Billy Boyle is sent to the heart of the USSR to solve a double-murder at a critical turning point in the war in this latest installment of critically acclaimed James R. Benn's WWII mystery series.
It’s September 1944, and the US is poised to launch Operation Frantic, a shuttle-bombing mission to be conducted by American aircraft based in Great Britain, southern Italy, and three Soviet airfields in the Ukraine. Tensions are already high between the American and Russian allies when two intelligence agents—one Soviet, one American—are found dead at Poltava, one of the Ukrainian bases. Billy is brought in to investigate, and this time he's paired, at the insistence of the Soviets, with a KGB agent who has his own political and personal agenda.
In the course of an investigation that quickly spirals out of control, Billy is aided by the Night Witches, a daring regiment of young Soviet women flying at night at very low altitudes, bombing hundreds of German installations.
It’s a turning point in the war, and allied efforts hang by a thread. Unless Billy and his KGB partner can solve the murders in an atmosphere of mutual distrust, Operation Frantic is doomed.
Release date: September 7, 2021
Publisher: Soho Crime
Print pages: 312
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Road of Bones
James R. Benn
“Number four’s on fire!”
“Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.”
“God dammit, shut up!”
“Keep her straight, Skipper. IP coming up.”
“Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.”
An explosion burst outside the plexiglass, a flash of black and fire that sent shrapnel spitting against the metal frame of the aircraft as the concussion from the blast sent me sprawling against the bombardier. I strained to see engine number four, but from my position all I could make out was the spinning prop. I searched for flak damage, but didn’t spot any holes in the fuselage or in me.
“Keep her straight! Fuck!” That was the bombardier, leaning over his bombsight, readying for the final run in to the target as we approached the initial point. Even though he was within arm’s length, I could only hear him through the intercom, along with the other nine aircrew.
The bombardier sat forward in the nose compartment of the B-17, working either the bombsight or the controls for the twin machine guns in the front turret directly below him. To his left rear, the navigator had a small table where he kept track of our position. He was also responsible for two machine guns, one on the left cheek of the nose right above him, and one on the right. The skipper had put me on the right cheek gun, where I had to stand pressed against the side of the compartment, watching my assigned patch of sky.
“Shutting down number four.”
That was from the pilot and copilot, calm and businesslike.
“It’s still smoking. Shit!”
“Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.”
That was from the gunners who had a view of number four belching flame and smoke. It wasn’t a vision that inspired calmness.
“Two 109s, ten o’clock high!”
The navigator manned the left cheek machine gun in the cramped nose compartment. He strained to get a bead on the two Messerschmitt 109 fighters diving toward the formation, but it was the top turret gunner who cut loose, the shattering bursts from his twin .50 guns echoing throughout the fuselage. I gripped the right cheek machine gun and searched for something to shoot at. Everything was happening too quickly, too loudly, too deadly sharp. The Fortress ahead of us was hit, bright sparks dancing along its wing as the fighters flew through the formation and banked away, tracers tagging after them.
“Fighters breaking off.”
“Petey, you see anything back there?”
“No more fighters. How’s number four?”
Petey was the tail gunner, and he had reason to be worried. If the order came to bail, he would take the longest to get out, hook a parachute to his harness, and exit the rear emergency hatch.
“How’s number four, dammit?”
“Relax, Petey, she’s fine.”
“Relax, Skipper? That’s a good one.” The crew gave Petey and the skipper a razzing, blowing off steam as the bomb run drew closer.
“IP in five seconds.” Navigator’s update. That was Carter, whose freckles and red hair made him look eighteen, tops. Maybe he was twenty, although I doubted it.
“Turning,” the skipper announced. The intercom went quiet.
I scanned the ice-blue sky decorated with streaming white contrails trailing the Flying Fortresses. The absence of fighters meant we were entering a zone of concentrated antiaircraft fire. The Luftwaffe would be waiting for us to emerge on the other side.
The sky ahead was crowded with angry black puffs, cherry red bursts at the core. Flak. We were approaching the target area, and, from the initial bombing point, the entire formation would fly straight and true for the target. The oil refineries in the German city of Chemnitz.
“Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,” the ball turret gunner repeated.
Straight and true, which meant we’d be flying into the thickly defended ring around the city where the 88mm antiaircraft guns were situated, filling the air with explosions calculated to bring down as many bombers as possible. We were following the lead aircraft with the lead bombardier, presenting the Fritzes below with a nice steady stream of targets. Over seventy-five B-17 Flying Fortresses, each carrying five thousand pounds of bombs.
We’d been lucky so far. Although, if I’d truly been a lucky guy, I’d be having a beer back in London right now, not flying through the frigid, flak-filled air twenty-five thousand feet over Germany. But I didn’t have time to dwell on what had brought me here. From my view over the bombardier’s shoulder, I could see more than I wanted to of what lay ahead. The leading edge of the fuselage was a clear plexiglass nose, allowing the bombardier a dizzying view of the ground and the target ahead.
Flak so thick you could walk on it. I always thought the flyboys were kidding, but that’s what it looked like.
“Jesus.” That was the ball turret gunner. He was running out of Jesuses.
The air began to rumble, as if we were flying into a thunderstorm. Cracking explosions of flak darkened the sky around us, the concussive blasts shaking the aircraft, tossing me against the machine gun, then sending me crashing into the ceiling. Each burst seemed louder than the last, until the roar of the engines and the detonating flak merged into a single, all-encompassing tidal wave of sound, penetrating my bones and boring into my skull.
The Fortress ahead and above us took a hit above its tail assembly, the flak sending debris spinning off the plane and showering our nose with metal. I raised my arm to shield my eyes as the fragments struck, but the bombardier didn’t flinch. Hunched over his Norden bombsight, he was flying the airplane now, guiding us to the target.
The wounded Fortress ahead and above us lost altitude and swayed side to side as the pilot struggled to stay in formation with a hunk of tail section gone. Except for his drift, the stream of bombers held steady.
Flak exploded low in front of us, the black oily puffs working their way higher as the gunners below adjusted their aim.
A Fort low and to the left took a burst under the wing, which broke apart at the fuselage and folded up like a book slammed shut, the spinning props ripping into the other wing and ensnaring it in a final, terrible embrace. The plane twirled downward, almost lazily, but I knew that any crew left alive were pinned by the centrifugal force, unable to act, unable to escape.
Robbed of its forward motion, the doomed Fortress dropped through the formation, other bombers taking evasive action to avoid a collision, then reforming as it passed, carrying ten men down to the hard German ground.
“No parachutes,” the ball turret gunner reported. “Jesus, Jesus.”
He’d found the Lord again.
“Okay, eyes front. Watch for fighters,” the skipper ordered, not because there were any fighters in sight but to draw the crew’s vision away from their dying pals.
“Lead bomber has dropped,” the radioman reported.
“Opening bomb bay doors.”
It wouldn’t be long now. If this was area bombing, the entire formation would have released at once. But the assignment was to hit an oil refinery on the outskirts of the city, and that required a pinpoint approach. I could see the explosions on the ground below, and I prayed for the bombardier to release our load quickly so we could escape the growing flak.
Two bursts bracketed the aircraft, sending me tumbling forward. The intercom went loud, live with frantic crewmen checking in as the skipper asked for a damage report. More flak exploded around us, rocking the ship like a cradle in a windstorm.
“Bombs away,” the navigator announced, calmly giving a thumbs up. “Get us the hell outta here.” The aircraft jolted, rising as it shed its heavy load of ordnance. I didn’t care about the bombs exploding below or whether they hit the oil refinery. I cared about escaping into the vivid blue above.
“Boyle,” the skipper called out.
“Here,” I said, keying my throat mic.
“Make yourself useful and get to the tail. Petey didn’t respond. And hurry, the fighters will be back once we clear the flak.”
I unhooked from the intercom and oxygen system, grabbed a portable canister, and plugged in. Without oxygen, I’d be unconscious in no time and never know what hit me. Maybe Petey got disconnected by accident, or maybe there was intercom trouble. Either way, someone had to check, and as the least useful man aboard, I was elected.
I struggled to get through the narrow compartment, clumsy in my thick, insulated flight suit. But it was the flight engineer, Mick Heller, who sent me reeling. Pushing past me as he climbed down from the top turret, he slammed to a halt at the bomb bay.
Cold winds hurled against us as he shouted into my ear.
“Bomb’s hung up!”
He pointed to a single five-hundred pounder hanging in the rack, the tail fin stuck and the warhead slanting downwards. If flak hit anywhere near that thing, or if we took fire from a fighter, it would blow us all to hell and gone.
Heller gripped a stanchion and stepped out onto the narrow metal catwalk that spanned the open bomb bay. The wind blast was so fierce, I could see the exposed skin around his oxygen mask blown back. Holding on, with no parachute and five miles of air beneath him, he kicked at the bomb, again and again.
It didn’t budge.
He pointed at my feet, jabbing his finger at a box secured to the fuselage and making a squeezing motion. I spotted a tube of grease and got the message. I grabbed it, took hold of a stanchion, and eased my way onto the catwalk, shocked at the frigid wind pushing at me. I looked down and decided that hadn’t been a good idea. I felt dizzy, frozen, and shaky.
Heller pulled me closer, closer than I needed to be just to hand him the tube. He took it and greased the rack, then raised his leg to kick again. But this time he hesitated, waiting for me to join in.
Hell no, I wanted to say. I wanted to tell him I was afraid of heights and afraid of jumping on armed high-explosive bombs.
But instead we kicked. One, twice, then a third time. At the third kick, the bomb gave out a high-pitched squeal against the rack. The fourth kick did it. The bomb fell away, descending to whatever German real estate was unlucky enough to receive it. A flak gun, I sincerely hoped, but the truth was, I didn’t give a damn. That was the enemy below, the enemy that had been trying to kill us all damn morning.
We inched our way off the catwalk as the bomb bay doors began to close. I was shaking when we got on what passed for solid ground. Fear and arctic cold are a lousy combo for keeping your hands steady.
Not that my right hand hadn’t been shaky as all hell at sea level either. But that was different. Shell shock. Combat fatigue. Nervous in the service, whichever way you sliced it, I’d needed a rest. But instead, here I was dodging lead five miles above Nazi Germany, and these shakes were from the frigid temperature and wind chill.
Heller thumped me on the shoulder and removed his oxygen mask. He whacked it against his arm, sending shards of ice flying. Then he pointed at me and put it back on. I followed suit, dislodging the ice crystals that had condensed from my breath. It felt better, if better is possible at forty degrees below zero.
Petey. I still had to check on Petey.
I plugged into the intercom and keyed my throat mic again.
“Skipper, I didn’t get past the bomb bay.”
“Petey’s okay, I sent one of the waist gunners. Comm is knocked out. Get back to your position. Hey guys, Boyle’s now an honorary bombardier.”
That earned a few choice comments. The navigator gave me a thumbs up as I squeezed back into the nose section, and the bombardier sent a grin my way from behind his mask. I marveled at how good it felt. Only a few hours ago these men were none too happy at having a passenger along for the ride. Now we were pals, all crewmen of the Banshee Bandit, veteran of fourteen missions. They were almost halfway through their thirty-mission tour.
I couldn’t imagine flying thirty of these missions. But then again, most crews never made it to thirty. And I thought I’d had it hard in this war.
I craned my neck to pick out the Sweet Lorraine, flying off our starboard wing, about five hundred feet up. No signs of damage. I hoped their passenger was safe, from the Germans and their crew. They hadn’t exactly been glad to see him.
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