Authors: Day Keene
a division of F+W Media, Inc.
the first time I’d ever been in a penitentiary. I didn’t think I was going to like it. It smelled like a separation center latrine. I didn’t like the bars on the windows or the feeling of stone walls around me. The warden’s secretary, a prissy little man with rimless eyeglasses, looked down his thin nose at me. Then he happened to notice the fruit salad on my chest.
“You earn those ribbons, Sergeant?” he asked me.
“Well, not exactly,” I told him, poker-faced. “The Red Cross gave them to me.”
He singled out my Bronze Star. “How interesting. Why did they give you that one?”
Still poker-faced, I said, “For never having been late to PX.”
“And that faded blue one with the stars?”
“That was for writing my mother once a week.”
The gray eyes back of the rimless glasses turned cold. He said, “All right. Let’s stop kidding, Sergeant. It so happens I was a colonel of M.P.s in the last Donnybrook and I know a Bronze Star and a Medal of Honor Bar when I see them. Would you mind letting me look at your travel orders?”
I laid them on his desk, along with my thirty-day re-enlistment leave.
He knew what he was looking at. “Three hitches in and just signed up for another one, eh?”
“And why do you want to see Mona Ambler?”
“I promised my brother I would.”
“You know the girl?”
“I’ve never even seen a picture of her. In fact until I went to her former address this morning, I didn’t even know she was in prison, let alone in the death house.”
He shook his head. “It still sounds screwy to me. Your brother was one of Mona’s boy friends?”
“You could put it that way, I suppose.”
“He a soldier, too?”
There was still a lot of M.P. in the prissy little guy. “He
a soldier, eh? What happened? Did he draw a court and a dishonorable discharge, or is he doing time in some stockade?”
To keep from hitting the guy I took off my cap and ran my fingers through my crew cut. “No. He’s dead. In Korea. It seems a pogey-bait outfit of ROK Marines spooked on a hill we needed, and Johnny helped retake it.”
He didn’t have too much M.P. in him. “I’m sorry,” he said quietly. “It’s just that we’ve had so much trouble with the Ambler case and in this business you get so used to phonies and fakers and chiselers, you forget there are people without an angle.” He stood up back of his desk. “Wait just a moment please, Sergeant Duval. I don’t see why you shouldn’t see Mona if you want to, but I’ll have to get the warden’s okay.”
He went into the inner office. I walked over to the window and looked out. It was summer outside the walls. The trees and the grass were green. I hoped it was green where Johnny was. The little punk had always liked summer.
I lowered my eyes to the gate. The square-jawed lad in the Leghorn hat, who’d ridden down with me on the train, was talking to one of the guards. I wondered who he was and what he wanted of me. He’d got on my tail at the girl’s apartment. That had been at ten o’clock that morning and since then we’d been together. At least he’d gone everywhere I went.
He wasn’t much to look at. I got tired of looking at him and looked in the mirror on one wall of the waiting room to make certain my uniform was in order. For Johnny’s sake, I wanted to make a good impression on the girl. I wasn’t much better to look at than the square-jawed lad in the Leghorn. Twelve years in the infantry, the last nine as a tech sergeant, climbing this hill and that, roasting my butt in North Africa and freezing it south of Pyongyang had left their mark.
My skin was the texture of leather. There were lines in my face you could hide a pencil in. Any resemblance to John Payne was strictly astigmatism. The four banks of ribbons helped some, but not much. Had I earned them? That was a laugh. When the Army passes out something for nothing, especially to a dog face in the infantry, I’ll be the first guy in line.
The door of the inner office opened and a big white-haired man came out. I figured him for the warden. He proved it by introducing himself.
“I’m Warden Kane, Sergeant Duval.”
I shook the hand he offered. “I’m glad to know you, sir.”
He nodded at his secretary. “Conroy, here, says you want to see Mona Ambler.”
I considered my answer. That wasn’t strictly the truth, that I
to see Mona Ambler. My only interest in the girl was keeping the promise I’d made Johnny. I wondered why all the red tape. Hell, even the Army had let me in to see a lad I’d soldiered with the night before he was going to be shot. He had gotten drunk and run amok in Anzio and shot up a half-dozen Italian civilians between several “fox paws,” defined by the more punitive passages of the Articles of War as rape. No son-of-a-bitch was going to die owing me twenty dollars.
“Yeah. That’s right,” I told the warden.
He invited me into his office and offered me a chair. “Suppose you tell me all about it, Sergeant.”
I said, “There isn’t much to tell. Johnny Duval was my kid brother. He met this girl, Mona, just after he got out of basic and before he got his orders for Korea. As he told it, they were married in Chicago, dreaming big dreams like kids do. Then things got tough in the mud and he was shipped out in a hurry and when I met him in a rest camp in Taegu, after I’d bawled hell out of him for enlisting, he showed me a letter from her asking: hey, how about a dependent’s allotment?”
“This was how long ago?”
“About a year and a half. I mean the letter. It said she had a boy.”
“So the one with Johnny’s name on it caught up with him two months ago. On a stinking little hill no one ever heard of. My company happened to be in reserve. I got to him before he died and Johnny asked if I’d take care of her and the kid, and I said I would.”
The secretary said it was the damndest thing he’d ever heard of, that no mention of a child had been made at Mona’s trial. I couldn’t figure that, but let it go.
Warden Kane said, “And your only interest in Mona is the promise you made your brother?”
“That is correct.”
He made a phone call, then stood up. “Let’s go talk to Mona.”
He led the way down a long stone corridor that smelled of antiseptic and something else. I tried to figure what it was, then got it. The cell block smelled like a zoo — only men, not animals, were caged in it. Every two hundred feet or so a uniformed guard had to open a steel door to let us through. The last one opened into the prison yard.
While we were crossing the yard to the death house, Kane asked, “Are you familiar with the case, Sergeant Duval?”
I shook my head at him. “No. I just got back Stateside two weeks ago.”
He said, “Then don’t let the girl’s face fool you. She asked for what she’s going to get. She lured a poor stupe of a wholesale jeweler up to her hotel room, stayed with him, then shot him dead and clipped him for a moneybelt full of unset diamonds.”
I was almost glad Johnny was dead.
The death house was low and squat, divided into sections. Warden Kane rapped on a door and a hard-faced matron opened it. “We’re here to see Mona,” he told her.
The matron walked to a barred steel door on the far side of the room, talking back over her shoulder. “I don’t care how many confessions she signed. Mona never killed anyone.”
She didn’t seem like a dame addicted to sympathy. Kane looked at his nails but said nothing.
The hard-faced matron unlocked the barred door and disappeared. I heard still another door being unlocked, then feet scuffed down the hall. I don’t know what I expected, but the girl who came in wasn’t it. She didn’t look like a killer to me. She looked like a scared little girl wearing her mother’s old fashioned gold-loop earrings. But there was nothing immature about the way she filled out the bodice of her gray prison dress.
“This is Technical Sergeant Michael Duval,” Warden Kane introduced me. “Johnny Duval’s brother. Johnny has been killed in Korea and the sergeant is here at his request. He wants to make arrangements to take care of the child. There was a child?”
Mona winced as if he had slapped her. Her voice, when she spoke was throaty and deep for a woman. “Yes. There was a child. There is a child,” she corrected herself.
“Where is it?” Kane asked.
“That’s none of your business,” she told him.
“Why wasn’t the fact you had a child brought out at your trial?”
I kind of liked her. She had spunk.
She said, “Consider I’ve repeated what I just said.”
“It’s none of my business.”
I cut in then. “Look. I’m not here to worry you, Mona. Johnny asked me to take care of you and the kid. I told him I would. It would seem I can’t do much for you, but I can keep half of my promise. I’ll see the kid is taken care of. All you have to do is name your lawyer and I’ll make the arrangements with him.”
She turned her face. Her blue eyes rested on me. “What are you getting out of this?”
I told her. “Nothing. All I’m doing is keeping my promise to Johnny.”
She named a lawyer and an address. I didn’t have a pencil. “I’ll write it down, Sergeant,” Kane said. He wrote the name and address on a card and gave the card to me.
Mona’s lips twisted like she was trying hard not to cry. “Johnny died bravely?”
“What’s brave?” I asked her. “He went where he was told to go and died doing what he’d been sent to do.”
She said, “That’s brave.”
Some of the tears spilled out. She let them roll down her cheeks without taking her eyes off me.
I took her hand and squeezed it. It was soft and small and white, like a flower petal. “Easy makes it, kid.”
She squeezed back. “Yeah. Sure. Easy makes it. It’s just that since Johnny went away, I’d forgotten guys like you still existed.” She tried to smile. “Funny face.”
I do have a funny face. I’d put the last marine who’d told me so in a naval hospital. From her, I liked it. I asked, “Isn’t there anything I can do for you?”
She kept on trying to smile, never quite making it. “Just — just think of me once in a while.”
Warden Kane touched my arm. “I think we’d better go.”