BENEFIT OF DOUBT
Now Charley could even the score with the man who had failed him six years ago, who had let him go to searing death in the raid over Europe. With a few words he would collect that debt with interest — the love of a woman
HE HAD BEEN seated at the bar for perhaps an hour, listening to the juke box, drinking slowly and just watching the people. He liked to just watch the people, because it had been a long time and he still was getting used to how it is, away from a hospital.
He was idly making wet patterns with his glass, his dark face sober, when a hand clapped him on the shoulder and a voice thick with shock blurted, “Charley—Charley Neal!”
He turned quickly, and Hank Meladey, standing there with a girl, was saying, “I don’t believe it. Right here in front of me, and I don’t believe it.” His voice was taut. “Last time I saw you, you were going down—on fire.” He wet his lips. “I looked and looked—but I didn’t see a chute.”
The thrumming was going full blast in Charley, like a harp string viciously plucked. He put his back against the bar, because the first impulse was savage. In a moment he said evenly, as though it had been only yesterday, “I fell four miles before I could get out. The canopy was jammed.”
He had thought of it, at first, as something over twenty thousand feet. But as time wore on and the bitterness festered, miles became the only word to describe the length of that nightmare.
An odd silence lay between them. They had not shaken hands. Charley felt the thrumming ease off into a strange, rewarding satisfaction. This, finally, was to be the end of a long and devious line, and he was going to be Number One to land.
Where he had been, he had learned to wait. He had known that, somehow, he would meet Hank Meladey again. Now he had —and he could wait a little longer.
The girl was regarding Charley with interest. He was a stocky, deep-chested young man with rebellious black hair and faint sardonic lines around his mouth. “A family reunion?” Like an afterthought, she hung a nice smile on the end of it.
Something like that. Hank was my Number Two, once upon a very hot time.” He blew out a breath. “The war before last . . . you know what a Number Two was? He was the guy supposed to protect you while you did a little shooting; supposed to help you look; supposed to keep the other Jerries off your back.” He had control again. “Isn’t that right, Hank?”
Meladey’s squarish face reddened. The girl put a hand lightly on his arm, and gazed at Charley with speculation, as though he might hold a number of unpleasant surprises. She was slender, not too tall, with dark, well-brushed hair and calm hazel eyes. “You sound bitter, friend. Are you a little tight, or maybe something?” “I’m a little maybe something—That’s a nice uniform, Hank. So you finally made squadron leader. Remember what we used to say? ‘All you have to do is last.’ Remember?”
The girl shook her head. “Someone has been giving you quite a beating, haven’t they?”
Meladey’s face was unhappy. “Charley, let’s skip it for now. It’s been a long time—”
The girl said, “After all this it occurs to me that this possibly is the Charley Neal. Charley the Great. ‘We were like brothers,’ ” she recalled from someone else’s conversation. “What a guy—” The words trailed off, but none of her subtle sarcasm was lost. Even in this situation, Charley had to admire her. He had been rough on her boyfriend, perhaps—but she still danced with the guy who had brought her.
“Sorry,” Hank said stiffly. “Charley, this is Louise McNair.”
“Hank mentioned you so often,” she said coolly, “that T felt I knew you very well. Now, I’m not so sure.” “Different?” enquired Charley. “Decidedly.”
“Maybe I didn’t used to be. Everybody changes.”
“People grow up, you mean.”
“Not always up.” He looked at Hank, the pressure building again. “Some grow down. Smaller.”
As though he felt compelled to keep the conversation on a polite plane, Hank said uncomfortably, “What’ve you been doing all this time?”
He won’t fight back, Charley thought. He doesn’t want it all to come out, now. Not with the girl here. The doubt which had teetered maddeningly in his mind for six years—sometimes making excuses for Meladey, other times blackly accusing him— swung again, and Charley was close to believing the worst.
“Just lying around,” he answered cryptically. “In hospitals.”
“Is it all right,” Louise enquired politely, “to ask what was the matter with you?”
“Something happened to my back when I hit. The chute was burning, and I came down kind of fast.”
He said it flatly, but he saw the recognition come to Hank’s eyes. A burning parachute. The nightmare of all airmen. “Later, I had a couple of operations, and they finally shipped me home. I fell on the boat coming back, and that fixed me real good.” She said in a small voice, “Oh.” Hank wouldn’t meet his eyes. If he’d look at me, Charley thought, I might be able to tell. Suddenly, now they were together again, he knew he didn’t want to believe the worst. Maybe that was why the doubt was there—wishful thinking, trying to give Hank an excuse.
There was a brassy tune coming out of the juke box. The bar was filling up. Hank shifted his feet. “Look. We were going out to dinner. You’re just spinning your wheels in this joint.”
He made the effort. “Why not join us?” He wondered if he read a note of obligation in Hank’s voice. That could be the beginning of an answer.
Louise’s smile was forgiving. “You’re so wound up. Forget it for awhile, if you can.”
He looked at her a long moment, liking what he saw. A new kind of interest flickered, and he saw her eyes wonder a little, suddenly, with surprise. It occurred to him then that if it turned out to be rough on Hank, losing a girl like this, he had it coming. It could be part payment.
“Well,” Charley said, “it’s an idea.”
IN HANK’S convertible, purring through the early night, Charley was aware of the girl’s perfume, light and elusive, and of her warmth seated beside him. It reminded him of Paris, on the way back. Later, perhaps, someone else’s perfume would remind him of Louise McNair. Memories often graduate like that. But he wondered if a later doubt could ever dwarf the one he had entertained about Hank for six years.
No one could argue against his right to be bitter. One foul moment had come. He had barely escaped a searing death to wallow in pain for months. Then, while the others were restoring themselves to civilian life, resuming careers, coming back to loving and living, building for the future, he had been held suspended. He would always be six years behind . . .
Now the violent thrumming jangled through him again, and he balled his fists and sat rigidly. Louise touched his arm and her voice was soft. “Relax, Charley. It’s such a beautiful night.” She left them for a moment when they entered the restaurant. Charley watched her slender-lined, well-shaped legs. “Where’d you find that?”
“Out here. Right after I got back.” “She’s nice.” And the back of his mind told him again what it had told him during those years. He might have had a girl like that . . .
The memory, far to the front of his mind, slid forward abruptly, and he stared at the wall without seeing. Infrequently, a pilot who was nearly through his required tour would realize he stood a good chance of making it all in one piece. He’d suddenly start calculating the risks with greater care. He’d suddenly stop being quite so eager. Only eager to fly and get the required number of hours in a combat zone—-without combat.
That last fight, near the end of Hank’s tour, had been one of the roughest of them all —and if a man was going to stop being eager, that had been the place.
It was a bomber escort on a daylight raid. The flak was a ragged, buffeting storm, a writhing canopy of black claws shot through with red, abrupt blossoms and so thick as the bombers began their headlong run that Charley’s white-nosed Mustang had pitched like its namesake.
Then, as the fighter squadron swung in a wide orbit to protect the slower bombers, the flak had ceased. That could mean only one thing. The old, familiar pinpoint of ice stung his stomach. Even as he squinted through that high pale blue in search of the approaching enemy fighters, it happened.
He saw Hank’s plane, hanging dutifully off his right wing, pull up sharply and turn away. His jaw dropped. In that same unbelievable instant, jarring fists tore the stick out of his hand and his plane veered sickenirgly. Grasping fingers of flame erupted, curling back over the canopy. And then he was falling through space from four miles up— alone and unaided, even as he had been in the moment of attack . . . and somewhere above him, in that blazing pale sky, rode Hank Meladey — -all in one piece . . .
His mind had registered it immediately and indelibly. The enemy had attacked and Hank had fled, and the coincidence had been overpowering.
He could ask Hank, pointblank—but that little doubt warned him. The ache of not knowing was a strange loneliness. He actually wanted things the warm good way they once had been between them. But if he asked that question, bluntly^, openly, and it hadn’t been Hank’s fault, things could never be the old way again.
Still, they weren’t the old way now . . . and if Hank had been to blame . . . He drew a sharp breath, scowling. He had to know for sure. He had to find out whether Hank Meladey, in that one brief moment, had thought only of himself.
THEY ordered dinner and were having another drink when Hank glanced at his watch. “Hey, I almost forgot. I have to call the office. I’m out at Northwest Aircraft, now, Charley. Working on jets. Cot a new one, a light bomber that’s going to be a sweetheart. We were expecting some reports on it tonight. I’m supposed to check . . . Say, why don’t you come out tomorrow and look it over?” “Yeah,” said Charley. “I might do that.”
Hank hesitated, turning his glass. “You lined up for anything? A job?” “Well, nothing just yet. I—
“Maybe I can fix it up,” Hank said with a show of heartiness. “I know a lot of guys out there. With all you know, there should be something— Was there that note of obligation again? Didn’t the guy know he was overdoing it, giving himself away? “Thanks.”
Hank drained his glass and stood up. “Don’t mention it. Lord, it’s the least 1 could do.”
“Yeah,” Charley studied him. “Maybe it is.”
Hank flushed. “Well—see you in a minute.”
“How about that?” asked Charley, looking after him. “A junior executive, flying a desk. He won’t even need a parachute for that.”
Louise said quietly, “He still flips.” “That was a low blow,” Charley admitted. “I shouldn’t have said it. Not to you.”
“Well, that helps a little. Every now and then, Charley, you sound like I thought you’d sound. Perhaps one of these days you’ll decide who you really are—again.”
“I know who I am,” he said grimly. But her words didn’t bounce off, the way he had thought they would. He kept listening to what she had said, even though she was through saying it. “Are you going out there tomorrow?” “I might,” he said.
“If you go in the morning I could drop you off. I drive within a few blocks of the plant.”
“What do you do?”
“Teach. A nursery school.” From the way she said it, he knew she liked it. “I go in at ten tomorrow.”
He smiled at her. “I’d be crazy to turn down the offer.”
“Perhaps I’m crazy for making it,” she said with mock seriousness. Then she smiled, and he felt maybe there was something about him she was beginning to like, and he smiled back. It was all nice and warm. It wasn’t until later that he wondered if she was just' going along with him, hoping there’d be some way she could help Hank.
SITTING beside her the next morning as she drove, he was struck by the friendly graciousness of her manner, the way she had accepted him on the strength of what Hank had tdld her—despite the obvious strain now between them.
“You know,” she said suddenly, “Hank never stopped wondering about you. Every time he’d meet someone who had been a prisoner, he’d ask.” “I didn’t make a prison camp,” he said briefly.
Her face was puzzled. “But—what did you do?”
“I tried to walk out. Haystacks and barns in the daytime, walking at night. The nights I could walk.” He was uncomfortable, telling her. It actually was something between him and Hank. “Did you have anything to eat?” “Oh, sure. We had little escape kits with concentrated stuff. Now and then a turnip field had something left in it. Shot a crow, once . . .” Yes, he remembered now, I ate crow—and I thought about you a lot, Hank.
He didn’t want to talk about it any more. It had been very bad, all of it, and he didn’t think he had deserved it—but talking about it sounded as though he were seeking sympathy.
Her voice was gentle. “Go on.”
He scowled at her. “Maybe I should lie on a couch, and you could take notes . . . Well, I finally tied in with some underground people. One of them did the best he could about my back and the burns. Then a tank outfit steamed into town one afternoon.” He shrugged. “Fini la wretched guerre.” There was a silence. He looked away, watching the people again, walking, riding, standing in the bright sun. He heard her say softly, “You leave out so many details. It couldn’t have been that simple.” She hesitated. “I feel . . .”
“You feel what?”
“Terrible. Almost like I want to cry.”
Traffic stopped them. She turned, and touched his hand. “I can see why you’ve changed. . . . But—Charley, it’s all over now, isn’t it? The war, and all? You can change again.”
“Nothing is ever really over.” Her
hand still was on his, and her fingers were warm and soft. “You know, you pack quite a punch, Louise. You could make a guy forget a lot of his shortcomings. Maybe you don’t know it, but I’ll.bet you’re one of the best props that guy ever had.” Looking at her like this something suddenly opened in him, and what he said had nothing to do with his earlier notions of retribution. “I’d like to see you again. I don’t know how it is with you and Hank—
“All the votes haven’t been counted, yet.” She glanced away. “Anyway, he hasn’t asked.”
Her gaze swung back to his face, and a tiny spark seemed to leap between them. Without fanning, it would die. But he could fan it. Slowly, she said, “If you want to . . .”
WITH the receptionist’s directions he found the office. But it was empty. He turned to movement behind him. A slender, gray-haired man in a rumpled brown suit stood in the doorway. “Hank gone already?” “Seems to be,” Charley said.
“He’s probably out at the hangar. Maybe we can catch him there.” They went down the hall toward the rectangle of midmorning sunlight. “My name’s Crawford,” the man said. “I’m chief engineer here. You a friend of Hank?”
“Charley Neal . . . We flew together.” “Why, sure. I thought you looked
familiar. You’re in that picture with him.”
“The one on his desk.” Crawford shook his head. “Things have changed a lot since those days.”
“I suppose so.”
There was a hint of amusement in Crawford’s keen eyes. “But test flying’s not as rough as combat, eh? No shooting,” he granted, as they went down the steps, “but it’s combat, believe me. And with these jets it’s rough combat, until you get all the bugs out of them. Too many things can happen too fast.”
Charley’s lips made a thin smile, but he said nothing as they walked toward the big hangar. On the cement apron sunlight danced on the sleek bomber. He saw Hank in frowning conversation with a mechanic. He said swiftly, “Is Hank a test pilot?”
“Well, yes,” replied Crawford. “Of course, the company pilots fly them until we’re satisfied they’re all right. Then the Air Force men make an acceptance flight. It’s more or less routine.”
“Oh.” The doubt which had swung in favor of Hank’s courage hesitated, and swung back.
Hank turned at their footsteps. “Well— Charley. Say, I meant to leave a note, but I was in such a rush. You never know what’s going to happen around here.”
Crawford’s tone was placating. “It’s just one of those things, Hank. They’re
on our necks for a report. After all, you’ve flown the ship—”
“Twice,” Hank said fretfully. “Cruised it, that’s all. How about that yaw?”
“We think it’s whipped,” Crawford said patiently. “But you know how it is. Something else may turn up. Watch it, close.”
“You mean he’s going to fly this thing?” Charley studied Hank with bright eyes that held no humor. “You don’t sound very eager.”
Hank’s face reddened. “It’s just that—well, another pilot has been making the tests on this ship. He fell over his kid’s wagon yesterday and broke his arm.”
“Well,” said Charley. “Well, well, well.” He squinted at the plane as the thought drove home. There was a wa^y he might get his answer, now. He said casually, “I’ve always wanted a jet ride. I’ll go with you.”
Hank’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t be silly. It’s against all regulations.”
“Regulations,” scoffed Charley. He winked broadly at Crawford, masking the excitement fluttering in him. “If we’d flown by the book all the time, somebody else would have won the war.” He sensed a tolerance in Crawford’s manner. “Look, just for old times. You said it was more or less routine. All I’ll be is ballast. How about it?”
Crawford smiled slightly. “You old war buddies . . . Well what do you say, Hank?”
“I’m against it,” Hank said quickly. “No telling what might happen. The company would be responsible for him.”
If he were going to quit again, Charley thought harshly, he could do it better alone. He could return to the field with a report of some fancied mechanical failure, and delay the test until the replacement pilot arrived.
“Your worry touches me deeply,” he said dryly. “I’ll sign a waiver. And we’ll break a rule. It won’t be the first time,” he added significantly.
MINUTES later they settled themselves in the nose and taxied smoothly to take-off position. As in the conventional bombers, pilot and co-pilot sat side by side—a radical design for jets. The simplified power controls were on a metal mound between them. A few buttons and switches were mounted on the dual control wheels.
Charley swung challenging eyes toward Hank, who seemed to be taking interminable time checking controls. “Let’s get it on the road.”
Hank paused. “Look, Charley. Be sensible. Get out.”
“And walk? I tried it once, remember? I’ll never learn to like it. Take it off!”
Slowly, then, Hank’s hand advanced the power knob. Charley felt himself being pushed back in his seat. He was struck by the absence of engine roar; all sound was behind them. There was, instead, a slight vibration in a silence filled with the sense of an indomitable rushing.
He knew the test plan. At 35,000 feet Hank was to dive the plane until the Mach needle on the instrument panel hit .80, registering eighty percent of the speed of sound, then pull out. They would return to the field and examine the tail assembly for stress.
Simple enough, he thought—if you didn’t realize that eighty per cent of the speed of sound up there seven miles above the earth was some 545 miles an hour. And that same eighty per cent grew faster and faster in familiar miles per hour terms as the plane rocketed earthward, into denser air.
He glanced narrowly at Hank, wondering if the tightening frown were from concentration—or growing distaste for the challenge at hand. He pushed the transmitter button. ‘‘Thirty-five thousand, it says here . . .”
“Yeah.” Hank held the plane straight and level. Charley could hear him breathing into the microphone, as though at a loss for words.
“You know how to get out if anything goes wrong.”
“Looking for an excuse?” demanded Charley with a surge of nervous anger. “Don’t try to scare me. We’re not turning back. Dive it!”
Above the oxygen mask Hank’s face was drawn. He said through his teeth, “Damn you, Charley Neal!” The horizon tilted in a smooth arc above their heads . . .
It happened in a succession of instants, later to resolve in Charley’s mind to a pattern of quick pictures. The hazy brown earth directly ahead of them was leaping into focus. He saw the Mach needle flick to .70—.75 —.80, saw Hank pull back on the wheel —and saw it stop immediately, quivering in his straining grip. With darting dread he saw they still were in a diving attitude, the earth still rushing toward them! Nothing had happened. The effectiveness of their elevator control was suddenly gone, locked in the vise of compressibility. Blood drained from his face.
Hank, strain in every line of his hunched figure, flipped open the speed brakes switch to slow their speed, to ease back out of that zone where buffeting airstream was too powerful to handle. The slotted slabs of metal could be forced outward as desired to check speed.
But their velocity was mounting. Hank quickly worked the switch back and forth. Still nothing happened. The brake system had failed.
Charley, hands suddenly wet with • cold sweat, grasped the wheel in front of him. It was trembling, jerking under the gigantic forces hammering at the tail assembly. Straining, eyes wide in alarm, he was able to budge it but a fraction, adding his desperrte strength to Hank’s. He could do no more, and wouldn’t have dared to try. Even without the added strain of pull-out, under that fierce attack the tail might wrench off at any instant. On the earth below the sound of their descent was a wild, screaming shattering of air.
He fumbled now for the hand-grip * that would fire off the canopy and detonate the seat-ejection device. He’d rather be blown out of the ship, to take his chances with this innovation than ride it into the ground. But in this one swing of the time pendulum he saw Hank’s right hand sweep to the small toggle switch on the wheel.
Delicately, smoothly, as the quivering Mach needle went past .90, his right thumb eased that toggle forward. He was trying to operate the trim tabs, the auxiliary control surfaces on the stabilizer. Electrically powered and hydraulically driven, they gave an added bite to the elevators. Where human strength had failed, mechanical power might be successful. But the slightest miscalculation might bring them out too fast, wrench the plane, into disintegration. Charley froze, watching.
With the painstaking touch of a brain surgeon, Hank kept adjusting the toggle, kept coaxing . . . And then, in that blistering tide of air sweeping over the tail, the trim tabs carefully raised a steady, levering hand. Hank worked wheel and toggle in split-second coordination . . . They were easing out of the dive—but tons of weight were jamming down on them. If the tail stayed on . . .
In a moment the horizon was back where it belonged, and the patchwork of fields and houses was so near Charley felt he could have trailed his trembling fingers through the trees.
HANK offered a cigarette as they walked on. “They can fix it,” he said thoughtfully. “Maybe change the tail contour again. And overhaul the electrical system.”
Charley exhaled. The cigarette was good, the air was good, the ground was good. It was like coming home from combat.
Hank opened the office door. “If you wait long enough, you can usually figure what’s wrong.”
“If you want to wait long enough,” Charley corrected, sinking into a chair. Unwavering respect was in his eyes. Hank could have left the plane, taking the easier way out. It had taken sheer, raw courage to wait. Charley knew that, and had seen it, and the old doubt was gone.
A barrier seemed to have lifted from a channel of his mind. Anything could have happened on that raid. The flak was so rough—maybe Hank’s radio had been hit—maybe he had seen the Jerries coming and was turning into them, to protect Charley. Maybe— He’d never know, because he would never ask. Not now. He didn’t have to. And those six years he had spent in bitterness suddenly seemed a weakness deserving only of self-contempt. He had thought Hank lacked courage. Now he saw that in those bitter years, bound as though with iron to the bed, his own will to fight had been bogged down in the mire of self-pity.
“Hank,” he said softly, studying his cigarette. “I guess I’ve been kind of mixed up—
Hank seemed embarrassed. “Skip it, Charley! You couldn’t have had it any rougher. It could make a guy think a lot of things.” He grinned, and reached for the telephone. “I think we ought to celebrate tonight.”
Charley hunched forward, frowning at his shoes, while Hank called Louise. Tonight, he had said. But Charley knew what her answer would be. “Hank—
“She wants to say hello,” Hank said. “Tell me,” her voice was warm, “how’s it going with you two?”
“Why,” Charley replied, “it couldn’t be better.” It struck him, then, how he could let her know. “Look,” he said with significant slowness, “I’ll give you back to Hank,” and he proffered the phone.
Hank, smiling, said for the phone, “Thanks.”
Charley smiled back. “Don’t ever mention it.” He thought of how fir he was from Leipzig, and his smile grew. “Boy, don’t ever mention it.”