Still trying to catch up on all the stories, but was in the writing mood...

An Airman’s Odyssey – by Capt James Arthur Collins, VC, MC

Part Sixty-Seven: In which I meet my inquisitor

The noises of the street filtered through a window across the dull yellow-painted office where a lazy fan confused the wisps of smoke from the chinless colonel’s pipe. I had been here far too long and was bristling under the tone of his questions.

“Let me ask you again, Captain, how would an American journalist know about a VC before it’s gazetted? And what would give that same American the ridiculous idea that the RFC planned to keep you in Britain indefinitely?”

“I have no idea, sir,” I said. My mind was racing. Who was this fellow? If I don’t tell him the truth, what could happen? I wanted a cigarette but forced myself to speak and move slowly. I did not want to fidget about under his gaze.

“Have you spoken to any journalists recently?” he asked.

“Seriously, sir?” This was ridiculous. “Since the first two zeppelins I destroyed and the VC, the RFC and various members of the government have done little but trot me about like a prize pony from one event to another, all of which have been packed with journalists. Until two days ago, that is. Since then I’ve been ordered to keep my mouth shut. My last two Zeppelin kills have been hush-hush and I’ve pretty much been confined to barracks. And I’d like to understand why I’m being punished for defending London. Can you tell me that, please, sir?”

The colonel leaned forward and stared with watery blue eyes. He stroked his yellowing moustache. “Captain Collins, have you or have you not spoken with a man named Edward Price Bell?”

Edward? That was new. I answered somewhat technically. “Sir, I have never been introduced to anyone by that name. I’ve had questions thrown at me by hundred of reporters, not all of which identified themselves by name.”

“Captain Randolph Swanson is a friend of yours, is he not? If not from you, how else would this Bell fellow know about Swanson doing something deserving of a VC?”

I shook my head. “Sir, I’m in Essex. How am I supposed to have known about it?”

“You have aviator friends in France, I suppose,” he replied.

“There are rather a lot of English and colonial airmen in France, sir. I understand they have something of a war on.”

“And how does he know you are to be posted within England?” he asked me.

“Sir. I don’t know that’s a certainty myself yet. I have asked to return to France.

There was a long pause in the conversation. The colonel consulted his file and mumbled to himself, “Ah yes, Anderson.” He pointed with the stem of his pipe. “Answer this, then. Have you ever met or spoken with a man named Alex Anderson, an American, too.”

This one was too easy. “No sir, I swear I have never spoken to a man named Alex Anderson in my life.” I glanced at my watch. It was nearly two. I was supposed to pick up Miss Anderson at two-thirty in Holburn.

The questions tapered off. Lieutenant-Colonel Palmer fidgeted and tapped his pencil on his writing pad. “I think that is all for today” he said at last.

“Am I still forbidden to talk to the press if they approach me?”

“Say nothing about operations. You may talk about your first two Zeppelins. There will be an announcement about the airship kills by your section, but no pilot will be named and you are to say nothing to change that. Understood?”

And finally I was out of there and off to retrieve my Vauxhall. Alex and I were bound for Salisbury. In my pocket I had the second wire from Swany: "Meet 29 September at Old George. Come thirsty." Tonight we would make it as far as Reading, where I had reserved rooms on separate floors on the hotel. The last thing I wanted to do was frighten Alex off.

The drive to Reading was tedious. Alex was nervous and so was I. It drizzled and we had the top up. After a while she slumped over against the window and I heard a faint snoring. It was eight by the time we got to Reading, just time to have a meat pie and chips in the hotel bar and then she excused herself and went upstairs. I had a couple of pints on my own and retired unto my virtuous couch.