Chapter 1 : An unpleasant encounter
An unpleasant encounter
The night was cold and Corporal Newkirk of the Royal Air Force could not repress a shiver. He had been looking at the starry sky for about an hour, hidden behind a bank. Waiting with him was Sergeant Carter of the US Army Air Corps.
“They’re late. I hope they didn’t force us to go out for nothing. Do you believe that? Warn us at the last minute! We could have had other plans for tonight, a rendezvous, something!”
Carter, who was stretched out on the wet ground near him, prevented him from continuing to complain by putting a hand on his mouth.
”What Shh? The Englishman grumbled, taking away the American’s hand. He added nothing, the sound of an engine drawing his attention towards the stars. He pointed his binoculars towards the sky to verify the origin of the plane.
”It’s one of ours. It’s about time."
Carter emitted some bright flashes with his flashlight. Almost immediately, two packages were released by the plane. The two men got to their feet and rushed in the direction of the falling object. Suddenly a violent explosion rang out. Both men raised their eyes to realize that a German missile had just reached the English plane.
“Bastards…” Newkirk exchanged a glance with his friend but there was no time for mourning the pilot. Whoever he was, he had achieved his part of the mission. Now, they had to finish it.
Newkirk slowly lifted the lid of the small wooden box to make sure of its contents. Some bars of plastic explosive were arranged side by side and the corporal wondered how much fire power they were going to have with all this. Then, he began to untie the parachute. While he was concentrated on his task, he suddenly felt a cold, metallic object, pressed against the nape of his neck.
He raised his hands without making the slightest gesture to indicate that, whoever was behind him, he had all his cooperation.
“Ich bin nicht bewaffnet,” Newkirk tried, absolutely certain he was in the presence of a German soldier ready to explode his brain.
Carter chose this moment to reappear, a box, similar to the one that had just found by the Englishman, in his arms.
“I have the detonators,” he informed his friend, eyes locked on his package.
“Carter…” Newkirk warned, hoping the German wasn’t trigger-happy and especially that he was not covered by a whole regiment.
At his friend’s cold voice, the American sergeant raised the head and froze. Newkirk was kneeling down in front of the box containing the explosives promised by London. A revolver was pointed at the back of his skull. Carter could not distinguish the man behind the weapon, the light of the moon being too low, the tree branches stressing the twilight.
“Newkirk?” he asked in a pressing and worried voice, not knowing what he was supposed to do.
“Newkirk?” a voice repeated with an accent which really did not sound German. “Peter Newkirk?”
The corporal shivered when he recognized the voice of the man who was behind him and wished he could be mistaken, that instead the Englishman he recognized could be a German. With a German, at least, he knew how to react.
“A coffee, Kinch?” the French corporal Louis Lebeau proposed, putting a steaming cup near the radio. Sergeant Kinchloe removed his headset and turned to the small Frenchman. Lebeau, who visibly had a certain dose of caffeine in his veins, could not stay in place, giving worried looks in the direction of the tunnel.
“You brought me some only ten minutes ago. I haven’t finished it yet,” the American sergeant pointed out to the Frenchman, indicating the cup which was already on the desk. “You don’t have to find an excuse to come down here, looking for the boys.” He smiled, even if he was worried too. Newkirk and Carter were late, and it was not normal.
“I am not worried,” Lebeau denied a little too fast. “But that makes two hours...” he added, not very confident anymore.
“They’ll probably come back soon,” Kinch tried to reassure him, hoping he was right.
“So?” The voice of their colonel resounded behind them. “The boys aren’t back yet?”
The anxiety was easy to read on Hogan’s features. Newkirk and Carter had been late before but rarely for a simple mission which did not involve an excursion into town and possible pleasant encounters.
“You know them, Sir,” Kinch joked. “They always find a way to do childish things when they are together on a mission.”
“Yeah, Andrew probably found a wounded squirrel on the way back. By the time he manages to convince Newkirk to keep it, we won’t see them again before morning.”
Hogan smiled. A scenario like that was definitely possible and had already happened quite a few times. Not with a squirrel, but it was all the same.
As to contradict this idea, steps resounded in the tunnel. The three men around the radio became silent, on their guard. The colonel seized his weapon, ready to open fire.
The emergence of Newkirk relieved everybody.
“Do you know what time it is?” Lebeau launched at him, releasing the pressure he had been under for too long.
“Sorry mommy, everything didn’t happen exactly as expected.”
The Englishman’s sharp tone surprised Lebeau and the others.
“Something went wrong?” Hogan asked, frowning.
“Oh no, sir. We have the packages if that’s the question. With a bonus…”
Other steps resounded in the tunnel. Newkirk turned in their direction and after having thrown an "ask Carter", forgetting all the respect due to his superior officer, he took the ladder to go back up in the barracks. Running away from the approaching steps.
Lebeau and Kinch exchanged a glance, having a common thought. A squirrel?
Answering their unspoken question, Carter walked into the room, a small box in his arms, followed closely by a man who looked nothing like a squirrel. An English officer. And not a low-ranking one according to the four white and black bars decorating his shoulders.
“Sorry to off-load like that, gentlemen. I am afraid I cannot leave by the way which got me into this country,” the man joked, putting down the box he was carrying into a corner, followed by Carter.
Exceeding his surprise to see an officer of the RAF, the chief POW moved in front of their new host, presenting his hand, the English officer squeezing it warmly.
“Colonel Robert Hogan, US Army Air Corps. Welcome to Stalag 13.”
“Captain Cameron Lackey, Royal Air Force. The pleasure is mine.”
“And you know what?” Carter shouted, so exited he could not stay still. “The captain was Newkirk’s instructor! It’s crazy, isn’t it?”
”It’s not the most comfortable but it’s all that we have,” Hogan apologized, depositing a blanket on the guest bunk which was in the tunnel.
“It’s perfect. I suppose this is the best we can find for an Englishman in this country,” Captain Lackey observed.
“Probably,” Hogan smiled. “I would have proposed a bed in the barracks but we’re disturbed constantly. These Germans have no sense of good manners. Anyway, you were lucky to fall on my men. They were sure the explosion had left no survivors.”
“I knew the underground would come to pick up the explosives at the drop point. But it was a surprise to discover that the sabotage operations were led from the inside of a prison camp. It is fantastic what you have accomplished here,” Lackey admitted, sitting down on the bunk prepared for him.
“Thank you, but the credit is all to my men.”
“Two American sergeants, a French corporal and a cockney. This is a singular team,” the captain laughed.
Hogan hesitated at the expression the captain had just used to qualify Newkirk. In his mouth it had a most pejorative connotation. He made no comment because he didn’t know the exact meaning of the word and simply wished a good night to his new guest.
“Good night, Colonel Hogan,” Lackey echoed.
The cards were sliding between his fingers, jumping gracefully from one hand to the other, cracking almost imperceptibly one against the other. They danced, creasing the air with their old and creased texture. The gestures were automatic. He had mastered them for a long time and cards were flying, without deviating from their way, from left to right, from right to left. For a moment now he had not been paying attention to the cards anymore, continuing automatically, hoping unconsciously the soft noise of the cardboard would calm the warrior melody of his heart.
He was doing everything he could not to raise his eyes, not to cross the gaze of the man who was discreetly spying on him, in the corner of his eye, while he was telling his adventures to an attentive public.
“It was really impressive, bigger and faster than my plane, even if it costs me to admit it.”
“How did you manage with it, captain?” Carter asked in admiration.
The boy’s tone of enjoyment made Newkirk cards shiver. He was still shuffling but was not losing a word of the exchange. And he did not like what he was hearing.
“Well my young friend, I was lucky that day. I believe his weapons didn’t work when I was in his sight. Well, the pilot never had the opportunity to try again.”
“Did you shoot him down?”
“An about-turn was easier for my Fulmar than for his Messerschmitt. A salvo was enough to send him to the ground in an explosion which might very well have been a last tribute for myself. I rejoined my squadron and we were able to return to the base without a plane lost.”
“Good job,” Olsen commented, stretched on the mattress which overhung the one where Lackey was installed with Carter. Just in front of the table. Just in front of Newkirk. It was hard to believe it was a coincidence.
“And Newkirk, was he part of the mission?” Carter asked, without suspecting he had just opened the door to trouble.
“The corporal wasn’t a member of the team anymore.”
Newkirk’s whole body shivered at the almost enthusiastic tone of the captain. Hoping the conversation would not go farther wasn’t counting on the curiosity of the young American sergeant.
Carter turned his head towards Newkirk, waiting for an answer, but the Englishman only kept his eyes on the dark wood of the table. Without noticing the shiver of his friend’s hands and the card which had just fallen to the table, the young American turned again to the RAF captain.
Interested in the appearance of their Englishman in the conversation, Lebeau forget his spoon to follow the discussion. He took a peek at the subject of the captain’s story and could not suppress a shiver.
Newkirk’s eyes had turned dark and cold. The Englishman’s hands had stopped playing with the cards, the bits of cardboard folding brutally as Newkirk’s fists closed convulsively while Lackey responded to the American sergeant.
“For a team to work well, especially in wartime, trust is more than a necessity…”
He did not have time to finish his sentence. Lebeau had no time either to move to prevent his friend from losing his composure.
The chair was sent to the ground with a crash. On his feet and trembling with a rage his companions could not understand, Newkirk struck the table violently with his fists, which were still closed on some unfortunate cards.
“Shut up!” he yelled in the direction of his captain, his blood boiling painfully in his head and heart.
All the prisoners present in the barracks stopped what they were doing, turning to the Englishman who stared at his superior, completely out of control. Lackey, although a little surprised by his subordinate’s sudden excessive anger, could not prevent a wince of disgust from distorting his face briefly.
“Corporal!” he shouted, pulling rank on him.
“Newkirk,” Lebeau tried to calm him by gently seizing his arm.
Seeing the increasing rage in his friend’s demeanor, the French cook feared that he might assault the captain. Fortunately, reason had prevailed over impulsivity. However, Lebeau knew Newkirk too well not to understand that if he did not calm down immediately, the consequences could be dramatic. Probably for the captain. Surely for Newkirk. He could not take it out on a superior officer, whatever the reasons might be.
The contact of the Frenchman’s hand made the Englishman shiver. He pushed at it, without violence, the torn and folded cards he still had in his palm falling miserably to the ground. Lebeau met his gaze before he left the barracks. The anger was still there. An anger shaded with pain.
Colonel Hogan, followed closely by Sergeant Kinchloe, chose this moment to emerge from the tunnel. The men of the barracks were still in shock after the sudden and apparently unjustified excess of rage from their companion.
“What’s happening here?” the colonel asked, worried. “We heard shouts.”
He saw the chair lying on the ground, surrounded by the ruined cards. As nobody responded he turned to Carter who, mouth open, seemed more shocked than the rest of the prisoners.
“Carter?” He wanted a response.
“It’s Newkirk, Colonel,” Olsen answered instead of Carter. “He went crazy on the captain.”
“Yeah, you could say he went completely wild. Even if it’s not so unusual for the guy,” another prisoner added, provoking a few uncomfortable laughs from his friends.
“I was only telling some stories to my young friends. I guess he has issues with the past. However, this is no excuse for his attitude and lack of respect. Mind you, there are things that never change, it’s almost reassuring.”
Hogan pretended not to have heard the last sentence. He knew his men. If Newkirk had a problem with the English captain, he surely had a good reason. Other than the one which was obvious. To him anyway. This guy was a troublemaker. And the worst thing was that he seemed to enjoy it. But such a violent reaction, even from Newkirk, was disturbing. He had to count on all his team members. Especially now with the new mission London had sent them. A difficult one. Which meant most often that it was impossible, but that Hogan would have to somehow make it only improbable.
At least now he could understand the origin of his corporal’s vehement feelings toward officers.