The new private looked around the barracks but none of the other men were paying any attention. He leaned in close and lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, “Where can I get some action? I’ve heard this is the place to be, Sarge.”
Master Sergeant Ernest Bilko straightened his back in offended dignity. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Arnold looked at Ernie with hopeful, puppy dog eyes. “You mean you don’t have a roulette wheel? How about a crap game?”
“No,” Ernie gasped, scandalized.
“I’ve heard all the sergeants have a big poker game once a week,” Arnold said eagerly.
Ernie clicked his tongue between his teeth. “I don’t know how those vicious rumors get started. How could you think such a thing of your Sergeant?”
Ernie raised his voice for the rest of the platoon. He put a brotherly arm around Arnold’s shoulders. “Men, I must say that I wouldn’t have expected it of you. Have any of you been filling this boy’s head with lies?”
The platoon gathered around. “What kind of lies, Sarge?” Paparelli asked.
Ernie took his hat off and held it over his heart. “That in this platoon we engage in games of chance.”
A collective murmur of surprise and concern went filled the air. Zimmerman clasped a hand over his heart. “You mean gambling?”
“Never us, Sarge,” Fender said solemnly.
“That would be terrible,” Sugarman put in mournfully.
Ernie nodded and put his hat back on. He squeezed Arnold’s shoulders. “I run a clean barracks here. Do you hear me, Private Arnold?”
Arnold hung his head. “Yes, Sergeant.”
Ernie went it inspect Arnold’s bunk. He put his hands on his hips and shook his head. “I will not have this sloppiness.”
“Not even high stakes bingo.”
“Why would we seek to spoil an innocent game.” Bilko pointed to the immaculate bunk next to Arnold’s. “Take a lesson from Doberman. Redo it.”
Arnold’s shoulders slumped. “Yes, Sergeant.”
“Don’t forget services tonight, boys. We must make the new chaplain feel welcome.” Ernie nodded to the rest of the men before going to his quarters. He found Rocco and Steve sitting at his table, working on duty rosters. He didn’t think anything of how close they were sitting together. He closed the door. “By the time I’m done, that spy will think that we’re a bunch of Bible thumping church mice.”
Rocco looked up. “You never said why you think Arnold’s Colonel Hall’s spy, Ernie.”
“Yeah,” Steve added. “According to his record, he’s new to the army. He’s just a kid from Queens.”
“That’s just what the Colonel wants me to think.” Ernie waved them over. “Come here.”
Rocco and Steve stood and went to join Ernie. “Ernie--” Rocco began.
“Shh,” Ernie hissed. He opened the door a crack so they could see Arnold remaking his bunk. “Look at him,” he said quietly. “If he’s an enlisted man, I’ll eat my hat.”
Steve was pressed against Rocco’s back. He rested a hand on Rocco’s hip. “What do you mean?” he whispered.
“He stands too straight.”
Rocco shrugged. “So, he’s got good posture.”
“His hair is perfect.”
Steve smiled and barely nudged Rocco. “He wouldn’t be the only one in this outfit who spends entirely too much time on his hair.”
Rocco elbowed Steve. “I wouldn’t have to if you didn’t insist on touching it.”
Ernie rolled his eyes. “Boys, we’re not here for couples’ counseling.” He held his hands over his ears. “And don’t you two start. Whatever happens between you two stays between you two.”
“Sorry, Sarge,” they said in unison.
“It’s all right,” Ernie said grumpily. He nodded in Arnold’s direction again. “His uniform’s clean and buttoned. His shoes are polished.”
Steve frowned in thought. “And?”
“Look at him compared to the rest of the guys.”
“Just because he’s not a slob doesn’t make him an undercover officer.”
Rocco smirked. “Maybe he just hasn’t been corrupted yet.”
Ernie arched an eyebrow. “A boy from Queens?” He pointed at the rest of the platoon silently going about their work, neither engaging nor shunning Arnold. “Look at the way the rest of the men are avoiding him and being polite at the same time. They can smell an officer.”
Rocco glanced back at Steve, who nodded. “Okay, Sarge,” Rocco said. “You’re probably right.”
Ernie closed the door. “I think I may be rubbing off of the Colonel. He’s trying his hand at being sneaky.”
Steve grinned. “He can’t hold a candle to you, Sarge.”
Ernie chuckled. “Flatterer.”
Rocco bit his bottom lip. “Ernie, how much longer can we keep this up?”
Ernie patted Rocco’s cheek. “Don’t worry, Roc, our spy is on his way out.”