The Last Bullet for Cassino

By Les Hooper

It’s about nine o’clock in the morning. I rocked on the back legs of a hard chair humming Puccini’s Nessun Dorma. I don’t know the words. It creaked. The chair. Like my brain. The SIB office at Monte Bello in Trieste had the charm of Pentonville prison’s reception. Grubby secondhand furniture and wobbly floorboards. Stale ciggy smoke drifted over the scattered desks. There was an admin office ruled by a staff sergeant, Vic, who had learned to write and could spell diarrhea. A printing room contained a contraption named Gestetner invented by a madman. This monstrosity reproduced the typewritten word by turning a handle and smothering the operator in ink. Such modern technology sent John Bull printing back to the Stone Age. There were no nameplates on the doors. We were clever enough not to need them. The place never knew beauty, its last coat of paint had been to honour Mussolini’s visit in 1938. Today dark and angry clouds have sneaked in from somewhere over the border with Yugoslavia to block out the Italian sun. Rain like hard peas beat against the dusty curtainless window behind me, more monotonous than watching a snail on a cabbage patch. No point in bellyaching. I wore my freshly pressed and only brown suit and yellow socks ready to challenge the world. The suit was tailored by an Italian and cost me an arm and a leg. Hence I walk with a limp. Not quite.

The phone rang. I was nearest so picked it up. “93 SIS.” The message was clear and grim. Corporal Sidney Manger of the Wiltshire Regiment was dead, which, sadly, was a likely fate as his head got stuck in the track of a .38 bullet. Not a nice day to kick the bucket but, hey, what day is? My OC, Captain George Beach, suggested I run along and find out what’s blowing in the wind.

I juggled the piece of lead that killed Sid. Why did this small insignificant lump of metal end up snuffing out his life? The damned rain was invincible and my thoughts rattled like marbles in a Huntley & Palmer tin. Marshal Tito’s slivovitz-drinking Yugoslavs have a lot to answer for.

A clack-clack-clacking echoed from across the central corridor. Susan and Isabelle, slaving behind the plough. A rare combination of beauty and typing ability, classy enough to live in a palace and figures to make Pythagoras weep with envy. These handmaidens of the Imperial machine were lively spirits and if I felt glum we would have a chat, or even if I didn’t feel glum. My orthology remained in a design stage so I loved it when they corrected my errors.

Sid was 41 years old when found dead on the morning of Thursday the 14th May 1953. It was not a special day, except for Sid and he no longer cared. His body was discovered in the armoury of Camp Headquarters. The old soldier had seen a lot of war service and wore enough coloured medal ribbons to decorate the Mall. I found him crumpled on the floor between racks of rifles and other weapons, including pistols, stiff as a Debenhams’ mannequin. He was the armourer because the soft job suited his age. He lay half-curled up cold as a penguin’s foot, his right arm extended from his body, elbow bent and the fingers crooked. A cruel trickle of blood had oozed from greying hair on the right temple, leaving an ugly stain on the dirty concrete floor.

Captain J. Cardrew, surgeon and sometimes pathologist at the British Military Hospital, waved a bloodied scalpel like a Redskin’s tomahawk and happily declared that Sid’s untimely death was caused by a gunshot wound to the head. Clever devil. Post mortem examinations weren’t usually tame. Pathologists rarely display exuberance and are as cheerful as the bodies they expertly probe.

It’s not supposed to rain in Trieste in summer, according to Geography Monthly. Well, not often and God doesn’t read that mag. This was the second day of it. I decided to risk getting wet and run along to the scene of Sid’s sudden demise again. I wanted answers like a frog needs water but wouldn’t stay long enough to grow a beard. Lunchtime hovered and I needed a beer to keep up the interest. I wouldn’t want to hurry Dreher Brewery’s bankruptcy. I grabbed a raincoat, tucked my worn briefcase under my arm and went out. Only tax inspectors carry briefcases by the handle.

The deluge danced crazily on the highway, turning roads into shimmering rivers with lingering memories of dry days. Tall buildings wept in sympathy. Foreign rain. I couldn’t remember doing anything to deserve it. My Jeep didn’t help. The canopy was missing. Many things seemed to be missing from my life, including romance. A Jeep had less moving parts than a kiddy’s pedal car. You could drive it in your sleep, although one-handed in the rain. The other hand was needed to operate the manual windscreen wiper like Malcolm Sargent conducting the Proms. Traffic was heavy with Latin skirmishers, but skidding tarmac failed to keep frenetic drivers’ concrete feet off the floor and leaning on the horn. Antonio racing to get nowhere before everybody else. There were easier rides on Blackpool’s dodgems but I jockeyed along chewing on exhaust fumes and arrived still comparatively sane.

Camp HQ was bedded in a white stone structure that stood proud and crumbly with bits of marble carving tacked on here and there like afterthoughts. It remained standing through willpower like many buildings in the classic city, not forgetting the slaughterhouse on Via Mattatoio with its stone statue of Julius Caesar or his brother threatening visitors with an evil looking chopper. All Italian statues look the same. Parking slots were angled along a pitted wall so I swerved boldly into an empty slot earmarked “INTELLIGENCE.” Only the Jeep’s squealing brakes complained. I got out and sniffed the air. The building had a musty smell as though it had been there since Pompeii was buried by Vesuvius ash. It probably had.

A captain just out of short trousers wearing a stethoscope necklace blocked me at the entrance, one hand on his hip. He had a soft, lumpy face like tapioca pudding and rubbery lips more suitable for kissing camels than girls. He looked proud as if he’d just been lancing a boil. He prayed to Aesculapius for inspiration. “Hello, sergeant,” he greeted squeakily like a starving mouse. “You’ve heard the result of the post mortem?”

I nodded. “I was there.”

“I’ve never seen a man who’s shot himself before.”

I gave him a dry look. “Stick around. It’s a favourite pastime among soldiers. They love shooting themselves or each other.” His jaw dropped like a loose rock. I left him with an open mouth big as the Dartford tunnel.

I knocked on the door gently like entering a sick room. If I rapped too hard the building might collapse. At first I thought I’d wandered into a crypt. Very little light found it way in through a small window. It was bigger than a telephone box and dimmer than a Co-op funeral parlour. On the far wall was a town map of Trieste stuck with randomly scattered coloured pins. Somebody must know what they signified. I didn’t and I didn’t care. It was the CO’s office but the CO wasn’t there. The 2i/c sat at a desk behind which hung shiny photos of the new queen and Prince Philip. The queen, in particular, looked pleased to see me. The 2i/c’s in-tray was stacked with files as high as a fireman’s ladder. They would be counterfeit to suggest he was busier than a worker bee. A ruse that wouldn’t fool a Lithuanian drains inspector. A green filing cabinet stood against the right wall. A layer of dust covered the top undisturbed.

Lieutenant James Willoughby-Smith sat erect, wooden as a totem pole but not as pretty. He’d probably learned to keep his mouth shut or he was married. 2i/cs strive to avoid a CO’s eye, dodging work and hoping no one notices. On busy days he might lick a stamp. Willoughby-Smith’s eyes were large and glazed in the weak light from a single shaded bulb above his head. His Adam’s apple wobbled like a goose egg on a trampoline. He had hair smooth and shiny like a Derby winner. He studied polished fingernails. It was probably his most important job that day. I couldn’t see anything wrong with them. He gazed at me as if he wished I wasn’t there and his thin lips moved. He lived and I sighed with joy.

“Ah, Sergeant Hooper, the major’s away at a Brigade conference.” His soft voice was slow, even and unemotional, as animated as a dying buttercup. I got the impression that the major was absent a lot. His large eyes narrowed. “How’s the investigation going? Awful, isn’t it?”

That tiring question had become a catch phrase. I moved my briefcase from under my left arm to under my right arm. Just for something to do. “Okay, I guess,” I replied. What did he want me to say? I didn’t intend to tell him anything. He wasn’t any help. I wondered what he did for amusement. Probably collected butterflies and drank absinthe in striped pyjamas with shoulder pads and a monogram.

How was I doing? Something nagged me like a thorn in the foot. What made the MO say that Sid shot himself? There was no gun near his body. The only pistols anywhere close were in a rack. I mentally shrugged. A golden-bellied capuchin with dementia would have doubts. The MO was guessing. It was all right with me if someone wanted to play silly buggers. It gives me a chance to nosey around a bit. The truth will eventually pop out. It always does. I wasn’t offered a chair.

“Good,” said Willoughby-Smith smoothly. His brow wrinkled. “Why did he shoot himself?”

I looked blank and didn’t reply. I began to feel sorry for Sid although that wouldn’t help him. It no longer mattered. I was the only one who cared. I felt as sad as an undertaker’s cat. Everybody’s jumping to conclusions like drugged grasshoppers. What nobody else knew was that I had a scribbled note in my briefcase that I found stuffed in Sid’s pocket.

I had a thought and said, “Do you know where he went on leave?”

The lieutenant almost came to life although his movements fell short of jumping for joy. His mouth twitched again, which I thought was the stiffest exercise he had done so far that day. His Adam’s apple bobbed. “Of course. We all know that he always went to Cassino. He was in the battle there.”

The battle of Monte Cassino, in Italy in 1944, lasted several months and resulted in 55,000 allied casualties. Sid must have had a tough time. He was in the 2nd Battalion The Wiltshire Regiment then. I discovered this from his belongings.

From where I stood I had a view of the barrack square through the postage stamp window. A large green Humber staff car crawled through the gates like a pensioned slug and came to a stop. A well-endowed lady in a pink flowered dress and a short light blue jacket slipped out a rear door with a flash of plump knee, blew a kiss at the car and waddled off towards an admin building the other side of the square. She was hatless and wore darkish hair set in rollers like an incoming tide at Beachy Head. The rain had stopped and her heavy thighs pirouetted round puddles like the Sugar Plum Fairy’s granny. She looked like a matron auditioning for the part of a battleship, not punishable on the eye but she didn’t make my mouth water. She sent a message than any man below major needn’t bother. You would see a hundred similar signoras parading along Viale XX Settembre, known as the monkey run, any summer evening. If an actress she would get the thumbs up from the Lord Chamberlain. The car drew out of sight somewhere in front of the building.

Viale XX Settembre

Nothing moved and you could hear a fly crawling on the ceiling. Willoughby-Smith returned to zombie mode, looking as if he had just been wheeled out of an operating theatre. He’d lost interest in fingernails. He was either dreaming or deserved an Oscar. The door swung back and a man built like a brick oven dressed in a well-cut uniform barged in like a Sherman tank with packed suitcases under piggy eyes looking like he’d won a million lire. He had large ears and could walk unrecognised in an elephant herd. As attractive as a freshly dug-up mammoth, he wasn’t as big as a T-rex but sported the teeth. He could’ve been an exhibit in the Natural History Museum and probably spent hours brushing his teeth. He had a bossy mouth. He wasn’t smiling at me. It must have been for a recent memory. His reddish hair was almost enough and his manner said nobody could tell him anything. He looked as healthy as a ginger tom on a garden wall. He’d left his mind somewhere else, probably connected to the well-built pink lady who disembarked from the staff car. Major Jones, Royal Artillery, was obviously a hot shot with the appeal of a spiked cannon. Still no one offered me a chair.

He told the lieutenant that the conference had been very successful and from his manner he was top dog. If it was the sort of conference I thought it was I could see the reason for his high spirits. Recalling the lady’s farewell gesture I assumed the major attended conferences as frequently as pigs oinked. He finally decided to notice me. He gave me a visual makeover, but didn’t call for three cheers, and eyed my suit as if I’d plucked it out of a dustbin. He was a Philistine and didn’t know a bespoke whistle stuck under his nose. I should’ve tucked a showy handkerchief in my breast pocket but my shoelaces were neatly tied and my socks weren’t wrinkled. I was an intruder ripping a hole in his life. He growled, “What’s new? Isn’t it what you call an open and shut case?” His mouth was full of chicken feathers. Everyone’s playing the same record. Everyone wants to know what’s happening. If only I knew. I might find out before I receive the Queen’s telegram.

To say something I said, “I’ll have it wrapped up soon.”

The big officer nodded absently. Introspection will believe anything. He was as keen as a sleeping muskrat and he shed no tears over Sid’s death. It was no more than a pest like a fly in his soup. He turned to the lieutenant. “I mentioned Mrs. Hornchurch, the general’s PA, the other day, Jim. Valerie deserves an upgrade in her salary. Fix it.” Ah, the power of lust! He failed to mention who would was instill life into the lieutenant. I wish the lieutenant would stand up. I was curious to see if he was wearing bedroom slippers.

I didn’t have to be Sigmund Freud to realise that Valerie was the pink lady and how she had earned a pay rise. Jim’s mouth curved in a secret smile. I suppressed a snort and said, “I’m taking Simmons away for questioning.”

“Of course,” said the major. He stroked a chin the size of a butcher’s block. If he flapped his ears he’d take off. “I’ll leave the inquiry to you,” he grunted as carelessly as ordering a gin and tonic in the mess. I couldn’t argue about it. In his book I had less value than a box of matches. I would dislike him even if I’d never met him. The 2i/c shifted a thin file from one side of his desk to the other. He looked pleased with himself after all that effort. He’d probably need a shower and a rubdown. I steamed out to push on with delving into poor Sid’s violent passing and winkle out who was playing hunt-the-slipper. Someone was blowing smoke. The trouble with this investigation lark is nothing ever happens when you need it to happen. It’s like travelling on a coach when the driver’s lost. I had a recurring feeling that I should know more than I did.

My jeep wet from the rain dripped unhappily. But the rain had stopped and a warm snap in the air decided it was still summer. Life is good without worries. I had nothing on my mind except a couple of thefts and the mystery of how Manger shot himself without a gun. A worm wriggled in my mind and I suspected that the big major knew something that I should know but wouldn’t tell me. I wandered over to the armoury. It was a long, low room with weapon racks and ammunition boxes stacked along the walls. Nothing was locked up. Weapons were given less security than a greengrocer’s carrots. A trestle table stood between the racks. A ledger as thick as the Magna Carta and nearly as ancient lay on it for recording the movement of weapons.

A drowsy-looking soldier wearing the flashes of the Beds & Herts was keeping a chair warm at the table and leafing through a shabby, dog-eared Dandy that looked as if it had been salvaged from a waste bin. His battledress top was unbuttoned and his thin face cried out for a shave. A no smoking sign was pinned to a shelf so I stuck a cigarette in my mouth and lit up to give my lungs a treat. I tossed the match on the table. The scruffy soldier shook himself and gave me a dirty look that suggested I’d crawled out from under a stone. He pushed the comic aside and his eyes switched from my cigarette to the sign in silence as heavy as a lion’s breath. He would be invisible in a church choir. I wandered around for a minute or so trying to look clever, picked up a couple of pistols and inspected them as if I were an expert. Not one of them winked at me. I shifted over to the table and opened the ledger. The last entry was for a rifle last evening, which had been returned that morning at 6am. No pistols were recorded recently. I closed the ledger. I learnt nothing. There was nothing new to learn.

The soldier was now looking weedy and as nervous as a groom getting ready for bed. His left eyelid fluttered like a moth. He was bothered. His eyes stuck to me like limpets. He was Private Simmons. He was employed in the armoury. I wandered over to him and growled, “Have you had any more thoughts about Cpl. Manger?”

He shook his head slowly as if he was afraid it might fall off if he moved it too quickly. He felt uneasy being accosted by a man in a brown suit who possessed powers he suspected might cause him grief. I asked, “Do you go to church?”

His brow creased like used newspaper. “No.”

I curled a finger at him and his eyes opened wide. “In that case we’ll go to my office. You can confess there. Fun eh?”

Panic flared in his eyes to add to the fright. “Why?” He was as garrulous as a mute swan.

I said, “You’re the one with the answers. Holding out on me is not a good idea if you want to see your children grow up.” I ignored feeble protests, bundled him into my rain-soaked Jeep and choked it into life. The seats were as damp as a sauna bench. I drove back to the SIB offices bravely dodging ginzo Grand Prix drivers and angry horns, the reward being my life and limb.

Captain Beach stood outside his office in a Winston Churchill pose. I don’t think he was waiting for me. His presence was simple coincidence. He gave me a friendly slap on the back. Much harder and I’d have to call an ambulance, but I would trip over my own feet to please him. He ran 93 SIS but he was lousy at Cluedo. He was as smooth as a tot of Johnny Walker and always cheerful. He enjoyed a cushioned chair in his office. Ninety-five per cent of him was a nice guy. We had an unspoken pact. I solved the crime and he took the credit. Very sad. “How’s it going?” he asked. God, not him as well.

“Tidying up loose ends,” I said and he nodded approval with the comment, “Good man.” Most investigators were absent, working or skiving. The typing pool door stood ajar. Susan and Isabelle were both hard at work. Susan painting purple nails with a whitewash brush and Isabelle searching auburn hair for grey streaks in a handbag mirror the size of a sixpence. Isabelle’s careless green skirt exposed ivory thighs strong enough to support London Bridge and turn my brain to scrambled egg. Local girl Isabelle married an American captain and she gave me a smile as timid as a flickering bonfire that was born in Naples and matured in Umbria like a good wine. Their husbands were purely ornamental like a Moorcraft vase. Either bird could chew me up and spit me out into a champagne bucket.

I buried a smile and parked Simmons in front of my desk. He looked as if he was about to knock on a mortuary door and ask for a spare slab. He was still upset at finding Sid’s corpse. I rested my arms on my desk like a high court judge and asked, “Did you kill Cpl Manger?”

That shook him. His breath caught in his throat and he mouthed a weak, “No.”

I produced the spent bullet out of my pocket and held it towards him between thumb and forefinger. “This round killed him. I shall test every pistol in your armoury until I find the one that fired it.” I leaned back in my chair and curled my lips. “You’re employed in the armoury, you’re in the know. Sid is dead, you’re in the frame.”

We had no means in Trieste of ballistic fingerprinting, matching used rounds with weapons, but Simmons didn’t know this. Nor were his brain cells sufficient to comprehend that finding the pistol would be no help to prove who fired it. His face looked as grey as tile grout. His lips trembled. His eyes were glued to the lump of lead like a Goldsmith’s manager drooling over a five-carat diamond.

I rubbed salt in the wound. “I have no choice but conclude that you’re behind Sid’s death. Murder’s a nasty business.” That was below the belt for I knew he was no more a murderer than Mother Machree. I wanted a quick clear up and a beer.

That hit him like a boot in the crotch. He jerked to his feet shaking like a willow in a squall and a gurgling noise came from his throat. He stretched for the ceiling as if diving off the top board then keeled over and hit the deck with a crash that could be heard in Rome. He was either genuine or angling for an Equity card.

Oh my God, for a frightening moment I thought he was as dead as a kipper. If he’s had a heart attack I could write my own obituary. I went round the desk and stared down at him, my stomach tighter than Mae West’s corset. His chest moved. I bent over, patted his white cheeks and his eyes flickered and opened, dribble ran from the corner of his mouth. So he decided to faint. It’s free world. I wanted to kick him but I’m much too kind. I almost cried. If I did perhaps he’d break down and spill what I wanted to know. I hauled him back on his chair like moving a sack of coal. I’d make a Salvation Army trumpet player take to drink. It was scary. He was a neurotic but at least he had no bruises that would make a mockery of my pension.

The world kept turning and my problems melted like a mother’s heart. After a friendly chat Sid looked so helpless I wanted to carry him out to my Jeep. All the while his eyes were fixed on me as if I really might kick him. I drove him back to Camp HQ, dodging the ambush of honking horns and called on Major Jones, a credit to the army and Rasputin’s brother. I had no choice. Lieutenant Sleepy was flexing his muscles with empty folders and I could’ve called to read the meter for all he cared. The major looked as pleased as a broken leg. His eyes were bunched and his teeth in hiding. I think his dreams had become nightmares and dear Valerie had stopped patting his head and taking him walkies. I fished out the note I found on Sid’s body and told him, “This sort of says he could never forget all his friends killed at Cassino and he felt guilty because he survived.”

Cassino War Grave Cemetery

The major grimaced. He said hesitantly, “We all knew he grieved deeply over his lost mates and always visited their graves on leave.” His eyes explored my face anxiously like wavering torch beams. “Now he’ll be happy.”

I said as though talking to myself, “Maybe he shot himself then got up and put the pistol back in the rack before lying on the floor again and dying.” I grinned.

He didn’t like that and didn’t grin back. He took a deep breath and his face turned more scarlet than the Red Sea at sunset. Something had jarred him and he spent a few seconds while his brain churned. “Don’t be flippant,” he squawked in a voice of naked insolence. He sneered or I thought he did. “Your attitude strikes me as hovering on insubordination.” I felt like a punch ball.

I won’t be invited to his next pool party and I didn’t have to answer, but I did. I smiled malevolently and said, “What you think changes nothing.” He shook his head in a gesture that suggested he had second thoughts and his eyes were the eyes of a man who knew something was about to happen that he wouldn’t like to happen. I hit him with it like smashing an anvil over his head. “People who pervert evidence deserve everything they get.”

He partly raised his hands as though he had a gun in his back. He half-turned towards the window, perhaps hoping to glimpse the well-rounded figure of his squeeze. Unlucky, he gave me a shifty glance like a bookies runner on a street corner and shook as if a house fell on him. Silence slid in like thick fog and seconds dripped by slow as a babbling brook. The major blinked rapidly. “I told Simmons to clean the pistol and return it,” he stammered and his arrogance shredded like a plucked chicken. “I told him to keep it under his hat.” Then came the punch line. “I thought it would make things easier to deal with.” His confidence slipped down a sewer and he changed in into something akin to an old man with gout and loose dentures. If he reveals those teeth again I’ll have to shoot him. He didn’t and lived. ”I’m sure you understand, sergeant,” he whined.

I let that ride. It was dross on the wind. Easier to deal with? What next – let’s hide the body and pretend it never happened? My first impression of him and his dinosaur teeth hit the target. He had less sense than a rabbit chasing a weasel. What a shame nature failed to provide him with a brain to match his body size. If only I could saddle the major with blame for Manger’s death that would really put the cat among the pigeons. I wonder why I do this job. Must be the interesting characters I meet. If Sid hadn’t died I might’ve laughed.

I still didn’t say anything. He might think he was the bee’s knees but he wasn’t Bernard Montgomery. Wondering, I threw him a look like the bottom of a coalscuttle and turned my back on him, leaving him fighting his conscience with his head bent and eyes staring at the floor. Eyes of perdition. I could feel the dagger in my back. He’d better offer big Valerie an olive branch soon for he would need all the friends he could find. I went out and didn’t close the door. The croaking voice seemed to come from a long way off, the other side of the glistening city. “Hell, why on earth did I do that?” I couldn’t hear any sobbing. Sid Manger’s war was now over and the final shot had been fired. I was glum.

It’s about 4 o’clock in the afternoon. As I climb into my Jeep a vague brightness had began spreading in the stormy sky beyond the rooftops. I switched on the ignition and pressed my foot on the start button. The engine fired. I’ll nip back to the lair and hum Nessun Dorma in harmony with Isabelle’s creamy thighs before she goes home. I don’t know the words.

END