Shelley thrust his body through the jammed escape hatch and tumbled into the slipstream. The prop blast flung him away from the crippled aircraft like a grain of sand in a wind storm. After the first two seconds, he lost any sensation of free fall. The wind tore at his clothes and distorted his face. He had just a few seconds to attach the parachute and pull the D-ring.
His hands were extended beyond his head, and his hands clutched the canvas handle with a death grip. He tried pulling his arms into his chest, but the wind was too strong. Rotating his body, he caught a glimpse of the ground. He estimated less than ten thousand feet. Eighty seconds left.
Dresden appeared through the broken clouds. Smoke swirled skyward from a monstrous firestorm. He pulled the chute into his chest easily. He removed one hand from the chute, found one of the clips and attached it to the ring on his parachute harness. One more fastener. Five thousand feet.
His body twisted in the air, and he lost control of the chute. Half-connected, the chute banged against his chest. The force of the blows stretched his harness and threatened to rip the parachute away from his body.
Each time the chute thumped against him, he failed to grab it. He glanced toward the ground. Less than two thousand feet. Sixteen seconds. Using both hands, he hung on. He attempted to fasten the other clip, but the harness ring was gone, torn away by the force of the wind.
He had no choice. Pull the D-ring and pray. Either one clip would hold the chute attached to his harness, or it wouldn't. One thousand feet. Pull the rip cord!
The canopy exploded past his face, followed by suspension lines and risers. The harness snapped his body like a whip.
He hung lopsided at a forty-five degree angle. After a few moments, he managed to grasp one of the risers, then the other one. Once upright, he oriented himself.
His eyes widened in horror. "No! Not there!" An east wind carried him toward Dresden. Five hundred feet. He recognized the frozen Elbe River, a crystalline blue belt of ice.
He maneuvered the chute toward the countryside, but even under the best of conditions, army parachutes were difficult to change course. Finally, he gave up.
The heat from the inferno below engulfed him. Between his boots, the horrible catastrophe increased in size. The drift of his descent would carry him west of the river into the center of the city.
The Elbe River was one of the escape routes Colonel Benson had briefed the crews about. Follow the river upstream, south through the mountains toward Prague, Czechoslovakia. Skirt the city on the west side. Take the second tributary and locate the village of Pisek. Find the steepled church where partisans would give him directions to the next safe house.
Full blown fear surged through his veins and swelled his temples until he thought they'd burst. His descent seemed quicker now. He passed over the river less than a hundred feet from the ground. Straight ahead, a row of buildings burned, and a wall of fire leaped high above the rooftops creating a barrier in his path.
Frantic, he pulled himself up, using the risers, trying to avoid the blaze. Seconds before he floated into the holocaust, Shelley released his grip on the risers and raised his arms for protection. When he passed through the flames, his heavy leather clothes protected him from serious burns.
A park lay straight ahead. Beyond, another row of burning houses blocked his path. He had to land in the park. A crackling sound from above caused him to look up. His parachute was on fire, several panels already burning, sparks igniting the suspension lines.
A large tree loomed ahead. Helpless, he waited for the impact. Tree branches ensnared the chute, and he swung underneath the canopy and slammed into the trunk. The jarring blow rattled his teeth. Stunned, the park spun in tight fuzzy circles. He smelled burning nylon. The parachute disintegrated, panel by panel.
Twenty feet below, a shrill cry startled him. A German soldier pointed a rifle at him, his face grim and resolute.
"Luftgangster!" The soldier shouted. "Luftgangster!"
He was an old man who wore a moth-eaten Imperial Army overcoat of World War I with faded shoulder patches. A spiked helmet adorned his silvery head. Around his neck hung a Knight's Cross with oak leaf cluster, and he held an old rusty breech-loading single shot rifle with fixed bayonet.
He was a member of the Volkssturm, the Home Guard, composed of old men and young boys of the Hitler Youth.
Three young boys sprinted across the snow-layered park, no more than fourteen years old and tall for their age, big and stocky. They wore swastika arm bands on their motley uniforms. They yelled and screamed, eyes wild. Two of them brandished wooden clubs; the other carried an axe.
"Brigand! Murderer!" They taunted. The tallest boy picked up an icy chunk of snow and hurled it with amazing velocity.
The clump struck Shelley on the cheek and cut the skin. A trickle of blood ran down his cheek.
"Shoot him." The shortest boy looked at the old man and shouted. "Kill him!"
Despite Shelley's training, small tendrils of terror wrapped around his spinal cord.
When the fire burned through the suspension lines, he crumpled to the ground, twisting his ankle. A sharp pain sliced through his lower leg.
The boys pounced on him like wild hyenas and clubbed him. Their shrill voices of revenge carried into the cold air.
Shelley raised an arm to protect his head and rolled away from their blows. He sat against the base of the tree. With his other hand free, he unzipped his jacket and searched for his forty-five pistol.
His peripheral vision caught the flash of steel. The axe descended toward his head. An instant before the blade struck, he dodged aside. The axe penetrated the bark a few inches from his head. He struggled to his feet, kicking and swinging.
One boy jumped on Shelley's back and pummeled his head and face. Shelley wriggled free. The boys backed off for an instant. Finally, he freed the pistol from the holster.
He pointed the barrel at the boys. "Get back," he shouted. "Get back, or I'll shoot." His back was against the tree.
The old man stepped forward, face determined. A split gun stock swung to his shoulder. He aimed and pulled the trigger.
The bullet plowed into Shelley's left shoulder, and his arm went numb. He slumped against the tree. Searing pain sent shock waves to his brain. Shelley aimed his pistol and shot the old man in the chest.
As if yanked by a rope from behind, the old veteran jerked backwards. The rifle clattered across the frozen snow. His arms were stretched wide, his legs spread-eagled. Blood oozed from his mouth.
Shelley stared at death. He had never killed a man, not face to face anyway.
The tallest boy picked up the rifle and pointed the bayonet at him. His cheeks were rosy from the cold, baby-faced.
He should be in school, Shelley thought. The boy resembled his son, just a kid. His finger closed around the trigger.
"Stop, I don't want to kill you."
Faster than expected, the boy lunged forward and shoved the bayonet ahead.
Using his gun hand, Shelley parried but not enough. The blade caromed into his right thigh. "Damn you!" He smashed the pistol against the boy's head, and the skull collapsed with a sickening crunch.
The boy dropped like a sack of flour, his eyes stared in shock, his mouth twitched, his eyes glazed over.
Shelley pulled the bayonet out of his thigh and collapsed on his knees. Agony gripped him. A footstep on the hardened snow warned him of another attack. He swiveled away. The second boy rushed him, club raised high. The blow glanced off Shelley's good shoulder, and the momentum propelled them over and over on the ground, the boy on top.
An uncontrollable wave of self-preservation surged through Shelley. Survive! He jammed the muzzle in the boy's stomach and pulled the trigger. The gun leaped in his hand. The smell of gunpowder filled the air. He shoved the boy aside and looked at him. He was dead.