James R. Benn

Rag and Bone


Naples, Italy

Late December 1943

Everyone was happy. The sky was a vibrant, vivid blue, clear in every direction. The breeze out of the north felt crisp and cool at our backs. Sunlight warmed our faces as it cast long, thin shadows across the gray decks of the destroyer. I stood close to Diana, our hands clasped discreetly amid the folds of my flapping trench coat. We were on duty with the boss, but this was light duty, an excursion out of Naples harbor to the island of Capri, twenty miles due south. Nobody was paying us any mind, so we stood together at the rail, close, touching when we could, making believe it was a holiday outing. Diana and I had been through a lot, separately and together, the terrible and the wonderful. For the last two days we’d enjoyed each other’s company as never before, as if all the burdens and terrors of the past had decided to take a holiday as well. We were together, neither of us in danger, and we had time alone. Nights, as well as days.

I heard Kay Summersby laugh. She and the general were huddled in the lee of the deck gun, sheltered from the wind. He leaned in to speak to her, their heads touching. She laughed again and laid her hand on his arm briefly, before she glanced at the naval officers grouped around them. It was a passel of navy brass, all shiny braid, big grins, and ready with a light whenever Uncle Ike pulled a cigarette from the pack in his coat pocket. They reminded me of doormen at the Copley Plaza the week before Christmas.

I could tell Uncle Ike was happy. He looked relaxed, and his smile was natural, not the posed face he used for politicians and photographers. Hell, he had just been told by the president of the United States himself that he’d been picked as Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force. Uncle Ike had been expecting to be sent back home, or to watch the big show from the Mediterranean. Instead, he’d beat out his own boss, General Marshall, and gotten the top job, along with a handshake from FDR. Add blue skies and a beautiful woman to the mix and you had all the wartime happiness any man could handle. This was his last day in Italy, and he’d wanted to see the famous Isle of Capri, which he had ordered turned into a rest center for combat troops on leave. He’d made this cruise into a treat for the HQ staff, his family of secretaries and aides who worked long hours, seven days a week, keeping the paperwork, and the war, moving along.

Kay was happy, too. She’d just received her orders to accompany the general to London, along with most of his core staff. Not that anyone thought she wouldn’t, but she’d been on pins and needles for a while, especially when odds were that he was headed back to the States. Kay, a British citizen, would have been left behind. When he got the Supreme Commander job, I’d almost asked Uncle Ike if Aunt Mamie would move to London, but fortunately thought better of it. He was my relative, of a distant sort, but he was also the highest-ranking general this side of the Charles River, and I was a dime-a-dozen lieutenant. And I liked Kay, whatever was going on between them. Maybe nothing, maybe something. Who was I to judge? There was a war on.

I sneaked a kiss, tasting the salt from the sea spray on Diana’s lips. Kay saw us and raised her eyebrows in mock horror. Diana laughed, and put her arm through mine, as loose strands of her golden hair caressed my face. We were in love, Diana Seaton and I. It had been rocky for a while, but right now we were walking on air. I had a week’s leave, and it would be ten days before she departed for wherever the Special Operations Executive was sending her. It seemed like we had forever.

“Look,” Diana said, pointing to Mount Vesuvius off the port bow. “Smoke.”

“That’s all we need,” I said. The night before, a thin trail of lava had snaked down the mountain. The locals said it happened all the time, and there was nothing to worry about, unless the mountain exploded. Then worrying would be of little help, so why bother? I felt the same way about the war, so I understood.

“Let’s hike up there, Billy,” Diana said. “I want to see the crater.”

I leaned in to whisper to her. “Diana, in ten days you’ll be jumping out of an airplane. How about we take it easy until then?”

“I never said anything about an airplane, Billy Boyle,” she said, jabbing her elbow into my ribs. “You’re not afraid of a dormant volcano, are you? Or of being beat to the top by a woman?”

“That thing belches molten lava! But you’re probably in better shape than I am, I’ll admit it. I haven’t had much to do since Ireland, while you’ve been busy with training exercises.”

“I promise to go slowly. We’ll pack some food in the morning, and have a picnic.”

“On a volcano.”

“It does sum things up fairly well.”

I didn’t argue the point. I was happy, too. Yesterday Uncle Ike had pinned the silver bars of a first lieutenant on me, along with the Purple Heart for a wounded arm that still ached. It was a step up from a second louie, finally. He’d apologized for taking so long, explaining that he didn’t want headquarters staff getting more than their fair share of promotions. I didn’t quibble, even though Purple Hearts are pretty rare around typewriters and filing cabinets. Now I was looking forward to celebrating the new year with Diana in Naples, wearing my best Class A uniform, silver bars polished and sparkling in the candlelight of the fanciest restaurant I could get us into.

I watched Diana gaze at the smoldering, distant mountain and wished there could be a medal for her. She wore a British uniform without any insignia, and few people would ever learn how she’d served. I knew about her first mission, since we’d stumbled into each other in Algiers. But this time, there wasn’t much to go on. Of course, she wouldn’t tell me a thing, but I had noticed her practicing her Italian, speaking with any Neapolitan who would spend time with her. Since most were starving, the extra rations she passed around insured a steady stream of chatterboxes. So I figured Italy, somewhere north of the Volturno River, which left a lot of territory-all in German hands-where the British might want to plant a spy.

“It’s Rome, isn’t it?” I asked, keeping up the playful banter.

We’d almost called it quits over her working with the Special Operations Executive, until I decided it was crazy to lose her because I was worried about losing her. I’d taken a bullet through the arm not too long ago, and that brush with death made me think things over. Maybe we would both survive this war, maybe one of us, perhaps neither. So why not make the best of the time we had together? I’d decided if the choice was to be happy or be miserable, why not go for happy? If either of us ended up dead, at least we’d have had our day in the sun. And today it was as if happiness were contagious. Smiles all around, a beautiful day, nothing to worry about for the moment, if you ignored the fitful plumes of smoke rising from the volcano off the port bow.

“You’re the detective, you figure it out,” she said, jabbing her finger at my chest.

“Italian lessons, that’s a major clue.”

“We are in Italy, Billy. You know I enjoy languages. What better place?”

“Hmm. OK, let me think.” I studied her, trying to summon up any hint of an unusual remark or interest. The wind freshened, and she held her collar up, shielding her face. I followed her to the bow. Fine mist blew into our faces as the destroyer cut through the calm, pale blue waters. Diana turned away from the spray, leaning against me, pressing her body against mine. I put my arms around her, thinking of last night and the night before in her room at the Hotel Vesuvio. It was difficult not to caress her, kiss her lips again, envelop her as droplets of water cascaded over us. I resisted, and returned to the guessing game at hand.

Church. She’d gone to church with me on Sunday. I had written my mother, telling her I went to Mass whenever I could. Knowing she’d ask about it in her next letter, I made sure to go at least once in Naples. Diana came too, which surprised me. She’s not Catholic, not even close. Church of England, minor aristocracy, stiff upper lip. Everything the Boyles are not. We yell, holler, cross ourselves, curse God, and beg the saints for forgiveness. Diana had asked me about confession, communion, being an altar boy, and all the other rituals of the Catholic faith as practiced at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston.

“Turn around,” I said. She did, her service cap pulled down tight on her forehead, her stiff wool collar held against her cheeks as protection against the wind. It was a familiar look, her face framed by a uniform.

“Who was that nun you were talking with after Mass? When you left me with that gasbag colonel,

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