Chapter 8 : Irreparable
When he saw Colonel Hogan come up out of the tunnel, Carter’s first instinct was to hide in a corner of the room in the hope of escaping his superior’s fury. But knowing very well against whom that anger was directed, the young sergeant dismissed his survival instinct and voluntarily placed himself right in the colonel’s path.
Hogan knew immediately that Newkirk wasn’t in the area, so he headed towards the barracks door when Carter placed himself in the way.
“Carter, do you know where Newkirk is?” he demanded, anger making his voice shake.
“He… he went out…”
The answer not really helping much, Hogan took a step to the side to go around his sergeant and go on the hunt for his corporal to demand an explanation as to his behavior. He didn’t expect that Carter would also take a step to the side, blocking his passage anew, and nearly running into him.
Hogan blinked, surprised.
Carter had to muster up all his courage to look the colonel in the eye and tell him what he had in his heart.
“Don’t be too harsh on Newkirk. I’m sure he didn’t mean to do that to the captain.”
The absurdity of those words might have made the colonel smile. It was difficult to hit someone accidentally, not to mention the fact that, judging from Lackey’s ravaged features, Newkirk hadn’t been satisfied with just one punch.
The sincerity that he read on the young man’s face prevented him from commenting on it. He satisfied himself with pushing Carter gently aside to be able to reach the door and then left on his quest to find his mule-headed corporal.
Bizarrely, the anger that had filled him a few seconds earlier had dissipated. The Carter effect.
But he didn’t intend to sweep it under the rug. The situation was much too serious. Well, from his point of view in any case. A point of view which was far from being shared by all…
“Colonel Hogan!” called Jones as he came up to him, interrupting a football game pitting some English against some Americans.
The interruption of the game didn’t seem to be his primary concern, in spite of the protests and groans of the other players.
“Say, Colonel, is it true that Newkirk hit the captain?”
The pleased tone in which he delivered those words earned him a furious look from the senior POW officer.
Am I the only one who thinks that hitting a superior officer isn’t a good thing? wondered Hogan, who was seriously starting to feel like one of the bad guys in this story. Which, by his status as an officer, was already more or less the case. For most of the prisoners at the stalag, officers weren’t exactly people to be trusted, whatever army they happened to be in. They weren’t completely wrong, but he still wasn’t going to paint them all with the same brush. Actually, fortunately for him and as Newkirk so eloquently put it, Colonel Hogan was ‘an officer who was pretty easy to put up with’. Which, coming from the corporal, was quite a compliment.
“I saw him a few minutes ago. He had blood on his hands and when I asked him if he was hurt, he said it was the captain’s blood.”
Which didn’t seem to particularly bother the Englishman.
“Jones?” he asked calmly, “you understand that Newkirk risks a court martial for that.”
The British soldier’s face darkened and then he responded in all sincerity:
“Yes. But it would probably be worth the trouble. Most of the fellows see Captain Lackey as a hero. He’s one of our best pilots, but…” Jones interrupted himself, throwing a hesitant look at Hogan, who motioned to him to continue with a nod of his head.
“I don’t know if you’ve heard what he told us about Newkirk, sir, that he’d quit his unit…”
Hogan would have found it difficult to forget what Lackey had told him about Newkirk’s voluntary departure due to ‘a little rough’ behavior from his colleagues…
“The captain, he trains fighter pilots. And Newkirk, he got stuck in a bomber, just a regular member of the crew. Newkirk isn’t the type to let that happen. For him to feel obliged to request a transfer, the captain must have had something to do with it.”
Hogan didn’t doubt it. The image of that man being beaten to a pulp by his companions flashed again in his memory. But did it really have something to do with that story of the stolen money, or did he have to go still farther? It was obvious that Lackey had never been able to stand the corporal, and that had been well before the aforementioned theft. And then, Hogan had seen too many of the things his corporal was capable of to be able to dismiss Lackey entirely. Until this morning… for Newkirk to be in that kind of rage, something else surely had to have happened. Something that didn’t have anything at all to do with the incident of the stolen money.
“In your opinion, would Captain Lackey have made up some story just to get rid of Newkirk?”
“Sir,” the soldier responded seriously, “he’s an officer. You never question the word of an officer.”
The phrase rang so false that Hogan immediately understood its message.
At that, Jones saluted the colonel respectfully but, while he was returning to his football game to the great pleasure of his teammates, he suddenly remembered something:
“If you’re looking for Newkirk, Colonel, I saw him hanging around the side of Barracks 6.”
Discreetly, sitting with his back to the wall of his barracks, Carter watched the Germans who were again commandeering the cooler to store their cargo. As the colonel had expected, General Eberhart was making his men count the crates. It was obvious that he suspected something. But the number was still the same, and as long as the soldiers didn’t open the boxes to check the contents, it was impossible to see that some of the documents and films were missing. And it was equally impossible to see that a few things that hadn’t been in the crates earlier had been added.
In spite of those precautions, Eberhart didn’t seem satisfied, throwing inquisitive looks in the direction of the prisoners who were relaxing in the faint warmth of the April sun, playing ball or cards in the compound. Carter even saw him bend down underneath the trucks to check that nothing was wrong. Yes, he definitely suspected something. It had to be said that it was quite the coincidence that the bombings had hit, by chance, the only two sections of road leading to Stalag 13…
Sergeant Kinchloe and Corporal Lebeau rejoined him while he continued to watch the actions and gestures of the Germans, but his thoughts were nonetheless preoccupied by something completely different.
“You think it’ll be okay for Newkirk?” the young man asked, thoughtful, without even looking at his companions.
“For now, yes,” Kinch replied. “But once he gets back to England…”
“A court martial,” Lebeau finished.
“You think the captain will go that far?”
“You can be court martialed for a lot less than that, Carter. He nearly disfigured the captain and honestly, I don’t think that Lackey would have the slightest remorse about it.”
Kinch had no reason to lie to the young American. Anyway, Carter already knew perfectly well that anybody who attacked an officer could be brought up on charges.
“What an idiot,” the Frenchman murmured to himself, thinking about the situation his English friend had gotten himself into.
“We could talk to Captain Lackey, couldn’t we?” asked Carter, his eyes full of hope.
Lebeau sighed at the American’s naïveté and shook his head.
“The only way would be to finish what Newkirk started,” he said.
Carter didn’t reply to that remark, preferring to consider it quietly. The dismal outlook of his two companions seemed to really make him need to take the possibility seriously.
“Carter!” Lebeau reprimanded him, hitting him on the arm. “We’re not going to assassinate the captain!”
“I sure hope not!” an amused voice spoke up.
Lebeau couldn’t stop the red flush that covered his cheeks when he realized that he had nearly shouted that last sentence, attracting the attention of several prisoners. The one that had just spoken was leaving the barracks and approaching the three of them with a smile on his face.
Sergeant Wilson. Kinch had asked him to come take a look at Lackey’s injuries.
“A broken nose and a slight concussion. The captain will live. Although to listen to you, I’m not sure anymore if that’s a good thing or a bad thing,” Wilson joked.
The only two occupants of Barracks 6 who preferred the calm of their quarters to the sunshine outside had quickly changed their minds when they saw Corporal Newkirk come in. His dark expression convinced them to leave the comfort of their bunks as fast as they could go. Everyone in the camp knew the Englishman and his moods. Even though he was good company most of the time, it was best not to be in the vicinity when his mood changed.
Newkirk didn’t pay any attention to the two men who went out. All he wanted was a place to think for a few minutes without being disturbed. He knew that Colonel Hogan wouldn’t be long returning from the mission, and he really didn’t want to have to face him in this condition. He hadn’t been able to calm down, his heart threatened to tear itself out of his chest with every beat. He didn’t even know anymore exactly what he was feeling, his emotions were all mixed up to form this indigestible ball that clutched at his stomach. Relief, guilt, fear…
And his hands. They were still red. The face bleeds easily, and breaking the captain’s nose had definitely helped in the bleeding department. In spite of his confusion, the Englishman couldn’t help the sadistic smile that twisted his lips. The sight of the proud RAF captain with a mangled nose hadn’t displeased him.
But that instant of satisfaction wouldn’t last long. Instinctively clenching his fist at the memory of the blows he’d delivered, he immediately felt the undesirable aftereffects. A sharp pain that the adrenaline rush had been able to cover up to that point exploded in his right hand. He really must have hit him hard. Newkirk held his injured hand in front of his eyes and tried again to flex his fingers, more gently this time. It didn’t keep the pain from spreading throughout his bones.
Spotting the sink that stood between two bunks, Newkirk decided to wash his hands. If the colonel was going to come and teach him a lesson, it would be better if he didn’t find him covered with blood. Giving the impression of a bloodthirsty killer was probably not going to count in his favor. Newkirk, in the process of turning on the faucet, stopped his motion. And what if he had killed him? If Carter and Kinch hadn’t intervened, would he have gone that far? Would he have been able to stop himself? At that thought, the Englishman shivered and was gripped by a wave of dizziness that made him clutch the sink for support.
Good God, he thought, you’ve gone too far this time, pal. The guv’nor’s going to be furious… and all that for what, eh? For nothing. What an imbecile you are, Peter. Imbecile and useless…
The cold water slipped over his hands, turning red before disappearing into the drain. Gradually, the scarlet traces disappeared with the action of the soap, but the Englishman kept rubbing his skin, ignoring the pain in his right hand, his gaze plunged into a past that in the here and now appeared to him to have been completely futile…
The dozen recruits destined to become fighter pilots were relaxing in the barracks. The day had been long and difficult, between classes in theory and physical training. Captain Lackey let nothing slip past. It was hard, but this was the only way they would become the best.
Newkirk had the lowest rank and was also the only cockney of the band, but that hadn’t prevented him from fitting right in. He had always had the ability to form friendships with the people who surrounded him. And even if he sometimes went a little too far, only the end result counted. He didn’t want to be alone. He had been alone too long. So he did his best, obeyed orders, and got along with the other recruits, entertaining them with his tricks and sleight of hand.
He had quickly become a part of the unit and had begun to understand that the army was like a big family. Each one was there to cover the others, they protected each other and helped one another. Whatever happened. In theory, at least. If Newkirk was never hassled by the other men in the unit, with the exception of a few jokes about his accent, that wasn’t the case with the young student officer Joshua Mason.
The boy was the youngest in the group but one of the highest in rank, which caused some jealousy. Nothing too bad, a little teasing, a few youthful pranks. Newkirk had never participated but neither had he done anything to stop his companions from having their fun, even though he could see how much it bothered the young man. The boy hadn’t been very tall and his somewhat fragile appearance contrasted considerably with his military rank, and didn’t help him much with his self-confidence.
Mason kept to himself, outside of the group, without understanding that that risked making things worse. Tonight was no exception.
Most of the men were together around the table that was in a corner of the room, all looking intently at the three upside-down cards in front of their resident magician. As for Mason, he was off by himself lying on his bunk, his nose in a book.
Although he was concentrating on his act, Newkirk had noticed that the boy hadn’t actually turned any pages of the book for a while yet. He knew that the young officer was dying to join his comrades to try his luck at the corporal’s game, but the fear of rejection kept him from it. He was content to observe from a distance.
“Two jacks, one queen, find the queen!” Newkirk dared them, amused at the confusion of his comrades who had never yet been able to lay their hands on the queen in question.
“Are you sure you didn’t take out the queen?” one of the soldiers suspected.
“Well, why don’t you see for yourself, Patterson?” the corporal invited, a smile on his lips.
Still suspicious, and keeping one eye on Newkirk just in case, Patterson turned the three cards over one by one. A jack of spades, a jack of clubs, and… a queen of hearts.
“Okay,” he admitted, defeated, looking with a perplexed expression at the cards on the table. “You’ve got me, Newkirk, but there’s gotta be a trick to it.”
“Oh yeah?” the corporal asked with an innocence that didn’t fool anybody; his sly smile probably had to be there for some reason.
A tall, blond sergeant with a wide smile that had already conquered quite a number of young ladies, amused by Newkirk’s behavior, came up behind him to lightly ruffle his hair.
“That’s our little cockney,” he kidded. “Always with a card up his sleeve!”
“Hey!” Newkirk protested, pushing the sergeant’s hand away to smooth his hair back into place. “There’s no card up my sleeve!”
At that, he rolled up one of his sleeves, letting about twenty cards fall to the table, provoking laughter from everyone. He even managed to obtain a slight smile from young Mason. It was about time, after all the trouble he’d gone to!
“What do you say to going into town for a while,” Patterson suggested all of a sudden. “It’s Saturday, there must be a bunch of birds waiting just for us.”
Several whistles echoed out at that proposition, although Lackey’s name was muttered by a few worried soldiers.
“Nah, he’s not going to keep us from having a little fun!” Patterson replied. “Let’s go, boys, be brave!”
This time, he was followed by most of the men, Newkirk included. He hadn’t been able to enjoy the company of a pretty girl since he’d joined this unit. And he was beginning to miss it.
Only the young student officer Mason didn’t seem very enthusiastic about the idea of a little trip into town. And Newkirk wasn’t the only one who had noticed that.
“Well, Mason, have you decided?” tossed out the sergeant who was behind Newkirk, quickly echoed by the other members of the unit.
“I’d rather stay here,” the young man responded, lowering his eyes. His reaction made Newkirk sigh. That boy had the highest rank of any of them, and he wasn’t even able to look his mates in the eye…
Mates who took advantage of his lack of conviction to try to pull the boy along with them, taking hold of his arm to pull him off his bunk.
“Come on, little fellow, come with us. We’ll find a pretty girl just for you,” one of them tried to convince him.
“I bet he’s still a virgin,” called out one of the future pilots.
“At twenty years old, that would be pretty sad!” another retorted, displaying his amusement.
Seeing him incapable of defending himself and being dragged along like a rag doll towards the barracks door, Newkirk suddenly felt a rush of sympathy for the young Englishman. The corporal still took his time to put his cards back into their box before intervening:
“I think I’m going to stay here. I don’t feel too well and if it gets any worse and Lackey notices, he’ll have it in for me tomorrow.”
“But we won’t be able to have any fun if we don’t all go,” said the sergeant who had ruffled his hair. “And we’re counting on your magic tricks to entertain the girls.”
“You can go without me, Kyle,” Newkirk answered directly.
“If he’s sick, we can’t force him to come along,” Patterson remarked.
“That’s right,” added another soldier. “Get some rest, Newkirk. We’ll try and sneak you back a bottle of whiskey.”
“Thanks. I’ll probably be a bit bored, but I’ll survive.”
Newkirk punctuated each of his words with a look in Mason’s direction, hoping with all his heart that he’d seize the lifeline he offered and all his efforts wouldn’t go to waste. Fortunately, even if the boy wasn’t very brave, he was intelligent, and although it surprised him, it didn’t take long for him to realize that the corporal was putting on an act for his benefit.
“I could stay, if you like,” he suggested.
Newkirk agreed and invited him to join him at the table where he was still seated. No one tried to stop Mason. They couldn’t prevent him from staying if it was to keep one of their own company. Of course, they all suspected that Newkirk wasn’t really sick, but, after all, if the two men wanted to stay here bored in the barracks instead of going out, it wasn’t their problem.
The team of future pilots, leaving two of their members behind with some reluctance, and completely ignoring Captain Lackey’s rules regarding curfew, finally left the barracks. Relieved, Mason sat down facing Newkirk.
Thanks, for… well, for getting me out of that,” stammered the young man.
Hopeless, thought Newkirk, shaking his head from left to right while making three cards appear out of nowhere.
“Two jacks, one queen, where’s the queen?”
[end flash back]
It was the first time that he’d helped the young Englishman but it had been far from the last. If Newkirk had gone out with the other members of his unit that evening everything would have been different…