Jack Higgins – The Last Place God Made

She was finally allowed to go for the drinks when Avila intervened. He lit a cigarette, produced a pack of cards and looked across at us. ‘You would care to join us, gentlemen?’ He spoke in quiet reasonable English. “A few hands of poker perhaps?”

They all turned to look at us and there was a short pause. It was as if everyone waited for something to happen and there was a kind of menace in the air.

Hannah emptied his glass and stood up. “Wny not? Any-thing’s better than nothing in this hole.”

I said, “Not for me. I’ve got things to do. Another time, perhaps.”

Hannah shrugged. “Suit yourself.”

He picked up the bottle of Bourbon and started towards the other end of the bar. Figueiredo tried to stand up, swaying so alarmingly that I moved forward quickly and took his arm.

He said softly, lips hardly moving. “Give him an hour then come back for him on some pretence or other. He is not liked here. There could be trouble.”

The smile hooked firmly into place, he turned and went towards the others and I moved to the door. As I opened it, Avila called, “Our company is not good enough for you, senhor?”

But I would not be drawn – not then at least, for I think that out of some strange foreknowledge, I knew that enough would come later.

When I ran out of the rain into the shelter of that primitive hangar, I found Mannie Sterne standing on a wooden plat-form which he had positioned at the front of the Bristol. The engine cowling had been removed and the engine was com-letely exposed in the light of a couple of pressure lamps he had hung overhead.

He glanced over his shoulder and smiled. “Back so soon?”

“Hannah took me to the local pub,” I said. “I didn’t like the atmosphere.”

He turned and crouched down, a frown on his face. “What happened?”

I gave him the whole story including Figueiredo’s parting words. When I was finished, he sat there for a while, staring out into the rain. There was a sort of sadness on his face. No, more than that – worry. And there was a scar running from hisright eye to the corner of his mouth. I’d failed to notice that earlier.

“Poor Sam.” He sighed. “So, we do what Figueiredo says. We go and get him in a little while.” With an abrupt change in direction, he stood up and tapped the Bristol. “A superb engine, Rolls-Royce. Only the best. The Bristol was one of the greatest all-purpose planes on the Western Front.”

“You were there?”

“Oh, not what you are thinking. I wasn’t a Richthofen or a Udet in a skin-tight grey uniform with the blue Max at my throat, but I did visit the front-line Jagdstaffels fairly often. When I first started as an engineer, I worked for Fokker.”

“And Hannah was on the other side of the line?”

“I suppose so.”

He had returned to the engine, examining it carefully with a hand-lamp. “Thisis really in excellent condition.”

I said, “What’s wrong with him? Do you know?”

“Sam?” He shrugged. “It’s simple enough. He was too good too soon. Ace-of-aces at twenty-three. All the medals in the world – all the adulation.” He leaned down for another spanner. “But for such a man, what happens when it is all over?”

I considered the point for a while. “I suppose in a way, the rest of his life would tend to be something of an anti-climax.”

“An understatement as far as he is concerned. Twenty years of flying mail, of barnstorming, sky-diving to provide a momentary thrill for the mindless at state fairs who hope to see his parachute fail to open, of risking his life in a hundred different ways and at the end, what does he have to show for it?” He swept his arms out in a gesture which took in everything. “This, my friend – this is all he has and three months from now, when his contract ends, a government bonus of five thousand dollars.”

He looked down at me for several seconds, then turned and went back to tinkering with the engine. I didn’t know what to say, but he solved the situation for me.

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