The pale-faced moon looks bloody on the earth
And lean-look'd prophets whisper fearful change;
Rich men look sad and ruffians dance and leap,
The one in fear to lose what they enjoy,
The other to enjoy by rage and war:
These signs forerun the death or fall of kings.
Shakespeare, Richard II: Act 2, Scene 4
The captain blinked, rubbed bleary eyes, and looked away from the stack of supply returns. He ran a thumb around the collar of the olive green wool shirt and pulled the field jacket closer against the cold of the austere office. The winter of 1945 had proven no better than the previous year. He shifted in his chair to ease the hip where pink scars still striped his butt, courtesy of an eighty-eight round exploding against his vehicle.
Hotshot paratrooper officer on the way up in the snow-choked Ardennes, then the burning jeep, the dead driver, and the snow and blood in his mouth. By the time he came out of the hospital it was all over. He hadn’t expected the follow-on assignment to a black transportation company, but he was short on ASR points and the black units were being demobilized slowly. He had learned more about small unit leadership since VE Day than in all the months at the camp in Georgia.
There was a solid rap at the door. “Suh, you have a visitor.”
“Who is it, First Sergeant?” They never used any other form of address. “Captain or Sir.” and “First Sergeant,” but the junior captain and the salty master sergeant had grown close.
The unit was a transportation company equipped with the very finest of Studebaker six-by-six deuce and a half trucks. From their garrison in an old Wehrmacht artillery kaserne they stitched together a long line of posts from Heidelberg all the way to Cochem on the Mosel near where the British zone began. The convoys ran virtually non-stop.
“Suh, I better send him in.”
The visitor stepped through the door wearing a chip on his shoulder the size of Texas. “Keep your seat, Captain.” He wore the shiny gold leaves of a Major and the crossed pistols of the Military Police. He had a face like the blade of an axe and curiously dead-looking eyes, “Sackman. CID.” He flipped out a credential in a leather case.
The captain looked at the dogeared card. “How can I help you, Major? I suppose it’s about the missing supplies.”
The visitor waited without a word.
“Have a seat, Sir.”
“The missing supplies, Captain, what about them?”
The captain looked down at the pile of paper. “Can’t get the returns to match. Not a huge amount, mostly food—it’s not the black market.” The last sounded defensive.
“It’s not, huh?” The colorless eyes did not move from the Captain’s face.
“Well, I mean, it’s not booze, cigarettes, nylons, y’know.”
“Everything’s frau bait, Captain, but that’s really not what this is about. I’m here investigating the murder of a German civilian.”
“Last week, in your area of responsibility, no witnesses, I’m going to need to talk to your soldiers under the authority of the Military Governor.”
“Major Sackman, I don’t think they’ll talk to you. Most of these guys were in the Red Ball Express, they’ve been through a lot, some of it was pretty bad, and they’re not crazy about talking to white men. All due respect to the Military Governor, Sir, General Patton is a little scary to these men.”
“Men?” Sackman looked at the Captain’s rusty-colored hair and his pale skin.
“We don’t call them ‘boys’ in this outfit.”
“You want to talk to them for me, is that it?” Sackman’s lips drew back in a preparatory snarl.
“Let me talk to the First Sergeant. Give me a couple of days I’ll get them used to the idea.”
The major relented, “Yeah, okay, I’ve got another case down in Kassel. I’ll be back on Wednesday. I want to interview some soldiers, and I expect to hear what they know. Don’t disappoint me.”
“Wouldn’t think of it, Sir.”
When Sackman was gone the Captain called out, “First Sergeant, I need you.”
“Suh.” The face was seamless as if it had been hewn from bronze. The First Sergeant wore a Combat Infantryman’s badge and a Silver Star. His nose was straight and aquiline; his hair was chestnut-colored and curly.
“We need to talk about something. It’s what that CID guy is asking about.”
“Yes, Suh.” He was impassive; his surprising pale blue eyes gave nothing away.
“First Sergeant, I never asked you before, how’d you come by that CIB? I know you ended up with the Red Ball Express, but how?”
There was a slow, lazy smile, “Well, Suh, I used to be an Eyetalian.”
“Ah, Italy, were you with the ninety-second, the buffalos?” The captain nodded, it all fit together.
“No, Suh,” the smile grew broader. I was in the third division, I was an Eyetalian in those days.”
“Tell me about that, First Sergeant. How did that happen?”
“Not much to tell, Suh. When I enlisted back in thirty-seven the fellow there looked me over and decided I was an Eyetalian, that’s what he put on the paper—Caucasian. I got hit at Monte Cassino, kraut machine-gun. They sent me back and the surgeon was a fellow from Georgia. He didn’t think I was an Eyetalian. They got me patched up in time for Normandy and sent me to a transportation company. I ended up in the Red Ball.” He paused, and grinned more broadly. “I told those boys, ‘I ain’t been black a week yet, and I hate you knee-grows already.’”
“Pretty good story, First Sergeant. Now we need to talk about that CID fellow, he’s investigating a murder—German civilian. He wants to question the men.”
The First Sergeant shifted his stance and then stood rigidly to “attention.” “Wan’t no murder, Suh.”
“What do you mean?”
“I knew we was losin’ stuff, saw you couldn’t make the returns balance. I decided to find out what was goin’ on.”
“Bout ten days ago when we came up from Frankfurt I got in the back of the lead truck.”
“With the cargo?”
“Damn nearly froze to death back there, Suh. I thought nothin’ was gonna happen, almost had ‘em stop, let me get up front. We was makin’ good time on the autobahn, ‘cept for every bridge bein’ blown.”
The captain nodded. Stretches of Hitler’s autobahn were still in remarkably good shape. The heavies had concentrated on the road and rail junctions and smashed whole cities flat, as transportation targets, but it was when the fighter-bombers of the Ninth Tactical Air Force flying sorties out of fields in Belgium were loosed on the road and rail systems that the arteries were really cut to pieces.
Every bridge that spanned the smallest stream was in ruins. The craters left by dive-delivered five hundred pounders made a moonscape around every water obstacle. The big deuce and a halfs were an elephant parade as they went down the cuts nose-to tail, slipping and sliding down and churning and straining up the other slope to get back to the concrete.
“It was startin’ to get dark,” the First Sergeant continued, “bout four in the afternoon, and we was slidin’ down one of those cuts, when all of a sudden a guy jumped in the back of the truck, hungry-lookin’ German, skinny as a rail, dressed in rags, looked like U.S. Army pants, old beat-up Afrika Korps hat. My grammy woulda called him a ‘ruffian.’ He didn’t even look around, just pried off the top of a crate and started stuffing things in a big bag.”
“Was he armed? One of the Werewolf units they keep briefing about?”
“Don’t think so, Suh, just looked hungry to me.”
“Took me a while to get my legs awake. I was so cramped up I thought it was permanent. Finally I stood up and racked the action on my forty-five. He looked at me like I was a ghost and just jumped right over the tailgate, never touched a thing as he went over.”
“Jumped out of the truck.” There was a trace of wonder in the captain’s voice.
“Yassuh. Black Sam was following close behind, I reckon the fellow went right under the bumper.”
“You didn’t stop?”
“We all heard about the Werewolves too, Suh, didn’t seem like a good idea.”
“Who all knows about this?”
“Black Sam, he was by himself in the truck, the two in front, Big Alvin and Franklin Benjamin, they knew I was in the back and they asked me about it. That’s all, Suh. We figured it was an accident—”
The captain was looking into the distance. “Okay, First Sergeant, I want you to tell the men the CID is coming to question them.”
“Yes, Suh,” he stiffened standing even straighter; the vision of a court martial was becoming clear.
“I want you and Black Sam, and Big Alvin and Benjamin Franklin to take a truck and get down to Mainz."
“It’s Franklin Benjamin, Suh,” a smile was creeping back. “Mainz, that’s a mighty big depot, Suh.”
“Yeah, that’s why it’s going to take at least three or four days, I don’t want you back before Friday. Stay in a Gasthaus, don’t get in any trouble, you hear me?”
The grin was broad now. “Yassuh.”
“Tell the men, First Sergeant, they are to cooperate with the CID man. Answer his questions about the murder—just tell what they know and nothing else, you get me?”
“I do, Suh, I surely do.”