Four miles from the lines, heavy guns sounded as a constant rumble. Cakes of frozen snow gleamed vaguely in the pitted black road. The fall was days old. Bundled in his trench-coat and a useless tartan blanket, Lieutenant Edwin Winthrop was stung in the face by insect hailspits. He wondered if his frozen moustache would snap off. The open-top Daimler was unsuitable for this cruelly cold French winter night. Sergeant Dravot had a dead man’s indifference to climate. The driver’s night eyes were sharp.
At Maranique, there was a delay. Winthrop froze further while a corporal cast a sceptical eye over his papers.
‘We were expecting Captain Spenser, sir,’ explained the guard. He was twice Winthrop’s age.
‘Captain Spenser has been relieved,’ Winthrop said. He did not have to explain himself. The corporal had made the mistake of getting used to Spenser. In this business, a bad habit. ‘There’s a bit of a war on. Maybe you hadn’t noticed.’
Blood-coloured fire-flashes stained low clouds over the near horizon. If a shell caught the wind a certain way, its whistle was distinguishable from the babel of bombardment. In the trenches, they said you only heard that particular shrilling if the shell was the one that would kill you.
The corporal plainly recognised Dravot. The staff car was finally passed through. The aerodrome was a converted farm. Deep cart-ruts marked the track to the house.
Condor Squadron had been Spenser’s show until this afternoon. After an hour’s cramming, Winthrop was not really au courant with the mysteries. He had been briefed on tonight’s work but given only the barest sketch of the big picture.
‘Do well, young man,’ Beauregard said, ‘and there’s a pip in it.’
He did not see how a civilian, even one attached so firmly and mysteriously to Wing, could promise promotion, but Charles Beauregard inspired confidence. It was an open question, though, whether he had inspired confidence in the lamented Captain Eliot Spenser.
Winthrop had been in France long enough to know how to avoid the shivers by tensing every muscle. The memory of Spenser, smiling through blood trickles, undid the trick. Aching cheek muscles gave way and he chattered like a puppet.
The farmhouse was blacked out, but faint light-ghosts outlined the windows. Dravot held the car door open. Winthrop stepped down, frosted grass crackling under his boots, scarf dampened with huffing steam. Dravot stood to attention, eyes frozen unblinking, tusk-like teeth sticking out of his moustache. The lack of white puffs from mouth and nostrils proved the sergeant did not breathe. He could be trusted to hold the bridge against barbarian hordes. If Dravot had personal feelings and opinions, they were unreachable.
A door opened. Smoky light and brittle hubbub spilled out.
‘Hullo, Spenser,’ someone shouted, ‘come in and have a tot.’
Winthrop stepped into the billet and talk ended. A gramophone wound down, drawing out the agony of ‘Poor Butterfly’. The low-ceilinged room was a makeshift mess. Pilots sat about playing cards, writing letters, reading.
He was uncomfortable. Red eyes fixed on him. All these men were vampires.
‘I’m Lieutenant Winthrop. I’ve replaced Captain Spenser.’
‘Have you now,’ a gloomy-looking soul said from a far nook, ‘have you indeed?’
This man held the rank. Major Tom Cundall. At first, Winthrop could not tell whether the flight commander was warm or not. After nightfall, almost everyone in the war had the predatory, haunted cast of expression associated with the undead.
‘A warm fellow,’ Cundall commented, vampire mouth curving. You could always see it in their smiles. ‘Diogenes sticks to its old ways.’
Spenser was a living man. At least, he had been the last Winthrop saw him. So was Beauregard. It was not consistent policy, just the way things worked out. There was no preference for the warm. Quite the reverse.
‘Has some sneak bombed Diogenes?’ asked a pilot, smiling savagely.
‘Steady on, Courtney,’ said another man.
Huns who attacked rear positions were almost heroes to front-line men. A staff officer’s red pips were a mark of Cain. The scarlet blots on his insignia invited scorn. Winthrop had not asked for a safe posting, any more than he had asked to be roped into the Diogenes Club. Again, it was just the way things worked out.
‘Captain Spenser has had a nervous collapse,’ Winthrop said, affecting cool. ‘He has suffered self-inflicted wounds.’
‘Good Lord,’ said a man with red hair.
‘Careless with a jolly revolver,’ sneered Courtney. He had burning daredevil eyes, an Antipodean twang and a razored double dash of moustache. ‘For shame.’
‘Captain Spenser drove four three-inch nails into his skull,’ Winthrop said. ‘He is on indefinite leave.’
‘I knew something was not right with the man,’ said a hollow-voiced American, looking up from a Paris paper.
‘If a chap’s caught trying to give himself a Blighty one, it’s usually the firing squad,’ said Courtney.
‘Captain Spenser was under a great deal of strain.’
‘Lot of that about,’ commented the American. A black hat shaded his gaunt face, but his eyes burned in the dark.
‘Leave Winthrop be, Allard,’ Cundall insisted. ‘Don’t kill the messenger.’
Allard pointed his prominent nose back at the newspaper. He was following the exploits of Judex, the vigilante. According to the press, Judex was a vampire too.
The vampire with red hair wanted more news of Spenser but Winthrop had nothing further to report. He had only glimpsed the officer as he was taken to the ambulance. He was being despatched to Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh, commonly known as ‘Dottyville’.
There was discussion about the singular method Spenser had chosen to make an invalid of himself. Allard said that in the old days it was the practice in parts of the Russias for vampire killers to favour iron spikes in the skull over wooden stakes through the heart.
‘Where do you get all this grue?’ Courtney asked.
‘I make it my business to know evil things,’ said Allard, eyes like coals. Suddenly, for no reason, the American laughed. His throat-deep black chuckle grew into a resonant, mirthless explosion. Winthrop was not the only one to cringe.
‘I wish you wouldn’t do that, Allard,’ Cundall said. ‘It sets the dogs to howling.’
Even for vampires, the pilots were unnerving. Like the French Groupe des Cigognes, Condor was a squadron of survivors, almost a squadron of sole survivors. To win a place, a man had to outlive his fellows many times over. Some were famous, among the highest-scoring Allied aces. Winthrop wondered if any resented assignment to duties which offered fewer opportunities for individual victories. At Wing, some disparaged Cundall’s Condors as glory-hounds and medalled murderers. Beauregard warned him not to let the pilots rag him too much.
With a deal of clumping, a young vampire dragged himself down a twisted staircase. His limbs were bent out of true but he got around capably. He wiped his red mouth with a white scarf. From his flush, Winthrop knew he had just fed. Away from the lines, there were usually grateful, if pricey, French girls. If not, there was livestock.
‘Spenser’s tried a Moldavian headache remedy, Ball,’ Courtney told the crooked man. ‘Nails in the brain.’
Ball pulled himself across the room, making monkey-use of hand-holds on the beams. He settled comfortably into a chair by the gramophone, eyes swimming in blood. Some vampires lulled in repletion, like snakes. In the old days, when nosferatu were hunted like plague rats, they were at their weakest after feeding and hid in coffins or graves. Ball slumped, mouth slightly open, a smudge of red on his chin.
‘I need a pilot,’ Winthrop said, more quietly than he had intended.
‘You’ve come to the right shop,’ Cundall commented.
Nobody stepped forward to volunteer.
‘Take Bigglesworth,’ Courtney said. ‘The Daily Mail calls him "a knight of the air".’
A young flight lieutenant coloured slightly, cherry spots apparing on his bone-white cheeks. Courtney clearly understudied Cundall for the role of resident cynic.
‘Give it a rest, old son.’
The flight lieutenant was backed up by cronies who rumbled disapproval. Courtney did not seem bothered by the schoolboy clique.
Major Cundall considered and said, ‘Bit thick up there to make a trip worthwhile, surely?’
Remembering Beauregard’s briefing, Winthrop explained, ‘Diogenes wants to snatch a look at something special. A lone spotter can get over the lines above cloud, then dip down to take photographs.’
‘Sounds a doddle,’ Cundall said. ‘Probably win the war, this show.’
Winthrop was a little put out by the flight commander. Ragging was all well and good, but formalities should be observed. Diogenes was not in the habit of wasting its time on fools’ errands.
He commandeered a card table and unrolled the map on the green baize.
‘Here’s the site Diogenes wants to know about,’ he said, pointing. ‘We’ve heard strange whispers.’
Some pilots were intrigued enough to crowd around. Ball crab-walked out of his chair and hobbled over. He put a cold hand on Winthrop’s shoulder to balance himself. A complete cripple on the ground, Albert Ball was magically agile in the air, reckoned the Allies’ ace of aces.
‘The Château du Malinbois,’ said the blushing lieutenant. ‘That’s a Hun field.’
‘Jagdgeschwader Eins,’ put in one of his pals, whose hair was almost as red as Albright’s.
‘Quite right, Ginger. Dear old JG1. We’re fast friends.’
‘That’s the Richthofen Circus,’ Allard intoned, ominously.
At the mention of the famous name, Ball spat. A thinly blooded streak missed the map and soaked into the baize.
‘Don’t mind Ball,’ Ginger told Winthrop. ‘He was shot down by the Bloody Red Baron’s fiendish brother, Lethal Lothar, and has a feud on. Family honour and all that.’
‘Our intelligence is that the château is more than a billet for Boche fliers,’ Winthrop said. ‘There’s odd nocturnal activity. Comings and goings of, um, unusual personages.’
‘And Diogenes want photos? We did a batch on this site last week.’
‘By day, sir.’
Winthrop took his hands off the map, which curled into a tube. He laid out photographs of the Château du Malinbois. Black bursts of anti-aircraft fire, known to one and all as Archie, were frozen between castle and camera.
Winthrop tapped areas of the picture. ‘These towers have netting draped around them. As if the Boche doesn’t want us to know what he’s up to. Camouflage, as our French allies would say.’
‘The sort of thing that makes a fellow inquisitive,’ Ginger commented.
Cundall was doubtful. ‘Be a bit bloody dark for photography tonight. I doubt if any of’ em would come out well.’
‘You’d be surprised what we can read from a dark picture, sir.’
‘I’m sure I would.’
Cundall looked closely at the photographs. He laid his hand on the table and drummed thick, pointed nails.
‘The pilot will have a Verey gun. He can pop off a flare to throw some light on the subject.’
‘"Pop off a flare?" Very likely,’ Cundall said. ‘Verey likely. That’s almost a joke, isn’t it?’
‘I’ll wager JG1 will be delighted at our company,’ Courtney said. ‘Probably lay out a red carpet.’
In the pictures, the Archie was uncomfortably close to the visible struts of the photographer’s aeroplane.
‘The Circus will be busy toasting each other in Rhine wine and virgin blood,’ said Cundall, ‘lying about the number of Britishers they’ve downed. Only we are dolts enough to send people aloft in this mucky weather.’
‘Very unsporting of the Hun,’ Ginger commented. ‘Not coming out to play.’
‘The flare’ll prod him,’ Albright said. ‘There’ll be Archie. Maybe an Albatros will make it into the air.’
‘Inferior bird, the Albatros,’ Courtney said.
Cundall seemed hypnotised by the photographs. The castle was bashed a bit about the battlements but still far more imposing (and, presumably, comfortable) than the farmhouse. Like every other breed of fighting man, the Royal Flying Corps were convinced the enemy had it cushier.
‘Very well, Winthrop,’ Cundall said. ‘Pick your man.’
This was not what he expected. He looked at the pilots. One or two turned away. Cundall smiled nastily, showing sharp tips of teeth.
Winthrop felt like a live mouse in a cattery. He remembered the bloody nailheads in Spenser’s scalp.
‘The best qualified would be the man who took these.’
Cundall examined a serial number scrawled on the edge of a photograph.
‘Rhys-Davids. Not a good choice. Went west two nights gone.’
‘He isn’t confirmed,’ Bigglesworth said. ‘He may be a prisoner.’
‘He’s lost to us.’
Winthrop looked around again. No one stepped forward. Though well aware of the crucial differences between war as waged in the jingo press and war waged in France, he somehow expected a dignified competition of volunteers.
‘Here’s a list. Pick a name.’
Cundall handed over a clipboard. Withrop looked at Condor Squadron’s roster. He couldn’t help but notice names with lines drawn through them, including ‘Rhys-Davids, A.’.
‘Albright, J.,’ he said, taking the first name.
‘Fair enough,’ said the red-headed captain. Though in RFC uniform, he was another American. Cundall’s catch-all squadron had more than its share of foreigners.
‘How’s your crate, Red?’ Cundall asked.
Albright shrugged. ‘Better than she was. The camera’s still slung.’
Albright seemed a steady man. Though a vampire, he was sturdily built, square-faced, firm-jawed. He seemed made entirely of solid blocks. The wind would not blow him away.
‘Ball, you’ll have to make a fourth,’ Courtney said. ‘Red promised to partner Brown in bridge against me and Williamson.’
Albright shrugged a can’t-be-helped as Ball shifted himself to the cards group.
‘I’ll be back by midnight,’ Albright said.
Everyone groaned, in on a private joke.
Winthrop felt obliged to shine a lantern under the lower wings of the Royal Aircraft Factory SE5a to inspect the cameras rigged up in place of Cooper bomb racks. They were operated like bombs, by pulling a lanyard in the cockpit. The plates were fitted properly. One of Dravot’s responsibilities.
Uneasily aware he was the only man on the field who could not see in the dark, Winthrup shut off the light.
Albright hauled himself into the cockpit and checked his guns, a fixed Vickers which fired through the propeller and a swivel-mounted Lewis attached to the upper wing. On a jaunt like this, he should get back without firing a shot. The idea was to creep in and get photographs before the enemy could muster. That was why this was a one-man job: too many aeroplanes would alert Malinbois that they were coming. As a rule, the Boche didn’t take to the air unless they had to. Allied policy was to mount offensive patrols constantly, to remind the Central Powers who owned the skies.
Cundall and his cronies had ventured out to watch Albright depart. The pilots took a professional look at the SE5a, examining the fuselage where bullet-holes had been darned. They agreed the aeroplane, a relative newcomer, was acceptable. Through Diogenes, Condor could get whatever machines it wanted, but each pilot had preferences.
Stamping to get feeling into dead toes, Winthrop was completely in the dark. The aeroplane was a large shadow skeleton. Vampires were as comfortable in the night as he was on Brighton pier at midday. With their adapted eyes, the undead were suited to night-flying, to night-fighting. Thanks to them, this was the first round-the-clock war in history.
Ginger spun the SE5a’s propellor. The Hispano-Suiza engine did not catch first time.
‘A bit more elbow-grease,’ said one of the cronies, Bertie.
Of course, without vampires (specifically without the brute now calling himself the Graf von Dracula) the war would not have been fought at all. The Graf’s latest attempt at European power had led to a conflict that seemed to involve every nation on the globe. Even the Americans were in now. The Kaiser said modern Germans must embody the spirit of the ancient Hun, but it was Dracula, proud of blood kinship with Attila, who most epitomised twentieth-century barbarism.
Ginger spun the prop again. The engine growled, prompting a ragged cheer. Albright gave a salute and said, ‘See you at midnight.’ The machine taxied along bumpy sod, plunged into the shadow of the trees and soared upwards, wobbling a little as wind caught under its wings.
‘What’s the business about midnight?’ Winthrop asked.
‘Red always gets back by then,’ Bertie said. ‘Does the job quickly and comes home. That’s why we call him Captain Midnight.’
‘Silly, isn’t it?’ the pilot grinned. ‘So far, it’s brought him luck. Red’s a good man. Flew with the Escadrille Lafayette until they disbanded. We got him because the Yanks rejected him for their show as medically unfit. The American Air Corps is exclusive to warm men.’
Albright’s crate rushed up into the underside of a low-lying cloudbank and passed quickly from sight. The engine drone faded into the wind and drifting music from the farmhouse gramophone. ‘Poor Butterfly’ was waiting again. Sergeant Dravot’s eyes were fixed on the night sky.
Major Cundall consulted his watch (one of the new wrist affairs they wore in the trenches) and noted time of departure in a log book. Winthrop checked his own pocket watch. Half-past ten on the evening of February the 14th, 1918. St Valentine’s Day. At home, Catriona would be thinking of him, intelligently worried.
‘Nothing for it now but to wait,’ Cundall said. ‘Come in and stay warm.’
Winthrop had not realised how chilled he was. Slipping his watch into its pocket, he followed the pilots back to the farmhouse.