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Kirt Blattenberger

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Even during the busiest times of my life I have endeavored to maintain some form of model building activity. This site has been created to help me chronicle my journey through a lifelong involvement in model aviation, which all began in Mayo, MD ...

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The Ghost from G−2
May 1934 Flying Aces

May 1934 Flying Aces

Flying Aces May 1934 - Airplanes and Rockets3 Table of Contents

These pages from vintage modeling magazines like Flying Aces, Air Trails, American Modeler, American Aircraft Modeler, Young Men, Flying Models, Model Airplane News, R/C Modeler, captured the era. All copyrights acknowledged.

Donald Keyhoe wrote a huge number of aviation adventure articles for Flying Ace magazine in the 1930s. His flying ace was Captain Philip Strange, a "G−2" agent with a unique sense of intuition that allows him to practically (but not really) read people's minds. He is also a master of disguises. Capt. Strange's era is World War I and his venue was the front lines of Germany and France. After Philip Strange came Kerry Keen (aka "The Griffon") during the World War II era, written by real-world ace pilot Arch Whitehouse. You will likely be introduced to a new bunch of words that were particular to the times, like "ack emma," referring to the signalman's phonetic pronunciation of "A" and "M." In "The Ghost from G−2," the reference is to "aircraft mechanics," but ack emma was more routinely applied to "A.M." for morning, or ante meridian ("pip emma" was P.M., or post meridian). "Ack-ack" was for "A-A," or anti-aircraft. You will also encounter herein "velocipede," and type of foot powered (peddled) service cart and even "Nachrichtenamt," the strategic foreign intelligence service of the Republic of Austria.

"Ach! Du Lieber Gott!"   Mein Gott    Gott im Himmel   "Gott sie Dank!"

Thrilling "Philip Strange" Mystery Novel

 - RF Cafe

Illustrated by Eugene M. Frandzen

by  Donald E. Keyhoe,

Author of "Satan's Staffel," "The Vanishing Avenger," etc.

Over the red inferno that was the Front flew Captain Philip Strange, answering a desperate call for help. Below him appeared the sinister black spot from which the call had cornea darkened area hemmed in by a ring of fire. Inside that dread circle lay hundreds of dead-and Strange knew that among them was the only man to know the secret of the menacing ring of flames.

Chapter I

"I Am Captain Strange!"

Taxiing slowly, Philip Strange ruddered the D.H. between two guide flares, stopped the big two−seater near the lone shack of the Army refueling station. As the droning Liberty died, he looked into the rear cockpit. His passenger had removed his goggles and replaced them with large tortoise-shell glasses. Instead of his helmet, he now wore an overseas cap with shining captain's bars. His mouth was pursed superciliously beneath a waxed black mustache. Only a close acquaintance would have recognized Noisy Jay, one of Strange's twin wisecracking aides.

As Strange's green eyes rested on Noisy, he grinned. Noisy surveyed him haughtily.

"Bear in mind, my man, that you are looking upon Captain Philip Strange, the great Mental Marvel of G−2 and points west."

"I told you to layoff that Mental Marvel stuff!" Strange raised a threatening fist.

"You can't hit a man wearing cheaters," said Noisy hastily. He scrambled down as two sleepy, half-dressed mechanics plodded toward the D.H. Then he looked back at Strange, who had paused for a stretch and a yawn. He snapped his fingers.

"Come, come, lieutenant! My time is valuable." Strange climbed out, belatedly hiding a grin.

"And a little more respect from you," Noisy said sternly. He wheeled to the blinking ack emmas. "There is, I believe, a petrol velocipede at this post for transportation of functionaries?"

"Huh?" said one of the greaseballs blankly.

"A motorcycle," snapped Noisy. "Am I correct, sergeant, or is this another of the many delusions of the quartermaster department?"

The sergeant scratched a stubbled chin.

"We got a motorcycle-yes, sir," he said, "but it's only for Brass Hats-"

"You are addressing Captain J. Marmaduke Hencastle, the Third, of G.H.Q.," said Noisy severely.

The sergeant gulped. "I'll get th' leapin' tuna, sir," he said hastily.

As he retreated to the rear of the shack, a muffled guffaw was audible. When he returned with the machine, Noisy fixed him with a cold eye.

"Sergeant, did I hear raucous laughter at mention of the honorable name of Hencastle?"

"Who, me?" said the sergeant indignantly. "Why, I never even let out a peep!"

 - RF Cafe

Over that scene of death and destruction, Captain Strange banked his ship madly, and twin torrents of lead poured from the Vickers at the Fokker ahead.

Noisy glared at Strange, who was looking pensively into the sky. "That's what comes of teaching people your best tricks," he said bitterly.

"Huh?" said the sergeant.

"You wouldn't understand. Your trusting mind couldn't grasp such infamous betrayal." Noisy climbed into the side-car, mournfully motioned Strange to the saddle. "Through the park, James."

The machine roared down the road, dashed into the village of Vaulière, an A.E.F. phone sub-center. As Strange slowed the cycle, Noisy gathered himself up from the bottom of the side-car. He felt the back of his neck.

"So, in addition to your accomplishments in ventriloquism, you're going in for chiropractic!"

"Never mind that. We're almost there. Play it the way I told you - and no clowning."

They stopped at the communications building, a dark structure just off the village square. A sentry halted them at the entrance. Noisy produced credentials, and a second man guided them inside, through a hall into a large room where an Army field clerk sat before a switchboard. Noisy showed him a stamped and sealed G−2 card. The field clerk read, stared at Noisy in sudden fascination.

"I have a message in code for you, Captain Stra-"

"Omit names," rapped Noisy, with a look at the sentry. He took the message, started as he ran his eyes over it. "I must see the officer in charge," he said grimly.

"But Captain Lynch is asleep. It's four o'clock in the morning-s-"

"Where are his quarters?"

"Upstairs, but-"

"The sentry can show me the way." Noisy beckoned to Strange. "Come along, lieutenant."

Strange broke off in the middle of a yawn. "Yes, sir." As he picked up his helmet and goggles, his seemingly sleepy eyes passed over the man at the switchboard. He appeared not to see the look of fear the man's dark eyes flung at Noisy's back - a look that was edged with hate. He followed Noisy and the sentry, heard the door of the switchboard room close behind them. As they came to the foot of a spiral stairway, Noisy turned.

"I forgot to send that order." He drew a paper from an inner pocket. "Tell that field clerk to rush this to Chaumont."

Strange saluted. Noisy and the sentry went upstairs. Strange waited a second and then tiptoed down a hall to the left. It turned into another corridor, as he had expected. He came to a room which was evidently quarters for the man on duty at the switchboard. He made a hasty estimate. This room must be next to the switchboard room, and the door at the opposite side was the one he had seen while Noisy was reading the code message.

The Ghost from G-2 (1), May 1934 Flying Aces - Airplanes and RocketsHe crossed the room, listened intently with his ear against the door. Then, cautiously, he opened it an inch and peered through. A call was buzzing in. Strange could see the light flicker on, but the field clerk was nowhere in sight.

A look of dismay flashed into Strange's eyes. He sprang into the room and ran out to the steps which Noisy had taken. As he leaped up to the midway landing, he snatched his .45 from his flying-coat pocket.

Suddenly there was a scraping of boots on the floor above. The field clerk's face, deathly white, appeared at the top of the stairs.

Ach!" he snarled. "So it was a trick to catch me!"

Blue steel shone in his right hand. Strange pressed his trigger. Flame streaked from the .45, and the roar echoed through the old house. For an instant the spy stood tottering where the crash of the heavy slug had driven him back. A horrible look was frozen upon his face. A second later he swayed, then plunged headlong down to the landing.

A shout of alarm came from somewhere downstairs. Strange stepped over the dead man, ran up to the other floor. A door had been flung open halfway down the hall. Noisy and a man in a dressing-robe stood revealed in the light. Both held guns.

"You'd make fine targets, you two," said Strange curtly.

"Phil!" exclaimed Noisy. He saw the smoking ,45. "Hell's bells, did you have to drill him?" Before Strange could answer, three or four sentries came dashing up from the landing.

"Captain Lynch!" one of them shouted. "Some one's killed Martin!"

Then he spied Strange and the pistol. He sprang toward him, but Lynch waved him back.

"Wait. I'll get the straight of this." He looked grimly at Strange. "Who are you?"

"I'm from G−2," said Strange. "Martin was a spy. I killed him in self-defense. You'll find a Luger with a silencer on it near his body. Also a hole in the rail at the landing, where the slug hit after going through my sleeve."

He lifted his arm. There was a small hole in his flying-coat sleeve. Lynch stared at it, ordered his men downstairs. Then he turned to Noisy Jay, a dubious expression on his rugged face.

"You vouch for this man, captain?"

Strange spoke before Noisy could reply.

"I see it is necessary to abandon my role. This is Lieutenant Jay, one of my aides. I am Captain Strange."

Instant suspicion blazed in Lynch's eyes. He jerked up the pistol he held. "By God, there's something crooked here!" he sputtered. "Get up your hands, both of you!"

Strange smiled negligently. "No need for melodrama, captain. I have here a personal note to you from Major Bland of G−2, explaining the masquerade. You can check back by phone."

"I will," rasped Lynch. "And just to be sure, you two walk in front of me on the way down."

Five minutes later, at the close of a call to G−2, he grudgingly altered his tone.

"The major confirms this note. But you'll admit it looked queer."

"Certainly," said Strange. "No resentment, captain."

Lynch's rough-hewn face relaxed.

"Wait till I get a man on this switchboard. Then I want to hear about Martin. I never liked him much, but as for being a spy -"

"You can't tell a spy by looking at him," said Strange dryly. "I've known some very pleasant ones who would be glad to knife you at first chance."

He waited until Lynch had put an operator on duty and they were out in the hall.

"You probably recall the German convict squadron we named the 'Fury Staffel'?"

"The ones made up like women?"

The Ghost from G-2 (2), May 1934 Flying Aces - Airplanes and Rockets"Yes. We learned, while on that affair, that a Boche spy called Q−19 was sending direct reports by secret wireless from France to Germany. We found the wireless after the Staffel was destroyed, but Q−19 had been warned and all traces were lost. The only clue was his knowledge of confidential communications at that time. Obviously he was tapping wires or was in on our system.

"Yesterday I stumbled onto the fact that between midnight and four in the morning of one particular night, messages were rerouted through here because of a break in lines."

"I remember that," said Lynch. "A Gotha raid wrecked 'B' Center, so they used this sub-station for two nights."

"That betrayed Martin," said Strange. "I learned he was on watch at that time, both nights. He was the man who took that information and relayed it to the secret wireless base. I thought if Lieutenant Jay were to pose as myself, impress the man with danger of discovery, and then withdraw, he would probably warn his secret contact point before trying to escape-"

"You think there's a direct wire from my switchboard to another spy?" demanded. Lynch.

"Probably to some spy-nest," said Strange. "I suspect it's wired secretly so that it can be cut in only by some special switch combination. I hoped to watch him and spot the trick, then trap him and follow the wire to the men at the other end. But he lost his head, decided to kill Noisy here, thinking it would destroy the evidence against him."

"It's a fine mess," growled Lynch. "But I'm thankful for one thing. G−2 sent Martin here - they can't blame me for letting a Hun slip under my nose."

"There have been spies in G−2, the same as other places," said Strange. He gazed into space. "The Nachrichtenamt must have had some strong reason for leaving that man here, knowing he was likely to be spotted after the Fury Staffel matter."

"I'm going to take a look at that board," grated Lynch. "If there's any trick wiring, it ought to show at the back."

"I doubt if it's that simple," said Strange, as he and Noisy followed into the big room. "You may have to take the whole thing down and look inside those hollow legs. Or there may be a separate phone hidden somewhere."

Lynch scrutinized the front of the board, then went around to the back. While he was examining it, Strange watched the operator who had been put on duty. Though there were no calls at the moment, the man seemed to be listening intently to something.

"What is it?" Strange asked him.

The operator looked around quickly. "Something queer, sir," he said. "Front calling Corps HQ about a German plane that just shot down another German, I happened to be cut in on Corps-"

Strange picked up an extra headset. "Plug me in," he ordered.

The officer obeyed. A crisp voice became audible at once.

"No doubt about it, sir. The plane that crashed was a Fokker. We fired flares over it to be sure. The other plane dived on the wreck with its machine guns wide open - and it was a Fokker, too."

"Get the pilot out of that wreck!" barked another voice. "Get him out of gunfire, dead or alive! See if he has any papers on him if he's dead. If he's alive, call back at once."

The receiver clicked. Strange laid down the phones. The operator, a young, red-haired sergeant, looked at him excitedly.

The Ghost from G-2 (3), May 1934 Flying Aces - Airplanes and Rockets"Sounds as if Corps thinks that pilot is one of our spies !"

"What's that?" queried Lynch, coming from behind the board.

Strange explained. Lynch scowled at the sergeant unpleasantly.

"Stay off those lines unless you're called." He turned back to Strange. "I can't find anything. I'll get some men to work as soon as possible in the morning."

"We'll stay," Strange replied calmly. "I like to see things finished."

"It'll be at least three hours," said Lynch. "I can offer you and your pilot a room -"

"No, thanks. I'm curious to learn what report comes in on. that crashed Fokker."

Lynch departed. Noisy looked after him regretfully.

"Just because you don't want to sleep," he complained to Strange, "I lose out on a good bed."

"I want you where I can keep an eye on you," said Strange.

Noisy lit a cigarette and sprawled in a chair. Strange watched the operator handle the slowly increasing traffic. At four-thirty, another non-com came on duty. More lights began to wink across the board. The A.E.F. was waking up for another day in the grim business of war. The rumble of distant guns increased. Suddenly the red-haired sergeant glanced around and called to Captain Strange.

"Here's another call from that P.O.C. to Corps. Probably - holy Moses, listen to this!"

Strange jumped for the headset. Even before he clamped it over his ears, he heard the frantic voice which rattled the diaphragms.

"We're cut off - trapped by a wall of flame! It's streaking around in back-"

"You're mad!" rasped another voice.

"You fool" screeched the man at the Front. "I tell you we're surrounded. Flames forty feet high - we can't get through-"

A crash drowned his words; then they came again in a shriek. "My God, we're blocked in front! There's another one - a ball of fire shooting across No-Man's Land! And they're shelling us-"

Crash! With a final deafening roar, the phone went out of commission.

"They got him," whispered the sergeant.

Strange jumped to his feet, spun around to Noisy quickly.

"Get that motorcycle started! I'll be there in a second."

Noisy dashed out. Strange noted the coordinates of the post-of-command, ran after the Jay Bird. The motor cycle rocketed out to the refueling field. The Liberty, still warm, started easily. Strange took the front pit and hurled the D.H. up into the fading gloom.

Chapter II

The Flaming Barrage

Miles from the Front, it was evident that something had started a furor. Red infernos blossomed on both sides of the lines, as the heavy guns laid down their murderous barrage on enemy firing trenches. Starshells burst ceaselessly above No-Man's-Land and above the Yankee trenches. As Strange pointed the D.H. toward the threatened post-of-command, he saw scores of Allied searchlights feverishly slashing the sky.

He peered down into the kaleidoscopic maze of the Front. He started. There was one circular area within which no guns blazed, where no flares shot up to illuminate the ground. It ranged from the middle of No-Man's-Land more than a mile to the real of the Yankee front-line trenches.

A smoldering border of fire, double more than half the way around, encircled this queerily dark area. Within, not a single light shone.

Strange quickly surveyed the zigzag, crimson lines on both sides of the darkened spot. He recognized an irregular twist in the trenches at the left. And then he knew that the post-of-command from which the warning had come was inside that dull red circle.

There was something horrible about that blank spot in the Front. It seemed as though some huge, sinister thing crouched there, waiting.

The sky grew grayer. Strange circled at three thousand feet, waiting for it to become lighter. There were no flares on the D.H., and it was impossible to see anything more by going lower.

Suddenly rockets shot up from two points back of the darkened area - signal rockets for guns farther back. In a few moments shells began to rain down in front of the fading red circle, almost on top of the German firing trench. Another leaped the first line and started a red lane marching across the second Boche trenches.

Something flitted through a weaving Yankee searchlight. Strange kicked around toward it, saw a Spad from the 96th tilt down toward the darkened spot. Corps had sent a ship from the nearest squadron to investigate that mysteriously circled region.

A parachute flare flashed in the sky, began to drift down from a thousand feet. The Spad dived under it. Strange side-slipped to the level of the flare, shaded his eyes and peered down at the ground. He stiffened, though he had guessed what he would see.

Dead men, corpses in hundreds - soldiers who had fled from the trenches, some to the rear, others toward No-Man's-Land until that ring of fire had stopped them. In a little copse, around a hidden battery, artillerymen lay huddled. Along a sunken road, still more gunners, lying dead near their horses, which had fallen in their harnesses. On the rear of a small slope another group of men had slumped and, after a moment, Strange's keen eyes spotted the camouflage which covered the post-of-command dugouts. Other men from the second-line trenches were strewn around like tiny bundles.

Dead, all of them - hemmed in by that fading ring of smoldering, angry red.

The Spad dropped a second flare close to the ground. By its light Strange saw the wreck of a Fokker in the midst of a hundred shell-holes. The barrage had torn off the tail and one wing, but he could still see the red-and-white checkered pattern upon the remaining panel.

He dipped the D.H. toward the spot, then abruptly struck the throttle and zoomed in a tight chandelle. Ships were streaking down from the east, gray Fokkers out of Hunland!

Liberty blasting, he pulled up and away from the betraying light of the flare. Two of the Fokkers had whipped toward him, the others plunged down for the Spad. He flicked the trips of his guns, heard them rip out a warming burst. Behind him, the twin Lewises chattered under Noisy's touch.

The Fokkers sheered out as the pilots realized the ship was a two-seater, with a gunner covering the tail. Strange grinned. With a lightning bank, he threw the ship on its wing tips. A gray shape leaped madly away from his spouting guns. He snapped the stick hard back, caught the tail in his trembling sights. Twin torrents poured from the Vickers, and the Fokker's tail went to pieces. Fluttering fabric and wood whirled into the air-and the Fokker shrieked down to ruin.

"Good boy!" howled Noisy from the rear. "That's one Kraut. Look out-"

But 'Strange had already caught the other ship's swift renversement. The heavy two-seater rolled in a groaning split-So For an instant the second ship was under the rear-pit guns. Noisy gave a yell, and the Lewises snarled into action. The Fokker staggered, plunged under the big ship's tail.

Strange booted the rudder and drove the D.H. down at the faltering ship. For a second his eyes held a touch of pity. The men was doomed. His plane was clearly crippled.

Br-r-t-t-t-t-t ! The savage pound of Spandaus cut through the din. A third ship hurtled down from the gray which had hid its drab wings. Tracers probed through the D.H. fuselage, between the two cockpits. Strange swore, kicked out of that deadly hail. That was too close for tracers to come to that ever-menacing rear fuel tank.

He lunged on the stick. Moaning, the D.H. went up on its tail, snapped on over the top. Strange gritted his teeth, whipped into a screeching Immelmann - a fool's trick with this heavy ship. If he lost, they would be at that Boche's mercy.

T-t-t-t-t-t-t! Strange had a brief glimpse of Noisy Jay, hanging out in the gunner's belt. The twin-mount guns were blazing, gutting the ship below. A wing of the gray plane crumpled, tore completely off of the ship. With a face like granite, Strange watched the doomed man fall. Another poor devil - but it had been their lives or his.

The other Fokker was wobbling down, trying to turn back to Germany. Strange slipped between the ship and the lines, herded him back toward France. The pilot twisted around in his pit, lifted both hands in surrender. By the light from the second flare, his face had a queer, ugly look. Strange ruddered closer, then suddenly went tense.

A gas-mask! His eyes shot past the cowl of his ship, toward the corpse-strewn ground near the trenches. Gas! That was how those men had died, once that sinister flaming wall had trapped them. He stared toward the wreck of the checkered Fokker. That chap in the Spad.

Then he saw it, a jumbled heap on the ground, with its tail pointing to the zenith. About it there swam a curious haze, like a heat mirage on the desert. The ground within that smoldering ring was blanketed with gas. And that ill-fated pilot had flown into it and plunged headlong to his death. Or perhaps he had died at the first whiff as he zoomed that battered wreck.

Strange banked sharply, drove the D.H. away from that dangerous space above the dead-burdened ground. Noisy Jay thumped at his back. He turned. More Fokkers were swarming out of the east, now visible in the first dawn. Like vultures, they dipped their wings and plummeted down for a kill.

The Liberty roared to full speed. Wings shrieking, the two-seater pitched toward the ground, heading back to the rear. Strange set his jaw. They had to escape, had to warn Corps of the peril within that huge ring. And the love of life was still strong within him.

Snarling hornets, the Fokkers closed in the' gap as the D.H. thundered on down. Black holes appeared in the ship's right wing; then Noisy cut loose with his guns. The marching line of black dots ceased to cross the wing. Noisy fired three bursts, gave a shout of triumph. Strange eased back on the stick as the ground flashed up at them.

Something cracked ominously. A strip of fabric tore from the tip of one wing. Strange could see the skeleton ribs as he leveled off. The D.H. roared over denuded trees, its landing-gear raking a branch. Strange smiled grimly. Those devils would have a sweet chance of hitting them now. A slope sprang out at them. Strange zoomed it with only inches to spare. Men on the back of the hill threw themselves flat. Somewhere, a Browning hammered.

Strange risked a look back. But one of the Fokkers was following through in this mad flight of contour chasing. Noisy was swinging his guns, trying to keep his feet amid wild zooms of the ship. Five hundred feet above, three Fokker assassins flew parallel, waiting their chance.

A poplar-lined road came in sight, with stragglers going both ways. Strange spied a machine-gun cycle, and, farther on, a truck with a mounted gun. He whipped over it, rolling his wings. White faces stared up. A Browning blazed.

"The damned fools!" Noisy howled. "They blamed near shot off the tail-"

Strange stared back. The Fokker pilot had seen the trap, but too late. Up went the nose of the ship as he tried a hasty chandelle. Then two streams of slugs crossed his wing and chopped their way through the pit. In flames, the ship struck and hurled burning fragments for yards.'

"We're clear!" shouted Noisy. He pointed up to where two flights of Nieuports were diving. The Fokkers wheeled, raced back toward Germany, the Nieuports on their tails.

Strange slipped the throttle back and eased the racking speed of the engine. He climbed to a thousand feet, looked up the road to a junction which he knew. Four minutes later he put the ship down hi front of a camouflaged hangar.

"What's this dump?" said Noisy, as the Liberty coughed and died.

"New courier flight base for Corps. They just moved up yesterday." Strange climbed out, lit a cigarette. "Come on, we've got to move."

Noisy stopped to peer under the ship.

"I thought so." He extracted a broken branch from the landing-gear. "Boy, that looked like a telephone pole just before we hit it. I'll just add this to my souvenirs."

"Leave it here. You can't haul that thing into Corps."

Noisy followed Strange toward the hangar. A mechanic appeared.

"I want to phone Headquarters," rapped Strange.

"There's a phone in the C.O.'s tent, in back," said the man.

Strange found the tent, explained to a disgruntled officer who had not yet arisen, and called Corps Headquarters. In less than ten minutes a Staff car came speeding out of Mattigny, which had just been taken over by Corps. A plump, red-faced major jumped out as the car stopped.

"Bland," muttered Strange, as he saw who it was. "That's odd. He never said anything about coming up here."

Bland reached them, panting. "What's this, Strange, about poison gas at-"

"You told Corps to keep men out of that encircled area?" cut in Strange.

"Yes, but how do you know-"

Strange nudged him into silence as two or three greaseballs 'appeared from the hangar. He and Noisy followed Bland into the car. Bland closed the panel between the rear seat and the driver.

"Now let's have it."

"You know about the distress call from the P.O.C. at Hill 5091"

"Yes, I was there when it came in. But how did you know?"

Strange explained briefly about the killing of the spy at Vaulière and what had followed. When he described the queerly desolated circular area, Bland's red face turned pasty.

"The general thought they were looney, or maybe a flame-thrower outfit had broken through. But this couldn't be anything like that."

"No," said Strange grimly. "The whole thing looks ominous. That crashed Fokker was the cause of their letting those weird flames loose. It was obviously a determined attempt to destroy the pilot because he'd learned some-thing of tremendous importance."

"That's Corps' idea, too," wheezed Bland. "But he wasn't on any very unusual mission-"

"Then you know who he was?"

"Yes, a man from that courier outfit we just left. Educated in Germany, spoke the language fluently, and so Corps sent him over to investigate a peculiar rumor about von Darfeld's Staffel. It seems-"

"I know," snapped Strange. "A rumor that all the crack pilots have been yanked out and replaced by new men, so the others could go on some unknown mission."

"How'd you know-"

"Sunday's Summary of Air Intelligence, page 5. H-m-m, so he went to von Darfeld's Staffel on forged orders and that checkered ship was one of the outfit, too."

"He was on fake orders, all right but no word came back since he left. He had two contacts named for him in espionage over there."

"Probably couldn't make a move openly. Means he ran into something big-and this all ties in." Strange looked sharply at Bland. "Why didn't you say you were coming up here when I saw you last night?"

"Last-second order. Cartwright's ill - had to put him in the hospital - so I'm handling liaison with G−2 and Ail' Service for this push."

Strange nodded thoughtfully. "What's the matter with Cartwright?"

"Stomach or something - maybe appendicitis. He was pretty sick." Bland made an impatient gesture. "But about this damned ring of fire - what do you make of it?"

"I'm stopped," said Strange slowly. "But it must be part of what that pilot learned. The Boche made a terrific effort to blot him out. That ring of flame, a barrage for two hundred yards around the wreck, those ships ordered to bomb the last bits into powder-"

"I didn't see any bombs," interjected Noisy.

"Two of them were laying their eggs just as we started that hedgehop dive. It's a safe bet our men won't find the slightest trace of that ship or the pilot when they finally occupy that area."

"We may stay out of it for another day," said Bland heavily. "Just as I started out here, we had another report about the gas. A party of engineers cut through that smoldering ring and started inside. Five of them went down before they'd gone a hundred yards. They think the gas comes from that burning stuff."

"There ought to be more reports in an hour or so," said Strange. He looked around in surprise as the car turned at the edge of the town and went down a wooded lane. "What's the idea?"

"Somebody found a bomb big enough to blow the whole Staff chateau to hell," said Bland. "They moved out and took over that old G−2 dugout in the woods the one we used in the April push. It's Headquarters till they have time to get a better one. But it's not so bad."

The car turned again, stopped in a small clearing. The entrance to the dugout was not hidden, but near-by trees screened it from air observation. Several cars were drawn up under the trees. Linemen were running additional phone wires. A field kitchen stood at one side, the savory odor of ham and steaming coffee floating upon the air. A cook was breaking eggs in a skillet.

"I'll be seeing you birds," said Noisy.

He made a bee-line for the kitchen. Bland frowned after him.

"Let him go," said Strange. "He's earned a good breakfast. I could do with one myself."

"You can eat after you report to the general. The Old Man's on pins and needles, so go easy."

Chapter III

Secret Orders 93

They went past a group of non-coms around the entrance, took a flight of steps which led to the lower of the two levels. The dugout was as large as a small house, reinforced heavily with concrete, and lighted with electricity. The upper rooms, small bombproof cubbies, were quarters. Below were Staff officers, communications room, and a waiting-room for couriers, dispatch riders and miscellaneous officers.

Bland took Strange to the main room, where General Hunter and most of the Staff were assembled. Hunter, a thin, cadaverous man with a huge meerschaum perpetually gripped between his teeth, wheeled around from a big map as they entered. As his eyes lit on Strange, he lifted his scraggly brows.

"Well, fast work, captain! How did you get here this soon?"

Strange smiled. "I didn't come from Chaumont, if that's what you mean, sir. I happened to be in this sector."

"I sent word to Jordan not thirty mi-utes ago," grunted the general. He blew smoke from the corner of his mouth. "Well, you're here - that's the main thing." He looked at Bland. "Not going over your head, major, just anticipating."

"Yes, sir," said Bland. "But Captain Strange has already run into this affair -"

"What?" Hunter shifted his pipe, stared at Strange.

"I didn't have time to reach you when he called," Bland explained hastily. "You were -"

Hunter cut him short with a gesture, "Never mind. I want to know what happened."

Strange told him, while the rest of the Staff listened tensely. When he had finished, the general swore through set teeth.

"By God, that pilot had the key to the whole thing I If only he could've got through!" He squinted at Strange. "Any ideas?"

"Not till I have a chance to go up and see that smoldering substance, sir."

"You won't have to go. Engineer party with oxygen helmets are getting some in a sealed container. Back here in a couple of hours. Having chemists up to look at it, too. Also ordered back infantry officers near that damned ring."

"You move fast," said Strange.

Hunter sucked on his pipe, exhaled. "Got to. This drive-" He stopped.

"I was going to ask about that. Any change in G.H.Q. Secret Field Orders 93?"

The general took out his pipe and stared. Then he grinned wryly.

"If you know that, you know everything, captain. Orders unchanged, except one or two divisions being switched up toward the Soissons end. Observation reports Boche concentration on other side."

"Then it's still set for tomorrow morning - zero hour 4:30?"

"That's right. But what has that to do with this hellish flame affair and gassing my men?"

"It must have some connection, sir. If you don't mind my being present when it when you get those reports -"

"I want you here! You, too, Bland. By the way, check up on those new communications. I want as good a network as before, if not better."

Bland saluted. He and Strange went up to the next floor where an improvised mess had been installed in a tiny room.

"Too crowded," said Strange. "I'll out and eat with Noisy, under the good old bright blue. Join me?"

"No. I want to see one of these men."

Strange found Noisy behind the rolling kitchen, the cook regarding him with fascination as he downed a third plate of ham and eggs.

"Pull up a chair," piped Noisy at sight of Strange. "Believe it or not, but Oscar here used to be chef at the Ritz. Curl your tongue around some of these eggs and you'll believe it."

Oscar beamed, but as Strange's eye roamed over the skillet, he looked somewhat uneasy.

"Say, cap'n, I hope you ain't got an appetite like th' lieutenant here. I'm goin' to run short of eggs."

"I'll take standard rations," grinned Strange.

He found an empty box and sat down beside Noisy. When they had finished, Strange lit a cigarette and gazed meditatively toward the linemen running the new wires.

"We forgot to say goodbye to Lynch," he said, after a moment. He glanced sidewise at Noisy. "But I guess he won't mind. I don't think he was fond of either of us."

"Funny, but I was just thinking about that bird," said Noisy. He glanced with sudden suspicion at Strange. "Say, what is this-more bustin' in on people's private thoughts?"

"Nary a bust. I was wondering whether he'd had time to investigate that switchboard yet." Strange's gaze strayed to the telephone squad stringing the "That reminds me, I want to ask them something."

His question developed into a detailed conversation with the line chief. Strange ended it when he saw two cars dash up near the dugout and several begrimed men climb out. He went downstairs behind them. As he had surmised, they were engineers and officers from infantry holding the front lines. The engineer officer in charge was the first to report.

"We made a rough analysis, General Hunter, and that stuff seems to be just about what the Boche puts in their incendiary bombs, plus avide of barium, magnesia, and the usual oxide of iron in high-temperature welding. The temperature of the flame resulting would be at least 3500 degrees - maybe more, for there is something else in the mixture we can't determine yet."

General Hunter stroked his hollow cheeks silently for a moment. "This unknown element you think it was enough to cause that deadly gas?" he asked.

"Probably. My guess is that the gas was released by the chemicals at a certain high temperature, was sucked up in the flames, and then settled when it reached a height where the air was cooler. That would account for its blanketing the area completely."

Hunter's face darkened. "God, what a frightful way to die! Trapped inside walls of fire, poisoned by deadly gas."

"Maybe easier than a bayonet in the stomach," said the engineer grimly, "or go a few other things I could mention."

Hunter glared at him. "Maybe so - but we can defend ourselves to some extent against known dangers! This fiendish business ... well, how was it done? And how can we stop it?"

"It was dropped from planes," said the engineer positively. "Big planes, big enough to carryall that weight. They dropped it through some kind of a tube, flying low -"

Hunter jerked his pipe from his mouth. "Guesswork - or do you have any basis for it?"

"One of the planes was seen." The engineer motioned toward an infantry lieutenant whose bandaged head indicated recent injury. "He was -"

"I'll get it myself," snapped Hunter. He looked at the lieutenant. "Well, lad?"

"I saw most of it, sir, the flame and all. That is, till they creased me." He motioned toward his bandaged head. "I'd just finished makin' the rounds. Things were fairly quiet. Then those two planes shot over No-Mans-Land, one of 'em pepperin' hell out of the other. I looked back and saw the first one go down. The other kept on shooting, even after the first one crashed. I went back through a communication trench to the third line. With my glasses I could see men trying to get out to the wreck. But every time a flare or starshell went off, that damned Fokker would dive again and strafe hell out of the rescue party.

"That kept up maybe ten minutes, with archie and the Brownings blazing away at the plane. Then Heinie began droppin' shells to bracket the wreck. The Fokker hauled out and beat it. All of a sudden it got light off to one side. It looked like somebody'd set off a big powder trail from the middle of No-Man's-Land clear into the trenches south of us. Flames shot up all of thirty-five feet.

"I beat it back to my outfit, because Fritz started banging away like mad at our trenches. I thought it was a push or a raid. They must've had all the men from their second line in there firin' at us. Then the big shells began to fall all around us. I ran down to a trench-gate where there was a periscope. The shells were knocking the devil out of the trenches farther down, but I could see that wall of fire through the dust and smoke. It was streakin' back to cut around that wrecked plane - and in front of it was what looked like a big ball of fire."

"Ah!" exclaimed Hunter. "You actually saw the thing?"

"I sure did, sir. It wasn't very clear through the smoke, but I saw it rolling around back of Regimental P.O.C. It bounced clear over the third defense trench - and then the flames broke out."

"How far behind the ball were those flames?" asked Strange abruptly.

"Maybe a hundred feet, maybe more, sir. Hard to say, because at first they were just a little streak. Then they'd shoot up high all of a sudden."

"How close were you to the spot where the flames crossed the firing-trench?"

" A good quarter of a mile - thank God!" said the lieutenant.

"You mean the flames killed all the men at that point?"

"No. Fritz or the H.E. got them. The Boche must've put down a thousand shells around there. After it was all over, my skipper went down for a look-see. He told me, after I come out from this nick in the head, it was the worst slaughterhouse he ever laid' eyes on. It was so bad men had hopped out of the trenches and run toward the Boche lines. A couple of hundred were out on the barbed-wire -"

"When did you see that big plane?" Interrupted General Hunter.

"Jusf before they nicked me, sir. A shell caved in part of the trench near me. I ran back through a communicating trench to get back to my outfit, and I happened to see something whiz through the flash of a starshell. - it was a big ship - bigger than any I ever saw be-fore. I stopped to look at it, and mighty near stopped a Mauser slug, too."

"How high was that plane?" Strange queried.

"About fifteen hundred feet. It might have been higher. I only saw it a second. It must've been painted black, for when it got by that bursting starshell, I couldn't see it any more."

Another infantry officer spoke up. "There was a plane, all right," he said. "Two of my men saw it. From what they say, it must have been one of those big bombers."

The Staff officers looked at each other in growing consternation. General Hunter expressed the fear which seemed to have gripped them.

"Good Lord! If they've got some damned scheme for dropping those fireballs from planes, they can hit anywhere!"

Strange opened his mouth to speak, swept the ring of dismayed faces with an odd glance, and closed his lips again.

"The thing's incredible from start to finish," muttered the senior engineer officer. "How do they control those balls? Where'd they go after they completed the circuit - did they burn up or roll back into Germany? And if they went east, why the hell - pardon me, general - why didn't they burn up the Boche, too?"

"Don't ask questions. Figure the answers!" rasped Hunter. "If they've got planes big enough to carry a heavy load like that, they're not hiding them inside their hats. Major Bland, you're contacting Air Service. Order a search of Boche dromes. Big ships like that would show up. They'd have special new hangars, or new camouflage. Get some action!"

Bland flushed, hastened to a phone. The general barked a few more questions and dismissed the engineer and infantry officers.

Strange followed the wounded infantry lieutenant up the stairs.

"When you saw that ball of fire, were you using an ordinary type of periscope or one of those new lens types?" he asked.

"Lens. But I allowed for its magnifying the flames -"

"I didn't mean that. You said it bounced. Sure of that?"

"Positive. It bounced four or five times back in that rear stretch - must've hit some of those big shell-holes."

"How fast was it going - fast enough to make a blur?"

The young lieutenant stared at him from under his bandages. "You took the words out of my mouth," he said. "That's just what it was, sort of blurred and dark around the edges, like black smoke whirling along with it. I'd say it was goin' over sixty miles an hour."

"Thanks." Strange took a slip of paper from his pocket, scribbled something across it and handed it to the doughboy officer. "Maybe you're different from the rest of this man's army, but if you want a week in Paris, show that to the Intelligence officer of your regiment."

"Say, you tryin" to kid me? He got bumped with the rest of 'em."

"Then take it to Division HQ." Strange left the youngster looking blankly at the cryptic order he had penciled. He returned to the lower level of the dugout, stood at the bottom of the stairs for a moment, looking at a big operations map of the sector.

"'Sixty miles an hour," he muttered. "If it's true, there's hardly any limit -"

"Captain Strange!" rapped Hunter's penetrating voice, through the half-open door of the Staff room.

Strange went inside. Hunter closed the door and Strange saw that they were alone. The general's face had a strained, desperate look.

"I won't pretend with you, captain. You know as well as I do what the Boche can do if they've invented some fireball which can be controlled like that."

Strange nodded soberly. Hunter sucked viciously at his pipe.

"I've already had proof of your ability to impersonate a German officer. It's vital that I know the secret of this damned thing, and how to block those flames."

"I understand, sir," said Strange quietly.

"I'm not ordering it," grunted Hunter.

"Of course not." Strange smiled, then let the smile die out swiftly. "But there's absolutely no use in my going over there till dusk."

Disappointment was written all over the general's cadaverous face. "Why not?" he demanded.

"Obviously I must fly across, and in a German plane. They will be on the lookout for lone German ships. Front will report them to the back areas, and they'll be reported all the way till they're accounted for."

"Not necessarily," growled Hunter. "It's been done before - you've done it yourself."

"On cloudy days, or when the Boche was not watching the sky like a hawk." Strange shook his head. "There's not a cloud in the heavens, and I'll wager a sparrow couldn't fly over there without being watched. General, this thing is colossal, Their precautions in blotting out that unfortunate spy-pilot prove. it's so big they'll make any sacrifice to keep it secret. I wouldn't have a ghost of a chance until dark."

"Well, you know best," said Hunter gloomily. "But by night they'll be free to work it again, and we'll be no better off than before."

Strange disregarded this. "There's one short cut, a slim chance," he remarked. "How was Major Cartwright taken ill, and when?"

Hunter stopped in the act of refilling his pipe. "Yesterday evening, just after mess - but what the devil -" He broke off, looking startled.

"Yes," said Strange. "Somebody put something in his food - or wine. Cartwright's a healthy specimen, even if he does go around looking like an undertaker. And it so happens that Cartwright knew a lot about the communication hook-up of this section, especially telephone networks. Now if for some reason he were in the way -"

"I'll round up every man who was near him when -"

"No, wait a minute, sir. That bomb which was found at your chateau - who happened to see it?"

"Field Clerk Schultz. He was checking phone lines to an emergency board in the basement -"

"Another field clerk!" exclaimed Strange. "And in communication work, too. That couldn't be just a coincidence."

Hunter struck the table with his fist. "Damn it, captain. I've .been blind. Schultz planted that bomb to get us moved here. He was in the mess next to Major Cartwright. The warrant officers ate there because we had only two of them, not enough for a mess of their own."

"Arrest Schultz, general, and maybe we can persuade him to do a little talking."

Hunter's face fell. "That's just it. He's gone. One of the Staff was looking for him. It seems he got word of some trouble at one of the sub-centers -"

"Martin warned him," said Strange grimly. "He had time enough to flash a signal before he went after Noisy Jay." He explained how the other field clerk had been trapped. "We've only one hope left. They're not sure we knew about Schultz. They may not credit us with enough sense to figure out the reason for shifting here -"

Hunter looked puzzled for a second. Strange grinned.

"Since it doesn't strike you at once, then maybe they'll be less on guard."

"I guess I'm thickheaded," growled Hunter.

"Not at all, sir. I just happen to know that Major Cartwright was in charge of communications here when the dugout was used in the April drive. We operated through the station at Vaulière, which has direct lines to Chaumont. The bomb scare was to cause a move of your Headquarters to the dugout, so the same hook-up would be used. The old lines are all intact. Martin, at Vaulière, would relay secret information to Boche spies who have by this time probably some other outlet to Germany-maybe another secret wireless station to be used for one night only."

"One night only! Then you think this flame business -"

"It has every mark of being kept for some terrific surprise. The men at the other end of that secret Vauliere wire will know the truth. I want you to send semi-confidential orders and reports over these lines for the next eight hours, including exactly on the hour something important enough to interest the enemy."

"But, good God, I'm subject to court-martial -"

"And this whole sector is subject to a frightful death," said Strange in a hard voice.

Hunter bit down on his pipe, scowled savagely. "I'll take the chance," he said finally. "Then what?"

"I've arranged with the officer in charge of the line crew to be cut in on every wire that leads out of Vaulière. Noisy Jay, my aide, will go back to Vaulière ostensibly to check up on the examination of that switchboard. I'll give him orders to be blind - until the right time."

"What do you mean?"

"Lynch. The man's either a spy or a traitor. This spy who called himself Martin was going upstairs to help out his chief, thinking if he killed the supposed Intelligence captain, he'd remove the evidence against them. I could see it in Lynch's face when I first got up there. He was ready to shoot it out, so I played dumb. It was ticklish walking downstairs in front of him, but I was positive he wouldn't shoot if he thought he could save his scheme."

"And you let him stay free!" rasped Hunter.

"To get bigger fish in the net, general. Somewhere in that house is a concealed phone and a trick circuit which enables him to call his secret contact point on a regular line, but without ringing the station normally operating on that line. The wire chief working here told me it was possible."

"I see," muttered Hunter. "Once you spot the trick connection, you can send fake orders or follow the wire to the cut-off where the other spy listens in."

Strange nodded. "And if there's a nest of them, or a hidden wireless, we'll make them talk or we'll listen in on messages from Germany till we see through the riddle."

"Maybe it'll work," said Hunter. "But I'm still strong for finding the base of those big planes -"

A Staff officer knocked and came in quickly.

"G.H.Q. on your wire, sir. I think it's the Commander-in-Chief himself."

Hunter jumped toward his private room. "Go ahead with that plan," he tossed back at Strange. "But be ready to go across tonight, regardless."

Strange found Noisy Jay and gave him detailed instructions.

"For Pete's sake," complained Noisy, "when do I get some sleep?"

"When the war's over," Strange grinned. "Maybe you can get a nap on the way over. I'm sending you by car with two squads of linemen. Be sure to arrive in the village alone, and have them work around the edges to cut in on those wires."

Noisy and the linemen departed, the wire chief and another officer going along. Strange located Major Bland, explained the plan and arranged for the reports to be sent regularly after the first flash that the listeners were cut in on all Vaulière wires. Then he wrote a code letter and dispatched it to Chaumont by a courier pilot.

A little after noon a report came that a gray Fokker had been found, wrecked, a mile from the devastated area. The pilot had been killed when the plane struck a tree. An unusual type of gas-mask had been found over his face.

"It's the man I was forcing down," Strange told Major Bland. "That gas-mask should enable the chemists to tell what composes the gas from those flames. And -"he paused, the green eyes suddenly gleamed - "major, can you have that pilot's body rushed back here?"

"Why, yes, but what are you going to do with it?"

"Nothing," said Strange dryly. "I'll see that it's returned to you in the same condition - very dead."

Bland growled and went to the phone.

An hour later a call came from Noisy Jay, at one of the cut-in points.

"Just ducked out on excuse of getting a bite. Nothing doing so far, Phil. Lynch took down the legs of that switchboard - no wires inside. Sure you're right about him? He seems okay."

"Keep watching. He's a bad hombre - have your gat handy."

Noisy hung up. The day wore on slowly. At three the courier pilot returned from Chaumont with a sealed envelope. Strange read the contents and hunted up Bland.

"G-2 must have a blind spot big as a house," he snapped. "Did you know Lynch was a pilot?"

"No," said Bland, startled.

"He was in the Signal Corps when war started. As you know, the Signal Corps was the aviation unit at first. He took flight training in Texas, got his wings but didn't make the grade for combat pilot at Issoudun. Was made an observer at his own request - note that - and was assigned to 332d Aero at the Chateau-Thierry show. Remember the suspicious leaks of information during that month?"

"Yes, but that doesn't prove -" "Wait. He went across later on a volunteer observation job. The ship was attacked and forced down, the pilot killed. He was captured, but later escaped. Asked to be transferred to regular Signal Corps work when he got back by way of Switzerland. Seemed to have lost his nerve."

Bland pursed his lips in a soundless whistle.

"Plain enough now. Shot his pilot, landed and arranged for this Vaulière scheme, then 'escaped'."

"Arranged for espionage, at least. He's undoubtedly the master spy of this sector!"

"We'll have to grab him, without waiting for this other business, then."

"Give him four hours more to signal that nest. You can send word to keep him watched in the meantime."

Bland reluctantly agreed. Just then an orderly appeared, and announced that, the body of the German pilot had been brought to the dugout. Strange went up and looked at the dead man. He had been killed by a splintered strut which had pierced his chest. Strange scrutinized his face carefully. It had been bruised where the impact had driven the frame of the gas-mask into the flesh, but the somewhat dissipated-looking features were still easily seen. Strange bent and moved one-eyelid.

"Dark eyes," he said to himself. "But at night, and with proper shading -"

He straightened, ordered the staring stretchermen to carry the body down to a room on the first level. A few minutes later Major Bland found him there, the dead man propped up on a cot, Strange studying him from head to foot. Bland grimaced.

"For Heaven's sake, Strange, what's the idea?"

Strange looked up slowly from an inspection of the dead man's hands. "Tonight," he - said, "this poor wretch will live again."

Chapter IV

The Fire Circle

High above Germany, the bullet-torn Spad roared through the dark. The pilot hunched down out of the biting chill, leaned forward for a brief check-up of his map. A small flashlight glowed for a moment, reflected upon the dissipated face above. Eyes that seemed dark, their green hue altered by clever shading, peered at the tattered map which had been in the dead German's pocket.

Strange switched off the flash, changed his course to the north. He had flown across at a quiet part of the Front, where there was less chance of the Spad's being trapped by some roving Boche bat patrol. He felt inside the feldgrau coat which had replaced the dead man's bloody one. In the pockets were all the things the German pilot had carried - a flash, badly dented, half full of Schnapps; cigarettes and German matches; a picture of a blonde girl, with words below, "To my Otto."

Strange looked back at the broken red zigzag of the Front. Down there were many Ottos, perhaps with Frauleins' pictures. Some of them would die, too.

But they would stay dead. That other Otto lived again for one night, perhaps for less. Strange nodded grimly. That poor chap who had been torn to bits by shells and German bombs - he had gone on this same trail.

Strange shook off the mood. It was undoubtedly because he wore most of a dead man's clothes, even wore his face. He slipped the throttle back and went down in a power glide. He was in the back areas now, not far from the 88th Staffel. The 88th flew gray Fokkers - Otto must have come from there. In a few minutes he would know, would also know his fate. The odds, he knew, were against him.

He leveled out at six thousand feet, gazed down in search of landmarks. The 88th had recently moved to a field some miles to the rear of its former drome. The 110th had taken its place - crack killers, led by the one-eyed Count von Darfield. Strange frowned into the darkness. What connection was there between von Darfeld's pilots and this mystery of the flames? Where had the missing men gone? To pilot huge ships? He shook his head. Combat pilots were not suited for that work. And as for the engineer officer's theory ...

A small patch of lights showed, off to the east. Grausselen, he estimated. It was the only town of any size in that section. He glanced at his compass, took a bearing. He could not be far from the 88th. The field was on a high stretch at the western end of a wide bowl-shaped valley. If only he knew the landing signal!

With an exclamation, Strange jerked upright in his seat. Down there in the gloom a streak of curving flame had suddenly appeared. In seconds, the curve became one-half of a circle, while the dense flames behind leaped up in a solid wall.

Strange held his breath. The thing was incredible - but there it was under his eyes. Like a vast train of powder suddenly set afire, as that wounded doughboy had said. He throttled the droning Hispano, and slipped down with wings barely moaning.

The flame circle was almost finished. As he dropped lower, he saw something whirling along in front of the leaping flames. It seemed like a yellowish ball of fire, surrounded by a queer blur. His pulses hammered. The secret lay there beneath him. If he could plunge down and see that yellowish ball at close range! Then he suddenly thought of the poison gas which the chemicals released. His eyes narrowed. A quick swoop would be enough. With Yoga breathing he could hold his breath for minutes.

He began a swift inhalation, exhaled through almost closed lips. Faster and faster, till the oxygen in his blood came near to saturation. A brief giddiness swept over him. He drew in a deep, full breath and dived with the engine wide open.

Something cut through the flaming circle, as the Spad went hurtling down. It left a red trail, and then more flames whirled up from the ground. Straight as an arrow it shot to the opposite side, spun around and raced back on a parallel to the flame-wall it had just made. By the glare of the circular flame-border, Strange saw three huts widely spaced. That queer blurred ball of fire was charging straight for the first. There was an instant when it seemed that the fire-ball would crash right through the hut. Then suddenly it sprang up from the ground, leaped over the hut and plunged back to the ground.

Strange froze. That was no ball of fire! The thing which had hurtled that hut was some weird machine. He could see its dark shape as he pitched the Spad down into the valley. It leaped again, more than six feet in the air, and cleared the second hut. A glowing stream, like red-hot coals, sprayed from a fan-shaped nozzle, fell on the roof of the hut. Flames gushed up, but the structure did not burn. Then Strange saw it was solid rock, without windows or doors.

He kicked the Spad to one side, as a crimson wall sprang up. Terrific heat beat up at him. He could smell the fabric scorching. Something cracked, close to his head. He jumped. A strut was half shot away! Bullet holes appeared at one side of his cowl; then a blinding light struck in his face.

Searchlights were back of that huge fire ring! Maxims were spouting from three directions! Wildly, he snapped the stick back, zoomed over the curved wall of flame. The dazzling rays of a searchlight caught him full in the face. He skidded away, saw the wooded slope of the valley spring toward him. Still half-blinded, he came about in a grinding reverse, wings not ten yards from the ground.

He let out his pent-up breath as he saw unmasked men below. White faces stared up - cloaked men with spiked helmets, near long, gray official cars. Guns blazed from a covered emplacement, hurled steel through his tilted wings. He snatched at his trips, but before he could fire, his propeller burst into splinters. He groaned, cut the switch as the Hispano rose to a scream. The Spad's nose dropped. He kicked away from the slope, toward an open stretch at one side. There were shadows which might conceal him if he only had time to land and run.

The Spad's wheels touched, rumbled over hard ground. He shoved on the rudder, darted in toward the darkest spot. Something loomed in his path, something that moved. He kicked with full force, ground looped at dizzy speed. Then one wheel collapsed, and the Spad crashed to an instant stop. The jolt threw him violently onto the breech of his right-hand gun. His head struck with stunning force. As his senses faded, he had a last glimpse of a black hulk whipping past, with something light on its side.

Though it seemed an age when he came back to consciousness, he knew it must have been seconds. Somewhere a powerful engine was loosing a muffled drone. Voices were raised with excitement. He heard some one run toward the Spad.

"Give me that Luger," a heavy voice grated in German. "The swine may still be alive."

"What are you going to do?" snapped another voice, crisp with authority.

"Shoot the damned Hund, if he is not already dead."

"Simpleton! It is a chance to find how much the Allies have guessed. Get back. Feldwebel, hold up that torch."

Through his eyelids, Strange could see the glow of a beam pointed at his face. Suddenly the Boche with the heavy voice gave an amazed exclamation.

"Otto! Gott im Himmel, it is Otto - and we shot him down!"

Strange did not move, but relief like a warm flood rushed over him. He had not expected that the pilot would be known except at the 88th.

"You're right," muttered the crisp-voiced German. "It is Leutnant Schmidt." A hand felt inside Strange's blouse. '''He is only stunned. His heart beats strongly."

"Gott sie Dank!" The other Boche pressed in closer. Strange could feel him reach down to help the first one lift him out of the cockpit. "Poor Otto - always he has bad luck. He escapes from the verdammte Allies and we try to kill him."

"He should have signaled," rapped the other.

"Who would have heard above the engine of that No.3 tank? With that broken muffler, it is a wonder they do not hear it as far as Paris when it is full open."

By this time Strange had been laid upon the ground. He could hear other voices, and knew men were crowding around.

"See if he still has any Schnapps with him," some one suggested. "That will bring him around."

"Fool, they would have taken everything. No, you are right. Here is his old flask."

"Then he was not captured!" exclaimed the man with the crisp voice. "He must have escaped from the ship when it was forced down, and then hidden near some Allied airdrome until it was dark enough to steal a plane."

"We will soon find out," grunted the man with the heavy voice.

Strange's lips were forced open by the tip of the flask. The powerful liquor coursed down his throat. He tried to swallow without strangling, coughed suddenly and had to open his eyes. He looked around stupidly. The man with the flask was kneeling beside him, a brawny Oberleutnant with a face that suggested an ape. Back of him stood a tall man with a gray patch over one eye, held there by an elastic around his head.

Without even seeing the major's stars upon his braided shoulder straps, Strange knew this was Count von Darfeld.

The count's one eye stared down at him. "We thought you were some Yankee Schwein trying to spy out the secret," he said, without any great trace of apology. "Naturally, we thought you were dead after seeing you go down."

Strange affected a shiver.

"It is a miracle, Herr Major, that I am alive. Not the crash - but those ferocious Americans! Three of them came at me from the woods as soon as I crashed. I shot two of them and wounded the other."

"That does not sound as though they were very ferocious," said von Darfeld.

"But, Herr Major, that was not what I meant." Strange struggled up on one arm, placed his hand to a cut on his forehead where the Vickers had gouged him. "After I killed the two men, I put one of them in my plane and set it on fire. Then I made the wounded one hide me. He tried to trick me after we found an old bombproof shelter, and I had to shoot him. All day I hid, and I heard the Americans passing nearby. The killing of their men last night has roused them to a fury. They are going to attack and give no quarter -"

"You mean the attack hour has been changed from 4:30?" demanded the one-eyed count.

"I am sure of it, Herr Major." Strange got to his feet, held onto the apelike Leutnant's arm for a second. "At the courier field where I stole the plane after dark, I heard two officers speak of a night attack- "

"Zum Teufel! I must inform Herr Oberst and the Staff! Heinrich, bring Leutnant Schmidt to Headquarters."

Von Darfeld hurried away, followed by all of the officers except the Leutnant named Heinrich. A few mechanics, some of them armed, hung around until Heinrich gruffly ordered them to depart.

"Are you all right now?" he asked. Strange took a look around him.

"Yes, I can walk - but slowly." Strange saw the German's eyes on the flask, took a sip and handed the rest to him. "Help yourself, mein Freund - I have had enough."

"Danke," said Heinrich eagerly. He drained the flash. "This Dumkopf Staff inspection has caused der Oberst to suspend all drinking for the day. My throat was parched."

Strange nodded silently. His eyes were fixed on the machine which had stopped a hundred feet from the Spad, the dark object which had swept past as the wheels collapsed.

It was a tank, but unlike any other tank he had seen. From the size of the shafts which ran to the huge tread wheels, he knew the engine within must be of incredible power. The snout was streamlined, the curving surface running back into streamlined sides. Only the lower half, where the heavy metal tractor belts were visible, was like a regular tank. The doors were flush with the sides, obviously capable of being closed tightly to shut out gas. Heavy bulletproof glass ports showed in the sides, and a curving bay at the front. Recessed in the nose was a powerful searchlight, controlled from inside.

At the rear was a wide fan-shaped projector, raised high above the ground. As Strange drew closer, he saw that the driving mechanism was unlike the usual tank. The drive wheels were not contained within the tank. They were arranged on the sides in a series. of ten, all of which were covered with double tires, the teeth for engaging the cater-pillar tread projecting higher than the tires. In this way, the tires ran on the inside of the tractor tread, their heavy pneumatic surfaces furnishing the resiliency such a high-speed tank required.

Upon the side of the tank was a solid yellow circle about twelve feet in diameter. Wavy lines had been painted around it, dwindling till only the dead black side of the tank was left. Here was the explanation of what had been thought a bouncing ball of fire. At night, the black tank would be invisible, except for a slight blur. The yellow circle would reflect any light rays which were directed toward it, as well as a certain amount from the flames at the rear. At high speed, the yellow spot would seem to roll over the ground leaving a trail of fire.

Strange took a hurried glance underneath the next tank in line. It was dark, but he caught a vague glimpse of what he sought. Huge coiled steel springs tilted against some kind of a ram, from which a geared-up control ran to the nose of the tank. This was the secret of that amazing hurdle over the stone huts. When that ram was driven down by the force of the springs, the high speed of the tank would hurl it violently up from the ground.

A leaping tank! For the first time Strange understood how that trail of flame had been so swiftly laid around the ill-fated Yanks the night before. No ordinary obstacle could stop those metal demons. He had seen the British Mark IV tanks in action, and once had gone with an armored car battalion for a wild dash into Germany. But the Mark IV's were slow, clumsy units, capable at most of eight miles an hour. The armored cars were faster, but needed good roads. Even at that, British and, more recently, American tanks had invaded Boche-held ground, enfiladed their trenches, pulverized gun emplacements, and terrified the feldgrau ranks into surrendering by hundreds at sight of the "rolling pill-boxes."

But these hellish machines were a thousand times worse than either, combining as they did the speed of the armored cars and the deadliness of the heavy tanks. Added to that, they had the frightful menace of poison gas and flames to hem in their victims. Anything of ordinary height these monsters could leap over at sixty miles an hour. He had had full proof of their ability to jump through a distance of fifty feet and not wreck the tires or springs.

Chapter V

The End of Q-19

As Heinrich led him past the other tanks, Strange saw the crews grouped around the machines. With each one was an officer in the uniform of the Imperial Air Service. Suddenly Strange understood. No ordinary tank driver, accustomed to speeds of four to eight miles an hour, could handle those super-tanks. Only an airplane pilot, accustomed to landing and taking off at high speeds, could hope to guide them and at the same time be at all sure of his course. A pilot, used to checking course and position at high speed - it was the only logical step to select them for this work. Now he knew why von Darfeld's crack pilots had been taken from their Staffel.

They were passing the last tank - the fourteenth, Strange noted - when the gas-proof door to the driver's seat opened and a stocky, red-faced German emerged, His face was grimy and his brow beaded with perspiration. He jerked his head in greeting to Heinrich.

Heinrich stopped for a moment, and Strange took advantage for a swift glance through the open door. The driver's seat was held in mid-air by springs running in different directions, some to the roof, others to sides and floor. In addition, there was a special safety-belt, and leather loops on control pedals and levers so that the pilot would not be jolted off the controls.

"I am black and blue," complained the stocky pilot, "from that last jump over the huts. Von Darfeld told us three days ago our training was through."

"It is to convince the Stab general," said Heinrich. "The High Command is beginning to worry at the last minute, as usual."

He looked at Strange as they went on. "Those pilots - to hear them you would think they would be glad to be relieved of the duty. But they would howl if anyone really did it. After all their training - but then you know for yourself what they went through on the first experiments."

Strange nodded. They had reached the entrance to a small barrack building. A sign over the door showed it had been converted into a headquarters. Be. yond the structure were four canvas hangars. Gray Fokkers stood in front of one, and deep ruts indicated that the tanks had been kept in the others. Almost hidden in the gloom stood a great Siemans-Schuckard four-motored bomber. From where he stood, Strange could not be sure, but he thought the plane had been altered into a passenger-carrying transport, with windows the length of the fuselage.

It was this plane, Strange knew, which had been seen the night before. He was puzzling over its purpose when the crisp voice of Count von Darfeld startled him.

"What are you waiting for, Herr Schmidt? Der Generalmajor wants to question you."

Strange followed him past the door of a room where several officers were grouped, into a room at the rear. A long table occupied most of the room. On this was a carefully constructed miniature of the opposite Allied sector, with all contours, trenches, roads, dromes and important points built in and marked. Colored ribbons had been pinned down, indicating tank courses from Germany into the Yankee lines. Strange turned cold. They were going to drive a hole at least eighteen miles wide clear through the Yankee Front, as far back as the tired divisions and reserves. If it was to succeed, the way would be opened for a horde of gas-masked Boche to swarm through and complete the rout by flanking right and left as soon as engineers or small tanks had cut paths through the hot chemical embers.

It was with an effort that Strange tore his gaze from this ominous sight and faced the men in the room. There were three beside the one-eyed count - a bald-headed Generalmajor with cold, fishy eyes and a bartender stomach; a wiry little colonel with a keen, alert face; and the general's aide, a foppish young officer, with a chinless face reminiscent of the Crown Prince.

The colonel beckoned to Strange, waving the count to one side.

"Exactly what did you learn about the enemy's plans, Herr Leutnant?"

Strange saluted, and put his back to the light which was centered over the big table, for the colonel's eyes were sharp.

"I think, Herr Oberst, they are going to use planes for a big raid to avenge those men who died -"

How did you hear this?" cut in the bald-headed general harshly.

"At the field where I stole the plane, Exellenz. I crawled up in the dark -"

"Yes, yes! But what did you hear?"

"Two officers - one, I think, a courier pilot, sir. He was to take word to several squadrons because of something they feared about their telephone lines, sir."

"Donnerwettter" snarled the general.

"That explains why we have heard nothing from Q-19! He has been caught."

The wiry colonel spoke abruptly. "In my opinion, Excellenz, we should attack tonight."

"But all orders are for tomorrow night -"

"I know, sir, but if they should force the truth from Q-19 or some of his men, it would be fatal. It is still early. The troops can be rushed up from the rear and into the firing trenches in two hours. All units have their secret orders. It means changing them ahead twenty-four hours -"

"If your tanks fail, it will mean reprisals of the worst kind," snapped the general. "The Allies are seething now, because of last night's work."

"But it was necessary, Excellenz. That Spion had learned the whole plan. And it proved the tanks can do all I claimed. With the wireless telephone in the Siemans-Schuckard to direct the tanks while we fly above them, it will be a complete success. You saw tonight what the tanks can do. And my men have learned every inch of their allotted terrain by heart, where they cross, the points to circle, roads to follow too the rear -"

"I've heard all that! But only fourteen tanks! If you had fifty, or a hundred-"

"Where would we get money for a hundred such as those, Excellenz?"I shed blood over everyone, as it is. But fourteen will do the work. There is but one weak spot in my plan - the chance that the Allies might learn about these new tanks. They are built for speed, as you know, and will not withstand shelling. I was sure that, used at night, they would trick the enemy. I was right, for last night no one fired at what they thought to be balls of fire. But if the Allies knew, they might lay down a terrific barrage with field guns and heavy artillery. That is why I strongly suggest waiting no longer, after what Leutnant Schmidt has told us. The Allies could bomb this base if they dreamed -"

"Very well, I will call the Field Marshal," growled the general. He made a motion of dismissal toward Strange and von Darfeld.

Strange went out behind the one-eyed count. His heart was beginning to pound. Even if the attack were ordered, these high-speed tanks would be the last units to start for the Front. If he could seize one of those gray Fokkers and get back in time to warn Chaumont!

A deafening roar shook the walls of the wooden barracks as they went toward the door. Von Darfeld swore. "That unmuffled Diesel would wake the dead!" he muttered.

The sound increased. As they stepped outside," Strange took a quick look past the tanks toward the Fokkers. He bit back an exclamation. Men were running toward a plane which had just landed - an American Nieuport!

The pilot sprang to the ground and Strange heard him shout at the onrushing Germans. A light flashed, spotting the newcomer's face. Strange started. The man was Captain Lynch.

Von Darfeld rapped out an oath. "Von Gruder! Mein Gott, what is wrong?"

"Everything!" panted the other. "Explain to these men -"

The count barked an order and the cluster of Germans fell back. The spy ran up to the entrance. Strange slipped his hand toward his Luger. Von Gruder - Lynch. He had been right. This man was Q-19.

"What is it?" the count demanded again.

"Our plans - the Allies will know them by midnight or sooner!"

From inside the headquarters came a clatter of booted feet. The officers who had been in the anteroom came dashing outside.

"Our only chance is to strike at once," Q-19 said hoarsely. "They'll know the roads. They'll plant tank-traps -"

"Ack! Du Lieber Gott!" cried a Staff officer. He turned and dashed into the building. Von Darfeld whirled to an officer near the first tank. "Heimer, have all the Diesels started!"

The general burst from the headquarters, his aide and the Oberst behind. Two hundred feet away, the tank with the broken muffler again gave a thunderous roar.

The Oberst rattled off orders, and men ran to carry them out. Floodlights shone suddenly along the side of a large cleared area. Mechanics dashed to the Fokkers, and pilots appeared from one of the hangars. Diesels were growling menacingly in the huge tanks.

Strange had started to edge toward the group of Fokkers. He halted, biting off an oath. The huge Siemans-Schuckard was being wheeled directly in front of the Fokkers. The throng of mechanics pulled the dolly from under the heavy tail and left it there while they went to the motors. Then he saw the Nieuport at one side.

He started toward it, but von Darfeld halted him quickly.

"Schmidt! Where are you going?" "To fly with the squadron -"

"There is no extra plane." The count looked at him grimly with his one eye. "I should think you would be satisfied with crashing a Fokker last night in France and tonight a Spad in Germany. Maybe you would try No-Man's-Land next."

For the first time, Q-19 looked at Strange. "A Spad?" he asked. "I do not understand."

"Schmidt was forced down last night, by two fiends in a Yankee De Havilland. He hid, managed to seize a Spad from a courier field and -"

"Don't move, Lynch!" Strange snarled. "Stand still, von Darfeld!"

The Luger snout barely showed under his shielding left forearm, but both men went rigid. Twenty feet away, men worked about a tank, unmindful of the drama at their backs.

"Are you out of your senses?" the count said hoarsely. He took a step forward.

"Lieber Gott!" whispered the spy. "Don't move or he will kill you. He is the one who tricked me."

Von Darfeld's one eye glared wildly. "You are both mad! This man -"

"He is made up," moaned Q-19. "That pilot died, and they took his body -" "Keep still," Strange warned him through set teeth.

But it was too late. The crew at the first tank had turned, and suddenly one of them saw the gleam of Strange's Luger. He gave a shout and the crew charged, yelling.

Von Darfeld sprang simultaneously. Strange fired and the German staggered back, pressing both hands to his side. A huge wrench whizzed through the air. Strange ducked, whirled around and whipped two shots into the knot of mechanics. The leaders fell, and the others broke and ran.

Q-19 had dived to one side as he saw von Darfeld fall. Strange saw him race back of a tank. Then the spy's voice rose in a bellow.

"Spion! Spion! This man is the Brain-Devil !"

A mauser cracked, and dirt flew at Strange's heels. He flung a desperate look toward the nearest plane. The engine was not yet started. A pistol roared behind him, and he heard the slug hit the side of a tank. A light scorched into his eyes. He leaped to one side, dropped a Boche with a leveled pistol, and sprang into the nearest tank.

Strange could hear the Germans rushing toward, the half-open door. He flashed a lightning glance at the controls in the nose of the tank. With a prayer, he sprang into the driver's seat and gripped the primary gear levers. The clutch pedal thudded to the floor under his booted foot, came back as the gears rasped into mesh. The tank lurched forward. He opened the powerful Diesel with a hasty sweep of the throttle. There was a frightful screech from somewhere, almost instantly lost in the Diesel's thunder. But he knew that some ill-starred Boche had met his death under the tank.

A searchlight flashed in at him through the bullet-proof glass bay. He reached for the left-hand brake, cut out the lever which seemed to control the secondary sliding pinions. But the tank did not pivot as he had intended. Instead, he heard a sharp hissing sound above the Diesel's roar. He shot a look down at the lever he had pulled. As he saw the letters upon it, he knew what had happened.

He had started the flame projector.

He realized in the same instant that the wheel he had thought a gun-elevating control was for steering purposes. No other tanks had been so equipped, but at such high speeds, there could be no stopping to shift the two sets of gears and brakes. He spun the big wheel, and almost fell from his perch as the tank whirled through a right-angle turn.

A crimson glare leaped up behind him. He turned the wheel again, caught his breath at sight of the towering walls of flame which streaked in his wake. A score of fear-crazed Germans were running across the clearing. He saw crews dashing for the other tanks.

A grim, hard light came into his eyes. Tonight he could not know the meaning of mercy. It was these men - or the other countless thousands across the Front.

The Diesel leaped to nerve-shattering speed, its unmuffied cylinders making a hideous din. Straight between the scurrying men and the first group of tanks, Strange drove his carriage of death. He saw the Oberst whirl to flee, saw him slip ...

He closed his eyes. The tank roared on, and he felt no quiver to mark the passing of a man. He stared with slitted eyes through the spattered glass before him. A ring of fire, enclosing this hell-hole where Death was waiting to ride on wings of flame.

A gully loomed up before him. Instinctively, he gripped the wheel and braced himself on the pedals. The whole wheel column gave back at his pull. There was a clanging roar at the rear of the tank - and the monster leaped into the air!

Across the gully, down to earth after that incredible forty-foot jump. The tank seemed to bounce, and then settled into its furious forward pace. He could see the great circle of flame behind him, a circle three-quarters closed. Within it lay the huge Siemans-Schuckard, the tanks, and all but the barracks headquarters. Around one tank, a little group of men was battling insanely. The tank started to move, then suddenly pivoted. Headlong, it crashed into the four-motored bomber. Flames spouted up from the demolished ship. The tank whirled again, stopped with a titanic roar as it struck another tank.

Then Strange saw the thin gray cloud which was settling to the ground. Poison gas! Just the beginning of that fateful cloud, but soon it would sweep every foot of space within those walls of flame. And the door of his tank still was open - as one must have been in that other.

With that door open, he could never drive through those blazing walls to safety. And within lurked certain death. He reached for the Diesel throttle, turned the tank toward the flame-circled hangars. A hundred yards from the edge of that slowly moving gray fog stood the Nieuport Lynch had flown.

Two figures appeared through the spattered glass bay, as he braked the tank to a stop. Two men running, staggering now, toward that lone ship with Allied cocardes. He loosened his belt, ran to the door and raced toward the idling ship.

A voice screeched out, a voice that was hardly human. He heard a pistol crack sharply. He jerked his head around and saw Q-19, the spy. In his hand was a smoking Luger, and back of him writhed the body of the one-eyed Count, von Darfeld.

A gray cloud settled over the dying man, as the poison gas drifted forward. The count stiffened and lay still.

Q-19 did not see. He was staggering forward, a horrible grin on his lips. His eyes had a madman's glare.

As Strange saw that look, he clapped his hand to his hip. Then a coldness clutched at his heart. For the Luger holster was empty.

Q-19 saw the movement. He gave a cackling laugh. As he lifted his gun, Strange tensed for a desperate run. It was more than a hundred feet to the ship - but that half-crazed wretch might miss.

He tensed, then suddenly stood without moving. Like a phantom wave, a grayish cloud swirled down and over the spy. He stood for a second, with that frightful grin frozen on his dead lips. Then the Luger fell from his hand and he crumpled down on his face.

With feet that seemed leaden, Strange dashed to the side of the Nieuport. He flung himself into the pit, twisted the throttle and sent the ship rolling away from that poison cloud. Then the engine thundered and the Nieuport streaked toward the flames - straight at that awesome red wall, the barrier that he had made. Heat like that of a furnace puffed out as he zoomed. Then the Nieuport rocketed into the sky and the flames were far below.

Long seconds afterward, he drew a deep breath, sucked the cold air into his lungs. A queer peace came over him. His work was done. The bombers would finish the job, well before the dawn.

He looked back at the blazing ring. Outside, a few men were huddled, the handful who had escaped. But within that scarlet circle nothing moved - save a gray fog that slowly settled over the dead.

 

 

Posted April 19, 2021

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