(Author’s Note: I had originally intended to take a week off after finishing Water Fall to get the summer schedule knocked into place, finalize some ideas and share with you my plans. Long story short, this was supposed to be a post announcing another series of short stories in-between Water Fall and Thunder Clap. Then I remembered that today is Memorial Day and decided it would be more fitting to have this post today, take next week as the week off and continue from there. So today, a Project Sumter short story. Next week, the summer schedule.)
For the first month and a half the Charleston office of Project Sumter had been one of the busiest places in the city, possibly in the state. But after a solid eight weeks of dominating the news cycles the existence of what the public had quickly dubbed superheroes but the government insisted on calling talented individuals had started to feel more blasé and less exciting. First superhuman stories didn’t make it above the fold anymore. Then talented people got relegated to the second page.
Freelance journalists like Addison Michaels weren’t happy about that, but they were learning to accept the changing realities. If nothing else a journalist knew how to be flexible.
That didn’t mean she didn’t find herself trudging down the street from the bus stop, hoping that this time there might be a worthwhile story hanging around the reception area. Sure Lawrence the receptionist left a lot to be desired, with his constant lisp and poor grasp of manners, but he was a hold over from the days when discouraging the public was the way things were supposed to work, not a deviation from expectations. And while Lawrence could be rude he did know everything that was going on around the office – and thus, he had a good grasp on what was up with talents all across the country. If there was a story to be had, he’d know it.
At least, so her thoughts had run as she came around the corner and started towards the steps up to the office building where Sumter Headquarters was located.
Then she saw the car.
Well, not so much the car, that was a fairly nondescript black sedan, the kind of thing people had been associating with secret government work since long before people knew about Project Sumter. It was more who was getting out of it that mattered. He was, as she had heard so many people say in print, on the radio and on the morning news, shorter than you expected when you met him in person.
In fact Alan Dunn, or Special Agent Double Helix as many people still insisted on calling him, was barely tall enough to see over the roof of the car he stood beside. But that wasn’t what really mattered to Addison. What mattered was that, next to Special Agent Samson, he was probably the most famous talent in the country. That wasn’t saying much at the moment, but the news that he was in town had to be worth something to someone.
She hustled down the street to the curb as he swung the door shut calling, “Excuse me? Agent Dunn?”
For a split second Addison thought she saw Helix’ shoulder slump forward but, almost as soon as it registered he was turning, drawing himself up straight and smiling. If the smile looked forced and his posture was a little more wooden than you’d expect she tried to be understanding, not for the first time reminding herself that these people didn’t expect the press any more than a freelance journalist expected respect, especially from those with steady employment.
“Good morning,” Helix said, taking a few steps away from the curb to meet her. “What can I do for you, ma’am?”
“Hi, I’m Addison Michaels.” She held out her hand for a handshake. “I’m a freelance writer.”
After a split second’s hesitation he accepted the shake saying, “I guessed as much. I’m sorry, Miss Michaels, I’m not actually here in any kind of formal capacity so I don’t really have anything to say at the moment.”
“No, that’s fine Agent Dunn – do you prefer Agent Dunn or Double Helix?”
“I haven’t answered to Alan Dunn for years, outside of tax purposes.” He offered an eloquent shrug. “Most people call me-”
“Helix! Is that girl a friend of yours?”
Sometime during their brief conversation a huge man with sparse white hair and a face like Ayers Rock had managed to slip in behind Helix and open the sedan’s back door. Now he was carefully helping a small woman in a flower print dress out of the back seat. Helix addressed his next words to her. “Grandma, this is Miss Addison Michaels. We’ve just met.”
“Oh. Have we?” Helix’ grandmother turned to stare at her with an eerily blank expression. A flicker of something passed behind her pale blue eyes and she turned to the white haired man and said in a poorly modulated whisper, “Introduce us, dear. We’ve just met this girl and she seems nice.”
It was a little like having her own grandmother visit her church before she passed away and Addison did her best to hide a wince of sympathy. For his part, the woman’s husband made no indication that he found anything wrong with what she said. He just nodded to his wife and said to Addison, “I’m Sergeant Wake. This is my wife, Clear Skies.”
A shiver passed up Addison’s back. Unless she had misunderstood something, Lawrence said these two were founding members of Project Sumter. “What brings you two to Charleston, if I may ask?”
“Charleston?” Clear Skies looked at Helix in horror. “Are we in Charleston, Helix? Daniel won’t like that.”
Clear Skies looked up at her husband. “Don’t ‘sunshine’ me, you two have never gotten along and I know you promised him you’d avoid each other after the war.”
“Sunshine,” Wake said, his voice gentle as baby, his face showing all its years. “Daniel’s been dead for sixteen years. He had a bad heart, you know.”
“Oh.” Her face fell. “I’d forgotten.”
Suddenly Addison felt like an intruder. In many ways that was the job of the press, to intrude on behalf of the public, to keep those in the public eye honest. But these two had never been in the public eye and they’d stopped doing things worth public attention a long time ago. “You know,” she started to say, “maybe I should-”
“There weren’t imbedded reporters with our group, you know,” Wake said, straightening up again. “I never really missed them then, but these days. Well, there’s one story I always thought more people should hear.”
“Don’t ‘grandpa’ me! It’s high time.”
Addison suppressed a smile, wondering if Wake even realized he’d mimicked his wife’s phraseology and town of voice exactly. “I’d love to hear your story, Sergeant Wake.”
Wake offered her his other arm and, after a moment’s hesitation she rested her hand in the crook of his elbow and they started towards the building at a pace clearly aimed at letting Clear Skies keep up with the rest of the group. Ever dozen steps or so, Wake would check on his wife out of the corner of his eye in a way that was really kind of cute. As they made their way leisurely towards the building Wake began.
I only knew him as Saint Elmo, he was this wiry little Italian guy with a mouth so foul you’d never believe the first part of his code name. Back then, Project Sumter was officially a part of the War Department and we were all in the war effort. And back then there was a real important word in front of Air Force – Army. They weren’t different services. So me and Elmo, we’d known each other since back in basic. But the eggheads up in Project High Command, which is what they called it back then, had Ideas about how they were gonna be using his talents. So after basic he shipped out to flight school and I went on to infantry training.
We found each other again in England. That’s a story all in itself. Point was, by the time we flew out over Europe in late September, 1944, we were old pals, me and Elmo. He was the mechanic on the plane that took me out on jumps. Then I’d catch a boat back and we’d do the whole thing again.
But this was something special. It was the last time I’d jump, although we didn’t know it at the time.
I can’t tell you about Operation Garden Grow, it’s still pretty scary stuff. I think about it, sometimes, but rarely on purpose. As I say, I can’t tell you what we were going to do or why high command thought Operation Market Garden would be a good time to do it. This story is about Elmo, so it’s more about getting there than what we did there. So it really starts when our modified B-24 was over the English Channel, me getting settled for another longish trip to Deutschland and trying to stay out of everyone’s way. Wasn’t that hard just yet, since most of the crew doesn’t do much until something unusual happens.
Now Elmo’s crew did these kinds of delivery runs all over, I wasn’t the only talented person running around doing stupid things behind enemy lines and there weren’t that many crews that could be spared to ferry them around. So he saw a lot more of the war than I did, all things considered, and he knew people who could find things, and on the cheap. So when Elmo sat down beside me and handed me a small box I knew it was going to be good.
I’m not real great at describing but she’s still wearing that ring, so you can see it if you want. Nice, ain’t it?
So I ask him, “How much?”
And he tells me, “For you, Sarge, at cost. Three hundred dollars.”
Now that wasn’t just cheap that was downright thievery. Three hundred dollars back then was a lot more than it is now but still. That ring was easily worth five hundred and I said so.
“I picked it up in Cairo from one of the British boys who came through Casablanca,” he says. Gives me the hand wave. “Everyone out there was selling jewelry to try and get out of town before the war. It’s still pretty cheap.”
So I said, “Okay.” And I promised to pay the man once I got back, so long as I did.
We shook on it and Elmo hands me the ring, says, “Now be there to pay up or I’ll make a liar out of you.”
And I give him a glare and say, “I ain’t never been a liar, Saint Elmo, and if you was a real saint you’d be able to see the honesty in my eyes.”
“The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, who can know it?” He tells me, and crosses himself all pious like. Sometimes I wish he’d said anything else. And that I’d done something other than laugh at him.
There we are, two guys not quite twenty five, maybe over water, maybe finally over land, flying away without a care in the world when the Messerschmitts show up. Suddenly things get crazy. Flying into combat in a bomber ain’t like the movies. You don’t zoom around much, there’s no rolling or flipping. Usually the flight commander just tells you there’s incoming and you strap down. Then you listen to the guns going off until somebody’s plane quits working and crashes or the other guys decide to go home. When you’re the bomber’s actual payload you don’t even get to see what’s going on.
I’ll spare you what it was like. I don’t know why you kids like the kinds of movies you watch, the kinds of books you read. The whole point of that war was so you wouldn’t have to live all that but you still try anyways. But enough soapboxing. This is about Elmo.
I’d never seen him do anything unusual on any of our flights before. There were guys who were supposed to be able to mess up German radar just by sitting there and frowning, I always figured Elmo was one of them. Useful trick to have up your sleeve but not so great when they already know where you are. Turns out Elmo did his job once we were found, something that hadn’t happened on my last three trips into Europe.
So I’m strapped in down in the hold, Elmo’s up in the middle, ready to deal with problems, the gun crews are pounding away. Maybe we get hit some, maybe we don’t I honestly don’t remember. Maybe that lasts five, ten minutes, maybe it’s an hour. Hard to say.
Finally the flight commander yells from up in the cockpit, “Saints and ministers of grace preserve us!”
That’s Shakespeare, by the way.
So a second after he yells that I see Elmo go rushing past with a weird looking box under one arm. I figure if Elmo’s doing it then it must be Project business so I unstrap and try to get up to him without getting shot or falling over. And I made it most of the way, too, Liberators aren’t that big after all. But as I got to the point where I’d first seen him I happened to look out the window and said a few things that’d shame my mother.
Then, since it’s the kind of thing pilots like to know, I yelled up to the flight commander, “The wing’s on fire!”
“Relax.” Captain Benet, who was my supervising officer, caught up to me and started dragging me back to my seat. “It’ll be fine. Haven’t you ever stopped to wonder what it is Elmo does on these flights?”
“Radar, right?” Because what else would he be doing, know what I mean?
But the captain just snorts and says, “Do you even know what Saint Elmo’s fire is?”
“A… camping thing?”
“It’s a weird thing static causes around planes in flight or the tops of old sailing ships. It looks like fire but it doesn’t burn” He shoved me toward my seat and, since I trusted the guy, I let myself be sat down. “Elmo’s got a gizmo that lets him make the stuff pretty much whenever he wants. I’m guessing they’ve got him making it now. Which means-”
The plane suddenly dove down and I was fumbling to get strapped back in.
“-we’re going to be playing the wounded bird any time now,” Captain finished.
The floor remained tilted at a really uncomfortable angle for a while. And I mean at least a weak, possibly longer. Then the bombardier stuck his head into the bay and said, “There’s one plane that won’t break off. I think the rest left to play with the bomber streams, but if this last guy rides us to the deck he’s gonna nail us when we try and pull up.”
“Can’t your gunners peel him off us?” Captain asks.
“They’re trying. But you may have to jump out early.”
“I can do that,” I say, “but Captain Benet’s gonna splatter something fierce if he bails at this height.”
“Thanks for your concern,” he says, real dry like. Then he thinks for a second. “Jump now.”
“What?” The bombardier and I ask together.
“Fighters can turn sharper than bombers, so they dive longer too, and pilots like to attack from above because it’s easier to hit from that angle. Jump now and hop back up to take out Fritz as his plane comes in for the kill. We’ll circle back and I’ll jump once we get some altitude back.”
There ain’t anyone who sees the really stupid stuff coming. Particularly when it involves people jumping five or six stories straight up and tearing apart a fighter plane with their hands, though that’s not actually how it happened. The thing I remember the most is bailing out of a plane going well over a hundred miles an hour and pushing out, against the ground, as hard as I could as I came down. I hit hard and jumped a couple of times, like my dad and granddad taught me. Flailing around on the way down I caught a small tree, about as big around as my leg, with an arm and knocked it over, which gave me an idea. Rather than go up after the ME myself I sent the tree up instead.
Getting the leverage for that kind of throw is tricky – I had to wrap an arm around an even bigger tree in order to brace myself and get the thing started on it’s way, then I spun it around a bit to gain momentum. By the time I had that done I was sure that I’d lost my chance to hit the plane but all told it only took a few seconds.
I don’t think I need to tell you that flinging trees at incoming fighters is not something they cover in basic. Or even advanced training. I was pretty much on my own. So I gauged the angle as best I could and let the tree fly as the ME-109 got close.
Of course, I missed.
But the funny thing about a tree flying over your head at forty miles an hour is people tend to duck. It’s pure reflex. So when my tree sailed over his canopy I guess I can’t really blame him for swerving to avoid it. Unfortunately that messed up his attempt to pull out of his dive and he lost control, smashing into the ground seconds later. I winced and took a moment to shake myself out, then found a tree that looked like it could hold me and climbed it.
It took a few seconds for our flight crew to come back around and drop off Captain Benet. I knew when they did because for a few seconds the wings lit up with streamers of fire for just a second and I could see his chute backlit by them as he came down. That was the last I ever saw of Saint Elmo and his crew. I never paid him the three hundred dollars I owed him, because I made it back and he didn’t. Always felt like that made me a liar. And I never even knew his name. I came here today to fix that.
Addison and Helix stopped by the door as Wake and Clear Skies headed out into the small courtyard at the center of the Sumter office complex. Maybe twenty gravestones dotted the grass. There was another pair of men there, one aged enough to need a walker, the other somewhere between Helix and his grandfather. As Helix’ grandparents made their way across the cemetery it quickly became clear they were headed towards the same grave the other two were standing at. In fact, the older of the two men there waved the younger away.
“Who is that?” Addison asked.
“Chief Stillwater,” Helix said, leaning against the side of the building as he watched. “Elmo flew grandpa in. Stillwater hauled him out. Grandma made sure the weather was good for the trip. It was a self contained team.”
“Until they lost Saint Elmo.”
“That was part of it.” But Helix didn’t elaborate on what else might have changed.
Rather than possibly alienate her subject Addison decided to accept a change in subject. “What did Wake mean when he said he came here today to fix something?”
“This is kind of like our Arlington Cemetery here,” Helix said, gesturing around at the gravestones. “Most of the talents killed in World War Two are buried here, those we could find remains of. But even here, their lives aren’t – weren’t – remembered with real names. Not until last month, when mandatory codenames were officially abolished.”
“So they can finally find out who he was. But… don’t take this the wrong way, but does that make a difference?”
Helix gave her a sideways look. “I heard a lot of grandpa’s stories when I was younger. He thought I needed to know what I was signing up for if I joined Project Sumter, so he didn’t spare me much and he didn’t worry about whether I had clearance to know what he told me. But he never told me that story.”
She nodded. “I’m honored.”
“No.” He scowled. “Well, yes. You were. But you were also practice. If I know my grandpa, and I do, he’s not going to stop with just a name. Elmo had family. Possibly kids, definitely younger brothers and sisters. He’ll find them, if he can. And then he’ll tell the story again. He’ll tell it to any of them that will listen, until he’s gone and it stops being his story and it becomes their story.”
“Not quite.” Addison leaned back against the wall next to Helix and watched the three old soldiers standing quietly by the grave, and said, “It’s history.”
A hint of a smile passed unnoticed and Helix said, “I suppose it is, at that.”