combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 04 Number 01 Winter ©Jan 2006


          The hurricane has passed on, leaving behind sullen clouds and a bowl-shaped city three-quarters full of water. The sun is low, and Denis Delacroix has a stop to make before he points his borrowed bass boat to what passes for safety in New Orleans. He is motoring towards the plain brick three-story building that contains his livelihood.

          The jewelry store is not large, but it belongs to him, and he refuses to surrender years of labor to the vicissitudes of nature. When the television showed Katrina bearing down on the city, he removed a few of his more expensive pieces, but left the rest, convinced that he would ride out this storm as he had the others. Earlier that afternoon, the mayor admitted that the city wouldn't have power for at least a month. Denis is sure that if he left his store alone for that long, it would not matter how strong his safe was. Looting broke out as soon as the rain slackened, and so far the police have shown remarkable reluctance to correct the behavior with a whiff of lead. Denis regards this display of weakness with contempt; in his native France, the gendarmes would have strung the first group of looters they caught from the nearest light pole, and that would have been the end of that.

          The parish streets are covered in a good three meters of water, and Denis has been forced to pass dozens of people stranded on roofs and in attics that call to him for help. The boat could hold at most three people, and Denis is worried about what he will do if he discovers one of New Orleans' infamously large Catholic families stuck on a crumbling roof.

          Gunfire crackles somewhere to the east. A police helicopter passing overhead swings in a wide circle before darting off in response. Denis ducks his head instinctively and strokes the handgun holstered under his shirt, grateful that he had never disposed of the old service weapon. He shivers against the heat, the choppy rumble of the helicopter and the brutal snap of gunshots putting him in mind of a hot, dusty place five thousand miles to the east. Not for the first time that day, Denis hopes that the ancient cartridges in his pistol's magazine are still good.

          Navigation is difficult with most landmarks underwater, but Denis knows the city that adopted him three decades before well enough to find his way. It is nearly seven when Denis finally spots the familiar shape of his destination jutting up from the filthy brown water. The flood had risen high enough to overflow the sandbags set up to protect the building, and water licks at the bottom of the second floor. Denis heaves a sigh of relief that his store has not been destroyed. There is a garage attached to the back of the structure, and Denis plans to tie his boat to the railing that runs along the top. He wants to be in and out in under ten minutes. There is no way that he will be able to save everything, but he is going to stuff his backpack with as many precious stones as he can carry. Night is coming, and there are only a few days before the new moon. There will be little light to guide him after dark, and few police to scatter the gathering predators.

          Denis tosses a rope around the creaky railing and secures his craft. The water level is more than a meter below the top of the garage, and Denis has to stretch to grasp the wrought iron. With a heave of the thick muscles in his shoulders and back, Denis pulls his heavy body over the top and drops to the other side, ignoring the pops and creaks of his protesting joints. He falls to a crouch before pausing to stretch, reaching skyward and closing his eyes. When he opens them again, the three men already on the roof are close enough to touch.

          Denis grabs for his pistol, but the heavy flashlight one of the men is carrying connects with his jaw first, sending him to the ground. Darkness falls, and the fading sound of the distant helicopter combines with the heat and the pain to strip away the years, and he is again in a tiny village, miles south of Algiers, on the edge of the desert, in a blast furnace of bitter dry air that stings his eyes. Denis stands alone against a mud-brick wall. Four other paratroopers sit at a nearby table, playing cards and smoking Gauloises. Two more keep watch out front, and the last is dabbing at the fresh bloodstains on his brownish camouflage shirt with water from a canteen. The Arab, that the Lieutenant and Sergeant-chef had taken out the back door and into a small courtyard, is screaming. Denis wants to cover his ears, or start sobbing, or throw away his rifle and run into the desert to die of thirst and sun. But he does none of these things, because the men of his new squad are playing cards and smoking and talking now, as though twenty meters away, a man was not having the tip of a knife shoved under his fingernails. Denis has only been in Algeria for a month, and the newspapers in Marseilles had mentioned nothing of this.

          The screams die away into a low moan, and the Sergeant-chef comes back into the cramped room. He picks a discarded rag from the floor and wipes his knife clean. Henri asks if the Arab talked and the Sergeant smirks. "They all talk," the Sergeant says, "they all talk eventually." A single shot comes from behind the house. Denis jumps, and the rest of his squad laugh at him. The Lieutenant steps through the doorway, holstering his pistol and scowling. He tells his men to get ready to leave, and three minutes later, they are back in their truck. As they drive away from the village, Denis can still hear the Arab screaming, only now it isn't the Arab, but a skinny boy of no more than seventeen. He is screaming because he has a full decimeter of good French steel shoved into his gut – steel that Denis has carried strapped to his calf for twice as long as the boy has been alive. Denis pulls the knife out and thrusts again, only higher this time. The high-pitched, wordless wail stops.

          Denis gets to his knees, and struggles against the familiar nausea of a concussion. He takes stock and discovers that his pistol is gone, and so is his wallet. He quickly searches the boy's still warm body, but finds nothing more than a tiny, cheap, chrome-plated automatic in one pocket of his baggy jeans. On his feet now, Denis' rapid heartbeats seemingly come from a great hollow drum, and his hands are sticky with blood. There is no one else on the garage roof. Denis looks first at his boat, and then up into the building. He knows where the other looters are. Their friend did not die quietly, and they will come to investigate.

          A battered steel door leads from the garage roof into the second floor, but Denis learned his military tradecraft in a hard school, and knows better than to use it. A fire escape runs down the west face of the shop, but he will have to walk along a ledge for a few meters to get to it. Denis doesn't hesitate. The concrete is wet and slick, but he keeps his balance and does not fall into the sluggish black water below. Ten meters behind him a door bangs open, but Denis' feet are already on the first rusted metal step, and he goes up, up a brick staircase in an Arab ghetto in Algiers. The sun is straight overhead, and sweat trickles down his collar.

          The Lieutenant is above on the landing, and Henri is to his rear. The sniper in the house fires again, and the paratroopers around front return the favor. Bullets ricochet away from the bricks with sudden, sharp cracks. The Lieutenant looks down at Denis and Denis nods in affirmation. The young officer takes a deep breath and slams his shoulder against the locked door, but it stubbornly refuses to give way. One more blow opens it with a groan of splintering wood. There is another rifle shot and the Lieutenant falls forward like a puppet with cut strings. Denis holds the muzzle of his MAT-49 around the corner and hoses down the room without exposing his body. Henri darts past Denis and through the door. Denis shoves another magazine into his submachine gun before following.

          Inside, there is a man on the floor weakly writhing in a spreading pool of blood, a Mauser with an open bolt by one outstretched hand. Henri is pointing his rifle at a woman kneeling next to the dying man. Henri says something to the woman, but Denis' ears are still ringing and so he never knows what his friend said. The Arab woman slowly looks up, clenching something tight in one fist. Henri shouts again, but the woman opens her hand and a grenade falls out onto the floor. Denis grabs the back of Henri's shirt and lunges for the door. There is a dull thump, and he feels a wave of pressure from the grenade wash over him. He falls square on his back with Henri's added weight. Denis thrashes free and rolls over, but the woman is already dead, her face torn away. Henri is dead too, his body absorbing the steel fragments meant for both of them. The Lieutenant's pistol is on the floor, and Denis uses it to shoot each Arab one more time. Afterwards, he sticks the gun in his belt and rejoins the rest of his company in the street. It is only when one of them tells Denis that he is bleeding that Denis notices the pain. He sits down in the shade of an abandoned house and takes off his shirt. His skin is gashed, and there is something small and hard in the wound. Denis uses the point of a knife to dig a chunk of Henri's eyeglasses out of his shoulder.

          The door at the top of the fire escape is hanging open on broken hinges. Denis steps into a dank humid space, dimly lit by the setting sun. He takes a second to work the slide of the dead boy's pistol, ensuring that there is a cartridge chambered, before moving deeper into the structure. He is in a backroom of the lawyer's office that occupies the floor above his store. Denis removes his shoes, and with the thick carpet muffling his footfalls, moves down the hall to the building's central staircase. His face has finally begun to hurt, a dull throbbing ache that radiates out from his right cheekbone. The pain clears his head a little, and Denis takes a deep breath and tries to convince himself that he is sixty-three years old, an American citizen, and not twenty, young, tall, strong, and slipping through the pitch-black streets of Algiers at the head of a pied-noir death squad.

          DeGaulle has betrayed the colons and the army, and has abandoned what has been part of Metropolitan France for one hundred and thirty years to the rebels. Denis has not spent the last two years up to his elbows in blood in the middle of a godforsaken desert just to tuck his tail and get quietly on a transport home. There are scores to settle first, and it was not hard to find others that felt the same as he. They have two stops to make that night, and the first one is easy. Denis has barely settled into an alley across the street from the chosen house when a man comes out into the cooling evening to smoke a cigarette. The flash of light from a match momentarily illuminates his face, and Denis recognizes him from the picture in his file. With a quick chopping motion, Denis sends the man he knows only as Jacques circling around back. In less than a minute, the Arab is laying in the street, throat gaping open, and Jacques is back in the alley, smoking the man's cigarette.

          The squad moves on. Electricity to this part of the city is sporadic at best, so the faint glow of oil lamps spills from a few open windows. The light does little to penetrate the alleys and narrow streets that Denis and his men traverse. They meet no one. Everyone knows that the war is over, but that knowledge has not changed the dangers of Algiers' nighttime streets. Louis has lived in Algiers for most of his life, and guides them to their goal without hesitation. The large house's windows are covered with heavy curtains so no interior illumination leaks out. There are men covering the gate leading into the traditional courtyard, but because the war is over, there is no one on the roof. Denis and Jacques climbs through an open window next door and creeps upward. A bare meter separates the neighboring houses' flat roofs, and both men leap lightly across, disturbing not so much as a pebble. They start on the top floor and work their way down, killing as they go, using knives at first, and then pistols when a woman raises the alarm before Jacques ends her life. At the first shot, Louis and David pin the guards down from across the street while Denis and Jacques finish their work. It is over in less than five minutes. Denis comes out the front door and shoots the two surviving guards in their backs. Jacques is dead. Their primary target slept with a Luger under his pillow. If the hysterical girl in bed with him had not spoiled his aim, Denis would likely have fallen as well, but in Algiers, such things are often settled by millimeters. Denis and David follow Louis back into the night, gone like shadows before Arab reinforcements begin to arrive.

          The next morning, mail arrives at Louis' house. Denis reads a letter describing how a café bomb in Paris has removed his sister's leg just above the knee. Over their cigarettes, Louis and David swear undying vengeance for the slight. Denis nods in agreement, but that night he slips away and buys passage on a ship bound for Hong Kong. The tramp steamer is sailing within the hour, and the last launch out to her is leaving the dock as Denis arrives. He doesn't hesitate, and dives headfirst into the brackish, salty water. He swims, but waterlogged clothes and heavy boots pull him down. For a few panic-stricken seconds, Denis thinks that they will leave him to drown. Instead the launch returns, and hands reach to pull him, sodden and drained, into the bottom of the boat. Shivering, Denis drags himself to the back of the launch and watches the lights of Algiers fade away.

          This is a different staircase, in a different city, and Denis stops at the first landing, listening with buzzing old ears for the movement of men that want to kill him. Voices come from below, arguing over whether to finish searching for more valuables or to take the boat and leave. Greed soon triumphs over good sense, and the beam of a flashlight stabs into the dark through a window. Denis waits quietly for his prey to come to him.

          The door at the bottom of the stairwell opens, and Denis aims to the left of the light. The cheap pistol fires three times before jamming. The flashlight falls to the floor and the bulb breaks. Seconds later, the door to the garage roof slams open and swings back and forth in the wind. In the darkness, Denis hears the wet gasps of a dying man. He clears the chamber of his weapon and goes down the steps.

          The stars have come out, and a thin crescent moon lights the roof. The last looter is standing with his back to the door, carrying a duffel bag and staring forlornly at the bass boat drifting away. Denis shrugs. He has never been very good at knots. The looter turns when Denis pushes the door out of his way. He is tall and thin, with short, curly dark hair, and wide terrified eyes. He raises Denis' service pistol and pulls the trigger. Nothing happens, and the looter's eyes become even wider. He frantically jerks the trigger again, and again, with the same result. Denis smiles; he has seen the same desperation on the face of more than one Arab trying to work unfamiliar French hardware. Denis drops his stolen weapon and draws his stiletto. The looter is still looking for the safety catch when the tip of Denis' knife licks out, snake-quick and shining in the moonlight. A third body swells the ranks of the dead.

          Denis staggers to the railing and retches until bile burns his throat. Instinct comes to the fore, and with no small effort, he heaves the nearest body into the water, and then the next. The man in the stairwell is dead when Denis reaches him, leaving a dark trail along the tile when Denis drags him by the back of his basketball jersey into the open. He goes into the flood as well, disappearing under the surface without a trace – only to bob up again and float away in the gentle current.

          At last, the building is empty and the garage roof is silent. Denis sits down and leans his back against the railing. His wounded face has stopped oozing liquid, but the film of dried blood cracks when he works his jaw. Blood that doesn't belong to him covers his hands, arms, and shirt. Denis rests, silently wishing for a cigarette, until night finishes descending. He stands up again, knees creaking against the unwonted strain. Ignoring the full duffel bag at his feet, Denis strips in the dark, finding new bruises and cuts by feel. He leaves his clothes in a pile and returns to the edge of the flood. His recently recovered pistol goes first, in a casual underhand toss, sinking with a splash a dozen meters out from the garage. Denis hefts his knife, but only hesitates a moment before casting the weapon away. He hears it break the water and sees a flash of white before it too is gone.

          Alone and old, Denis Delacroix climbs the railing and drops into the warm fetid waters covering his city. He lets his body sink, until his bare feet contact the asphalt meters below, and there he stays until his lungs burn. Finally he kicks, hard, and takes a great heaving breath of moist, smoke-tinged air when his head breaks the surface. After another moment, one reluctant hand dips after the other, and Denis begins to swim.

by Andrew Hellard
... who is a freelance writer.

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C O M B A T, the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones