First Chapter, A Duel of Glass and Mud
Captain Brandt’s French was rudimentary at best, and the sobs of a grieving mother over the whispers of a local gendarme weren’t giving him many clues. What he could discern were words such as soldat, Américain, and animal. The grind of Brandt’s jaw and a too-formal military bearing betrayed a smoldering rage, though he also keenly felt how vulgar his presence must be to the tortured mother. He, too, was a foreign soldier and, like the animal in question, only welcome in her home because circumstances of war compelled it.
Brandt had fought Pancho Villa’s men in Arizona and New Mexico, Moro rebels in the Philippines, and now Germans on the western front; yet despite all the cruelty he’d seen, the murder of this young woman mauled his soul. Decorum demanded he wait on his French counterpart for the official request to go arrest the killer, but the suffocating gloom in the home coupled with the certainty his quarry was fleeing made Brandt desperate to move. Like a jockey holding a thoroughbred in check, he gripped his own thigh against taking a step toward the door and waited for the moment when he would be released to the mission.
The cottage had once simply been the family’s home, now open as a hostel to Allied soldiers on leave from the trenches twenty kilometers away. It was far enough from the front to get clean, eat a meal or two, and sleep in a real bed, though still close enough to hear the incessant shelling.
The home was tidy with a vegetable garden out front, floral wallpaper, heirlooms, dark-wood trim, and the pervasive smells of rose water and curing sausage. Two young girls and a toddler boy sat quietly on a settee, sniffling, patting one another for strength now and then, and watching every move of the officers walking in and out of their den.
The murdered girl still lay where she had fallen between the guest-room bed and the wall, one hand on the bedframe as if she’d tried to get back up. She was pretty, even in violent death, with honey-blonde hair braided into a crown, a Swiss-style blouse and skirt accentuating her trim figure, slender fingers that perhaps had played the stand-up piano in the front hall.
Her dark green eyes were still open and her brow knitted, giving an appearance less of fear than bewilderment, as if she were confused about the gash running from her throat to left ear or irritated by the puddled blood now added to her list of things to clean. In a different setting that furrowed brow might have been intended for a boy attempting to take too many liberties beneath her blouse or in trying to remember just how much nutmeg her mother used in the recipe for spiced bread. Today it told them all how baffled and betrayed she’d been by the murderer’s last act toward her.
Finally the mother excused herself to go check on the other children. Only then did the gendarme motion for his subordinates to move the girl from between the patterned wall and blood-soiled bed onto a litter. The two helpers had waited so patiently as to have been all but invisible, but now they bent to their duty in quiet reverence.
“It was an American wearing sergeant stripes,” said the French officer once the mother left the room. He spoke in the same calming whisper he’d used with the mother. “Three days off the front line. He came in quite drunk after a night with his platoon, but she says he was otherwise a perfect gentlemen until…this.”
One of the subordinates lost balance as he and his partner lifted the litter, which caused the girl’s frail wrist to fall from under the sheet covering her. The gendarme glared as the clumsy man and his partner lay the girl on the bed and re-tucked her wrist before moving her through the home.
“Can the mother provide a name?” asked Brandt.
The mother came back into the room, now stooped and gray as if her daughter’s death had already aged her by decades. She held the hotel register out to Brandt and jabbed down upon a name with a fingernail bitten down to the quick.
The soldier’s handwriting was illegible, perhaps intentionally, perhaps due to intoxication. Regardless, the scrawl and smudge on the page was useless. Brandt resolved to check leave records for platoons in this region to find out who’d been relieved in the trenches over the past three days. He knew this would mean running down dozens of men to get their statements.
“Excusez-moi, commandant,” muttered the clumsy litter-bearer. He had stooped behind the dead girl, his thighs pressing against the bedframe and wall, and his gaze firmly fixed on something at his feet. Brandt and the French officer moved as one to get a clearer view, and there on the ground beneath the bed they spied a dark and unmistakable shape.
The French officer gestured to the litter bearer to hand it to him, and once it was in his palm he opened his hand for Brandt see. It was an identification “dog” tag, made mandatory for all U.S. military personnel just five years earlier and worn about the neck of every doughboy currently serving in France. The tag was framed by a strip of black rubber cut from the seal off a gas mask to act as a silencer for the metallic oval, a trick of the survival trade handed down from battle-weary veterans to every newbie. Now the rubber ring was snapped and barely hanging on.
Brandt could see it then as if he’d been in the room at the time of the killing. The murderer attacked, the girl scratched and clawed in baffled defense, and in so doing she inadvertently snapped the identifying tag off the killer’s neck. The murderer’s whole being was likely consumed with the kill in that moment, with no attention given to a tiny flint of metal falling soundlessly on carpeting to bounce beneath the mattress.
Good for her, thought Brandt as he took the dog tag from the Frenchmen and turned to bid the mother adieu. He realized it had finally dawned on her that he was the only person in the room with the authority to bring her daughter’s murderer to justice. Her home had become a maelstrom of ironies, ravaged by war in the most peaceful of places, betrayed by a stranger she’d welcomed, and now having to trust the one person currently in her home for whom she held no regard.
Finally she sighed and wiped her face as if she had just cried out more tears than a lifetime allotted and was done with crying forever. She glanced out at her living children in the den before shuffling over to stand before Brandt. She was too thin and barely over five feet tall; he was broad of shoulder and well over a foot taller, yet all in the room could feel the menace of a mother wronged, her heartbroken challenge to this American standing before her that he bring her justice. Brandt stood in muted admiration of her strength, bowing slightly before leaving the lovely, tragic home to go hunting.