(2008) No infringement upon the rightful owners of "Combat!" and the characters thereof, is intended.  This piece of fan fiction is for enjoyment only, and in no way will the author gain monetary profit from its existence.

 

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"Murder's Melody"

Part One

 by Thompson Girl

 

 

"Hey, watch where you're driving!" Caje yelled.  

The front right fender of the supply truck brushed by the squad close enough to clip the edge of Billy's pack and spin him into the wall.  Kirby hurled an insult after the driver.  The remainder of the convoy swung farther left, choking the ragged line of soldiers with dust and exhaust, but leaving them room to march on toward the center of town. 

Just in time too, Caje thought, coughing as the air slowly cleared and the heavy rumble of the trucks faded.  They were coming up on Rue de Fleuve, and he wondered if, once again, the woman would be waiting on the street corner.

He wasn't the only one keeping an eye out.  He saw Kirby, Braddock, and Doc Walton watching too, wistfulness and envy in their eyes, each hoping she'd look at them today.  Caje smiled to himself.  Not a chance.  Not since they'd set foot in the town of Beaumere and she'd met Brockmeyer, even if the radio man had been content simply to watch her from afar.  He'd also been content to studiously ignore the ribbing he was now receiving from the rest of the squad.

And there she was, peeking around the street corner in her blue dress, a shawl around her shoulders.  Brockmeyer was at the front of the line, just behind Saunders, and he turned, a smile breaking out on his face.

"What's she see in him anyway?" the newly instated B.A.R. man muttered.  "I don't think he's even said two words to her."

"So what?" Braddock said.  "He never says much to anybody." 

"Besides," Billy said.  "She only speaks French and that's one language he doesn't understand."

Braddock gave Billy a crooked grin.  "You don't need to speak the same language for what those two have in mind, kid.  It's called luuuuve."

"Oh, is that what they call it?" Kirby muttered.

"What are you so bent out of shape for?"  Braddock turned on him.  "You weren't exactly having communication trouble with that brunette you met the other day yourself.  I don't recall her speaking a word of English either."

"Annnnnh."  Kirby rolled his shoulders and strode past.

The soldiers passed the girl's street, and Brockmeyer stepped out of line, walking backwards just to keep her in sight.  Ahead, Caje saw Lt. Hanley approaching.  Saunders started to say something, but the lieutenant held up a hand and gestured the men on while he crossed his arms and stopped in the street a few feet in front of the oblivious radio man.  Caje quickly side-stepped them both and stopped with the rest of the squad to see what would happen.

Brockmeyer, still watching the girl, backed directly into the lieutenant.  He caught himself, spun forward, his gaze lifting to Hanley's stern face. 

"What's the matter, Private?" Hanley said severely.  "You too good to fall in with the rest of the men?"

"No, sir," Brockmeyer said, abashed.

"You've been distracted and derelict in your duty since we got to Beaumere."

"No, sir!"

"For someone who claimed he was going to earn that extra stripe back, you're not exactly making a good impression."

"No, sir, it's not like that...."

"No?"  Hanley raised an eyebrow.  "Well, I have what you need right here."  He pulled out a folded piece of paper.

Brockmeyer's face fell.  "But sir--"

"A twenty-four hour pass," Hanley interrupted.

Brockmeyer froze.

The rest of the squad listening in exchanged envious glances.

"Lieutenant, you wouldn't be kidding me, would you?" Brockmeyer asked.

Hanley grinned broadly and handed him the paper.  "Twenty-four hours, Brockmeyer.  I suggest you make the most of it."  He nodded toward the woman.  "And I wouldn't keep a girl like that waiting.  Dismissed."

Brockmeyer returned the grin.  "Yes, sir!"  He cut across the street toward Rue de Fleuve and the waiting woman.  Caje watched them disappear around the corner, and he smiled to himself again.  He doubted they'd see Brockmeyer until the last minute of his pass was up.

Kirby's mouth was still hanging open.  "Now, that just ain't fair!  Brockmeyer gets a pass?  Brockmeyer?  Why's he get one?  Because he's making eyes at some dame?  What about the rest of us?"

"What about the rest of you, Kirby?" Hanley said, overhearing the comment.  "You got a complaint to make?"

"Well," Kirby faltered, then stood firm.  "Yeah.  I don't think it's fair he gets a pass and we don't."  He looked at the other squad members, trying to rouse up support. 

Braddock stepped up beside Kirby and said, "That's right, Lieutenant.  We've been pushing hard."

A chorus of agreement came from the other men.

Hanley surveyed them, his expression unwaveringly serious until they fell silent.  "Well, who infiltrated the Germans and rescued Saunders and Kirby, hm?" 

Guilty silence stretched as the squad members exchanged glances.

Hanley cocked his head slightly and went on, "Who found out the Krauts had a division of tanks coming up the line in time for us to stop them?  Don't you think that nets him a little reward?"

"Put him up for a Silver Star then," Kirby grumbled.

It was funny, Caje thought as he listened, the value they all placed on a pass nowadays.  Ribbons and medals didn't count for much when all they wanted was time off.

"That kind of backtalk can get you extra sentry duty," Hanley said sharply.  "You want that, Kirby?"

"No, sir."

Hanley glared a moment longer, then said, "Well, as it turns out," -- he reached in his pocket -- "I just happen to have passes for the rest of you."  His lips quirked into a smile. 

Kirby blinked and said, "Wha--?" 

"If you want them, that is, which, from all your complaining, I'm beginning to doubt."

But Kirby had already recovered from his shock, and a grin split his face.  "Want them!  Lieutenant--"

The rest of the squad was cheering by then, and whatever Kirby said was lost as they crowded around Hanley and claimed their right to twenty-four hours of free time.  Caje collected his and folded it into his pocket, next to his pay.  Billy stood beside him, carefully holding his as if it might blow away or turn into dust.

"Dismissed," Saunders said, then called, "Oh, and Kirby."

"Yeah, Sarge?"

"The MPs have this town locked down.  Obey the rules, will ya?  'Cause if you end up in the stockade, you're gonna stay there.  Got it?"

"Don't worry about me, Sarge!" Kirby said.

Caje said, "Thank you, sir!" to Hanley, then followed after the rest of the squad.

 

***

 

The bar had once been a side street café.  A sign still hung out front, but the original name was covered by a hand-painted cloth declaring the new establishment Club Paris.  It hadn't taken much inquiry to find out it was the hotspot in the large town of Beaumere.

Caje took care of the necessities first -- shower and a shave, fresh uniform, arranging for laundry to be done, finally enjoying some hot fresh food from the kitchen trucks.  Then, when evening fell, he joined Kirby, Littlejohn, Nelson, and Braddock at the club.  None of them were armed or wearing helmets.  They weren't required to carry weapons while on pass, in fact, the MPs discouraged it, the better to keep the peace.

Club Paris was a deep, narrow building, flanked by an alley on one side and several boarded-up businesses on the other.  They walked up the steps and pushed through the front door.  It wasn't easy; the joint was packed.  Inside, two rows of small tables lined both walls.  Halfway back, a blue-tinted electric light spotlighted a four-person jazz band.  Cigarette smoke hung heavy in the glare.  Beyond the stage stretched more tables and, at the very rear of the club, stood the bar.

"Well," Braddock said loudly, trying to be heard over the music and the myriad conversations.  "Think they like the Eiffel Tower around here?"

Caje studied the walls again and had to admit, he couldn't find a spot that wasn't papered in prints and flyers, drawings and photos, all of them featuring the Paris landmark.

"They should've just called it Club Eiffel," Billy said.

"Nah," Braddock said.  "Doesn't have a ring to it."

"And Club Paris does?" Littlejohn asked.

"Well, I don't know about you," Braddock said, "but this is the closest I've gotten to the City of Light, so I intend to enjoy it."  He nodded in time to the music.  "Band's not half bad either."

Kirby pushed by him, saying, "Come on.  I ain't waiting out here all night." 

Caje wondered just where Kirby intended to go in that crowded room.  But the B.A.R. man ignored the complaints from the club patrons and made a path toward the back of the café.  Littlejohn shrugged and followed, Billy on his heels.  Caje winced from the piercing notes of the trumpet player as they passed in front of the band.  It surprised him a little that the volume could still bother his gunfire-deafened ears.

"Well, I'll be...." Braddock murmured, sounding shocked.  "He's good for something after all."

Kirby had managed to secure two adjacent tables, and he gestured gallantly for them to have a seat.  While they did, he gave a cheerful half-salute to a G.I. sitting nearby and said, "Thanks, Mac."

The man accepted Kirby's thanks with an easy, friendly grin, but there was something cold about the look he cast over First Squad's soldiers as they took their seats.  His eyes seemed to pierce each one of them, appraisingly, uncomfortably.  Under the Cajun's return stare, the man looked away.

Sergeant stripes graced the stranger's shirt, the sleeves of which were rolled to his elbows against the summer heat.  He was a big man, wide-shouldered and square-jawed.  Dark hair, longer than regulations allowed, lay slicked back from a high forehead.  The sergeant was holding court on his own set of tables, seven or eight soldiers clustered around him.  It wasn't overt, but the sergeant clearly relished being the center of attention.  It was the exact opposite of the way Caje saw Saunders behave with First Squad, and, for a reason he couldn't pinpoint, his instant dislike for the sergeant across the aisle was almost palpable.

"Caje.  Hey, Caje," Kirby was saying.  "Flag down that waiter over there, wouldja?"  Kirby pointed.

Caje did as he was asked, though his attention stayed focused on the tables across from them, taking in the men around the sergeant.  He didn't recognize any of the G.I.s seated around the sergeant, but there were other companies bivouacked in Beaumere besides K Company.

Of the men gathered around the sergeant, only one was ignoring the noncom.  A younger man, but like the sergeant, big and dark-haired, with similar facial structure.  But there, the resemblance stopped.  Where the sergeant's gaze alternated between calculatingly cold and friendly, the other man appeared sullen and almost guilty.  He sat sideways on his chair, his back to the sergeant and his attention firmly fixed on the back of the club.

The sergeant tried to get his attention, and, when the younger man made no move to acknowledge him, the sergeant smacked him on the arm.  "What's the matter with you?" the sergeant growled.

The other man shrugged.

"The boys want you to sing, Julius," the sergeant said, and Caje heard an odd familiarity in his tone.  It was not the kind of tone one took with a subordinate.  He went on, "Come on, Jules.  You can't say no to the boys."

Then the waiter arrived at First Squad's table, and Caje had no further opportunity to study the strange dynamics at the opposite tables as they ordered wine all the way around.

"Who is that guy?" Caje asked Kirby, gesturing with a subtle nod toward the sergeant.

"Who, him?  Sergeant over in supply," Kirby answered.  "You remember him from earlier today?  Filled some of our requisitions."

Caje shook his head.

Kirby shrugged.  "Maybe you weren't there."

The band took a short break, and if anything, the volume in the club doubled as dozens of loud conversations broke out.  Braddock told a joke about a cabbie, a rabbi, and a chicken.  Slowly, Caje forgot about the supply sergeant and let the knots of constant wariness untie.  For the next few hours, he could just enjoy the undemanding comradeship of men he felt closer to than his own family.  He hadn't gone to basic with any of them, hadn't grown up with any of them -- he still had to fight down the ache for Theo -- but shoved together in Saunders' squad, they'd formed friendships anyway.

Caje watched Littlejohn and Billy laughing over Braddock's joke, and then the ribald one Kirby told afterwards to outdo his squad mate.  Littlejohn and Billy were as physically unlike as they could be, and yet the bond between the two was as close as the one Caje had shared with Theo.  It was ironic, he thought, that with the constant threat of death and loss, they latched even more firmly onto each other.  As if friendship with another G.I. was the only thread that could get them home again.  Except for Saunders, perhaps.  After Grady's death a few weeks ago, Saunders had changed, drawn away from the rest of the squad.  Oh, he still shared beers, but it was on his terms now.  Caje thought he would have felt the same way after losing Theo, but he hadn't.  Maybe that was simply the difference between a private's duties and a sergeant's.

"Hey," Littlejohn said suddenly.  "The lieutenant's here." 

Caje turned in his chair, saw Hanley pushing through the crowds.

Braddock called, "Hey, Lieutenant!"

Hanley smiled rather indulgently at them and stepped slightly to one side, showing them the girl on his arm.  He found his own table closer to the stage and held the chair out for her.

Braddock whistled.  "He sure didn't waste any time.  When'd he have time to scare up a dame?"

"He's an officer," Littlejohn said, as if that explained everything.

"Maybe I oughta be an officer," Braddock said.

Kirby snorted.  "That'll be the day."

"You think I can't lead?"

"Oh sure," Kirby said.  "But who'd follow you?"

Braddock sniffed, then patted his stomach.  "Well, at least they couldn't lose me in a crowd.  Remember Lieutenant Graham?"  He shook his head.  "No, you weren't with us yet.  That was before D-Day.  Anyway, turn him sideways and he'd disappear.  Didn't need any camouflage."  He broke off as the band started up for their next set.

It wasn't jazz this time.  Caje was surprised to hear a slow American song start up:  "Long Ago and Far Away," and he was even more surprised to see the man from the next table, the man the sergeant had called Julius, on the stage.  Then he sang, and Caje wasn't surprised any more.

He didn't just have a good voice, he had a great voice.  A smooth, easy baritone that caressed the notes without him even seeming to try.  The crowd packed in the club cheered when he started singing, all but drowning out him and the band.  He embellished notes here and there, and when he hit and held a high note the crowd applauded even more wildly.

Caje glimpsed the supply sergeant smiling broadly with a combination of pride and smugness.  The G.I.s surrounding him seemed to be cheering on their buddy the loudest, though that may have just been their proximity to the First Squad table.  The French locals appeared just as enamored of the singer as the Americans.

For his part, Julius seemed to have loosened up since taking the stage, as if he were finally in his element.  What was a guy with a voice like that doing over here on the frontlines, Caje wondered sadly, though he knew the answer.  What were any of them doing there? 

When the song finished, the band immediately launched into "The Girl from Kalamazoo," then "Tangerine," then "Auprez de ma Blonde" which got a deafening response from the crowd.  When it was over and momentary silence fell, Caje's ears were ringing.

"Hey.  Hey, buddy!"  It was one of the members of the supply sergeant's entourage, leaning across the aisle on his tipped-back chair as he tried to get their attention.  

"What?" Littlejohn asked.

The man continued, "We're starting a poker game over here... any of you guys got money to lose?  We need more players."  The gaze he cast around their table was both speculative and challenging.

Kirby's eyes lit up, and he looked around at his squad mates.

"Not me," Braddock said, holding up his hands.

"What's the matter, Braddock?" Kirby said.  "Chicken?"

"No, I'm just saving my money for my sweet, little, silver-haired mother."  Braddock jerked a thumb in the direction of the other table.  "Those guys are cons."

"Takes one to know one."

"You'll lose your shirt," Braddock warned.

Kirby glanced down at his chest speculatively.  "Well, maybe that's what I need to attract that dame away from the lieutenant...."

Braddock said, "Hah!" and Littlejohn rolled his eyes.

"You playing, Littlejohn?" Kirby asked.

The big man shook his head.  "Not tonight."

"Billy?"

"I think I'll just watch you lose that shirt."

"What's the matter with you guys?" Kirby demanded.  His gaze shifted to Caje.  "What about you, ol' buddy?"

"I'm in," Caje said.

Kirby smacked his hands together.  "Now we're talking!"

Caje pulled his chair over beside Kirby into the spaces around the supply sergeant's table and dug out his cash.  The other guys crowded behind to watch.

"Beer!" the supply sergeant called to a passing waiter.  He gestured around the table and said, "Beers all the way around.  On me."

His squad cheered him, and Kirby grinned at Caje.  Caje thought then that Braddock had the guys at the table pegged.  Or at least the supply sergeant.  Caje still had a bad feeling about him he couldn't shake.  He had the impression the sergeant was setting some sort of a trap, under the guise of a good time.  If it were true, Kirby wouldn't fall for it any more than Caje would, but the difference was, Caje knew, Kirby at least intended to enjoy the free beer while he was at it.

"I'm Sergeant Carnelli," the noncom said.

"Kirby, Caje," the B.A.R. man said, hooking a thumb at each of them as he performed introductions.

Carnelli flung the names of his own men out like he was dealing cards.  Caje didn't pay the slightest attention.  Names were irrelevant.  He was more interested in the faces of his opponents and what they showed.

The band started up again, this time without the singer, much to the dismay of the crowd.  Julius threaded his way back to the table.  Tension rode the stiff lines of his shoulders again, and the relaxed entertainer was gone.  He endured the loud welcoming back the G.I.s gave him with barely a nod of his head.

Carnelli thrust a beer at him and grinned at the First Squad men.  "This is Julius Carnelli -- my brother.  Sure can belt out a tune, can't he?  It's why we call him Caruso around here." 

These words were met with another rousing cheer, and one of the men toasted the singer.

Julius Carnelli half-raised his beer in curt acknowledgement, then set the mug down untasted.  He started to walk away.

"Stick around," the elder Carnelli said.  He didn't raise his voice, but the command tone had kicked in.  He swung an empty chair around for his brother.

"You know my squad goes back to the front lines tomorrow," Julius said. "I gotta get some sleep."

"I said stick around."  Carnelli found his smile again and added in a lighter tone, "We're playing poker, Jules.  I'll send my winnings with you."

Julius tightened up, then finally let out a breath and took the proffered chair.  He pointedly looked the other way.

Caje caught the glance Kirby tossed his way and shrugged.  None of our affair, he wanted to say.  Kirby caught the message and got back to business.  "We playing cards or ain't we?"

 

***

 

Littlejohn watched, happy he wasn't playing.  He was as competitive as the next guy, and he liked a good game of poker, but there was something predatory about the way Sgt. Carnelli played.  He wasn't in it for fun and, oddly, he wasn't in it for the money.  He played with haphazard abandon, losing and winning at equal terms, a cheerful smile on his face throughout.  But his eyes were not on his cards.  They were on the other players:  the members of his own squad and, more importantly to Littlejohn, on Caje and Kirby.

He knew both men were aware of it too.  Caje had closed down, was playing poker with a sort of quiet wariness.  Kirby was playing his own brand of deception, being a little louder, drinking freely, putting up the uncaring, half-oblivious front he was so good at while he eyed his opponents carefully.  But just let the sergeant underestimate either one, Littlejohn thought.  He'd be in for a surprise. 

Littlejohn hid a smile.  Caje and Kirby, despite their outward differences, were remarkably similar soldiers.  They may have come from different compass points in the U.S., but both had lived a lot, seen a lot.  The war had hardened and refined them even more, and there were no two he trusted more to have at his side on the lines.  Littlejohn felt lucky to have made it into Saunders' squad, though he rarely said such things aloud.  Wouldn't do to let Kirby know that Littlejohn respected him as a soldier.

Which is why he had opted not to play tonight, observing instead, a solid, steady presence to discourage trouble.  He knew his size was intimidating, and he knew he could use that to guard his squad mates' backs if the poker match soured.  In that crowded club, the popular supply sergeant had the advantage of sheer numbers behind him, if it came to that.

Littlejohn couldn't even pinpoint exactly what it was that bothered him so much.  The other men appeared to be having a grand time, drinking their free beer and playing with that sort of carefree and reckless quality Littlejohn saw a lot in his fellow G.I.s when they needed to unwind.  No, there was nothing suspicious about them.  It was just the sergeant himself, and on the surface he appeared affable enough.  He certainly seemed to have a bottomless wallet.  Littlejohn wondered if the men hung around him because they genuinely liked him, or because they knew the alcohol would flow liberally and on someone else's dime.

The band had quit an hour previously, but the crowd lingered on, just as vocal as earlier.  More G.I.s had migrated toward the excitement of the game, and, while the quantity of players in the poker match remained constant, the faces had changed several times as someone ran out of money and someone else took his place.  Caje seemed to be on a lucky streak, and Littlejohn could see it was annoying Kirby.  It was also annoying the private sitting opposite, who was doing a fair amount of winning himself, but on the hands he took, Caje always seemed to fold or drop out, and Private Arching never seemed able to take away Caje's money.

Arching was a blond-haired, lean fellow with thin, slanting shoulders and a neck that was too long for his body.  He stared down his freckled nose with squint-eyed precision.  He reminded Littlejohn of a hornet, with a temper just as short, but each time Arching flared, a glance or a word from Sgt. Carnelli checked him.

The night wore on, the French crowd thinned further, though if anything, the knot of Americans around the poker game grew larger.  Other than Arching's simmering anger toward Caje, the game stayed civil, and the trouble Littlejohn had anticipated never happened.  He was resting his head on his hand, only half-watching when Braddock finally tapped him on the arm.  "This game's never gonna end," Braddock said.  "I'm packing it in.  You coming?"

Littlejohn looked at Billy.  "What do you say?"

"What about Caje and Kirby?"

"They can handle themselves, kid," Braddock said.  "Me, I got a dream date with Betty Grable, and one doesn't keep a lady like that waiting."  He pushed himself to his feet and waited impatiently.

Billy still hadn't said one way or the other, and Littlejohn watched the conflicting expressions playing across the young soldier's face.  Curiosity about the game's outcome mixed with tiredness mixed with that constant sense of protectiveness he carried about the squad, as if he weren't the youngest of the group, but the oldest.  Littlejohn knew that leaving now before the game concluded would feel just a little bit like deserting to Billy.  But the way they were playing, the game could go on another couple hours.  None of the remaining players seemed in any hurry to call it a night, and Littlejohn had to admit he was exhausted.  He laid a hand on the younger man's shoulder.  "Come on, Billy.  Braddock's right.  Those passes are only good for twenty-four hours.  And I wouldn't mind fitting a good night's sleep in there."

Reluctantly, Billy stood and they said their good-byes.  Caje and Kirby hardly seemed to notice, they were so focused on the game.  Littlejohn met Carnelli's gaze, and the sergeant smiled farewell at him.  Littlejohn forced himself to shrug off the feeling of malice as he turned his back on the table and followed the other two men out.

 

***

 

An hour later and Kirby was thinking Braddock and the others'd had the right idea.  Too many free beers, coupled with tiredness, were finally marring his judgment, and the game was feeling stale.  Besides, his luck had soured a long time ago and watching Caje win while his stack of bills had been reduced to barely enough for a bus fare was just one more irritant in a day of irritants.

Brockmeyer had started his bad mood, taking off with that French girl.  The lieutenant looked like he'd scored on that front too.  Hanley and his date had cozied up in a shadowy corner of the club where they had privacy.  Now Caje had all his money and the other members of the squad were peacefully sacked out.  What did he have to show for the day?  Nothing.  At least that skinny blond private across the table, Arching, was a terrible player.  He'd been losing far more in the last hour than Kirby.  It was some consolation.

Just one more good hand, Kirby thought.  One more.

Ten minutes later, the good hand appeared.  Only it wasn't his, it was Caje's.  The scout won a high stakes round after bluffing with two pairs.  Kirby had to admit the Cajun had played it beautifully. 

Arching's face reddened as Caje raked in the pot.  Served him right, Kirby thought, with some satisfaction.  The guy was a--

Arching shot to his feet, hooked claw-like fingers in Caje's shirtfront, and dragged him halfway across the table.  Two beer mugs spilled, and the soldiers who got doused squawked a protest.  Arching ignored them, intent on Caje.  "You're a stinking cheat!" he shouted, as men on both sides of the table jumped to their feet.

"He ain't cheatin'," Kirby snarled, finally having a target for his frustrations.  "You're just a sore loser."

"I say he's a stinking, cheating Frog--"  Arching's insult was drowned out by angry words from Kirby and the matching rise from the other soldiers.

Caje dug his fingers hard into Arching's wrists, forcing the man to release his hold on his shirt.  Slowly Caje straightened and started to reverse their positions. 

Sgt. Carnelli, Kirby noticed, was making no move to break up the disagreement.  Behind the bar, two of the Club Paris waiters hovered, their hands beneath the counter as if clutching well-worn clubs, ready to wade in knocking heads if the fight endangered their property.

Arching yanked himself free of Caje's grip.  Being ringed in by his squad members seemed to make the thin man even angrier, and he smacked his hands down on the table and leaned forward again.

"I think it's about time you get out of here," Kirby said to Arching.  "Unless you got any more money you want us to take off your hands."

Arching switched his glare from Caje to the B.A.R. man.  "Who are you anyway?  You come in here and throw the game so your partner can win, is that it?  Then you two split the profits?"

"What?" Kirby sputtered.

"I know your type.  Well, you don't got me fooled, buddy."  Arching stabbed a finger at Caje.  "Now, give me my money back, you cheating Frog."

"Not a chance," Caje said.  "You lost fair and square, and in front of your own men."

"Why you--"  Arching swung at Caje, hard and fast, and caught him square on the jaw.  Kirby swore as the soldiers jostled in closer behind them for a view of the fight; he didn't have room to throw a punch of his own, much as he wanted to smash in that weasel's nose.  Hands grabbed at arms and shoulders, though whether to separate the combatants or push them closer together, Kirby couldn't tell.  The men watching the poker game weren't all from Sgt. Carnelli's outfit.  There were quite a few from other platoons.  Arching was still spouting insults in Caje's face, but no one could distinguish individual words over the yelling.

"That's enough!"  Lt. Hanley's roar cut through the shouting soldiers.  "Enough!"

Even if it hadn't been the familiar voice of his own lieutenant interrupting, the sheer weighted fury in Hanley's tone would have stopped Kirby.  The other soldiers shut up as if they'd been slapped.  Kirby could suddenly hear the sound of a candle guttering in a breeze, and the snap of a G.I.'s gum.

Hanley had a fistful of Caje's and Arching's shirts in each hand and had shoved the two apart.  Arching struggled a moment, but Hanley didn't let him go.  "What's going on here?" he demanded.

Arching glowered at Caje, not even looking up at Hanley.  Sullenly, he muttered, "Nothing."

"Nothing...?" Hanley said, the leading tone quiet and dangerous.

Arching stiffened and seemed to realize finally who was addressing him. "Nothing, sir!"

"Caje?"

"Just a little misunderstanding, sir," Caje answered, and Hanley's frustration with the lack of information was plain.  Kirby hunched his shoulders a moment in sympathetic discomfort for Caje standing tall under Hanley's wrath.  But as much of a rat as Arching was, it was still an unstated rule that the G.I.s handled their own problems.  Interference from any officers was not welcome and Hanley knew it, just as the soldiers knew officers couldn't just turn their back on an altercation either.  Stalemate.

If it had been Saunders instead of Hanley... that thought made Kirby even more uncomfortable.  Sergeants didn't have that stigma of a bar or two on their collars.  They were one of the guys.  And Saunders had that uncanny way of staring you down until spilling your guts seemed the only option.  It would have been a very different scene, Kirby thought, if Saunders had interrupted.  Instead, it was Sgt. Carnelli who pushed himself to his feet, his casual tone cutting through the tension, "I think I can explain, Lieutenant."

Hanley considered him a long moment, sizing him up.  "Well, Sergeant?"

"Carnelli.  Sergeant Carnelli, sir," the noncom said.  He gestured at the gathered G.I.s.  "The boys have had some rough times lately.  They're just letting off a little steam."

"These men are under your command?"

"Some of them.  Mostly, they're just back from the front waiting for redeployment."  Carnelli grinned at the lieutenant and spread his big hands out, palms up, feigning innocence.  "I'm just showing them a little hospitality.  A few free beers is just what these boys need."  He arched an eyebrow deliberately at Kirby, who cleared his throat uncomfortably. Carnelli went on, "Sometimes they get a little carried away.  No harm done.  Sir."  The address was added almost as an afterthought, not late enough to be construed as an insult, but not quite polite and natural either.  Almost a challenge.  Kirby caught his breath, wondering how Hanley would take it.

Hanley's mouth tightened almost imperceptibly, then right when Hanley started to speak, Carnelli cut in, adding, "I think the rough-housing's done for the night, sir.  How about giving the boys a break, Lieutenant?"

Kirby hadn't served with Hanley that long, but he knew him well enough to know he didn't like being played, which was exactly what Carnelli was doing with that leading line.  Implying Hanley meant to do something no one would like, and therefore giving the lieutenant no choice but to back down or look like even more of a bad guy if he argued with the popular supply sergeant.  Just like that, Carnelli had neatly circumvented whatever Hanley had actually planned to do, and all so very naturally.

And Hanley, Kirby saw, was eyeing Carnelli with a very interesting look indeed, one that said he understood very clearly what had just happened and was wondering the why behind Carnelli's actions.  The lieutenant released hold of both Caje and Arching, and Arching tugged his shirt straight, smoothing out the distressed material with a grimace.  "All right," Hanley said, his voice calm, but Kirby could hear the tension in it, the subtle warning.  He was willing to go along with Carnelli.  This time.  Hanley's gaze swept over the G.Is.  "All of you, clear out of here.  Party's over."

When no one moved, Carnelli added, "You heard the lieutenant, boys:  break it up now."  His words broke the soldiers free of their guilty silence, and they quickly made tracks away from the poker table.  When Arching didn't immediately move, Carnelli snapped, "Beat it."

The private scurried away, giving Caje a final, hate-filled glare that no one missed.  Kirby shuffled his feet uncomfortably.  The area had rapidly cleared out, the other soldiers quickly making themselves scarce.

"Sergeant Carnelli, huh?" Hanley said, as if mentally jotting the name down in his memory.

"Yes, sir.  Quartermasters," Carnelli said.  "You need anything, Lieutenant, you let me know."

Kirby watched Hanley bite back whatever he would have liked to have said and turn to him and Caje instead.  The anger disappeared, and he was just their own lieutenant again.  He said nothing, just looked at them both, hesitating that extra second in case they wanted to say anything.  When neither moved, he walked away, joining his date, who had been waiting patiently for him to conclude Army business.  He took her by the arm and led her for the door without a backward glance.  Kirby thought he was probably wishing he'd left with the girl a long time ago.

 

***

 

Caje hadn't moved.  He still seethed inside from Arching's insults.  Part of him wished Hanley hadn't been there to stop the fight.  The other part, the unemotional part, glanced over at Sgt. Carnelli, who was calmly resuming his seat and gathering up the deck of cards, and knew that somehow the whole incident with Arching had been engineered.  There wasn't any evidence he could point to, but he couldn't shake the feeling in his gut. 

An elbow jabbed him sharply in the ribs, and Caje spun, anger surging.  But it was just Kirby, oblivious to the glare Caje shot him.  The B.A.R. man was looking past Caje toward the club's entrance, a rather smug smile on his face.  Caje followed his glance.

It was Brockmeyer, tossing a salute to Hanley as the lieutenant and his date exited, before making his way toward the bar at the back of the club.

"Well, look who's here.  She ditch you already?" Kirby said, not even bothering to hide a smirk.  "Or did you ditch her?"  He smothered a laugh.

Brockmeyer said nothing, just rolled his eyes slightly and kept walking toward the bar.

Caje bit back his annoyance with Kirby for baiting Brockmeyer.  Brockmeyer didn't deserve any harassing.  Kirby'd just had too much to drink, and both he and Caje were still feeling the leftover animosity from Arching's unanswered insults.  Caje slapped Kirby on the arm with the back of his hand to distract him.  "Come on, let's go."

But Kirby was having none of it.  "No, now wait a minute, Caje.  I want to hear why lover-boy here is out on his own.  Twenty-four hour passes don't grow on trees around here--"

"Yeah, and I'm not wasting any more of mine," Caje cut him off.

The B.A.R. man stuck his hands in his front pockets and sauntered after Brockmeyer.

Caje blew out a breath.  He felt eyes on him and turned to see Sgt. Carnelli watching him.  Only two men remained with him, neither of whom had participated in the poker game.  Carnelli's singer brother, Caje noted, had taken off immediately when the ruckus had started and was now long gone.  Carnelli flashed Caje a white-toothed smile, then got to his feet.  "Don't forget your hard-earned winnings, Private," the man said, gesturing at the scattered pile of dollars and francs on the table.  He slid the deck of cards into a jacket pocket and headed for the front door, the two men following in his wake.  Good riddance, Caje thought, and blew out another breath, this one in relief. 

As he collected his money, he watched Kirby lean a hip against the counter next to Brockmeyer and ask, "So, what's the deal, huh?" 

Brockmeyer ignored him and Caje hid a smile.  Nothing drove Kirby crazier faster than being ignored.

"Come on," Kirby said.  "Tell me."

"Why?" Brockmeyer asked.  "So you can tease me some more?"

Kirby's lips curled in a half-smile.  "Now that's not fair, I just want to--"

"You've been ragging me nonstop.  Go bother somebody else, why don't you."

The bartender came over and plunked two wine bottles down on the counter.  Brockmeyer passed over some francs, then grabbed the necks of both bottles with one hand and turned to leave.

"No, wait a minute," Kirby said.  He straightened off the bar with a slight frown.  "Those for the two of you?"

"Oh, now we're a twosome again?"

"I don't know, that's why I'm asking.  Are you?"

"What do you care anyway?" Brockmeyer asked.  "The only love you know is that precious B.A.R. you've been bugging Saunders to give you ever since Grady bought it."

Kirby threw up both hands.  "Whoa, I didn't mean nothing by it."  But Caje noticed he still couldn't help smirking a little as he bent in and asked conspiratorially, "So, it is serious between you two then?"

"Kirby," Brockmeyer said, "you're wasting my time."  He pushed by Kirby, nodding at Caje as he headed for the front door.

Caje looked back at Kirby.  "You coming?"

"Right behind you," Kirby said, but he paused at their table, hesitated a moment, then picked up his half-finished beer.  "No sense wasting free drinks," he said.

"Meet you outside," Caje said and followed Brockmeyer.

The two men paused outside the club, and Caje inhaled the fresh air.  He hadn't realized how stale and smoky the bar had become.  The streets were deserted except for a father hurrying his two little boys past, the boys' shoes slapping the street hard as they struggled to keep up with his stride.  Caje heard the murmured French words, your mother's going to be mad, and couldn't help smiling.

"What about you, Caje?"  Brockmeyer nodded after the father and his two boys, his expression thoughtful.  "You want kids?"

"Sure.  Some day."

"Me too.  Only I want girls.  Two beautiful daughters that I won't ever have to worry about being drafted or sent off to fight in a war.  The only thing I want to worry about is what guys they date.  That's what I want."

"You got a girl back home?"

"No."  Brockmeyer was silent.  He glanced at the two bottles he was carrying.  "Maybe I'll stay here when this is all over."

Caje nodded knowingly.  "So Kirby was right then.  She's something special?"

"Yeah."  Brockmeyer's crooked smiled stretched ear to ear.  "Yeah."

And that happy look said it all, Caje thought, sharing the smile.

"I should be getting back to her," Brockmeyer went on.

"Right."

The radio man stepped into the dark alleyway with a parting wave at Caje.  Caje reached for his cigarettes, then left them alone and dropped his hands back to his sides.  He wondered what was taking Kirby so long.

The sound of a scuffle and someone's grunt of pain came from the alleyway. 

Caje jumped off the steps and ran around the corner in the direction Brockmeyer had taken.  Two figures knelt in the darkness beside a third downed man, searching his jacket pockets.  Caje couldn't make out faces in the poor lighting, but the attackers appeared to be G.I.s from the shape of their clothes.  One shifted out of the way slightly, and in the meager light, Caje caught a glimpse of blond hair on the man they were frisking.  Glass from the broken wine bottles reflected the light nearby. 

Caje's jaw tightened, and he ran toward the two attackers.  "Hey!" he said, and, when the standing G.I. turned, he belted him in the jaw.  The man sprawled onto the cobbled alley, and the one kneeling over the unconscious body spun on his heel and rose quickly.  At the same time, two more men stepped out from around the back corner of the club.  Caje glanced over his shoulder as the odds against him changed.  Where was Kirby?  He could use the B.A.R. man's brawling experience at his side right now.

None of the men spoke, they just stood there.  Caje couldn't see any of them clearly enough to recognize them.

The man Caje had hit was moaning, clutching his jaw as he staggered to his feet.  He feinted toward Caje and, as Caje side-stepped, the other man swung.  The blow knocked Caje across the narrow alley into the wall.  Then the two new assailants were there, and Caje swung blindly at the forms twisting in front of him.  He got in some good solid punches before a fist caught him on the side of the head hard enough to knock him down. 

Someone hissed, "Move aside." 

Caje saw a flash of metal as a knife was unsheathed and didn't wait to find out what they intended.  He rolled sideways, scrambled back to his feet, ignoring the pain. 

"Don't let him get away!" another man growled, and the attackers quickly shifted position to follow him.

Someone cried out, but Caje couldn't tell who or why, as he sprang sideways again, staying in motion, making himself a difficult target.  He landed another punch on the closest assailant and when the man reeled back, Caje caught a glimpse of a fifth person, standing out in the street beyond.  There was just enough light to make out that it was the G.I. who had been singing in the club, Sgt. Carnelli's brother, the one they nicknamed Caruso.  Julius Carnelli was staring into the alley, mouth slightly open, eyes wide.  For a moment, his gaze locked with Caje's.  But two of the attackers closed in while the scout was distracted.  One caught Caje's arms, and the other hit him in the jaw.

Caje went down hard, blanking out.

 

***

 

Kirby stepped out of the bar and stretched his arms up, arching his back.  He scratched at his side and glanced around.  Now where was Caje?  He said he was going to wait.  The world was spinning, but not so badly he couldn't find his way back to their billet.  He'd sleep soundly tonight, that was for sure.  That was probably a blessing.  He wouldn't have to dwell on his losses.

How about that Brockmeyer? he mused, grudgingly admitting to himself he was envious.  The radio man had actually found someone special.  Not just a momentary satisfaction, but a woman who might change his life when the war ended.  He wasn't looking for that for himself, didn't want anything permanent, particularly over here in France, but somehow that didn't stop the pangs of loneliness from unsettling him.  He tried to shrug it off.  What was he feeling so empty about?  Get mixed up with some dame... what was the point when he could get killed tomorrow?  That'd only rip her happiness away too.  There were enough broken souls around without causing any himself.  No, Brockmeyer could keep his lady and all the responsibility that went with her.

Just you keep telling yourself that, William G.

Then he heard the smack of fists on flesh.  It galvanized him into action and he cleared the building corner just in time to see several men beating up another one in the dark alley.  "Hey!" Kirby shouted.

He saw the silhouettes pause, the heads jerk his direction, but it was too dark to make out faces or features on any of them.  The man they were holding pitched forward as they dropped him.  "Let's go!" one of the men said, and they fled.  Kirby ran after them, the motion setting his head pounding.  Why hadn't someone put "fight" on the night's agenda, he thought.  He might have restrained himself from polishing off those last free drinks.  There were three unmoving bodies in the narrow alley.  He dodged around one that looked like Caje, jumped over the other two, and sprinted after the assailants. 

But they were smart, splitting up immediately outside the alley and darting down separate side streets.  He caught a glimpse of olive drab, but by the time he skidded to a stop, breathing hard, the back street was empty.  Running on a full stomach of alcohol...  whatever had possessed him?  He turned suddenly and retched as nausea overwhelmed him.  Sweating, shaking, he braced himself with a hand against the back wall of the club until the worst of it passed.  He spat into the gutter, then wiped his sleeve over his mouth.  At least the world wasn't spinning quite so frantically any more, though that was probably the only positive thing he could say.

He staggered back to the alley entrance.  There was better lighting from this direction, and he recognized one of the unconscious men as Caje immediately.  Only the scout wasn't alone.  Another G.I. was just bending over him, with what looked like something metal in his hand.

So, they hadn't all run.

Angrily, Kirby snatched up a slat from one of the broken crates nearby, jumped forward, and brought the wood down hard across the back of the man's neck and head.  The man didn't even make a grunt, just slumped forward over Caje.  Kirby grabbed him by the back of his collar and hauled him off the scout. 

Caje groaned.

"Easy," Kirby said.  Take your own advice, he told himself, but despite the queasiness, he felt unfortunately sober.

"Brockmeyer," Caje said.  "Hurt...."

Kirby cursed.  Brockmeyer too?  He glanced at the unconscious men sprawled in the alley and tried to take stock.  "Just hold on," he said.  "Let me get you up first."  He caught Caje's arm to help him into a sitting position, but his fingers hit something sharp.  He jerked away and a knife fell out of Caje's hand.  Frowning, Kirby picked it up.  Even in the dim light he could see the blade dripped with blood.  "Caje..." he started to say.  His gaze shifted left to the man lying near the Cajun.  A blond-haired man.  Oh God...  Kirby was on his knees beside the other man in an instant, moving the man's face toward the light.

It wasn't Brockmeyer.

Kirby let out a slow unsteady breath.

It wasn't Brockmeyer, but the blond G.I. lying beside Caje was definitely dead.  Kirby yanked his hand away from the man's throat where he'd checked for a pulse.  He spun around, pulling out his lighter.  After the darkness, the lighter's flame flared like a beacon when he ignited it.

There were two other bodies:  the man he himself had felled, and another man, lying on his side near the alley wall.  Kirby's eyes dropped to the man he had hit and by the lighter's glow he saw what he had missed earlier:  the black brassard with the white MP letters around the man's arm.  Of all the lousy... an MP... he had knocked out an MP.  Kirby swore under his breath and closed his eyes a moment.  This was not good.

"Brockmeyer," Caje repeated, his voice stronger this time.

"Hang on," Kirby muttered.  He stepped over the unconscious MP to the last man who was lying way too still.  Dread churned up the nausea in his stomach.  Kirby rolled the heavier man over onto his back and held the lighter close.  It was Brockmeyer all right, and Kirby was relieved to find a steady pulse.  But the private was also out cold, the left side of his head dark with blood.  A lot of blood.

"What in blazes happened here?" Kirby asked.

Caje was sitting up, staring at the bloody knife and at the dead G.I. beyond.

Kirby moved forward suddenly, flicking on his lighter again.  He swallowed hard as he suddenly recognized the dead man.  "Caje... Caje...."  For a second he almost couldn't get the words out.  "It's that guy from the poker game.  Arching.  The one who tried to pick a fight with you.  He must have jumped you to get his money back."  Kirby looked at the wound in the man's chest, then at the knife Caje still held.  He tried to put it together, logically.  It must have happened fast, and in the dark like that, who could blame Caje?  It must have just been self-defense, an unthinking reaction:  you were attacked, you fought back.  Simple as that.  He looked back at the scout.  "Caje, you killed him." 

Caje shook his head vehemently.  "No, I didn't even have a knife on me, remember?  Someone put that knife in my hand when I was unconscious.  Besides, the guys were after Brockmeyer, not me.  I interrupted them." 

"What?  What for?"  Kirby tried to make sense of Caje's words. 

"Something else was going on here.  I--"  Caje broke off and held the knife up into the light.  "This doesn't make sense.  We missed something."

"You're telling me!" Kirby said, a trace of anger slipping into his voice.  He asked again, "Then what the devil happened here, Caje?"

Softly, quickly, Caje filled him in on what had occurred from the time he had entered the alley. 

Kirby listened in silence.  When Caje was done, he asked, "What did those guys want with Brockmeyer?"

"I don't know.  Maybe it was just a robbery...."

Just a robbery.  The words echoed in Kirby's mind.  He'd almost forgotten there were still ordinary crimes.  "Are you sure it wasn't just Arching and his buddies waiting to jump you, and Brockmeyer stumbled in first and got in the way?"

"I don't know."  Caje rubbed at his face, wincing as he touched the bruises.  "But one of those men stabbed Arching to death and put that knife in my hand.  That I do know."

Kirby blinked and shook his head, but that was a mistake; it reminded him he'd had too much to drink.  "What are you saying, Caje?  Someone's trying to frame you for Arching's murder?"

Now it was Caje's turn to flare angrily.  "What does it look like to you?"

Kirby couldn't argue with that.  He'd just been trying to avoid stating it aloud and making it real.  "Did you see any of them clearly?"  Kirby's voice tightened in sudden suspicion.  "Was that supply sergeant here?  Carnelli?"

But Caje rubbed wearily at his eyes.  "I don't think so.  None of these guys were that big.  But I didn't see any faces, didn't even know Arching was here -- except... Caruso."  Caje raised his eyes sharply to Kirby's.  "Before I got knocked out, I saw him.  Standing out there in the street, in the light.  I saw him clearly, Kirby, and he saw the whole thing."

"Then he'll have seen the men who attacked you and Brockmeyer.  He'll know what happened.  C'mon, let's go find him." 

"No!  We can't both go.  You go tell Saunders what happened."

Kirby dismissed that with a wave of his hand.  "Who're you kidding, are you nuts?  He'll never believe me!" 

"Make him believe you, Kirby!"  Kirby almost jumped at the intensity in Caje's voice.  "I'm going after Julius Carnelli alone.  You're already in trouble." Caje gestured to the unconscious MP.  "And if you go AWOL for me, you'll be in the stockade for sure.  Get Brockmeyer to a doctor.  Then tell the sarge and the lieutenant what really happened."

"Caje, we're talking about murder here!  And that MP saw you.  He saw you lying next to a dead guy with a knife in your hand, Caje.  A dead guy you had a public disagreement with not one hour ago.  Geez, I mean Lieutenant Hanley even saw you!  How'm I gonna convince anyone you didn't do it if you run and aren't here to back me up?"

"I've got to find Caruso.  He's the only one who saw what happened.  Without him, I can't prove anything."

"What if you can't find him?"

"I'll find him."

"Caje, let the law find him!"

"You just said that MP saw me with the knife and the dead body!  I'm as good as convicted without another witness."

"But--"

"Just stall them, Kirby!  I need time.  I'll be back."

Kirby reluctantly watched Caje take off.  The Cajun paused in the alley entrance, then disappeared down the street.  Kirby sighed and rubbed at his chin.  "Stall 'em," he muttered.  How could he stall them when Brockmeyer needed immediate medical aid?  Buying time for Caje meant he couldn't go to the sarge.  Not yet.  At least the MP had only seen Caje.  He would have no idea who had knocked him out.  As long as Kirby was out of the alley before the MP came to, he was in the clear.

He wanted to laugh.  Who was he kidding?  He had struck an MP.  Who'd believe him that he had thought Caje was in trouble?  Hell, Caje was in trouble.  Kirby looked around the alley and shook his head again.  What had really happened here?  Caje was right about one thing:  they were definitely missing some puzzle pieces.  Things did not add up.  Well, they added up all right, just not the way he wanted.  A dead G.I., an injured squad mate, an unconscious MP, Caje gone AWOL, no witnesses to confirm or deny anything, and himself, smack dab in the middle.  No answers, only questions.

He knew Caje was telling the truth, but what was he supposed to do about it?  Not even Saunders was going to buy this wild tale, not with a dead guy and an MP who'd seen Caje with the bloodied knife, and not after all the witnesses in Club Paris came forward to detail the clear animosity between the two men.  Caje was right.  The only thing Kirby could do was stall and buy Caje enough time to do what he had to do.  And hope that Caruso had indeed seen what had really gone on and was willing to come forward and speak.  And that, Kirby reflected, was another question entirely.

But time was something he was rapidly running out of.  Any minute the MP was going to come to, or another one was going to come down the road.  He walked over to where Brockmeyer lay.  If he took him to the aid station, it was as good as going straight in for questioning.  And he was not ready for that.  He needed another answer. 

He snapped his fingers.  The girl!  Brockmeyer's French girl.  If he could get Brockmeyer to her house, she could fetch a doctor.  A French one, not an American medic.  His squad mate would get medical aid and Kirby could buy them all a little time.

He struggled to lever Brockmeyer's weight up enough to get the man's arm across his shoulders, then used his legs to straighten, hefting Brockmeyer over both shoulders in a fireman's carry.  He grunted under the heavier man's weight, leaned against the wall a moment as he steadied himself.  So much for his twenty-four hour pass, he thought.

Staggering away from the alley, he tried to orient himself in the unfamiliar town, praying he didn't run straight into the patrolling MPs.  Or anyone else for that matter.  At least he knew where the woman lived.  Rue de Fleuve, fourth cottage down, near the river.  They had trooped by it often enough in the last couple weeks.  If he could find the damned road in the dark. 

He stumbled once, badly, on an unexpected curb, and had to rest a minute before he could get the injured man lifted across his shoulders again.  The weight felt twice as heavy.  Brockmeyer never once stirred, and that worried Kirby more every minute that passed.  He finally recognized a landmark -- an arbor with roses twining up it -- and he stumbled the last bit up to the girl's front door.  He knocked loudly as he tried to catch his breath.  His legs trembled from the exertion.  Where was she anyway?  His hand reached for the knob -- he was going to drop Brockmeyer if he didn't get inside -- but just as he touched it, it opened from the inside and the woman stared at him in surprise.

Kirby pushed in immediately.  "Shut the door!" he said.  He lurched across the room, twisted around and, as gently as possible, dumped Brockmeyer off his shoulders onto the couch.  He fell beside him, too tired and off balance to catch himself.

The woman had at least closed the door, but she was standing there, staring at him and Brockmeyer with an expression of disbelief.  Kirby ran a hand over his sweaty face.  What was wrong with her?  Standing around gawking uselessly like that.  He turned and settled his squad mate into a more comfortable position on the couch before facing her.

She was pretty, petite, her pale brown hair tied at the back of her neck with a blue ribbon.  She was wearing a simple blue dress and a cardigan sweater against the evening chill.  She hugged herself and stared at Brockmeyer's unconscious form.

"Look," Kirby said.  "He's been hurt bad.  He needs a doctor, okay?  Can you get a doctor?  Doctor?"

She raised her eyes to him almost blankly.

"Doctor!" Kirby nearly shouted.  "For Chrissake, lady, I know you know what that means.  He needs one -- now!  I don't know how badly he's been hurt, but if you care about him, you'll go get a doctor for him right--"

He broke off as the back door opened and three G.I.s came in, the lead man cradling a .45 in his big hand.  Kirby froze.  He recognized all three from the poker game, but he could only put a name to the big, tall, dark-haired supply sergeant pointing a gun at him -- Carnelli.  That singer's brother.  A cold chill rushed through him.  For a moment he couldn't even think about what these three might be doing here in the woman's house, he could only think about Caje. 

Caje was going after Caruso because he had witnessed the alley fight.  And if he had witnessed it, and his brother was here, pointing a gun at him... then they were all in on this together.  Whatever this was.  And if Caruso was in on it, Caje was going after a man who wasn't going to lift a finger to clear his name.

Kirby glanced at the woman, wondering how he could get her out before it turned ugly.  But her expression was one of relief as she stepped closer to the armed man.  Kirby gaped at her in dawning realization.

"'Care about him'?" Sgt. Carnelli echoed Kirby's words sarcastically.  He put his arm around the woman's waist and said, "Show Kirby how much you 'care' for Private Brockmeyer, baby."

She stepped toward the couch, her face twisting into something violent and ugly, and Kirby quickly blocked her, putting himself between all of them and the radio man.  He glared at the woman.  "Why you lying, double-crossing--"  He was so livid he could hardly get the words out.  As much as he was willing to play the field himself, when it went beyond that, when it became something special....  He pointed at Brockmeyer and said accusingly, "He fell for you!"

The girl shrugged.  "You Americans are all sentimental fools."

"So, you speak English, too, huh?" Kirby said bitterly.  "All that time, leading him on.... You used him." 

She took a rapid step away from Kirby's fury and back into the safety of Carnelli's arms.  She said, "There is a war going on that is tearing our country apart.  First the Germans, then you Americans, and none of you care about the people whose land you fight over.  So I will help those who help me."

Carnelli grinned and tightened his grip around her waist possessively.  "You tell him, baby!"

"You make me sick," Kirby said.  He forced his gaze away from her hate-filled face back to the supply sergeant.  "Now what's this all about?"

Carnelli smiled at Kirby and said, "I should thank you, really, for bringing Brockmeyer back here.  And yourself too.  Saves me having to hunt you all down.  Now, where's the other one?  The dark-haired one with the accent?"

Kirby said nothing.

"What did I hear you call him in the club?  'Caje'?"  Carnelli's voice grew colder.  "Where is he?"  When Kirby still said nothing, the noncom sighed.  "I already have my men out searching for him, so why don't you save us all a lot of time and trouble."

"You haven't answered my question," Kirby said.

Carnelli laughed.  "It doesn't work that way, boy."

"You killed Arching in the alley," Kirby guessed.  "You killed your own man."

Carnelli grinned.  "Yeah."  He nodded toward Brockmeyer.  "With Monique's help, it was a piece of cake to get your friend there in the alley where and when I wanted him.  It would have looked like a fatal knife fight between two G.I.s.  But then you and your other friend, Caje, had to interfere.  That changed my plans a bit."

"A bit?" Kirby said, and took pleasure in making the words sound as derisive as he could.  "I'd say it messed them up a lot."

Carnelli's grin vanished, and the two men behind him started forward.  Carnelli stopped them with one upraised hand, and said softly to Kirby, "Keep talking, smart guy.  Because that's all you have:  talk.  No, if anything, Caje made my plans better.  Airtight, in fact. Just what I needed to get Captain Randolph off my track."

Who? Kirby wondered.  The name was unfamiliar to him.

Carnelli went on,  "Because really, a fight with both parties dead was too cut and dried, wasn't it?  Didn't leave anything for Randolph to do except close the case.  Arching was a jerk, but he was a handy one.  Now, with your help, Randolph will spend the next few days hunting down you and your buddy.  I'd say that's a nice improvement.  Particularly when I send Reyes here with an eyewitness report.  You'll tell them just what you saw in that alley tonight, won't you, Reyes?"

The thin, hawk-faced man to Carnelli's right smiled.  "That's right.  I'll tell them just what I saw."

Kirby forced himself to keep quiet, but his mind was whirling.

Carnelli gestured toward Kirby and told his two men, "Get him to the cellar."

"What about him?"  Kirby pointed angrily at Brockmeyer.  "He needs a doctor or you're going to be responsible for another murder tonight."

"Oh, he'll get a doctor, all right," Carnelli said.  "Jesse?"

The other man said, "Yeah?"

"The medical supplies downstairs... you know what I want."

"Right."  Jesse disappeared through the doorway.

"You won't get away with this," Kirby said.  "That's three men who are gonna be missing from my squad."

"Two men," Carnelli corrected.  "Just you and Caje.  And the term isn't 'missing.'  It's AWOL.  And why wouldn't a couple of murderers go AWOL rather than face a hanging?" 

Jesse returned and slapped something into Carnelli's palm.  The big man smiled and said, "Here, baby."  He handed Monique a small bottle and a syringe.  "Something for lover-boy on the couch over there."

Kirby flinched, realizing guiltily that he'd called Brockmeyer the same thing earlier and meant it just as mockingly.

Carnelli said, "Give him a shot of this, then go get the doctor.  You know what to do."

She nodded, but Kirby kept his place between them and Brockmeyer.

"Don't worry," Carnelli told him.  "It's not poison or anything.  Just something to keep him out cold."  He looked past Kirby at the injured man.  "May not even be necessary, the way he looks, but I'm not taking any chances.  He'll get his doctor, all right, but he won't be regaining consciousness anytime soon and telling his story.  Monique will make sure of that."  He grinned suddenly and gave a laugh.  "Besides, it's perfect.  Who's going to search the house of a woman tending an injured American soldier?"  He pointed his gun at Kirby.  "Now, you coming down to the cellar with us quietly?"

Kirby took a step back.

"Thought not."  He glanced at his gun, then tucked it into his waistband, and grinned invitingly at his two men.  "Boys?"

Kirby got in a couple good punches before Jesse and Reyes overwhelmed him.  Jesse was broad-shouldered and powerfully built, and he had a right cross like a mule kick.  Reyes grabbed Kirby from behind, pinioning his arms, and Jesse hit him twice more and that ended Kirby's resistance.  Carnelli watched from the background.

Kirby's last view before he was dragged into the back hall was of Monique rolling up Brockmeyer's sleeve.

 

continue to Part 2

 

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