by Dan Swanson
Lily DeLuna was glad when September arrived, and she was through playing baseball for the year. Well, actually, she would have preferred to play for one more week, so that the South Bend Blue Sox would have a chance to win the Women’s World Series, but there was always next year. Lily had not been home since the middle of May, and she had never been away from home that long before. She was sad to leave her teammates, many of whom had become great friends, but she knew she would see most of them next year.
She was looking forward to a couple of weeks of vacation to enjoy the last days of summer before fall officially arrived, when she would have to start work on her off-season job. The owner of the Blue Sox had found her a job as a mechanic in an airplane factory in Cleveland. She would be close enough to home to come home for weekends if she wanted, and she would be helping the war effort. Just knowing she was going to be building airplanes helped her feel closer to her brother Eddie, although the planes of today were incredibly more advanced than the obsolete Swordfish he had been flying when he was shot down in 1939.
Lily’s father had been a pilot in the Great War, and after the war he had purchased a biplane and had his own crop-dusting business. He occasionally flew in air shows as well. Lily had grown up around planes, and she also loved to fly. But what she missed most during the baseball season was riding her motorcycle. The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League would have had conniption fits if they knew one of their demure and ladylike girls actually rode a Harley-Davidson, so this was her first time out on the bike since mid-May.
She had arrived at the train station around noon, and spent most of the afternoon getting reacquainted with her parents. Then she headed out to the barn, pulled her bike out of her storage closet, checked it over closely, and headed out for a ride. She rode around almost aimlessly for several hours, letting the wind blow the big city dust from her hair. The Peashooter was running a little rough, and she would have to tune it up tomorrow morning, but for now it was great just to be riding.
After a couple of hours, when it started getting dark, she headed for home. She was startled to realize that she was probably forty miles from Redcliff, but she knew the roads, and the Peashooter would easily have her home in under an hour. She could probably have made it in half that time, but she wasn’t sure she trusted the brakes; the Peashooter was originally a racing bike, and they had come from the factory without brakes, to save weight. Eddie had added brakes when he converted the bike for street riding, but neither he nor Lily had ever pushed the bike to top speed to test them out. Tonight didn’t seem like exactly the time for a smoke test.
About ten miles outside of town, while she was stopped for a silly four-way stop on a stretch of road that nobody ever used, the Peashooter’s headlamp gave out. It was too dark to drive without it, so Lily hopped off the bike, pushed it off the road, and opened the under-seat tool kit. There was another bulb secured to the inside of the headlamp, and it would only take a few minutes to change it out. She had just pulled out her electric torch when she heard a car approaching. She decided to wait until it had passed before she flipped on the torch. She was far enough back from the road that she doubted they would see her.
However, the driver in the car didn’t behave as Lily expected. Just short of the intersection, the car pulled off the road and then maneuvered until it was screened from the road by some bushes. The headlamps were doused, and the motor stopped. By this time, Lily was highly curious about what was going on, so she very quietly put the bike up on its kickstand and, taking the torch, crept closer to the intersection to see what was going on.
She watched in silence for about ten minutes. Then, a couple of miles down the road, a pair of headlamps appeared. The men in the car saw it, too, and it seemed to be what they were waiting for. The driver opened the door and got out. Lily dropped flat to the ground; the car was diagonally across the intersection from her, with the driver standing right at the corner by the stop sign. If she had remained standing, he would have been looking right at her. When the door opened, the car’s dome light had showed three other men besides the driver in the car.
Lily thought these guys weren’t too good at this sneaking around they were doing, or they would have disabled the dome light. But the other headlamps were probably a mile away, and there was no way anyone but Lily could have seen that quick flash of light. Besides, they had no way of knowing that she was there.
The lights grew louder and were followed by the roar of a truck engine. Within a couple of minutes, Lily could make out the cab. The waiting man crouched down in the weeds, concealing himself somewhat, but apparently not too worried about being seen. Finally, the truck reached the intersection. It turned out to be a gasoline tank truck, and Lily could barely make out the Standard Oil logo by the faint moonlight. The crouching man stood up and pulled something from his face.
Instantly the truck, the car, and all four men disappeared. One instant they were there, and then they were gone. Not only that, even the smell of the diesel fumes were gone, like they had never existed. Lily was stunned. Was she going crazy? What the heck had just happened? She had never experienced anything like this before. If she couldn’t trust her senses, what could she trust? She thought maybe she had better head for home right now, tell her parents about this, and then see a doctor first thing tomorrow.
When she started to get up from the ground, she realized she was very stiff, as if she had been lying on the cold ground for a long time. But she’d only been here for a few minutes, hadn’t she? This was so weird. She flipped on the torch and looked at her watch. It was past midnight, but she didn’t think it could possibly be any later than 10:30 P.M. at the latest. Somehow she actually had been lying on the side of the road for about an hour and a half, and she had absolutely no memories of it. That time had passed in less than the blink of an eye for her.
Now she was really worried. Something must be seriously wrong with her. She had better head for home now. As she used the torch to light her way back to her bike, she was startled to hear a man yelling.
“Hey! Who are you? Where the hell is my truck? What’s going on here?” She aimed the light at him, and discovered that he was wearing a Standard Oil uniform. And he looked very much like she felt — a little stunned, bewildered, and worried that he might be going crazy. And in his case, angry as all get out. “I don’t know how you stole my truck, but you better give it back to me!” He lunged at her, but she easily moved out of the way.
“Take it easy, mister! If I had really stolen your truck, would I still be here? I don’t know what’s going on, but I don’t have anything to do with it. Maybe if you calm down, we can figure something out!”
It wasn’t going to be quite that easy. Lily had to trip him the next time he lunged, and she sat on him until he finally calmed down. They shared stories, and his was very similar to hers. Except he hadn’t seen the man by the road, or the car with the other men in it. But he did have information that Lily lacked.
“This isn’t the first time this has happened. Over the past three weeks, six gasoline trucks have vanished, and none of the drivers knew what had happened. The FBI has all of them locked up now, and they’re being investigated for treason. You’re the first witness other than the drivers. You need to tell your story to the State Police, so my buddies can get out of jail!”
Lily didn’t feel like spending the rest of the night dealing with State Police, so she convinced the driver that he should come home with her, and they would see the State Police tomorrow. When she got home, she woke her folks, and they set the driver up in the guest room. He called his wife to assure her he was safe.
Early the next morning, he and Lily, along with her folks, headed for the closest State Police headquarters, where they told their stories. The FBI was called in, and they grilled the two of them for several hours. Shortly after noon, they were let go, and the FBI made calls to release the other drivers. They theorized that some kind of sleeping gas was being used to knock out the truck drivers, and that the stolen gas was being sold on the black market to people who wanted to avoid the current gasoline rationing. One of the agents estimated that the thieves could probably get about $800 per truckload of gasoline, which was quite a lot of money in 1943.
In the dark, Lily had not been able to recognize the model of car, although she thought it might be a Plymouth. The FBI agents were going to head for that intersection and see if they could find any tire tracks or other evidence about where the truck had been driven.
Relieved to get that ordeal over with, Lily decided to spend that afternoon visiting her uncle, George DeLuna. She hoped there might be a little less excitement this afternoon.