Blue Madonna by James R Benn
It’s late May 1944. Captain Billy Boyle is court-martialed on spurious charges of black market dealings. The chief witness against him is Archie Chapman, the London gangster last seen inRag and Bone, and Boyle is convicted. Stripped of his officer’s rank, reduced to private, and sentenced to three month’s hard labor, Boyle is given an opportunity: he can avoid his punishment if he accepts a dangerous mission.
In the town of Chaumont, a “petite chateau” on the outskirts of town serves as a safe house for the Allies. The chateau has a secret chamber and tunnel, first used to hide escaping Huguenots in the 17th century. But someone is killing the people who have passed through the safe house. Two officers, one a British escaped POW and the other an American pilot, have been murdered.
Billy is parachuted in as part of a three-man team on June 5, 1944, the night before the Normandy invasion. Billy must solve the mystery of who is behind the murders, then lead a group escape from France back to England, with both the Germans and a killer hot on their heels.
It was a nice day for a drive. Late May, but warm and sunny, which you couldn’t always count on in England. We sped past fields of ripening grain, sheep grazing on hillsides, and low, rolling hills, each topped with its own sunlit copse of trees. Small villages with quaint names like Lower Slaughter, Bourton-on-the-Water, Notgrove, and Sevenhampton disappeared behind us as we neared Cheltenham.
It would have been nicer without the handcuffs.
And if my companions hadn’t been military police. Big, silent MPs. Both sergeants, both tight-lipped, both armed.
Unlike me. I’m a captain, I like to chew the fat, and I’d been relieved of my pistol. That left us with nothing in common except for our destination, the Services of Supply base on the outskirts of Cheltenham, a little corner of Gloucestershire that controlled all of Uncle Sam’s stockpiles of food, ammunition, fuel, and whatever else American forces needed to fight this war. Which was more than you could imagine. SOS reported to Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force—SHAEF—which was where I worked. Not that my flaming-sword shoulder patch had impressed the MPs, far as I could tell.
In addition to running the supply chain, SOS was responsible for judicial services. The commanding general, John C. H. Lee, had been nicknamed “Court House” in some quarters for his initials and his attitude. Which had me more worried than the handcuffs. The MP in the backseat had the key and would probably want his cuffs back when we got to the base. Court House Lee also ran the stockade, the kind of place where they tossed you in and forgot you.
“Either of you guys cops before the war?” I asked, trying one last time to start a conversation. “I was.”
“Boston PD,” I continued, turning to catch the eye of the MP behind me. “Made detective right before Pearl Harbor. My dad’s a homicide detective. It’s kind of a family business.” No response. The jeep crested a hill, the winding road leading into a valley dotted with Quonset huts, tents, and swarming vehicles.
“That’s it,” the MP said, tapping the shoulder of the driver and ignoring me. We pulled up to a gate where more MPs inspected the driver’s paperwork. They gave me the once-over; lots of enlisted men got brought in sporting cuffs, but damn few captains in their Class A uniform did. I was a curiosity.
“What’d he do?” a sentry asked the guy in the backseat, nodding in my direction.
“Open the goddamn gate,” was the only answer he got. I felt a little better knowing that my MP didn’t want to talk to anyone. But not much.
We drove down the main thoroughfare of the huge base. It was like being in a city, except instead of tall buildings, crates of supplies stacked three stories high and covered with camouflage netting cast shadows across the road. There were city blocks of long Quonset huts and wooden barracks painted a uniform pond-scum green. Huge tents with their guy lines stretched taut looked like the dreariest circus imaginable had come to town and forgotten to leave. Trucks weighed down with supplies lurched by, grinding gears and straining to haul their loads of Spam, artillery shells, or scotch destined for the senior ranks.
What the hell was I doing here?
The jeep pulled over in front of a Quonset hut. The walkway was lined with whitewashed stones, a sure sign that officers here didn’t like GIs with time on their hands. Signs were staked in the ground on either side of the walk. One read, Office of the Provost Marshal General, Criminal Investigation Division; the sign was plain, the paint chipped and faded. No nonsense, like most CID agents I’d run into. The other was more ornate, the words US Army Judge Advocate General in bold letters over a gold pen and sword crossed above a laurel wreath. Lawyers liked that kind of thing.
The driver switched off the engine. I waited for them to say something, but they both sat there, as silent as ever. I had no idea what to expect, no reason I could think of to have been rousted out of bed at dawn and driven here. From their expressions, the MPs didn’t know much, either. They had one advantage over me; they didn’t care.
“It’s been great, fellas,” I said. “See you around.” I got one leg out of the jeep before they both grabbed me. I figured it was worth a shot, if only to rile them.
“Try that again, and I’ll handcuff you to the steering wheel,” the driver said.
“He speaks!” I said, turning to the sergeant behind me. He almost cracked a smile. Thought about it, anyway. “So, guys, spill, will ya? What’s the deal? What are we doing here?”
“Hold yer horses,” he said, almost friendly now that the journey was over. For him, at least. “We’re waiting for a guy.”
“Some colonel,” he said, consulting his orders. “Colonel Samuel Harding. Anyone you know?”
“Yeah,” I said. A figure emerged from the Quonset hut. “That’s him.”
I had no trouble spotting Harding. I’d worked for him since I landed in England back in ’42, a shavetail second louie with vomit on his shoes after a trans-Atlantic f light in a B-17. Fortunately his opinion of me had improved some since those early days, and I was sure he’d straighten things out. Maybe he’d had me brought here for that very purpose.
I breathed a sigh of relief as I held up manacled hands and gave my best impression of a nonchalant grin. “What gives, colonel?” In the circumstances, I thought it best not to call him Sam.
A new MP approached the jeep and took hold of my arm. It was a practiced cop’s clasp, a firm grip that let me know who was in control. A couple of GIs walking by stopped to gawk. A uniformed agent followed Harding out of the hut, the agent’s shoulder brassard, lack of any rank insignia, and stocky build all advertising CID. A couple of other guys in Class As headed in, giving me nervous glances as if I might leap from the jeep and assault them. Their nerves, spectacles, and briefcases said JAG.
We were drawing quite a crowd, and I was having trouble keeping up the grin. Harding strode to the jeep, the CID agent one step behind.
“Take the cuffs off,” Harding said to the MP in the jeep, who quickly obliged. The new MP pulled me out of the seat as I was rubbing my wrists to get the circulation going. Harding was giving me a grim stare, but I still felt relieved to be out of handcuffs. I figured it was time to act military, so I gave the colonel a snappy salute.
“Captain William Boyle,” he said, returning the salute as if it irritated him, “you have been brought here to face a general courtmartial regarding willful violation of the Articles of War. These men will escort you in to meet with your counsel.”
“You’re joking, aren’t you? Sir?” I felt like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, finding myself in a place where nothing made sense. I looked around for someone to come to my rescue, but there was no one but Harding, his unwavering stare, the strong-arm men, and a gathering crowd.
“This is no joke, captain. Serious charges have been brought against you, and given the gravity of the situation, it has been decided at the highest level to expedite the proceedings. You have one hour. I suggest you use it wisely.” With that, he about-faced, leaving me with a stone-faced MP who made me miss the company of my two surly companions, and a CID agent who grabbed my other arm even tighter, smiling as he pulled me along.
I was going to ask what the hell was happening, but the CID guy looked like he enjoyed hauling in a captain too much to be bothered. Besides, something crazy was going on, and I knew I wouldn’t get a straight answer from anyone if Sam Harding himself was pulling the wool over my eyes. So I zipped it as they dragged me down a narrow hall and let them shove me into a space that was more like a closet with aspirations to be an office. It had a metal table bolted to the floor and two folding chairs. I sat with my hands folded on the table, the feel of cold steel around my wrists still hard to shake.
I was in big trouble. And I had no idea why.
Ten minutes later, a skinny kid entered the room and took the other chair. His uniform jacket was too big for him, or he was too shrimpy for Uncle Sam’s smallest size; it was hard to tell. He wore a second lieutenant’s bars and the JAG gold pen and sword. “So you’re the guy everyone’s talking about.”
“You left something out,” I said.
“What?” He went wide-eyed as he opened his briefcase, glancing inside as if whatever he forgot was in there.
“Three things, actually. Two sirs and the fact you should still be standing at attention. As far as officers go, kid, you’re the lowest of the low. Didn’t they teach you anything in basic?”
“No,” he said, pushing his chair back to stand. His briefcase tumbled to the floor, and a mass of papers spilled out. He knelt to retrieve them, thought better of it, and knocked over the metal chair as he tried to imitate attention. “I mean, I didn’t go to basic training. Sir. We had an accelerated officer’s training course, then a few weeks at JAG school, and here I am. Sir. Sorry.”
“Good. Two sirs, and you’re at a semblance of attention. Now gather your papers and tell my defense counsel I’m tired of waiting.”
“Captain Boyle, sir, I am your defense counsel. Peter Scott. Lieutenant
“Jesus, sit down, Scott, you’re making me nervous. You’re it, really?”
“Yes, sir, I am,” he said, placing the paperwork on the table and organizing the sheets. It looked like it calmed him. “I’ve been reviewing the charges, and I have to say this is serious.”
“Yeah, the handcuffs and the MPs kinda gave me that idea already, Scott. What am I accused of?”
“You don’t know?”
“How the hell would I know?” I was so steamed I forgot to bawl him out for missing a sir again.
“I mean, usually they tell you ahead of time. I think.”
“You think? You’re JAG; you should know. What kind of lawyer are you anyway, Scott?”
“Real estate,” he said in a low voice. “Sir. Or at least that was what I was planning on. Joining my father’s firm, I mean.”
“It was a rhetorical question, Scott. I don’t give a damn about your civilian life. They taught you rhetoric in law school, didn’t they?”
“Yes, they did. I was captain of the debate team.” Obviously the concept of rhetorical questions still eluded him. I studied his face, and he blinked nervously as I leaned forward.
“Hang on. You were planning on joining your father’s firm? So you never actually practiced law?”
“Well, no, not exactly.”
“How long have you been in the army, Scott?”
“Three months, sir.”
“Officer’s training, JAG school, transport over here—that doesn’t leave much time for court-martial experience, does it?”
“Well, no. As a matter of fact, I arrived from the States last week. This is my first case.” He smiled as if I should be honored.
“Scott, be a good kid and go get Colonel Harding, will ya?”
“No, sir. He instructed me not to let anyone see you. He sounded like he meant it. No, sir.” His eyes were like saucers as he shook his head a couple of times more than he needed to. He was scared, which told me the word had in fact come direct from Sam Harding.
“Okay,” I said, glancing at my watch. “We’re wasting time. Tell me about these charges.”