(2009) 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.

 

"Murder's Melody"

Part Three - Conclusion

 by Thompson Girl

 

 

If Dr. Forceau knew he was being followed, he gave no sign.  He strode along, the little black bag swinging at his side.  None of the passersby acknowledged him, but that told Saunders nothing.  The doctor's purposeful walk did not invite casual conversations, and besides, if he were a real doctor, his clear lack of social etiquette would not have gained him any friends even in his own community.  

He headed north past several cross streets, and Saunders hung back, careful to stay out of Forceau's immediate line of sight.  He needn't have worried.  Not once did the doctor turn around.  Forceau took the next corner right, and when Saunders caught up, he found himself before a small plaza.  A church stood on the north side, its bell tolling as a crowd streamed out the front doors and down the steps into the plaza.

There was no sign of Forceau.

Saunders pushed his way through the townspeople leaving Sunday mass.  He had assumed the doctor's height would make him easy to spot, but by the time he climbed the front steps of the church, he knew he'd lost him.  Saunders cursed silently and scanned the crowd again.  He wasn't entirely sure what the doctor's disappearance suggested.  Had he known he was being followed by Saunders and ducked out?  Or had he simply had a big enough lead that he had crossed the plaza and turned down another street while the churchgoers had hidden him from view?

Or he had gone into the church itself?

On a whim, Saunders stepped inside.  A few people still sat in pews near the front of the church, but he knew without a closer look they weren't the man he was looking for. 

"I'm afraid mass has ended, my son," a priest came forward and said.

"Yes, sir.  I was just looking for someone."

"The man the Military Police are looking for?"

Curiosity almost made him answer yes, but he knew that if Caje had taken refuge here, the priest would most likely not give him up.  He checked himself and kept to the task at hand.  "No, a Frenchman in town.  A doctor."

"Dr. Forceau?"

"Yeah," Saunders said.  

"I have not seen him, but his office is four streets up, just past the town center."

Well, then, Saunders thought.  Despite his disappointment that the doctor was known, he at least knew where to find him now.  "Thank you, Father.  I'm sorry to disturb you."

Saunders headed out, but hesitated near the great wooden doors, listening to voices coming from the curtained entrance to the bell tower.  French voices, speaking English with heavy accents, then an American voice, baritone and soft, answering, "I'm on duty then."

"Then we don't do business."

"All right, all right," the American voice said quickly.  "Two pm.  Back door of the house."

"Agreed," one of the French said.  "And remember… you will be discreet." 

It was not a question, not even a statement, but an unmistakable threat.  Curious now, Saunders moved closer, but when the curtain started to move, he exited quickly to the street.  A few hasty steps took him clear of the church, then he turned and headed slowly back, as if he were just passing the church on his way into the heart of the town.  It wasn't any of his business, really, but something was going on and he wanted to know what.  The whole thing with Caje and Kirby disappearing left him feeling like he'd fallen in the middle of a conspiracy.  Tailing the doctor would wait another few minutes, at least until he'd seen who was wheeling and dealing in the church.

Only the American came out, a big, tall sergeant, dark-haired, light-eyed.  The French had either stayed inside or exited by another door.

Saunders leaned against the stone border wall fronting the church and drew out his cigarettes.  He lit one and blew smoke as if it were the best cigarette he'd ever had.  As he hoped, it caught the sergeant's attention, and he stepped toward Saunders. 

"Hiya," he said.  "Nice day, isn't it?"

Saunders took another drag before he said, "Nice day to be here and not at the front, yeah."

The sergeant grinned.  "Amen."

Saunders offered him his cigarette pack.  "Smoke?"

The big sergeant cocked his head slightly to the side as if sizing up Saunders.  "You like cigars, Sergeant?"

Saunders shrugged noncommittally. 

"Name's Carnelli," the sergeant said.  "Here."  He pulled a couple cigars from a jacket pocket and offered them to Saunders.  "Have one of these."

Saunders took one and pretended to eye it appreciatively.  "Price on these is usually high."

Carnelli waved a hand magnanimously.  "Nah.  You just gotta know who to get them from."

A couple of MPs went by, moving like they had a purpose.

"You know what's going on?" Saunders asked.  "Can't turn a corner without running into an MP today."

"That's the Military Police for you," Carnelli said sourly.  "Love to poke their noses in everywhere they can.  Give 'em an excuse, and they come out of the woodwork by the dozen, just waiting to bust somebody, doesn't much matter who.  Worse than cops back home."  He seemed to realize Saunders was still watching him and shrugged.  "Guess they're justified this time.  I heard there was a murder."

Saunders frowned and pushed himself off the wall.  "Murder, huh?"

"Yeah," Carnelli said.  "They're looking for the guy who did it.  You ask me, he's flown the coop and deserted.  They won't turn him up."

"Yeah?" Saunders said.

"Yeah," Carnelli said.  "War is full of loopholes, Sergeant.  A smart soldier -- or a desperate one -- can use them any way he wants.  Take it from me:  that murderer is long gone.  Those MPs are wasting their time.  Enjoy the cigar."  He flashed an easy grin at Saunders and set off down the road deeper into town.

Saunders passed the expensive cigar under his nose.  Loopholes, he thought, almost idly.  It was true enough.  And after those overheard words in the church, he was sure Sgt. Carnelli was taking full advantage of those loopholes firsthand, most likely to make a profit on the war.  He wouldn't be the first like that Saunders had seen.  The black market thrived, despite the MPs.  For every profiteer caught, another two worked behind the scenes to cut their own little bit of dough out of the pie.  The very idea of profiteers nauseated him.  The war used souls as its currency, and for anyone to even think about making money off it....

But the black market had existed before they'd come to this town, and it would keep going after they left.  And it had nothing to do with Caje and Kirby and a fatal stabbing after a volatile poker game.  He left the cigar sitting on the top of the wall and headed toward the doctor's office.

 

***

 

Hanley walked the town's streets, no destination in mind.  The drudgery of work had not helped his mind evade the problems at hand.  It had mulled over Reyes's account, Randolph's questions, all his own nagging doubts and worries until the walls of his makeshift office had closed in.  He'd thrown down his pencil and escaped.  He breathed easier just being able to wander.  It had been a long time since he'd walked for pleasure, not to reach some new destination, and he found the exercise surprisingly relaxing.

Until a familiar face appeared, heading straight for him.

Hanley grimaced, but stopped to let Capt. Randolph catch up with him.  As much as he wanted to avoid any more cat-and-mouse sessions, ingrained Army protocol and his own dignity wouldn't allow him to bolt like a panicked cat for the nearest alleyway.  Judging by the slight frown on the captain's face, he hoped it wasn't more bad news.  "Hello, Captain," he said, as neutrally as he could manage.

"Lieutenant," Randolph said.  "Would you join me for a coffee?"

The invitation startled him and set off the alarm bells again.  Randolph was too professional to offer such a request out of friendship.  Maybe it was bad news, the sit-down-first kind of bad news.  He should have run, he thought glumly, and to hell with self-respect.  "All right," he said. 

"There's a café around the corner."

They walked there in silence, settled across from each other at an outside table.  It was comfortably warm, and Hanley took a deep breath of fresh air flavored with the scent of baking bread.  Despite the vague knot of tension in his stomach, he found himself hungry and ordered bread and cheese to go with the coffee.  He wished it were wine.

Randolph got straight to business.  "Seen these before?"  He held out one hand, let a pair of dog tags drop from his fist to the end of their chain.  They clinked together harshly.

Hanley took them from him.  They were Caje's all right.  He tried not to react, but he knew he couldn't keep the slight slump of defeat from his shoulders.  "Where did you get them?" he asked quietly.

"MPs found them, by chance really.  They stopped a drunken soldier.  He was wearing those, his own were gone."

So, that part of the tale appeared true then.  Caje had indeed gone AWOL.

"Needless-to-say," Randolph said, "we're now looking for one Harvey Nielsen.  Where did he go, do you suppose?"  The voice was friendly, just musing on hypothetical questions, encouraging a response, and Hanley wasn't fooled one bit.  Randolph was fishing.

At least Hanley could answer honestly:  "I wish I knew."

"Now, in addition to impersonating another soldier, and, of course, murder, we can most likely add desertion to the charge against him.  It's stacking up rather badly for your soldier."

Hanley shook his head.  "Private LeMay is no deserter.  He'll be back."

"I guess some habits are hard to break."

"Excuse me?"

"Oh, you sounded just as confident about LeMay's innocence -- before Reyes offered his testimony."

"That's because I still don't believe he did it, no matter what that G.I. said," Hanley snapped, then caught himself.  Randolph's calm persistence was wearing him down, as he knew it was probably supposed to.  He looked away, trying to regain control, and wondered why Randolph was wasting time with him.  What more could Hanley tell him anyway?  Debating Caje's guilt gained no one anything.  Didn't Randolph have more important things to do in his investigation?

"Perjury's a crime too," Randolph said.  "And Reyes knows it.  Why risk it?"

Hanley laughed bitterly.  "No one's going to be looking closely at Reyes's eyewitness story when they have a possible murderer to convict."

"And that, Lieutenant Hanley, is where you couldn't be more wrong."  Randolph reclaimed Caje's dog tags from Hanley's unresisting fingers.  Hanley blinked, but before he could pursue that line of thought, Randolph said, "Why'd you ask Private Reyes about Carnelli?"

The question caught Hanley off guard.  "Excuse me?"

"When Reyes was telling his story, you asked him about Sergeant Carnelli.  Why?"

"Why not?"

"Lieutenant, you're not making my job any easier."

"What do you want from me?"

"A bit more cooperation."

"So you can arrest one of my men for a crime he didn't commit?"

"That's for a court to decide.  Not me.  Not you.  You know that as well as I do."

Hanley sipped his coffee and said nothing, giving them both a minute to calm down again.  He did know it.  It was just that, despite Army training, he had a tendency to push back when antagonized.  Randolph didn't seem like the type who played games, and yet here he was, spinning their conversation in strange directions.  Finally, he asked curiously, "Why'd you ask me about Carnelli?"

Randolph leaned back in his chair, stirred his coffee.  "I have a list, a pretty little list with lots of names.  His is on it."

A frown tugged at Hanley's lips.  A list?  Did that mean Carnelli was a wanted man?  "I don't understand."

Randolph smiled slightly.  "No, and you're not supposed to."

"But you brought it up anyway."  Hanley looked at him, the frown disappearing as an inkling of understanding crept in.  "Why are you talking to me?" Hanley asked.  Randolph broke off a piece of bread and said nothing, and Hanley answered his own question.  "I think you're here because you think I can help you with something."

"Is that so?"

"Yes," Hanley said, feeling more and more confident about it.  "There's something funny about this investigation of yours.  Such as why you're here talking with me instead of out coordinating the hunt for Caje."

"Go on," Randolph invited.

The lack of denial gave Hanley all the answer he needed.  He continued, "On the surface, it's about LeMay, but that's not it at all because I think you believe me and the other men.  I think you already know LeMay is innocent."

"Ah, but I can't prove it.  Not yet anyway."

"I can't help you if don't tell me what you're really after."

Randolph took a sip of coffee, his eyes studying Hanley.  Finally, he said, "Lieutenant Hanley, I'm after a profiteering ring."

"How does Caje fit into this?"

"I think he was framed to give me and the MPs something else to do while the profiteers make one of their biggest deals yet.  But my sources around town say it's not to the partisans, or to other soldiers.  My sources say its to a group of collaborators."

 

***

 

Caje watched Julius Carnelli's eyes widen in surprise, then the man sank back into his foxhole, his shoulders hunching in resignation.  Small arms fire started up nearby, and Julius said quickly, "Hurry up, get in here."

Caje scrambled in.

"Hey buddy, who the hell are you?  What outfit you with anyway?"  Julius's foxhole mate turned toward Julius and asked rather plaintively, "Who is this guy?  You know him?"

Caje waited for Julius's answer.  The two met each other's eyes, and then Julius said, "I don't actually know your name."

"Paul LeMay."

An explosion shook the ground and they ducked.

"You go AWOL?" Julius asked.  "They wouldn't have let you come without a military police escort."

Caje said,  "I went AWOL."

"I'm sorry," Julius said. 

There was a lot of guilt in that apology, more than could be accounted for by Julius just running away.  Caje felt the first tendrils of real fear twine through him.  He'd rejected the idea of Julius being involved in the murder, but the singer's guilt-ridden tone began to make him believe he'd made a serious error in judgment.  More forcefully than he intended, he said, "I need you to come back with me.  Testify to what really happened in that alley."

The singer's headshake bordered on panicked.  "I can't," Julius whispered.

Caje bit down on his fury, demanded, "Can't?  Or won't?"

Julius looked away and busied his hands with his rifle, checking the clip, the safety, anything.

"Won't, then," Caje said, bitterly.  He had to force himself not to reach out and grab the singer by the lapels, shout in his face.  "Why?" 

Julius swung back toward him.  "He's my brother, LeMay," he said, his bitter tone as harsh as Caje's.

Caje stared, unable to hide his surprise.  Then he nodded to himself, sifting through memories, seeing how the new information fit and filled in the picture.  He hadn't recognized the sergeant in the darkness of the alley, but he'd also been too busy fighting.  His mind jumped back to the poker game, and that ill sense that something had been out of whack with the sergeant and his cabal.  Carnelli had been scheming even then.

"Why?" Caje said again and this time he did grab hold of Caruso's jacket and haul him close.  Julius tried to twist away.  "Why?"

The foxhole mate grabbed at Caje, saying angrily, "Hey, let him go.  What's going on here?"  But Caje just tightened his grip, not taking his eyes off Julius.   

"It's all right, Frank," Julius said, waving his partner back.

"Well?" Caje demanded.  Gunfire opened up nearby, and Frank grabbed his gun and whirled toward it.  Neither Caje nor Julius moved.  "What was really going on in that alley?"

"I don't know," Julius said.  "I don't have much to do with my brother if I can help it."

He was evading the question, Caje realized and he shook Julius in frustration.  "Don't give me that.  You wouldn't be protecting him if you didn't know--"

"He sells supplies on the black market," Julius said and finally met Caje's eyes.

Caje shoved him away.

"Yeah.  My brother," Julius said, and there was no mistaking the emotions wrapped up in that word.  "It started out mostly harmless, but Nick was never content.  He always wanted more.  I guess things got out of hand."

"You guess?"

"I'm sorry."

Caje shook his head angrily.  But he recalled the poker game, how Julius had tried to get away, how he had ignored his brother whenever and however possible, despite everything Carnelli tried to offer him.  "Come back with me," Caje said.

"He's still my brother," Julius said.  "Still family.  I can't...."  He trailed off, then finished more strongly, "I can't."

"If you don't, then I go to jail or worse."

Frank leaned toward them.  "What the hell is going on?"

Julius and Caje ignored him.  Caje went on, "You want an innocent man to pay for your brother's crimes?  You want me to pay for them?  When you know he's guilty?"

"No!" Julius said.

"Well, then?"

"I can't," the singer repeated, but this time, the words were barely a whisper, a failing refrain.  Julius turned away from Caje, slumping against the wall of the foxhole.

"Guys, I don't think this is the time," the other private said, urgently.  "We got Krauts coming up fast."

Caje could hear the tanks coming and the sound of approaching small arms fire increased.

"I don't think it matters what we want to do, LeMay," Julius said and forced himself to straighten.  "There's no way we're leaving here now until this battle is over."

"Caje," the scout said.  "Call me Caje."

"Caje," Julius acknowledged.

Caje came forward to join the two men at the leading edge of the foxhole, rifle ready.

 

***

 

 

Saunders headed for Dr. Forceau's office.  The center of town seemed more crowded than ever.  Mostly citizens out and about doing their shopping or meeting with friends in their cafés where they tended to ignore the soldiers parading their streets.  A host of MPs still patrolled, the whole lot of them straight-lipped and looking like they were spoiling for a fight.  Not turning up Caje or Kirby was driving them crazy. 

Crossing through the town square, he saw Braddock standing on a street corner, looking uneasy and pacing, smacking his hands together.  Saunders veered toward him.  Braddock spotted him and came forward to meet him.

"There's no stopping him," Braddock said.

"Who?"

"Dick Tracy, over there."

Saunders followed Braddock's glance to see Billy standing at the door of Club Paris, one hand keeping the proprietor from shutting the door in his face while he asked questions.  Saunders suppressed a smile.  "You don't look like you're trying very hard."

"Saunders, that kid is sergeant material.  You should have heard him.  Read me the riot act back at the hotel.  He intends to prove Caje innocent all on his very own."  He looked sheepish a moment, then admitted, "Seeing how Littlejohn's not here, I figured I'd better keep an eye on him."

"I see."

"So, how's Brockmeyer?  What happened to him?"

"Not sure," Saunders said, and the mention of the injured squad member destroyed any sense of levity he had.  "Someone beat him up.  He's unconscious, possibly in a coma."

Braddock pursed his lips and shook his head, clearly worried.  "This have anything to do with Caje and Kirby?"

"I don't know.  Maybe."

"Well, you sure missed the excitement back at the hotel."

Saunders listened as Braddock told him about Randolph and Reyes's eyewitness testimony.  The new information filled in the holes in Littlejohn's earlier report, and Saunders began to get a better picture of what appeared to have happened last night.  It also left him with more questions than answers and he shook his head slightly, frustrated.  Perhaps he shouldn't have rushed off so quickly that morning.  Despite his dislike for the French doctor, Brockmeyer did appear to be getting good care.  He came back to the present as Braddock concluded morosely, "It sure doesn't look good for Caje.  

Saunders couldn't argue that.  He silently watched Billy arguing with the proprietor of Club Paris.

Braddock paced another few steps then turned around abruptly.  "You think it's true?  You think Caje killed that guy, and he and Kirby split?"

"What do you think?"

"What do I think?"  For a moment Braddock had that surprised, self-dismissive look that seemed to wonder why anyone would care what he thought.  Then he got serious.  "I think Caje was framed."

"Why?" Saunders asked.  He stopped watching Nelson and gave Braddock his full attention. 

"I don't know, ask Dick Tracy."  Braddock seemed to realize Saunders was still waiting on him and shrugged.  "Okay, it's just a hunch.  But there was something wrong about that poker game last night."

"How much did you lose?"

"That's just it.  I didn't play.  I always could smell a setup, and that game reeked to high heaven."

"What do you mean?"

"There was just something fishy about it, know what I mean?"  Braddock shrugged.  "This guy, this sergeant heading up the table... he's buying rounds for everyone like money grows on trees, but he plays a lousy hand of poker.  Not a bad player, but kinda deliberately careless.  Know what I mean?"  He smacked his hands together again.  "It was a setup, I tell you.  Real gamblers don't play that way, and G.I.s looking for a little fun don't play that way."  He paced again, then went on, "And that Reyes guy was right there the whole time, sitting right at that sergeant's side, watching things.  He claimed this morning he was looking out for Arching, but that's baloney.  You should have seen him at that game.  It's more like he was baiting Arching.  And Caje and Kirby too.  And then he pops up this morning with his I-saw-the-whole-thing routine.  I tell you, Saunders, it just doesn't hold water."

"This sergeant," Saunders said, surprised at how casual he sounded when suddenly everything was riding on the answer to his next question:  "You know his name?"

"Yeah.  It was Carnelli.  But he had this brother, a singer.  Man, he could really belt out a tune... what's wrong?"

Saunders was half-laughing to himself.  He noticed Braddock staring at him, and said, "Ever have one of those moments where you realize just how wrong you can be?"

"Yeah, but I don't usually laugh about it."

And he'd let Carnelli walk away.  But there hadn't been any connection before.  Even now, the links were hazy, half-formed, but he could feel them wanting to tie together.  The sergeant presiding over the fateful poker game, the same people involved in the violence outside....  Nothing unusual in that, until he added in the next level:  the same sergeant making secret deals with the French and Braddock's gut feeling about a setup.  Saunders didn't believe in coincidence.  No, it all fit together somehow.  He asked, "You know anything about the black market?"

Braddock held up his hands, suddenly looking worried.  "Now, I know I pick up a lot of stuff, but that's just smart horse trading.  Honestly.  I never dealt with the real thing."

"Not ever?"

"No," Braddock said, then shrugged and smiled self-consciously again.  "I never had to.  I've always been able to get what I needed from the guys in the platoon.  We got a lotta suckers around."

"Would you know how to find out who's doing business in town?"

"Would I know...?" Braddock's eyes narrowed.  "Why you asking?"

"Would you?" Saunders persisted.

"I don't know.  Probably.  I mean, if they can't be found, they can't do business, right?  So they aren't exactly in hiding."

"Think you and Dick Tracy can get on the case?"

"Not a chance," Braddock said and jerked a thumb toward Nelson.  "Billy's on a one-man mission, remember?  He's not going to take kindly to just forgetting about Caje--"

"This has to do with Caje."

Braddock stared at him.

Saunders couldn't help grinning suddenly.  "It has everything to do with Caje.  And Kirby.  Maybe Brockmeyer too."

 

***

 

Caje had only the rifle and two clips he'd taken off the drunken GI whose dog tags he wore.  Julius and Frank shared their ammo.  The German counterattack was short and fierce, but the German soldiers seemed to lack the drive to push in hard against the suicidal odds.  The Americans were dug in well with a good line of fire.

Julius was a cautious soldier, and Caje appreciated his approach to the fight.  It was similar to his own.  Julius lined up his target fast, and ducked back down.  Frank enjoyed a sense of luck that Caje knew wouldn't protect him that long.  In fact, as the German infantry retreated and they realized they were winning this battle, Frank's more reckless behavior exposed him to a low-lying soldier who'd stayed behind when the rest of the Germans had retreated.  Caje barely spotted the grey form lying in the grass a second before the German fired.  He flung himself at Frank, shoving him out of the way.  The bullet plucked at his sleeve.  Julius sighted in and killed the sniper before he could get off another shot.

Frank was breathing hard, eyes wide at the close call. "Thanks.  I didn't see that guy."

"Gotta keep your eyes open in all directions," Caje said.  He stuck a finger through the hole in his field jacket -- the sniper bullet hadn't even grazed him -- then grinned at Julius.  He couldn't help it.  Julius was watching him with a half-amazed, half-sad look that Caje couldn't pin down.  Was it because Caje had risked his life for a stranger? 

Caje pushed himself back to his feet and crouched at the forward edge of the foxhole again, but the fight was over.  The Germans had gone into full retreat, heading back through the fields into the town beyond. 

COs were shouting up and down the line, re-organizing the soldiers to go on the offense.  A lieutenant strode by, shouting into each foxhole.  As he approached theirs, he shouted, "Carnelli, Frank, you're on me."  He paused, noticing the third man.  "Who are you?  You're not with my outfit."

"Paul LeMay, sir," Caje said.  "361st K Company."

"I didn't know you guys were up here," the lieutenant said.  "All right, LeMay, fall in with the others."

"Wait," Julius interrupted.  "Lieutenant, I need to talk to you."

"Later, Carnelli.  After we take this town."

"No, sir," Julius said, straightening.  He glanced briefly at Caje, gave him a wisp of a smile before facing the lieutenant again and saying firmly, "We might get killed in that town, and this can't wait, sir."

 

***

 

Saunders left Braddock to brief Nelson with their new orders, while he cut up two streets to locate Forceau's office.  Part of him was tempted to forget about the doctor altogether and just report what he'd found to Hanley, but he couldn't quite overlook how much the man had rubbed him the wrong way.  And after his own thoughts denying coincidence, he felt compelled to at least verify the man who'd treated Brockmeyer and the Dr. Forceau the priest knew were one and the same.

The priest's directions were on the money, and he spotted the doctor's office on the ground floor, last doorway before a narrow alley. The sign out front read: Dr. Emile Forceau. 

Saunders sauntered across the street and approached the little office.  It seemed a fastidious place, even from the outside.  The good doctor must have kept at least one housekeeper employed just for cleaning.  As opposed to the rest of the town, the office windows seemed to sparkle, and not a hint of dirt dimmed the shiny white front steps or the freshly painted exterior.  Vain, like the doctor himself, Saunders thought.

The front windows had white curtains drawn back to let in the sunlight.  He paused long enough to see Forceau inside, talking to an elderly woman.  Lecturing, was more like, Saunders thought, judging from the man's stern features and the poor woman's crestfallen expression.  So, Forceau was just a conceited, ill-tempered doc after all, as Walton had been saying the entire time.  Probably really had gone to the Paris Medical School, too, just like he'd said. 

The doctor looked up abruptly, and Saunders walked on, cutting down the alley to get out of sight quickly.  He paused there, almost hoping the doctor would come storming out, but the street remained peaceful, and he did not hear the office's front door open.  He looked around the alley, and his gaze settled on a side door into the same building.  He glanced over his shoulder again, then walked over to it.

The handle turned but the door wouldn't open.  A quick inspection through the gap showed it was barred from the inside.  The curtains on the door's high set window were lacy and he squinted through them into the room beyond.  He could just make out what looked like crates stacked inside, the stenciled black letters spelling "plas--" on one just visible.  Plasma? he wondered.  Saunders glanced around again, making sure he was undisturbed.  He needed to be sure.  Because if those were American medical supplies in there, then he had his connection between Forceau and the black marketeers.  No small-time French doctor would have those kind of supplies on hand legitimately.  He took off his jacket, wrapped it around a broken brick he worked out of the base of the wall, and smashed in the corner of the door's window.  It tinkled loudly, and he winced.  Hanley was going to trade in the entire squad, he thought.  The whole lot of them were turning criminal.  But he had to know.

He reached his arm in through the small hole, careful of the jagged shards, and unbarred the door.  It swung open on well-oiled hinges.

There wasn't just one row of crates.  Shelves along the side wall were crowded with smaller boxes.  The larger stuff was stacked in rows in the middle  Saunders shut the door behind him and twisted the light switch on the wall.  Two electric lights came on, on opposing walls.  He walked forward, scanning labels.  Medical supplies, and all of it American:  drugs, plasma, equipment.  The collection was larger than he'd seen at some field hospitals.

And that tied the doctor to Carnelli, which tied in Brockmeyer to the whole mess too. 

Grimly, he crossed to the room's inner door, put his ear against it to listen.  Nothing.  No voices from the front office, but no footsteps approaching either.  He surveyed the medical cache again and lifted the lid off the closest box, labeled morphine.  His eyes widened.  The box was empty.  Hurriedly he closed it and checked another.  Nothing.  He kicked lightly at the bottom box and it shifted easily, no weight in it to keep it solid.  Suddenly nothing made sense anymore.  Was the entire room filled with nothing but empty crates? 

"Please don't move," Forceau's voice said behind him.  "I will not take chances.  If you move, I will shoot you."

Saunders pinched his lips tight against the curse.  He'd gotten careless.  The doctor had come in the same way he had, from the outer door.  He didn't turn, but slowly raised his hands.

"I'm sorry you came here," the doctor said.

"I'm not," Saunders said.  He turned his head a fraction to the left, trying to let his peripheral vision take in the doctor's position. 

"Do not move," the doctor said.

Saunders asked casually, "Where'd you get all this stuff?"

"Where does one get anything in this world?  One finds a seller and one does business."

"You have more here than you need."

"Not at all.  How can I supply my fellow doctors, the partisans, and the people who need this, without an adequate supply?"

He asked, "What really happened to Brockmeyer, Doc?"

"Exactly what you were told.  I have done nothing but treat him to the best of my abilities."

"I don't believe you."

"I don't care what you believe.  I have not violated my oath."

"Yet."  Saunders infused the word with as much sarcasm as he could.  "Are you going to shoot me?" 

He heard another man's deeper voice say coldly, "He won't, but if you try anything, I will."

Saunders recognized the new voice instantly, though he had only heard it once.  It belonged to the supply sergeant who'd given him the cigar in front of the church.  "Well, well," Saunders said, and cautiously turned around.  Carnelli was standing beside the doctor, one hand still on the outer door's knob, the other around his gun.  Which was pointing right at Saunders.  Saunders felt his gut constrict in reaction.  The doctor was one thing; Saunders had been pretty sure he wouldn't have pulled the trigger, despite his threats.  But Carnelli was another story.... 

"What's this man doing here, Forceau?" he demanded.

"I don't know--" the doctor said, but when Carnelli started to turn on him, he corrected himself hastily.  "He was at Monique's, investigating the injured soldier's condition."

"That so?"  Carnelli raised his eyebrows, then smiled at Saunders.  It was the smile of a shark.  "Brockmeyer's one of yours then, is he?"  Carnelli glanced at the doctor again, voice sharpening again.  "Why'd he follow you?  What'd you do to make him suspect you?"

"Nothing!"

"Who else you talking to?"

"No one, I swear!" Forceau protested, and Saunders thought the doctor actually turned a shade paler.

"You're getting careless," Carnelli snapped.  "I don't like that.  Randolph gets a hold of you and he'll have the truth out of you in ten minutes flat.  And you, my dear doctor, stand to lose as much as me."  Carnelli eyed Saunders.  "You wanna tell me what you're doing here?"

"Would it make any difference?"

Carnelli grinned.  "I like you.  Practical.  You understand business."

"I understand loopholes well enough.  What happened to the doc's supplies?  They fall into one?"  He pushed one of the top empty boxes off the nearest stack, careful to make sure it landed nowhere near Carnelli.  He didn't want to earn a bullet in the stomach, just wanted to make a point.  And he wanted to know if Forceau knew the boxes contained nothing but air.  If he didn't, he might be able to stir up the doctor against Carnelli, gain an ally.  "How much did you charge him for empty boxes?"

Carnelli's grin widened at the same time his gaze grew colder.  "I changed my mind.  I don't like you.  You ask too many questions about things that don't concern you."

"Oh?"  Saunders was watching Forceau out of the corner of his eye and was disappointed when the doctor did not react to the revelation about the missing supplies.  So, he knew.  Whatever Carnelli was planning, the doctor was in on it.  "You're pointing a gun at me.  That kinda makes all this my concern, doesn't it?"

Carnelli laughed.  "Curiosity... you never hear about what it did to the pussycat?"  He went on, "The doc's supplies are perfectly safe.  They're just in another location. Wouldn't want to blow up the real stuff, would we?  It's worth a fortune."

Saunders went very still, his mind running through various escape options.  He glanced around the room again, noting the two exits and what it would take to reach one.  He shifted ever so slightly, putting himself in a better position to knock over the closest stack of crates into the supply sergeant.

"Don't try it, Sergeant," Carnelli said, and he didn't even sound worried.  But then, he still held the gun.  "Really, I oughta thank you.  You and your squad... you seem to show up just when and where I need them.  Here I was figuring how to get Kirby over here, and you show up instead.  Now you can have all the fun and I can just shoot that mouthy private of yours.  I'll enjoy that, I think."

Saunders tried not to react to the mention of Kirby, to the fact that he was not AWOL at all, but being held by Carnelli, and that Saunders' own presence here had just sealed Kirby's fate.  "What's he think of your plan?"  He gestured to Forceau.

Carnelli's gaze switched automatically to the doctor, and Saunders edged sideways again.  He had a better angle now to shove the crates at Carnelli and jump him, or dive back behind the rest of the crates for cover. 

"Oh, you mean blowing up the joint?  The whole thing's his idea.  He thinks a doctor of his stature deserves a much nicer office uptown.  The people who own this building have ties to the Resistance.  The explosion will look like they got a little carried away."  He checked his watch, then looked at Forceau.  "You ready the bomb like I showed you?"

Forceau licked dry lips, but nodded once.

"Good.  Set the timer so it goes off at two.  Got that?"

The doctor nodded again.  "The man at Monique's house?  Do I need to check on him again?"

"No," Carnelli said.  "I already alerted the field hospital on my way over here.  The medics should have him on his way.  Only loose end left now is you, Sergeant." Carnelli looked at him.  "Move back against the wall and turn around."

Saunders shuffled backwards trying to buy himself more time.  He had to do something and do it fast.  The inner door knob was just a couple feet from him, but he'd never reach it as long as Carnelli had that pistol pointed at him.  Did it matter?  Cooperate and he'd be blown up.  Fight back and he'd be shot.  But gunfire at least attracted attention...  He judged the distance between him and Carnelli's gun, what it would take to knock it aside before the trigger was pulled.

"I said turn around," Carnelli snapped.  He stepped towards Saunders, and Saunders made his move.  But he'd underestimated the big sergeant.  The man had been waiting for him to try something and he was ready.  He sidestepped and spun quickly, arm swinging, and the pistol butt clipped Saunders over the ear.

He fell hard, dazed. 

"Doc," Carnelli said.  Saunders felt them bending over him, but he was too stunned from the blow to move more than feebly.  His jacket was pulled aside, the shirt sleeve ripped open with a knife, and a needle pricked his arm.

 

***

 

Littlejohn paced near the front door where he could keep watch out the window.  He knew his constant motion was annoying the woman, but he couldn't sit still any longer.  It had been a long time since Saunders had left to check on the doctor.  Littlejohn felt locked away, out of the loop, and it was grating on him.  There was no way to get news on what was happening with Caje and Kirby, no way to even check in with Billy.  He was stuck uselessly in the woman's house while she looked lost and forlorn and Doc hovered nearby, keeping an eye on Brockmeyer. 

Littlejohn thought he'd looked like he'd been starting to stir, but that had been around lunchtime, and Monique had used sign language to gesture him and Doc into the kitchen to help themselves to some food and coffee she had.  Both men had accepted half-guiltily, half-gratefully, enjoying the food and giving her some privacy with Brockmeyer.  Littlejohn had hoped to hear good news and see Brockmeyer struggling back to consciousness, but when they'd finished the offered lunch and returned, he lay as still as ever.

Two men approached the front of the house.  Littlejohn stopped pacing and scooted the curtains to one side for a better look.  Medics, and the taller one was carrying a stretcher.  "Hey, Doc," Littlejohn called.  "The medics are finally here."

Monique let them in, and Littlejohn and Doc watched as they efficiently and carefully transferred Brockmeyer from the couch to the stretcher. 

"Mind if we go with you?" Littlejohn asked.

One of the medics shrugged, and Littlejohn thanked her and said goodbye to the woman.  She watched from the doorway, crying openly again as the medics carried Brockmeyer out of the house.

Littlejohn tried to put her out of his mind.  He was just happy to be out in the sunlight and fresh air again.  Happy they were on their way.  "So," he asked the medic nearest him, the one carrying the back end of the stretcher.  "That French doctor finally agreed to release him, huh?  About time."

"I don't know about any French doctor," the medic said.  "It was a sergeant who sent us over."

Littlejohn smiled.  "That'd be my sergeant.  Sergeant Saunders.  He said he was checking on that doctor.  Guess he didn't like what he found."

The medic frowned.  "I don't know.  He didn't give his name.  Big, tall, dark-haired fellow."

"No," Littlejohn said.  "That's not right.  Saunders is medium-height, blond." 

"Nope," the medic said.  "I was there when he came by.  That wasn't him."

Now, Littlejohn frowned.  He exchanged a puzzled glance with Doc and kept walking. 

"Who y'all talking about, Pete?" the medic in front asked over his shoulder.

"They wanted to know who it was who sent us over here."

"Oh," the front medic said.  "That was Sergeant Carnelli."

"Carnelli?" Littlejohn demanded.  He remembered the name quite well.  Carnelli had been the guy heading the poker game last night.  That didn't make any sense.  How would he know Brockmeyer was injured?  "You sure?"

"Yep.  He's over in Supply, fills our requisitions.  We see him all the time."

Littlejohn walked in silence, ignoring Doc's questioning look, trying to figure how Carnelli fit into things.  He didn't, but then, Littlejohn had been cooped up in Monique's house since early that morning.  Who knew what had been going on in the meantime?  He pursed his lips and made a quick decision.  "Stay with Brockmeyer, Doc.  I gotta find Saunders."

 

***

 

Hanley had forgotten the bread and cheese as he leaned forward, listening to Randolph talk.  "I've tried putting men undercover to infiltrate Carnelli's group.  No luck.  Every time, he seems to get wind and things dry up until I'm forced to move on, then he starts up again and I have to start all over.  I know it's him because he has the same MO.  And that's where your men come in."

"The frame up of Caje?" Hanley asked.

"Yes.  That's how Carnelli works.  He gets the police investigating one crime.  Then another.  He knows we can't not investigate a legitimate crime.  We must divert manpower to it, even if I know it's to throw me off the track.  He's never resorted to murder before.  Makes me think I must have been getting closer than I thought.  Right now, he knows the MPs are scattered all around this town and the countryside.  There's no one left in town to organize against him even if they realize something's going on.  He'll do one more feint at the time of the sell.  It will be something spectacular guaranteed to make sure both the citizens and the MPs will check it out, leaving him in the clear to conduct his business."

"And what can you do about it?"

"Damn good question.  I have no idea where he's operating from.  But just as he has been using circumstances, so have I.  That house-to-house search we conducted for Caje.  It was also to look for the stolen supplies and anything suspicious.  My men tore this town apart bottom to top, and they've come up with nothing."  He grimaced in frustration.  "But I know he's here, his goods are here, and he's going to be selling them to the collaborators here.  Right under my nose.  By the time I figure out where he's at, it'll probably be too late."

"Why can't you just arrest him?"

"On what charge?  The supplies he steals aren't from under his own command, so I can't hold him even on suspicion of theft.  Not unless I can catch him with them, or catch one of his men and get them to confess.  He's very slippery, our man.  I'm not even one hundred percent positive it's Carnelli, because he's almost too logical a suspect.  He's always on duty when he's supposed to be, and surveillance on him has turned up nothing." 

"So what can I do to help?"

"I'd like you and your men to--"  Randolph broke off as they heard the lieutenant's name being called. 

Both men turned as Littlejohn, jogged up to their table.  The tall man bent over and put his hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath.  He noticed the captain and quickly straightened and said, "Sir."

"What is it?" Hanley asked.

"Have you seen Sergeant Saunders?"

"No, why?  Weren't you with Brockmeyer?"

Littlejohn nodded.  "We've been at that woman's house all day.  He just got released to the field hospital."

"How is he?"

"Don't know yet, but he hasn't regained consciousness."

"Now what about Saunders?"

"He wanted to know when Brockmeyer was moved.  Said to report in to you if I couldn't find him.  He didn't trust the French doctor so he left to check him out.  He didn't come back.  When the medics came for Brockmeyer, I thought Saunders had sent them, but it wasn't, it was another sergeant.  I wanted to--"

"Another sergeant?" Hanley interrupted and glanced at Randolph.  "Do you know his name?"

"That's the funny part, Lieutenant.  It was this guy named Carnelli--"

Randolph cut him off again.  "You were at this woman's house all day?"

"Yes sir."

"Did the MPs come by and search?"

Littlejohn glanced questioningly at Hanley, then answered, "Yes, sir.  They came by, but they just talked with us and then left."

"They didn't go through the place?"

"Well, no," Littlejohn said.  "We were all there, Brockmeyer'd been there all night with the woman, she was crying...."  He trailed off as the two officers looked at each other, suddenly ignoring him.

"That's how he does it," Randolph murmured.

"Then that's where the stolen supplies are?"

"I'd stake my life on it."

Hanley turned back to Littlejohn.  "Where's her house?"

Littlejohn watched Randolph calling for some MPs across the street, but answered, "Far end of town.  I can take you there--"

"Let's go," Randolph said.

 

***

 

Kirby was beginning to regret having his hands tied in front of him.  It meant he could see his wristwatch, watch the minutes drag by into the afternoon.  It was like his own personal hourglass, running out of sand.  Each minute that went by was one minute closer to when Carnelli would return for his sale.  "He's going to kill me, you know," Kirby said.  "Or make you do it."

Jesse shrugged, but it was an uncomfortable shrug.

"Why?" Kirby asked, not questioning Carnelli's motives, but wanting to know why Jesse would allow it to happen.  "However big your cut is after he sells this ammo to those collaborators, it's not going to be big enough to get you off the hook.  If he even pays you."

"What do you mean?" Jesse growled.

"I mean he bumped off Arching, one of his own men.  That's the kind of boss you have.  The kind that puts himself first ahead of all you guys that do the work for him.  Now, that's one less guy he has to pay.  That kind of situation make you sleep easy at night?"

"Shut up."

"You know I'm right," Kirby said.  "You work for Carnelli.  You know what he's capable of.  You think he's going to treat you fairly--"  Kirby broke off as the cellar door opened and Carnelli and Monique came down the stairway.

"Change in plans," Carnelli said.  "We don't need Kirby any longer."

Kirby met Jesse's eyes.

"But the meet's happening," Carnelli checked his watch, "in about ten minutes.  After we've clinched the deal, you can take care of him."

"Me?" Jesse said.

"You," Carnelli said.  He turned to the woman standing on the stairs just above him.  She had her shawl wrapped around her shoulders and was holding a purse in her hands.  "Monique, go shopping in town.  Take the rest of the afternoon.  No...."  He grinned suddenly, his gaze falling slyly on Kirby.  "Go visit lover-boy at the field hospital.  Make sure you're seen."

"Hospitals make me sick," she said. 

"Tough, baby.  Go, and make it look good."

She made a face.  He caught her arm and pulled her to him.  "Make it look real good," he murmured again, then kissed her, as if to take the sting out of his commands.

Kirby grimaced and averted his face.  Unintentionally, his gaze crossed Jesse, and he saw his expression mirrored on the other man's face.

"By the time you return," Carnelli went on, "your fellow citizens will be gone with their loot, and we'll be filthy rich."

"They are not my fellow citizens," Monique said.  "They are collaborators and you know it."

Kirby kept his gaze locked with Jesse's, pleading with him silently, not breaking eye contact.  You don't want to aid collaborators, he tried to say.  This isn't how you want to make your fortune. 

"And they pay better than your fellow citizens too," Carnelli said smugly.

"You make sure they do," Monique said.

Jesse nodded suddenly to Kirby, who found himself holding his breath.  Jesse pursed his lips together, still hesitating, before he straightened and stepped quickly toward Carnelli.  He yanked the .45 out from where it was stuck in Carnelli's belt at the small of his back and tossed it behind him.  It clattered loudly against a box, and Jesse stepped back swiftly as Carnelli whipped around.  Monique stepped up the stairs out of the way and watched impassively, eyes slightly narrowed.

"Jesse...." Carnelli said warningly.

"No," Jesse said.  "That's enough.  The black market's one thing, Sarge.  Dealing with collaborators is another." 

That actually made Carnelli laugh.  "Money is money," he said coldly.  "Green, gold, paper, coin...it doesn't matter.  It's your future." 

"Not mine," Jesse said.  "Not yours either.  Not this way."  He pulled out his pocket knife, opened the blade, and held it out for Kirby.  "Cut yourself loose," Jesse said.  "This ends now."

Kirby hurried forward.  A few saws and the thin ropes fell away.  Jesse handed him the knife.

 A shot rang out.  For a moment he couldn't tell what had happened.  Then he saw the small gun in Monique's hand, saw Jesse's wide eyes and open mouth, the bullet wound in his chest.  Then Jesse was falling backward, his gun slipping from lifeless fingers.

Carnelli jumped forward and kicked the knife out of Kirby's hand.  It skidded between two rows of boxes, out of sight.  Kirby jumped back a step and dropped into a slight crouch, watching the bigger man carefully. 

A knock sounded at the door upstairs.  Carnelli grinned.  "They're early, but that's our customers.  Baby, go let them in, then get out of here."  He blew her a kiss.  "And put that gun away.  That's our future, this deal.  Don't scare them off now."  Carnelli watched her go, eyeing her swaying fanny as she climbed the steps. 

Kirby figured he had nothing to lose and launched himself at the supply sergeant.

 

***

 

Braddock had had a devil of a time convincing Nelson of what Saunders had asked them to do.  Saunders had headed off again to check out the French doctor before Billy had turned around.  But since he'd clearly struck out on getting any answers from the Club Paris owner, he'd reluctantly agreed to go along with the new plan and see if they could gather any information on the local black market.  Saunders had asked them to meet him at Hanley's CP, but after a short time of fruitless wanderings and questionings, they'd found neither Saunders nor Hanley at the command post. 

They were wandering the town's streets again, looking for G.I.s when Braddock said, "Hey."  He gestured to a building just ahead of them. 

Billy looked at the door's painted placard.  "You need a doctor?"

"No, that's the doctor Saunders mentioned.  The one who treated Brockmeyer."

Billy waited for something more interesting to come out of Braddock's mouth.

"I wonder if he's seen Saunders."

"Well, why don't you ask him," Billy said.  "Looks like he's in."

Billy was right.  Someone was moving inside the office, just visible through the curtains.  And if they could find Saunders, then at least he could stop thinking and let Saunders take over.  He and Billy sure weren't turning up anything on their own.  He walked up to the door and was reaching for the handle when the door flew open and the doctor came out.  He collided with Braddock. 

"Out of my way, imbecile!"

No wonder he'd rubbed Saunders the wrong way, Braddock thought.  The guy had no manners.

The doctor clutched a box filled with an odd assortment of equipment and paperwork and other items.  Braddock could even see the edge of a framed picture inside.  The box wasn't the sort of thing he expected to see a doctor carrying around.  Where was the little black bag?  What was he doing with a box of personal possessions?  He asked politely, "Excuse me, I just have a coupla of questions—"

"Questions?" the doctor sputtered.  "You have no right to ask me questions."  He glanced behind him almost nervously and tried to push past Braddock.

Only Braddock wasn't that easy to shift and the tall, thin doctor was kept trapped in the alcoved doorway.

"Won't take a second, Doc," Braddock said.

The doctor was so nervous he shifted his weight from foot to foot.  "You have a field hospital.  Go see them."

"Oh, nothing ails me, Doc," Braddock said.  Except you.  "I'm looking for my sergeant.  Sergeant Saunders?"

Forceau flinched and glanced behind him.  "I'm late for an appointment," he said.  "Out of my way."

"Have you seen him?" Braddock asked.

"No," the doctor said, but it was too quick, too fast, and his gaze stole back at the shop.  "Please, I have to get out of here."

And with a box of stuff in his arms....  Braddock was feeling more and more like Forceau was hiding something.  That plus his nervousness sent off all kinds of alarms in Braddock.  He'd seen plenty of guys back home, guys who'd just done something wrong, guys who'd pulled some caper, scrambling into the backseat of his cab, ants in their pants, and those darting, nervous eyes a dead giveaway.

So Braddock did what he did best:  talked.  "Well, Doc, I won't keep you long, but we gotta find our sergeant and he said he was coming here.  You know, we'd be more comfortable talking inside, don't you think?"  He caught the doctor's arm in a vice-like grip and propelled him back inside the office.  Forceau's eye was twitching.  What could possibly be making him so nervous, Braddock wondered.  And what was the best way to find out what it was?  Billy trailed after him, and Braddock knew from the look on the kid's face that he thought they were wasting their time.

Forceau dropped the box suddenly and lunged for the door.  Braddock reacted just as quickly, grabbing the man's arm and swinging back around to slam a little harder than necessary into the wall.  He didn't feel sorry one bit, but he said, "Sorry, Doc.  Don't know my own strength there."  He fixed Forceau with an icy stare.  "And you haven't answered my question yet."

Forceau's mouth opened, closed.  "Please, I have to get out of here."

The sheer desperateness in the tone suddenly made Braddock want to panic.  Something was definitely going on.  "Where's my sergeant?" he demanded, dropping all pretense at courtesy.  "I know he was here.  Tell me and I'll let you out of here."

The doctor answered with a frantic headshake.

"You want outta here or not?"

"Back there!" Forceau said and gestured toward the door at the back of the office.  "Down the hall on the right, in the storeroom."

"Billy," Braddock said.  "Check it out."

The doctor bolted again, but Braddock had been expecting that and he grabbed the doctor's arm again.  "Not so fast, Doc."

"You said--"

"I lied," Braddock said, grinning at him. 

From the back room, Billy's voice yelled, "Braddock!"

"Come on," Braddock said, "let's go."

The doctor moaned and almost sank to the floor.  "But the bomb," he said.  "It's going to blow up!"

Braddock stared at him, too surprised to move, trying to absorb.

"Braddock!" Billy called again, more urgently.  "The sarge is in here.  He's unconscious."

"We have to get out of here," the doctor murmured. 

Braddock shoved the doctor toward the back door.  "All right, you got a bomb in here?  Then if you want to live, you're going to defuse it.  Move!"

 

***

 

Kirby smacked into the far wall and pressed his hands back against it to keep on his feet.  He was breathing hard, and he hurt where Carnelli's punches had connected.  Fortunately, that was less than he'd expected, but the open area in the basement was too small and they'd spent more time wrestling than punching.  Carnelli was leaning against the stairway railing, breathing just as heavily, probably just as glad to be taking a breather.  Unfortunately, he was still between Kirby and escape.

Wouldn't hurt to bait him, Kirby thought.  He recalled how easily the supply sergeant's ire had been aroused in his earlier visit.  He said, "Your collaborator friends haven't come down here yet.  I'll bet they heard that shot and headed for the hills."

Carnelli raised a shoulder in a one-sided shrug.  "A temporary setback."

"Hah," Kirby said.  "You think they're going to come near you after this foul up?"

Then it was Carnelli's turn to laugh, and Kirby didn't like the sound of it at all.  "You forget, Kirby.  I have what they want.  I'm the only one who has what they want.  They'll be back."

Kirby shook his head.  "You're dreaming.  You know your problem, Carnelli?  You think too much."

That made Carnelli laugh again, only this time, Kirby thought he heard agreement in the tone.  "My brother would agree with you there."

"You know Caje went after him, don't you?"

"I guessed," Carnelli acknowledged.  "Won't do him any good.  Julius won't testify against me.  Not his own flesh and blood."

"I didn't see any love lost between you two last night at the poker match."

Carnelli's smile vanished.  "I know my own--"

Kirby didn't let him finish.  He'd gotten his breath back and he launched himself off the wall.  Carnelli started to dodge left, one fist drawing back, but Kirby feinted, ducking to the right and sweeping his left leg hard against Carnelli's legs.  The unexpected move spilled the supply sergeant hard, but it also tripped Kirby. He scrambled forward, trying to reach the stairway, before Carnelli recovered.  He made the first two steps when a vice-like grip clamped around his ankle.  He grabbed at the railing with both hands, trying to keep both his footing and his lead.  Carnelli yanked hard, and Kirby felt his shoulder wrench.  His right hand came free.  He clawed frantically at the wall, and his fingers found purchase on the lantern.  He snatched it off the wall and spun, flinging it at Carnelli.

The big man batted it out of the air and it broke in a tinkle of glass against the boxes.  The box caught flame with a whoosh, and Carnelli recoiled.  Kirby kicked with his free leg and caught Carnelli squarely on the chin.  The sergeant's head snapped back.  The grip vanished around Kirby's ankle, and Carnelli crashed onto the cellar floor, almost on top of  Jesse's body.  His eyes were closed, but one of his hands stirred, moving weakly. Not unconscious then, but close. 

Kirby staggered back against the steps a moment, sucked in a couple deep breaths.  Not for too long.  He could feel the heat of the spreading fire.  The first set of boxes were uniforms, but behind them was the ammo and ordinance crates.  At the rate the fire was spreading, it wouldn't be too long before the whole place went up.  He pushed himself off the stairs and stepped over Carnelli.  A good shove toppled the boxes, and he kicked them clear, but he was too late.  The flames already licked at the boxes beyond, the yellow pine turning brown.  Kirby stared at the spreading fire a moment, realizing he stood no chance of putting it out at the rate it was spreading.  He looked down at Carnelli, who was still dazed and trying to turn himself over onto his knees. 

He didn't go down easily, Kirby had to grant him that.  He shook his head for even contemplating it, but he couldn't leave the guy down here.  As he reached to grab Carnelli under the arms, the supply sergeant turned, still on his knees.  Kirby found himself staring at the barrel of a .45.  Jesse's gun, Kirby realized.  He'd forgotten all about it.  He tensed, knowing it was over, all over.  He'd forgotten the gun, and he was going to die for it. 

But Carnelli was still too stunned, his hand wavering as his brain failed to coordinate with his body.  Kirby lashed out, knocking Carnelli over.  He jumped past and took the stairs two at a time.  Two shots rang out, but the bullets struck nowhere near him.

He flung open the upper cellar door and ran smack into Monique.  His fingers tightened around her arms, as much to keep himself from falling as to not let her get away.  The sound of the fire from down below was audible even with the door swinging shut behind him.  He shifted his grip to her wrist and hauled her with him.  "Come on," he said roughly.  "The cellar's on fire.  That ammo's going to blow."

"Nick!"

"He's still down there."

"Let me go!"  She jerked her arm free, and he was too beat from the fight to resist.  She pushed away toward the cellar door.

"Didn't you hear me?" Kirby called.  "The place is on fire—"

She was gone, the door swinging behind her.

Kirby cursed, then shook his head and ran for the front door.  The need to get clear of the house was so strong, he could feel the first fingers of panic reaching through his limbs, making his fingers slip on the door knob.  He yanked it open and ran into the glaring sunlight -- and straight into two MPs.

"Hey!" one yelled.

Kirby started to struggle automatically, the panic to get clear still gripping him, then he heard a familiar voice say, "Kirby!"

"Lieutenant!" Kirby said.  "Get these goons off me and run!  And I mean now!"

Something in the urgency of his voice communicated itself to the two MPs and they let him go without being asked, backing up tentatively.

"What's going--"

"Goddammit," Kirby shouted right over Hanley's demand.  "Run!"

They'd barely raced clear of the white arbor covered in roses when the house blew.

 

***

 

Kirby, Doc Walton, and Littlejohn stood around Brockmeyer's cot.  As expected, the first thing he did when he regained consciousness was bum a cigarette off Kirby.  Kirby lit it for him and Brockmeyer inhaled deeply, then winced as the motion jarred his head.

"Saunders filled me in on Caje and the murder charge," he said.  "But he didn't tell me... where's Monique?  Can you get a message to her?  Let her know I'm okay?"

Doc and Littlejohn exchanged a look, then glanced at Kirby, who scuffed a foot uncomfortably, not wanting to be the one to tell Brockmeyer she was dead.  He must have hesitated a second too long.

"She's dead, isn't she?" Brockmeyer cut in and the way he said it, it wasn't a question.

"Well--"

"You can tell me."

"Brockmeyer--"

"Tell me!"  The quiet voice didn't rise, but the intensity was unmistakable.

Kirby said, "There was an explosion at her house."

Brockmeyer crumpled and turned away.

"I'm sorry," Kirby said.  "I'm truly sorry."  The devastation on Brockmeyer's face.  He wondered if he'd ever love someone that much, and he realized, quite selfishly, that if he did, and he married her, he hoped he'd go first.  He didn't want to be left behind like that.

"At her house?  Why?  Why there?"

Littlejohn and Doc were looking to him to answer again, and Kirby took a breath and did.  He'd had plenty of time to decide what to say when this moment came.  He'd tell Brockmeyer the truth, to a point.  The radio man would find out she'd been part of the profiteering ring eventually if he asked any questions.  That betrayal would hurt, but not like finding out she hadn't loved him.  Kirby intended to make sure he never found out that part.  There was no one left but him who had witnessed that.  Jesse was dead, and Reyes had gone to ground.  Sure, Captain Randolph might turn him up eventually, but the 361st would be moved on by then, and that was all Kirby cared about.  He doubted Randolph would even pursue something so inconsequential as a personal relationship.  Carnelli was dead, the ring broken, the case closed as far as Randolph was concerned.

The only one who cared who Monique had loved was Kirby.  And Brockmeyer.  And Brockmeyer would forgive her, as long as he had those memories of their time together intact.  It was the only solace Kirby could give him.

 

***

 

Caje walked with Braddock, letting Billy hurry ahead to meet the others just stepping out of the field hospital.  He wanted to talk to Kirby, find out what had really happened.  He was sure Saunders hadn't given him the full scoop. 

But Kirby, he could see, was trailing behind Littlejohn and Doc, nearly walking into them when Billy stopped them.  For a moment, Caje ignored the hubbub caused by Billy's enthusiastic announcement that their pass had been extended, that they had another twenty-four hours, and stepped around them to get to Kirby.  From the absent gaze and slight frown, he knew Kirby hadn't even heard the news.  Brockmeyer must have taken the news about Monique's death hard.  But he wasn't sure why Kirby seemed to be taking it so hard himself.

"Hey," he said, and watched Kirby come back to the present.

"They let you out?" Kirby said.

"Yeah.  Captain Randolph got all the charges dropped."

"That's great," Kirby said.

Caje glanced at the hospital.  "Brockmeyer going to be okay?"

Kirby nodded. "Sure.  Just fine."

Caje didn't miss the dripping sarcasm.  "What about you?"

Kirby looked up sharply.  "What?  What about me?"

"You going to be okay too?"

"Yeah, of course."

But the words were too quick, too defensive.  Caje was genuinely puzzled.  "What's up?  What happened?"

"I thought Saunders briefed you."

Caje nodded, then said, "But he didn't tell me all of it, did he?"

"He didn't know all of it, old buddy."

"Well?"

Kirby looked at him a long moment, then shook his head.  "None of 'em knows what really happened.  Just me.  It's gonna stay that way."

"Wait... did you lie to Captain Randolph?"

Kirby favored Caje with a sly look.  "Nah, I didn't lie.  I just left a few things out, is all," Kirby said, and from the finality in his voice, Caje knew that was the last he'd ever hear on what had really happened at the house.  Maybe years from now, if they both survived the war, maybe in some bar with a few drinks in him, Caje thought he might get Kirby to tell the story, but then again....  He took one look at Kirby's face and thought perhaps not.  Kirby blew out a loud breath.  It seemed to settle him, release him from whatever thoughts were spinning in his head.  He gestured to their squad mates, who were chattering enthusiastically, already heading up the street.  "Where they going in such a good mood?"

Caje glanced at him. "Didn't you just hear Billy's news?"

"What news?"

"The lieutenant's extended our passes."

Kirby slowly grinned.

"And there's gonna be a private party at Club Paris tonight.  Singing, dancing, cards, and all the alcohol we can drink.  Courtesy of Captain Randolph."

Kirby's grin widened.  "Maybe I can win my money back.  Well, what are we waiting for?"

 

end

 

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