'To Capture A Condor'

By Phineas Redux

—OOO—

Summary:— This is a military drama set in Great Britain in 1943. Flying Officers Claire 'Ricky' Mathews and Gabrielle Parker—secret lovers, members of the ATA, Air Transport Auxiliary, and the highly secretive SOE, Special Operations Executive,—are ordered to participate in an attempt to kidnap a high-ranking Nazi leader.

Disclaimer:— All characters are copyright ©2017 to the author. All characters in this story are fictional, and any resemblance to real persons living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Warning:— There is a considerable amount of light swearing in this tale.

—O—

"You want us to kidnap Himmler?"

"Yes, just so."

"That's—that's—"

"A viable proposition—when considered logically." Group-Captain Graham, head of 'Personnel Movements, Military'—or, to be transparent, a clandestine sub-department of SOE, the highly secretive Special Operations Executive, glanced from one to the other of the two women standing in their Nissen hut on Orkney Mainland. "We have a plan—a very well-thought-out good plan, I may say. I wouldn't have come all the way up here from London to discuss it personally if I didn't think that, at least."

"But, sir,—Himmler?" Claire 'Ricky' Mathews could see a church in daylight as well as the next sane person. "He's Nazi top-brass. Surrounded by security wherever he goes. You want us to blithely go to Germany; drop into some enemy airfield uninvited, an' casually ask him to please step into our British aircraft for a nice flight overseas? That's, begging your pardon, I'm sure, barmy."

"We have a Focke Wulf 200 Condor, all of our own."

"You what?" Gabrielle Parker,—partner, in more ways than one, of her friend,— broke into the conversation. "Where'd you get that, sir?"

"Never you mind." Graham came as near smirking as he had ever done in his life. "We, er, found it; er, mislaid, y'know,—so, finder's-keeper's, what."

"Even so, what's the, ha, plan, sir?" Ricky would need more convincing than this.

"Pretty much as you outlined just now." Graham was not in the least put out by this lack of belief and confidence in his proposition. "Thought you wouldn't like it when dropped out of a blue sky. But we can look at the detailed plan thoroughly, an' I'm sure you'll come round."

The two women fliers gazed at each other in disbelief. They had participated in some curious operations for the SOE before; but nothing on the scale, or ridiculousness, of the present proposal. Technical details at once presented themselves to the women.

"Gabrielle here, will need t'be the pilot." Ricky nodded at her blonde compatriot. "She's passed for four-engined planes; I'm not."

"Well, let it be so, then." Graham moved over to sit at the main table, reaching down to release the flap of his leather briefcase. "I've brought the plans, and some maps, with me. Sit down, and take a gander."

—O—

"First up is the most salient fact in the matter." Group Captain Graham sat at his ease, fiddling with the sheet of notes in front of him. "We have, never mind how, a fully operational Focke Wulf 200 Condor at our disposal. The significance of which is that it is the type flown by the 'Regierrungsstaffel', Germany's government VIP transport squadron. Like Herr Hitler, Himmler uses a Condor. But unlike the Fuhrer, Himmler does not have a personal pilot; he uses whichever pilots are available at any given time. That's where you two come in."

"Do the Germans have female pilots?" Gabrielle obviously considered this unlikely. "I've never heard of any."

"They have several test pilots who are female." Graham mused on the point. "I can name Hanna Reitsch, as the most important, probably. But there are several others. Many work in the German equivalent of our Air Transport Auxiliary."

"Oh."

The trio hunched over the table, intent on the sheets of notes and maps Graham had spread haphazardly everywhere.

"We've redesigned the plane's interior to as close a replica of the actual fittings of the real transports as we're able to." Graham waved a hand in dismissal of this point. "Anyway, close enough to fool anyone for long enough for you to take off. There'll have to be a full crew accompanying you, with a few extra hidden in dark corners; but these, of course, will all be SOE men. Himmler should board the plane with no more than three companions, we figure."

"Will any of our crew be German speaking?" Ricky arched an enquiring brow.

"Yes, Himmler doesn't speak English—at least as far as we have managed to gather." Graham took up another page of notes. "You two will be ensconced in the pilot's cabin, of course; so will not be called on to speak to the ra—er, him. We mean to flannel them along while the plane takes off, then spring our little surprise. Everybody's armed, of course; mainly automatic pistols, though there is one sub-machine gun, a Thompson, available."

"A shooting war, up in the air, could be self-destructive, Captain." Gabrielle frowned over this scenario. "Guns going off in all directions, inside the plane. Anything might happen."

"That's something we'll just have to live with." Graham shook his head. "Has to be done; the grabbing them, I mean. They will, ostensibly, be armed with their own pistol sidearms—though whether they'll be loaded, or they be any good with them is conjectural."

Ricky for one wasn't over-enamoured of this quaint method of making friends and influencing people.

"That's just dandy." She wrinkled her nose critically. "I'm fallin' out'ta love with this exercise with every detail I hear."

"Oh, one of the soldiers aboard'll be a doctor, too." Graham informed the women of this addition with a casual gesture of his right hand. "Necessary, y'know."

"Why?" Gabrielle never could abide mysteries.

"Oh, alright, if you must know all the secret details; it's to stop Himmler from committing suicide."

"What, by shooting himself, y'mean; instead of us?" Ricky felt like being sarcastic.

"Ha, a joke, I believe." Graham, on the other hand, could be cutting with the best. "In actual fact it's to stop him biting a cyanide capsule we have strong suspicions he may carry in his mouth—a false tooth."

"Good God." Gabrielle was astounded. "Are you joking?

"No, madam, fact, absolute fact." Graham nodded sadly. "With these Nazis, their warped mindset makes them firmly believe their opponents would be perfectly capable of treating them the way they'd treat us in similar circumstances. Shows the working of their tortured minds, don't'cha know, if nothing else. Mad, barking mad, the whole footling bunch of 'em."

Ricky exchanged another look with her opposite number, just as dubious as their last.

"Where's this debacle goin' t'take place, sir."

"Here are the relevant maps." Graham shuffled an opened map across the table, with apparent great good humour. "It shows the layout of north-west Germany. Your destination will be a small town called Ahden, just to the east of Dortmund. There's a single-runway airstrip there, used by the German military. It's where we have information Himmler will be visiting next Wednesday afternoon; that'll be, let me see, yes, August 4th 1943. You don't need to know the ins and outs of how we know—he'll just be there, take my word for it."

"Four days." Gabrielle scratched her chin thoughtfully. "I'll need that, at least, t'familiarise myself with something as big as a Condor. Anybody else know how t'fly it, sir?"

"No-one we can lay our hands on quickly." Graham smiled faintly at the young blonde woman. "Nor would we allow an outsider t'get t'know what was goin' on, anyway. You're on your own there."

"Christ."

"Shouldn't be much different from a Lancaster; you've flown them, haven't you?"

"Er, umm, just about."

"That'll do well enough." Graham picked up another typewritten page. "Now, here's the timetable. You're goin' t'be somewhat in the thick of things, by the way. Just at the start, anyway. Necessary subterfuge t'get you into the target-point undiscovered, y'see."

Ricky looked at Gabrielle; Gabrielle returned the compliment; then both gazed fixedly at the Group Captain, till even he realised an explanation was necessary.

"You can't just go off to Germany all by yourself." Graham shook his head at this foolish idea. "The Hun would knock you out of the sky before you'd crossed into their territory from the North Sea. Even if you made it that far by yourself, the Focke Wulf air-defence fighters'd carve you up before you'd gone ten miles."

"We'll be in a Condor, with German markings." Ricky posed the obvious question. "What'd they make of that, sir?"

"Not much." Graham recognised the reality of the situation. "They have all sorts of checks, codewords, and timetables, themselves. They'd know you were a wrong 'un immediately. That's why we have to escort you there under cover of a larger umbrella, as it were. Then you can go off on your own, an' drop in from the blue ether unannounced before they have time to consider the matter in any detail."

Both women knew when a nasty surprise was heading in their direction. Gabrielle reluctantly stepped forward to ask the inevitable question.

"Large umbrella?" She gazed mournfully at her commanding officer. "Why is a cold shiver runnin' down my spine, sir?"

"Come, come, ain't as bad as that. Well, not very." Graham tried to instil some starch into his troops. "What'll happen is, you'll set off from here, Base J, Orkney; then travel down the east coast till you reach Lincolnshire. There, keepin' strictly to your timetable, you'll meet up with, an' join, a group of Stirling bombers heading out over Germany to bomb Dortmund. By sheer chance they are virtually the same size, engine-layout, and general design as your Condor. Their normal cruising speed is more or less similar, too. You merely tag along with 'em; then break off on your own just before they reach their target. Your destination being only a few miles further to the east, y'see. And you'll reach the Ahden airstrip just at the correct time to pick up Himmler; on his way back from a conference which will have taken place, er, somewhere nearby."

This stunning proposition left both women non-plussed. What could you say, in such circumstances. Gabrielle had her eye on Ricky, and could see the thoughts forming in her lover's mind as clearly as if they had been spoken words—'There's plans; then there's hopeless plans; then there's acts of insanity; this present item bein' definitely the latter. I'm not doin' it.' Gabrielle felt pretty much the same.

"What's the SOE's standpoint on matters of mutiny, sir?" Ricky cocked an eye at her superior officer, rather coldly.

"We dam' the trouble an' expense of a trial: we take 'em out; find a nice quiet spot; offer 'em a last cigarette; an' shoot the b-gg-rs. Clear enough?"

"Oh, yes."

"Oh, yes."

"Any questions about this preliminary part?"

"What about the actual plane that ought t'be coming to pick up Himmler?" Ricky went on to concrete matters, after this detour into the realms of the highly likely. "And why isn't the plane takin' him there not simply goin' t'wait for him?"

"Ah, here's where our information has really struck lucky." Graham smiled at all and sundry as if it were Christmas, and he was the man in the red cloak. "After dropping Himmler off, the plane has to go on to another destination. It will be carrying two Generals, who are expected at another meeting some way off. On dropping them, then it'll return to Ahden. It should reach there at a particular time; but we mean you to arrive ahead of it, by half an hour or so. So, they'll be expecting a Condor; and a Condor is what they'll get. Straightforward; almost genius, in fact."

Neither Ricky nor Gabrielle felt they could give the plan this level of acceptance; but neither were they in a position to do much in the other direction. This was one of those moments when they simply had to face the knowledge that orders were orders; and all they could do was carry them out.

"It had better be a bloody good timetable, sir." Ricky growled low in her throat. "And how can you guarantee everyone, our boys as well as Jerry, will be able to keep exactly to plan, to the second?"

"Trust to Luck." Graham shrugged dismissively. "We make our plans; carry 'em out accordin' to Hoyle; an' hope we get a few good breaks. Now, as to the various details, here's what's needed—"

—O—

Gabrielle sat in the tight uncomfortable pilot's seat of the huge four-engined bomber—for that was its original military raison d'être—wrestling with the open-topped two-handed yoke steering wheel. Ricky sat to her right, trying to work out what several of the dials actually recorded, while keeping her ears tuned to the growl of the mighty BMW/Bramo radial engines. They were presently flying at a height of ten thousand feet, somewhere out over the wastes of the Atlantic about a hundred miles to the west of Orkney. The plane was already painted in German camouflage colours; with German insignia splattered in rather too noteworthy a manner all over the aircraft for the present occupiers' peace of mind. Several local fighter-plane airfields had been given rather hazy requests not to look too closely at any passing Condor; as had Coastal Command, with their lumbering but powerful Sunderland flying boats; neither of which precautionary measures filled Ricky or Gabrielle with confidence.

"What's the rpm?"

"Medium, on all four." Ricky replied to this request after peering at two dials she fervently hoped were the correct ones. "Damn these German tags. Why couldn't they use English?"

"Ha-ha. Well, we're flyin' high." Gabrielle shot a quick glance at her engineer. "We're flyin' within parameters, as far as we can tell; but we ain't flyin' smooth, not by a long way."

"Y'don't need'ta tell me that." Ricky growled miserably. "How can ya throw the dam' thing about so much? I'd'a thought its weight alone would'a kept it moderately level."

"Huh. Little you know about four-engined bags o'shi—planes like this." Gabrielle had been experiencing trouble in holding the plane steady from the moment they had taken off. "It's because of the mass, an' the momentum; they make the thing go off on its own, if you don't keep a tight grip on things. These goddam engines are animals, too. Give 'em an inch, an' they'd take control an' fly the plane into a spin at the drop of a hat."

Beads of sweat were indeed visible on the blonde pilot's forehead, below her flying-helmet, even at this height. They were just below the altitude where oxygen masks would have been compulsory, though it was still freezing cold—something, however, the women were accustomed to.

"How far will it be, from our Orkney base to Dortmund?" Gabrielle had been running over the finer points of Group Captain Graham's plan, to take her mind off present difficulties. "We got the range t'get there an' back, in this crate?"

"Yeah, easy." Ricky had been given the translated instruction manuals for the plane, and had spent several hours perusing them till she had most of the details at her fingertips. "It's just short of six hundred and sixty miles flying distance; say thirteen hundred and fifty round trip. This crate's supposed to have a two thousand, two hundred mile range, with full tanks."

"Jeez, that'll take hours."

"Yeah." Ricky nodded her agreement. "Better bring some snacks, an' a nice bottle of wine."

"Ha."

"But actually it'll be somewhat longer still."

"Oh, why's that?" Gabrielle had been forming a grin, but put this operation on hold awaiting her partner's answer.

"We're not taking the direct route." Ricky shrugged, as much as she could in her cramped seat. "We're going down the length of the North Sea coast, remember, till we meet up with the force of Stirlings over Lincolnshire. Then we take a dog-leg over the sea to Germany an' Dortmund. Adds about another fifty miles or so."

"God." Gabrielle paused to wrestle with the steering wheel for a moment, the plane's wings rocking up and down slightly the while. "OK, got it back. Jeez, what a beast. So, that'll be somewhere around three and a half hours there, an' the same back. Say just over seven hours for the full flight, not counting ground time at Ahden."

"Yep. I'd go along with that."

The conversation languished at this point, both Ricky and Gabrielle having their hands full. Gabrielle with the physical effort of keeping the massive plane under control; Ricky with monitoring the gauges and dials, as best she could.

"What speed are we doin'?"

"Just over two hundred." Gabrielle flicked a glance at the speedometer, then returned to holding the steering yoke handles in an iron grip. "Normal cruising speed."

"There's one thing about tailing the Stirlings over Germany." Ricky had thought of a positive angle for this part of their flight. "The Jerry air defence Focke Wulfs', or Messerschmitts', won't attack us. They'll think we're on their side. Probably wonder what the hell we're doin'; but leave it at that, hopefully."

"Yeah." Gabrielle grunted her assent. "With any luck. What worries me is our bluffing our way in to land at the Ahden airfield. Our radio-man had better be good at German."

"Leave that to Captain Graham." Ricky inclined her head slightly. "If he has to produce a perfect German speaker, he'll do it. OK, time t'return t'base. And please try'n keep the old crate on a level keel; I'm beginnin' t'feel seasick. Y'really sure y'can fly this monster?"

"Thanks ever so for your confidence." Gabrielle turned to aim a snarl at her better half. "O'course I can fly the dam' thing. Just because there's a trifle of air-currents bumping us about a smidgin y'get all het up. Relax, baby, mother's got it all in hand."

"Gods, what a gal." Ricky giggled uncontrollably. "Love ya, baby."

—O—

The next couple of days were copies of the first; Gabrielle eventually working out a system whereby she could handle the heavy four-engined plane more or less comfortably. Ricky had gone over her manuals again rigorously and now had a clear idea of what all the gauges and dials meant. They had, for security reasons, been going on these training flights by themselves; but, come the day, they would have a full five-man crew. Themselves, a radio operator and two passenger stewards; with four extra hidden SOE commandos. The plane, rather worryingly to them, was unarmed; this being the usual case with the larger 'Regierrungsstaffel' transports, they generally relying on an escort of German fighters; or, on some flights, just trusting to luck by themselves. The British authorities fully expected the up-coming flight with Himmler to be of the latter persuasion.

Finally everything was passed as A1, and the operation given the green light across the board. The last evening before the day of the flight, however, was not a happy one in the Nissen hut on the shore of Scapa Flow.

"I've written a letter t'my folks." Gabrielle sat at the table, in the centre of the long room with its rounded corrugated-iron roof, presenting a woeful countenance. "Oh, I'm looking on the bright side, don't get me wrong; it's just, y'know, just as well t'be safe an' sure."

"I ain't got anybody t'write to, ducks." Ricky sat by the blonde's side, a comforting arm round her shoulder. "Not anyone who'd really care a fig, anyway. But you're doin' the right thing. We can never be sure o'what's gon'na happen; especially on a run like tomorrow's. God, wish it was over, an' we were back here; laughin' an' takin' a drink, an' generally lettin' ourselves go."

"Somethin' t'look forward to." Gabrielle turned to the dark-haired woman, drew her down with a hand on her shoulder, and kissed her mouth slowly, carefully, and at length. "Mmm, that's good, I feel better now."

"Glad t'help." Ricky chuckled, running her fingers through blonde hair. "Lem'me know if ya need a re-run. Hades, look'it the time. Comin' t'bed, sweetheart?"

"You bet'cha." Gabrielle took her paramour's hand to walk over to where they had moved both single beds together. "You takin' the left side? Oh well, suppose I'll let you off with it, just this once."

"Thanks baby; hey, c'm here."

"Ooooh, nice."

—O—

The sea far below reflected its usual grim dark grey surface. The women had been flying for the past hour and a half and were now coming up on the coast of Lincolnshire. Spurn Head had passed beneath their wings some few minutes earlier; and now the long straight line of the coast could be seen in the distance to their right hand, with a line of whitecaps running down along the shore.

"Height?"

"Two thousand three hundred." Ricky had just checked the gauge.

"Any Spits or Hurri's swanning around, tryin' t'decide whether t'shoot us out'ta the sky or not?"

"God, woman, y'got an inferiority complex so huge I wonder it don't weigh this ol' crate down." Ricky sighed softly. "No, there ain't a thing in sight; y'know there was a general order t'ignore us. What more d'ya want."

"Hell, Ricky, y'know these Spitfire kids, they'd shoot at anything, just for the thrill o'the thing. Y'sure our parachutes are placed ready?"

"Jeez, woman, gim'me a break." Ricky had been putting up with her pilot's paranoid mutterings for almost the whole flight so far, and was getting fractious under the strain. "So, we're in a huge swastika-emblazoned Jerry bomber, flyin' blissfully along the coast o'England. Nothin's gon'na happen; Captain Graham gave us his word, remember?"

"F-ck Captain Graham."

"Oh dear."

All four engines were roaring smoothly, their power transferring through the body of the plane like a constant earthquake. Even as the women sat in their far from comfortable seats their bodies vibrated and quivered, making it almost impossible to relax.

"I'm goin' back t'check on the comfort o'the passengers." Ricky put a gloved hand on Gabrielle's shoulder as she levered herself out of her seat. "See ya in a bit."

She held onto several fittings as she made her way past the radio-operator sitting just to their rear, his earphones clamped firmly in place as he monitored the airwaves with a great deal of concentration. She pushed the sliding door aside and walked through into the main cabin, where the interior had been appointed similarly to the normal airliner type; several seats running down either side of a central walkway. Standing to the rear were two men in white coats and striped trousers, the stewards. Also sitting in several of the seats, for all the world like ordinary bona-fide passengers, except for their uniforms, were four young, hard-featured men—SOE commandos. Ricky walked up to one of these, Lieutenant Farnley, and leaned a casual arm on the seat-rest by his side.

"How's it goin', Lieutenant?"

"Everything under control, ma'am." Farnley was twenty-six, from a good public school, and determined to do his duty to the utmost. "We can't wait t'grab the son-uv'a-bitch. Private Walker, here, says he'll take great enjoyment in keeping the gentleman entertained on the way home by tellin' him all those music-hall jokes he learned as a lad at the Hammersmith Empire. That should make Herr bloody Himmler sit back an' wonder."

"Good God. Don't that come under the title of a war crime?"

"Ha-ha."

"Right, I got things t'do." Ricky turned back with a nod. "Keep your peckers up, an' if Jerry shoots at you, you got my permission t'shoot back at him."

Ricky returned to the flight-deck pursued by a wave of laughter from the soldiers, who had indeed every intention of making sure the high-ranking officer was made aware of his true status in the minds of the British public, and no mistake.

—O—

Ricky had hardly settled in her seat when Gabrielle touched her side with her glove and nodded out the right-hand window.

"Looks like we've made our rendezvous. That's a bunch of Stirlings, over there, or my Aunt Fanny didn't use'd t'be a circus horse-rider."

"Did she indeed; revelations o'your home life I never wanted t'know?" Ricky affected an ironic tone, which was lost in the overall thrum of the engines all round them. "Yep, that's our boys, about six hundred feet above us. Take us up, baby. Oh God, Hurricanes."

"Jeez, where?"

"To your left, about nine o'clock." Ricky leaned forward in her seat for a better look. "Christ, hope they got their mail this morning. Oh God, here they come."

As she spoke several shadows flickered across the bows of their plane flying from port to starboard, like sharks in the ocean. Thankfully they passed on, returning to their bomber escort duties after the investigatory fly-past; much to the relief of the women pilots.

"God, they must'a gotten their orders, then, right enough." Gabrielle let her pent-up breath out in a long sigh. "God, God, God, this is one helluva crazy thing we're doin' here; y'know that don't'cha, Ricky?"

"Too true."

Gabrielle opened the throttle a trifle and pulled the nose up. Within a couple of minutes they were level with the wave of four-engined Stirlings, though keeping a judicious distance to their rear.

"See the rear-gunner, on that Stirling to port?" Gabrielle's attention was still fixed on morose themes. "All he needs'ta do is open up with a sustained burst, an' you an' me are mincemeat, baby."

"Give it a rest."

"I can very nearly see the colour of his eyes—pale blue, I think. An' he doesn't look a day over eighteen. Oh, f-ck." Gabrielle leaned forward, grasping the two handles of her yoke steering wheel tightly, as the plane yawed wildly. "Hang on sister, their turbulence is throwing us off."

The plane bucked like a wild bronco for several seconds, before the pilot regained control; bringing it back to an even keel, though some distance further to the rear of the Stirlings than previously.

"Come on, catch 'em up." Ricky gestured ahead, at the silhouettes visible through the windshield. "They'll get away from us, otherwise."

"Belt up, Ricky." The pilot growled something else incomprehensibly into her face-mask. "I got everything under control. Just a bit o' throttle an' we'll be right up their backsides again, no bother."

"Look, that boy in the rear turret is doing something." Ricky pointed her gloved hand forward. "Is he tryin' t'get our attention? Looks like he's laughin'."

"F-ck him, too." Gabrielle had by this time lost all inclination to ladylike manners; her world appearing to her through a faint red haze: the physical strength necessary to hold the huge powerful plane in check straining her nerves as well as muscles. "If I had a remote-operated cannon in the nose of this thing I'd soon make him sit up an' take notice."

By this time the wave of bombers, with their strangely decorated hanger-on, had swung out over the North Sea; a waste of grey water flowing past under the bellies of the planes. Their cruising height had been set at six thousand feet, which they all spent the next ten minutes achieving. Their route would take them across the coast south of Boulogne, then over the Pas de Calais. Just south of Lille they would cross the Belgium border, make a course adjustment north-east, and head directly towards Dortmund. As a result, on the way, they would have to fly more or less directly over Brussels, then shave past Dusseldorf; so enemy fighters in considerable numbers, and a bucket-load of ack-ack, was expected. It was not going to be an easy ride for the defenceless Condor, by any means. The defending Hurricanes had been fitted with extra fuel drop tanks, so were still with them; but this state of affairs would only last a few more minutes at best.

The door of the cabin slid open, and Lieutenant Farnley stuck his shoulders into the flight-deck.

"How's it going, ladies?" He peered past the radio operator through the small open archway to where the pilots sat, and the view through the windscreen at the bombers ahead. "God, they look huge. Just thought I'd let you know I've put my men into their concealed positions in the rear of the plane. They won't be visible when the Nazi characters board, just the two stewards; an' they speak perfect German, even down to regional accents. Right, see you both later."

The door slid shut, and the women were alone, except for the radio-operator behind his partition-wall a couple of feet to their rear. It was at this moment he scribbled something on his notepaper and leaned sideways, sliding his headphones aside as he did so, to pass an incoming communication to the women.

"Message from Stirling leader," His voice was soft and cultured. "Enemy coast ahead, watch out for enemy fighters and ack-ack fire. He also says keep radio silence."

"Of course we're keepin' radio silence." Gabrielle snarled impatiently, twisting her head a moment to try and glimpse the unseen radio operator. "What does he think we are, dimwits? Well, hopefully Jerry'll be so flummoxed by our presence he won't know what t'do about us. What worries me, though, is the dam' ack-ack."

"Just have t'take our chance." Ricky was scribbling course corrections on her own notebook, and subjecting the gauges in front of her to a close scrutiny. "Everything seems within operating boundaries so far, Gabs, nothin' overheating, or anything like that."

"Good. What I'd like is—"

Directly ahead of them, about one hundred and fifty yards distant and slightly to their left, the Stirling rear gun turret containing the youth they had previously been making sarcastic remarks about suddenly disappeared in a blaze of orange stabs of flame, as its four Browning .303 machine-guns opened up as one; a flickering stream of bullets and tracer scything past the Condor's port wing.

"What the f-cking hell." Gabrielle leaned down over her steering wheel, gazing out the windscreen. "Is he tryin' to—"

"Jerries." Ricky, gazing over Gabrielle's head out the port window, saw the dark shimmer of movement in the sky. "Fighters, attacking; going for the Stirlings."

As if to verify her statement two thin silhouettes flashed past the port side of the Condor; one passing beneath, the other over the top, of the trailing Stirling; their guns flashing as they caught the bomber in their sights. For a moment Gabrielle and Ricky thought they could actually see strips of fabric and pieces of steel ripping away from the body of the plane, like particles of dust. Then the fighters had passed. For a moment everything seemed to carry on unaffected, then a faint steadily increasing trail of smoke rushed back from the inner port engine of the bomber, and it began to veer to port, nosing slowly down.

"Jesus!" Gabrielle's voice was thin with shock. "Look at the rear gun turret. There ain't nothin' left of it. It's been shot t'ribbons. Oh God."

The failing bomber passed below them, to port, and was lost to view as the Condor carried on its level flight. No other Stirling in the wave seemed to have been affected, and the German fighters themselves appeared to have fled as quickly and silently as they had appeared.

"So much for the bloody Hurricanes." Gabrielle released her breath in a pent-up gasp, as she settled in her seat once more. "Never nearby when ya most need 'em."

"Talking of which; there they go."

"What?"

"The Hurri's; they're leavin' us." Ricky made a motion with a gloved fist towards the starboard windscreen. "Out'ta fuel, goin' home. Leavin' us on our lonesome. Just the Focke Wulf fighters left, an' Jerry ack-ack, t'disturb our slumbers."

"Where does that leave us, now?"

"Well, in a kind'a limbo, I think." Ricky mused on their position. "Not part of this bomber group; an' just as certainly not aligned with the Jerries, either, even though we're sporting enough giant-sized swastikas to line Unter den Linden. We're in the middle, ducks; with nowhere t'hide."

"That's encouraging." Gabrielle gritted her teeth; gripped the twin handles of the steering wheel even more firmly; and gazed morosely at the rear of the remaining Stirling bombers a couple of hundred yards ahead. "How're we doin'?"

Ricky flipped the notepad on her knee, glancing at the figures there. Then she gave the instruments on the panel in front of the women a close scrutiny, after which she made a few adjustments to her sums.

"I figure we'll reach the Belgium border in about ten minutes. We should be changin' course for Dortmund fairly soon."

As if the Gods had been listening the voice of the invisible radio operator came through the arch behind their seats.

"Message from Group Leader. Change course to 51.65 easterly."

"That's it, baby." Ricky scribbled the details on her notepad, while Gabrielle eased the twin-handled steering wheel gently round to starboard.

"Hang on, sis." Gabrielle gasped suddenly and grabbed the handles of the wheel tightly. "She's getting' away from me again."

There came an increasing snarl in the hitherto gentle roar from the engines; the port wingtip rose vertically nearly out of view as the nose came round, veering away from the bomber group ahead. There followed a short minute while Gabrielle hauled her steering wheel savagely round; meanwhile decreasing the power to the engines. After another few seconds she managed to bring the plane back onto an even keel, and turn back towards the disappearing bombers.

"Why in hell did that happen?"

"Christ, I don't know; I just drive the bloody thing." The blonde was gasping for breath; the constant fight to dominate a contrary four-engined bomber not being a piece of cake at the best of times. "Gim'me a break, why don't ya."

"Sorry. That's us; we're in Belgium now." Ricky glanced out the starboard side-window at the ground. "We'll be passing south of Brussels before ya know it. Then we cut across a little tail-end bit of the Netherlands; after which it's Dusseldorf. That'll be where the fun begins."

"Yeah, Jerry ain't gon'na let this crowd o'bombers swan by Dusseldorf without wavin' their hats at 'em." Gabrielle grunted unhappily. "God, here we are, sailin' along behind a crowd of bombers who'd much rather we weren't here; not a single machine-gun defending this crate; open to all the ack-ack Jerry'll throw at us in a few minutes; an' all the time pretending we're the Nazi's Friend, if any come past to cock an eye at us. D'you think we'll actually get away with it?"

Ricky bowed her head and occupied herself writing down more engine readings; but when she realised her pilot required her attention, gave this bluff up with a bad grace.

"We did once already." She shrugged, inside her sheepskin flying-jacket. "They can't say we ain't advertising our Nazi sympathies. D'ya realise that swastika painted on the tailplane is all of five feet high an' broad. An' the black crosses with their white edges, on both sides of the fuselage, are g-dd-m huge. We can only hope."

"Won't stop the ack-ack fire, though."

"Jeesus, woman, will ya for God's sake stop harpin' on about the bloody ack-ack." Ricky's patience, made fractious by hours of tension and the nearly unbearable freezing cold, now reached the borderland of its endurance. "Anybody'd think every single anti-aircraft gun in Germany was aimed at us alone. It may have escaped your attention, but we ain't alone up here at the moment, y'know."

Forbearing to reply to this sarcasm Gabrielle hunched over her steering wheel and gloomily gazed ahead through the windscreen at the tails of the bombers seemingly filling the sky.

"How many o'these things are there, anyway?" She addressed her question in a cold, reserved manner; it being her intention to let her other half know that she, Ricky, was in the wrong. "Two squadrons, or what?"

"One hundred and twenty." Ricky had recorded this information at their pre-flight briefing back in Orkney. "This is a four squadron binge. An' they're Short Stirlings, as if ya didn't know. They're really gon'na plaster Dortmund today."

"God." Gabrielle shook her head, recovering her spirits a little. "Rather them than me. When do we break away an' go off on our own?"

"Just before they reach Dortmund." Ricky had this part of the flight-plan seared into her memory. "About five minutes before; we won't actually see the city, or the bombing. But don't let that buck ya up too much. Dusseldorf an' Dortmund have a wide ring of air defence systems, ack-ack guns,—so we'll feel their anger long before reaching either."

"Have you noticed, after that first attack by the Focke Wulf's, we haven't been bothered by any more." Gabrielle, suddenly bringing this tidbit to mind, sat up and gazed out the windows all round with some anxiety. "Why d'ya suppose that is?"

"We seem t'have by-passed Brussels, to the north, without anybody snapping at our heels." Ricky glanced around, too. "Another five minutes an' we'll cross over into Germany, then it's a straight run towards Dusseldorf; that's where the opposition'll really take-off. They're probably waiting for us thereabouts."

"That's heartening." The blonde pilot was not impressed by this puerile attempt to bolster spirits. "Any more gems like that t'share?"

"Idiot, keep flyin' the plane, lady. As best ya can that is; it'll take your mind off more serious matters."

"Uurwph."

—O—

The continuing roar of the engines, so loud they drowned out any sound from the massed ranks of bombers ahead of them, echoed in the women's ears like the roar of surf on a storm-stricken shore. It had been going on so long they were indeed, as a consequence, becoming somewhat deaf. And still the surrounding air was strangely free of enemy defence fighters. So much so that even Ricky now began to suspect the worst.

"Maybe we ought'a fall back a little more." She mentioned this plan with trepidation, considering the hair-trigger temper of the blonde woman by her side, struggling with her steering wheel. "Just t'make some more space between us an' the bloody bombers. Make Jerry think we're actually tailin' them; instead o'bein' with 'em. Wha'd'ya think?"

"It's a plan—I like it. OK."

Following up this unforeseen agreement Gabrielle eased off on the power a trifle, and bit by bit the space between them and the trailing bombers gradually widened until there was nearly six hundred yards or so of empty air.

"How's that?"

"Great, I feel better." Ricky sighed in relief. "Any little ruse to make Jerry think twice about what the hell we're up to; that's the thing."

There had been very little cloud cover on their journey so far, and the bright weather kept up now. The sky above the huge German plane stretched pale blue from horizon to horizon, without a cloud in sight. However Ricky found the chink in this perfect scenario right off.

"God, it's good t'see the sun for once in a while." Gabrielle took time to smell the daisies. "Makes a change from gloomy grey ol' Scapa."

"Yeah, but all this bright light means Jerry could swoop down on us from out'ta the sun, an' we'd never see the b-st-rds comin'."

"Good Grief, Ricky, get happy for God's sake." Gabrielle groaned in despair. "You're beginnin' t'drag on my nerves. The only thing I'm worried about, as y'know, is—"

Crrk! Crrk! Crrk! Crrk!

Slightly to starboard and some distance ahead of the Condor; close to the edge of the wave of bombers, a line of black puffs of smoke suddenly materialised; looking for all the world like a bunch of partially untangled dirty cotton-wool balls.

"—that!"

"Jeesus! Stay steady; don't change course. There's no point." Ricky swivelled in her seat, face against the side-window straining to see exactly what was happening. "It's coming from starboard. Nothing t'see down on the ground, just fields an' a few villages; must be the first of the Air-defence ring round Dusseldorf. Jeesus!"

The next wave of air-bursts seemed to interweave itself with the whole body of the bomber wave, sending a pattern of black explosions across the panoramic vista the women pilots viewed through their windscreen. There was, curiously, little accompanying sound; that the women could hear, at any rate.

Crrk! Crrk! Crrk! Crrk! Crrk!

This latest string of ack-ack fire burst straight ahead of the Condor, encircling it in a flood of black smoke for a second or two before they swept out on the far side.

"Did we take any hits?"

"No. No, I don't think so." Ricky struggled to turn and look over her shoulder through the archway into the body of the plane, but the interconnecting door was still closed. "We'd a'heard an' felt it, otherwise. Keep flyin' straight; Jerry obviously can't distinguish friend from foe, down on the ground."

"We need bigger swastikas." Gabrielle's voice was high and sharp, as she glanced from side to side through the windows.

Suddenly, as if orchestrated by an invisible conductor, the air was full of black and white puffs of smoke as a veritable storm of ack-ack fire swamped the bomber wave. Many burst above the lines of planes; a lot bursting beneath, too; but the majority exploded around and about the many planes sweeping across the sky. This, at least, was one reason why the Focke Wulf defence forces were not in attendance.

"Jeesus! Look at all this." Gabrielle was stunned by the view forward from her position. "It's everywhere. Somebody must be takin' a hit."

"Just as long as it ain't us, baby." Ricky scrunched herself further down in her seat, for all the good this would do. "Don't try'n take evasive action; there's nowhere t'go."

Tagging along behind the bomber wave had its drawbacks as well as merits. The major aspect of which was the Condor being exposed to all the peripheral anti-aircraft fire which missed accurate placement amongst the bombers. Another was the dubious honour of being able to see what happened when a large bomber suffered damage from more precise fire.

With such a large force, flying at more or less the same height together, it was only natural that some unfortunate examples would suffer the consequences; and this is what now began to take place, before the womens' shocked gaze.

"Oh My God, look there." Gabrielle raised a gloved fist to indicate somewhere off to port, ahead through the windscreen. "There's smoke trailin' from that one."

A Stirling, amongst the second wave—with planes both above and below—showed clear signs of distress. A long vaporous ribbon of oily black smoke began to trail from its number three, starboard inner, engine. Going into a long slow turn, it gradually lost height as it veered away from the main body of bombers, disappearing from view heading inexorably groundwards.

"Did ya see any parachutes?"

"No, not before I lost sight of it." Gabrielle sat back in her seat, gripping the steering wheel handles tightly. "Christ, glad I'm not in that one. Hope they get out alright."

"There's another. Oh God!"

Ricky's inadvertent cry was triggered by the sight of a Stirling, some seven hundred yards or so in front on her right-hand, sustaining a direct hit on its starboard wing. There was a puff of black smoke; followed immediately by a plume of roaring fire, sweeping back over the rear of the wing between the two engines; then another cloud of smoke and debris as the wing broke free outboard from the inner engine, to flap away frighteningly slowly like a piece of card in the wind. The bomber, now wholly incapable of flight, twisted into a series of falling spirals; the remaining wing giving it an asymmetrical whirling horror that caught at the watching womens' heartstrings. Before the wrecked, flame-engulphed aircraft disappeared out of sight below there were no signs that any of the crew had managed to overcome centrifugal force enough to bale out.

Lost for words the women sat, strangely entranced by unfolding events; whilst, far ahead in the wave of bombers, yet more evidence of the German anti-aircraft accuracy could be seen.

"What's that? Right ahead. A little to port." Gabrielle peered with narrowed eyes at the mass of bombers; almost every one of which seemed encircled by its own belt of white or black explosions. "Jeesus, they must be puttin' up hundreds an' hundreds o'shells. Is that another oil-trail?"

"Yeah, afraid so." Ricky used her glove to shade her brow as she tried to focus. "Too far away t'see the individual plane; but it's another of ours, that's for sure."

"God, at this rate none of us'll reach Dortmund."

"Easy, Gabs, it just seems that way." Ricky glanced at the petite figure beside her, gripping the steering wheel with all her strength. "We'll make it OK, don't worry."

Just at this point another spread of ack-ack blossomed around the Condor. This was no accidental grouping but a determined attempt, on the part of the German range-finders on the ground below, to focus on and blow the trailing plane out of the sky. The shells exploded with sharp cracks, like massive fireworks, and the thick black and white smoke cut visibility to zero for an appreciable time as they flew through the storm.

"Great Balls o'Fire." Ricky took her hands from her face, to look out the windscreen again. "That was too bloody close for comfort. Don't think we were hit, though. We must have the luck of—of, I don't know who."

"Maybe there's some God up there watchin' over us." Gabrielle was so scared by now she was beginning to gabble incomprehensibly. "If he or she is, all I got'ta say is—for Christ's sake do a dam' better job!"

Moments later the sky was once more clear and silent; the blue expanse uncluttered by any sign of the recent mayhem. Except, that is, for two trailing plumes of black smoke from damaged planes; these being too far ahead for the women to be able to identify them individually. The silence was almost eerie and, after the tumult of the ack-ack fire, frightening in its own way.

"I don't like the look o'this, Gabs." Ricky hunched forward to peer suspiciously all round and above. "This'd be the perfect time for Focke Wulf's t'come callin'. Keep your eyes peeled."

"For why, lady?" Gabrielle exhibited a sceptical outlook towards this advice, brought on by her recent experiences. "Just what can I do about it, if so? I'll tell ya, babe,—dam' all, that's what. Are we armed, with as much as a pop-gun; no, we ain't. So what bloody good will lookin' for the b-st-rds do? None, that's what. An' if you think, for one moment, I'm gon'na attempt evasive manoeuvres in this four-engined Demon from Hell, think again."

"Sorry I spoke."

"Wassat?"

"Won't be long till Dusseldorf."

"Yeah, right."

—O—

The major city of Dusseldorf, being a centre of the German war effort, was surrounded by a ring of one of the largest, most powerful, anti-aircraft defences ever created. It was also no stranger to the unwonted attentions of Allied bombers who, in the course of the present year, had made valiant attempts to wipe certain industrialised portions of the city's outskirts off the map entirely. Therefore it could hardly be complained about if, so much as a lark at break of day ascending having the temerity or foolishness to show its face, a broadside from hundreds of anti-aircraft batteries duly peppered the sky above. On the present occasion they had, obviously, a more practical target to take pots at; and this golden opportunity they were entirely prepared to comprehensively and without reserve avail themselves of.

"Dusseldorf, in five."

"God! Five what? Miles? Minutes? Furlongs? Stadia? What?"

"Give over, girlie." Ricky snorted in the depths of her face-mask and sheepskin jacket collar. "Minutes, o'course. Better get ready for the main event."

"Jeesus, you're chirpy, considerin' everythin'. What did you put in your coffee this morning?"

"Just milk, darlin', just milk."

"Humph."

The wave of bombers had settled down once again, after the tension and fray of the earlier anti-aircraft fire. The few machines which had sustained serious damage had veered off and slid away out of sight, though the women had not seen parachutes from any; which hopefully meant the crews felt they might make a run for home, unlikely as this was to be successful. The lack of further annoyance from Focke Wulf fighters had by this time alerted everyone to the fact that another barrage of ack-ack couldn't be far off. This latter point certainly exercising the minds of the two women in the Condor.

"Right, no more complaints; we're in the Land of Ack-Ack now, an' we got'ta prepare." Gabrielle, as pilot, was asserting her authority, for what this was worth. "We're gon'na get shot at comprehensively an' without restraint; from a bunch of Jerries who couldn't tell the difference between the Queen Mary an' a tugboat, never mind a Stirling an' a Focke Wulf 200 Condor."

"So, what's the plan, sir?"

"Idiot." Gabrielle was scathing. "The plan is, we sit tight; pray to all the Gods we know, little as well as big; to any God that hears, an' break free from this bunch of Jonah's at the earliest opportunity. Then head off on our own; to fresh woods, an' pastures new."

"That ain't a plan; that's a wild hope."

"It'll do for me, ducks; if ya don't wan'na accompany me, y'know where the parachutes are."

"Har-Har."

Indeed, things worked out almost exactly as Gabrielle had prophesied. The great city was barely visible on the starboard horizon, as a streak of low-lying smoke and faint dark grey urban sprawl. But then the numerous well organised anti-aircraft batteries centred their prey in their rangefinder sights and sent the information to the guns, which all opened up as one.

This time there were no preliminary flecks of messy cotton-wool; the whole sky ahead, behind, above, below, and amongst the bomber wave, erupted into a seething maelstrom of explosions. One moment the sky was a clear blue, the next invisible through clouds of white and black smoke; shrapnel scything in every direction. The unfolding attack could be heard, even over the massed ranks of aircraft engines, as a dull thunder-like rumble. Surprisingly most of the devastation seemed to be taking place ahead of the Condor, with only a few bursts coming close to the women.

"D'you think someone on the ground's noticed what we are, an' are lettin' us be?" Ricky asked the question as she viewed the appalling scene ahead. "God, those Stirlings are gettin' it heavy."

"Who knows." Gabrielle was again hunched over her steering column, fighting the tendency of the unruly aircraft to buck out of her control in the disturbed atmosphere. "Hope it keeps up, that's all. If any o'that ack-ack bursts really close to us, this plane's gon'na fall out'ta the sky; just sayin'. It's too powerful for me to keep steady under these conditions. We might need'ta dive down some distance t'level off safely."

"We don't wan'na do that, ducks."

"Jeez, I know we don't wan'na do it." Gabrielle really snarled at this without restraint. "Just tellin' ya; if it comes to it, that's what's gon'na happen. God, I wish we were wearin' those goddam parachutes; instead o'these dam' fake Jerry uniforms."

Back in Orkney, when Captain Graham had brought up this aspect, both women had vociferously protested, but to no avail. Captain Graham, intent on veracity at all costs, had vetoed their protests under the formula that they must look the part when on the ground at Ahden; even if it was only for a few minutes, and no German actually talked to them or even took any close notice of them sitting in their cockpit: detail, so the Captain ordained, being everything. So now the women were attired in as close an approximation to the requisite German Wehrmachtshelferin uniform as intelligence could muster.

"If in doubt," Graham had knowledgeably opined. "put a couple of cotton triangular district-name emblems on the upper arms, a silver eagle wing-insignia on the top pocket, an' a small but strategically placed swastika button-badge somewhere easily seen, an' you'll be home an' dry, I'm sure,—well, I hope, anyway."

"D'ya think if we both sang the 'Horst Wessel Lied', really loudly, it'd have any positive effect on matters?" Ricky here, back in the all too real world, was grasping at straws.

Gabrielle took time out from her struggles with the unco-operative BMW/Bramo engines to look over at her co-pilot with a long slow glare, saying nothing; then returned to her efforts with a shake of the head.

"Oh well, it was only a suggestion."

Far ahead, at the extreme front of the bomber group the women saw a dark shape fall suddenly, ever more quickly, towards the ground; leaving a dark twisting trail of smoke behind it. As if on cue another line of smoke appeared to starboard way ahead, veering more slowly away from the main force downwards towards the green fields below.

"They're gettin' a right pasting." Ricky shook her head, trying to sit comfortably in the now bucking seat, as the Condor began to feel the effects of the disturbed atmosphere. "Keep her level—level!"

"I'm tryin'. It ain't easy." Gabrielle twisted her lips in a grimace of pain as she fought the steering column. "This goddam heap has a mind of its own—just leave me alone."

Without warning the vista forward through the windscreen disappeared entirely in a maelstrom of explosions, black smoke enveloping the plane like a thick fog. The noise of the air bursts sounded tremendously loudly in the confines of the cockpit; and the plane bucked like a wild animal.

"Oh Christ, here we go." Gabrielle let out a scared sigh, holding the handles of her steering wheel grimly. "Can't hold her."

The Condor's port wingtip fell downwards as if a giant had suddenly sat on it; the engines roared like demons from hell; and a curious whining came from all round outside the aircraft.

"Jeesus, Gabrielle. We'll slide-slip in'ta the ground at this rate." Ricky could hardly speak, in the horror of the moment. "Do something."

Too much involved in fighting for both their lives, the pilot stayed silent, every iota of thought and physical strength focussed on staying alive. The plane continued its unopposed descent for a few more heart-wrenching seconds before Gabrielle finally overcame the immense power of the hurtling plane to bring it slowly but inexorably back to an even keel again.

"Where—where are we?" Gabrielle could hardly form the words, through gritted teeth. "Which direction are we goin'? Gim'me a compass bearing, quick. An' what height are we?"

"Turn 189 east, an' we're at three thousand four hundred; far too low, get us back up as soon as ya like."

Without answering Gabrielle pulled the steering column handles round, glanced at the altimeter and speedometer; gave the view out the windscreens a panoramic glance, then hauled the nose of the recalcitrant machine up towards the pristine blue sky again.

"There they are; a little to starboard." Ricky was almost glad to rediscover the wave of bombers, still continuing on their way. "Where all that black an' white smoke is, see?"

"Yeah, I see." Gabrielle's voice had taken on a much lower dry-as-dust timbre. "Not that I wan'na; but, hell, what else might I be doin' this gay afternoon."

It took Gabrielle another five minutes too catch up with the fleet of Stirlings, by which time the initial barrage of ack-ack seemed to have petered out. She positioned the Condor back in its trailing place, though this time she left nearly a quarter of a mile between her and the nearest bomber.

"Safety first." She muttered laconically, when her partner remarked on this. "An', anyway, I an now truly pissed off gettin' my arse shot at. Bring on the Focke Wulf's, is what I say."

"They heard ya, look."

"God in Heaven, is there no end to it."

—O—

The first of the German fighters whistled past the Condor's port wing like a screaming banshee; but did nothing further. Another appeared, more slowly, on their starboard side taking station while the pilot took stock of the strange sight.

"He's makin' hand signals." Ricky repeated this information for the benefit of her pilot. "What should I do?"

"God, anythin' ya like." Gabrielle had other matters to attend to. "I don't know German, do you?"

"Hell, no." Xena shrugged miserably, then raised her right glove to make as near a neutral meaningless gesture as she could manage. "That'll keep him occupied, till he gets bored."

The Focke Wulf pilot gave a short wave then veered away, heading for the great swathe of bombers ahead.

"Well, they didn't shoot at us." Ricky heaved a sigh. "Looks like our subterfuge is actually, God knows how, working."

"Yeah. What are those things, anyway." Gabrielle narrowed her eyes to glance through her goggles at the view ahead. "See, they've caught the bombers. Are they all 190's?"

"Yeah, a coupl'a squadrons, by the look of it."

"Jeez, they're gettin' it in the neck again." Gabrielle shook her head in disgust. "More smoke trails, more damaged aircraft. Are we past Dusseldorf yet?"

"Yeah, we're headin' for Dortmund now." Ricky examined her notes, then glanced over at her pilot. "I'd say breaking-off time was due in about two minutes."

"Thank God for that. I can't take much more o'this."

Just over a minute later Ricky reached over to touch Gabrielle lightly on the shoulder of her thick leather and sheepskin flying-jacket. When the blonde pilot glanced across Ricky gave a nod, to which Gabrielle replied similarly; then she firmly eased the twin handles of the steering column to port: they were heading off into unknown territory on their own.

"How far to destination?"

"We're five miles short of Dortmund." Ricky had been making rapid calculations with her pencil. "That makes it fifty-five miles to Ahden, flying slightly south of east from here. Say, twenty minutes."

"What happens when we reach the landing-strip?"

"The wind's in the right direction." Ricky sat back to contemplate the form of her hunched and tense pilot. "By our timetable we should still be arriving more or less on the dot. We'll have a little back-and-forwards between our radio-operator and their own radio; then we bluff our way down. Just come straight in an' land. Himmler should arrive not long afterwards, if our information is anything t'go on."

"All sounds too easy, t'me."

"Hasn't been what I'd call easy so far." Ricky frowned disgustedly. "Quite the opposite, in fact. Things can't go too smoothly for me from this point on. Anyway, look on the bright side. In a few minutes you may well have Himmler's ass, in person, aboard,–to kick to your heart's content."

"Pipe-dreams, sister, pipe-dreams."

The mass of bombers, still being harassed by the flight of Focke Wulf fighters, slid away to starboard remarkably quickly and was soon lost to view; leaving the empty sky to the sole Condor alone. Gabrielle took this opportunity to come to grips with the massive aircraft; getting it under as much control as, in the circumstances, she was able to exert. Then their quiet pastoral was interrupted by an unwanted interloper.

"Focke Wulf, on our port beam."

"Shit, what does he want?"

The fighter in question came alongside, flying no more than thirty feet off the Condor's wingtip; the pilot obviously taking a long close look at the four-engined apparition. Ricky struggled round to aim a question at the so far invisible radio operator in his little nook behind the pilots.

"Hey, Sparks, can ya make contact with that Jerry?"

"Maybe, ma'am," The young man's refined voice sounded curiously out of place, in the present surroundings. "If he comes over the air, with a wavelength, I may be able t'talk to him."

"Y'any good at German, friend?"

"Degree in languages, from Cambridge, ma'am."

"Aah, fine." Ricky was firmly put in her place by this answer. "What about your accent?"

"I can sound like a native of Westphalia, if that's what you mean, ma'am."

"That'll do, right enough." Ricky was beaten. "Lem'me know what Focke Wulf man over there says—if he deigns t'say anythin'."

Gabrielle, while this conversation went on, had been stealing swift glances at the sleek fighter on her left-hand. So close up it showed all the power and strength which had made the mark famous worldwide. Even if the Condor had been armed, Gabrielle felt, it would have stood little chance against this savage opponent.

A minute later both women heard the radio operator speaking quietly into his microphone. A moment afterwards the Focke Wulf tipped it wings and sheered off out of sight.

"The fighter pilot was inquisitive about our destination, ma'am." Sparks' voice sounded self-assured and perfectly calm. "I put him off with some blather about military duties, and being part of the official Transport squadron. He bit on it hook, line, and sinker."

"Thank God." Gabrielle shook her head in relief, and to clear the cobwebs of strain from her overtaxed mind.

Ricky nodded and sat back, examining her notes; the critical point of the whole exercise now rapidly advancing on them with every passing short minute.

—O—

"I got it." Gabrielle sat forward, eyes scanning the far distance through the Condor's windscreen. "A single strip directly ahead, maybe four miles."

"That's it, sure enough." Ricky nodded, well satisfied. "God, ain't I just a great navigator?"

"Hrrph! That begs some discussion, sis." Gabrielle sniggered impolitely. "Let's play safe an' put it down t'luck. What's next?"

"Sparks, time t'work your magic." Ricky called over her shoulder to the dark corner behind their seats, where the man was ensconced. "Y'got your spiel ready?"

"Certainly, ma'am." The university graduate sounded perfectly in command of his feelings. "I'll get right on it, now."

Gabrielle, feeling as if some at least of the strain had lifted from her, was gazing around at the landscape ahead.

"Place is covered in trees; dam' nearly a forest." She glanced forward from side to side. "What's that?"

"Think its part o'what's called the Teutoburg Forest. Spreads itself across the landscape in this part o'the world."

"Say, see over there, a coupl'a miles past the airfield?" Gabrielle had spotted something interesting, at least to her. "Is that a castle, on that wooded ridge?"

"Could be, plenty o'them about in this part o'the Fatherland." Ricky, on the other hand, had more important subjects on her mind. "Come on, focus on landing. Sure ya can land this thing on such a small strip?"

"Gim'me a penny an' I'll land it on that." Gabrielle sneered in disgust, never liking her flying skills questioned. "Just wish me luck, an' leave the rest t'me."

"Ha, good luck, then." Ricky laughed herself. "Sparks, how's it goin'?"

"Just got a reply from the airfield, ma'am." The cultured member of the crew sounded almost bored with the situation. "They were a little grumpy to start, saying we were unconscionably early; but I gave 'em the code for Himmler's transport, as supplied to us by our own, er, backroom boys, an' it seemed t'work like magic. We're cleared to land immediately. They said it was just as well, in the end—Red Fox was already waiting, anyway."

"Is Red Fox, indeed?" Ricky growled low, like a hyena with a grievance. "Well, ain't he just gon'na get the surprise of his short life. Carry on, pilot; land this thing, an' make it snappy."

"Wrrph!"

Not needing to swing round the airfield, the wind being in the right direction, Gabrielle contented herself with bringing the Condor's nose directly in line with the single concrete strip. As these things always did, it looked toylike and far too small to be able to handle a giant aircraft like the Focke Wulf 200; but, again, as they approached it suddenly seemed to widen, providing all the room necessary. Gabrielle eased off on the engines; jiggled her flaps a trifle; didn't forget to flick the switch to lower the huge double-wheels of the undercarriage; then aligned the nose with the centre of the runway. The last thing she did was take close note of the bands of thick high trees which seemed, dangerously, to surround the approach to, and both sides of, the airfield. Then came a preliminary bump; a seemingly age-long pause; then another bump as the wheels gripped the concrete and the plane rolled smoothly along the runway to come to a halt three-quarters of the way down. They had arrived in the heart of enemy territory.

There was the sound of movement behind the women, as the radio operator scrambled out of his seat and opened the sliding door to disappear into the plane's cabin, shutting the door firmly again behind him.

"Well, it's up to the two stewards, an' Sparks, now."

"Hope they've got their story off by heart." Gabrielle was trying to occupy her mind by fiddling around with various buttons and switches. "Jeez, here we are, sittin' on a runway deep in the middle o'Germany, waitin' t'pick up one o'the nastiest Nazi's o'them all. I can't believe this is happening."

"Yeah, it's like a dream." Ricky glanced through her side-window at the airfield's layout, as much of it as was visible. "Just a few low sheds an' offices, an' one hangar. Not exactly a centre of aerial activity; wonder what Himmler's doin' out here?"

"Dammed if I care." Gabrielle shrugged dismissively. "I'm just surprised we've gotten so far. This whole thing's mad, y'know; an' still is, even though we've actually made it here."

"Know what ya mean, baby." Ricky nodded her agreement. "Y'gon'na turn this thing around? So we can take-off again."

"Is there room where we are, t'circle?" Anythin' in the way?"

"Not that I can see." Ricky hunched forward, taking a long slow reconnaissance in all directions. "Don't think we'll need a tractor t'turn our nose; plenty o'room just t'swivel about. Say,—say!"

"What? Somebody cloggin' up the runway, somewhere?"

"In a sort'a way, yeah." Ricky touched Gabrielle's sleeve, and pointed out the side-window to the edge of the runway a hundred yards or so in front to their right. "See that bunch o'snazzy runabouts over there?"

Gabrielle had, during this conversation, been bending down to make some small adjustment to her rudder pedals. Now, faced with this call to attention, she hauled herself upright again, with little attempt at politeness.

"What? What? I'm busy, here. What?

"Over there. See? That group o'fancy cars, sittin' on the grass."

"Huh; those, darlin', are Mercedes-Benz W150's; along with a few army trucks." If nothing else the blonde pilot knew her fast expensive cars. "They're—Oh God!"

As Ricky and Gabrielle sat quietly, trying to look as inconspicuous as was possible in their present situation, gazing out onto the concrete of the single runway from the side window of the high cockpit, the vehicles some way off to the women's right, and the group of uniformed officers standing in discussion beside them, were easily visible. A trifle to the left of the officers there waited a large number, perhaps forty in all, of Wehrmacht troops; lined up in squads beside three trucks and a couple of motorcycles with sidecars. They all seemed to be heavily armed with short semi-automatic machine-guns; obviously Himmler's security detail.

"See that short round-faced man, in the long leather coat an' spectacles, standin' in the centre o'the bunch?"

"Yeah, sort'a stocky an', I think, rather baldish? One o'those Germanic crew-cuts."

"That's our guy; that's Himmler."

"Christ."

"We could shoot the bastard from here, y'know."

"We ain't armed; only the boys in the back."

"If we were, I mean." Ricky shrugged away this minor difficulty.

"Better stick t'the plan." Gabrielle wrinkled her lips in disgust. "It'd only give Captain Graham apoplexy, if we tried anything on like that. Y'know how he is, about orders an', er, orders."

"Yeah, suppose so." Ricky admitted defeat with a shrug. "Bloody good chance, though. Bet we'll regret it, in the future, somethin' tells me."

"We got our own problems, baby." Gabrielle brought her partner back to reality. "For one, we still ain't got the b-st-rd aboard; or taken-off again yet, remember. First things first."

"Yeah; uh, OK."

The bunch of high-ranking Germans didn't seem overly anxious to avail themselves of the recently arrived transport; remaining instead in a tight group, obviously discussing something of interest between them.

"How long are we supposed t'remain here, on the ground?" Gabrielle's own brand of anxiety was rapidly returning, stronger than ever. "I don't wan'na stay here so long they very kindly give me my own bunk in a Stalag, y'know."

"Take it easy, everything's under control." Ricky essayed the relaxed seen-it-all-before woman of the world standpoint. "There's always a little lee-way in these things. Won't be a minute or so before he drags his miserable ass aboard. Maybe if ya turned the crate around, it'd sort'a hurry him along."

Taking her navigator at her word Gabrielle revved the still running engines and started delicate maneouvres with her foot-pedals. Eventually, there being nothing on the runway to hinder them, she brought the plane's nose round to point back the way they had come. But still there came no sign the Reichsführer-SS was interested in taking a flight with this particular airline.

"Maybe he's heard about the in-flight menu, and has changed his mind about patronising us?"

"You're losin' it, sister." Gabrielle shook her head disgustedly. "I thought I was beginnin' t'get the heeby-jeebies, but you're way out on your own."

Gabrielle had brought the plane slightly forward in her turning maneouvre, so now the group of officers were over on the women's left hand as they considered the view from their cockpit.

"Jeesus! Who's that, comin' out from under our wing?" Gabrielle suddenly sat up straight, leaning sideways to stare out her side-window.

Ricky struggled out of her seat to crouch, looking over her pilot's shoulder.

"God Almighty! It's Sparks, by all that's holy." Ricky caught her breath in disbelief. "Has he gone mad? Why didn't Lieutenant wha's-his-name, back in the plane, stop him?"

"What the hell is he doin'?"

"I think—I think he's goin' over t'have a personal conversation with Himmler."

"Sh-t! We're done for."

Reaching the group of assorted German officers, after a slow saunter across the runway as if he were merely out for a stroll to stretch his legs, the erstwhile radio operator, clad in something Captain Graham's back-room boys had guaranteed as being pretty close to German flight-overalls, stood on the edge of the assembly, well away from the main centre of attention, apparently button-holing a stray Oberleutnant in converse. After a minute or two, whilst they appeared to be exchanging all good wishes of the day intermingled with happy reminiscences, Sparks finally saluted the officer with the well-known gesture and turned to stroll idly back to the plane, seemingly completely at ease.

"That man should be on the stage. That's the best bit of actin' I've ever seen." Gabrielle was impressed.

"Wonder what he's found out." Ricky, on the other hand, was focussed on the matter in hand.

A minute later the side door of the plane slammed and, after a short but nerve-jangling pause, the sliding door of the flight-deck opened to reveal the valiant explorer.

"What the hell was that about?" Gabrielle got the first word in, as was her wont. "Are you mad?"

"Lieutenant Farnley an' I held a confab." Sparks seemed in no whit put out. "He bein' in command of this exercise, as you know, while on the ground here. He decided that things were becoming a trifle extended, an' sent me out to reconnoitre."

"Did he indeed." Ricky's tone said all that was necessary about this flagrant dismissal of the flight-crew's part in the affair. "An' his answer was t'have ya go an' personally tell Himmler t'pull his socks up an' get his ass aboard pronto, eh?"

"Well, not quite that, ma'am." Sparks allowed his features to twist into a small smile. "I collared a spare Oberleutnant, on the edge of the skirmish, as you probably noticed."

"Dam' straight we noticed." Gabrielle snorted in disgust. "We dam' nearly shi—that is, we were sort'a concerned about your motives."

"Yeah, thought for a moment ya were mutinying, an' goin' over to enquire about the rates of pay in the Wehrmacht." Ricky knew how to be cutting, when required.

"Ha, hardly that, ma'am." Sparks carried on, unvanquished. "It appears, however, that the officers—including Herr Himmler—are in a bit of a quandary. Something's come up; something important, and I think they're debating whether to return to where they came from. A castle of some sort, apparently, in this vicinity. I didn't quite catch the name; the Oberleutnant's accent is appallingly common-place, y'know. So there we are."

"There we are, are we?" Gabrielle took this news as if it were a cup of wormwood some enterprising rival had offered. "An' where exactly is that?"

Before any logical answer could be proposed to this interesting question the flight-deck door slid aside once more to disclose the source of all ill-feeling, Lieutenant Farnley in person.

"Ah, thought I'd come up an' keep you both au fait with matters."

"Thanks awfully." Gabrielle's tone was less than polite.

"So, er, what's happened is we may well be at a sort of turning point in our plans." Farnley shuffled slightly as he glanced unhappily from Gabrielle to Ricky. "What Sparks, here, tells me is the whole boilin' of 'em, Herr bloody Himmler included, are on the verge of deciding to return to whatever rathole it was they left to come t'this airstrip."

"Oh yeah, an' what exactly does that entail?" Ricky cocked an arrogant eyebrow, fixing the young man with the evil eye, meanwhile.

Having gone through all Sandhurst could throw at him Farnley was only now realising there were dangers out in the real world that military lectures gave no warning of.

"I am very much afraid we may have to, er, leave without any fare-paying passengers." Farnley had the taste to look overwhelmingly embarrassed. "In short, I think we're going to have no recourse but to sod off back to Blighty without the narsti b-st-rd."

"What?"

"What!"

Sparks took this opportunity to slide back out of the fray into his dark little cubby-hole behind the warring trio; where he then commenced to make a gallant effort at impersonating 'the man who wasn't there' during the rest of the argument.

"Can't—can't ya just shoot the b-st-rd, from here; right now?" Ricky was still fixated on her original brainwave. "Then we can make a swift getaway, like Bonnie an' Clyde, an' be back home before anybody realises what's happened."

"Hardly, ma'am."

"Will people please stop callin' me ma'am." Ricky had reached the end of her tether. "Makes me feel old. Why can't ya shoot him? That's what guns are for; an' you've got the guns, here."

"It was never our intention to kill our, er, prey." Farnley assumed a cold superior attitude. "The plan was to kidnap him. Bring him back to be interrogated at Whitehall; not simply shoot the wretch, like an animal."

"He is a—"

"No matter what our personal feelings in the matter may be, I'm in command of actions here on the ground." Farnley now fell back on military discipline. "I was ordered, by Captain Graham, to kidnap our intended victim. That not being possible, we must abandon the situation, and return to base. It was a brave attempt; all round, I may say; but it looks as if we'll just have to bite the bullet, an' make the best of it. We'll see in the next few minutes, I fancy. You had better prepare to take-off at a moment's notice. That other, original, plane should be somewhere in the offing by now, anyway. We want to be well out of things before he makes his unwelcome appearance."

Left alone once more; while Sparks pretended, rather unconvincingly, to be fully occupied in fiddling with his valves, the two women sat back in their seats, absorbing this new state of affairs.

"Well, I'll be damned." Gabrielle was first to vocalise her feelings. "After all the struggle I've had with this dammed vicious heap o'Jerry scrap. I've fought it all the way from Orkney t'the middle o'Germany; an' what's my reward? Oh, just turn round, an' go back home, without achieving anythin'! I'll be damned. I don't know, actually, if I can fly this thing all the way back. It's got a warped mind of it's own, y'know; an' takes the strength o'ten t'accomplish the slightest manoeuvre—an' I ain't ten o'anythin', y'know. Damn!"

Ricky was equally disappointed, but took time to rally her partner.

"Take it easy." She patted the blonde pilot's shoulder reassuringly. "You'll do for me, baby. I'd rather be here, with one o'you, than any handful of others, that's a fact."

"Uurph, thanks." Gabrielle suddenly glanced out her side-window again. "Uh-oh, looks like some kind'a activity's under way amongst the German High Command."

In a concerted body the whole group of uniformed officers turned from their debate, making their way across the grass to the waiting fleet of Mercedes-Benz' open tourers and closed sedans. The fulcrum of all their interest, without so much as a glance at his erstwhile transport, bowed to enter a sedan and was lost sight of; the growl of their engines coming faintly to the two pilots' ears as the cars turned into line and disappeared off to the left. In another thirty seconds they were gone; leaving the small airfield empty, except for the single four-engined transport.

"Time for us to piss off, too." Ricky groaned disgustedly. "Rev 'em up, an' get us the hell out'ta here."

Needing no second coaxing, Gabrielle duly wheedled the powerful,—almost too powerful for her in fact, if the truth be told,—engines into greater life and pointed the nose squarely down the centre of the runway. The engines gathered strength; the plane ran smoothly along; the tail came up, during which there was a moment of feeling on the verge of a crisis; then the plane was airborne, heading up into the clear blue sky. A moment later Gabrielle unexpectedly dragged her steering column handles round viciously, banking the plane violently to port.

"What the flamin' f-ck are ya tryin' t'do, woman?"

"Look. Our companion's arrived." Gabrielle nodded through the front windscreen. "Seems we left just in the nick o'time."

Level, and nearly directly in line, with their plane Ricky saw another Condor just over on her starboard shoulder; far too close for any kind of comfort. The opposite pilot had, obviously, also seen his danger; for he banked his own machine steeply away; so much so, in fact, he would certainly need to circle the single airstrip to be able to get back in line to land.

"Ha! Himmler's real taxi." Ricky chortled humorously. "Bet he's gon'na have some explainin' t'do. Y'got our route back t'base sorted?"

"Christ, yes." Gabrielle managed a small grin herself, she being well on top of the important matters in life. "I know the primary course; you just make sure we make it the rest o'the way safely. Y'can do that, can't you?"

"You bet your sweet life I can, baby. Sit back an' relax, I've got it all under control."

"Yeah, that's what worries me."

"Idiot"

"Ouch, that hurt. Don't pummel the pilot, if you don't mind, sister."

"Oh, alright; but it's so much fun."

"Fool."

—O—

There were, surprisingly, no enemy fighters apparent anywhere in the sky all round as the mighty Condor roared on its way. Gabrielle was now heading north-west, leaving Hannover and Bremen well over beyond their starboard horizon; their destination being a point on the coast just to the west of Wilhelmshaven, where the terrain was low and uninhabited. Reaching the North Sea they intended, or at least the plan was, to meet up with a quartet of Beaufighters who would then act as escort for the rather too obviously Nazi aircraft.

"Beaufighters have four cannon in their noses, y'know."

"As long as they don't use 'em on us." Ricky pinpointed the crux of the matter. "About one hundred and twenty miles t'go. Around half an hour."

"How long before Jerry wakes up t'our little subterfuge, d'you reckon?"

"Mmm, hard t'say." Ricky mused on this problem. "I suppose that other Condor pilot had something pertinent t'say t'the authorities at Ahden. Depends how quickly they can get their minds around the dastardly nature of their foes' obviously warped mentality. I mean, who in their right minds would ever have contemplated anything like this insane debacle for a single sensible moment?"

"Captain Graham was virtually enamoured of it, remember."

"Captain Graham—I'm comin' round t'your way o'thinkin' on this, Gabs,—is not to be trusted in the mental department, I'm beginnin' t'realise."

"Too true." Gabrielle's tone said all that was necessary. "Hey, Sparks, you ain't hearin' any o'this conversation, right?"

"What's that, ma'am?"

"I said, y'ain't listenin' t'my navigator an' me chewing the fat, right?"

"Sorry, ma'am, could you repeat that. Was it something important? I can't hear a thing, over the engine roar."

"That's the spirit; keep it up."

Gabrielle settled back in her seat, gripping the dual handles of her steering column more confidently. By this time, after much frustration, she had come to some understanding of how to handle the powerful aircraft's peccadilloes; which were, as she had found to her recent cost, many and curious.

"When we get back t'Scapa, Ricky," The blonde pilot broke a comfortable period of relative silence. "the first thing I'm gon'na do is corner Sergeant MacQuarie an' squeeze a scrapping-chit out'ta him—for this g-dd-mmed piece o'garbage."

"Jesus, Gabs." Ricky was appalled by this example of bare-faced hubris. "Don't say things like that, here; it'll hear ya. Then what?"

"Hrrph! Can it speak English?"

The coast of Northern Germany, after a remarkably uneventful half an hour's further flying, finally lay spread out ahead of the women's view from their cockpit, as they flew on at an altitude of eight thousand feet; the demarcation line between the green land and the grey flat sea uncommonly clear and precise. This unexpected quiet period allowed some much enjoyed relief for the battered crew of the Condor, but all good things had to come to an end.

"Uh, Ricky?"

"Yeah, what?"

"Over my shoulder, coming up fast from the west. Are they Focke Wulf's, or Hurricanes?"

"Oh, shit, shit, shit. Focke Wulf's."

"I knew it; I just knew it."

Before the women had time to draw a further couple of breaths the group of no less than six fighters came up alongside; positioning themselves three a side, level with the Condor's wingtips. It was obvious the pilots were taking a detailed look-see, probably trying to recognise the plane's identification numerals and insignia to decide whether it was friend or foe.

"Are we really carrying the proper numbers an' emblems for Himmler's plane?"

"As far as I could gather from Captain Graham, yes." Ricky shook her head, as unconvinced by this snippet of information as her pilot. "For what that's worth. It's not actually Himmler's private plane; he doesn't have one, unlike his godawful leader. Himmler just takes pot luck with the VIP Transport squadron."

"So, if those jerks over there decide we are actually a bona fide Transport plane they'll stop t'think twice before shootin' us out'ta the sky?"

"That, Gabs, is what I fervently hope." Ricky, as usual, now spotted the weak point in this theory. "But when we cross over the coast, comin' up there, in the next minute or so—and blithely carry on out across the North Sea; well then, they're gon'na think again, ain't they?"

"Sh-t."

"—er, ma'am, I'm getting messages from the leader of the group." Sparks' voice came from his dark nook behind the pilots' seats, for the first time sounding unsure and slightly anxious. "He's not a happy camper. Wants us to identify ourselves immediately; and seems to be uttering threats, along the lines of—or else."

Gabrielle leaned over to stick her head round the corner of her seat.

"Flannel him along." She grunted low in her throat. "Anythin' you like. Pretend to give him yesterday's weather forecast; or the runners in tomorrow's horse-races at Baden-Baden. Anythin' t'make him stand an' think."

"I'll give it a go, but I don't think he's going to swallow it."

"Try anyway."

Ricky had been looking out her side window, at the nearest fighter on her side; the results not being greatly satisfying.

"God, these fighter pilots all look as if they're only just out'ta school." She shook her head sadly. "I've seen kids doin' paper-rounds who were older than the guy over here on my right."

"The trouble is, they all know how to press a firing-button." Gabrielle's take on the matter was purely utilitarian. "Doesn't matter what age they are. Well, here goes—the coast, under our feet in about twenty seconds. Like you say, Ricky, this is where they make their minds up."

"Our friend's broken-off communication, ma'am." Sparks voice was now definitely on the higher side of nervousness. "He wasn't having any of it."

"Buckle up; test your parachute straps; and hope for the best." Gabrielle sat forward, gripping her steering column with steely intent. "Things are gon'na get dicy from here on in."

Ricky slid her notebooks and maps under the flap of the canvas pouch by her side attached to the frame of the plane; settled herself deep in her seat; and glanced at Gabrielle.

"What're ya gon'na do?"

"If they start firin' I can only take evasive action."

"In this thing? Is that gon'na do any good?"

"No, not the slightest." Gabrielle shook her head quickly. "I can't control this dam' monster in anythin' other than level flight. In any kind'a dive we'll most probably end up in the sea."

"God Almighty!"

As Ricky spoke the Focke Wulf's peeled away from either side, nosing up to gain height. It seemed cataclysm was only seconds away; then Ricky spotted something else.

"Jeesus! Ten o'clock high. Another flight o'fighters. God, I think it's the Beaufighters; an' they're well above the Focke Wulf's."

There was a pause, while things sorted themselves out into the last stand for all concerned; then the climax commenced.

"Here come the Jerry fighters, on our port side. Watch out!" Ricky leant sideways to gently touch Gabrielle's flying-jacket covered arm. "I think they're gon'na—"

A line of tracer sliced across the path of the Condor straight ahead, running from port to starboard about twenty paces from the plane's cockpit. This was followed by the terrifying silhouette of the passing Focke Wulf, on its way down after its shooting run. Then all pandemonium ensued.

Leaning forward to get a clear sight both women saw the other Focke Wulfs', some way above on their port beam, suddenly break into single units and run in all directions as the group of Beaufighters whistled through their ranks—meting out death and destruction on every side. Caught unawares and totally blind by the British fighters with their immensely powerful cannon, no less than three German planes exhibited clear signs of damage. Fragments flickered away from the starboard wing of one, in a cloud of oily dust; it immediately veering away down towards the sea's surface; while another seemed to disintegrate into pieces in mid-flight; all that remained being a cloud of smoke and debris. The third shot under the port wing of the Condor, leaving a trail of smoke behind it. When the women looked up again, searching for the remaining Focke Wulfs' they searched in vain: knowing what was good for them, and realising they were now hopelessly out-numbered and out-gunned, the surviving German fighters had rapidly disappeared without trace—leaving the Beaufighters triumphant victors of the field.

"Yippee!" Gabrielle was ecstatic, grinning from ear to ear. "That's what I call doin' your duty for King an' Country."

"Message from Beaufighter commander, ma'am." Sparks seemed to have recovered his refined casual manner. "Requests code-identification. That's 2RL-Athena, ma'am?"

"Correct, that's it." Gabrielle nodded in relief. "God, am I glad that's over. Next stop Kirkwall, an' not bloody well before time, either. How're you doin', honey?"

"I'm bearin' up, thanks for askin'." Ricky smiled, stretching her arms as wide as she could in the confined space. "It's been some kind of a day, sweetheart. All the same, Captain Graham's not gon'na be particularly happy—his darlin' plan goin' down the Swannee, as it has. I feel almost sorry for the half-cracked idiot."

"F-ck Captain Graham." Gabrielle had said this before, but this time she said it with feeling.

"Ha!"

The End

—O—

To be continued in the next story in the 'Mathews and Parker', series.

—OOO—