The Bloody Red Baron by Kim Newman

Part One: All Quiet on the Western Front Chapter 3


  Past Midnight

  Courtney kept winding the gramophone and setting the needle back to the beginning. 'Poor Butterfly' was the only record in the billet. Winthrop wondered if the choice struck anyone else as unhealthy. Butterfly kept waiting but Pinkerton never came back, the swine. Every three minutes, the unfortunate Cio-Cio-San wasted away, drained cold and abandoned by her vampire lover. The story always upset Winthrop, and this version, distilled to a few verses, was the most concentratedly upsetting.

  'We used to have a rare selection,' Williamson claimed, when Winthrop voiced a complaint at the limited repertoire. 'The Bohemian Girl, Chu Chin Chow, "Take a Pair of Crimson Eyes". . . '

  'But there was a binge and they all got smashed,' said Bertie.

  'I miss The Vampyres of Venice,' said Ginger.

  'Heroic binge, though,' Courtney said. 'A veritable binge of binges. The demoiselles can still feel the bites. '

  The record finished and the gramophone stuttered, hissing. Courtney lifted the needle. 'Poor Butterfly' started again.

  The bridge game had evaporated. The pilots lounged in the mess, not talking of Red Albright, regarding Winthrop with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion. He fancied some of the vampires looked at him hungrily.

  'Will you be permanent?' Bigglesworth asked.

  'Nothing's permanent,' Courtney got in. 'Not even immortality. '

  'I'm given to understand that I'm to be your liaison with Diogenes in place of Captain Spenser. '

  'Oh joy,' said Brown, a sour Canadian.

  'Mind your head then,' said Williamson.

  'I intend to. '

  'Deuced mysterious, Diogenes,' Courtney commented. 'It's hard to see a pattern in what they ask of us. Photograph a road here, bomb a bridge there, bring down a balloon, convey a silent passenger over the lines . . . '

  '"Ours not to reason why",' Bertie said.

  Courtney snarled humorously.

  'I don't know any more than you do,' Winthrop felt obliged to say. 'It's intelligence. It's supposed to be mysterious. *

  'Sometimes I think we're split-arsing around just to confuse the Hun,' said Courtney. 'Playing some complicated practical joke. '

  'Then why isn't it funny?' asked Williamson.

  Winthrop looked at his watch three or four times a minute. Midnight did not seem to get nearer. He overcame an instinct to hold the timepiece to his ear to make sure it still ticked.

  The record started again. Lacey returned from a trip upstairs to visit 'mademoiselle'. The Englishman, one of the Bigglesworth clique, was quickened after feeding, eyes darting, sharp fingers fidgeting.

  Allard laughed again, like glass scraping bone.

  'First name on the list,' he mused. 'Last week, that would have been me. I'd be flying out to the chateau. '

  'You were right to complain,' said Cundall.

  Allard was silent. He leaned into a nook, disappearing in shadow.

  'They used to misspell Allard's name,' Cundall explained. 'They'd miss an L and he'd be A-L-A-R-D. Put him ahead of Albright on the roster. He threw a squawk and Lieutenant- Colonel Raymond issued a stern notice to the fool typists at Wing. They've started spelling it properly. '

  'Perhaps you'll make it to the top again,' said Courtney. Nobody laughed.

  'You ought to be a pilot,' Cundall said to Winthrop. 'Begins with a W. You'd never have to go up. Williamson would be in the air before you. '

  Picking the first name on the list was a fatuous idea. But any other choice would have been as arbitrary. Cundall's ragging irked Winthrop. It was the flight commander's responsibility, no matter that he had manipulated someone else into making the decision.

  Even the vampires were restless, jittery. Conversation took silly turns. Bertie and Lacey compared eccentric, fearsome aunts.

  Winthrop thought of Spenser, wondering what made a man drive nails into his own brain. As he was taken away, Spenser was smiling. He seemed not to be in pain.

  There was a long-case clock in the room, face cracked across, stopped at ten to seven. Winthrop alternated looking at the broken clock and his watch. It was twenty to midnight.

  The Chateau du Malinbois was forty miles off. An SE5a could make a hundred and twenty miles an hour but flying above the cloud, navigating by the stars, Albright would go slower. It might take several dips to look at the land before he found the objective. Captain Midnight was only human, even if a vampire.

  If Albright wasn't back by twelve, it didn't mean he wasn't coming home.

  'Poor Butterfly' slowed and Courtney wound her up again. After a comically sped-up squeak, she settled into her usual rut.

  Waiting, waiting. Wasting, wasting.

  Winthrop thought of Catriona. He must write and tell her his duties had changed. He could not mention Diogenes, of course. Also, the censors would blank anything about Spenser. No wonder the army provided form postcards; fill in the gaps, strike out anything that didn't apply and sign your name. He missed being able to talk things through with Cat. She had a keen intellect and usually found a different way of looking at a thing.

  'Two minutes to,' Williamson said.

  Winthrop checked his watch. Time had lurched forward. After a moment lasting a quarter of an hour, a quarter of an hour had gone in a moment.

  'I think I hear him,' Bertie said.

  Courtney, swift as a snake, lifted the needle from the record, cutting off 'Poor Butterfly' in mid-waste. Winthrop heard noises in his head and the everlasting shelling, but nothing more. Then, perhaps, something.

  With exaggeratedly casual gait, Cundall ambled over and opened the door. There was definitely a distant sound, a whine or a rumble.

  'He'll be on the dot,' Courtney said. 'Captain Midnight returns. '

  Cundall stepped outside and everyone followed, elated. Light strayed across the field from the open door. A tall figure stared into the sky. Dravot had stayed at his post all the time. Winthrop would not have been surprised if an icicle had hung from the sergeant's nose.

  Nobody had said they thought Albright would not make it home, so they couldn't now be relieved when he did.

  'It's an SE5a all right,' Williamson said. 'No mistaking that cough. '

  Winthrop saw the black bubble outlines of the clouds. He strained to see more.

  'There, look,' Ball said, extending an arm that kinked at the elbow and wrist.

  Something dipped out of cloud. Winthrop heard the engine clearly. He realised he was holding his breath and exhaled a plume of condensation.

  'Can he see the field?' he asked.

  'Of course,' Cundall snapped. 'Eyes like an owl. But there's no harm in giving him a flare. Allard, pop one off, would you, there's a dear. '

  The American, wrapped in a cape, produced a Verey pistol and fired upwards. A purple shell burst high, colouring cloud! from within, bathing the field in violet.

  The SE5a rounded to approach the field. Winthrop had seen pilots stunt to impress fellows on the ground (some who survived dog-fights broke their silly necks trying to look heroes to pretty nurses) but Albright was better than that. Cundall's Condors probably couldn't be much impressed by stunting.

  Winthrop saw what excited the press about aviators. They were lone eagles, not anonymous masses. The only knightly heroes in the gash of bloody mud that stretched across Europe from Belgium to northern Italy.

  Violet light failed as the flare came down. Allard sent up another.

  'What's that?' Winthrop asked.

  Above the SE5a was a winged shape, indistinct in the purple cloud. He heard only Albright's engine. The shape swooped down, more like a huge bird than an aircraft. Albright put a burst up into its belly. From the ground, the gunfire was a tiny sparkling. The shape fastened on to the SE5a and hauled it upwards. Entwined, they climbed into cloud. Allard sent up two more flares, one after the other.

jor Cundall's face, outlined by the violet glow, was hard.

  Engine drone continued for seconds, then choked into silence. The cloud seemed to part. Something fell, whining. Albright's aeroplane spiralled tightly towards the ground, wind screaming in its wires. One set of wings tore loose. The SE5a ploughed nose-down and crumpled like a box-kite. Winthrop waited for an explosion.

  People ran towards the wreck. The fizzling purple bonfires of fallen flares lit the mess. The tail was snapped off, the remaining wings shredded. Parallel slashes in the canvas looked like clawmarks.

  Winthrop reached the SE5a just after Cundall. They skidded to a halt a few yards away, cautious. The fuel tank might explode. Burning petrol killed vampires as nastily as it did a warm man.

  A crowd ringed the crumpled aircraft. The Lewis gun, barrel still smoking, poked out of twisted metal and fabric. Dravot pressed forward and rooted through the wreck, ripping apart the remains. He found one of the cameras and checked the plate. It was smashed.

  'Where is he?' Bigglesworth asked.

  The cockpit was empty. No one had seen the pilot fall.

  Had Albright taken a parachute? If so, it was against regulations. It was thought parachutes encouraged cowardice. They were issued only to balloon observers.

  'Look,' Allard said.

  Winthrop followed the American's gaze upwards. The last purple faded in the clouds. The flying shape was still faintly visible, weaving this way and that on the currents. It could be some strange sort of batwing kite. Then it was gone.

  'Something's falling,' Ginger said.

  There was a whistling and everyone scattered. It was just his luck to be under a bomb when he had a promotion in the offing. He flung himself on cold grass, covering his head with his arms, thinking briefly of Catriona.

  An object thumped into the field, a dozen yards from the wreck, and did not explode. Winthrop gathered himself and stood up, brushing grass and ice-chips from his coat.

  'Good God,' Cundall said. 'It's Red. '

  The vampires stood in a circle around the fallen man. Winthrop was allowed through to look.

  The twisted thing wore a midnight black Sidcot, ripped open from neck to crotch. A human face was shrivelled on to the skull, lids shrunk from staring eyes. It was a caricature of Albright's solid features, bled white. In the throat was a sucked- dry wound the size of an orange, exposing vertebrae, pale sinew and the underside of the jawbone. The body was insubstantial, a scarecrow of sticks wrapped in thin linen. Albright had been emptied, leeched of all substance.

  Cundall and the others looked up at impenetrable skies. Winthrop fumbled his watch out of his pocket. It must have cracked when he threw himself down, for it had stopped at midnight precisely.

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