a Charlemagne file short story
He stumbled over the slightly raised metal plate on the threshold between the garage and the laundry room. Perhaps, he gauged the distance incorrectly. Or maybe, his foot had refused to rise high enough to clear it. Understandable after a day that had lasted two days, almost an entire full-time workweek, but all in a row. Thirty-eight hours. He had counted them sitting on the long web seating along the side of the Air Force C-130 that had given him a lift home.
The airplane also gave him flashbacks of that time when a Combat Talon had extracted him from Laos, back in the day. He counted the hours he had been awake in a futile attempt to fall asleep, but that requires you to close your eyes. When he closed his eyes, all he saw were the corpses. Not the ones in Laos, though they would always be present. No, these were from just a couple of hours ago.
Maryann met him at the door into the kitchen, holding an ice-cold martini, shaken not stirred, made with his best Vermouth, he knew. He tried to smile, but like his foot, his lips were disobedient to his brain.
She looked at him puzzled. Maybe concerned.
"Sit down, Leo. I’ll bring it to you. You look like you’ll spill it."
He collapsed in a kitchen chair, wondering at her puzzlement. A spare corner of his brain reminded him he had not washed. It was his habit to wash the job off before going home. He might arrive tired, morose and uncommunicative, but he did his best to keep the business trip fiction alive, until now. There were no facilities in the Gunship for washing up.
Maryann watched him stare at the olive in his glass until she noticed he had tracked something onto her clean kitchen floor. She looked at the rag she used to wipe it up. Something resembling caked blood. Glancing at her husband, she took note of the usual indications that he had been on a business trip, like the coffee stain on his white shirt. Not so white. He is wearing the same shirt he left in, she decided. He always came home tired, but not shattered like this. She generally suspected he had an affair during these trips, but that did not explain the blood on the floor. Blood he had stepped in.
"Leo, while you were gone, the builders wanted to know in what color they should order the bathroom fixtures. I said white. I know that’s out of style, but I think I would get tired of an avocado bathtub. Debbie has one in pink. I’m already tired of it and I’ve only been in her bathroom twice."
She glanced at him as she began drying the dishes. There had been no answer. He took a sip of his martini, still concentrating on the olive. Maryann was fully aware that her husband had a secret job with the government. She and the other wives in the section were repeatedly informed, cajoled and warned about the need for discretion. They were all accustomed to last-minute absences and sudden, unexplained reappearances.
But she had never seen blood.
Leo? That’s right, he thought. Time to become myself again. Leo Vilseck, husband of the estimable Maryann, father of six — make that seven. Debtor in an enormous soon to be acquired mortgage in an attempt to build a house big enough to fit them all.
No longer Frank Cardova. Leave that behind with the corpses.
He continued to contemplate the olive until it resembled the bloodless head of the man who lost a knife fight against Mack. He looked away, but his mind projected the image of the victor walking to his airplane with that frightful, deep, bleeding cut from the base of his neck to below his shoulder. Frank had brought a doctor who would fly with them until their first refueling stop. Good thing, too, because all three members of Charlemagne, the team he had hired for this op, were more injured than usual.
Not Frank, he reminded himself. I’m Leo. He took another sip. Leo liked this vermouth. Frank could not taste it.
Sobieski had squelched blood from a long gash in his calf as he supported the Frenchman up the steps and into the aircraft. The latter had taken a bullet in the abdomen, which could be lucky or fatal, take your pick.
The new house will have a dishwasher, thought Maryann as she put away the plates. No more fights over whose turn it is to dry. Nirvana. She wondered why Leo didn’t even grunt this time. He always came home without a word in his head, but he could acknowledge the speech of others. Maybe he didn’t have an affair this time or perhaps the woman is such a horrible person, she left him speechless. Maryann was ashamed of the glee this thought gave her and put it aside.
"I wonder if the boys will stop fighting so much when they have their own rooms," she said, refilling Leo’s glass and adding a fresh olive.
There was no answer.
The girls were more widely spaced and so could be civil to each other on occasion, though she had seen them become verbally vicious at times with their friends. Still, they were never rolling on the floor and breaking the coffee table like the boys, who had been born back to back in two sets. Even the younger pair of boys communicated by using shoves before they could speak.
She wondered how such a peaceful man could beget such hellions. Of course, the girls inherited their acid tongues from their mother. Maryann rarely moderated the truth to make it more palatable. But why were her boys so unruly?
The man had drained his second martini. As she mixed another batch, Maryann wondered how she would get him upstairs to bed.
Leo Vilseck, Leo Vilseck, he repeated to himself. It would have been handy if it had taken this long to stop being Leo when he met the men of Charlemagne thirty-eight, make that now thirty-nine, hours ago. Then maybe he wouldn’t have reacted as Sobieski inevitably pushed him up against a wall. Leo had been trained not to let the violence in the specialists he controlled affect him. But Frank got belligerent, registered the glee in Sobieski’s eyes and took three ramrod blows to his ribcage before Mack pulled Sobieski off him. It still hurt to breathe. No doubt at least one rib was cracked.
He wanted Charlemagne to be capable of extreme violence when facing an impossible situation like this one had been, targeting five experienced killers, with four hostages in tow, and a lot of very sophisticated explosives.
Frank had been too close, close enough to watch through binoculars as the terrorists shoved an old woman out the door, evidently telling her to run, which she did. Then one of them proved his manhood by shooting her in the back. Now there were three hostages. He had been so busy watching her fall, that he nearly missed the team entering the building through a side door.
There had been remarkably little gunfire. Charlemagne took extra care because of the explosives. Also the hostages. Maybe. Still, Frank had held his breath as he waited for an explosion.
In five minutes, three hostages had walked out, hands in the air. Frank then nodded to his local counterpart who deployed police to collect the traumatized but alive innocents. The team had stayed inside while Sobieski disarmed four bombs.
"The baby cut another tooth this morning," said Maryann. "She was up most of the night, poor dear, but it came in eventually and by seven o’clock she was smiling to show it off."
It gratified her to see his lips turn up in what was an obvious attempt to smile. The doctors had finally allowed her husband to be present for the birth of this one, an enlightened modern development that she applauded. It could have been that experience or it could be that this child had something special about her that touched her father. Either way, Theresa was his acknowledged favorite.
Now that he remembered his most beloved child, it was time to move him upstairs. Maryann did not think he needed a fourth martini.
"Leo, take off your shoes."
He raised an eyebrow at her, a welcome sign that expression was returning to his face.
"Your shoes are muddy."
She avoided the word 'bloody'.
"I don’t want it on the carpet," she insisted.
He complied, slowly. She noticed he had difficulty bending.
Frank had crept into the building after he saw the team on their painful way to their airplane. His local counterpart had waited for him, keeping the scene cordoned and sanitized. The counterpart vomited shortly after entry because of the great volume of blood on the floor. They had no choice but to stand in it. Frank noted what happens when you lose a fight with Mack. This guy had been bigger than Charlemagne’s knife expert, but in the balance, size had proved insufficient.
Leo looked up the carpeted steps to his bedroom and wondered briefly, achingly, if Maryann could carry him.
Three of the tangos had been shot, which was odd, because he did not remember hearing more than one shot, aside from the old woman, that is. Then he recalled the supremely effective suppressor on the Frenchman’s Modèle 1935, and indeed, the neat, low-powered 7.65 mm rounds, precisely placed in the most lethal spots on each corpse, explained whose weapon had been busiest.
The broken neck must be Sobieski’s work, he surmised. It had not been easily achieved. A machete lay on the floor nearby, explaining the sliced calf muscle. Several other bones had been broken on this man before the skewed neck had made him into another corpse. Brave young man, thought Leo, but dead nonetheless. He didn’t know why — perhaps because he had fought so well against Sobieski — but Leo doubted this was the man who had shot an old woman in the back.
He remembered Theresa when they reached the landing. Maryann led from ahead of him now, instead of pushing from the back, and pulled him into the bedroom. He stood blinking, remembering the miracle of his daughter’s first breath.
As she unbuttoned his shirt, Maryann’s rich auburn mane glistened in a tightly bound pony-tail. He wanted to free it. He wanted to do more than that but none of his body was going to respond to his wishes, he knew. He thought about the anguish and pain he had seen on her face during the hours before Theresa screamed for the first time, similar to the grim, tight-lipped set of Mack’s jaw as he staggered to his airplane. The Frenchman’s expression confirmed for Leo that belly wounds could be the most painful of all.
Maryann had given birth seven times. It was not long ago that even once could be and often was fatal for a woman. What would Maryann feel if one of her four boys took a bullet to the belly? For that matter what would his own mother think of his job if she knew? And what of the mothers of the dead in that gruesome room. Surely, the old woman, shot by somebody else’s grandson, had given birth at least once. It was a common enough occurrence, despite the shocked look on his pre-adolescent eldest boy’s face when Leo had explained the origin of babies some years ago.
He would have thought Sobieski was a direct spawn of Satan, but for a comment long ago from his old boss that he had met the woman when the future killer was no older than the current age of Leo’s third son. What of that? What if one of their sons turned into a Sobieski, or worse, a Mack? Leo shuddered at the thought and at the despair it triggered in his assessment of his own species.
Maryann snapped him out of this latest dark tunnel.
"Leo, step out of your pants."
She had pulled them down to his ankles and held his arm to steady him.
She took this opportunity to examine the black bruising over his right ribs, touching gently and watching him wince. This had not been a lover’s tryst, she concluded, relieved and horrified at once.
"Should I call a doctor?"
He shook his head.
She took out the beautiful quilt that had been a wedding present from her grandmother and spread it over him.
He smiled, making her hope there would be no nightmares this time. She remembered when he had come home from Southeast Asia.
Just before he dropped into the welcome unconsciousness of sleep, he grasped her hand and whispered so low she had to bend her ear to his lips.
"Maryann, I love you."
This story resulted from a contest prompt by Reedsy.com. The prompt was: "Write about the longest day of the year, or a day that never seems to end." The prompt may be seen at this link: https://blog.reedsy.com/creative-writing-prompts/