Chapter 9 : Guilty of loyaulty
Guilty of Loyalty
That evening, he had made a choice. He had decided to protect young Joshua Mason, whatever it cost him… He could have ignored the solitude and the boy’s distress, but he hadn’t done that, and today, he regretted it.
The cold water stopped running over Newkirk’s hands as the images of the past were erased little by little, leaving nothing behind them but the bitter taste of the present.
“Josh…” the Englishman sighed, eyeing the bruise that was beginning to form on the back of his right hand.
Lost in his thoughts, he didn’t hear the barracks door open behind him, and he gave a startled jump when he felt a hand touch his shoulder.
“Colonel!” he shouted, in a voice that was a little sharper than he would have liked, as he recognized the man who stood behind him.
Instinctively, he stepped away from his superior, stumbling against one of the bunks and ending up seated on the mattress.
Hogan watched his corporal’s reaction without saying a word. He had the impression of being face to face with a wild animal, wounded and caught in a trap. Newkirk’s burning gaze finally crossed his own and Hogan was surprised at the ease with which Newkirk succeeded in faking the feeling of guilt.
The Englishman knew that the reprimand that was about to follow was justified, but strangely, no such reproach came from the colonel’s mouth. It was ridiculous, but underneath, Hogan had no idea at all what he was supposed to say. Part of that was due to the fact that he didn’t really know exactly what had happened in the tunnel.
He wasn’t really expecting Newkirk to suddenly confide in him.
“I’ve never been anything but a good-for-nothing, Colonel,” the Englishman murmured as he looked his superior right in the eye, “but that guy… he made me feel something right down at the bottom of my guts.”
A grimace of disgust played about Newkirk’s lips when he spoke of his former instructor. The Englishman spoke only very rarely about himself, but this situation left him no choice. And also, he didn’t want the colonel to lose the confidence that he had in him, as he had in the other members of the team.
Newkirk paused, again hesitating to confide in the colonel as he had been learning to do. To encourage him to continue, Hogan pulled up a chair and sat down with his back to the table that sat in the corner of the room opposite from the bunk that Newkirk was sitting on. The Englishman’s face had been hidden from him behind the support post of the bunk, but he could still see his hands. Newkirk might feel more at ease in speaking with that distance between them.
Finally, Newkirk made up his mind:
“I know that Lackey told you that I was in prison before I joined the army. One year for pickpocketing. I only did half, but it was still too much. Well, for starters, doesn’t it bother you to have a criminal on your team?”
It was true that Newkirk’s talents in the area of theft had been an indispensable asset to the success of a good number of missions. Hogan couldn’t deny it.
“It bothers me,” he said at last.
Newkirk’s face fell, but he didn’t have the time to wonder if the colonel really thought what he had just said when he added in an amused tone:
“It bothers me to be in command of a thief… who’s already gotten caught.”
That remark had the desired effect. The tension melted out of the Englishman’s shoulders, and he laughed at being so easily duped, if only for a second, by his superior.
“If that’s all it is, guv’nor, I can promise you that I’ll do everything I can to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
“Good,” Hogan responded with a smile.
More relaxed after realizing that the colonel wasn’t going to judge him for what he was, Newkirk continued his tale:
“In prison, there was an RAF lieutenant. A great guy, honest, and respected by everyone. A kind of a hero, if you leave out the double murder… A fight that went bad if I’m remembering right, but that’s not important. He told me once that I’d make a good soldier. That made me laugh at the time, but the more I thought about it the more I liked the idea. So when I got out, I enlisted. It was the best way I knew to stay on the right road. And I guess my story is like a lot of other guys’. With the war and all, I got promoted to corporal pretty fast, and they offered me a chance to become a pilot. The first air raids on Germany had killed a lot of our boys and they didn’t have enough officers to replace them…”
The Englishman’s voice seemed very far away when he spoke of the time that seemed so long ago. Hogan well understood that feeling. He too sometimes had the impression to have always been a prisoner in this camp, even if he could get out and get some air whenever he felt like it. In those moments, the memory of his country, of his family, seemed to be something out of a dream.
“I saw right away that the captain had a problem with me. Because I’d been in prison, because I was a cockney. As far as he was concerned I’d never have a place in his elite unit, but I never gave him a chance to prove that. Until the theft.”
“The money for the pilots’ families,” Hogan couldn’t resist filling in. And as Newkirk didn’t seem to want to continue, expecting that Lackey had already told him all about it, the colonel added:
“I know you, Newkirk; you didn’t take it.”
He’d been convinced. At least, he certainly hoped that he’d been convinced.
Newkirk’s fists clenched; his shoulders slumped, as he muttered:
“You don’t know me. If you really believed what you’re sayin’, you don’t know me.”
The corporal stood up and looked his superior right in the eye.
“You’re right, I didn’t take it. Not that time, but I’m still responsible.”
“Who are you trying to protect?” asked the colonel, who knew that the only good reason for Newkirk not to state his innocence, what little he might be innocent of, was that he was protecting the real thief.
The Englishman seemed surprised at the colonel’s logic and thought a moment before making up his mind.
“Well, that doesn’t really matter now.”
He pulled up a chair and sat down in front of the senior POW officer, crossing his hands on the table. Spying a few cards that were spread out there, the rest of the deck having doubtless been lost or too beaten up, Newkirk drew one. A queen of hearts…
“Josh Mason. He was a bloke in my unit. A smart kid, they made him an officer at nineteen. But he wasn’t meant to be a soldier… He was too nice, a bit like Carter; he just couldn’t seem to live up to his rank and make others respect him. The fellows teased him a lot for that. Not in such a bad way, but it was still too much for him.”
Newkirk made the card disappear and then reappear between his fingers several times before finally stopping, the pain in his right hand forcing him to put the card back down on the table. Colonel Hogan wasn’t blind; he had seen the vivid mark that had spread across the back of his hand, and you didn’t have to be a genius to guess how the Englishman had hurt himself.
“He was a good kid. He didn’t want to fight; he was terrified at the idea of piloting a fighter plane. So I promised him that I’d look after him and that nothing would happen to him as long as I had his back…”
Newkirk lowered his eyes to the table, afraid that the colonel would be able to see the guilt that was reflected in them.
“He told me he wanted to be a doctor one day, and I’m sure he would have been able to. He was bright enough for that. Although, when your dad’s a general, that’s all it takes for the kid to have to cross out his own dreams. I told him to speak to his dad about it but he didn’t want to disappoint him.”
“And he stole the money so he could get away,” Hogan finished.
“Josh did it without thinking. He didn’t leave. I thought he was likely to do something stupid so I followed him and I stopped him before he got out of the barracks. I didn’t want him to get caught as a deserter, he would have been executed for that… The theft was discovered almost right away and the alert went out. I told the kid to hide. If they found me alone in a deserted barracks, I knew that nobody would ransack the place… I let myself get caught and Lackey didn’t take long drawing his own conclusions. And since the money was never found, the captain was convinced that I’d hidden it away somewhere. And believe me, he did everything he could think of to make me tell him where.”
“The kid never turned himself in?” Hogan could hardly believe that anyone could let a friend be accused in his place.
Newkirk lifted his gaze in the colonel’s direction, a gaze that was hard and incontrovertible.
“I forbid him to. I was used to being treated like a criminal. For him, he couldn’t have stood it… he wasn’t strong enough…”
And with that, Hogan suddenly understood the hostility that was coming from the Englishman, the guilt that he was reading in his eyes.
“What happened to him?”
He was a coward; we found him hanging at the end of a rope in the barracks. He’d rather run away than fight.
Newkirk clenched his fist as Lackey’s words once again came back into his memory. He’d gone to see him to apologize for his behavior, to speak with him in spite of the resentment that he felt about him. He’d done that for Colonel Hogan and for the rest of the team, to keep his feelings from jeopardizing the success of the mission. And he’d asked him for any news about young Mason. In his heart, he’d suspected that the boy was probably no longer of this world. So many pilots had been shot down by the enemy, both British and Germans. But not like that.
If he hadn’t stood up for him, if he hadn’t stopped him from running away, if he hadn’t let himself be accused in his place, Joshua wouldn’t have found himself with his back to the wall. He would probably still be alive… And as for himself, he wouldn’t have had to be subjected to all that. For nothing.
A coward. The last straw. The captain hadn’t even had time to see the blow coming.
“He’s dead,” was all the Englishman had to say. “And me, I’m goin’ back to prison. Well, that won’t change much. Even if this here isn’t almost the same thing. Anyway, after what I did to the captain, I’ll understand if you don’t want me on the team anymore.”
Slowly, the colonel got up from his chair and approached his corporal, placing a hand on his shoulder.
“Don’t say things like that, Newkirk. You’re the best bait I’ve got.”
At that, the American let the Englishman think about his words. Something that, given his stressed condition, took a little bit of time.
“Bait?” Newkirk finally spoke up, suddenly with a very bad feeling.
No explanation came to reassure his doubts; the colonel had already left the barracks.
Newkirk, you idiot… Who could blame you for being too loyal? the colonel thought to himself as he left Barracks 6.
After hearing the Englishman come clean about his past, the senior POW officer hadn’t had the nerve to reproach him. In any case, Newkirk knew very well what he was facing at the present time and even if Hogan couldn’t justify the violence that he’d displayed towards a superior officer, he couldn’t stay mad at him either. Not after what he had just heard. Even if the corporal’s version had certainly been lacking in some details.
Hogan put his concern for the pickpocket out of his mind for the moment in order to focus on the current mission, saluting the Luftwaffe guard posted at the entrance to Colonel Klink’s office before entering.
Hilda, always faithfully at her post, lifted her eyes from her paperwork to identify the visitor, and blushed when she saw who it was. Hogan gave her one of the cheerful smiles he was so good at and placed his finger on the young woman’s lips to request her silence. He then approached the door to the commandant’s office and put his ear to it.
As expected, Colonel Klink wasn’t alone. Although he doubtless would have preferred to be, the company of a Gestapo general and of Eberhart in particular not being the most pleasant.
“Of course,” Hogan heard, immediately recognizing the sycophantic tone of the camp commandant. “You may stay here until the road is passable. It’s a pleasure to have you with us, and if I can be of any help to you at all…”
That was the perfect moment!
The American colonel gave the door a hard push to open it, adopting an outraged demeanor and completely ignoring the presence of the Gestapo general as he passed right in front of him and rested both hands firmly on Klink’s desk.
“This is intolerable!” he shouted before a single word had had the chance to make it out of Klink’s wide-open mouth.
“The prisoners may interrupt you in your office whenever they like, Klink? And you keep telling me that this stalag is the most secure in all of Germany?” the general put in, visibly dissatisfied at the lack of tight security in the camp.
Good, Hogan said to himself. The quicker he gets back to Berlin, the better it’ll be for our operation.
Pretending to ignore the general’s intervention, Hogan continued on the fly:
“You can’t let Schultz do that; it’s against the Geneva Convention.”
The camp commandant fixed his gaze on the senior POW officer, not understanding the least bit of what he was talking about.
“Schultz?” he asked. “What’s he done now?”
“He asked me to form a work crew to fix the road. You haven’t got the right to force prisoners of war to work! We don’t have anything to do with the damage on that road, there’s no reason for my men to have to repair it.”
“To be correct, it was your Allies who bombed that area. So it would be logical for you to repair the damage. I must admit that Schultz may have had a good idea for a change, as surprising as that seems…”
Cutting short any unnecessary reflection on the German colonel’s part, reflection that could be very damaging to the success of his plan, Hogan adopted a scandalized attitude.
“You don’t expect me to form the work crew!”
Klink always enjoyed it when he thought he had triumphed over the American, which was astonishingly rare in spite of the fact that he was supposed to be a prisoner. The hardest part for Hogan was to lead him to believe that he really had complete power over his prisoners, which in any other camp would have been the case. But Stalag 13 had an asset that the others didn’t have: U.S. Army Air Corps Colonel Robert Hogan. Of course, the fact that the camp commandant was a complete idiot made the job a little easier.
A slight sadistic gleam came to the colonel’s eye, and Hogan knew that he’d won.
“You will do exactly as Schultz said. Choose a dozen volunteers, whether they are or not. Be at the front gate at exactly two o’clock.”
“But…” Colonel Hogan began, in a purposely vain attempt to change the German’s mind.
“Unless you would prefer that your men don’t have showers or white bread for the next week.”
Hogan threw him a dour look but didn’t say anything, letting Klink believe that he had just succeeded in getting the better of him.
The German colonel lifted a proud gaze in the direction of the Gestapo general who had remained silent during the exchange, but the grimace of disgust on his face prevented the colonel from fully savoring his victory over the American, whom he dismissed with a sharp motion of his hand.
That was almost too easy, Hogan congratulated himself without losing his defeated expression, leaving the room with his head lowered and his shoulders heavy with the weight of defeat, giving a brief salute before slamming the door shut behind him to add a little bit of drama to the scenario.
One more small stone to add to the building that was his plan.
But it was far from being complete. It would only take one badly-placed stone and the whole edifice could crumble. And that didn’t only concern the mission. The entire organization would be in jeopardy if he made the slightest error. Or if one of his men were too distracted by demons from his past to follow orders to the letter…