JETBOY’S LAST ADVENTURE!
by Howard Waldrop
BONHAM’S FLYING SERVICE OF Shantak, New Jersey, was socked in. The small searchlight on the tower barely pushed away the darkness of the swirling fog.
There was the sound of car tires on the wet pavement in front of Hangar 23. A car door opened, a moment later it closed. Footsteps came to the Employees Only door. It opened. Scoop Swanson came in, carrying his Kodak Autograph Mark II and a bag of flashbulbs and film.
Lincoln Traynor raised up from the engine of the surplus P–40 he was overhauling for an airline pilot who had got it at a voice-bid auction for $293. Judging from the shape of the engine, it must have been flown by the Flying Tigers in 1940. A ball game was on the workbench radio. Linc turned it down.
“ ’Lo, Linc,” said Scoop.
“No word yet?”
“Don’t expect any. The telegram he sent yesterday said he’d be in tonight. Good enough for me.”
Scoop lit a Camel with a Three Torches box match from the workbench. He blew smoke toward the Absolutely No Smoking sign at the back of the hangar. “Hey, what’s this?” He walked to the rear. Still in their packing cases were two long red wing extensions and two 300-gallon teardrop underwing tanks. “When these get here?”
“Air Corps shipped them yesterday from San Francisco. Another telegram came for him today. You might as well read it, you’re doing the story.” Linc handed him the War Department orders.
TO: Jetboy (Tomlin, Robert NMI)
HOR: Bonham’s Flying Service
Shantak, New Jersey
1. Effective this date 1200Z hours 12 Aug ’46, you are no longer on active duty, United States Army Air Force.
2. Your aircraft (model-experimental) (ser. no. JB–1) is hereby decommissioned from active status, United States Army Air Force, and reassigned you as private aircraft. No further materiel support from USAAF or War Department will be forthcoming.
3. Records, commendations, and awards forwarded under separate cover.
4. Our records show Tomlin, Robert NMI, has not obtained pilot’s license. Please contact CAB for courses and certification.
5. Clear skies and tailwinds,
ref: Executive Order #2, 08 Dec ’41
“What’s this about him having no pilot’s license?” asked the news-paperman. “I went through the morgue on him—his file’s a foot thick. Hell, he must have flown faster and farther, shot down more planes than anyone—five hundred planes, fifty ships! He did it without a pilot’s license?”
Linc wiped grease from his mustache. “Yep. That was the most planecrazy kid you ever saw. Back in ’39, he couldn’t have been more than twelve, he heard there was a job out here. He showed up at four A.M.—lammed out of the orphanage to do it. They came out to get him. But of course Professor Silverberg had hired him, squared it with them.”
“Silverberg’s the one the Nazis bumped off? The guy who made the jet?”
“Yep. Years ahead of everybody, but weird. I put together the plane for him, Bobby and I built it by hand. But Silverberg made the jets—damnedest engines you ever saw. The Nazis and Italians, and Whittle over in England, had started theirs. But the Germans found out something was happening here.”
“How’d the kid learn to fly?”
“He always knew, I think,” said Lincoln. “One day he’s in here helping me bend metal. The next, him and the professor are flying around at four hundred miles per. In the dark, with those early engines.”
“How’d they keep it a secret?”
“They didn’t, very well. The spies came for Silverberg—wanted him and the plane. Bobby was out with it. I think he and the prof knew something was up. Silverberg put up such a fight the Nazis killed him. Then there was the diplomatic stink. In those days the JB–1 only had six .30 cals on it—where the professor got them I don’t know. But the kid took care of the car full of spies with it, and that speedboat on the Hudson full of embassy people. All on diplomatic visas.
“Just a sec,” Linc stopped himself. “End of a doubleheader in Cleveland. On the Blue Network.” He turned up the metal Philco radio that sat above the toolrack.
“. . . Sanders to Papenfuss to Volstad, a double play. That does it. So the Sox drop two to Cleveland. We’ll be right—” Linc turned it off. “There goes five bucks,” he said. “Where was I?”
“The Krauts killed Silverberg, and Jetboy got even. He went to Canada, right?”
“Joined the RCAF, unofficially. Fought in the Battle of Britain, went to China against the Japs with the Tigers, was back in Britain for Pearl Harbor.”
“And Roosevelt commissioned him?”
“Sort of. You know, funny thing about his whole career. He fights the whole war, longer than any other American—late ’39 to ’45—then right at the end, he gets lost in the Pacific, missing. We all think he’s dead for a year. Then they find him on that desert island last month, and now he’s coming home.”
There was a high, thin whine like a prop plane in a dive. It came from the foggy skies outside. Scoop put out his third Camel. “How can he land in this soup?”
“He’s got an all-weather radar set—got it off a German night fighter back in ’43. He could land that plane in a circus tent at midnight.”
They went to the door. Two landing lights pierced the rolling mist. They lowered to the far end of the runway, turned, and came back on the taxi strip.
The red fuselage glowed in the gray-shrouded lights of the airstrip. The twin-engine high-wing plane turned toward them and rolled to a stop.
Linc Traynor put a set of double chocks under each of the two rear tricycle landing gears. Half the glass nose of the plane levered up and pulled back. The plane had four 20mm cannon snouts in the wing roots between the engines, and a 75mm gunport below and to the left of the cockpit rim.
It had a high thin rudder, and the rear elevators were shaped like the tail of a brook trout. Under each of the elevators was the muzzle of a rear-firing machine gun. The only markings on the plane were four nonstandard USAAF stars in a black roundel, and the serial number JB–1 on the top right and bottom left wings and beneath the rudder.
The radar antennae on the nose looked like something to roast weenies on.
A boy dressed in red pants, white shirt, and a blue helmet and goggles stepped out of the cockpit and onto the drop ladder on the left side.
He was nineteen, maybe twenty. He took off his helmet and goggles. He had curly mousy brown hair, hazel eyes, and was short and chunky.
“Linc,” he said. He hugged the pudgy man to him, patted his back for a full minute. Scoop snapped off a shot.
“Great to have you back, Bobby,” said Linc.
“Nobody’s called me that in years,” he said. “It sounds real good to hear it again.”
“This is Scoop Swanson,” said Linc. “He’s gonna make you famous all over again.”
“I’d rather be asleep.” He shook the reporter’s hand. “Any place around here we can get some ham and eggs?”
The launch pulled up to the dock in the fog. Out in the harbor a ship finished cleaning its bilges and was turning to steam back southward.
There were three men on the mooring: Fred and Ed and Filmore. One man stepped out of the launch with a suitcase in his hands. Filmore leaned down and gave the guy at the wheel of the motorboat a Lincoln and two Jacksons. Then he helped the guy with the suitcase.
“Welcome home, Dr. Tod.”
“It’s good to be back, Filmore.” Tod was dressed in a baggy suit, and had on an overcoat even though it was August. He wore his hat pulled low over his face, and from it a glint of metal was reflected in the pale lights from a warehouse.
“This is Fred and this is Ed,” said Filmore. “They’re here just for the night.”
“ ’Lo,” said Fred.
“ ’Lo,” said Ed.
They walked back to the car, a ’46 Merc that looked like a submarine. They climbed in, Fred and Ed watching the foggy alleys to each side. Then Fred got behind the wheel, and Ed rode shotgun. With a sawed-off tengauge.
“Nobody’s expecting me. Nobody cares,” said Dr. Tod. “Everybody who had something against me is either dead or went respectable during the war and made a mint. I’m an old man and I’m tired. I’m going out in the country and raise bees and play the horses and the market.”
“Not planning anything, boss?”
“Not a thing.”
He turned his head as they passed a streetlight. Half his face was gone, a smooth plate reaching from jaw to hatline, nostril to left ear.
“I can’t shoot anymore, for one thing. My depth perception isn’t what it used to be.”
“I shouldn’t wonder,” said Filmore. “We heard something happened to you in ’43.”
“Was in a somewhat-profitable operation out of Egypt while the Afrika Korps was falling apart. Taking people in and out for a fee in a nominally neutral air fleet. Just a sideline. Then ran into that hotshot flier.”
“Kid with the jet plane, before the Germans had them.”
“Tell you the truth, boss, I didn’t keep up with the war much. I take a long view on merely territorial conflicts.”
“As I should have,” said Dr. Tod. “We were flying out of Tunisia. Some important people were with us that trip. The pilot screamed. There was a tremendous explosion. Next thing, I came to, it was the next morning, and me and one other person are in a life raft in the middle of the Mediterranean. My face hurt. I lifted up. Something fell into the bottom of the raft. It was my left eyeball. It was looking up at me. I knew I was in trouble.”
“You said it was a kid with a jet plane?” asked Ed.
“Yes. We found out later they’d broken our code, and he’d flown six hundred miles to intercept us.”
“You want to get even?” asked Filmore.
“No. That was so long ago I hardly remember that side of my face. It just taught me to be a little more cautious. I wrote it off as character building.”
“So no plans, huh?”
“Not a single one,” said Dr. Tod.
“That’ll be nice for a change,” said Filmore.
They watched the lights of the city go by.
He knocked on the door, uncomfortable in his new brown suit and vest.
“Come on in, it’s open,” said a woman’s voice. Then it was muffled. “I’ll be ready in just a minute.”
Jetboy opened the oak hall door and stepped into the room, past the glass-brick room divider.
A beautiful woman stood in the middle of the room, a dress halfway over her arms and head. She wore a camisole, garter belt, and silk hose. She was pulling the dress down with one of her hands.
Jetboy turned his head away, blushing and taken aback.
“Oh,” said the woman. “Oh! I—who?”
“It’s me, Belinda,” he said. “Robert.”
“Bobby, Bobby Tomlin.”
She stared at him a moment, her hands clasped over her front though she was fully dressed.
“Oh, Bobby,” she said, and came to him and hugged him and gave him a big kiss right on the mouth.
It was what he had waited six years for.
“Bobby. It’s great to see you. I—I was expecting someone else. Some—girlfriends. How did you find me?”
“Well, it wasn’t easy.”
She stepped back from him. “Let me look at you.”
He looked at her. The last time he had seen her she was fourteen, a tomboy, still at the orphanage. She had been a thin kid with mousy blond hair. Once, when she was eleven, she’d almost punched his lights out. She was a year older than he.
Then he had gone away, to work at the airfield, then to fight with the Brits against Hitler. He had written her when he could all during the war, after America entered it. She had left the orphanage and been put in a foster home. In ’44 one of his letters had come back from there marked “Moved—No Forwarding Address.” Then he had been lost all during the last year.
“You’ve changed, too,” he said.
“So have you.”
“I followed the newspapers all during the war. I tried to write you but I don’t guess the letters ever caught up with you. Then they said you were missing at sea, and I sort of gave up.”
“Well, I was, but they found me. Now I’m back. How have you been?”
“Real good, once I ran away from the foster home,” she said. A look of pain came across her face. “You don’t know how glad I was to get away from there. Oh, Bobby,” she said. “Oh, I wish things was different!” She started to cry a little.
“Hey,” he said, holding her by the shoulders. “Sit down. I’ve got something for you.”
“Yep.” He handed her a grimy, oil-stained paper parcel. “I carried these with me the last two years of the war. They were in the plane with me on the island. Sorry I didn’t have time to rewrap them.”
She tore the English butcher paper. Inside were copies of The House at Pooh Corner and The Tale of the Fierce Bad Rabbit.
“Oh,” said Belinda. “Thank you.”
He remembered her dressed in the orphanage coveralls, just in, dusty and tired from a baseball game, lying on the reading-room floor with a Pooh book open before her.
“The Pooh book’s signed by the real Christopher Robin,” he said. “I found out he was an RAF officer at one of the bases in England. He said he usually didn’t do this sort of thing, that he was just another airman. I told him I wouldn’t tell anyone. I’d searched high and low to find a copy, and he knew that, though.
“This other one’s got more of a story behind it. I was coming back near dusk, escorting some crippled B-17s. I looked up and saw two German night fighters coming in, probably setting up patrol, trying to catch some Lancasters before they went out over the Channel.
“To make a long story short, I shot down both of them; they packed in near a small village. But I had run out of fuel and had to set down. Saw a pretty flat sheep pasture with a lake at the far end of it, and went in.
“When I climbed out of the cockpit, I saw a lady and a sheepdog standing at the edge of the field. She had a shotgun. When she got close enough to see the engines and the decals, she said, ‘Good shooting! Won’t you come in for a bite of supper and to use the telephone to call Fighter Command?’
“We could see the two ME-110s burning in the distance.
“ ‘You’re the very famous Jetboy,’ she said, ‘We have followed your exploits in the Sawrey paper. I’m Mrs. Heelis.’ She held out her hand.
“I shook it. ‘Mrs. William Heelis? And this is Sawrey?’
“ ‘Yes,’ she said.
“ ‘You’re Beatrix Potter!’ I said.
“ ‘I suppose I am,’ she said.
“Belinda, she was this stout old lady in a raggedy sweater and a plain old dress. But when she smiled, I swear, all of England lit up!”
Belinda opened the book. On the flyleaf was written
To Jetboy’s American Friend,
Mrs. William Heelis
12 April 1943
Jetboy drank the coffee Belinda made for him.
“Where are your friends?” he asked.
“Well, he—they should have been here by now. I was thinking of going down the hall to the phone and trying to call them. I can change, and we can sit around and talk about old times. I really can call.”
“No,” said Jetboy. “Tell you what. I’ll call you later on in the week; we can get together some night when you’re not busy. That would be fun.”
Jetboy got up to go.
“Thank you for the books, Bobby. They mean a lot to me, they really do.”
“It’s real good to see you again, Bee.”
“Nobody’s called me that since the orphanage. Call me real soon, will you?”
“Sure will.” He leaned down and kissed her again.
He walked to the stairs. As he was going down, a guy in a modified zoot suit—pegged pants, long coat, watch chain, bow tie the size of a coat hanger, hair slicked back, reeking of Brylcreem and Old Spice—went up the stairs two at a time, whistling “It Ain’t the Meat, It’s the Motion.”
Jetboy heard him knocking at Belinda’s door.
Outside, it had begun to rain.
“Great. Just like in a movie,” said Jetboy.
The next night was quiet as a graveyard.
Then dogs all over the Pine Barrens started to bark. Cats screamed. Birds flew in panic from thousands of trees, circled, swooping this way and that in the dark night.
Static washed over every radio in the northeastern United States. New television sets flared out, volume doubling. People gathered around nineinch Dumonts jumped back at the sudden noise and light, dazzled in their own living rooms and bars and sidewalks outside appliance stores all over the East Coast.
To those out in that hot August night it was even more spectacular. A thin line of light, high up, moved, brightened, still falling. Then it expanded, upping in brilliance, changed into a blue-green bolide, seemed to stop, then flew to a hundred falling sparks that slowly faded on the dark starlit sky.
Some people said they saw another, smaller light a few minutes later. It seemed to hover, then sped off to the west, growing dimmer as it flew. The newspapers had been full of stories of the “ghost rockets” in Sweden all that summer. It was the silly season.
A few calls to the weather bureau or Army Air Force bases got the answer that it was probably a stray from the Delta Aquarid meteor shower.
Out in the Pine Barrens, somebody knew differently, though he wasn’t in the mood to communicate it to anyone.
Jetboy, dressed in a loose pair of pants, a shirt, and a brown aviator’s jacket, walked in through the doors of the Blackwell Printing Company. There was a bright red-and-blue sign above the door: Home of the Cosh Comics Company.
He stopped at the receptionist’s desk.
“Robert Tomlin to see Mr. Farrell.”
The secretary, a thin blond job in glasses with swept-up rims that made it look like a bat was camping on her face, stared at him. “Mr. Farrell passed on in the winter of 1945. Were you in the service or something?”
“Would you like to speak to Mr. Lowboy? He has Mr. Farrell’s job now.”
“Whoever’s in charge of Jetboy Comics.”
The whole place began shaking as printing presses cranked up in the back of the building. On the walls of the office were garish comic-book covers, promising things only they could deliver.
“Robert Tomlin,” said the secretary to the intercom.
“Scratch squawk never heard of him squich.”
“What was this about?” asked the secretary.
“Tell him Jetboy wants to see him.”
“Oh,” she said, looking at him. “I’m sorry. I didn’t recognize you.”
“Nobody ever does.”
Lowboy looked like a gnome with all the blood sucked out. He was as pale as Harry Langdon must have been, like a weed grown under a burlap bag.
“Jetboy!” He held out a hand like a bunch of grub worms. “We all thought you’d died until we saw the papers last week. You’re a real national hero, you know?”
“I don’t feel like one.”
“What can I do for you? Not that I’m not pleased to finally meet you. But you must be a busy man.”
“Well, first, I found out none of the licensing and royalty checks had been deposited in my account since I was reported Missing and Presumed Dead last summer.”
“What, really? The legal department must have put it in escrow or something until somebody came forward with a claim. I’ll get them right on it.”
“Well, I’d like the check now, before I leave,” said Jetboy.
“Huh? I don’t know if they can do that. That sounds awfully abrupt.”
Jetboy stared at him.
“Okay, okay, let me call Accounting.” He yelled into the telephone.
“Oh,” said Jetboy. “A friend’s been collecting my copies. I checked the statement of ownership and circulation for the last two years. I know Jetboy Comics have been selling five hundred thousand copies an issue lately.”
Lowboy yelled into the phone some more. He put it down. “It’ll take ’em a little while. Anything else?”
“I don’t like what’s happening to the funny book,” said Jetboy.
“What’s not to like? It’s selling a half a million copies a month!”
“For one thing, the plane’s getting to look more and more like a bullet. And the artists have swept back the wings, for Christ’s sakes!”
Excerpted from Wild Cards I by George R. R. Martin Copyright © 2010 by George R. R. Martin. Published in November 2010 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC. All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.