I posted the first chapter of this novel-in-progress about seven months ago. I've worked with my critique group and edited viciously since then (my favorite part of writing), and here is the newest version. As always, let me know if you like it, and feel absolutely free to tell me if have suggestions for making it better. It's New York Times Bestseller or bust for me, and I can't get there without feedback and support.
Writers are always looking for "beta readers." The purpose is not to look for spelling or grammar mistakes. Instead, "betas" help by telling the writer what they liked and didn't like about a novel. That insight is invaluable and greatly appreciated. Please let me know if you'd be interested in participating in my process (email@example.com). I'll send you an e-book version now, and a print version with your name in the Acknowledgements when it is published. In the meantime, read on!
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.
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 to Brandt in the same calming whisper he’d used with her. “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 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 long enough to re-position. Brandt noted crusted blood beneath her nails as the man tucked her wrist back beneath the linen.
“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.
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,” murmured the clumsy litter-bearer. He had stooped behind the dead girl, his gaze firmly fixed on something at his feet. 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 glinty tag was soot-smeared and muted around the edges with a strip of rubber cut from the seal of a gas mask, survival tricks 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, no attention given to a small 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 saw from her expression that it had finally dawned on her 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 guest, and now having to trust the one person currently in her house for whom she held no regard.
Finally she sighed and wiped her face as if she had cried 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 Américain 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.
Nurse Xochitl Muñoz made her rounds through the halls of the Northern New Mexico Tuberculosis Hospital, cheerfully greeting each staff member and patient she passed. She took pride in the spotlessness of the facility, the whiteness of the walls, and the absence of dust-trapping artwork, all critical details in the never-ending fight against bacteria. Banisters shone and windows gleamed. A commitment to the pristine and a habit for tidiness—those were the keys to beating back disease.
Nurses and orderlies bustled about, taking trays of vitamins and meals to patients; the entire facility hummed with gentle efficiency. Custodial staff members were in constant motion, wiping trim and door handles with diluted bleach, and carrying piles of laundry out of ward areas. All of them wore bleached white from head to toe, a stark contrast to the raven-black mane piled and pinned beneath Nurse Muñoz’ cap.
“This is a building full of people getting well!” she called out to them from a staircase. “Due in no small measure to your efforts.” Most answered with a proud smile or a thankful nod.
Nurse Muñoz paused outside a door and dutifully donned her Johnson & Johnson Epidemic Mask before stepping into one of the men’s wards, sealing the cloth mask tightly about her nose and mouth by tightening the draw strings behind her ears. She’d long since learned the skill of smiling with her eyes to diminish patient worries, and she greeted each man in the fourteen-bed ward with a lilt to her voice and a warmth in her demeanor.
The men in the ward did their best to sit up as she walked in. Many could not muster the strength, but even the weakest tried to finger-comb their bed-matted hair and smile bravely. She was a bright spot in an otherwise dreary environment filled with days of coughing and dread. They came mostly from the east coast, responding to advertisements in such esteemed periodicals as the New York Times and the Boston Globe, which touted the healthy air and sunshine in New Mexico. Some would heal and go on to productive lives; many would not. Yet, every one of the men in various stages of tuberculosis wanted nothing more than to catch the eye of this angel of mercy and do something, anything, to please her.
Nurse Muñoz’ first duty of the morning was to open each window in the ward. Poor ventilation was the ally to consumption, and she had no intention of keeping the tuberculosis germs trapped within the ward any longer than necessary. “Fresh air and sunshine, gentlemen,” she called out to the men lying in two long rows down each side of the dormitory. “Fresh air and sunshine are our allies in health!”
“Good morning, Mr. Patrick, and how are we feeling today?” she asked of a man whose medical chart indicated was thirty-eight, but who appeared to be in his sixties due to grayness and frailty. He answered with a spasmodic cough so hard he retched, followed by a shy grin. She stepped back three feet while he coughed in order to avoid sharing Mr. Patrick’s breath—as recommended in her American Journal of Nursing.
“I’m doing much better, thank you,” Mr. Patrick replied hoarsely as she took his pulse and felt his forehead.
“Wonderful!” She fluffed his pillow to help him sit up straighter and then poured two ounces of an amber liquid into a paper cup.
Mr. Patrick eyed the liquid warily. “I’d rather not. The taste is simply too harsh.”
“We’ve spoken of this before. Listerine is a wonderful agent, chock full of bacteria-killing ingredients. Keeping one’s teeth and gums free of germs is quite healthful. Now, please.”
She helped Mr. Patrick tip the contents into his mouth, and he swished compliantly until she held out a bowl for him to spit. She smiled as if delighted. “Very good. The orderly will be by shortly with your vitamins. How about you take your milk in the porch? It’s a lovely day out, and the fresh air would be advantageous.”
Mr. Patrick nodded before launching into another coughing fit as Nurse Muñoz moved on to the next man’s bed. Within the hour she’d checked on every patient and charted each one’s progress. She paused at the doorway before bidding them a good morning and venturing on to the women’s ward, smiling back once more with upturned hazel eyes each man in the ward had grown to love.
“Remember, gentlemen to avoid worry, fear, and fatigue. This is of paramount importance as you pursue a new, healthful life. I’ll see you all on the veranda shortly.”
Each did their best to smile back despite their misery. A few waved feeble goodbyes, and several took the opportunity of her exit to reach for bedside urinals. The men nodded and murmured at the sage wisdom of her medical advice, setting off a coughing maelstrom in all fourteen beds.
Maxwell Ramirez bought an army uniform on his first day in France. He’d purchased the clothing off a drunk doughboy in a wharf tavern, though the soldier who sold it to him insisted on tearing off the Private bar before handing it over. The uniform fit fairly well, although the trousers hit Ramirez above the ankles and the shirt hung loosely about his shoulders and upper arms. It did what it was supposed to do, though, and that was to help him blend in with American soldiers assigned as replacements for British and French soldiers exhausted from three years of hard-fought trench warfare.
Ramirez was a cameraman, and he was not enlisted in the Army. This was immediately apparent to the young private who took quick note of Ramirez’ wavy and decidedly non-regulation-length hair and his dark, week-old beard growth. The soldier had not been impressed when Ramirez informed him he’d been a boatswain’s mate in the Coast Guard, having served on an ice breaker upon the Great Lakes in his early twenties. Now, twelve years later, Ramirez was once again among military men, only this time he was armed with a moving-picture camera and a plan to document war.
Ramirez fell in with the soldier’s squad of nine men and their sergeant who were all drinking in the tavern. The men had been in-country for three months, and Ramirez soon learned they’d been in the trenches, seen the horror, and been over the top four times. They were slated to go back in the morning, and the sergeant finally agreed to let Ramirez tag along after the cameraman bought them all rounds of drinks.
Ramirez watched them intently that evening, through dark-brown eyes that missed nothing, choosing not to pull out his camera and begin filming straight away. Tonight, he realized, could be the last night on earth for some, so Ramirez opted to simply appreciate their joy at being drunk, of ogling women who seemed to know none of them had enough money to buy their company, and of telling stories of brave deeds. Eventually the voices slowed and slurred, bringing on a spate of woeful lament dominated with the blaming of officers for everything from risky strategy to the skin-torturing mites that infested every yard of trench from here to the eastern front.
The evening wore on, and most of the men grew sleepy. Few had enough coins left over for private lodging, so several of them pitched in and shared the last vacant room in the establishment. Ramirez knew it was no matter to these men to sleep so closely with one another. For by tomorrow mid-morning they’d be back in a trench no wider than the length of his leg, filled with mud and horror.