March 24, 1945
WITH HIS hands clasped between his knees, Wes mumbled a quick prayer. This high up, God might actually hear him. He kept his chin tucked to his chest and his eyes squeezed shut. His mouth barely moved around the rushed words. About halfway through, he cracked open an eye anyway to make sure no one was watching.
Wes wasn’t known for nerves. He wasn’t known for flying either. He’d had his Jump Wings since ’42, but he somehow managed the whole war up until that point to avoid a paratrooper mission. The closest he’d come was in the Aleutians, but that Amchitka mission turned into a dry run when all was said and done, and it hadn’t even been his regiment, besides. That was back in the good old days, if there was such a thing as good old days—back when he wore the red, white, and blue braided cord draped over his shoulder, and the red arrowhead patch that marked him as a soldier in the 1st Special Service Force. The Germans had called them the Devil’s Brigade. Wes had called them brothers.
A joint Canadian-American elite commando unit, the Force had been an interesting experiment for the Allies—an experiment that had run its course. By the time they captured the Riviera that past September, the survivors of the Force had been used for just about every type of operation short of what they’d really trained for: winter warfare deep in enemy territory. Dissolved a few months back, they’d gotten split down the lines of long-irrelevant nationalities, the Americans and the Canadians parting ways after two long years of bleeding from the same vein. It all seemed so arbitrary to Wes. Like a flag could tell you who your family was?
A flag could’ve told him he had no business on that plane. The 513th Parachute Infantry Regiment was American, part of the 17th Airborne Division. When the Force had disbanded, Wes forged papers to get transferred under the command of Forceman, Major Robert Flynn. No one batted an eye. Wes could just as well have been American all along. But somewhere in France were the ashen remains of Sergeant Wesley Ian Pike’s torched Canadian identification card.
The C-46 was rattling like a bastard. Right before boarding, Wes had overheard the flight crew calling it The Flying Coffin. The name hadn’t inspired him with much confidence, even if he’d been careful to hide his lack of enthusiasm. Operation Varsity was his first real action in months and too damn important for him to complain. They’d been assigned to take out a couple of German tanks and two regiments of artillery along the eastern bank of the Rhine, and The Flying Coffin was going to get them to their drop zone, come hell or high water. There was chatter from the front about ground haze, but Wes could only make out every other word.
Wes cut his prayer short when a violent jolt of turbulence jostled him against the private seated to his right. All together there were thirty troops crammed against the sides of the plane. Personal space was at a premium. Wes shot the kid a smile with too many teeth. The metallic tang of adrenaline started to coat the back of his throat. A squeeze to his left elbow pulled his attention to Flynn.
Major Robert Flynn was a Brooklyn boy and looked like someone out of a pulp magazine. The tallest man Wes had ever met, Flynn had broad shoulders and biceps the size of Wes’s head. Flynn’s face belonged to a matinee idol—dark blue eyes, a square jaw, an inviting mouth. A tuft of blond hair peeked out from under his helmet.
As a pair, they cut an interesting figure. Wes was of average height and lean in build, but next to Flynn, he looked like a kid. His own hair was a dark brown, and his blue eyes were pale. The nurses would always call him handsome, and in return, Wes was always quick with a smile. He had an easy, loose-limbed confidence, whereas Flynn was a man of quiet authority and perfect posture. When they first met in training, Wes assigned himself the ongoing mission of getting Flynn to laugh. It was a task for which Wes was uniquely suited.
Flynn’s hand was still at Wes’s elbow, and there was a questioning look in his eyes that could pass for concern. Wes shook his head and plastered on his best shit-eating grin. He leaned in to yell over the din.
“I’m tellin’ ya, Bobby, if man were meant to fly, God’ve given us wings.”
The noise delayed Flynn’s reaction. When he finally made out what Wes said, his mouth curved around a poorly hidden snicker that alleviated some of Wes’s nerves. With a knowing glance, Flynn tapped his own Jump Wings. Wes rolled his eyes, but a commotion from the cockpit cut short his feigned annoyance. What little Wes could see of the sky outside erupted into flames as one of their own planes sunk out of view.
“—already missed the fuckin’ drop zone—”
“—boys need to jump now—”
Instinct brought Wes to his feet with the other men, their bodies and gear pressed together as they queued up in single file. His pulse was loud in his ears, the beat of his heart overtaken by a drunken drummer. Second to last to jump, Wes had the vantage point of watching the line shrink as each soldier exited the plane. As he got closer to the opened hatch, the chaos outside came into view.
There was no ground, just a thick cloud of charcoal smoke. Deployed parachutes dotted the sky for only a precious few seconds before passing out of sight. Wes took a breath that tasted more of fuel than air and swallowed with a grimace once it was his turn to go.
An explosion rocked him off his feet, sending him hurtling to the opposite end of the plane. Flynn cushioned Wes’s impact against the wall, his strong hands finding Wes’s shoulders and righting him quickly. Standing was difficult, and they held wide stances to maintain balance as the pilot lost control. A streak of flame painted the sky orange. The Germans had clipped their wing. They were going down. The Flying Coffin was living up to its name.
“I’ve got you!”
Flynn’s voice cut through Wes’s racing thoughts like a knife. Flynn all but frog-marched Wes to the hatch, the wind and the brutal heat from the fire licking at their faces.
“I’ve got you!” Flynn said again.
Wes nodded mutely, biting back the useless fear. He was better than this. He was a Forceman, for God’s sake. They didn’t make it this far just to die high over German territory. He checked his body’s position, keeping his fingers spread over the ends of his reserve parachute per protocol. With another grim nod, Flynn pushed Wes out into free fall just as enemy fire bombarded the plane.
A scream tore from Wes’s throat. Tossing his head, he tried to get a glimpse of the opened hatch to see if Flynn had made it out—if the flight crew had made it out—but smoke obscured his view.
The curse was felt more than heard. Wes’s chute hadn’t opened. He tugged on his reserve and watched the canopy unfurl above him, waiting for the shock of deployment. It never came. German fire reduced the silk to ribbons, and Wes was twisting, tumbling, falling, with nothing except one last glimpse of Flynn’s outstretched hand to lift his spirits.
December 6, 1957
IN MANY ways, working at a bakery was akin to being in the Army. They begged similar skill sets if not basic dispositions, and Robert Flynn possessed both. He woke in the dark, ten minutes before the wind-up alarm clock on his nightstand had the chance to sound. He slipped out of bed and locked the bell hammer in place—it had been months since he’d had to reset it, the spring sitting coiled and ready, waiting to fulfill a task he apparently didn’t require of it but nonetheless kept it prepped for—and made his bed before he was fully awake. He showered under a spray of hot water, but the resulting steam was ushered out the narrow window into the predawn cold, not luxuriated in. He dressed, a simple enough task as his wardrobe consisted of so few options. The regimen took less than twenty minutes, and the morning strongly resembled night when he stepped out into it.
The stillness of the hour was something he appreciated, even though it meant the shipping yards were winding down, which couldn’t be good for the neighborhood. To be honest, he didn’t like the docks, and he stubbornly believed Red Hook had held on long enough that it would survive them dying—surviving was enough. But though Flynn enjoyed the stillness, he took long strides and maintained a brisk pace as he walked because he did not enjoy the cold. December by the waterfront was a misery in that regard, but it always had been, so at least it was familiar. Flynn knew he’d be stripped to his undershirt and standing in the blasting heat of a wall of ovens soon enough. The cold was temporary.
A street and an alley made of brick—the last of the old Belgian block that had been paved over throughout so much of the city at the turn of the century—cradled the bakery, which was wedged between a corner store and a shoe repair shop. The stones in the alley were so old and so ill-tended that they felt more like cobblestones, uneven and misshapen, but Flynn crossed them without so much as scuffing a heel. He’d been traversing them as part of his morning routine since his youth, albeit with a hiatus of some years during the war. If he had to, he could draw each brick from memory.
Inside, Flynn fell to the second leg of his day. Some dough had been left to sit in storage overnight, slowly turning to the perfect consistency for baking. A few loaves he had frozen and removed now to thaw. Several batters he started from scratch, for the scones he’d promised his landlady and the plain donuts his regulars expected on Fridays.
It was utter chaos to watch—Flynn twisted dough and turned giant trays inside the ovens, and mixed and rolled out a day’s worth of pastries and breads without stopping until the room was blistering and smelled of yeast. When the baguettes and round loaves were ready for the cooling racks, he turned his attention to the more finicky danishes, to glazing pastries with egg whites and dusting them with sugar, grinding the crystals in his palm and scattering them with easy turns of his wrist.
When the countertops reflected more blue than gray, the merest implication that the sun was considering making an appearance, he turned on the front lights and started the coffee brewing, then filled the case and the baskets, and brought the donuts out to cool.
This always left him with a spare half hour. He sat at one of the small shop’s two booths while he drank a mug of builder’s tea and looked at the framed photographs hanging on the walls. The pictures were almost all prewar and therefore black and white, and Flynn challenged himself to remember the faces and favorite sport coats and cloche hats in the colors he knew they’d been. They were family photographs and pictures of longtime patrons, and they spanned fifty years of fashions and friends and the neighborhood. He named as many of the people as he could in his head, finished his tea, then went to unlock the front door and turn the hand-painted wooden sign from “Sorry, We’re Closed” to “Welcome! We’re Open.” The previous owner’s wife, Mrs. Weiss, had made it herself some fifteen years before her death, and if the old man had never had the heart to replace it, Flynn certainly wasn’t going to be the one to do so.
The bakery had always been a second home, and when Flynn was orphaned at age twelve over the course of one rough winter, Mrs. Weiss convinced her husband to let Flynn stay and earn his keep. Flynn could say with certainty that the Weisses had known his parents no better or worse than any other regular customers from the neighborhood, but what little they knew of Flynn sufficed to inspire the baker and his wife to take him in. Though a sickly child, frail and weak, between the heat of the ovens and the nature of the work, he’d grown into a strong, healthy young man. Flynn might have stayed a baker’s burgeoning apprentice and would-be son had he not caught the interest of a military-minded senator patronizing the bakery two years before war broke out in Europe.
Flynn’s unintentional display of bravery and athleticism during an attempted robbery coincided with Senator Elverton Kirby’s visit to Red Hook—unbeknownst to anyone in the bakery. The theft thwarted and the police gone from the scene, Flynn found himself answering yet more questions from a patron who’d hung around through the ordeal. When one’s home was attacked, one defended it—Flynn explained as much to Kirby, who, on his next visit, formally introduced himself. He was keenly interested in how Flynn tried to diffuse the situation before resorting to violence. Suddenly the Senator was a weekly regular, always coming in near and staying past closing, always talking to Flynn about his take on the state of the neighborhood, the political situations brewing abroad, his thoughts on the proposed housing developments that would prove to be the last of the New Deal’s beneficence for Red Hook.
In the spring, Kirby proposed sponsoring Flynn’s application to West Point. Though Flynn was reluctant to leave the Weisses behind, knowing there would be no one to care for them after he’d left, they encouraged him to apply, and for weeks after his acceptance, there wasn’t a customer who made it out the door before being told the good news. Senator Kirby’s patronage subsided, but he managed to come in for the small party the Weisses threw toward the end of the summer. When Flynn told him the academic degree he’d be pursuing was a Bachelor of Arts, Kirby laughed and commented he was happy to have nominated a warrior poet.
Once the war ended and his duty to his country was fulfilled, there was no other place Flynn wanted to go but back to Brooklyn. When he returned, parts of the building were already sold off, providing one story of private offices and another of small apartments directly above the bakery, which remained in the old couple’s possession. Flynn was now the bakery’s sole proprietor, the Weisses having passed away years before. It still said WEISS BAKE SHOP in the tile and stonework signage above the lintel and, as far as Flynn was concerned, would do so for as long as he drew breath. He still kept every letter the Weisses had written to him tucked away in his nightstand drawer.
Flynn took his place behind the counter before the morning’s first customers—breathing in deep and smiling gratefully beneath winter hat brims and red noses—pushed out of the cold and into the bakery. After the first round of local blue collars heading for Manhattan had swept through, followed by the steno girls who lived with parents or cousins, and a few local clergy, Flynn selected a couple of the morning’s best rolls to set aside with the scones in the white paper box he had prepared for his landlady’s routine visit.
Mrs. van Wilder was always impeccably dressed and very straightforward. Twice widowed, she’d inherited the building Flynn lived in from her second husband and now resided in the ground floor apartment. Flynn had moved into the bachelor apartment upstairs when he came back from the war, liking that the place was quiet, inexpensive, and far enough from the bakery to provide a buffer between himself and most of its customers, but close enough that it was an easy walk. Beyond pointed questions about whether or not he’d ever find himself a nice girl to marry, such a handsome boy like him, Mrs. van Wilder left Flynn to his own devices. They were mostly polite and sometimes wry with each other, and kept their own counsel. It was precisely the arrangement Flynn had needed. When he spotted her signature red hat through the window, he abandoned the register to hold the door for her. She chose to sit at the counter, and he poured her coffee and listened to her daily report. With Mrs. van Wilder, it was never just the typical bemoaning of changing times. She was too shrewd for that.
“You see all this talk in the news about Sputniks and rockets and Russians, but the real problems are looming right here at home,” she asserted, watching Flynn tie the box of her selections with red and white twine. A sharp ringing sounded from the phone hung on the bakery’s wall, and Flynn leaned in just enough to catch Mrs. van Wilder’s eye as he crossed the length of the counter to answer it.
“We’ll make it,” he told her, and she smiled after him as he tucked the receiver between his jaw and shoulder and took the order. He saw Mrs. van Wilder out some ten minutes later, armed with her to-go box and renewed strength against the cold. The brass bell that signaled visitors always seemed to ease something in Flynn’s chest he hadn’t realized was quite so taut, and he spared a moment to lift his hand to the wood of the doorframe and rub over an old scar in the molding, long since worn down and softened and painted over, but never fully repaired. It was the only visible scar the bakery bore from the night of the robbery, and it hadn’t even been one of the robbers who had put it there. Flynn smiled at the unbidden memory of Teddy, at the time just sixteen, wide-eyed and brandishing a baking sheet. His best friend since childhood, Theodore Kelley had also impressed the Senator, but the two-year difference in their ages meant Teddy stayed behind when Flynn went away. He realized it had been a few weeks since they’d spoken in person, and he guiltily made a mental note to at least call his friend before the week was out.
The rest of the day passed without incident until just before closing. Flynn was helping the notoriously indecisive Elmer Goodwin decide between the fattigmans and the rugelach when a man stormed through the front door. The bell chimed violently, and Elmer jumped in surprise.
Gathering himself, Elmer adjusted his glasses and returned to his careful deliberation without further distraction, but Flynn’s focus was drawn to the stranger. About Flynn’s age and sharply dressed in a fur-trimmed wool greatcoat and slacks that didn’t have a trace of snow or salt on the hem, he was obviously well-to-do and not a local. The stranger didn’t bother removing his hat, but he tugged off his gloves—black, leather, and supple enough that they folded up easily—and absently dropped them into his pocket. He squinted around the bakery, with dark, expressive eyes, a neatly manicured Vandyke accenting the twist of his mouth as something on the wall caught his curiosity. Flynn couldn’t tell if it was a skeptical look or an amused one. It bothered him that he couldn’t.
“Can I see those li’l Norwegian ones again?” asked Elmer, startling Flynn back to attention. Flynn nodded with a patient smile—a quality not shared by the stranger.
“Oh, for the love of…,” he said, striding forward. He slapped several bills onto the counter. At the top of the stack was a ten. “Just give the man both.”
Elmer tried to protest, but the stranger grasped his shoulder and insisted with a forced smile. “My treat.”
“W-Well, all right, Mister,” said Elmer, turning to Flynn with the pleased expression of someone who’d met an unexpected windfall. “I’ll take both.”
Flynn hid a frown as he prepared Elmer’s order—or the stranger’s, rather. Elmer seemed happy enough as he exited the shop, but the exchange left Flynn unsettled. A single ten-dollar bill was enough to more than quintuple Elmer’s order, and as Flynn opened the register drawer and began to fan the bills out, he saw the telltale curve of a 2 peeking out.
“Sir, you gave me—” The word caught short in Flynn’s throat as he turned back to face the storefront. There was no one else in the bakery.
He thumbed through the rest of the bills. There was seventy dollars total between the ten and the twenties, but that wasn’t the strangest thing. A flimsy index card slipped from the bills as Flynn rifled through them. He lifted it from the counter and saw his name jotted on the unlined side, then turned it over. In small cramped handwriting was an unfamiliar address and below it was a note.