Authors: James R. Benn
Tags: #Mystery, #Historical, #War
ALSO BY THE AUTHOR
The First Wave
A Billy Boyle World War II Mystery
Copyright © 2008 by James R. Benn
Soho Press, Inc.
New York, NY 10003
All rights reserved.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Benn, James R.
Blood alone : a Billy Boyle World War II mystery / by James R. Benn
ISBN 978-1-56947-516-4 (hardcover)
1. Americans—Italy—Sicily—Fiction. 2. Amnesiacs—Fiction.
4.World War, 1939-1945—Campaigns—Italy—Fiction.
5. Italy—History—Allied occupation, 1943-1947—Fiction.
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
“Love goes toward love.”
“Blood alone moves the wheels of history.”
—BENITO MUSSOLINI, December 12, 1914
TABLE OF CONTENTS
I WAS HOT, And my head hurt. Heat shimmered up from the ground and sat thick on my chest. Dust blew in under the loose canvas flaps, riding a warm breeze that died as soon as it hit me, leaving a thin layer of dirty yellow-brown grit to settle into layers of khaki cloth and bright white bandages oozing pink.
Pain sent sharp stabbing messages to my brain, coming from somewhere on my left arm. I lifted it so I could see, the weight of my own hand heavy in the pressing heat. A thick dressing was wrapped around it below the elbow. A thin line of blood had soaked through the bandage. I touched my head, feeling gauze over a sticky gob. A cut on the head is never as bad as it looks, someone once told me. Who ? I couldn’t remember, but I liked the idea. It can’t be too bad, I thought. A conk on the noggin and stitches in my forearm. The arm didn’t hurt much but my head felt like one of those things you hammer into wood was stuck in it. What was that word? You bought them for a penny a sack. Nails. That’s it; my head felt like it had a nail in it, a red-hot one at that.
My hand flopped down onto my chest and I stared at the brown canvas above me, exhausted from my efforts. My eyes began to close. I tried to keep them open, a faint, distant voice in my head telling me I needed to figure out where I was, what was what, and who was who. Other questions I couldn’t quite form into sentences, or even put into words, swarmed around in my mind, but the fog was too thick and heavy for them to join together. I stopped struggling. What harm could there be in a little shut-eye? My eyelids slid shut, and I felt a faint, fluttering fear, realizing it might be impossible to open them up again. Then nothing.
I awoke, dull with pain and confusion, with no idea where I was. Other than that I was in a tent, my head was banged up, and it felt as if the tent were an oven. I tried to focus, to lift my head, but I couldn’t with that nail through it. I groped for the nail but my hand came away red. I felt a warm trickle down my right temple.
No, there’s no nail, I told myself. It only feels like a nail. First, I couldn’t remember the word, and then I thought a nail was stuck in my head. Was I crazy? Was this a nuthouse, a canvas loony bin out in the desert? There was no nail, I knew that. I was a little mixed up, I figured, could happen to anyone, nothing to worry about.
My head hurt. I wanted to call out, to ask for a doctor, but I couldn’t. I was sure the sound of my own voice would split my skull wide open. I couldn’t lift my head but I could turn it. Moving produced a feeling like broken glass behind my eyeballs, but I managed. I realized some of my pain came from noise. It had been one big jumble before, but now I could distinguish different sounds. Yells, groans, brakes screeching, metal doors slamming, all swirled around, dove into my head, and bounced around my brain, looking for a way out. At least I knew what one source of my pain was. Noise. It hurt.
Guys carrying stretchers came in, dressed in brown wool clothes and wearing helmets with red crosses on them. Wool, like the folded blanket my head rested on—hot, coarse, and itchy. It smelled like mothballs and road dust. I looked at my chest, then my legs. I wore khaki too, but light khaki. Everyone else wore a different . . . suit . . . no, outfit—like what all the guys on a team wear.
What’s that word? I wondered. Why is mine different?
“Sorry, buddy,” a guy said as he knocked against my cot. I winced as the pain sent a jolt up my neck and into my skull, where it exploded into white-hot fragments. He and another fellow left a stretcher next to me.
“. . . ’s OK,” I croaked, glad that at least we spoke the same language. But he didn’t hear me. I looked at the person on the stretcher, his clothes cut away, his chest torn to red ribbons. Compress bandages taped below his rib cage turned a darker pink with each heavy breath he took. He was a kid, pale as a ghost, put there to die while they worked on the ones they could save. He had sandy-colored hair and a few faint freckles around his eyes. He never opened them. I watched the final lift of his chest, heard a last gasp, a harsh sound as air escaped his dead lungs. I looked at him a long time, his mouth open, chin tipped up, one hand palm down in the dry dust, and I realized where I was. This was Sicily.
I was in Sicily, in a field hospital. And these stretchers bore casualties. I must be a casualty.
It all made sense, sort of. I still had a lot of questions. But the trouble was, I didn’t know what they were. Maybe it was the fact that I wasn’t dead like the kid on the stretcher, but my head didn’t hurt as much as it had. Words began to come together, and as my confusion receded, the worst of the pain went with it. I tried to remember how I’d gotten here. I didn’t know exactly where
was, just somewhere in Sicily. Which is an island shaped like a triangle getting kicked by the toe of Italy. Naturally, there were a lot of Italians who didn’t want us here. And Germans. I felt a shiver of fear, a shudder, a trembling in my gut. Who was I afraid of? A little voice, a tinny, distant echo in my head, tried to tell me something, but I couldn’t make it out.
I’m in Sicily. There’s a war on. And I’m scared of something. I got that far.
My eyes scrunched as I tried to think harder, remember how I’d been hurt, where I’d been before I came here. Where had I been before Sicily?
The dull sound of thunder distracted me, but it wasn’t really thunder, I knew that much. Artillery. I watched two doctors in stained white coats stop and look at each other with that worried look you get when you hear enemy artillery creeping closer and you know things aren’t going well at all.
How did I know that? How had I known it was enemy artillery? I tried to remember a battle. I tried to remember crossing the ocean. It’s a long way to Sicily, right? “It’s a long way. . .” A song from another war drifted across my mind and I faded out, dreaming of water sliced by the bow of a ship. “It’s a long way . . .”
“Hey, kid, you asleep?”
I felt his presence looming over me as I awoke, the loose chinstrap of his helmet brushing my cheek as he moved. I felt his hand on my chest, a gentle push, maybe to feel if I was still breathing. He patted my pockets as the odor of cheap cigars and stale sweat wafted down, foul smells made worse by the stifling heat. I opened my eyes, the pain now a dull throb where before it had been a searing slash.
“Yeah,” I said. “What are you looking for?”
I thought about raising my head and decided against it. I could see his face, encircled by the helmet pushed back on his forehead, glistening with an oily sheen of sweat. The netting on the helmet was new, none of the threads broken or frayed. He was short, kind of round but beefy, and an unlit stub of a cigar was clamped in the corner of his mouth. He looked like he was used to hard work, but he wasn’t a combat soldier. The trace of softness in his face told me he slept in a rear-area tent, not a front-line foxhole.
“Nothin’, kid. Just wanted to be sure you was still breathing.”
He raised an eyebrow, waiting for more. How did I know so much about him? Everything else was blurred and confused, but I could zero in on this guy. He was crystal clear to me. It was strange, automatically cataloging and judging him at a glance. Strange but comforting. There were questions I was afraid to ask, things I didn’t want to think about, so it felt good to focus on what was right in front of me. I watched his eyes dart left and right, tracking the movement of medics scurrying around us. A chaplain knelt next to the dead kid, murmuring prayers as if he were in a hurry.
“You—you look familiar to me,” I lied. “I know you, right?”
Dull booms echoed across the landscape, followed by a screeching sound high above us that made my new pal duck and put one hand up to steady his helmet. He was a buck sergeant, three stripes, silver on black against his brown wool shirt.
“Jesus,” he said, “them cruisers sound like they’re shootin’ fuckin’ freight trains at the Krauts.”
“Where are the Germans?”
“All over the goddamn place, that’s where. Supposed to be nothin’ but a bunch of guinea wops ready to give up, except for a few Kraut technicians, they told us. Well, they forgot to tell our paratroopers them technicians was all driving Tiger tanks. Nearly kicked our ass off Piano Lupo yesterday and made it down here. Can you imagine that, kid? The fuckin’ Hermann Göring Panzer Division! If they’da made it down to the beaches, we would of been screwed, blued, and tattooed. And they’d be headed fer yours truly, lemme tell ya.”
Piano Lupo, main drop zone for the 505th Paratroop Regiment. A hill mass seven miles northeast of Gela, landing area for the 45th Division. The words raced through my mind as if someone had turned on a radio. Clear as day, then nothing.
“Piano Lupo, right, Sarge?”
He was watching the padre, and it took him a second to pull his eyes away. He was nervous. Maybe he was thinking about a Holy Joe squatting over him, if those Tiger tanks made it to the beach.
“I knew you was a headquarters boy,” he said, wagging his finger at me. “First time I saw you, I knew. Yeah, that was the fuckin’ plan, but they all got scattered to hell and gone. Just a handful of boys ended up there, maybe a hundred instead of a full regiment. Stopped those goddamn Krauts, though, stopped ’em dead. Before they got to me and my supplies.”
“Quartermaster Company, 45th Division, kid. We got a captain, he ain’t worth shit, and a lieutenant too, I don’t pay him no mind. Rocko Walters, kid, that’s who to ask for if you need bullets, beans, or blankets. They call me Rocko ’cause everyone depends on me. I’m the rock in this outfit, see, since the officers are total screwups. You ain’t an officer, are you?”
I gave a little laugh and rolled my eyes, hoping he’d settle for that as an answer.
“So, Rocko, when was the first time you saw me?”
“Geez, it was yesterday, don’t you remember?”
I raised my hand to the bandage around my head.
“Yeah, well, you was pretty banged up. That Italian who had you musta whacked you one good.”
“How the fuck do I know, kiddo? The place is crawlin’ with ’em. All I know is me and two other guys took off to Gela in a jeep to rustle up a couple trucks. We didn’t get all the transport we was supposed to, so we figured to get us some civilian trucks. Right outside town, we see this Eyetie who’s got you, and we holler at him to let you go. Louie speaks the lingo from his old neighborhood, enough to make himself understood. The Eyetie lets you go, but pulls a gun, so we hadda shoot him.”
“You kill him?”
“Naw, Louie’s a lousy shot. Creased his side, I think. Got his attention, though. He dropped the pistol, and we gave him to some GIs who were herding about a dozen POWs down to the holding area.”
“How did I get here?”
“In a jeep. A medic heard the shooting and pulled over. When he saw the shape you were in he grabbed you and brought you here. I wanted to come visit you, but couldn’t get out from under my asshole captain until now.”
“And when did all this happen exactly?
“Yesterday morning, a few hours after my outfit landed. How long you been on the island anyway? And what’s your name, kid? You must’ve lost your dog tags. They couldn’t figure out your blood type or nothin’.”
How long had I been here? I puzzled over that one so I wouldn’t have to think about his other question.
“I don’t know, Rocko. I really don’t know.”
“You dunno where you been or you dunno your name?”
He kept his eyes on me as I lay there, not answering his question. The longer he waited and stared at me, the harder it was not to answer. I felt the words form and rise up as if I had no control over them. Orderlies brought in more stretcher cases, transferring the wounded to cots and cutting away grimy blood-soaked bandages with practiced ease, revealing the awful truth of combat. The louder the artillery, the busier this place got. The chaplain moved around us, kneeling and praying with the wounded waiting for treatment.
I lowered my voice. “I have no idea where I’ve been or how I got here. I don’t remember you or any Italian or anybody else, for that matter. I don’t know my own name.”
“No shit, Rocko. Help me up, will you?”
Rocko grabbed an arm and I swiveled my legs off the cot. I pushed off with one hand and sat up straight. Everything whirled, then calmed down. Rocko was looking at me with a mixture of confusion and disbelief, his eyes darting over my clothes. My uniform, that was the word. “Nail.” “Uniform.” I wondered what else I’d remember.
“Jesus, kid,” Rocko said, sitting down on the cot next to me. “You got any other ID on you? What about that jacket?”
“What jacket?” I said as I patted my empty pockets. My eye caught the shoulder patch on my shirt. Blue triangle with a yellow A, filled in with red. Seventh Army, I knew that much. So I was a headquarters guy.
“That funny jacket you was wearing. I almost thought you was a Kraut or maybe a Limey at first.”
I tried to remember a jacket. A funny jacket. Maybe my next one would be a straitjacket. I saw Rocko reach his arm under the cot and feel around. He came up with a faded khaki jacket, neatly folded, where the medics had left it.
“This is it, kid. See what I mean?”
I took it from him and let it fall open. No insignia, no rank, no labels. The buttons were plain brass, tarnished and worn. It was rumpled and sweat-stained, the original color faded by the sun until only traces of dark khaki showed along the seams and under the pocket flaps. It could’ve been a German or Italian tropical jacket, maybe British. Or a U. S . Army field jacket, all insignia stripped off. Four buttons, four pockets. Your basic standard-issue design. Except everyone here was wearing brown wool. Dog-shit brown, someone had called it recently. Who was that? Words flashed through my mind— drop zone, Piano Lupo, dog shit, Licata—but they didn’t connect. They were only words.
“You ever see an army uniform without all sorts of numbers and labels inside it, Rocko?”
“Never saw anything like this. No size, no serial number; you could never fill out a requisition for this rag. I’ll check yer pockets, kid.”