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Whistle Pass [MultiFormat]
eBook by KevaD

eBook Category: Romance/Gay Fiction
eBook Description: On the battlefields of WWII Europe, Charlie Harris fell in love, and after the war, Roger marched home without a glance back. Ten years later, Charlie receives a cryptic summons and quickly departs for his former lover's hometown of Whistle Pass. But Roger Black isn't the lover of Charlie's dreams anymore. He's a married, hard-bitten political schemer who wants to secure his future by destroying evidence of his indiscreet past. Open homosexuality is practically a death sentence, and that photo would ruin Roger and all his wife's nefarious plans. Caught up in foggy, tangled events, Charlie turns to hotel manager Gabe Kasper for help, and Gabe is intrigued by the haunted soldier who so desperately desires peace. When helping his new lover places Gabe in danger, the old warrior in Charlie will have to take drastic action to protect him... or condemn them both.

eBook Publisher: Dreamspinner Press/Dreamspinner Press, Published: 2012, 2012
Fictionwise Release Date: April 2012


3 Reader Ratings:
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Chapter One

September 1955

Charlie Harris leaned forward, pinched the end of the Lucky Strike between his thumb and forefinger, and inhaled the last drag possible before the smoldering tobacco burned his lips. Easing the smoke out his nostrils, he dropped the stub to the floor and ground it out with the sole of his boot. The carcass joined the other dozen or more shredded on the floor of the bus.

He sat back, rubbed the two-day stubble, coarse as sandpaper, on his cheek, and inhaled the garbage stench of smoke, sweat, banana peels, and God knew what else the other passengers had stuffed in the paper sacks they'd leave for somebody else to clean up. The kid wearing the coonskin cap and Davy Crockett fringe coat, curled up asleep in the seat across the aisle, had peanut butter and jelly smeared around his mouth like cheap lipstick. Why the mother didn't clean the crap off the brat was beyond him. Maybe she'd tired of his incessant running up and down the walkway, too, and was afraid to touch him for fear of an encore.

Charlie turned his head and stared at the window. The low light from the recessed lamp above him, under the luggage rack, illuminated his dark hair. His haloed reflection stared back against the pitch of the moonless night. Drops of drizzle running down the glass in rivulets disfigured his features, but not the memories. He shifted in his seat, resting his cheek on the backrest.

Need you had been the only words on the telegram--not an I want you stuck anywhere on the yellow paper. The first time Roger had said, "Need you," Charlie'd fallen into his arms and bared his heart, soul, groin, and ass.

He dug the open pack of Luckies out of a pocket in his pea coat, shook the end of one out, and held it between his teeth. He returned the dwindling cache to the pocket, pulled out a book of matches, folded the cover behind a lone match with one hand, and scratched it across the striker without tearing it from the pack. The tobacco sizzled as he inhaled. He blew out the match flame when he exhaled and watched the smoke bounce off his reflection.

What was it? Nine years? No. Ten. Ten years already since the war ended and all the troops came marching home. Those that weren't buried in some rathole of a town he couldn't pronounce the name of in some European country he never wanted to see again. He blew out another cloud of smoke. He wasn't a twenty-year-old kid anymore. But sure as hell, the minute Roger said, "Need you," he'd walked off his job and caught a bus. For what? A chance of love with a man who'd walked away without looking back when they stormed the beaches of the good old US of A?

"Moron." He rolled his body away from the reflection and stared at the beige metal above him. Another drag, another burst of smoke.

Lightning shattered the darkness. Thunder clapped against the bus. Raindrops transformed to a hail of rifle and machine gun bullets.

Charlie jerked. His eyes prowled the terrain for where the Germans' attack would come from--goddamnit! It's just rain. He fell back against the seat, brushed a jittery hand over his hair, and took a long, comforting pull off the cigarette. So long ago, so damn long ago, and still it took so little to bring the horror back to life.

"Whistle Pass. Whistle Pass," the driver called out.

Charlie sat straight, grateful for something else to fill his mind with, and looked over the top of the wide brim hat of the passenger in the seat in front of him. Through the windshield eight rows away, a smattering of lights appeared in the distance. He crinkled his nose. Figured. He'd guessed a town in Illinois called Whistle Pass a hundred-fifty miles or so from Chicago wouldn't be more than a pinhole on a map. By the few lights, he'd nailed it.

He narrowed his focus and strained in an attempt to look beyond the glare of the glass and drizzling rain but couldn't make out anything except the glow of random streetlights as the bus entered the city. A porch light here and there indicated houses along the street. The bus rounded a slow curve, and a lone parking lot light's glow illuminated jewels of rain on wet cars. A string of multicolored triangular banners hung limp. A dealership. He sat back and took in the blur of more houses.

The bus rounded another lazy curve, and the downtown spread her Main Street curbing like a whore. Each block had streetlamps strategically interspersed so every storefront was revealed. Vaughan's Saddle and Tack, Goldman Jewelers, A&P Grocery, Ash Penn's Stationery, Matson Jewelers.... Charlie chuckled. The business district looked about five blocks long, and two jewelry stores were battling it out for control of the bangle industry.

A hiss from the brakes. The bus slowed and pulled to the curb in front of a four-story building. A giant L with "Hotel" painted down the stem of the letter hung from an iron bracket. Rain dripped to the sidewalk from the base of the sign.

Charlie pushed out of his seat. In the aisle he rolled cramped shoulders, flexed the stiffness out of a knee, and combed his fingers through his hair before he retrieved his duffle from the overhead. The fact he was the only passenger to do so didn't escape his notice. He pinched out the final draw of nicotine from the cigarette between his lips. Dropping the remnant to the floor, he opted to step over, not on, the butt and strode to the front of the bus.

The driver pushed the handle of the extended bar of the door, and Charlie stepped out onto the wet sidewalk. Drizzle quickly painted his face. A drop fell from the tip of his nose. He swiped the next one and took a deep breath. The air was clean, but beneath the overlay of rain was a taste of fish. Dead fish. He inhaled another lungful of air. Yeah. A river was somewhere close by.

Gears hissed into place. The engine revved, and the bus drove off. Diesel fumes encased in a swell of black smoke threatened to cloak Charlie. He stepped toward the building, away from the bus's lingering stink. The wood-framed glass door had "Larson Hotel" painted in gold with black trim. He pulled it open, hoping they'd have a room available. If they didn't, he was pretty much screwed.

He guessed the lobby's ceiling to be around twelve feet with three ceiling fans suspended on pipes to about eight feet. Four black couches, a few wooden armchairs, and potted plants here and there decorated the place. At the far end of the room, the elevator's iron gate stood open, the operator's stool empty. A solitary broad-chested man puffing on a cigar sat on a couch. A snap-brim hat pulled low shadowed his face. Smoke curled upward, only to be blown back down by the fan blade's slow rotation. To the right of the elevator was a wooden stairway, the banister nearly black from decades of hands sliding over it. A grandfather clock in a corner tolled 3:00 a.m.

Charlie turned left to the long, dark wood counter. A bank of pigeonholes, several with keys, was mounted to the wall. He smiled. Keys in the slots meant there was probably a vacancy. With the office chair at the desk unoccupied, he slapped a palm onto the silver bell. The clang rolled around the room. A pair of curtains parted, and an old man walked out.

"Morning. Sorry. No trains due in, so I was laying down." He looked around and lowered his voice. "Most of our guests work for the railroad. Railroad changes crews in Whistle Pass. Not many tourists of late. Looking for a room? Don't have much right now, though."

Charlie set his bag on the floor. "Yeah. Whatever you have's fine."

The old man set a book on the counter. Opening it, he handed Charlie a pen. "Need you to register. How long you staying?"

Charlie wrote his name underneath a bevy of names without addresses. "Not sure. You need my address?"

The old man plucked a key from a slot and pivoted back around. "Not really. Nobody's business but yours. That's the way I see it, anyway. Manager tends to disagree, though, unless you work for the railroad, of course." He flashed a wry smile. "But he ain't here, is he?" He spun the book around and started to close it but paused. "Charlie Harris?"

Charlie tensed. The whiskey-dry voice spoke his name like the employee recognized it. "Yeah. Why?"

The clerk turned, set the key back in the slot, and pulled another one from a different hole. He handed the key to Charlie. "Had a note to expect you sometime tonight. Room 412's reserved for you. Paid in advance for a week."

Confused, Charlie looked at the brass tag with a machine-pressed L and 412. "Who got me a room?" And why a week? Not like the Roger he knew to have things planned out in advance.

"Don't know. Note didn't say. You can ask the manager when he comes in later. Need help with your bags?"

Charlie picked up the duffle. "Nah. I got it."

"Good, 'cause I couldn't help you anyway. You'll have to use the stairs. I'm not allowed to leave the lobby since I'm the only one working. So there's nobody to run the elevator."

An amused snort leaked out of Charlie. The old man couldn't leave the lobby unattended, but he could steal a few winks in the back room. He wheeled and noticed the sitting area was now empty.

The thick leather soles of his work boots clunked echoes as he walked up the stairs. Curtains of fresh cigar smoke hung in the air. On the second floor, Charlie made the turn and spotted half a cigar smoldering in a pedestal ashtray. The band identified it as a Red Dot. He glanced up and down the hallway but didn't see anything that seemed out of place, other than a wasted choice smoke. He cocked his head and listened. Nothing. Unbuttoning his coat, he headed for the third floor landing.

On the third floor, he stalled his progress and looked and listened again. A stuttered snoring crawled along the empty hall. Charlie shook his head and blew out a breath. "You're just nervous about why you're here. Shake it off." He grabbed the banister and pulled himself up the stairs, his booted steps rhythmically clomping his advance. At the midway point, he palmed the ball on the banister break and made the turn.

A Black Cat shoe heel came at him too quickly for Charlie to react. The blow caught him between the eyebrows.

Charlie slammed against the wall. Pain exploded in his head. Blinded from shock, he swung the duffle. The weight of the bag in his left hand pulled him to his right, so he let go of it, balled a fist, and blasted it back across his front. The backhand blow struck pay dirt in a jaw. The attacker cursed. Charlie followed up with a right fist to the shadowy figure coming into focus. His fist hammered into a rib cage. Charlie pumped two more quick jabs into the ribs.

"Gack." The man's torso leaned left.

Charlie reached out, grabbed two handfuls of shirt, and flung the man past him, into the wall. Staying with his target, he planted his feet and loosed a flurry of punches onto the exposed back, over the kidneys.

The snap-brim-hatted attacker's knees bent, and he sank to the floor.

Click. Click. Charlie whirled. At the top of the stairs, two more men. Young. Late teens, early twenties maybe. Each wore blue jeans and a black leather jacket, and... each held a switchblade knife.

"Enough of this crap." Charlie snarled, stuck his left hand into his coat pocket, and pressed the barrel of the gun against the cloth. "First lesson, assholes. Never bring a knife to a gunfight."

The two youths froze in place. They exchanged looks. One turned and ran. The other, red hair swept back under layers of grease, gulped a prominent Adam's apple, then took off in the direction of the first.

Charlie bolted up the stairs, rounded the turn to the hallway, and saw the young men scamper out an open door at the end of the hall. He scrambled to the open exit and found himself at the top of an iron fire escape. The clanking footfalls of the duo were already two floors below him.

Charlie stood and waited. The two men hit the alley and continued running. He pulled the hand gun from his pocket, took careful aim, and fired.

"Bang. Bang," he softly said, then he blew on the fingernail of his index finger gun barrel. "Idiots."

He went inside the hotel to the stairway. The first one, the cigar smoker, was gone as well. He retrieved his duffle, located room 412 next to the fire escape, and unlocked the door.

Charlie set the duffle on the metal-framed bed and went back to the hall. The bathroom was across from his room. His brows rose in satisfaction. Entering the water closet, he pulled the dangling chain. A bare, single lightbulb clicked on in a ceiling lamp. In the small mirror on the wall, he examined his face. Not bad. The blow had struck more forehead than anything else. He rubbed the reddened skin, then turned on the faucet, cupped his hands full of cool water, and lightly scrubbed his face. He grabbed the sides of the sink and stared at his reflection. His jaw trembled, his teeth chattered, his gut knotted, and his chest tightened. He flung his arms around him and sat on the toilet, shaking in fear.

In the war, he'd reacted the same way. Always calm when the shit went down, and always fell apart after. The men around him had learned to stick to him when the bullets flew. Charlie Harris could fight and shoot. You wanted to live, you needed to be wherever Charlie was. Only Roger ever sat with him after. Only Roger ever put his arms around him and held him until the terror passed.

He closed his eyes. How he wanted Roger's arms around him right now, his breath on his skin, the taste of him on his lips. A tear rolled down his cheek.

The door swung open. "You Harris?"

Charlie looked up. A uniformed cop stood in the doorway, badged cap resting at an angle on the man's head. Still shaking, Charlie only nodded.

The cop walked to him, placed a hand under his arm, and helped him to stand. "Come on. Let's get you to your room."

Grateful, Charlie staggered to his room. The door clicked closed behind him. Charlie sat on the bed, his hands stuck between his thighs as he tried to control the tremors. The cop walked over and stood in front of him. Charlie glanced up. "Did someone call you? I got attacked on the stairs."

The cop reached into a pocket sewn into the lower leg of the dark blue uniform trousers and produced a leather sap. "Nobody called me, boy." The cop reared back and slapped the lead-filled sap across Charlie's thigh.

Charlie screamed in pain.

"Shut up," the cop growled, and he hit his thigh again.

Pain seared, burned through his bones. Charlie fell back on the bed. Tears flowed, snot rolled out of his nose. He wanted to puke. He stuffed a hand in his mouth and bit into it to muffle his cries.

The cop hit his thigh again. Then again.

Charlie went fetal, whimpering. He clamped his eyes closed against the twisting daggers flowing through his blood, shredding his nerves, clawing at his brain.

A whisper at his ear. "You watch yourself, boy. One step--just one step--out of line, and you'll be turtle food."

The sap bludgeoned his thigh again. Charlie dug his teeth into his hand. Blood washed over his gums and tongue. The door opened and closed.

Charlie pulled his knees even tighter to his chest and sobbed. "Roger. Where are you?"

* * * *

Chapter Two

In the covered doorway of the hotel's entrance, Gabe Kasper shook the rain off his fedora. Looking toward the river a mere block and a half beyond the street corner the hotel rested on, he frowned. The rain veiled the city park housing a gravel lot for boat trailers. The barely visible edge of the river at the docks was flannel gray.

"Damn."

For once, the weathermen had been right, and on the wrong weekend--opening day of goose season. Not even geese hunters would come out in this soup. You can't shoot what isn't there to kill. The geese would all be hunkered down in fields and around marshy ponds until the skies cleared and they could continue their southbound exodus.

A shrill, air-powered whistle scratched through the air. Gabe waited. A second, though an octave lower, whistle soon followed. Two freighters employing a tradition started by the now long-gone paddlewheel riverboats. The deep-water channel narrowed in the middle of the river. On days like this, where the captains couldn't see each other, they whistled their presence. The freighters would hug the channel's starboard edges to avoid colliding.

The sternwheeler captains had dubbed it a "whistle pass."

Gabe sighed at the prospect of low revenues and opened the door. "Morning, Mrs. Brewer."

The silver-haired woman looked up from the lobby counter. "Good morning, Mr. Kasper. Eight cancellations so far."

As expected. He strode around the end of the counter. "When are you going to call me Gabe while we're at work?"

She continued dusting and tidying up the work area. "When you start calling me Olga."

He slipped off his coat and hung it on a peg, then set his hat to dry on top of the oak filing cabinet. He gently touched palms to the sides of his hair, ensuring no strands were out of place. "But your name isn't Olga, it's Betty."

She snapped the cloth. Dust billowed in the air. Gabe watched it float back onto the area the pillow-shaped woman had just cleaned.

"Why do you do that? Why do you refuse to shake the rag outside like I've asked you to?"

She brushed past him. "Job security."

He chuckled. "I could fire you for not following instructions, you know."

She stopped, turned, and patted his cheek. "You couldn't replace me. Nobody else would put up with your attitude."

His brow dropped. "Attitude? I don't have an attitude."

Bzz, Bzzz. The elevator's buzzer meant a guest was ready to come downstairs.

"I have to go to work. Maybe you should think about actually earning your pay, Mr. Kasper." Betty waddled off, wiping chairs and sofa backs as she made her way to the elevator. She closed the iron gate, sat on the stool, and pulled the metal handle of the controls.

Gabe watched the elevator rise and disappear. Every manager of the Larson soon learned Betty Brewer came with the upholstery. As far back as anyone still living could remember, the Larson had been her one and only job. The restaurant next door ran a pool for the person who could get Betty to reveal her true age. Last time he'd checked, there was $164.35 up for grabs. Two of it had come from his unsuccessful attempt.

He parted the curtains and entered the back room. The down cushions on the couch were dented. Edgar, the night man, had napped again. When the new factory opened its doors, employment had spiked. Recently retired from the railroad, Edgar had been the only applicant for the hotel's night job. The man hadn't missed a shift in three years, and the till was never so much as a nickel off. A few catnaps had become acceptable activity.

Gabe fluffed each cushion to perfection, then nodded approval at the couch. He walked over to the dressing mirror, checked the knot of his red tie, straightened his vest, and inspected the sleeves of his white shirt for any discoloration--his personal morning appraisal. He patted his sculpted black hair, though it clearly didn't need it, the final touch before starting his duties.

Returning to the front desk, he picked up the telephone receiver, tapped the cradle three times, and waited for the operator to come on the line.

"Good morning, Gabe."

"Morning, Ruby. Can you connect me to the Burlington, and then the Milwaukee?" With the hunters' room cancellations, he'd have to offer the vacancies to the railroads at a two-thirds discount to buffer the loss of weekend receipts.

"I already called the yard offices for you, Gabe. What with the rain and fog, I figured you'd be needing the railroad business."

The telephone operator's forethought brought a smile to his lips. "Thank you, Ruby. Stop in sometime and I'll buy you lunch next door."

"I'd prefer buttered popcorn and a helping of Johnny Wayne. Fred over at the theater says he got his hands on a bootleg copy of Hondo and is going to show it again for a few days next week."

Gabe chuckled. "Tell you what. I'll talk to Fred and make arrangements for you, Bill, and all three of your children to have reserved seats the first night. I'll even throw in a soft drink. How'd that be?"

Glee percolated out of the phone. "Oh, honey. You just made me one happy mama. You know, Mary Singleton's cousin's coming to town next week. Read it in the paper. Maybe I could get you an introduction. They say she's very charming."

The elevator clanged to a stop. Gabe shifted and looked left. "I have to go, Ruby. A manager's work is never done." He hung up before the woman could expand on the pointless attempt at fixing him up. Ruby wasn't the only one who'd tried since he'd come home. And, regrettably, she probably wouldn't be the last. A single man in such a small town set tongues wagging. Betty slid the scissor gate open.

Gabe's chest froze. He nervously picked at his index nail with his thumb. The man stepping out of the elevator was... gorgeous, in a primitive sort of way.

The man's unshaven jaw was as square as a right angle. Cave-dark eyes under heavy brow foliage. Thin, tight lips. Thick chocolate hair in need of pruning, a curled strand defiantly hung loose in the middle of the stony forehead. The only flaw to the breathing Rembrandt was a bump on the bridge of the nose, once broken, that obviously hadn't healed properly. Gabe gauged him a solid six feet of as manly as the human form could achieve. Hands shoved deep into the pockets of a buttoned pea coat, the guest glided across the floor, though he wore heavy leather boots under jeans rolled at the cuffs.

Gabe clipped his stare short and tossed open the guest register. One new name had been added during the night. Charlie Harris. The mystery man had arrived. Gabe sucked in a breath. And what a man Charlie Harris was.

"You the manager?" The voice was gruff--sexy gruff--sexy like an orgasmic growl.

Gabe looked up into eyes as chocolate as the mass of hair. Matched hair and eyes. Gabe swallowed hard. Perfection had that effect on him. "Ye... yes, sir." Compose. Compose, Gabriel. Men like this aren't interested in men.

"I'm looking for someone."

Of course you are. And, of course, it's not someone like me.

"Roger Black. Heard of him?"

Gabe tried to suppress the surprise. Why didn't this man know Roger? Everyone in Whistle Pass knew Roger Black. "Yes, sir, I know Mayor Black."

The face didn't flinch, but the eyes slitted to predatory. Gabe's toes wiggled in apprehension.

"Mayor, huh." It wasn't a question. "Which way's city hall?"

"Make a left, and it's two blocks down on the other side of the street."

The man turned and walked out the door into the rain. Gabe sighed. He should have offered Harris his hat. At least he'd have had a reason to talk to him again.

* * * *

Chapter Three

How a man as good-looking as the manager had landed in Whistle Pass, Charlie had no clue. Nor did he have the time to worry about why he'd noticed. He turned up the collar of his coat and stepped into the rain. The chill of it did little to cool his anger. Mayors ran the cops. One of Roger's own people had beaten him. Question was, if Roger knew about it, had he sent him, and if so, why? A poster in a window caught his attention.

He stopped and took it all in. The poster was a man's smiling face. A little older now, but Charlie knew every feature of this particular face.

Vote
Roger Black
State Representative
Working to Build a Better Tomorrow

Rain pasted his hair to his forehead, ran down his nose. He stuck out his lip and blew some drops off. Hunching his shoulders, he clenched his hands inside his coat pockets and started walking. Roger had a hell of a lot of explaining to do.

Two blocks down, he jogged across the street to a corner brick building. A big-finned Chevy with a round red light mounted on the roof was parked out front. The sign on the door said "Whistle Pass City Hall & Police Dept."

Charlie stood under the canvas awning and stomped the water off him. He was tired and needed sleep. After the beating, he'd stayed awake pacing the floor of his hotel room, walking the hall, so his leg wouldn't stiffen. But the cold and wet were serving notice to his weary joints--he needed a warm bed and rest. He opened the door and entered.

An odor of cigar smoke woke his dull senses. He inhaled the smell through his mouth, rolled his tongue over it, but couldn't be sure the flavor was the same as last night.

The door to his left was labeled "Police Dept." Didn't want any part of that right now. Charlie walked over to a directory mounted on the wall. The mayor's office was on the second floor. He clomped up the stairs. Closed double doors at the top were marked "City Council Chambers." A door to his left had a small sign: "Mayor's Office." He knocked.

"Come on in. It's open." The pleasant voice was a woman's.

Charlie opened the door and walked in. "Is the mayor around?"

The woman looked up from the typewriter on a metal stand. "I'm afraid not. He's attending a function out of town today."

"Raising campaign funds?"

Her features contorted to an unbecoming scowl. "No, sir. He can't legally do that during business hours."

Charlie smirked. "Right. My name's Charlie Harris. Mayor Black and I served in the war together. He didn't happen to leave a message for me by chance, did he?"

The woman twisted her torso, leafed through a stack of papers. "No... I don't see anything with that name on it. And he didn't mention you this morning before he left. Was he expecting you?"

What the hell is going on? "I'll be in town for a few days. Would you let him know I came by?"

"Charlie Harris?" She scribbled on a pad. "Correct?"

"Yeah. I'm staying at the hotel."

"I'll be sure to let him know. Were you two close? I mean, in the war?"

He sniggered. "Yeah. Real close." He turned to leave but stopped midway, his motion snagged by a picture on the wall. The photograph had been taken by a war correspondent who'd happened upon their unit. Eight soldiers had posed for the snapshot. When the day ended, only two remained alive. He placed a fingertip on the glass. "That's me." He slid the unwanted memory to the man at his shoulder. "That's Roger."

"Oh my God. You're that Charlie. Roger--Mayor Black, told me how you saved his life."

Ghostly visions sucked his guts into a whirlpool. Trembling rattled his ribs. He needed to get out of there. "Let him know I stopped by." She said something behind him, but he couldn't make out the words. He scurried down the stairs and out the door. He tilted his head back and allowed the rain to wash away the tears.

Thunder cracked. The overcast sky opened its reservoir and heavy rain soaked him, bathed him. Lightning flashed. He whirled full circle, scanning the area. A clap of sound. An explosion of noise. The sky flashed branches of yellow. Charlie threw off his coat, crouched, his eyes frantically searching for where the attack would come from. More explosions. Mortars. Screams chewed his brain.

"We've got to get out of here!"

"No!" Charlie shouted. "Stay low! It's an ambush. You don't know where they are!"

"Run, men! Run! Find cover!"

"No, Lieutenant. Stay low 'til we know!" Charlie pleaded. "Stay low!"

But they didn't listen. They all broke and ran, following the lieutenant, their platoon leader. Even Roger.

Charlie spun around, gritting his teeth. He breathed in and out over his clenched jaw. Machine guns, rifles. Explosions--hand grenades. "Goddamnit!" The LT had led them right into the Germans.

Charlie ran. He vaulted the dead and dying, firing his rifle as he ran. The LT fell. The sergeant fell. Hooper, Calloway, Burns... Roger. They all fell. Except Charlie.

He smashed through the hedgerow. Stunned, the Germans hesitated. Charlie didn't. He fired into them until his rifle emptied. Then he pulled his bayonet and slashed. Blood splattered his face, soaked his clothes.

He tore the German soldiers apart until the gunfire stopped.

* * * *

Harris ripped through the lobby and up the stairs. Gabe jerked at the sight of the man, drenched to the skin. Where was his coat? The guest had left the hotel wearing one.

"What do you make of that?" Betty asked from halfway across the room.

Gabe continued to stare at the empty staircase. "I don't know. It was almost as if someone was chasing him."

"Or he was doing the chasing." Betty, now at his side, placed a hand on his arm. "Maybe he has demons, Gabriel. Not everyone handles their past as well as you. Could be he needs a friend who understands."

Gabe glanced out the corner of his eye. Betty only called him by his Christian name when she wanted to make a motherly point. "What are you suggesting? Are you saying I should go to a guest's room and involve myself in his business?" It just wasn't done. He was the manager of a hotel, not a priest. He couldn't go to the man's room, no matter how titillating the thought might be.

"I'm saying that if you located and returned his coat to him, you might learn why I have to mop up the puddles he left on my clean floor." She slapped his arm and walked away.

Gabe watched her drag the mop and bucket from the utility closet. Maybe Betty had a point. Harris was a guest, after all. The least he could do would be to return the man's coat to him. His gaze returned to the stairs. The image of the man hurling his frame up the steps unsettled Gabe. He'd seen men with such determination before. Most died. The ones who lived were never the same.

After tugging on his coat, he carefully settled his hat to provide the least amount of damage to his hair as possible and headed for the door.

* * * *

The pea coat was a mass of wet wool in the intersection. Gabe picked it up, held it out as far from his body as his strength would tolerate, and made his way to Millie's Dry Cleaners. At the clank of the bell over the door, Millie came out of the laundering area.

Gabe's eyes watered from the heavy odor of the shop's chemicals. "I need this soon as you can. It belongs to a guest."

Millie clutched the dripping mess with both hands and assessed the project. "There's a tire track on the back. Gonna take the full hour."

Gabe sat on a metal chair at the plate glass window. "I'll wait."


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