The Gods of Heavenly Punishment: Excerpt

The plane was enormous, perhaps a hundred and fifty feet across and a hundred more in length. Jean Harlow was splayed across the bow in bright paint, her breasts outlined in such detail that the artist might as well have depicted her naked.

“Take a good look, Mr. Reynolds,” LeMay called over, looking straight at the architect. “That’s the she-wolf that’s going to blow your house down today.”

“That is, if she can stay in the air,” Mendelsohn murmured. Anton nodded: a similar prototype had crashed to earth just last week, killing Boeing’s Research Division chief and half its design team. Jamison had soberly assured this group that they’d identified the problem, and that a similar “incident” was in no way likely today. Still, Anton couldn’t help but imagine it: the Blonde Bombshell screaming towards them. The hushed shock, and then the shouting panic. The bunker shattering as completely as had his himitsu-bako. What did the Army say, when they bombed American civilians in the Utah desert? Would they tell Béryl he’d died in the line of duty? Would it earn him a posthumous Purple Heart?

Yet the Bombshell showed no sign of faltering. Almost lazily, it circled the proving ground in the opposite direction from which the hawk had. Once. Twice.

“That’s Captain Frank Marshall in the pilot’s seat,” Colonel Jamison shouted. “One of Curtis’ disciples. Flown three missions over Germany.”

“That’s right,” LeMay confirmed. “Though he agreed to do this for me only if he could get reassigned to do the real deal in Tokyo. I told him, if you hit the mark, you can have Yokohama and Osaka too.” He smiled. “Hell. I’ll even throw in Hiroshima.”

Another round of cocktail chuckles, more seen than heard at this point. Anton shifted his gaze to the bomber’s eight small squares of front window, but failed to make out the pilot’s head. Instead, he saw Hana’s back and gently bumping spine, arching like a slim white bridge beneath him. He tried to imagine his village as LeMay’s Jap-hating pilot was seeing it. But all that came was Hana, lying as she’d lain when he left her in the teahouse, her hair fanned out like a black halo. Then there came a slight but discernible shift in the plane’s drone—a kind of distant, metallic grinding.

“Here it comes,” Mendelsohn shouted.

On cue, the Bombshell’s bays opened up in a huge, robotic yawn, releasing a small hail of incendiaries that looked almost harmless, even pretty. As they tumbled towards the earth Anton felt his bile rise. He’d somehow thought there would be more warning before the airstrike. More commentary, or a countdown. But looking around he saw surprise on no other faces. The men were rapt and intent, the room emptied of all sound but the whistle of the tumbling incendiaries, the thunderous scream of the plane’s engines. Every set of tin-rimmed eyes followed those shining spheres as they made their trip to the target. You are American, he reminded himself. This is why you built it. Every step, every plank was for this.

And then: It wasn’t your job to save her.

He watched in vague wonder as the first bomb hit the village, hit the rippling roof, chipped a few smoke-toned tiles. Flared briefly. It looked for a moment as if it merely went out after that, and, perhaps treasonously, his heart lightened a little. But then the others hit, one small gleaming slash after the other. A hailstorm of steel and fire and jellied petroleum against a roof made, at worst, for a light snow. There was a breathless second where the cold air seemed to hold its breath. Then the entire rooftop was a-dance with flames.

“There she goes,” shouted LeMay. “Happy New Year’s, fellows!”

Scattered clappings, some catcalls. Another handful of dancing orbs. A few more flashes, a groan. The whole village was alight now, a massive wall of flames. The heat from it hit even two hundred yards away: Anton felt his helmet warm against his brow. His eyebrows stung and his ears rang with a huge whoosh and an earsplitting boom, as if the air itself inside the house had caught fire. He closed his eyes again and saw the trunk, the bathstool. The tiny, dolless dollhouse with its sticky little bowls. He saw his shoji explode like so many distress beacons, the flames starting at floor level and running neatly upwards, until they reached the seething sheet of swirling gasses and sparks that by now must surely have engulfed the room’s ceiling.

He shut his eyes and saw another image: a woman’s dark silhouette, slim and unclothed. Leaping into a flickering red plain.

When he looked again the building’s outside structural beams had caught, and the walls. The house groaned a creaking, sighing death call. It leaned slightly to the right. Then a bit more, as though teasing them.

“Go on then,” shouted someone; and obediently, it collapsed to the ground in an inverted rainfall of orange and red sparks. More applause.

“Damn,” shouted LeMay, above the din. “He hit it. He hit the fucking thing, right on the mark.”

Mendelsohn turned back to Anton, his whole face red but elated. He took his helmet off and his brow streamed with sweat. “Amazing,” he shouted, as the sound of the engines dimmed and the crackle of the fire outside softened, bit by bit. “I believe, Mr. Reynolds, that I have won my wager. Just look at that damn thing burn.”

Anton looked, his eyes tearing—it was the heat.

“Congratulations, Docs!” LeMay shouted over at the two architects. “Here’s hoping we do as well on German Village!”

“Hear, hear,” cheered Mendesohn. He grinned at Anton expectantly.

But Anton had lost his voice. His throat was dry, his head ached. The room reeked of acrid-smelling smoke. He rubbed his eyes to clear them, then looked at his wristwatch. Holy Christ. It seemed impossible, but it had taken just fourteen minutes. Fourteen minutes, and the entire village had been reduced to a burning heap of ash. And it wasn’t done yet. The flames were lower now but still flickering, hungrily licking the blackened sand.

There would be nothing left. Nothing left at all.

Excerpted from The Gods of Heavenly Punishment by Jennifer Cody Epstein. Copyright © 2013 by Jennifer Cody Epstein. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.