Western Europe, 1944
The airman gasped into his oxygen mask. Another bomber in the formation was going down. He watched it rupture at the wing, fat ribbons of smoke bleeding from its engines.
Enough! Get me out of here! I want to live.
The nearest Flying Fortress, Regina’s Regret, careened below him, billowing smoke. The pinup girl on the nose winked back at him flirtatiously in a sheer nightgown, before banking downwards towards Germany.
As if to mock his terror, an enemy plane roared past, its guns spitting lead. He saw the distinctive black crosses on its wings, signifying it as a Luftwaffe fighter.
The tail gunner pulled twin triggers, letting loose a barrage of .50 caliber fury that failed to meet its mark. Two more Messerschmitts cut across the formation, as the B-17s advanced towards their target. He let loose again, but they banked too quickly. The pair disappeared out of view, gold tracer bullets from other bombers marking their path.
Through the intense cold and starkness, strange but familiar sensations came to the tail gunner: the aroma of pan-fried trout and sweet corn; the crackling of pine logs inside a stone fireplace; and the smiling face of his Aunt Cobalia, in her rustic Montana cabin. He saw her standing with her prized cauldron and riding cape, draped by the ash-stained mantle with her distinctive, crooked broom.
Such recollections would normally have comforted the man. That he was experiencing them as flak shook his bomber terrified him instead. Is this my life passing before my eyes? Am I seconds away from getting blown to bits? He trembled as sporadic black blossoms of flak began erupting across the blue expanse. Once hit, an otherwise sturdy craft like the Barnyard Billygoat was little more than a hurtling coffin.
A whistling sound rose from the bomber’s fuselage - as well as the remaining B-17s in the formation. Dark, finned bombs fell towards the railways and factories thousands of feet below, a punishing payload against Hitler’s war machine.
Every ton of munitions destroyed means one less hour Hitler gets to keep this war going, their superiors told them back at base. Advance, drop your payload, then get yourselves back here in one piece!
The whistling faded. There remained only the drone of the bombers’ engines. Then came the abrupt, blistering flares far below: bombs detonating on impact in a coarse, zig-zagging chain, ripping gigantic craters across the earth.
We’re done, thought the tail gunner. Now we high-tail it home and I get to celebrate my survival with a pint in a pub. I don’t care if it’s warm, it’s my toast to living another damned ---
A deafening BOOM rocked the fuselage. The crew man realized his bomber had suffered a direct hit.
Please dear God, don’t let me die! Don’t let me die!
The bomber careened downward, icy wind coursing through the interior. One of the port engines conked out, its propeller slowing to a standstill.
Any deal, any bargain, name it! Just don’t let me die, Lord! Please. Please. Please…
An eternity passed before the terrified airman opened his eyes. To his surprise, the Barnyard Billygoat was still flying...over the Channel, passing boats, back towards the airfield in England. He couldn’t believe his eyes.
When the B-17 landed, ground crews rushed to help the wounded. The ball-turret gunner had a broken wrist, the radio operator had a dull ringing in his ears, but the rest were fine. The mechanics marveled at how much damage the aircraft sustained yet managed to keep aloft. One particularly large, twisted piece of shrapnel should have sheared off the farthest starboard engine completely, said one. Another mechanic said the back half of the fuselage was practically hanging on by a thread (“Figured you knew that, ‘Tail-End Charlie’,” he joked).
The crew and mechanics huddled together on the grassy median, marveling at the Barnyard Billygoat’s miraculous return home, as a base photographer took a group photo.
It was while his crewmates were cheering their good fortune that the tail gunner saw the woman.
She stood between the nose section and cockpit canopy, one hand on her hip and the other holding a distinctive, crooked broom. A set of goggles adorned a peaked hat, while her dark blue tunic, scarf, and cape were spattered with oil and smoke stains. Her dull blonde hair was tied back in a sensible bun, a weary and admonishing smile on her face.
I told you not to sign up, but you never listened much to reason, dear nephew, a familiar voice loomed in the young man’s head. I can’t promise I’ll be along every mission to save your skin. You’re going to get such a talking to when you’re stateside. Take care, Earl. I love you.
The other airmen and crew didn’t see her. She straddled her broom and with a salute to her nephew, flew off towards the setting sun. The man watched her silhouette disappear over the trees in the evening haze, before staggering away from the flak-riddled Barnyard Billygoat. One of its giant engines suddenly fell off, spattering mud upon the startled mechanics.
Thank you, Aunt Cobalia, he thought, relishing the pavement under his boots, I owe you more than I can ever repay. Now off to grab that pint.
The Second World War was in its final throes. Allied units were advancing from the west, continuing a push that began with the Normandy invasion, coursed through Paris, and was now charging over the Rhine.
From the east, the Russians were marching in, buoyed by a string of brutally decisive victories that began in Stalingrad, continued with a massive armor battle in Kursk, and was now softening the underbelly of Germany itself. Hitler’s “Thousand Year Reich” was crumbling after barely twelve years.
In Berlin’s anxious streets, citizens fled underground as air raid sirens wailed. One man bobbed and pushed against the crowd, struggling in the darkness. He had limited time to rendezvous with operatives who’d help him escape the doomed city with his stolen treasure.
The Ministry of Propaganda can only keep the citizenry fooled for so long, he thought. Hundreds of thousands of Wehrmacht soldiers marched off to Soviet death camps, or left frozen in the rubble of Stalingrad. Who’s left to fight for the Fatherland now? And where can they escape to once the Russians break through?
An SS command car roared towards the man. He ducked behind an abandoned newsstand, his heart beating fiercely against his damp chest. Were they on his trail? He tightened his hold on the ornate, bronze cylinder wrapped in the shredded remains of a Nazi flag, dried blood dotting its edges.
The vehicle zipped past, towards its unknown destination. The man watched until it had disappeared, then ran towards a pier. Checking his watch, he saw it was just after 9 o’clock. A thin light appeared on the lapping waters, edging towards him. Was this his contact? His way out of Berlin? He felt his luck had changed, until he heard the woman’s stern voice behind him.
“The artifact, Gregory.”
“I have nothing, I’m but a traveling salesman…selling only the finest Swiss clocks and watches,” he said, turning towards the voice. The man saw only a lone street lamp protruding from a realm of shadows.
“Please, not that line again,” sighed the unseen woman. “I know your true name and purpose, Gregory Jenkins. Now give back the Sphere of Gorshim-Yor. It doesn’t belong to you.”
The man stood warily, as the light on the water closed in.
“My name is Heinrich Dietermann, I’m a purveyor –“
“Your name is Gregory Jenkins, an American spy and enemy of the Reich,” snapped the woman, stepping into the disc of light.
Jenkins scrutinized the tall, red-headed woman wih fascination. The two were familiar with each other – quite, actually -- only now there was a burning iciness in her gaze that had never been there before…the telltale glare of betrayal.
“My, you’re as beautiful as ever. I was going to contact you once I made stateside,” he said, his voice coarse with fatigue and desperation.
“Look around you! This war is not ending well. Not for you, or your magnificent Fuhrer. How someone of your stature… would serve one such as him…”
“You have it reversed,” said the woman, coldly. “Then again, you always got things backwards, Gregory. And it will cost you this time.”
Jenkins clutched the object tighter, as the light was now just a few yards behind him. “You’ll never have this! The Blue Aspect deserves it. Your time is over, their time…”
The woman hushed the trembling man with an upraised hand. A group of uniformed soldiers emerged, spilled out onto the pier, and formed a line between him and the woman.
“Your time,” she said.
The man heaved the bronze cylinder out towards the light, hoping it’d land in an operative’s motorboat, then whisked away to safety. Instead, there was a searing burst of light as the object disappeared in a flash of red orbs and sparks.
“Thank you,” said the woman. “Right into my accomplice’s hands. You saved us a lot of time and trouble, Gregory. However, you’re still dead.”
Turning to face the soldiers, the man managed a smile, though his sweaty, pale face twitched. “Darling…for what we’ve been through….what we mean to each other….please have mercy.”
“On my mark,” said the woman, adjusting the lapels of her gray overcoat. The soldiers reached into their holsters.
“Please! For what we could have been…”
The line of soldiers produced tapered metallic cylinders, and pointed them squarely at Jenkins.
The cylinders bathed Gregory Jenkins in an aura of red, crackling energy. The man reeled and floated above the pier, paralyzed. A silent scream erupted from his gaping mouth, his eyes bulging towards the night sky. The woman motioned the soldiers to withdraw their wands. They then marched dutifully off the pier, towards a parked truck.
The man’s body drifted towards the ground, slight bursts of the deadly electricity causing his fingers and lips to twitch. The woman watched as he gently sprawled out against the dock’s salty planks. A hoarse gasp, a final shudder, and Gregory Jenkins’ role in the war was over.
“Never again will I be charmed by the likes of a Terran,” the red-headed woman said, wiping away a tear once the soldiers were gone. The only witness was a scruffy orange cat who watched from a chipped mooring. It hissed at her, then bolted up the ramp, away from the ghastly scene.
“Now off to leave this damned Reich to its miserable fate,” said Vermillia Scurrion, Elder Kommandant of the Red Order. She reached out towards the darkness. An elegant scythe with a crimson blade sprang into her outstretched hands. She perched upon its ebony handle and flew off into the night as the drone of Allied bombers steadily approached, ready to rain fiery destruction upon Berlin ahead of the advancing armies.
Smitheeville, Montana 1946
Cobalia Lawson could never weather rhubarb-strawberry pie. Its pungent and acidic aroma practically made her reel.
Yet, the farm ladies had made about a dozen today, filling the barn with a pervasive tanginess. Covering her mouth with a handkerchief, Cobalia slinked away from the dessert table, choosing instead to review the array of stews, salads, and breads prepared for the men coming back – at long last -- from the war.
A star-spangled banner stretched across a rugged stage declared WELCOME HOME JOE. Under it, members of a brass band tuned their instruments. A few shrill blurts and emptied spit valves later, they launched into another Glenn Miller favorite.
The renovated barn was filling up with Smitheeville locals, eager to welcome home a son, brother, or father back from the war. Elation and relief was in the air.
Sauntering to the jaunty melody of “Little Brown Jug”, Cobalia watched several handymen paint the timbers. Cassidy Dean was painting one black, a somber backdrop for photos of the twenty men who were not returning from the European or Pacific Theaters.
“Well done, Cassidy,” said Cobalia, as the old, bearded man shifted his weight on the rickety, paint-spattered ladder. “I hear one of your cousins didn’t make it. I’m very sorry.”
“Died jus’ after the Normandy landing,” said Cassidy, wiping his brow with a stained bandana. “Poor Bernard, heck…kid was barely 20. A Kraut sniper picked ‘im off as he was jumpin’ off a truck. Just after they took Utah beach. How I’d love to see that goofy, crooked grin of his right now, but…well…that’s not happenin’. His mom’s still broken up about his death somethin’ terrible.”
Cassidy forced a winsome smile and looked at the woman in her stately peacock blue dress. The delicately-laced cuffs, hem, and smart sash compensated for what Cassidy thought was an odd bit of headwear…a pointed, wide-brimmed cap that reminded him of a Salem witch from the illustrated pulp novels.
“Lookin’ quite fancy, Miss Cobalia,” he said, tipping his cap.
“Thank you,” she beamed. “I just wanted to look my best for when we start. Which should be as soon as the bus of GIs gets here. Anytime now, going by the clock.”
“Them boys will get a nice welcome, and well-deserved. Say…don’t you have a nephew who flew bombers over Germany?”
“Yes. I hope he’s managed okay. Lots of airmen didn’t see their 25 missions through,” she said. “I worried about Earl all war long.”
“No news is good news,” said Cassidy, placing his paintbrush against the bucket nestled on the support bracket’s edge. “If something had happened –“
“It hasn’t, thankfully,” said Cobalia.
Suddenly a loud creak emanated from the workman’s ladder. Tilting to one side, Cassidy used his free hand to grasp a timber above him, fighting to regain his balance. He hopped onto the top rung, planting the ladder’s legs firmly back on the wooden planks below. But he failed to catch the paint bucket as it slipped and hit the floor.
Cobalia turned just as the tin bucket sent up a thick geyser of black paint, which fell and draped a thick, unyielding line from the peak of her cap down to the edge of her skirt. The women at the dessert table gasped, as Cobalia stood, dumbfounded. A nervous chuckle came from another farmhand, while Cassidy stared, astonished.
“Miss Cobalia, I’m so sorry…,” he stammered, climbing down the ladder. “Let’s see if we can’t get that out, I’ve some turpentine…”
Cobalia walked towards a tall mirror nailed between two open stables. She saw the black line perfectly halved her face and body. The normally prim and reserved woman trembled, her face turning milky white.
“No…no…not this way….not this way!”
Cassidy approached her but she recoiled. Cobalia waved her arms frantically against the other townsfolk gathered in the farmhouse, who stood, fascinated at her terror.
“Miss Cobalia honey, don’t worry,” soothed a farmer’s wife, “I can find you a new dress before the boys arrive, I’ve ---”
“Please, get away!” cried Cobalia, who began clutching at her dress, trying to rub out the black streak from her garment. “Please…”
A sudden crackling sound rose from inside Cobalia. As the distraught woman held up her arms, she saw fine points of light erupt and dance across them. The points grew hotter and brighter, and a searing sound -like ice water splashed on a hot skillet- roared to a deafening intensity.
Witnesses would swear the very next instant, Cobalia Lawson simply exploded into a fiery column that vanished as quickly as it had appeared. No smoke, no debris, nothing. A scholarly teen would tell his classmates later that he’d read of such things in a book of Victorian superstition once. The phenomenon was called spontaneous compunction or something like that.
As the stunned crowd backed away from the site of the woman’s final throes, a bus pulled up outside, a white star emblazoned on its hood. A group of young men in army fatigues filed out, each one grinning wide. One hurled his duffle bag to the ground, ran into the barn, and asked for Aunt Cobalia. Was she here? He was eager to thank her for what she had done for him.
All the people could tell him– quite truthfully -- was that Cobalia Lawson had disappeared. The man spent the rest of the night circling the barn and neighborhood, calling her name, to no avail.
Miss Cobalia’s bizarre and tragic demise would have been the top news in Smitheeville that year, were it not for the groundbreaking of a new boarding school: The Crackmuddy Home for Wayward Children.
The boarding school’s sprawling campus of barracks and classrooms opened in the winter of 1946. Its first week saw an ample amount of kids bused in, enough to fill all bunks. The facility was far from a pleasant sight. Even brand new, Crackmuddy looked crassly utilitarian and more of a glorified kennel than a place of charity and learning. Equally disconcerting was The Headmistress: an imposing, sullen, red-headed woman who displayed little interest in Smitheeville’s locals or doings.
Cassidy Dean would tell people in later years though, how he once recalled the fiery and frantic death of Cobalia Lawson, and how The Headmistress seemed to stifle a most fiendish smile….