Chapter 16 : Dark past
Wilson had obtained Klink’s permission to stay in Barracks 2 for a while in order to better watch over his patient. The quarantine had given him the necessary peace to prepare the process of the transfusion. It wasn’t an ideal set-up, but it was the best they had.
The American doctor took eight hundred milliliters of blood from Colonel Hogan in spite of his protests not to stop there. He didn’t want to have two anemics on his hands, and anyway, he couldn’t risk transfusing too much blood to Newkirk. A rejection reaction was the last thing the young Englishman needed.
Newkirk’s color had improved following the transfusion, and he had even briefly opened his eyes; this return to consciousness, however fleeting, reassured everyone about his chances of pulling through.
Unfortunately, the fever had returned, an inevitable side-effect of the transfusion of blood into his veins. It could have been worse, but the fever was sufficiently high to concern Wilson.
The Englishman tossed in his sleep, still fighting the demons that only he knew of. The shadows. The fear of never again feeling the sun on his face, not to remember the light… And the cold; insidious and cruel.
Newkirk murmured a few phrases that didn’t make any sense, but a few words were endlessly repeated:
“Not the box. Please. Not the box.”
Hogan, who was alone in the room with his corporal, got up from his desk to go kneel down next to Newkirk. At hearing those few words, he frowned, not knowing if the Englishman was trapped in a nightmare or in his memories. He pulled the blanket up over the young flier’s shoulders and rested the back of his hand on his forehead. He was still burning up.
Outside the barracks, the activity was at its height. The Gestapo had brought in some reinforcements, determined to get their hands on those responsible for the death of their general. All they needed was for someone like Hochstetter to come in and start stirring things up for the situation to go completely out of control.
No mission had ever gone so badly.
Lost in his thoughts, the American officer didn’t hear the knock on his door and nearly jumped when he heard Kinch’s voice.
His sergeant’s even tone told Hogan that he didn’t want to speak in his quarters, for fear of disturbing Newkirk, whose sleep was anything but restful judging by his agitation.
Hogan accompanied him out of the officer’s quarters, taking care to close the door behind him.
“Please, Kinch, tell me Hochstetter didn’t just arrive in camp.”
The sergeant raised an eyebrow, surprised, and Hogan thought for an instant that he had just put his finger on it.
“No. About fifteen soldiers are here but Major Hochstetter’s not with them. We really don’t need that on top of everything else,” Kinch added, perfectly echoing his superior’s thoughts.
“That’s for sure.”
“The Underground contacted us. We might be able to get Captain Lackey out of camp before the submarine leaves for England.”
The colonel’s face lit up with interest, and he waited for the rest of the news.
“The Gestapo is covering the forest and the roads for several miles around the camp, but they don’t have enough dogs to cover all that area.”
“Schnitzer!” the colonel exclaimed, suddenly feeling like a complete idiot for not having thought of the camp’s veterinarian sooner.
“Klink asked him to bring a dozen dogs. Schnitzer’s going to leave the truck next to the kennel and he won’t leave until nightfall, to allow the captain to get into the truck with a few dogs he’s bringing out with him.”
If the German veterinarian had been there, Hogan could have kissed him for the weight his assistance had just lifted from his shoulders. They couldn’t keep Lackey at the stalag, and if he missed the sub, God only knew when the next one would be. And then, in addition, he didn’t want to have the British captain around any longer than necessary.
A loud noise in the other room brought Hogan back to his main concern. He ran into his quarters to find his corporal on his knees at the foot of his bed, trying unsuccessfully to get up. He didn’t even seem to feel the pain from his injured leg, and it was obvious that he just didn’t understand why it refused to cooperate. His gaze was glassy with fever and flashed from one corner of the room to the other, as if lost.
Hogan took hold of his arm to help him back into bed, but the corporal pulled away sharply from his grasp. He was looking right at him without even recognizing him.
“Newkirk?” the colonel tried, kneeling next to the Englishman.
The words that crossed Newkirk’s lips broke his heart. The Englishman was looking right at him without seeing him. In his mind it wasn’t Colonel Hogan who was there, right in front of him.
“Captain…” he murmured helplessly. “Not the box, not the box. I’ll confess, I swear. I’ll confess, but not the box…”
Hogan remained motionless and looked on powerlessly at the tears slipping down the Englishman’s cheeks while he tried to get away from him, or rather from Lackey, not being able to get very far, his back striking the side of the bunk. Realizing that he couldn’t get away, Newkirk drew his legs up to his chest and let the sobs consume him, his face buried in his trembling arms.
The soldiers hadn’t taken long to find him and surround him. Newkirk lifted his hands slowly to show that he wasn’t going to give them any trouble during this very probable arrest. The fact that he was on the same side as these fellows wouldn’t prevent them from shooting if it became necessary. He knew that perfectly well; he had trained, eaten and joked with these guys. They were brothers in arms. To his great disappointment, none of the English soldiers who had him in their sights seemed the least bit surprised. Even if they weren’t men from his own unit, they had spent a lot of time together, and for them to think he was guilty of a crime without any hesitation hurt him deeply.
There was the same disgust in their eyes as had always been in Captain Lackey’s when he was in his presence. At least his instructor was no hypocrite. Not like these men, who yesterday had seemed to enjoy his company, his tricks and his stories. So, nothing about human nature surprised him anymore; he had already seen too much. He was only disappointed.
Lackey arrived then, smiling a victorious smile when he saw who his men had found roaming around a deserted hangar after curfew and only a few minutes after the theft had been discovered. The indications were there. He had their thief.
“Newkirk,” he said. “Why am I not surprised?”
His subordinate didn’t reply, content to simply smile innocently.
“Where’s the money?” the captain asked, standing eye to eye with the corporal.
The cockney said nothing, but his clear eyes shone with a malice close to insubordination. Lackey had to restrain himself from hitting him to wipe that sly smirk from his face, he knew very well that violence would never get him anywhere with this man.
Newkirk tried to appear as relaxed as possible, but in his heart, questions were flying fast and furious. He had decided to take responsibility for the theft on the spur of the moment, but the consequences might ruin his budding career, and worse, get him sent to prison.
One look in the direction of the crates behind which young Mason was hiding confirmed his decision. He was already a lost cause, while the boy still had so much to learn in life. He would protect him. After all, he had promised, and Peter Newkirk kept his word.
Lackey gave an order, then two soldiers took hold of him, each one taking an arm. To think that they were afraid he might attack them…
Preceded by the captain, they led him straight to the building that held the solitary-confinement cells. The cells were all right. He had already spent several days in them, for various reasons. Often because whenever an incident occurred, Lackey had been convinced that he had been the cause of it. But sometimes for good reasons. If Newkirk did most often toe the line, he couldn’t always prevent certain impulses from coming to the surface, and woe to anybody who dared take him on in those moments.
Yes, he could put up with the cells. The cells that they had just passed by…
Panic overcame the Englishman.
Lackey wasn’t planning to simply lock him up and patiently await the trial. He was bringing him down to the very bottom of the prison building, towards that room where he had only been brought once before, when he had clumsily botched a magic trick which had resulted in setting fire to the mess hall. Fortunately the fire had been quickly brought under control. However, the accident had been enough for Lackey to feel justified in punishing him that way.
Of course, the soldiers weren’t physically mistreated for simple mistakes. But the captain had his own methods to make them understand that they were going to toe the line. The State Council probably wasn’t admissible, but in time of war, who was going to worry about that? In these times more than ever, iron discipline must be the rule.
Newkirk stopped abruptly, trying to wrest himself away from his guards. His attempt made Lackey smile.
“Is there a problem, Corporal?”
“Captain… not the box! I’ll say anything you want, but not that, I’m beggin’ you.”
“Tell me where you hid the money and I’ll be happy to put you in a cell that’s more… comfortable.”
Newkirk knew that the RAF captain wasn’t putting him on. Although he had never been able to stand the man, he knew that he made it a point of honor to keep his promises. Except that the corporal had no idea where that damned money could possibly be. All he knew was that Mason must have hidden it in a safe place, and he couldn’t betray the kid.
Getting a hold of himself as best he could, Newkirk stopped resisting the two soldiers who were beginning to have a hard time holding onto him.
“Please…” he tried once more, knowing very well that begging wasn’t going to have any effect on the captain. All he wanted was the money intended for the families of the fallen soldiers. And he was convinced that Newkirk had hidden it somewhere. Nothing could make him change his mind except the truth, but that was out of the question.
Lackey bent down in front of the door they had just arrived at, at the very bottom of the stockade building. It was already dark down here and Newkirk knew that the situation wasn’t going to get any brighter.
The door, if one could call it that, was forged from thick steel and was only half the size of a standard door, both in height or in width. No light, no sound, could penetrate it.
While his two guards pushed him towards the entrance of the tiny room, Newkirk suddenly felt the need to admit the truth, and had to bite his tongue to stop himself. One hand grabbed his hair, pushing hard on his head to force him to bend down and go into that place that terrified him so much. A ceiling too low for a man to stand up, walls too close for him to lie down, it was more like a box than a room…
Newkirk was not claustrophobic. This was different. The only time he had ever been brought here, he had only stayed two hours. Those two hours had been the longest ones of his life. Not a ray of light, not a sound except for his own respiration, and that sound becoming more and more terrifying as the seconds passed. That box had been the very embodiment of nothingness, and when he had finally been released, he hadn’t been able to speak again until the next day, convinced that reality would break if he so much as dared to breathe a word.
Since that experience he had been a model of discipline, and yet, today here he was again in the same situation.
“How long?” he asked softly as he was forced inside.
The captain didn’t reply and closed the door, the sinister click of the lock definitively cutting off the outside world, and from the life that soon, for him, would seem like nothing more than a faraway mirage.
[End flash back]
With the help of Kinch and Wilson, Hogan had succeeded in getting Newkirk back to bed. The medic had managed to calm him with the help of some pills left by Dr. Lorenz. They weren’t very powerful, but given the Englishman’s state of exhaustion, it was enough to make him sleep and to ease his torment.
The fever had begun to go down, a very good sign, but he continued to toss and turn in his sleep.
Having a pretty good idea what could possibly terrify his corporal that much, Hogan had called for Lackey to confirm his suspicions.
“Sensory deprivation…” The American colonel was trying to contain the anger which showed in his voice, but that was pretty much a lost cause. His gaze rested on Newkirk who was still murmuring and shifting in the bed, in spite of Carter’s efforts to keep him calm.
“Sensory deprivation…” he repeated, as if to make the whole thing less unbelievable.
Lackey hadn’t bothered to deny it. According to him, in time of war not everything could be run in to ideal conditions, and he wasn’t completely wrong about that. Any disciplinary procedure would have been needed as soon as it was introduced. The army needed cannon fodder, whether it was criminals or someone else. It was the job of their superiors to see that those soldiers followed orders. But that, that box as he called it; that was nothing but a form of torture.
“A simple isolation cell,” the British captain corrected. “One or two hours inside was enough for my men to learn obedience.”
“If you were in my army…” Hogan murmured.
“I never harmed my men in any way, Colonel Hogan. I can’t say as much for all the officers that I knew. Discipline is indispensable, especially now with this never-ending war.”
“No harm? Look at Newkirk, captain, and tell me that you never harmed him.”
As Hogan would have bet, Lackey didn’t dare look in the direction of the bunk where the corporal was lying.
“How could I have known that he didn’t take that money? And how can I even be sure of that today?”
The English captain appeared to be asking those questions in all honesty, and it was in all honesty that Hogan responded:
“Just take my word for it, like I’m taking Peter’s.”
His use of Newkirk’s first name reminded Lackey of the degree of closeness enjoyed by these men he had met here and who came from so many different places. They trusted one another, and they didn’t need any proof to believe in one another. He would have given anything to know that kind of trust, to experience a solid friendship like the one that linked all the members of the American colonel’s team. Back in the old days, he should have known the joys of such friendship, but that was in the past. There had been too many battles, too many dead since then…
Hogan shared an accord beyond compare with his men. He was one of them, not just their commanding officer. His men held him in the highest regard and gave him their respect. He was an exception among officers, but it might well be that he was not the one who was the exception.
“How long did you leave him in there?”
The question had been nagging him for a long time; he knew very well that just an hour or two wouldn’t have been enough to cause such damage to his corporal. He knew his strength of character far too well.
Lackey hesitated, turned his eyes away, and finally admitted it without trying to temper his shame:
Hogan’s heart leapt in his chest. He could have strangled the English officer right on the spot, if Carter’s relieved voice hadn’t redirected all his attention to his corporal.
“Newkirk? Hey, how you doin’, buddy?”
Immediately forgetting all of his resentment towards Lackey for the moment, Hogan went to find Wilson, who was passing the time telling the prisoners a few stories, stories including an incredible amount of graphic detail as to wounds and operations that the medic had had occasion to see. A few were so strange that they made great stories. Although, in Lebeau’s opinion, even with fewer sordid details it would have been just as entertaining. The Frenchman was trying to concentrate on making dinner to avoid letting the bloody mental pictures take him over completely. He couldn’t risk fainting and letting this wonderful fish burn.
Newkirk took a moment to get used to the light, wondering if he was still asleep or not. Carter’s happy face proved that he wasn’t, as did the pain that surged through his chest when the sergeant literally threw his arms around him.
“Hey! Easy, Andrew, I feel like I’ve been run over by a train…” the Englishman winced.
“That’s not too far from the truth, Corporal,” Wilson, who had just appeared nearby, confirmed. He gently moved Carter away, to allow his patient to breathe.
“You still have a fever, don’t move around too much,” the sergeant directed as he took a look at the reactivity of the Englishman’s pupils.
Lebeau and Kinch had followed the doctor in and the whole team was around Newkirk’s bed, anxiously watching their friend as Wilson examined him.
“I think our young friend is out of danger,” he finally reassured him, a big smile illustrating his relief. “How about your leg, does it hurt?”
“My leg?” Newkirk asked, before recalling the wolf trap and realizing that, actually, his leg didn’t hurt all that much. The pain was far from being as bad as it had been before. Whatever Wilson had given him, he was very grateful.
That simple memory overcame all the others, and Newkirk swept the room anxiously with his eyes. Lackey was standing near the door, not really knowing whether or not he should stay in the room.
“Captain,” Newkirk couldn’t keep himself from saying, the relief in his voice surprising everyone, most of all Lackey.
The English corporal didn’t fully understand, and the fever was probably to blame for that. But he was reassured to see that he hadn’t led the Gestapo on that chase for nothing. The captain was safe, he had at least succeeded in that. But he had ruined the mission, Eberhart was dead…
Newkirk’s face fell.
“Newkirk?” said Lebeau gently, from his place at the head of the bed.
“Don’t worry, Louis, I’m okay,” his friend reassured him after a moment of silence.
He was tired; so tired. His eyes were closing all by themselves and he only wanted one thing, to return for a moment into the arms of Morpheus. Just one moment.
“Newkirk,” the colonel’s voice was firm and obliged him to focus a bit less on his companions. “Newkirk,” Hogan tried again, “What happened with Eberhart?”
The American hated himself for having to ask that question since the wounded corporal clearly needed rest, but he needed to know.
“Captain Lackey told us that you were surrounded and that the general took a stray bullet. Is that what really happened? Newkirk?”
Newkirk really didn’t know how he was supposed to reply. Lackey had killed Eberhart; there was no doubt of that. He met the gaze of his former captain. A gaze devoid of any expression.
“Yeah,” he finally replied in an exhausted voice. “Yeah, that’s what happened.”
Hogan nodded and pressed his arm gently in a gesture of thanks for having replied. A few seconds later, the Englishman was sound asleep, this time a sleep free of nightmares.
Hogan knew for sure that Newkirk had just lied to him, and yet, he had never been so proud of his corporal.