They got the clearance signal and the tails of the Spitfires lifted with a blast of prop pressure. They slid down the runway, gathering terrific speed. A few seconds later they were screaming over the blacked-out city.

“Close, close, tight in,” Allison’s voice droned.

Stan saw below the gray rectangle that was Hyde Park Square. He watched the knifing flame that the searchlights stabbed into the black heavens as they probed and searched for the black bellies of the bombers. The dull rapping of anti-aircraft shells beating against the heavy dome above smashed back the roar of his motor. The ground boys would soon spread a muck of fire and bursting steel over London.

“Tight, tight, we’re coming into the notch,” Allison’s voice warned.

Red Flight swept north now in a steep, battering turn. The notch was dead ahead.

“Shove in, Tommy. Don’t try slicing a cable,” Allison snarled. “Come in! Come in! Here we go!”

The Spitfires slid closer together, bunched like darting swallows, their flaming breath licking into the night. In a few seconds they would be out where they could spread and go into action. For the first time, since rubbing elbows with a Spitfire, Stan wondered how you bailed out of the roaring monster if it broke up going 350 miles per hour. He slid his thumb across the black gun button as he set his windbreaker’s edge on a line with Allison’s aileron slit.

Blood pounded in his ears and a chill eagerness laid hold upon him. He leaned forward and would have shouted. Allison and Tommy and the whole British Broadcasting System would likely get the benefit of it if he cut loose with a cowboy yell. He closed his mouth firmly and fixed his eyes on the aileron slit ahead. The 1,000- horsepower Merlin engine was throbbing, hurtling him up and into the night. He could feel the assuring Brownings in the wings, ready to spew a hail of lead at the enemy. He did not realize it but beads of sweat stood on his forehead.

He was glad he was coming out of the narrow channel of terror which was charted anew each week. The notch was guarded by unseen, steel cables, slender knives of spun death, waiting to slice through the wing of a plane like a knife cutting through hot cheese. Or to come coiling down upon any ship that struck them squarely. The hydrogen bloated monsters that held the cables aloft swayed and tugged, sometimes swinging the steel lines far out into the notch.

Out of this avenue the three Spitfires bored. When they were clear Allison’s drawl came in clearly:

“Pick yourself a bandit.”

Two blades of silver light knifed upward. They swept back and forth, then stopped, remaining straight up. This was a signal Allison understood perfectly.

“Four bandits, quarter left,” he snapped.

Before Stan could lay over, Allison’s Spitfire was hurtling across his hatch cover, zooming up at the droning bombers. A second later he sighted a big Dornier just as she lurched upward in a frantic effort to avoid Allison’s Brownings.

A half-smile came to the lips of Stan Wilson. Everything they had said about March Allison was correct. He was a demon in the air. Stan shot his Spitfire up at the belly of the floundering Dornier. He had no time to play spectator. Pressing the gun button he felt the kick of his eight Brownings as they drilled away. Pinkish flames spurted from the mid-section of the bomber as it whirled about, sliding off on one wing with flames, red now, belching out of it. It turned over and four men tumbled out. Stan watched long enough to see their chutes blossom against the red glow of gunfire from below. He was glad that the crew had been able to bail out.

On his right Stan saw tracer bullets from Allison’s guns. He made out a dark hulk twisting and turning, then the hulk was lighted as the Nazi craft went down in flames. He couldn’t spot Tommy as he zoomed upward and in a split second he lost Allison. Circling, he throttled down and let the Spitfire cruise. A chill feeling gripped the pit of his stomach. This was new stuff for him. He was out in the darkness roaring in a steep circle, looking for another bomber, but mostly waiting to hear Allison’s voice. He knew the unseen cables were swaying and reaching, eager to knife him or to snarl his plane. Losing a wing wouldn’t be as bad as having the cable come down on you. If you tangle in a cable you can’t bail out. Stan peered down at the muck of shellfire below. He knew he wouldn’t be able to hit the notch without help from at least one of the veterans.

Then he saw a searchlight beam pick up a dark shape below. It was a bomber going down to unload. Stan nosed over and sent the Spitfire down in a screaming dive. The flaming field of muck leaped up to meet him and shells burst close. As Stan closed in on the dive bomber it suddenly seemed to explode in his face.

Instantly Stan knew the cables had gotten the bandit. Frantically, he pulled the Spitfire up and sent her roaring toward the ceiling. He sucked in his breath as he brushed past one of the bloated gas bags. That was a score for the Ack-Ack gunners and the ground boys. Then he heard Allison’s voice, cool and cheerful.

“Come in close, Red Flight. Somebody got two bandits. Who got two bandits?”

Stan slid over and down, sure now of his position. Ahead, he spotted Tommy and then Allison. They rocketed down through the notch, as sure of the narrow pathway as though the noonday sun was shining on the cables. Stan ducked in on Tommy’s tail and went home with them.

“Why ask silly questions,” Tommy was shouting to Allison. “Allison got one, Wilson got one, the Ack-Ack boys got one. Tommy got nothing except Allison’s Spitfire in his lap.”

Allison’s voice came back in a sarcastic drawl. “I just shut my eyes and cut loose. When I opened them, there was a bandit minus one wing. How about you, Wilson?”

Stan cuddled his flap mike and laughed. He was sure of himself now. He had hit the glory trail and could laugh at its terrors. “I just did potshooting. Later I’ll clip off tails and wings for you.”

“Later?” There was that mocking note in Allison’s voice.

The recall signal was calling them in. They swung over the blacked-out city and headed for home. Ten minutes later they did a parachute walk into the briefing room. Brooks, Squadron Leader, eyed them wearily. He acted as though he hadn’t had any sleep for a good many nights, which was about correct. The three pilots moved over to his high desk and reached for report forms.

“Everybody all right?” the Squadron Leader asked as he began filling out their time record.

“Fit as flying fish,” Tommy answered, grinning broadly. “Me, I like balloons.” He winked at Stan.

“Shut up,” Allison snapped.

“What did you spend on yours?” Brooks asked, looking at Allison.

“Six or eight seconds in one burst,” Allison answered.

“Hundred rounds,” the officer jotted down. Then he looked at Tommy. Tommy nodded toward Stan.

“Eight or ten, I guess. I used a pretty long burst,” Stan admitted.

“One hundred thirty rounds, eight seconds,” the officer jotted down.

A few minutes later Stan strolled into the mess with Allison. He felt tired and would have gone to his cubicle only he wanted to see what the boys did when they came in.

“Black coffee, that’s the thing for balloon nerves,” Allison said and looked sharply at Stan. “It’s on me.” He waved a hand to the mess corporal and called. “Two, black.” Facing Stan, with a glint of humor in his eyes, he said. “Not bad, old man, but you’re a Yank and you learned to fly in a fighter. And I think you’d best break down and tell me about it.”

“Sorry, but I can’t think of a story you’d believe,” Stan said and grinned to hide his uneasiness. Allison was sharp as a tack. He had it in his head that Stan was a Yank, which would have been all right except that no Yank needed to masquerade as a Canadian to get into the Royal Air Force. Not a flier like Stan Wilson.

They sank into chairs and waited for the coffee. Tommy hadn’t showed up and they had the mess to themselves. Allison leaned forward.

“I think the old man has something special up his sleeve,” he said. “When he acts tough and gets hard he’s about to cook up a messy job. Want in on it if it comes?” He was grinning at Stan in his most derisive manner. He might just as well have added, “Of course you won’t want in.”

“Check me in,” Stan said stiffly.

“Fine.” Allison leaned back and elevated his legs to the top of the table. “Fine. I figure the old man is going to give us a one-way ticket.”

“A what?” Stan asked. The way Allison spoke made a chill run up his spine.

Allison turned his head and looked at Stan. “In the last war when fighters were sent out as scouts they had to come back to report. In this man’s war they radio back their reports. After that they play tag with a swarm of Messerschmitt One-Tens.”

“I see.” Stan could well imagine what sort of tag three Spitfires would play with a dozen or more ME’s. It was

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