Colonel Hogan woke slowly to the chatter of German voices. Never a good sign in his line of work.
His first breath was like fire in his lungs and he jerked into a violent convulsion that rocked him, and ignited pain everywhere. Dragging in desperate breaths around the coughing spell, Hogan could taste gunpowder, and the potpourri of smoke that hangs around burning buildings. Not just wood smoke, but cloth, plastic, animal hair...perhaps even human.
A structure was on fire somewhere, and as the constricting pressure in his lungs died a little, Hogan began to consider that he might just be inside the burning structure, and in desperate need of a fast escape.
He tried to open bleary, watering eyes, but could see next to nothing. Dim light, red orange bursts here and there, and a forest of thick dark shapes, swaying and shifting. He made an attempt at rolling onto his side and regretted it instantly.
Bone ground on bone in his shoulder, his ribs flared with a warning not to put any more weight on them. His head throbbed loudly and a hundred other bruises made themselves known. The chorus of German never seemed to stop, matching tempo with his racing pulse. The world was spinning around him, the air was unbreathable. Consciousness seemed like an unreasonable and outrageous request that his brain quickly denied him.
As he slipped back into the black he had the sensation of a cool breeze washing over his face briefly before the pain, the voices and the roar of the flames died to nothing.
10 minutes before.
"This can't be the place. It just can't be!"
"I tell ya those Nazi's have gone the absolute lowest that they can go. This is…just…it's just! This!"
"Carter…" Hogan directed the long suffering proper noun toward the younger American Sergeant before he looked back to the second NCO he had taken with him on the mission. "Kinch-"
"I've double and triple checked the coordinates, Colonel." The imposing black man assured him, speaking in the same hushed tone the other two had used. The dark, cap-covered head nodded toward the stone parapet they stood in front of, and the towering building beyond and he sighed, "This is the target. We're supposed to blow it tonight."
Hogan didn't like it. Not a single part of it, and he knew he was stalling when he looked again at his watch. The glowing dial told him it was 0300 hours. Three in the morning. The street was dead, and the building in front of them was still and silent. The only sign of life was a candle burning in an upper window.
Hogan sighed. "They gave the right code phrase?"
"Yes, Colonel. Everything was absolutely above board." Kinch exchanged a concerned glance with Carter, before they both looked back at the two hundred year old building sitting solid and reposed beyond a set of ornate cast iron gates.
Hogan put a gloved hand up on the gate, the other hand resting on his hip. He shook his head firmly after a second more of thought. "I don't like it."
Even as he was certain that Carter agreed with him, Colonel Hogan noticed the sergeant's shoulders droop a little.
Carter had been carrying his latest explosive creation like a Christmas present most of the way. Now he looked like a disappointed elf.
Kinch had a similar defeated look on his face, colored by doubt.
The same doubt that Hogan felt raising the hair on the back of his neck. "It doesn't make sense." The Colonel continued, looking between the other two Americans with him. "Why would the Gestapo set up headquarters in a convent?"
Kinch shrugged, "For the same reason that they tried building factories and refueling depots just outside our prison camp. Anyplace they figure the Allies won't bomb…"
"Yeah…" Hogan trailed off, checked his watch again, then lifted tired, concerned brown eyes to the round stained glass window that took up a quarter of the building's south face. "Alright, we'll set the charges and do it quick, but if anybody sees anything that isn't wearing a German uniform, we abort. Got it?"
He received two concise nods, before he unwound the rope he'd been carrying and made the slip knot loop that would secure the rope to the top of the wall.
"You know I just thought of something." Carter said, his eyes bulging a little wider than usual, staring intently at nothing. "What about guards? There's nobody guardin' the place. Since when does the Gestapo go without guards?"
It was a good point, Hogan thought, before he gritted his teeth, gave the rope a toss and a good pair of yanks, then started up it. They hadn't had the time to the do the usual, thorough reconnaissance that the Colonel preferred. For that reason they hadn't known what the building was, or why the deadline was so imperative. Only the when and where and a very vague why.
At the top of the wall, Hogan filled his lungs with the crisp night air and gazed around the quiet compound. The convent took up a good portion of the enclosed lot. The rest was either well-trodden grass, or cracking cobblestone. There was an old, crippled lorry half-hidden in weeds on the western side of the building, a water-less fountain in the center of the courtyard and a wheelbarrow sitting near the south door, overturned, its tire flat.
No black sedans, no towering radials, no armed guards. Hogan backed away from the rope as Kinchloe started up, offering the man a hand once he was in reach.
"No barbed wire? No alarms?" Kinch asked, huffing a little from the exertion of the climb.
Hogan shook his head, turning his attention to Carter who stood on tiptoe handing up the bomb. "Not so you'd notice." He said, carefully clutching the explosives to his chest.
Carter scampered up the rope like he had been born to it, and stood easily on the wall dragging the rope from one side to the other.
Before he could lower himself into the courtyard Hogan stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. The CO jabbed a gloved finger against the dark leather jacket he wore and said, "Me first."
Carter paused long enough for concern to register on his face, then nodded and moved away from the rope, taking the bomb instead.
Hogan took a moment to study the length of the wall in both directions, glancing at the street and the sky for good measure before he started down the rope. The moment his feet hit sand covered cobblestone he expected to hear sirens and be blinded by search lights, but the world was still and silent. He stood slowly from the crouched position he had automatically assumed and shook his head.
He still didn't like it. It was too easy. Too unassuming. Too calm.
"Was hat er gasagt?"
"Was ist "calm"?"
"Ich weiss es nicht. Es gibt jedoch zwei."
"Too c…calm." The voices were back. Young, or female, or both. They were whispering, matching the volume that Hogan could barely manage. His throat felt like someone had laid into it with a razor. He could feel the urge to cough building in his lungs but he desperately resisted, knowing it would be blindingly painful.
He could smell smoke still, but it was faint. Not actively in the air, but perhaps clinging to draperies or clothing. He thought about trying to open his eyes again and a second later he managed it. He found a face and latched onto it. Blue eyes, pale skin, freckles, and a veil probably hiding a mane of reddish hair. She looked at him and parted pale lips to reveal a row of crooked, youthful teeth, and a grin that seemed entirely out of place with how rotten he felt.
"Ich habe dir gesagt, was er nicht tot!" The girl said, sticking her tongue out at someone behind Hogan's head. Too far away for him to even consider trying to follow her gaze.
He heard a petulant grunt from that direction. From the defiant tone that Freckles had used, he could only guess that the girl might have just won a bet.
"Konnen sie steigen?" She asked him, and he noticed for the first time the dull crack in the young lady's voice. Something she had always had, or the result of the smoke that she reeked of, he couldn't know. She was however staring at him expectantly and after a moment he mustered the energy to say,
"Um…" It hurt, and he grimaced and closed his eyes. His voice had popped and squeaked, but he had managed to say a word without another coughing fit. Progress. What else had hurt the last time?
Hogan began to experiment, moving one hand, then the other. One foot, then a leg, bending at the knee. Legs were okay, right arm was fine, but the left arm… His left shoulder felt like it had grown too big for the skin. Tight, hot and painful with swelling, and the ribs on that side were hot and pressed tight against the skin too. He must have landed on his left side.
Had he been flying?
Freckles wasn't looking at him anymore. Her attention had very recently been redirected toward something else and the voices had hushed quickly.
Hogan had worked out the beginnings of a plan concerning how he was going to get upright, but he was far from jumping to his feet. At the look of fear and panic on Freckles' face, however, a jolt of adrenaline pushed past the weariness and pain.
"What…what is it?" Hogan croaked, pushing himself up on his good elbow and wincing at the sharp jabs of debris underneath him. His eyes were a little clearer now and he could see that the orange blobs were still burning fires, the swaying dark forms were a host of other girls…novitiates perhaps, surrounding him like curious zoo-goers.
Or in this case, zoo-goers who had just realized that the lion was out of its cage.
Freckles looked like she wanted to help as Hogan moved from part A to part B of the 'get on your feet old man' plan. But the other girls were pulling her back, their eyes fixed on whatever new terror was approaching.
Colonel Robert. E. Hogan managed to get to his knees and sat back on his heels breathing heavily around the pressure on his left side. Cracked ribs? And a dislocated, if not broken, shoulder. His head was wet on that side, too.
But the danger, whatever it was, was coming from his left, so he was going to have to turn his head to see it.
The move cost him a few seconds of blurry vision, but when the images sharpened again all he saw was Kinchloe, moving slow but steady, dragging a half-conscious Carter along.
"It's okay." Hogan croaked, reaching his palm towards the frightened girls. "They're….with me."
'On your feet, soldier.' He ordered himself. By the time Kinch reached him, Hogan had managed it. Bent slightly at the waist, left arm tucked in tight, and by no means steady, but on his feet.
"You're alright." Kinch breathed, relief glimmering under the exhaustion.
Hogan gave him a critical once over, noted the tears in his intentionally dark clothing, the glimmer of something wet on the taller man's forehead and the swelling under his right eye.
Carter was bent almost double, his left arm slung over Kinch's shoulders, his right clutching at his thigh.
His men were wounded, in bad shape. Their mission had been horribly compromised from the start somehow, and as his memory returned, Hogan realized he had one additional responsibility.
No, not one. But seven.
Seven terrified, nearly blown up, teenaged novice nuns.
Everything began to pound just a little harder and Hogan took a deep breath.
"We're in…a lot of trouble."
As the black man nodded a series of sirens began to register over the noise of the flames.
Hogan met Kinch's panicked look, then they both looked at Carter.
"Plan B, Colonel?"