Chapter 2 : New mission, old resentment
New Mission, Old Resentment
With his back to the wall of Barracks Three, his knees drawn up against his chest, the RAF corporal was enjoying the comforting rays of the sun on his face, while blowing a few smoke rings into the breeze. He took a fresh puff, savored the taste of the tobacco, and the calmness that he got from it.
So much for the calmness. There was still the tobacco. The Englishman breathed in the smoke deeply and opened his eyes to lift them towards Sergeant Andrew Carter, who was shifting from one foot to the other like a child caught red-handed. The image made Newkirk smile in spite of himself. He patted the ground next to him, and the invitation to sit down was not lost on Carter.
The Englishman closed his eyes again to try to recover the pleasant sensation of serenity that the arrival of the American sergeant had made to disappear, hoping that his companion would do likewise. But apparently Carter had other plans.
“Is everything okay, Newkirk?” he asked apprehensively, fearing a reaction similar to the one he had had in the barracks a little earlier.
“I’m fine, Carter.”
A few seconds of silence were accorded to the Englishman in the attempt to recover his serenity, until Carter, whose gaze had never left his friend, finished by guessing the reason for his detached demeanor.
All that time to guess that… poor Sherlock Holmes would have been very disappointed, thought the Englishman. But he made no comment. He wasn’t in any mood to tease the American.
“You’re asking me a question, at least have the decency to believe the answer.”
“I want to apologize.”
To apologize? The young sergeant had just attracted the full attention of his companion, who was watching him with an inquisitive gaze.
“I shouldn’t have asked the captain those questions,” Carter continued. “I didn’t know it would bother you…”
“It isn’t you, Andrew. It’s that guy that I can’t stand. It’s instinctive,” Newkirk admitted. He was no longer unaware that Carter felt responsible, while at the bottom of it all, the only one who had a problem was himself.
“He seems like a pretty good guy,” the sergeant remarked.
“God bless fools…” Newkirk couldn’t help commenting, before realizing from his companion’s wounded expression that it had maybe not been the right thing to say.
“I’m sorry,” he apologized, taking out a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and offering one to Carter.
At least, with that in his trap, he’d stop interfering with the peacefulness of the pleasant, warm day at Stalag 13.
Several prisoners from Barracks Two had regrouped in the colonel’s office, the RAF captain had gone back into the tunnel to be on the safe side. The only ones missing were Newkirk and Carter. Hogan had assembled them to bring them up to date on the subject of the mission, but his men had other preoccupations on their minds.
“I’ve never seen him like that, Colonel. He really seemed out of control,” commented Corporal Louis Lebeau.
“Do you know exactly what happened, Louis?” Kinch, who had not witnessed the scene, was trying to understand. He had been occupied transcribing a message from London with Colonel Hogan. The latter sighed at the lack of attention from his men as regards to the mission. He understood them. He too was worried about the Englishman, but there was a time for everything, and priority had to be given to the mission.
“I’ll take care of that later. Let him calm down for the moment and try to avoid the subject with Lackey. He seemed too happy to stir things up.”
“You think so, Colonel?” Olsen asked. “He was only telling us about a few of his missions. He didn’t say anything specific. Just that Newkirk had left his unit.”
“Newkirk has the right to keep his past private,” countered Lebeau, a little more aggressively than he had intended. “Would you like it if a stranger showed up here to expose everything that you would like to keep private?”
“No. But all the same, his reaction was a little over the top.”
“It all depends on what it is you want to hide,” Hogan murmured, nearly to himself, before calling his men’s attention back to the mission.
“A General Eberhart of the Gestapo is going to be arriving here in a little while with a shipment that London is very interested in.”
“When is he expected?” Lebeau wanted to know.
“No idea, but I’m sure that our dear Klink will be happy to let us know.”
“And the shipment? Do we know what it is? Do we need to destroy it?” the Frenchman continued.
“One thing at a time, Lebeau,” his superior checked him. “London hasn’t specified the contents of the shipment. I don’t even think they’re sure of it themselves.”
“The orders are simple, at least on paper,” Kinch intervened. “Obtain some of the shipment and send it to London, destroy the rest, capture the general.”
“In that order?” Olsen joked. Like all the rest, he was beginning to wonder if their contacts in the English capital hadn’t all gone crazy.
“Or in a different order, but to obtain part of the shipment after having blown it up… I’m good, but maybe not that good.”
A few laughs echoed at the colonel’s remark, and he continued, his smile giving way to concentration.
“At least the explosives they sent us should help a little.”
“I suggest blowing up the shipment and the general, and telling London ‘Oops, we must have made a little miscalculation,” Lebeau said dourly.
“Don’t make that face, Louis; the colonel will come up with a good idea,” Kinch smiled.
“I don’t doubt that, but, with all due respect, Colonel, most of the time things get worse in direct proportion to how they seem to be getting better,” the Frenchman remarked to Hogan, who couldn’t help but agree, lifting an eyebrow and almost imperceptibly nodding his head.
“But that’s the fun of it, isn’t it?”
He pretended not to notice the discouraged looks of his men and opened the door of his office, murmuring to himself:
“Phase one: Klink.”
Leaving the barracks, Hogan was pleasantly surprised to see the two men who had been absent during the meeting in the process of smoking peacefully against the wall of Barracks Three.
The Newkirk problem is under control, he thought, inwardly thanking Sergeant Carter for being Carter, as he crossed the compound to present himself at the office of the camp commandant.
“Colonel, I have a request,” Hogan tossed out as he entered, without knocking, the office of the commandant of the stalag.
For once, Klink seemed to be truly busy. He wasn’t just scribbling on his papers to give that effect to an unexpected visitor, but was literally overwhelmed by the paperwork that had accumulated on his desk.
“Not now, Hogan. I’m busy,” sighed the German without even lifting his head in the American’s direction.
“Colonel, I have to protest,” replied Colonel Hogan, pretending not to have understood that by ‘I’m busy’, the commandant meant ‘get out!’. Hogan moved a pile of paper that was located on top of the cigar box, taking advantage of Klink’s concentration to sneak a couple of them.
He slipped the cigars into his jacket, then bent over the documents Klink was signing, pretending to be interested in their contents. Thinking he understood his motion, the German covered the papers with his elbow suspiciously.
“What do you want, Hogan?”
“Well,” the American colonel began with all the seriousness he was capable of, “I think that some of the guards don’t like my men.”
“Hogan…” sighed Klink.
“I’m serious, Colonel! Personal conflicts can only lead to unfair treatment, and that’s against the Geneva Convention.”
“I’m sure that your Convention doesn’t oblige us to like our prisoners.”
“You don’t like me?” Hogan replied, with a wounded look and the moist eyes of a beaten dog.
“Hogan! Diiiiiiiiismissed!” the German commander finally succeeded in getting rid of him.
Keeping his battered expression, Hogan pretended to leave the office but he turned back towards Klink.
“I’m sure you don’t think that. You’ll be much better after General Eberhart’s visit Tuesday evening.”
“Tomorrow morning,” the Luftwaffe colonel corrected him without thinking twice, to the American’s great satisfaction.
The German took a second to realize that Hogan was not supposed to be up to date on the Gestapo general’s visit.
“Hooooogan!” he called after him. But the senior prisoner of war was already long gone.
Newkirk didn’t reappear in the barracks until curfew. He couldn’t resist surveying the building, reassuring himself that Captain Lackey wasn’t there, before swallowing hard and starting towards his bunk. Nobody paid any attention to him while he hoisted himself up onto his mattress. That was a relief. He’d been afraid the other prisoners would be looking at him sideways after his performance at the start of the afternoon. Well, he was used to that. All he wanted was to be left in peace, and most of all, that no one would ask him any questions.
Stretching out on his back, he closed his eyes, savoring the aroma of the dinner that was cooking. He would never admit it in front of the French chef, but it happened that Lebeau’s cooking made his mouth water. Well, at least from time to time.
The Frenchman added a pinch of salt to the sauce and let it heat for another few instants to be certain that it was perfect. When he was sufficiently proud of the texture, he lovingly covered the few morsels of meat that he had been able to exchange with Sergeant Schultz for a dozen bars of chocolate. Unfortunately, the German had been able to procure only a little bit of beef; the Frenchman had had to double the amount of potatoes added to the meal so it would be sufficiently filling. But with that sauce, even the potatoes would be delicious.
“Andrew, you can go get the colonel; it’s ready,” the chef told the young American sergeant who had just finished setting the table.
Carter didn’t have to be asked twice, and went to knock on the colonel’s door to let him know. A few seconds later, nearly the entire team was present around the table while Lebeau served.
Newkirk hadn’t budged from his bunk. Sitting with his companions, he was surely going to have to give an explanation for his behavior, and he really didn’t have the courage.
Hogan tossed a concerned look in the direction of the Englishman who didn’t seem ready to join them and was getting ready to say something, but Lebeau beat him to it, putting the plate intended for Newkirk in front of his empty seat.
“Newkirk, hurry up. I don’t know if you English are in the habit of eating cold food, but I can tell you that the sauce is likely to lose all of its flavor. That would be unforgiveable.”
“Sorry, Lebeau. I’m not very hungry this evening. You can all split my share,” he answered, even while he was immediately betrayed by the helpless growling of his empty stomach.
“Corporal, it would annoy me to have to order you to join us,” Hogan finished, smiling, like all of his companions, at the stubbornness of their favorite Englishman.
A few seconds passed before Newkirk finally decided to sit up on his bunk, his legs dangling in mid-air, to send his annoyed expression into the amused one of his superior officer.
“Don’t feel like you have to, guv’nor,” he said as he entered the colonel’s game, deciding to play his role of bad student to the hilt.
“This sauce is delicious, Louis!” Carter exclaimed; he hadn’t waited for his neighbors to begin his meal.
One sentence too many. A new growling of his stomach, and Newkirk jumped down from his bunk, then took his place at the table, ready for a good meal in the company of his friends.
“You sure this is edible?” he worried, suspiciously eyeing the meat at the end of his fork.
Lebeau lifted his eyes to heaven but didn’t respond, sitting at the end of the table to himself enjoy the dinner he had prepared with all the love that was due to a piece of beef in time of war in a prison camp.
Laughter filled the area around the table while Kinch offered his companions an unflattering imitation of their beloved commandant, Colonel Klink.
“I’ve already told you, Hogan, stop bothering me! There will be no chocolate eggs for the prisoners!”
Sergeant Kinchloe was soon joined in his act by Corporal Newkirk in the role of Colonel Hogan, his imitation being just as good as Kinch’s.
“No chocolate chickens?”
“No little rabbits?” Newkirk continued, imitating the hopeless pout that their colonel had the habit of using with the German commandant, provoking an increase in laughter from their audience.
“No rabbits either,” Kinch replied, trying to keep a straight face.
“Not even a little Adolf?”
“Not even a little…” Kinch interrupted himself, still imitating Colonel Klink when he would finally realize that the senior POW officer had made a fool of him again. “Hooooooooogan!” he raged, “Diiiiiiiiiismissed!” He accompanied that last word by a German salute, signalling the end of the play.
The little skit earned a salvo of applause, the two actors enjoying, without the slightest modesty, the general enthusiasm of their public.
The clicking of the opening mechanism of the tunnel sounded, passing nearly unnoticed amidst the laughter and the jokes that bounced around amongst the prisoners. Hogan didn’t notice the RAF captain’s entrance until he saw Newkirk’s face go suddenly blank, not leaving any apparent emotion behind. The Englishman’s good humor seemed to abandon him as soon as his former captain was in the vicinity, and that was enough for Hogan to have difficulty putting up with the captain. All the same, he invited him to join them at the table after having Carter verify that no guards were prowling around the barracks. Lackey gave Lebeau back the plate the chef had sent down to him and sat at the other end of the table, near Newkirk.
Hogan attentively looked for any reaction from the corporal. A reaction that didn’t happen. The Englishman had quickly resumed the animated conversation that he had been having with Carter before the interruption of their guest. They debated some fundamental questions about the origins of chocolate eggs at Easter, and the type of menus usually served in their respective countries for the occasion. As was his habit, Newkirk teased his friend about his lack of culture, but answered questions on the traditions in England with pleasure. Hogan wasn’t fooled. Newkirk seemed to be playing his own part, as he had played that of his superior a little earlier. The jokes had a false ring; his heart wasn’t in it.
Knowing that he wouldn’t learn anything this evening about the nature of the differences that opposed their Englishman and the newcomer, Hogan engaged the captain in conversation about the recent reinforcements that had been brought to the allied forces, Lackey having had the opportunity to test a few of those new innovations. The captain knew his subject well and Colonel Hogan almost regretted it when the conversation came to an end at the imminent arrival of Schultz who would come to count the prisoners before lights-out.
Getting to his feet to head for bed, Hogan saw the look on Newkirk’s face as he looked in the direction of the bunk that was closing on the entrance to the tunnel and behind the English captain. Relief? He would have to have a talk with his corporal. But not this evening. The Gestapo general was arriving the next day, at the crack of dawn. They all had to be in good shape to handle the directive from London, although he didn’t yet have an idea what, when, or how. And Newkirk was a valuable asset. To confront him with something that he wanted to keep at arm’s length was the last thing to do right now.
With a little luck, the Englishman would come to confide in him of his own accord, but the American colonel didn’t really believe that. If he knew one really stubborn person, it was that damned Englishman.