"Couldn't we ask London to postpone, sir?"
Colonel Robert Hogan drew his black turtleneck sweater over his head, raked his hair into place and turned from his locker to face his men.
"Their orders were very specific, Carter. Rendezvous with Orion, bring him back here and keep him safe until the sub arrives to pick him up. Even if I wanted to postpone – which I don't - there's no way to contact him. He's already on the move and his orders are to maintain radio silence."
Taking his weapon from the top shelf of his locker, Hogan opened the box of ammunition that sat next to it and lifted a bullet out. His brown eyes flicked from Carter back to his gun as he slid the bullet into the chamber. His gaze returned to Carter and deftly, without looking, he reached up and plucked another bullet from the box.
"The mission's a simple retrieval. Why postpone?"
"The orders didn't specify you had to rendezvous with Orion," Kinch countered, holding steady when Hogan's hawk-like gaze settled upon him. "Any one of us could go."
Newkirk's hand shot into the air.
"I volunteer to go get him, Colonel. It's been awhile since I had a nice night for a turn about the woods. Get the rainy, cold ones, usually."
"Let him, go, mon colonel," LeBeau cajoled. "It will be much quieter around here."
Newkirk's face took on a pinched look. "The rendezvous coordinates . . . they aren't anywhere near that bloody river, are they?"
LeBeau, lips pressed into a tight line, back-handed him on the arm.
Hogan slid the last bullet home in the chamber with an audible 'click'. "It's been two weeks since I've been outside the fences. I need some freedom for a few hours or I'm going to go stir crazy."
The rare admission brought a moment of silence. Hogan's eyes passed over their shocked expressions, a slightly sheepish smile touching his lips as he shrugged.
Carter threw off his shock first. "We sure wouldn't want that to happen, sir, but you'll come right back, right? No detours . . . or . . . or anything?" he finished weakly, realizing from his friends' unhappy expressions he might have gone too far in his questioning.
Hogan rolled the chamber, palmed it shut and slipped the weapon into the well-oiled holster at his hip. Folding his arms, he considered them for a moment.
"What's going on?"
Kinch, Newkirk, LeBeau and Carter snuck sideways glances at each other, but no one appeared eager to answer. Hogan's eyes glinted and his head canted to one side. LeBeau swiveled his size eight boot until it lay directly atop of Kinch's size thirteen. Hogan's gaze shifted to Kinch.
"Looks like you've been elected."
Kinch held an internal debate, and then sending a glance of apology in Carter's direction, said, "We might as well tell you, sir."
"Kinch!" Carter's exclamation held a wealth of disappointment. Kinch shrugged.
"Sorry, Carter. Guess we blew it."
Hogan's oil-blackened features tightened. "Blew what?"
Startled looks passed between Kinch, Carter, LeBeau and Newkirk. Kinch's dark eyes searched Hogan's face.
"Don't you know what day it is, Colonel?"
"Thursday, the fifteenth."
"No, sir!" Carter chuckled along with the others. Hogan's eyebrows arched and Carter verbally backpedaled. "It is, yeah, but--"
"Today's your birthday, Guv'nor!" Newkirk interrupted, throwing Carter a mildly exasperated look.
Hogan blinked. "It is?" His gaze traveled to the dog-eared calendar tacked to the wall beside his locker.
Kinch chuckled. "Yes, sir. It is."
Hogan turned back to them with another shrug. "Just another day."
"But it isn't," Carter said in a rush. "Everybody should have a birthday party and boy, do we have a great one planned for you. There's – MMPH!"
Keeping his hand clamped over Carter's mouth, Newkirk leaned close and scolded into his ear, "Just 'cause he knows there's a party, doesn't mean we have to spoil all the surprise out of it, Andrew!"
"C'est vrai!" LeBeau huffed, glaring at Carter.
Carter's eyes grew impossibly wide and slowly rolled back to Hogan, who was smiling like a Cheshire cat with a bellyful of cream. With a short breath of laughter, he reached out and pulled Newkirk's hand from Carter's mouth.
"I'm looking forward to it, Carter." Hogan clapped him on the shoulder, smiled into the bright blue eyes. Hope crept into Carter's expression.
"So you'll hurry back?"
"I promise to do my best." Pivoting, Hogan returned to his locker, took down the box of ammunition and tucked the lid shut. He suddenly went still and his eyes fastened, unblinking, upon the innocuous little cardboard box in his hand. Behind his back, his men glanced at each other, uneasy.
Kinch tentatively moved closer and lowered his voice. "Colonel?"
Hogan's gaze sliced toward him and Kinch suddenly felt as if he'd fallen through ice into frigid water. The brown eyes were incredibly empty of life, as if Hogan's very spirit had died. And then he blinked and warmth flooded the brown depths again. Wondering if he had imagined the whole thing, Kinch watched Hogan put the box in his pocket and turn toward the doorway. Just before entering the tunnel, Hogan paused and looked back at them, a touch of mischief pulling his mouth into a lop-sided smile.
"Don't start the party without me."
Carter grinned. "Not without the guest of honor! It'll be great, Colonel! One of your best birthday's ever! Just wait and see!"
HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH HH
Orion was late.
Hogan turned in place, so keyed up his skin felt several sizes too small. Adrenaline buzzed like electricity along his nerves, priming him for fight or flight. The reaction puzzled him, but he knew better than to ignore it.
It's a simple pick-up, Hogan reminded himself, completing another slow turn. No Orion. Only trees, scrub and the small, dry creek bed he stood in.
The adrenaline snapped and popped. He silently lifted his gun free of its holster, his eyes boring into the darkness.
Sensing someone coming, he turned and ran for cover behind a tree. A moment later, a stocky man of medium height rushed out of the trees and stopped in the middle of the creek bed, breathing fast. Hogan moved into the open, startling the man badly.
"Orion?" Hogan whispered, cautiously approaching him. He stopped a few yards away, leaving a comfortable cushion of distance between them
Relief flashed over the square face. "Yes." Orion threw a glance over his shoulder. "I think I lost--"
A shot sounded. Orion jerked, his eyes flying wide in surprise, and collapsed without a sound. Hogan lunged for the protection of the trees; but a second shot rang out, slamming into him, spinning him off his feet. He went with the momentum, letting it roll him along the ground, away from the three Wehrmacht soldiers spilling out of the trees. Stopping, he brought his gun around and fired, taking one down with a bullet to the throat. And then he was rolling again, trying to buy time. Another shot cracked through the air, tearing a trail of fire across his ribcage, stealing his breath. He whipped his gun up again, two bullets catching another soldier in the chest. The last German dodged, snapping off a shot that scorched the tip of Hogan's ear. Gasping for air, Hogan rolled once and fired, sending a bullet into the man's heart, stopping it forever.
Gray cloth flashed at the edge of Hogan's vision. He twisted, snapped his arm around and pulled off a shot, hearing another body fall in the trees. He waited, arm outstretched, finger tight on the trigger, ready to fire should anyone else come at him. No one did and he let his arm drop.
It seemed to take forever to stand. Trembling in the firefight's aftermath, he paused, taking stock of the damage done by the Germans' bullets. He still had two ears, but one was dripping blood at an alarming rate. His chest and ribs were ablaze with pain; his sweater and jacket already sodden with blood from his wounds.
He staggered past the German's scattered bodies to Orion, already knowing what he would find.
The agent was dead from a bullet to the back. His wide eyes stared up at Hogan, frozen in that moment of surprise. Hogan gently closed them, then cautiously approached the place where he had heard the fourth person fall. He easily found the body sprawled face down in death, but paused over it, surprised by its size. For several seconds, he stared down at the small, slender form dressed in a worn, vaguely familiar gray coat, trying to make sense out of what he was seeing. And then the truth hit him with the force and agony of another bullet. He sank to his knees, his mind screaming in denial.
What have I done?
Against all the training drilled into him from his first day at West Point, against every command instinct ever born within him, Hogan opened his hand and let his gun fall to the ground, unable to bear its touch any longer.
What have I done? Holy Mother . . .
What have I done?
My thanks to Linda for giving this chapter a quick once-over. To be continued. Thank you for reading!