Authors: Warren Murphy
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Historical, #United States, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Crime, #Historical Fiction, #Crime Fiction, #Thrillers
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To all the people who traveled the road, too.
To Dawn and Molly and Elizabeth and Margret and Tony and especially Dick Sapir, the best partner ever, and to Deidre, Megan, Brian, Ardath, and Devin—best kids (and critics) ever.
IGHT OF THE
A Sicilian revolt in 1282 against Charles I, the French King of Naples and Sicily. After killing French soldiers in Palermo while they attended religious Vespers services on Easter Monday, native Sicilians massacred 2,000 French inhabitants of the town.
June 6, 1918
They had been driving toward the front all day long, a thousand-truck-long caravan racing at top speed through the rain and unexpected cold of an early June day, through Paris and a dozen, two dozen, who-knew-how-many small towns and smaller villages, past the broken, spent French Army, past even more desperate peasants and villagers trying to escape the onrushing Huns, all the way toward the small village known as Château Thierry.
It was past dark when they finally stopped. They climbed down from their trucks, cursing and joking, standing around in the building rain, waiting for a hot meal they all knew would never come. Then, sometime after midnight, still stiff and sore, they moved up to the line.
Private Tommy Falcone—U.S. Marines, Second Brigade, First American Division—as empty of heart as he was of stomach, moved along with the others. He was frightened and wished that he were somewhere else. Anywhere else would do.
The damnedest part of it, he reflected grimly, was that, strictly speaking, he did not have to be there. He had not been drafted; he had enlisted and he now considered that the damnedest, dumbest, stupidest thing he had ever done yet in his short life.
Papa was right.
It had not been funny at the time, but now Tommy smiled ruefully as he remembered the scene in their apartment when he had told his father he was enlisting.
“Never,” his father had said.
“Mario has enlisted.”
“Your brother is a priest. He has God looking out for him. Who will look out for you?”
“I am almost nineteen, Papa. It is time I started looking out for myself.”
“You are still
A snotnose. Grow up first.
go kill Germans.”
Tommy’s mother had contributed her opinion by weeping constantly for seventy-two hours, but in the end, Tommy Falcone had walked into the Marine office and enlisted. What had seemed a good idea at the time, now that he was here, now seemed the act of an idiot bent on suicide.
It was so dark here in the trenches that Tommy could barely see or hear the man in front of him. It was important to be quiet, they had been told. They were going to surprise the Boche as soon as it was light. The Marines had come stripped for action: no extra clothing, no extra packs, just what they were wearing—their rifles, their bayonets, and small combat packs.
Tommy Falcone checked his equipment and again wished he were not there.
The night dragged. When it came his turn, Tommy tried to sleep but could not. He was too tired, too excited, too scared. He wished that he had carried his rosary with him, the one Mama had given him when he had left their apartment back in New York City. But he didn’t have it. He was a man now, he had told himself at the time. He had no need for God. All he needed were his fellow Marines and a little bit of luck.
He said a Hail Mary anyway. Then an Our Father. Then a Glory Be. He said them over and over, gradually drawing comfort from their almost-mesmerizing grace.
Mario would approve, he thought. Mario was also somewhere in France this night. He was a battlefield chaplain with the army, and if Tommy knew his brother at all, he would be in the thick of whatever fighting there was. Tommy thought of his brother, then the neighborhood, his friends, his parents, all the pretty young girls he had yearned to have. He said some more prayers, anything to take his mind off what was coming.
This trench is not the worst place in the world to be. If I had to, I could stay here for days. Perhaps even months. I’ll bet there are places in the world where backward peoples live in trenches, spend their whole lives in them. We could do the same.
He thought idly about suggesting this to one of his superior officers, but before he could find one, the war intruded again on his life.
The sky in the east was turning gray. Tommy could hear the soft clicks as Marines down the line from him fixed their bayonets onto the ends of their rifles. Without waiting for orders, Tommy did the same. A moment later, a sergeant appeared, scurrying along the floor of the trench like some nervous water bug, telling each of them that it was almost time. “Ten minutes,” he said. “Maybe fifteen. Just be ready to go when the whistle blows.”
It wasn’t so bad, Tommy thought. He had been told that this would be the worst time, the waiting, and he had gotten through it okay. He crossed himself and turned to look at the two Marines next to him. They both grinned but did not speak.
Those are nervous smiles. They are as frightened as I am.
After what seemed only a few seconds, the whistle blew and Tommy and the others scrambled up out of the trench. They marched forward in a line that stretched as far as he could see in the gray mist, half-crouched, their rifles held at port arms.
It was quiet, eerily so. A hundred yards ahead of them was a wooded area. That would be their first objective, and then beyond that there was supposed to be a wheat field and, beyond that, another woods. They were to get as far as the second woods if they could and then dig in there and hold.
The sun raced into the sky, driving away the clouds and turning the grass of the meadow they were crossing a blood red. Ahead and to the left, Tommy saw a small farm building that looked too small to be a barn and too crude to be a house. He watched it as he moved. One step. Two steps. The morning was alive with the sounds of singing birds.
The building erupted, shooting noisy bursts of flame across the field. Tommy went to his knees, then onto his belly. He was ready to stop, to dig in. He had done enough for one day. He thought about it, but then somebody was beating on his helmet with a stick. He looked up and saw some officer whom he had only seen once before. He was cursing at Tommy, and Tommy reluctantly got to his feet again.
He turned to grin at the officer, to show him that he was all right, but the officer was already moving away, shuffling low toward the next Marine who had taken cover prematurely.
Tommy watched the officer move and admired his confident self-control, wondering if he would ever be able to do the same. As he watched, the officer split in half just above the waist and his intestines snaked out onto the ground.
Tommy knew he should be horrified, but all he could think was that it was amazing how much of the stuff there was. The officer’s legs ran on a few steps before collapsing, and the man’s upper half fell to the ground, crying and cursing and then shrieking with pain.
Tommy turned back to face the woods. The silence that had accompanied the men across the fields was gone, replaced by a universe of total noise, so loud, so pure, that silence had never existed in its world. He could see flashing, like swarms of fireflies, in the woods ahead of him. Tommy glanced back and saw other Marines trying to move forward. Some were succeeding; most were not. Their screams hung in the air.
I’m going to die out here. Like a hen in a barnyard. And no one will even know my name.
He covered his head with his hands, curled into a ball, and remembered how his parents had come to the New York pier to see him off on the troopship to France.
“I didn’t want you to be a Marine,” his father had said.
“Be a good one.”
A good one. A good one. A good one.
Tommy rose to his knees and looked ahead toward the flashes. They had to be machine guns, he decided. Behind him, his fellow Marines were scattered, leaderless, many already killed or injured. Tommy rose to his feet and charged, screaming, like some wild Indian he had read about when he was a kid. He would never know why he did it; he just knew it was the only thing he could do.
Then he was into the woods and facing two men behind a machine gun. They were in dirty gray and seemed tired, exhausted, and even at a distance they looked as if they had not washed in a year. Tommy shot the first one through the head and watched his brains explode. Then he stuck the other man in the chest with his bayonet, just below his right nipple, and pulled the blade diagonally down toward the man’s left hip. The German was still standing, grasping fearfully at the cut in his belly, but he did not go down, so Tommy shot him too.
At first Tommy Falcone had been all alone in the woods, the only Marine there, but that quickly changed, and for what seemed like a long, long time, Tommy slashed and shot and killed because nobody told him not to. Then somebody blew a whistle and Tommy stopped.
The Marines regrouped. Some drank water from their canteens. Others had found bottles of wine among the dead Germans. Somebody handed Tommy a half-filled bottle, and he thirstily chugged most of it before passing it on. He felt good. He never remembered having felt so alive before. It was glorious.
On the other side of the woods was the wheat field, the stalks of grain standing waist-high and colored a rich golden brown. In among the wheat were mixed thousands and thousands of brilliantly red poppies.
They started forward again, through the wheat field, marching steadily, waiting for the Germans to fire. Tommy hummed to himself as he went, a flat, unmelodious old Sicilian folk song he had heard growing up. He wished he could remember the words so he could sing aloud.
It would be stupid to sing. But why not? I am Falcone the Magnificent. I am invincible.
He had not gone far, only a third of the way across the field, when the Germans started firing again and he felt a slight burning in his arm. He looked down and saw blood, and it took him a moment to realize he had been shot. He stopped and looked around for someone to help him. He turned and then felt a thump, like a kick, in his side. He looked down and saw another hole in his uniform. He tried to remain standing but could not. He fell and could not rise.
All day long he lay there. Twice more bullets thudded into his exposed side. People stumbled over him. Two Marines died, gurgling in their throats, not a dozen yards away. The day grew hot, unbearably so, and he wished that it were cool so he could die comfortably. He had always hated sweating. Then it thundered and rained and it grew cold and Tommy wished it would be hot again. Sometime after noon, the pain near his hip grew unbearable and he began screaming. By sunset, he was too tired, too weak, even to scream anymore. When the moon rose, two stretcher bearers found him and started to carry him off. The motion reignited the pain and he began screaming all over again.