(A cautionary tale which demonstrates the pernicious effects of reading too much W E Johns as a child and too much J G Ballard as an adult)
It was the kind of cloudless summer day that I had grown to hate. I circled at ten thousand feet, with Ginger on my left wing watching Algy and Bertie getting into position below us. There were a few pleasure craft on the bay below me, most of them huddled in close to the shore. A few - most likely anglers - had found the nerve to cruise out further. I knew that they would be heading for the shore as soon as Algy started work.
Algy reached the start of his run and began on the first "C", with Bertie behind a little above him. Ginger and I circled, keeping ourselves between Algy and the sun as much as we could, our eyes peeled for Von Stahlein and his flying circus. Raymond had warned us to expect him at this morning's briefing. We didn't need the warning; on a day like this we couldn't expect to have the sky to ourselves for long. The best we could hope for was to get a good start on him and his flying circus.
By the time Algy got started in on the "O", the fishermen were well on their way back to shore. The vessels near the shore huddled even closer to the beach. I knew a lot of them were probably cursing us; I didn't go out much any more and when I did I was careful to avoid the topic of what I do for a living. Not that I cared this morning; people might curse us for ruining their day at the beach or on the water, but when Von Stahlein and his unsavoury crew turned up, none of them would be able to keep their eyes off the show.
Algy was making good progress - he was already at work on the second "C". Like a fool I let myself think that maybe today would pass without incident that Algy would get through all eight letters and the hyphen without Von Stahlein showing. Every time we flew one of these missions I thought that same stupid thought and every time I was wrong. Von Stahlein and his goons showed while Algy was lining up for the first "A".
I saw Algy lay down the first stroke of the "A" and looked ahead to see three Piper Cherokees coming straight at us. Ginger was already banking into a climb to gain height on them. A lot went through my head; a curse at my moment of inattention, relief that Von Stahlein hadn't replaced the pilot he lost in our last encounter. That was probably why we had found an empty sky when we arrived in the free flight zone; with only two spare pilots Von Stahlein had decided to stick to running us off, rather than trying to put his own employer's brand name up in the sky. I would have made the same decision in his place. One extra letter doesn't look a lot on paper but it can make the difference between life and death up here, on our front in the cola wars.
Von Stahlein and his goons went straight for Algy and Bertie; Ginger and I powered down after them. They were flying in vee formation; Von Stahlein usually took the lead plane. Bertie was coming up to meet them; Algy moved on to the hyphen. Algy had nerve; as long as we kept Von Stahlein's goons tied up he would carry on right to the final "A". Bertie started to zigzag, to avoid the tracer from Von Stahlein's wing-mounted 10-mm machine guns.
Their formation was starting to break up; leaving Von Stahlein to Bertie and his left-hand man to Ginger, I concentrated on getting Von Stahlein's right hand goon into my sights.
I put a burst of tracer through his fuselage; he broke off into a dive towards the bay below. A tight climbing turn brought me back into position above Algy, but no-one was bothering him. We had the sky to ourselves again. Looking down, I saw that my man hadn't pulled out of his dive; he was headed for the water. Two boats were already heading out from the shore. If ours got to him first there wouldn't be any rescue.
As soon as Algy finished, we formed up to head home. Raymond would debrief us, and congratulate us on a job well done and on Monday we would get a message from head office thanking us for our splendid efforts to hold market share against tough competition. Right then I didn't care; as usual I couldn't help thinking about the pilot who had gone down and wondering why I ever let Raymond talk me into this contract in the first place.
Marketing is hell.