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By Margit Liesche
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2009 Margit Liesche
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Chapter OneIt's nice when someone is there to greet you; disconcerting when it's the general's aide.
The assignment had started normally enough. Yesterday, I'd ferried a factory-fresh pursuit fighter from Long Beach to New Jersey. I was all set for a direct flight home to repeat my standard routine, but juggled orders put me on a hopscotch course, ultimately delivering a P-47 Thunderbolt to Long Beach shortly after dawn.
I jumped off the fighter's wing.
"Pucci Lewis." Lieutenant Hatch, a true ramrod in a natty, sharply creased uniform, addressed me.
"Forget the paperwork, Lewis, and leave the gear. Cochran wants you in the general's office, on the double."
My fingers fumbled as I unstrapped my parachute for the ground crewman waiting nearby. "Yes, sir."
Jackie Cochran, my boss and head of the Women Air Force Service Pilots—WASP—operated out of her ranch in nearby Indio or from Washington, D.C. Why was she here? And what was so urgent that standard procedures, including the postflight paperwork at BaseOps, were being set aside?
A month ago, we'd met under similar high-priority conditions at the Willow Run aircraft factory near Detroit. I had been "loaned" to the Detroit FBI field office to assist with an industrial espionage case. My pulse quickened. Was I needed on another home front security mission?
Hatch pointed with his chin to the leather bag I'd parked on the asphalt next to me while shedding my chute. "Bring the grip. You're gonna need it."
No kidding. My B-4 bag went everywhere with me, as much a part of my day-to-day existence as the purse I'd carried in more traditional times. And, like a purse, the standard issue tote had too many essentials crammed into too small a space.
I lifted the bag and hustled to catch up to Hatch.
* * *
Miss C sat behind the general's highly polished desk, absorbed in an important telephone conversation. Her posture was rigid; her expression was tight. Holding up a finger to signal she needed another minute, she spun around leaving us to stare at the tall back of the general's swivel chair.
General Griffith and Miss C went way back, but she was chummy with a number of Army Air Force generals, having competed against them in air races before the war. I knew about her in admiring detail. In 1932 she received her pilot's license after only three weeks of lessons and immediately pursued advanced instruction. By 1937, she'd set three major flying records against all comers. In 1938, she won the prestigious cross-country Bendix Race, much to the chagrin of her male competitors, some of whom became those AAF generals.
Scuttlebutt about her association with the brass-hats frequently made the rounds in airport ready rooms, where we whiled away the hours waiting for our orders or for the weather to clear. It was assumed that we'd fill the time wisely, reading flying regs or the Pilots' Information File, a.k.a. The Pilots' Bible, but usually we just plain needed a break. We'd tell jokes, play cards, devour movie magazines, gossip. And there was plenty to dish when it came to Miss C. Her mysterious origins, her eccentricities, her millionaire husband and their unconventional marriage, her numerous professional accomplishments, the climb to her current executive position, and the cargo hold of enemies she'd assembled along the way.
A good ready room yarn would've been welcome as Hatch and I stood by. Looking sideways, I studied his chiseled profile. Muscles twitched at the edge of his tightly drawn mouth; otherwise, shoulders back, eyes ahead, he remained a statue. My gaze drifted to the wall above Miss C where a life-size portrait hung of President Roosevelt, complete with pince-nez, cigarette holder, and jaunty smile. Reflexively, I returned the smile. Shifting my weight from foot to foot, hoping to work off some nervous energy, one calf brushed against the other. Adrenaline suddenly coursed through me, turning my face lobster red. I'd left my ankle holster on! I was authorized and trained to use a gun, but the pistol strapped to my leg was a non-regulation Smith & Wesson .38, a gift from my Gran Skjold who knew things could get rough for a single woman on the road. She'd been a dancer in a traveling vaudeville troupe when she first arrived in the States fresh from Sweden. At WASP graduation, Gran had passed along the holster and the S&W break-top, along with a few lessons on its use. Turned out to be the ideal gift. Whenever I was assigned a plane with specialized equipment, a .45 got handed over along with my orders. A .45 was large and cumbersome; the break-top, on the other hand, was compact and lightweight. Wearing nonregulation items required discretion, so normally I took the holster off before exiting my plane. Hatch had distracted me.
I felt the heat of a second burst of adrenaline. The .45! Check-in procedures required turning it in. Because they'd been waived, I still had that gun, too, inside the B-4 bag positioned on the floor next to me.
Packing a hidden arsenal at my feet could account for the rise in my body temperature, but my flight gear wasn't helping either. I peeled off my leather helmet and unzipped my jacket, quickly patting the WASP insignia over my heart. Filling the insignia's center was Fifinella, a cross-eyed winged gremlin and official mascot of the WASP, designed by Disney Studio. We considered Fifinella a good luck charm, protection against storms, mechanical failure, and any other danger that may cross our paths. Don't let me get caught with two hidden guns, I silently pleaded to her.
Miss C's voice crescendoed behind the chair. "Don't bully me. I'm working on it."
She swiveled and the receiver hit its cradle with a clunk. "Hatch, that's all."
Hatch jerked to life. Miss C and I exchanged greetings while he about-faced and exited the room.
"What? Hasn't grown out yet?" Miss C was gaping at my hair as the door clicked shut.
A couple of months ago, on the road and bored, I'd decided to do something about its standard-issue color. From a corner drugstore I purchased a kit that promised to transform dishwater blonde to Tahitian Gold. What I got was tabby orange, the shade resembling the pelt of Sarah Bernhardt, my childhood cat. A self-trim to lop off the damaged ends and frizz had left me with a short, shaggy Amelia Earhart do.
"Ah c'mon, Miss C. We've been over this. You know how hectic ferrying coast to coast gets. Plus, hours under a leather helmet, my scalp gets sweaty." I finger-combed my hair. "This style fluffs right back into shape."
Miss C did not look convinced. "And the color?"
I grinned. "It's fun?"
Her dark eyes bore into me. My grin wobbled.
Miss C was a fanatic about appearance. It's a woman's duty to always be as presentable as time and purse permit, she liked to say. Polished steel in a jeweled case, she had a purse with deep pockets, affording the fine designer clothes she loved. Today, decked out in a navy designer suit and cream blouse, every shimmering golden hair smoothed into gently permed waves, she looked as though she'd just stepped out of Central Casting.
"It won't matter," she said at last. "You'll be in flight gear most of the time you're on camera."
"Sit." She motioned to the chair opposite her.
I dropped to the edge of the seat. She shot her square jaw toward the telephone. "That was Roland Novara in Hollywood, director for a Victory short on you gals. We're lucky to have him." The lift of her brow reinforced the false ring of enthusiasm in her tone.
Victory shorts were documentary-style films about home front participation in the war effort. Usually twenty minutes in length, they showed citizens how to conserve, assist, and sacrifice, while painting rosy pictures of military branches for recruiting purposes.
"So the film's on again," I said. "That's terrific. Someone pull some strings?"
Directors, like all goods, were scarce these days, and the WASP Victory short had been in the works for some time. Several months ago, Miss C sent me to Hollywood for a look- see. But I never set foot in the studio. The film was quashed after the director was recruited to work on an urgent hush-hush AAF training film.
Miss C's lips curled into a small smile. "General Griffith got involved. Thinks we can use the film to help build support. It's shameful we're being forced to lobby for a service that's so clearly needed ..." She sighed. "But it's got to be done. Opposition keeps coming out of the woodwork. Mainly returning vets, claiming my program is taking stateside jobs from them.
"But by God—" She smacked her fist into the palm of her hand. "You gals have worked hard. We're not about to let them waltz in, pull you off the flying jobs just because some men out there happen to want them. That tired argument that women aren't as qualified, don't have the same physical and mental stamina as the men—ha! A plane doesn't give a damn whether a pilot's male or female; what matters is whether you know its capabilities and can fly it. You gals are proof of that."
I nodded, acknowledging the vote of confidence. "Did you say, er, something about me and a camera?"
Miss C ignored the question. "The War Department's breathing down Novara's neck to finish up our film. He's feeling pushed. We're only one of several he's got in the works, including a training film with Clark Gable. AAF wants the Gable movie yesterday, too."
Clark Gable? Who'd care about unreasonable deadlines if Clark Gable was involved?
"Novara's also vying for a feature," she added. "Something with Cary Grant and John Garfield."
The stars' names tripped off her tongue as though they were all old friends. But then, why was I surprised? The guest book at Miss C's ranch read like a Who's Who of notables from film stars to baronesses to top ranking corporate executives, military officers, and politicians. Even the President. More intrigued by the moment, I leaned forward in my seat.
"Something else." She cleared her throat. "Frankie Beall. Several weeks ago, when Novara started on our film, I reassigned her to Hollywood to assist him. Do you know her?"
I nodded. Frankie had been in the class ahead of me at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, where we'd done our training. Although in different classes, we'd been assigned to the same dormitory or bay. The gals in our bay had come from a cross-section of backgrounds: an actress, a radio commentator, a flight instructor, a journalist. Frankie had been a schoolteacher. What was particularly memorable about her was how she always carried two cushions in her parachute bag for scooting herself forward in the cockpit to reach the rudder pedals with her feet. In spite of her five foot two height, Frankie could outmaneuver anyone in a PT trainer, and she'd earned a reputation as our unit's aerobatics ace. Though the bases we'd been assigned to weren't all that far apart, we hadn't seen one another since graduation. Too bad, I thought, suddenly reminded of our promise to keep in touch.
Miss C leaned across the desk toward me. The brown eyes that moments before had bored a hole through me, were suddenly so soft that I sensed she was holding back tears.
"Something's happened to Frankie?"
She nodded. "Yesterday, at March Field she took an A-24 up. They were rehearsing a target-towing segment for the film. She made a pass over the filming crew a-a- and—" She swallowed. "—engine quit."
My stomach roiled. "Oh no ..."
"Tower said she knew right away the trouble was big. Told 'em to get the crash truck out. Film crew saw it all. Said the plane lurched, then hung mid-air for what seemed an eternity ... Nose dropped all of a sudden, and the plane plummeted down. Incredibly, Frankie managed to level out. But when she hit the runway ... fuselage just snapped."
I blinked several times. "Sh-she alive?"
Miss C's nod was barely perceptible. "A miracle. Tail section was completely demolished, but the wings and everything forward stayed intact, more or less. Cuts, broken bones, head injury's the worst of it. She's in critical condition. She struck something, maybe the control stick. There's a deep gash. Too soon to know if there's brain damage."
She looked away for a moment. "Iwas in Hollywood on business, so I stopped at the hospital last night. She's been unconscious since the accident. They've got a close watch on her."
I took a deep breath, then let it out slow. "Stray bullet?"
Target-towing involved letting anti-aircraft gunnery crews practice their marksmanship by firing live ammunition at a muslin target shaped like a long wind sock, which you trailed behind your plane. Oftentimes the plane got riddled with bullets, along with the target.
Miss C shrugged. "Hard to say right now. A crash investigator is sifting the debris. It was an A-24 salvaged from the South Pacific. In bad shape before Frankie took it up." Her lips pulled into a sardonic smile. "Novara had insisted that the tow plane be authentic."
The premium on planes for the front had forced training units to make do with the leftovers. I massaged the muscles at the back of my neck, recalling the "war-weary" I'd been in yesterday. Also a Dauntless A-24 dive bomber, it'd been abused and so poorly maintained that the tail wheel had blown during landing at Camp Davis, Oklahoma. The pull to the right had been so strong, the plane and I waltzed right off the runway. Fortunately, the nose had pointed into a grassy area and not into the row of planes parked on the flight line.
Miss C splayed her fingers on the desk, frowning before folding them, absently tapping the conjoined fists against the desk's surface. She delighted in playing up her great features—the perpetual tan on her flawless skin; the gentle curls and highlights in her blond hair; the couture clothing sheathing the curves of her frame. But she avoided calling attention to her hands. They were very masculine. For this reason, she never used nail polish. But something beyond a manicure was on her mind.
"What is it?" My thoughts tumbled unchecked from my lips. "The crash ... You suspect it's not an accident?"
Her focus whisked back to me, unmistakable fire in her eyes. "There's something fishy going on at March. Someone's sitting on the preliminary investigation results. I want to know why."
"Preliminary results? You just said the crash investigator was still—"
"I know what I said, Lewis. But I have my sources. A source. Frankie's crash was no accident."
Miss C's sigh was audible. "It's a delicate situation. I can't just rush in, make demands. But I'm not going to let this go. Frankie's one of mine. I need someone from my camp to get up there and dig around."
That's reason I was here. My stomach knotted.
"You're sending me to Hollywood to take over for Frankie? I'm the designated camper?"
"It's the perfect cover. You'll ride herd on Novara to see that our documentary projects the proper image. Behind the scenes, you'll be looking into the whys of Frankie's incident."
"Precisely. I'm here for a strategy session with General Griffith. In a few hours, we're off to Washington. Some behind-the-scenes meetings with certain members of Congress. Need to drum up support for a bill to militarize the WASP. It's the ticket to get you gals the recognition and benefits you're entitled to, same as other non-combat military personnel."
Starting the WASP program had been such a sensitive and complex ordeal that to get the service up and running quickly we'd been hired by, and were still paid by, Civil Service. So we were civilians serving under military regulations, a status Miss C despised.
"While we're at it, we're going to try and get a better measure of the tide swelling against us." She grimaced. "And, we hope, find a way to turn it back."
"Can we get back to finding out the whys of Frankie's incident? To riding herd on Novara? What do you mean, exactly?"
She lifted a perfectly groomed, disapproving eyebrow. "You're the one with intelligence training. Behind the scenes sleuthing ought to be second nature."
Three months ago, in early August 1943, I'd been summoned to Office of Strategic Services (OSS) headquarters in Washington to participate in a specially designed, condensed training course. Miss C had not warmed up to sharing one of her assets.
"Sleuthing might be second nature, but riding herd is new. Before I can do the job, I need to know what's involved."
"On my way here from Indio, I stopped off in Hollywood to attend the preview of a feature film. It's about women who fly for the military and it's due to be released soon."
"Great! What's it called?"
"Ladies Courageous. But hold your horses. We're not going to be recommending the picture to anyone. Ladies Outrageous is more like it! It's sentimental, fictional trash. The women I saw on that screen couldn't be trusted with kiddy cars, let alone airplanes. It'll set my—our—progress back years. Think about it."
Excerpted from Hollywood Buzz by Margit Liesche Copyright © 2009 by Margit Liesche. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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