(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.
by Thompson Girl
Littlejohn woke to Billy shaking his shoulder. Not softly, not gently. Not get up, breakfast's ready, but urgent and alarmed. The dark lobby of the hotel was noisy with soft snores and deep breathing, though early morning light seeped through the cracks in the window curtains. The brightness let him see the serious frowning expression on Billy's face, and a wave of worry hit his stomach. The sleep fell away from him and he sat up. "What is it, Billy?"
"They didn't come back last night."
Littlejohn blinked, trying to find the Kraut attack/back to the front/suicide mission news in Billy's simple little statement. And it wasn't adding up. Blankly, he asked, "Who didn't?"
"Caje and Kirby." Billy gestured at the two made-up and untouched cots on the other side of Littlejohn's bed.
So that's what he was on about. Littlejohn groaned and lay back down, letting his head smack the pillow harder than was necessary. "The twenty-four hours isn't up yet, Billy," he said. "What are you worried about? They probably just bunked out elsewhere."
"Maybe they got lucky," Braddock murmured, overhearing and having to add his two cents worth. "Now go away, kid, and let us sleep."
Nelson frowned at the pile of blankets that was Braddock, but lowered his voice. "I'm telling you, Littlejohn, something's not right." Billy blew out a breath and pursed his lips together. "We shouldn't have left them."
Braddock rolled over with a loud shuffle of blankets. "You have a death wish, Billy? I'm going to strangle you with my bare hands if you don't let a guy get his beauty rest."
"It's all your fault anyway," Billy snapped at him. "You're the one who wanted to leave. I never should have listened to you."
Braddock threw off the covers and swung his feet off the cot. Littlejohn quickly sat up again to interpose himself between the two. Braddock was genial most of the time, but he had his limits too, and Billy was rapidly treading on one of them. Getting Braddock mad was rather like antagonizing a bear: he might seem slow and more interested in finding the nearest honey stash, but once you angered him, he had very sharp claws.
"Billy, just relax," Littlejohn said soothingly. "You don't mean that. Caje and Kirby can take care of themselves."
"Just stop worrying, " Braddock said. "We're on leave."
"You saw those guys at the poker table last night," Billy said.
"I sure didn't see a bunch of Krauts there. For all we know, they're all still playing. It wouldn't be the first time there's been an all-night poker match around here. What are you now, their mother? Stop worrying, for crying out loud." He stared at Billy a moment, at the set look on his face, then turned toward Littlejohn, exasperated, and asked, "Why isn't any of this sinking in?"
Littlejohn shrugged, trying to hide his smile.
"Sometimes, talking to him," Braddock said, "is like trying to get a hummingbird to sit still."
Billy's eyes narrowed disapprovingly. "What's the matter with you two?"
"What's the matter with us?" Braddock repeated in disbelief. Then the glower was back. "You're what's the matter with me, Billy. Now get outta here and go bug someone else."
Billy stood and glared down at Braddock. "That's the only intelligent thing you've said this morning."
"Billy..." Littlejohn started.
Turning on his heel, the private marched deliberately for the door.
"Billy!" Littlejohn called. "Where are you going now?"
Billy didn't say anything, just kept heading out the door of the hotel. Littlejohn sighed and reached for his boots.
"You're not going to humor him, are you?" Braddock demanded. "Kirby and Caje are just shacked up somewhere, you know that as well as I do."
"All the more reason to go with him," Littlejohn said and flashed Braddock a grin. "Keep him for barging in somewhere else he's not wanted this early in the morning."
"Amen," Braddock said and sank back down into his bed, tugging the blankets over his head again.
Littlejohn hurriedly laced and buckled his boots, slipped on his shirt and grabbed his jacket, then trotted after Billy. Nelson was striding purposefully up the street toward the north end of town and Club Paris when Littlejohn caught up with him. The younger man didn't even glance up until Littlejohn fell into step. Then Littlejohn caught the flutter of a smile that Billy tried and failed to hide. Billy said, "You don't have to come."
"What's your plan?" Littlejohn asked, ignoring Billy's statement.
"I just want to ask a few questions."
Littlejohn accepted that and said nothing more. He couldn't help noticing an unusual amount of activity in the eastern part of town. The French townspeople were clustered on street corners, and he saw more than one curtain fluttering, white faces glimpsed through windows. A mixture of curiosity and unsettledness seemed to go with their whispering and waiting.
The gathered groups grew larger the closer to the Club they got. Littlejohn suddenly felt Billy might be on to something and Caje's and Kirby's absence from their billet might not be as natural as he had assumed.
The club was closed and locked. Billy glanced at Littlejohn, who shrugged. What had Billy expected? The club wasn't some bakery and coffee joint catering to the breakfast crowd. It was a night establishment. The owners and waiters probably didn't even stir from their own beds until the afternoon.
Billy wiped his palms off on his pants and walked up to the door, fist raised to knock anyway. Littlejohn grabbed his arm and nodded toward the alley to the left of the club.
Something was going on.
A dozen off-duty soldiers loitered in the mouth of the alley. They were muttering loudly among themselves, pointing into the alley. Not just off-duty soldiers, either. There were more MPs clustered in that alley than Littlejohn had ever seen gathered in one location. Some were interviewing the soldiers, scratching notes on tiny pads of paper, some were inspecting the alley itself. A camera bulb flashed.
"What's going on?" Billy asked Littlejohn
"Let's find out," Littlejohn answered. Whatever it was, he thought, the stir in the alley might be a good distraction for Billy, get his mind off looking for Caje and Kirby for awhile and at least buy their two squad mates some extra time. He walked over to see what was going on, Billy at his side.
"Hello, there," a voice said.
They turned to see a captain standing behind them. They both saluted, drawing themselves up straighter.
"Isn't it interesting how a crowd attracts a bigger crowd?" he said. He was a large man, round-faced, with intense blue eyes and black hair showing under his garrison cap.
Embarrassed at the captain's comment, Littlejohn looked away.
Billy shuffled his feet uncomfortably and said, "Sorry sir, we didn't come here for..." He glanced at the alleyway activity. "We're just looking for someone."
"Oh?" the captain said. "Who?"
"Two of my squad mates."
"Two?" The captain frowned ever so slightly. "What are their names?"
Billy looked nervous, clearly wondering why they were being asked so many questions. Littlejohn asked, "Why do you ask, sir?"
"Because there's been a murder here." The captain's voice was dark and grim, all pretense at pleasantness dropped.
It was the last thing Littlejohn expected to hear. He suddenly understood why all the questions. Billy went wide-eyed and his mouth dropped open. He leaned forward, practically assaulting the captain, forgetting rank, forgetting propriety in his anxiousness. "Who's been murdered?" he demanded.
It seemed as if the captain was not going to answer, but after a moment of watching the sheer worry on Nelson's face, he relented and said, "Private Harry Arching."
The name clearly surprised Billy, and if anything, his eyes seemed to widen even more. Littlejohn knew Billy had been so certain of hearing Kirby or Caje's name that he was now at a loss. Even the relief that it wasn't either of their squad mates hadn't kicked in yet. But Littlejohn recognized the name. Arching had been one of the poker players from the big game last night.
Almost on cue, the crowd of GI's by the alley parted, and two MPs exited carrying a stretcher with a covered body on it. Billy watched it go by, still in shock.
The captain was still studying them carefully. "From your expressions, I'd wager Private Arching's not one of the men you're looking for."
"No, sir," Littlejohn said.
"Would one of the men you are looking for be a dark-haired fellow by the name of LeMay?"
Billy started almost guiltily.
"And he didn't return to your billets last night, did he." It wasn't a question.
"No, sir," Littlejohn answered.
"Your names, please?" Randolph wrote them down in his little notebook, then said, "Thanks, that'll be all. For now. Dismissed." He turned away and headed toward the alley, and the way the MPs deferred immediately to him, Littlejohn knew he was in charge of the investigation.
Nelson was obviously still confused, trying to put it all together in a way that made sense. He started after the captain, almost as is he were going to ask more questions, but Littlejohn caught his arm, pulled him back. "Come on," he muttered. "We need to go talk to the sarge."
"Billy!" Littlejohn interrupted him, "Don't you see?" He jerked a thumb in the general direction of the captain. "He thinks Caje killed that man. "
"But he didn't say--"
Littlejohn looked after the captain. "He didn't have to."
Kirby woke slowly. He was lying on his side on a miserably hard floor, hands tied behind his back, arms asleep. Physical pain and anger warred for supremacy in him. A low-wicked lantern hung from a peg near the wooden stairway. He hadn't seen much of the cellar when he'd been shoved down here last night, and the inadequate lighting didn't offer much of a view now. From the claustrophobic feeling, he'd assumed it was one of the smallest cellars he'd been in, but he could see now that the room was quite large. It was also full of supplies. Boxes, crates... stacked six feet high... every box stamped U.S. Army.
Kirby straightened up a little more and looked around more closely. The supply sergeant's face swam into his memory, and he put two and two together. "He's a goddamned thief!"
Someone's boot scuffed the ground and Kirby spun, startled. One of Carnelli's henchman crouched nearby on his heels, back against a wall, watching him. It was the broad-shouldered one. The one who hit like a mule. Kirby's jaw ached just thinking about it. Jesse. That's what Carnelli had called him. He was blond, strong-jawed and wary-eyed.
"Your boss," Kirby said. "He's a profiteer."
Jesse said nothing, just watched him expressionlessly.
"You all are. You're all a bunch of lousy crooks." He found the idea vaguely repulsive and tried not to think about how hypocritical his reaction was. On the outside, looking for a little something, he wouldn't have hesitated to buy from one of these guys. That's what the black market was for, getting a hold of a few things the Army didn't care to provide. But from this side of the cellar, it didn't look so swank all of a sudden. Didn't they have enough problems with the Krauts?
His words still didn't prompt a rise out of Jesse. The man sat there leaning against the wall, unmoved by the accusations, only his watchful eyes an indication that he was awake and alert. The butt of a pistol stuck out of his belt, within easy reach of the hands resting across his knees.
Kirby's gaze rested on that gun a moment, and it suddenly surprised him they'd left him alive. They'd killed Arching without a second thought. What was one more life? So, did they need him? Was Brockmeyer still upstairs? Unconsciously, his jaw clenched remembering that traitorous woman, and Carnelli and his drugs. He looked around the room again, at the stash worth a fortune stored down here in her basement. He remembered words from the night before, that they needed Brockmeyer to keep up images. What was it had Carnelli said? Why would the MPs bother searching the house where a GI was being cared for. Something like that. Brockmeyer was their camouflage.
And what about William G.? He was definitely a liability. He couldn't think of any reason they'd need him, unless they really did require one more scapegoat to pin their misdeeds on and planned to use him as they were trying to use Caje. All right, Kirby, buddy, he told himself. You're in a predicament and no doubt about it. And insulting his captors was not going to get him anywhere. Time to change tactics.
"What time is it?" he asked.
Kirby grimaced. From the way he ached, it had to have been a long time. It might even be morning outside. The thought brought a strange kind of hope. The squad would discover they were missing, start looking for anything out of the order. Then, his hope faded. He knew what they'd find. A murdered man, a knocked-out MP who'd seen Caje with the murder weapon in his hand, and him and Caje missing. Why would they look for something else suspicious with such a tale handed to them on a platter. Even Saunders would buy it.
He thought of Caje, and what little remained of his hope turned bitter as bad wine. Caje had asked him to tell Saunders the truth, to buy him time to do what he had to do. And he'd failed the Cajun, badly. It wasn't his fault, he wanted to object, but it was. He should have just taken Brockmeyer directly to the aid station and faced the music. But because he hadn't felt ready, because -- admit it, Bill, he told himself, you were just plain scared of what would happen to you. History had given him the unenviable track record of being both a troublemaker and of not being believed when he did tell the truth. And so he'd taken the chicken way out, trying to delay the inevitable confrontation with Saunders.
Every decision had consequences, he thought, some worse than others.
"Brockmeyer. He okay?" He kept his voice soft, uninflected. "Please," he added. It bothered him to use that courteous word with people who clearly had dispensed with civility.
But it got Jesse's stony exterior to crack just for a moment. "He's okay."
He didn't realize quite how much he'd needed to hear that until the answer was out in the open. He sighed, closed his eyes in relief a second, then said, "Thank you," and meant it.
He tried to flex his hands and winced. His arms and hands ached from being bound behind him. He knew better than to ask to be freed. He scooted backward, awkwardly until he could slouch against the wall and ease some of the pressure in his upper back. His tongue ran around his parched, swollen mouth. He didn't even have enough moisture to spit.
There was a shifting sound, and he turned his head to see Jesse rising to his feet. The man crossed out of sight behind a wall of contraband, but returned a moment later with a glass of water. He held it for Kirby, and Kirby gratefully drank it all.
"Thank you," he said again, and meant that too. He could swallow again without feeling like his mouth had been stuffed with month-old bed sheets.
"You're welcome," Jesse answered, sounding almost embarrassed.
Kirby wiped his mouth on his shoulder, not because he needed to, but to avert his gaze so Jesse wouldn't see the calculating look in his eye as he realized courtesy might have given him his first key to getting out of the situation alive.
The truck bounced along, jarring him with every bump in the road. Caje sat in the passenger seat in the cab, watching the morning shadows stretch across the fields they passed. He listened with only half an ear to the driver, a young eighteen-year-old Californian rattling on about flying crop dusters and orange groves and how he'd ignored his father's wishes for him to go into the Army Air Corp and signed up with the Army, thank you very much. "A lot safer on the ground than up in the air," Joe Willis was telling him. "B-17s -- they're just targets up there for the 88s. That's not my idea of flying."
Caje wondered what Joe might think if he wasn't driving trucks, but fighting on the front line. A week with the 361st, K company might change his mind a little about what exactly constituted safe.
But Caje was in no mood for the truth. Truth took on a much less gilded perspective when a set of lies sounded more like the truth than the truth itself did. He rolled his shoulders uncomfortably at the reminder.
And besides, Joe Willis was a good guy. He'd stopped to offer Caje a ride to the front, no questions asked, passing over a chocolate bar and refusing any cigarettes in return. "Don't smoke," he'd said cheerfully.
It took a moment for Caje to realize Joe was addressing him. He had stolen the dog tags off a sleeping drunk GI, given him his own in exchange. He now bore the unlikely moniker of Harvey Nielsen. "Yeah?" Caje asked.
"I got a thermos of coffee down there, want to split it with me?"
"Sure, thanks," Caje said and bent forward to reach the thermos. Steam rose when he unscrewed the top of the metal thermos, and he could feel the delicious heat of it. The acrid smell tickled his nose. He couldn't help grinning at the driver.
"There's this mess guy I know," Joe explained. "He tries to keep us drivers in coffee whenever he sees us. Old guy. Drove ambulances in the Great War, can you believe that? You'd have thought he'd done his time, but here he is again. What's that like, I wonder, serving in two wars? You think it's like a déjà vu thing, or do you think he's got more hope than the rest of us, having been through one victory already?"
Caje blinked, trying to process the youngster's train of thought. "I don't know," he said and poured out the coffee, trying to pass the thermos cup over to Joe.
Joe waved a hand at him. "You drink that one, I'll drink out of the thermos. I'm used to it. I can't pour for myself while I'm driving, so I just drink it straight. And besides, those thermos lids... they remind me of tea cups for some reason, makes me think of my two little sisters... they'd play tea time and try to sit me down at their little table." He shook his head. "You got any family, Harvey?"
Yes. "No," Caje answered. "Not anymore."
"I'm sorry," Joe said.
His negative answer seemed to dry up that line of conversation, and Caje sipped his coffee in silence. It was good, better than the stuff he was used to drinking. He tried to work out a plan. He had to find where Julius "Caruso" Carnelli would be posted. After he'd left the alley, he'd asked around, catching a few GIs heading back to their billets after he'd left Kirby. He'd been lucky. Julius Carnelli's singing was popular enough that the soldiers who'd been in town for more than a couple days knew of him. He was with the 22nd Infantry, they'd said. Caje had tracked down where they were billeted and found the 22nd had been trucked out ahead of schedule, including Julius. The soldiers thought their own platoon would be following the next day. The Germans were pushing back again, hard.
He'd thanked them, set out on the road, and been picked up by Joe Willis and his convoy of three trucks. Joe'd bought his story about being left behind without so much as a twitch. "Happens all the time," he'd said, waving a hand dismissively. "You were on liberty, huh? They tell you to be back at a certain time, then change the orders and you don't get to hear about it until too late... your platoon's gone. Don't worry, Harvey. We'll catch you up to your buddies."
Guilt for stealing the dog tags and duping talkative Joe Willis was short-lived. Determination ran through him. Determination to find Julius Carnelli and persuade him to come back and tell the truth. Caje had harbored a hope that the singer had gone straight to the MPs to report the murder, but it hadn't taken many questions to find out from the other soldiers that he hadn't. He'd only had time to return to his billet, grab his gear, and jump in the back of a transport.
Why? Caje wondered. Had he just panicked and run? Not wanted to get involved? He wouldn't be the first witness Caje had seen too scared to come forward on his own. He might have run right after Caje had been knocked out in the fight and seen nothing else. He might have just assumed the guilty party would be identified by Caje and caught without his involvement.
Caje rubbed at his eyes with one hand, then downed the rest of the hot coffee, fighting back exhaustion. There were too many "mights" in the equation. Caje tried to push them all out of his mind. The only way he'd find out what had really happened was to find Julius and get the truth.
The nagging thought that Julius might have been in on the murder crossed his mind and was dismissed. He'd clearly seen Julius's face when he'd stood outside that fateful alley -- the singer had been appalled at what he'd seen. There'd been nothing complicit in that wide-eyed stare.
Caje clung to that memory with all his might.
Littlejohn hurried after Billy. The young man was practically running in his hurry to get back to their billets and the rest of the squad. "Billy," he called, but short of reaching out and grabbing his arm, he wasn't going to get Nelson to stop. He sighed and just followed.
If he'd been expecting to find the hotel as he'd left it -- full of peaceful darkness and soft snores -- he was sadly mistaken. The curtains were wide open and letting in the harsh morning sun, and even Braddock was dressed. Littlejohn checked his watch in disbelief. It wasn't even seven-thirty yet.
The men were crowded around Doc Walton's cot, including Saunders, who looked disheveled, but all too awake. Littlejohn couldn't decide if anger or concern was winning out on the NCO's face.
"Come on, Doc," Saunders said impatiently, and the medic hurriedly grabbed his pack with a last look around his cot again as if to see if he had missed anything.
"What's going on?" Littlejohn asked.
Saunders didn't even glance at him. "Brockmeyer's been hurt."
"Brockmeyer?" Billy sounded as shocked as Littlejohn felt.
Saunders looked at him curiously, and Braddock said, "Yeah, Brockmeyer. Remember him? Short stocky guy? Carries the radio?"
"I didn't mean..." Billy began, then frowned and went on, "You mean not Caje or Kirby?"
This time he had Saunders' full attention. "Nelson," he said, that leading tone implying an explanation better be immediately forthcoming.
Littlejohn jumped in to forestall what was rapidly going to disintegrate in ways he didn't care to contemplate. "He means Kirby and Caje are missing, Sarge. He was expecting bad news on one of them. You talking about Brockmeyer caught us off guard, that's all."
"What do you mean Kirby and Caje are missing?" Saunders demanded.
"It's worse than that, Sarge," Billy blurted. "Caje is wanted for murder."
The immediate hush lasted only a few seconds before the gathered soldiers burst into simultaneous questions. Out of the babble, Braddock's voice came clearly: "Say that again, Billy?"
For a moment, Littlejohn thought Saunders might explode as his jaw clenched tightly, but his voice was calm and restrained. "Quiet!" he ordered, and he got it, almost instantly. "Who was murdered?"
"Guy from a poker match last night."
Braddock pushed closer. "You kidding me? Murdered? Who?"
"Braddock, shut up," Saunders said, and he looked away as if gathering his thoughts. "Littlejohn, you and Doc are with me. Fill me in on the way. Nelson," he looked at the younger man. "Report to the lieutenant right now. He's over in his CP. Tell him everything you know, you got that?"
He turned to go, but Billy cut in, "But, I want to go--"
"Yes, sir." Billy swallowed.
For a moment, Littlejohn felt sorry for him being left behind. Then Littlejohn was following after the determined stride of Saunders and Doc, and he had to put it out of his mind. "Where are we going, Sarge?"
"To check on Brockmeyer and find out what happened."
Braddock watched Doc and Littlejohn hurry after Saunders, and he frowned again. It was too much bad news too early in the morning. He hadn't even had his coffee yet.
Nelson stood nearby, watching after the departing men, and Braddock could read his feelings as easily as if they were his own. Billy was the one who'd been worried in the first place, and here he was being left behind. Instead of accompanying Saunders, he'd been ordered to bring Hanley up to date, and Braddock knew that was sitting about as well as a breakfast of escargot.
He grimaced at the thought and rubbed at his stomach. And that made him realize how hungry he was. An ornate mantle clock still presided over the hotel lobby's sumptuous fireplace. Going on 8:00 am... not too early to hit the mess tents, scare himself up some eggs and maybe even some ham or something. He grabbed his jeep cap and had just settled it on his head and started for the door when his gaze found Nelson again.
He hadn't moved yet, and watching him, Braddock sighed. Well, he consoled himself. Hanley's CP was on the way to the mess tent. He could just steer Nelson there and keep going, quickly, before he got corralled into something. They were still on pass, darn it all. But then his conscience got the better of him. Pesky thing, a conscience. It got in the way of all the fun stuff in life. But after what he'd heard about Caje and Kirby and Brockmeyer....
He sniffed and patted his stomach again. "In just a little bit," he told it. "After...." He didn't finish that sentence, knowing better than to make himself promises about things he had no control over.
He walked over to Nelson and put a hand on his shoulder. "Come on, kid, this news isn't going to keep all day. Let's get over to see Hanley."
Billy looked at him and, for a moment, Braddock felt the heat of that gaze. So, Billy was still angry with him for not believing him this morning. Well, who would have? Braddock thought defensively. Even Littlejohn hadn't been buying that malarkey. Not at seven in the morning. How were they to know Billy'd been working on his psychic abilities, that when the kid said Caje and Kirby were in trouble, he'd be right?
"Look," he said, not sure it'd do any good, but he'd learned a long time ago how to spin a fast apology. He seemed to need them a lot. "I'm sorry I doubted you this morning."
Billy pursed his lips together, then his shoulders dropped, and Braddock realized the reality of the news had hit him harder than he was letting on. "It's all right," Nelson murmured. "I'm not sure I'd have believed me either."
Braddock tried on a smile. Breakfast wasn't getting any closer with them standing around in doorways. "So, come on. Let's fill Hanley in before he hears it from the MPs."
"Hears what from the MPs?"
Braddock jumped at Hanley's voice coming up behind them. "Lieutenant! What are you doing here? Saunders said you were at the CP."
"I was. Now, what don't you want me hearing from the MPs?" Hanley asked, looking from Braddock to Nelson. "Who's in trouble now?"
Braddock and Billy exchanged a glance, then Billy said, "Well, it's like this...."
Kirby tried to loosen the bonds around his wrists without drawing the attention of his ever-watchful guard. Jesse occasionally stood and stretched his legs, but for the most part, he sat unmoving against the wall near the cellar stairway, arms bent across his thighs, the Colt .45 still tucked in his belt.
Kirby needed to move, to pace, stretch his legs, and, most of all, get the ropes off his wrists. Much longer and he was going to lose feeling in his fingers permanently. His shoulders and arms ached from being drawn backward with no respite. Jesse had let him up twice at his pleading and he'd paced a few steps each direction, shaking his legs out until some semblance of feeling returned. He had no such luck with his hands and arms, and Jesse had just told him to shut up when he'd asked to be untied.
Kirby forced himself not to glare at the man or start swearing a blue streak. Both actions might have made him feel better temporarily, but would not have helped the situation. His goal was to get on Jesse's good side, not further irritate him. He'd asked more questions, and from the lack of verbal answers and the uncomfortable shifting of the man's blue eyes, he figured that despite his apparent indifference, Jesse was none too pleased about holding an American hostage. Or being left indefinitely on guard duty for that matter. He needed to play on those sympathies, not undermine them.
But he hadn't figured out how. He needed a key, a way to make the situation untenable to Jesse's conscience. But even the best conscience could fail to stand up for what was right when crushed in the tight grip of a man like Carnelli. And Jesse feared his boss, Kirby could see that quite plainly. Jesse wasn't going to risk crossing Carnelli just because he felt bad about Kirby's predicament. Kirby needed the key that would prod Jesse into taking his side despite that fear. And with the man as talkative as a corpse at a funeral, Kirby couldn't even hunt for the right ammunition.
He was about to try again when the cellar door opened. A square of light cut through the dimness of the cellar, reminding Kirby just how poorly lit the basement was. It was just his dark-adaptation that made things seem brighter than they were. He looked up expectantly, expecting the girl, already feeling the loathing building in his stomach for that two-timing witch... but the footsteps were too heavy for the petite woman.
Sgt. Carnelli himself came down the steps. Jesse hopped to his feet, moved out of the way. Carnelli's hand grabbed the finial and he swung himself around the bottom of the railing. A smirk curled his lips as he glanced at Kirby.
Kirby used the sergeant's presence as an excuse to get to his feet again, not caring if it looked like he was afraid of the big man. He kept his own expression wary and sullen.
"How's our guest?" Carnelli asked Jesse.
"He'd like his hands untied," Jesse said, and Kirby tried to hide his surprise that those would be Jesse's first words. A plea on his behalf? He tried to keep the rush of hope off his face.
"Would he now?" Carnelli said and put his hands on his hips.
"It's gonna get messy if you don't let me take care of business," Kirby said.
Carnelli smiled coldly. "Ain't that the truth," he said. His gaze swept around the storeroom and his precious stolen supplies. He gestured to Jesse. "Go ahead. Untie him."
Jesse tucked the handgun into his waistband and pulled a folding knife out of his pocket. He snapped the blade into place and Kirby turned and offered his hands. A few quick saws and the ropes came undone. His arms sprang forward, and he almost cried out at the agony of the motion. He turned it into a muffled oath and a wince. Slowly, rubbing at each shoulder and arm, he tried to coax the blood to flow back into the neglected limbs. "Thanks," he said to Jesse, making sure the thanks for cutting him loose were directed at him, not his boss. "Which way?" he asked.
Carnelli gestured down an aisle between boxes. "Use the far corner. Don't forget, Jesse has a gun."
The warning was completely superfluous. He couldn't have tried jumping anybody with his arms still numb and un-working, and he knew Carnelli knew that. The guy liked to revel in his own arrogance, and Kirby wondered how he could use that. He headed to the corner Carnelli had indicated and unceremoniously relieved himself against the wall.
He shuffled back, rubbing hard at his raw, chafed wrists. That was his own fault from trying to loosen the ropes and failing. When he got back to his place, Jesse gestured him to sit, and Kirby did so, reluctantly.
Carnelli headed down one of the aisles, picking up a small prybar and taking the lantern with him. He was either looking for a specific crate or was simply shifting things around, maybe taking inventory. The boxes between him and the light cast crazy square-edged shadows that shifted menacingly around them. Kirby heard the squeak of nails being pulled out of wood as the lid of some box was prized up. "Good," the supply sergeant murmured. "Very good."
Carnelli squeezed down the middle aisle, and the lantern's glow illuminated the stenciled marks on the boxes. Kirby read the labels and quickly looked away before his shocked expression gave him away. Ammo and ordinance, the whole lot of it. The cellar was a private ammo dump. Kirby licked dry lips and tried to breathe steadily around the sudden anxiety knotting his stomach.
Another lid squeaked open and shut, then Carnelli came around the corner of the boxes back into the small open area. He re-hung the oil lantern on its peg and looked at Jesse. "The buy should be today."
"What about him?" Jesse nodded toward Kirby. Kirby wasn't sure Carnelli picked up on it, but there was more strain in his voice than Kirby had heard before.
Carnelli shrugged. "The partisans aren't going to care about a stray American. They're dealing outside the law to get what they want. They're not going to ask any questions."
"Why would the partisans want to spend money to buy stuff from you?" Kirby cut in. "They're our allies, they can get whatever they want from the Army legally."
"Sure, with a lot of red tape. And they just might want to go on a mission they don't want the Army to know about."
Kirby laughed suddenly, harshly. He shook his head. "They're not partisans, they're collaborators." His gaze challenged Carnelli. "Aren't they?" While he kept his sight locked on Carnelli, he was watching Jesse's reaction out of the corner of his eye. He wanted to know how in on his boss's operations the man was. He saw Jesse's eyes squinch tighter in sudden anger and he had his answer.
"They're French," Carnelli said cheerfully. "They said they were partisans. Why should I disbelieve them?" The lie was so blatant, even Jesse looked at the sergeant in disbelief.
"What you really mean," Kirby said, softly, "is money's money. You don't care if its dirty money or not, as long as you make a profit."
"You oughta be wearing a little swastika on your lapel," Kirby sneered.
Two strides and Carnelli was standing in front of him. His right fist locked around the material of Kirby's jacket. "I'm an American," Carnelli hissed, "and don't you forget it."
"You tell that to the G.I.s or French who are going to be betrayed by those collaborators you're so happily supplying. I'm sure they'll understand. Everyone's gotta make a living, after all--"
The man backhanded him hard. Kirby tasted blood. "I have no reason to keep you alive."
Kirby laughed and spat out blood. "If that were true you'd have killed me last night." He was taking a big chance now, but it was one thing to be a profiteer, another to be a collaborator. And maybe a little anger would make Carnelli sloppy. Surely someone up there was investigating the murder of Private Arching, and no matter his alibi, Carnelli was still the key player at the poker game. He aimed his next barb at Jesse. "Or could it be all that American blood on your hands is starting to bother you?"
Carnelli threw him sideways. Kirby hit the cellar wall and slumped down to one knee before he could catch his balance. Carnelli turned and strode for the stairway. "Tie him up again," he snarled at Jesse. "If he tries anything, anything at all, shoot him."
Carnelli whirled so fast, Jesse took a hasty step backward.
"I'll tie him," Jesse said hastily, unhappily.
"I'll be back for the buy," Carnelli snapped, then took the stairs two at a time. The upper door slammed shut hard enough to rattle the stairway and jiggle the lantern against the wall where it hung.
For a moment, neither Jesse nor Kirby moved. Slowly, Kirby straightened and sank into a more comfortable sitting position. Jesse blew out a breath, snatched a thin rope off a peg nearby and came toward him. "Turn around," he growled.
Kirby held his wrists out in front of him. "I'm not going to try anything," he said wearily, trying to make sure he sounded as beaten down as possible. "Please? Don't tie them behind me. I can't take any more of that."
Jesse contemplated him a long moment, then nodded, tight-lipped. He bound Kirby's wrists quickly and efficiently, pulled at the ropes to make sure there was a little play, then returned to his spot by the stairs. He settled back down watchfully, almost as if nothing had happened. Only a vee of wrinkles had appeared between his eyebrows that hadn't been there before.
Kirby held up his bound hands and sighed dramatically, then wiped awkwardly with his sleeve at the blood dripping down his chin from the cut lip Carnelli had given him.
"Why'd you bait him like that?" Jesse asked softly.
Kirby pretended to think a moment, then he answered, "I don't mind a guy playing on the side. The Army don't give us nothing. If we help ourselves every now and then, what harm does it really do? But selling to collaborators?" Kirby shook his head, waiting an extra long moment, letting the tension gather and gather, before he said, "That makes him -- and anyone who helps him -- one too." He closed his eyes and rested his head back against the wall, pretending not to notice Jesse flinch.
"You have anything else to add to what Nelson just told me?" Hanley said, and Braddock felt that green stare fix on him.
"Anything else to add?" Braddock asked and spread his hands. "That wasn't enough?"
They stood together in a little triangle in one corner of the main room. They'd had to scoot around some cots to get there, but Billy had insisted on moving away from the rest of the men while he filled in the lieutenant. Braddock had tried to slink away, but Hanley had ordered him to stay. He'd shuffled after them, feeling that sinking feeling, like he was about to be assigned some unpleasant duty. Why hadn't he put in for that transfer to Colonel Clyde? he asked himself, not for the first time. He could be being driven around right now by the colonel himself... and that would have been quite the story to take home. He could hear his mother now, fussing over a cherry pie, asking over her shoulder, what did you do in France, son? Why, I was chauffeured around by a colonel, ma...
"Excuse me," a new voice interrupted.
All three turned and saw a captain standing in the doorway. They saluted, and the man returned the courtesy. Braddock saw Nelson watching warily and guessed this man might be the officer he'd talked with at the café.
The man said, "I'm Captain Randolph. Are you Lieutenant Hanley?"
"That's right," Hanley responded neutrally, and Braddock had a feeling he'd already guessed what the captain's arrival meant.
"Having a little trouble with your squad this morning, Lieutenant?" A smile seemed to play on the captain's lips, but Hanley was clearly not in the mood for small talk. Braddock knew how the lieutenant felt. He was still having a hard time believing the morning's events.
"What's on your mind, Captain?" Hanley said.
"I'm looking for Private Paul LeMay."
"The men are on twenty-four-hour pass," Hanley said coldly, politely. "Not due back until sixteen-hundred hours today. Come back then."
"I see. Wouldn't you have expected them back here last night?"
"While on pass?" Hanley just raised an eyebrow.
"Still, not normal for them to..."
"Captain, while on leave, I don't care if my men drive to Paris and back. You come see me at sixteen-hundred."
Randolph watched him a moment, then said, "You care a great deal about your men, don't you?"
Hanley chose not to dignify that with a response. Saunders must have been wearing off on him, Braddock thought, and had to hide a smile.
Randolph glanced pointedly at Nelson. "I'm sure your men have already told you, but Private LeMay is wanted on suspicion of murder. I take that charge rather seriously. You should too."
"Oh, believe me, Captain, I do. But you've got the wrong man."
Randolph glanced away, took in the other soldiers in the room, curious and all wanting to crowd closer to eavesdrop but stopped by the captain's rank. "He must be a good soldier, this LeMay."
"More than that," Hanley said. "He's a good man."
Randolph seemed to absorb that with a very interesting look on his face, almost smug. Braddock couldn't figure it out. The captain went on, "Regardless of the glowing character references, he's still wanted on suspicion of murder."
"I understand, sir."
"Lieutenant Hanley, this is Sergeant McForth." Randolph gestured to a burly MP standing politely near the door behind them. "I'm not going to cancel your men's remaining leave as I probably should. But Sergeant McForth will remain here, in case LeMay returns early. If you or any of your platoon interfere with his duties, I'll be forced to put you under arrest too."
"I wouldn't dream of it, sir," Hanley said, and Braddock coughed into his hand to hide his amusement. He'd heard the lieutenant's mock-innocent voice one too many times.
"Good," Randolph said. He glanced around their billet again, then looked back at Hanley. "Are you so sure he didn't do it, Lieutenant?" he asked
"Even in self-defense?"
That shut Hanley up.
Randolph watched him a moment, then said, "I understand you broke up a fight between your man and the deceased, Private Arching."
"Yes." Hanley barely moved his lips to get the reluctant word out.
"Why don't you tell me about it?"
Braddock caught Billy's eye and gestured slightly with his head for them to split, but before he could take a step, Randolph turned toward him. "What's your name, Private?"
He bit back his disappointment at having his hasty retreat defeated. "Uh, Braddock, sir."
Randolph slipped a small notepad from a pocket and flipped through the pages. "I believe you were at that poker game as well, were you not?"
"Well, sir, I... maybe for a little bit, yes sir...."
Randolph gestured him and Nelson toward one of the cots. "Have a seat, please, both of you. I'll hear your stories in a moment." He returned his attention to Hanley. "Go ahead, Lieutenant."
Braddock could feel his hot breakfast slipping farther and farther away from him as he unwillingly took a seat beside Nelson and waited his turn for an interview.
Saunders strode up the street. Coldness seemed to settle in his bones despite the summer morning warmth and the brisk exercise. This is what he got for hitting the sack early, he thought, for grabbing one selfish moment. He'd needed that sleep and needed it badly, but now what? He could have gone along with everyone else and maybe, just maybe, he might know what's going on now. He felt like he'd not just woken up on the wrong side of the bed, but he'd rolled right into a hornet's nest. Half his squad missing or injured, and worse... murder.
Caje... wanted for murder?
It could be, he had to admit. The scout had a temper and he was more than capable. In the short time he'd known him, Caje had proven himself one of the most efficient killers Saunders had ever known. But murder also wasn't in his nature. At least, Saunders wanted to believe that. But given the right provocation?
He didn't know. It was possible. And Caje had not returned last night. Hanley had secured them the best billet in town. If he were innocent, there was no way he would have passed up a real bed with sheets after the last couple of weeks they'd had. But he hadn't returned. His absence was only circumstantial, but it sure did lend credence to those crying murder.
But then again, Kirby hadn't shown up either.
They had just met some broads, got shacked up.... Surely in a town the size of Beaumere, Brockmeyer wasn't the only member of the squad able to score.
Brockmeyer... Saunders shook his head at the reminder and quickened his pace. And what had happened there? Of all the squad to get in trouble, Brockmeyer was the least likely. Nelson got in more trouble than he did. Brockmeyer's personality was as opposite to Caje and Kirby's as was humanly possible. He never questioned orders, never lost his temper, never raised his voice even at direct provocations. Saunders could count on one hand the times he'd heard Brockmeyer complain about something. The quiet self-confidence behind that meant he was one of the most reliable and steady men in the squad. Saunders was already pushing Hanley to give the radio man back his corporal rank. He deserved it.
How the hell had he gotten hurt?
He marched up to the Rue de Fleuve address, Littlejohn and Doc dogging his heels. They'd been mercifully silent, not asking questions he couldn't answer. He passed through the rose arbor and up the pathway to the front door. It was a beautiful front yard, roses and flowers twining into a riot of summer color. It was not neat and orderly, but imposed structure would have ruined the effect. There was something oddly calming about those wild flower beds bordering the front of the woman's house.
She answered the door herself, and Saunders got his first good look at the woman who had stolen Brockmeyer's heart. She wasn't as thin as she had looked from a distance on the street, but then she wasn't wrapped in an unflattering shawl any longer either. She had on a pretty skirt and primly buttoned up blouse. Her face was nice, rounded lines softened thin lips and a sharp chin, but the blue eyes seemed cold. There was something oddly calculating about the look she gave him when she opened the door. It didn't last more than a fleeting second, and then tears brimmed and overflowed, and he thought he must have imagined that first cunning expression. "I'm Sergeant Saunders," he said. "You sent word about Brockmeyer?"
She gestured them in and tugged a lace handkerchief from her pocket to wipe her eyes.
Brockmeyer lay unconscious on the couch, his head wrapped in bandages. He was still in his uniform, and dried blood darkened the collar and shoulder of his shirt. A Frenchman stood beside him, checking his pulse. The man shook his head, lips pursed, then glanced up at the newcomers. "Get out," he said in heavily accented English. "This man cannot be disturbed."
"I'm his squad leader," Saunders said and walked up to the couch.
The well-dressed civilian favored him with a distasteful look. "And that matters to me why?"
Saunders ignored him. "Doc," Saunders said and gestured the medic up.
The gaze the Frenchman cast on Doc was even more disparaging. "I am a doctor. Get that first-aid medic away from my patient. He cannot help here."
"Doc," Saunders said again, more insistently, when Walton hesitated.
The French doctor sniffed.
"What's your name, Doctor?" Saunders asked.
"I am Doctor Forceau."
"What happened to him?" Saunders gestured to Brockmeyer.
"Ask Monique," he said and nodded to the woman. He looked skyward and snapped his fingers. "Oh, I forgot, she doesn't speak English, and I doubt you speak French, am I right?"
"Doctor, I'm going to ask you one more time...."
He sighed loudly. "She doesn't know. She said he went out to get them some wine. A little bit later, he staggered up to the door and collapsed unconscious. She came and got me."
"And?" Saunders was rapidly losing patience.
"He's suffered a bad head wound, Sergeant. He has not regained consciousness."
Saunders absorbed that silently, then he glanced at Doc again. "Doc," he said quietly. "Go get a stretcher from the field hospital."
"No!" Dr. Forceau said. "You cannot move this man. I forbid it. He is in a coma, Sergeant."
"I'd like him in the field hospital where our doctors can treat him."
The tall Frenchman looked profoundly affronted. "I, sir, am a top graduate of the Paris Medical School. Your man is under my care, and he must not be moved while in this condition. There is nothing they can do there that I cannot do here. Maybe in a few hours after I am sure his condition has stabilized enough for him to be trotted like a sack of potatoes the two kilometres to your hospital, you can have him moved. Otherwise, if you wish to move him anyway, you will be responsible for his death." The man poked a long finger at Saunders' chest and squinted almost menacingly. "And I would call that murder."
Saunders stared back, conflicting feelings running through his mind. He wanted Brockmeyer under American care, in a hospital where they could operate if they needed to. He'd seen plenty of guys carried to ambulances with head wounds, but what did he know? That could have been because there was no choice. Who was he to argue with the French doctor's expertise? And if he sent Doc to the field hospital to bring back an American doctor, he knew what response he'd get from them... they had no doctors to spare, and if Brockmeyer was already under treatment by the French doctor, good, bring him in when you had a chance....
But for the doctor to use that word... murder... right now, this morning of all mornings. Saunders couldn't explain it, but something wasn't sitting right.
Kirby listened closely to the talking upstairs. The voices were distant, muffled, but there was no mistaking Saunders' voice. "Sarge," he whispered and couldn't help letting a grin creep onto his face. All the times he'd been on the receiving end of a chewing out, all the times he'd told himself he hated that voice, hated it because Saunders was usually right and he was wrong, and a tongue-lashing by that voice could make his life miserable... but right then, he thought he'd never heard anything so beautiful in his whole life. He sucked in a breath to shout--
The cold barrel of a Colt .45 jammed into skull, right above his right ear, kept pressing until Kirby gasped from the pain of it. "Go ahead," Jesse murmured. "Go ahead and call out."
Kirby gritted his teeth and forced himself to keep silent. Sarge! he thought. Down here!
Almost as if he could pick the thread of Kirby's thoughts right out of the air, Jesse went on, "And then when your sergeant comes running down to see what the shot's all about, I'll have to shoot him too."
He could taste the defeat in his mouth. Saunders was right there, so close. And that woman, that lousy traitorous woman was lying to him right now. Lying to him about Brockmeyer, lying to him about everything. Come on, Sarge, don't buy it. Don't trust her....
But at least Saunders would get Brockmeyer out and away from her, out to the field hospital. That was small comfort at least.
"Get that gun away from me," Kirby hissed. "You made your point."
Jesse only leaned on the gun a little harder. "Let's wait a few minutes, shall we? Just in case."
Kirby swore silently and gritted his teeth again.
Littlejohn watched Saunders fight back the urge to take his frustrations out on the French doctor. Littlejohn looked at Monique, at the tears she was trying so hard to fight back, and he felt sorry for her. Falling in love was such a beautiful thing, and war twisted that happiness away from people with a snap of its fingers. But in an odd way, it also made him feel hopeful. People didn't stop falling in love just because happiness might be taken away from them. No, if anything they fell harder, faster. That had to offset something, somewhere, in the grand scheme of things.
He transferred his gaze to Brockmeyer. Deathly pale, the dried blood on his uniform an ugly stain. The bandages around his head were neat and tidy, professional. The doctor's work. Littlejohn wondered why Saunders was fighting so hard to have Brockmeyer moved. He was in good hands here, and if something... if something bad were to happen, Littlejohn wondered if Brockmeyer wouldn't rather be here with Monique than in some crowded field hospital full of strangers. And if anything, Littlejohn thought Brockmeyer might even be getting better care... here, he didn't have to share his doctor with a hundred other wounded.
Someone rapped at the door. Monique brushed down the front of her skirt and went to answer it. A pair of MPs stood on her doorstep. The corporal started to say something in awkward French, then spotted the GIs inside. "Hey, Sergeant," he called.
Saunders crossed to the door.
A corporal said, "Howdy, Sergeant. You heard about them missing soldiers?"
Saunders nodded slowly. "Something about a murder?"
"That's right. We're doing some house to house searching for the suspect."
"Come on in," Saunders invited.
Monique stepped closer again.
"You bunking out here?" the corporal asked.
"No, just visiting," Saunders answered and gestured to Monique. "It's her house. She's been here all night with one of my squad. He's injured."
"What happened to him?" the corporal asked, looking at where Brockmeyer lay.
"Ask her," Saunders said as Monique came forward.
The corporal did, in bad French, but he must have got the gist across. She answered, wringing a handkerchief between her fingers. The MPs started to come in, then took another look at Monique's tear-filled face, and the soldiers, and they simply thanked her for her time and moved on. Monique watched them go, a slight smile on her lips before she noticed Littlejohn watching her. The sad pout returned immediately and she closed the door. Littlejohn tried to fathom a reason for that slight smile, but couldn't. It must have been a reaction to some words in the French they'd exchanged.
Saunders stood over Brockmeyer, his look inscrutable. He seemed to come to some decision, for he turned abruptly. "All right," he said, almost a growl. "Littlejohn, you and Doc stay here with Brockmeyer." He turned suddenly back toward the French doctor, challengingly. "That is okay with you, isn't it?"
Dr. Forceau waved a hand dismissively. "Ask Monique. This is her home. It is up to her."
Saunders approached the girl and asked, "Is it all right if my men stay here awhile?"
She stared blankly at him, glancing at Forceau. He sighed heavily and said, "Ces hommes souhaitent attendre ici, d'accord?"
Her gaze swept over the Americans. Littlejohn tried to smile encouragingly when her eyes met his. She nodded to the doctor. "Oui."
The doctor raised an eyebrow at Saunders. "I hope I don't have to translate that."
"No, sir," Saunders said, using the polite professional tone he reserved for superior officers whose commands he disagreed with. "Thank you," the sergeant told the woman. She nodded to him, then dabbed at her eyes and moved and sat on a footstool beside the couch, clasped Brockmeyer's hand in hers.
Forceau went on frostily, "I will return to check on that soldier's condition. He is not to be moved without my approval, is that understood? Move him and you may kill him." The doctor glared at the men, then put a hand comfortingly on Monique's shoulder before heading for the door. He glanced back and said, "Remember, you are guests in her house. If she asks you to leave, you will obey her." With a last disdainful sniff, the doctor left.
Littlejohn didn't relax until the door closed and he saw the figure through the curtained windows disappear into the street.
Saunders pulled Littlejohn and Walton quietly aside. "How is Brockmeyer, Doc?"
Doc shook his head. "He's unresponsive, but that could be for any number of reasons, I guess. I don't know anything about head trauma or comas. I'm not qualified for this, Sarge." He shifted his seat and blew out a breath, frowning. "I'd trust the French doctor's diagnosis."
"That's just the thing, Doc. I don't trust him."
Doc blinked, and Littlejohn frowned.
"I can't explain it," Saunders said, tensely. "But there's something not right about what he said."
"He has no bedside manner, I agree," Littlejohn said, "but he's a doctor...."
"Yeah," Saunders said. "So he says. Just stay here and keep an eye on things, will you? If Forceau gives clearance that Brockmeyer can be moved, I want him taken to the field hospital on the double. Send for me if anything changes. If you can't find me, notify Lieutenant Hanley right away."
"Where are you going?" Doc asked.
"To find out if he's telling the truth."
It took awhile before Kirby realized he was straining to hear voices that were no longer there. The upstairs was quiet again. No one had even come to the cellar door. He slumped back against the wall and Jesse stood, returning the gun to his belt.
"Don't feel bad," Jesse said. "That woman fools everyone."
"Including your boss?" Kirby said. This disappointment of not being magically rescued made his tone more bitter than he intended. "They seemed pretty cozy last night. What's she get out of this?"
"Money, what else?"
"She know Carnelli's planning on selling to collaborators?" He couldn't help returning to the one thing he knew bothered Jesse most.
"Monique?" Jesse grimaced, and Kirby knew that was something else they had in common -- hatred of that woman. "She probably put Carnelli in touch with them."
Hanley sat before some requisition forms, unable to focus on any of it. He closed his eyes a minute and rested his forehead on his hand. Dismissing the men hadn't been easy. They'd wanted to know what was going on, what Hanley was going to do about it, who that Randolph guy thought he was asking all those questions....
Hanley smiled at the last thought. Like himself, defending Caje almost blindly without thinking. His smile faded and he opened his eyes. A photograph hung in a wood frame above the desk he'd taken. Two old Frenchmen, both wearing berets, their arms around each other's shoulders, grinning a mile wide for the camera. At their feet sat two bird dogs, each with a duck in its mouth. Normally, it would have reminded him of home, but not right then. He saw the two Frenchmen and their hunted game, and he wondered if Capt. Randolph wasn't right.
He tried to replay the scene in the Club Paris last night, but he'd been tired, angry, and a lot more interested in resuming the acquaintance of the woman he'd met than resolving petty squabbles at a poker match. He remembered it had been Arching who'd been the one threatening Caje, not vice versa. And he remembered that a rather large pile of money had littered the table in front of the Cajun. A man who'd just won had no reason to kill anybody, but Arching... he had a reason. Reason enough to try and jump Caje, and if attacked, Caje would have defended himself.
Caje could have killed that man in self-defense. It was certainly within his abilities.
But Hanley didn't believe it.
Didn't want to believe it, he corrected himself. Because he really didn't know a damn thing, and Caje wasn't there to tell anyone what had actually happened. But if Caje had killed a man in self-defense, he wouldn't have run. Or had he run? Hanley's mind couldn't help playing with the unpleasant thought that Caje had been murdered too, and they just hadn't found the body yet.
And Kirby? Where was he?
It couldn't be coincidence that both men were in that poker game, and both men were now missing. It couldn't be. They'd seen something, or....
Or what, Gil? he asked himself tiredly. He was reaching and stretching for something that didn't exist. Not without any facts to back up anything.
A knock at the door caught his attention and he called, "Come in."
It was Braddock, and he looked unhappy. "Captain Randolph's back, sir."
"He already got all our statements, what's he want this time? Nothing's changed here."
"Not here, but...."
Hanley looked over sharply. "But what?"
"I think you'd better come downstairs. The captain's turned up an eyewitness who saw the whole thing."
The thin, hawk-faced man Randolph introduced as Private Reyes had indeed seen the whole thing. Hanley listened, the sickening feeling in his stomach increasing with every word the man said. Not words... coffin nails. And it was Caje's coffin they were sealing.
Reyes went on, "The alley was dark, but I could see. Arching and me, we weren't buddies, but we looked out for each other, ya know? Arching wasn't happy about losing. He was sure LeMay was cheating, we all were--"
"Caje wasn't cheating!" Billy interrupted angrily. "I was there too."
"Nelson," Hanley interrupted him warningly.
"Not for the end you wasn't," the man said, glaring at Billy. "LeMay was cleaning up. We were all losing money to him."
"That doesn't mean he was cheating--"
"Nelson!" Hanley cut him off again.
"The alley...?" Randolph prompted.
"Oh yeah. They had words. Arching called him a few names, and LeMay jumped him. I didn't even have time to react before Arching was lying still on the ground. LeMay and Kirby shoved me aside and took off."
"Both of them?" Randolph asked.
Randolph looked consideringly at Hanley.
Hanley asked Reyes, "You were the only one there? The only witness?" He made sure his disbelief came through loud and clear.
"Well, yeah, Lieutenant," Reyes smiled. "Just me. After you broke up the game, everyone sort of went their own ways, see?"
"And which way did Sergeant Carnelli go?"
Hanley wasn't sure why he had asked it, but the question seemed to startle the private, and that interested Hanley. That supply sergeant had grated on him. And he remembered Reyes had been standing right beside him at that poker table. "Your sergeant," Hanley went on smoothly. "He was at that poker game too. Where'd he go?"
Reyes finally shrugged. "Back to his billet I assume, like most everybody else."
Hanley saw Randolph watching him closely, and let it drop.
"All right, Private," Randolph said. "You're free to go for now."
The man saluted and hurried out, clearly not comfortable among First Squad's angry soldiers.
"Well?" Randolph asked Hanley softly.
"Well, what, sir?" Hanley shot back, refusing to get drawn into the officer's game.
"Still think your soldier didn't do it?"
Hanley didn't answer. He couldn't answer yes any more to that question, not without lying just a little bit. Instead, he countered, just as softly, "Caje is more than skilled enough to disable an attacker without killing him, Captain. Caje doesn't need to kill anybody in order to defend himself. Sloppy soldiers kill in the heat of the moment. Not men like Caje. I'm sorry, sir, but I don't buy that man's story."
Randolph acknowledged Hanley's sentiments with a nod. "You'll have your say in court, Lieutenant."
"And LeMay's whereabouts?"
"He hasn't turned up yet, but we'll find him." The captain's voice sounded confident, and for the first time, Hanley harbored an uneasy wish that Caje might not be found.
Caje jerked awake as the truck's brakes squealed and he was tossed forward. He threw out a hand, instantly awake, looking for danger, but Joe Willis was simply parking the truck behind a series of tents.
The youngster grinned at him. "You have a good snooze?"
Caje smiled back, let himself look only sheepish, when he really felt angry with himself. The lack of sleep, the warmth of the coffee, and the steady swaying of the truck had lulled him asleep despite his promise to himself to stay awake. But he was truthful when he answered, "Yeah. I guess I needed that." He squinted out the front windshield, then checked his wristwatch. To his surprise, it was still fairly early in the morning. He felt more rested than the passage of time indicated. And that was life on the front... They survived on catnaps. At least this one had been peaceful and not interrupted by artillery. "Where are we?"
"At the front, approaching Villebaudon," Joe said. "Sorry I can't take you any farther, but this is the end of the road for me. I need to get the supplies unloaded. You should be able to find which way the 22nd Infantry went from any of the guys here."
"Thanks for the lift," Caje said. He gathered up his rifle and opened the truck door.
Caje leaned back into the truck. "Yeah?"
"Good luck. Thanks for keeping me company."
Caje grinned at him as they shook hands. He found himself hoping the young man stayed safe. He was a good guy. He shut the passenger door and it seemed to close with a particularly loud slam. He felt he was closing the door on the last friendly face he'd see for awhile. Now it got dangerous. Now he'd be back among soldiers and officers, and on the front line too.
He wondered what had happened back in Beaumere. Had Saunders accepted the story Kirby had told him? Had Hanley? Or had the MP who had seen Caje with the bloodied knife in his hand convinced everyone Caje had to be guilty? Was Kirby already arrested and the alarm had gone out to look for one PFC Paul LeMay, not to be PFC much longer at this rate. Not to be anything but convicted and in the stockade.
For a murder you didn't commit, he reminded himself. I know it. And Julius Carnelli knows it.
He shoved his hands into his pockets, hunched in on himself, and set off between tents and a row of trucks, determination pushing the last of the sleep from his mind.
The rest of the men were muttering among themselves in the hotel lobby. Reyes' story had them buzzing, and the talk had swayed into condemning Caje. Braddock shrugged it off -- talk was cheap. He'd wait and hear Caje's side of it.
"Bet it was about a dame," Farrell said. "Caje gets bent out of shape whenever a woman's involved."
"Shut up!" Billy turned and snapped at him.
Braddock raised his eyebrows in surprise at the vehemence there.
"You weren't there last night," Billy went on, "so just keep your lies to yourself."
"What's wrong with a little speculation, kid?" Farrell said.
"It wasn't like that."
"Temper, temper," Farrell grinned. "What's got you all riled up, Nelson? You mean to tell me you've never gotten on Caje's bad side?" He tsked. "Whooooiieeee. He's more than capable of killing some dumb slob who crossed him, don't you doubt it."
"So are you," Billy shot back.
"So am I," Farrell agreed. He looked around at the rest of the squad. "We're all trained killers here, aren't we? That's what we're here for, isn't it?" Farrell stabbed a finger at Billy's chest. "But the rest of us only kill Germans."
Braddock watched the expression darken on Billy's face and cursed Saunders for taking Littlejohn with him. Sometimes, Billy just needed a keeper and no one was better at it than Littlejohn. He looked around and realized Hanley had gone back to his CP and no one else was going to intervene. He swore again. That left him. Littlejohn would never forgive him if he let anything happen to Nelson. Braddock rolled his eyes at how much of a sucker he was and quickly shouldered his way between the two men. "All right, all right. Billy," he said and looked pointedly at the young man, "don't you have something better to do?" When Nelson didn't budge, Braddock prompted, "Like wash your socks or write a letter home?"
Billy scowled at him, then favored Farrell with a final glare before heading for the front door without a backward glance.
Braddock waited until he was gone, then turned around. "You got no class, Farrell," he said. "You know that?"
"Oooo," Farrell said, and threw his hands up in mock terror. "Are you my mammy now too? No wonder you're the only guy wearing those ugly pants... they come with apron strings, and there's only one nursemaid allowed per squad."
Braddock looked at him expressionlessly, watched the smirky smile crinkling up the man's lips. He thought about talking himself out of it, of being the bigger man and all, but really, it was just too early in the morning for a moral debate with himself. He slugged Farrell in the jaw, hard and fast, and watched with satisfaction as the man smacked the floor, already unconscious. He'd done some boxing in his younger, lighter days, and he'd been good at it. They weren't skills he particularly called upon often, but every now and then....
Just as he reached the exit, Sgt. McForth stepped through the door, frowning suspiciously at the men clustering around the fallen Farrell. Braddock's knuckles smarted fiercely, but he forced himself to drop his hand to his side and walk up casually to the MP.
"What happened here?" McForth asked.
Braddock paused and looked back. "You know these old hotels, sergeant," he confided softly. "They got slippery floors." He slipped past the man and hurried after Billy.
German artillery thundered overhead, and there was nothing to do but drop into a foxhole with two other guys and wait out the worst of it. The area Joe Willis had dropped him off in was being decimated. Caje hoped the youngster had got unloaded and back on the road in time. The blasts rattled the ground like a constant series of earthquakes, jarring through him, turning his innards into slosh. One of the guys he was with was curled around himself, bawling. The other guy had one hand on the second man's shoulder, one on his rifle. Between rounds, Caje popped up to peer across the ground they guarded, waiting for inevitable counterattack after the artillery did its job.
I don't have time for this, Caje thought, recognizing the futility of such a thought even as the reality of it remained true. And with the reality of the impending counterattack, finding one man in the middle of a pitched battle suddenly seemed not only impossible, but selfish. And what if Julius was killed?
Another thunderous, soul-stealing blast ripped into the earth, and the boy in the foxhole shrieked and buried himself deeper into his own terror.
Caje touched him on the arm, just a small touch of reassurance, then he bolted out of the foxhole and ran down the line to the next foxhole, dropped flat on the ground beside it. "I'm looking for Julius Carnelli," he said. "22nd Infantry."
He saw a round-faced soldier with beady eyes and a five-day beard stare incredulously back at him, then answer, "The 22nd Infantry are down on the left flank. Or they were."
Caje thanked him and took off again. Another artillery blast rumbled through the earth and knocked him off his feet. Helping hands grabbed him, tugged him into the cover of another foxhole.
It was a second lieutenant this time. "What are you doing?" he demanded.
"Trying to get back to my squad, sir."
"Not right now you aren't. Stay put," the lieutenant ordered him. He checked his watch. "Can't you hear those tanks? The Germans are moving up. You don't want to be running around blindly. You can fight here as well as with your own squad."
"But I've got to get up there, sir. My kid brother is up there...." Caje said, the lie coming easily. He didn't have to fake the urgency in his voice. That, he felt all too well. It would have worked better had he looked like Billy Nelson, all young and fresh-faced, but he could see the lieutenant hesitating, torn between practicality and sympathetic understanding. He was a young guy, thin-faced and haggard and as bearded as the other soldiers Caje had seen so far along the front lines. First squad was lucky the 361st wasn't part of this attack, though that luck probably wouldn't last.
"Go on," the lieutenant said, harshly, waving him away. "For God's sake, keep your head down. But the shooting starts, you dig in with whoever you're near at that time, understood?"
"Yes sir," Caje said. "Thank you, sir."
"Don't thank me. It's your funeral."
Caje scrambled out of the foxhole, rifle in hand and sprinted down the line.
He kept checking foxholes, hollering advance warnings so no one would turn too fast and try to shoot him by accident as he approached. The 22nd was farther down, he kept being told, left flank, left flank, keep going. He did, moving as fast as he dared. The artillery had stopped, replaced by the sound of the German tanks changing position, their guns and infantry already engaging part of the line. The lieutenant was right. He was going to have to dig in soon and join the fight, before it overtook him and caught him in the open. Getting killed would solve his problems, but not the way he wanted.
The cannon fire closed in and he crawled quickly to the edge of the next foxhole.
"I'm looking for--" Caje broke off as he found himself staring into the face of Julius Carnelli.
Billy paced, back and forth, back and forth.
"That's a nice carpet, Billy," Braddock said. "You aren't doing it any favors."
Billy glared at him and said nothing.
Braddock had followed Billy outside to a side staircase, which Billy had climbed and let himself back into the hotel, carefully avoiding anyone downstairs. Braddock had followed him into one of the bedrooms and taken a seat on the bed. Billy had pursed his lips and kicked at a chair, but made no verbal protest to being joined. Braddock had a feeling Nelson was glad of the company, that he needed someone to vent to. He'd certainly received precious little commiseration from the rest of the squad.
Braddock sighed. "Do you know anything about the law, Billy?"
"I know Caje didn't do what that captain said he did."
"The captain didn't say he did it," Braddock said patiently. "The captain said he's wanted on suspicion of murder."
"No, it isn't." Braddock found himself in a surprisingly serious mood. He wanted the truth of this as badly as Billy did, but it wasn't their place to go barging around. He'd aspired to many careers in his youth. Private Investigator and cop had not been on the list. Too much hard work, not enough reward. That wasn't Braddock's style and he knew it. "Caje isn't guilty until a court finds him guilty."
"You heard that guy from the poker game?"
"Private Reyes," Braddock supplied helpfully.
"What chance does Caje have against that?"
"Reyes's testimony," Braddock said, "is just that. We haven't heard Caje's side of it yet. Or Kirby's, if he was involved."
"You think he was?"
"Yeah," Braddock said, surprising himself. "They were the two that stayed when we took off. They probably left together."
"Where are they?"
Braddock heard the seething anger there, and that surprised him too. Nelson actually seemed affronted that the two were missing. "I don't know, Billy."
"Why'd they run? They're idiots, both of them. They should have--"
"Billy, you're assuming things. You can't assume things. All you can deal with is facts."
"Well, they sure aren't here to defend themselves!" Billy looked like he wanted to punch something.
Braddock stared at him in sudden comprehension. "You think Caje is guilty?"
Billy whirled on him, a mixture of anger and hurt on his face. "No, I...."
Shaking his head, Braddock said, "I didn't expect you to believe that, Billy."
"They ran, didn't they? If Caje was innocent, all he had to do was turn himself in. Just go straight to the sarge or the lieutenant and tell them everything. But he didn't do that. And there's all that evidence... it all points at Caje," Billy said forlornly.
"Circumstantial evidence," Braddock said.
"Reyes saw what happened."
"Reyes says he saw what happened," Braddock corrected. "It's only one guy's word. And people aren't famous for telling the truth."
Billy glanced sideways at him, thoughtfully, looking as if something had just clicked over in his brain. "Why would someone lie about that? Caje could hang because of it."
It wasn't an idle question, Braddock realized, not from the earnest way Billy asked it, and, for a moment, he wasn't sure how to answer. Finally, he shrugged and spouted one of his theories of human nature: "Everybody lies, Billy, all the time. White lies, little lies, lies of omission, big lies. If it serves their purpose, they're going to lie."
Billy paced again, and the silence stretched. Braddock could hear the creak of a floorboard and, distantly, the noise of the G.I.s downstairs, talking and arguing. "And that's the answer, isn't it?" Billy murmured.
"Come again?" Braddock blinked at him.
Billy faced him squarely. "You believe Caje didn't do it, don't you?"
"Which means Reyes is lying."
Braddock watched Nelson carefully.
"So, the question we have to answer is why. What's at stake that would make a man lie like that?" He picked up his jeep cap off the dresser and stepped toward the door.
"Billy," Braddock said, feeling suddenly weary and manipulated. "Where are you going?" He thought it would be a safe bet what Nelson's answer would be, and sure enough, Billy said the expected:
"I'm going to prove Caje didn't do it."
But even knowing what Billy planned, Braddock didn't have any idea how he could prevent it. He decided to try simple logic. "Billy, the investigation is barely a few hours old. You gotta give the authorities time to sort through everything. Besides, if you go making trouble, they'll revoke the rest of our twenty-four-hour pass."
Nelson looked at him, hand still on the doorknob, then just said, "I'm not going to make trouble. I'm just going to ask some questions." He settled his cap firmly on his head and left.
Braddock shook his head and called after him, "Billy, this town is swarming with angry MPs -- someone bashed one of them on the head, remember? You think they're going to leave any stones unturned?"
Silence was his only answer.
Braddock didn't move from his seat on the bed. It was a very comfortable bed, almost too soft, if that was possible. No one was around, and whoever had had this room claimed appeared to have taken their stuff. There was nothing preventing him from kicking off his boots and getting back to sleep. After all, who knew when he'd get another chance to snooze away the morning in a comfortable bed.
He heard a door close loudly down the hall and knew that was Nelson, exiting the same way he'd come in, and he heaved a great sigh. "It just isn't fair," he said to the empty room. Wait and wait for a pass like this, and for what? So your squad mates can get in trouble so deep they can't get out of it on their own. He wanted nothing more than to ignore them all. And he couldn't.
Billy had a purpose now. There wasn't any reason not to let Nelson go rampaging around the town stirring up all the trouble he wanted, only Braddock had a feeling he was going to find more than he bargained for. Private Arching was dead. Brockmeyer injured. Caje and Kirby missing. That tale Reyes had spun was just the tip of the iceberg, and those kind of stakes were the ones that could get Billy in as bad a heap of trouble as his missing squad mates.
He closed his eyes, hung his head a moment, then boosted himself off the bed and followed after Billy.