skull apart. He grinned in triumph: his last grin, a fleeting triumph.
Because in the next second Michael hurtled forward in a burst of power, catching Blok at the knees and lifting him up and backward. The Luger's bullet passed over Michael's back, but the blades of Iron Fist's propeller bit true.
They carved Jerek Blok into red streamers of blood and bone from the waist up, as Michael gripped the legs and dove to the pavement beneath the props. In an eyeblink, there was nothing left of Blok but those legs, and a mist of blood staining the concrete. Silver teeth clinked down, and that was all.
Michael rolled beneath the blades, Blok's disembodied legs still twitching where they lay. In the bomber's cockpit, Van Hoven veered Iron Fist off the runway into the grass to avoid the Dornier, and as he passed the black night fighter he failed to note the figure that was following.
The bomber was picking up speed, moving back onto the pavement. Michael Gallatin reached up, past the bleeding body that lay over the rectangular gunport, and locked his hands around the machine-gun barrel. In the next second the B-17 was hurtling forward, and Michael lifted his feet up and winnowed into the plane, shoving the dead man aside with his shoulder.
Iron Fist reached the runway's end and nosed up. Its wheels left the ground, and Van Hoven turned the plane-one of its engines leaving a scrawl of black smoke-toward England.
Two minutes later the Dornier followed. Chesna had taken the controls as Lazaris pressed his hand to his broken collarbone and fought off unconsciousness. She looked at the fuel gauges; the needles had fallen past their red lines, and the warning lights of both wing tanks were blinking. She powered the plane after the trail of smoke as the wind shrilled through the windshield cracks in front of her face.
The B-17 climbed to about five thousand feet before it leveled off over the gray Channel. In the waist section, as wind whipped through the gun ports, Michael looked out at the smoking engine. The prop had ceased turning, and small sputters of fire shot from the blackened cowling. The damage wouldn't stop Iron Fist; in fact, it only made the masquerade more convincing. He searched the dead men for weapons, but found nothing. and as he stood up from his search he felt the B-17 pick up speed and there was a whoosh as something flew past the starboard gun portal.
Michael peered out. It was the Dornier. Chesna circled, about five hundred feet above. Fire! he thought. Shoot the bastard down! But she didn't, and he knew why. She feared hitting him. The die was cast. If Iron Fist was to be stopped, it was up to him.
He would have to kill the pilot and co-pilot, with his bare hands if necessary. Every passing second took them closer to England. He looked around for a weapon. The machine guns were loaded with belts of ammunition, but they were bolted to their mounts. The plane's interior had been stripped bare except for a red fire extinguisher.
He was about to go forward when he saw another plane through the portal. No, two more. They were diving on the Dornier. His blood went cold. They were British Spitfire fighters, and he saw the bright orange streaks of their tracer bullets as they opened fire on Chesna. Blok's camouflage was successful; the Spitfires' pilots thought they were protecting a crippled american Fortress.
In the Dornier Chesna jinked the plane violently to one side as tracers zipped past. She wobbled the wings and flashed the landing lights, but of course the Spitfires didn't turn away. They came in for the kill. Chesna felt the plane shudder and heard bullets crash into the port-side wing. and then the alarm buzzers went off, and that was the end of the fuel. She dove for the sea, a Spitfire on her tail. It sent a stream of bullets into the Dornier's fuselage, and they ricocheted off the metal ribs of the plane like a storm of hailstones. The Dornier was almost down on the water. She said, "Hang on!" to Lazaris, and wrenched the yoke back to lift the nose an instant before the plane smacked down. There was a bone-jerking impact, the seat belt cutting into Chesna's body as she was thrown forward. Her head slammed against the yoke, knocking her almost senseless. She tasted blood in her mouth, her tongue bitten. The Dornier was floating, and the Spitfires circled overhead and flew off after the Fortress.
Good shooting, she thought grimly.
Lazaris got his seat belt off while Chesna unsnapped her own. Water was flooding into the cockpit. Chesna stood up, her ribs throbbing with pain, and went back to the rack where a life raft was stored. The escape hatch was nearby, and together she and Lazaris forced it open.
Michael saw the orange life raft bloom on the Channel's surface. a British destroyer was already moving toward the downed Dornier. The two Spitfires circled Iron Fist, then took up positions on either side and slightly behind. Escorting us home, Michael thought. He leaned out the starboard portal, into the wail of the wind, and frantically waved his arms. The Spitfire on that side wobbled its wings in a sign of greeting. Damn it! Michael raged as he pulled back in. He smelled blood, and saw it all over his hands. It had come from the corpse that had been leaning out of the plane. Blood had streamed down the bomber's side.
He leaned out again, smeared more blood on his hands, and began to paint a Nazi swastika on the olive-green metal.
There was no response from the Spitfires. They held their position.
Desperate, Michael knew he had only one remaining option.
He found the safety on the starboard waist gun. He unlatched it and trained the barrel on the slow-flying Spitfire. Then he squeezed the trigger.
Bullets ripped holes along the plane's side. Michael saw the amazed expression of the pilot, staring right at him. He swung the gun back and kept shooting, and an instant later the Spitfire's engine belched smoke and fire. The aircraft dove away, still under the pilot's control but heading for the drink.
Sorry, old chap, Michael thought.
He went to the opposite portal and started to open fire with the gun there, but the second Spitfire zoomed to a higher altitude, its pilot having seen what had happened to his companion. Michael gave a few bursts to drive home his point, but the bullets-thankfully-missed by a wide margin.
"What was that damned noisei" Van Hoven shouted in the cockpit. He looked at Schrader and then at Boots, whose face had become pallid at the reality of riding in this death plane to London. "It sounded like one of our own guns!" Van Hoven looked out the glass, and gasped with horror as he saw the flaming Spitfire gliding toward the sea. The second Spitfire buzzed them like an angered hornet.
Boots knew the colonel had killed the gunners. That was part of the plan, though the guns had been loaded to lure the crewmen into believing they would be alive when they crossed the Channel. So who was back there manning the machine guni
Boots left the cockpit, moving through the bomb bay where the carnagene was armed and ready.
Michael kept firing as the Spitfire circled them, the gun shuddering in his hands. and then he got what he wanted: the Spitfire's wing gun sparked. Bullets thunked into the side of Iron Fist and threw sparks around Michael. He returned the fire as the British plane turned in a swift circle. The bastard was mad now, ready to shoot first and ask questions la-
Michael heard the clatter of hobnails on metal.
He looked to his left, and saw Boots coming at him along the walkway. The huge man stopped suddenly, his face a rictus of shock and rage at seeing Michael manning the machine gun, and then he came on with murder in his eyes.
Michael swiveled the gun to the left to shoot him down, but its barrel clunked against the rim of the opening and would go no further.
Boots hurtled forward. He kicked out, and before Michael could protect himself the big boot smacked into his stomach and sent him reeling backward along the walkway. He fell and skidded, the breath knocked out of him.
The Spitfire delivered another barrage, and as Boots reached Michael, machine-gun bullets tore through Iron Fist's skin and ricocheted around them. Michael kicked into the man's right knee. Boots howled with pain and staggered back as Van Hoven put Iron Fist into a shallow dive to escape the enraged Spitfire pilot. Boots went down, clutching his knee, as Michael gasped for breath.
On its next pass the Spitfire sent bursts of bullets into Iron Fist's bomb bay. One of those bullets ricocheted off a metal spar and glanced away to hit a carnagene bomb's fuse. The fuse sputtered, and smoke began to fill the compartment.
as Boots tried to haul himself up, Michael hit him on the point of the chin with an uppercut that snapped his head back. But Boots was as strong as an ox, and in the next second he heaved himself up and crashed headlong into Michael, throwing them both back against a metal-ribbed bulkhead. Michael hammered his fists down on Boots's cropped skull, and Boots punched into Michael's bruised stomach. Spitfire bullets ripped through the bulkhead beside them, showering them with orange sparks. Iron Fist shuddered, an engine smoking on its starboard wing.
In the cockpit Van Hoven leveled the plane off at one thousand feet. The Spitfire kept flashing back and forth, determined to bring them down. Schrader shouted, "There!" and pointed. The hazy landmass of England lay within sight, but now a third engine was smoking and beginning to miss. Van Hoven throttled forward, giving the bomber all the power it could handle. Iron Fist headed toward England at two hundred and ten miles per hour, Channel whitecaps breaking in its wake.
a fist cracked against the side of Michael's jaw, and Boots drove a knee into his groin. as Michael crumpled, Boots grasped his throat and lifted him, slamming his skull into the metal overhead. Stunned, Michael knew he had to change but he couldn't get a grip on the thought. He was lifted again, and again his skull hit the overhead. as Boots started to lift him a third time, Michael cracked his forehead against Boots's face, crunching the man's nose. Boots dropped him and staggered back, blood streaming from his nostrils. But before Michael could set himself for another attack, Boots swung a kick at his ribs. Michael dodged the blow, catching most of its impact on his right shoulder, and the breath hissed between his gritted teeth.
The Spitfire came head-on at Iron Fist. The wing guns sparked, and in the next instant the cockpit was full of flying glass and flames. Van Hoven slumped forward, his chest punctured by a half-dozen bullets, and Schrader writhed with a broken arm. One of Iron Fist's engines exploded, sending shrapnel tearing through the cockpit. The bombardier cried out, blinded by metal fragments. The aircraft sank lower toward the waves, flames gnawing in the ruined cockpit and across the starboard wing.
Boots limped toward Michael, who tried desperately to shake off the pain. Reaching down, Boots gripped his collar and hauled him up, then slammed a fist into his face. Michael fell back against the bulkhead, blood all over his mouth.
Boots drew his fist back, to smash into Michael's face again.
Before the blow could be delivered, Michael twisted to one side and his hands found the red cylinder of the fire extinguisher. He tore it loose from its straps and swung it around as Boots's fist came at his face. The man's fist was stopped short by the cylinder, and his knuckles broke like matchsticks. Michael punched the cylinder into Boots's stomach like a battering ram. The breath whooshed from the huge man, and Michael struck upward with the cylinder into Boots's jaw. He heard the satisfying crunch of the jawbone breaking. Boots, his eyes glazed with pain and his lips split open, grappled with Michael for the cylinder. a knee drove into Michael's side, and as he sagged to his knees Boots wrenched the cylinder away from him.
Boots lifted the fire extinguisher, intending to smash Michael's brains out with it. Michael tensed to lunge at him before the cylinder could slam down.
Over the shriek of the wind Michael heard the chatter of the Spitfire's guns. Fiery tracers came through the plane's side and ricocheted off the bulkheads. He saw three holes, each the size of a fist, open across Boots's broad chest. and in the next instant a bullet clanged against the fire extinguisher, and it went off with a blast like a miniature bomb.
Michael flung himself flat as pieces of metal clattered in all directions. Chemical foam hissed on the bulkheads. He looked up, and saw Boots standing there holding on to a machine-gun mount with one arm.
Boots's other arm lay a few feet away, the hand still twitching. He looked at it, blinking with dumb amazement. He released his grip, and staggered toward his arm.
When Boots moved, his intestines began to slide from the gaping wound in his side. Pieces of red metal glistened in the hole, and his clothes were drenched with chemical foam. another wound had been torn open on the side of his throat, the blood streaming down from the severed veins like a crimson fountain. With each step Boots diminished. He stopped, staring down at his hand and arm, and then turned his head to look at Michael.
He stood there, dead on his feet, until Michael got up, walked to him, and knocked him over with a finger.
Boots crashed down, and lay still.
Michael felt near passing out, but one glance out the portal and the realization that the sea was less than three hundred feet below cleared his head. He stepped over Boots's grisly bulk and went toward the cockpit.
In the bomb bay he recoiled at the smoke and the hissing noise. One of the carnagene bombs was about to detonate. He went on, finding the navigator desperately trying to fly the plane as the pilot lay dead and the copilot was severely wounded. Iron Fist was dropping steadily, the Spitfire circling above. The coast of England was less than seven miles away. Michael said to the terrified navigator, "Put us down. Now."
The man fumbled with the controls, chopping the power off and trying to get the nose up as Iron Fist-now truly a crippled bird-dropped another hundred feet. Michael braced himself against the pilot's seat. Iron Fist fell, plowing into the Channel with a surprisingly gentle bump, its force at last spent.
Waves washed over the wings. Michael didn't wait for the navigator. He went back through the bomb bay to the plane's waist and unlatched the entry door. There was no time to search for a life raft, and he doubted if one had survived that hail of bullets. He jumped into the Channel's chilly water, and swam away from the aircraft as fast as he could.
The Spitfire came down low, skimming the surface, passed over Michael, and headed toward the green land beyond.
Michael kept going, wanting to get as much distance as he could between him and the Fortress. He heard hot surfaces sizzling as the plane began to sink. Perhaps the navigator got out, perhaps not. Michael didn't pause. The salt water stung his wounds and kept him from passing out. Stroke after stroke, he left the airplane behind. When he had gotten a distance away, he heard a rush and gurgling and looked back to see the plane going down at the tail. Its nose reared up, and on it Michael could see Frankewitz's drawing of Hitler squeezed in an Iron Fist. If fish could appreciate art, they'd have a grand time.
Iron Fist began to disappear, sinking rapidly as water gushed into the waist gun portals. In another moment it was gone, and air bubbles rose and burst at the turbulent surface. Michael turned away and swam toward shore. He was weakening; he felt himself wanting to let go. Not yet, he told himself. One more stroke. One more, and one after that. Breaststrokes definitely were superior to dog paddling.
He heard the chugging of an engine. a patrol boat was coming toward him, two men with rifles on the bow. a Union Jack pennant whipped in the rigging.
He was home.
They picked him up, wrapped a blanket around him, and gave him a cup of tea as strong as wolf piss. Then they trained their rifles on him, until they could get to shore and turn him over to the authorities. The boat was about a mile from harbor when Michael heard a distant, muffled whump. He looked back, and saw a huge geyser of water shoot up from the surface. One or more of the carnagene bombs had exploded in their bomb bay at the bottom of the English Channel. The geyser settled back, the water thrashing for a moment, and that was the end of it.
But not quite.
Michael stepped out on a dock, a harbor village behind him, and scanned the Channel for a British destroyer that he knew must be arriving soon. He shook himself, and water droplets flew from his hair and clothes. He felt overcome with happiness, even standing at the point of Home Guard rifles.
So happy, in fact, that he felt like howling.