“What is it?”
He was in the act of filling my glass and I started so much that I spilled most of my wine across the table. “You mean a Brisfit? A Bristol fighter? Christ, they were flying those over twenty years ago on the Western Front”
He nodded. “I should know. Oh, she’s old all right, but then she only has to hold together another three months. Do one or two of the easy river trips. If you’d wanted the job, you could have had it, but it doesn’t matter. There’s a guy in at the week-end who’s already been in touch with me. Some Portuguese who’s been flying for a mining company in Venezuela that went bust which means I’ll get him cheap.”
“Well, that’s okay then,” I said.
“What are you going to do?”
“Go home – what else.”
“What about money? Can you manage?”
“Just about.” I patted my wallet “I won’t be taking home any pot of gold, but I’ll be back in one piece and that’s all that counts. There’s a hard time coming from what I read of events in Europe. They’re going to need men with my kind of flying experience, the way things are looking.”
“The Nazis, you mean?” he nodded. “You could be right. A bunch of bastards, from what I hear. You should meet my maintenance eingineer, Mamie Sterne. Now he’s a German. Was a professor of engineering at one of their universities or something. They arrested him because he was a Jew. Put him in some kind of hell-hole they call a concentration camp. He was lucky to get out with a whole skin. Came off a freighter right here in Manaus without a penny in his pocket”
“Which was when you met him?”
“Best day’s work of my life. Where aero engines are con-cerned the guy’s the original genius.” He re-filled my glass. “What kind of stuff were you flying with the R.A.F. then?”
“Wapitis mainly. The Auxiliaries get the oldest aircraft”
“The stuff the regulars don’t want?”
“That’s right. I’ve even flown Bristols. There were still one or two around on some stations. And then there was the Mark One Fury. I got about thirty hours in one those just before I left.”
“What’s that – a fighter?” I nodded and he sighed and shook his head. “Christ, but I envy you, kid, going back to all that. I used to be Ace-of-Aces, did you know that? Knocked out four Fockers in one morning before I went down in flames. That was my last show. Captain Samuel B. Hannah, all of twenty-three and everything but the Congressional Medal of Honour.”
“I thought that was Eddie Rickenbacker?’ I said. ‘Ace-of-Aces, I mean.”
“I spent the last six months of the war in hospital,” he answered.
Those blue eyes stared vacantly into the past, caught for a moment by some ancient hurt, and then he seemed to pull him-self back to reality, gave me that crooked grin and raised his glass.
The wine had ceased to effect me or so it seemed for it went down in one single easy swallow. The final bottle was empty. He called for more, then lurched across to the sliding door and pulled it back.
The music was like a blow in the face, frenetic, exciting, filling the night, mingling with the laughter, voices singing. The girl in the red satin dress moved up the steps to join him and he pulled her into his arms and she kissed him passion-ately. I sat there feeling curiously detached as the waiter re-filled my glass and Hannah, surfacing grinned across at me.
The girl who slid into the opposite seat was part Indian to judge by the eyes that slanted up above high cheekbones. The face itself was calm and remote, framed by dark, shoulder-length hair and she wore a plain white cotton dress which but-toned down the front.
She helped herself to an empty glass and I reached for the newly opened bottle of wine and filled it for her. Hannah came across, put a hand under her chin and tilted her face. She didn’t like that, I could tell by the way her eyes changed.