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When ?Lucky? Luke Ray, a cocky young American pilot volunteers to fly for the French in World War I, he has no idea what?s ahead for him. Soon he?s in England, under orders from the British Spy Master to rescue Nurse Cavell in German- occupied Belgium, where she?s on trial for being a spy. At least he believes that?s his mission until treachery in his own ranks puts him in deadly danger. Which one is responsible? The woman he wants? The man he mistrusts? Or has he been set up from the start? Unless he?s more ...
When “Lucky” Luke Ray, a cocky young American pilot volunteers to fly for the French in World War I, he has no idea what’s ahead for him. Soon he’s in England, under orders from the British Spy Master to rescue Nurse Cavell in German- occupied Belgium, where she’s on trial for being a spy. At least he believes that’s his mission until treachery in his own ranks puts him in deadly danger. Which one is responsible? The woman he wants? The man he mistrusts? Or has he been set up from the start? Unless he’s more lucky than he’s ever been, he’ll soon be facing a Boche firing squad.
LUKE RAY peered through the taxi's windshield into the enshrouding mist. The 1911 Dodge slowed and then slowed again as its headlights probed the damp grayness. A building, low, dark and insubstantial, materialized in front of the taxi, a dim light glowing in a window. The driver sighed with relief before he turned to Luke with a smile.
"La escadrille." His voice was triumphant.
Luke paid the fare he'd negotiated hours before in Chaumont, shouldered his duffel bag and walked slowly along the flagstone path, his heart hammering in anticipation. At last! The tinkle of an out-of-tune piano grew louder and louder, stopping abruptly when he opened the door to what he saw was the lounge. Heads turned, eyes evaluated him.
"Fermez la porte," a lieutenant told him.
Luke shut the door behind him. Immediately the men resumed talking, playing cards, and reading. The piano-player started up again. Luke, duffel bag at his side, gazed from one group to another, waiting. No one made a move to greet him. He frowned, puzzled and disappointed.
How could they be so sure he wasn't one of them? With his dark hair and eyes he might be French -- would they treat one of their own countrymen so coldly? It was clear, though, that they knew exactly who he was -- the American who'd volunteered for the Service Aeronatique by way of the Foreign Legion. He hadn't expected a brass band but what the hell, what was wrong with being an American?
Yet he didn't sense hostility in the room, more an uneasiness.
One of the men reading, short and round-faced, closed his book without marking his place and stood. He walked to Luke, extending hishand.
"I am Felix DuFour," he said in English.
"Luke Ray." They shook hands.
"We expected you to arrive yesterday," said DuFour.
"I was delayed by the fog." Again Luke glanced around the room. "Did I miss a patrol? A fight? Is that why -- ?"
"We show a lack of enthusiasm?" DuFour shook his head. "No, we did not fly yesterday. But what can you expect, considering the circumstances?" He met Luke's gaze and shrugged. "I will take you to our captain." He nodded toward the door.
Outside, the afternoon mist dampened Luke's face again and he blinked drops of water from his eyelashes. DuFour strode ahead, becoming an indistinct gray form.
"Such strange weather, this, for August." DuFour's disembodied voice came from the mist ahead of Luke. "If the wind changes and the weather clears, we fly in the morning. Three of us -- you, myself and Henri Passard."
"Was Passard in the lounge?"
There was a silence. "No," DuFour said finally, "he is absent, confined to his quarters. As your M. Thoreau would say, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Ah, but such an aviator. If he were not, he would have been dead many times over by now."
So Passard was a maverick, Luke thought. Not exactly the flyer he'd pick to go with him on his first patrol with the escadrille. A maverick and an American. It made him wonder about DuFour.
Through the mist he saw a light over the doorway of a camouflaged building. Increasing his pace, he pulled up even with his companion. "Why were you chosen?" asked Luke.
DuFour shrugged. "After all, I am a Jew." He opened the door and led the way into a room where men and women worked at desks covered with ordered piles of documents.
"I don't understand."
"What is there to understand? We follow orders, we kill the Boche, we flight for glory and for France. We don't inquire into reasons." DuFour passed through a door on their right, Luke on his heels. As Luke shook his head, giving it up, a pretty black-haired young woman behind a railing to his left caught his eye. As he passed, she glanced up from her typewriter and smiled at him. He smiled back, grateful for the first spontaneous sign of welcome. DuFour led him into the next room, telling a corporal that Sergeant Luke Ray was reporting for duty. The corporal nodded and left them.
DuFour's dark eyes appraised Luke. "Yvette smiled at you."
Luke grinned. "In Denver we'd call her a right pretty gal."
"We in the escadrille call her the Angel of Death."
Luke stared at him.
"She has an unusual ability," DuFour went on, "of offering her affection to those who are about to die or be maimed. Some men might say it was worth the price. As for myself--"
The corporal, returning, interrupted. "You will report to the captain, Sergeant," he told Luke.
Captain Trenault's blue tunic accented the gray of his hair and the sallowness of his thin face. As Luke saluted, he found it difficult to keep his gaze from following the track of the scar curving along the left side of the captain's chin to his ear.
"We expected you yesterday," the captain told him.
"My train was held back to wait for a troop transport, sir, heading for the front. To Verdun. Then the weather--"
"The weather will be better tomorrow." The captain spoke in a monotone, bored and weary. He looked at Luke, yet beyond him. "Have you been told of your mission?" he asked.
"In the last week we have lost five planes and five aviators north of Verdun. Over the German lines, behind the German lines. Some of the escadrille's best pilots. They flew north and they disappeared. The Boche, we are convinced, have a new and powerful weapon. A new aircraft? A new anti-aircraft gun? We do not know."
Luke nodded. Despite his own self-confidence, he felt a crawl of unease.
"Three of you will fly north tomorrow at dawn," the captain went on. "You and two of our best aviators, DuFour and Passard. You are to cross the German lines and discover why our aircraft have not come back. I expect that at least one of you will return with the answer." He focused directly on Luke for the first time. "I understand you've flown the Nieuport 10."
"Yes, sir. I have twenty hours flight time, five in combat."
"A magnificent machine, the best we have."
"She handles well. She can turn on a dime."
"A great improvement over what we flew at the beginning of the war. Is it only a year ago? It seems much longer." The captain pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger, then turned his gaze to photographs of aviators and aircraft on the wall beside the desk. "Those machines were little more than kites with motors."
"The Nieuport's a hell of a machine, sir," Luke said. "Except for the wings."
"The wings, the wings, that's all I hear, the wings. Can a plane be built without a flaw? Do you want speed or do you want strength? Do you want maneuverability or do you want a plodding gun platform?"
Luke didn't reply. "There's no sense talking," his father, T.J., had always told him, "when nobody's listening."
"Aircraft are like men," the captain continued. "They are all flawed, they must be flawed. An imperfect human cannot create a perfect machine. Even Americans are flawed. You agree, sergeant?"
"Yes, sir," Luke said. T.J. would have agreed as well -- at least as far as Luke himself was concerned. Luke remembered his father shaking his head over Luke's twenty-dollar loss to a three-card monte dealer.
"You're going to keep losing until you stop seeing just what other folks want you to see," T.J. had warned him.
"You'll be awakened at three in the morning." The captain nodded his dismissal.
Luke saluted and about-faced.
Luke, at the door, turned and saw that Captain Trenault was standing, leaning forward with his hands on the desk. "I wish you the best of good fortune."
Surprised, Luke hesitated. "Merci, mon capitaine," he replied.
Copyright © 2002 by Jane Toombs