2003 Papa Bear Awards - Nominated
2003 Papa Bear Awards - Nominated
Best Portrayal of a Canon Character - Hogan
"Everybody’s playing the game
But nobody’s rules are the same
Nobody’s on nobody’s side
Better learn to go it alone
Recognize you’re out on your own
Nobody’s on nobody’s side."
"Nobody’s Side," from
the musical, Chess
Lyrics by Tim Rice
The atmosphere in the dark paneled conference room seemed weighted with solemn silence, as the American colonel entered through a pair of massive double doors. A young redheaded British major standing just inside glared at the Army Air Corps officer with apparent disdain. Dispensing with a greeting, he merely gestured contemptuously with his chin, signaling for him to approach the long mahogany table in the center of the room.
The officer, dark-haired and in his mid-30’s, walked briskly to the head of the conference table, smartly saluting the four-star general at the opposite end. Whatever military bearing Colonel Robert Hogan retained was reserved for these meetings at Allied Intelligence Headquarters in London. Back at LuftStalag 13 in northwestern Germany his salutes, if one may be generous enough to call them that, more closely resembled a contemptuous wave than a formal military gesture. It was just one of the many small ways he enjoyed showing disrespect for his Axis captors.
The general returned the salutation with barely a glance and turned to the stack of papers in front of him. Bushy white eyebrows topping a pair of intense blue eyes furrowed in a frown as he looked over the thick personnel file.
Hogan tried not to appear uncomfortable; it was evident the general was displeased with him. It was the first staff meeting he’d attended where his commanding officer hadn’t greeted him, his eyes beaming, and then warmly encouraged him to have a seat.
"Well, Colonel Hogan, I see that you were able to take time out of your busy schedule to join us this morning." The general’s normally mellow voice was caustic.
Hogan made no response other than nervously clearing his throat. He remained rigidly at attention, his eyes focused on the large oil painting of Winston Churchill on the wall behind the general. He sensed that the faces lining the long, highly polished table mirrored the same severe scowl Churchill directed at him from above.
General Walter Fitzhugh, commanding general for all Allied military intelligence operations, looked up sternly at the young colonel. He was responsible for Hogan’s selection as leader of a combined military team of espionage and sabotage experts who operated behind enemy lines from a Luftwaffe prisoner-of-war camp. The general had handpicked the officer for the covert mission, but now he was being put in the awkward position of admitting perhaps he’d made a mistake. He knew the assignment called for someone with guts and daring, but this time Hogan’s brashness had finally tried even his patience.
"Colonel Hogan, we have reviewed your activities this past month, and, I am sorry to say, you have ignored our previous counsel to coordinate your missions with headquarters. You apparently seem to think you have established your own theater operations command. Odd, I don’t recall granting you that authority."
Fitzhugh spoke evenly, his deep, resonant voice conveying a sense he was trying to control his anger.
He looked over the tall, handsome officer at the opposite end of the table, trying not to fidget as he stood stiffly at attention. Hogan had more than demonstrated his courage; his career was still young, and he already had five full rows of ribbons adorning the blouse of his dress uniform.
Most recently, he’d received the Victoria Cross for gallantry after a mission in which he’d been instrumental in the destruction of several enemy mobile rocket launchers. The rockets were aimed at England, poised for firing, when Hogan deliberately risked his life to track them down and radio their positions to waiting Allied bombers. His selfless act had doubtless saved thousands of lives.
Those were better times for Hogan, Fitzhugh thought disconsolately, as he recalled the moving private ceremony in which King George himself had gratefully pinned the burgundy and gold medallion to Hogan’s chest. He was one of only a handful of Americans to be decorated with the coveted award. Its ribbon counterpart sat there now, atop the others he had more than earned.
But, Fitzhugh realized with a heavy sigh, there was a thin line between bravery and foolhardy recklessness, and he was reluctantly forced to admit that Hogan’s decisions of late veered more toward the latter.
"Do you have anything to say in defense of your actions, Colonel Hogan?"
"I didn’t realize this was to be a trial, General," Hogan replied testily.
Fitzhugh bristled. He didn’t relish having to discipline Hogan, but he certainly didn’t have to make it so damned difficult for him.
"It’s not yet, Colonel, but we can make arrangements for such proceedings to take place if you don’t care to cooperate with this panel’s hearing."
Hogan visibly chafed at the general’s harsh tone. He leveled his dark eyes, suddenly smoldering.
"What are you asking me to do, General? Explain each and every one of my actions to this panel of armchair tacticians? You’re not the ones out there risking your life every day. Apparently you’ve been desk-bound so long you’ve forgotten what the real dangers of wartime are all about."
The thick white brows capping Fitzhugh’s lined face shot upward. Hogan knew he had overstepped his bounds, but mounting frustration failed to govern his reason. He plowed ahead, his voice hoarse with emotion and fatigue.
"I’m the one out there with my neck on the line. I’m the one who has to make the life and death decisions, and I don’t like being second-guessed by a staff of broken-down combat rejects." His arm swept the room, signaling the inclusion of the table of stunned senior officers.
Fitzhugh’s face turned purple, as he sputtered his reply.
"I think we have heard quite enough, Colonel Hogan. It is evident you choose to pursue a reckless course that has needlessly endangered not only yourself, but also the men you lead."
The star-burdened officer rose slowly to his feet, his voice climbing to a gravelly shout, as he pounded the table in syncopation with his remarks.
"The former we might conceivably tolerate, the latter is unconscionable for an officer who serves under my command!"
Several men around the table flinched involuntarily, shifting uncomfortably in their seats, as the stentorian voice echoed in the thick silence. The general, his breathing strained, paused to compose himself. His head bowed, he brooded privately for a few moments and then raised his troubled blue eyes to tersely address Hogan.
"You are hereby relieved of your rank and your command. You are to remain in London while we consider the disposition of your case."
Hogan’s jaw dropped open, his face seemingly paralyzed with disbelief.
Fitzhugh moved to sit back down and then stopped midway, straightening up to address him once more. The general’s voice now conveyed the same frustration Hogan had earlier projected.
"Frankly, Hogan, I was the sole senior staff officer pleading for lesser disciplinary measures, but your conduct the past month and particularly this morning have pushed me to the limit. I am more and more inclined to agree with my prudent colleagues and order court martial proceedings for an officer who so blatantly ignores the wise counsel of his superiors."
Hogan, finally finding his voice, blinked in disbelief.
"You…you can’t do that!"
"Can’t we, Hogan? Tell that to the men who were captured last week on that sabotage mission. We disapproved of the operation, but you went ahead and ordered it anyway. Or perhaps the resistance leader who three weeks ago was taken by the Gestapo. You once again insisted on meeting him to gather information, contrary to our guidance. Would you care for me to continue?"
The muscles at the side of Hogan’s jaw tightened into cords.
"You aren’t trying to blame me for those mishaps, are you, General? Everybody out there knows the risks. I’m just as vulnerable as they are and because a few rookies made some mistakes, you can’t expect to hold me responsible."
"Interesting argument, Hogan, but not very cogent." Fitzhugh shuffled through the papers in front of him. "That resistance leader who was taken, Rudolf Leitmann was his name, I believe? A 'rookie,' as you say, he most definitely was not. He was one of our more senior and experienced men." Fitzhugh paused, briefly clearing his throat before continuing, his voice suddenly subdued. "Yes, I’m very much holding you responsible. You’ll have an opportunity for your legal counsel to argue otherwise at your court martial. Now, you are dismissed."
Hogan’s face slackened at the mention of Leitmann’s name. He began to stammer a reply, but swiftly recovered, his jaw firmly tensed once more. His brown eyes caught the general’s for a moment, and a world of hurt and indignation seemed to pass between them. Those not in direct view of either Hogan or Fitzhugh failed to notice far more being communicated. Later, in hindsight, some of the officers seated around the table that afternoon recalled seeing a fleeting look of satisfied acknowledgement pass between the two men.
Fitzhugh sat back down and brushed his hands over a swept-back mane of white hair, his head bowed. No longer could he bear to look at the devastated expression on his subordinate's face.
It was evident to Hogan there was nothing more to say. The general’s mind had been made up, and there was little doubt the other senior staff officers held the same view.
Purposely ignoring Fitzhugh and the others around the table, Hogan made an abrupt about-face and strode for the door. He grabbed his overcoat and cap from the redheaded major, still insolently blocking the exit.
"You forgot to salute your superior officers, Hogan," he said derisively.
"That’s still Colonel Hogan to you, Major, and tell it to my legal counsel," Hogan spat, as he shoved his way past him.
Hogan burst out of the conference room and stalked angrily down the long corridor, while secretaries with arms full of files and junior officers scurrying about hurried to remove themselves from his path. Those assembled at the lift averted their faces, as Hogan sharply jabbed the already depressed call button. He glanced around at the personnel waiting there, each obviously trying to appear preoccupied. The car seemed to be taking forever, and Hogan was feeling more uncomfortable by the moment, realizing he had become the center of attention and speculation. He hurriedly turned and marched toward the far end of the corridor, throwing open the door to the stairwell. Taking the stairs two at a time, he descended the four flights to ground level and exited onto narrow, congested Grosvenor Street.
Hogan fell in with the rest of the bustling mass on the crowded sidewalk, his hands angrily jammed in his overcoat pockets. He walked briskly, his head bowed; the people and buildings he passed were no more than a blur to his unfocused gaze.
He scarcely noticed when his shoulder roughly collided with someone moving in the opposite direction. Without halting, Hogan absently mumbled an apology and mechanically continued on. An older gentleman in topcoat and derby hat stood staring after him disapprovingly, shaking his head and silently castigating the younger man’s apparent lack of manners.
Oblivious to his surroundings, Hogan walked for some time before glancing up to spy a clock in the window of a nearby shop. Over an hour had passed by. He suddenly realized he had been traveling in circles, having wandered back to the Knightsbridge area in the vicinity of Hyde Park. Automobiles and pedestrians flowed past him, while he stood indecisively at the curb. The signal light changed, bringing traffic to a halt, as Hogan appeared to make up his mind and crossed the street to enter the park.
An empty bench beckoned to him near the imposing bronze statue of Achilles. He sat down heavily, forearms resting on his knees, as he leaned forward and stared ahead unseeing. A particularly attractive redhead traversed his view; had he been in a better mood he might have allowed himself a friendly grin, when she coyly tried to make eye contact with him. Instead, a frown continued to frame his face, as he reflected on the morning's events.
His anger had dissipated slightly, but Fitzhugh’s mention of Leitmann’s name made quite an impact. More than he liked to admit. It brought to the surface a flood of feelings and memories he had, until then, successfully repressed.
Hogan recalled that he had personally selected and trained Leitmann to work with a resistance cell in the vicinity of Stalag 13. Rudy was born and raised in the area and knew the surrounding locale well. The strongly built, blond man with friendly blue eyes was a natural leader, like Hogan, and soon rose to take over command of the local network under him.
The two men were like photographic negatives of each other--one fair-haired, the other dark. Both shared the same inherently self-assured, charismatic nature that readily engendered others' trust. Hogan had enjoyed his relationship with the courageous patriot and counted him among the small, exclusive circle of men he thought of as good friends.
He thought about how the two of them would often stay long after meetings had concluded, remaining behind to share privately the inner worries and concerns exclusive to those in positions of command. Hogan could never hold similar discussions with any of his own men. It went beyond mere military tradition and differences in rank. He realized his team looked to him for support and encouragement in their demanding mission. They expected him to be completely collected and in control, even on those occasions when their situation seemed utterly perilous.
As had occurred almost three weeks before. Hogan hadn’t stayed to talk with Rudy that evening. There’d been more patrols in the area than usual, and he’d decided to order the swift return of his men, accompanying them back to camp in order to assure their safe retreat to the unusual sanctuary of Stalag 13. A half hour after Hogan and his team departed, an SS unit interrupted the meeting, swooping down on the unsuspecting men, while they finalized details for an impending operation.
The next day Hogan and his team received frantic news of the capture from another partisan group. One of their members was in town early the following morning and watched, horrified, as Leitmann and the others, the effects of interrogation already showing on their bruised and bleeding faces, were dragged into Gestapo headquarters. Hogan decided instantly he would have to try and rescue them.
The others initially thought he was crazy for even contemplating a rescue attempt. It was one thing to blow up a bridge, they told him, it was quite another to make an out-numbered assault on a well-guarded jail. But Hogan stubbornly insisted, as he had the time his men unsuccessfully dissuaded him from springing a female agent named Tiger from a Gestapo prison in Paris.
His men recognized the same resolute set to his jaw and knew once again they weren’t going to win the argument. Hogan had even been willing to undertake the mission to rescue Tiger on his own, not wanting to risk his men in what might turn out to be a suicide mission, but they had stuck together and gone along with him then. They knew they would do the same now.
Only on this instance they hadn’t arrived in time. They’d been delayed waiting for London’s concurrence, which, of course, never came. Hogan stubbornly chose to go anyway.
The guards at the entrance to the subterranean corridor were easily overpowered, and after breaking into two of the cells, they finally found the right one. But it was too late to undo the damage. Rudy had been beaten almost beyond the point of recognition.
Hogan cradled his friend's broken body, cursing himself for even thinking he needed to wait for London's approval and regretting having left early the fateful evening of their meeting. Maybe if he’d stayed behind, he would have detected the patrol’s approach, and Rudy and the others would have been able to make their escape. But no. Instead he was kneeling on the cold, hard floor of a blood-spattered Gestapo cell, holding a dying colleague in his arms and watching helplessly as life finally left his limp form. His men stood awkwardly silent nearby, not knowing what to say in comfort.
Hogan insisted on carrying Rudy's body from the prison himself. The least he could do was make certain he was given a proper burial, not discarded anonymously like a piece of refuse into a pit on the outskirts of town. Returning to the surrounding woods, Hogan dug a grave and then slipped the lifeless body over the edge, laying it gently on the cold, damp ground. He nodded wordlessly to the waiting men and then walked slowly away, his shoulders slumped in despair, as falling clods of dirt thudded atop the corpse.
He'd since analyzed and re-analyzed the operation over and over again, questioning what had gone wrong, but continually came up empty-handed. There were no apparent holes in the network that he could see. But someone had clearly compromised the mission. The patrol's arrival was no coincidence. Somehow they knew about the resistance group's meeting and its location. But not that that mattered to headquarters.
That had been the beginning of the change. The inception of a rage Hogan felt slowly burning inside; building to such intensity that he began to wonder if he was going insane. As a result, he'd sullenly secluded himself from his men and become more temperamental, more critical of higher headquarters. The senior staff in London hadn’t seen life slip away from a cherished compatriot. They hadn’t vainly tried to wash the stains from a shirt soiled by a friend's wounds. What did they really know of war, anyway?
Hogan removed his cap and tossed it on the park bench beside him, despairingly running his fingers through the thick black hair. He regretted having allowed himself to journey back in time. He’d been haunted by the images in his dreams at night, now he couldn’t even keep them at bay during daytime hours of consciousness.
Reaching inside his coat pocket, he withdrew the gold religious medallion Rudy had given him as a token of their friendship. St. Michael the Archangel, patron saint of soldiers and protectors, he mused. With his characteristic grin, Rudy declared it might even work for errant bomber pilots. Now, sitting in the otherwise pleasant sun of a late afternoon, his soul felt as cold as the metal he absently fingered between his clasped hands. He stared at the winged archangel portrayed on the emblem, sword held mightily aloft. Where were you when Rudy needed protection, huh?
Hogan raised his head and surveyed the people gathered in the park. The scene only filled him with more dismay. Mothers cooing over babies in covered prams and bowler-hatted gentlemen puffing away on expensive Meerschaum pipes during an afternoon’s lazy constitutional dotted the manicured grounds. Were they aware of the deaths occurring only a few hundred miles away? Did they know the sacrifice men like Leitmann and countless others were making for them? Did they appreciate the hazardous duty aiming to secure a future so they could stroll freely through Hyde Park without fear or worry?
His attention was drawn to an approaching pair of stern-looking men engaged in heated discussion, one of them jabbing angrily at a newspaper held before him. Maybe he was wrong, and some did take notice of the world drama? As they neared, Hogan hung his head despondently. They were merely debating the previous day's cricket results. Sighing deeply, he rose wearily from the bench and glanced one last time at the bronzed Greek warrior whose shadow loomed before him. Did any of these people even care at all about the war and its potentially tragic consequences? Hogan reached down to retrieve his cap, jamming it glumly on his head, as he walked slowly toward Wellington Arch and out of view of the park.
Hogan silently opened the door to another locker and this time found what he was looking for. He hurriedly unbuttoned the outer blouse to his dress uniform and began to carefully place it in the valise he’d carried with him, but changed his mind and with a shrug threw it in the back of the locker. There were better than even odds he wouldn't need it again.
He pulled on a military flight suit over the dark civilian clothes he’d picked up in town. Too bad a pilot at the Duxford airbase had been so careless and left the uniform behind, he thought with a grin, as he drew the accompanying Mae West over his head. Picking up the leather satchel, Hogan glanced briefly behind, as he stepped from the empty changing room into the corridor.
He sauntered down the hall, nonchalantly checking the placards beside each door that announced the functions contained within. He halted before a door labeled, "Flight Operations," and turned the handle. A tow-headed corporal with peach-fuzz cheeks was seated behind the desk, pretending to intently study a technical manual while trying to conceal the risqué magazine underneath. Hogan cleared his throat, trying not to smile at the young enlisted man’s evident embarrassment.
"That’s okay son," he said casually, "although last month’s issue had a better centerfold."
"Yes, sir," answered the corporal with relief. "I mean, no, sir. I mean, uh…"
Hogan held up a hand to stifle the young man’s further verbal stumbling.
"Look, son, I’m in a hurry. Have you got that Thunderbolt gassed up and ready for me?"
The freckle-faced corporal looked at him with bewilderment.
"Uh, Thunderbolt, sir? As in P-47, sir?"
Hogan nodded his head in amusement.
"I…I wasn’t aware anyone was scheduled for a flight this afternoon, uh, sir."
The young enlisted man fumbled through the contents strewn across the top of the desk and pulled out a large ruled logbook from under the pile of maps and weather reports. Shaking his head in confirmation, he looked up at the imposing officer who stood impatiently before him. The nametag on the flight suit was covered by the yellow life preserver, but an intimidating set of eagle's wings on the epaulets poked out from underneath. The corporal nervously cleared his throat.
"Uh, no, sir, Colonel, sir, there’s no record of a flight plan having been filed."
"You do keep your planes gassed up and ready to go, don’t you, Corporal?"
"Well, yes, sir, of course we do, sir, but--"
Hogan raised a hand to silence him once more.
"Then I haven’t got time to listen to your nonsense about flight plans, son. Aren’t you aware that special intelligence flights don’t file plans with the Ops Officer, but with the G-2 instead?"
The young man continued to appear perplexed.
"That’s okay, son. You don’t look as though you’ve been around here all that long, and I expect someone hasn’t told you how to handle these sensitive missions. Don’t worry, I’m sure they’ll fill you in when you make sergeant. By the way, what’s your name? I’ll be sure to put in a good word for you with your commanding officer."
The corporal straightened up smartly. "Why, yes, sir. Thank you, sir."
Footsteps could be heard coming down the hallway in the direction of the flight operations office. Hogan picked up his leather valise and looked quickly around the room. There was a second door off to one side that exited directly onto the airfield.
"Your name," Hogan prompted him gently, as he eased his way toward the exit.
"Uh, yes, sir. That would be Corporal Lewis, sir."
"Good boy, Lewis. Now can you steer me in the right direction to pick up my P-47, or do you provide curbside valet service here?"
The young man resumed his puzzled expression.
"Never mind," Hogan said with a bemused smile. "Just tell me where you park your P-47’s."
Lewis hesitated. "Uh, well, sir, they usually line them up on the southeast extension alongside runway Fifty Lima."
The footsteps were almost outside the operations door.
"That’s what I wanted to hear, son. If she gets me to where I’m headed in one piece there may be a weekend pass in addition to that promotion for you."
"Yes, sir!" Lewis was positively beaming, as he came to attention.
Hurriedly returning his salute, Hogan opened the door and stepped out onto the grassy flat expanse. The airfield was mostly deserted and was becoming striped with the long shadows of a late afternoon sun. He looked to either side; the runway seemed to stretch forever in front of him, and he quickened his pace, as he headed to the right. Hogan wanted to glance back to see if anyone had entered the operations office but was more intent on finding his way to the waiting line of Thunderbolts.
Hogan averted his face, hurrying past a couple of men in overalls standing beneath the exposed belly of a P-51. He had cleared the Mustang and was approaching a line of Thunderbolts, when he heard the door to the operations office burst open with a bang against the outer wall.
"Hey!" yelled a man’s voice. "Hey, you!"
Hogan looked quickly back and saw a large, well-muscled man striding toward him. He broke into a run, as the MP pulled his sidearm from its holster, yelling for others on the field to try and stop the trespasser. Grasping the valise firmly under one arm and ducking instinctively, Hogan ran toward the line of planes.
Ordinarily the experience might have fondly reminded him of a pickup game of football back at camp. But there he didn’t have someone trying to chase him down with a Colt .45. A bullet whistled past to his left, kicking up a puff of dirt, as it buried itself into the ground just in front of him. He swerved abruptly to the right, barely dodging another shot, and tried to use the planes parked along his path for limited cover. He only had another fifty meters to the row of waiting Thunderbolts, and with the jump he’d gotten on his pursuers he stood a good chance of reaching them before they caught up to him.
Hogan glanced behind to check their progress and was startled when he turned back to find himself suddenly confronted by a solid, coveralled figure directly in his path. He was a bigger man than Hogan, outweighing him by at least fifty pounds, but Hogan had the advantage of momentum and grasping his valise by the handles, flung it in a looping roundhouse right. The bag connected and sent the larger man sprawling to the ground with an angry expletive.
Sprinting the last few yards, Hogan leaped onto the waiting ladder at the plane’s side and threw himself into the open cockpit. With one hand, he shoved the ladder away and reached for the harness to strap himself into the seat. A quick look to his left confirmed the men were rounding a corner where the line of Mustangs ended and were swiftly bearing down on him.
He rapidly surveyed the cockpit’s display before him. Trim tabs in takeoff position and flaps up. Hogan hoped the last man to operate the plane had left the rest of the controls in their ready condition; there certainly wasn’t going to be time for any sort of pre-flight checklist on this run. He cracked the throttle forward slightly and hit the energizer switch. The engines began to whine, finally kicking in just as two men reached the side of his plane.
Hogan rammed the glass canopy shut overhead and gave the rudder control a hard right, stomping on the brake. The plane abruptly pivoted, and both pursuers dropped to the ground to dodge the tail's shifting expanse. Hogan heard a shot careen sharply off the closed canopy. These guys definitely play for keeps.
Glancing in both directions down the main runway, Hogan eased the throttle forward and began a dash for the far end. Out of habit, he reached for the throat mike to request clearance for takeoff, but with a grim smile retracted his hand. Even if he asked permission, given the circumstances, the tower wasn't likely to issue it.
Out of the corner of one eye he suddenly noticed several emergency vehicles, their lights flashing, veer toward the tarmac parallel to his path. Damn. He hoped they weren’t foolish enough to try and block the runway. The lead vehicle began to pull ahead and was by now almost clear of the plane’s nose. Hogan glanced over to see a passenger-side window crank down. A glint reflected off the long, steel barrel of a rifle pointing in his direction.
In desperation Hogan threw the throttle full forward and hastily adjusted the flaps. He held his breath, racing forward and almost out of runway. The needles jumped wildly on the instrument panel before him. He could feel the front gear finally break contact with the ground, as the Thunderbolt tore down the grassy strip. The plane seemed to hang there, suspended at an angle, before finally lifting completely away with a shudder, barely clearing the end of the runway.
His spine ached, pressed forcefully against the seat, as the crushing climb continued. What felt like an eternity passed, before he allowed the ascent to level off. Hogan took a deep breath and looked around for other planes, hoping they didn’t really want to play hardball and scramble some fighters to give chase, or worse yet, shoot him down, but thankfully the dusk-filled skies seemed quiet.
He eased back the throttle to cruising speeds and vectored the plane for an easterly course. Now to figure out the best approach, he thought, as he unfolded a map retrieved from the valise. Hogan spread it out as best he could in the cramped cockpit and plotted his next course of action.
Kinch slowly climbed up a ladder that ascended from within the frame of a bunk bed at one end of the barracks. He held a piece of blue notepaper in his hand and examined it again, while he mechanically hit the concealed lever to the tunnel's trap door. The bunk’s lower bed slid smoothly back into place, once again covering the secret entrance to a warren of subterranean rooms and corridors hidden beneath the prison compound.
The American enlisted man looked over at another POW by the end of a long table in the middle of the room, wiping the last of the tin plates from a dinner he’d prepared for them earlier that evening.
"LeBeau, where are the others?" Kinch asked.
"They’re outside. Pourquois?" The swarthy, diminutive Frenchman looked intently at him. "Is something wrong?" he asked with added concern.
"You could say that," he answered, his voice shaken. "I just got a message from London, and I think I’d better go over it with everybody at the same time."
LeBeau noticed how the tall black man looked stunned, his face clearly strained.
"Oui. I’ll get them," he said apprehensively. He had never seen their usually unflappable communicator appear so rattled before. Flipping his towel over one shoulder, LeBeau turned quickly from the table.
He discovered their teammates lounging just outside the barracks door. A thin, blond enlisted man was seated nearby atop an overturned wooden barrel. His eyes were closed in private meditation, as he daydreamed of a barmaid named Mady he'd recently met in town. The dark-haired Englishman next to him was leaning idly against the outer wall of the barracks, a half-burned cigarette stub dangling from his mouth, as he watched the other prisoners strolling about the compound.
LeBeau looked quickly around the yard, careful not to let any of the patrolling guards overhear him. "Carter, Newkirk," he hissed, "you’d better come inside. Kinch just received a message from London. He needs to see all of us right away."
Carter's blue eyes widened, as he whipped his head around to glance questioningly at the RAF corporal beside him. Both men anxiously followed LeBeau back inside the barracks and quickly grouped around their radioman, waiting expectantly for him to begin. Kinch looked up from the notepaper he held in his hands, his dark brown eyes troubled.
"What's up, Kinch?" asked Newkirk. "I hate to scare you, mate, but you’re lookin’ a bit pale." He stubbed out what remained of his cigarette on the floor and straddled the wooden bench alongside the table, not taking his eyes off his colleague.
Kinch hesitated, unsure how to begin. "You’re not going to believe this message London just sent. I’ve read it a dozen times now, and I still don’t believe it."
"Well, what is it?" Newkirk asked more insistently, leaning forward on his elbows to try and scan the note's contents.
Carter broke in. "It’s not about the Colonel, is it? Did he have trouble getting to London this morning?" One hand slipped inside the fleece-lined pocket of his leather bomber's jacket to finger a lucky rabbit's foot he always carried, while the other nervously swept back the thin strands of dirty blond hair that persistently fell across his forehead.
They’d all gotten accustomed to their commander’s occasional meetings at headquarters and after a while had become inured to the real danger they presented. The first challenge was making it to the hidden airstrip without being taken captive or, worse yet, shot by patrolling enemy forces. Once there, Hogan still had the daunting task of making it back across well-defended borders and risked being caught in a barrage of anti-aircraft fire in the process. Routine milk runs they were not.
"It’s about the Colonel, all right," answered Kinch, "but not in the way you might think."
The others stared at him, puzzled looks on their faces. Kinch continued after a moment, his voice cracking.
"London just issued the equivalent of an A.P.B. on Colonel Hogan."
"Quel que c'est 'aeypee'…?" asked LeBeau, frowning in confusion.
"He means All Points Bulletin or A.P.B.," Carter explained. "That’s what the police release when they’re on the lookout for a dangerous criminal."
He nodded sagely at LeBeau, pleased at having come up with the correct answer. His smug look was replaced by one of alarm as the implications of what he'd said suddenly dawned on him. He felt his legs give way beneath him and sat down heavily on the edge of his bunk.
"Wait a minute," he said slowly, looking back at Kinch. "Wha…what is London doing issuing an A.P.B. for Colonel Hogan?"
"Cor! What could he possibly have done to get into that much trouble?" asked Newkirk. "Never mind, I take that back. It hasn’t been that long since I’ve been away." Newkirk looked wistful as he rubbed his chin. "I wonder if some lovely bird's jealous beau caught up with him?"
Kinch shook his head. "I wish that’s what it was. You know that conference he was called to this morning?"
"Oui," LeBeau answered. "Le Colonel had to leave right after formation. They didn’t give him as much notice as usual this time."
"Yeah, well, it seems they may have not given him much notice on purpose. He was called before the senior command at Allied intelligence headquarters this morning for a formal dressing down."
The stunned men exchanged looks of disbelief.
"And that's not all." Kinch paused, clearing his throat, uncertain how to continue.
"They not only relieved him of command, but also stripped him of his rank. All I can figure is something must have made him get really hot under the collar during that meeting. General Fitzhugh himself even ordered court-martial proceedings against the Colonel."
Carter whistled his astonishment.
"Zut alors!" exclaimed LeBeau.
"Good night, nurse, I don’t believe it!" Newkirk raised his eyebrows, imagining the scene that must have taken place back in London.
"Yeah, well think about it. Colonel Hogan’s definitely not been himself the past couple of weeks. He’s gotten me to the point where I’m scared to go out on a job with him anymore, and I don’t consider myself to be someone who scares easy." Kinch looked soberly at the other men, each nodding his head in agreement.
They'd all noticed the change in their commander. There had been a number of occasions when, out of earshot of the Colonel, they’d commented as to what was eating at him. No one was questioning anyone’s courage. They’d each volunteered for Hogan’s team and the unusual mission of fighting the Germans from behind lines as a voluntary prisoner of war. But lately, the way their leader was playing the game had all of them feeling uneasy.
"It gets worse. Apparently, sometime later the Colonel stole a plane from the air base at Duxford, decking a non-comm in the process."
"Pinched a bloomin' kite? What on earth for?!"
"Seems nobody’s figured that out yet. They tried raising him on the cockpit radio, but he wouldn’t respond. The base was able to track him on radar part of the way and best they could tell he was headed east."
"How do they know for sure it was him?" asked Carter hesitantly, reserving some shred of hope there had been a huge mistake.
"They’re pretty certain, all right," said Kinch. "They found his uniform in the bottom of a locker at the base, and the fellow’s flight suit was missing. When an officer from headquarters showed up with a photograph from the Colonel’s personnel file, a corporal working in the Flight Ops office identified him."
"I don’t get it," said Carter, his forehead furrowed in bewilderment. "Why would he steal a plane and then fly east? If anything, you'd think he’d head west to get back home."
Kinch shook his head. "No, think about it--it doesn’t make sense. He’d have to stop for refueling; he couldn’t make it back stateside on one load, and wherever he stopped to gas up you can be sure they’d be waiting for him. He’d likely realize that as well."
"Where do you think he’d go?"
"Do you think he’d be balmy enough to come back here?" asked Newkirk.
"I don’t know." Kinch shrugged his shoulders. "We’re as much a home to him right now as anywhere else, I suppose."
LeBeau nodded his agreement. "D’accord, mes amis. I don’t know why, but I have a feeling he’s going to return."
"Gosh, what are we going to do then?" asked Carter.
"Good question, Andrew," said Kinch. "According to London, we’re supposed to alert them immediately and take him into custody."
"Take him into custody? Are they kidding?" asked Carter, his voice squeaking in disbelief. "And then do what with him?"
"They didn’t say. My guess is they’d try to send somebody in to take him back. Maybe make it look like he escaped."
"What, and break Kommandant Klink’s perfect record?" Newkirk asked mockingly.
"Gee, I don’t know about you guys," said Carter, "but I’m not especially comfortable with being told to change roles from prisoner to prison warden." He shook his head incredulously.
"Me either," admitted Kinch. "Then again, maybe we’ll get lucky and he won’t show up here."
"Incroyable," LeBeau said as he looked around at the others. "I know le Colonel’s been under a lot of pressure lately. Ever since we lost that resistance leader…" His voice faded away, as he dropped his eyes. "Maybe it finally became too much for him."
Kinch looked at him understandingly. "I don’t think anybody knows for sure right now except the Colonel himself, Louis," he said softly.
"And what are we going to do if he doesn’t show up?" asked Newkirk. "You know the old bald eagle what runs this camp is going to find out first thing that his senior POW's flown the coop."
"Yeah, I’ve thought about that," said Kinch. "But there’s nothing we can do about it, at least not now. We’ll just have to sit tight and wait to see if he shows up. London's realized it might be a problem for us as well. Klink is likely to crack down on us big time if he thinks the Colonel’s escaped. They've ordered us to stand down and cease all operations to keep things quiet. If it gets too difficult for us, we’re to close up shop and bug out, pronto."
"I don’t know what to hope for," said LeBeau. "I hate to think he may be in trouble, but if it might be a chance for us to finally get back home…"
"Yeah, I know," said Kinch. "I’ve been feeling the same way. But if Colonel Hogan is in trouble, I’m not sure there’s anything any one of us can do for him right now."
The men nodded their agreement, each wondering silently what could possibly have happened to push their leader to this breaking point.
Hogan beamed a red-filtered flashlight on the partially folded map in the darkened cockpit and tried to make out the best site to ditch the plane. Ordinarily, he’d use the crude landing strip they’d fashioned in a cooperative farmer’s field, but this time he wasn’t willing to risk letting the Germans take possession of the P-47. He knew he’d have to abandon the plane, bailing out instead and destroying it in the process. Hogan grimaced. He hated night jumps, especially a solo job with no reception committee on the ground to secure and mark a safe drop zone for him.
He tried to find a quadrant of land on the map that looked relatively undeveloped. He’d need a bit of clear terrain to safely parachute in and decided the area he'd first picked out would have to do. Dropping one wing, he scrutinized the ground below and, after a few anxious moments, spotted the landmark he was seeking.
In the cities, they observed strict light discipline to lessen their chances of being targeted during evening bombing raids. Certain structures, however, such as radio towers, still had to be marked for their own pilots to avoid collision during nighttime maneuvers. The beaconed framework was there ahead of him now.
Might as well kill two birds with this painted metal stone, Hogan thought and slowly looped around in the night sky, turning back in the direction of the tower. A dense forest bordered it, but there was enough of a clearing at its circumference that he hoped he’d have room to parachute to safety.
He checked his harness straps once more, pulling the ends of the webbing to cinch the parachute packed tight against his body, then fished around in the valise for the last of what he’d take with him. The maps and remaining materials would be destroyed in the fire when the plane went down. Any other items he’d need were secreted in the various zippered compartments of his flight suit.
The plane circled again. He didn’t want to take too much time with this. The longer he was up there, the drone of his engines echoing below, the greater the chance he’d be spotted by enemy patrols and possibly come under fire. This was going to have to be it, he decided.
Hogan punched a button to jettison the canopy above. It flew away with a bang, allowing the icy wind to rush in and immediately numb his exposed face and hands. His stiff fingers undid the straps that buckled him to the seat, as he braced one arm against the side of the open cockpit. Carefully easing the controls forward, he placed the Thunderbolt into a shallow dive whose terminus he’d hoped would be the radio tower. He unclamped the emergency crowbar, usually reserved for when the canopy wouldn’t open, and wedged it between the controls and the instrument panel, ensuring the plane’s destructive course.
The force of the wind made it difficult for him to take a breath, as he eased his head up above the level of the fuselage. He was crouched sideways in the seat now and placing one foot against the edge of the opening, pushed away from the plane into the chilly blackness. The unbalanced exit forced him into a dizzying tumble, and he found himself falling end over end, completely disoriented.
Hogan knew he couldn’t risk releasing the parachute while in an uncontrolled spin, or the lines would hopelessly tangle, reducing the parachute to a plumed streamer that would take him speedily in for a fatal landing. Desperately, he arched his back and extended his arms and legs, spider-like, to try and stabilize his descent. The rotation finally ceased, and he felt the air forcefully buffeting his body from below, indicating he was falling face down. With his right hand, Hogan reached for the ripcord and gave it a tug. He could feel the chute being stripped from its pouch and readied himself for the jolt in the harness that would signal his safe suspension beneath its open canopy.
The deafening howl of the plane’s engines and rushing wind was abruptly replaced by an absolute and profound stillness, as the chute fully deployed. The only sound he could hear, while he slowly descended in the darkness, was the quiet rustling of the inflated silk shroud above him. He strained to see any visible landmarks beneath him and hoped he’d be able to tell when he was nearing the ground.
A sudden explosion to his left drew his attention, and he looked up to see a huge orange fireball rising in the night sky, the remnants of a radio tower’s steel skeleton collapsing within its midst. The blaze illuminated the earth below, and Hogan glanced down to find the tops of a thick forest of trees rapidly looming up at him. Cursing silently, he quickly brought his feet together and flung his arms up, trying unsuccessfully to protect his face from the branches that sharply whipped at him. A sudden tearing sound was accompanied by a burning sensation, as a branch caught the left arm of his jumpsuit, before he haltingly lurched to a stop.
Hogan was grateful the blaze continued to light up the landscape, for it permitted him to see the ground, still well beneath where he swung suspended in the harness. At the same time, he realized, the illumination might have made it possible for patrols in the area to spot his descent. Hogan grabbed the cords that extended above him and tried freeing them from the branches. The effort caused him to slip earthward only slightly.
He peered down between his dangling feet. Great, he thought, straining to reach one of the compartments along the lower leg of his flight suit. He extracted a knife and raised it over his head, surveying the tangle of lines above him. The light was beginning to fade; he couldn’t afford to take much more time, or he’d have to make the rest of the drop in complete darkness.
The freezing cold had numbed his exposed hands, and as he began to cut away at the slender braided ropes, the knife suddenly slipped from his unfeeling grasp. Hogan watched in despair, while it silently somersaulted through the air beneath him. Wonderful. That was all he needed.
Hogan reached up once more to grab the parachute’s lines and began to forcefully swing his legs, hoping to generate enough momentum to loosen the chute from the tree’s clutches. The sound of tearing silk broke the stillness, and he felt himself slip through the air, the weight of his body straining against the damaged canopy. He fell another few meters before his progress halted once more. Hogan looked down at the earth beneath his feet; the ground was still some distance away. Damn.
The light from the burning plane was fading quickly now, and Hogan realized he had no alternative. Taking a deep breath, he steeled himself and hit the latches on the front of the harness, resulting in its quick release from the canopy. Instantly crashing through the lower boughs, he hurtled earthward. The shock almost jarred him unconscious, as he struck the ground with a tremendous force. He lay there for several insensible moments, before he eventually managed with some effort to roll slowly over on his back, moaning uncontrollably as he did so.
His right ankle had buckled on impact, and he now became aware of an intense pain shooting through it. Carefully flexing his other limbs, he figured with the exception of the ankle he was mostly unhurt. Slowly he sat up, breathing heavily, then came to one knee and gradually rose to a standing position, tentatively trying the ankle beneath him. It protested with a sharp stab of pain, but held. He quickly surveyed the rest of his body. Blood was dripping down his left arm from a deep gouge that ran the length of his forearm. He inspected it more closely; fortunately it seemed to have already begun to clot, and he pulled the tattered ends of his sleeve together to press against it.
Hogan lifted his head to listen to the surrounding woods. If anyone had seen him descend, they were still some distance off; there was no sound of anyone approaching. He awkwardly slipped out of the Mae West and flight suit, searching for a place to conceal them.
A nearby downed tree, still partially clinging to its stump, afforded a good hiding place, and he stuffed the material underneath, pushing leaves and twigs over it to camouflage the fabric. Straightening up, he took a deep breath and looked around. Hogan knew he’d have quite a walk ahead of him and the injured ankle was going to make it seem even longer. A thick branch lay on the ground at his feet, and he picked it up, testing it beneath his weight, as he leaned on the makeshift walking stick.
Bending over once more, he reached down with his free hand to retrieve a flask he'd removed before abandoning the flight suit. He twisted the cap and raised the container in a solitary toast. "Welcome home, Robert Edward," he offered, trying to sound jovial. The straight whiskey burned at first going down, but then gradually eased into a pleasurable feeling of warmth.
Wearily drawing himself up, he began to strike out through the woods. He was limping badly and tried to skirt the open edge of the field in order to keep himself partially concealed. Looking at his watch, he estimated he had about a two-hour walk ahead of him. He didn’t quite know what he’d expected, but so far it had been one hell of a homecoming.
You’re a real comic tonight, Robby old boy, he thought glumly,
tilting the flask upwards once more. He
hobbled slowly along, a lonely and desperate figure, as the stark moonlight
jerkily cast his lurching shadow across the uneven terrain.
LeBeau turned on his bunk, grumbling as the thin blanket slid off him once more. He’d been tossing and turning for what seemed like hours, sleep frustratingly evading him. He gathered from the snores and gradual cessation of stirring in the other bunks that the rest had finally dropped off, but LeBeau found himself unable to relax, his mind going over and over again what had happened.
He still found it hard to believe what Kinch had told them. He knew Hogan had seemed different the past couple of weeks, but everyone thought it was just an accumulation of stress.
They were aware, as well, of the serious impact Leitmann's death had had on him. After the resistance leader was killed, Hogan spent hours at a time alone in his room, presumably wrestling with his conscience and trying to determine what had gone wrong. He'd become more sullen and moody, purposely secluding himself from his men.
With an increasing ill temper, compounded by his inability to sleep, Hogan began drinking late into the night, trying to induce a slumber that no longer came easily. LeBeau and the others had noticed the bloodshot eyes and whisky hoarseness to his voice at morning formations. After a week or so he barely made any attempt to conceal the empty bottles that littered the bottom of his locker. None of them had known what to say, but simply tried to stay out of his way and hoped that his normal self would soon return.
Punching the lumpy, makeshift pillow wadded beneath his head, LeBeau turned over again, heaving a weary sigh. How he would have given anything to be back in southern France with his family, comfortable in his own bed in their modest country home. He felt the pangs of homesickness wash over him and tried to shake them off, as he turned once more in the hard, narrow bunk. There was no sense wallowing in the memories of his family and former life; it made remaining there in Stalag 13 as a "voluntary" prisoner too difficult.
He thought for a moment and suddenly realized that they didn’t know much about Colonel Hogan’s background. Although the rest of them occasionally griped about being apart from their loved ones, in return Hogan said little about his own family or concerns. His men utterly and implicitly trusted him with their lives and would, without question, follow his orders, but their leader had somehow remained an enigma to them all.
LeBeau grunted once more, pulling on the blanket, and then suddenly froze, as a loud thump sounded from the tunnel beneath him. He held his breath, trying to remain as still as possible to listen intently in the darkness. Another distinct thump. Something, or someone, had discovered the secret tunnel beneath their barracks. LeBeau cautiously slipped out from under the covers and reached for a flashlight resting atop his footlocker.
His hand just closed around the lamp, when he heard the lower wooden bunk to the tunnel’s trap door sliding upwards. In the shadows, a vague image could be seen climbing slowly up the ladder. LeBeau snapped on the torch and froze when he saw the figure illuminated before him. The man blinked in the unexpected glare and then staggered toward him, stumbling over the lower rails of the bunk frame. There was a loud crash followed by a groan and several muttered oaths that raised the others from their slumber.
"What the hell’s the row all about?" grumbled Newkirk. His hand groped from an upper bunk to turn on the wall switch, illuminating the room by a bare bulb suspended from the ceiling. Blinking groggily, he stared down uncomprehendingly at a form crumpled on the floor in the middle of their barracks.
The black-clad figure, still cursing, drew himself up on his hands and knees and tried clumsily to rise, only to lose his balance and topple forward once more. He sprawled on the floor in front of LeBeau who, astonished to the point of speechlessness, proceeded to follow the man’s jerky movements with the beam of his light.
The intruder gradually rolled over onto his back and looked up at the Frenchman clad in long johns and stocking feet standing watch over him.
"Whassamatter?" he mumbled, his speech noticeably slurred. "S’only me."
With some effort he managed to sit up and then grasped the edge of the table to haul himself to an upright position, tottering as LeBeau’s flashlight continued to pursue him. Frowning, he raised a hand to shield his eyes from its beam. The torn sleeve of his black sweater disclosed a dark red-encrusted crease that ran the length of one forearm.
"For cryin’ out loud, LeBeau, shut off th’ damn spotlight, will ya?"
LeBeau looked stunned, as he wordlessly switched off the lamp.
Newkirk peered down from an upper bunk, a stupefied expression on his face.
"Colonel," he asked hesitantly, "have you, uh, maybe had a bit too much of a nip this evening, sir?"
Hogan wheeled precariously to glare at the upper bunk. He’d had one too many people question him in the past twenty-four hours, and the sleepy Englishman had the unfortunate luck of being the proverbial last straw.
"Who th’ hell d’you think y’are, Newkirk, th’ damn housemother?" he snarled.
The sudden and uncharacteristic display of anger so startled him that Newkirk could only snap his gaping jaw shut in response.
Hogan’s head circled about to querulously confront the faces gawking at him from around the room. Characteristic of the very intoxicated, his head swept too far in its arc. Trying to steer back, he over-corrected in the process, the swimming objects ghosted before him in faint multiple images only exacerbating the effects. His jerky movements further interfered with an uncertain grip on balance, and he felt everything around him begin to rotate.
"Whoa. Who put th’ room on spin cycle?"
Hogan grabbed the table once more to steady himself before aiming for his room. Several hours of hard walking through the woods and a day full of misadventure were taking their toll. His limp had become more pronounced, and he winced, when he put his weight on the injured leg.
He suddenly misjudged a step and lurched gracelessly to one side. It was only by seizing the frame of a nearby bunk that he kept from crashing to the floor. The occupant in the upper bed rolled over irritably, as the wooden structure shook.
"For cryin' out loud, if you’re gonna go on a bender do the rest of us a favor and stay away ‘til you sober up, huh?"
Hogan tried to focus his bleary eyes on the source of the belligerent remark. It was Braden, of course. The enlisted man had been a continual thorn in his side ever since he’d been assigned to Stalag 13. He’d been a guest there once before; only that time he’d been hiding out in the tunnels after escaping from Stalag 9. Braden would have been back in the States now, if he’d only listened to Hogan’s instructions the first time. But no, the thickheaded sergeant insisted on doing things his way and was recaptured in less than a day before being officially transferred to Stalag 13. Braden seemed to have a knack for knowing how to get under Hogan’s skin, continually challenging his every order and making things generally miserable for everyone in the barracks.
Still grasping the bunk post for support, Hogan gradually listed forward so his face was only inches away from Braden's.
"Why doncha come down here ‘n say that?"
The darkly menacing tone in Hogan’s voice abruptly chilled the entire room.
Hogan’s hands were now free of the bed frame and had formed into fists at his sides. The other men looked around uneasily, as Hogan and Braden continued to measure each other for several long seconds.
Braden considered his chances, scowling at Hogan with genuine dislike. Hogan was only an inch or two taller than Braden, but he was also clearly drunk, which certainly improved the odds. With a shrug, he decided not to risk it and rolled back over, preferring instead to return to his slumber.
"Aw, go t'hell," he muttered under his breath, turning away.
Kinch had slowly made his way across the barracks. He later admitted that if he hadn’t stepped between them there was a good chance Hogan would have reached up and literally dragged Braden out of the top bunk, right then and there.
The tall communicator stretched in front of Hogan and placed a restraining hand on his shoulder just as he reached for Braden.
"Say, Colonel, what happened to your leg? Why don’t we go to your room so I can take a look at it for you, huh?"
Kinch’s tone was pleading. The last thing he wanted to do was to take a swing at the Colonel. He wasn’t worried about being able to defend himself, he’d been a Golden Gloves champion before the war, but he didn’t want to have to square off against his commanding officer. Might make things pretty awkward come morning.
Hogan scowled intently at Kinch for several tense moments, before his features relaxed slightly, and he unclenched his fists.
"Nah, s’okay. S’jus’ a sprained ankle."
He waved one hand dismissively, the motion almost setting him reeling again, but the soft-spoken radioman caught him by the arm.
"What happened, Colonel?"
Kinch’s dark brown eyes were troubled. He’d never seen the Colonel like this before and it shook him up. Hogan was usually the rock-steady foundation for the rest of them. He didn’t mind his CO showing a few flaws, but it embarrassed him to see Hogan like this.
The still-swaying officer looked pointedly at the hand on his arm, and Kinch apologetically released him. Hogan grimaced once more, shifting his weight to try and keep his balance.
"Had t' come in by 'chute." He turned to limp to his room. "Jus’ hit some trees, thas’ all."
"Geez, Colonel, you’re damned lucky if you landed in the trees and walked away with only a sprain."
Kinch shook his head in wonder. Every parachutist dreaded a tree landing--too many resulted in serious injury or even death.
"You sure it’s not broken, Colonel?"
"I said s’fine, Kinch, now leave me alone, huh?"
He turned and surveyed once more the stunned faces that peered at him from various bunks around the room.
"See ever'body in the mornin.’ Ever'body," he repeated menacingly, as he shot a final glance Braden’s way.
He stumbled to the private room at the end of the barracks. The door slamming shut behind him broke the incredulous silence that filled the room.
Kinch stood there for a few moments, a look of astonishment flooding his face, as he slowly crossed the room to return to his bunk.
"I…I don’t believe it," he said, dumbfounded. He turned toward Newkirk with a worried expression.
"Peter, you’d better check the tunnel to make sure he didn’t leave the outside entrance exposed. In his condition, I don’t know how he even found the opening, but we don’t want someone else coming across it."
Newkirk nodded and began to climb wearily out of his bunk.
"Uh, fellas, I hate to bring this up, but what are we going to do about that order from London to take the Colonel into custody?" Carter asked hesitantly.
Kinch sat down heavily on the edge of his bunk with a sigh and looked over at the enlisted man. "You want to read him his rights and the list of charges against him, Carter, go right ahead. There’s no way I’m going to approach him now. For the time being, I say we just let him sleep it off."
Carter nodded reluctantly in agreement, as Newkirk reappeared from below and signaled all was secure.
"You were right, Kinch," Newkirk whispered, as he climbed back into his upper berth. "He was so bleedin' drunk he forgot to close the cover on the emergency tunnel." He shook his head in disbelief. "That’s just not like the Colonel."
Kinch looked somberly at the other men. "People seem to be saying that a lot lately," he said quietly, glancing at the closed door on the other side of the room.
The prisoners stood in formation, shuffling their feet and stealing sidelong looks at each other, as they nervously observed Hans Schultz, rotund sergeant of the guard, count down the rows for the third time.
"Vierzehn, fünfzehn, sech--" Schultz halted; beginning to look more and more worried. He sidled over to Newkirk, standing in the front row with his hands jammed in his pockets against the morning chill.
"Newkirk, someone seems to be missing, and I think that someone is Colonel Hogan. Please be a good boy and tell me he is here in camp?"
Schultz’s tone was imploring, as he anxiously looked behind him, his attention drawn by the approaching footsteps of the camp kommandant.
"Didn’t anybody try to wake the Colonel?" Carter hissed.
"I knocked on his door to tell him we’d been called to formation," Newkirk answered under his breath.
"Well, what did he say?"
"I don’t think it’s somethin' I should repeat in mixed company," Newkirk responded sourly, glancing in Schultz's direction.
Schultz hastily made an about-face to salute Colonel Wilhelm Klink, Kommandant of LuftStalag 13. The enlisted man’s arm was shaking, as he plastered his spatulaed fingers against the front of his helmet.
"Report!" bellowed the tall, lean, balding man who came to attention in front of the formation, giving his portly sergeant a perfunctory glance. A Luftwaffe general flanked his side. Oversight for all LuftStalags happened to fall within General Burkhalter's domain. The corpulent general had unfortunately chosen that morning to make one of his surprise inspections of the camp. It would have been bad enough to have a prisoner missing without a general officer’s visit, but its coincidence with his inspection portended disaster.
Schultz stammered for several moments, earning an exasperated look from Klink, as he placed a monocle on his left eye. He peered over Schultz’s ample shoulders to look up and down the row of men before him, returning to stare a second time at the vacant left front corner of the formation.
"And just where is Colonel Hogan this morning?" he demanded impatiently.
"Herr Kommandant…" Schultz began, as the door to the barracks swung open.
Schultz looked behind him, sighing with audible relief at the sight of Hogan emerging through the doorway. One hand held his cap and the other was trying to tuck in his shirttails, while he slowly limped behind the formation. He was unshaven and there were several long, red scratches down both sides of his face, a vestige of his earlier encounter with the trees. It was apparent to all from his disheveled appearance that he’d had a rough night.
Hogan had almost reached the end of the back row, when Braden, standing idly in front, felt compelled to utter what turned out to be an unfortunate choice of a characteristically sarcastic remark.
"For Pete's sake, somebody put in a requisition for a CO who can handle his booze."
Braden turned to smirk at the man standing to his left and subsequently missed any warning as to what would happen next.
The only possible indicator was when Hogan’s cap seemed to slip casually through his fingers and fall to the ground. Probably to make it easier to throttle Braden with both hands, they’d all later agreed.
As Hogan began to make the turn from the rear of the formation, he suddenly veered left, roughly shouldering Kinch and Carter aside. Pushing off with his good leg, he lunged in Braden’s direction with an animal-like fury they had never seen before. Both were hurled to the ground, Braden struggling to remove Hogan’s clenched hands from around his throat.
Klink watched dumbfounded, while the two men grappled together in the middle of the compound. Braden tried desperately to gasp out a curse, as Hogan tightened his grip. The ragged lines of what remained of a formation shifted out of range of their flailing legs and stood encircling them.
"Schultz, don’t just stand there, do something!" Klink ordered shrilly. He looked worriedly over at Burkhalter, his mouth opening and closing like a beached carp gasping to breathe.
Before the leaden guard could come to his senses, Kinch and Newkirk ran over, each grabbing Hogan by an arm. He strained wildly against them, while they hauled him to his feet, his face contorted with rage. Braden squirmed on the ground, choking for breath and rubbing his throat. His eyes became huge with terror, as he viewed the furious expression on Hogan’s darkened face.
"Did…did you see what he did to me?" Braden squawked defensively to the men around him, appealing for allies. None came to his side.
They were all shocked at Hogan’s behavior, but Braden hadn’t exactly endeared himself to anyone during his stay at the camp. Several of them secretly wished Kinch and Newkirk had let the Colonel pummel him a while longer; he certainly deserved it.
Hogan continued to struggle against his restraints, suddenly freeing one arm that swung wildly and connected with Kinch’s jaw. The enlisted man lurched rearward, landing squarely on his backside with a startled grunt. The scattered assemblage immediately hushed. Kinch sat up slowly, a dazed look on his face. Ordinarily his reflexes would have conditioned him to duck a punch, but he wasn’t expecting that one. As he sat there rubbing his sore jaw, he looked at Hogan with a bewildered, pained expression that came from far more than just physical discomfort.
Breathing heavily, Hogan shifted his weight from his bad leg, the men around him watching in stunned silence. He stood there for several moments and then hung his head, moving toward Kinch, as the radioman raised his hand expectantly. Hogan, his face abruptly resuming its stoniness, sidestepped him and limped over to where his hat lay on the ground. Kinch looked as wounded as a kicked dog. Hogan bent over to pick up the cap and dusted it off, as Newkirk, wearing a disgusted look, reached down and helped Kinch to his feet.
Hogan stepped back into place of what remained of the formation, brushing the dirt from his uniform. "That’ll teach you to keep your mouth shut next time, Braden," he growled.
Burkhalter pursed his bulbous lips and looked hard at the senior POW officer. "I don’t think there will be a next time, Colonel Hogan," he said evenly. "I believe I have seen quite enough."
"Sergeant Schultz, dismiss the prisoners," the general barked, as he continued to stare stonily in Hogan’s direction.
Like an automaton, Schultz turned and announced their dismissal in a cracked voice. The men broke from the remnants of their formation and began to slowly troop back inside the barracks.
"Not you, Colonel Hogan," Burkhalter ordered, his words tightly enunciated with anger. "You and Sergeant Braden are to report to Colonel Klink’s office. Now."
Hogan shrugged and then glared at Braden, bowing slightly, as one arm swept forward in mocking invitation. "After you, Sergeant."
Burkhalter preceded Klink into the office to hang his hat and coat on a rack in the corner and then eased his enormous girth into a sturdy chair against the wall. He sat there, pudgy fingers steepled against his chins, and broodingly watched the proceedings.
Klink’s stern gaze pivoted from one figure to the other before his desk. They certainly presented a sharp contrast in appearance, he thought. Braden stood stiffly at attention, his chest thrust forward and eyes focused directly ahead. Hogan, on the other hand, slouched in a stance more closely resembling a sloppy parade rest, his thumbs hooked in his jacket pockets in an air of seeming disregard. The kommandant passed a nervous glance at his superior officer. Couldn’t Hogan at least attempt to put on some appearance of military bearing when the General was there?
Klink cleared his throat. "Would, er, either of you gentlemen care to explain yourselves this morning?" He couldn't help but notice Burkhalter’s frown in the background.
Braden allowed himself a quick glimpse at Hogan and then quickly resumed his rigid posture, remaining silent. Hogan merely affected a bored look and pretended to stare out the window, refusing to answer.
"Well, I suppose it doesn’t matter. Regardless of any reasons you may have had, your actions this morning are unacceptable. I will not tolerate fighting among the prisoners." Klink felt as though he was speaking to an empty room and found himself more irritable by the minute as a result. He turned to address the enlisted man first.
"Sergeant Braden, you are to receive a week in the cooler." Klink nodded to Schultz, standing by the door. "Sergeant Schultz, you will--"
"A week in the cooler?! What the hell for?" interrupted Braden in an angry outburst. He jerked his thumb at Hogan. "He’s the one who started it!"
Klink fixed Braden with an icy stare. "That will earn you two weeks in the cooler, Sergeant. I suggest you not try my patience further, or I will find more interesting ways to enforce the regulations of this camp."
Schultz motioned toward the outer office, taking Braden by the upper arm.
"I’ll be waiting for you, Braden," Hogan shot, as the pair departed Klink’s office.
Schultz tightened his grip to prevent his charge from rekindling the confrontation and quickly drew the door closed.
Hogan turned back to Klink, a smug look on his face. The kommandant purposely avoided meeting his eyes and remained hunched over, aimlessly shuffling the papers on his desk.
"I’m afraid that won’t be the case, Colonel Hogan." Burkhalter's tone was casual, almost detached.
"And just what's that supposed to mean?" Hogan stood there, arms folded across his chest and head tilted slightly in a look of petulant impatience.
"Colonel Hogan, on occasion up until now, I’ve found your antics here at LuftStalag 13 almost amusing."
Burkhalter leaned forward with a grunt and extracted a cigar from the lidded wooden box atop Klink’s desk. He paused a moment to clip one end before securing it in a corner of his mouth. Klink scurried from behind the desk, hurrying to raise a lighter, while the general puffed vigorously. Waving Klink away with annoyance, Burkhalter continued speaking, the cigar bobbing in place.
"However, Hogan, lately I find them more troublesome than entertaining."
He paused briefly to contemplate the glowing end of his cigar.
"There is also the annoying matter of Major Hochstetter’s continual reports to my headquarters on his suspicions regarding your activities. He seems to think the unusually high level of sabotage activity in proximity to this camp points to one man and that is you, Colonel Hogan."
Hogan straightened slightly, continuing to gaze expressionless at the general. He could feel a pulse begin to throb more insistently at his temples and wondered where the lecture was heading.
"Granted, there is some notion of doubt, or at the very least, the absence of hard evidence for proof, not that German military courts require it anyway…" He waved the cigar vaguely in the air. "But, I have many more important matters to deal with in Berlin, and I cannot afford to have my attention continually diverted in order to straighten things out here."
He looked pointedly over at Klink and sighed with exasperation, as the kommandant's head fervently bobbed up and down to predicate his agreement with the general’s remarks.
"There is conceivably an alternative option and that is to replace Colonel Klink here with a tougher, more capable kommandant."
Burkhalter held up one fleshy hand to order Klink, rising in protest, to sit back down. The kommandant meekly obeyed, while his superior turned back to the sullen American.
"But, unfortunately, any officers even slightly more competent than Klink are needed on the front in combat units. So, instead of changing kommandants, I’ve decided to change prisoners."
Hogan looked over at Klink with a puzzled expression. The kommandant’s head was bowed once more, his hands clasped tightly together and resting on the blotter in front of him. He declined to look up, as Burkhalter continued.
"Colonel Hogan, you're being transferred from this LuftStalag, effective today. You will be driven to the train station in town where you are to be put into the protective custody of armed escorts." He glanced over at Klink, who shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "You are then to be transported to a camp at Dachau."
Hogan felt the blood drain from his face, and his jaw went slack for the second time in less than twenty-four hours.
"But…but, you can’t do that!" Why was that statement beginning to sound so familiar?
"Oh, yes, we most certainly can and have. Dachau provides quite a nice facility to house those we consider to be exceptionally troublesome enemies of the state. Had you been more willing to follow the rules here, Hogan, you might have avoided its confines, but I'm afraid that is not to be. They should have no difficulty breaking your rebellious spirit there."
Hogan looked searchingly at the kommandant.
Klink glanced up briefly and then guiltily dropped his eyes back to the desktop, announcing in a hushed voice, "That’s all, Hogan. You’re dismissed."
Hogan began to stammer an objection, but one look at Burkhalter’s impassive face made him realize it was useless. Refusing to salute, he turned angrily on his heels and stormed out, the slamming of the door reverberating throughout the office.
With a sigh, Klink picked up one of the papers before him and stared at it incomprehensibly for several moments before remembering he still had an important guest in his office. He looked up suddenly to an amused, condescending expression on Burkhalter’s face.
"What is it, Klink?"
"Oh, nothing really, General Burkhalter. I just, well, I'm so surprised at Colonel Hogan this morning. Something has changed. Lately he hasn't been himself. Don't you think he seemed different, Herr General?"
"Perhaps." Burkhalter puffed thoughtfully on the cigar. "Tell me, Klink, in your schooling at Gymnasium, you studied the ancient Greek tragedies, no?"
"Oh, certainly, Herr General. Although, of course, my Gymnasium was an all boys' school. For some reason I was always selected to read the female parts in the plays…" Klink reflected back, a perplexed look on his face.
"Why am I not surprised to hear that, Klink?" Burkhalter scowled at him. "At any rate, you might recall what they referred to as 'hubris?'"
"Uh, let's see, 'hubris,'" Klink stammered. "Yes, I think I remember, er, 'hubris,' um, wasn't that, uh…"
Burkhalter rolled his eyes. "'Hubris,' Klink, refers to an excess of pride. It was often the downfall of many a Greek hero and perhaps it is that same arrogance that felled our Colonel Hogan. Believe me, if he had not tripped himself up this morning, I suspect he would have eventually been caught in Major Hochstetter's net. He is far too impertinent for his own good. It became his Achilles heel, if you will."
"But, Dachau, Herr General?" Klink looked at him pleadingly. "Don't you think that was a bit, er, harsh?"
Burkhalter paused before answering, weighing Klink and his response carefully for several seconds.
"Don’t tell me you’re finding it difficult to do your job as kommandant here, Klink, because despite what I said earlier, I can readily find a replacement for you."
Klink responded, his tone blustery. "Of course not, General Burkhalter. I’m actually quite pleased to finally be rid of that troublemaker. I can assure you things will go much more smoothly here without him."
"I thought you’d say that, Klink." Burkhalter grimaced, as he lifted his bulk with effort from the chair and retrieved his hat and topcoat. "I don’t care if you are pleased or not, I want no further problems from this camp, or you will find yourself sharpening your skates for the Siberian Ice Festival."
The flustered kommandant rose from behind his desk, quickly hurrying to help bundle the senior officer into his coat. A lackluster, "Heil Hitler," trailed the general from the office, before Klink leaned back heavily against the edge of his desk, head sagging.
He gradually turned to the window that overlooked the compound. What alternative did he have? He was baffled as to the reason for Hogan’s change in personality over the past few weeks, but it didn’t matter, he thought, as he looked out at a solitary figure walking painfully toward Barracks Two. There was still a prison camp to be run. He was only doing his job.
Turning his collar up against the cold, Hogan slowly made his way across the compound. "You are then to be transported to a camp at Dachau." A feeling of pure dread surged through him. His stay at Stalag 13 had been no picnic, but he knew Dachau would be a genuine hell on earth by comparison. During one of his visits to Headquarters, he'd read some of the debriefing reports of the few escapees from that horrific facility. News of the atrocities being perpetrated there was tightly held, but given the nature of Hogan’s mission, he’d been allowed access to the sobering files.
The men seated around the long table in the middle of their barracks looked up as Hogan came through the door. The atmosphere in the room perceptibly gloomed. He didn’t have to avoid making eye contact with anyone. No one dared meet his gaze, for fear they might make themselves the target of his evident foul mood. Hogan limped toward his room at the end of the barracks and slammed the door behind him without even a glance at the others.
Pulling the stool out from behind his desk, Hogan sat down heavily and dropped his head across his folded arms onto the table. Oh God, he felt so very tired all of a sudden.
He heard a faint tap at the door, but didn't want to acknowledge it. He half hoped whoever was there would go away, although he knew it wasn’t likely. The door cracked opened, and a small face looked in, before a figure hesitantly entered the room. LeBeau quietly approached, sliding a mug on the desk toward him.
"Mon Colonel, I thought you might like some coffee," he said softly.
Still resting against his arms, Hogan turned his head to the side and opened one bloodshot eye to look at LeBeau. The Frenchman’s face gazed down worriedly at him.
"After last night, did you think I might like some coffee, or was it more you thought I might need some coffee?" Hogan grumbled roughly. LeBeau’s face reddened, recalling the intemperate display he’d witnessed the night before.
"Well, perhaps I thought you might need some, too, sir," LeBeau mumbled, shrugging his shoulders in embarrassment.
A grunt was Hogan’s only reply, as he turned away and rested once more against his forearms. His head pounded with each movement, and the inside of his mouth felt as though it contained more wool than the meager blankets they’d been issued as POW's.
Hogan heard the door open a second time, followed by the sound of shuffling feet. A line of prisoners stood before him, hesitantly looking at each other. Kinch cleared his throat, grabbing Newkirk by an arm to restrain him from slipping back out the door. None of them wanted to confront Hogan, but they had agreed to do this as a team, and Kinch was determined to get it over with. He cleared his throat again, a bit louder this time, and scuffed his feet, peering down at the slumped figure.
Finally realizing they weren’t going to leave him alone, Hogan wearily lifted his head and surveyed the men encircling his desk.
"Sorry. Tryouts for the camp barbershop quartet have been postponed. You’ll have to audition another time."
He lowered his aching head once more, groaning slightly when it made contact.
"Uh, Colonel, we’re sorry to disturb you, but we need to speak with you, sir." Kinch scowled at the others, his stern look riveting them in place to keep anyone from breaking rank.
A deep sigh issued from the hunched figure. Hogan slowly sat up and assessed their anxious faces.
"All right, I’m listening," he said sourly.
Kinch coughed uncomfortably, glancing quickly at the others before proceeding.
"Uh, well, sir, I think you should know that London radioed us yesterday, and we heard what happened."
Hogan looked at them more intently.
"Oh, I see," he said cautiously.
"Yeah, and can you believe they ordered us to take you into custody? Isn’t that a riot, Colonel?" Carter forced a nervous laugh, the others glaring at him.
Hogan’s eyes narrowed.
"Is that so?" he said, his tone darkening. "And just what have you decided to do about it?"
Kinch tried not to appear unnerved. "Well, sir, we really hadn’t decided."
"I get the idea," Hogan said, nodding his head in disgust. "Well, what’s it going to be? You going to draw straws for who gets to put me in handcuffs? Although, maybe with the way things have been going the past few weeks, the person who draws the short straw will be the winner and not the loser, hmm?"
"Look, sir, we’re not trying to take sides on this thing, but London has us backed into a corner." Kinch awkwardly jammed his hands into his field jacket pockets in resignation, as Newkirk chimed in.
"Blimey, Colonel, if we don’t follow through with their orders, they’ll be bringin' us all up on charges next."
Carter spoke up, trying to appear neutrally helpful. "Yeah, in fact, we were supposed to alert them the minute you showed up."
Hogan fixed him with a steely glare. "Well, did you?"
"Uh, well, no, sir, we, uh, we thought we’d give you more time to recover from last night," Carter said haltingly, as he looked down at the floor.
"Oui, Colonel, we thought we’d wait until morning to talk with you to make certain it wasn’t a mistake," LeBeau quickly added.
"Mistake, huh?" he said with a cynical chortle. "Yeah, there’s been a mistake all right. Only the mistake was in my signing up for this lousy tour in the first place."
Hogan got up from the stool and slowly hobbled over to his bunk. He sat down heavily, reaching over to bring his sore leg up onto the bed. It was an even bet as to which throbbed worse, his ankle or his head. He propped his cap down over his eyes and folded his arms, leaning back against the wall.
"Uh, Colonel," Kinch said with concern, "the message from London said you’d been relieved of command. What on earth happened at Headquarters?"
"Headquarters." Hogan snorted with disgust. "That bunch of overstuffed desk jockeys, constantly second-guessing us. They’re trying to pin the blame on me for everything, and I finally got tired of being the one sticking my neck out all the time."
He tilted the cap back on his head.
"Sometimes I don’t know why I even bother. After all, what do I have to show for the sacrifices I've made?" His voice dropped. "Now, thanks to a certain technicality known as a court martial, my career is shot. Kaput. Over. I’ll be lucky if I can get a job flying a broken-down bi-plane, giving rides at Coney Island to spoiled rich kids who’ll get sick in the rear jump seat."
He darkly scanned the line of taut faces.
"And what about the rest of you, huh? What do you honestly think you’ll have to show for this thankless assignment? Don’t you realize because of that little piece of paper called a secrecy agreement they shoved in front of us, you’ll never be able to even hint at what we really did here? As far as anyone back home will be concerned, we were so incompetent we got taken prisoner and then weren't even resourceful or maybe courageous enough to try and escape. They’re all going to react the same way General Barton did. They’re going to think we’re sellouts and a disgrace, and we won’t be able to do a damn thing to correct them!"
Carter, the eternal, impractical optimist, paled, but somehow found his voice.
"Look, Colonel," he said faintly, "it can’t be as bad as that. We all volunteered for this dangerous assignment. That’s got to count for something, right?"
"Count for something? Like what, Carter?" Hogan shook his head. "Has it occurred to you guys we’re getting to spend the best years of our lives in a prison camp? Oh sure, we were all willing to go along with it at first, but things aren’t the same any more. You know as well as I do we’ve had more food shortages and poorer treatment to put up with than when this began. Thanks to an increase in scrutiny from Hochstetter and his boys in black, our mission is becoming more difficult to accomplish, and Headquarters doesn’t understand why. Hell, the brass in London is more interested in meaningless spit and polish and trying to follow the local cricket matches than in supporting us."
Kinch spoke softly, his dark eyes intense. "It hasn’t been easy for any of us, Colonel. But we all agreed to this mission critical assignment because we thought we stood a better chance of making a real impact in the war."
Hogan glared at the line of men standing uncomfortably before him.
"I don’t know why I even bother talking to you guys. You still think all this mission critical nonsense is on the level." Hogan’s voice rose to a hoarse yell. "Don't you get it? Absolutely no one gives a damn about us!" He angrily tore off his cap, hurling it into a corner of the room.
LeBeau looked aghast, as the others stared in disbelief.
A sudden knock at the door thankfully drew their attention away from Hogan’s livid face.
"What the hell is it now?!" Hogan shouted irritably.
The door cracked open, and Schultz, his eyes wide, looked in anxiously. "I-I-I’m sorry if I am disturbing you, Colonel Hogan," he said. "B-b-but I have been ordered by the Kommandant to, er, to t-t-tell you…" Schultz looked down at the floor, unable to continue.
"For crying out loud, Schultz," Hogan said disgustedly. "Just tell me what our beloved kommandant wants, will you?"
Schultz looked startled at Hogan’s uncharacteristically brusque manner. His face flushed, and as he looked around at the other prisoners, he noticed the mixture of emotions on their faces. It would seem he was not the only one who had recently felt the brunt of the senior officer’s ire.
"Jawohl, Colonel Hogan." Schultz coughed uneasily before continuing. "Corporal Langenscheidt is, er, out front with the truck whenever you are ready."
LeBeau wandered over to one corner of the room, where he absently picked up Hogan’s cap. He stood there, mechanically fingering the emblem on its front, as he looked up in surprise.
"Ready for what, Schultzie?" LeBeau asked.
Schultz glanced at Hogan’s averted face before answering. "Er, ready to take Colonel Hogan. He, er, is being transferred."
"To another barracks, you mean?" Kinch asked, puzzled.
"No. He," Schultz cleared his throat before mumbling, "is being transferred from Stalag 13."
The others looked at Hogan with shock.
"Is that true, Colonel?"
Hogan grunted his reply. "Yeah, and what about it? I’d think you’d be overjoyed at the news. After all, it relieves you of a certain problem, wouldn’t you say?"
There was evident relief mixed with surprise on their faces, he noted. No one spoke in response.
Hogan glared at Schultz. "Tell him I’ll be right there, Schultz. I’ll be glad to be rid of this dump. It’s clear nobody here is on my side."
Schultz’s jaw dropped open. The other men’s faces tightened, as Newkirk was the first to turn stiffly on his heels and stalk out of the office. He no longer cared if Hogan was supposed to be the senior officer, he’d heard enough. Kinch and Carter followed quickly after him, equally hurt by their former commander’s remarks. LeBeau was the last to leave and dropped Hogan’s cap on his desk on his way out, refusing to look at him.
Schultz, his mouth still agape, turned from watching the others parade out of the room.
Hogan’s head dropped to his chest.
"Colonel Hogan?" Schultz said softly.
The American seemed lost in contemplation for a few moments, before his head jerked back up, frowning at being disturbed.
"Colonel Hogan, as soon as you are ready…" Schultz shrugged apologetically, his voice fading away. Hogan grimly smiled and waved at him to follow the others.
"It’s not your fault, Schultz," he said quietly, as the door closed. "You’re only doing your job."
Hogan was grateful for the opportunity to pack in private. He was reminded of another occasion, a year or so earlier, when he’d been told he was leaving Stalag 13. He recalled LeBeau standing at his desk, toying with the straps on his packed suitcase, not wanting to relinquish possession of it, as though he could somehow alter things and keep him there by clinging to it. He could hardly look at Hogan then for fear he’d burst into tears. Things certainly were different now.
He shook the memory off and finished latching his case, taking one last look around the room. He was surprised to find himself feeling almost sentimental about the place; it was as though he already felt some pangs of homesickness. The barracks had become as much of a home for him as anywhere else since he'd joined the military, he reflected. Nah. Those feelings were just more symptoms of his hangover, he told himself, as he picked up his cap and proceeded out of the now empty barracks.
Langenscheidt was leaning against the side of the covered truck and came to attention, when Hogan stepped out into the yard. He wordlessly handed the slight, young corporal his valise and climbed into the front passenger seat, taking one last look around the solitary compound. No one had assembled to wish him farewell. It was as though the camp chose to purposely ignore his departure. The scene was in sharp contrast to when he’d been transferred once before, fatefully bound for the Berlin Express. That time, he was ringed by a cadre of well-wishers reluctantly seeing him off.
"You are to be transported to a camp at Dachau." Burkhalter's words echoed in his mind. Hogan had definitely chosen the wrong morning to let his temper erupt. It had been simmering for weeks, a fury lying just below the surface, and all it had taken was Braden’s one sarcastic comment for him to lose control. Hogan had clearly pushed Klink and Burkhalter too far this time, but it was too late now to try and make amends.
He glanced over at the Kommandant’s office and thought he saw a shadow, partially hidden by the window frame, peering out. The vision was so momentary, it appeared to be an illusion, but pride prevented him from looking back.
As the truck approached the main gate, Hogan noticed LeBeau standing by their barracks. Reflexively, he lifted a hand to signal goodbye and then caught himself, looking abruptly away. LeBeau sighed and dropped his head. He thought for certain Hogan would at least have waved to him as he left, but he had turned too soon and missed the unconsummated gesture. How could a man he had so looked up to change so drastically?
The Frenchman proceeded around the rear of the barracks to where the others stood lounging in the cool late morning sun. Schultz, his shoulders slumped and wooden rifle stock dragging in the dirt beside him, shuffled past.
"Eh, Schultzie," LeBeau called out.
The guard glanced up, startled. He’d been so lost in thought that he hadn’t even noticed their presence.
"Ja, LeBeau, what is it?" He sighed deeply, approaching them.
"Schultz, what Stalag is Colonel Hogan being transferred to?"
Schultz hesitated before answering, his voice unusually soft. "He’s not being transferred to a Stalag, Cockroach."
"What do you mean, Schultz?" The Frenchman looked at him in confusion.
"I, er, I mean he’s not being transferred to a LuftStalag, that’s all." Schultz mumbled, turning to walk away.
"Wait a minute, Schultz," Kinch broke in. The German halted in his tracks. "Just where is the Colonel being taken?" His tone was filled with the suspicion that Schultz was trying to avoid telling them something.
Schultz dropped his eyes. "He’s been transferred by General Burkhalter’s orders to a special punishment camp at Dachau," he said uneasily. Although he didn't know the full implications of such a move, he had heard enough to know it was definitely something to be avoided. He'd overheard Burkhalter once say you stood a better chance of coming back alive from the Russian Front than from one of the special camps built for some yet unspoken purpose.
Carter stuttered, "D-D-Dachau? Are you sure, Schultz?"
Schultz, unable to reply, nodded morosely. The prisoners gasped audibly. They all immediately recognized the consequences. Had he been transferred to a regular POW camp there was a good chance he could have outlasted the war. At Dachau, one’s chances for survival were slim at best. They were suddenly struck with the realization they might never again see Colonel Hogan alive.
LeBeau spun around and raced to the front of the barracks, the others immediately behind him. The truck was long since out of sight. He felt the bottom of his stomach drop. They'd never even said goodbye.
The truck jarred along and with each bump in the road Hogan heard the fateful pronouncement echo in his mind. Dachau. Dachau. Dachau. He knew he’d pushed Burkhalter too far this time, but never expected him to react that way.
Previously, he’d always been able to manipulate Burkhalter and Klink to get what he wanted, but recently he hadn’t even cared to try. He’d been too tired, too frustrated and angry, and lately just didn’t give a damn any more.
It had all begun with Rudy's death. Hogan had taken it pretty hard, although he wasn’t sure if his men appreciated the impact the death had had on him. They’d experienced deaths before, most recently with the loss of a special courier who’d been killed delivering a booby-trapped briefcase for an attempt on the Fuhrer’s life. But this time it was different. This time it was someone he'd considered a good friend.
Shuddering as he forced the persistent vision from his memory, he tried to think of the alternatives. Hogan knew his only chance was to make a break before they reached the train station. Once there he was likely to be manacled with handcuffs and leg irons, virtually sealing his fate.
He slouched in the seat, leaning his head back and tilting the cap down over his eyes. Langenscheidt glanced over at him and was just as glad the usually outgoing officer seemed withdrawn this morning. Schultz had told him what was to be the American’s fate, and under the circumstances he was uncomfortable with having to engage him in casual conversation.
The day was clear, the air crisp with cold, and the young German took in the scenery, as they drove along the forested road. An arrowhead-patterned flock of geese swept above them, their noisy honking disturbing the silence. They reminded Langenscheidt of the times he had hunted for game in these same woods, his father and older brother by his side. Far too many years had passed since they had felt free to do that. It was odd, but in some respects ordinary German citizens were as much prisoners of the war as the Allied fliers contained within LuftStalag 13. Now, with his brother recently reported missing in action on the Russian Front, he tried not to dwell on the thought that they might never be together again. Langenscheidt longed for the end to this stupid war and dreamed of once again spending a leisurely day in the woods, the leaves crunching under his feet, as he made his way along the shady trails.
A sharp groan from the figure next to him interrupted his reverie. He glanced over and saw the American doubled over, desperately clutching his sides, his breath coming quickly in shallow gasps.
"Colonel Hogan, are you all right?" He suddenly panicked, worrying that the officer could be having a heart attack.
Hogan shook his head, able to only utter a miserable cry.
Langenscheidt quickly pulled the vehicle to the side of the road and jumped out. If he could get Hogan to lie down, he might be able to flag a passing motorist and summon help.
The corporal opened the passenger door and leaned in, trying to examine the slumped figure. The swift movement caught him totally by surprise. Hogan brought his arms up, landing a fierce blow to the plexus of nerves in the crook of Langenscheidt’s neck. The last thing he remembered before blacking out was astonishment at how the stricken man had so quickly summoned such strength.
Hogan caught Langenscheidt, folding him into a heap. The move they’d taught him in his special operations training was most effective in stunning an adversary. Langenscheidt would be out for at least twenty minutes. He looked up the road to make certain no vehicles were approaching and then dragged the unconscious guard into the underbrush.
Slipping out of his leather flight jacket, Hogan turned Langenscheidt over to extract his arms from the long woolen overcoat. He knew with his injured ankle he’d have to take the truck if he wanted to get very far. It obviously wouldn’t do to have an American alone behind the wheel of the German military vehicle. The enlisted man’s overcoat and hat would at least superficially make him look authentic to anyone he passed. Hogan felt a twinge of guilt at having to leave Langenscheidt there in the cold and carefully bundled his leather jacket around the prone body.
Glancing hastily in either direction, he slammed the passenger door shut and hurried around to the driver’s side. He hoped the vehicle had enough gasoline to get him to his destination. The gauge read nearly full. More than enough to make it to where he had to go, he thought, as he let out the clutch and started down the solitary road. His life on the run was only just beginning.
Kinch looked up from his book, when Newkirk wandered into the radio room, a clipboard in his hand and perplexed expression on his face.
"What’s the matter, Newkirk?"
"Kinch, I could’ve sworn we inventoried everything not more than two weeks ago but already several things are missing." Tugging absently at the neck of his sweater, Newkirk shook his head in confusion.
"Well, it’s an odd assortment, really. Some German currency, a few suits of clothes, even one of the Walthers is gone, and I know we’re extra careful about keeping track of the weapons."
Ordinarily, with the exception of the gun, he wouldn’t have been so troubled about a few items missing from their vast underground supply. However, after Hogan’s unexpected transfer, they had decided they’d better be fully prepared and held an inventory in the event London either sent them a new team leader or shut down the operation.
They were interrupted by the sound of someone pounding twice on the support structure above them. The two men looked up simultaneously to see LeBeau and Carter racing down the wooden ladder into the tunnel. In his haste, LeBeau missed the last two rungs and tumbled to the ground at their feet. The curse that flew from him in his native language was indecipherable to the rest, but they didn’t need to understand the words to catch their drift. Carter helped him to his feet and turned excitedly toward Kinch and Newkirk, waiting with dumbfounded looks.
"Langenscheidt just came back into camp!" Carter exclaimed.
Newkirk rolled his eyes. "Oh for heavens sake, Carter, did you come tearing down here just to tell us that?"
"Yeah, the way you two were racing, you’d think you were going to a fire or something." Kinch shook his head and turned his attention back to his book.
"Mon Dieu, will you two écoutez un moment?" LeBeau glared impatiently at them.
"Okay, Louis, spit it out, what’s so important about Langenscheidt coming back."
"He returned on foot!"
"What do you mean, on foot?" Kinch looked intently from LeBeau to Carter. "What happened to the truck? Did it break down?"
For an instant, Kinch’s spirits soared to think mechanical problems had perhaps deterred Hogan from reaching his tragic destination. Sure, he’d been tough to live with the past few weeks, but they’d all quickly forgotten that when they’d learned of his fate.
Carter answered, still breathless. "No, Langenscheidt came back alone. Colonel Hogan knocked him out and made a break for it."
"He was left by the side of the road. When Langenscheidt came to sometime later there was no colonel, no truck." LeBeau’s voice carried the same elation that swept through them all.
Kinch’s grin quickly erased from his face. "Hey, Newkirk, those clothes missing from our inventory--what size are they?"
Newkirk examined the clipboard, flipping through its pages, each more rapidly than the one before. He looked up at Kinch with realization dawning on his face. "Why, they were all 40 regular, Kinch."
The two men looked at each other for several seconds before echoing in unison, "Same size as Colonel Hogan's."
Without saying another word, Kinch strode over to the ladder and began climbing upwards. The others paraded close behind, as he proceeded into the private office at the end of the barracks. He stepped inside the now vacant room and walked over to the locker, jerking open the door. Kinch whistled low, the others grouping around him. The locker contained a full complement of uniforms. Uniforms belonging to an Army Air Corps colonel.
"I’d say Colonel Hogan had an idea he wasn’t going to need these when he packed up today."
"I wonder what he’s got in mind?" Newkirk asked out loud.
"I wish I knew, Newkirk. All I hope, is it somehow keeps him out of harm’s way."
It was well after dark, when Hogan slipped past the huge statue of Bismarck marking the boundary of Hamburg's outskirts. He carried a large brown parcel under his arm and, after turning up his threadbare collar against the winter wind, jammed his bare hands in the coat pockets to keep them warm. Winding his way through the narrow side streets, he purposely made several turns through adjoining alleyways to be sure he wasn’t followed.
As he proceeded further into the labyrinthine maze, the surroundings noticeably deteriorated. The homes in this section seemed to have as many roof shingles missing as were left attached and any remaining decorative ironwork was long ago rusted in place. Hogan glanced quickly around and then stepped into a darkened entryway, the absence of light masking the door's worn and peeling condition. He bet it hadn't seen a coat of paint since Bismarck’s time.
The foyer was dark and unlit, as much from the landlord being too cheap to keep the single hallway lamp supplied with a working bulb, as the fact that residents now had to observe nighttime light discipline. The city had recently come under bombing attacks, and the previously lackadaisical attitude of its citizens had quickly changed once they began to suffer real damage.
Hogan carefully felt his way up the creaking flight of stairs and proceeded to his right, stopping before a door at the end of the narrow corridor. He fumbled in his pockets for the key and turned it in the lock, the door swinging slowly open. Hogan cautiously entered, standing just inside for a moment to allow his vision to adjust to the dark, as he surveyed the room. Everything appeared undisturbed.
Crossing to a small table against the far wall, Hogan felt for a lamp and turned it on, the naked bulb starkly illuminating the room. He didn’t have to worry about taking the precaution of drawing the shades before turning on the lamp. Apparently the landlord didn’t trust her lower-class tenants and had thickly coated the windows with black paint to ensure their compliance with the evening blackouts.
Besides the table, the sparsely decorated one-room flat was furnished with only a rusted iron-frame bed, a battered straight-backed wooden chair, and a cheap dresser. Hogan's breath showed in small puffs, while he moved about the room. The lifeless radiator perched beneath one of the windows resisted all attempts to coax any heat from it, rendering the room perpetually cold. One corner of a glass windowpane had long ago been broken and the gaping hole stuffed with a wad of faded, yellowing newspaper. On blustery nights, the wind whistled, as it whipped through the fissure. By comparison, his room at Stalag 13 had seemed like a suite at the St. George's Hotel.
The stooped, gray-haired pensioner who’d rented him the flat looked at him askance because of his unkempt appearance, but he’d offered her an extra month’s rent in advance and then mumbled some excuse about having traveled a long distance and not having had time to clean up. She seemed skeptical, but took his money and repeated her admonishment that he’d better not cause any trouble, or he’d find himself out in the street.
He’d purposely sought out the cheapest furnished flat he could find. He wanted a place to lay low for a while and avoid coming to anyone’s attention. Some place to provide a temporary sanctuary, until he figured out what he was going to do. He didn’t expect to be there for very long.
Unwrapping the parcel, the contents were spread out on the wrought iron bed. He stood back, surveying his loot, and scratched the stubble covering his face. Watches, bottles of liquor, cigarettes, and silk stockings were arrayed before him. The international currency, he thought with a grin. He’d accumulated quite a haul, given the brief bit of time he’d been at work. Newkirk would have been proud of his skill with the lock picking set he'd "borrowed" before leaving Stalag 13.
Hogan sat on the single straight-backed chair and rubbed his ankle, as he cautiously flexed the foot. It had healed well enough that his limp was hardly noticeable, and the scratches on his face had also finally disappeared. Guess it's time to start shaving again. He had to admit that he enjoyed not having to bother with the morning ritual.
He'd also found that his disheveled appearance worked to his advantage in an unexpected way. Individuals he passed on the street ignored him and pretended he didn’t exist, as though afraid even their acknowledgement of his presence might precipitate his asking for a handout. It certainly made it easier to slip about unnoticed.
Hogan picked up a fifth of whiskey from the bed and broke the seal, raising the bottle in a solitary salute.
"Cheers, Herr Rudolf Jäger, you’re going into business for yourself for a change."
Hogan lifted the bottle and took several long swallows; he hardly noticed the burn any more. Wiping his mouth on his sleeve, he turned to collecting up the items and rewrapped them in the brown paper before crossing to one corner of the room. He lifted a floorboard, being careful not to make the ancient wood voice a protest. The parcel slipped in tightly underneath, and he replaced the board to conceal its presence. He’d be able to easily access it when he needed the items. First task, however, was to find himself a buyer.
Hogan quietly entered the smoke-filled Hofbrau and took his usual seat at a solitary table in the corner. He’d already had several shots alone in his room before going out that evening. It was as though he could no longer face the world without deadening himself with alcohol. Without it, he was too painfully aware of his dreary surroundings and a future that appeared more and more bleak. He sat there quietly lost in thought, head bowed, as his fingers absently drummed a tattoo on the table.
His deliberations were suddenly intruded upon by the distinct impression that someone was staring at him. He lifted his head to look directly into a pair of inquisitive hazel eyes. The brunette who accompanied them would have been more attractive if she hadn’t seemed quite so worn and tired, Hogan thought. She was dressed in a flowery dirndl skirt whose fabric had seen better days, and a plain, peasant-style blouse, the sleeves tightly gathered at her wrists. She cleared her throat a second time and raised her eyebrows at him expectantly.
"Bitte?" she asked.
Hogan blinked in surprise. "What happened to Greta?"
The brunette sighed, looking even wearier, and shifted her weight from one leg to the other as though she’d been on her feet far too many hours that day. "Greta? I don’t know any Greta."
"She’s the waitress who’s usually here. What happened to her?"
"Oh, you mean the woman who used to work here?" The brunette shrugged indifferently. "Maybe she just decided not to show up for work. All I know is Karl hired me this afternoon to help out."
"Well, I’m not complaining by any means. You’re a definite improvement." Hogan grinned at her. "Must be Karl is trying to upgrade the class of this joint, hmm?"
She forced a cold smile. "I was given the job because I don’t mix up the orders, I can carry six steins of beer at once without spilling a drop, and I don’t date the customers. Now what do you want to drink?"
Hogan shrugged. It had been worth a try. "Bring me a glass of beer and a bottle of whiskey."
The waitress looked at him with an odd expression. "What makes you think we have whiskey here?"
Hogan wondered if his accent might be part of the reason for the suspicious look she was giving him. His German was only passable; he’d hoped they’d simply think he was a foreign Arbeiter, or displaced worker, from one of the surrounding occupied countries.
He decided to go on the offensive and fixed her with a condescending glare. "Look, I know you have whiskey here because I keep Karl, your boss, supplied with it. Now be a good Liebchen and go get me the bottle that’s on the first shelf below the bar, the left side."
Her face registered a mixture of surprise and insult, and she turned on her heels without saying a word. He’d probably just ruined his chances of ever getting friendly with her, but at this point he didn’t care.
She stood before him a few moments later, placing the full mug of beer and bottle of whiskey on the table. Grabbing the shot glass off the tray without waiting for her to pour, he fed himself a generous portion, throwing it back quickly. He could feel the alcohol coursing through his system and closed his eyes, the burn beginning to sweep over him, but quickly opened them again at the sound of the door opening and someone’s footsteps invading the nearly empty Hofbrau.
A noticeable change in the waitress's demeanor suddenly piqued his curiosity. Her posture abruptly stiffened, as a dark-haired man, his sharply angular face underlined by a neatly trimmed goatee, entered the doorway. He stood on the threshold and looked around the room, his gaze pausing for a moment when it reached the waitress. It was the expression on her face that really caught Hogan's attention. There was a fleeting look of recognition, perceptibly tinged with fear.
She pushed some wayward locks of auburn hair back from her face, hands trembling slightly, as she approached the gentleman’s table at the other side of the room. With a careful deliberateness he removed his gloves and overcoat and draped them over a nearby chair. His movements were refined, almost effete, but there was no tenderness underlying them. Instead, they conveyed a menacing presence, like a coiled rattlesnake concealed beneath a rock ledge.
Hogan overheard her politely asking the gentleman what he would like to drink. He couldn’t quite catch the reply but watched with casual interest, as she returned moments later with a glass of wine. They appeared to exchange some remarks, the waitress glancing around first to see who was seated in their vicinity.
She detoured by Hogan's table on her return to the bar. "Can I get you anything else?" she inquired nonchalantly.
He knew the question wasn’t necessary; it was as though she wanted an excuse to stop there.
"No, Liebchen, just keep the beer flowing and make sure this bottle doesn’t empty, and I’ll be fine."
He nodded as if to dismiss her, but she continued to stand there quizzically.
"What is it?" he finally asked, cocking his head to one side.
"You, er, you don’t sound as though you’re from here," she said hesitantly.
"My, my," Hogan retorted with a grin, "that sounds like a pickup line to me if I ever heard one."
Her face went cold once more, fixing him with an irritated glare. "I told you before, I don’t date the customers."
"That’s okay, honey," replied Hogan, his grin blossoming to lecherous proportions. "What I had in mind, I wouldn't exactly call dating."
He placed one hand suggestively on a curvaceous hip and tried steering her in the direction of his lap. She deftly slipped from his grasp, lashing out with one hand to deliver a resounding slap. Despite the numbing effects of the alcohol, Hogan noticed the blow seemed designed to create more noise than actual hurt--her hand was cupped as it made contact. He doubted there was even a mark left on his cheek, although the sound had effectively startled him and the few patrons who were still present.
She turned angrily on her heel and retreated to the bar. Hogan chuckled to himself. It didn’t matter what the nationality, there was no figuring dames.
He poured himself another shot glass of whiskey, as the stranger called the waitress back to his table. She approached the gentleman, her hazel eyes inquiring, but guarded. Hogan couldn’t hear what the man said, but didn't miss the quick glance she fired to his table before subtly shifting her body to block his view. Even if he could lip-read in German, that would certainly prevent him from observing what they were saying, he noted with annoyance.
"Bitte?" the waitress asked. She noticed the glass of wine before him was still untouched.
"Fraulein," the gentleman said, "I was just wondering who your friend is over there." He inclined his head slightly in the direction of Hogan’s table.
The waitress looked over her shoulder and then quickly turned back, shifting her body to one side to conceal their conversation.
"He’s not a friend," she said icily. "He’s just some customer who’s had too much to drink and tried to get fresh with me."
"I don’t recall seeing him around before. Do you know who he is?" he asked with curiosity.
"No, and I don’t care. If you’re so interested, why don’t you go ask him," she replied haughtily.
His next move caught her completely off-guard. She was leaning on her hands on the edge of the table to take some weight off her aching feet, when the stranger's arm darted out with serpentine quickness, pinning one hand to the table's surface. The suddenness of his gesture startled her, but the vise-like strength he employed kept her from recoiling and truly frightened her.
"Ouch," she said tensely under her breath, "you’re hurting me."
"You haven’t even begun to know the meaning of the word hurt."
He applied even more crushing force against the fragile bones and tendons of the back of her hand. She bit her lip to keep from crying out.
"What do you want from me?" she asked, her breath coming in short gasps.
"I want you to find out whatever you can about the man at that table. If you insist on being stubborn, I could make things very unpleasant for you." The thin, bloodless lips curled into an artificial smile before he released her hand.
Shaken, she picked up her empty tray from the table.
"Ja…jawohl," she stuttered, turning away. Hogan glanced up, as she passed by his table. The color had drained from her face, and she seemed to be trembling slightly. He downed the rest of his beer and shrugged indifferently to himself. What did it matter to him if she’d been upset by her clearly private tête-a-tête with the stranger? Dropping some Reichsmarks on the table, he stood, wavering slightly, and made his way out of the bar, his head bowed and coat pulled tight around him against the bitter wind.
The biting wind threatened to disperse the playing cards atop the table, as the barracks door suddenly blew open, admitting a grimy, unshaven prisoner. The card players scarcely gave him a glance. Ignoring them in turn, Braden sauntered across the room to his bunk and leaned against the frame, stretching his arms in an exaggerated yawn that broke the chilly silence.
"I don’t know what would feel better right now--to sleep for twenty-four hours or grab a shower and shave first," he weighed aloud, rubbing red-rimmed eyes with his fists. His weary face was heavily forested with two-weeks’ worth of beard, and he absently scratched the growth while gazing around the barracks.
"So, did you guys miss me?" he asked with a sneer to no one in particular.
Newkirk broke his concentration from a less-than-promising hand and raised his eyes in an aggravated look.
"Here now, did you go somewhere?" he said acidly. Turning to the others, he asked, "Why didn't someone tell me he’d been away? I might’ve had LeBeau here bake a cake for his homecoming."
Carter chuckled. "Yeah, we missed you, Braden," he added sarcastically. "No one’s lost their shirt in a card game since you’ve been in the cooler."
Braden grunted his retort and turned to rummage through a footlocker, retrieving his towel and shaving kit. He slung the towel over one shoulder and picked up the kit bag before ambling toward the door. Taking an inventory of the players around the table, he suddenly noted Hogan’s absence.
"So, where’s the old man?" he asked with a sniff. Braden hooked his thumb toward the private room at the end of the barracks. "Taking an afternoon snooze, I suppose?" The men around the table glanced knowingly at each other, but didn’t give him the satisfaction of a response.
He curiously watched their silent exchange. "What, don’t tell me he pulled a longer stretch in the cooler than I did?" His face broke out in a huge grin, as he clapped Kinch resoundingly on the back and guffawed in laughter. "Why, that old marshmallow Klink really showed some spine for a change!"
Kinch coolly laid down his cards before looking up crossly at the grinning non-comm. "No, Braden, he didn’t pull a stretch in the cooler for that fight you provoked with another one of your smart remarks."
Braden’s face darkened. "What?! You mean that sonuvabitch got off scot free without any punishment?" He angrily smacked one end of his towel against the table, scattering the deck of cards.
Kinch slowly stood up, rigidly holding out one arm to restrain Newkirk from vaulting across the table. He spoke tersely, his dark eyes blazing, as he turned toward Braden.
"Listen up good, Braden, because we’re only going to go over this one time. If you ever refer to our former CO again it had better be as Colonel Hogan, got it?"
Kinch continued before Braden could voice the question reflected in his eyes.
"The Colonel didn’t get a stretch in solitary, because instead General Burkhalter ordered him transferred to Dachau."
Braden gaped in disbelief. "Dachau? You’re joking, right?" He turned to look at the other men glaring at him from around the table.
"I wouldn't joke about something like that. Fortunately, he managed to knock out his guard en route and escape."
The surly POW snorted in disgust. "Oh yeah, and I suppose now he’s back home living it up?"
LeBeau spoke up, his voice quiet. "Au contraire. He can’t go back because of the charges brought against him. He’s somewhere out there on his own."
"He can’t even use the same escape network he helped to create because everybody in the underground's been told to look out for him." Carter threw down his cards in disgust.
Braden slung the towel over his shoulder. "Yeah, well, I still say he’s better off than we are here, so I wouldn’t feel all broken up over it, if I were you."
He stepped to the door. "Now, if you gentlemen will excuse me, I’m going to try and shower off this grime. With one less prisoner in camp, maybe I’ll get lucky and find some hot water for a change."
No one returned his smirk, as the door slammed shut behind him.
Hogan sat at his usual table, drumming his fingers anxiously against its surface. It had been several hours since he’d had a drink, and the effects were beginning to wear off. The waitress approached him, looking as tired as the night before.
"Bitte?" she asked in a voice monotoned with fatigue and apathy. She stood before him, her eyes straying to other parts of the room, as she shifted impatiently from one foot to the other.
"Same as usual, Liebchen." He tried to force some cheeriness into his voice.
She looked at him with a bemused expression. "And that would be…?"
"Hmm, I thought I made more of an impression on you than that," he said flirtatiously. She didn’t even crack a smile. Deflated, he said glumly, "Beer and a whiskey." He’d half hoped she might be in a friendlier mood this evening, but that was evidently not the case.
She returned momentarily with his order and set it before him.
"You know, I don’t think I remember your name," Hogan inquired.
"That’s probably because I didn’t tell you my name," she said curtly.
"Ah, well, I’ll forgive the oversight this time." He summoned one of his warm, attractive smiles for her. "So, just what is your name?"
She paused for a few moments, assessing the searching look in his eyes. Beneath the transparent flirtatiousness, he seemed genuinely desperate for companionship. She had to admit there was something about him...
"Leisa," she said begrudgingly. "Leisa Engel. And you seem to have neglected to mention yours, Herr…?"
"Herr Rudolf Jäger, but let’s not be so formal, hmm?" Hogan’s smile broadened. "Please call me Rudy."
He held up a large brass fob dangling a key from the other end.
"Here," he said, waving the fob slightly, "this is the key to my flat in case you’d like to visit me later. Konigstrasse 39, second level."
She took the key and studied it in the palm of her hand. What could possibly have made her think this man was any different from all the others?
"Is that so?" she remarked. "How thoughtful." She swung the fob over the stein of beer, letting it slip from her fingers into the foamy brew. "Tsk, tsk," she clucked with feigned disappointment and turned on her heels. "Happy hunting, Herr Jäger."
Hogan thought he detected a hint of a smile at the corner of her mouth. At least she’d remembered his name. He’d have to keep working on her, he thought, his face furrowing in a frown, as he dipped into the stein.
He lifted the key, dripping foam, as the door opened with a whoosh, the wind whipping inside the bar. Several patrons nearest the entrance voiced protests, but silenced their complaints, noticeably shrinking back in fear, as the dark-haired man in the doorway looked sternly in their direction. He proceeded to an opposite corner of the room and shed his overcoat, shaking off the snow. Hogan lifted his beer, pretending not to notice when Leisa glanced his way first before approaching the gentleman.
Leisa set her tray on the table and ran a cloth around the already clean surface.
"Guten abend, mein Herr."
"And what would you care to drink this evening?" she asked.
"I think I will have a schnapps to take away some of this chill."
She nodded and began to head toward the bar.
"Just a moment, don’t be in such a hurry," he commanded. She froze and returned to the table, a questioning look in her face that she hoped concealed the fear she felt.
"Did you obtain the information I asked for?"
Leisa tried licking her lips and found her mouth dry. "Er, what was that, mein Herr?"
"Come now, you remember," he said, his voice oily, but the threat underlying it still apparent. "Let’s not play games, shall we? I don’t have time for such nonsense."
She swallowed hard. "Ja, ja, I’m sorry, I’m just a bit tired this evening." Brushing back some stray strands of hair, she glanced over one shoulder. Jäger seemed preoccupied with pouring himself another drink. She turned back to the tall stranger, positioning herself so Jäger would be unable to monitor their conversation.
"His name is Rudolf Jäger, he lives at Konigstrasse 39, second level." Leisa cleared her throat before continuing. "Karl said he deals in the black market. Liquor, cigarettes, wristwatches, whatever you need, he can get it." She paused, looking uncertain. "Is that what you wanted?"
"That will do very nicely for now, my dear," he said evenly. Leisa appeared momentarily relieved. "However, I want you to keep an eye on him. Let me know if he seems to be up to anything other than his black market dealings. Get to know him as well as a pretty thing like you can, hmm?"
Leisa tossed her head. "I can’t stand him," she said huffily.
"I don’t care if you like him or not, I want you to keep an eye on him for me. I’m not paying you to fall in love with him. Verstehen Sie?"
"Ja…jawohl, mein Herr, I understand." She nodded acquiescently before turning to head back to the bar.
"Not so quickly."
Leisa stopped in her tracks. Oh dear, just when she thought she’d finally be free of this horrid man.
"Bitte?" she meekly inquired.
"What is Herr Jäger drinking this evening?"
"What he usually drinks--whiskey and beer."
The gentleman pursed his lips thoughtfully. "Hmm, bring me a tall glass of whiskey."
Leisa appeared confused. "Do you want that instead of the schnapps?"
"The schnapps is for me, and the whiskey is for Herr Jäger, but just bring them both to my table, if you will, my dear."
Leisa nodded mutely, a relieved look on her face, as he dismissed her with a wave of his hand. She returned a moment later with the drinks, reaching into her skirt pocket to make change for the large denomination note he handed her.
"No, no change is necessary, my dear," he said with cloying sweetness. "You may keep that for your efforts."
"Ja, ja," Leisa said in amazement. "Danke schoen, mein Herr."
"One more thing," he said, as she turned to leave. She halted, slowly turning back to face him, the tension etched on her face. "I’d like you to ask Herr Jäger to join me at my table."
She nodded hesitantly and, picking up her tray, shakily made her way across the room. Hogan lifted his eyes questioningly, when she neared his table. Leisa stood before him, her face curiously strained.
"The gentleman at the table over there," she inclined her head, "would like you to join him for a drink."
Hogan peered around her. The dark-haired stranger with the goatee was the only patron in that direction. Hogan lifted his glass disinterestedly, turning his gaze back toward the waitress.
"Tell him I prefer to drink alone."
Leisa looked at him with surprise, her lips parting slightly, as though about to say something, but then she firmly set her mouth once more, thinking better of it. She returned to the stranger’s table to relay Jäger’s response. Hogan noticed her back stiffen. After a few moments, the gentleman rose and, picking up the glasses from the table, leisurely crossed the room.
"Herr Jäger?" the gentleman inquired in a civil tone.
Hogan glared at him.
"Maybe. What’s it to you?" he grumbled, his tone distinctly unfriendly.
One eyebrow arched over a cold, steel-gray eye, as he slowly pulled out the chair opposite Hogan and sat down, sliding the glass of whiskey toward him. There was an air of detached curiosity that failed to completely mask the reserved malevolence in his approach.
"I’d like to buy you a drink."
Hogan hungrily eyed the tall glass for a moment, filled nearly to the brim, and then looked directly at the stranger. "No thanks. My mother told me never to drink with strangers."
The gentleman’s head suddenly tilted upwards, his bloodless lips curling back. Although some might call the noise that emerged laughter, Hogan shivered imperceptibly at the chilling sound.
"Of course, please excuse my lapse in manners. I am Herr Kronbach, Albert Kronbach." It was said in the manner of a man who is used to some sign of recognition at the mention of his name. A response probably not characterized by feelings of warmth or joy, Hogan surmised.
"I see." He continued to meet the man’s icy stare. "Well, you apparently already know my name."
"I was wondering if you might be new to town. I don’t recall seeing you here before."
Hogan paused before carefully answering. "You could say I’m just passing through."
"Well, while you’re in town, I have a proposition for you. I understand you have a knack for obtaining, shall we say, certain articles of merchandise that are hard to find these days?"
Hogan’s eyes narrowed. "Maybe I do and maybe I don't. What are you looking for?"
Kronbach chuckled. "No, my friend, you misunderstand. I’m not in need of anything myself. Rather, I’d like to propose a partnership. I may be able to help you expand the success of your business enterprise, hmm?"
"I don’t believe in partnerships," Hogan said gruffly. "They remind me too much of marriage." He lifted the glass of whiskey and drained half of it in one gulp, shuddering as the liquid burned its way down his throat.
Kronbach persisted, leaning forward slightly and lowering his voice. "You might want to reconsider, Herr Jäger. I think I should tell you that it very much would be in your best interests to accept my offer." A small, dangerous smile appeared on his thin lips.
Hogan looked intently at him. "Look, I don’t care who the hell you are, I told you, I’m not interested. I work only for myself. I’ve got no boss, no one to report to, and that’s the way I like it. Next time you want to consider a business investment, why don’t you try the stock exchange? I hear it might be big some day."
Hogan rose slowly from the table, his eyes riveted on Kronbach. He drained the rest of the glass, then reached into his pocket and extracted several bills, tossing them on the table.
"There, just so you don’t think there’s any obligation between us."
Hogan picked up his glass of beer and walked unhurriedly to a table at the opposite side of the Hofbrau, where he deposited himself in a chair. He concentrated on pouring another shot of whiskey, refusing to return the menacing stare aimed at him from across the room.
Leisa’s eyes widened from her observation post at the bar. She hoped Jäger knew what he was doing. Whatever he’d said had clearly made Kronbach angry, and that wasn’t the effect most people wanted to attain in their dealings with the man. She held her breath as Kronbach, his mouth set in anger and nostrils flaring, stood from the table. He deliberately put on his overcoat, his eyes locked in the direction of Jäger’s table.
She hoped there wouldn’t be a confrontation. Karl had stepped out momentarily to check some inventory in the cellar, and she wouldn’t have anyone to turn to for help in breaking up a fight. With a sigh of relief, she watched as Kronbach began to make his way across the room and then abruptly angled for the door, storming out into the blustery night.
Her hands shaking, Leisa picked up her tray and a towel and proceeded hesitantly to Jäger’s table. She looked cautiously around the nearly empty room. Only a few patrons remained, and they didn't seem to have noticed the incipient confrontation. Jäger’s head was bowed, his face cloaked in a dark scowl. Leisa dropped her towel onto the table and pretended to wipe up an imaginary spill from its surface. Leaning over, she spoke in a low voice, her eyes darting nervously toward the door.
"Look, I’m not trying to interfere, but I think you should know the fellow you were talking with is not the sort of man you want to cross."
Hogan lifted his head in surprise and then resumed his frown. "If I want advice, I’ll ask for it," he said harshly. He looked at her suspiciously. "What's it to you, anyway?"
Her tone changed to pleading. "Look, don’t annoy him, just go along with whatever he wants, okay?"
Hogan shrugged. "What can he do to me?"
Her eyes dark with fear, she leaned closer and hoarsely whispered, "Geheime Staats Polizei."
Not seeing any reaction from him, she rolled her eyes in exasperation and hissed intently, "Gestapo, Dummkopf."
Hogan snorted. "I don’t intend to be around here long enough for anyone to catch up with me, especially the Gestapo."
Leisa looked at him in amazement and then shrugged and turned away.
This man is so incredibly stubborn, she thought.
This is going to be more difficult an assignment than I’d thought.
Hogan sat slumped at the table, staring at the bottle before him. He poured another drink and halfheartedly lifted the glass. What could Kronbach do, he wondered? After being threatened with transfer to Dachau, anything else would be mild by comparison. Hogan recalled the prison he'd passed on the outskirts of Hamburg. One day while walking nearby, he'd heard the pitiful screams and moans drifting over its high stone walls. The effects of the sort of treatment he would have been subjected to, if he’d not made his escape.
He brushed away the disturbing memory and looked around the Hofbrau. The place was nearly deserted. Between the late hour and wintry conditions, few had bothered to venture out. Hogan was just as glad for the solitude. Something about Kronbach thoroughly irritated him. He had a feeling he’d be drinking more than usual this evening as a result. In addition to keeping at bay the recall of events that brought him to this predicament, he now would have to also subdue the memory of this recent unpleasant encounter. Hogan shuddered and lifted his glass once more. All he wanted was to transform himself to the point of barely conscious alcoholic numbness, so he wouldn’t have to deal with the world and its problems.
Problems. He allowed himself to mentally drift back to Stalag 13 and realized it felt a long time since he’d been relieved of the pressures of command. He wondered how the men were getting on without him, but was still sentient enough that he didn’t want to pursue that psychological path and the feelings it might trigger. His head drooped slightly. It was too late--the flood of emotions began, sweeping over him in tides of regret. He’d get by somehow--he only hoped his men would make it through as well without him.
A match flame sparked suddenly in the dark street, briefly illuminating a man's sharply pointed visage. Kronbach inhaled deeply on the cigarette, pacing furiously back and forth. He was not used to being dealt with in that manner. Two men emerged from the bar, pulling up their collars against the snow that had once again begun to fall. They were rough-looking men, one short and thickset, with a boxer's face and body, the other tall, a lantern jaw his only distinguishing feature. They stopped before him, clearly noting his still seething anger.
"Did you see the man at that table?" Kronbach asked, gesturing toward the window of the Hofbrau.
"Jawohl, Herr Major."
"His name is Jäger."
"Herr Jäger did not seem to appreciate the generosity of your offer."
Kronbach grunted in response. "I expect he will come to realize he made a serious mistake."
"You want us to dispose of him for you, Herr Major?" the taller man asked.
Kronbach pursed his lips thoughtfully and then took another deep pull on his cigarette, the brightening tip casting an ominous red glow across his face.
"No, Hermann, not immediately. This Jäger might appear to be a worthless drunk, but he may be of use to us, at least for a short while."
The shorter of the two men looked disappointed and longingly fingered a heavy switchblade concealed in his pocket. Kronbach nodded understandingly, patting him on the shoulder.
"Don’t worry, Gunther. You will have your chance eventually. For now I want you two to teach Jäger a lesson in business etiquette. Make him understand he should treat his future partner with better manners. But do not kill him. Not yet. Understood?"
Hermann signaled his comprehension. Gunther merely stood there, sullen and silent.
"Understood, Gunther?" Kronbach repeated more insistently.
The shorter man nodded reluctantly.
"Good. He should be departing before long, and then you’ll have your opportunity."
"But what if he doesn’t want to listen to, er, reason?" Hermann asked.
The Gestapo major peered at the lone patron seated inside the bar. "I think our friend has a particular Achilles heel that we will find easy enough to exploit."
Kronbach continued to watch the solitary figure through the window. Even if Jäger changed his attitude after this evening, which he expected he would, his drinking would still present a problem. For now, Kronbach was temporarily willing to tolerate the behavior. He would see what he could use him for, drain him for all he was worth, and then dispose of him, permanently. In the meantime, he might prove quite useful in a number of ways, Kronbach thought, as he absently rubbed the side of his pointed nose.
Hogan sat slumped over the table, his head resting on his forearms. He’d half hoped he’d drink enough to pass out, but he hadn’t been successful, even though he’d given it one hell of a try. The bottle of whiskey before him was nearly empty, and still he clung to consciousness. He wanted to have it all fade from his awareness, to drift away and be able to pass a few hours painlessly in the undisturbed stupor of intoxication, but tonight for whatever reason such refuge eluded him.
He jerked up suddenly at the sensation of a hand on his shoulder. It was only Leisa. The bar had emptied out, and he was the last remaining customer. The waitress stood there looking at him, a concerned expression on her face. He shook his head to try and clear the haze, momentarily setting the room spinning. Even though he’d been unable to render himself unconscious with drink, he still hadn’t remained immune to its effects.
"Entschuldigen Sie, bitte," Leisa said hesitantly. She was holding a broom in one hand and appeared ready to close up.
Hogan grimaced. "I know, I know. Yer tryin' t'close an' ya wan' me outta here. All right, ya don’ hafta ask twice. I can find m'own way out, thank you v'ry much." Hogan came unsteadily to his feet, thrusting his chest out while making his little speech. He half hoped the gesture would provide more dignity than his slurred voice lent, as he turned to aim shakily for the door.
Leisa watched him go and realized that in a way she felt sorry for Jäger. She had to admit beneath the disheveled appearance, he was a handsome man. But she couldn’t afford to get involved with him. Not if she was to do the job they’d instructed her to do. Picking up the bills he'd left on the table, she saw him lurch for the exit and was amazed that he was able to navigate his way up the few steps to street level without stumbling over his unsteady feet. She turned back with a sigh, beginning to sweep the floor of the now empty Hofbrau.
Hogan stood at the top of the stairs, swaying as he bent his head back and gazed up at the night sky. He remained that way for what felt like a long time, breathing in the crisp evening air laden with the scent of fresh snow. It was only after several fat, wet flakes deposited on his upturned face that he realized it was still coming down heavily. He shivered, clumsily wiping the moistness from his face, before turning his coat collar up and beginning to stagger down the darkened street.
Turning left, he entered an alleyway that served as a shortcut to his flat. His hands were shoved in the pockets of his overcoat to keep them warm and head was bowed, as he stumbled along. He knew the way by rote and didn’t need to look up to follow the path.
Suddenly, he sensed something blocking his way. Hogan brought himself up short, making out a dark figure directly in front of him. Muttering an apology, he stepped to one side. The man, his face hooded by the brim of a fedora pulled low over his eyes, stepped in the same direction.
Hogan chuckled. "Hey, if yer lookin’ for a dance partner, ya got th' wrong guy. I’m def'nitely not yer type," he mumbled, as he stepped aside once more. Alarms began to go off in his head, as the man parroted him.
Footsteps from behind drew his attention, and he turned to see another figure approaching him from the rear. Had he been sober, he probably could have taken the two of them, but in his present state, he knew he was at a distinct disadvantage.
"We’ve got the right guy alright. We want to talk with you about your refusal of Herr Kronbach’s business offer."
Hogan spread his feet a bit wider to steady himself and looked warily at the shadowed figure in front of him.
"Oh, is tha' wha' this 's about? Lookit, I tol' your frien' Kronbach I’m not int'rested in workin' with him. If he’s gotta complaint, tell 'im to take it to th' better business bureau."
Hogan moved forward to try and pass by, but a hand thrust against his chest pushed him roughly back.
"I think we could persuade you to change your mind."
The first man looked over Hogan’s shoulders and nodded to his partner. As Hogan tried to glance back, he found his arms tightly grabbed from behind. He turned forward, his head connecting with a fist that snapped it to the left. A second punch jerked him in the opposite direction and immediately filled his mouth with blood. Hogan struggled to free himself, but his arms were only gripped more forcefully, threatening to wrench his shoulders from their sockets. A painful series of blows to his ribs and abdomen left him gasping to breathe. His body involuntarily willed him to double over, but the restraints from behind kept him firmly upright.
In desperation, Hogan brought his heel sharply back, forcing a curse, as the man behind him grabbed his knee in pain. Quickly taking advantage of his momentary release, Hogan stumbled forward, throwing his arms out as though to recover his balance. Instead, he grasped the taller man firmly by the shoulders and sprang upward, the crown of his head smashing into his assailant’s nose. The man moaned in pain, reeling backwards, as he brought his hands to his face to try and stem the blood pouring from the broken nose.
Hogan stood tottering over him, when he heard a metallic click from behind. Out of the corner of one eye he caught a glint of steel arcing downward. Instinctively, his right hand rose as a shield, its fingers curling reflexively around the double-edged blade, as the sharp knife sliced deeply through fleshy pads. Groaning in agony, Hogan hastily pulled his hand back and clutched it to his chest, quickly turning the shirt crimson.
"Put that away," the first man hissed, wiping ineffectually at his bloodied face. "You know what we were told. He’s only to be taught a lesson."
Hogan bent over and grasped his bleeding hand, as the snow beneath him began to darken with a wet stain.
The man with the switchblade snapped it shut in disgust and then palmed it as a makeshift set of brass knuckles. He thrust forward, viciously spearing his victim. A wave of nausea swept over Hogan, while one kidney seemed to erupt in a rippling current of pain. His body collapsed, dropping him to his knees. As he leaned forward helplessly, his forehead against the cold, wet ground, the first few uncontrollable spasms began. The mostly liquid sustenance he’d taken in that day was vomited before him, the contents mixing with the bloodied snow.
Through his haze, Hogan thought he heard the sounds of feet scrambling around him. Were more wolves coming to join the pack, sensing an easy kill, he wondered?
He felt a hand on his shoulder and tiredly shook his aching head.
"Enough already, y'got th' point across," he muttered, trying to draw himself upright.
"Mein Gott, what did they do to you?" a woman's voice answered softly. Still staggered, Hogan looked up into a pair of concerned hazel eyes. Leisa quickly sucked in her breath, spotting the bloodstained shirt. Am I too late? She worriedly pulled his hand away, afraid she’d find a protruding knife. The shirt, although soaked with red, was intact. She glanced down at his moist, sticky hand. The inner surface of his fingers and palm were deeply cut. Leisa quickly removed the kerchief covering her head, wrapping it tightly around his hand and tying it in a knot to control the bleeding.
"Wait here," she said urgently, straightening herself up with a grunt. Without answering, Hogan crumpled forward into the snow, another spasm of nausea overtaking him.
Leisa returned in the direction from which she’d come, stopping before the door to the Hofbrau. She peered through a side window, hoping desperately to find Karl there. Shakily opening the door with a key, she entered the darkened bar. A light was still on, and she breathed a sigh of relief, as she hurried to a rear room.
"Karl," she called out anxiously. "Karl!" A balding man with his sleeves rolled up appeared in the doorway, a curious look on his face.
"What is it, Leisa?" Karl stood there, wiping his hands on the apron tied around his waist. "I thought you left already."
"I did, but had to come back for some bandages. I found--" Leisa halted, then peered around with a frightened look. "Is anyone back there with you?" she asked hesitantly.
"No, you can relax, there’s no one here." Karl frowned. "What’s the matter, Leisa? You look as white as a ghost."
"That man, Jäger, is in the alley out back. He’s been beaten, and his hand is badly cut. I'll need some bandages."
Karl shook his head angrily. "Sounds like Kronbach and his henchmen."
Leisa nodded, her face set in disappointment. "I never should have let him go in the state he was in…"
"Don’t blame yourself. You’re doing a fine job. You can’t be there to keep an eye on him all the time," Karl retorted, as he headed toward a back room.
He returned a moment later, reappearing with a box of first aid supplies. "Do you think I should contact the control section to let them know what has happened?"
"That's not necessary," said Leisa, as she took the box from him. "They’ll just want to call things off prematurely--I have a feeling there is much more he has yet to do."
Leisa filled her purse with supplies and paused to look up. "Don’t worry, I’ll be careful." She pulled her coat around her once more and closed up the box, handing it back.
"Ja, alright then."
Karl walked her to the door, locking it behind her, as she hurried up the steps. He shook his head. He hoped she knew what she was getting herself into. This assignment was quickly turning into far more than any of them had ever expected.
Leisa rounded the corner and glanced into the darkened alley to find it empty. She quickened her steps, reaching the bloodstained snow and feeling herself begin to panic. What if Kronbach’s men had come back for Jäger and taken him off somewhere to finish the job? Had she made a mistake by leaving him?
She looked around anxiously, when her attention was drawn by a low moan. Holding her breath, she walked slowly toward one side of the alley. As her eyes adjusted to the dim light, she recognized a figure slumped in a doorway. She hurried forward, kneeling before him and gently brushing back a dark shock of damp hair from his forehead. He looked up at her with confused, dazed eyes.
"Whatcha doin' here?" he mumbled suspiciously. "Tryin' to put th' finishin' touches on wha' yer friends started?" He gruffly cast off her hand from his shoulder, while he struggled to stand up, leaning heavily against the doorframe for balance.
Leisa looked away guiltily. "No. I didn’t know they were going to do this to you. I…I had nothing to do with this. You have to believe me."
"Wunderbar. You had nothin' t'do with this. So, why're ya here? Doncha have a Party meetin' or somethin' t'go to?"
Leisa set her jaw firmly. "Look, you need some help. All I’m going to do is get you back to your flat. That’s it. Okay?"
Hogan made no further protests. He knew he was too incapacitated to make it back safely on his own. Reluctantly, he put his good arm around Leisa’s shoulders. She reached around him to encircle his waist, and they began to slowly wind their way through the snow-covered streets.
Hogan was leaning more heavily on her now, and Leisa glanced over at him worriedly. His eyes were closed, his face chalky with pain. He’d been stumbling along on pure reflex, barely aware of his surroundings. She peered down a darkened street, as they turned the last corner. Thankfully, no one appeared to be present. They’d encountered only one other soul out in the wintry night. An older man had passed by, glancing suspiciously at them, as Leisa feigned embarrassment and indignation at her presumed escort’s besotted condition.
The lone street lamp scarcely illuminated the narrow buildings, but even under these conditions the seediness of the area was evident. At each doorway, she searched desperately for an address, finally spotting the faded numbers she’d been seeking. The creaking door gradually opened, admitting them to the foyer. It had been dim outside, but with the absence of any hallway lighting it was utterly pitch black inside. She reached out cautiously to feel her way, finally encountering a stairway banister in the inky void. They haltingly made the climb, Leisa now nearly dragging Hogan, as they trudged up the steps and stumbled together toward the far end of the hallway.
Leisa leaned on one arm against the corridor wall, breathing heavily, while supporting Hogan with the other arm. Taking a deep breath, she straightened up and reached for the knob, but the door refused to yield.
"It's locked," she hissed to Hogan.
"Huh?" he mumbled, partially rousing from his stupor.
"The key. I need it to unlock the door."
He continued to look at her in non-comprehension.
"You do have the key, don't you?" she asked worriedly.
"Oh, yeah, th' key, right," he mumbled, patting his pockets while struggling to keep his precarious balance. He grinned victoriously at her, encountering the key, and then cursed, as his attempt to retrieve it met with failure. The thick bandage encasing his hand prevented him from inserting no more than the tips of his fingers into the pocket's opening.
Sighing with despair, Hogan slumped against the wall. Leisa peered at him questioningly. He looked away, gesturing uncomfortably to his right front pants pocket.
"Th' key's in there," he whispered hoarsely.
Leisa rolled her eyes in exasperation. "Oh, for heavens sake," she muttered, awkwardly reaching into his pocket.
The sound of a door opening across the hallway suddenly startled them. Hogan looked up in time to see an elderly matron's white-capped head peering out at them, her eyes widening in shock at the sight before her. Shaking her head in disapproval, she cupped one hand to her mouth and hurriedly closed the door; Hogan's glare pursuing her to will it shut with greater speed.
Leisa once more resumed her efforts, her cheeks tellingly blushing deep red. Hogan hoped the effects of the alcohol might provide an excuse for the burning tips of his ears. She withdrew her hand and inserted the key in the lock. The door to the darkened room swung open with a creak, and they stumbled gratefully inside.
Leisa felt along the inner wall, until she came to a small table. She switched on the lamp sitting there, the bare bulb throwing a stark shadow across the dingy room. Still holding onto Hogan, she maneuvered him to the edge of the bed, where he sat down heavily.
"Okay, s' ya got me here. I can take care of m'self now," he said petulantly.
She arched one eyebrow and looked him over. His heavy-lidded eyes were nearly closed, and she was sure if she tapped him on the chest, he would fall backward on the bed like a limp doll.
"Oh, sure you can. I can see that all right."
Shaking her head, she reached for his hand. Like a helpless child, he mechanically raised each arm, Leisa assisting him out of his coat. He started to fall back onto the bed but was pulled back up, as she grabbed one wrist.
"No, you don't. The jacket and shirt, too," she said. "They're both soaking wet, and you'll catch your death of cold, if you sleep in them."
Too tired to protest, he meekly obeyed, then collapsed wearily back on the bed with a groan. She turned to remove her own coat, throwing it over the back of the sole chair and reached for her bag. Hogan slowly opened his eyes, hearing her approach the bed.
Leisa gently took his bandaged hand in her own, focused solely on her task. Hogan watched, while she unwrapped the kerchief and surveyed the damage. She grimaced, twisting his hand toward the light.
"This cut is very bad. You’ll have to get it stitched," Leisa said, turning to the dresser to fill a cracked basin with water from an adjoining pitcher. She dampened the towel she’d brought with her and began to wash away the caked layers of blood, glancing curiously at him.
"Did you hear me? I said, you’ll have to go to a doctor to get it stitched. Otherwise, this cut won’t heal properly."
Hogan averted his face. "I…I can’t go t' a doctor," he said resignedly.
Leisa hesitated, studying him intently, before returning to her work. "No, I don’t suppose you can," she said quietly.
Hogan warily looked back at her. Did she guess at the reason for his reluctance?
With a sigh, Leisa pressed a thick compress into the pad of his hand, gently curling his injured fingers over it and wrapping a strip of cloth to hold the bandage in place.
"If you keep your fingers in this position, it may help draw the edges of the cut together so it will heal. At least the compress I’ve placed there will keep some pressure on the wound. I’m afraid there’s not much else I can do."
Hogan paused before responding, his voice husky with gratitude.
"I don’ understan' why you’ve even done this much. You didn’ hafta stop t' help--you coulda jus' left me there. Why didn’ you?" He looked searchingly at her.
Leisa cocked her head to one side. "Mmm, I suppose I could have," she agreed. "Let’s just say I seem to have a knack for getting myself mixed up with the wrong people."
"Like Kronbach?" Hogan asked accusingly.
Leisa dropped her eyes and deliberately busied herself in gathering up the remnants of her supplies. "That’s different," she said defensively. "I’m just doing what I have to in order to stay out of trouble." She shot a meaningful look at him. "You’d be well advised to do the same."
She finished washing up at the basin and turned back to him, drying her hands on a towel.
"I--" she began, and then halted, realizing with a look at Hogan's slack face that he had finally passed out. "Ach," she said softly to herself.
Shaking her head, she crept quietly across the room to retrieve her belongings. Jäger's coat and shirt, draped over the back of the chair, caught her attention. She glanced once more at the still form and then picked up the jacket to carefully run her fingers along the lapels and seams. Nothing. Next, she felt through the pockets, again coming up empty. Turning toward the light, she held up the jacket, examining the inner lining and threadbare collar. It was peculiarly devoid of maker's labels. She frowned slightly and then chuckled softly to herself, as she slowly crossed to the bed and pulled on her coat.
Jäger lay there in the harsh light, his face pale and expressionless beneath a shock of rumpled black hair draped across his forehead. She stood there for several moments, studying him attentively, in a way only mothers do with their own slumbering offspring. A small smile formed, as she noticed that even in his unconscious state there was an irrepressibly mischievous turn to the corner of his lips. With a sigh, she reached over the sleeping form and pulled the faded coverlet across his bare torso, then turned and exited to the darkened hallway, closing the door softly behind her.
Pausing for a moment to let her eyes adjust to the dark, she groped for the railing to navigate her way down the narrow, creaking stairs. It took a few moments of searching to find the handle, but she finally located it and slowly opened the front door, holding her breath, as its hinges squeaked horribly in the still night.
She widened the opening slightly and carefully peered out. A contingent of heavy boots suddenly clattered past on the cobblestone street. Instinctively, she shrank back, hoping not to be seen. The patrol abruptly halted a few houses away, pausing in the dim cast of the moon that slipped between two rooftops and illuminated a small portion of the street.
Please don’t stop there, she prayed silently. Go on. Don’t you have more important places to be at this hour? She watched, while they huddled together and lit their cigarettes. What wonderful timing to take a break.
Leisa knew she couldn’t risk leaving until the patrol departed. Even if she tried removing her shoes to slip quietly in the opposite direction along the cobblestones, there was no guarantee she would pass unnoticed. Having abandoned their formation, the patrol now lounged casually on the sidewalk, and several men were looking her way. It was well past curfew, and she knew it would be disastrous to be caught in the street at that late hour. What reason would she give if questioned as to her presence there? Despite her connections, she had no special permit that would allow her to safely pass at that time of night.
Leisa studied the patrol for a few moments and then softly closed the door, leaning wearily against the foyer wall. She forced herself to silently count off an agonizingly slow interlude of ten minutes. It felt more like an hour. Ever so cautiously, she again cracked open the rusted door just enough to see the patrol was still present. Some of the men had removed their packs and equipment belts as though intending to bivouac there for the remainder of the night. She groaned in utter dismay.
Suddenly, a hallway door creaked open. She peered anxiously down the darkened corridor, but the absence of light concealed whoever was there. Pressing herself against the wall, she quietly slipped to the opposite side of the entryway, groping with an outstretched, shaking hand to locate the stairway banister once more.
Carefully, she crept upstairs, slowly easing her weight onto each complaining board near the end of the riser, hoping to minimize the protests that issued with each step. Leisa found herself at the top of the narrow staircase and passed once more toward the room at the far end. Her hand noiselessly turned the handle, as she slipped quickly inside and quietly closed the door behind her. Exhausted, she leaned her forehead against the wooden frame, slowly letting out her breath in relief, before glancing at the still form on the bed. He was in the same position in which she’d left him, his gentle snoring indicating he was still sound asleep.
Her arms crossed, she began pacing the floor and then moved to the straight-backed chair and sat down, looking at her watch. It was almost two in the morning. She’d have to wait another four or five hours before she could blend in with the other early morning workers and safely return to her flat. Until then she’d try to rest as best she could. With a heavy sigh, she shifted uncomfortably in the hard, unyielding chair and closed her suddenly unbearably heavy eyelids.
A nagging stiffness began to form along the back of her neck, and she reached up with one hand to massage out the dull twinge, with little success. She glanced once more at the sleeping form, now comfortably curled on his side. Carefully, she tried to extend her cramped limbs, as she studied the bed. There was more than enough room for a second person to easily stretch out. Tantalizingly, the remaining space beckoned to her. The mounting ache in the small of her back finally overcame any lingering reluctance, and she rose from the chair.
Holding her breath, she lowered herself slowly onto the bed, the ancient, rusted frame seeming to screech in the stillness. Clinging to the very edge, she carefully lay down, trying not to disturb the unconscious form beside her. She didn't dare borrow any of the bedcovers, although the worn and faded quilt looked much warmer to her now than when she'd earlier drawn it over Jäger. Pulling her coat more tightly around her against the cold, she wearily closed her eyes. All she needed was to rest for a brief while and then at dawn she’d be able to slip out unnoticed into the street. Settling more comfortably into the soft mattress, she rearranged her legs to avoid a protruding spring that insistently dug into one thigh. She’d just rest there for a few moments, she thought wearily, closing her eyes once more.
A shaft of sunlight pierced the room through a tiny peephole scraped into a coating of black paint on the windowpane. As the sun rose in the sky, the dust-speckled beam swung lazily across the room, coming to land directly in the sleeping woman's face. She frowned, opening her eyes and shifting her head slightly to retreat from the ray’s glare, and then looked with momentary panic at the barren, dingy walls around her. It took several long seconds before Leisa recognized her surroundings and was able to relax back against the mattress.
Her left hand was tucked under her chin in a makeshift pillow, and she carefully eased it out to check the face of her watch. The hands indicated twenty minutes after seven. Verdammt. She’d intended to be gone long before now. Leisa tried to turn, when she suddenly became aware of a pressure across her lower body. Her glance downward was followed by another silent curse at the sight of a man’s bare arm draped across her hips, effectively pinning her in place. She could tell from the even, measured sound of breathing that he was still asleep, but there was no certainty as to how much longer that would be the case. Her dilemma was how to disentangle herself from Jäger's grasp before he awakened.
She slowly shifted her hips toward the edge of the bed, feeling him stir with the movement. His arm unconsciously tightened its embrace, before he fell still once more. Leisa decided she’d have to extricate herself in one rapid motion. Taking a deep breath, she rolled deftly off the bed and leaped softly to her feet.
Hogan turned over with a moan onto his back, cautiously stretching his aching body into a yawn. A frown crossed his face, and he opened his eyes, slowly turning his head to look with a puzzled expression at the empty depression beside him in the mattress. He shook his head in dismissal.
The sound of Leisa clearing her throat startled Hogan into sitting up, his bruised ribs protesting the hasty action. Groaning, he collapsed back against the bed. Opening his eyes once more, he watched Leisa, busy with pushing a few stray strands of hair back in place under her kerchief.
"What’re you still doing here?" he grumbled.
Leisa’s face tightened. "I was just going," she said curtly. "There was a patrol in the street last night when I tried to leave, so I had to wait until morning." Her eyes broke from his, as she turned to retrieve her purse. "I, uh, dozed a bit in the chair while I waited. I was just getting ready to go, when you awoke."
She pulled a kerchief from a coat pocket and drew it over her head, firmly tying it in place. "I’d advise you to be more careful. Next time there might not be anyone around to help," she said gruffly and headed for the door, roughly pulling it open.
Hogan opened his mouth as though to speak, but the door slammed shut behind her. What had he done, he wondered silently to himself? He shifted beneath the coverlet, hoping to resume his sleep, but something continued to nag at him. He reached out with one hand to stroke the mattress beside him. A feeling of warmth still emanated from the spot, and if he closed his eyes, he thought he could still feel the lingering sensation of someone pressed against him. He yawned, rolling onto one side. It must be his imagination, probably the remnants of a dream just before awakening, he mused before drifting back to sleep.
The early morning brightness assaulted her senses, as she stumbled down the stairs and stepped outside. Standing for a moment in the doorway, she took a deep breath to collect herself, the wind swirling drifts of fallen snow against the entryway. Leisa stepped forward and fell in with the passing army of gray-faced workers, muffled into anonymity. Bearing uniform looks of resigned weariness, their shoulders and heads bowed, they shuffled forward in one lifeless mass. It was easier not to draw attention, if you never made eye contact with the others. One could almost go through life invisible in this manner.
She tried to force her mind to adopt the same blank, expressionless cast her face affected, her body numbing itself to the jostling of the crowd. But there was something she wasn't able to block out, something that continued to intrude on her thoughts. An involuntary trembling arose inside her, and she edged her way toward the side of the Strasse, seeking momentary refuge in a recessed doorway.
Closing her eyes, she was instantly flooded with the comfortable sensation of a man's strong, reassuring arm around her. Despite the protective walls she had so carefully constructed, something about Jäger had broken through those barriers. She felt the warmth of his body against hers, the soothing whisper of his breathing beside her. She could have tried pushing the feelings away, but oh, how a part of her so longed to linger there in his imagined embrace.
The blare of a passing motorcar interrupted the momentary spell. Gulping in the crisp morning air, she stepped from the doorway and resumed her purposeful stride down the street, her face once more assuming a vacant facade. Don’t be ridiculous, she said to herself, you can't afford such silly schoolgirl daydreams. Her head bowed, she glanced to either side, as she pulled her coat more tightly about her. Remember, you were only told to keep an eye on him.
Leisa leaned on her elbows against the top of the bar, trying to rub the dull ache from her temples. Ach, this job is hard enough without having gotten almost no sleep last night, she thought wearily to herself. She closed her eyes, mostly from fatigue, but also to indulge for a few moments in the vision of Jäger spooned against her body. She strained to remember the secure feeling of his arm around her, a small smile pursing her lips. The luxuriating moment was suddenly disturbed by someone standing before her, impatiently clearing his throat.
Startled, Leisa’s eyes flew open, as she shrank back. Kronbach stood there, his face set in a disapproving scowl.
"What happened last night?" he asked suspiciously.
Leisa shrugged and picked up a towel, hoping to conceal the tremor that had begun in her hands, while she wiped at the already clean countertop.
"You tell me," she said with a touch of false bravado. "I heard there was some trouble out back. I was here late cleaning up and by the time I left, it must have been dealt with. Gunther and Hermann wouldn’t have anything to do with it now, would they?"
She looked directly at Kronbach, as she continued to move the cloth over the countertop. His nostrils flared slightly, but he otherwise restrained any other reaction he may have felt at her apparent defiance.
"I see," he said, his voice measured. "You know, my dear, you shouldn’t work such late hours. It’s beginning to take its toll on your beauty. We can't have that now, can we?" He lifted a forefinger to trace the dark circles under her eyes, letting the nail edge trail across her cheek. Somehow Leisa managed to force her mouth into a weak smile, as she fought the temptation to shudder. Just feeling his touch made her skin crawl.
"Bring a cup of coffee to my table," Kronbach ordered coldly, as he turned to cross the room. Leisa sighed with relief.
She brought him the coffee, managing to not spill any, as her shaking hand set it on the table. Kronbach, engrossed in a newspaper that was spread out before him, merely nodded in acknowledgement.
Leisa retreated to the safety of the bar. Her eyes had just begun to close once more, when the door to the bar opened, and Jäger entered. He sauntered over to his usual table, grimacing as he removed his coat with difficulty, his bruised ribs painfully reminding him of his mishap from the previous evening.
Leisa approached his table, and his smile broadened into a grin.
"I didn't get a chance to properly thank you--" he began. Her eyes filled with terror, causing him to halt in mid-sentence. He saw her look dartingly to one side, and he carefully peered around her to observe Kronbach across the room, seemingly oblivious to his presence.
"…for recommending that tailor to me," Hogan continued casually. Leisa closed her eyes and silently sighed in relief. "I, uh, need to get some new shirts made, and he'll come in most handy. Thank you again."
"Certainly, Herr Jäger," Leisa replied nonchalantly. "And what may I bring you this afternoon? Ach, never mind, I think I remember." She turned back to the bar, smiling coyly for a brief moment out of Kronbach's view.
She returned a few moments later and placed a stein of beer and bottle of whiskey with an empty glass in front of him. Thanking her, Hogan filled the glass before taking a gulp and chasing it with the beer. Kronbach picked up his coffee cup and began to make his way across the room.
"May I sit down?"
Hogan looked up, frowning at the sight of Kronbach standing before him.
"Sure, it used to be a free country," he said curtly.
Kronbach chuckled, as he seated himself at the table. Pointing to Hogan's bandaged hand, he clucked in sympathy. "Tsk, tsk, you seem to have had an accident of some sort, my friend. What happened?"
Hogan behaved as though noticing for the first time that his hand was thickly wrapped in a dressing. "Oh this? It's nothing. I cut myself shaving, that's all."
Kronbach clicked his tongue in disapproval. "Shame. Didn't your mother ever tell you to be careful handling sharp objects?"
Hogan smiled coldly in return. "I'll have to ask her about that next time I see her. So, Herr Kronbach, just what is it you want?"
The German nodded, admiring his directness. "Not so quickly, my friend. If we’re going to be business partners, let’s try to make this an amicable association, hmm? Let me buy you a drink first."
Hogan held up his glass, still three-quarters full. "Sorry, you're too late."
"Ah, well, perhaps at our next consultation."
Hogan watched guardedly, while Kronbach reached inside his jacket and pulled out a piece of paper. Unfolding it, he handed a list across the table.
"Perhaps in a show of good faith for our new business enterprise, you can obtain some of these items, hmm? I believe I know of certain individuals who would be able to, er, distribute them in return for a small share of the profits."
Hogan casually studied the list. "I might be able to put my hands on some of those things. But exactly what do you consider to be a small share?"
"My associates will receive sixty percent of the profits for their efforts."
"Sixty percent?" Hogan exclaimed. "You sure you've got only coffee in that cup?"
He sat back and shook his head in amazement, taking in Kronbach's impassive expression. "Why, hell, I know loan sharks who would give me a better cut than that!"
"I don't doubt that you do, Herr Jäger, but you're not being asked to engage in a business transaction with them now, are you?"
"No, and I'm not asking to partner with you and your thugs, either." Hogan paused to grimly smile, "I mean associates. The deal is off." He pushed back his chair and lifted his glass to empty it.
Kronbach began to command him to sit back down, when a short, squat man with dark hair and thin moustache entered the Hofbrau. The collar of his black trench coat was pulled up around his neck, and he stood in the entryway removing his gloves, as he surveyed the surroundings. Hogan glanced curiously over his shoulder and involuntarily muttered a curse under his breath. He quickly shifted in the chair, averting his face, which Kronbach noted appeared drained of color.
Still partly turned aside, Hogan rose slowly and spoke in a low voice.
"You'll have to excuse my ill manners, Herr Kronbach, but I just remembered an urgent appointment. Perhaps we can continue this conversation another time?"
Without waiting for a response, Hogan threw his folded overcoat over one shoulder, shielding his face, and quickly made his way to the back of the room. Kronbach watched him pause briefly to speak to Leisa and then hastily disappear through a rear doorway. He frowned. Herr Jäger's marked change in behavior was most bewildering.
"Guten tag, Albert." A slightly nasal, rasping voice broke into his thoughts. "You look troubled. What could possibly be concerning you here in this quiet little hamlet, hmm?"
Kronbach looked up, the perplexity on his face still evident, before smiling warmly. "Ah, Wolfgang, my friend. So, you mean to tell me Herr Himmler can spare his key investigator's presence from Berlin? Or are you looking for that next case that will gain you promotion to Oberst, eh?"
Kronbach chuckled. He and Wolfgang Hochstetter had served in the Gestapo from the beginning of the formation of the secretive organization. Both fierce competitors by nature, their determination to close more cases than their peers, no matter how the solution was obtained, had naturally drawn them together and also led to their steady rise in stature.
"Bah. Nothing so grand as that, I'm afraid. Headquarters sent me here to ask some questions of that British defector you're guarding."
"Ach, of course, I'd forgotten the debriefing sessions weren't yet finished." Kronbach signaled with a raised hand for Leisa's attention. "What can I get you to drink?"
"Ordinarily, I would accept your offer, Albert," Hochstetter replied, drawing a photograph from his coat and placing it on the table, "but I'm afraid I can't stay very long. There is other business I must attend to. I am on the heels of one of the most dangerous men in all of Germany, and my senses tell me I am about to draw the net closed around him."
Kronbach raised one eyebrow with interest. As Leisa drew near, he dismissed her with a wave of his hand, shaking his head to indicate he had changed his mind. She glanced with curiosity at the photograph atop the table. Betraying no response, she crossed the room to retrieve some empty glasses.
Hochstetter tapped his finger against a dog-eared black and white print.
"This is the only photograph we have ever been able to obtain of this menace. It was taken surreptitiously by one of my officers, Major Pruhst, on a visit to LuftStalag 13, where this man was being held."
Kronbach studied the grainy picture of a dark-haired, handsome man wearing the uniform of an American flier. The print was slightly blurry, as though the subject was in motion when the photograph was snapped, but was still recognizable.
"You call him the most dangerous man in Germany?" Kronbach asked incredulously with a snort. "Come now, Wolfgang, you said this man is a prisoner of war. Has the Fatherland become so defenseless as that?"
"He was a prisoner of war," Hochstetter emphasized, "until his escape over a week ago. His name is Colonel Robert Hogan. I have been documenting for some time now his suspected sabotage activities, even while interned, and was finally able to convince a senior Luftwaffe officer that he should be dealt with. He was being transferred to the work facility at Dachau, when he overpowered the guard and made his escape."
Kronbach frowned. "Why are you bringing this to my attention? I have nothing to do with wayward prisoners."
"Bah," Hochstetter exclaimed, "do not underestimate him. With this man at large, all of Germany is at risk. We have tracked him down here in the vicinity of Hamburg. The truck he used for his escape was found abandoned in the woods just outside of town. I thought you might circulate this photograph for your men to keep an eye out for him. If he should be spotted, use extreme caution. Of course, I would like to be notified immediately. I would gain great satisfaction from being there when he is finally taken." His gloved hands formed involuntarily into fists, bringing a brief smile to Kronbach's lips.
"Certainly, Wolfgang," Kronbach said demurely. "We will do our utmost to assist you in this matter. My men are quite vigilant and nothing escapes our attention here. If he is in the area, I am sure we will uncover him."
Hochstetter placed his hand on Kronbach's shoulder. "Thank you, Albert. I knew I could count on you." He made a small bow, heels clicking in salute. "I must be going now. I look forward to your call."
"It has been a pleasure, as always, to see you again Wolfgang. I assume you saw the recent promotion list to Oberst? One of these days I am sure your name will be there as well."
Hochstetter snarled, "I only wish those in Berlin realized the same. But, if I should find this Colonel Hogan, I am sure I will be on that list next time." He smiled a thin, cold smile at the fantasy of effecting the capture he so desperately yearned.
Kronbach paused, eyeing him thoughtfully. "You really think this man is that valuable to Berlin?"
"I have no doubt of it," his Gestapo colleague said emphatically through clenched teeth.
Kronbach lifted his eyebrows in surprise.
"But what about you, Albert?" Hochstetter asked, as he returned his gaze to Kronbach's face, now set in concentration. "You, too, deserve to be on that list. After all, you always bested me at the academy in examinations. Surely, you, too, feel as though you have been overlooked?"
Kronbach smiled modestly. "Ah, Wolfgang, those aspirations are over. I am content to carry out my duties in this quiet hamlet, as you call it. I may not have the glamorous cases you work, but my life is simple and satisfying. I prefer to bide out my time caretaking defectors and awaiting retirement."
"Ja, I understand," Hochstetter said, nodding, as he picked up his hat from the table. "There are days I wish my life, too, could be less complicated. But, I cannot rest while there exist such dangers to the Reich. I am determined to bring this man to what he deserves." As he spoke, his hands began an unconscious wringing action. The fedora quickly lost all semblance of its shape. It was only the bemused look on Kronbach's face that brought him back to his senses. With a chagrined air, Hochstetter vainly tried re-blocking the hat, finally in exasperation plunking the misshapen form on his head.
"Bah. Enough now, I must be gone. Auf Wiedersehn, Albert."
"Wiedersehn, my friend," Kronbach replied, rising slightly in his chair. "You may count on me to alert you if this man turns up."
Hochstetter tugged at the warped brim of his fedora in reply and turned to exit the bar. Kronbach sat there, deep in thought, his fingers thumping a beat atop the glossy photo.
Leisa cleared her throat, suddenly standing before the table. Kronbach looked up with a frown and quickly retrieved the picture, tucking it inside his jacket pocket.
"What is it?" he asked gruffly.
"Excuse me, mein Herr, but I thought perhaps you might like something more to drink?" Leisa asked innocently, her face seemingly devoid of curiosity.
"No, no, I think not," Kronbach mumbled absently, his hand fondling the photograph.
"Wait. Just a moment," he abruptly ordered, as she turned from the table. She turned to him with an inquiring look.
Kronbach looked at her intently. "Where did your friend Jäger go?" he asked evenly.
Leisa gestured with her head toward the rear of the bar. "He said he needed to use the washroom. I told him there was one in the back he could use, next to the storeroom."
Kronbach got up hastily from the table and grabbed Leisa by the arm. "Show me where," he ordered tersely.
Leisa dared not struggle against him, as he forced her down the narrow passageway. She stopped before a closed door at the end of the hallway and looked uncertainly at Kronbach. At his insistent nod, she hesitantly lifted her hand and rapped on the door.
"Herr…" Leisa nervously cleared her throat, "Herr Jäger, are you in there?"
No answer came. Kronbach pushed Leisa quickly aside to try the handle. It firmly resisted. Frowning, he stepped back and rammed his shoulder against the door's warped, cracked surface. It groaned the first time, but gave with a splintering of wood on the second, slamming open against the inner wall. Their attention was immediately drawn by the movement of curtains billowing in the breeze from the small window to the back alley.
"Verdammt," Kronbach muttered under his breath, as he turned and stalked back down the corridor. Leisa stood before the open door, a mixture of astonishment and relief apparent on her face.
By all appearances, Kronbach's mood had returned to normal the following evening. Leisa thought she even heard him humming a brief tune, while he waited patiently for Jäger to show up. She placed drinks before the two men after he arrived; pretending to ignore the wink Jäger gave her.
Reaching inside his coat pocket, Kronbach withdrew a slip of paper and slid it across the table.
"Do you think you can get these items?"
Hogan looked at the list. "It depends. How quickly do you need all this?"
"What about one week? Can you manage that?"
Hogan made some mental calculations, looking over the list carefully. "Let's make it three days from now. That's Christmas Eve. Should make a nice present for someone, hmm?"
Kronbach's eyebrows lifted in surprise. He had had some doubts as to whether Jäger would be able to deliver any of the items.
"Very nice, indeed." He lifted his drink and eyed Jäger intently over the rim, draining the glass slowly. "So, my friend, what exactly persuaded you to change your mind about our little endeavor?"
Hogan coughed. "Let's just say I need to liquidate some of my inventory. Business hasn't been the best, and I'm thinking of relocating, maybe quite soon."
"I see. Well, perhaps my associates and I can help you turn your business around." Kronbach smiled thinly, as Hogan stood from the table.
"Yeah, maybe. Uh, I suppose I'd better get busy, if I'm to collect all of this for you. Where do you want me to deliver it?"
"Just come to my office when you have it ready. Here's the address." Kronbach handed him another slip of paper.
Hogan winced. "Ah, yes, one of my favorite establishments. Gestapo Headquarters. I don't suppose you'd like a reduced price option by skipping the delivery charges and picking up the goods yourself, hmm?"
Kronbach chuckled. "You have nothing to worry about. Just tell the officer at the front desk you are there to see me. I'll make sure he knows what to do."
Hogan looked at Kronbach carefully for several moments. "All right. See you in three days." He reached into his pocket for some currency.
"Ach, there's no need for that. I've arranged with Karl to cover the bar bill for you. Consider it a signing bonus as part of our little merger, eh?"
"Well, that's unexpectedly generous of you, Herr Kronbach." Hogan raised his eyebrows in surprise. "Danke sehr."
"Nichts zu danken, Herr Jäger. See you in three days."
"Three days. Right." Hogan reached out with his left hand to shake Kronbach's, before he turned to leave. As he passed through the room on his way out, he glanced at Leisa. He wasn't sure, but thought he saw a look of critical disapproval on her face.
Kronbach sat at the table, deep in thought, as two men approached from across the room. Reaching his table, the taller of the two cleared his throat.
"Ah, Hermann," Kronbach said, looking up. "I presume you noticed the change in Jäger's attitude?"
"Ja. But, I still don't trust him."
"Neither do I, Hermann, but for now he may be of use to us."
"I don't understand, Herr Major," the shorter man spoke up. "Why would you even consider going into business with this Jäger in the first place? Why don't we just follow him to where he keeps his goods and then take what he has?"
"Patience, Gunther, patience," Kronbach said with a smile. "This arrangement is only temporary. Jäger is not likely to have all of his merchandise in one place. We must first learn as much about his little operation as possible. Once we know who are his suppliers, we will have what we need to run things without him."
"And then?" Gunther asked with a wistful smile.
"And then, we get rid of him. Permanently."
The short man vigorously nodded his agreement.
"In the meantime, we will be taking our first delivery from Jäger three days from now. I think we'll be more than ready for him, eh?"
Gunther sneered evilly. "We certainly will."
"Any news, Kinch?" Carter scanned his friend's face, as he stepped from the ladder and clambered over the lower bunk rails.
The communicator shook his head. "Nothing."
He swung one long leg over a bench and wearily rested his elbows on the rough wooden table in the middle of their barracks.
LeBeau handed him a steaming mug of ersatz coffee.
"Thanks, LeBeau, smells almost as good as mom used to make." He took a sip and grimaced. "Maybe better. How'd you manage to capture that special taste of the Detroit public water system?"
"Never mind," Kinch replied with a smile to the Frenchman's puzzled expression. "Oh, I almost forgot, we did get a message from London."
He reached inside his field jacket to retrieve some blue notepaper.
Newkirk rolled over on his upper bunk and peered down at the others grouped around the table. "Did they find Colonel Hogan?" he asked expectantly.
"Nope, sorry, still no word on the Colonel, although they've got every underground member on the continent looking for him. He must've holed up somewhere good, that's all I can figure."
He handed the paper across the table to Carter, who scanned the brief message.
"Say, they're giving us the holidays off!" Carter said in surprise.
"Huh?" Newkirk reached down and grabbed the paper from Carter's hand.
"London wants us to continue to stand down for now. Guess they're givin' us Christmas and New Year's off for a change. Some break, eh?"
"Geez, Kinch, when are they going to make a decision?" Carter's face mirrored the exasperation in his voice.
"Beats me." Kinch shrugged powerful shoulders inside his olive drab field jacket. "Now I know how frustrated the Colonel used to feel when he'd be waiting to hear back from them on something important."
"Gaw," Newkirk exclaimed in exasperation. "They're goin' to make us rot here in this hole 'til they figure out what to do with us!"
He hopped from his bunk and stalked across the room to retrieve a handful of darts adorning a circular bulls-eye on one wall of their barracks. Backing up several paces, he took careful aim. The dart barely pierced the furthest edge of the outermost ring.
"Bloody marvelous. Maybe if we're really good chaps, they'll air-drop us some plum pudding for a Christmas feast, eh?"
He angrily hurled another dart. The feathered shaft missed well wide of its mark. Newkirk glared at where it stuck, still quivering, in the exact center of a blue RAF garrison cap cupped over one corner of a wooden bunk frame.
"Double bloody marvelous."
Hogan checked his watch again, as he walked down Kirchestrasse a second time. He didn't want to be too early, but at the same time was anxious to get this over with. For some reason, he didn't have a good feeling about the impending appointment and had been fighting his unease all day. But, it was too late to turn back now.
His head bowed in thought, Hogan approached an unmarked building at the end of the street and began to trudge up the wide stone steps worn smooth by the years. Hogan shuddered. How many unfortunates had been dragged over their surface for them to appear so polished? He pushed the thought away, pausing for a moment before the front entrance, as though considering whether to turn away. Reluctantly, he took hold of the iron ring, long ago rusted into the wood, and tugged on the heavy door. A kerchiefed charwoman, one hand closed around the inner door handle, stumbled out. She struggled momentarily to regain her balance, dirty water from her pail sloshing onto the stone steps and splattering his shoes.
"Ach! Verzeihung, mein Herr! Please forgive my clumsiness."
Hogan, in a foul mood to begin with, glared at her without saying a word. She scurried quickly past him to heave the water into the gutter and then slipped silently back inside, where he waited before a tall reception desk. It reminded him of the imposing booking benches in the precinct houses back home, and he half expected to see a ruddy-faced sergeant named O'Malley behind the desk. The illusion was immediately dispelled when a trim, bespectacled young man in black uniform, his collar appointed with the twin silver flashes of the SS, peered down at him.
"Ja?" he asked with a sneer, scrutinizing Hogan's worn suit and unshaven face.
Hogan anxiously glanced around. The only other individual present was the charwoman, her back turned as she busied herself with her mops and rags in one corner of the foyer.
"I, uh, I'm here to see Major Kronbach."
"What for?" The sneer was replaced by a look of inquisitiveness at the mention of Kronbach's name.
Hogan nervously cleared his throat, trying to answer sotto voce. "We, uh, have some business to discuss."
"Is the Herr Major expecting you?"
"Yes. My name is Jäger. I'm a few minutes early for our, uh, appointment."
"Just a moment." The young man raised a telephone to his ear. Hogan couldn't catch the conversation at the other end, but after only a few words the receiver was replaced in its cradle. The desk officer signaled to a second man seated behind him.
"Corporal Schneider, take this individual to Major Kronbach's office. He is an informant working for the Herr Major."
Hogan started at the unexpected public declaration of his business. He quickly glanced around the now empty foyer, breathing a small sigh of relief.
"Jawohl, Herr Captain. Follow me."
Hogan hesitantly followed the young corporal up a narrow flight of stairs and down a long, well-lit corridor lined with closed doors. He'd been in Gestapo buildings before, sometimes even at their invitation, although the circumstances weren't usually very pleasant. He blinked away the memories, while they halted before an unmarked door. The corporal looked at him curiously, signaling for Hogan to enter.
Hogan depressed the handle, and the door slowly swung open. Kronbach was seated in a leather wingback chair, partly concealed behind a dark wooden inlaid desk. Rows of bookshelves, filled with expensive-looking volumes with gold-embossed spines, lined one wall. Kronbach's left hand toyed with a crystal-handled letter opener atop the blotter covering his otherwise pristine desk. Hogan noticed that the other hand was purposely out of view. The fading rays of daylight weakly passing through window sheers lent a pale, grayed quality to his face, like a human mushroom. A mushroom cultivated in the dank bowels of Gestapo interrogation rooms, Hogan reflected.
As he warily entered, the sound of the door creaking closed behind him eerily broke the silence. Hogan whirled to see Gunther, a huge, crooked grin on his face, firmly sliding the bolt in place. Hermann, wearing a more impassive expression on his still-bruised face, stood to the right of the doorway, his arms folded resolutely across his chest.
Kronbach spoke from behind. "Guten tag, Herr Jäger. I believe you all know each other?"
Hogan slowly let out his breath, trying hard to control his reaction. "Ah yes, let me guess. This is Abbott, and," gesturing to the other, "you must be Costello."
"Not quite. These are my associates. Hermann," the taller man with crossed arms nodded, "and Gunther."
Hermann smirked derisively in return. "I'd offer to shake hands, but I see you're incapacitated."
"Oh, this?" Hogan replied, as he lifted his hand, still wrapped in thick bandages. "It's nothing, really. Just a hangnail." Turning to Gunther, he asked innocently, "And how's your knee?" Hermann held out one hand to restrain the shorter man beside him.
"Herr Jäger, you will turn back around and have a seat, please."
A wooden chair scraped across the floor, as Hermann kicked it in Hogan's direction. He turned slowly, his eyes quickly scanning the room.
"Or, perhaps, you would prefer to be called Colonel Hogan?" Kronbach's voice remained steady, almost detached, while he raised his arm from beneath the desk, pistol in hand.
Hogan halted momentarily and then continued lowering himself onto the chair, trying to will his body to appear relaxed. He leaned back, hooking one arm over the chair so he was partially facing a set of French doors along the outer wall.
"I'm afraid you've got me confused with someone else. I don't know what you're talking about."
"Come now, my friend, I think we're beyond playing such games with each other, hmm?"
Kronbach kept his eyes on Hogan's strained face and slid open the top desk drawer to extract a black and white photograph, tossing it on the blotter in front of him.
Hogan swallowed hard, recognizing a picture of himself in uniform. He couldn't quite make out where the photo had been taken, but despite the graininess, the figure's identity was clearly discernible.
"Just, uh, just what is that supposed to prove?" Hogan licked his lips.
"By itself, perhaps nothing. However, it was delivered to me by a most special acquaintance of yours, Major Hochstetter."
Hogan quickly glanced to the side. The French doors were probably only one flight above street level. If he timed it right, he could break through the glass and vault over the railing to the street below. He'd managed it once before without putting himself permanently out of action, during a close call with an unfriendly Gestapo interrogator. He nervously smoothed back his dark hair with one hand, turning to face his questioner.
Kronbach continued, his voice level, as he carefully watched the tense figure seated before him. "He paid me a visit a few days ago. It appears a German military vehicle belonging to LuftStalag 13 was abandoned outside town. He seemed convinced, as a result, that you would be found in this area."
Hogan groaned inwardly, bowing his head and wearily rubbing his temples. Damn, he'd hoped the truck was better hidden than that. If it hadn't been for his ankle, he wouldn't have needed to ditch it so close to town.
"Well, I'm waiting for an answer. Just what did you think you were going to accomplish by this little charade, hmm?"
Hogan paused for a moment and then lifted his eyes, sighing resignedly. "Look, I…I didn't have any choice. I was just trying to get through this damned war like everybody else."
He glanced once more at the tall windows. They were three, maybe four, steps away.
"I got dealt a raw deal, that's all." He looked directly at Kronbach, his eyes desperate and, he hoped, convincing.
"I understand you were in the process of being transferred to a special camp near Dachau. Do you know what that would mean?"
Hogan paused, trying to gauge Kronbach's intent. "I'd heard things from other prisoners," he began cautiously. "Word gets around, especially when new men come into camp. I knew if I landed there, my odds weren't good to ever make it out again."
Out of the corner of one eye, he noticed Gunther staring attentively at him.
"I'd say your assessment was quite accurate."
Hogan cleared his throat. "So, uh, just what do you intend to do now?"
"Excellent question. I'll have you know I have carefully weighed the options." Kronbach pensively tapped the letter opener against his chin. "For the moment, I think we'll leave things the way they are. We have a business arrangement, and I intend to honor it."
Hogan appeared to relax slightly, shifting in the chair. "I don't get it. What do you gain from not turning me in?"
Kronbach smiled coldly in return. "Now, now, we both realize I have much to gain from our little enterprise. Let's just say I'm looking to secure my financial future far more reliably than a career with the state ever could, eh?"
Hogan half-smiled in return, relief sweeping over him. "Sure. I guess I can't blame you for that."
"However, it all depends on how well you come through on your end of the bargain. If you do anything to cross me," his voice hardened, as he slowly drew the metal point of the letter opener across the photograph, slicing the image in two, "I will see to it that my determined Gestapo colleague has an opportunity to do what he wants with what is left of you."
He punctuated his threat by raising the letter opener and thrusting it downward, spearing the photograph in place. His eyes shifted from the quivering crystal shaft to Hogan's suddenly colorless face. "Do I make myself clear?"
Hogan coughed uncomfortably. "As clear as the handle on that little toothpick you've got there."
"Fine. Then let's get down to business, shall we? Where are the goods?"
"They're not far from here in a safe place. I, uh, I didn't think you'd exactly want me wheeling them in the front door of your office."
"Quite true and very perceptive on your part." Kronbach's smile quickly erased from his face. "So, where are they?"
Hogan reached inside his jacket, deliberately slowing the motion, as Kronbach lifted the pistol in warning. He pulled out an envelope and tossed it on the desk.
"The address is on the outside of that envelope. Four blocks from here is a dead-end street. At that number is a house with a large storage shed in back. There's a key inside the envelope that will open the padlock on the door. You'll find everything you asked for in there. The homeowner has been paid off and will conveniently be away for the evening, so you'll be able to unload everything in relative privacy. Just make sure you leave the key and padlock inside the shed when you finish. I only arranged for this one-time use."
Kronbach nodded his head thoughtfully in admiration. "Very convenient, indeed."
"The arrangement works well. I don't want people coming by my flat, as it might raise suspicion. There's a very nosy pensioner who runs the place. Plus, keeping the goods in temporary storage reduces the likelihood someone else might steal from me. As soon as they figure out what I'm up to, I've moved on to the next holding area."
"You seem to have everything worked out."
"So far I think I do." Hogan's eyes appeared to flash momentarily.
"However, there's something more we need to discuss."
Hogan looked sharply at Kronbach. There was something in the way he spoke that made Hogan feel he wasn't exactly out of the woods yet.
"We can't very well have others realize who you are, or your dear friend Wolfgang Hochstetter will be on you in an instant and there goes our little operation. I think it is best if we continue to refer to you as Herr Jäger, don't you?"
"Anything to avoid a visit from ol' ferret face. Sorry, I mean Major Hochstetter." Hogan smiled gamely.
"Very good. The pretense for your visits here will be that you are an informant working for me. I also obviously can't have my colleagues aware of our little business venture."
"Sure. I meant to ask you what was going on with that informant stuff when the boy scout in the crisp black shirt directed me here. Makes sense, I suppose."
Kronbach looked over Hogan's shoulder and nodded almost imperceptibly to Gunther who, disappointment clearly showing on his face, begrudgingly retracted the protesting bolt with a snap of his wrist and then stepped aside, glaring at Hogan.
Hogan visibly sighed with relief, rising from the chair to turn toward the door.
"Oh, just a moment."
Hogan halted, his back stiffening. He slowly turned toward Kronbach, toying with the pistol atop his desk.
"Yes?" Hogan tried to keep his voice neutral.
"Before you go I think we need to make one final thing clear."
Kronbach rose slowly from behind his desk, the pistol at his side. He crossed to the French doors, turning the handle and pushing them open to step out onto the narrow balcony.
"Kommen Sie hier," he threw over his shoulder.
Glancing nervously at Hermann and Gunther, Hogan moved slowly across the room, halting cautiously at the threshold.
Kronbach gestured for him to step out onto the balcony. Hogan took a step, and the two men faced each other guardedly in the late afternoon light. Kronbach inclined his head toward the railing. "I thought you might want to take in the view for a moment."
Hogan eased his way toward the edge, his eyes locked on Kronbach's. Reaching out with one hand, he felt for the rail and then glanced quickly over the side, visibly blanching as he did so. The drop below was almost three stories in height.
Kronbach took a step forward, blocking his return.
"It may not have occurred to you that the ground sloped away behind the building, did it? I'd imagine a man would end up in rather pitiful condition if he were to make that disastrous plunge."
Kronbach slowly raised the gun, pointing it chest-height, his voice even.
"Don't make the fatal mistake of underestimating me. You may have found that my colleague Herr Hochstetter is easily duped, but I am not. He gets along through mere zeal; I operate by always being one step ahead of my adversaries. Don't forget that."
His mouth suddenly dry, Hogan swallowed hard, as he nodded his head. Gesturing with the pistol for Hogan to pass by, Kronbach stepped to one side. Hermann and Gunther's eyes followed him, while he slowly exited Kronbach's office in silence.
Deep in thought, Kronbach crossed leisurely to his desk and casually tossed the gun with a thump onto the blotter.
"Hermann, I need you to run an important errand for me."
The taller man stepped forward.
Kronbach reached into the desk drawer and pulled out a piece of paper. He scribbled something on it, holding it out.
"Take this to our friend and ask him to use his network of contacts in London to see what he can find out for us."
Hermann studied the paper and frowned. "You think he still has connections? I thought they finally realized he was working for us."
"Indeed, they did, that's why we had to get him out of England. But there are others who remain hidden in place and have not yet been found out. Our friend will know how to get in touch with them to make the necessary inquiries."
Kronbach sat down heavily in the chair, then stretched out a hand and lightly tapped the upright letter opener piercing the photograph, setting it quivering. He glowered at the bisected image.
"Not yet, but soon," he muttered aloud.
His hands jammed in his pockets, Hogan trod slowly down the stone steps. Two men passing by purposely crossed the street in avoidance, looks of evident distrust on their faces. One didn't leave Gestapo headquarters unmarked and under one's own power unless one was in collusion with them. He felt as though he wore a scarlet "T" branded across his chest. A modern-day version of a Hester Prynne whose moral corruption, in lieu of adultery, consisted of treason.
Hogan pulled his collar up to shield his face and walked hurriedly away. It was several blocks before he allowed himself to slow down. He absent-mindedly reached into an overcoat pocket and withdrew his flask, now almost empty. As he upturned the container, the cheery sounds and bright lights emerging from a nearby home drew his attention. Looking in either direction down the deserted street, he carefully slid his way along the sidewalk to peer inside a window. He stood there, blinking reflectively as he watched the activities within.
A large, extended family, the young ones decked in their holiday finest, ringed an evergreen tree dominating the front room. Each held a lighted taper, and all merrily raised their voices in familiar-sounding carols, while lighting tiny white candles adorning the tree's branches. The happy, tranquil, domestic scene rooted him in place.
The sight made him long for the companionship of the men he had abandoned. Reminiscing, he wondered if Klink had given in and allowed them to light a bonfire in the compound. They were probably standing out there now in small groups, their insides warmed by the fellowship they shared. Some would be popping corn, while LeBeau would be bustling around serving a special culinary treat he'd managed to craft from the odds and ends he'd carefully horded in preparation for just this celebration.
Hogan's heart ached with loneliness; he'd give anything at that moment to be
back with them. He'd thought being
finally free would have infused him with a greater sense of elation, but instead
he found himself feeling even more confined. His sense of entrapment came not from barbed wire, but by
surroundings that made him feel rejected and all too vulnerable.
His every attention was focused on survival, mostly hoping to avoid being
swept into Hochstetter's net. Despair
filled his soul, as he forced himself to turn from the window and continued to
walk away. The streets he aimlessly
passed looked like pieces of painted stage scenery.
Had life become no more than an illusion?
He wandered without direction for several hours, the flask long ago drained. A familiar sound suddenly roused him from his abstraction. The voices of a choir lofted in the late evening air from an old stone church across the street. An elderly parishioner, tardy for the Christmas vigil, scurried inside; from the open door the scent of incense mingling with the clear, jubilant tones wafted toward him. Hogan paused, completely immobile.
Something was tugging at him, something he could not describe, and he stood there, head bowed, as though some internal struggle of conscience were taking place. Raising his head, he looked around self-consciously, but there was no one else in sight. He straightened his tie and tried to smooth his rumpled suit, hoping to make himself look more presentable.
Slowly opening the door, Hogan eased just inside the darkness of the vestibule. His eyes adjusted to the dim light, and he hesitantly made his way up a side aisle, pressed against the wall. The church was nearly full, but Hogan was able to slip past the standing parishioners without attracting attention. He spotted an empty seat at the end of one pew and began to slip in, but caught himself after a neighboring matron looked at him with a disapproving scowl. He retreated to hastily genuflect and then resumed his place, his efforts rewarded by a toothless smile from the elderly woman.
Hogan focused his attention on the altar, as the organ issued a series of chords, and the congregation raised their voices in solemn proclamation.
"Agnus Dei, qui tolis peccata mundi, miserere nobis."
His resonant baritone joined with those around him, tremulously at first, but then gaining in strength.
"Agnus Dei, qui tolis peccata mundi, miserere nobis."
The thunderous vibrations of the organ rumbled up from the floor and reverberated throughout his body, shaking him to the very core. He dropped to his knees as though losing all muscle control, his torso trembling in synchrony with the resounding notes. His hands were clasped so tightly, his knuckles were blanched and muscles quivered.
"Agnus Dei, qui tolis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem."
Oh Lord, grant me peace. Bring
an end to this journey I've taken.
At the sound of his voice, a woman, two rows back, raised her covered auburn head. Her eyes searched the crowd, a puzzled look on her face, and then visibly started when her gaze came to rest on the back of his head. Leisa drew her kerchief further forward, trying to shield her face. Keeping her head bowed, she periodically made furtive looks in his direction.
As he remained riveted in the pew, she rose to proceed up the aisle for Communion, averting her face when she passed by. On her return, she continued past without stopping, intent on exiting the church before she was discovered. Others, eager to slip out ahead of the crowd, their mouths watering for the late evening feast waiting for them at home, had already begun to fill the vestibule. She pressed against them, but progress was slow.
Finally, she reached the exit and crept past the thick stone portal. Leisa groaned in dismay. A solid wall of churchgoers lined the steps out front. She took a deep breath and inched her way along, slowly making her way down the steps, where progress halted once more. Suddenly, she felt a tug on her sleeve. Leisa turned to face a pair of warm, smiling brown eyes.
"Oh, it's you."
"Yeah, it's me," Hogan replied with a sheepish grin. He noticed she didn't seem particularly surprised to see him. "Fröhliche Weihnachten is in order, I suppose."
"Ah, yes, Merry Christmas to you, too." The throng still had them hemmed in, and she glanced around nervously to see if anyone was watching. She smiled awkwardly as they stood there, waiting for the crowd to lighten so they could pass.
"I suppose you have somewhere to go now? Family to be with," he paused, "or maybe friends?" There was a hopeful, questioning look in his eyes.
She hesitated. "Oh, er, yes, certainly." She glanced back at him as they inched forward slightly. "And what about you? You, um, celebrating with friends this evening?"
He shrugged. "'Fraid not. I don't really know anyone, being new here and all."
Leisa nodded. "Of course." She looked anxiously at her watch, feeling as though their conversational well had run dry. As she glanced down, someone jostled her, pushing her off balance. She fell backward and suddenly found herself pressed against Jäger, his arms clasped tightly around her.
"You okay?" he asked with concern.
Still in his embrace, Leisa looked up and found herself gazing directly into his eyes. There was a particular clarity and brightness to them she'd never noticed before. His cheeks were reddened with cold and several snowflakes lay scattered atop his characteristically rumpled hair. The flakes almost seemed to sparkle; silver in contrast against the coal blackness. He continued to hold her, the stream of parishioners diverting without pause as it flowed around them.
"Yes," she said, her voice so hushed he wasn't certain she'd even spoken.
"Yes?" he asked, his face momentarily uncertain.
She broke her gaze and nervously cleared her throat. "I mean, I'm fine, yes, er, thank you." She groaned inwardly. What a mess she was making of all this.
Reluctantly, Hogan released her. Both occupied themselves with the suddenly pressing need to brush lingering flakes of snow from their coats.
"Say, I was wondering…" Hogan hesitated, shrugging his shoulders. "Uh, I was wondering if maybe you'd like to have a drink or something first, you know, before you visit with your friends, uh, if you felt like it…" His voice trailed off, as he winced slightly; he hadn't felt so awkward since asking a girl out on his first date. And that had been a considerable number of years ago.
"Oh, well, I…" she glanced quickly around. The crowd hadn't thinned much, but as best she could tell no one was paying attention to them. She paused for a moment, wrestling with her conscience. She couldn't afford to get involved. There was a job to be done. Apologetically, she shook her head.
"I think not. My, er, friends…are expecting me."
"Oh, right, sure, I understand." Hogan's eyes dropped. "Well, I suppose I'd better be running along as well." He tried to make his voice sound light and cheery, but it wasn't convincing, least of all to him.
"See you," he said finally, giving her a small wave. He turned away and mingled gradually into the crowd.
Leisa stood there, wanting to say something, but not even knowing what words to choose. How could she possibly explain things to him? She turned, pulling the kerchief further over her head to keep the heavily falling snow from striking her face. The image of him walking slowly away, shoulders slumped in disappointment, consumed her. She halted in her steps, suddenly resolving the internal conflict, and spun around, her eyes searching the direction in which he'd gone. The street was filled with bustling revelers, making their way down the snow-covered boulevard. He was nowhere to be seen.
With a heavy sigh, she turned back and wrapped her arms more tightly about her. The man had looked so utterly lonely. And she knew precisely how he felt.
Peter Newkirk wasn't sure he'd ever experienced such complete boredom before. He'd run through every card trick, every slight of hand, and every display of prestidigitation in his expansive repertoire. Twice. And at last check he'd managed to consume only another thirty minutes from a series of unceasingly monotonous hours. He rolled onto his side and peered over the edge of the bunk. Carter was in the same position he'd been in for the past hour, flat on his back, eyes focused intently on the slow movements of a solitary spider that was painstakingly constructing a silvery bridge in the gap between two of the bunk posts.
"Carter, what do you think you're doing?" he asked in an annoyed voice.
The American blinked as he broke his concentration from the contrived task at hand. Kinch glanced over at LeBeau as they sat at the table, each trying to pretend they were engrossed in reading.
"I'm watching Petey," Carter answered peevishly.
"Watching ruddy Petey, d'you say? What're you talkin' about there, Carter? Don't tell me you've gone completely daft."
"No, honestly, I'm watching my pet spider. He's just about to attempt a difficult maneuver." Carter turned his attention back. "Shhhh," he hushed, "you might upset his concentration."
Newkirk rolled his eyes and lay back on the bunk. Almost a full minute elapsed before he jerked bolt upright, the shared wooden structure shaking in response.
"Say, wait a minute, now!" he exclaimed. "Do you mean to tell me you went and used me given name for a bloody bug?"
Carter frowned as he reached across his chest and carefully scooped up the toppled pet. "Gosh darnit, Newkirk, look what you did! You went and made him fall. Now he's got to start all over again." He shook his head in irritation.
"Yeah, well, at least you'll have something to do for the next hour before lights out," Newkirk grumbled in reply.
Carter replaced the insect on its perch and swung his legs over the side of his bunk, sitting up. Craning his head up at his bunkmate, he patiently began. "Besides, Newkirk, it's not a bug, it's an arachnid. One of the oldest known insects on earth. Did you know its name comes from the Greek language and means--"?
He broke off as the sudden creaking of a bunkbed frame startled everyone. Kinch whirled around at the sound, a frown creasing his face. With the exception of his infrequent excursions to check the radio for messages that never came, no one was supposed to be using the tunnels. The men had been languishing under orders to stand down and so far it was as though London had completely forgotten about them.
Every eye in the room was riveted on the sliding bunk frame. Kinch swiftly drew in his breath as the back of a man's head, his hair jet black in the dim light, popped up into view. He slowly exhaled, trying to control his anger, as the figure turned around. Braden's grin, which seemed exceptionally broad, flashed at him from across the room. He clambered excitedly over the bunk rails and slapped the top beam to force its closure.
"Okay, Braden," Kinch asked, his suspicions mounting, "just where've you been?"
Put out at Kinch's tone, Braden crossed to the table and sat down, his excitement only partially dampened.
"Oh, nowhere special. I just felt like going into town for a while."
"What?!" Kinch exploded. "You got a problem with your hearing, Braden? Didn't London say we're to stand down? What're you trying to do, get caught and expose everything before we even have a chance to pull out of here?"
"Fine, be that way. Just for that I'm not going to tell you what I heard from one of our contacts in town." Braden turned, leaning back against the table's edge, his arms folded stubbornly across his chest.
"Eh, what does it matter," LeBeau muttered. He'd been as bored mindless as the rest of them. Lately, even his cooking had suffered. Just last night, he'd willingly dumped an entire pot of ersatz bouillabaisse down the latrine. He had to agree with the others that not even the guard dogs would have consumed the fare.
"Yeah, you're right." Braden got up and stretched lazily in place. "After all, it only had to do with a report of somebody spotting Hogan."
"Did you see him yourself?"
Questions flew at him, while the men gathered around, each pressing for more details.
Braden held up both hands, waving them off. "Hey, never mind. Maybe you're right, and I should just forget everything."
He turned, falsely truculent, toward Kinch. "I promise not to break the rules again, boss."
"Knock it off, Braden," Kinch growled. "Now, what's this about someone having seen Colonel Hogan?"
Braden leaned over the table toward the circle of men.
"You know Max the grocer's?"
"Yeah, right, you going to tell us Colonel Hogan was in there buying potatoes? Leave off." Newkirk shook his head in exasperation.
"Not quite. I stopped by, and Max told me he'd just heard from another underground contact in Hamburg. She saw Hogan," Braden paused for dramatic effect, "at their local Gestapo headquarters."
"Was he okay?" Kinch immediately anticipated the worst. He forced back a shudder at the possible consequences of Hogan being subjected to the Gestapo's most brutal techniques.
Braden snorted in disgust. "Hardly. Seems that sonovabitch walked right in on his own."
Carter looked puzzled. "To give himself up, you mean?"
"No, no. Supposedly, he's working for the Gestapo."
"Not the Colonel!"
"Yeah, well this woman overheard a Gestapo officer there refer to him as a confidential informant. They're paying him off to tell them everything he knows, probably to wrap up all the operations in the area, including ours."
"No way, Braden. You're blowing smoke." Kinch shook his head in disgust.
"Yeah? Well, maybe you should get on that radio of yours and see if it checks out like I said."
"I'm going to do just that, Braden," Kinch looked him squarely in the eye, "and this had better not be another one of your stupid gags." He stood from the table to head for the radio room, an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach.
LeBeau nervously slid a mug of coffee across the table toward Kinch, haltingly resuming his place at the table some twenty minutes later.
"What'd you find out, Kinch?" Carter asked, sounding anxious.
Kinch sat still, his forehead furrowed in a deep frown, as he stared down into the mug. After a lengthy pause, he looked up at the others, his voice subdued.
"Braden's right. A cleaning woman at the Gestapo building in Hamburg saw Colonel Hogan walk right in. She's part of the underground there and remembered seeing the Colonel at a resistance meeting about a year ago. She recognized him immediately. He went in on his own to pass information to some Gestapo major named Kronbach. Even had an appointment to meet with him."
"Told ya." Braden leaned against his bunk post, surveying the anguished looks on their faces. "So, what're we going to do about it, huh?"
Kinch raised his head and wearily addressed the sergeant. "What do you mean, Braden?"
"I say we go there ourselves and teach him a little lesson." Braden raised his eyebrows in surprise, his remarks meeting with no reaction from the others. He stepped to the center of the room, hands sweeping his audience in entreaty. "We're not going to let him get away with this, are we?"
"None of us is going anywhere, Braden. We're following London's orders and sitting tight." Privately, Kinch brooded over the news and worried about its potential impact.
Braden shook his head in disgust. "Well, now I've heard everything. You guys are just going to sit here while that traitor rats us all out."
"Le Colonel would never betray us!"
"Yeah, right, you keep telling yourself that, Frenchie. As for me, I think he's gone over to the other side."
Kinch spoke, his voice so quiet the men had to strain to hear his words. "I don't care what you think, Braden." His eyes remained fixed on his clenched hands atop the table. "Nobody is doing anything."
Braden snorted in disgust. "This guy turns Benedict Arnold and you're just gonna let him sell us down the river, huh?"
He stomped over to his bunk and grabbed his field jacket off the bed, pulling it on as he headed angrily for the door.
"I think I need some fresh air. Things are looking awfully yellow in here." The door slammed shut behind him, the noise shattering the thick silence.
"Le Colonel would never betray us," LeBeau affirmed, his voice hushed. "N'est ce pas?" he pleaded, looking uncertainly at Kinch.
Kinch despairingly covered his face with his hands and slumped forward on the bench. "I don't know, Louis. I just don't know anymore."
Hogan barely glanced at the sleek black sedan as it passed him the first time. It was when the Daimler skidded to a stop just beyond, and then slowly backed in his direction that he bothered looking up. Both hands shoved in his overcoat pockets, Hogan cautiously curled the fingers of his left hand around the grip of a Walther that rested there. After the incident with Hermann and Gunther, he'd taken to carrying the weapon with him for protection. He noticed the windows of the vehicle were curtained, concealing its occupants.
The rear passenger door was thrown open, as the sedan came even with him. Hogan halted in his tracks, looking to either side before slowly approaching.
"Get in," barked a harsh voice.
Taking a deep breath, Hogan bent forward and stepped inside. The car immediately sped off with a lurch, throwing him onto the rear seat. His head banged against the low roof, as he fell back.
"Hey!" he protested angrily, removing his good hand from his overcoat and rubbing a sore spot at the back of his head. He found himself meeting Kronbach's bemused look, then glanced curiously at the small figure beside him on the rear-facing bench seat. The man's dull green eyes blinked nervously behind thick horn-rimmed glasses. He paled slightly, when he glanced down at Hogan's bandaged hand.
Still irritated, Hogan testily spoke to Kronbach in German. "What's this all about? I thought we were all set to meet tomorrow night at Karl's."
Kronbach assessed him carefully before answering. "We've had a slight change of plans."
Hogan removed his hand from the back of his head, dropping it casually in his lap, where it rested against the bulge in his overcoat pocket.
"Oh, yeah?" he asked evenly. "Well, you want to fill me in or do I have to play twenty questions?” He gestured in the direction of the man next to Kronbach. "And who's our mystery guest this evening? I don't think I have his Gestapo rookie card in my collection, so pardon me if I can't name him right away."
Kronbach chuckled. "For the time being we shall introduce him as Mr. X."
Hogan smiled grimly at the visitor. "Wunderbar."
The gentleman nodded his head, as he nervously cleared his throat. "Happy to make your acquaintance," he said in a thin, reedy voice laden with a Welsh accent.
Hogan lifted his eyebrows in surprise. "Hmmph. I'd say Mr. X here spent some time across the pond."
"Quite perceptive, and for that reason I will ask you to please continue in English." Kronbach smiled reassuringly at his companion. "Mr. X has yet to master our noble Teutonic language."
"So what do I look like, Herr Berlitz?" Hogan scowled. "You expect me to give him language lessons?"
"You could say that." Kronbach inclined his head slightly. "Mr. X is a, er, displaced person, somewhat like yourself. I'd like you to take him under your wing and teach him the international language."
"You want to run that past me again?" Hogan's brow wrinkled in bewilderment.
"Our little enterprise set me thinking." Kronbach pursed his lips. "One doesn't necessarily need to speak German in order to make a living. Take you, for instance. Your German is fairly decent, but it is clear you are not a native. The more valuable language you speak is that of black market currency. One doesn't need to understand German if one instead knows how to obtain and barter in desirable goods."
Hogan looked suspiciously at Kronbach. "Just what are you getting at?"
"You're going to take Mr. X here as a partner and 'show him the ropes,' as you say. Teach him the business of black marketeering."
Hogan balked. "Now, wait a minute here, Kronbach. What are you trying to do, cut my share down to nothing? No way." Hogan shook his head angrily, waving a hand to dismiss the proposal.
"Relax, he won't be receiving a percentage. I simply want you to show him how things run so that he can start a similar venture on his own. It will help him to develop his own independence, if you will."
"Look, Kronbach, I told you I don't like partnerships. I only agreed to go along with the first deal so I could clear some inventory before moving on. Which I intend to do as soon as possible. There's no way I'm going to allow someone else to squeeze in on our arrangement. Haven't you ever heard the saying, 'three's a crowd?'"
Kronbach looked at him coldly, slowly withdrawing his pistol from its shoulder holster and pointing it at him. "If I were you, Colonel Hogan, I would be more prudent in my decisions."
Hogan glanced nervously at the bespectacled gentleman. There was no reaction at the mention of his real name.
"Ach, you are worried Mr. X is now aware of your true identity? There is no need to be troubled. He, in fact, has provided me with quite a few more facts regarding your background. Most fascinating details, indeed."
"What are you talking about?" Hogan's mind began racing. Although the windows were curtained, he could estimate the vehicle's speed from its movement. Presuming the doors weren't locked; it wasn't a speed at which he'd care to have to hastily make his exit.
Kronbach shifted slightly in his seat, the gun still trained on Hogan, and turned toward his companion. "Why don't you share with Colonel Hogan here what you know, hmm?"
Green eyes stared expressionless at Hogan through the distorting lenses, as he began to speak.
"Ah, yes, indeed. Of course, sir. You might be interested to know that he appears to have a number of influential friends in London. Including one General Walter Fitzhugh who specializes in, shall we say, rather unique intelligence operations. One of Fitzhugh's more inventive plans was to create a team of covert operatives masquerading as prisoners of war. What better way to disrupt Germany's war effort behind the lines than from such a well-disguised base, what?"
Hogan felt his heart begin to palpitate.
"I understand he personally selected the man who would lead that team of operatives. Must have been quite an honor for you, eh, Colonel Hogan?" The reedy voice hardened slightly.
"How…how do you know that?" Hogan asked, his voice rasping.
The man smiled briefly at Kronbach before turning his spectacled gaze back to Hogan. "I, too, have many friends in London, Colonel. Friends with deep and trusted connections to intelligence networks."
"So, Colonel Hogan, just whose side are you on?" Kronbach looked at him levelly. "Or, should I say, the former Colonel Hogan? According to Mr. X's sources, you seem to have fallen into disfavor with your military superiors. I can't understand why, you appear to be such a likable fellow. Ach, but perhaps there was a bit too much strong-headedness for them to contend with, eh? I imagine it presented quite a handling problem for them." Kronbach chuckled. "It seems you left town quite suddenly before they were able to convene your court martial, hmm?"
Finally finding his voice, Hogan spoke. "Look, I'm on nobody's side. If I stay in London, I find myself facing a dishonorable discharge. If I stay in a POW camp, I find myself facing Dachau. That doesn't exactly leave me with many choices, does it?"
"I'd say your choices were most limited. I, on the other hand, have several options available to me." Kronbach paused thoughtfully. "It is principally a question of market value. Certainly, as a businessman, you should understand that concept, ja?"
Hogan made no response.
"What do you think this information would be worth to my dear friend Major Hochstetter, hmm? On the other hand, the rather intriguing possibility presents itself that London might be willing to provide a generous compensation for your return to their custody. Decisions, decisions."
Kronbach glanced at the figure beside him. "However, another factor weighs into the equation. And that is the need to provide Mr. X here with a means of self-sufficiency. Therefore, I suggest you share with him your business strategy. Introduce him to your contacts, explain to him the secrets of your success, and then allow him room to set up his own operation."
"You strike a hard bargain, Kronbach."
"I told you previously, don't underestimate me." He smiled coldly at Hogan.
Hogan looked askance at the Welshman. "So, when do you want to start?"
The man looked questioningly at Kronbach. "I'm beginning to feel quite bored, now that the debriefings," he stole an uncertain glance at Hogan, "have become less frequent."
"I see." Kronbach pondered Hogan for a few moments. "Why don't we allow our expatriate friend here to at least enjoy the remainder of his holiday period, hmm? We can resume our business after the start of the new year."
He reached into a jacket pocket and removed a slip of folded paper. "I want you to meet Mr. X at this hotel three days from now, the second of January. The room number shown will have already been obtained for you."
Hogan frowned as he glanced at the paper.
"Oh, and try to clean yourself up for a change, hmm? We've arranged to use a reputable hotel for this meeting and I don't want the staff refusing you entry because you resemble a street beggar."
"Yeah, sure," Hogan mumbled.
He stiffened as Kronbach leaned forward, but he merely twisted around to tap twice on the glass divider sealing off the driver's section. The car swerved to the curb, screeching to a halt. As Hogan reached for the door handle, Kronbach clamped his hand firmly on his forearm.
"I'll have someone watching your every move, so don't think about leaving town without saying goodbye."
"Gotcha." Hogan smiled morosely at the man in glasses. "Happy New Year, partner."
The man merely nodded politely in return.
Hogan had barely stepped from the vehicle before it sped off, a hand reaching out to secure the open door, while it rounded a corner. He stumbled to the side of the road, trying to catch his breath that suddenly only wanted to come in hitches. He wasn't quite sure how to weigh this unexpected turn and knew he would have to put into place some sort of contingency plan. It seemed clear that things would be coming to an end very soon. Had he miscalculated? He felt pushed to the edge of a precipice, a momentous judgment awaiting him.
Braden's teeth ached as he spit out the chewing gum his jaws had worked over the past couple of hours. They'd been grinding so hard out of frustration, he thought sure he'd loosened a molar. He absently rubbed the side of his face, as he insistently repeated his statement to the small circle of men grouped around him.
"I'm telling you, he's gone over to the Krauts. If we don't do something about it, he's going to sell us all out and then we're done for."
A short, almost stout, corporal named Williams looked down at the ground, as he absently drew circles in the dirt with the toe of his boot.
"I dunno," he slowly drawled, "Colonel Hogan ain't never showed no sign of bein' no Nazi-lover before." He looked up at the NCO beside him. "You sure you're right, Sergeant?"
Braden looked around at the intent faces. "I don't care what he acted like before, I say the pressure finally got to him. He's folded and gone over to their side. I say we go after him to teach him a lesson about playing on the wrong team."
A redheaded British enlisted man shook his head. "Here, now, what about those orders from Sergeant Kinchloe? He made it plain as day none of us was to set foot outside this camp 'til we hear back from London."
"Oh yeah, well who elected Kinch our commanding officer?"
An Army Air Corps sergeant named Comminsky spoke up. "Braden, the last time you came up with some hare-brained scheme, I ended up soaked in water and pulled a week's stretch in the cooler to dry out. I say forget about it."
Comminsky slapped Braden good-naturedly on the back, as he removed a cigarette he'd propped over one ear and stuck it in his mouth. Patting his pockets, as he walked away, he called, "Anybody with matches gets the first drag."
The rest of the group, with the exception of Williams, gradually dispersed.
"Sarge, you still reckon you might try something?" Williams squinted up at him curiously.
"Yeah, I might. Why? You gonna run and tell Kinch?"
"Nah. I was just thinkin' maybe I'd tag along. I'm getting tired a just hangin' 'round here."
"Yeah, me too, Williams. Me too." Braden broke his gaze from the main gate and looked down at the shorter man. "Maybe we'll quit this dull routine and make a little visit to a certain Benedict Arnold."
Williams looked puzzled. "Benedict Arnold? I thought you was talkin' 'bout Hogan."
Braden rolled his eyes.
"Just sit tight. We're going to wait for the right time to make our break."
Williams nodded hopefully, wondering how long they might have to wait.
The only sound in the still street was the crunching of feet against snow, as the solitary figure trudged his way through the fresh fallen covering. Hogan shivered as several wet, fat flakes deposited themselves down the back of his collar. Pausing before one of the ancient brick storefronts that lined the street, he removed his hand from his coat pocket, grasping the half-empty flask. Teetering slightly as he tilted the container upwards, Hogan leaned back and took several deep swallows, the liquid warming his chilled body. He drew the back of one hand across his mouth and then replaced the canister's top, sighing.
He felt the depression settling on him like the blanket of snow that carpeted the town. Had he made the right decisions? It seemed too late to try to turn back and change things now, he thought glumly.
He raised the flask once more and was suddenly startled to see another face reflected in the store window before him. Whirling around, he met a pair of hazel eyes looking at him in troubled silence.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to surprise you like that." Her voice was filled with evident sympathy.
Hogan felt momentarily embarrassed, wondering what private thoughts his face may have telegraphed before he became aware of Leisa's presence.
"Sheesh. If you're going to shadow me, give me a little warning, huh?" Hogan's voice was gruff.
Leisa looked momentarily startled. "Why…I…I don't know what you're talking about," she stammered.
"Yeah, right," Hogan said harshly. "Let me guess, you're just doing your job, right?" He turned back toward the window. "I've heard that line before. Do me a favor. Go make your report and then leave me alone, huh?"
He glanced at the reflected image and saw her head drop, a hurt expression materializing, and was immediately struck with remorse.
Sighing heavily, he turned slowly back toward her.
"Look," he said apologetically, "maybe I shouldn't have been so abrupt. I…I guess I've just been out here in the cold for too long; it's made me short-tempered."
She looked at him quizzically. "Why don't you just go home?"
"Home?" Hogan repeated, his face assuming an alarming despondency once more. Leisa was disturbed to see him so unguarded.
"I mean, why don't you go to your flat?" She peered at him anxiously, noticing that he had begun to shiver. "Your landlady didn't evict you, did she?"
Hogan snorted. "No, not yet, anyway. The furnace isn't working. Again. All the same, compared to my flat, it almost feels warmer out here." Hogan shrugged. "I figured maybe I'd find someplace still open where I could spend a few hours. But, it looks as though everything is closed up."
"Ach, I'm afraid so. New Year's is a time to be with family, so most establishments close early."
"Yeah, I suppose so."
Leisa stood there awkwardly, unsure of what to say. She'd certainly seen him at some definite low points, but what she had never encountered previously and now found so unsettling, was the spirit of utter despair and melancholy that filled his lifeless eyes.
"Look," she began hesitantly, "why don't you come to my place. At least the flat is heated. You can warm up for a while and then go home."
Hogan paused, taken aback at her offer. "No, thanks, I don't want to put you out." He smiled wanly. "I'm sure you must have other plans this evening."
Leisa gave him a small smile in return. "Well, actually, I don't. I just decided to make it a quiet night at home this evening, so why don't you join me?"
"Yeah, okay, why not?" Hogan shrugged. "At least if you've got to keep an eye on me, I might as well make it easy on you, hmm?"
Nonplussed, she simply shook her head. "Follow me. My place isn't far from here."
Leisa preceded him into the apartment and crossed to turn on a lamp, the warm glow showing through an ancient parchment shade.
Hogan stood just inside the door, arms wrapped around his torso, fighting to keep his teeth from chattering. Leisa looked at him with concern.
"There's a fireplace over there stocked with wood and kindling. Do you think you could get a fire started?"
Hogan nodded. He still felt too chilled to try and talk.
"I'll be right back." Leisa disappeared into another room.
He surveyed the modest, but comfortable, flat. The front entrance opened into a combined living and dining area, a worn sofa separating the two sections. Long faded drapes covered the tall windows and were gathered in soft folds on the floor. The furnishings, once possibly considered lavish, now clearly showed their age. A small fireplace was inset against one wall. Hogan crossed to the hearth and inspected its contents.
A few minutes later, Hogan triumphantly surveyed his handiwork, basking in the glow of the crackling fire that filled the room with a golden hue. He stood there, gazing at the yellow and blue flames licking upwards from the stacked splits of wood. Absently, he reached with his good hand into his overcoat pocket and withdrew a flask, unscrewing the metal top. A hand suddenly reached out, preventing him from raising the container. Startled, he turned to see Leisa standing there, a concerned look on her face.
"Not tonight. Please. I…," Leisa hesitated, "I don't want to see you get drunk. Okay?" she said uncertainly.
Hogan shrugged in embarrassment. "Geez, if you're gonna make me adopt a New Year's resolution, the least you could do is give me one more night, huh?" She looked at him resolutely. Sheepishly, he recapped the flask and set it on a nearby table. "Besides, I was just trying to warm myself up, unless you have another idea?"
"Mmm, perhaps I do," Leisa murmured coyly as she slipped her hand into his. Demurely, she arched one eyebrow and hooked a finger to signal for him to follow. His heart skipping a beat, Hogan trailed her into the dimly lit bedroom. His delight was exchanged for dismay as they continued into an adjoining bathroom. Hogan looked around, puzzled. A tartan plaid man's dressing gown was draped over a wooden towel stand, and the porcelain clawed-foot tub was filled with water.
"I thought a hot bath might help get rid of that chill," Leisa said, a purposely chaste and innocent look on her face. She gave him a wink, as she retreated to the other room. "Take your time. I'll be in the kitchen, preparing supper."
Hogan stood there for a moment and then began to chuckle. "Serves you right. That'll teach you to try and be suave, Robby old boy."
Warmed by the bath and then supper, Hogan sank into the sofa in front of the fire. He fingered the heavy woolen robe that was wrapped around him, wondering curiously why Leisa would have a man’s garment at her flat. The pensiveness to his face was quickly replaced by a purposely bland expression, as he heard her footsteps approach.
"Thanks," Hogan said, accepting the cup and saucer she held out to him.
She sat on the sofa next to him, while he lifted his cup and sipped from it.
"Say, this is the real thing," he exclaimed with surprise.
"Once in a while Karl shares some of his coffee with me. I understand he has a special source for certain hard-to-get items." Leisa winked at Hogan over the rim of her cup.
Hogan chuckled. "Yeah, that he does." He turned back to the fire, the orange and red glow casting flickering shadows across his face.
"What brought you here, anyway?" Leisa hesitantly probed.
Hogan shifted on the sofa, turning sideways, as he draped his good arm over the back of the cushion and studied her for a few moments.
"I guess you could say I made some mistakes. Some errors in judgment. And now I'm just trying to sort things out." He paused, uncertain how much to reveal. "I suppose you think I'm running away from things, don't you?"
"No, I wouldn't think that about you at all," she said softly.
The front of Hogan's robe fell open, and Leisa noticed the medallion hung around his neck, the light of the fire glinting off its gold surface. Hesitantly, she reached toward him. He stiffened slightly, watching her warily, as she lifted the chain. She studied the medallion, before looking up at him in surprise.
"Why, it's a Saint Michael medal, is it not?"
Hogan nodded mutely.
"This has special meaning for you, then?" she asked quietly.
"Yes, it does." Hogan paused, looking down as though to study the back of his bandaged hand. "It was given to me by someone whose friendship once meant a great deal to me."
"And then something happened between the two of you?" Leisa left a great deal unsaid, but the tone of her voice communicated her personal concerns.
Hogan struggled with an answer. How much of his background should he share? He realized that opening up would impose an unfair burden on her. By knowing more about him, that knowledge might place her in greater danger, and he didn't want to create that risk.
After what seemed forever, Hogan finally spoke, his voice hoarse with apology. "Let's just say there are things about my past you'd be better off not knowing."
"I think I know all I need to know about you," she said kindly.
She studied the hurt in eyes. Whatever it was from his past, it was clearly troubling him. Impulsively, she reached out with one hand to gently stroke the side of his cheek.
Inwardly, Hogan felt himself tremble. It had been a very long time since someone had touched him with such caring and tenderness. He closed his eyes to savor the caress. Bringing his good arm around to cup her hand in his, he turned and pressed his lips into the soft flesh of her palm. He drew his other arm across her shoulders, pulling her into his embrace, as she leaned forward and willingly accepted his kiss. Her hand slipped to the side of his neck where she could feel his pulse quicken, as they drew each other nearer.
It was several long minutes before they reluctantly parted. Hogan dropped his head, sighing heavily. Leisa slid her hand under his chin, bringing his head up, and looked into eyes reflecting confusion and uncertainty.
"I feel the same way," she said softly, "Here we are, two mature adults, and we both feel like a couple of guilty adolescents stealing a forbidden kiss in the front parlor while one's parents are away."
Hogan gave her a small smile of relief. "War just isn't the best time to start up new relationships."
"No, it isn't. There's too much apprehension to deal with these days. From day to day, one never knows what will happen. It makes it too difficult to become close to people. I know."
"I think maybe it would be better if we just retired for the evening, hmm?" She patted him warmly on the shoulder, as she rose from the sofa. "I'm afraid, though, that this couch is all I've got to offer." She gestured toward a chair against the wall. "There's a comforter and pillow there that should help you feel more comfortable."
"I'm not complaining. This sofa's a lot better than that hard-backed chair you had at my place," Hogan replied.
Leisa flushed momentarily and looked away guiltily. "Oh, yes, er, right," she stammered. "Er, is there anything else you need?" she asked, anxious to change topics.
"No, I'll be fine," Hogan said. "You go on in."
"Good night," he acknowledged, as he turned his face back toward the fire, his mind a jumble of thoughts.
"Lights out!" bellowed Schultz, as he cast a disinterested glance around the barracks room.
"Yeah, okay, Schultz," Carter grumbled. "And a Happy New Year to you, too."
"Hmmph. What's so happy about it," Schultz muttered as he headed for the door to continue his evening rounds. He'd been pulling extra guard duty ever since Hogan's escape. Klink was still arguing with his superiors that because Hogan had been in the process of being transferred, it shouldn't count against his unblemished record, but so far he hadn't received a reprieve. Until then, he was overreacting to every situation and undeniably making life less pleasant for his senior sergeant-at-arms.
Kinch rose and stretched, his body weary from boredom more than any physical exertion. The sudden movement of the bunkbed trap door interrupted his accompanying yawn. Curiously, all eyes focused on the prisoner who clambered up from below.
"Kinch," he hissed, looking cautiously around the barracks. "I need to talk with you. Now."
Puzzled, Kinch approached the bunk, leaning over the gaping entrance. "What's up, Comminsky?"
Carter and LeBeau inched forward, while Newkirk peered down from his upper bunk.
"Kinch, Braden's gone."
Kinch glanced over his shoulder, noting an empty bunk across the room.
"So what. I'm sure he's just out for a quick walk around the compound before lights out. He's been as restless as the rest of us lately."
"No, Kinch, I mean he's gone. Really gone. As in left the camp."
Kinch's frown deepened. "What do you mean?"
"I mean he left camp and took Williams with him."
"What? How do you know for sure?"
Hesitant, Comminsky shrugged uncomfortably under Kinch's glare. "I guess I should have told you this before."
"Told me what before?" Kinch shot back, his voice hardening.
"Well, I just thought it was only talk. You know Braden, how he's always going on about one thing or another. I was with him and Williams the other day and all he could talk about was Colonel Hogan and how he wanted to go teach him a lesson. Because of his having turned traitor. Or," Comminsky quickly added in response to the scowls his remarks received, "at least, according to Braden."
"So what are you trying to tell me?" Kinch asked.
"I think Braden and Williams broke out of camp earlier this afternoon. I didn't take much notice of it at the time, but I saw both of them sneak into the rec hall when they thought no one else was around. You remember we added a tunnel in there a while back."
Kinch nodded, deep in thought.
"Well, I never saw them come back out again. And it looked as though they had some extra clothing on under their uniforms. I've asked around and nobody's seen them since then. I might be wrong, Kinch, but I don't have a good feeling about this. I think they may have gone after Colonel Hogan."
Kinch balled his fists in frustration. Great, this was the last thing he needed. He'd had enough difficulty handling their German captors without contending with a renegade POW who was rapidly living up to his unmanageable reputation.
"I'm sorry, Kinch. I guess I should have told you earlier."
"No, that's okay, Comminsky. I appreciate your letting me know."
"Yeah, I figured you'd better hear about it now rather than wait until morning when even more problems might develop."
Kinch nodded gratefully. "You'd better get back to your barracks before Schultz finds you missing."
"Right." He quickly disappeared below, the bunk sliding back into place, as Kinch strode for his locker.
"What're you going to do, Kinch?" Carter inquired.
"I'm not exactly sure yet, but I guess I'm going to have to come up with something." He felt responsible for Braden's absence and the trouble that might bring for the rest of the men in the barracks.
Newkirk hopped down and began to yank off his nightshirt, reaching for a uniform draped over one of the bunk posts.
"Where are you going, Newkirk?" Carter asked.
"Well, you heard what Comminsky had to say."
"For heaven's sake, Carter, don't you realize that Braden's gone after the Colonel? And I don't think it's exactly to serve him a summons, neither. I don’t have a good feeling about this, mates."
"So what do you have in mind?" LeBeau asked.
"I say we go to Hamburg to stop him or find Colonel Hogan and warn him."
"Geez, I don't know, Newkirk," Carter reflected. "Hamburg is a pretty big city. How're we supposed to find them?"
"Look, Andrew, if I had all the bleedin' answers, I'd be a bloomin' brigadier. I came up with the first idea, now give me a break, will ya?"
"Kinch, what do you think?" LeBeau asked.
He pulled on his fatigue jacket. "I think Newkirk's right, fellas. I don't know what our chances are, but we can't do much good sitting here. I say we borrow one of Klink's trucks and try to get to Hamburg. Braden and Williams got quite a jump on us and we've got a heckuva haystack to sort through to find any of them."
Hogan rolled again onto his other side. He'd been tossing and turning so much, he was beginning to feel as though he was in the training simulator back at Mitchell Field. The gyroscope-like contraption excelled at hurling one's body in several directions at once and usually turned even the toughest pilot candidates green.
With a heavy sigh, he tossed aside the comforter and rose quietly from the couch. The fire had long ago died out and the chill that now pervaded the room covered him in goosebumps as he stretched, clad only in his shorts. Shivering slightly, he felt for the robe draped over the arm of the sofa and pulled it on, tightening the sash around his waist, as he crossed to the windows.
He pulled aside the heavy drapes. With the fire out, there was no longer any reason to cloak the apartment against the nighttime blackout. The room became flooded with moonlight streaming in through paneled sheers. Hogan breathed in deeply, as he gazed out over the snow-covered rooftops and narrow streets below. The full moon seemed balanced precariously on the edge of a rooftop across the way, as though sitting atop a seesaw and about to slide off.
Shaking from the cold once more, Hogan remembered the flask he'd set down on a table and retrieved it. He resumed his position before the window and upended the container to take a deep swallow, when he heard the sound of feet padding softly toward him.
"Tsk, tsk," Leisa said mockingly, as she looked disapprovingly at the flask.
Shrugging apologetically, Hogan said, "I'm sorry. I couldn’t sleep and just thought maybe this would--"
Her finger pressing against his mouth silenced him, as she took the flask in her other hand. She helped herself to a sip from the flask, her throat glistening in the moonlight, while she raised her head. Leisa handed him back the flask, their hands touching lightly in a shock-like tingle, as she passed him the container.
"I, uh, didn't wake you, did I?" Hogan tried clearing the sudden hoarseness from his throat.
"Not exactly. That would assume I had been asleep. I haven't been able to drop off, either." Leisa shrugged and then gestured to the sofa, not wanting to look too directly into his eyes. "Is it uncomfortable for you there?"
"No, not at all."
"What is it, then?"
Leisa's eyes became riveted on his. He tried not to stare at the way the moonlight silhouetted her body beneath the pale gown she wore.
"I think it has something to do with this," he murmured, reaching slowly out to her. They drew together, the woody sweetness of the whiskey on her lips only increasing Hogan's ardor, as she raised one hand to caress the nape of his neck.
He traced a line of kisses along the side of her jaw and down her neck, while she arched her head, moaning softly. His mouth finding hers once more, he struggled with his bandaged hand to loosen the knotted sash of her dressing gown. She brought a hand around to assist him, the folds of her gown falling open. Trembling at his touch, her long silken legs straddled his hips, as he gradually carried her into the bedroom.
Hogan awoke at the sensation of the mattress shifting beneath him. He opened his eyes to see Leisa on the edge of the bed next to him, fully dressed and holding a cup of coffee in her hands.
"Happy New Year," she said, smiling at him warmly.
He sat up, the comforter falling to his waist, as his face registered a mixture of surprise and suspicion.
"Where…where are you going? Karl's isn't open today."
Leisa could see the worry begin to form, while he worriedly assessed the situation.
"Relax, I just need to go out for a short while." She gestured toward his hand. "I'd say you haven't changed the bandage since I first dressed it, and I don't like the looks of the area around that cut. I'm just going to stop at Karl's where I can pick up some antiseptic and clean bandages."
Hogan relaxed slightly and leaned back against the pillow. "Why the rush? Stay here with me, and we can both go out together later."
Leisa shook her head, as she set the coffee on the nightstand next to him. "It's not wise for the two of us to be seen together. It won't take long. Now drink your coffee before it gets cold," she clucked, heading for the door. "I'll be right back."
Hogan lay there for several moments before reaching for his coffee. Sipping from the cup, he sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed. The robe was still there on the floor where he had abandoned it the night before. He managed to reach down and snag it, drawing it on as he rose from the bed. Cup in hand, he wandered out into the living room and walked leisurely over to the windows. The drapes had already been drawn, and the early morning light filtered in softly through opaque sheers. He pulled them aside to gaze out on the street blanketed in white below.
His reaction was as violent as if the window had been flung open and a vicious blast of cold air had suddenly struck him. A woman, heavily bundled in a woolen overcoat and kerchief, stepped into the street, as a tall man, a fedora pulled low over his face, moved from the shelter of a small alleyway and began to follow her. Hermann. Hogan, his face ashen, watched impotently, as her pursuer nodded to a hidden companion across the street.
Hastily setting the cup on the edge of a nearby table and abandoning the robe, Hogan raced for the bedroom to retrieve his clothes. How could he have been so careless? Someone must have seen them together the previous evening, while they walked back to Leisa's flat. They had then alerted Hermann and Gunther, who clearly had been waiting for their prey to emerge.
He knew the vengeance they would wreak on one of their own would far exceed the punishment he had experienced at their hands. He gulped a breath, trying to wipe away the thoughts of what would happen to Leisa if they caught up with her. His hands shook slightly, fumbling with the buttons of his shirt. Snaring most of them, he pulled on his jacket and overcoat in a single move. The door flew shut behind him, as he tore down the stairs.
His hand resting on the front doorknob, he paused for a moment, breathing heavily. Gunther was probably still lying in wait for him to exit the building. He'd have to find a back way out. Looking down the hall, he noticed a small door, about half-height, cut into the enclosed area beneath the rising stairs. Maybe it led to a root cellar, he thought. He lifted the latch and the door creaked open. Poking his head into the musty space, he saw faint beams of light, indicating an opening to the outside. With a backward glance toward the front door, Hogan ducked low and cautiously felt his way down the rickety steps. The casement window was a narrow fit, but with a bit of squirming and grunting, Hogan pulled himself up and through. Avoiding the front street, he hopped the wall surrounding the rear yard and mentally plotted an alternate route to Karl's.
The snow made his footing against the slippery cobblestones precarious, and he had to fling out his arms to keep his balance, as he rounded a corner. He was only a couple of blocks from the Hofbrau, but he still hadn't spotted Leisa. Had her pursuer already caught up with her?
A sound from behind made him whirl around.
A tall man stood leering at him, gun in hand. Hogan blew out his breath, his shoulders slumping in relief.
"Braden, you don't know what a start you gave me." Hogan stepped forward, his brow furrowing in a perplexed look. "Say, what are you doing here?"
"Keep your hands up, Hogan, " Braden warned, as he raised the gun, aiming at Hogan's chest.
"Whoa, wait a second, Braden, what do you think you're doing?" Hogan halted, startled.
"I said, put your hands up. I meant it," Braden growled, jabbing the gun menacingly in his direction.
Hogan's eyes narrowed. "Braden, you're making a big mistake here."
"No, Hogan, you're the one who's made the mistake, taking sides with the Gestapo and shacking up with a Kraut girlfriend."
"Braden, listen to me, that's not the way it is. I can explain." Hogan glanced hastily around the alley; there appeared to be no refuge.
"It's too late for your explanations, Hogan. That might work with Klink, but it's not going to work with me. Now, turn around."
"What're you going to do, shoot me in the back?" Hogan asked bitterly.
"That seems the right thing to do to a traitor, wouldn't you say?" Braden raised the gun, his finger tightening on the trigger.
Hogan began to turn, reaching surreptitiously toward his overcoat pocket. His fingers closed around the pistol grip, as he began to twist back around. He was a deadly accurate shooter, even with his left hand, but drawing the weapon with his left was another matter. The barrel caught in the pocket lining, and as he struggled to free it from its entanglements, Braden squeezed off a shot.
The projectile barely missed his left ear, the bullet slamming into the brick wall behind him. Spinning to avoid the shot, Hogan tripped against a pile of empty wooden crates stacked haphazardly against the wall, losing the Walther amidst the refuse. Struggling to regain his footing, he could hear the crunch of snow behind him, and the click of the hammer being cocked echoing through the alley. Hogan suddenly sprang upwards, flinging a crate at his assailant. Braden tried to duck but was too slow, and the wooden box splintered against the side of his head, sending him temporarily reeling. Hogan took advantage of the momentary reprieve and spun away, pounding down the snow-covered alley.
The maze of narrow passageways twisted and turned, and Hogan couldn’t resist the temptation to glance back and see if he’d been followed. He turned, leaving him slightly off balance, just as his foot landed on one of the angled, jutting cobblestones. It had been more than a month since the injury to his ankle and, although it had healed well enough that the limp was no longer noticeable, the joint wasn't able to withstand the torque. It twisted painfully beneath him. Hogan collapsed defenseless against the alley wall.
The fatal hesitation was enough for an arm to reach out from a nearby darkened entryway, seizing him around the neck, another hand firmly clasped over his mouth. Hogan struggled to free himself, but the grasp was unyielding, and he felt himself being helplessly dragged through an open doorway. The door closed silently, cloaking them in darkness, while the sound of footsteps running past the entryway echoed down the alley.
"Shhhh," hissed a voice, as the hand covering his mouth was taken away, the sound of his pursuer vanishing into the distance.
Still off balance, Hogan struggled to upright himself. He groaned, his ankle protesting beneath the weight. An arm wrapped itself around his waist, and a woman's voice in a distinctly British accent spoke urgently in the dark.
"Colonel Hogan, come with me, quickly, please."
They stumbled together along the darkened hallway. As a faint light illuminated the end of the hall, he realized they had entered the rear of the Hofbrau. They passed into the main room, which smelled faintly of stale cigarette smoke and beer. Hogan was dragged to the nearest chair, sitting down heavily. Checking to make certain the blackout curtains were in place, his rescuer switched on the room lights. Hogan blinked in pain, as the circles of reflected light from the mirror behind the bar shimmered and danced before his eyes.
Leisa stood before him.
"You? How…how did you know my name?" he asked, confused.
Without pausing, Leisa replied, her voice a different clipped, yet softer, timbre now. "Come now, Colonel, we're well beyond the point of formal introductions, wouldn't you agree?" A coy smile came to her lips as he looked at her, dumbfounded.
"You're…you're British." The look of amazement was momentarily replaced by a grimace, as Leisa knelt before him and manipulated his ankle, checking to make certain it wasn't broken.
"Oh, most definitely, Colonel."
"But, what are you doing here?" He looked questioningly at her.
Coming to her feet, she turned back to him. "General Fitzhugh sent me to keep an eye on you. He didn't want you handling this assignment completely on your own and asked me to position myself where I could assist if things went awry."
Hogan shook his head in amazement and gratitude. "I should have known Fitzhugh would be up to his old tricks," he said with a chuckle. "But that doesn't tell me who you are."
"Ah, yes, of course, Colonel. Angela St. Lawrence, Special Operations, Intelligence, London." Smiling, she slightly inclined her head in a bow. "Pleased to make your acquaintance."
"St. Lawrence." Hogan pursed his lips thoughtfully. "That name sounds familiar."
She raised one eyebrow. "I believe you know my older sister, Audrey. Or, should I perhaps call you Horst?"
Hogan groaned and not from pain this time. "Of course. Audrey." He opened his eyes quickly. "But, you realize, we didn't know each other in exactly the same way."
"Yes. I understand from Audrey that you made quite a show of having to catch a train." Laughing, she patiently smiled at him. "There's no need to explain, Colonel. Certainly not now."
She placed her hand gently on his shoulder. "I need to get some bandages from the back room. I'll only be a moment."
Nodding, Hogan closed his eyes in sudden fatigue. He listened to her steps fading away from him, while she made her way to the back. The sound of a door opening was abruptly accompanied by a distinct gasp, promptly followed by a choked cry.
Hogan sat bolt upright. "Leisa? I mean, Angela?" He rose with effort from the chair. "Are you okay?"
There was no response. Pushing the pain away, Hogan slowly made his way toward the bar, his eyes fixed on the entrance to the rear hall. He knew Karl kept a club concealed behind the bar, used to occasionally knock sense into the intoxicated heads of belligerent customers. His good hand closed around the wooden handle, as the sound of approaching footsteps neared. He hefted the club to his shoulder and pressed his way along the wall.
Leisa appeared in the doorway. From the tense look on her face, Hogan could tell something was wrong. Spotting Braden immediately following her, he knew the reason why. Hogan lifted the club above his head and was about to bring it down, just as Braden was roughly shoved from behind. A hand poked a gun at his back, ordering the enlisted man into the Hofbrau. Hogan sighed with audible relief at the sight of Kinch entering the room, followed by Newkirk.
"Colonel Hogan!" Kinch exclaimed, as he rushed forward.
Hogan dropped the club to the floor and sank against the wall. Newkirk brusquely herded Braden and Angela toward the center of the room.
"Might as well make yourselves comfortable, mates, 'til we figure out what to do with you." He gestured with his pistol for them to be seated. Angela opened her mouth, as though to say something in protest, but then spotted Hogan leaning weakly against the wall and rose to go to him.
"Here now, miss, you just have a seat and stay right where you are. You've had your chance at him."
Hogan looked up wearily, waving for Newkirk to let her proceed. "It's okay, Newkirk, she's one of us."
"Beggin' your pardon, sir? One of 'us'?" Newkirk looked perplexed. He and Kinch exchanged worried glances.
Kinch assisted Hogan to a chair, dropping to one knee to look him directly in the eyes. He spoke, his voice passionate with distress.
"Look, Colonel, we know things have been tough for you, but you don't have to continue doing this. We can square things away with London and Klink. Just give us a second chance and c'mon back to camp, huh?"
"What?" Hogan looked confused, not recognizing their implied concern.
"Colonel, we can fix things like they were before. You don't have to turn your back on your country. It's not worth it."
Realization dawned suddenly on Hogan's face, and he began to smile. Kinch and Newkirk frowned in frustration at each other, assuming their appeal had been rebuffed.
"Relax, fellas. I'm still on the same side you are." He inclined his head toward Angela. "Meet Angela St. Lawrence, British Intelligence."
"St. Lawrence?" Newkirk paused. "Is this the bird, pardon me, ma'am," he tipped his hat in apology, "the, er, lady agent you met that time, sir?"
"Not exactly. This is her sister. It would seem intelligence work runs in the family." Hogan glanced up at Angela, as she came to his side.
Kinch shook his head in confusion. "Colonel, you've got me feeling as though I'm listening to Carter trying to explain something. What's been going on?"
Hogan nodded apologetically. "I'm sorry, fellas, I hated doing this to you, but General Fitzhugh and I both felt it was the only way we had a chance to pull this off."
"You remember when we lost that resistance leader a while back, Rudolph Leitmann?"
Kinch and Newkirk nodded, glancing in surprise at each other. It was the first time they had heard Hogan even mention Rudy's name since the tragic death.
"Well, soon after that, Fitzhugh developed the suspicion that someone had penetrated his intelligence network. He began to quietly look into it, and from what he could figure, an analyst working at Headquarters was providing the Germans with the names of our underground agents."
"Blimey, Colonel. You mean that's how they got Rudy and the others?"
"That's right. The analyst's name is Harry Whitlow. Unfortunately, less than a day after Fitzhugh figured out his identity, he vanished."
"The myopic little worm," Angela muttered under breath.
Hogan nodded grimly in agreement. "You can say that again."
He shifted in the chair, trying unsuccessfully to get comfortable, before continuing. The dull ache in his ankle seemed to radiate up his body with the smallest movement.
"They determined he'd defected and was brought to Germany. It wasn't until later that we learned he'd holed up here, under the care of a Gestapo officer named Kronbach."
Angela shuddered in the recollection of her intense dislike for the man.
"I volunteered to go after him and bring him back. It was the least I could do to try and make amends for Rudy's death." Hogan bowed his head before continuing. "We were concerned Whitlow still had connections to others in London we didn’t know about yet. The only way I could get close to him, through Kronbach, was to make it appear I'd not only broken away from Stalag 13, but also from London. The charges against me, the threat of court martial, even the blowup to get me tossed out of camp, were all part of the ruse."
Kinch looked regretfully at Hogan. "But why take the risk all by yourself, Colonel? Why not have the rest of us go with you on the mission to grab him?"
Hogan shook his head. "If word got to Whitlow about a mission to go after him, his German handlers would have him so far underground he wouldn’t emerge until the end of the thousand year Reich. I had to first carefully make the approach through Kronbach. The drinking was to make myself seem more vulnerable, so he'd drop his guard a bit."
"I'd say it was effective. Not even I knew exactly what you were up to, Colonel," Angela remarked. "General Fitzhugh was rather vague, simply directing me to put myself in a position that would place me in contact with Major Kronbach. I was then to keep an eye out for you and be ready to assist if things went wrong." She raised her eyebrows. "We almost aborted the mission the night you were attacked by Hermann and Gunther."
"Hermann and Gunther!" Hogan looked up, as if just remembering something. "They were the ones I saw following you this morning, when you left the apartment."
A contrite voice spoke up from across the room. "Uh, no, sir, that was me, I suppose." Braden swallowed hard, awkwardly twisting his hat in his lap. "I have to apologize, Colonel. I…I thought you'd turned traitor on us. I never would have shot at you, if I'd known…" His voice trailed off, realizing he was probably in for it now.
"We'll deal with that later, Braden." Hogan looked over at Kinch. "I think someone's still waiting outside Angela's flat, though."
Kinch nodded. "Probably Williams, sir. He left camp with Braden, which is why we showed up." He shrugged his shoulders sheepishly. "Given what everybody was thinking about you, they were going to come here and teach you a lesson. We decided to try and head them off." Kinch rubbed the side of his jaw. Two of his teeth still felt loose from the punch he'd taken from Hogan. "I'd have to say, Colonel, you sure had me convinced."
Hogan winced in regret. "I almost broke from my role-playing when that happened, Kinch. I hope you realize it was an accident."
Kinch smiled. "That's all right, Colonel. Although, if Battling Bruno ever shows up for a rematch, we're putting you in the ring instead of me." He turned to Newkirk. "You'd better tell Carter and LeBeau to go round up Williams."
"Righto." Newkirk headed for the rear hallway.
"Carter and LeBeau? What'd you guys do, stage a mass breakout? Isn't there anybody left at camp?" Hogan shook his head in amazement.
"Uh, yes sir," Newkirk offered, feigning a pensive look, "I do believe Schultz is still there. We would have brought him with us, Colonel, but we didn't think he'd fit through the stump at the end of the emergency tunnel." He grinned, disappearing through the door.
Hogan laughed and tried to stand, wincing as the movement sent another ripple of pain through him.
Kinch frowned in sudden concern. "Colonel, take it easy, we've got a truck from the motor pool parked around the corner to get you back." Kinch picked up his hat and gun from the table, ready to move out.
"Wait a second, Kinch. I'm not going until this is finished. I didn't come this far to leave without Whitlow." Hogan's voice was firm.
Angela rolled her eyes in exasperation, glancing at Kinch. "Has he always been this stubborn, Sergeant?"
Kinch ducked his head, trying to conceal his grin. "Uh, ma'am, I'm hoping the Geneva Convention protects me from having to answer that question."
He turned back to Hogan. "Colonel, I understand why you feel that way, but you're in no condition to take Whitlow on your own."
Hogan pursed his lips, trying to come up with an alternative plan. He knew Kinch was right. After a few moments, he looked up at Kinch and Angela.
"All right, Kinch, but I've got to be the one to make the initial approach. If he sees anyone else first, he'll run like a scared rabbit."
Kinch nodded, focusing on Hogan, as he slowly began.
"Here's what we're going to do…"
A knock at the hotel room door made Hogan sit up, his nerves taut.
"It's open," he called out.
The visitor timidly pushed open the door, peering around its edge to spy Hogan seated in an armchair. His bandaged right hand waved to him from across the room in a comradely gesture.
"C'mon on in, partner. Wait until you see what I managed to find." Hogan smiled broadly at the slight, bespectacled man, as he hesitantly stepped into the room.
The door closed quickly shut, and Whitlow's eyes magnified even wider, as a chloroform-soaked pad was clamped over his mouth. After a few moments, Newkirk looked down at his unconscious charge, now crumpled on the floor.
"I take great personal pleasure, chum, in reclaiming you as official property of his Royal Highness King George."
"It's not over yet, Newkirk. We still need to get him back to London."
Hogan stared down at the pale, shapeless form at his feet. Emotions boiled within him at the realization of the damages he had caused.
"All because of his greed and disloyalty," he muttered angrily.
Angela stepped from an adjoining room to stand beside him. "I never met Leitmann," she said softly, "but I understand from General Fitzhugh that he was very much like you." She looked up into his eyes.
"He was a good man," Hogan acknowledged, brushing away the memories.
Kinch entered the room, glancing down at the figure on the floor.
"We've confirmed with Headquarters, Colonel, that the sub will be waiting. We can drop him and Miss St. Lawrence off at the relay point on our way back to camp."
Angela nodded. "I'm sure he'll be no trouble for me."
Hogan smiled at her appreciatively. "I have a feeling you can handle yourself just fine, Angela."
Newkirk raised his eyebrows inquisitively. "Pardon me, ma'am. Er, you don't by any chance have any other sisters at home, do you?" he asked hopefully.
"No, I'm afraid not, Corporal, I'm the last of them," she answered, laughing.
Newkirk looked disappointed, turning to help Kinch lift Whitlow's dead weight into a room service cart. They carefully draped the tablecloth over the sides to conceal its cargo.
Kinch stood with a grunt. "Carter and LeBeau are waiting outside with Braden and Williams. We're ready to go when you are, Colonel."
Angela interrupted. "What about Major Kronbach? Don't you need to take him in as well?"
Hogan shook his head. "I don't think we'll be hearing from our friend Kronbach for quite a while. By the time he finishes explaining how the defector in his custody turned up missing, General Eisenhower will be admiring the view from Berchtesgarten, while his aide serves him his morning coffee."
He linked his right arm in hers. "I say we call it a day, hmm?" Smiling with relief, Angela placed her hand on his, as they followed the others from the room.
A cheer rose from the men filling the barracks, as Hogan entered the room. Smiling warmly in appreciation of their welcome, he gratefully accepted the chair LeBeau pulled out for him at the head of their long table. The men grouped excitedly around him.
"So, sir, what did Colonel Klink have to say?" Carter asked, taking a seat at the table.
Hogan paused, reflecting on how to summarize the hour-long, rambling conversation.
"I'm not sure," he admitted, "but I think halfway through the lecture, he started apologizing to me. He assumed this," he gestured to his freshly bandaged hand, "was from the Wehrmacht soldiers he believes recaptured me."
Carter chuckled. "Yeah, I'd have to say those two guys from the underground looked convincing in their German uniforms."
Hogan laughed. "He felt so sorry for me, he said he'd overlook a sentence in the cooler this time. He even got on the horn and managed to convince Burkhalter to withdraw my transfer from Stalag 13."
His head turned, as Kinch emerged from the tunnel below, slapping the lever to close the bunkbed entrance behind him.
"The sub get off all right, Kinch?"
"Sure did, Colonel. London's ready to pick up our package at the other end." Kinch sat at the end of the bench near him. "Oh, and General Fitzhugh offers his congratulations. He said they were able to identify the other infiltrators after Whitlow contacted them to find out about you."
Hogan nodded thankfully. "I'm just glad it's all over, fellas. I hope you'll forgive me for having to mislead you like that. We weren't sure where the other leaks were at first."
LeBeau fondly placed his hand on Hogan's shoulder. "We forgive you, mon Colonel. Now, to celebrate your return, look what I've been saving!"
He produced a bottle of champagne from behind his back. Hogan winced noticeably, groaning aloud.
"Uh, LeBeau, do me a favor, will ya?" he asked uncomfortably.
"Mais oui, mon Colonel. What is it?" LeBeau inquired with concern.
"Make mine a coffee. Black."
The room erupted in laughter, as the cork rocketed across the room, signaling to all the start of their homecoming celebration.
Text and original characters copyright 2002 by Nina Stephens
This copyright covers only original material and characters, and in no way intends to infringe upon the privileges of the holders of the copyrights, trademarks, or other legal rights, for the Hogan's Heroes universe.