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The Devouring

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The Devouring

  Also by the Author

  Billy ­Boyle

  The First Wave

  Blood Alone

  Evil for Evil

  Rag and Bone

  A Mortal Terror

  Death’s Door

  A Blind Goddess

  The Rest Is Silence

  The White Ghost

  Blue Madonna

  On Desperate Ground


  Copyright © 2017 by James R. Benn

  All rights reserved.

  This is a work of f iction. Names, characters, places, and incidents

  either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used f ictitiously,

  and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  Published by Soho Press, Inc.

  853 Broadway

  New York, NY 10003

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Benn, James R.

  The devouring / James R. Benn

  Series: A Billy Boyle WWII mystery ; 12

  ISBN 978-1-61695-773-5

  eISBN 978-1-61695-774-2

  1. Boyle, Billy (Fictitious character)—Fiction. 2. World War, 1939–1945—Fiction. 3. Murder—Investigation—Fiction. I. Title

  PS3602.E6644 D48 2017 813’.6—dc23 2017003759

  Printed in the United States of America

  10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

  When gold speaks every tongue is silent.

  —Italian proverb

  Chapter One

  Light is faster than sound.

  Strange, the things you think about when you’re about to die. Even as tracers lit the night air, their silent silvery phosphorescence clawing at our small aircraft from the ground below, a tiny part of my brain mused on this practical demonstration of that scientific fact. The rest of my brain panicked madly, sending surges of adrenaline coursing through my body, urging me to get the hell out, now.

  Which was not at all helpful, given that we were flying at five hundred feet, heading directly into heavy antiaircraft fire, making one hundred and eighty miles per hour.

  Then came the sound. The chattering of ack-ack fire. Flak exploding in blinding flashes all around us. Shrapnel struck the aircraft, rending the metal, sounding like the devil’s own hail storm on a sheet-metal roof.

  “Hold tight!” shouted the pilot as he dove the Lysander and put it through twists and turns to evade the lead rising up against us. I looked below as he dipped the airplane and saw the twinkling of automatic fire from along the stretch of river we’d been following.

  “They’re on the road,” I shouted to the pilot in the single front seat. It was a column of German vehicles, moving at night to avoid Allied aircraft, and we’d flown dead at them.

  The pilot didn’t waste breath answering. He banked left, violently, diving to treetop level at a right angle away from the river. Looking back, I saw tracer fire searching vainly for us, then fade as the Krauts gave up and continued on their way.

  The Lysander jolted, loud thumps whacking against the aircraft frame.

  “Sorry, chaps,” the pilot muttered, pulling back on the yoke and gaining altitude. “Almost landed in the pines. She’s a bit sluggish, might’ve caught some shrapnel in the rudder.” He banked the Lysander, bringing us around to the river again, the only map to our destination.

  “There may be other columns on the road,” Kaz said, adjusting his steel-rimmed spectacles. Even after nearly being blown out of the sky and tossed around inside the cramped Lysander, he managed to sound nonchalant, his precise English leavened with the slightest of Polish accents.

  “The Saône River is our only landmark,” the pilot said. “Jerry’s travel plans notwithstanding. If we veer off to the east, we run the risk of entering Swiss airspace. It’d be damned embarrassing to be shot down by the Swiss, after all.”

  “Why?” Kaz asked.

  “You know the Swiss. Chocolate, watches, and sheep, that’s what they’re famous for. I’d never hear the end of it, if I lived to tell the tale.”

  “Personally, I’d choose death by chocolatier if I had any say in the matter,” Kaz responded. Switzerland was our ultimate destination, and we weren’t in the market for wristwatches.

  “Don’t worry about the Swiss or the Jerries,” the pilot said. “I haven’t lost a Joe yet, and I don’t plan on starting tonight.”

  We were his Joes. It was what the Special Operations Executive pilots called the agents and commandoes they flew into occupied Europe. No names, nothing to reveal if captured and tortured, just an anonymous one-way ride to some grassy field in the countryside. In a few minutes we were back on course, flying low over dark hills and a glistening waterway, the bright half-moon at our backs providing a tempting target for alert Kraut gunners, the river our only guide.

  “What’s the next landmark?” I asked the nameless pilot.

  “We’ll bear left at the Rhône River in Lyon. There’s a sharp bend in the river, it’ll be easy to spot, even with only a half-moon. Then Lake Gris, a narrow lake about twelve miles long. I set us down outside of Cessens, in a nice open field on a ridge overlooking the water. A bit tricky, but very secluded.”

  Tricky I didn’t mind, if it meant no Krauts.

  We flew on, no sign of movement below us, not a single light visible in the blacked-out countryside. The drone of the engine was mesmerizing, lulling us into a sense of security and safety, the sudden, surprising bright barrage of fire now behind us. The high, clear canopy gave us a majestic view of the sparkling heavens. The half-moon, the stars, and the faint glow from the instrument panel our only illuminations, guiding us as we traveled across a calm sea of inky black.

  I almost relaxed.

  “What is that?” Kaz asked, leaning forward and pointing at two o’clock. Searchlights flickered in the distance, an orange glow growing at the horizon.

  “Bloody Bomber Command most likely,” the pilot answered in a low growl. “Hitting the rail yards in Lyon. Or the airfield west of the city. Either way, they’ve stirred up a hornet’s nest for us.”

  “Can we go around it?” I asked.

  “No,” he said. “I don’t have the fuel. We’re at the extreme range as it is. I topped off at a forward airstrip in Normandy, but I’ve barely enough to make it back.”

  “We must fly through that?” Kaz asked. As we drew closer, the night sky grew brighter with searchlights, explosions, and burning buildings.

  “Unless you Joes want to abort the mission. Say the word and I’ll turn around.”

  “Have you ever had to abort?” I asked.

  “No. Thought I’d offer, that’s all,” he said, turning to smile at us. SOE pilot humor, I guess. “It’s not as bad as it looks, mates. We’re under their radar, and the Jerries are looking for high-altitude bombers, not our little Lysander.”

  “Don’t fly under the bomber formation,” Kaz said. “Being hit by an RAF bomb would be more embarrassing than being shot down by the Swiss.”

  “Right you are,” the pilot said. “Now all we need to do is catch a glimpse of the Rhône River. It’ll be even easier with the sky all lit up. Jerry’s doing us a favor!”

  That was one way of looking at it.

  We drew closer to the city, the searchlights casting wide beams of white light, looking like columns holding up the night sky. Phosphorescent tracer bullets sought out the bombers, dancing against the darkness in graceful, deadly arcs. Bombs exploded in front of us, maybe a quarter of a mile away. The pilot banked the Lysander, moving away from the flam
es and smoke. The aircraft shook as shock waves from the explosions buffeted us, sending the plane into a sideways dive. The ground looked damned close.

  “Hang on,” the pilot told us, as if we hadn’t already figured that one out. He pulled the small craft up, his voice a nervous quiver he couldn’t quite hide. “That’s the main rail yard. We should be fine now. Look, there’s the river.”

  It was the Rhône, heading west from the burning city, shimmering with moonlight and mayhem, antiaircraft fire dying down as the bomber stream departed.

  “Is the airplane damaged?” Kaz asked. There was a metallic rattle coming from the fuselage.

  “She’s banged up,” the pilot said. “But I can hold her steady, don’t worry. The good news is I can cut some time off our trip and make sure you chaps get to Cessens. The Rhône meanders a good bit, so I’ll cut across the bends heading ninety degrees west. That’ll bring us to Lake Gris all the quicker.”

  “What’s the bad news?” I asked.

  “It will bring us close to a Luftwaffe airfield. Sounds worse than it is, really. Any night fighters they have left will be airborne, going after the bombers. We’ll scoot right by. You should be on the ground in thirty minutes.”

  “So the airfield poses no danger?” Kaz asked, his tone skeptical.

  “Right. Long as one of the flak batteries doesn’t open up on us. So, once again, hang on.” He increased speed and lost altitude, skimming the treetops until we found ourselves over open fields. It felt as if he were going in for a landing at two hundred miles an hour. The rattle clanged even faster, the fuselage shuddering as we raced for the next bend in the river.

  “Airfield coming up on the right,” the pilot informed us through clenched teeth as he held the yoke firmly in his hands.

  “There,” Kaz said, pointing to black shapes that were probably hangers. The landscape zipped by underneath us, and we were nearly clear, about to leave the blacked-out airfield behind.

  Then the sky lit up.

  Searchlights, some only a few hundred yards away.

  Bright explosions ripped into the blackness ahead, followed by a series of blasts falling across our path. I lifted my hands to shield my eyes as one of the beams caught us, sending blinding white light into the canopy. More explosions sounded as the pilot climbed, seeking to escape the clutches of the searchlight and the antiaircraft fire it would soon bring to bear.

  Concussions from the bombs hit us, shaking the Lysander, dragging it through the sky as if it were a kite on a string. We’d guessed wrong. The bombers were targeting both the rail yards and the airfield. We’d flown straight into the second raid.

  The light found us again, staying with the Lysander even as the pilot gave up on altitude and put the nose down, hoping to shake the flak. Tracers burned the night sky, hitting us in the wing, shearing metal, and sending us into a spin.

  The searchlight lost us. I grabbed onto my seat and Kaz’s arm, hoping the pilot could steady the aircraft. I braced for impact.

  It didn’t come. The sturdy Lysander managed to fly straight, so low we could’ve been hit by a well-thrown stone. I craned my neck to see behind us, the orange glow of flames and the white searchlights fading in the distance. Wind whistled through a bullet hole in the canopy, the clanging rattle of metal still sounding from within the fuselage.

  “The aircraft is damaged,” Kaz said, as calmly as he might observe that it may well rain.

  “She’ll get you there, don’t you worry,” the pilot said. “Although getting me back home is another thing altogether.”

  “You are welcome to join us, if you wish,” Kaz said.

  “Not in the cards, Joe. The Germans would love to get their hands on a Lysander. I’ll stay with the plane until you’re safely away and then put the torch to her. Maybe I’ll get lucky and spend the rest of the war learning French from a farmer’s daughter, if Jerry doesn’t catch me.”

  “Sorry,” I said. I felt bad for him, but at the same time I was glad he didn’t take Kaz up on the invite. Things would be tough enough without an extra man along. If he was lucky, our Resistance contacts would leave somebody with him. But we had places to go, and fast.

  “C’est la guerre,” he answered, the yoke vibrating violently in his hands.

  A harsh knock came from the engine, followed by a metal-on-metal grating. The propeller stopped. Oil sprayed the windscreen.

  “Oh shit,” the pilot said.

  The Lysander dropped from the sky.

  Chapter Two

  “Billy! Wake up!”

  I felt someone push me. It was Kaz, bracing himself against my shoulder and grunting in between shouts for me to wake up. I tried to clear my head, but it hurt like blazes. I wanted nothing more than for him to shut up and get off me so I could go back to sleep.

  Then I began to choke.

  That got my attention. I tried to focus, wiping my eyes with the back of my hand. It came away wet and sticky with blood. Kaz was kicking at the canopy, using me to steady himself as he hammered away at the latch.

  “It’s stuck,” he announced. Obviously, since otherwise why would we be inside a crashed aircraft filling with smoke?

  “Let me,” I said, twisting around in the seat to bring my legs up. I smashed both feet against the twisted metal frame, once, twice, and then again. The latch broke as I gasped for air, and Kaz shoved the shattered canopy back. The air drew smoke like a chimney, and my gasps turned to ragged coughs.

  “The pilot,” I managed to croak.

  “Dead,” was all Kaz said as he clambered down the ladder on the side of the fuselage. “Hurry!”

  I leaned forward as I made for the opening. The pilot was slumped over the yoke, his bloodied head at a terribly wrong angle. Sparks flashed on his instrument panel, followed by the soft sound of gas fumes igniting. Flames drove me back, licking at my limbs as I made for the open canopy and jumped to the ground. I rolled into Kaz’s arms and he dragged me away as fire spread from the engine, half-buried in the damp ground. It filled the rear compartment, roaring and swirling within the Perspex enclosure, the blaze an angry crimson column as it raced out the opening and into the air.

  Then the fuel tank went up, a bright, searing fireball lifting the Lysander and slamming it back into the earth in a flurry of broken metal and black smoke. The heat scorched our faces as we scrambled backward, arms linked and eyes fixed on the conflagration.

  “Are you badly injured?” Kaz asked.

  I didn’t know.

  “I don’t think so,” I said, feeling my forehead. I winced as I found a gash on my scalp, hair matted in sticky blood. “We have to move.”

  “Right. We are not far beyond the airfield. This fire will be visible for miles, and the Germans are sure to investigate.” Kaz helped me up, his eyes darting to the horizon. We were in the middle of a field, lush green grass that might have made good grazing for some farmer’s herd of sheep. Our pilot picked the crash site well, if he’d had any say in the matter.

  “Which way?” I asked. Kaz took a compass from his pocket and waited for the luminous hand to steady. The burning wreckage cast a flickering light against his face, the steel-rimmed glasses reflecting a shimmering yellow glow. His high cheekbones were marred on one side by a scar that split his face from eye to chin. The other side was darkness. Much like Kaz himself.

  “East is that way,” he said, snapping the compass shut and nodding toward the forested hillside ahead.

  I brushed the dirt from my trousers and adjusted the strap of the small rucksack across my shoulder. We each had a few supplies. K rations, maps, matches, a flashlight, and extra cartridges, not to mention a wad of Swiss francs. We were both armed with a revolver, no real match for a swarm of Krauts looking for downed airmen.

  Then it hit me.

  The rear canopy was open. They’d know someone made it out, which meant they’d come looking. I st
opped, watching the inferno burning itself out. But not fast enough. Kaz caught my eye, nodding his understanding.

  We searched the ground for a stick or a branch, anything big enough to push the canopy closed without getting too close to the red-hot fuselage. I came up with a tree limb, probably snapped off by the crash. I tried to push against the canopy, but it was the wrong angle. The canopy opened to the rear, sliding on rails. With the aircraft nose down, it was too high to reach, and besides, the branch gave me nothing to grab on with.

  “I could climb the ladder,” Kaz said as I threw the useless wood aside. Lysanders had a metal ladder built into the side, to make for quick drop-offs and pickups. From the top, only a few steps up, the canopy would be within easy reach.

  “The metal on the canopy is too hot,” I said. “Not to mention the ladder itself. How could you grab hold?”

  “Give me your overcoat,” Kaz said. We were wearing civilian clothes, and I was taller by almost a head. He was going to use the longer sleeves as gloves.

  “You sure?” I asked as I shed my wool overcoat.

  “It’s better than being chased by Germans,” he said. He put my coat on over his, giving him more protection from the heat. I emptied my rucksack, putting the strap across his shoulder.

  “Use this to snag the handle and pull it shut,” I said. He tucked his hands as far inside the sleeves as they’d go and reached for the rung. The flames weren’t as ferocious as before, but the fuel was still burning off. The stench of roasted flesh assailed us, and for a second, we both staggered back. I cupped my hands to give Kaz a boost. With one hand on my shoulder, the other grasping hot metal, he started up. I prayed the thick wool would protect him.

  Two steps and he was close to the canopy. Still holding on with one hand, he leaned back and tossed the strap at the handle, tantalizingly close.

  He missed.

  Another toss, another miss. I checked the horizon in the direction of the airfield. Maybe they weren’t coming.

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