The Stonewall File

by

Budd Davisson


Baby boomer Jack Slattery is haunted by the mysterious disappearance of his father's bomber during WWII, but when he starts asking questions, people start dying.

Unknown to Slattery, the old bomber guards an ugly truth that Presidential Advisor Vince Covell can't allow to resurface. He has killed before, and to stop Slattery, he'll kill again.

Slattery's search takes him from the Internet to the bottom of Norwegian fjords. It is almost too late, however, before he realizes that the Stonewall File could not only rewrite history, but it means certain death for those who find it.

Trapped in a violent game of hide and seek, Jack Slattery finds there is no statute-of-limitations on treachery.

The prologue and first three chapters follow. If you want to purchase the novel, return to the order form and hit the appropriate button.

Enjoy!


PROLOGUE

May 2, 1945
Eleven-thousand feet below the lumbering B-17 bomber, the bleak, wintertime coast of Norway lay frozen in place, barely moving. There were Krauts down there. Somewhere. The briefing officer, however, had said the war was almost over-the mission would be a milk run and they shouldn't expect any fighters. Stuffed into the tail gunner position, Corporal James "Skeeter" O'Malley, a red-haired, pink-faced, eighteen-year-old from Clay Center, Kansas knew better. Briefers were always full of shit.

On the other hand, O'Malley was thinking, this had been a strange mission right from the git-go. An hour earlier, just as they were breaking out of the low clouds over the channel headed for Bremerhaven, Germany, Captain Slattery abruptly dropped out of formation and turned their airplane, Slats Wagon, northwest. Dumbfounded, O'Malley had watched as the rest of the bombers slowly disappeared in the distance. What the hell?

Even though something strange was going on, O'Malley still had an airplane to protect. He was automatically scanning the sky when his brain reacted to something his eyes had seen without knowing they had seen it. Call it instinct. A tiny speck had dropped out of the overcast far behind them.

He pressured his throat mike, "Heads up, boys, we've got company, six o'clock and closing fast." His voice sounded dry and tinny.


O'Malley swiveled his guns and glared through the gunsight as the speck grew wings and a tail. Fighter! No doubt about it. His heavily-gloved finger tightened on the trigger. Two .50 caliber Brownings lay between his feet, charged and ready.

As the fighter closed the distance, it gained form and became a mottled green. Then, it abruptly rolled into a steep bank and gave the smooth-cheeked gunner a clear view of its elliptically shaped wings. The colorful British roundels stood out in stark contrast to its dull camouflage.

"Relax, guys, it's a Spitfire." O'Malley was surprised at the relief in his voice. "Boy, he must be one lost Limey."

***

Captain Tom Slattery relaxed at the controls of the big four-engine bomber and grinned over at his copilot. Both had jumped to attention at O'Malley's first call. The last thing they needed was a Messerschmitt or Focke-Wulf anxious to add their scalp to its belt. They had volunteered for this special mission but it wasn't until the last minute that they found out exactly how special the mission would be for them: it was to be their last. After nearly thirty trips over Germany, Eighth Air Force command said once they completed this unusual flight, the war was over for Slattery and his crew. They would survive the insanity. Absolutely amazing!

Slattery twisted around and watched the Spitfire slide up even with his left wingtip. Even as he admired the fighter's graceful lines, the pilot slid the tiny canopy open and moved the airplane closer so the two pilots could clearly see one another. The Spitfire pilot slowly raised his hand in a solemn salute. Slattery returned the salute and smiled.

What Slattery could not see, as the Spitfire slid back toward the bomber's tail and out of sight, were the tears streaming down the young fighter pilot's cheeks.

***

Corporal O'Malley grinned as the Spitfire slid back in line behind him. He was looking directly down its long nose and could clearly see heat waves boiling out of the exhaust stacks on either side of the huge, yellow prop spinner. He spoke into the intercom, "Wow, I wish I had a camera! I could get a terrific head-on shot of...."

O'Malley's words were violently interrupted as tongues of flame leaped out of the Spitfire's wings and the first of many cannon shells smashed through the glass in front of him. A cluster of orange fireballs like an angry, billowing floral arrangement engulfed the tail. In a single heartbeat, a lumpy crimson film oozing down the shattered windscreen was all that remained of an eighteen-year-old's last thoughts.

***

His hands on the control yoke, Tom Slattery felt, rather than heard, the gunfire. He didn't have to be told what was happening.

"Sonuvabitch, that bastard is firing at us!" He yanked the controls hard left in what he knew was a futile attempt at evasion. The intercom exploded in his ears even as he dumped the nose, going for speed.

"What's that asshole doing...left waist, I'm hit, I'm hit...oh'm'God, oh'm'God, oh'm'God...."

Someone was screaming. Everyone was shouting. Slattery was reacting, doing his best to save them. Which he knew was impossible. The surprise had been complete.

Flashes danced across the inside wing and, as if by magic, the once-sleek cowls on the left engines became jagged junk. Angry black smoke erupted and oil streamed back over the wing. Flames licked at the edges of the open wounds and Tom Slattery knew his airplane was dying.

Cannon shells ripped through the roof of the cockpit, and a blizzard of fragments that had once been the instrument panel flailed at him. Frigid air howled through a windshield that was no longer there and every surface was slick and red. Slattery glanced over to find what was left of his copilot slumped over the control column. Part of his head was missing.

Then, something slammed him in the back, and the world went black for Captain Tom Slattery.

***

The bomber gracefully slid into an ever-steepening spiral with smoke pouring from two engines and slowly rolled over like a wounded whale diving for the depths. With no one at the controls, it was obviously doomed.

The young R.A.F. captain pulled his fighter around and looked down. A black, helical column of smoke traced the bomber's path toward the sea. In seconds the wind would erase the smoke, and no one would know that it had once marked the final resting-place of ten good men.

The pilot wiped the tears from his eyes and forced himself to study a map on a small clipboard strapped to his thigh. Checking landmarks carefully, he wrote down a series of numbers. Numbers he would remember for the rest of his life, but would share with no one. They would be his private address for a deed best forgotten.

***

Twenty-three-year-old Captain Tom Slattery, United States Army Air Force, fought to bring the world back into focus as some part of his brain fought to survive. It was a crazy world. Whirling and red and filled with pain. An unseen demon screamed through the smashed windshield and tore at him, telling his instincts that the airplane was speeding toward its own destruction. He raked the throttles closed, even as he wrestled the control column back. The airplane was still whole. It was still flying. And he would save it.

Slowly the nose came up and the banshee wind softened its tone. Speed went away and the snow-cloaked mountains on the horizon again pointed in the right direction. The airplane, though sorely wounded, was under control.

Sharp-edged flashes shot through his vision. A dull, faraway pain so monstrous that his nervous system refused to acknowledge it told him he'd been hit someplace important. But he already knew that.

Directly ahead, a frozen river led away from a partially frozen fjord and into the mountains. It was a luminescent, white runway that pointed toward survival for those of his crew still alive.

Something warm was flowing freely down his chest. It was pooling in his flight suit between his legs as he fixated on the ice ahead. Hold the airplane off until it is done flying. Bleed off the speed. Ease it on. Make it gentle and maybe he'll see his wife again. Maybe he'll see his son for the first time. Maybe his crew will survive.

The tail cone containing the bloody mass that had once been Corporal O'Malley touched the ice first in a gentle hiss. It was followed by a long, hollow moan as the rest of the speeding fuselage sliced into the hard-packed surface. The nose snowplowed along the ice, and a curtain of frozen shrapnel blasted through the nonexistent windshield. Slattery barely heard the propellers slam into the frozen surface and curl in on themselves like dying spiders. He never saw the belly turret rip loose and bound across the ice, its teenage gunner curled up inside like a dead fetus.

Gradually the airplane slowed to a halt, and the cacophony of an airplane in its death throes was replaced by a heavy silence. Slattery heard himself gasping for breath. The air was so cold it had a hard, slick taste. Cooling metal made musical tinking sounds. The silence was overwhelming. Then the unmistakable sound of running water reached his ears, and he felt something icy cold against his feet. He looked down.

Sparkling, clear water was coursing up through the floorboards. The nose was already easing down through the ice. Spring had come early to the fjord.

His brain said "get out," and commanded his hands to undo his seat belt. He watched as his cold-whitened hands ignored the command and dropped into his lap. They refused to move. One hand hesitated and pulled a laminated mother-and-child photo out of its mount on the control yoke. Tom Slattery's last thought was that he would never see his infant son, Jack.

***

Amanda Slattery happened to glance through the front window of her small New Jersey home, just as the telegraph messenger got out of his car and started up her front walk. Her son, Jack, was nestled in her arms making soft cooing sounds.

The infant's eyes opened wide as he sensed the alarm coursing through his mother's body. Her lips trembling, she opened the door. The messenger was a kindly old man. Too old to be drafted or put to work, he had volunteered to be the man everyone hated to see. He seldom brought good news.
Placing young Jack in his crib, she turned the yellowish envelope over in her hand, afraid to open it. Was he dead? Wounded? What? She ripped the envelope open and forced her eyes to scan the strips pasted to the page. She skipped the predictable preamble and fixated on the bottom line, "...missing in action and presumed dead."

She stopped breathing as her world shrank down to that tiny living room. She picked up her son, not knowing what to say or what to feel. There were no coherent thoughts. Only young Jack was real. His warm face snuggled against hers and his soft lashes wiped butterfly kisses onto her cheek. Her tears came, but they came quietly.

She touched his soft ear with her lips and whispered, his sweet-smelling hair filtering her words, "Jack, your daddy was such a...."

The words wouldn't come and she breathed deeply of the warm aroma of innocence. "He would have loved you so much. So much." She choked back a sob. "You'll just never know."

She wadded up the telegram, threw it in the corner and held her baby tight.


One

Summer, present day
"You tell that sonuvabitch that I don't give a damn what his union told him. He's going to re-pour that concrete or I'm going to track him down and kick his ass myself! And I'll kick his union steward's ass too!"


Jack Slattery grimaced as he shouted into the airborne phone. He grinned across at his blonde, and very bored, daughter in the right seat of the twin-engine Cessna 310. The Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey streaked past below at more than two hundred miles per hour.


"No, that's my last word. Get it done." He slammed the phone back on its cradle. "Asshole!" he said to no one in particular.


"Nice talk, Dad. Really inspirational for a growing teenager." Fifteen-year-old Debbie Slattery made a face at him.


She pulled the tightly curved bill of her black Steelers baseball cap low over her tidy, not-yet-woman, no-longer-little-girl face, and tugged at the ponytail sprouting out the back. She turned to stare ahead at the vague, gray horizon. She had five bucks riding on spotting New York City before her dad did. While at a camp for musically gifted kids over the summer, most of her baby-sitting money had slowly evaporated, and she needed the income.


Jack Slattery was six-feet, early fifties, trim and athletic-looking with an ever-present grin. A few gray streaks wandered through his otherwise brown, closely cropped hair. Women said he was attractive, in a working-guy sort of way. Everything about him was what-you-see-is-what-you-get. Nothing fancy. If New Jersey had such a thing as country kids, he figured he'd probably be selected as their grown-up poster child.


His gray-green eyes flicked across the horizon as he unzipped his worn leather jacket and adjusted his position in the seat. His hands rested easily on the Cessna's controls. He looked at home because he was. He loved the art of the machine, any machine, but to his eyes the greatest works of mechanical art were those that flew. Slattery glanced over at his daughter, caught her eye, and grinned his often-used, crazy-as-a-loon grin. She recognized the look.


"Dad! Don't...Pleeeeze!" Her voice climbed in a near whine.


"Sorry, baby, but...a man's gotta do...what a man's gotta do." His words were deliberately theatrical.
The horizon disappeared as Slattery pulled the Cessna's nose up into an aileron roll. Effortlessly, the sky swapped places with the Earth. Up and down were temporarily redefined.
Debbie Slattery's scream trailed out behind the airplane, as it slithered gracefully over on its back, "Daaaaad...some day I'm going to...puke just to...teach you a lesson."

***

Mike Cragar shielded his eyes from the sun in the open hangar door and watched the Cessna twin arc toward the small runway. Cragar smiled, his seventy-something face brightened and his age-stooped body straightened ever so slightly. He never tired of watching an airplane being flown well. He had been that good once. Back in the big one. Before a Focke-Wulf came at his bomber head-on, guns blazing.


He wiped his hands on a shop rag and stuffed it in a pocket of his coveralls. "Slattery and Company" was embroidered across the back, which made some people think he actually worked for Jack Slattery. Technically, he did, but he found it hard to think of himself as working for a man whose butt he had powdered and diapered.


As far as Mike Cragar was concerned, he was still taking care of young Jack, just as he had over fifty years ago when he came home from the war and Jack's father didn't. It was no big deal. He knew Tom Slattery would have done the same for his kids. If he'd had any. Which he didn't. He didn't need any. He had Jack. And Jack's widowed mother. She never remarried, not that Mike didn't try. It just didn't work out, so he spent a lifetime being a sort-of father. And sort-of husband. And almost lover. And he didn't regret a single minute of it.

***

The props had barely stopped turning when a blonde tornado bounded out of the Cessna and wrapped Mike Cragar in a God-I-love-you hug.


"Uncle Mike, I am soooo glad to see you," Debbie Slattery squealed as the old man hoisted her off the ramp and whirled her around.


"Whoa, girl," Cragar wheezed, she was squeezing so hard.


"Hey, come on, lemme take a look at you," and he pushed her out to an arm's distance.


"Wow, Debbie girl!" He grinned. "You've only been up at that music camp two months, but look at you. You're going to have to stop growing or you're going to be too old for me. Hell, you're already too pretty for me. Besides, I like my women with a little more meat on the bone." He drew her in for another hug.


"Hey, you two. Break it up and help me with this stuff," Jack Slattery called from his perch on the Cessna's wing. He had an overstuffed duffel bag in each hand. Big block letters proudly proclaimed the contents of one as being "My Laundry."


Debbie and Mike ignored him and walked toward the hangar. Mike was doing most of the talking. "...I only have to set the valve clearances and the old bird will be ready to go, and then." Their voices faded as they stepped inside. A World War Two Curtiss P-40 poked its nose through the door, as though sniffing the air.


Jack stood on the Cessna's wing, "Hey, you guys..." Getting no response, he scowled, then grinned, and tossed the laundry bag to the ground.


He liked the fact that Mike and Debbie were so close. It helped even out some of the turbulence caused by the divorce. Even as the word floated through his mind, Jack couldn't believe he was divorced. He wasn't the kind of guy who got divorced. He was old stable Jack, who always knew how to fix everything and could straighten out every situation. But, he didn't know how to fix his marriage. God knows he tried, but he could never figure Melanie out.


He knew she was unhappy, but he never knew why. It had something to do with Jack's passion for everything and everybody. It was as if she resented that passion. As if airplanes and old cars and the dozens of other factors that made Jack Slattery, Jack Slattery were competition.


Melanie was one of his passions and he loved her madly, but love wasn't the answer. He tried for years, but Jack just couldn't crack the code and now he was having trouble visualizing himself as part of that fifty percent of Americans who are supposed to joke about their ex-spouse. Jack never joked about his divorce.


The divorce devastated Debbie. It was bad enough that pretty, petite Melanie had calmly announced over a pot roast that she didn't think she loved Jack enough to spend the rest of her life with him. But, then she moved out, leaving Debbie with him.


At the time, if his muddled brain hadn't been such a disaster of its own, he would have known how hard it would hit his daughter. It would have been far better if Melanie had tossed him out on his ear. That would have been understandable because that's the way divorce, American-style, works. Blame it on Dad and toss him out. That way everyone knows why the family is splintered.
Having the mother leave didn't fit the pattern. Much worse, it hit Debbie at an age when young girls are insecure anyway, and Jack wasn't sure she'd ever recover.


Recently, just when it appeared as though Debbie was coming to grips with everything, Jack threw another emotional log on the fire by falling in love. The second he showed up with Vicki, Debbie began showing her teenage fangs. There was some sort of bad chemistry there that he couldn't put his finger on, but when they were together, he could smell the ozone from the lightning bouncing around in the background. Nothing had been said, but it was obvious that Debbie didn't like the idea of a step-fiancée, much less a stepmother. Vicki had the effect of a grenade tossed into a cauldron of seething hormones.

***

When Jack walked into the hangar, Debbie was sitting in the old fighter's cockpit and Mike was kneeling on the wing giving her a tour of the ancient warrior. She looked like a peanut in the cockpit, she was so small by comparison.


"Hey, Mike," Jack said. "You going to get this thing flying for the aces' reunion next week?"
Mike pulled his head from the cockpit just long enough to say, "Yeah, yeah, you executive types think I have nothing better to do than tend to your expensive toys." He was grinning. "Sure, I'll get it done but only because I promised the Debbie Girl here you'd give her her first ride in it."
He started to put his head back into the cockpit when he hesitated and said, "You going to be at the reunion planning meeting tonight? We're going to need your input.".As though anticipating the answer, Mike slid down off the wing.


"Nah, I don't think so," Jack said. "I promised myself a long evening on the computer."


The old man put a fatherly hand on Jack's shoulder and spoke softly so Debbie wouldn't overhear. "Jack, believe me. I'd love it if you'd find out what happened to your dad. I was there too, remember? But I don't think we'll ever know. He and the rest of his crew wouldn't be the first boys to be vaporized without a trace. One of those goddamn Kraut gunners probably put an eighty-eight right into his bomb bay. Besides, he was flying tail-end Charley, absolutely the worst place to be. By the time he came over the target, the Krauts had our altitude nailed and he got hit. That's all there is to it. Let it go, boy."


Jack Slattery looked into the eyes of the only father he'd ever known. He glanced at the sky, now mostly dark with a smear of orange low to the west.


Without taking his eyes off the horizon, he said, "I wish I could. I really do. But...I don't know. It seems like the older I get, the more it bugs me that there's not one single scrap of information about his disappearance. I just want to know, that's all. Call it closure. Call it anything you want. I need to know."


The old man squeezed Slattery's shoulder and said nothing.


Jack Slattery leaned against the hangar door and stared at the darkening sky for a moment. What was left of the day was creeping down behind the low mountains.

He reached for his truck keys. "Come on, Deb. Let's head for home."


Two

The room was dark, and the light from the computer re-sculpted Jack Slattery's face into an eerie landscape of green hills and black valleys. His eyes were studying columns of numbers as they cascaded down the screen. He was searching for a clue. Something, anything that would give a hint of what had happened so many years ago.


The screen was labeled "Roster, Mission 145, Bremerhaven, May 2, 1945." He'd already read that file dozens of times. Nearly five thousand men had been on that mission with his father and Jack knew many of the names by heart. It had been one of the very last full-scale combat missions flown in Europe during World War Two. For Jack Slattery, however, it was the only one that mattered.


His fingers danced a few more steps and the page changed. Now aircraft numbers flowed down the screen. 44-2837 was among them. He knew that airplane as Slats Wagon. His father had walked through the flat light of an English dawn, climbed into that specific B-17G at 0545 hours on a Wednesday morning, and was never heard from or seen again. One minute he was there. The next he wasn't.


Slattery glanced up from the screen. He momentarily stared into the darkness behind the computer as though he could actually see the familiar picture hanging there. The young face that stared out at him from in front of a sandbagged bunker was his own. In the photo he was a young Marine holding an M-14, and at the time he had thought he was invincible.


He'd fought his own war, but he'd returned. For reasons hidden by the distance of time, his father hadn't. And it bothered him. The simple fact that he had no idea what happened to his father created a void in his life that needed to be filled.


More clicks on the keys and the magic fingers of the Internet reached inside the national archives and retrieved another document. The title on this one was "Armament Order." Again, he had it nearly memorized. Ten each, 500-pound high-explosive bombs. Impact fusing. Fourteen thousand rounds of .50 caliber ammunition belted with a four-to-one ratio, one tracer to every four hardball, all of them seven hundred and nine grains of high-speed death. Standard issue for a bomber going to war.


The armament order was different from some of the other digital files. This one hadn't been re-keyed. It was a scan of the original document, like an aging portrait from another time. It was faithful even to the broken type on the old Smith Corona typewriter some eighteen-year-old PFC had finally figured out how to operate. But not too well. There were several misspellings and double strikes.


The signature of the approving officer was a crude black and white chicken scratch because the scanner had been unable to faithfully render the subtle shades of gray hidden within it.
Jack decided to try something he'd never before tried with archive documents. Quickly opening the document in PhotoShop, his fingers began key stroking.


With each command, the handwriting took on a crisper appearance. Then, for the first time, he noticed something he'd never seen before-there was what appeared to be the remnants of a small pencil scrawl just under the block designating the bomb load. In the past, he'd thought it to be a smudge on the paper.


Clicking on "zoom," he blew the page up until the scrawl nearly filled the screen. Most of the notation was unreadable, its varying shades of pencil-gray lost in the scanning process and broken into meaningless pixels. Two parts of the notation, however, came through-one word and a number. The word was "special" and the number was 44-2839. Both were clear and unmistakable.


He flipped back through the computer screens, bringing the roster back up. Who was flying 44-2839? He quickly scanned down the aircraft numbers. There was no 44-2839. It must have been a spare or an airplane that didn't make the mission because of maintenance problems.


He brought the cursor to the top of the screen, clicked the mouse once, and the computer began its shutdown ritual. At the same time, Jack yawned and began to shut down himself.


He rubbed his eyes. It took an enormous amount of energy to stand and find his way to the door. As he did, he picked up a familiar picture frame that was invisible in the dark. His hand knew right where to reach. As he brought the picture under the desk lamp, he again smiled at the father he'd never known. The grainy black-and-white image was of a smiling young man in his prime standing in front of his airplane. He was wearing a leather jacket and had a parachute slung over his shoulder. His crew, all of whom looked like kids, were crowded around him.


Dad, what happened? Where did you all go? The familiar thought was a constantly repeating question, never far from the center of Jack Slattery's thoughts.


His tired eyes moved from face to face, then traveled the length of the airplane. Slats Wagon was painted in crude script under the cartoon of a fearsome diving wagon with a voluptuous blonde throwing bombs overboard.


His gaze moved over the airplane. Every time he looked at it, was like the first time. The cockpit side window was open and the top turret beyond had its two guns pointing straight back. He followed them to the group's insignia, a "J" within a triangle that occupied the big, swooping tail. He studied the stenciled numbers under it. They were out of focus and hard to read. But he knew them anyway, 44-2837.


He brought the picture close to the light and squinted. Something different had caught his eye. "What the hell is that?" he thought. He'd never noticed how the last number looked different than the rest.


His computer made a quiet "bong" as it came back to life. He fired up the scanner and carefully laid the picture on it. In minutes, the electronic image of the photograph had been recreated within the computer, and he again played his PhotoShop enhancement games. This time he was focusing on the barely discernible tail number on a very old airplane in a very old photo.


As the computer rearranged pixels and the numbers began to solidify, everything about them gained definition. The edges began to harden and black paint that had been turned gray by aging film began to step away from the background aluminum of the tail. Then, as the pixels changed color and lined up, what had appeared to be a "seven" grew other stray dark pixels that shouldn't have been there. But there was no doubt that they were there.


He played connect-the-dots with the pixels and an amazing thing happened: the "seven" clearly became a "nine." Jack stared at the number and wrestled with its implications. It was like finding out a favorite uncle was not only unrelated but was a total stranger. His dad hadn't been flying 44-2837, he heard his mind shouting. He had been flying 44-2839! Why hadn't he noticed that before?


He grabbed his magnifying glass and looked at the photo again. Yes, he could see it. At some point the picture had passed through the hands of some unknown wartime censor who crudely altered the number. It was actually 44-2839.


44-2839! He had seen that number earlier. He flipped through computerized pages, most of which had been retyped from the originals. On the retyped documents, 44-2839 didn't exist. In fact, Captain Tom Slattery was clearly listed as the pilot of 44-2837. Probably a typo. However, on the scan of the original armament document, someone a long time ago had written a note that included the number "44-2839" and the word "special."


He leaned back in his chair and all but disappeared in the darkness as he fell out of the screen's glow. Special! And his father's airplane. His mind turned the words over in his mind, looking at them from various angles. What was significant enough about his father's airplane to warrant a special note on an ordinance loading order?


His fingers began beating out a furious tattoo on the keys. When finished, a message was addressed to the research division of the national archives. It read, "What is the penciled notation on document 29-3502-1 that appears to say 'special' and mentions B-17G USAAF 44-2839?" The rest of the message gave his Visa card number and e-mail address.


He punched off the computer and sat in the darkness for a few minutes. There wasn't much more he could do and he was frustrated. This was the first hint of anything on that mission that had something to do with his father and he knew no one would even see his message until the archives opened in the morning. How long would it be before they responded? A week? A month? Frustrating! What was special about Dad's airplane? What?


He pushed back from the desk and stood in the dark of his so-familiar study and automatically found his way to the hallway, headed to bed. As he stripped down to his skivvies and slid into bed, Vicki's warmth enveloped him, but his last thoughts were of a particular B-17 that an ancient government document mentioned as being special. The airplane had always been special to him. Now he knew that someone in government, over a half- century earlier had felt the same way. Why?

***

At that exact moment, two hundred miles to the south, outside Washington, D.C., a computer screen in an office buried deep within a government complex repeated Jack Slattery's words. "What is the penciled notation on document 29-3502-1 that appears to say 'special' and mentions B-17G USAAF 44-2839?" A red banner was superimposed on the screen, rhythmically flashing "RED FILE ACCESSED, RED FILE ACCESSED..." The message repeated itself until noticed by an operator, who said, "What the hell? Someone better check on this guy."


He looked at the screen again and noted the date on the document. "Dammit!" he said to his office mate. "When are they going to clean up these files? This damn thing is fifty years old."


He yawned, as he typed a quick note into the computer and waited for the printer to spit out his memo. Policy is policy and a red file, even one that old, was still a red file. That meant letting the appropriate people know what was going on. What a waste of taxpayers' money!


He stapled a routing slip to the memo and idly noted the name of the file-that had been accessed. He wondered what Operation Stonewall meant.



Three

It was late and Vince Covell was tired. The limp collar of what sixteen hours earlier had been a starched-white shirt drooped open, and his loose tie snaked over his ample belly and off to one side. The room was dark, and the glaring white light from an old-fashioned desk lamp pulled low over his desk sucked what little coloring remained from his already pale, sagging face. His next birthday would make an even seven-and-a-half decades, and every one of them showed in the creases they'd carved into his face and his soul. He was concentrating and his features had defaulted into their usual growling expression.


Vince Covell growled a lot. He was not a happy man, and acting as the President's watchdog hadn't made him any happier. He was, he knew, a gopher. A super-gopher that for over a half century had been at Franklin Taylor's right hand getting him everything from Kleenex to whores to admirals and generals who were willing to be whores.


Covell had done his job well, and Taylor's path to the White House was littered with political grave markers, each of which indicated a career ended by Covell to protect Taylor.


As Taylor worked his way up from congressman, senator, then became President he continually created situations that needed cleaning up. Covell was the frantic political janitor who cleaned up after him.


Taylor acted as though the letter of the law was open to interpretation and people such as himself, who he felt were obviously destined for greatness, should be allowed a looser definition of what was right and wrong. It was, Covell knew, a time-honored delusion believed in, and practiced by, every corrupt regime since Cro-Magnon man pushed the Neanderthals from the scene.


Covell sometimes rationalized his own position as being nothing out of the ordinary because every President has had a Vince Covell who was his secret point man. Covell and his breed nose through the brush ahead of their bosses, while at the same time mounting a rear guard action to make sure none of the indiscretions, screw-ups, or down-and-dirty illegal operations sneak up and bite them in their political butts. "Advisors" like Covell live in a shadow world, and it is their job to make sure that the most lethal shadows work for them.


Vince Covell was unique because he'd been with now-President Taylor since right after World War Two. During the war Taylor had been a true wunderkind, a super star who became one of the youngest men in history to make general. He went into politics with the same unbridled energy he had used while in the military and scooped Covell up in the process.


Few watchdogs and even fewer politicians survive the D.C. feeding frenzy that long. The simple fact that both Taylor and Covell had survived for so long was mute testimony to their ability to choose their fights carefully-sidestep those that could be lost and brutally crush every opponent while winning the rest.


A knock on the door brought his head up from the documents on his desk, "Yeah."


Covell's young assistant popped through the door, a fuzzy halo of unkempt, too-curly hair circling his head. His name was Theodore. Not Ted, but Theodore. Covell, however, called him Skippy because he thought the skinny, pimple-faced aide looked like a Skippy. He also thought Skippy was probably a queer and ought to be taken out and shot. Or something.


Covell had once asked a favor of a well-placed politico and giving Skippy a job had been the payback. Too late, Vince realized how badly he'd been screwed in that particular negotiation.


"Well, don't just stand there," Covell barked. "What the hell is it?"


Unfazed, the aide laid a paper in front of the agitated Covell. "Sir, this just came in."


He stood back and Covell continued to stare up at him, with eyes made watery by the glaring desk lamp. The two locked eyes for a number of seconds before Covell said, "Damn it, I don't have time to read every piece-of-shit memo that comes in. What the hell does it say?"


"Uh, it says something called the Stonewall File is...uh, seeing unusual activity."


Covell's expression changed subtly. Just a hint of surprise registered and he picked up the document. "Stonewall, huh?" He started reading, then noticed Skippy was still standing next to his desk at attention. "Oh, for chrissake, will you get the hell out of here."


"Yes, sir, right away, sir." Skippy silently closed the door behind him.


"Goddamn, brown-nosing queer," Covell muttered as he dialed the phone extension indicated on the memo. It was picked up on the first ring.


"Henderson."


"Henderson, this is Vince Covell and exactly what in the hell do you mean sending me a hard-copy memo about Operation Stonewall? Where in the hell is your head? The next damn time you mention Stonewall on paper, you're going to find your butt in East Keokuk, shoveling chicken shit out of freight cars with a teaspoon. Stonewall is a Red File, for chrissake! You know that."


The voice on the other end had nothing to say.


"Henderson, you there?"


"Yes, sir," came the weak reply.


"Good! Now, what's going on with that file?"


"The Red File warning system lit off when someone sent in a request to the archive system about an old airplane identified as 44-2839."


"What was the request, and when did it come in?"


"This evening," Henderson said. "He wants a copy of an old ordinance report that has some sort of penciled notation on it. I'm sorry, but the file is over fifty years old, and I didn't see any risk in sending you a memo."


Covell was listening, but his mind was flashing off in a dozen directions. Christ! Two months until his boss, President Franklin Taylor, is up for re-election and someone starts diddling with the goddamned Stonewall File. Shit!


His mind reconnected with the conversation and he interrupted without waiting to hear what Henderson was saying. "Okay, listen. Slip a cookie into this guy's computer. We need to know what else he's doing and who he's talking to. Then report to me what you-no, don't report to me. Forget that. Hook the cookie directly into my computer so I can see what he's doing myself. After that, make sure nothing on your end can trace him or his activities to my office." Covell paused for a few seconds, largely for effect. "You got that? Sterilize everything down there."


"Yessir, I understand."


Covell had hung up before the first syllable was out of Henderson's mouth.

***

Covell sighed and turned the desk lamp off. He sat in the dark, listening to traffic outside on Independence Avenue. It had been a wet summer and thousands of tires were singing in the rain. He just sat there listening to the sounds of the city. Forty-five minutes later, he forced himself to get up and go home. Somewhere, he realized, he'd lost control of his life, but it was too damn late to do anything about it now.


For the millionth time he wondered how different his life might have been if Claire had survived the car accident. For just an instant, memories of a dark, rainy night on a back road in Pennsylvania rolled over him. He hadn't seen the truck coming and the driver hadn't even let off the gas.


He could still see Claire's last look fade to loving resignation, then nothing, as he cradled her in the headlights. Just a fraction of a second one way or the other and he would have had a different life. She wouldn't have let things develop the way they had. She would have put her tiny foot down long before Franklin Taylor invaded and captured Vince Covell's soul. But that was then. Now, his life was Franklin Taylor's life.


Christ, he thought! Entirely too much shit had gone through entirely too many fans. He'd spent a lifetime cleaning up Taylor's messes, and it had made him weary to the bone. Now, after over fifty years, the Stonewall file resurfaces.


Operation Stonewall was where Taylor's dark side began to surface. It had been the first in a long line of Franklin Taylor messes, and Covell had thought it was far behind him. But, apparently not. Shit!


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