Michael J. Martinez
Also by Michael J. Martinez
This novel is also set during a period in which women and people of color were treated
Cities shouldn’t be silent.
Berlin, however, felt nearly dead, figuratively and literally, and the thought sent chills up Frank Lodge’s spine as he led his men on night patrol through the US administrative area of the former Nazi capital. There was a strictly enforced curfew, of course, so in the middle of the night, there were no civilians on the streets, which were still clogged with stone and debris from the bombings. The only cars to be seen were the ones half-buried under rubble.
There were no streetlights, either: the Allies — and the Soviets as well — were still struggling to restore even the most basic of public services. Sanitation was a disaster, and the smells from the summer heat lingered well after midnight, especially there near the Landwehr Canal, which had become both a watering hole and an open sewer.
Because of all this, the silence was practically audible in its own way, a distinct lack of sound that seemed to fill Frank’s ears with an eerie ring. He struggled subconsciously to find something — anything — that might give off a sign of life in this battered city. Sounds would’ve given Frank’s men something to react to, something to follow, something that would alleviate the creeping dread that accompanied each step through the hollowed-out streets.
He got far more than he’d asked for. The gunshot cracked out from the darkness without warning, and a soldier fell almost before the sound was heard.
Frank instinctively hit the deck, the cobblestones jutting into his ribs as he pulled his pistol and aimed at the darkness across the canal. There was nothing there, just a battered, pockmarked bridge serving as a no-man’s-land between where the Americans holed up and the Soviets hunkered down in the ruined heart of occupied Berlin.
To Frank’s right, the downed man made a gasping, choking noise. One of his soldiers. Again. And yet, the sound caused his heart to race, cleared his thoughts. Immediacy gave purpose.
“Everyone down! Hold fire!” Frank yelled, even though the squad was already prone and scrambling for cover. Rifles were trained across the canal, ready to respond.
“Are the Reds shooting at us, Lieutenant?” one of his men asked. His voice was a mix of bewilderment and raw panic.
“Shut up,” Frank growled. “Keep down.” He needed to think. Maybe the shot did come from across the canal, which was Soviet territory. If that were the case, they would need to be extremely careful. No use in starting another war so soon after wrapping up the last one.
Frank crawled over to the downed man. It was Private Tony Abruzzo, one of the newer guys who’d come over in the spring, brought in to replace all the casualties in the Ardennes.
The medic was already there, practically lying on top of Abruzzo, poking around at the wound in his chest. He listened to the private’s breathing, then looked up at Frank with a resigned shake of his head. Frank was far from a doctor, but even he could hear it: shot in the lung, damn thing was collapsing. From the angle, looked like it probably got into his gut, too.
The private didn’t have long.
“Hold positions!” Frank ordered. “Doc, give me a hand. Let’s get him off the damn street.”
Together, the two men quickly moved Abruzzo toward the rubble on the side of the Schöneberger Ufer. The squad hunkered down behind the piles of brick and wood and peered into the darkness across the street and canal. The silence settled back down onto them like a pall, except for Abruzzo’s labored final breaths and the efforts of the radioman in the ruined building directly above them, trying for a clear signal in order to report in and, hopefully, get some help.
Frank settled the dying man down with the medic and quietly ducked over to his sergeant, a grizzled vet by the name of Sam Grogan. “Sarge?” he asked, trying to keep his cool as he waited for his orders, even as his mind reeled and the urge grew in his belly that the only sane course of action would be to simply turn tail and get out of there.
“Seems like a one-off,” Grogan replied grimly, quietly, as he squinted off in the distance. “Pissed-off German or drunk Russki. Take your pick.” He paused. “They’re going to want someone to investigate, sir.”
Frank frowned. “Yes, they are, Sergeant,” he said quietly. “Find me a path across that bridge that doesn’t leave our asses exposed.”
Grogan nodded, and Frank returned to the medic. Abruzzo was breathing quickly, shallowly, labored. He was going quickly now.
Frank knelt down next to the dying man and took his hand. “Private Abruzzo. This is Lieutenant Lodge. You hear me OK?”
Abruzzo’s eyes shifted toward his lieutenant, and that would have to be enough. Frank leaned in.
“Listen, Tony. You’re getting out of this shit-hole. Not the best way out, but it’s out. I’m gonna see you off, and it’s gonna be OK. You hear me, Private? It’s gonna be OK.”
Abruzzo gave a ghost of a nod and tightened his grip slightly on Frank’s hand. And with a rattle in his chest and a small, quick convulsion, he was gone.
“Mark the map for retrieval,” Frank said simply as he placed Abruzzo’s hand gently on his chest. “If we can’t get him later, we’ll make sure someone does.”
The medic nodded and pulled out his tattered map of the city, already stained with someone else’s blood. “Every time, you do that,” he said. “You think it helps?”
Frank shrugged as he got up. “Nobody should die alone.”
There was no good way to get across the Landwehr Canal with any kind of real cover. Worse, no one could identify the usual Red checkpoint on the other side of the bridge. The last thing Frank wanted was to cross over into Russian-occupied territory, only to run into a Soviet squad, especially if Grogan was right and they’d been hitting the vodka. The Reds were fanatics about their turf in Berlin; every bridge and street had a well-armed, well-staffed checkpoint. And even if the Russians didn’t have enough men to staff every little intersection, this was the Wilhelmstrasse, one of Berlin’s biggest thoroughfares. So, where the hell was it?
Grogan ducked over to Frank’s position to report. “I got nothing over there, Lieutenant. All dark. Seems like there’s some kind of emplacement there, but it’s unmanned, far as I can tell. I don’t like this one ...