Chapter 6 : Shadows of the past
Shadows of the Past
“Captain Lackey!” Hogan called as he joined the British officer in his temporary quarters.
It wasn’t particularly elegant, but the prisoners of Stalag 13 had nothing better to propose in terms of underground accommodations.
“We need to talk. About Newkirk.”
Hogan preferred not to beat around the bush. He knew very well that the RAF captain was only waiting for an occasion such as this to say out loud what it was that he resented about the corporal. It couldn’t be only a question of class, although Lackey visibly had a problem with Newkirk’s modest origins. There just had to be something else. Something that repelled the captain, but more than that, something that made the corporal so ashamed.
If this sentiment of aversion that pitted the two men one against the other posed a risk to the successful completion of the mission, which, given Newkirk’s behavior, couldn’t help but be the case, Hogan needed to know what it was about. Even if that obliged him to rummage around in the past of one of his friends. And then, if he had accurately assessed Lackey’s personality, it would only be a question of time before he would ‘accidentally’ divulge the source of Newkirk’s discomfort in the course of an innocent conversation.
The colonel’s suspicions on that subject were confirmed by the fact that the British captain seemed completely ready to answer any questions pertaining to Newkirk, as his satisfied smile proved.
The RAF officer seated himself comfortably on his mattress, watching the American who remained standing, ignoring the chair that was just behind him.
“What would you like to know, Colonel?” inquired the Englishman, knowing full well where the conversation was going to lead them and already enjoying that fact in advance.
“Newkirk is probably the best man I’ve got,” Hogan began.
The captain’s amused smile at that remark clearly showed what Lackey was thinking. Hogan didn’t waste any time on that detail, and continued.
“He’s indispensable to the running of our operation and I’m afraid that your presence, for some reason I don’t know, is preventing him from concentrating on his work. I need to know what’s happened between the two of you. Why did you force Newkirk to leave your unit?”
Hogan was stunned with disbelief when the Englishman suddenly burst out laughing.
“I have no reason to blame myself, Colonel. On the other hand, I can’t say that about the ‘best man you’ve got’.”
Hogan frowned, but allowed Lackey to go on.
“I didn’t force him to leave my unit. He asked to leave of his own accord. His relationships with his colleagues had become rather strained. My men are good fellows but they can be… let’s say a little rough. Definitely when it comes to a scum like your corporal.”
Hogan’s fist clenched convulsively.
“Watch what you’re saying, Captain,” he warned Lackey, his gaze boiling. “Don’t insult my men right in front of me.”
“Your man is nothing but a criminal,” the Englishman threw back, not at all impressed by the growing anger of the American colonel. “You’re so proud of his talent as a pickpocket, but maybe you should ask yourself where it came from.”
“Whatever he might have done in the past has nothing to do with me,” Hogan replied.
He knew very well that Newkirk hadn’t always been honest in civilian life, and again, that was a euphemism. The Englishman remained discreet enough about his past but he had happened to let a few things slip here and there. And that included thefts and burglaries. Hadn’t he always claimed to have seen Alfred Burke, the genial safecracker, practice his artistry over in England? That could only have been the case during the course of a burglary.
There was a chance that he might also have done a little time in prison. That thought sliced at the colonel’s heart. He knew how much Newkirk, more than anyone else, was passionate about his freedom. Being locked up had always been a torment for him. And that only reinforced his high estimation of the Englishman, who had renounced his liberty to stay at the stalag to help other prisoners escape and take part in their sabotage operations.
Yes, whatever Lackey could say, nothing would ever lower the confidence he had in Newkirk.
“I knew that he had been in prison when he became attached to my unit, shortly after being promoted to corporal,” Lackey continued. “But he seemed to be a good addition so I treated him like any other of my recruits.”
Hogan wondered how much the captain had been exaggerating his part in the story. From what he understood about the captain’s sentiments against ‘cockneys’, there was little chance that Newkirk had never had to suffer the consequences of the resentment towards him. But for the moment, he only had the officer’s side of the story. He could never force Newkirk into telling his own side. He didn’t want to do it, but above all, he suspected that that would force the corporal to go against an order by refusing to speak about his past. Hogan, therefore, was hearing the only version that was at hand.
“He fit right into the team with his pranks and magic tricks. Always looking for attention from the others. My men trusted him, just like any one of the others, but it didn’t last long.”
Hogan noted to himself that Lackey was making a clear distinction between Newkirk and ‘his’ men, proof that he had never really considered the corporal like one of the others. It was probably unconscious but it had surely had consequences.
“If Corporal Newkirk lost the trust of the team, Colonel, it’s only because he couldn’t help following his own nature. We had an assistance fund for the families of the pilots who never returned from the front. A kitty where the men of our barracks were able to put in a little money. I can promise you that there was quite a sum in that box… until Newkirk got his hands on it.”
“Newkirk stole that money?” Hogan demanded, not believing it for a second. “Then why didn’t he undergo a court martial?”
If the English corporal had really been accused of such a theft, he wouldn’t be at the stalag; he wouldn’t even be in the army.
“We never recovered the money.”
“And of course, Newkirk never admitted it,” muttered Hogan, who was beginning to understand the bad feelings between the two Englishmen.
If Newkirk had been falsely accused by Lackey, he hardly would have dared imagine the consequences. Worst of all, the missing money had been intended for the widows and orphans of soldiers killed in combat. The unity between soldiers of the same army was extremely strong; to go against that unity would be suicide.
Hogan remembered very well a scenario he had stumbled upon when he was in London. He had been walking on the base and, cutting past the hangars to get back to his quarters, he had surprised several soldiers in the process of beating up one of their own number. The man on the ground had been paying for the tension he had provoked in the group by telling them again and again that they would never come home again after the war, that they would all die in combat. The other soldiers, who couldn’t take it anymore, had decided to teach him a little lesson. An official warning was all those men got after nearly killed one of their own.
Hogan shuddered to imagine Newkirk in the place of that man, lying on the ground, covered with blood, protecting himself as best he could against the blows dealt by those who were supposed to be his friends.
“He didn’t deny it either,” the RAF captain finally retorted in an even tone.
Why? That was what struck Hogan right away, but no sound came from his lips when he realized one thing. What if there was even a grain of truth in what Lackey was saying? Was Newkirk capable of that? After all, he didn’t really know him that well…
No. He knew him well enough to know that he was not a man to betray his friends. There surely had to be a reason that had prevented him from protesting against those accusations…
While that flurry of questions spun in the colonel’s head, a sudden clearing of a throat pulled him out of his thoughts. Sergeant Andrew Carter was watching the two officers who hadn’t seen him approaching. Hogan wondered if he had been able to hear their conversation, but the sergeant’s worried feature spoke for themselves. He had heard enough.
“Colonel, the Gestapo is leaving. I thought that… that you’d want to know,” Carter babbled, his colonel’s hard gaze making him lower his eyes.
Hogan noticed that, and tempered his expression.
“Fine. I’m coming,” he said simply.
Climbing back up to the barracks, closely followed by Carter, Hogan realized that the barracks was empty with the exception of Sergeant Kinchloe who was calmly sipping a cup of coffee and leafing through an old magazine, seated at the wooden table. Without even lifting his eyes, he answered the silent questions of his superior:
“Lebeau went out to verify the direction the Gestapo took. Olsen is already in the tunnel getting ready, and I sent Newkirk to get some rest in your quarters. I told him you wouldn’t mind.”
Hogan’s attention was caught by the sudden opening of the door of the barracks by their little Frenchman.
“They just left!” he announced.
“Which way?” the colonel wanted to know.
“As we expected, mon colonel. East.”
“Good, that leaves us just enough time for us to get out to the other side. When they discover that the road’s blocked, they’ll definitely try to go around by heading west. And we’ll be there waiting for them. Louis, go get Olsen, I’ll be with you in a minute.”
“Oui, mon Colonel,” the Frenchman obeyed.
“It’s a good plan, but are you sure that going outside the camp in broad daylight isn’t too risky?” Kinch intervened, concerned for the safely of his companions.
“That’s not what worries me the most,” his superior confided. “Eberhart’s no idiot. It’s likely that he’ll recognize it’s a trap before we’re able to do anything…”
“I’d rather take Louis’ suggestion and blow everything up. I don’t understand why London is so set on us getting a sample from the shipment.”
“Me either,” Hogan admitted. “But orders are orders.”
While he and Kinch were exchanging their concerns, Hogan spied his other sergeant who was trying very discreetly to get to the door, skirting past the wall behind him.
“Carter!” Hogan barked.
The young American froze and lifted his eyes towards his superior officer, meeting his gaze which, and this reassured him, transparently contained no trace of reproach.
“I’m sorry to have heard your conversation with the captain,” he apologized anyway. “I didn’t mean to. I mean… I didn’t do it on purpose. Um… Colonel.”
Hogan was somewhat amused by his man’s obvious distress and gently placed a hand on his shoulder.
“There’s no harm done. I only want to make sure that you keep whatever you heard to yourself. Most of all, don’t ask Newkirk any questions. Is that understood?”
“Yes, Colonel!” Carter exclaimed, with a solemn salute for his superior officer.
That didn’t reassure Hogan very much, but what was done was done. He sighed and headed towards the tunnel to rejoin the men who were going to help him put his plan into action.
As for Kinch, he didn’t ask any questions; he was content to observe Carter who, still on his guard, waited for the colonel to disappear under the bunk before breathing again. He knew very well that if he asked the slightest question, Carter would risk breaking the promise he had just made to his superior, and Kinch preferred that such a thing would never be on his account. Most importantly, if he had understood correctly, the conversation overheard by the young American concerned Newkirk, which removed any legitimate right to ask any questions. The lack of privacy that existed between soldiers in the camp killed any hope of having a personal life. All that remained for them were their pasts and their memories, the things that had made them the men they were today. And no right was more sacred than that of keeping that past to themselves.
Unfortunately, even though he could keep from asking any questions, that wasn’t the case for everyone.
“Standing guard, Andrew? Are you expecting a visit from an Air Corps general?” the unmistakable accent of their favorite Englishman resonated in the room.
It was dark, so dark. Impossible to know what time it was. Was it still daylight outside? And for that matter, what day was it? He didn’t know anymore, he was lost.
Sitting on the frozen floor, with his back against the wall that was just as cold, he closed his eyes so he would be unable to see the darkness, trying to sleep without ever succeeding. Staying seated was all he could do. The ceiling wasn’t high enough for an adult man to be able to stand up straight. The room wasn’t long enough for him to be able to lie down and stretch out. And most of all, in spite of the lack of space, he had the impression of floating in the emptiness, dark, infinite, and silent.
He no longer felt the tears that slipped past his closed eyelids.
He wasn’t even sure anymore that he was still alive…
Newkirk woke up with a start, drenched in sweat. It took him a few seconds to realize that he had had a nightmare, that he was safe and that daylight pierced the closed shutters, coming in to warm the colonel’s quarters with a soft clarity.
The Englishman passed a trembling hand over his damp forehead, cursing himself for his reaction to a simple dream. It had been a long time since he’d done anything like that, he had almost forgotten…
Deciding not to try to catch a few more winks, Newkirk got up, taking in a deep breath to stop the remaining trembling in his body, and decided to rejoin his companions.
When he opened the door, he saw Kinch first, seated at the table. Then his gaze rested on Carter, standing next to the door and, for some unknown reason, on his guard.
“Standing guard, Andrew? Are you expecting a visit from an Air Corps general?” he kidded.
The young American sergeant immediately started at his greeting, throwing an abnormally worried look in the Englishman’s direction. He was nervous, and it clearly had something to do with him. Newkirk was far from being an idiot, he understood right away what it must be about.
“Problem, Carter?” he asked in a tone that was no longer quite so friendly.
Carter didn’t say anything, looking all around him for a way out of that situation. He might have told himself that it wasn’t all that serious. But if the colonel had asked him to keep quiet, he must have a good reason. Andrew looked for some support from Kinch, who only shrugged his shoulders and gave him a look of chagrin.
The Englishman came closer and when he lifted his arm, Carter actually thought he was about to hit him for not answering. But Newkirk only rested his hand against the wall to cut off his avenue of escape, meeting his eyes with an intense gaze. A cold look, but calm. To see such an expression on his friend’s face froze the young sergeant’s blood. He almost would have preferred being punched. That would have been more like the Newkirk he knew.
Kinch was also getting a little nervous about the way things were going and got to his feet, resting his hand on the Englishman’s shoulder to get him to step back a little bit from Carter. Just in case. But Newkirk paid no attention to him, still focused on the young American’s gaze.
The Englishman didn’t ask any questions. He slowly moved away from the two Americans and quite calmly headed towards the tunnel.