Authors: Peter d’Plesse
Tags: #Action Adventure
First published in Australia in 2015 by Short Stop Press
An imprint of A&A Book Publishing Pty Ltd.
This EPUB edition:
Copyright © Peter d'Plesse 2015
This book is copyright. Apart from any use permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 and subsequent amendments, no part may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted by any means or process whatsoever without the prior written permission of the publishers.
E-book format by David Andor / Wave Source Design
This book is written for the woman who inspired
the character of Alexander Dulaine.
And dedicated to those members of the armed forces
who gave their lives defending our way of life
and still lie in unknown places.
has been written as entertainment. Readers who like to dig a little deeper may find some worthy issues to ponder. As a work of fiction, it is built around certain historical and personal events treated in an imaginary way.
The Royce Mission did take place. It was a last ditch attempt to support the American and Filipino soldiers making a final stand in the fortresses of Corregidor and Bataan. It was briefly mentioned in the American press before being overshadowed by the Doolittle raid on Tokyo. While the Royce mission was insignificant in military terms, it was the longest range deployment of aircraft at the time. It was an example of things to come in the use of air power in the Pacific. I added an aircraft to the mission because it provided a suitable background for the character of Lt. Karl Kilchelski.
Charcoal’s story about Jimara comes from the book
by W. E. Harney written in 1943. It provides an interesting read in understanding the problems of culture clash in Australia. Jimara’s story is taken from the chapter titled
. It is a wonderful example of the shades of grey that can exist in a view of the world based on simple extremes of black and right, right and wrong. The legend of Fire Eye is taken from the book
Ships in the Coral
by Hector Holthouse. It is a great collection of stories about the maritime history of the Great Barrier Reef.
The characters in
are based on people I have had the pleasure or misfortune to meet. Many of the events have happened in real life. As a novelist, I have combined them to answer a challenge that was thrown down—to tell the story of a woman pushed to the edge of survival.
A combination of imperial and metric measurement is used in the story. Pilots in Australia still use feet to measure altitude, knots for airspeed and kilometres or metres for horizontal distance. Bullet velocity is expressed in feet per second to suit Australia, America and other countries, where metres per second does not make much sense. To convert feet to metres, dividing by three is close enough. Jed’s aircraft cruising at one hundred and forty knots equates to one hundred and sixty miles or two hundred and sixty kilometres an hour.
I thank Dr. Terry Whitebeach for her initial assessment of the manuscript and editing that encouraged me to continue. I also thank Alison Purdon for her follow-up incisive editing that kept me focussed on the story. The contribution of A & A Book Publishing in getting Fire Eye into print is also greatly appreciated. Any errors are entirely mine. I hope the reader enjoys the story.
April 14 1942, north of Darwin, Australia
The aircraft was mortally hit and slowly dying. It stayed airborne on the gutsy power and quality engineering of the remaining Wright Cyclone R-2600 fourteen-cylinder radial, still straining to pump out its one thousand seven hundred horse power. The blue of the ocean in front merged crazily with the lighter blue of the sky through the starred and shattered Plexiglass of the cockpit canopy. The wounded pilot fought to keep her airborne for as long as possible. The interior of the aircraft was a mess of blood and bodies, five of the nine people on the aircraft dead from the hail of fire that had raked the bomber.
Somewhere ahead was Darwin, but Lt. Karl Kilchelski couldn’t be sure exactly where. The shattered instruments were useless. He flew slightly east of south using his watch to get a bearing from the sun. Australia should be impossible to miss but perhaps only God knew where they would finally end up.
The starboard engine was silent with the propeller unfeathered and frozen, adding drag to the crippled aircraft. The port engine was roaring at full power, nursed by the pilot whose blood splattered the shattered instruments in front of him. Kilchelski risked a glance to the left to see oil fumes swirling out from the remaining engine, slightly obscuring the red, white and blue star of the United States Army Air Force on the wing.
Even with the fuel that had been burnt off, the B-25 was heavy with the long-range tanks fitted into the bomb bay for the return flight to Australia and the added weight of the four extra people evacuating from the Philippines. They were some of the many desperate to escape the onslaught of the Japanese army.
Kilchelski risked a glance to port and throttled back slightly to take pressure off the engine. He took his left hand off the yoke and pushed the towel back under his shirt to slow the bleeding from the 7.7 mm bullet that had sliced through just under his right shoulder. Shrapnel had peppered his legs, forehead and face and trickles of blood ran into his eyes, down his face and over his uniform shirt. He could only shake his head and blink wildly to try clearing his eyes. The drops of blood added a little more colour to the mayhem of the cockpit.
Kilchelski was lucky. The 20 mm cannon shell that had shattered the instrument panel had just missed him. Only a few inches to the left and it would have sprayed his blood and flesh all over the cockpit. He was fighting a battle he knew he would eventually lose. His leg was shuddering under the strain of maintaining left rudder to counter the drag of the dead engine.
His co-pilot was not so lucky. Another 20 mm shell had blasted him all over the starboard side of the cockpit. The headless body slumped sideways in his seat, held in place by the harness as blood dripped onto the cockpit floor. Kilchelski had only known Bronson for a few days. A good co-pilot, but fate had taken its course and blown him to eternity.
Departure from the Del Monte airfield in the Philippines had been relatively smooth and uneventful considering they were behind enemy lines, until they were pounced on by the pair of F1M2 floatplane fighters, codenamed ‘Pete’ by the allies.
They had been last to leave, delayed by an unexpected problem fitting the long-range fuel tank. The dorsal gunner had shot down one of the Petes and damaged the other. It was the A6M2 Zero that did the damage. It came out of nowhere, hours out of Del Monte, probably out on a normal patrol. It was good luck on the Japanese pilot’s part and bad luck for them.
The only warning had been the startled cry of, “Skipper, break, break…!” from Nicholson, the dorsal gunner, before cannon and machine gun fire hammered the aircraft and laced across the fuselage and wing.
The shells punched through the aluminium skin, cracking and ripping through the fuselage to sever hoses, cut wires, glance off heavier pieces of equipment and smash the radio equipment. Cannon shells had eviscerated the navigator, leaving him in two halves to litter the inside of the aircraft in a mess of gore.
The Zero pulled vertical, rolled inverted and dived for another fast-slashing attack. Kilchelski kicked in full right rudder to throw the bomber into a skid in an attempt to avoid the deadly shells. Upside down, and in a fast dive, the Zero pilot unleashed another stream of fire as the bomber flashed through his gun sight. Nicholson in the dorsal turret tried to track the fleeting target and return fire with bursts from the fifty calibres. Most of the Zero’s burst of fire missed as the B-25 skidded through its gun sight, but a cannon shell shattered a cylinder on the starboard engine, beginning its destruction.
After the diving attack, the Zero rolled right way up and pulled into a full-power, steep-climbing turn to reposition for a climbing attack from three quarter rear. The angle was all wrong for the dorsal and tail gunners to depress their guns onto the rapidly closing fighter. The gunner watched as its next burst from two hundred yards out started as a long line of tracer curving lazily toward them before suddenly accelerating to whiplash speed to slash upward through the fuselage, killing two of the evacuees and shattering Nicholson’s legs. His arterial blood and bone fragments splattered the inside of the turret in a chaotic spray of red. The stream of fire suddenly stopped and the Zero pulled power to formate off the port side wing tip.
Kilchelski studied the aircraft and its pilot off the wing tip. Random chance had played its hand, meaning he might never get home to the woman waiting anxiously for him. He saw the Zero pilot lift his goggles and study his aircraft carefully in return. He knew the dorsal gunner was out of action, slumped in his turret with his life blood draining away. The Zero’s pilot just sat there off the wing tip, throttled back with nose high to match speed while he calmly lit a cigarette, studying the wounded B-25.
He’s out of ammunition and pondering what was likely to be a kill, Kilchelski realised.
Then the Japanese pilot lifted a finger in salute and pulled a tight turn to port and home.
Probably also low on fuel and not willing to ram us in the name of the Emperor over this lonely stretch of ocean, Kilchelski guessed, before returning his flagging energy to flying the crippled aircraft south to God knows where.
Jed Mitchell doesn’t look like a school principal. His hair is copper blonde and some would think too long for an educational leader. Standing one hundred and eighty-six centimetres tall in socks, he has a slim build and strong features, eyes as green as outback lagoons with their subtleties of hazel and gold. The conundrum is compounded by a casual stance, speaking of confidence underlain with a resonance of sexuality and a touch of mystery. His appearance has got him into plenty of trouble in the past. He is a rebel with a heart, who seems to have got lost somewhere between the knights of the Middle Ages and the 1970s.
Yet there is no mind sharper and his knowledge of aircraft past and present cannot be surpassed. It is this knowledge Alexander Dulaine needs. She hopes Jed’s thirst for adventure and passion for a challenge will be enough to persuade him to accept her offer. As far as men go, she’s had enough. It will be perfectly clear this is business only. She only needs this man for a single task. Her body and soul will remain inviolate.
Even before the coffee is delivered, Jed knows he is going to be late getting back to the conference. The meeting with Alexander is only meant to be a brief chat to find out what is behind her cryptic email about needing his assistance. He left the conference at afternoon tea and now sits opposite her in the café at the top of Q1 on Australia’s Gold Coast. From the table there is a one hundred and eighty degree view of the wide expanse of blue sea and the golden slash of beach running north-south under a cloudless blue sky as far as the eye can see. It is stunning. Not quite as stunning, however, as Alexander.
Shoulder length blonde hair framing well-proportioned features, brown eyes, a shapely nose and white teeth outlined by lips highlighted with red lipstick, drawing his eyes as she speaks. Her figure is toned to perfection and clothed in a way that shows good taste but not necessarily expense. She is not beautiful in the traditional sense of a fashion model, but Jed finds the combined effect of looks, dress, stance and personality creates a smouldering sensuality that is almost overpowering.
“Hi,” she says, on meeting. Her arm is outstretched for the handshake in a confident way, proclaiming refusal is not an option. “Friends call me Alex, but you’ll call me Alexander.”
To Jed that is as blunt as the back end of a blockbuster. But fair enough, this is the first meeting to discuss a business arrangement. Her name seems spot on, the male version of Alexandra—she certainly has balls! Jed finds her brisk manner, tempered by a femininity that is a complex mix of subtlety and abruptness, very seductive. She must work out in some form and her age is anyone’s guess. Perhaps late thirties, but could even be mid-forties. Very classy, and her handshake is firm but not overpowering. He holds her hand a bit longer than necessary.
“Are you listening to me?” she snaps with a hint of frustration.
Jed meets her eyes. “I’m taking in every detail Alexander,” he replies instantly. However, the details are clouded by the curve of her breasts, not too large but enjoying a subtle, well-defined cleavage framed by the white, sheer blouse. The gold necklace and the small opal pendant draw his eyes like a magnet to the valley between her breasts. After due consideration he decides she has no need for a high-lift bra. In fact, he has no idea what she has said, so he stalls for time. “And what is it you actually want from me Alexander?” He makes sure his eyes stay above her shoulder line, even though he has just become aware of the parts of him that haven’t seen much use in recent times.
“I just said I want you to find the plane for me!” she shoots back with a look hinting she has just discovered she is talking to a dimwit.
Not a dimwit, just a man taken with this vision of womanhood presenting so unexpectedly. It is understandable—twenty-five minutes ago he was in a conference listening to national curriculum issues and now he is sitting opposite a woman whose simple, classy style catches his attention in a way he can’t quite fathom. His day has just improved beyond expectation, even if it only results in a shared cup of coffee.
At forty-six he should be able to handle this lady. After all, as a school principal plenty of women have worked for him over the years. He senses an air of danger about her. What kind of danger he has no idea. It shimmers around her like a faint aura, almost suppressed but occasionally flaring unexpectedly like a King Brown snake flashing a warning among the leaf litter beside an outback channel. He should find it threatening. Instead, it attracts him.
“I heard all that and I’ve been contemplating the implications. What do you have to go on?”
In response to his challenge, she takes a photograph out of her bag and drops it on the table in front of him. It is a colour photograph, a bit faded, showing the twin tail fins of an aircraft partly hidden by vegetation and an encroaching sand drift. It certainly gets his attention. He studies it carefully while considering a response, but she beats him to it.
“I have been searching for information about my grandfather and what happened to him during the war. I’ve been collecting everything about his squadron for a long time. This was found in a second hand shop. The tail numbers were still visible when the photograph was taken and show it to be a plane from the 3
Bombardment Group, United States Army Air Force. The note on the back of the photo claims it’s a B-24.”
Jed looks down at the photograph and wonders whether he should deflate her enthusiasm. What the hell! He may as well kill the dreams early than let her live on false hope. “I’m sorry Alexander, that’s not a B-24. It’s a B-25. The B-24 Liberator was a four-engine, long-range heavy bomber and the B-25 was a twin-engine medium bomber. What you have there is a B-25. The shape of the fins gives it away but it would easily confuse someone not familiar with aircraft of the period.”
She looks at him carefully, leans forward and speaks very clearly and precisely. “I already know it’s a B-25! I wanted to see if you could pick it. The fact you did with just a glance tells me I may be talking to the right person.”
He is almost distracted by the movement of those tempting lips as they frame her response. He may be a pillar of society responsible for the development of the nation’s young people, but he is also a man. Without a hint of the effort required, he shoves tempting thoughts aside. “That’s not a lot to go on,” he replies, hoping he has proven himself not to be a dunce. He concentrates on keeping his eyes above the no-go line. He isn’t going to give her the satisfaction of cutting him down again. “Have you got anything else?”
“I know a retired airline pilot who bought the whole collection of slides and photographs and gave them to me. He knows I’m interested in finding out more about the period. It looks like they came from a deceased estate. If you want to help I can let you have them. That is, if you think you are up to the task!”
She sure knows how to throw out a challenge! Holding his tongue, Jed looks down at the photograph. She misreads his lack of response as indecisiveness, continuing to talk, knowing enough about his life to tease him with a few confidential details.
“I know about Burma and what you did for Roman. You like a challenge, especially to do with lost aircraft from World War II. That’s just what I need if you’re up for it!”
Snapping his head up, Jed looks into her direct and piercing gaze. Now she has his attention! He studies her with his best poker face. Burma was a long time ago, an adventure from the wild days of youth—a prison break to pay back more than one favour to a good man whose son had been held for ransom. And Roman? Roman was an adventure in Irian Jaya he really couldn’t resist. Roman needed parts for a World War II aircraft rebuild he was funding. Even if corroded, the parts they recovered would serve as templates for the manufacture of new components. They did that in fifty-four hours on the ground, in and out, before things became difficult. Alexander seems to know all about it.
“I don’t know it all,” she adds with the confidence of the well-informed, “but Chelavenki recommended you.”
! Now she really grabs his attention, like a hand gripped tightly around his throat! What can he say? She has the most revealing source of information about him. To deny it would be a lie. He doesn’t want to lie to this woman, but there is information he has never even shared with his family.
! Ex-American helicopter pilot shot down three times in Vietnam, later a chopper pilot flying deer cullers, including Jed, in the Southern Alps of New Zealand, a mercenary organiser and later a business consultant back in the States. He looks straight back into her brown eyes and chooses to say nothing about all that. He can always find out later what has gone on there.
“If you want me to help, I’ll need everything you have. I’ll have to do some research and get back to you in a few weeks,” he announces decisively. Now he doesn’t have to work hard to keep his eyes level with hers. Adventure is calling.
“That’s fine. I’m heading off to Sydney for a while but can meet when you are ready.”
“Bear in mind Alexander, this will cost you. Allowing for airfares, vehicle, fuel, supplies and incidentals, you could be up for at least ten thousand dollars with no guarantee of success.”
“I don’t care. I’m willing to have a go. It’s the only lead I have. I want to at least try. I expect to cover expenses and will pay you ten thousand on top for your efforts.” Her tone makes it plain she has already thought things through.
The lady has time and money to burn
, Jed assesses. He acknowledges the urge to locate her grandfather. He’d come across other families searching for closure over relatives missing in action over the vast expanse of Northern Australia, New Guinea and the waters in between. The reasons were their own, but important to them.
Jed hesitates, but not out of doubt. He doesn’t want to seem too eager. After exploring twenty-six crash sites from World War II, here is a chance at an unrecorded site, a war grave. He is keen.
“It would mean a lot to me to find him,” she says. “My mother cut her father out of her life totally and said little about him. Grandma always blamed my mother for his death in a weird, convoluted way. I copped the effects all through my childhood. From what I know, I think I’m a bit like him. Maybe I can settle some ghosts for her and also for me.”
Her voice has taken on a soft quality and Jed senses an intangible fragility beneath the strength. He is intrigued. “I have a school vacation coming up in a couple of months. I can take a week of long service leave before and after. That gives us a month. If I decide it’s a goer, can you do it?”
She stands up with a decisive nod, ending the meeting, and offers her hand. Shaking it professionally, Jed still notes the feel of her skin, the warmth of her touch and the strength of her fingers.
They walk to the elevator, joining the queue for the next lift, and talk superficially about the view during the long ride down to the ground floor. They walk out into the sunlight and stand on the pavement next to the bustle of the Gold Coast traffic.
“You’ll need this,” she offers, delving into her bag and taking out a bulky packet of photographs and slides. “I’ll wait for you to be in touch.”
In return he gives her his card and lingers a little longer than necessary before she turns and walks off without looking back. Jed wants to talk to her more but shies off from asking her to catch up in the evening. He can’t help noticing that she walks with relaxed grace. The cut and texture of her blouse and slacks allows just a hint of the firm, shapely body and legs hidden beneath. She moves with the grace and controlled movement of a dancer.
This lady knows that less is a whole lot more
After his last mistake, marrying too fast, he has avoided getting involved with another woman. Four months of promise followed by two years of alcohol-fuelled hell is a hard lesson. Everyone makes mistakes but he married his biggest one. However, Alexander is tickling his fancy and it isn’t just her body. He is tantalised by the visual and intellectual seductiveness of their encounter.
Hopping into his hired, red, two-door Monaro coupe, Jed feels his settled life has been disturbed by the encounter. He hopes he is thinking with his brain and not another part of his anatomy. Regardless of the woman, he is not going to be able to resist this opportunity. Picking up some pocket money for having the adventure is just an added bonus.
April 14 1942, north of Darwin, Australia
Second Lieutenant Isao Tahana of the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Force rested his left hand on the throttle while his right gently caressed the control stick of his Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero-Sen fighter. He was cruising on patrol at one hundred and eighty knots, burning a miserly sixteen point four gallons of fuel every hour. He was reaching his maximum endurance, one of the outstanding features of the Zero fighter. Experimentation by dedicated Nippon pilots showed the ability of the A6M2 to use its very long range to reach the Philippine Islands and still retain fuel for useful combat time. This saved the use of aircraft carriers and freed them up for other tasks.
When the 3
Naval Fleet and 11
Kôkukantai Air Fleet hit the Philippines from bases in Taiwan in December 1941, they flew missions the likes of which had never been seen before. Their fighters appeared in places totally unexpected and caught the Americans and British by surprise. These flights would not be surpassed until the advent of the very long-range missions undertaken by P-51 Mustangs in 1945 and the long-range mission flown by P-38 Lightnings to hunt down Admiral Yamamoto, mastermind of the attack on Pearl Harbour. All this was in the future. Isao lived in the Samurai dreamtime, the peak period of the Zero and the Japanese fighter pilots’ reputation.
He scanned the sky from left to right and saw below, at two o’clock, the fleeting shape of an aircraft silhouetted against the dark blue of the ocean. The twin tails gave it away immediately. One of the new American devil bombers that had arrived in the Philippines only three days ago to attack the loyal soldiers of the Empire was now running for home in defeat. He scanned the sky around him once again, a habit that had kept him alive, noting the position of the American bomber and the sun. He saw no other aircraft and assumed the one below to be a straggler from the main group that had made good its escape.