No ownership of the Hogan's Heroes characters is implied or inferred. Copyright belongs to others and no infringement is intended. Copyright text, original characters and storyline belong to L J Groundwater. Thanks.
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Prologue: Six Months Earlier
"Fire! It's on fire! Get everybody out!"
"Get all off-duty guards in place—we can't afford any escapes! Move it!"
"Then do a roll call and make sure you can account for every single man—if even one of these men escapes there'll be Hell to pay—and that'll be the least of our troubles!"
"Right away, Major."
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"What's your head count?"
"We're one short, sir."
"The guards swear not, sir!"
"Then where is he? Who is it?"
"I'll get the register, sir."
"Do it now—hurry! You—get two more men into that barracks; we have to see if anyone is trapped in there!"
"No can do, sir—it's too dangerous to send anyone in—we'll have to wait till the fire's out!"
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James Kinchloe came up out of the tunnel underneath Barracks Two in a hurry. "Where's Colonel Hogan?" he asked Andrew Carter, who was sitting at the table of the common room.
"He's outside," Carter answered. He frowned when the Sergeant sped past him without explanation. "Hey, Kinch, what did London say?—Kinch?"
But Kinch was gone. Outside, the radio man looked around quickly in search of his commanding officer. He didn't consider it odd when he saw the man chatting casually with an armed prison camp guard.
Robert Hogan turned to Kinch as he approached. He frowned when he saw the look on the Sergeant's face. "What's up, Kinch?" he asked.
Kinch glanced at the guard, whose rifle was, characteristically for Stalag Luft 13, not remotely ready for firing, then turned away so only Hogan could hear him. "London called, Colonel. And they want to talk to you—like, right now."
Hogan shot a quick look back at the guard. "Got camp business to attend to, Corporal Schmidt," he explained with a shrug. The guard smiled, patted his pocket—was that the outline of a candy bar Kinch saw? Hogan was wheeling and dealing again—and waved the camp's senior prisoner of war away.
Hogan wasted no time getting straight to business. "What do they want, Kinch?" he asked.
"They wouldn't say, Colonel. All they said was they wanted Papa Bear on the line, pronto. They wouldn't talk to anyone else."
Hogan shook his head as the two of them entered the prisoners' living quarters. "I don't like the sound of that already," he declared. "Watch the door," he ordered Carter, then he pressed the release in the bunk that led to the network of rooms and tunnels below. He skipped half the rungs on the ladder with Kinch scrambling to keep up, and paced as the Sergeant flicked switches and pressed buttons to get back in touch with Allied Headquarters in London.
Hogan's mind was in a thousand different places as he waited. It was outside the prison camp in the woods of Nazi Germany, where he and two of his men had blown up their umpteenth bridge last night; it was in the office of the Kommandant of Stalag 13, Colonel Wilhelm Klink, where he had been this afternoon trying to wheedle more rations for the prisoners, or at least a little more hot water; it was in a little barn a couple of miles up the road, where Hogan had met with an Underground agent last week; it was at Gestapo Headquarters in Hammelburg, where he—and his men—had spent more time than anyone had ever wanted to. Hogan led the most widespread sabotage and espionage unit operating in Germany today—and most importantly of all, he was leading it right under the Germans' noses: below the POW camp where he had been assigned after being shot down.
For a little over a year now, Hogan had been eking out a life as a downed flyer. It had taken quite some time, but Hogan had gradually come to accept a life operating on the ground, instead of in the pilot's seat of a B-17. But whenever their contacts in London called, demanding to speak only to the leader of the operation, Hogan's stomach still tightened. It was one thing to be shot down by enemy fire while piloting a plane; it was quite another to have his operation uncovered and to be shot by a firing squad. Neither was desirable, but the latter was up close, and personal.
"I've got contact, Colonel," Kinch said at last. He held out the headsets and the microphone. Hogan nodded. "It's General Butler."
Hogan raised an eyebrow. Oh, boy. He took the offerings. "This is Papa Bear," he said. Then he listened. Kinch watched his face intently. Hogan furrowed his brow. Then he frowned. Then he frowned more deeply. Then Kinch saw him pale slightly, and loosen the collar of his shirt under his brown bomber jacket. "Are you sure, sir?" he asked. His voice was deadly serious. His dark eyes darkened even more. "Yes, sir. We'll take every precaution and await further word. Thank you, sir." Another pause. "Yes, sir. I appreciate you having the sub standing by, sir. Papa Bear out."
Hogan took off the headsets and handed them to Kinch as he put the microphone back on the desk. He said nothing; his mind wasn't even in the camp, the radio man realized. "Colonel?" Kinch said, prompting. No answer. The frown was still on Hogan's face. "Colonel Hogan, is everything okay?"
Hogan was quiet for another moment, then turned to Kinch. "Get upstairs, Kinch, and tell the others to gather up anything sensitive and get it into the tunnel. Get Le Beau to start a fire in the stove, and make it a big one. Have Carter wire up the tunnel to blow, and make sure Newkirk has at least one good Kraut uniform for each of us, the higher the rank the better. And papers to go with them. I'm coming right behind you to get anything incriminating out of my office. And no one goes out—and I mean no one—not till I give the all-clear. Everyone stays close to home. Got it?"
"Right, sir," Kinch acknowledged. "Colonel—what's going on?"
Hogan let out a heavy sigh and pinched the bridge of his nose. When he looked up, Kinch noticed that the Colonel suddenly looked incredibly tired, and at least ten years older. "Headquarters called to warn us. There was a fire at the camp where they keep the people we've sent back—the ones who aren't very sympathetic to our cause. Their head count at the moment is short by one." He paused as Kinch's face grew even more somber, if that was possible. "So either someone's caught in the fire… or someone escaped. I hate to admit this, but I hope it was the former. But HQ won't know for sure until they can get inside the barracks. And by then, it could be too late for any of us to come out alive."
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"I'd be back in two hours, gov'nor."
"You couldn't make it in three."
Peter Newkirk registered the complete lack of humor in the Colonel's voice, and tried to force a smile out of him. "Come on, Colonel—I'm just going down to ol' Max's house; I'm a fully accepted member of their household. Even if the Krauts do show up, they won't think anything out of sorts there. Unless they take a look at Max's old horse. I tell you, she's a wonder, that mare. Still being alive, and at her age, too."
But Hogan didn't buy it. His face remained stony. "You're staying home."
"That's an order, Corporal. You stay in camp."
Newkirk sighed and shuffled his feet, looking at the ground. Hogan's sharp tone didn't invite any further protest. "Right, Colonel." He watched as Hogan turned, tense, and walked straight into his office. "Blimey," he muttered. "I've had that date set up with Leisl for two weeks."
"Well, then, you're better off waiting till Colonel Hogan gives us the all clear," Kinch said softly. "Otherwise, you might not live long enough to give her a good night kiss."
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"What did you find?"
"There was a body in the rubble, sir."
A grimace. "Only by the dog tags."
"He's one of ours."
"Thank God. Notify General Butler. Papa Bear should know."
"It'll be a relief to him."
"It is to me. That bastard was a scary son-of-a-gun. I always felt like he was watching me… even when he wasn't around."
"Well, he won't be watching anybody now."
"Not unless he's looking up."
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"Okay, fellas, we can stand easy," Hogan announced as he came back up from the tunnel. "Headquarters says everyone has been accounted for after the fire at the prison camp."
"That's a relief," Louis Le Beau declared, muttering a prayer of thanks in French under his breath.
Newkirk agreed. "Any one of those maniacs'd stop at nothing to spill the beans about the operation to one of their pals back in the Fatherland."
"Wouldn't be very good news for us," Kinch said. "What happened, anyway, Colonel?"
Hogan shrugged. "All I was told is, there was a fire and one person didn't make it out. They sent a warning just in case, but now they're sure: there were no escapes."
"What made them put all those people together?" asked Carter. "I mean, why didn't they detain them the same way the other POWs are detained?"
"Are you kidding?" Le Beau retorted. "All the prisoners in that camp know something about the operation. We can't have them spreading it around to other people."
"That's right," Hogan agreed. "We're an extremely classified operation, Carter, and that makes us pretty vulnerable if someone gets out of Allied hands. The people we send back are housed in very special accommodation for the duration of the war. If they're talkative, our secret only spreads to other people who already know. And there are more people guarding them than look after the President."
"Or the Prime Minister," Newkirk piped up.
"Or both," Hogan finished with a short nod. "In any case, it's nothing to worry about. We can come off alert status. It's nice to know someone was looking after us just in case. But it's back to business as usual tonight. We have a job to do—and there's never enough time to do it."
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His face brightened with the tiniest trace of a smile as he watched Hogan and his men laughing in the compound through his high-powered binoculars. I'm so glad to see Papa Bear is comfortable in his den again. After all, there's no reason to be afraid any more; everyone was accounted for after that fire last week. All the big, bad Nazis. Even that one who was killed. He tutted in mock regret. The poor man. It's so fortunate his dog tags were there to help the authorities identify him.
Too bad the body was borrowed.