The Tuscan Child Page 1

Author: Rhys Bowen

Genres: Historical , Fiction



December 1944

He was going to die, that was quite obvious. Hugo Langley tried to examine this fact dispassionately. The left wing of the Blenheim bomber was on fire and flames licked at the cabin. Behind him, his navigator, Flight Lieutenant Phipps, lay slumped forward over his instruments. A trickle of blood ran down one side of his face, seeping from under his flight helmet. And Gunner Blackburn was already dead, shot in the rear gun bay by the first wave of Messerschmitts. Hugo wasn’t sure whether he himself had been hit. Adrenaline was still pumping so violently through his system that it was hard to tell. He stared down at his blood-spattered trousers, wondering if the blood was his own or came from Phipps.

“Bugger,” he muttered. He hadn’t wanted it to end this way, this soon. He had looked forward to inheriting Langley Hall and the title someday, enjoying the status in the neighbourhood as the squire, Sir Hugo Langley. He thought briefly of his wife and son and found that their images stirred little emotion. She’d be all right without him. She could go on living at the Hall with the old man until she found someone else, which undoubtedly she would do. His son, that strange, quiet little boy, would be too young to remember him. They’d talk of him as a hero when in reality he was a bloody fool, a sitting duck. This was a bombing mission that should never have been flown. Everyone knew the Blenheims were outdated, slower than the enemy planes. And in flying north from his base near Rome to reach his targets at the rail yards in Milan, he would have to fly over a hundred miles of German-occupied territory.

He tried to assess the situation rationally. The Blenheim couldn’t make it back to base even if he could get the old crate to turn around, which wasn’t likely with one engine on fire, one wing now useless. But he certainly wasn’t going to sit there and go down in flames like a cooked chicken. He glanced out of the windscreen and tried to assess the terrain below but could see nothing. The night was as black as pitch. Cloud cover above. No moon. No stars. No lights down below. But there was also no sign of enemy planes, unless they were still tailing him. He suspected they had decided he was finished and was no longer worth bothering with. From their last reported position, he guessed he must be well over Tuscany by now. Maybe even north of Pisa and into territory still controlled by Germans. Hilly, wild country. There was a chance he could hide out and make it safely to the coast if he could somehow parachute out without the chute going up in flames. It was a chance worth taking, anyway. He fumbled to release the glass hood of the cockpit. The latch came free, but the hood wouldn’t budge. For a moment, he felt pure terror—that he’d be trapped in here to be slowly roasted or plummet to earth in a ball of fire, whichever came first. He pushed with all his strength and felt the glass hood finally yield and slide backward. Instantly, the flames licked at him.

“Go on, do it,” he urged himself. He glanced back at Phipps. “Sorry, old chap,” he said, “but I can’t take you with me.” His fingers, encased in their thick leather gloves, refused to obey him as he took off his flight helmet with the oxygen supply attached. Immediately, breathing seemed to be hard, but he was not flying that high, and it could have been just panic. He reached for his parachute and attempted to strap it on. It felt as if he was frozen in time, as if life had been reduced to slow motion. Eventually, he felt the harness snap shut. Trying not to rush, he attempted to stand, feeling pain shoot through his left leg. Damn. So he had been shot. Not much chance of running and hiding, then. Still better than being burned alive or crashing with the plane. With any luck he would land in territory no longer controlled by Germans. They had been driven back to what they called the Gothic Line, running across the peninsula just north of Pisa, and the Italians were no longer their allies. Having lived in Italy once, Hugo doubted the ordinary people ever had been incredibly pro-German or pro-war.

He hauled himself up and out until he was crouching on the good wing, out of reach of the flames, holding on for dear life as the wind buffeted him. Still he hesitated, picturing one of those Messerschmitts lurking to pick him off if he parachuted down. He listened but couldn’t pick up the telltale rumble of an enemy fighter, only the deep growl of his own right engine—the left having died. He tried to remember that distant and brief session of parachute training—how to launch himself and how many seconds to count before pulling the cord so that the chute didn’t tangle with the plane. His mind was a hopeless jumble of confusion.

He took a deep breath, then threw himself from the plane. For a few seconds, he felt himself plunging to earth. Then he tugged on the cord and was jerked upright as the parachute opened. The descent seemed to last forever. Somewhere above him, he heard the deep thump of an explosion as the fuel tank on his plane blew up. He watched the Blenheim spiral down past him. He didn’t actually see the moment when it crashed to earth, but he heard the impact. Then he was aware of the dark shapes of hills around him—the ground rushing up to meet him. Again, he tried to recall his brief moments of parachute training. Brace? Roll? He seemed to be coming in awfully fast. Maybe the parachute had not opened fully. Maybe it had been damaged in the fire. He glanced up and could see the faint, whitish circle hovering over him. It seemed to be intact. Then he looked down, trying to make out what the ground looked like below him. He could just about see the shape of the land, the outlines of hills, some of them now level with him. And trees. Lots of trees.