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The Cloud Wizard

By David Goodis

They were all in awe of Bersbee, because the man was more than just a genius—he
was a veritable sorcerer in the clouds. And no one dared to ask him how he did it,
until one day
...

"THAT makes twenty-seven for Bersbee."

"Tops for this outfit."

"Tops for almost any outfit. He's due for a promotion soon. They can't decorate him any more, unless it's to give him a V. C."

And then they stopped talking, because Bersbee was entering the lounge of the Officers' Mess. His hair was new-combed, wet, and his face glowed red from a rough towel. He wore a clean uniform and his shoes were well polished. There was something fresh and assured and bright about him. Whenever the other men in Squadron 19 looked at Bersbee, their own feelings were upped. Their own confidence was heightened.

Flying Officer Bersbee was the best man in the outfit. He had been in the thickest part of the business since the Battle of France. Only this morning, over the Channel, near Portsmouth, he had knocked down his twenty-seventh Nazi. And he had done it with the customary Bersbee finesse. No madman stuff. No acrobatics. No suicide dives, hundred-to-one lunges, turns, swirls, roll-outs, loops. None of the wild flying that distinguished the work of other high-ranking men in the R. A. F.

With Bersbee it was cold and clean and very mathematical. Although he was just as fast as any of the others when it came to running from the Dispersal Hut, taking off, climbing, moving into combat stance, he always seemed to be taking his time. He always seemed to be moving with calculated deliberateness, as if he had drawn up blueprints for every move.

He rather looked the part. For his medium height he was overweight by about twenty pounds. But it was packed in hard, and he was built firmly, stocky in a square way. He had very black hair, severely tonicked, combed and brushed. He had eyes that were almost black. His features were well balanced, well lined, and his complexion was outdoors-and-flying red. But he was not handsome.

There was something cold and rigid and somewhat artificial in his appearance, and it kept him from being handsome.

Bersbee was twenty-seven years old. Before the war he had been a statistician, working in the actuary division of a large London insurance firm.

Now he walked toward his chair. He always sat in the same soft-backed leather chair. No other chair would do. If someone was already sitting in his chair, he would stand, even though there were other chairs. But things were at a point where nobody, not eve the squadron leader, would take Bersbee's chair. He didn't demand anything like this. He didn't ask for special privileges. But the others seemed to know what he wanted, and they rushed to cater to him. He was best man in the outfit. He had downed 27 enemy planes. A few days ago he had saved Luckerson. Last week he had pulled Flight Lieutenant Limm-Gawes from a tough spot. A short time before that he had saved Hackedorn. He had saved Bensing, and Illvers, and Litchington. He had pulled them out of it at a time when it seemed as though nothing could snatch them from Nazi bullets and a cold, deep Channel.

They adored Bersbee.

HE WALKED toward his chair and before he sat down he creased his trousers. Then, when he was settled comfortably in his chair, he looked up. And it was a signal for the white-coated waiter to come over with the silver tankard that held "half a can" of beer. Bersbee took it, raised it slowly to his lips. The waiter stood by. Sometime the beer was not cold enough. Sometime it was too cold.

"Cold enough, sir?"

"It'll do."

Bersbee slowly sipped his beer. The lounge of the Officers' Mess was filling rapidly now, as those who had taken part in the full-day combat were concluding the hot-and-cold shower, the nap, and coming to the lounge for the remainder of their evening relaxation. There had been a buzz of casual conversation before Bersbee's entrance, and then a lull during his walk toward the chair, and his receiving of the beer, and the ceremony of the first few sips. And then the conversation heightened again as more men entered the room.

Nobody spoke to Bersbee. They wanted to. They wanted to, very much. But it was gathered that he preferred to be let alone while he sipped his beer. Generally, he wanted to be let alone.

They all knew this, even the new men. It was immediately impressed upon the new men. Leave Bersbee alone. Don't ask him a lot of foolish questions. Don't try to engage him in conversation. Leave him alone. He has enough to do when he ...

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