Author's note: The characters aren't mine (except for all but one of the travelers; most of them are OCs, but the Egyptian man is a cameo from another one of my fandoms), and the story is! I dedicate this fic to Deana, who has been patiently waiting for it since I first tossed the idea around months ago. The secret of the book that Newkirk discovers in this chapter is based on a true story; it's only a mild exaggeration. Lastly, this fic was written for Sayla Ragnarok's "Here there be Pirates" challenge, and a variation of Sarajm's "Let's Use Newkirk" challenge (the original challenge for that was to have a German officer seek to use Newkirk's thieving talents; here, it's going to be the smugglers).
Corporal Peter Newkirk clutched at the coat around his shoulders as he walked through the woods near Stalag 13. He longed for his RAF-issue overcoat instead of the civilian clothes he was wearing. Behind him, Corporal Louis LeBeau tightened the red scarf he always carried; he was not willing to part with it, even while in disguise—and certainly not in this weather, anyway. The January night was especially cold; the wind was whipping snow all around them and driving down the temperatures to intolerable levels.
Ahead of Newkirk, Sergeant Andrew Carter was blowing on his gloved hands.
"Boy…" he said, quietly. "What a night for a mission! I can't even feel my ears anymore!"
It had been especially cold for the young American; he had been the one setting the charges near the ammo dump that would soon go up in smoke while Newkirk and LeBeau had waited some distance away in the woods. The three Allies were keen to get back to Stalag 13 before the inevitable madness broke loose to give themselves an alibi. They had time to spare; the charges weren't due to go off for another hour, but the men were also looking forward to warming themselves by the stove in the middle of their barracks. The blankets on the tough, wooden bunks never seemed more inviting.
"I shall be frozen soon!" LeBeau said. He hadn't expected the cold spell to be so severe.
"I think I already am…" Newkirk replied, his dry sense of humor becoming even drier. "I think I froze to death back there and left me body behind. I'm only 'ere in spirit."
"And yet you keep fighting," LeBeau replied, humoring him. "Il est incroyable."
Carter suddenly stopped short, causing both corporals to crash into him.
"Andrew, what—?" the Englishman murmured.
"I thought I heard voices," the sergeant replied, quietly. "Wait a second… I did hear voices! Listen—they're coming from the bottom of that small hill. Can't you hear them?"
"Which imbéciles would be out here in this weather?" LeBeau murmured.
"Oi, what does that make us, then?" Newkirk asked, with a frown.
LeBeau chose not to answer.
"Let's just get out of here and back to camp," Carter said, casting a glance down the hill. He couldn't see anything; it was far too dark. "It's warmer and safer there—oops!"
He tripped over a snow-covered rock, dislodging it and sending it down the hill; this was followed by a series of quiet thumps from the bottom of the hill. The voices grew silent for a moment, but then resumed in an angered and worried tone.
"Who is there?" one demanded in English, as flashlight beams came their way.
"Now you've done it!" Newkirk hissed, ducking down to avoid the lights. Part of the beam briefly illuminated his shoulder as he hit the snowy ground, and he cursed; they knew now that someone was here.
"I think we are in luck, though," LeBeau said, pulling Carter down with him. "Their accents do not sound German!"
"What's your analysis, then?" Newkirk asked, with a roll of his eyes.
"They could be escaped prisoners of war," the Frenchman said.
"And they also might be German agents posing as them," Newkirk warned, much more cautious about everything since the Gretel incident—and its aftermath. He tried to inch along the ground, and cursed as he ended up dislodging more snow, sending it down the small hill. They were lucky it was a moonless night; the hill was small enough that had there been even a sliver of moonlight, the silhouettes of the three soldiers would likely have been spotted, even as they pressed themselves to the ground.
"Who is there?" another non-German voice repeated. "Please, can you help us?"
"Quiet—it's probably a German," a second voice warned.
"See, they do not wish to meet them, either," LeBeau whispered.
"Well, if we don't show ourselves, they're going to be coming up here, looking for whoever it is they saw," Carter realized, upset that he had caused such a problem. Oh, why did he have to be so clumsy? "I'd better go."
"You two stay right 'ere; cover me," Newkirk said, neither he nor Carter caring that he, a corporal, was giving an order to a sergeant. He grabbed at a few fallen branches, gathering them in his arms before making his way down the hill to the party of men. Several large, hardcover books littered the ground; the men, who were also carrying traveling packs and maps, must have dropped them when they were startled by the rock.
"Abend, Gentlemen," he said, in a German accent. "Forgive me for startling you; I ran out of firewood and had to come here to get some more."
"That's fine," one of the men replied, relived that Newkirk didn't seem to be armed. The man's accent was English, much to Newkirk's surprise and pleasure. "We are trying to reach the Hammelburg Road; we were making our way to town and got lost."
"Hammelburg Road? Ja, I know it well," Newkirk said, picking up some of the books and handing them back to the travelers. He frowned to himself; something about the books didn't seem quite right. As he gave the directions to the men to get to the road, he discreetly slid one of the books into the nearby bushes with his foot as he pointed out the direction to travel.
"Thank you for your help," another one of the men said. This man wasn't English; his accent was one that Newkirk could not place, and the corporal pondered over it as the men left. He could not have known that the man was an Egyptian.
Newkirk sighed to himself once they had gone, relieved that no adverse outcomes had come about as a result of the encounter. Picking up the solitary book he had concealed, he headed back up the hill to join the others.
"Who were they?" LeBeau inquired.
"Lost travelers, by the looks of it," Newkirk answered. "You were right, Louis; they ain't German. At least one of them was English, but I didn't let on that I was, too."
"Huh…" Carter mused. "Why would an English traveler and his buddies be in the middle of the woods in Germany? There is a war on, you know; something doesn't add up."
"Maybe they're escaped prisoners, then," the Englishman answered. "But it doesn't really matter; they're on their merry way. Some other organization must've aided them; If we 'ad been the ones to 'elp them, they'd 'ave come through Stalag 13."
"Good point," Carter admitted. "Hey, where'd that book come from?"
"Oh, they were carrying a bunch of books with them; I figured they wouldn't miss one," Newkirk said. He didn't mention the odd feeling he had received when handling the books; he intended to look over the book as soon as possible. If something was odd about the book, then it could explain why "travelers" were wandering the German woods so late at night.
"You stole a book from those poor travelers?" LeBeau asked, shaking his head.
"Oh, leave off; what can they do about it? It's a ruddy book, not a priceless 'eirloom! And to them, it's likely just a mistake—they might 'ave forgotten one on their own!"
"Hey, can't we take this conversation back to the barracks?" Carter asked. "I need to keep looking down to make sure that I still have feet; I can't feel them anymore! And let me tell you, it's a weird feeling to be walking without being able to feel your feet; it's like something out of a scary story—where the monster has your feet, only you don't know it yet. And that goes for ears, too; you know, I heard somewhere that if it's cold enough, your ears can fall off—"
Newkirk responded by clapping his free hand over Carter's mouth. LeBeau rolled his eyes and led the way back to Stalag 13.
Those inside the wooden barracks of Stalag 13 were not spared from the wind chill; the men of Barracks Two had brought out whatever extra blankets they could and were huddled around the small stove. Even Colonel Hogan, who usually remained unflinching in adverse weather conditions, was seen with a blanket wrapped around him, as well.
"Listen to that wind howl," Kinch murmured. "I feel sorry for those three."
"We need to start paying more attention to those weather reports we keep tuning out," Hogan said. He was using dry humor to cover his own feelings of guilt for sending Carter, LeBeau, and Newkirk out; he hadn't expected the temperatures to plummet so severely, either. "I know I said to Klink that the Russian Front was coming closer by the day, but this isn't quite what I had in mind…"
He trailed off as a tapping sound came from the bunk bed trapdoor.
"Our fearless trio hath arrived," Baker commented. "It's all clear, guys!"
LeBeau shot out of the tunnel opening as though he had been launched from a cannon; he came just short of embracing the stove. Carter followed, with Newkirk hobbling behind him as Olsen poured out cups of hot coffee for them.
"If another party in this room can confirm that I am not a spirit, and that Andrew still 'as both of 'is ears and feet, it is much appreciated," the Englishman cracked. He sighed as he finally sat down in front of the stove, taking the coffee that Olsen handed to him. "Oh, Cor, I needed this; thanks, mate."
"I'd ask how it went, but I don't think you're in the mood for it," Hogan said, instructing the men to hand some spare blankets to the trio. He frowned as he noticed the book in the Englishman's other hand. "Newkirk, what's that you've got there?"
"I think it's 'ypothermia, Sir," the corporal responded, before realizing what Hogan meant. "Oh, this? Just a book some travelers left behind; they were looking for the 'ammelburg Road, and I…" He trailed off at the look of disapproval on Hogan's face.
"You were spotted," he realized.
"Oh, the mission went fine, Sir," Newkirk assured him. "They seemed like either ordinary travelers or escaped prisoners; one of them was English, too. And I was the only one they saw."
"It was my fault, Sir," Carter admitted, through chattering teeth. "I kicked a rock down a hill by accident, and they heard it. But Newkirk's right; they're just travelers."
"Okay, so you got lucky this time," said Hogan. "But you're not off the hook yet. What happens when those charges go off and Hochstetter comes swooping into the area? He finds them, questions them, and they give a description of Newkirk."
"It was dark, Colonel," LeBeau said. "And Hochstetter would likely accuse them of the sabotage before listening to them; they aren't even German. It is as Pierre said; they might be escaped prisoners who were processed elsewhere."
"Well, I still don't like it," Hogan said. "We're the resident escape agency; why would they be so close to us and not pass through?"
"They were lost, Sir," Newkirk said. "They must've come through from somewhere else and got all turned around in the cold."
"That's right, Colonel; if we hadn't had a compass, we might've gotten lost out there," Carter added. "I mean… that snow was whipping around so much—"
"I get the idea," Hogan said, with a sigh. "Well, there's nothing we can do about it now; we'll just have to play it by ear."
"Sorry, Sir," Carter added.
Newkirk exchanged a glance with LeBeau, who merely shrugged. The men in the barracks all lapsed into silence for the next several minutes. The silence was finally broken by a thunderous roar from far away, but loud enough to be heard above the howling wind.
"Well, there goes that ammo dump," said Newkirk, standing up and tossing the book onto his bunk. "I reckon it's time to call it a night."
"Yeah; Hochstetter will be here bright and early in the morning, screaming," Kinch deadpanned. "There won't be any sleeping after that…"
"I do not think I shall get any sleep in this icebox," LeBeau complained, clambering into the bunk, dragging three blankets behind him.
"Just imagine that each blanket is really a thick quilt," Carter offered, slipping into his usual bunk beneath Newkirk's. "And think about somewhere warm."
"You know, the cold causes 'allucinations," Newkirk quipped, vaulting onto his bunk. "I do think you've been out there too long."
Carter just shook his head, amused, slipping into slumber almost immediately as the rest of the men quietly squabbled to grab extra blankets and retreat to their respective bunks. Hogan paused to take a look outside through the periscope. Guards were moving into formation, looks of utter disdain on their faces to be out in the cold, but knowing that they would have to inspect the area of the ruined ammo dump.
Satisfied, the colonel retired to his quarters for the night. By the time Schultz came to make a bed check, everyone was in his respective bunk. The big man let out a sigh as he left, relieved that nothing would, hopefully, tie the men to the attack.
LeBeau ended up falling asleep after all, dreaming of sitting by the large fireplace in his grandfather's house with goose-down comforters wrapped around himself. Carter's ideas were not as farfetched as they sometimes sounded.
It was Newkirk who was the last one left lying awake. He wasn't so easily swayed by Carter's fanciful ideas, and the curiosity surrounding the odd feeling of the book was too distracting.
He pulled the book up to him and pulled a flashlight out of his pocket, preparing to inspect it under the covers. The weight of the book hadn't seemed like what one would expect from such a large tome, and it had seemed like something had been moving around inside. Perhaps the bindings were loose; regardless, Newkirk was determined to find the source of the oddity.
The title and author of the book were not familiar to the Englishman, but he hadn't really expected them to be; he was not an avid reader. He had learned much more traversing the streets of London's East End as opposed to reading in a library.
Newkirk paged through the first few leaves, unable to find anything wrong (or remotely interesting) about the book, which was a rather uninteresting volume on identifying edible plants and mushrooms. His intuition, it seemed, had been off tonight.
Charming; I went through all of that to bring this dull thing back to camp? I might as well give this to Louis; he could make more use of this book than I ever could…
His train of thought screeched to a halt as turning the next page revealed a gaping hole cut into the volume. But the hole in the book was far from empty; the Englishman's heart skipped a beat as the small beam from his flashlight revealed the unmistakable glint of gold.